Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sesquicentennial Thoughts: Now Let Us Praise Donald Trump on "Anchor Babies" (and the Fourteenth Amendment)

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. — Amendment XIII (6 December 1865), Section 1
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. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. — Amendment XIV (9 July 1868), Section 1

         So, what did you do on New Year's Day 2013 for the huge national celebration of the 150th anniversary ("Sesquicentennial") of President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation? Oh, right; there wasn't any big national celebration in 2013. But that's okay; the Proclamation was important, but it was a unilateral action by the President as commander-in-chief of the military forces of the US in a time of war, so maybe 2013 would've been too soon to celebrate, given what was coming up in a couple years.

         So: What will you do for the remaining huge national celebrations in 2015 of the Sesquicentennial of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, the Constitutional provision finally and totally outlawing slavery in the United States? Oh, right; maybe some "Juneteenth" celebrations this year were bigger than usual, but as of the end of August 2015 there are no plans for some huge end-of-the-year national celebration of the Thirteenth Amendment.
         Well then, how about plans for the national commemoration next year of 20 August 1866, when US President Andrew Johnson formally proclaimed that the Civil War was "at an end and that peace, order, tranquility, and civil authority now exist in and throughout the whole of the United States of America"? It would need to be a somber affair: more Americans died in the US Civil War than in all our other wars combined at least until the 1970s, a number John M. McCardell Jr. brought home by noting that, proportionally, if the USA had as many people killed in our war in Indochina as died in our Civil War, there would be four million (that's 4,000,000) names on the Vietnam Memorial wall. Still, we should certainly commemorate the final conclusion of the war and celebrate, somberly, the end of the carnage.
         If there are any such plans, I haven't heard of those either, nor plans for celebrating in 2018 the "new birth of freedom" promised to Americans in the Fourteenth Amendment.
         So now let us praise Donald Trump and his attack on "anchor babies" and pushing the minor technical problem of occasional "maternity tourism"/"birth tourism" to a proposal to repeal the Jus soli principle of the Fourteenth Amendment: the birthright to US citizenship to anyone born on our "soil." The idea isn't new, but Mr. Trump has brought his genius at provocation to it, and "birthright citizenship" is now a matter of public controversy, and with it the Fourteenth Amendment and its guarantee of citizenship.
         And that is a good and necessary thing, as my introductory questions indicate.

         The joke goes that much is the problem in human personal relations is that men can't remember, and women won't forget (from George Carlin, I think; anyway in the title of a book by Marianna Legato and Laura Tucker). On larger scales, a big part of the world's problems in places like Ireland and the Middle East and the Balkans is too many people remembering all too well ancient grudges; balancing that in an ironically Karmic sort of way, a fair number of ghastly problems come from Americans' often falling into the manly problem of general, and/or convenient, amnesia.
         One exception with Americans is our Civil War, where we have the worst of two worlds: those who remember — usually White Southerners — remember all too well; the rest — not always White folk — often don't even know that we're still dealing with some three centuries of North American slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, de facto segregation, and the whole convoluted and blood-soaked history of race-relations in the US and beyond.
         So I'm serious is praising Donald Trump here: he'll get us discussing the Fourteenth Amendment, and, with luck, we'll bracket discussing the great Fourteenth Amendment with (let's say) robust discussion of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth: The game-changing "Civil War Amendments." If Trump can pretty damn glibly throw out the suggestion of rolling back the Fourteenth Amendment, he can get us to consider how much "roll-back" is going on more currently with Black citizenship and voting rights. The Fifteenth Amendment commands that, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude" (section 1), and, as with all the Civil War Amendments, "The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
         Okay, let's start talking about American Blacks as full citizens, with the basic right to vote and an even more basic right to life and liberty that can be withdrawn only by "due process of law," where "due process" means something more equitable and formal than a cowboy cop with a gun. And while we're on the subject —
                  As itself amended by expanding the right to vote to women and Americans over eighteen, Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that if American citizens are denied the right to vote by a state, then the state's Congressional representation "shall be reduced in […] proportion." So let's talk about cutting back representation in the House of Representatives of states blocking voting rights. And while we're on that subject we can get the Tea Party sorts in on the conversation — vociferously — by talking about representation in Congress on the basis of total population, if that population includes illegal immigrants. Hey, you don't want illegals here? Be sure not to count them toward representation in Congress and in the Electoral College. That could lose Florida and Texas a seat in Congress apiece, but it also might deduct one from the New York delegation and six from my own state of California.
                  Also, let's get some of us White and White-ish non-former slaves "the equal protection of the law" when it comes to voting by punishing states that reduce the worth of anyone's vote through gerrymandering or voter suppression.
                  I can guarantee that the set "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" has always been the primary reason to deny people equality in voting, but not the only one. The Twenty-Sixth Amendment gave the right to vote to all Americans 18 years of age and over. When the Amendment was up for ratification by the Illinois General Assembly, lobbyists (?) and others were at the crucial committee hearings trying to get the Assembly to legislate to forbid students from voting where we lived — I.e., voting effectively — and one city official from Rantoul, Illinois, home of Chanute Air Force Base, tried to get the General Assembly to forbid members of the US armed forces from voting locally in Illinois. (A nice touch on that last one was that the official from Rantoul had a little American flag in his lapel: Love them service personnel, but don't let 'em vote in your elections!)

