Category Archives: History

Immigration problems, imagined and real

The United States of America does not have an immigration problem. There are, of course, a large number of Americans who are convinced, not only that illegal immigration does great harm not only to our nation, but to them, personally, and that some final solution should be our highest national priority. Shrieking at high volume that ‘they’re here illegally, illegally’ does not constitute an  immigration policy, but a certain orange-haired buffoon has dominated the polls by making a frankly racist–yes, I said racist, not nativist–appeal. He must find the subsequent poll numbers satisfying, perpetual ego-gratification being The Donald’s raison d’etre. The word ‘policy’ suggests research, cogitation, and an appeal to reason, none of which he, or his followers, seem capable of, but Trump has offered what can be best understood as suggestions to ‘solve’ the ‘immigration crisis,’ essentially involving turning every undocumented child in America into Anne Frank, and building a higher tech 1900 mile all-American version of the Berlin Wall. The costs, human, moral and political, no less than financial, of these preposterous propositions, he poo poos. He’s a fascist fantasist, not a real candidate for the Presidency. Because, you see, America does not have an immigration problem.

No ‘illegals’ flooding across the borders; the numbers of undocumented workers have declined over the last ten years. No need for ‘border security,’ which has succeeded mostly in trapping undocumented seasonal workers here against their wishes. They’re not ‘taking American jobs'; in fact, Hispanic immigrants have more entrepreneurs per capita than another other ethnicity. No crime wave; undocumented workers have much lower crime rates than other groups. I’m not saying that changes in immigration policy aren’t badly needed. Many immigrants are dreadfully exploited by their employers, without recourse. The eleven million or so undocumented folks already here should be able to come out of the shadows; have a clear pathway to citizenship, for example, involving paying a fine (the crime of illegal border crossing is a misdemeanor, comparable to a moving traffic violation, so a fine of a couple hundred dollars sounds about right), passing a citizenship test and background check, and a hearty handshake from a county clerk. We should absolutely pass the Dream Act. We should issue more green cards. There are positive steps that can and should be taken. But border security is not an issue, and the very notion of mass deportations is an obscenity.

What most Americans don’t understand is that Europe does have a huge immigration problem, with horrific human costs, and that there are things we could do to help. Europe is being flooded by immigrants, up to half a million this year alone, with accelerating rates that could push that number to a million. As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir:

These people are fleeing civil war and violent repression in Syria, Afghanistan and other Arab or Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa; they are fleeing poverty, hunger and economic dislocation in sub-Saharan Africa. They try to enter Europe from every possible direction by every possible means: They cross the Mediterranean to Greece or Italy on rickety, overloaded rafts and boats; they walk clear across Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary toward the supposed promised land of northern Europe’s large cities.

And European politicians are torn. Essential European humanist values war against growing nativist dissatisfaction, and against continuing economic struggles. The EU’s response to the financial crisis of 2007-8 was the imposition of precisely the kind of austerity measures Republican politicians called for in the US. Fortunately, we had a President willing to embrace Keynesian stimulus measures instead, despite ferocious opposition which prevented a full recovery. European economies remain stagnant, with a few genuine basket cases: Greece, Spain. And still, desperate, impoverished people come pouring in. And in every European nation, nativist resentment has led to home-grown proto-fascism. Politicians who don’t at least pay lip service to anti-immigration acrimony are electorally punished.

The US could help. We could take them. American immigration restrictions have always made exceptions for refugees fleeing political oppression and the most severe economic deprivation.

The Deseret News, my local fishwrap, published an op-ed piece calling for the nations of the world, including the US, to take ISIS seriously–meaning, I think, American ground forces supporting the illusory ‘good guys’ in the Syrian civil war, and the ‘feet-don’t-fail-me-now’ Iraqi “army.” I don’t pretend to have the faintest idea how ISIS could possibly be defeated, or what US military response is feasible, or potentially efficacious.

But we could take in some refugees. Perhaps even a great many refugees.

We are the richest nation on earth, and call ourselves the leaders of the free world. We can do this; a Marshall plan in reverse. Then, we fed the poor; we rebuilt the economy of a nation that we had helped defeat in combat. We have an even more compelling moral imperative here.

Lately, a favorite Republican talking point in regard to ISIS is that their existence is Obama’s fault. Apparently, he pulled out of Iraq too quickly, destabilizing the region. This particular bit of recent-historical revisionism is really too stupid to require much rebuttal; Obama followed the previously negotiated pull-out deadline the US and Iraqis had already agreed to, after conspicuously voting against the war that, you know, really and actually and genuinely destabilized the region. Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, in a way, kind of was ISIS, though comparatively less brutal–though he did drop poison gas on villages–and war-mongering–if you don’t count his invasion of Iran. And remember, Saddam Hussein was a US ally. He was our guy; we liked him. He was even given the key to the city of Detroit, remember.

Saddam was the evil we knew and were used to; ISIS is the new face of evil, internet-savvy and correspondingly more familiar, and thus, more frightening.  And of course, the refugees flooding Europe are fleeing Syria, but also Yemen and Egypt and Somalia and Lebanon. A lot of them are fleeing to Jordan, which is doing it’s best, but is badly overtaxed. And, of course, they’re desperate to reach Europe. And Europe isn’t all that far.

We could take them. We could help solve this. The Europeans are our allies, our friends, our closest world-associates. If foreign policy is the expression of national self-interest, this is an issue where our interests coincide. We could, and should, accept many more immigrants from the Middle East.

It is, however, sadly, difficult to imagine the response if an American politician called for something like this. One guy, however, could. The guy who isn’t running, the guy who will never run for public office again in his life.

Please, Mr. President, do the right thing. Save some lives, and help out our friends. Make America a safe haven. Say to peoples ravaged by war and violence and starvation: “come.” Come to us, tired, poor, wretched refuse of teeming shores. Homeless, tempest tossed. We’ll raise our lamp for you.

“We’re not gonna take it”

Following a recent rally and speech in Alabama, as Donald Trump left the stage, what I assume is his campaign theme song played loudly, following him off stage. I’ve heard it a couple of times since, following his speeches. It was Twisted Sister’s anthem, ‘We’re not gonna take it.’ If that is indeed Mr. Trump’s theme song, it strikes me as an astonishingly appropriate one.

It’s an interesting question, is it not, the selection and use of a campaign song? There was a time when campaigns commissioned songs from musicians:

Let’s put it over with Grover. Don’t rock the boat; give him your vote. There’s a time for a man who’s a leader of men. Let’s put it over with Grover again.

