Culture


It might have been out of a dream, but it really happened. I can’t put a precise date on it, but Ronald Reagan was President, and he was constantly reminding us that “government is the problem” and then turning that idiotic proposition into a self fulfilling prophesy.

I was living in Silver Spring not far from the house that I grew up in near the former Xaverian College, which had since become the George Meany Center for Labor Studies. I had received a call from the Center’s Director inviting me to attend a day long songfest of Labor Union songs and poetry. I cleared my calendar and went directly to the event, which was attended by labor troubadours from all over the country, and even some from Latin America.

Well into the morning we were all shocked to see the legendary Pete Seeger stroll unexpectedly onto the stage with his famous 5 string banjo. The place went wild when he launched into the famous ballad “Joe Hill”, and after he finished the Director brought the Great Man over to meet me. Apparently Pete’s unexpected appearance at the event had forced a complete revision of the evenings events, and the organisers were going to have to spend most of the afternoon reorganising the agenda around a living legend’s participation. Since I had always “lived in the neighborhood” I was being asked by the director if I would give Pete Seeger a tour of the area, get him something to eat, and essentially use up some time until he would join the other artists in rehearsing for the evening concert. I had to pinch myself. This had all happened so fast…

We took a walk around the beautiful campus, and I told him of the magnificent role the young Catholic monks from the Brotherhood Order of Francis Xavier played in my development as a student and an athlete on these very grounds. I pointed out the zinc strips that were nailed to the trunks of all of the beautiful old trees lining the roads of the campus, which identified both in latin and english the exact name of each tree. I had been paid 25 cents each as a young boy by the Brother Superior to nail a strip on each one.

My impression of this man remains with me in vivid terms even today. He was, of course, tall and thin. He was wearing Lee jeans which had been carefully patched in several places, and a long sleeve shirt rolled up to the elbows, and ordinary canvas high top shoes. He sported a goatee and an odd little knitted hat which sat high on his head. He listened to everything I told him, and, to my surprise, he seemed interested and engaged in everything we discussed. He spoke very little about himself, and seemed intrigued when I told him about my parents, and especially about my mother, when I told him some stories about her growing up poor on a farm in Kansas. “If we have time, I would like to meet her” he said.

We climbed into my pickup truck and drove the short distance to 9722 Dilston Road, where my mom was in the kitchen, cooking soup. She knew who our visitor was immediately, and told him that she had worked in a children’s store in Glover Park called Young Playways where she had actually sold some of his children’s records. Pete Seeger was now eating my Mom’s soup, and he put down his spoon, his face lighting up as he said with great excitement “I didn’t think those records were still around, and I had completely lost track of them. As if in a dream, my mother produced two disks, and the three of us listened to Pete Seeger sing “This Old Man” and a couple of others that I can no longer remember.

We had more time to kill, and we drove the ten minute drive to the main campus of the University of Maryland where I had graduated. While strolling around the beautiful campus I was amazed by the number of people who approached him to offer their good wishes, and the humble and gentle way that he responded to recognized celebrity. I asked him if he liked pizza, and he responded “Yes, but it is hard to find really good pizza outside New York City, unless you are in Chicago, where pizza is a different thing altogether.” I suggested to him that there might be a song hidden in that proposition, which made him chuckle and say “There is a song in just about everything we do and see.”

Hoping to change the Great Man’s opinion on pizza outside New York City, I drove him to the original Ledo’s Pizza Parlor on University Boulevard in College Park. We shared a large plain pizza and endured the table visits of admirers and autograph seekers until it was finally time to deliver him back to the concert preparation at the Meany Center. On the drive back he thanked me for the time I had spent “baby sitting” him, and found it necessary to admit that Ledo’s Pizza was as good as any he had ever had in New York City.

That night I brought my Mom back to the Center and we saw a first rate production of Labor union songs with the legendary Pete Seeger the star of the show. I went to sleep that night trying to sort out everything that had happened on that extraordinary day, and I awoke the following morning wondering if it had all been a dream.

