Monday, January 31, 2005

Dems and Republicans dosie-do

I can understand the Dems desperately getting religion in the wake of their November defeats, including the much noted move toward abortion "common ground" by Hillary Clinton. But what surprises me is the recent Republican move to the left, with the suggestion that Social Security private accounts would be more beneficial for blacks, or even that race and gender might be used to index benefits. This is straight out of the left-wing hymnal of grievance politics, and it sounds rather off-key coming from Republicans. The Democrats immediately started flogging the issue (perhaps irate that the GOP had out-flanked them on identity politics). Nearly lost within their heated rhetoric was one valid criticism: if blacks have a shorter life expectancy, shouldn't we focus on addressing the reasons for that differential (i.e., health care access, violent crime, etc.), rather than institutionalizing the inequity? From all the heat, you'd never suspect that the more extreme "suggestion" of race-based indexing was not really a suggestion at all, but some comments by House Ways & Means Chair Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield CA) urging a "big picture" approach to Social Security reform. Most of what he said was quite sensible, and it's worthwhile reading the whole interview. He seems to be genuinely interested in solving the problem rather than winning the next election, and he has some interesting comments on the polarizing effects of labeling ideas. More importantly, he has some bold ideas, including introducing a value-added tax (VAT). There's at least one Republican willing to consider what might be a good idea, even if it does mean taking a page from "Old Europe".

FOOD: Cafe Atlantic

After a day of shopping and the spa in Old Pasadena, George and I stumbled onto the Cafe Atlantic on Union St. What a great find! It's run by the same people as Xiomara around the corner, but this is more traditional authentic Cuban food with strong Spanish influences. While it has the usual Cuban standards (George had his favorite ropa vieja), it also features some unusual delicacies. I had a potage de garbanzos, a hearty chick pea stew with pigs feet and chorizo. It was marvelously seasoned, and robustly meaty from slow-cooked bones, reminiscent of a great French cassoulet, but with pimentos and a touch of cilantro (more fragrance than flavor) creating a distinctive complex flavor. George started with a simple avocado salad, drizzled in lime juice and with a dash of seasonings, making a nice first impression. My entree was an arroz frito, a delicious bowl of rice fried with bits of shrimp, chorizo and ham, with a generous helping of maduros (fried ripe plaintains) and fresh avocado artfully arranged on top. George's ropa vieja was in a thicker tomato sauce than the usual (this old dress was red), nicely seasoned and tasty. We shared a flan for dessert, not the lighter Mexican flan but the thicker firmer Spanish-style custard, in a delicate carmel (and vanilla?) coulis, garnished with fresh berries. Dinner was accompanied with hot fresh Cuban-style garlic bread (very white bread, garlic-buttered and smashed together), and the cortadito (espresso) with dessert was muy robusto. The dining room was simple (that arty industrial space conversion look) but elegant (white table cloth). They had some interesting wines by the glass, including several Spanish (tempranillo, anyone?), but we just wanted water after the spa. Our server was very friendly and attentive. We'll definitely have to come here again!
Cafe Atlantic, 53 E. Union St., Pasadena, (626) 796-7350

Sunday, January 30, 2005

FILM: Finding Neverland

Interesting to have seen Finding Neverland just after having seen La Mala Educacion, since both explore the relationship between life and art, deftly weaving a story-within-a-story into the story of its inspiration. Of course Barrie's fairy tale bears little resemblance to Almodovar's "inner script", and Finding Neverland has a very different texture to it. This film is the charming and very touching story of how the author J.M. Barrie bumped into the four young sons of a young widow in the park, and began a relationship that changed all their lives and inspired him to write "Peter Pan". It tenderly explores children discovering the limits of pretending, and adults re-learning the magic of the imagination. Johnny Depp is brilliant as the soulful author, and is well complimented in excellent performances from all three of the actresses around him: Kate Winslett as the determinedly cheerful widow, Julie Christie as her disapproving mother, and Radha Mitchell as Barrie's neglected wife. Depp's skillful Edwardian gentility and reserved sensitivity is an impressive contrast to the cockiness of Captain Jack Sparrow (and of course an ironic turn from playing a pirate to playing an author writing of pirates). The actors who play the four young boys are all impeccable as well, with some marvelous scenes as each struggles in his own way to accept the death of their father and the illness of their mother. (The only disappointment in the acting department was Dustin Hoffman -- apparently nobody told him that the story was set in London 1903. Note to casting directors: Hoffman needs to stick to contemporary American roles.) The story about the inspiration of Peter Pan has in its own right all the charm, the innocence, and the bittersweetness of its loss as does the fairy tale itself. Bring tissue.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Social Security: Fixing What's Broken

In my last post on Social Security, I explained the transition "costs" of privatization by using the analogy of three roommates renting an apartment. This same analogy can help understand what is really "broken" with Social Security, and how it might be fixed. (For goodness sake, don't listen to any of the politicians if you want to actually understand anything about it. The Republicans are using dubious projections of huge future shortfalls to scare people into taking actions that don't actually address the real problems, while the Democrats are insisting everything is fine so don't worry about that big iceberg up ahead.)

Basically, there are four things that impact Social Security: how much tax does each worker pay into the system, how much benefit does each retiree draw out of the system, how many workers are there compared to how many retired people, and how long are retirees living? The reason that there will be a problem at some future date if we don't fix the system is a combination of: retirees are living longer than they used to, we have fewer younger people than older people (that "baby boom" generation starts to retire in a few years), and the benefits are increased every year. But it's hard to conceive of whole populations and life expectancies and so on, which is why I like to boil things down to an analogy.