Sadly, that most perfect of Grover Cleveland campaign songs wasn’t written until 1968, by Richard and Robert Sherman, for a Walter Brennan movie. (The Shermans also contrasted it with a boring one for Benjamin Harrison). Of actual campaign songs, it would be difficult to top Bill Clinton’s choice of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow)” in 1992. Optimistic, forward-thinking, and catchy; hard to beat. John Kerry’s choice of CCR’s “Fortunate Son” in 2004 was equally inspired, especially given who he was running against; a politically connected guy from a wealthy family whose National Guard service was essentially a ploy to get out of fighting in Vietnam. Mike Dukakis also hit the jackpot with Neil Diamond’s “They’re Coming to America.” Given the anti-immigrant sentiments of today’s Republicans, I’m surprised someone on the Democratic side doesn’t revive that one today. Except that it’s associated with Dukakis, and he lost badly.

I’ve only mentioned Democratic candidates’ theme songs. Sadly, Republican candidates have had a tendency to pick songs by artists who disagree pretty strenuously with their policies. John McCain and Sarah Palin went with “Barracuda,” because that was Palin’s nickname as a high school point guard. But Heart, who wrote and recorded it, turns out, loathed Sarah Palin’s politics, and threatened to sue. Likewise, Tom Petty didn’t take it well when George W. Bush used “I won’t Back Down” for some early events. At least Mitt Romney, when he used Kid Rock’s “Born Free” picked a song by a Republican, though Kid Rock has since disavowed membership in the party, saying he’s “f-ing embarrassed” to have been a Republican.

But now Trump seems to have chosen “We’re not going to take it.” And that song’s absolutely perfect; the song, the band, the message.

Watch the Twisted Sister video:

 

The grotesquely evil and abusive Father, the nerdy kid who can only find solace in the music of, well, Twisted Sister. But the power of music marks the kid’s revenge; one power chord drives the father out the window, crashing to the ground. It’s a song of defiance and rebellion, but it’s a strangely non-specific kind of rebellion. And it’s led by Dee Snider, Twisted Sister’s lead singer, who deliberately dressed like a sort of androgynous gargoyle. The point was to profit by choosing a look parents would loathe. (Look at some of their early videos, like “The Price,” where Snider wore no makeup and dressed in jeans).

Look at that chorus, though: We’re not gonna take . . . ‘it’. What is this ‘it’ we’re not going to take?

We’ve got the right to choose, and there ain’t no way we’ll lose it.

This is our life. This is our song. We’ll fight the powers that be just

Don’t pick our destiny ’cause, you don’t know us, you don’t belong.

Chorus: We’re not gonna take it, no we ain’t gonna take it, we’re not gonna take it anymore.

Oh, you’re so condescending, your gall is never ending

We don’t want nothing, not a thing from you.

Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated

If that’s your best, your best won’t do.

All, of course, sung loudly and emphatically, by a guy dressed like some kind of grotesque glam rock parody.

What do we know about Trump’s supporters? They’re fed up, they’re angry, they’re furious about a political process that seems both hypocritical and ineffectual. They like Trump because he gets things done. They also like him because he ‘tells the truth.’ In fact, he doesn’t actually tell the truth; whenever his claims can be fact-checked, they turn out to be, in almost every instance, ludicrously inaccurate. But he says things–often insulting things– that most politicians don’t say and then he doesn’t back down when challenged. Plus, he’s rich, and he’s spending his own money on this campaign. He won’t be beholden to ‘special interests’ if elected. (He is now accepting campaign donations, which, I predict, will have no impact whatever on his popularity).

Above all, Trump has played the oldest card in the deck. He’s able to reassure voters that all their problems, all their feelings of economic insecurity and worry about the future and sense that the future is slipping away are all the fault of a single, unpopular minority ethnicity. The ‘Mexicans,’ are to blame. And, by golly, he’s going to deport them. Build a wall and keep them out, and get them both to build it and pay the costs involved. Like Nero blaming ‘Christians’ for the Great Fire of Rome, or the Hutu blaming the Tutsi in Rwanda, or the Gio and Mano blaming the Krahn in Liberia, scapegoats are always simple-mindedly easy to identify and splendid targets for finger-pointing. (Note how deftly I sidestepped Godwin’s Law). And the results can be brutal.

In fairness, this has not yet happened with Trump. The rhetoric has been fierce; actual violence has been limited to a single appalling incident in Boston. Still, Mr. Trump can at least be cited for failure to establish a civil tone in this campaign. And unfocused, inchoate rage is discernible underneath the excitement of Trump supporters for his campaign. He’s not going to take ‘it.’ They’re not gonna take ‘it’ anymore. Take that liberal elites. You’re condescending, trite and boring. You’re outa here.

 

 

Birthright citizenship

Over the next fifteen months before we all get to vote on who the next President of the United States will be, lots of things will have happened. We’ll all have seen the Star Wars movie. We’ll know what finally happened with Katniss. Apple will come out with a nifty new dingus, Amazon will deliver by drone, and Wall Street crooks will go unpunished. Kale will come in injectable form, houses will be equipped with holodecks and engineers will be working out the final bugs in transporter technology. 2016 is going to be dope.

We’re in the silly season of Presidential politics, is my point. Candidates are jostling for position, raising money, giving speeches, trying to figure out what voters’ main concerns are and what issues might be profitably emphasized. Trying to get noticed. Now, in August 2015. With football season starting in, like, two weeks. And because one candidate, the most unlikely candidate in years, is leading the Republican race by a big margin, the issues he’s focused on have tended to draw the most attention. Which means Trump, and which means immigration. And, lately, he’s been saying a lot about an obscure but important issue; the idea of birthright citizenship. A policy that has to change, apparently. Trump calls it a ‘magnet for illegal immigration.’

And other candidates are weighing in. Chris Christie: “While birthright citizenship may have made sense at some point in our history, right now, we need to relook at all of that.” Lindsay Graham: “I don’t mind changing the law. I think it’s a bad practice to give citizenship based on birth.” Bobby Jindal: “We need to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants.” Scott Walker, asked if he supported ending birthright citizenship, responded ‘yeah,’ before waffling. Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush wouldn’t go that far, but both agreed that illegal immigration is a serious issue. (HINT: no, it isn’t.)

Here’s the thing: birthright citizenship isn’t a policy, and it isn’t a law that can simply be changed legislatively and it isn’t ‘a practice.’ It’s in the Constitution. And it’s not really ambiguous or obscure. Here it is, from Article One of the Fourteenth Amendment:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside

If you’re born in the United States, you’re a citizen of the United States. Period. And yes, the National Review and Daily Caller have recently made themselves look ridiculous by arguing that ‘all citizens born in the United States are citizens of the United States’ doesn’t mean, you know, that being actually born here somehow means that you’re, like, a citizen or whatever. (I’m absolutely not going to link to those two publications, by the way).  Silly websites are welcome to publish silly articles all they want to–First Amendment–but the facts are that getting rid of birthright citizenship requires an amendment to the Constitution, and that will never, ever happen. And trying to make it happen will also have the charming side effect of destroying the Republican party. Which I would rather not have happen, thank you very much. ‘Cause: Lincoln.

