Saturday, January 30, 2010

Time of the Tigress

The “Tigress from Tiger Bay,” that is!
. . . Dame Shirley Bassey!

I’ve been really enjoying the latest album from the legendary Shirley Bassey. Yes, she’s still very much on the scene and sounding as majestically compelling as ever. “The Tigress,” indeed!

Dame Shirley’s latest musical offering is (appropriately enough) entitled The Performance, and one of my favorite tracks from this wonderful album is “The Girl from Tiger Bay” (a reference to the area of Cardiff, Wales, were Bassey grew up). This particular track was written for (and about) her by the Manic Street Preachers. Below is this song accompanied by a well-put together YouTube video by 365Emmauel. It’s followed by a review of The Performance by Fiona Shepherd (with added links and pictures, plus a brief YouTube video on the making of the album). Enjoy!

There’s a crack in every pavement,
Underneath there is a beach.
It’s been a long time longing as history repeats.
Yes, many times I’ve wondered,
Why a part of me remains,
In place so full of beauty,
That somehow never changed.

I bought a ticket of a lifetime,
There’s no denying who I am.
Forever young I will stay The girl from Tiger Bay.

Time has me believing,
That there’s nothing left to prove.
I feel the love within me and love can’t be removed.
There’s a crack in every pavement,
Underneath there is a beach.
It’s been a long time longing as history repeats.

All the memories and the scars,
They dance away into the stars.

I bought a ticket of a lifetime,
There’s no denying who I am,
For ever young I will stay The girl from Tiger Bay.


The Performance
Dame Shirley Bassey

A Review by Fiona Shepherd
The Scotsman
November 2, 2009

It’s Dame Shirley Bassey these days, if you don’t mind – as if anyone needed reminding that we are in the presence of musical royalty. Elegant, commanding, playful, sophisticated, vulnerable – or, in the words of Manic Street Preachers’ frontman James Dean Bradfield, “this beautiful, glamorous singing beast” – Bassey is everything you could want from a diva and now she’s back to show yer Leonas how it should be done.

As was evident from her lauded appearance two years ago at the Glastonbury festival, she effortlessly musters the level of respect and regard afforded her fellow Welsh warbler Tom Jones, an old pro who just about manages to pull off the balancing act of moving with the times while remaining true to himself. Bassey, for her part, is about to show exactly how that is done on her first full studio album in more than 20 years. The Performance is dignified, heartfelt and timeless.

A good deal of the credit must go to Bond composer David Arnold in the role of producer. Given Bassey’s indelible association with the James Bond series – she is the only artist to have sung three Bond film themes – it must have taken all of five seconds to matchmake those two, and another ten to persuade John Barry and lyricist Don Black to compose a new song for their muse, the first they have written for her since “Diamonds Are Forever.” “Our Time Is Now” is a good, grown-up meditation on romance but it is far from the best this album has to offer.

More intriguing than the rekindling of old creative partnerships is the host of bright young things who have also queued up to write songs for Bassey. Some of the album’s contributors are no-brainers – the Pet Shop Boys, David McAlmont and Rufus Wainwright would probably have had diva strops of their own if they had not been invited to the party. Others, such as KT Tunstall and Kaiser Chiefs’ Nick Hodgson, are more unexpected choices, and some – we’re looking at Richard Hawley here – are downright inspired.

Most are understandably in thrall to the Bassey persona, writing songs to fit their conception of the veteran diva. And so Bassey comes out contemplative rather than shaking her stuff on opening number “Almost There,” written by Tom Baxter. You can see right away where he is going with the line “I'm not quite so young, I’m not quite so foolish in my defence,” but Bassey makes subtle work of its rather mournful tone before soaring on the big orchestral finish.

Her countrymen, the Manic Street Preachers, take the sentimental, pseudo-autobiographical route with “The Girl From Tiger Bay.” It’s a lovely song from a band who are more than capable of whipping up some heart-tugging romance when they have a mind to and, unlike other tracks, it is strong enough to retain something of the Manics’ stamp even as it is submitted to the traditional Bassey takeover.