Pete Seeger died on January 27th at age 94. Earlier this year Bob Dylan had referred to him as “a saint”, to which Pete replied “Oh God!” There will be many many words of praise and adulation written about this genuine American icon in the aftermath of his passing. I had the rare blessing of spending one part of one day with Pete Seeger, and truly believe that Dylan’s characterization may be right on the mark.
Dan Rupli

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In an interview given to the editor of the Italian Jesuit publication “La Civilta Cattolica,” and released September 19, Pope Francis said that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay rights and contraception. The church should not be “distracted” into promulgating a multitude of doctrines “insistently”. He said of complaints reaching him about “lack of orthodoxy” that they “are better dealt with locally.” Otherwise Vatican offices will risk becoming “institutions of censorship.” In coming out against insistence on orthodoxy on sexual matters the Pope used the metaphor of treating the wounded on a battlefield “you don’t ask a seriously injured person if he has high levels of cholesterol.” He says that God looks on the gay person as an individual.

Here in America, one gasps at the importance of the Pope’s message in the light of the very recent impact of Catholic dogmatism on American politics and culture. It is not so long ago that we had a prominent Republican candidate for the Presidency, Rick Santorum, a Catholic, make the banning of contraception a core campaign plank, or that in the last Iowa presidential primary season all of the Republican candidates, except for Mitt Romney, took a pledge to appoint only anti abortion officials to key justice and health departments. And who could forget the appointment of a Vatican “inquisitor” to put the nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in their place, not for violating Catholic dogma on abortion, but for not speaking out against it in their work.

Pope Francis thus has repudiated much of his predecessor’s authoritarian mischief on religion and public policy. In the debate over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act absolutists in the Catholic Conference of Bishops opposed even non-religiously affiliated organization from paying for insurance for their employees that covered abortion. No individuals were forced to participate against their choice in health insurance decisions that went against their personal beliefs on issues such as abortion. Nevertheless the ACA was supposed to be forcing the institution, seen as a person, to go against “his/her” beliefs.

The negative impact of deference to dogmas went even deeper. To argue against a national health program, Santorum and a number of legislators made clear that having a health care plan in Massachusetts was different from having the same health plan at the federal level because government health care at the federal level violated the principle of “subsidiarity”, meaning that what is ok at a lower – subsidiary – level is not ok at a general level. Government health care programs were only ok if they were at the right, i.e. lower level. Needless to say, whatever he really thought, Mitt Romney bought into this dogma, which he could say saved him from the “stigma” of Obamacare. Romney, after all, had introduced comprehensive health care in Massachusetts during his governorship.

It is clear that Pope Francis rejects all of this. Beyond specific doctrines he thinks the church is obsessed with, he is attacking the authoritarianism the Republican Party is wallowing in. Republicans do not want to compromise. They want to enforce their will and doctrinal purity on all matters. One can only hope the sound of the Pope’s message carries far over the land.

Newly invested Cardinal Timothy Dolan has called on Catholics to be very active in the political sphere, condemning President Obama for daring to tell Catholics they should listen to enlightened voices of accommodation within the church. “No,” said Dolan, “if you want to go to an authoritative voice go to the bishops.”

Dolan gets no disagreement from Presidential candidate Rick Santorum on who is the authority in this matter. It is clear how far Santorum will go in defending that authority when he blames the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church on “the liberal culture.” “When the culture is sick, every element in it is infected,” he said (NYT, 3/4).

It is not just a figure of speech when Santorum says John F. Kennedy’s speech on the separation of church and faith makes him “want to throw up.” Santorum doesn’t want a separation. In 1960 Kennedy reassured America that he would not be taking orders from the Pope. In 2012 Santorum is not making the same vow. The fears that Kennedy laid to rest in 1960 that Americans might come under religious control seem a wholly reasonable threat to democracy in 2012. Santorum offers obedience to religious authority as the future he is fighting for.