Reading articles about this issue is sort of fun, though. It’s not hard to read between the lines of the various statements of the Republican Presidential candidates to see what a tricky issue this is for Republicans. First of all, they have to pretend that illegal immigrants are currently pouring over our southern border–which they’re not–and that undocumented workers therefore create a host of big social problems–which they don’t. Trump wants to build a big fence, and get Mexico to pay for it. He won’t and they won’t. It’s a silly, nonsense issue. And Trump won’t let it go, because he’s not a serious man. He just pretends to be one on TV.

And it’s not like there aren’t actual, real things that can and should be done for those people who are now in our country, living their lives half-in-shadow and hoping for some resolution to their legal status. We could, for example, pass the Dream Act. We could create a sensible pathway to citizenship. We could end the grotesque exploitation of these workers by employers. There are real things we could really do. Instead, Trump flies around in his helicopter saying ridiculous things on the subject.

And I, for one, hope he keeps running, keeps up in the polls, keeps harping on building big walls and calling Mexicans rapists. Keep it up, Donald. The race for the Presidency, in fact, may already be over. To find out why, some recent history.

In my lifetime, two candidates from California have won the Presidency; Nixon and Reagan. Both were conservatives; Reagan, massively so. From 1960-1996, California only voted for a Democrat for President once. Nowadays, of course, California is a reliable blue state, a Democratic stronghold. What happened?

Immigration hysteria. In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson, in a close race for re-election, blamed illegal immigrants for all his state’s problems. He strongly supported Prop 187, which denied all sorts of state benefits to undocumented workers. And Republicans haven’t won California since. Hispanic voters noticed. And they vote.

To win the White House, Republicans probably need to win about 45% of the Republican vote. Mitt Romney, you may have noticed, did not win the Presidency. He won 27% of the Hispanic vote, and polled afterwards, Hispanics kept going back to one word–self-deportation–as the main reason they went Democratic.

Self-deportation then, birthright citizenship now; the Republicans keep shooting themselves in the foot with Hispanic voters. Jeb Bush would rather actually come up with a sensible immigration policy: and you can see how uncomfortable Trumpian demagoguery on this issue makes him. He speaks fluent Spanish; his wife is from Mexico. I don’t particularly want Jeb Bush to be President, but this is a policy where his instincts are reasonable. His brother, as President, proposed an immigration bill that wasn’t half bad. Marco Rubio sponsored a decent enough immigration bill in the Senate; he’s not a wacko on this issue. So there was reason to think that Republican outreach to Hispanics could work.

And there’s still plenty of time for Rubio or Bush to revive their respective candidacies. But the Republican electorate is, by and large, insane on this issue. Make any proposal that provides for people who are already here to stay and you’ll get accused of supporting ‘amnesty.’ Blarg.

Self-deportation was a terrible idea when Governor Romney proposed it; birthright citizenship just flat isn’t an issue at all, because the Constitution is very hard to amend, and no amendment ending citizenship for frankly racist reasons has a chance of passage. So it’s not like this is, you know, a thing. But for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, it’s about the best question they ever get asked. “Do you support birthright citizenship?” “Yes. I support the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.” Boom.

Meanwhile, millions of young people, the Dreamers, remain in a preposterous legal limbo. That’s the issue we should be talking about; passing the Dream Act. This is America. We built our nation on immigration. How about this: I will support any candidate who supports full amnesty and the Dream Act. And oppose any who don’t.

 

Unenumerated rights

Okay, Civics 101: The Bill of Rights to the Constitution describes basic, fundamental unviolable rights retained by the citizens, areas into which the government cannot intrude. We all know this, and if pressed, we could probably name most of the important ones off the top of our head. Freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble. When we say we live in a free society, the Bill of Rights is usually what we’re talking about. We take those rights for granted. We just assume, as a matter of course, that we can call the President of the United States or our local congressman a miserable rat fink and not get arrested for it.

What we don’t always consider, though, is the fact that some of the rights that the Constitution does enumerate are pretty strange, and don’t seem to deal with issues that anyone really thinks about anymore. They reflect controversies and issues that were important to 18th century society, but aren’t really significant to our society. The most immediate and obvious is the 3rd amendment, the one against quartering soldiers in your home. I mean, I would be pretty ticked off if someone from Hill Air Force base were to show up at my door and tell me I needed to put up some guys from the 75th Air Wing, so could I clear some space for them please. So, yay 3rd Amendment. The British did that; put troops in citizens houses, and people got pretty ticked off about it. But it’s not something that happens anymore.

If we were starting from scratch, I think that the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th amendments would all make the cut today. The 3rd and 7th seem iffy to me. The 2nd? If we didn’t already have it, I don’t think anyone would notice. Most countries don’t consider gun ownership a fundamental human right, and they seem to do okay. I bet it’d go.

Anyway, those aren’t all the rights we have. The 9th amendment makes that clear: the fact that some rights are enumerated in the Constitution doesn’t mean that that’s all there are. People have lots more rights than the 10 listed in the Bill of Rights. I see the 9th as kind of a rueful admission that times change, and some basic, fundamental rights will come more clearly into focus in time. As, indeed, has happened.

This issue of unenumerated rights, however, is the key to understanding some of the more controversial Supreme Court decisions. If The People, through their elected representatives, choose to enact laws that deny some unpopular minority its basic rights, it’s clearly the role of the Court to declare those laws unconstitutional. And so if someone were to say ‘hey, everyone hates Norwegians; they’re all still Vikings!’ and got Congress to pass a law banning, say, midsummer celebrations, Norwegian-Americans could say ‘hey, wait, first amendment, freedom to assemble’ and the Courts, presumably, would declare that law unconstitutional.

But what about the right of gay people to marry? Is ‘the right to marry’ an unenumerated right, as the 9th Amendment provides for? After all, Chief Justice Roberts made a point of the fact that the word ‘marriage’ is not found anywhere in the Constitution. Or is a right to marry so fundamental that it simply has to be one of those unenumerated rights the 9th amendment provides for? Likewise, Roe v. Wade. The constitution hasn’t a word to say about ‘privacy.’ Is there a constitutional right to privacy? So what about marriage? What about privacy? Unenumerated but obviously real rights? Or extra-constitutional legislating from the bench?