Consider our three roommates, who pay $400/month each for a $1200/month apartment. Now let's assume that at the end of the year, two things are going to happen: The landlord is raising the rent to $1400/month, and one of the roommates is moving away. The two remaining roommates basically have three choices:
(1) cough up $700/month each to pay the increased rent between just the two of them

(2) find two additional roommates to share the increased rent; or
(3) look for a cheaper apartment that rents for only $800/month
There's just not really any other way to make ends meet.

With Social Security, longer-living retirees and increasing retirement benefits are like the rent being raised. And the smaller number of working people compared to retired people is like losing a roommate. Likewise, there are only three basic ways to fixing the problem with Social Security:
(1) raise the Social Security taxes on workers (i.e., cough up more rent)
(2) increase the retirement age, which effectively increases the ratio of working people to retired people (i.e., find additional roommates to share the rent)
(3) decrease Social Security benefits (find a cheaper apartment)

You'll notice that "privatization" of Social Security is not among these options. As I explained in the previous post, privatization would be the equivalent of the landlord switching the terms from month-to-month in arrears to one-year-lease paid in full up front. Obviously, that would be no help at all to the remaining roommates in trying to deal with higher rent split among fewer people. That's because privatization won't do anything at all to fix what is broken with the system.

Sponge Bob is tip of the iceberg

"James Dobson of Focus on the Family has tossed a new harpoon in the culture wars, claiming that SpongeBob SquarePants is being used to promote a homosexual agenda. He doesn't know the half of it." David Helvarg comments in the LA Times. PBS had better not send Buster the Bunny scuba diving!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Social Security Transition "Costs"

The Social Security issue can get very technical and complex, while the extreme demagoguery from both sides of the aisle is contributing much heat and little light to the debate. One of the things that puzzled me at first was how the Dems were screaming about the huge transition costs to "privatize", while the Republicans were claiming that it wouldn't cost anything because it merely shifted an "off-book" future obligation to an on-book debt. I initially thought the Dems were right, but I eventually realized it was the Republicans who were correct. Sort of. Technically, no new debt would be created, but the issue is cash flow. And it's a huge issue.

An analogy may be helpful here. Let's consider three roommates who put up $400 each for a $1200/month apartment. And let's say their landlord has been charging rent monthly in arrears, meaning that on February 1, they pay $1200 rent for January, on March 1, they pay $1200 rent for February, etc. Over the course of a year, the roomies are paying $14,400 (i.e., 12 times $1200) in rent. Now let's say that the landlord gives them notice that starting in March, he wants to convert to a one-year lease (instead of month-to-month) fully paid in advance. So on March 1, the roomies will need to somehow cough up $1200 (for February in arrears) plus $14,400 for the year starting March 1 thru the following February. Note that the landlord has not raised the rent at all. It's still $14,400 per year just like it's always been. And in the long view, the roomies will not have to pay any more than they have been paying. But in the meantime, the cash flow is a bitch -- they're going to have to come up with an extra $14,400 on March 1! Now these roommates can afford their $400 each month, but there's not much extra in their budget. Their only option will be to take a cash advance on their credit cards, and then try to keep up with the minimum payments each month as the interest accrues. Note that there is never any future "windfall" where they'll be able to catch up. They can pay down $400 on the credit card each month, since they won't have to pay rent again for another year, but when the following March comes, they'll have to pay $14,400 once again, and they won't have saved anything. Plus the credit card won't be fully paid off because of interest. Unless the roommates get raises, or the landlord lowers the rent, or one of them wins the lottery, they can never catch up again, and will only fall further behind.

Since Social Security is a "pay as you go" system, converting it to private accounts would be just like switching from paying your rent in arrears to paying it up front. While technically it's true that you're not creating any more obligations than you already have (just as the roomies were going to pay $14,400 each year one way or another), the cash flow disruption can still wreck the finances. And the need to borrow money to handle the cash flow will add an ongoing cost of interest payments. It's also important to note that once you take out that loan, you can never catch up again. There's never any windfall in the future that allows you to recoup. Social Security is the just like this rent scenario. If no other actions are taken, simply switching to privatization will require the government to borrow money to meet all of its current obligations. The interest on that debt could be $200 billion every year. And it's not like the "transition cost" of privatization will get recouped sometime later. There is no future windfall. Those $200 billion interest payments recur each year indefinitely (and grow as the interest compounds). It may not be technically correct in accounting parlance, but I think I'd call that a transition cost. Wouldn't you?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Marriage, Childbearing, and Childrearing

In the debate about gay marriage, it is often argued that the purpose of marriage is to provide the best context for raising children. Thus, the argument goes, marriage is intrinsically heterosexual, because gay couples (in and of themselves) can not procreate. There are a number of things that can be said in response to this. The most common response is to note that defining marriage solely in terms of procreation demeans the marriages of those who are infertile and of those who choose not to have children. Most Americans would find it cruel (needless to say incorrect) to assert that the marriage of an elderly couple or a childless couple is pointless. Instead, we should acknowledge that childrearing is a purpose -- but not the only purpose -- of marriage. (And I should like to write more about other purposes another time.) But the most insidious fallacy of the "marriage = procreation" argument is the conceptual confusion between childbearing and childrearing. (This confusion runs so deep that even normally rigorous thinkers such as the Anal Philosopher mix up the concepts.)

Procreation is the act that leads to bringing a new child into the world. Childrearing is the provision of love, support, guidance, and resources over nearly two decades. While childrearing naturally and optimally follows procreation, the two acts are distinct and separable. Our society is painfully aware that the ability to produce children does not necessarily coincide with the ability to raise them. Sadly, many children are born to parents who are not prepared or able to take care of them. Happily, many couples are willing to adopt children which are not their own, a act of great altruism generally viewed as admirable. In fact, adoptive parents are likely better equipped and on average more successful at childrearing than natural parents, since there are no unintentional adoptive parents, and (unlike natural parents) adoptive parents must interview for the job.

