Friday, September 30, 2011

Flashback Friday: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Pictured above is Stephen Hill, a soldier currently serving in Iraq who revealed on television that he also happens to be gay, when his question was selected by a Fox Network moderator at the last Republican debate. His question was for Ricky Santorum, who has a history of equating homosexuality with bestiality and earned the ire of sex columnist Dan Savage, who got the best form of revenge, ever. If you Google search "Santorum", the number 1 listing you'll find is the definition of "Santorum" that is credited to Savage. Its the kind of definition that makes you go, "ew!" I think that was the point, though. Savage wanted people to think "ew!" when they think about Ricky Santorum.

When I interned in the U.S. Capitol building in 2000 for the Office of the Vice President for Legislative Affairs, we received regular requests from then-Senator Ricky Santorum to use the Vice Presidential Ceremonial Office for a weekly Bible Study group among conservative Senators (I believe my own Senator, Max Cleland was also part of the group). Before I knew anything about Santorum, I accepted his requests and put him on the schedule, until someone in the office told me why they did not want him to use the office. I thought it was petty, though. If its not in use at the time Santorum wanted to use it, why not allow him that? This was a few years before his last name was defined by Savage.

During the debates, I don't find Santorum to be a bad guy. He seems likable enough. He is a conservative, no doubts there. However, he looks very boyish and it is difficult to imagine him as presidential material. He looks like he needs to wear short pants and a beanie on his head. The question posed to him by Stephen Hill was perfect for tripping him up.

Last week, the Clintonian "compromise" policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (the original name was actually: "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue") officially ended and now, gay servicemen and women can freely admit their orientation without fear of investigation or being discharged before their contract ends. This is a long time in coming, yet still not without controversy. Santorum promised the social conservatives in the Republican Party that if he becomes president (which is about as likely as Sarah Palin becoming intelligent), he will reverse this new policy though he will allow those who have come out of the closet to remain until their terms are up.

It amazed me that an active duty servicemember was willing to reveal himself on national television in a political debate. But seeing how muscular the guy is, I doubt that anyone with a problem with his sexuality would mess with him. He certainly defies the stereotype of gay men being sissy or effeminate. He looks like he'll kick your ass if you insult him or try to blanket party him. It is actually cool to see such a guy defying stereotypes people have.

Under this change of policy, I actually submitted my novel to an independent publishing company that promises to read the entire manuscript to determine if a book is right for them or not. They are looking for novels with a social message. I'm hoping that my novel will impress the reader(s) enough to publish my book, even though they seem to only publish in paperback (which many newspapers won't review books that are not published in hardcover first) and there is likely to be no advance or potential for a bidding war among the big publishers. I just want to see the novel published and released to the public. I think the message is timely. Essentially, my novel is about an idealistic young man who joins the Navy to see the world, and in the process, he finds himself under investigation when a gay sailor ends up missing at sea. The novel covers all the major controversies: Tailhook, sexual harassment, cross-dressing, homosexuality, bisexuality, false allegations, homophobia, misogyny, prostitution, transsexuals, bigotry, and what it really means to be a man. Basically, the novel says everything I wanted to say about my Navy experience.

I was in the Navy when Clinton won the election in 1992. I was there when he promised to end the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. I heard all the controversies. I saw all the cartoons that were posted around the ship. I heard the jokes, the fear, the homophobia, the allegations. From what I've read about the red-baiting scare of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, I saw a similarity in the military environment in the 1990s. The obsession of others in finding and rooting out potential homosexuals in our midst, the strange lengths guys would go through to prove their heterosexual manhood and if you did not participate, you found yourself being suspect. So, just because I had no interest in going to a whorehouse, of spending money on "buy-me-a-drink" bar girls, of watching porn, or even eating at Hooters, my sexuality came under question. Since I didn't feel a need to prove anything to anyone, I couldn't care less.

When I was in the Navy, I found myself solicited by two different sailors. It was quite an uncomfortable experience. The first one occurred in 1991 / 1992. I was drunk and foolish. One sailor wanted to make sure I got back to my barracks safely. Even though I was drunk, I still had some semblance of logic. The sailor who helped me back to my barracks room hung out for awhile and kept complaining about his need to get laid. At first, I ignored him, but when he kept harping on it, I told him to go to Olbia to find a prostitute. Of course, that was not a convenient thing to do. It would require a car and taking a ferry from the island of La Maddalena to the mainland of Sardinia and driving on a winding road for about an hour to reach Olbia, which probably had a population around 50,000 or so (it was the nearest "city" that had an airport and a ferry to mainland Italy). That advice just wouldn't do, and the sailor said something that sent a chill down my spine. He said to me, "I'd rather do you than do a prostitute." Even though I knew what he was implying, I played dumb and in a roundabout way, mentioned that I was tired and needed to sleep, so he needed to leave. After he was gone, I was scared about how vulnerable I was, because I was drunk and he was a bigger guy. This was just one more episode that confirmed for me why my cautious approach with people works. I don't trust people easily and they have to earn their trust. I swore to myself that I would never allow myself to be in such a vulnerable position with anyone.

According to Navy regulations at the time, I was expected to turn in the names of suspected homosexuals. However, I did not want to ruin someone else's Navy career. I've always been a "live and let live" kind of person. I kept my distance from the guy for the rest of the time he was stationed in La Maddelena. When he transferred back to the states, I was relieved. However, there was another incident involving him in my barracks room. He was talking when the Chaplain came around to visit guys in the barracks. He wanted to hide in my room, which I thought was ridiculous. I don't know why he was afraid of a Chaplain. Anyhow, I honoured his wishes and let him hide in my wardrobe when the Chaplain came around to my room. I talked to the Chaplain for awhile. At another time, the Chaplain asked me who was hiding in my barracks room. I denied that there was anyone hiding, but he said that he had seen the guy hide from the window and my eyes had betrayed me when he talked to me. The Chaplain was a snoop and I didn't like what he was implying, so I admitted that the sailor said that he did not want to talk to him so he asked if he could hide and I thought it was ridiculous, but allowed him to do so. I did not understand the big deal. People are strange.

In 1993-1994, another sailor took an interest in me and kept inviting me over to his apartment. Once, when I had some groceries from the small NEX on the island, this sailor offered me a ride back to the barracks, which saved me time and the expense of a taxi. Before we approached my barracks, he said, "Since I've given you a ride, you should return the favour." I did not like the conditions he sprung on me, for I would have never accepted a ride if he had an ulterior motive. He said that I needed to come over to his place and let him cook dinner for me. I declined because I got a weird vibe from the invite.

When I worked at the Palau Community Center, there was a bulletin board where people could post flyers offering to babysit or giving rides or whatever else. There was one from a lady offering to give massages. This sailor looked at that ad and said that he would like a massage. I told him that the lady offering them was supposed to be pretty good and that he should give her a call. Then he said to me, "I'd rather get one from you." I freaked out and changed the subject. Over the months, he kept finding subtle ways to get to me and I was getting tired of it. However, I tend not to be direct in confronting people, so I found a roundabout way to bring up the issue. I mentioned supporting the ban on gays serving in the military. At the time, I did support the gay ban. I did not know anyone who was gay and I believed at the time that gay men were obsessed with sex and were likely to be predators. We had arguments about it, which was odd, because the sailor was conservative. When he transferred back to the states, I was relieved.

What I learned from the two sailors is that they speak in codes. Because of the fear of being turned in for investigation, gay sailors had to talk in a roundabout way, thus allowing them to cover their tracks if the person they approach gets angry and / or violent. They can claim a misunderstanding and move on. I had asked a high school friend of mine why she thought gay sailors pursued me. She said that they probably felt safe with me, that I would not kick their ass or turn them in when it turned out that I did not swing their way.

On my last ship, an aircraft carrier, I often ate my meals alone, with a book. This, I learned, is an invite to others to sit by me and strike up a conversation. One sailor did so. Because of my previous experience with the roundabout way that gay sailors pursue their prey, I was cautious at the start. Here we go again, I thought. The sailor went through what appeared to be a checklist of questions to gauge me. I was so nervous that it was yet another gay sailor with an interest in me, but was actually relieved when it turned out that he was pushing religion on me instead of his homosexual inclinations. Funny how that would be a relief! Also funny that religious and homosexual sailors had similar approaches. They both spoke in coded terms and in a roundabout way. I prefer the direct route, though. I've never liked hidden agendas. When meeting new people (even today), I tend to be stand-offish and skeptical, wondering if the other person who approaches me has a hidden agenda. I don't trust friendly people who strike up a conversation with me. I wish it was just a friendly conversation because people are interested in you, but more often, it seems as though the friendly person has an agenda (to sell something, whether a product, service, or religion; or to ask for money).