Apparently, we have Rufus Wainwright to thank for the impetus of the album, and won’t he love that. His contribution, “Apartment,” was the first track to fall into place and he dares to take Bassey somewhere different. Despite the Latino arrangement, there is more than a hint of the European cabaret tradition about its protagonist's irreverent rejection of the fairytale lifestyle (“I’m running away from Cinderella, don’t want to go to Rapunzel’s hairdresser”) in favour of becoming a girl of independent means.

KT Tunstall also has fun with brassy Bassey without crossing over into kitsch on the bluesy strut of “Nice Men,” a good bad girl song on which Bassey demands to know “where have all the nice men, where have all the good men, where have all the bad men gone?”

Gary Barlow’s “This Time” is an old school Bacharachian ballad which is infinitely more dynamic than anything on the most recent Take That album, while Nick Hodgson’s classy composition “I Love You Now” also evokes old-school pop glamour without being a slavish pastiche of the sequined 1960s.

Best of the lot is Bassey’s beautifully controlled rendering of the tremulous, melancholic “After The Rain,” written by Richard Hawley, who is on formidable form right now.

Compared to these gems, Arnold’s two contributions are a little Bassey-by-numbers. “No Good About Goodbye” boasts a great title but sounds like an inferior “Mad About The Boy,” while “As God Is My Witness” is just plain turgid. [Okay, I have to interject here and say I totally disagree with this assessment of this particular track. But, hey, you be the judge by clicking here.] An old-school performer like Bassey knows that you need to hold something back for the finale – and the Pet Shop Boys-penned “The Performance Of My Life” provides the quintessential grandstanding finish which will please those looking for some va-va-voom from the Dame. It is to the writers’ credit – and Bassey’s, and Arnold’s – that this performance, along with the rest of the album, is more about soul-baring integrity than retro camp.

– Fiona Shepherd


Okay, I can’t resist: here’s another track from The Performance. It’s the beautiful “Our Time Is Now,” a song I’d seriously consider having at my wedding! No, really! The lyrics are just perfect!

Our time is now, Not one day soon.
Your eyes don’t lie,
Look how bright the stars
And how close the moon.

Our time is now and evermore.
It took a while but a love
Like ours was worth waiting for.

Love has no season,
There are no rules.
Those who stop dreaming are fools.
So come with me
Because our time is now.

Our time is now . . .

Recommended Off-site Links:
Welsh Diva Thrives on New Material Written by Artists Half Her Age - Pete Paphides (The Times, October 30, 2009).
Shirley Bassey Packs Plenty of Vocal Wallop in The Performance - Adam Sweeting (The Telegraph, November 11, 2009).
Shirley Bassey: The Performance - A review by Peter Robinson (The Observer, October 30, 2009).
Dame Shirley Bassey’s Official Website

For more of Shirley Bassey at The Wild Reed, see:
The Rhythm Divine
The Living Tree
History Repeating

Musical artists previously featured at The Wild Reed: Marty Rhone, Don Henley, Propeller Heads and Shirley Bassey, Stephen Gately, Nat King Cole, Enrique Iglesias, Helen Reddy, Australian Crawl, PJ and Duncan, Cass Elliot, The Church, Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield, Wall of Voodoo, Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, Pink Floyd, Kate Ceberano, Judith Durham, Wendy Matthews, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1927, Mavis Staples, Maxwell, Joan Baez, Dave Stewart & Friends, Tee Set, Darren Hayes, Suede, Wet, Wet, Wet, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Cruel Sea, Shirley Bassey, Loretta Lynn & Jack White, Maria Callas, Foo Fighters, Rosanne Cash, Jenny Morris, Scissor Sisters, Kate Bush, Rufus Wainwright, and Dusty Springfield.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Aquinas and Homosexuality

My Internet friend (and regular contributor to The Open Tabernacle) Phillip Clark has reminded me that today is the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas.

In a message on Facebook, Phillip notes that Aquinas was a “brilliant theologian and scholar who contributed immensely to the patrimony and theological integrity of Catholicism.” Yet, says Phillip “he was also a fallible, flawed human like the rest of us, and in some ways, mired the Catholic Church philosophically in misinformed definitions that continue to have implications on the understanding of certain issues – particularly those related to human sexuality – today.”