         Arguing over such matters in a Presidential campaign will get us really quickly to serious questions on the Constitution and public policy — and then recycle back to whom to elect President, keeping in mind that Presidents nominate members of the US Supreme Court — and who you want to vote for "down ticket" to place in the Congress, to vote on, or, as is far more common, fail to vote on to laws enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment and those others guaranteeing rights.
         It might put the thin edge of the camel's nose heading down the slippery slope to the destruction of the Republic, but a serious Trump run for the Presidency, one with "coat-tails," could sweep into the US Congress and Senate and state legislatures activist reactionaries who will continue the mission of Roll-Back and move to amend the Constitution by getting rid of those pesky Civil War Amendments.
         And that prospect should get the attention of the frequently amnesiac, often downright narcoleptic, American electorate.

So thank you, Mr. Trump, and this much praise: along with forces far mightier than yourself, you are obliging the American people to talk about things we should've been discussing for years, and maybe, just maybe getting us to act.

Happy Sesquicentennials! (Anyone planning parties?)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Sermonette: Arguing with, and Appreciating, Deuteronomy 21.10-25.19 ("Ki Teitzei")

28 August 2015
Temple Ner Ami, Camarillo, CA
(1650 words, ca. 12 and a half minutes)

            So the child says to the rabbi, "Rabbi, why did the Holy One set the minyan at ten?" And the rabbi replies, "That is simple, my child. A minyan of ten guarantees that for every issue of importance to the congregation — and {shuddering to recall} many, many issues of no importance whatever! — there should be at least a dozen opinions."
            Okay, a lot of Jews, it is said, like to argue, and I grew up in Chicago: among another group of people who definitely like to argue.
            And not argue just with each other, at least not among Jews.
            One image of Israel's relationship with God is a loving betrothal, as in the final prayer when putting on tefillin, or in a mystic reading of the Song of Songs — or with greeting the Sabbath bride as we did with L'Cha Dodi. But marriages, especially after the first six hundred years or so, can get stormy, and another image of the Jewish relationship with God is the wrestling match: Jacob wrestles with the angel and is renamed "Israel": "He who struggles with God." Abraham dickers with God over the destruction of Sodom, and Job in the poem of Job is far from patient with God. In the long poem in the center of the book of Job, Job is ticked and accuses God of injustice. Ultimately vehemently, Job presents his indictment to a silent God — or silent to the climax of the poem — and the Book of Job as a whole suggests that without such an argument there may be no true encounter with God.
            Which brings me to the Torah reading for this Shabbat, Ki Teitzei — a substantial hunk of Deuteronomy — where most of us nowadays would have some questions — and one or two places where we should have objections. And it brings me, as someone ignorant of Hebrew, to what I can recite and talk about. Baruch ata Adonai natein haTorah: The often-repeated and expanded upon, "Blessed are You, Eternal, who gives the Torah."
            We bless God for giving us Torah, the Teaching: God's teachings, commandments, injunctions, laws.
            And I got thinking about that blessing for Torah.
            I don't think I'd bless the California State Assembly for giving us the California Revised Statutes, and I know I cursed them (quietly) for allowing photo-enforced traffic lights with two-second yellows. Still, even when being welcomed to Ventura County with $600 in fines and fees for my first moving violation since I was 18 — even then, I don't think I would have found anything in California law as, let's say, problematic as the "Rules for waging holy war" in Deuteronomy. Most of those rules are in last week's reading, but Ki Teitzei starts out with the rules for a victorious Israelite soldier seizing from "among the captives a beautiful woman" and appropriating her — seizing her — for a wife.
            Also, well … for 35 years I lived in a college town around the corner from a consolidated high school and occasionally fantasized dire punishments for teens who are "stubborn and rebellious" (and noisy) and for any over-age kid who's "a glutton and," way more so, "a drunkard." Still, having them stoned to death as Deuteronomy commands (21.21) seems excessive — and "a little bordering upon cruelty."
            When we bless God for "Torah and mitzvot," what should we be blessing God for?
            First off we should be thankful for the arguments within our Scriptures and beyond where it's a question of whether swords should be beaten into plowshares, as Isaiah says, and we "learn war no more," or the other way around. The prophet Joel tells us to "Hammer your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears" and rather than ceasing to learn war anymore, to "Train even your weaklings to be warriors" (3.10).
            Also there are — always — historical contexts and the need to be not so open-minded that our brains fall out, but humble not just before God but also with our ancestors, and honor their progress in compassion.
