Category Archives: Popular culture, general

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.

Bill Cosby, serial rapist

We think we know celebrities. We don’t. What we know is a carefully crafted persona, an image, meticulously buffed and refurbished. And sometimes those personae are edgy and tough and sometimes they’re pleasant and kind and family-friendly. And then we hear something about a celebrity that seems at odds with what we’ve imagined we know about them. And it takes awhile to process.

On Saturday, a 2005 deposition given by actor and comedian Bill Cosby surfaced. Forty-eight women had, in recent years, come forward and accused Cosby of various degrees of sexual misconduct, including many who said that he had drugged and raped them. Those accusations had been greeted with varying degrees of incredulity. This was, after all, Bill Cosby, one of the most beloved entertainers in America, winner of a 2002 Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And, of course, our perceptions of Cosby were largely shaped by The Cosby Show, which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1992. Bill Cosby was, for most of us, Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the genial, kind-hearted and wise patriarch of that sit-com family.

It wasn’t just that Bill Cosby played a beloved TV Dad. He was black, and he was a pioneer. From 1965-1968, he played Alexander Scott on the comedy-spy TV series, I Spy. He was therefore the first black actor to play a leading role in an American TV drama. The premise of the show was that of two putative tennis bums who actually are working for the CIA. It was a buddy-cop-comedy, with Robert Culp as tennis star Kelly Robinson, who partners with Scott/Cosby. It was the kind of show that commented on race without ever commenting on race; Scott was just a character on a show, smarter and more sophisticated than Robinson, but not as intuitive. It was a fun show, witty and clever. During the time of that show, and for years thereafter, Cosby’s comedy albums were massive best-sellers; I remember memorizing entire bits. “It’s The Lord, Noah.” “Right.” “I want you to build an ark.” “Right. What’s an ark?” Listen to those old routines today, and they’re just remarkable; exquisite comic timing, beautifully shaped comedic narratives.

Also this: he wasn’t ‘a Hollywood type.’ Or so we thought; he was a good guy. Happily married, a college graduate, a happy family man, with four daughters. And–more sympathy– a son who was the victim of a terrible tragedy; murdered, senselessly while changing his car tire. Later on, Cosby became the spokesperson for black self-empowerment. He came out against rap music, against hip hop culture. A pull-your-pants-up, go-to-school, get-a-job cultural warrior. (But even this was expressed genially). That was also the point of The Cosby Show; the Huxtable home was beautiful; they were well-off people. He represented black aspiration, black achievement. African American gentrification. The Huxtables were an American ideal.

So this was the point: nobody wanted Bill Cosby, of all people, to be revealed as anything less than what he seemed to be, a good and decent man, an extraordinary talent, and a spokesperson for middle-class values. A sexual predator? No way!

Except there were always those accusations, all those women, saying they had been assaulted by him. Initially, when we thought about Cosby, those allegations were an annoying buzz we tried to swat away. It couldn’t be true. Bill Cosby, of all people. Get real.

But yes. On the deposition, Bill Cosby, under oath, admits to drugging young women with the intention of having sexual relations with them. He admits to paying women off with money from his personal account, so that his wife wouldn’t learn of it. These activities all took place years ago, and so his crimes are past the statute of limitations. He will, in all likelihood, never be criminally prosecuted. But he is, by his own admission, someone who used drugs on women, so that he could engage in what he called ‘romantic, sexual things, whatever you call them.’ As it happens, our society has a word for ‘romantic, sexual things’ that are non-consensual. That word is ‘rape.’ Bill Cosby is a serial rapist.

After defendant testified that he obtained seven prescriptions for Quaaludes, the following testimony was elicited:

Q. You gave them to other people?

A. Yes.

Q. When you got the Quaaludes, was it in your mind that you were going to use these Quaaludes for young women that you wanted to have sex with?

A. Yes.

So how do we process this? Lots of commentators have expressed amazement over the cognitive dissonance of combining the persona of ‘genial paterfamilias Bill Cosby’ and ‘serial rapist.’ But I think there’s a valuable lesson here, if we can disassociate the word ‘rapist’ from our usual understanding of it, a depraved and vicious lunatic leaping out from behind a tree and holding a knife to a woman’s throat. That kind of stranger-rape can happen, of course, but it’s also misleading. The ‘Cosby persona’ who was also a rapist was Cliff Huxtable. Daddy Huxtable is the rapist here.

Read the transcripts. Time and time again, Cosby would talk to young women, kindly and sympathetically, asking about their education, their families, their hopes and dreams. One young woman told him, tearfully, about coping with the death of her father. That’s the basic premise of most episodes of The Cosby Show.  One of the Huxtable kids would be struggling with a personal problem of some kind. Daddy Huxtable would listen, with great kindness and sympathy. And then he’d propose a solution, and off they’d go, problem solved. That’s what Cosby did with the various women who have accused him of attacking them. He would go into full Huxtable mode. He would listen, and he would sympathize. And then he would slip them a roofie and have non-consensual sex with them. And when they approached him later, he would cut them a check. From his personal account, so his wife wouldn’t know about it.

We need to learn from this; in fact, we need to internalize it. This is how rapists behave. Not all rapists, of course, but often enough. Most rape victims were attacked by someone they knew and trusted. Kindly old Dr. Huxtable was the rapist here. That was the persona Bill Cosby adopted when he wanted to have a ‘romantic, sexual thing’ with a young woman he met somewhere. It was a role he was good at playing.

Often enough, the place where he met them was the Playboy mansion. That’s another notion we need to get our heads around: Cosby was a welcome and frequent guest of Hugh Hefner. The women who have accused Cosby of rape included former Playmates Victoria Valentino, Sarita Butterfield, Charlotte Laws and Michelle Hurd. Another woman, Judy Huth, has said she was also attacked at the Playboy mansion. Hugh Hefner and Bill Cosby; Hef and Cos? Yes, indeed. Old friends, and quite literally, apparently, partners in crime. It now appears likely that Hef learned about the affective properties of Quaaludes, and that he instructed old pal Cosby in their use. Kindly old Hugh Hefner.