In his post, Phillip also shared writings of Hans Küng and John McNeill on the legacy of Thomas Aquinas. Following is what McNeill has to say about Aquinas in his book The Church and the Homosexual.


Thomas Aquinas was the only great scholastic theologian to discuss the subject of homosexual practices in any detail. Albert the Great, in a short reference, gives four reasons why this is the most detestable of practices: it proceeds form a burning frenzy; it has a disgusting foulness; those addicted to it seldom succeed in shaking off the vice; and, finally, it is as contagious as any disease, rapidly spreading from one to another.

In contrast to that of Albert, Thomas’ treatment is calm and dispassionate. As in the case of the Fathers, we must place Thomas’ treatment of homosexuality in the context of his treatment of women and of sexuality in general. Woman, he held, was “the inferior workman who prepares the material for the skilled artisan, the male.” He theorizes that since every child born should be male, because the effect should resemble its cause, there must be some etiological explanation for the birth of the inferior female. Such a birth, he claims, need not necessarily be the result of some intrinsic factor--a “defect in active power” or an “indisposition of the material” – but may sometimes arise from an extrinsic accident. He quotes the Philosopher (Aristotle) to the effect that “a moist south wind helps in the generation of females, while a brisk north wind helps in the generation of males.” Thomas’ attitude toward women is best expressed when he says of Eve: “She was not fit to help man except in generation, because another man would have proved more effective help in anything else.”

Concerning human sexuality in general, Aquinas rejects John Scotus’ position that sexual differentiation as such is due to sin, but he agrees with Augustine’s Stoic view that all sexual pleasure is the result of sin. The Stoic influence is evident in the fact that Aquinas deals with the subject of homosexuality in the course of his treatise on the cardinal virtue of temperance. He identifies the vice to this virtue as lust, whose essence is “to exceed the order and mode of reason where venereal acts are concerned.” Any act which is not consistent with the proper end of venereal acts, namely the generation and education of children, necessarily pertains to the vice of lust. The lustful man desires not human generation but venereal pleasure, and it should be noted that this pleasure can be experienced by indulging in acts which do not issue in human procreation. It is precisely this which is sought in the sin against nature.

Thus the first grounds for Thomas’ condemnation of homosexual practices is his belief that they necessarily represent an inordinate selfish seeking of venereal pleasure; and, as we have see, Thomas believed that all such pleasure is the result of sin. What we should note with interest is that there is no mention in this passage of a third possible motive for venereal acts, whether heterosexual or homosexual, besides either lust or procreation – namely, the possibility that they might be an expression of genuine interpersonal love. There is no reason to assume that Aquinas had any more awareness than had the Church Fathers of the homosexual condition. Rather it is almost certain that in his reference to homosexual practices he is assuming that these are merely sexual indulgences undertaken from a motive of lust by otherwise heterosexual persons. This is the conclusion drawn by Joseph McCaffrey in his study of Aquinas’ treatment of homosexuality. Having rigidly subordinated the rational and, therefore, moral use of sex in general to one end – procreation – Aquinas assumes that homosexual acts, since they cannot serve that purpose, must be motivated necessarily and exclusively by a drive toward sexual pleasure.

In a response to an objection that if no one is injured by homosexual activities, there is no sin against charity, Aquinas points out that the order of nature is derived from God. Consequently, any contravention of that order is necessarily “an injury done to the Creator.” Thus the most fundamental objection that Aquinas had to homosexual practices was identical to that of the Stoics: they cannot serve the exclusive divine purpose governing the use of all human sexuality, the end of procreation. It would seem that Aquinas, like his Stoic predecessors, never even considered the possibility that human sexual behavior, even in a heterosexual context, never mind a homosexual one, could be morally justified as an expression of human love.

In one relatively unknown but important passage in his Summa Theologica, Thomas speaks of homosexual practices as capable of being “connaturale secundum quid.” He asks the question, When is pleasure “according to nature?” He distinguishes between those pleasures that are according to human nature specifically as rational – such as “the contemplation of truth” – and those pleasures which humans have in common with other animals – such as “veneral activity” (veneorum usus). But he continues: “In the case of both types of pleasure it can happen that what is unnatural simply speaking can be connatural in a certain situation. For it can occur that in a particular individual there can be a breakdown of some natural principle of the species and thus what is contrary to the nature of the species can become by accident natural to this individual [per accidens naturale huic individuo].” Among other examples of this, Thomas explicitly mentions male homosexual activity (in coitu masculorum). Unfortunately, he never explores this distinction further.