Now that we have distinguished these concepts, we must ask whether marriage is for procreation or for childrearing. And I think we would have to answer that procreation (a one-night act) is secondary to childrearing (a two-decade act). It is the long haul of childrearing that the institution of marriage is well-designed to support. Naturally we like to see the two go together, but given a choice between a family of adoptive parents versus two people who accidentally produced a baby, it should be clear in which context the essence of marriage belongs.

Finally we return to the question of whether marriage, insofar as it is for childrearing, is intrinsically heterosexual. Granted, procreation is intrinsically heterosexual (although some homosexual couples do procreate by means of more complex arrangements involving third parties). But childrearing -- which we have said is the provision of love, support, guidance, and resources over a long haul -- does not logically entail heterosexuality. Many homosexual couples have proven to be competent parents. (Here is one example where a Florida family court judge praised two men for being model parents.) While some will claim that proper child development somehow requires both male and female models, it is a narrow view of the world that insists that only men have stereotypically "male" attributes and only women have "female" attributes. Moreover, unless the family lives in a cave, the children will meet other people of both genders (extended family, teachers, friends) who will have some part to play in shaping their understanding of the world. What I think most people can agree is truly essential is to provide a stable, secure, and loving home. And it is the marriage of two loving committed spouses -- straight or gay -- that is best suited to provide that environment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Traditional values in Canada

As Canada's parliament considers the equal marriage question, Canada's largest Protestant denomination weighs in. The open letter to members of Parliament outlines why the United Church of Canada welcomes equal marriage, a decision that was reached "not by abandoning Christian faith, tradition, and values, but by implementing them." It's worth reading the entire letter, but here is one choice paragraph among many:
Some will protest that we must have faith in the Bible, and that the Bible takes an unfavourable view of intimate same-sex relationship. But I would answer that Christian faith is not an uncritical repetition of a received text. It is a mindful commitment to the power of love, to which the text seeks to give witness. Every generation of the Christian faith must decide how they will honour that demand of love in the living of their days. Changing circumstances and changing ideas are not the enemy of faith.

I guess some tradition-loving "conservatives" can support gay marriage after all.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Tsunami in Perspective

In the wake of the oceanic tsunami, we have seen a "tsunami" of donations for relief. Nations engaged in a public bidding war against nations, and for private citizens, the opportunities and reminders to give to this cause are pervasive. (I think every major website put a tsunami relief link on its homepage.) While this flood of generosity is heartwarming, one might step back for the bigger perspective and ask "why does this disaster rate such an unprecedented response?" Without demeaning the suffering and loss caused by the tsunami, there are other disasters striking around the world of equal if not greater scope, albeit not as mediagenic. There is the AIDS epidemic, with 6 million HIV-infected people needing treatment and less than half a million receiving treatment. There is the continuing genocide in Darfur, Sudan. There are locust swarms of biblical proportions destroying half of all food production in the African Sahel region (you'd think that would be telegenic). There are over 10 million children each year who die of preventable diseases (e.g., tuberculosis) and malnutrition. Why do these deserving needs for relief not inspire the same kind of response as the tsunami?

I think the answer is complex. The tsunami was sudden, creating all its casualties in one dramatic stroke, while most of the other disasters are ongoing crises with relentless casualties drawn out over time. It is our nature to give inordinate weight to sudden dramatic losses of some number of people, in comparison to much greater losses that occur gradually. It's the same reason that many people fear airplane crashes yet have no fear of driving on the highway, even though the latter is statistically much more dangerous. For some, a natural disaster may inspire more sympathy than victims of human causes such as wars. For some, even disease or hunger may be perceived as at least partly deserved (e.g., thinking that AIDS is the desert of the promiscuous, or that poverty is the desert of the lazy). For some, the tsunami may have seemed "closer to home" than other "third world" crises, because it affected some "first world" people, not just National Geographic poster children, but also models, photographers, and Oprah's designer's boyfriend.

However you may have been motivated to give to tsunami relief, you deserve to feel good about your generosity. But it's also worth taking a moment to think about what you give, when you give, and how you give. Think about some of the other crises in the world (I've given several examples already: strife in Sudan, locusts in Sahel, AIDS, tuberculosis, etc). Are they any less deserving or compelling than the tsunami? If so, why? If not, will you donate to these causes also?

Saturday, January 22, 2005

FILM: La Mala Educacion

Pedro Almodovar's latest film, La Mala Educacion (Bad Education), is a richly-layered, playfully self-referential exploration of the relationship between life and fiction. We start plainly enough with an actor/writer presenting a script to a director. He claims the storyline starts in fact but moves to fiction. But where is the line between the two? And who is the actor/writer really, and why has he written this script? As the film shifts between present and past, fact and fiction, life and re-enactment, it seems the truth slowly emerges. Ultimately, the "truth" is like an onion, with layers peeled back only to find ever more layers and no true core.

But this description makes the film sound way too dry and pretentious. Not at all. It sneaks its philosophical musings across in a sexy and engaging film noir. I was drawn in to this film, and each new development was a surprise, both revealing more and adding more to the puzzle. (I'll say nothing about specifics of the plot, as I wouldn't want to give anything away.) Almodovar's direction was brilliant as ever. His camera deftly conveys volumes of emotion often with little needing to be said. This is true in the powerful scenes between a priest and a young boy, as well as a lighter scene when a director gives a sexy actor the up-and-down gaze. (And David Hockney would love the art of Almodovar's swimming pool scenes.) Gael Garcia Bernal is phenomenal in a multi-faceted, complex role, including a role in a role in a role. (And I'll admit he's quite easy on the eyes as well, and fittingly rhapsodized by Almodovar's camera. There's plenty here for those who seek a sexy visual feast, but truly none of it gratuitous -- every scene is about the story.)