What changed my view about the Navy's policy towards members who are openly gay was two incidents that happened in 1992 and 1993. One incident occurred in Sasebo, Japan (which was one of the duty stations I could have chosen during the duty station selection process in "A" School), the other on a liberty bus on the pier in Naples, Italy. The incident in Sasebo made the news. A gay sailor, Allen Schindler, was brutally murdered in a public restroom in a park by two homophobic sailors. The incident on the liberty bus in Naples was one I personally witnessed. It was actually a conversation between two sailors I did not know who sat in the seats directly in front of mine. One of them mentioned that some of the streetwalkers in Naples were actually men. The other sailor suggested that they should go out and find them to beat the shit out of them. I was stunned by their aggression. We had all been briefed regarding the prostitutes of Naples and warned to stay away from them. It struck me as odd that some sailors hated those with alternative sexuality so much that they were willing to go out of their way in search of them to commit acts of violence. Here we were in Naples, with so many things to see (within Naples and beyond: Capri, Sorrento, Pompeii, Rome, Mt. Vesuvius, etc.) and yet, these sailors wanted to go out of their way to find the prostitutes that were men pretending to be women and teach them a lesson. That was the essence of what homophobia is about. I wondered what would be accomplished if they did the deed. Would they feel more manly after beating up a transvestite prostitute?

In Ricky Santorum's response to the openly gay soldier's question, he actually said that there is no place for sexual activity in the U.S. military. Instead of causing audience laughter at the ludicrous comment, the audience actually applauded. One of the frustrations I have with conservative church members that I know is that they seem to worship the military. They believe that people who serve in the military are noble and have pure motives. The worship of the military members always offended me, because most enlisted people don't deserve such flattering worship. Why do most people join the military? Its a pretty safe / secure job, has great benefits (free health / dental care and 30 days vacation a year. How many companies offer that to new employees? Even my last job only offered 15 days vacation after five years of employment), and you'll get to travel far and wide at someone else's expense. If you're irresponsible with money and get broke after payday weekend, you don't have to worry about being homeless or starving to death.

When I was in the Navy, I saw a lot of drunken debauchery. Guys going to whorehouses. Guys committing adultery with their shipmates' wives. Even a bunch of guys sitting around in a darkened lounge on board a ship watching a porn movie (I had to walk through the lounge to get to the head to brush my teeth / shower). Guys spending a lot of money on bar girls in the hope of obtaining a blow job. Most enlisted men are in their late teens / early 20s. Sexuality is a natural part of the life of a typical young adult. To expect our military members to be saints is unrealistic. Thus, it was always strange to me that while conservatives speak out / condemn sexuality, they worship the very young men who engage in such conduct. This disconnect was one of many reasons why I have moved further and further away from my natural conservative nature. I live by my own code of conduct, which most people are likely unable to live up to. That's okay, though, because they don't have to live my life and I won't hold others to my moral stance. I just don't like the dishonesty. So, if you are a conservative moralist who says "support the troops" on one hand while condemning co-habitation, sex outside of marriage, adultery, homosexuality, prostitution...well, I think you should open your eyes. You're condemning the very things that many enlisted people engage in. Why should military members be placed on some kind of pedestal, anyway? Just allow them to be human, but also understand that joining the military is not a morally superior decision than going to college or serving in the Peace Corps or any other choice that a young person makes. It is simply one path a young person can make. That does not make them more moral than the rest of us who choose another path.

As for Stephen Hill, his willingness to be open about who he really is shows more courage than anything we've seen from members of the Bush regime or the eight candidates for the Republican nomination for president. It would be a great tragedy, indeed, if the military processed Hill out just because of his sexual orientation. Our country needs people like Hill who are willing to serve, especially since we are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a sign of our evolution as a country that the ban and the compromise ban are now assigned to the dust heap of history.

If my novel gets accepted for publication, I would love to promote it with television, radio and print interviews and bookstore lectures / signings. I would love to share about my experience in the Navy and how my views have changed because of what I personally witnessed. The conservatives who fear that the end of the ban will result in an increase in rapes or homosexual activity need to get real. Sexual misconduct has always been a problem in the military and dealt with by the commands. I see no reason for that to change. It has long been past the time when people finally accept that gay people are simply individuals who happen to be gay. That's not their only identity. It is merely one aspect of their lives. Let us allow each person the full expression of their being and stop obsessing over the most private aspect of their lives.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reminiscing About South Africa

On Wednesday, I attended the Young Professionals discussion group. The discussion moderator has returned after a ten week work experience in South Africa for his Master's Degree. He stayed with a family in Cape Town and worked in one of the townships on the outskirts. Yeah, I was envious of his experience. He's an impressive guy (quite a few years younger than me) who has taught English in China, and has traveled to India, Australia, and Europe. It was great to hear about his experiences in South Africa and is a reminder of how long ago it was that I was there, myself (the photo is of the 22 year old me below the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first African president of South Africa approximately 100 days before).

In 1994, in my final few months in Italy, I decided to go on a trip of a lifetime. I had planned to do one "big trip" during my three years in Europe. I wavered between Moscow / St. Petersburg, Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. However, when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president in May 1994, I knew that I wanted to go and so I did. It was difficult getting permission to go, because I was working at the Palau Community Center during my last year in Italy. One of the conditions for working there (not my choice, anyway) was that we could not take leave. However, when a co-worker was allowed to go on the ship's underway period to Turkey and Israel while the rest of us picked up her workload, I used that as my rationale for why they should allow me to take a week's leave. I wanted to see Israel with the ship, too, but only one person could go, and it was for over a month. I simply asked for a week. My immediate supervisor denied my request. I think he was jealous, though. He was married to a woman with severe drama problems (she always caused problems at work). I felt sorry for him in a way, because he had to be married to such a lady. Of course he would deny my leave! I had complete freedom and he didn't.

However, my leading officer called me to his office on the ship and questioned me on the trip. He seemed impressed that I was interested in traveling so far away for vacation (very few sailors at my command traveled to Africa on leave; most actually went back to the USA to visit family and friends for the full 30 days while few stayed in Europe and traveled the continent). He also seemed impressed that I had researched the trip and had a plan in place (including what I would do if I found myself in trouble, since it was still not considered a stable place in 1994). So, he approved my leave. When I took money out of my account and transferred the dollars into Italian lire, I was a "millionaire" for the only time in my life (the exchange rate was about 1,200 lire for $1). I walked to the Italian travel agency and bought myself a South Africa vacation. Due to the fact that I had to change dates because my sister had come to France to visit the French family I knew and my parents wanted me to visit them, I was willing to give up my vacation to South Africa to see my sister and the French family. However, she got homesick and went home early and I lost my original date when I wanted to travel. I had planned to visit Kruger National Park for three days, to go on a real safari.

In deciding where in South Africa to go, the tour had various options. The cheapest week long trip was Johannesburg. Cape Town was about $500 more. They also offered Durban, but I wanted to go to the South Africa that I had heard so much about. Yes, Cape Town would have been ideal, not to mention gorgeous. Had they offered 3 days in Cape Town and 3 days in Johannesburg, I would have taken that trip. But, I had to choose one or the other. I figured that since the Johannesburg option offered add-on tours of Pretoria, Soweto, Sun City, and a diamond mine, I figured that I would see more on that vacation if I went to Johannesburg than if I had spent the week at Cape Town. Usually, when I visit a location for the first time, I think 3 days is a good number to get to know a city. If I don't like it, I move on to something else. If I like it, I get a taste.

After I bought my South Africa vacation, I became "the talk of the town"! One of the Italian ladies who worked the front desk at the barracks I lived in asked me if I was going to South Africa. When I asked her how she knew, she told me that she overheard someone talking downtown that a young American bought a trip to South Africa and how they were impressed because they thought I was rich! I love that story. Anyhow, the Italian lady at the front desk said that she thought it was probably me because the ladies knew that I was not like the other sailors. I didn't get drunk, I wasn't loud, and I was interested in traveling and other cultures. Man, you can't keep secrets in that small Navy community!

I've written on my blog about my trip to South Africa, so I won't repeat myself. Despite being robbed there, it was still the best vacation I've ever taken. Truly a trip of a lifetime. I wish I could make many trips like that. My ideal life would include one foreign vacation each year and three domestically. A vacation once a quarter! Anywhere from four days to two weeks is good for me.

I find it fascinating that when I traveled to South Africa in 1994, not many Americans had traveled there (there was a boycott during the 1980s, too). Now, quite a few of my friends have been there. Before, it used to be that all of my friends have been to Europe. Now, the new litmus test seems to be South Africa. "Yeah, who hasn't been to Europe? But have you been to South Africa yet?" Its the new measure of friends who are travel compatible. Not to be snobby or anything (I realize that its not that cheap to travel to South Africa, plus the crime rate is still pretty high), but in my last job, I learned that having foreign travel experience was the #1 factor in determining compatibility among co-workers. I did not purposefully seek this information out at first, but when I was trying to figure out what it was that made it difficult to get along with certain types at that office, every single person I had personality differences with had not been outside of the country. The ones who became friends have all traveled to another country.

The discussion moderator informed me about a South African film that was filmed in the township that he had worked in. It's called u-Carmen, which is the South African version of the famous opera, Carmen (the only opera I like). Wow, I had never even heard of it. Now I'm going to have to check it out. I asked him if he got robbed during his time there. He said that he came close once, but he actually didn't. Wow. Good job! He told me that people warned him not to go out at night, even to see a movie. It was simply too dangerous. That's exactly what I was told when I was in South Africa (but I did not listen). It would be difficult to live in a country where you could never go out at night, for fear of being robbed or possibly killed. How spoiled I am! If I could not be out at night in Portland lest I run the risk of being robbed, it would be hard to get to work and home again in the winter months. In a way, this fear of night is a prison sentence. I could not live in such a restrictive environment.