To deal exclusively with the passages in which Aquinas speaks explicitly of homosexual practices is somewhat unjust to his influence upon the consequent development of sexual ethics. Although Aquinas himself did not apply his new insights to practical ethical issues, he did lay the philosophical foundation for a personalist ethics. It was not until he reversed the act-potency relationship of Greek philosophy with his central idea of a real distinction between, essence, or nature, as potency and existence as act that a philosophical foundation was laid for understanding human beings as positively individual and unique and therefore, incapable of being legitimately totally relatavized to the ends of the species from an ethical viewpoint. Further, Thomas opened up the possibility of conceiving human nature not as a static given, but as a dynamic teleological process of growth and development. This made possible an understanding of ethical norms as ideal goals governing the development of personal community, rather than just biological nature. But this development had to await the work of philosophers true to the spirit, if not the letter, of Thomistic philosophy. It was not until the rise of modern personalist philosophies of human subjectivity and freedom that an appropriate methodology for an ethical study of human sexuality in a personalist context became available.

– John J. McNeill
The Church and the Homosexual
pp. 95-99

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Blood-Soaked Thread
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology
Bishop Spong: “Homosexuality is Not Unnatural”
The Gifts of Homosexuality
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Making Love, Giving Life
The Many Forms of Courage (Part I)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part II)
The Many Forms of Courage (Part III)
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
The Standard for Sexual Ethics: Human Flourishing, Not Openness to Procreation
Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 1)
Sex as Mystery, Sex as Light (Part 2)
Getting It Right

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Andy Birkey on Katherine Kersten's "Bullying Tactics"

Despite the fact that we both live in the Twin Cities, are “Facebook friends,” and share a passion for LGBT rights, I’ve yet to meet Andy Birkey – something that I think I’ll try and rectify upon my return to the U.S. next month. Then again, I don’t need to meet Andy to know that as the editor-in-chief of the Twin Cities-based LGBTQA magazine The, he’s a gifted (and prolific) writer, well-equipped to address the crucial issues facing LGBT folks and, indeed, all who are interested and committed to human and civil rights in our world today.

latest piece is not only as informed and insightful as ever, but it takes on Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten – something that’s always worth celebrating and publicizing.

That being said, following is Andy’s January 26 Star Tribune “Your Voices” column.


Kersten’s “Bullying Tactics”
Unhelpful to Gay Marriage Debate

By Andy Birkey

Star Tribune
January 26, 2010

I gave myself a week to cool down after Katherine Kersten’s “Thats a Funny Way to Show Tolerance,” a column that portrayed the battle over gay marriage in that California as one fraught with intimidation at the hands of “gay activists.” I think invoking “Ku Klux Klan” and “neo-Nazis” as comparisons to the anger felt by members of the LGBT community when their right to marry was voted away by their neighbors constitutes intellectual vandalism; it offers nothing constructive to the debate on marriage equality in Minnesota or California except to passive-aggressively name-call.

But, the context that Kersten left out of her writing is crucial to understanding the “bullying tactics” she says target people of faith. Fortunately, in the age of the internet, context is only a click away.

It was Christian groups who bankrolled a vast amount of the misleading advertising in support Prop 8. The groups pushed out ads reminiscent of Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children” campaign of the late-1970s, that giving gays rights would harm children. Prop 8 supporters used a similar campaign, “Protect Our Children.”

“The focus on children was the most striking thing – that we have to protect them from gay marriage. That it could lead children who are confused about their sexuality to become gay, which would be undesirable,” testified Yale historian George Chauncey during the Prop 8 trial. “It was a very effective campaign. Its very name drew on and renewed these public campaigns labeling homosexuals as child abusers,” said Chauncey.

“It is a sign of how the place of gay people has changed and what one can say in polite society about gays since Anita Bryant has changed,” said Chauncey. “[The ad] is a pretty strong echo of the argument that simple exposure to gay people is going to lead a whole generation of gay kids.”