With this great film coming shortly on the heels of Testosterone, I'm fast becoming a fan of this emerging niche genre of Latin gay film noir. While Testosterone was a great roller-coaster ride and a classic film noir with a gay sensibility, La Mala Educacion does all that and one better, with the added dimension of philosophical intrigue. (Of course, as the film plays with the relationship between screenplay and real life, one can't help but wonder the relationship between this screenplay and Almodovar's life. Alas, and perhaps appropriately, that will remain a mystery.)

Friday, January 21, 2005

Advice and Consent

Ambrose Bierce update for the new millenium:

advice and consent, n.p. from the U.S. Constitution, stipulating Senate confirmation of Presidential Cabinet appointments. The "advice" refers to blustery harangues given by minority party Senators for the benefit of C-SPAN and the Congressional Record (but not actually for the President). Unlike the normal use of the word "advice", this form of "advice" is given after the fact of the appointment rather than before, and is not expected to be heeded. The "consent" is customary, and is often given whether or not the Senator actually consents. Hence, a common preamble to the "advice" goes something like "I'm going to vote for you, but let me spend a few minutes going on record as to why I'm not happy about it."

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Can A Conservative Support Gay Marriage?

A few days ago, the Anal Philosopher made the provocative assertion that "no conservative can support gay marriage" (hat tip: PikeSpeak). I sent him an email expressing my surprise that a rigorous thinker (as he appears to be) could make such a categorical statement. Either his definition of conservatism comprises a set of principles, in which case different conservatives holding these same principles may have different life experiences and different assessments of the relevant facts and premises, leading them to different conclusions on this issue, OR his definition of conservatism explicitly precludes support for gay marriage, in which case it is merely tautological, and thus not a very promising basis for any rational discourse on the matter. Alas, this gets dismissed as "wacky".

He compares this to other categorical claims such as "No liberal can support slavery." That's actually an interesting analogy. Certainly today it would be incomprehensible for a liberal to support slavery. However, it is quite possible to imagine an early 19th century liberal -- holding the same principles as liberals of today, but applying them with different premises, and coming to a conclusion in support of slavery as it existed before the Civil War. That historical liberal could well have held the same truths we hold as self-evident, but would have found no inconsistency in not applying them to black slaves any more than to women or children. Slaves, like women and children, were dependents to be looked after, human but not citizens. (I tread on sensitive ground here, so just in case anyone is unclear: I am by no means justifying slavery. But I am explaining how someone at that time could have reasonably been both a liberal and a slave-holder. The liberal principles didn't change, but the understanding of the world changed the premises, and thus the conclusions.)

In the same way, it is perfectly conceivable that two people could both be "conservative", but come to different conclusions about gay marriage (and its legal recognition). Here is a good example. In a follow-up post, the Anal Philosopher quotes Princeton professor Robert P. George: "It is certainly unjust arbitrarily to deny legal marriage to persons who are capable of performing marital acts and entering into the marital relationship." I am in complete agreement with Prof. George on this principle. However, Prof. George (who manages from this auspicious start to reach the wrong conclusion) must disagree with me about the fact that two men or two women are indeed capable of performing marital acts and entering into the marital relationship. (Note that the marital relationship does not depend on a state-granted marriage license. Rather, the relationship stands prior to and independent of the state's acknowledgement of it.)

Certainly, the term "conservative" as it is applied in contemporary American politics refers to an amalgam of neo-cons, theo-cons, libertarians, traditionalists, and more. Certainly there are those from the more libertarian strand of conservatism who have begun to recognize that their principles might impel them to accept gay marriage. (Barry Goldwater and William Safire come to mind.) And Jonathan Rauch, in his book Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, mounts a quintessentially conservative argument for gay marriage. Indeed, it turns out that conservative principles and conservative reasoning can lead one to support gay marriage.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Rant Against Label-Driven Thinking

I think the quality of any discourse improves greatly if labels ("conservative", "liberal") are avoided. Labels encourage the counter-productive habit of thinking that separates people into "our side" and "the other side", and puts more emphasis on who says something (and what box we assign them to) rather than what they say. Better to talk about issues, positions, and reasons, and to be open to finding agreement with anyone sometimes. There are some positions where I agree with Patrick Buchanan, and some positions where I agree with Al Sharpton. It would be a disservice to good faith conversation to dismiss their views because of who they are and what "camp" they belong to.

This diatribe was inspired by an ongoing topic over on GayPatriot blog, where there's much disappointment and frustration that Andrew Sullivan has somehow broken faith with conservatives. Many other bloggers piled on (eliciting at least one decent rejoinder from PikeSpeak). The truth is that Andrew Sullivan is as independent-minded as he ever was. He refused to go along with LGBT group-think, and he likewise refuses to go along with conservative group-think. When there was a Democratic administration, that was the focus of much of Andrew's criticism, and the conservatives were loving him. Now that there's a Republican administration, and they logically get the brunt of criticism (since it is they who are setting the policy agenda), the conservatives are bemused by Andrew. Though the political winds have shifted, he continues to chart his own course with passion and intelligence. I admire him for that and strive to do the same.