The real answer, of course, is that we don’t know definitively, and never will. Why would we? The 2nd amendment is really short, and nobody agrees about what it means. All texts support multiple readings; all texts, always, forever. The whole idea of ‘strict construction’ of constitutional texts is quite nonsensical.

But I would like to propose a possible rule of thumb that we might apply to this question. It’s the ‘of course’ rule. In other words, if you ask most people, ‘is the right to marry a fundamental right,’ they’d pretty much all say ‘of course.’ Unenumerated rights exist if basically everyone thinks ‘well, of course, that’s a right.’ Or you can turn it around. Ask most of your friends, ‘should the federal or state government have the final say in whether two consenting adults not of the same immediate family should be allowed to marry?’ Betcha anything the answer is unanimous. In fact, if you really want to have fun with it, say to your teenaged daughter, ‘honey, I think I should have final say over who you marry. I’m your parent, and I know best.’ Then stand back and watch the fireworks. Human beings simply do not make more important decisions in this life than the decision who to marry. So, it’s a right. Unenumerated, but a right. And thanks to the 9th amendment, i would argue (disagreeing with Justice Douglas in Roe) constitutionally protected.

So how about privacy? Is there an unenumerated but constitutionally protected right to privacy? I’ll grant that Justice Blackmun did us no favors with his unfelicitous language about ‘penumbras’ emanating from the 9th and 14th amendments. But let’s apply the ‘of course’ standard.

This is from Bruce Schneier, an internationally respected expert on security; on the measures governments take to protect their citizens.

Privacy is a basic human need. A future in which privacy would face constant assault was so foreign to the framers of the constitution that it never occurred to them to call out privacy as an explicit right. Privacy was inherent to the nobility of their being and their cause. Of course, being watched in your own home was unreasonable. Watching at all was an activity so unseemly as to be inconceivable to gentlemen of their day. You ruled your own home. It’s intrinsic to the concept of liberty.

And of all possible human communications, of all possible human decisions, what could be more fundamental than the right to make our own decisions regarding our bodies, our health, our treatment by our physicians? Doctor/patient confidentiality is just the beginning, not the end, of our right to have our health decisions kept to ourselves.

Of course, in abortion, there’s another consideration; the potential human life we call a fetus. I agree that balancing the right of a woman to privacy in her personal medical decisions, and the right of a viable human being growing in her uterus is a complicated and difficult task. That’s why Roe v. Wade did not legalize all abortions, under all circumstances. We might disagree with some of the specifics with which the Court tried to strike that balance, especially in the light of current medical advances. Still, I can’t help but think that the Court ruled correctly. Our continuing task must be to find ways to make abortion safe, legal, and rare.

So yes, although the Constitution does not explicitly mention marriage, I think it’s unreasonable to conclude that marriage is not a fundamental constitutional right. And although the Constitution does not explicitly mention privacy, a right to privacy can nonetheless exist. Unenumerated rights are rights nonetheless. The 9th amendment says so.

 

 

Rain: Book review

Cynthia Barnett’s Rain: A Natural and Cultural History is an absolute miracle of a book, a meditation on a subject everyone absolutely takes for granted, which also happens to be a phenomenon without which there could not exist life on this planet. It’s also superbly researched, and written with a poet’s eye and gift for language. It’s one of those books you want to read slowly, so as to savor every paragraph and sentence. I finished it last night, and set it aside with a palpable feeling of regret, though of course, I can always read it again.

My son gave it to me for Fathers’ Day; said he saw it in a bookstore, was intrigued by the title, read the first three pages, and found himself hooked. I had the same experience. I wish I could guarantee that you will too. But it is a book about rain. If that idea turns you off. . . .

But start with this thought: there was life on Mars, and water. What Mars did not have was rain, and Mars remains today a lifeless rock. Are you fascinated by science, and especially by that most baffling of all currently unanswered scientific questions; why does life exist on earth? That’s one of the question this book addresses.

Or another: what is the connection between grunge rock and roll and the fact that Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Kris Novoselic are from, not Seattle, but Aberdeen Washington? Seattle is a city known for its rainy days and nights, but Aberdeen, a few miles further inland, is a good deal rainier. Listen to early Nirvana. Have you noticed the rain-dripping sound of Novoselic’s bass? What about The Smiths? Johnny Marr and Morrissey are from Manchester, the rainiest city in the famously rainy British Isles. Is it any wonder that the Smiths’ sound is so, well, gloomy? Is there a connection between the sunniness of certain bands’ popular music and the cities in which its members grew up? Or, in case of Nirvana and the Smiths, the raininess of their cities of origin? That’s another issue Barnett’s book raises, explores, discusses.

Or how does rain make itself manifest thematically? What poets have written particularly rain-intensive poems, what novelists have featured it, what painters have employed rain as a motif? What is the general history of rain in high and popular culture?

All right, how about this? What is the history of drought-busting rainmakers? What charlatans went about trying to make it rain? What have actual scientists done to bring rain to drought-stricken areas? What ideas have worked? Which ones have not? All questions carefully and thoughtfully explored by Barnett.

And, terrifyingly, what about environmental catastrophe? What is the history of acid rain, and how was it ended? What can be done today about various kinds of toxic rainfall? And, of course, what about global warming, climate change, the environmental crisis in which we currently find ourselves? What’s going on, what is the state of current research, what can be done, what are people trying to do? A fascinating subject, is it not? And an important one?

Buy it. Read it. Slowly, so as to savor its every detail. This is a wonderful book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Lord Baden-Powell and sexuality

In 1908, General Robert Baden-Powell, later elevated to Lord Baden-Powell, a highly decorated veteran of the Boer War, founded an organization he called The Boy Scout Association. That same year, he published Scouting for Boys, a guide to safely camping outdoors, and the first iteration of what would become the Boy Scout Manual. The year previously, Baden-Powell had tried out his ideas for what he hoped would become a national organization to promote wholesome, enjoyable outdoors activities for young men, by taking twenty boys to Brownsea Island and having the first Scout Camp. Two years later, an American businessman named W. D. Boyce discovered the British organization, and decided to start an American version. There’s a lot of mythology regarding the histories of both Baden-Powell and Boyce, but the basic facts are clear enough; Baden-Powell is the founder of Scouting, and Boyce the father of American Scouting.

Baden-Powell was, by all accounts, a charismatic leader, a ripping good storyteller, and a kind-hearted and gentle teacher. It’s quite possible that he was also a closeted homosexual. There have been several biographies of Baden-Powell, most of them hagiographic, intended for boys. Tim Jeal’s 1990 biography, The Boy-Man: The biography of Lord Baden-Powell is superb; meticulously researched, judicious in its conclusions, engagingly written. Jeal concludes that Baden-Powell was also gay. Two earlier biographies had reached similar conclusions. Evidence for this conclusion is entirely circumstantial. Baden-Powell came from a generation where homosexuality was considered a grave moral defect, deeply shameful and immoral. He almost certainly never acted on his feelings.