After the discussion group concluded for the evening, I noticed a display at the restaurant about winning a trip to Brazil. Of course I filled out the entry form. I would love to win a contest like that. I'm in serious need of a foreign trip and I truly want to see Rio de Janeiro and hike up to Cristo Redentor. I'd love to win that trip. A cousin of mine is good about winning trips from radio contests. I wish I had her luck!

The video link below is from my favourite film about South Africa: Sarafina! The Sound of Freedom. I consider that funeral song to be one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. Unfortunately, it is not on the soundtrack album. I don't know why. All the other songs are. The eulogy is great, too. "They fear you because you are young! You are the generation that will be free! How powerful you must be..." Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Ideologues Have Taken Control of the GOP

On Facebook, I got into a lengthy debate with a hardcore Herman Cain supporter. Because of Cain's shocking win of a straw poll in Florida over Rick Perry, the political punditry class has been in an upheaval, thinking that this is an indication that Perry's honeymoon is officially over. After three debates, the Republican Party officials who begged the Texas governor to jump into the race are now wondering if perhaps Perry is too extreme to resonate with voters.

I'm actually loving the freak-out going on in the Republican Party. They deserve what they get. After trafficking in lies for the better part of two decades (even more if we go back further), they are now deep in ideological territory. This was inevitable. Ever since Reagan courted the evangelical vote to defeat our first evangelical president, Jimmy Carter, the Republican Party has come to view the conservative / fundamentalist / evangelical Christians as an important voting block. Reagan, a divorced non-church goer, paid mostly lip service to the evangelicals, but they went along and basically aligned themselves with his conservative agenda without any objections, even though his policies had little to do with the values Jesus preached.

Evangelicals were lukewarm about President George Herbert Walker Bush's presidency. Bush was from a mainline, establishment church. Episcopal or Presbyterian, I forget which and I couldn't care less. Southern Baptist Bill Clinton was viewed with outright hostility by the conservative / fundamentalist / evangelical Christians. Many focused on Clinton's moral lapses and sexual "immorality", yet they aligned themselves with the agenda of Newt Gingrich, who had his own adultery / divorce / ethical problems. In 2000, George Walker Bush, the hapless son of the one term president electrified the evangelicals. They saw in him a man who had a wild past (party boy, sex, alcohol, and cocaine) but became born again at age 40. He rejected the church of his parents for the one his wife attended: The United Methodist Church. He spoke the language of evangelicals. For nearly the entirety of his presidency, the evangelicals kept silent about some of his extreme agenda. There was no objection by the evangelical right when he went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, when he pushed through the USA PATRIOT Act, when the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib was revealed, when the tax cuts basically obliterated the Clinton surplus and essentially transferred wealth from the middle class to the wealthy class, when there was a debate about the use of torture (notably, water boarding), when he was slow to act in preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina. All of these were moral issues, where any serious student of theology would be able to recognize that Jesus would come down on the different side of Bush's policies.

What did the evangelicals speak out against regarding Bush? Why, it was when he wanted to pick his secretary to be his first choice for the U.S. Supreme Court. In what was one of the most absurd comments he ever made as president, Bush claimed to guarantee that Harriet Miers would not change her views when she became Supreme Court Justice. How can anyone guarantee that another person will not change their views? That was odd. Did he have some kind of magic power over her? She did seem like she was in love with him, while he probably joked to his buddies that she was a school marm. It was one of the few things that I actually agreed with evangelicals on regarding a Bush policy. At least they put the brakes on something, rather than give him a full blank check for eight years.

However, the Bush years have caused a major problem that does not seem to be going away any time soon. Its the rabid ideology of the right wing. They are restless and angry. They hate our current president and want him to fail (even after accusing liberals of wanting Bush to fail). This obsession with ideological purity is a fatal disease. I've seen it afflict people on the left (particularly those who are Dennis Kucinich or Ralph Nader or Cynthia McKinney supporters). Its a danger because of the blindness. There's a quote that I love that goes something like this: "Don't let perfection become the enemy of the good." What that means is that being obsessed with all or nothing approach to anything will leave you with NOTHING. During the Health Care Reform debate of a couple years ago, there was a rallying cry among some liberals that I agree with: "Pass it now, fix it later!"

I know quite a few conservative-minded people who seem to think politicians should be saints. These people aren't perfect, but they seem to expect politicians to be perfect. So they put inhuman conditions on politicians, which ultimately means they will be disappointed. It is hypocritical to put other people on impossibly high standards that they might not even agree with. Since childhood, I've had the policy of holding other people to the standards that they've set for themselves. What this means is that one friend of mine believed that co-habitation was immoral / wrong, and got mad when I pointed it out to him when he did exactly that. Another friend of mine did not believe cohabitation was immoral / wrong, so I did not say anything about it (I don't believe cohabitation is wrong, either). So, if you tell me that you live by a certain standard, I would not be a good friend if I did not remind you of it when I see you violating it. And in all fairness, I hold myself to a much higher standard than I hold others.

So, it is with great amusement that I watch the Republicans fall all over themselves about being disappointed with every single candidate. We saw traces of this in 2008, when there were a dozen crusty old white men vying to be Bush's replacement. The evangelical / social conservatives could not agree on the candidate, thus John McCain won be default. I believe the same scenario will happen in 2012. For lack of a better candidate, Romney will get the honours. He ran before and the Republican Party has a history of handing the nomination to the candidate who has run before. Romney is a far more impressive candidate this time around than he was in 2008. The crazier the rest of the field looks, the more reasonable Romney appears!

The Cain supporter on Facebook that I have been debating comes across to me as one of the rabid ideologues who has zero ability to reason. He truly believes that the Republican Party will nominate Herman Cain in 2012. Knowing the Republican Party's race-baiting history and their "Southern Strategy" plan that began with Nixon's run for the White House in 1968, I think it is the safest bet you can make that THERE IS NO WAY IN HELL that the Republicans are going to allow a black man to lead their party in a run for the White House. Cain is nothing more than a tool, just like former RNC Chair Michael Steele.

As I tried to point out to the Cain supporter, when Cain had run for the U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, he could not even win the primary. If Georgians did not want him as a Senator, why should the rest of the country want him for president? Why didn't Georgians want him? Well, having lived in the state off and on between 1988 and 2006, the political parties came down to racial lines. However, the Democrats have more progressive / liberal whites than the Republican Party has conservative African Americans. If you meet a redneck in Georgia, you can safely assume that they would be a Republican.

One of the ironies about the Teabaggers is that one of their complaints about President Obama is that he lacks experience. Yet, many teabaggers seem to like Herman Cain and he has ZERO experience! Does that makes sense? If you are going to criticize a president for not having enough government experience to lead the country, why would you support a candidate who has no experience in government? This is the "logic" of a teabagger. Again, a symptom of rabid ideology. Logic is usually the first do go when you catch the fatal disease known as ideology.

Cain is best known for being the CEO of Godfather's Pizza, which I was not aware that there were any in Georgia. I remember eating at that pizza chain in the mid-1980s in Omaha, Nebraska. I used to like eating there, though I liked Pizza Hut the best. As far as pizza chains go, Godfather's Pizza is not even among the top 3 (Pizza Hut, Papa John's, and Dominoes). Let's not forget Little Caesar's, Papa Murphy's, CiCi's, Roundtable, and others. Does being a CEO of some third rate pizza chain translate into the kind of leadership we need in the White House?

In the debates I've seen, I have not been impressed with Cain's responses. In one, I remember him telling the moderator that he's still learning the issues, so he is unable to give a detailed answer that might satisfy the question. Really? He should have spent 2009 and 2010 preparing by learning the issues. Some of his more memorable proposals are short memos / bills, the 999 plan (I forget what it means, but 999 is an upside down 666 and evangelicals should be concerned that he's proposing "the mark of the beast"), his claim that America is threatened by sharia law being imposed by the courts, and that he would not hire a Muslim to serve in his cabinet. Yikes!

As I learned in my dialogue with the die-hard Cain supporter, there is no amount of facts that you can cite to convince them of their folly. They are ideological and blind to reason. God help our country if these people win another election for their chosen candidate.

On Facebook, I made a list of the Republican candidates from "tolerable" to "absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances." Here's that list:

1. Mitt Romney (for all his flaws, he is still a moderate and not an ideologue)
2. Jon Huntsman (another reasonable Mormon with experience as a governor)
3. Ron Paul (I agree with his foreign policy views but not his domestic policies)
4. Rick Perry (this is where the "unacceptable" part of the equation begins)
5. Ricky Santorum
6. Herman Cain
7. Michele Bachmann (a scary ideologue, basically America's Magda Goebbels)
8. Newt Gingrich (that's right: dead last because he is the most amoral, hypocritical, sanctimonious piece of shit who ever slithered out of the depths of the pond scum).