            For a famous example, Christians criticize the Law of "an eye for an eye." Well, back in the day of Hammurabi and Moses, that law served to limit violence. Somebody knocks out the eye of a guy in the ancient world (or our world), and he'd want to kill the offender. And American Christians might keep in mind that if the US had stuck to "an eye for an eye," we would have paused after killing four or five thousand Afghans in revenge for 9/11 — and see what, if anything could be done against al-Qaeda by law. "An eye for an eye" can be idealistic even today.
            More specific to today's reading, Ki Teitzei commands, "You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped […]; he shall dwell with you [… and]; you shall not oppress him" (23.15). The Code of Hammurabi, nearly four thousand years ago "decreed death as the penalty for sheltering a fugitive slave" (RSV 244 n.); and the laws of the American colonies and the United States required returning fugitive slaves until 1864.
            More generally, we have to use our imaginations and think about what evolving Torah meant to our ancestors.
            A nice Jewish boy, if secular, Steven Pinker, wrote in 2011 a long and fascinating and controversial book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. "What? — Violence declined?!?", you will say — which is why Pinker needed to write a big book. "Don't we live in peculiarly violent times of existential threat!?"
            Well, no, not really. There are existential threats to the human species from asteroids and comets and thermonuclear war. And the last period of global warming back in the Middle Ages was great for the Vikings but horrible for people living in hot, dry places like, well, like around here, and our current round of global warming will produce, in many places, like around here, very tough times.
            Still, nothing going on nowadays compares with the bloodbaths of the two world wars of the 20th century, and my students in a course called just "Massacres" came up with the scary statistic that those two world wars and some 80 million dead were barely a blip on the graph in the increase in human population. World War II was an existential threat to Jews and Roma and did (thank God) destroy the Third Reich; but the 20th-century World Wars were a spasmodic exception to a general trend of improvement.
            "Genocide" is a modern word, but large-scale massacres are ancient, and we find it hard to believe that Violence Has Declined because we can barely imagine how violent a world our ancestors lived in during the anarchy that preceded civilization and the violence and oppression under early kings and empires.
            Scribes in really ancient, ancient Mesopotamia wrote of kingship coming down from heaven as a gift from the gods. Well, yeah; having a king meant that now all you had to fear in the lethal violence category was the king and his thugs from the capital and not the local free-lance thugs. Early civilization was less violent and brutal than what preceded it, but that still leaves a lot of room for violence and brutality. Our ancestors got a taste of civilized life in Egypt, and my ancient history book says the Hebrews weren't treated much differently from Pharaoh's other subjects — and our ancestors in Egypt thought they were treated like slaves. And when our later ancestors demanded a king, the Prophet Samuel described in gory detail how even an Israelite king will tax them and draft them "and you shall be his slaves" (1 Samuel 8.10-18). Oppressive kings were better than constant clan warfare and small-group violence, but they were bad and could be very bad. So, Blessed be the Eternal, who gave the yoke of the law to restrain and guide individuals and (on balance, eventually) curb violence and oppression.
            And blessed be the Eternal for Torah not just as Law but as Teaching and a Way of life: for giving us a creation myth where God looks upon all the work of of Creation on the 6th Day and finds in "very good" (Genesis 1.31) — a phrase a great teacher of comparative religion says "gives a lilt to the whole attitude toward nature" and life in Torah, and makes Torah the ground of "This beautiful tree, the tree of life." <>
            And, indeed, the weirder rules in Deuteronomy in the reading for today repeat the kind of Rule of Separations in the Book of Leviticus — and these also make sense.
            Torah teaches that in the beginning God brought order out of chaos; and the rules to keep fabrics all of one material and farm fields of one crop, the rigid rules on sex and gender and age status — these are bad ideas today but long served as walls against chaos.
            We need "New Rules!" about now, and Reform Judaism helps provide them, but the impulse behind the old rules was necessary. Back when humans were beginning to get the world organized in our minds and cultures, we needed strong categories for animals and crops and fabrics, even for men's clothing and women's clothing; we needed at least regulation of the violence of frequent wars and constant slavery — and rules to keep in check royal egomaniacs.
            And many of the rules really are good ideas: expanding our circles of empathy, sympathy, of feeling and concern. In the Torah reading for today, in the midst of a bunch of rigid regulations on punishments and inheritance and "Levirate" marriage. In the midst of lawyerly details comes the rule, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain" (25.4). Even an ox deserves reward for his labor, a standard of justice and compassion that we have not met today.