But consider the evidence, circumstantial though it is. He was a deeply sensitive and artistically talented boy, who played with dolls, but avoided girls at all costs. As an artist, his favorite subjects were attractive young men. In the army, he acted in a number of amateur theatricals, always playing women’s roles. Pretty young women sent him into a state of anxiety, which his friends all teased him for, and his closest emotional attachment was to a young man named Kenneth McLaren, a friendship which nearly ended when McLaren married, and finally did end when Baden-Powell married. In 1912, Baden-Powell, aged 55, met Olave Soames; she was 23. They married, but Baden-Powell was crippled by terrible, psychosomatic headaches every time they went to bed together. Eventually, he had to leave their shared bedroom, and sleep in an army cot elsewhere in their home.

I do not mean to suggest that his marriage with Olave was unhappy, nor was it childless; they had three children, a son and two daughters. Olave was his steadfast companion in running both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, the equivalent girls’ organization he founded in 1912. Nor did he seem to be a particularly unhappy man; Scouting became his life, and he was a beloved figure among British boys.

Jeal’s biography (which I whole-heartedly recommend), also deals judiciously with the one genuinely dark rumor about Baden-Powell; that his politics were essentially fascist, and that he supported the Nazis in the Second World War. What’s true is that Baden-Powell was both conservative and politically naive, and reflexively patriotic, and that he distrusted communism. It’s certainly true that an early Scout badge included a swastika. But that was well before that particular symbol had been appropriated by the Nazis. He was, finally, a former military officer who valued discipline, and wanted his Boy Scouts to conduct themselves in an orderly, restrained manner. The evidence does not, however, suggest that he was a fascist.

And here’s what Jeal concludes about Baden-Powell’s homosexuality; it drove him.  His accomplishments are startling; something drove him to achieve. He was an honorable and brave soldier, a genuine war hero, a man who devoted his life to working with children, and a charming and funny raconteur. Jeal quotes at length Baden-Powell’s final letter to his beloved Scouts; I think it captures him beautifully:

I have had a most happy life, and I want each one of you to have a happy life too. I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and to enjoy life. . . One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong when you are a boy, so that you can be useful and enjoy yourself when you are a man. . . . but the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try to leave this world a little better than how you found it, and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy feeling . . . that you have not wasted your time, but have done your best. “Be prepared” to live happy, and to die happy.

So what does any of this mean in relation to the current controversy regarding Scouting and gay leaders? I would say that it doesn’t mean anything. If, as seems likely, the founder of Scouting was gay, it did not impact the importance or value of the organization to any degree whatsoever. What was the exact nature of his relationship with Kenneth McLaren? We don’t know, we will likely never know, and it does not matter.
Lord Baden-Powell was a wonderful man, who devoted his life to improving the lives of boys and girls world-wide. He was also a fine writer and painter, and a genuine war hero. That’s how we should think of him, because it’s the only aspect of his life that matters. And if today, a similarly gentle, decent and talented man, who also happened to be gay, were to be named Scoutmaster of a troop in the Boy Scouts of America (or for that matter, the Boy Scouts Association in England, or any of the Scouting organizations active internationally), the result would be, not just benign, but actively positive. Children would learn valuable skills, and have a lot of fun doing it. Period. And, in time, that someone else could say, like Baden-Powell, ‘I have had a most happy life, and I want you to have a happy life too.’ That’s the good Scouting can do. Irregardless of the orientation of the volunteer leaders that make it great.

 

January 1973: Book Review

January 22, 1973, was the date that the Supreme Court announced their decision in Roe v. Wade. It was also a crucial day in John J. Sirica’s courtroom, where he precided over the trial of the Watergate burglars. Also on that date, the United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris peace accords, ending the war in Vietnam. And none of those stories led the evening news broadcasts. Because that was also the day Lyndon Johnson died.

January, 1973, was one of those months in American history where a whole lot of crucially important things happened at once, like April 1965 (which was also the subject of a terrific book, by Jay Winik). I just finished James Robenalt’s book, January, 1973: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Vietnam, and the Month that changed America forever. It’s a very good book; not a great one, but an enjoyable read. It’s a book where the extraordinary events it describes are inherently dramatic and interesting, while Robenalt’s analysis of those events struck me as a trifle too breathless. He seems to be striving for significance where, perhaps, less exists than he seems to think. It’s undeniably fascinating that so many important events seem to have happened at the same time. I’m not sure that coincidence is quite as revelatory as Robenalt would have it.

The key figure in the whole story is, of course, Richard Nixon. What a fascinating character; what an endlessly transformative president, for good and ill. What fascinated me was the relationship between Nixon and aide Charles Colson. Robenalt was able to quote long conversations verbatim, because those conversations were, of course, recorded. What’s amazing is Nixon’s thin skin, his obsessive loathing of enemies for slights real and imagined, his paranoia, his long-standing grudges. Colson was his sounding board; the guy he could sit and vent to for hours on end. Nothing really new here; Rick Perlstein’s brilliant Nixonland covers it all more thoroughly and, I think, more insightfully. But it’s fascinating to me that the end of the Vietnam war, a signal achievement if ever there was one, was marred by Nixon’s jealousy of Henry Kissinger, and an order to bug Kissinger’s phone, to see if he was talking to the press about it. During that same month, both former Presidents Truman and Johnson passed away, and Nixon’s main concern was over which church their memorial services would be held in. The pastor of the National Cathedral was too anti-war (and, thought Nixon, secretly anti-Nixon), for Nixon’s taste. And so he engaged in unseemly negotiations with Lady Bird Johnson over memorializing President Johnson somewhere else.

But that was Nixon. A brilliant geo-political thinker. Surprisingly, even shockingly liberal when it came to domestic policies. You look at the man’s actual accomplishments, and they’re remarkable. He founded the EPA, and pushed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Mammal Marine Protection Act through Congress. He supported and pushed for the adoption of the 26th Amendment, granting the vote to 18 year olds. He ended the draft. He returned tribal lands to Native Americans, and granted tribes self-determination. He increased funding for cancer research.

But politically, his Southern strategy was built on exacerbating racial tensions at a time when it appeared that real progress had been made. He was the politician of white resentment, of ‘law and order’ (which everyone understood to mean ‘cracking down on black inner cities.’)

Was he, for example, a feminist? Well, he signed Title IX into law. No other bill has done more for college women, to promote fitness and achievement and empowerment. Three of the four justices who voted for Roe v. Wade were Nixon appointees, including Justice Blackmun, who authored it. He was also prone, in private, to use the worst kind of gutter language regarding women. Nixon said he supported the Equal Rights Amendment while campaigning. Then he did little about it while in office. Mixed bag? Pretty much, I’d say.