So there’s something else that we need to process. Playmates are women who have posed nude in Playboy magazine. That is to say that they are attractive young women whose images have appeared, neatly airbrushed and photoshopped (one presumes), naked, in the pages of a particularly famous men’s magazine. They are also guests at the mansion, welcome anytime, to enjoy the world’s longest running party, hosted by a really old guy in his pajamas.

And here’s the point; the fact that these women consented to have their photos in that magazine does not suggest sexual availability, and should not imply consent to subsequent sexual activity. It is absolutely possible to rape a Bunny. Consent is consent, and a woman who has been drugged is not capable of consent.

Somehow, Hugh Hefner has managed to sell the image of the Playboy mansion as somehow, I don’t know, innocent. A fun place for young women hoping to advance modeling/acting/show biz careers. Sort of a partying job fair. I’m not going to link to it, but check out Weezer’s Beverly Hills video. It does an effective job of selling this notion: ‘ain’t nothin’ goin’ on here but good clean fun.’ We now know that that is not the case. The Playboy mansion is a hunting ground for sexual predators. Elderly sexual predators, apparently. Like Hef, and Cos.

Bill Cosby’s career is over. His reputation is destroyed. Civil suits could wipe out his fortune–I certainly hope so. It’s not likely that he will ever go to jail, more’s the pity, but his actions may result in a bill, currently before Congress, to extend the statute of limitations for rapists. The best we can do now, is learn from his case. Two lessons: rapists can look like and act like Dr. Huxtable, and also, posing for a men’s magazine does not imply consent to sexual intercourse. That will have to be enough.

Why Donald Trump’s candidacy is good for America

It’s July, 2015. The first primaries won’t happen for six months; the first debates begin next month. Businessman Donald Trump is either in first, second or third place among Republican candidates in the latest polls. I think this is great. I hope this trend continues. Donald Trump’s candidacy is good for America.

Here’s why. The American political process is, and should be, funny. It takes forever. In the early stages, it disproportionately focuses on two small states that couldn’t be less representative of the American populace, and if four guys careening around Iowa pandering to voters is funny, 22 is even funnier. Our election cycle gives candidates ample opportunity to say and do ridiculous things. This is all to the good. The President of the United States is a very important job, and it does, absolutely, matter who wins. But in the meantime, let them entertain us! Laughter’s good for the soul. And there’s no one more entertainingly foolish than The Donald.

And the ranks of first-rate political satirists has been a bit thinned of late. Jon Stewart is retiring in three weeks. David Letterman has already retired. Jimmy Fallon seems more interested in having celebrities do impressions of other celebrities than in scathing social commentary–not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Stephen Colbert has vanished into the wilderness, taking his character with him, though I suspect that his return will dazzle.

But Trump is something special to these guys. Stewart has expressed regrets over his (he now thinks) pre-mature retirement. David Letterman actually showed up at an event with Steve Martin and Martin Short, Trump-oriented Top Ten list in hand.

Plus, best of all, Donald Trump has helped inspire the return of Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County. That’s right; after twenty five years, we’re getting more Bloom County; Opus the Penguin, Milo, Oliver Wendell Jones, Steve Dallas, and best of all, Bill the Cat. Who will be the Trump stand-in.

And I haven’t even mentioned the #trumpyourcat instagram phenomenon, wherein people give their cats Donald Trump hairdos.

And in a serious vein, Donald Trump’s candidacy is also revelatory with respect to the Republican electorate. I mean, he announced his candidacy (before a heavily papered house), by stating categorically, as though it was one of those things that everyone knows and just doesn’t want to say aloud, that Mexican immigrants were pretty much all of them rapists. When that led to absolutely justified howls of outrage, Trump doubled down. He does that. He doesn’t back down, he doesn’t apologize. He says ludicrous and offensive things, and then he insists that what he said was simply the unvarnished truth, and he won’t walk it back.

And then his poll numbers go up.

Now, I don’t want to fall into the ‘all conservatives are racists’ trap. For one thing, I know a lot of conservatives, and they are not, for the most part, racists. Plus ‘racist’ is a nasty thing to call someone. I will say that Trump’s recent success does indicate that a substantial part of the Republican electorate is clueless and uninformed about the realities of immigration, legal and illegal, in this country. And that maybe some inchoate, unacknowledged, more-felt-than-articulated racial or cultural prejudice may also be at play.

Also, the Trumpites seem clueless and uninformed about a whole range of important policies. Take, for example, Trump’s ‘secret plan’ for dealing with Isis. He hasn’t told anyone what that ‘secret plan’ might entail. Just that it’s going to be ‘beautiful.’ And his poll numbers keep climbing. Which suggests, again, that the problem with Isis is just a matter of will, that all we have to do is insist strongly enough that Isis go away, and they will. And that feckless clown Obama (who is probably mostly Moslem anyway, and may well be from Kenya) just doesn’t want Isis to go away badly enough. In other words, the notion that a secret-but-easily-implemented plan to get rid of Isis might actually succeed ‘beautifully’ suggests, again, an electorate stunningly clueless and ill informed. At least in this sense: a substantial number of people, asked by pollsters who they favor for the Presidency, are able to bring themselves to say ‘Trump.’

Trump seems to think that the Presidency is about making deals. He called the recent Iran deal ‘terrible,’ saying ‘we gave them billions of dollars.’ In fact, ‘giving them billions of dollars’ has nothing to do with the Iran deal, unless you consider a gradual easing of sanctions some kind of giveaway. But that’s Trump. He sees everything through the prism of a business deal. This was a bad deal, because the US didn’t get everything it wanted. Neither did Iran. It’s diplomacy. But that’s not something Trump understands.

Trump’s a celebrity; people have heard of him, which is one reason he stands out from a Republican field that otherwise includes the likes of John Kasich and Carly Fiorina. (People have heard of Jeb Bush, but I don’t sense much excitement there; he’s just ‘the next Bush.’) He’s spectacular ill-informed, but so are most voters on most issues; nothing new there.

But he’s also such a splendid comic stereotype. The bombastic oaf. The comically vain womanizer. He’s a character Moliere would have had a ball with. We have our own Molieres, and they’re licking their chops.