It is the clear meaning of Santorum’s words and back action that he intends, if President, to bring a theocracy to America, with laws and, perhaps, constitutional amendments passed to take away individual liberty from Americans in their human relationships, and to criminalize behavior that doesn’t conform with the new regime. It is also clear that, as in other theocracies around the world, actions that would guarantee the continuation of a regime would be planned, whether democratic or not.

The Authentic Romney?
Santorum may exit the Republican primaries but he is not the sole embodiment of these ideas. It is not only Santorum we need to fear.

The conventional wisdom of the media on Romney seems to be that his flip-flopping is covering the real―moderate―Romney who will be revealed when elected President. However, Romney’s religious convictions are very likely as extreme and authoritarian as Santorum’s. Romney has certainly never expressed doubts about his choice to be a missionary for his Mormon faith in France in 1966-67.

In a New York Times op-ed (1/29), a lapsed Mormon, Carrie Sheffield, told a chilling story about the ostracism by her family and community she suffered when she could no longer accept her religion. “Yes,” she said, “Mormons love families. But the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church. The church I was raised in values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking.”

The Church of the Latter Day Saints does not have the local doctrinal flexibility that exists in Judaism and many Christian churches: it stifles efforts to openly question church pronouncements and labels such behavior as “satanic.” A high-ranking Mormon leader told her “to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were ‘worse than pornography.’ I had no place to live a moderated, reformed existence.”

“Religion in America”
Trying to put to rest questions about his religion in the last Presidential campaign, Romney gave a speech titled “Religion in America” in 2006. Underneath a moderate patina, the speech opens a door on a religious ideology that arguably unites a large swath of Republican leadership, including then-President George W. Bush.

“Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom,” he said. In Romney’s view government must be smaller (except in defense), but religion bigger. This, he says, is because despite differences in theology among churches “we share a common creed of moral convictions.” “We acknowledge the Creator,” including, as Romney enumerates, “with religious displays in public places.” “I will take care to separate the affairs of government from any religion, but I will not separate us from “the God who gave us liberty.” “Freedom requires religion” means an absolute opposition to the religion of secularism. Romney says, in so many words, that all faiths are ok; the only thing that is unacceptable is no faith.

Morality
Romney’s “common creed of moral convictions” does not cover what Democrats generally mean when they use the word “moral” to describe public policy or action. Romney is far from saying that, for example, extending health care coverage to all children is a moral imperative―an action that would reflect our common values as Americans.

It is possible Romney and Santorum would not understand those who use the word “immoral” to describe the vicious attacks by Republican icon Rush Limbaugh on Georgetown Law Student Sandra Flukes for daring to support contraception. Their notions of morality are centered on the nature of human sexuality and obedience to religious authorities. Any means may be used to defeat an enemy. No slur against President Obama is too rancid. Any excuse to impeach President Clinton is fine, however much the office of President is degraded and the reputation of the United States corroded is acceptable in this fight to the death. They are the patriots.

Romney and Santorum are not champions of liberty. They have challenged core American institutions and values. Those who value freedom and democracy must defeat this challenge.

Media coverage of the South Carolina primary made it seem as if we were all ringside at a boxing match. What passed for reporting on “substance” was how much money was getting thrown in the ring. It’s impossible to get out of the box of media coverage. Gingrich’s aggressive slapping down of John King’s legitimate question about his second wife’s “open Marriage” interview and the resulting storm of applause seemed to do the trick for undecided voters. Gingrich identified himself with President Andrew Jackson, as a man who knew that what you do with your enemies: “you kill them.” The candidate said that he didn’t just want to bloody Obama’s nose, “I want to knock him out.” (Note: We guess Gingrich was speaking figuratively. The athletic Obama clearly wouldn’t have much trouble taking care of Gingrich.)