Of course, when we think of Nixon, we don’t think of Vietnamization or the opening to China. We think of Watergate. And it’s in the Watergate passages that Robenalt’s book is at its strongest. Judge John J. Sirica presided over the initial Watergate trial in January 1973, a trial that Robenalt covers in great detail. Robenalt is a lawyer, and it’s clear that he is deeply troubled by Judge Sirica’s judicial overreaching in that trial. Sirica was convinced that the defendants in the case were lying. He was convinced that they were covering up for their bosses, that the question of motive had not been adequately answered. Why were these guys burglarizing the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate hotel? Who paid them? Who was continuing to pay them? And so, when Liddy and McCord and Howard Hunt all agreed to plead guilty to the charges against them, Sirica (inappropriately and even illegally) went out of his way to refuse those pleas. He basically took over the case from the prosecutors. He committed, in short, the most egregious possible judicial misconduct. He also got away with it, because, of course, as we now know, he was right. There was a larger conspiracy, and the Watergate trial defendants were lying about it. It’s a fascinating story, and Robenalt tells it well.

Of course, historical perspective is always illuminating; the media consensus over Roe was ‘whew, at least we’ve put that issue to rest, once and for all.’ And I had forgotten how very quickly the Vietnam agreement came after the bombing of Hanoi. Of course, those sorts of ironies and insights are the main reason we read a book like this one. Anyway, I strongly recommend it. What a fascinating month. What a fun book.

 

The Boy Scouts and the Church

Yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America ended its ban on gay volunteer Scout leaders. The LDS Church, a major Boy Scout sponsor, responded with this statement:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board. In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the Church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet. When the leadership of the Church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined. The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.

I don’t understand any part of this. First of all, I do not understand the scheduling issue. Granted, Church leaders were on vacation, but surely they could have taken a day or two off to attend a meeting. We’re talking, after all, about the main youth organization for LDS boys living in the States. You couldn’t make a conference phone call; you couldn’t skype?

More to the point, though, what possible objection could there be to having gay Scout leaders? The policy change allows local councils to allow local units to choose its own leaders. If the Church didn’t want any gay Scoutmasters in LDS-sponsored troops, the new policy accommodates that stance.

Let me see if I can unpack it a little. I suppose that there may be some lingering fear over Scout leaders being pedophiles. But gay men are no more likely to be pedophiles than left-handed people are likely to commit arson. There simply isn’t any link between homosexuality and pedophilia. This issue has been carefully studied, and the research is clear. The idea that a gay scoutmaster might molest the boys in his troop is a prejudice without foundation.

(Of course, the BSA is quite appropriately concerned about actual instances of pedophilia. That’s why Scouting has instituted policies and protocols to prevent it, as have other youth organizations. Pedophiles are attracted to children–constant vigilance must be exercised. But that’s not relevant to this policy change.)

No, the Church’s concerns have, I believe, two other, very different causes. The first is that having openly gay Scout leaders might create the impression that homosexuality is not morally wrong. The Scout Oath requires Scouts and Scouters to be ‘morally straight.’ The presence of openly gay leaders could presumably complicate that message.

Break that down. I assume that straight, married Scoutmasters are sexually active. As a Boy Scout, that was never something I ever ever thought about. If that notion had popped into my thirteen year-old head, my reaction would have been ‘ewww.’ Straight, unmarried Scoutmasters may well also have been sexually active; if so, it was never any of my business. Married, gay Scoutmasters are likely also sexually active, but they’re not engaged in anything most people would recognize as a sin; they’re married. Unmarried gay Scoutmasters? Absolutely none of mine, or anyone else’s, business.

The difficulty is that the Church does not recognize gay marriage as morally valid, and therefore believes that even married gay people, if they’re sexually active, are doing something morally wrong; violating the law of chastity. The Church does not want to complicate the issue of gay marriage in the minds of teenaged boys. Even if LDS-sponsored troops all have straight, married Scoutmasters, those troops camp with other troops, in various councils and jamborees and camps and activities. I was the Program Director for two Boy Scout camps 30 or so years ago. Let’s suppose that an LDS-sponsored troop camps next to a troop with a gay Scoutmaster. Those kids are going to interact. I think the Church worries about a conversation in which kid A says ‘wow, your Scoutmaster is really cool’ and kid B says ‘yeah. He’s gay, and he’s awesome.’ And kid A suffers some kind of cognitive dissonance. ‘He’s a great Scoutmaster. But, wait, he’s gay? Huh.’

In fact, ‘morally straight’ is something each individual decides for himself. As Program Director, I remember we had a waterfront director named John; can’t remember his last name. He was terrific; a wonderful swimming teacher, a real outdoorsman, great with kids. His girlfriend would drive him to camp each week, and drop him off. Sometimes she would spend the night. It never bothered anyone, nor should it have. This was in the early ’80s, when I suppose someone could have made a big deal about John not being ‘morally straight.’ He was, obviously, cohabitating with his girlfriend. And many of the troops we served at our camp had minister/Scoutmasters. In Southern Indiana. Nobody raised any kind of fuss, ever, at all. John was a brilliant Scout leader, and that was all that mattered.

Still. The Church has its concerns. But I think there’s another factor involved.

The Church has always embraced Scouting. And that’s great; Scouting is a wonderful program. But in fact, Scouting and the Church have always been something of an awkward fit. Scouting is really a program for kids aged 11-16. Sixteen year olds are encouraged to join an Explorer post. Explorer posts are meant to specialize: in Engineering, High Adventure, Law Enforcement, Health Careers. The idea is that 16 year olds are more independent, more mobile, and interested in interacting with other boys with shared interests. When I was 16, the other kids in our ward were all pressured to find a specialty we all were interested in, and form a post together. But the only thing we all liked was playing basketball, and basketball was not one of the possibilities.

The Church mentioned starting their own youth program for boys, and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. After all, the Boy Scouts is the youth organization for American LDS kids. Other nations have different programs. It makes sense to take the best ideas from all over the world, and create a uniquely tailored program for our kids. My guess is that plans have been made to do just that.

At the same time, I can’t help it; part of me is filled with dismay. I am an Eagle Scout; worked as a Scout leader, served on the staff of Scout Camps. I loved Scouting. And the reason is simple; Scouting was fun.