The ads were even a bit too strong for the Mormons, a religion that bankrolled a significant portion of the anti-marriage equality forces, and they tried to hide their significant involvement.

It’s in that environment that frustrations led to violence by both sides of the marriage debate in California. There were documented reports of intimidation, vandalism and violence on both sides of the Prop 8 campaign, but very little manner in which to aggregate them all. Fortunately, California has a robust bias crime reporting system, and certainly if a rash of crimes was committed against same-sex marriage opponents, it would show up there.

In 2008, the year of the contentious Prop 8 battle and the most recent year for which data is available, there were 8 bias crimes against Protestant Christians and 12 against Catholics in California. That’s roughly what the state saw in 2007 which was 11 and 10, respectively. Presumably, the rash of anti-Prop 8 violence was directed at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), or the Mormons, which funneled huge amounts of money to fight gay marriage, but California doesn't track those numbers, only “anti-other religions.” That number increased from 2007 to 2008 from 24 to 64. A very liberal estimate would say 84 bias crimes were committed against Christians of all traditions in California in 2008.

There were 293 anti-LGBT bias crimes in the same period – more than three times that of anti-Christian crimes. And LGBT people make up an exponentially smaller portion of the population.

Just as in the case of religion Prop 8 supporters, there was evidence to support the case that LGBT Californians were singled out because they opposed Prop 8. In just one California county, Los Angeles County, pro-gay marriage supporters were targeted. “The public debate around Prop 8 triggered 9 anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) crimes,” wrote the LA County Attorney. “Five of these crimes were acts of vandalism in which opponents of Prop 8 had their property targeted by homophobic (and in 1 case, anti-black) graffiti. In addition, there were 4 violent crimes.”

To go off topic slightly . . . Kersten decries “bullying tactics,” “harassment,” and “persecution,” and that’s something members of the LGBT community know about: 24 LGBT people were murdered in the U.S. in 2008 for being, or suspected of being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Zero Americans were killed because of their religion. It’s also unlikely that anyone was killed because of Prop 8.

But, it’s clear that both sides of the same-sex marriage debate in California behaved badly. Gays and lesbians in California had a glimpse at what they see as equality, and they had that equality taken away at the ballot box by their friends, family and neighbors. While vandalizing signs and targeting businesses for a boycott because an employee donated to a cause isn’t justified, it’s certainly understandable.

Opponents of equal rights for gay couples felt that gay marriage in their state was an affront to their deeply held religious beliefs mainly because ads touted the dangers of churches being shuttered and people being sued for not accepting gay marriage, and that school children would be taught gay sex. Those well-funded (mainly by Christian groups) ads telling people of faith those false consequences, otherwise peaceful people resort to drastic acts to protect their faith.

Instead of fanning the flames of fear – as Kersten does in her recent column – a responsible columnist would look for ways to find common ground on a contentious issue that isn’t going away any time soon. And the tactics of neither the anti-gay marriage Christians nor pro-gay marriage activists are anything like the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis. That’s something most reasonable people – except perhaps Kersten – can agree on.

– Andy Birkey

NOTE: For Randi Rietan’s response to another anti-gay column by Katherine Kersten, click here. For a response to Kersten from Dave Mindeman of the Minnesota Network for Progressive Action, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Catholic Voice for Marriage Equality at the State Capitol
An Ironic Truth
America’s New Civil Rights Battle
Steve Chapman: "Time Is On the Side of Gay Marriage"
A Christian Case for Same-Sex Marriage
Lowell Erdahl on Unlearning the Things That Used to Be Obvious
Sen. John Marty on Marriage Equality in Minnesota: "We Can Make It Happen"
Reflections on the Passage of Proposition 8
Unrest in California on the Passing of Proposition 8
The Real Sodomites: Proponents of Proposition 8

Howard Zinn, 1922-2010

Historically, the most terrible things - war, genocide,
and slavery - have resulted not from disobedience,
but from obedience.

— Howard Zinn

I was saddened by the news this morning (Australian time) of the death of Howard Zinn.

Zinn was a renowned social activist, historian, and author. For many, he’s most famously known for his book, A People’s History of the United States. Although I never met Zinn, I did hear him speak on two occasions in the Twin Cities. On one of these occasions I photographed him (left) for my Faces of Resistance online exhibit.