When reading anyone, don't fall into the trap of putting them into a box according to some "with us or against us" scorecard judgment (or "Litmus test", as our President likes to say). With just about anyone, if you listen carefully, you'll find some points of agreement and some points of disagreement. Nobody is always right, and nobody is always wrong. Even if you disagree with someone, it's healthy to read intelligent opinions that differ from your own. And to take the challenge of truly considering them rather than simply dismissing the source. Focus on individuals rather than groups, and the merits of issues rather than their affiliation. Do that and the quality of discourse will greatly improve.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Zell Miller and Amos

Funny that the Old Testament prophet Amos should come up twice in one day. Amos 5:24 was famously cited by Martin Luther King: "Justice shall roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream." And then I get an email from my mother-in-love (that's the mother of my husband-in-all-but-law) with a speech given by Zell Miller on the Senate floor, invoking Amos in support of a bill to limit federal court jurisdiction, a bill to protect public religious displays, and the Federal Marriage Amendment. (The speech occurred last February, but it's amazing how these things get a second life on the Internet, where it's actively circulating.)

While I can share Senator Miller's appreciation for the oft-neglected prophet Amos, I can't agree with his conclusions on the matter. Amos raged against a people who had become decadent in their wealth and uncaring for the poor among them, and who abused the courts to dishonestly favor the powerful against the poor. You'd think that Senator Miller, wielding the words of this Old Testament prophet, would be leading up to introducing some new initiative to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, shelter the homeless, or at least provide basic medical coverage for the 44 million uninsured Americans. No such luck.

Amos was quite concerned about fair courts, and it's hard to imagine he'd have been impressed with the misguided and misnamed Constitutional Restoration Act that Zeller was endorsing -- an effort to circumvent our fundamental checks and balances, and undermine an independent judiciary.

The most ironic kicker is the Liberties Restoration Act, whose purpose was to protect Judge Roy Moore and other public officials who don't get the separation of church and state. Amos tells us that the Lord especially despised people who came to the Temple to make ostentatious sacrifices, but then kicked the widow and denied the poor on their way back to their mansions. This sanctimonious defense of Ten Commands monuments (from a bunch of people who probably couldn't even name more than three commandments) is just the sort of empty piety and hypocrisy that brings down the Lord's wrath.

Miller should be particularly mindful of what Amos relates about nations who neglect the poor and interfere with the courts, while making empty shows of piety:
"I will destroy her ruler
and kill all her officials with him,"
says the Lord. [Amos 2:3]

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Recommended Reading for Martin Luther King Day

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, which, sadly, is the least celebrated official federal holiday. Cynically, I might attribute that to many white Americans thinking "oh, that's a black holiday, it's not our holiday". Optimistically, I could attribute it to just being too close after Christmas and New Years for another holiday. But MLK was a great man and an inspirational example for all Americans. And this day is a day for all of us. King would not have it any other way. Here are some recommendations for recognizing the holiday with some appropriate reading:
  1. Read his speeches. Even better, look and listen. King was a brilliant orator.
  2. Read the prophet Amos. This is the source of one of King's famous passages "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream" (Amos 5:24, cited in King's "I See the Promised Land" speech). It's a short book tucked away at the back of the Old Testament, but filled with the great language of a prophet railing against the injustice of a people who abuse their obligations to the poor and defenseless, while going through the motions of religious piety.
  3. Read Shelby Steele's A Dream Deferred: The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America. This book is imperative reading for anyone wrestling with the issue of the justice of racial preferences. While Steele believes that racial preferences defy the best democratic principles of our country, this book reaches more profoundly than that argument. Steele offers a powerful analysis of why racial politics remain so compelling, even as their practical effect is to work against their purported goal of freedom and equality. He ultimately broadens his analysis to find that the success of racial identity politics has inspired the spread of a whole market in redemption for any group that can claim to be aggrieved. This enlightening diagnosis rings all too true. (My full review is about the 4th one down on Amazon, or can be found here.)

ARTS: School for Scandal

Last night we had the pleasure of seeing Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy The School for Scandal at the Mark Taper Forum. Though the play is written and set in 1777 (and presented here with charming period costumes), the clever plot and witty dialog prove this classic comedy of manners to be as timeless as scandal itself. For this play, Oscar Wilde would have to make an exception to his bon mot that "scandal is gossip made tiresome by morality", as the interplay between gossip and morality here is anything but tiresome. The play opens with us meeting the manipulative Lady Sneerwell plotting with her protege Joseph Surface. I was immediately reminded of Dangerous Liaisons, and this play turns on a similar theme, but in a light-hearted rather than cruel treatment. (Sheridan's comedy actually preceded that Laclos novel by 5 years.) The characters are all charicatures, but one would easily guess that just from perusing the dramatis personae, which includes Lady Sneerwell (the gossip manipulator), brothers Joseph and Charles Surface (who may not be what they appear), Sir Benjamin Backbite (a pernicious gossipping fop), and Mrs. Candour (who tells all). All the classic elements are here -- characters in disguise, double-crossing strategems, secrets, people hiding behind screens and in closets -- all masterfully woven together in a thoroughly enjoyable piece. The Taper production is perfectly tuned, so that we can laugh at and with the characters, as well as sympathize with them. Brian Bedford (Sir Peter Teazle) was charming in his part, mugging to the audience as suits the piece but without being over the top. Carolyn Seymour (Lady Sneerwell) is perfectly Machiavellian, and Marianne Muellerleile is a riot as the irrepressible Mrs. Candour. All the performances were spot on, and kudos to Brian Bedford's direction.

If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me. And go see this play!

Thursday, January 13, 2005

La Conchita: Personal Risk, Community Responsibility

As the surviving residents of the beleaguered coastal town of La Conchita try to dig their homes out of the mudslide, many are determined to continue to make their home there, despite the obvious risks. "We'll be back," residents told Governor Schwarzenegger. Others say that Ventura County should have done more to protect them. It raises an interesting question: where should the line be drawn between personal liberty to take one's own risks and the responsibility of the community for the general welfare?