The unhappiness of the Republicans over the current lineup has now led to calls for Governor Chris Christie to jump into the race, even though he keeps saying that he's not interested. Even if he is enticed to jump into the race, he will eventually disappoint his backers because it is very difficult for any human being to live up to the demands of the rabid rightwing. As comedian Jon Stewart pointed out in his show, the conservatives claim to be "pro-life" yet they cheered Perry's death penalty record and they wanted the hypothetical man in a coma with no health insurance to die, and they claim to support the military, but they boo'd a gay servicemember (who is currently serving in Iraq which shows more courage than all the chickenhawks in the Bush administration ever displayed). When people are so blinded by ideology that they can't even see where they are inconsistent, how can any candidate appeal to that? Even Jesus would be crucified by this crowd of rabid ideologues!

The lineup, though, appears to be set because deadlines are fast approaching for candidates to have their names appear on the ballots in the early primary states. It looks unlikely that Sarah Palin is going to jump into the race. The latest book about her has been making news headlines about her supposed cocaine use and that she had sex with an African American basketball player. As much as I don't support her at all, I believe the allegations are salacious and doubtful. I just can't believe that she snorted cocaine or had sex with a black man (I've read articles about her supposed racism, including one in which her father said that the reason why she left the University of Hawaii was because she felt uncomfortable with so many Asian and Polynesian students. She transferred to one of the whitest places in the country: Moscow, Idaho to attend the University of Idaho). It'll be a shame if she does not run. I'd love to see how she handles the debate, since we've only seen her in one debate in which she had told the moderator Gwen Ifill that she would not answer her questions but speak directly to the American people. I want to see more crazy in these Republican debates. Laughter is good for the soul. However, I also weep for our country if any of these clowns end up in the White House. There is only one Republican I care to see as president, and that person is Senator Scott Brown (the most likable Republican ever!).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Proof of America's Short Term Memory

In the news recently, there has been talk about a "buyer's remorse" among Democrats regarding President Barack Obama. This was brought on by a recent poll, which showed that Hillary Clinton is the most popular politician in America these days. Because of the close and long-fought Democratic primary in 2008 between the two historic candidates, it was inevitable that the supporters of the losing candidate would say, "I told you so!" at some point in the winning candidate's presidency. However, doing so is ridiculous because all it proves is that Hillary supporters are suffering from mass amnesia.

First, the polling data. Its pretty consistent with polling data from different administrations. Americans are notoriously ignorant of the world beyond our borders and most Americans don't pay attention to foreign policy. Of course the Secretary of State is going to have good approval ratings. There's a sense of deference as well as respect for the office of America's top ambassador to the rest of the world. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also enjoyed the highest approval ratings in the Bush Administration. Hillary's popularity, however, also runs deep among foreigners, as she is viewed as a rock star to young girls all over the planet.

For those who really believe that Hillary's high approval ratings reflect how she would be as president, let's refresh our memories, shall we? Let's turn the clock back to the 1990s, okay? Remember how hated she was? From the campaign trail to her Health Care Reform fiasco. She had high negatives and many of her critics compared her to a Shrew or Lady Macbeth. Jokes were told about her being the true president (not Bill). She was accused of being a lesbian, a conspirator, and even a murderer (of Vince Foster, who had committed suicide, which even prosecutor Ken Starr had determined in his hundred million dollar investigation into every nook and cranny of the Clintons' personal lives).

In 2008, voters weren't just feeling "Bush fatigue", there was also the argument that if Hillary became president, our country would be ruled by two political families for 24 years (Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton from 1989 to 2013 or 2017). That's an entire generation and more fitting a dynasty than a democracy. I'm certain that the "Bush-Clinton fatigue" played at least a small part in the desire for a fresh face in the White House.

Hillary was vilified in the 1990s. It was some of the most vicious speculation and commentary that I've ever seen regarding a First Lady. She was far more controversial than the Dragon Lady herself, Nancy Reagan. After Clinton's reelection in 1996, Hillary reverted to a more traditional role as First Lady. She did more foreign trips and built up relationships that way. Then, when Clinton's sex scandal became the obsession of our national media for the entire year 1998, sympathy for Hillary increased. The unanswered question is, if not for the Lewinsky scandal, would Hillary have even had a chance at the open New York Senate seat? We'll never know that alternative history.

If she became our president, instead of Obama, you can most certainly bet that the rightwing would be as vicious towards her as they have been towards Obama. Ever since the days of Nixon, there is a large faction of Republicans who will not accept a Democratic president at all. They will do everything in their power and influence to character assassinate the Democratic president. Jimmy Carter was undone by the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shocks and stagflation of the late 1970s. Bill Clinton's personal moral standards set him up for a devastating fall, as Republicans spent more than a hundred million dollars to find the silver bullet to destroy his presidency. They had to settle for a legal disposition in which Clinton had lied about having any sexual relationships with an intern, which became the basis for the un-Constitutional impeachment charges and trial. This had little to do with justice and more to do with revenge for Nixon being hounded out of office. And even though their beloved George W. Bush had so devastated the country with his ruinous policies, the rabid rightwing still has to demonize the Democratic president Barack Obama, calling him a fascist / communist / socialist, accusing him of "palling around with terrorists" and wanting to kill grannies and handicapped kids with "death panels", of being a foreigner or even, a secret Al Qaeda agent to bring down the country. Signs showing Obama in white face revealed the true ugliness of the opposition. The extremities of their complaints about him are so beyond the norms. The hyperbole of the critiques have little correlation to real life. In actuality, Obama is governing as a competent Republican. Which reminds me of a joke I hear in Democratic circles: "If you want a competent Republican as president, vote Democratic!"

So, let's get real here and be honest about what we know. If Hillary Clinton had been our president these past few years, she would be every bit as scrutinized as Obama has been. She would be just as unpopular among Republicans. She would face the same hostile, opposition Congress. Why? Because the rightwing truly hated the Clintons. Perhaps another hundred million dollar investigation would be unleashed to look into every facet of their private lives again. Also, as the first woman president, Hillary would face harsh scrutiny. Standard bearers always do. Thus why Obama is having a rough patch. Someone I can't remember wrote an editorial that said he believed that Obama would only be appreciated as president long after he has moved beyond the White House. Obama is trying to change the culture by being an example, first. However, his lofty view of politics (he obviously really believes what he had said at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in the speech that made his career) might not be what our country needs right now. We need a fighter, not a unifier (especially when the opposition will always view him as an enemy). On that point, I will concede that Hillary Clinton would have been a better fighter for Democratic interests.

The pointless speculation is a waste of time, though. I don't remember hearing much talk in the media about wishing that Gore or McCain had been president instead of Bush. I think it is safe to assume that either of those men (or Bradley, too) would have been far superior as a leader than Bush turned out to be. All this wishful thinking, though, doesn't change the fact that we live in the current reality where President Barack Obama is our leader. If you don't support his presidency, we have a whole host of rightwing extremists wanting to assume leadership of our country. Bill Clinton was correct when he pointed out that Dick Cheney's recent commentary that Hillary should run in 2012 is nothing more than cynicism and an attempt to divide the Democratic Party so that the Republicans can return to power. So, Democrats, stop your sniveling and get on board. I don't want to endure another Republican presidency. Well, at least not until Senator Scott Brown runs in 2016.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Music Video Monday: Alex Boye

In honour of my one year anniversary in freedom from the most dysfunctional office environment I've ever witnessed, and my nine years working for a hypocritical organization, this week's music video is "Born to Be a Scout", which is the theme song from the awful movie, Scout Camp. Yes, working for that organization is as annoying as this song. It's a catchy song, but give a few listens and it just grates on you (reminiscent of the classically annoying "Who Let the Dogs Out?").

I have nothing further to add about this organization. Enjoy the video and hopefully, the trial against the local office will drain the finances of this organization. Consider it karmic payback for being hypocritical and dishonest about what they claim to be about (its not "family values"). The successful lawsuit in 2010 has already caused a few people I know to not want to continue volunteering after their sons earned the coveted rank, nor do they want to donate any money. Knowing what I know about their shady financing, I would not donate a penny. All you're doing is paying for salaries and some of the managers are overpaid. They wouldn't think so, because they claim that they could make more money working for a corporation. The question is: well, why don't they, then? I've seen some of them at work and I doubt they'd be able to hack a corporate job.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Flashback Friday: "The Rising" by Bruce Springsteen

Today is Bruce Springsteen's 62nd birthday. I don't think I did a post for his 60th birthday in 2009, so I'm doing it now. I can't believe that he was born the same year as my dad. The reason it is hard to believe, I guess, is because when Springsteen hit it big in 1984 with his Born in the USA album, it was the first I had ever heard of him and he looked young and pretty fit. I did not pay attention to people's ages back then. If they were adults, then it did not matter if they were 25 or 50. They were "old"!! It has only been since I lived through each decade where I started paying attention to age, especially since I'm approaching 40 and wondering if I'll ever find a lady to marry. When my dad turned 40, I was in the 11th grade!!! I'm so behind the times.