Following is part of the commentary that accompanies this photograph on the Faces of Resistance website.

Commenting on Howard Zinn’s address to an overflowing crowd at the University of St. Thomas, journalist John Tribbett noted in Pulse of the Twin Cities that Zinn “used his colorful history — being raised in a working class family, later becoming a bombardier in World War II and eventually earning a Ph.D. from Columbia University — as a backdrop to highlight the evolution of his beliefs and how they apply to current issues in the United States. [Zinn] spoke about his opposition to the current war in Iraq, the American media’s failure to cover the victims of American-led attacks there, the conservatives’ hijacking of the term ‘patriotism’ and the takeover of the presidency by George W. Bush.”

Along with his great knowledge of U.S. social/political history and his fiery oratory skills, what impressed me about Zinn was his overall gentle manner and wry wit. In so many ways, he was (and remains) an inspiration to many.

That’s not surprising, really, for as Noam Chomsky notes , Zinn “made an amazing contribution to American intellectual and moral culture . . . [He] changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”

I wonder how the foreign policies of the United States
would look if we wiped out the national boundaries
of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all
children everywhere as our own.

— Howard Zinn

In October 2008 I shared on The Wild Reed (as part of my “Progressives and Obama” series), Zinn’s reasons for voting for Barack Obama. Here’s part of what he said:

One might assume . . . that I see no difference between McCain and Obama, that I see them as equivalent. Not so. There is a difference, not a significant enough difference for me to have confidence in Obama as President, but just enough for me to vote for Obama and to hope he defeats McCain.

Whoever is President, the crucial factor for change will be how much agitation there is in the country on behalf of change. I am guessing that Obama may be more sensitive than McCain to such turmoil, since it will come from his supporters, from the enthusiasts who will register their disillusionment by taking to the streets. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not a radical, but he was more sensitive to the economic crisis in the country and more susceptible to pressure from the Left than was Herbert Hoover.

One year later, in October 2009, Zinn was asked what he would urge President Obama to do. Following is how Seth Robein
reported Zinn’s response.

“It’s a very delicate question,” he mused. “Why? Well, it’s not easy to talk about.” Everyone wants to support Obama, he continued, or at least everyone in his circle. Everyone wants to love Obama. But let’s face it: “His presidency doesn't measure up. I have to say that. But why? How? How come?”

Militarism, he answered. Obama has kept the troops in Iraq. He’s sent more troops to Afghanistan. “He’s continued a military foreign policy.”

Not to be a know-it-all, Zinn said (“though I do know it all,” he joked), but those who expected great change from this president were fooling themselves. Look at history, he urged, invoking his mantra; Democrats are as aggressive as Republicans.

“They’re all in this for war,” he said. “That’s what we call bipartisanship.” Those surprised or disappointed are those who “exaggerated expectations, romanticized him, idealized him. Obama is a Democratic Party politician. I know that sounds demeaning. It is.”

“There’s an enormous weight left over by the Bush administration,” Zinn said. “Unfortunately, he has done nothing to begin to lift that weight.” Change can happen only by grassroots protest strong enough to move entrenched interests.

“I’ll say it: turmoil,” he concluded.

What matters most is not
who is sitting in the White House,
but who is marching outside the White House,
pushing for change.

— Howard Zinn

I conclude this post by sharing a video of Zinn speaking on human nature and aggression. It’s from the DVD You Can’t Be Neutral On a Moving Train (2004).

Civil disobedience is not our problem.
Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that
people all over the world have obeyed the dictates
of leaders . . . and millions have been killed because of
this obedience. Our problem is that people are obedient
all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation
and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that
people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves
. . . [and] the grand thieves are running the country.
That’s our problem.

— Howard Zinn

Recommended Off-site Links:
Howard Zinn, Historian Who Challenged Status Quo, Dies at 87 - Mark Feeney and Bryan Marquard (Boston Globe, January 27, 2010).
“People’s History” Author, Howard Zinn, Dies at 87 - Hillel Italie (Associated Press, January 27, 2010).
Social Historian Howard Zinn Has Died - Carolyn Kellog (Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2010).
Goodbye Howard Zinn - Peter Rothberg (The Nation, January 27, 2010).