Donald Trump is not going to become President. He polls around 10% in a crowded field, with 58% of the electorate saying they would never vote for him, ever, under any circumstance. That number’s not likely to moderate much. He can’t possibly win. Meanwhile, it’s a hot summer. We need a good laugh. I’m glad he’s running.

Language, liberals and conservatives

This post is, frankly, poorly thought-through. I feel like I’m reaching for something here. But I have been thinking a lot about recent Supreme Court decisions, Obergefell v. Hodges and King v. Burwell, and the vitriolic responses to the two majority decisions. And the re-definition of marriage. And the age of the earth. And language. Please bear with me.

It seems possible to me that one of the differences between liberals and conservatives may have to do with issues of language.  Both sides use the same rhetorical devices; both sides love anecdotal evidence and slippery-slope arguments and straw men, though I do think conservatives like arguments from authority more than liberals do. But it’s more fundamental than that. What is language? How does it function? What do words mean? And so I ask myself this: is it possible that a defining characteristic of conservatism is the idea that there exists a one-to-one correlation between word and meaning, that words are fixed in their meaning, that a word or sentence or phrase means what it means, and not anything else? And that liberals understand language more fluidly?

Follow me here. In King v. Burwell, the plaintiffs insisted that a plain reading of a single sentence in the Affordable Care Act meant something specific. Here’s the ever-invaluable SCOTUSblog on the subject:

Seizing on language buried in the complex formula for calculating the subsidy amount, the plaintiffs argued that subsidies were available only for plans purchased on “an Exchange established by the State.

Justice Scalia’s dissent insisted that the word ‘State’ meant ‘state,’ one of the 50 states in the United States, not anything else. The majority’s interpretation of this passage, which made the the Secretary of Health and Human Services responsible for administering subsidies, led to Justice Scalia retorting “state means state. The Secretary of Heath and Human Services is not a state.” But as Nicholas Bagley of SCOTUSblog put it, the majority’s decision was “an enormous victory for common sense in statutory interpretation.” The point of the law was to make health care more widely available. The means to accomplish that was by using subsidies. So obviously Congress can’t have meant to provide subsidies only for people who purchased health insurance on a state exchange. Congress can’t have intended, for some odd reason, not to make them available to people who were insured through a federal exchange. In context, the phrase ‘established by the state’ has to have meant something other than ‘through a state exchange.’ ‘State’ can, for example, mean ‘nation.’ Justice Roberts’ decision quite properly chided Congress for ‘inartful drafting.’  But context matters. Unpacking the meaning of a phrase has to take into account many factors.

That’s exhibit A. On to marriage equality. One of the main objections to Obergefell by conservatives is that the Court majority (‘five unelected lawyers’) ended up ‘redefining marriage.’ And that’s certainly what it did. What I can’t figure out is why it matters. Marriage has been legally redefined many times, and usually for the better, in the direction of greater equality.

More to the point, though, is this: marriages are defined by married couples. My marriage is defined by many factors. We’ve been together for 34 years; we have long-standing habits and traditions which we rely on. We’re both pretty funny, and humor is an important part of our marriage. I like to cook more than she does. She’s more likely to think of ways to redecorate our home. I can think of a million other compromises that define who we are.

There’s a family down the street where the wife is an accomplished cyclist. They define their marriage, in part, by supporting her cycling career and the various races in which she participates. Another couple who used to live across the street, the husband played golf competitively. So that, in part, defined their marriage. His golfing had no effect whatever on my marriage, nor did it impact the cycling family’s marriage. My son and his wife define their marriage, in part, by trying new things all the time. Like, there was an airshow in their community; they went to see it. They attended a college hockey game. They went to a bluegrass festival. They like that; they enjoy being adventurous. I think that’s awesome. It also doesn’t have any effect on anyone but them.

Reading the ‘redefining marriage’ rhetoric, it sounds as though people believe that the word ‘marriage’ is only defined one way, and that defining it other ways will, I don’t know, open up some massive cosmic rift, destroying our society. Words have meaning, and words have power, but language is much more fluid than we tend to think.

Going on. Why do some Mormons believe that the earth is 6000 years old? Here’s why: Doctrine and Covenants, 77: 6-7:

Q. What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals? A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence. Q. What are we to understand by the seven seals with which it was sealed? A. We are to understand that the first seal contains the things of the first thousand years, and the second also of the second thousand years, and so on until the seventh.

Joseph Fielding Smith took this to mean that that earth is exactly 6000 years old, and that any understanding to the contrary was apostate. Elder Bruce R. McConkie thought so too. But nobody really thinks that anymore, I don’t think. I mean, even apologetic groups admit that the phrase ‘a thousand years’ could mean exactly 1000 years, or it could, and probably did, mean ‘a really really long time.’ Again, we see a situation where well known conservative advocates insist on a literal understanding of certain words or phrases. And liberals think language is more about context and shifting meanings.

A dictionary is not, you know, prescriptive. It has no force of law. It’s a monument to the state of the language in the era in which it was compiled. And the marvelous flexibility of English can be found in the inventiveness and imagination of its users. Word.

The Women’s World Cup

The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament finishes this weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited, or feel more patriotic. Go USA! International sporting events bring out my usually fairly latent Americanism like nothing; I want to festoon my vehicles with bald eagle decals, hang a flag outside my home, even sing that ‘Proud to be an American’ song, which I usually avoid at all costs. This year’s World Cup narrative is a richly textured yarn, with numerous subplots and complexities, some of which actively encourage anthem-singing and some of which kind of don’t.

The USA squad is generally recognized as one of the three best in the world, but hasn’t won the World Cup since the Brandi Chastain/Mia Hamm team in 1999. That final remains the highest rated TV soccer broadcast in US history, and was wildly inspirational and aspirational: grrrl power. In fact, the USA should be good at women’s soccer. Millions of American girls play soccer. And although soccer is the most popular team sport in the world, that’s not necessarily because girls play it; in many football-crazed nations, the sport is tied to ideals of machismo that make soccer-playing girls national afterthoughts. Even as the US men’s national team lags behind the rest of the world in the development of young players, the Title IX-driven idea of sporting gender equality is something of a US phenomenon. Why not? Youth coaches in any sport love to talk about how the participation of kids in, whatever, football, baseball, basketball, lacrosse, teaches invaluable lessons about laudable values: hard work, team play, fairness, sportsmanship. If those lessons are good for boys, they’re equally good for girls, are they not? So the success of women’s soccer should be applauded.