            Blessed is the Eternal, who's given the Torah to Israel.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

High Theory and the Crotch Shot in Paul Verhoeven's ROBOCOP (1987)

            I had a colleague who was into capital "T" Theory of the literary, cinematic, and cultural-feminist variety. We didn't interact much, but for a brief while we both worked, separately, on analyses of Paul Verhoeven's fine 1987 film, ROBOCOP. I got to look over her presentation on the film and noted to her a "proof-text" for her main point on gender: in the scene at the nightclub (or disco) where Robo goes into "ARREST MODE" and hauls in Leon Nash for questioning.
            During the arrest, Leon pulls a gun, which Robo knocks from his hand, to be caught be a young man who dances with it, as the dancing generally continues.
            Part of the satire here is the obliviousness of the "civilians" — those neither cops nor criminals — to the altercation between a suavely thuggish man and a police cyborg who is unmissably large and far more machine than man; and I probably should've paid more attention to that skewering of obliviousness. In Mass (1971), Leonard Bernstein and Paul Simon noted that even during that more activist period, "Half the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election. / Half the people are drowning and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction." The partiers in near-future Detroit are part of the stoned half, and, as always, a major part of the problem: all those people far, far too cool and sophisticated to, as we used to say, "get involved."
            Apathy, though, wasn't what either my colleague nor I would be dealing with, so I'll forgive myself for concentrating on what comes after Leon pulls the gun on Robo: Leon's kicking Robo in the crotch with a mighty "Clang!" followed by a scream not by Robo but by Leon, as Leon goes down, to be pulled toward the exit by Robo by the hair on Leon's head, with a continuing scream by Leon and Robo's line, "Let's talk."
            First point here: My colleague thanked me for pointing out the Nightclub Scene and "the crotch shot" (my formulation) and in the final draft of her analysis ignored it. She was doing Theory, "dad gummit"!, and she neither needed for her audience nor wanted for herself the crass empiricism of something we could see and hear in the movie.
            My second point is that she really should have used the two crotch-shot shots for her analysis. Even among advanced students in our program, relatively few could follow the philosophical arguments for capital "T" Theory — I couldn't follow most of the arguments, and I was a full freaking professor — and it's important that young American learn to analyze works in their popular culture.
            And with iMovie and what the antihero in GROSSE POINT BLANK calls "a certain ... 'moral flexibility'" — or healthy respect for the Fair Use Doctrine — a teacher at the end of the 20th century could find a lot of cinematic examples to test hypotheses and reinforce analyses.

            In the Nightclub Scene, Leon delivers a very hard kick to RoboCop's crotch and Leon goes down howling. Our reaction might well be, "Wow, Robo! What a man! He's got balls of … oh …." Precisely. Robo has neither balls nor penis. His crotch is a crotch, period, and this is made explicit in the film. Robo otherwise has a hyper-masculine body, and on the shooting range, he has the biggest and most powerful handgun of all the cops; but no testicles, no penis, no nuthin' that goes toward the most basic sort of manliness.
            And the mutilation is part of what denies Robo not so much sex as his family.
            In James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd's THE TERMINATOR (1984), the ultimate macho man turns out to be a machine: an almost unstoppable, killer robot, impervious to pain — in all ways unfeeling — merely passing for human. There's a very explicit lesson there, although it is missed by the teens (and older folk who should know better) who take the Terminator for the role-model of the film. ROBOCOP takes a different tack, and it may be more effective for young males (although THE TERMINATOR and Cameron and Hurd's ALIENS are more girl-friendly).
            When I was growing up, a young guy might wimp out of a confrontation with the cliché "I'm a lover, not a fighter" and not lose too much street cred. In RoboCop, we get to see what in this dystopian Detroit is the near-ultimate in macho. And many in the audience will come to identify with him and sympathize with him and note that his macho is intertwined with his maiming, with a loss, at least for a while, of the lover in many senses of the term.
            At film's end, RoboCop has regained his name — "Murphy," literally the last word in the film — and a face and identity; and he achieves a human relationship with his police partner. He can "dispute it like a man," to use a callow expression out of Shakespeare's Macbeth (4.3), but he can again "feel it as a man": i.e., he is still one kick-ass cyborg, but he has regained a large part of his humanity.
            Insofar as we empathize and sympathize with Murphy/RoboCop, and think through the images of masculinity in the film: that far audiences have been invited to rethink some traditional cultural ideals of manhood.

            Insofar as subtlety is rarely a virtue in popular culture, especially in works for young males, it is well that this lesson is driven home with all the directness of a powerful kick to the gonads.