If you haven't noticed La Conchita as you passed it on your way up to Santa Barbara, it's that one-street town squeezed in between the coast highway and the 600-foot bluff towering over it. The bluff has been called the most mudslide-prone stretch of California coast, and this isn't nearly the first time the mud has buried the town. While I can understand the seduction of a small town with the Pacific at your doorstep, surely those who moved in after the big slide of 1995 had to notice the posted "danger" signs.

Do those doggedly determined residents have a right to live on their own land, despite the clear risk? Absolutely, they have that right. The right to live where and how one wants is among the most fundamental. It is essentially American to be able to take our own risks. If people choose to live under an unstable hill, or at the edge of a fire-prone canyon, that should be their choice. But at some point, that choice to take such risk must constitute opting out of the community's responsibility for their welfare. The lines are certainly drawn clearly enough in the insurance market. I don't imagine the La Conchita folks were ever able to purchase any home insurance. Yet some think that the people of Ventura County should all share the cost of building a $45 million retaining wall that might protect the town from another slide, or that the County should condemn all the homes and pay market value for them (an equally costly proposition). That hardly seems reasonable to me. People have the right to take their own risk, but they don't have the right to drag the rest of us along on the downside of their risks. That's like smokers complaining about paying higher insurance rates. I say whoever wants to should be allowed to live in La Conchita, but that all who make that choice have to put up a $10,000 bond to cover the costs of their next rescue. Isn't that the American way? Liberty and responsibility.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Gay Abe - A Paradigm Shift

C.A. Tripp's recently published book, in which he asserts that Abraham Lincoln was gay, has stirred up much discussion. The Weekly Standard can't possibly believe it, and hired a frustrated rival to write up a hatchet job. Andrew Sullivan responds (and blogs repeatedly). There's quite an interesting issue there about how much evidence is required to "prove" that a historical figure was homosexual. Some of us will read Tripp's work and see a slam-dunk. Others would continue to dismiss it even if shown the stained sheets and the DNA results linking Lincoln and one of his "longtime companions". How can that be?

The answer, I think, lies in Thomas Kuhn, the famous philosopher of science who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he articulated a theory of science as being embedded in tradition. The scientific community operates within a received and established paradigm for understanding the world. When anomalies arise that the paradigm has trouble explaining, the community generally resists giving up the paradigm, until a sufficient crisis gives rise to a new paradigm that eventually supplants the old. The community undergoes a paradigm shift over time as some people are converted to the new paradigm, while stubborn holdouts eventually die off. His classic example is that of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe revolving around the earth, which was only slowly supplanted by the Copernican heliocentric model. The Ptolemists went through increasing gyrations to keep their model consistent with planetary observations. Note that Copernicus' theory, while clearly simpler, was not clearly better at explaining the phenomena (at least until Kepler later improved it). The choice of which theory is "better" cannot be proven in any objective context. There is a largely unacknowledged amount of aesthetics involved. The competing paradigms are ultimately "incommensurable". As Kuhn says, "The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proof."

And so it is with Lincoln being gay (or Michelangelo or Shakespeare or whoever). I was struck reading Andrew Sullivan's defense about the arguments he made, often ending with "sound familiar?" or "ring a bell?". Yes. To me. And to Andrew, and to others who share (or at least truly understand) the coming out experience. But not necessarily to others who don't share that life experience or sensibility.

Kuhn uses the word "conversion" to talk about scientists accepting a new paradigm, suggesting the analogy with religious conversion. "Paradigm shift" and "conversion" are both words I find very appropriate to describe the process of "coming out". There was an "Aha!" moment when the lightbulb went on, and I looked back and suddenly understood earlier life experiences in a whole new way. It was a revelation. Why hadn't somebody told me I was gay sooner? It seemed so obvious in retrospect. Conversion is exactly the right word for such an experience. While I can remember how I used to think, post-conversion it is simply no longer possible to think that way. The new way of seeing the world is clearly right, and everything is reinterpreted in the new light.

The coming out "paradigm shift" is the lens which provides a window into fellow homosexuals (our "gaydar"). I was keenly aware of this when studying Michelangelo in college, and coming to my own realization that he was gay. It was obvious to me. And yet it was dismissed by my professor - oh no, that was merely the Neo-Platonism of the time. Sheesh. Read the sonnets! His love for Vittoria Colonna was Platonic, his love for Tommaso Cavalieri was more. He loved her virtue and his physical beauty. It may be that Michelangelo's feelings for the handsome Roman knight were never physically acted on, but that doesn't deny the truth of what those feelings were. And I can recognize them clearly, because of my own experiences before coming out -- loving women in a certain way but without that physical element, craving the company of men without fully understanding why. As I learned of Michelangelo's life, there was that lightbulb-flash of recognition.

Can it be proved? No. The best we can do is to try to persuade others that this theory is a "better" explanation. As a cultural paradigm shift takes hold, in which more people are aware and sensitive to the gay experience (after all, even savvy straight people can acquire a "queer eye"), more people will recognize the better explanation for the facts. And they'll wonder how they could have ever thought differently.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

ARTS: Dido & Aeneas

Last night we had the pleasure to see (and hear!) Purcell's Dido and Aeneas performed by the Musica Angelica baroque orchestra at the Norton Simon Museum. This most famous of Purcell's operas (from 1689) makes it clear what a shame it was that he died so young (at age 36). He wrote in the Middle Baroque period, a generation before Bach or Handel arrived on the scene, with few but Monteverdi preceding him. Parts like "Fear no danger to ensue" in Act I take Renaissance-reminiscent melodies and elevate them to Baroque. The music is heavenly, and the work exemplifies opera at its best, zooming in on the most emotional and dramatic moments of a story, with the rest of the plot painted with just enough suggestive brushstrokes. The vocals were all enchanting, with clarion Catherine Webster beginning the opera as Belinda (Dido's handmaiden), an intense Ellen Hargis singing Dido, and Daniel Plaster as a pure and stately Aeneas. The work was not so much staged as sung with a bit of dramatic blocking, but the effect was just enough to suggest the picture. (The Sorceress, sung by mezzo Moira Smiley, placed a black mesh scarf over her head, which was a nice visual effect.) It was wonderful to hear this music performed with the period orchestra, including lute, guitar, and harpsichord along with the more familiar strings.