And applauded for another reason as well; it’s fun to watch. If, as a sports fan, I like the celebration of human excellence that sports embody, then why on earth would that be gender specific? I like soccer. I like the amazing athletes who play it. I love the strategy, the tactical decisions, the sheer beauty of speed and power and strength and quickness and field vision.

But I also love sports for its narratives, for the stories that unfold behind the scenes, then play themselves out on the field. One of the real revelations on this US team has been the play of central defender Julie Johnston. She’s an amazing athlete, tall and graceful and disciplined, and she’s technically proficient. She seems never to be out of position, even when dashing upfield for set pieces and counters. Her center back partner, Becky Sauerbrun, is equally tall, blonde, and capable. The US has given up only one goal in the entire tournament, and it’s mostly due to Johnston and Sauerbrunn. Johnston is dating Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zack Ertz, which is why you see so many Eagles’ players at World Cup matches; Ertz has made them all fans. When asked what a typical date would be for her and Ertz, Johnston said they loved playing UNO together. I think that’s so great; these two world class athletes dropping Draw Four Wild cards on each other, cackling in delight.  As for Sauerbrunn, she’s a noted bookworm, never without a book close to hand.  But in play she has this constantly worried look, like a Mom working as a crossing guard.

The US goalkeeper is Hope Solo, probably the most controversial player on the team, if not in the world. She’s the best keeper in the world, strong and powerful. But she’s also been accused of domestic violence, by her step-sister; accused of beating up a nephew twice her size. That’s not hyperbole; the nephew is a three hundred pound high school football player, and Solo goes maybe 5’11, 150. Large for a woman, sure, but did she really beat this big kid up? And that’s the thing about Solo; I don’t automatically disbelieve it. There’s an edge to Solo’s play, a barely controlled aggression. Even more than most keepers, she seems to regard being scored on as a personal affront.

(Do I defend her domestic violence? I do not. If it happened. Her accuser is a sister from whom she’s been long estranged. At the same time, Solo has had a drinking problem in the past. I don’t know what happened; the case has not been adjudicated. Presumption of innocence; all that. Hope Solo is, as always, a puzzle, an enigma. And a brilliant soccer keeper.)

One of the key plays in the entire tournament involved Johnston and Solo. Johnston made a rare mistake, taking down a German player in the goal box. It was an obvious foul, and she could well have gotten a red card dismissal for it. As Johnston wept, comforted by Saurbrunn, the referee rewarded a penalty kick; German star Celia Sasic took it. Germany never misses penalty kicks. I mean never; not once in World Cup history had a German player missed a penalty kick. They were 12-12. But you watched Solo back there, preparing, lithe as a panther, and you noticed how long she took. Stalling. With a look of utter confidence–barely perceptible contempt, even– on her face. She was clearly psyching Sasic out, and it worked; Sasic put her shot wide left.

There are other fascinating narratives involving this year’s team. This may be the last World Cup for the great Abby Wambach. Wambach is one of the greatest players in women’s soccer history; she tops the list of all time World Cup goal scorers, and is the greatest scorer in American women’s soccer history. She scored one of the great goals in World Cup history; a game tying header against Brazil in 2011, in a semi-final match the US eventually won. She’s tall and strong, and known particularly for her aggressive and accurate headers. And she turned 35 during this tournament. She’s one of the slowest women on the pitch, anymore. So there’s been a lot of question about how much she should play this year. There are younger, faster, more creative players on the roster–Morgan Brian, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux. But they’re not Abby Wambach; can’t match her sheer determination and courage.

The US was seen as an underdog against Germany. Morgan Brian played, with Alex Morgan as the only striker, an odd formation the US hadn’t used previously. It could hardly have worked better. Wambach came on right at the end, and meanwhile cheered her teammates on; was an inspirational sideline presence. I expect we’ll see the same lineup against Japan in the final, on Sunday.

But this wouldn’t be the Women’s World Cup without some sense of a larger purpose, of more significant socio-political issues at play. It’s not just that these are women playing what is regarded internationally as a man’s sport. It’s how they’ve had to cope with the corrupt cluelessness of the international soccer establishment. When men play in the World Cup, they play on grass, on perfectly groomed pitches that conduce to sporting excellence. But in this World Cup, FIFA (the morally bankrupt governing body for the sport), scheduled all the women’s games on turf. Turf is a bad surface for soccer. It’s a thin carpet laid over concrete; it’s painful to fall on, to dive on. And it’s plastic; players can get the nastiest contusions. Wambach was the most vocal athlete to raise a ruckus over the turf issue, and FIFA’s initial response was infuriating–condescending mansplaining, mostly. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s head, suggested that the women wear tighter shorts while playing, to increase viewership. Alex Morgan, the best US player, won a Player of the Year award; she says Blatter ignored her, didn’t know who she was.

This women’s team has become notorious on another front. The recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality came down last Friday, during the tournament, and was enthusiastically applauded by the women on the team. Wambach is married to former player Sarah Huffman. The most exuberant and creative player on the US team, dynamic Megan Rapinoe, is also openly gay, as is the team’s coach, Jill Ellis. And all three are LGBT activists. So for this team, at this moment in history, to win a championship, would be serendipity of the highest order. Go US indeed!

More to the point, this team is wonderful to watch. I’ve grown fond of little Meghan Klingenberg, who is short and feisty and relentless defensively. The German game was a showcase for Carli Lloyd, who scored one goal and set up the second one with a perfectly placed pass, to Kelley O’Hara, one of the youngest women on the team and one of the fastest. Lauren Holliday has an amazing knack for stopping off-target passes from going through. Christie Rampone, the oldest player on the team, has taken time off for childbirth and various injuries, but remains an obdurate and tenacious defender.