All primary reports commented on the Republicans’ deep dislike for Obama (why we are never told) and the desire for someone to “fight” him, no holds barred. That seemed to translate for many into an actual qualification for the presidency. “You have to be tenacious… and be very aggressive to get things done as president and I think he showed all of that,” one primary voter was quoted as saying (WP,1/22).

Is there something we should be seeing beyond “I like the aggressive guy on reality TV who is willing to eat live snakes to kill off a rival?” For voters who want to knock Obama out, aggressiveness is an obvious qualification, but what about the 63 percent who listed the economy as its top issue? Are they thinking their candidate is going to “aggressively” tell CEOs he has just released them from taxes and regulatory burdens and now they must create jobs in the US?!

In their rage-filled heart of hearts, Republicans do seem passionately convinced that if freed from taxes and regulatory restraints the rich will create jobs in the US, so that prosperity tickles down from the 1 percent to the rest. Not likely. Recent Commerce Department data show that “as a whole US multinational firms reduced their workforce here by 2.9 million between 1999 and 2009,” while at the same time they added 2.4 million jobs overseas.

Many Republican voters say the size of the deficit is a big issue for them. Reducing the deficit is indeed important. Reducing healthcare costs is important to that end. Just rolling back the Bush tax cuts would help reduce the deficit and also free up money for government to spend on education and infrastructure, bolstering the economy and creating new jobs and new revenue to further reduce the deficit. However, the Republican voters don’t want government doing anything, so it is unclear where they see economic improvement coming from and how that translates into their voter preferences.

This suggests we should look to some deeper underlying reason for voter rage. Gingrich’s hugely applauded racist comments were in no sense “thinly veiled.” It is tempting to say that hatred of the “Other” was the unifying factor for the Gingrich voters. Perhaps, though, the unifying factor is broader. The hollowing out of the American middle class is an enormous change in America. It is creating fear and a deep sense of insecurity. Obama’s promise was change. The voter may be demanding, paradoxically, that their leaders fix our economic problems with a return to the status quo and not with “change.” They feel the status quo is what has been taken away from them. They wrongly blame Obama and will back anyone who can take him out.

It is a frightening to see pictures of the North Korean masses weeping in public displays of grief over the death of their dear dictator. Reports have noted that extreme expressions of grief are part of Confucian tradition in both North and South Korea, but only in the North is the leader of state considered to be every individual’s father and only in the North does state coercion lie behind everything that happens, even when individuals are sincere in their grief. In North Korea the political culture creates the individual’s psychology.

A South Korean academic, who was my then colleague at the National Endowment for Democracy, said to me there was nothing particularly supportive of democracy in Confucianism but that South Koreans were devoted to their right to vote anyway. That does not seem likely to happen any time soon in North Korea given the overwhelming culture of the cult of personality.

Looking at Iraq’s future Thomas Friedman in the NYT (12/21) wished for Iraq that it would hold together “as an imperfect corrupt democracy” until the real agent of change, the new generation, comes along in “nine months and 21 years”. Friedman is being the optimist here, forgetting that that new generation will have been raised by parents whose culture was shaped by dictatorship and war, with the individual Iraqi’s need to feel secure driving them into sectarian identities. Democracy may take much longer. A vicious military dictatorship in Greece collapsed in 1974. 37 years later Michael Lewis in “Boomerang” describes the “real Greek structure” as “everyman for himself”, with every member of Parliament demonstrably corrupt, making any kind of civic life impossible. Lewis says the Greeks want to recreate a civic life but with the total absence of faith in one another self-reinforcing he doubts they can.