The acoustics in the theatre at the Norton Simon were wonderful. We sat in the last row of the upper balcony, but aside from a low hum from the central heat, we could have heard a pin drop on stage. And with the beautifully soft and mournful "When I am laid in earth" from Dido at the end, we practically were hearing a pin drop (or a heart break). Afterward, it was delightful to be able to wander some of the museum's galleries, especially to see the marvelous Romanelli tapestry cartoons of Dido and Aeneas.

The story is a classic that many have put their spin on (Virgil, Justin, Marlowe), but I'm surprised that no one modern has picked it up. While the traditional focus is on Dido, Aeneas could be such a modern hero faced with an existential choice of clashing values -- love or duty.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Tsunami: Where Was Allah?

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two articles this week expressing religious reactions to the tsunami. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote:

The question: "How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?" is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren’t - indeed, it would be wrong if it weren’t. The traditional answers will get us only so far.

The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again - not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learned to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift; they have learned to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others; they have learned that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, Sheik Fawzan al-Fawzan, a professor at al-Imam University, had this to say in a television interview:

We know that at these resorts, which unfortunately exist in Islamic and other countries in south Asia, and especially at Christmas, fornication and sexual perversion of all kinds are rampant. The fact that it happened at this particular time is a sign from Allah. It happened at Christmas, when fornicators and corrupt people from all over the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion. That's when this tragedy took place, striking them all and destroyed everything. It turned the land into wasteland, where only the cries of the ravens are heard. I say this is a great sign and punishment on which Muslims should reflect.
It would be too easy to take these differing views as representative of Christian versus Muslim viewpoints. I'm certainly aware that there is a broad spectrum of views within Christianity itself. Who can forget the post 9/11 judgments of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, blaming feminists, abortionists, homosexuals, and the ACLU for the destruction of the Twin Towers? The theology of Sheik al-Fawzan seems quite akin to the 700 Club. But I'm admittedly uninformed about Muslim traditions and views, and was curious to learn more about what various Muslims were saying and thinking about this. A Google tour of Muslim websites, forums, and blogs turned up an interesting spectrum of views.

Sheik Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul Haq, who has written a book about understanding disasters as "Signs of Allah", says that our human minds are too feeble to even begin to comprehend the will of Allah. He likens our attempts to understand Allah's will to trying to weigh a boulder with a jeweler's scale. He also says that disasters should serve as a reminder of Allah's plan to destroy the earth in the final judgment.

Muslims participating in online discussions at and had a variety of opinions. A few people raised the theory about the tsunami being a punishment for the sexual perversions occurring in beach resorts. (Homosexuality was mentioned, but the focus even from Sheik al-Fawzan was on fornicators in general. Some of the comments were reasonably grounded in an awareness of the sex trade in some of those countries.) But other people dismissed this, noting that there were plenty of more suitable places Allah should have been smoting if that were His object. A number of people saw the tsunami as punishment but of a more general collective sort, in that we all might have deserved this and we should all be praying mightily for forgiveness:

And were Allah to punish men for what they earn, He would not leave on the back of it any creature, but He respites them till an appointed term
Other common themes included that it was a "test" of faith, or that it was a reminder of the impending final judgment:

21. And verily, We will make them taste of the near torment (i.e. the torment in the life of this world,i.e. disasters, calamities) prior to the supreme torment (in the Hereafter), in order that they may (repent and) return (i.e. accept Islam).[Surat 32. As-Sajdah, 32:21]
One blogger summed up these three common themes, saying "it was a test for the righteous, a punishment for the wicked, and a lesson for the survivors". Another said simply "Allah knows. We cannot know. Pray for forgiveness and pray for our brothers and sisters who were struck." Apparently Muslims (like Jews) are commanded to take especial care for widows and orphans, and this theme was raised as well, since people were very aware that the tsunami created many new widows and orphans.

The other thing that struck me was the general tone of the conversations. Everyone was extremely polite and deferential, generally exceedingly cautious not to say anything offensive. (Definitely quite different from our American blogs!)

I came away knowing a tiny bit more about Islam than I did last week, and with the reassurance that Islam has a spectrum of religious views, and shouldn't be judged only by its most vocal or outrageous proponents. Every one of these Muslim themes -- punishment, test of faith, unknowable God, foreshadow of judgment day, let's take care of the survivors -- has been expressed by Christians and Jews as well. Ultimately, these are something we all share, human attempts for grappling with an age-old theological conundrum.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Happy New Year, now back to partisan shenanigans

This first week of the new year saw the opening of the 109th Congress, with the customary rhetoric about reaching across the aisle and working with the other party. But before the perfunctory platitudes had finished echoing in the Senate chamber, Majority Leader Frist was already threatening to tamper with "Rule 22" (that's Washington-speak for what has been called the "nuclear option" of eliminating the filibuster). So much for a fresh bi-partisan start to the new session.

Whenever anyone in Congress starts talking about changing procedural rules, watch out. The motivations are rarely noble. In the Senate, some wise man a long time ago made the rule that you need a 2/3 majority to change the rules. That's because whenever the majority party wants to change the rules, it's a sure sign of partisan shenanigans. But since the Congress seems so intent on rewriting the rules, I'd like to propose an UpWord rule change that would improve the quality of deliberations.