UPDATE: Howard Zinn (1922-2010): A Tribute to the Legendary Historian with Noam Chomskey, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein, and Anthony Arnove - Democracy Now! (January 28, 2010).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Where the Poseurs Are

When it comes to clothes, I’ve never been what you’d call a “dedicated follower of fashion.” I’ve also never had much time for those magazines (gay or straight) that focus on vacant-looking models flogging off overpriced clothes that have been mass-produced in some Third World sweatshop. And as for coughing up $20 to $30 bucks for underwear – or rather for a brand name on underwear – well, forget it.

Given such views it’s not surprising that I found myself having a good chuckle at columnist Tim Dick’s perspective on fashion in the January 9-10 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. Dick shares his thoughts on fashion as part of his attempt to not only challenge the “falsehood” that Sydney is the most pretentious Australian city, but to make the case for Melbourne as the true home of the Australian male poseur.

Following is an excerpt. Enjoy!


. . . Fashion is pretentious. It’s made worse by people who make super-human efforts to look fashionably, effortlessly non-conformist. Unique. They make themselves appear non-chalant about their looks when they are, quite obviously, not.

Fashion is what makes those parading about Bondi, Paddington and Surry Hills so repellent to the vast sensible majority who live in the rest of Sydney, the people who will agree with the view of one of the Western world’s few true non-conformists, the unfortunately dead Quentin Crisp: “fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.”

Yes, Sydney has plenty of male hipster posers, but Melbourne’s are more intense and more accepted. And if it is to be the Australian capital of chic, Melbourne must accept being the accompanying flip side, the capital of pretentious shallowness.

Sydney men have better things to do – like enjoying ourselves – than spend an hour of our lives we’ll never get back having some dim shop assistant in skinny black jeans and oversized singlet ignore you while you search for a pair of pants in your size, preferably without bedazzling.

Sydney cops grief for being shallow because as a city we’re obsessed with fit bodies, beaches and sex. Why any of those things should be grounds for getting grief at all is beyond me. Each is far healthier than obsessing about what clothes to wear, and more honest.

To read Tim Dick’s commentary, “Sydney Men Sigh with Relief: The True Home of the Poseur is Melbourne,” click here.

See also the related Wild Reed post:
A Lose/Lose Situation

At this time one year ago at The Wild Reed:
Competent Parenting Doesn't Require “Traditional Marriage”
The Painted Forest
More on “Spiritual Paternity”
Bishop Spong: “Homosexuality is Not Unnatural”
A Declaration for Reform and Renewal

At this time two years ago at The Wild Reed:
Heath Ledger, 1979-2008
“Conversion Therapy” and the Pseudo-Science of NARTH
Former “Ex-Gay” Shares His Experience of NARTH
The “Real Gay Cowboy” Remembers His Friend, Heath Ledger

At this time three years ago at The Wild Reed:
The Real Meaning of Courage
Billabong Koala Park
Last Days in Australia
Back in the U.S.A.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

In a Blow to Democracy, U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Corporate Personhood

Ten years ago I was quite the anti-corporate globalization activist. Note: I wasn’t against globalization, but rather corporate-led globalization.

During that time of what I see now as my political and social awakening (1997-2003), I documented much of my involvement in the justice and peace movement through an online photographic exhibit that I entitled Faces of Resistance: Images and Stories of Progressive Activism at the Turn of the Millennium.

One part of Faces of Resistance focuses on “Confronting Corporate Globalization,” and documents protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the International Society for Animal Genetics (ISAG), and the notion of “corporate personhood.”

This section of Faces of Resistance also highlights individuals, organizations and events that proactively offer alternatives to corporate-led globalization. Individuals highlighted include Vandana Shiva (right), David Korten, Marjorie Kelly, Rev. Robert Jeffrey, Tom Taylor, Larry Weiss, and Mary Shepard.

Another part of Faces of Resistance documents A16, which refers to April 16, 2000, the main day of protest during a week of rallies, demonstrations, teach-ins and activities in Washington, D.C., aimed at protesting the structure and policies of both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The neo-liberal economic doctrine

As I note at Faces of Resistance, the writings of
Susan George, along with those of Vandana Shiva, David Korten, and Naomi Klein, have been instrumental in helping me not only understand the meaning and ramifications of corporate-led globalization and the “neo-liberal” ideology that underpins it, but also why and how such an ideology must be resisted.