One thing is sure. Taking democratic transitions step by step isn’t the answer. It isn’t a democratic transition if the military has carved out a position beyond the law and elected Parliaments to call the shots, as they are trying to do in Egypt. The only way to start embedding a democratic culture is to start with establishing democratic institutions and hoping that national pride and identity in these institutions will create a new way of seeing yourself and your community. What counts is not whether Egyptians are ready for democracy but whether they will have a shot at getting there. Alas, the military and radical Islam aren’t the only obstacles. Pride in your democratic institutions isn’t going to work to create a democratic culture if your democracy is corrupt. Would that Greece were the only example of corrupt democracies! A leading expert on democracy once said the Kingdom of Tonga was the only example of a benevolent dictatorship – and that was before they held fully democratic elections in 2010. So we have no choice but to stiffen our political will and try.

— Elizabeth Spiro Clark
November 21, 2011

Much of the undertone of commentary on Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s ouster was to “balance” the good he had done with his failure to protect young boys from his deputy Jerry Sandusky’s alleged longstanding sexual predation record. There is a “higher good” to consider in this case, it was said. The higher good was defined as all the contributions his winning football team, the Nittany Lions, and his personal financial endowments contributed to Penn State’s bottom line and reputation.

“Joe is a devout Catholic. He’s a beautiful person. He’s a wonderful coach,” a fellow coach Vince McAneney was quoted as saying (see Joe Nocera oped, NYT, 11/11). McAneney seemed to be making the statement that “devout” Catholics are not immoral. It is presumptuous, no doubt, to claim to have the measure of an individual morally and spiritually. However, it is not presumptuous to make a judgment on what the “higher good” in this case is. The higher good was protecting those boys. Joe Paterno would have almost certainly gotten no public credit for following this higher good. There would have been no statue built of Joe Paterno for protecting those kids. He might even have been excoriated for betraying his team and his university.

Herman Cain represents money and power too. On the same day the Philadelphia Inquirer was drenched in the Penn State scandal a column on Herman Cain’s presidential campaign was a riff on the odd fact that Cain seemed to be running for money not office. His TV ads in the Florida straw poll didn’t ask for campaign organizing help or outline policy positions but instead plugged sales of his book: “Consider giving a loved one a copy of “This is Herman Cain”, he tells his audience.

For Cain public service just doesn’t fit into his ideas of what has value: money and power – masculine power. You don’t question powerful men for hitting on women, especially if the women are needy, want a job, for instance. Cain trashed his one named sexual harassment accuser because she had filed for bankruptcy. His women accusers aren’t rich and famous. They are disposable, targets of contempt. They are women that dare to get in the way of powerful men.

The abused boys at Penn State – a much worse corruption of power – were treated as if they were disposable too. As one abused boy was alleged to have said of Sandusky “you just can’t tell him no”. He was strong. He did what he wanted.

Another story of “disposable” people is the shocking story of how the richest and most powerful man of them all – Apple’s Steve Jobs – tolerated terrible conditions in the factories of his subsidiary, Foxcom, in China. According to a report in the Guardian this past spring workers were driven to suicide, nets placed under dormitory windows to prevent “jumpers”. Workers were asked to sign a statement promising not to kill themselves and pledging to “treasure their lives”. But I digress.

There is the strong whiff of the wolf pack here, marauding for food and sex, and, in the case of humans, money. The culture of the locker room is the culture of physical power and in the case of the winning team, money. The passionate identity and investment of Americans in their sports teams can truly be called tribal.

This is the culture of the Republican presidential candidates who blame the lower 99% for not having the power to get enough stuff for themselves. Remember that Bush 43 owned a baseball team and ran his campaigns and his foreign policy like sports competitions. When Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell says his only goal is beating Obama he might as well be a Penn State rioter. The only thing to value is crushing the other side. It was nauseating but not surprising to hear Republican audiences applauding at Gov Perry’s record number of executions or pollsters finding 67% percent of Republicans support torture. It doesn’t matter if you are successful (Bush 43 was not) as long as you swear fealty to the culture of aggression. It’s manly to eat pizza and French fries and not “submit” like a weak woman to federal government regulations on school lunches. Strength is rejecting a tomato sauce that can be called a vegetable serving.