Pictured above is Bruce Springsteen in his 30s when he was a bandanna'd muscleman and rockin' stadiums all over the country in 1985. He was my favourite male singer at the time (Huey Lewis and the News was my favourite band and Tina Turner was my favourite female singer in 1985). The Born in the USA album was an instant classic and certainly one of the best I had heard at the time (it still ranks in my Top Ten Favourite Albums of All Time). I remember idolizing him at the time and wanting to be like him when I grew up. An episode of Growing Pains rang true with me, as well. It was the episode when Mike Seaver (played by Kirk Cameron, who is a full time Evangelical Christian now, hawking his faith like a telemarketer) and his father went to a Springsteen concert and his father had embarrassed him on camera (when a local news crew had interviewed them for their "News at 11" segment). Springsteen was one of the few groups from the 80s that my dad and I both liked (my dad was not into most 80s pop like I was, though my mom shared similar interests as me in regards to music).

We would play that album in the car on road trips and I remember my dad saying that no matter how many albums Springsteen makes in the future, he would never create a masterpiece like Born in the USA. Subsequent albums did prove disappointing. I blame his marriage to some actress (I forget her name now) for mellowing him out with 1987's Tunnel of Love. He released two albums in 1992: Human Touch and Lucky Town. I only bought Human Touch, which had some good songs on it but did not come close to the brilliance of Born in the USA. He released a few acoustic and folk albums, which I'm not a fan of. Basically, if the E Street Band wasn't included, I was not interested. Though I don't remember hearing "Born to Run" in the 1970s (I did not pay attention to music until songs from Grease and Saturday Night Fever played all over the radio), I fell in love with that song in the 1980s. In the 1990s, I made that song my "invocation" every time I went on a road trip. No road trip was complete if that song did not play! It is simply the greatest road trip song of all time! As the years rolled by, I began to think that it was probably true. There was no way that The Boss would ever match the brilliance of his biggest selling album, which helped defined an era (it was the perfect Reagan era album, though the title song was not the jingoistic patriotic anthem that many thought it was). There was no way, until...

The Rising. This was released in 2002 and considered "the 9/11 Album." I consider this to be the complete equal to Born in the USA. Not only were all the songs catchy in their melodies, but the lyrics were quite profound and the album is one that has to be listened to in its entirety. By some brilliant creative genius, Springsteen managed to capture the complex feelings surrounding the events of 9/11. Love and loss. Fear of foreigners. Reaching out to people. Trying to understand. Grieving. Finding love. Having faith. Maintaining hope. It is quite simply, an amazing album and perhaps in many ways, better than Born in the USA, though that 80s classic is iconic now so it will always rank high, in my opinion.

The strange thing about this album for me is that it was released when I went on my road trip to Boston and New York City with a good friend of mine from church. I had read an article in either Newsweek or Time about it and was excited to buy it when I returned from my trip. Yet, everytime I listen to it, my memories of that road trip are attached. I can't separate the images I saw on that road trip with the songs, even though I did not hear the album until after I had returned home. On that road trip, I listened to other music, but I can't remember what. Funny how memory can play tricks on you regarding the timeline.

The first song is "Lonesome Day" which is simply a great song. I believe it was released as a single. It really spoke to me, about learning to live through lonesome days, which every human has probably experienced at one time or another. The song "Into the Fire" seems inspired by the firefighters who went into the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the plane crashes. However, the song alludes to something more, too. Its a beautiful song with an awesome chorus ("May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love bring us love...").

"Waiting on a Sunny Day" is a perfect song for Portland. This song also has a great melody. "Nothing Man" is another song that seems to allude to 9/11, though its hard to tell the meaning of what he's saying. It sounds like someone who was a big shot in high school whose life didn't amount to much, so he spends his nights in the local bar with the same crowd, even after his name appears in the local paper. "Countin' On a Miracle" is not about religion, but about finding a love that's not like the one fairy tales present. "Empty Sky" is another song that seems inspired by 9/11. Some lyrics include: "Blood on the streets / blood flowin' down / I hear the blood of my blood / cryin' from the ground..."

I really love the song "Worlds Apart." He uses some Middle Eastern rhythms in this song, giving it a trace of foreign sounds. Kind of reminiscent of Sting's "Desert Rose." In this song, Springsteen even makes a reference to Allah ("'Neath Allah's blessed rain, we remain worlds apart"). My favourite song on this album, though, is "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)." It has what Arsenio Hall would call "a nasty funk that makes you want to get down with your lady." The melody, lyrics and message is absolutely brilliant. "Further On (Up the Road)" and "The Fuse" seem to allude to the state of America in the aftermath of 9/11. Fear. Acting out. Not knowing who to trust.

"Mary's Place" is another favourite among favourites. This song hits the right note from the start, referencing Buddha. I'd love to meet at Mary's Place and have a party! "You're Missing" is about losing a loved one and not knowing where they are, and trying to deal with life when all you think about is the missing loved one. Definite 9/11 reference. "The Rising" is a song that Obama had used during his campaign. I don't know if it was his official campaign song, but he did play it at several rallies that I attended. It's appropriate, at least at the time when we supporters thought he would change the ways of Washington, before he lost his way. This song is full of promise, of a rebirth, of hope for a better future. Great song! The song "Paradise" is about living through the routines and hoping for a better place, a paradise.

The final song is "My City of Ruins", which Springsteen had performed during the special telecast in the aftermath of 9/11, when Hollywood celebrities manned the phones to talk to donors, and various people sang. The song was perfect for what happened in New York City on that beautiful September morning that turned into a nightmare. I learned later that he had written that song about his hometown, seeing it decimated as many small towns across America due to the lack of jobs and the move to cities and suburbs where the jobs are. Despite his original genesis for this song, the lyrics fit the events of 9/11, so it appears almost prophetic. The song is close to being a hymn.

This album is simply brilliant and a classic. When I rated the Ten Best Albums of the 2000s Decade in a blog post in December 2009, I rated this album at #2, just behind U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind. Each year on 9/11, I have to listen to it for sure, even though I still associate it with my road trip in 2002 (I did see Ground Zero on that trip). I don't own most albums that Springsteen put out, because his music ranges quite a bit and I'm not a fan of the mellow, Dylanesque folk music (such as his Ghost of Tom Joad album). I have bought his Magic and Working On a Dream albums. They are both good, but still don't reach the absolute brilliance of The Rising or Born in the USA. If you want only the best of Bruce Springsteen, I would get the following albums: Born to Run, Born in the USA, The Rising, Human Touch, Greatest Hits (because it features the song "Murder Incorporated" which he had played in concerts but never recorded on an album until one overzealous fan apparently attended concert after concert, and demanded that Springsteen record it), The Essential Bruce Springsteen (a three-CD set that includes some rare tracks, including one about the shooting of Amadou Diallo: "American Skin (41 Shots)"), Magic, and Working On a Dream.

The above is the album cover of his iconic Born in the USA. Even the cover photo design is classic. When I first saw it, I thought it was weird. Who wants to look at his butt? Apparently, quite a few ladies don't seem to mind. It is amazing how an image can be forever associated with an album. In some future "Fun Friday" post, I should do a Top Ten list of the Best Album Covers of All Time or something like that. Not sure this one would make the cut, though. However, it is memorable. If you walked into a record store and saw it at a distance, you would know exactly what album it was. When I was a teenager and dreaming about being a rock star (yeah, I actually had those dreams!), I planned to have an album titled: Made in Taiwan and the tour would have a journey theme to it. What an idea. The concept behind the song and album Made in Taiwan would be that not everything that came from Taiwan was cheap, plastic junk, because I was actually "made" in Taiwan (my dad was stationed there with the U.S. Air Force and I was born there and missed being born in Florida by a few months). Its probably a good thing that I can't sing!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Now Republicans Boo the Military?

The Republican Party is definitely in a strange universe. The latest "reveal" got some attention. The latest debate follows the previous two. The audience is vocal and restless. Whatever the Bush / Cheney years did, the GOP of 2000 when Bush went around calling himself a "compassion conservative" no longer exists. It is now a party of mean people who are open about their hate. Perhaps this is the legacy of Cheney, because he never pretended to be a cuddly teddy bear. To tell the truth, I never bought into Bush's "compassionate conservatism" because during the 2000 election cycle, he was the governor who had executed the most prisoners during his tenure (he was somewhere above 120). And when he was asked about Karla Faye Tucker, he mocked her plea for clemency (which a truly compassionate person would not do). Now, Governor Rick Perry (who assumed the governorship after Bush became president) holds the record at 235, if I'm not mistaken (last week, the guy who drove the truck that pulled a black man tied to a rope, was electrocuted).

I had no idea that there was another debate. I did not even get to watch the last one yet (the one where some in the audience yelled out a "yeah!" regarding allowing a man in coma who lacked health insurance to die). Why are they scheduling a debate a week? The primaries are still months away, and despite the states holding the early primaries wanting to host a debate, we live in a national society where everyone who is interested can catch the debate on TV or through the Internet. Do they really discuss anything different from debate to debate? It seems more designed to catch gaffes in which to fill a week's worth of political pundits time. The chattering class have to earn their pay, I guess.