They’re a terrific team, and I love watching them play. I have watched at least part of every game played by every team in the tournament, and enjoyed every second. The best two teams have been Japan and the US. Japan is talented and superbly coached; they’ll be worthy opponents, and could well win. And that would be triumphant too, if a bit melancholy to this American guy.

Charleston, race, and the confederate flag

Like, I’m sure, all of you, I have been heartsick over the senseless murders in Charleston. I don’t understand it. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the oldest and most important black churches in the country. They were holding a Bible Study class, and welcomed the shooter with open arms, and held an hour-long dialogue with him, before he opened fire. I don’t understand any of that. How can you look people in the face, how can you talk to fellow human beings, how can you study with them, how can you hold a conversation with someone, and then pull out a weapon and start shooting? It’s incomprehensible.

I debated whether or not to use the killer’s name. He pretty clearly wanted to publicize his cause, and part of me doesn’t even want to allow him that tiny victory, of attaching his name to the names of the extraordinary men and women worshipping that night at Emanuel AME. At the same time, I feel like perhaps it would be just as wrong to deny this deeply troubled young man his humanity. He’s clearly ill, clearly delusional. His cause would deny the common humanity of those who he hated so pointlessly. And the families of the victims who spoke at his bond hearing expressed such an astonishing willingness to forgive, it humbles me, sets me an example I do not know I will be able to live up to.  So, let’s say it this way. On June 17th, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, a librarian, Susie Jackson, a church choir singer, Ethel Lee Lance, a church sexton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, a school administrator, Clementa C. Pinckney, a pastor and state senator, Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson’s niece, Daniel Simmons, a pastor, Sharonda, Coleman-Singleton, a pastor, speech therapist and track coach, and Myra Thompson, a Bible Study teacher were brutally murdered by Dylan Roof, a racist.

So what do we do now? President Obama called for national legislation restricting the purchase of firearms. He’s absolutely right about that, and I have no hope whatsoever of it actually happening. But the African-American community in South Carolina have called for a lesser, more symbolic response. They have asked to have the Confederate flag removed from the statehouse grounds. Obviously, this cannot happen without Republican support; very much to his credit, Mitt Romney called for it as well.

Not many others, though. The main Republican candidates for President were all asked about it; their responses were monuments to cowardice and political expediency. But perhaps we shouldn’t expect much from politicians.

As Larry Willmore pointed out on his show on Monday night, the Emanuel AME Church is found on Calhoun Street in Charleston. Calhoun was the most significant exponent of the ‘positive good’ theory of slavery.

I hold that in the present state of civiliza­tion, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject where the honor and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one por­tion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.

John C. Calhoun, Speech in the US Senate, 1837

 

What this means is that every piece of correspondence sent or received from the Emanuel AME Church bears the name of a defender and supporter of slavery. That every car filled with worshippers at that Church drives down a street named for the most significant racist in the political history of the United States. And many streets in Charleston are named after generals in the Confederacy, a treasonous government specifically established through force of arms, and intended to maintain undisturbed the institution of slavery.

Okay, that was harshly put. I’m a Northerner, unpersuaded of the virtues of the Southern cause. I reject the fantasy of a noble South, invaded by Yankee aggressors. I know that the civil war was a catastrophically bloody war, and that Sherman’s march to the see, though tactically brilliant, brutalized an entire region. Robert E. Lee, and J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson were military geniuses of the first order, and their story is surely a tragic one, as none of them were really pro-slavery. Lee fought for Virginia, not for slavery. His tragedy is the political tragedy of federalism run amuck. ‘Virginia,’ that abstraction, is not worth fighting, killing and dying for.

I found this article describing the history of the Confederate flag. It’s pretty straightforward. To say that it’s a traditional symbol of Southern heritage, or Southern pride, or Southern values really isn’t true at all. It was adopted in 1948, by Strom Thurmond, as a rallying symbol for segregationists.  It started flying over courthouses as a symbol of opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

But, of course, symbols mean different things to different people. I don’t think Lynyrd Skynyrd perform in front of a Confederate flag because the band is racist. I think they wrote Sweet Home Alabama in response to what they perceived as Neil Young’s put-down of their state in his song, Alabama. They liked the rebel vibe the flag gave them. I don’t think the Dukes of Hazzard were racist idiots for putting a rebel flag on their car, nor did that TV show intentionally mean to be racist. 6 of 10 white Southerners want to keep the flag; that does not suggest that 6 out of 10 white Southerners are racists. It speaks to regional pride, not the violent suppression of people based on skin tone.

But that’s also not a good enough reason to keep it. I’ll grant you that symbols have slippery meanings. But if a symbol is deeply and personally offensive to one group of people, and is liked by other people out of some sense of fond nostalgia, then weigh those two responses and get rid of the darn thing.

South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, called for the legislature of her state to remove the flag, to debate and vote on the issue (which will require a two thirds majority to pass). But as Larry Willmore pointed out last night, why not just take it down? Why can’t Haley just order the flag removed. Then let the legislative debate be about putting it back up?

And of course, it shouldn’t just come down in South Carolina. Georgia and Mississippi should get rid of theirs too, while they’re at it. Oh, and Virginia? The Virginia flag includes the phrase ‘sic semper tyrannis.’ That’s what Booth shouted after shooting Lincoln. Seriously, do you really want to keep that historical association?

The flags should come down. Put the flag in museums; be done with that symbol of racism and oppression. That needs to happen. It won’t end racism and it won’t end racially motivated violence. Easy access to firearms makes it much too easy for deluded and violent people to act out their most despicable fantasies. Still, any triumph over racism is a step towards progress. Let’s take this small step, at least.

 

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir: A biography, a review.

Nothing momentous ever happens without conflict; no great accomplishment is ever achieved unopposed. Half of Paris hated both Eiffel and his Tower, many 18th century Americans thought British rule was just fine, and at the opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Diaghilev had to force his dancers on stage at pistol point, such was the fury of the rioters in the house. Look at any great institution and understand that it came into being because somebody was willing to fight for it, and had to. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir rose to its present prominence because smart, talented people believed that it could, and should grow in artistic excellence and stature. That’s what makes Michael Hicks’ new biography of the Choir so thrilling. For most of us–certainly for me–the Choir just was. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to take for granted. Oh, yeah; it’s General Conference this weekend. And that means, as usual, the Choir will be singing. Cool. I wonder what new Mack Wilberg arrangements they’ll feature this time.