Scouting is fun. It’s supposed to be fun. I know that Scouting is supposed to teach values and skills and leadership traits and self-reliance, and I suppose all that does happen, some. But that was never the focus. We had a blast. We built signal towers and cooked on open stoves, and started fires and ran around and got in trouble and played mumblety-peg with knives and hiked hard trails, and played hockey on frozen lakes. I will never forget, until the day I die, a game of Capture the Flag we played, on a four mile course, the flags on two hilltops, a creek demarking the boundary between territories. Summer of 1971. I am old and sick and fat and can’t do most of that anymore, but I can still tie a one-handed bowline knot in less than five seconds. I still can tie a sheep shank and a double half-hitch. We learned those skills because our Scoutmaster made a game of it.

I am afraid that a Church-run youth program will make missionary prep a focus. I worry about the lessons and the (sorry, but it’s so) indoctrination. I am afraid that it won’t be fun anymore.

I hope my fears are unfounded. Just know that tensions between the Church and the Boy Scouts has been building for years. And I desperately hope the Boy Scouts survive. It’s a terrific organization for kids.

The Death Penalty

Let’s talk about death.

Amidst all the hoorah about marriage equality and saving Obamacare, SCOTUS had another major decision, the inelegantly titled Glossip v. Gross. In that case, the death penalty survived a challenge based on the unreliability of the one of the drugs, midazolam, used to execute people. There have been some horrific botched executions recently, and that problem was compounded by the fact that death penalty drugs have become increasingly difficult to obtain. The companies who make them don’t want to support death anymore. So, did executions using midazolam constitute cruel and unusual punishment? The court answered ‘no.’

The access to drugs problem remains. In fact, that’s why Nebraska, shockingly, voted to eliminate the death penalty back in May. In fact, the Nebraska legislature passed the law getting rid of the death penalty by a veto-proof margin. Had to, as their governor threatened to veto it.

Most advanced nations on earth have eliminated the death penalty. 140 countries have abolished the death penalty, The countries that still have the death penalty is essentially a list of countries you don’t want to live in: Libya, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. And the USA.

So what do we think about the death penalty? As a civilized people, what do we think? It’s not an easy answer. Does the death penalty have a deterrent effect? That’s a hot topic in the criminology academic literature, and most peer reviewed studies have concluded that no deterrent effect exists. 88% of all criminologists believe that the death penalty does not deter violent crime. But that also means that 12% do believe in deterrence, and some recent studies have concluded that deterrence exists.

The well-known (and famously liberal) legal scholar Cass Sunstein, in an oft-cited 2006 study, made this compelling suggestion:

Many people believe that the death penalty should be abolished even if, as recent evidence seems to suggest, it has a significant deterrent effect. But if such an effect can be established, capital punishment requires a life-life tradeoff, and a serious commitment to the sanctity of human life may well compel, rather than forbid, that form of punishment. The familiar problems with capital punishment–potential error, irreversibility, arbitrariness, and racial skew–do not require abolition because the realm of homicide suffers from those same problems in even more acute form. Moral objections to the death penalty frequently depend on a sharp distinction between acts and omissions, but that distinction is misleading in this context because government is a special kind of moral agent. The widespread failure to appreciate the life-life tradeoffs potentially involved in capital punishment may depend in part on cognitive processes that fail to treat “statistical lives” with the seriousness that they deserve. The objection to the act/omission distinction, as applied to government, has implications for many questions in civil and criminal law.

If, in other words, capital punishment deters killer from killing, then opposing the death penalty requires that we trade a life for a life; that we may be privileging the life of someone predisposed towards violence over the life of his future victims. If it can be proved that the threat of the death penalty is sufficient incentive for a killer to not kill, then governments that refuse to administer the death penalty may committing a very serious sin of omission.

That’s pretty abstract; let me make it more concrete. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people with a bomb in Oslo, then went to a summer camp on Utóya, an island in the Oslofjord, and murdered 69 others. Children. Breivik was, and is, an ideological extremist. He’s Islamaphobic, anti-Zionist, and ruthlessly anti-feminist. He murdered 77 people. He’s not remotely repentant. He was tried in 2012, found guilty, and given the maximum sentence possible in Norwegian law, 21 years in preventative detention, 10 of which are to include incarceration.

That might strike you as being a fairly mild sentence for a ruthless mass murderer. I wouldn’t disagree with you. It strikes me as pretty typically Norwegian. The responses, from King Harald, from Jens Stoltenberg, the Prime Minister, from the opposition parties, was ‘this is not going to change us. This is not going to change our commitment to democratic or humanist values.’ One girl, who was at the camp while Breivik was rampaging through it and who saw her friends murdered, said, in a widely quoted statement “if one man could show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.”

So. Inspiring? Or dangerously naive? One response to Norway’s response might well be: ‘Typical weenie liberals,’ right? And let’s suppose that some other ideological extremist found Breivik’s actions as heroic, not horrific. Let’s suppose there was a copycat wannabe. Would that person be deterred by the astonishing sentence Breivik received? If there were more killings, would Norway’s continuing commitment to opposing the death penalty also mean that Norway would have blood on its hands? Does Sunstein have this right?

In fact, there haven’t been copycat killings. Not yet, at least. But let’s take Sunstein’s argument seriously for a moment. Certainly, the death penalty does deter any further crimes that the guy we just executed might have possibly committed in future. It also deters any possible good the guy might have done, so there’s that. But can we as a society take the chance that deterrence works? Wouldn’t that be irresponsible of us?

Here’s the thing: most of the arguments I’ve heard for the death penalty strike me as atavistic. Whenever there’s a mass shooting–Charleston’s the most recent big one–the reaction of a lot of people, not just in media but in everyday conversations, is ‘fry the bastard.’ Break out Old Sparky; electrocute him. Shoot him. Hang him from the highest tree. We like that. We love Hollywood revenge fantasies. We love the idea of vengeance. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. All that.

Set that aside. That’s our lizard-brain talking. We do actually know better, especially those of us who profess Christianity. And let’s also leave off all the other objections to the death penalty–racial bias, inadequate representation, the unreliability of witness testimony, DNA proof of innocence claims. Let’s leave all that out of the equation. Let’s confine ourselves to Sunstein’s argument, and let’s assume, as he does, that deterrence is a real-world possibility.

Should we execute murderers? Should we do it to save the potential lives of their potential, eventual victims?

I spent the afternoon going back and forth on this. Finally, I concluded: No. We should not. Justice remains an essential societal value. But the death penalty does not serve the cause of justice, because it leaves off the single most important element in criminal justice, the possibility of redemption. We can ask juries to determine what happened, who did what, who is responsible. We cannot, and must not ever ask juries to determine the worth or value of any human soul. I say, let’s put ourselves on the same moral plane as Norway, not Libya. Let’s say no to death.