Earlier this evening, I was attending a special class at a nearby Presbyterian church (the same one that held the series on Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth earlier this year). It was an informative class on how to look at Christianity and the Bible in modern times. I'll devote a blog post to that later. Had I not had the class, though, I would likely have watched the debate if it was available online. When I got home and checked Facebook, I noticed that someone had posted a clip from the debate. Now, it's Ricky Santorum's moment in the spotlight!

The Fox Propaganda Network played a video from a soldier serving in Iraq at this moment. The shock for any conservative I imagine is that the muscular soldier is GAY! I can imagine Pastor Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill Church in Seattle freaking out, because in his mind, gay men are wimpy sissies that he would like to beat up so he can feel more manly. Well, this soldier was not afraid to show his face, because the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy officially became history this week. Even the Fox network babe mentioned that they had planned to disguise his face until he gave them the authorization to air his question unedited.

His question was about if the new non-discrimination policy would remain in place if a Republican becomes the next president. Santorum then said something completely ridiculous (surprise, surprise!). He said that sexuality has no place in the military. Uh, really?!? Seriously! Are you freaking kidding me?!? We are talking about an organization that appeals to a certain demographic. The majority of recruits are teenage males, many of whom are either jock-types or conservative, with an almost fanatical need to prove one's manhood. It is no organization for wimps.

Teenage and twentysomething males are not known to be well behaved, chaste monks. When I was in the Navy in the early 1990s, there was definitely peer pressure to join the guys on an outing to a brothel, or to the bars where bar girls hint at possible sex if you buy enough drinks. Where I lived in Italy, I saw enough marriages break apart because of infidelity (sailors sleeping with their shipmates' wives). I've seen people go to Captain's Mast for sexual harassment, fraternization, and inappropriate sexual relations. The military disciplines people for violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. On a ship, for example, any sexual activity is a violation and subject to punishment. There is no need to change things.

It is interesting that conservative-minded people automatically equate homosexuality with sexual activity. I was in the Navy when President Clinton stated that he wanted to lift the ban. I heard the comments people made. It amused me that some guys were afraid that if the military allowed gay people to serve openly, that some gay sailor will climb into their racks at night and rape them. Or that if they drop the soap in the communal shower, a gay servicemember will see his opportunity. Do guys want to have sex with every woman they see? Obviously not, as there were some ladies on the second ship I served on (the USS SIMON LAKE, in which 30% of the crew were female) whom no guy showed much interest in.

Santorum's answer was an embarrassment. He proved how ignorant he was by his stupid answer. He might as well end his campaign right now. It's not like the cheering audience will vote for him based on his answer on this particular question. Anyone who never heard of him until now, they will have a shocking surprise if they Google search his last name (try it! Google: "Santorum" and read the first link that comes up. You'll never look at him the same way again!). Santorum's best known statement was when he compared homosexuality to "man on dog" sex. To me, this says a lot about his mindset. He can't understand that one is about an orientation or attraction to the same gender and desiring an intimate relationship with another human being, the other is about bestiality in which the animal is at the mercy of the human. If he (or others) can't understand the difference between the two, then there really is no hope for them. That level of ignorance is beyond redemption.

I do find it interesting, though, that homosexuality is an obsession with the Republican right. Based on some elementary psychology, I don't think it is wrong to wonder what Santorum's fascination with the topic is. Does he harbor secret fantasies? Rick Perry tries to come off as a macho cowboy, making Bush look like an amateur, but he is rumoured to have had an affair with another man. If that allegation is true (it might not be, though, because it has Karl Rove's dirty tricks fingerprints all over it, and the Bush family does not like Rick Perry, apparently, so who knows?), I really hope it comes out in the next few months. It will make the Republican primaries so much more spectacular (nothing like watching this destructive political party completely self-destruct before the eyes of the world). And then there's Michele Bachmann's husband, who has a gay-conversion therapy as part of his practice. That bit of info reminds me of the old Hair Growth Club commercials. You know, where the guy says, "I'm not just the president, I'm also a client." So, does Marcus Bachmann's interest in helping gay people "pray away the gay" stem from a deeper source? If there is anything in his past, I hope that comes out too. Such revelation would make the fallout of the Mark Foley and Ted Haggard scandals in 2006 look like child's play.

Should one feel "schadenfreude" at the potential destruction of the Republican Party? Well, I think this party has planted enough bad karma for itself that the bill is most definitely due. I would love to see it reap the whirlwind that it put out. Their hatred of all minorities and pretty much anyone who is not rich means that they are bad news for America in the 21st century.

Don't be fooled by Santorum's belief that there is no sexuality in the military. The military reflects the horomonal angst of the typical 18 year old male. The desire to prove one's maleness to peers and family is a fact of life. And as long as there are women out there who make a living fleecing money out of the pockets of young sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines with hints of potential sex, there will always be sex going on somewhere. The military's job is to ensure that the sex lives of its members do not interfere with unit cohesion. This means enforcing the UCMJ regarding no sexual activity on ships, in barracks, or office spaces. If two gay servicemembers want to have sex, they can do what everyone else does: rent a room at a budget motel or get their own apartment.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Take a Journey to "Higher Ground"

On Tuesday evening, I went to see the movie Higher Ground with the Movies and Meaning Meet-up group that I am part of. I had suggested this film to the facilitator. Its not one that I would have made a point to see on my own, but because the movie watching group includes a discussion at a restaurant afterwards, I figured that this was the kind of movie best seen with others and to discuss when impressions are fresh in our minds.

All I knew about the movie going in was that this is actress Vera Farmiga's personal project. She directed it and stars in it. The movie is based on a memoir called This Dark World. It's about a woman who joins a fundamentalist church and eventually struggles with it. That's all I knew going in. The movie appears to be set in the 70s for the most part. What I loved about the movie was seeing a large chunk of lifetime. You really come to feel like you know the main characters. The audience gets to see Corinne as a young girl, her first introduction to church (and "being saved"), her first crush and first love, and onward into adulthood.

A scary accident occurs which eventually gets Corinne to join the church that her husband had been a part of. The scenes of the church services does not clue the audience in to what kind of church it is. I was familiar with the hymns and how church members interact with one another. I did not see any evidence of "fundamentalism", though people were dressed in awful 70s clothes, which was likely the decade it took place in. Then there are a little hints, such as one lady taking Corinne aside to tell her that the comments she made in church "came very close to preaching" and that men do not want to be preached to by a woman. Oh-kay. Now that's a foreign concept to me.

It's difficult to write what this movie is about, because while watching it, I felt a lot of emotions and in the end, it was ultimately a shared journey with Corinne in her life with her husband, children, family, and fellow church members. As I watched, I could see the appeal of the church. They are a close knit group that seems to do everything together. Though the church is conservative in regards to women (which most churches were back in the 1970s), I did not hear a lot of the kind of "hellfire and damnation" sermons during the church scenes, as I have in actuality when I've attended evangelical churches.

Because the church portrayed in this film is not the extreme variety, it is easy to understand the hesitation Corinne feels about leaving. While nothing really major seems to drive her away, it appeared to be more a series of little things that finally added up to where she could no longer ignore it. In the church, she has a close friendship with one lady who is very free spirited compared to the other ladies in the church. When something happens that changes the nature of their friendship, it leads to her scrutinizing what she experiences a little bit more. In one argument with her husband, she made a reference to Dr. Seuss and when he did not get the reference, she claimed that was one of the problems she had with him. He lived, slept, drunk Jesus 24/7 and seemed incapable of talking about anything else. Yeah, I know people like that. Very difficult to talk with single-track minded people who are OCD for the Lord!

When the film finished, I was stunned by the experience. Vera Farmiga definitely got the spirituality right. It hit all the right notes. I have a complicated "relationship" with religion, myself. My personal experiences don't seem to match most members of the church I belong to. Though I love the Community of Christ, I often feel like an outsider and sometimes even "unwelcome" because others don't know how to think of me. My views are probably so odd to other people. It doesn't help when I'm casual and open about my beliefs. I imagine that it could be unsettling for other people whose beliefs fall within the norms of Christianity. I'm sure my New Age spiritualism does not sit well with some people, and I know for certain that one lady had complained to me about it. But what can I do? I believe in being honest about what I believe and I believe that I have to interpret my own experiences as accurately as possible. When one's personal spiritual experience does not fall within "the norm" of Christian traditions, what can you do? Its a good thing that the Community of Christ does not excommunicate or disfellowship members for not believing the same thing.

This movie has made a fan out of me regarding Vera Farmiga. I first noticed her a couple years ago in the excellent film Up In the Air. I thought she had an interesting look to her. Then I loved her in Source Code. Now, her directoral debut and it is a home run. She's 3 for 3. I'll have to see what other films she has made and check those out. One thing that surprised me about Higher Ground is that there were quite a few laugh out loud moments that I did not expect. In this movie, you do get the sacred...and the profane.

The discussion was educational. It was interesting to hear everyone else's impressions of the film and how they relate to it from their own spiritual experiences and worldview. We're all progressive Christians, though different denominations. I'm the youngest person who attends. Unfortunately, the mystery lady I had met at last month's movie outing did not come. I was bummed, because I wanted to continue our conversation from the last time. She was the one who had asked if we had met before, because I looked familiar to her. I forgot to email her, asking if she wanted to go out for coffee and a discussion and thought she might come to the next month's movie outing. Now that she hadn't, I feel like I dropped the ball on this one.