But no. Choir building took a long time, and many decisions. One of the earliest had to do with the role of music in worship; did Church services require hymn singing? If so, by whom? Who would select the hymns, who would compose them, who would rehearse the singers? Hicks covered those crucial decisions in his Mormonism and Music: A History (2003), a book I devoured, and still go back to. See this book as the essential supplement to that earlier work. Who were the earliest conductors of the Choir, what were their backgrounds and personalities?

I am a choir nerd of the first order. I have been a choir-watcher and a choir fan for most of my adult life. I met my wife in a BYU choir; Ron Staheli sat us in sections, but I was the tallest bass and she was the tallest soprano, and we shared a riser at the world premiere of Robert Cundick’s The Redeemer. (Trying to impress her, I told her that the soloist playing Jesus was my father. This was actually true, but she didn’t believe me, and rebuffed my fumbling first advances). Years later, I landed a gig as a Tab Choir writer–I was one of several who wrote the Spoken Word segments for the Choir’s weekly broadcasts. I wrote eight Spoken Words a year for seven years before burning out. I have to this day an immense appreciation for Richard Evans, who managed to stay inspirational for forty years.

So I am, I suppose, an ideal reader for this book. And I found it immensely satisfying. A book like this requires the persistence of a first rate researcher, the patience and discretion of a great story-teller, as well as the musical chops to critically assess the choir’s musicality in each phase of its development. I couldn’t put it down. And when I finished, it was with that sense of regret we all experience when we’ve read something terrific. That feeling of ‘shoot, now I won’t get to read it anymore.’

Heroes emerge: George Careless, Evan Stephens, Tony Lund, Evans, Spencer Cornwall, Jerold Ottley. The word ‘heroes’ implies the existence of ‘villains,’ making it perhaps a bit misleading; there weren’t really powerful voices in the institutional Church wondering if we really needed a Choir, for example. But there were certainly disagreements, over the Choir’s purpose and direction, over financing, over age requirements, and, as might well be imagined, over repertoire. All those sorts of questions had to hashed out and clarified and decided and then, later, revisited.

And certain themes, specific areas of perpetual conflict, all emerged. Should the choir record and perform a classical repertoire of great oratorios or cantatas? What modern composers should they feature? What about the best work of Mormon composers? What should the relationship be between the Choir and music in the Church generally? How should the choir balance its obligations to its radio broadcast partners? With non-LDS musicians? With pop music? And probably the biggest question of all: was the primary responsibility of the Choir to the demands of great music? Or to the missionary efforts of the Church?

These weren’t matters about which there was universal agreement. They all had to be hashed out, argued over, and finally settled. The process by which all that happened is endlessly fascinating, mostly because they are important questions about which good men strenuously disagreed.

One of the things I most respect about Hicks’ book is the way he handles areas of controversy and possible scandal. One question, for example, has to do with Evan Stephens’ sexuality. Hicks mentions the dispute, gives it a paragraph or two, directs us to further reading. But the conclusions he reaches seem fair and evidence-driven. Where there is no definitive proof, Hicks refuses to speculate. The fact of a controversy and the extent to which that controversy has become part of the historical narrative does deserve some small attention, and that’s essentially what Hicks gives it. I think that’s fair. Likewise the mystery of Craig Jessop’s sudden and unexpected resignation as conductor is given, I think, sufficient but not excessive attention. I admire Hicks’ careful restraint on these issues, driven not by prudence or caution, but by a simple recognition that the evidence is insufficient and unclear.

Anyway, this is a terrific book, a book I recommend without reservation. The MoTab is one of the great cultural institutions in American history. That didn’t happen by accident, nor does it seems to have entirely by design. Each new actor changed the story; it’s fascinating to wonder what it will look like fifty years from now.

San Andreas: Movie review

I love big stupid disaster movies. I’ve been a fan of them ever since the ’70’s, when Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake marked the high points in what was something of a golden age of disaster. All these movies were about terrible events, with lots of death and destruction and very high death counts, which we weren’t supposed to worry about much because, after all, characters played by movie stars are the only human beings that matter. Really, though, the movies were about showcasing whatever passed for state-of-the-art special effects.

Earthquake, for example, featured sensurround. It made it feel like that theater was actually shaking, accomplished by using low level bass, low enough that you couldn’t hear it, but only feel it. It was awesome, but impractical; there weren’t enough movies that used it, and it was expensive to install in theaters. It was used, I remember, in the 1979 Battlestar Gallactica movie. I remember how cool it was, to feel like your seat was shaking.

No sensurround, alas, for San Andreas, though there was tons of CGI. They had to plausibly film the destruction of Hoover Dam, downtown Los Angeles, and all of San Francisco, after all. That’s a lot of destruction, and a lot of people killed. But all those dead people don’t matter, because Dwayne Johnson’s family is in danger, and has to be saved. And that becomes the only thing we’re supposed to care about.

I have many many friends in LA. I love San Francisco, and have enjoyed my fair share of ballgames out there in China Basin. I would care a lot if both cities got clobbered. So would you; so would everyone.  There are millions of people in those cities–strangers to me, but fellow sojourners on this rock. Obviously a real life 9.6 clobbering both places would be an unimaginable catastrophe. Unimaginable, except, of course, we do get to imagine it; we have to imagine it, after we’ve laid down our eight bucks for tickets and taken our seats.

To deal with the story as quickly as possible, Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a firefighter/helicopter rescue specialist. His wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) has filed for divorce, and has moved in with her new squeeze, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), while daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) heads off to college. An opening scene shows Ray helping a young woman who has managed to drive her car off a cliff and onto a mountain ledge–Ray, of course, manages a last-second rescue. But life on the home front is nothing but one long humiliation, though he manages to be civil to oily architect Daniel.