Senate Rule 22.1: A motion of cloture may be passed by either one of the following methods:
(a) a 2/3 majority vote of the full Senate
(b) a simple majority of the majority party senators PLUS
a simple majority of the minority party senators
Federal judicial appointments are for life (and please don't go mucking with that!), so they should be considered very carefully. Extremists of any ideology should be avoided. Prudence dictates only confirming those candidates who can command broad bipartisan acceptance. If any 34 (let alone 40) senators have qualms about a judicial nominee, that should be good enough reason to skip them.

The way the senators rant and rave about the "obstructionism" of the minority party filibusters (and keep in mind the exact same rants were coming from the Democrats when the Republicans were "obstructing" some of Clinton's nominees), you'd think it was difficult to find well-qualified judges who can pass the 60% muster. With the headline focus on ten filibustered nominees, it's easy to forget that around two hundred nominees were confirmed. President Bush has an over .900 batting average on judicial nominees! "Going nuclear" over the small percentage of nominees that fail to garner broad acceptance is just plain petulant, not to mention a disservice to the American public. If Senator Frist believed an iota of the bi-partisan rhetoric he put out, he would take the UpWord path of choosing to focus on the 90% success rate, and work with the President to find just a few more judges like the two hundred that got confirmed.

Meanwhile, over in the House...

...the first order of business was to tweak the rules of the House Ethics Committee specifically to cover Tom DeLay's, er, flank. I also have an UpWord suggestion for the House. Those who tinker with the rules are always suspect, and those who tinker with the Ethics rules doubly so. Just to be sure that any ethics rules changes are sound ideas with noble motivations, I propose:

House Ethics Rule: The House Ethics Rules (including the procedural rules of the Ethics Committee) may only be modified when the same proposal is ratified by a 2/3 majority in 3 successive sessions of Congress, and the rule shall only take effect in the 4th session after it is initially proposed.
That seems a bit harsh. It would take 8 years for any change to be accomplished. But better to have honest improvements come later than not at all. The benefit is that tampering to suit current self-interests (or avoid imminent scandals) will be prevented. Sometimes it's good not to be able to act quickly. Any true conservative should agree.

Beyond Nuclear?

While I often disagree with Chief Justice Rehnquist, I wholeheartedly applaud his statements in his year-end report. In it, he argues eloquently as to why those who rail against "activist judges" are just plain wrong (and their complaints as old as the republic). He is also concerned with recent Congressional moves to limit the jurisdiction of the Court, and seems worried about life appointments being called into question. I hadn't heard that last suggestion. Yet. If tweaking the filibuster is "nuclear", are there those who are plotting to go beyond nuclear? God save the Supreme Court of the US!


Brimming with New Year's resolution, I figured I should start a blog. After all, I've been spending enough time reading and commenting on other blogs. I don't know where this blog will lead, but I begin now because I love to write. If anyone else cares to read it, that will be a bonus.

I chose the title "UpWord" for a few reasons. The first was in considering how I would characterize my political viewpoint. I have become dissatisfied with the labels of "liberal" and "conservative", "left" and "right". They represent an increasingly thoughtless and artificial dichotomy in which I for one find no home. Thus, "upward" came to mind to express a better direction and one altogether orthogonal to the left-right axis. I also love words, and so the play on words of "UpWord" was appealing. (Besides, the "upward" blogspot was already taken by a disillusioned dying preacher. Go figure.)

I also liked UpWord better than OnWord or OutWord, because I hope that the direction will be generally up. I inherited my mother's spunk, and am an optimistic character. My cup is never half-empty. Neither is it ever half-full: the cup is sometimes oversized. I feel quite grateful that the direction of my life has been generally "up", and I pray that trajectory will continue. I hope that my life, and my words here, in some small measure will lift the world "upword".

Saturday, January 01, 2005

CATEGORY: World Politics


  • World Circus. Bush, Ahmadinejad, and Chavez talk past each other at the UN; time for France to step down from the Security Council.
  • European Passengers Right to Privacy Stops at Our Borders. Passengers should agree to let airlines send their personal identifying info to their destination government.
  • You Have Struck A Rock. Mukhtaran Bibi, a courageous Pakistani villager, stands up to vicious traditions, while Aung San Suk Kyi celebrates her 60th birthday in confinement in Myanmar.
  • New World Order? The Prime Minister of Viet Nam visits the US, second stop, the White House, first stop, Redmond.
Middle East
  • Lessons From Mexico's Election. Mexico's election administration surpasses the US in credibility, but a populist sore loser may ruin the country's fledgling faith in democracy.

CATEGORY: American Politics

Criticizing our national politics is a great American tradition, and one I heartily enjoy. As I am about equally disenchanted with both of our major political parties, there is plenty of criticism to go around. One of the inspirations of the name "UpWord" was to indicate a direction neither "left" nor "right".

CATEGORY: Genealogy

One of my hobbies (or as my husband would say, "addiction") for the past year has been genealogy. I love learning more about history in the process of discovering a new personal connection to it. And I love the thrill of finding clues and solving puzzles (there's a strong element of detective work to family history research). So genealogy has become a blogging theme:

CATEGORY: Social Security

One of the important issues facing our nation is the imbalance in the financing of Social Security. I have blogged about that a fair amount:

CATEGORY: Marriage

Being a gay married man in 2005, the issue of marriage is much on my mind and on my heart, and thus I have written a lot about it. These articles range from philosophical arguments, legal/political arguments, moral arguments, commentary on current events, and occasional personal musings on married life. All in all, I seek to present the viewpoint that marriage is good for gay people as well as straight people.



CATEGORY: Film, Stage, Music, Arts