I'm looking forward to October's movie outing. It's likely to be The Way, starring Martin Sheen and directed by Emilio Estevez about one man's pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago in Spain. With the group facilitator having returned on his 10 week pedal pilgrimage through eight western states today, I'm sure that he might be interested in a movie about a spiritual pilgrimage. I'll probably never hike even a portion of El Camino, but I know someone who has and I think this movie will help me understand more of what its about. Hopefully its an actual movie and not a documentary, though. I'm curious to see how they can have a story / plot about this famous hiking trail.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Action versus Belief (and Intelligence, too!)

According to Wikipedia, on this day in 1967, L. Ron Hubbard revealed the fantastical origins tale in his Scientology ponzi scheme. He unleashed on his unsuspecting followers the sci-fi tale of Xenu, the evil galactic warlord who ruled the galaxy 75 million years ago and committed massive acts of genocide by wiping out a species that he placed in volcanoes all over planet earth and detonated nuclear bombs. Because of this, every human being born on earth is "infected" by these "thetans" and thus need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to rid ourselves of these pesky invisible parasites through Hubbard's "auditing" process.

In honour of "Xenu Day", I decided this would be a great day to write about recent debates on the Community of Christ Facebook wall. I started posting comments a few weeks ago when I noticed that someone had asked about reincarnation. I was stunned. To know that a fellow church member is interested in a topic like reincarnation really made me excited. Most people I know are not interested in it at all, so I have no one to really talk to about it. I've read as many as 35 books on the topic, so I feel like I have a good understanding of how the process might actually work. We can never be 100% certain about anything dealing with spirituality, though, so for those who require absolute proof before they believe something, well, there's no point in arguing that with me.

As soon as I started posting, there was a lady who posted some nasty comments. I recognized her type. A decade ago, I had posted on the Community of Christ webboard and dealt with such types before, so I knew all the old arguments and the way they view things. No change. As I learned from various posts, this lady is an "ultra-conservative" member of the church (possibly borderline "Restorationist") and she said something as outlandish as her desire to see the church demand that all members believe that the Book of Mormon is literally true. I tried to explain to her that our church does not operate that way. Historically, it has not. Why start now? Though she believes in her heart that she holds fast to the way the church was in the past (and how the current church keeps moving further and further away from God), her understanding of church history is pretty limited. But, as I understand the mind of conservatives, her comments does show consistency with the way conservatives generally think. Which is, the obsession about the mythological "purity of the past." Why is it that conservative people always idealize the past or some mythological "Golden Age"? They ignore history and create some fictional world or organization that does not reflect reality. She really should see Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris, which is the best film I've seen regarding the topic of nostalgia and having a strong preference over a past era than the current one.

This ultra-conservative woman had shown in several posts that she would enforce a conformity of belief on members, which happen to coincide with what she believes! How convenient. That's another thing that irks me about conservatives: the insistence on conformity. They allow no diversity of views, if they could have their way. Only one acceptable set of beliefs for everyone to agree on. Perhaps this is their way of easing doubts in their mind, but it is not the way of history and human nature. People disagree on any number of issues because our life experience, personality, and ways of seeing the world are different.

What I tried to explain to this woman regarding our church history is this: Since the final years of founding prophet Joseph Smith, Jr.'s life in Nauvoo, Illinois, there were a group of dissenters who did not like his revelations regarding baptisms for the dead, eternal marriage, plural marriage, and temple rites that were ripped off from the Masons. When he was assassinated and the Latter Day Saints movement faced a succession crisis, Apostle Brigham Young assumed the leadership and led the largest contingent of members out west to settle the lands that became Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. Those who remained behind included the martyred prophet's wife and children. Emma Smith hated Brigham Young and did not trust him at all. Instead, she helped preserve what she felt was her husband's true legacy and with the dissenters, this eventually became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which changed the name to Community of Christ in 2001 to reflect an evolutionary return to the "Church of Christ" roots that began in 1830). Under the lengthy leadership of Joseph Smith III, the small church had at the core a healthy respect for dissent and disagreement among members. It became what is known as a "non-creedal" church, meaning that members who join aren't required to confess or profess to believe any doctrine. There is room for doubt and disagreement. It was the fellowship and the dream of a common purpose (that the Kingdom of Zion will be established on earth someday) that mattered more.

So, whenever a conservative member of the church wants to demand conformity of belief or to expel members for not believing the same way, I just have to laugh because they are showing their complete ignorance about the history of the church. It was formed by people who saw things going on in Nauvoo that they disagreed with and when they voiced their disagreements, they were cast out. This was not in keeping with the inclusive nature of Jesus, so I am grateful that the founders of the reorganization made sure that dissent was a founding characteristic of our little faith movement. This is our heritage and legacy, born out of the painful experiences in Nauvoo. The ability of a member to voice objection to those in leadership who may be abusing their power or role is critical in maintaining a healthy church that does not veer off into strange and secretive doctrines. This history of dissent is perhaps what I most love about the church I'm a lifelong member of.

Anyhow, in another discussion, a member had asked which was more important, belief or action. As a discussion developed, I had come across a comment that was made by my best friend's brother on an article in The Huffington Post regarding the most recent Republican debate. This guy is a hardcore atheist who had de-friended me on Facebook this year because he could no longer "tolerate" my spiritual comments. He wrote that while Jon Huntsman seemed to be the most intelligent Republican candidate and the most moderate, he still would not vote for him because he did not believe that anyone who was intelligent could ever believe anything as patently absurd as Mormonism. When I read that, I was stunned! That revealed a level of hostility and prejudice that I did not even know he had. Wow!!! This atheist actually claimed that he did not believe an intelligent person could ever be Mormon!!! Now I understood why he de-friended me. He is not merely disinterested in religion, he is vehemently anti-religion.

As one who has studied among the Mormons for college and who found Mormon beliefs to be quite strange (though not as strange as Scientology), even during my time at BYU I was stunned by how intelligent and even book smart many of my classmates were. It was a tough university, not just religiously for a minority, but also academically. To say that someone is not intelligent at all because you find their religious beliefs to be illogical and absurd is simply ridiculous. It ignores the fact that for many people, they grew up with Mormon beliefs. They've learned it since they were in pre-school. When you grow up in a church and you're taught to believe something and everyone around you believes the same thing, it is a powerful experience. For many people, breaking out of the mold you're cast in is difficult because it requires asking some pretty tough questions. I believe it is unfair, not to mention dishonest, to dismiss an entire group of people just because they believe something that you don't believe is true. People believe all kinds of things that others find strange. There's Mohammed's "Night Journey" on a flying horse from Mecca to Medina (if I'm not mistaken). There's Jesus' virgin birth and resurrection. There's Noah's Ark. There's Jackal-headed gods. There's reincarnated lamas. There's an elephant god named Ganesh. There's Gold Plates buried in a hill that gets translated by a farm boy. There's a galactic warlord named Xenu. There's the Flying Spaghetti Monster. There's the belief that all of this sprang out of nowhere spontaneously. One man's religion is another man's punchline.

How difficult is it for someone (an atheist, even) to understand that intelligence has nothing to do with spirituality? What I mean is that there are many intelligent people in all religions or no religions at all. One's intelligence can't be determined by some religious litmus test. Just because someone believes something that another person finds ridiculous does not make that believer ignorant or stupid. It is this example of intellectual smugness that I most find repulsive about atheists. They want to believe that they have a lock on intelligence because they reject all spiritual ideas, but this itself is a lie. How do I know its a lie? Because my life experience has taught me that intelligent people come in all religions. I know plenty of intelligent Mormons and we have some really intelligent conversations. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that I even prefer conversations with Mormons over an atheist, because at least we can agree on a spiritual worldview. They aren't so smug that they have made their own intelligence their god. In fact, at BYU is a sign that says: "The Glory of God is Intelligence." That is the BYU motto.

Getting back to the belief versus action debate. I think most people agreed that action was more important than belief because how people conduct themselves can impact others in a positive or negative way. People can believe all kinds of things, but in the end, its the way we all act that matters the most, not what we believe. Yes, what we believe is important, but how we act is far more important.

Ultimately, though, I find it ironic that an atheist would not vote for a Mormon candidate for president because he believes that the Mormon is lacking intelligence for believing the Mormon religion. This same atheist, I know, lamented before that Americans would not vote for an atheist for president because of the fear that the atheist lacks morals or a fear of divine punishment. I guess the street goes both ways. For me, beliefs matter less than actions. Because the only two reasonable Republicans running for president this time happen to both be Mormon, if either Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman (both pictured above) ended up as president, I would have no doubt that they would be fair and impartial, a president for all Americans, not just the Mormon Americans. I may not find the LDS Church to be logical or liberal enough for me, but that does not mean that I don't think Mormons are intelligent. I wish the atheists would stop their chauvinism and smug superiority and realize that intelligence is not a black or white issue. There is no correlation between intelligence and belief / lack of belief. And in the end, what does it matter anyway? How we act is how people will remember us. At the funerals I've gone to, I didn't hear stories from people about how their loved ones believed. It was mostly about what their loved ones did.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Music Video Monday: PM Dawn

For this week's music video selection, I wanted to feature the song that I first heard when I was waiting in the Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome (Fiumicino), Italy on 11 September 1991 for my domestic flight to Olbia, Sardinia. This was the first song that I heard and liked. I recognized the melody because it was one of my favourite 80s songs: "True" by Spandau Ballet. I loved the idea of "sampling", where an 80s song would be used to create an entirely new (usually rap) song. It made the song (melody) fresh again and better than just remaking a song. Some call it "cheating" though, as though the person who does this is being lazy and stealing someone else's tune to make a new song.