Meanwhile, a seismologist named Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) has figured out how to predict big earthquakes, and is being interviewed by a TV reporter, Serena (Archie Punjabi) about it. That’s the big subplot. I can only hope that Giamatti got paid a lot of money.

Anyway, the big one hits. And it destroys Hoover Dam (without killing Lawrence, because he’s a seismologist, and therefore able to know exactly how close to the dam he can safely stand as it collapses). And his magic predicting system tells him that first LA and then San Francisco are going to get clobbered. Which he has to figure out how to tell everyone, so the authorities can evacuate both towns.

I imagine the producers’ thinking here was; why wipe out one iconic American city when we can have double the fun by wiping out two? In any event, Ray, flying around on his helicopter, is able to find the LA building where Emma is having lunch with, I think, Daniel’s horrendously bitchy ex (Kylie Minogue, having way too much fun). So Ray snatches Emma off the top of a skyscraper just before it collapses. And they’re back together.

Awkwardly. See, Ray’s problem is that he can’t express his feelings. That’s why Emma’s divorcing him; he’s uncommunicative. Because their other daughter died, and he blames himself. So when he breaks through and cries a little, Emma feels so much better about him. That was the first time I laughed out loud in the movie. See, in a movie in which Los Angeles California has been reduced to rubble (with how many millions dead?), what we really care about is Dwayne Johnson weeping for us, over a previous dead daughter.

But, see, they still have a living daughter, and Ray and Emma, now united, have to rescue her too. But San Francisco is a ways off. So they ditch the helicopter, steal a truck, ditch it, steal an airplane, and finally ditch it too and parachute onto the field at AT%T Park. That enables them to steal a boat, and drive around the waterfront looking for their daughter, who really, genuinely, could be anywhere in the city.

It turns out, though, that Dastardly Daniel has ditched her. She was in his limo, it got smushed, and rather than get her out, he scarpers. But never mind, two cute British brothers, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) get her out of the car, and off the three of them go, looking for Mom and Dad, and also dodging various collapsing buildings.

But what brings them all together, Mom, Dad, Blake and Brits, is a tsunami. Never mind that tsunamis only happen at subduction faults, which San Andreas is not. San Francisco gets a big one. In fact, that’s what destroys the Golden Gate Bridge–not the earthquake, but a cargo ship which the tsunami smacks the bridge with (incidentally, also crushing Dungbeetle Daniel). Meanwhile, Ray and Emma are in their boat, driving around flooded streets, where they just happen to see the one big building in which their daughter has taken refuge.

We’re close to the end of the movie now, so BELATED SPOILER ALERT. But when Ray rescues Blake, it’s too late. She’s already died. Drowned. No big deal, as it turns out; death in these movies is more an annoyance than, you know, The End. He CPRs her back to life, and she’s fine. And all ready to hook up with Ben the Cute Brit.

But that’s not the ending. No, the ending was the final time I laughed out loud in this ridiculous movie. Dwayne Johnson stands on a hill overlooking the Bay. We see an American flag wave (hanging from the Golden Gate wreckage). And Carla Gugino says “What do we do now?” And he says, solemnly, “We rebuild.” And the camera flies upward, and we see destroyed San Francisco from, yes, God’s POV.  ‘Cause, see, He approves of optimistic American pluckiness in the face of disaster. (Which, sorry, He sort of caused. Isn’t He in charge of earthquakes?)

It’s a ludicrously terrible movie, even before its final moment of blasphemy, and that’s why my wife and I went to see it; we were in the mood for craptacular. San Andreas did not disappoint, really at any level.  It’s a movie about the wholesale deaths of millions of people, that manages to leave us completely unmoved, because Dwayne Johnson’s character’s daughter survived (and even acquires a new boyfriend. Yay!) But that’s what we expected. It’s a good thing that these movies are so cheesy. Better movies would leave us utterly devastated. These things have to be formulaic and stupid. The acting has to be mediocre, the stories preposterous, the dialogue, comically idiotic.

Otherwise, we couldn’t bear it.

Defining marriage

I want to say something right upfront: I absolve my brother of the responsibility of marrying my wife if I should happen to die before she does. I don’t think his wife would like him marrying her very much, and I know my wife doesn’t want to move to Arizona. I know what the Bible says on the subject, and I’m just saying, we’re not going to worry about it. He’s off the hook, as far as I’m concerned. My wife has a job in Utah, one she likes and is very good at. She’d just as soon stay put. So if I die first, bro, you don’t have to marry and care for your brother’s widow, the Bible notwithstanding. She’ll be fine.

Reading the oral arguments this last week in the case of Obergefell v Hodges, the gay marriage-defining case before the Supreme Court, one thing became clear; this is a case the Justices are taking very seriously. As Justice Scalia pointed out, “you’re asking us to decide it (same-sex marriage) when no other society until 2001 had it.” And Chief Justice Roberts made the same point, that theirs was a weighty responsibility. And it is. Marriage is the single most important social institution in all of human culture. I’m completely and entirely pro-marriage. Let’s get that out of the way too; this is not about being ‘for marriage’ or ‘against marriage.’

Several of the justices seemed to have done a lot of reading about marriage and its history. And they, quite correctly, pointed out that essentially all cultures had defined marriage as an institution between men and women; that no societies, prior to ours, had included, in their marriage customs, a relationship between two men, or between two women.

But then the venerable RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, made this essential point in the entire argument:

But you wouldn’t be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was a relationship between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him. There was a change in the relationship of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t fit into what it was then.

Exactly. Marriage wasn’t so much between a man and a woman, as it was between a citizen and his property. It certainly wasn’t between a man and a “woman,” if we define “woman” as “autonomous equal,” or as “biologically different, but legally equalivalent.”

And “homosexual” didn’t mean the same thing then that it means today. In most societies, throughout most of history, “homosexual” meant “deviant.” It was defined by  words like “pervert,” “criminal,” “outcast.” It meant “subhuman.” Gay men had rights, but not as a gay person; they had rights only to the extent that they remained in the closet. Gay people have historically been persecuted, tortured, abused, rejected, reviled. Executed. The idea of codifying gay marriage or same sex marriage was completely unthinkable, most places, most times. That remains true in much of the world today. In much of the world, gay people live, quite literally, under a perpetual sentence of death. But in Western society, things have changed, and you’d have to be some kind of monster not to see those changes as wonderfully positive.