The ancient law of hospitality, the Odyssey, and Sodom

With the Supreme Court’s recent Obergefell decision, a lot of people on the internet have waxed apocalyptic, suggesting that the decision was morally catastrophic and predicting a bad end to American society. And where in scripture might one find support for the idea that homosexuality equals catastrophe? Where else, but in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom equals sodomy equals sinfulness equals destruction; that’s how the story goes. The problem is, if we read the actual scriptural account of Sodom, it turns out that Sodom’s destruction had essentially nothing to do with homosexuality. Sodom’s sin was to violate the ancient law of hospitality.

Say what? The difficulty is that word, ‘hospitality,’ with its Martha Stewart-ish overtones, and general sense of using-the-wrong-fork-at-dinner or mussing-up-the-guest-towels. To say ‘Sodom was inhospitable’ seems like pretty weak tea, acting as gay apologists, minimizing Sodom’s sin. In fact, the ancient law of hospitality was a very serious thing indeed, the defining characteristic of civilized society. Ancient Troy was destroyed because hospitality was violated. It’s mostly what The Odyssey was about. It was incredibly important.

The law of hospitality is best described as a whole system of rights and reciprocal obligations, without which civilization could not exist. If a stranger showed up at your city gates, you had two choices. You could bash his head in. Or you could invite him in, feed him, shelter him, and send him on his way with gifts. If you did the former, word got around, you were understood not to be a civilized society, and nobody would trade with you. If you did the latter, word got around, you were understood to be civilized, and trade flourished. As a guest, he had obligations as well; to not abscond with the silverware or the king’s daughter. Or your host’s wife.

Which brings us to Paris, and to Menelaus. When Paris ran off with Helen, he committed the most egregious possible violation of a guest’s obligations, the most despicable possible transgression of civilized values. Menelaus was absolutely justified in asking Agamemnon to join him an in attempt to seek redress, and Priam, though a good and honorable man in most respects, ought to have given Paris and Helen up. Instead, we had the spectacle of the Trojan war. Homer does not defend all Greek conduct in the war, nor does he condemn Priam and Hector and other decent Trojans. The tragedy of Troy was the inevitability of the Greek response to Troy’s breach of the hospitality code.

The Odyssey takes this all a step further. Odysseus is driven off his course, visiting island after island, city after city. The Odyssey can be seen as a primer on hospitality, a series of case studies on how it works, and what’s supposed to happen. Some people–Nausicaa’s people, for example–serve as good examples. Others–Polyphemus–are the worst possible subjects for study, absolutely defining barbarism. Meanwhile, back home in Ithaca, Penelope’s suitors–who have, in the beginning, a potentially legitimate reason to visit–become, over time, intolerable. They are initially guests, but by never leaving, they grow intolerable.

Hospitality was the key to civilization, and it makes sense that the most important work of Greek scripture would be an in-depth study of the hospitality code. And the longest section of the book deals with the most complex case; the suitors. We read it (or hear it), and learn;  yes, it’s possible to start off legitimate, and over time, become barbaric. And, in the end, of course, Odysseus and Telemachus set the course of civilized behavior back on track, by wiping the suitors off the map. The cost is high, but Athena sets matters right in the end, blessing Odysseus’ actions.

How does this relate to Sodom? Well, it’s another case study in hospitality. My friend Bill Davis explains:

Sodom and Gomorrah: What the Bible really says. The issue: didn’t God destroy S&G for homosexuality? Let’s go back and take a look. Remember the story? Two angels show up at Sodom and meet Lot at the front gate. In accordance with the law of hospitality, Lot invites them home. Next thing ya know, the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring the angels out to them. Why? To gang rape them.

Gang rape? Why? Well, in this period and location, one of the strategies certain cultures used to demonstrate their power and superiority over foreigners was to rape them. It’s not about loving relationships. In fact, it’s not even about sex. It’s about power and humiliation. The goal is to humiliate your enemies. Lot brought some strangers into town, and now the Sodomites are going to aggressively humiliate them to show them who’s boss. And this aggressive humiliation went directly counter to the very important, sacred laws of hospitality.

In other words, Genesis provides us with another hospitality case study. And anyone in the ancient world would have been appalled. There’s nothing bad that could happen subsequently to Sodom that wouldn’t have seemed entirely justified. It turns out, there’s an equally appalling story found in Judges 19. I don’t want to explore it in depth, but it’s about the same dynamic; a city refusing hospitality, and rape as a instrument of power. The difference is, in Judges, the rape is heterosexual. As Bill Davis points out: “if we claim that the story in Genesis 19 is a condemnation of the loving intimacy between homosexuals, then Judges 19 is also a condemnation of loving intimacy between heterosexuals.” Or, as Bible scholar Jay Michaelson puts it, “reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe.”

It’s also complicated by other scriptural accounts. The prophet Ezekial, for example, wrote this:

As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done. Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  Ezekial 16: 48-50

Can we tie these two ideas together? Absolutely. One of the difficulties of the law of hospitality is that the people who showed up at your gate weren’t necessarily rich or powerful or important. It’s easy to treat people well if you think you can immediately profit by it; harder to just help people in need. Again, in the Odyssey, the one people that provide us the most unequivocal good example of hospitality were the Phaeacians–the people of Princess Nausicaa. When she and her handmaidens come across Odysseus, he’s naked, shipwrecked, and injured. There’s no obvious or immediate advantage to helping him. And he doesn’t initially even tell them his name. But Nausicaa’s parents, Arete and Alcinous, treat him with kindness and generosity nonetheless. Their story ties together those virtues of what we would call Christian charity to hospitality, precisely the virtues that Ezekial tells us Sodom most conspicuously lacked.

I know that in common parlance, Sodom was destroyed because of homosexuality, and sodomy a synonym for gay sex. Justification for this perspective can be found in that strangest and shortest of New Testament works, the book of Jude:

Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. Jude 1:7

I suppose you could argue that ‘going after strange flesh’ is a reference to homosexuality, or possibly bestiality. But the ‘lack of charity’ angle later becomes part of the equation; the people Jude condemns are ‘spots on your feasts of charity.’

There are, of course, other Bible scriptures that condemn homosexual relations. Most of them are part of the Law of Moses, which also condemns playing football (with a pigskin), or wearing cotton/poly blend shirts. Still, there’s the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6: 9-10, I Timothy 1: 8-11). Of course, Paul had nothing to say about gay marriage, because such a concept could not possibly have ever occurred to him. But the narrative that really does not have any scriptural support at all is the one in which the destruction of Sodom is used to demonstrate what God’s wrath will do to America if we embrace marriage equality. The story of Sodom is about arrogance, violence and a lack of charity. It’s about what happens when a society rejects the law of hospitality.  And that’s actually a warning with some teeth.