It took me at least a month, if not longer, before I learned the name of this song or who sang it. I'm not sure how I finally learned the information, but I bought the cassette tape by PM Dawn just on the strength of this song alone. They were a new rap group (duo) that represented a breath of fresh air (none of the negativity or materialism of the other rap groups). A friend of mine from high school hated them, though, and had no problem ripping the group apart in letters to me. I didn't mind, because our taste in music never agreed. She was into Jane's Addiction and other alternative bands.

As I listen to this song again, I can't believe that it is now twenty years old. I also can't believe that it has been twenty years now when the Navy sent me to Italy for my first three years. Those were the days...perhaps still "the greatest days of my life." Every young man should live overseas for a time during his most impressionable years. Well, perhaps I should say that women, too, should have that experience. Good thing that the music I listened to during that time still has the ability to transport me back in time and reminisce when I need a mental vacation. Other music I listened to a lot during this time twenty years ago was Steel Pulse's excellent album, Victims, which I consider to be the greatest reggae album of all time. Albums I'd discover later in 1991 include Wet Wet Wet's sophomore album, Hold Back the River, and Eros Ramazzotti's In Ogni Senso (In Every Sense).

Friday, September 16, 2011

Flashback Friday: E.T. (and Elliott)

On September 8th, actor Henry Thomas turned 40. Who is Henry Thomas, you ask? He is the actor who played Elliott, the boy who befriended the abandoned extra-terrestrial in the classic movie from the 1980s: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. I had no idea that he was born the same year as me. That's pretty cool. When the film came out in 1982, my dad took the family to see it in the theater and he thought I would relate to it since it featured a boy the same age as me, who had an older brother and a younger sister (played adorably by Drew Barrymore).

Yes, I really did relate to the Elliott character. I was especially touched by the scene where Elliott freed the frogs from being dissected for science class. When I was in junior high school, I never looked forward to the dissecting portion of the class lesson. In 7th grade, I had to dissect a worm. In 10th grade, I had to dissect a crawdad. The only difference is that we did not have to kill the animals. They were already dead. I'm not sure if they still dissect animals in schools across America, but in this day and age of video and plastic models, there is no need to sacrifice animals in the name of high school biology!

After seeing the movie, I felt that had we gone to the same school, Henry would be a natural friend of mine. I had heard years later that he had a tough time in school and was a bit of a loner. He apparently got made fun of by the other kids because of his role in the movie E.T. He did not live in Hollywood or the Greater Los Angeles area, but in Texas where boys were expected to play football. I can imagine that a joke from the movie was probably a favourite to recite by other kids he went to school with. The line I'm talking about is when Elliott is waiting at the bus stop and a boy asks him where the alien came from, "Uranus?" Har-har. I heard that joke enough times as a kid, myself.

It's amazing to reflect that the cast member who went on to the greatest success was not Henry Thomas or the woman who played the mother, but Drew Barrymore, who also had a rough childhood. She was the adorable little sister who taught E.T. how to talk and dressed him up in girl clothes and a wig, much to Elliott's dismay. Though Henry Thomas has played in quite a few movies, including Cloak and Dagger a couple years later (I had watched this when I spent the night at my friend Ken Lord's house in our 7th grade year), the youngest brother in Legends of the Fall, the independent film 11:14, and others I can't recall at the moment. Nothing truly standing out. He will probably always be best known for playing Elliott. And no, he was not the actor who played the conscientious character in Saving Private Ryan who had a breakdown when he could not kill the German soldier that killed a member of his troop. I remember one lady telling me that the guy from E.T. was in Saving Private Ryan, but that is another actor. They could play brothers, though.

When Steven Spielberg released the "special edition" of the film for the 20th anniversary, I went to see it in theaters at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta. The politically correct version, though, was a bust. Changes included switching out guns for walkie-talkies in the police who chase after the boys on bicycles, and the mother telling her oldest son that he could not go out dressed the way he was because people might think he was a "hippie"! The original line was better. She had said that he looked like a "terrorist." The special edition also added a deleted scene, which was amusing, where E.T. is in the bathtub filled with water.

I have the film on DVD but I don't watch the special edition. I'm glad that Steven Spielberg released the original version in the same DVD release. He should have learned from his friend George Lucas to leave things alone. There's a reason why it became the biggest hit of all time (until Star Wars: Special Edition reclaimed the title in 1997 and then Titanic in 1998, and finally Avatar in 2010).

In 1982, when I first saw a picture of E.T. in a news magazine, I was scared. He looked kind of creepy. It was only after seeing the movie can you eventually think of him as "cute." Part of what scared me, though, was a picture from the Spielberg-produced movie Poltergeist. I had thought that they were the same movie, because it was one article about both films. Fortunately, my parents knew better than to take us to see Poltergeist. Even though it was PG, when I saw it on cable TV at someone's house years later, I was really creeped out with that film. To this day, I can't really watch it. I think it is far scarier than any of the slasher horror films because it deals with the realm of spirit and there are plenty of creepy stuff going on that we don't know about.

As for E.T., though, this film truly resonated with me. Sometimes I wonder if the awe I feel looking into a star-filled night sky comes from the awe I felt in watching this movie as a child. Spielberg considered this his most personal film, I guess because he was a bit of a loner growing up and this film is about alienation. An extra-terrestrial visitor who gets left behind and hunted by human adults who witnessed the UFO in the sky. A young boy whose parents are getting a divorce, with the father missing somewhere. Somehow, they find each other and have to learn how to trust one another and to communicate. The references to Star Wars were awesome (Elliott plays with the action figures, like every boy who was born in the 1970s; his older brother Mike talks like Yoda when he gives his promise not to tell the grown-ups about E.T.; and E.T. says "home!" when he sees a kid in a Yoda costume).

The film moves brilliantly, with some truly comical scenes sprinkled throughout. The emotional shifts are interesting. I remember feeling afraid when Elliott is speaking to his brother about being afraid or when E.T. creates a working model of the universe or when a government van is conducting electronic surveillance of the neighbourhood. I remember wanting to live in a house that looked like the ones that populated that California neighbourhood (I love the Spanish tile roof). I remember hating the sickly white E.T. and being scared when people in spacesuits break into their home. I also remember being inspired when a group of kids on bicycles managed to outrun the government agents in their van. Its simply an iconic film and I'm glad that it was very much a part of my childhood. The film still ranks in my Top Ten Favourite Films of All Time.

The scene above, with Elliott and E.T. flying on the bicycle through the air with the large moon in the background is an iconic image from the movie. One that Spielberg eventually adopted as his logo for his company, Amblin Entertainment. During the 2002 special edition release of the film, I thought about why this film was so popular. Then it hit me: E.T. is a metaphor for the Jesus story! No wonder why it was such a huge success! The storyline resonated with millions of moviegoers, even if they did not make the obvious connection.

When I shared this idea with some co-workers, they laughed at me like it was the most ridiculous thing they had ever heard. One guy wasn't too shy about saying that I was stupid for thinking that. Am I, though? E.T. heals a wound, he dies, he resurrects, and he ascends into the heavens in the end. Jesus did the same thing: healing people, dying, resurrecting, and ascending to heaven. What is so difficult about connecting the two? I wasn't saying that E.T. IS Jesus, but that this movie could be construed as a metaphor for the Jesus story, which is ironic because Spielberg is Jewish.

Despite pressure for a sequel, I'm glad he did not make one. There is no way it could be improved upon, even if it took place back on E.T.'s home planet. There was a novel that was released, called Book of the Green Planet or something like that. I bought it but never read it, other than a few lines. Its about E.T.'s return to his home planet and how he accounts for his time on earth and what he learned about humans.

In 1999, George Lucas returned the love when he featured three E.T.'s in a scene in his epic film, Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. In the Senate scene when the delegates demand an immediate vote for no confidence in Chancellor Valorum's leadership, if you look close enough, you can see three E.T.s raising their arms in demanding for a vote. That was awesome.

So, anyway, Happy 40th Birthday, Henry Thomas! You seem like a cool guy. I hope you make some good movies and find a role that will reestablish you similar to Drew Barrymore's newfound success. Now, she's better known for rom-coms and being Adam Sandler's love interest in a few movies. But if you're destined to be remembered for one role, Elliott isn't a bad character to be remembered for. Henry Thomas does play in a band, now, so music is more a part of his life than movies. It's great to see another person born in 1971, the year of my birth. The year Starbucks and Powell's Bookstore began.