So when people talk about ‘traditional marriage,’ or ‘biblical marriage,’ they’re talking about an institution that absolutely nobody in modern Western society would want to reinstate. I don’t want to live in a world where women can’t own property, or vote, or manage their own affairs. I have no interest in living in a marriage that’s not defined in terms of equality. And when I work with gay colleagues, I don’t think of them as ‘gay colleagues.’ I think of them as co-workers, as friends, as designers or stage managers or actors. And I wouldn’t want it any other way, nor would anyone else. Redefining ‘gay’ has been a wonderful thing for society, just redefining marriage in more egalitarian ways has been a wonderful thing for society. Feminism rules. Equality rocks.

Besides, when we talk about ‘defining marriage,’ we’re talking about something that married couples do all the time, individually. We divide up chores, we figure out how we’re going to resolve differences, we work out a schedule, we talk and joke and sing and, at times, quarrel. ‘Defining marriage’ is a constant work in progress, full of compromises and long conversations and routines and traditions.

And, of course, some marriages are horrible. Some marriages are ‘defined’ by infidelity, or violence, or selfishness, or viciousness. Or passive-aggressive resentment. And some marriages don’t work at all, and end. And should end. And I suppose divorce is a bad thing–it’s often condemned from the pulpit, certainly. But I have known many people who have gotten divorced, and based on what I knew about those marriages, I can’t think of a single time when I didn’t think the divorce was a good thing, and completely justified. If being together makes one or both spouses completely miserably unhappy, ending it may be a kindness. I would point out as well that in most homicides, the cops look at the spouse first.

Will gay marriage change any of that? No, of course not. Gay couples quarrel, gay couples cheat, gay people are human beings, with the same propensity for bad behavior of any other people. And so what? They’re asking for equality.

John Bursch, attorney for the respondents, made what I thought was the single silliest argument in the whole court session. If gay people are allowed to marry, he said, then it will provide a disincentive for straight men, who have fathered a child, to marry the child’s mother, because a gay couple might be willing to adopt that child. First of all, there are plenty of unwanted children in need of stable, welcoming homes. And besides, people don’t make decisions as important as marriage based on Supreme Court decisions. People decide to marry, mostly, because they’re in love.

Of course, court-watchers love to parse the oral arguments of any case to see which way the Justices might be leaning. I think, though, that it’s going to go 5-4, and could easily be 6-3, if Roberts decides he wants to write for the majority. It’s been a long battle, but it’s close to over. And marriage, as an institution, will survive just fine.

Chris Borland

Twenty years from now, when we look back on it all, we may well decide that this is the turning point, that Chris Borland’s retirement was the first domino to fall. It’s going to seem weird. A multi-billion dollar sports industry, the NFL, running the most popular team sport in the United States, just . . . ending. The Super Bowl, the single biggest TV event of the year, just going away. But the demise of professional football will only seem remarkable in retrospect. When it all ends, we’ll all sit back and agree that there was nothing else that could have been done. It just wasn’t worth it.

Chris Borland is 24 years old. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in history, then was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He is a thoughtful and intelligent young man. His position, inside linebacker, was one in which the 49ers wouldn’t seem to have needed much help. The 49ers had two of the best inside linebackers in all of football, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman; it was thought that Borland wouldn’t play much. But then Willis hurt his foot, and Bowman was slower than expected to recover from knee surgery. Early in the season, Borland won the starting job, and was spectacular. He looked like a superstar. A few days ago, Patrick Willis, age 30, announced his retirement from professional football. His foot just wasn’t getting better, and he was concerned about the quality of his life going forward. But 49ers’ (and I count myself as one), weren’t concerned. After all, we had Chris Borland.

And then, yesterday, Chris Borland likewise announced his retirement from professional football. He wasn’t injured. He wasn’t disgruntled. He didn’t have some kind of religious experience that persuaded him to do something else with his life, as former 49er Glen Coffee had had. (Coffee, after a promising rookie year, retired, saying he had become convinced that ‘God didn’t want him to play football’). No, Borland retired because he had researched the long term effects of multiple minor concussions. “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told ESPN’s Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” Here’s  the interview.

Over 70 former NFL players have been diagnosed post-mortem with degenerative neurological disease. Numerous studies have demonstrated a connection between head trauma and subsequent brain damage. Borland did his research, and made an informed decision about his health and his future. He also left a lot of money on the table. As a budding star, he could easily have made a bundle if he’d stuck around a few years.

But what’s really remarkable about Borland’s announcement has been the reaction of his teammates and other current NFL players. Pretty much everyone’s been supportive. Borland’s 49er teammate, Frank Gore, long considered the epitome of the NFL tough guy, said he ‘respected Chris’ decision.’ Here’s a sampling of supportive tweets.  The words used by his fellow plays seem particularly interesting to me; they talk about his ‘courage,’ and how hard it can be to ‘do the right thing.’

I didn’t expect that. The NFL code of toughness says that if you ‘get your bell rung,’ you find a way to get back in the game. Most former players can tell humorous stories about games in which they were concussed, but got back on the field. ‘I played the second half, and still don’t remember a thing about it.’ That kind of thing. But the data is piling up, and those stories aren’t as funny as they once were. In the most recent Super Bowl, Patriots’ receiver Julian Edelman may well have caught the winning touchdown pass while concussed. The reaction around the league was pretty hostile; he should have come out of the game, players are saying. His coaches should have forced him out.

And that’s how football will die, I think. Not with a bang, but a whimper. More and more parents will decide not to sign that permission slip; more and more high schools will have to weigh insurance costs, and decide there are better extra-curricular activities for their students.

And more and more fans of the sport (like me) feel conflicted about it, and question whether this is a sport to which we should give our time and attention. We’ve seen too many former players who have a hard time climbing stairs or bending over to pick up their grandkids. And too many who have suffered brain trauma. Chris Borland is right. And he won’t be the first.