As George explains in her invaluable little book, Another World Is Possible, If . . .,

Neo-liberalism is an economic doctrine . . . based on open competitive markets and the ‘price mechanism,’ meaning that prices must be determined by supply and demand, not by government intervention or subsidies. Neo-liberals are against most state interventions in the economy, they are pro-free trade and anti-trade unions. They see the array of social protections afforded by the welfare state as nothing but state-organized theft and consequently they want to reduce taxes.

One of their number in the U.S. is Grover Norquist. He heads the organization Americans for Tax Reform and says, “We want to get government down to the size where you can drown it in the bathtub.” Except, of course, for the military . . .

Strict neo-liberal doctrine breaks down, however, in certain cases. Free trade is all very well, but, to cite only one example, it’s okay to protect American steel producers or farmers with high tariffs or subsidies. Government rules and regulations are unwelcome, except when they are tailor-made for protecting corporate interests; taxes can be a good thing if paid by someone else; and so on.

Whatever the qualifiers used – corporate-led, finance-driven, or neo-liberal – they all describe world capitalism’s most recent phase which it entered roughly around 1980. From the onset, say about 500 years ago, capitalism existed as a global phenomenon. The difference today lies in its scope and the nature of its major actors: giant corporations and mega-financial institutions now have remarkable latitude to set rules that govern everyone, especially because they also frequently control the media. They seek ever greater power to bend national and international policies to fit their needs. . . . Fortunately, both anger and revolt are on the rise.

“We, the people,” not “we, the corporations”

Well, hopefully this “anger and revolt” will rise to even greater levels in response to the truly disturbing news out of the U.S. that the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, has ruled that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates. Basically, corporations, artificial creations of the state, now have First Amendment rights of political expression formerly afforded solely to individuals and political parties.

Just how bad is this decision? Well, one lawmaker
describes it as the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case justifying slavery, while one commentator declares it a “naked assertion of the interests of the American financial elite” and the culmination of “years of anti-democratic decisions by the Supreme Court.”

Following is how constitutional law professor Jamin Raskin views this latest Supreme Court decision. He spoke yesterday to Amy Goodman on the TV/radio news program Democracy Now! I greatly appreciate what Raskin has to say, as he not only identifies the dangers of this decision regarding corporate personhood, but also offers concrete steps that President Obama, Congress, and U.S. citizens can take to challenge and counter this decision.

Following is the transcript of Goodman’s conversation with Raskin.


Amy Goodman: [A new] Supreme Court ruling . . . will allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates. In a five-to-four decision, the Court overturned century-old restrictions on corporations, unions and other interest groups from using their vast treasuries to advocate for a specific candidate. The conservative members of the Court ruled corporations have First Amendment rights and that the government cannot impose restrictions on their political speech.

Writing the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy described existing campaign finance laws as a form of censorship that have had a, quote, “substantial, nationwide chilling effect” on political speech.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens described the decision as a radical departure in the law. Stevens wrote, “The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the nation. . . . It will undoubtedly cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress, and the States to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process.”

To talk more about this ruling, we’re joined by Jamin Raskin. He’s a professor of constitutional law at American University and a Maryland state senator. He is the author of several books, including Overruling Democracy: The Supreme Court vs. The American People.

Professor Raskin, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Jamin Raskin: Good morning, Amy. Well, we’ve had some terrible Supreme Court interventions against political democracy: Shaw v. Reno, striking down majority African American and Hispanic congressional districts; Bush v. Gore, intervening to stop the counting of ballots in Florida. But I would have to say that all of them pale compared to what we just saw yesterday, where the Supreme Court has overturned decades of Supreme Court precedent to declare that private, for-profit corporations have First Amendment rights of political expression, meaning that they can spend up to the heavens in order to have their way in politics. And this will open floodgates of millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and local elections, as Halliburton and Enron and Blackwater and Bank of America and Goldman Sachs can take money directly out of corporate treasuries and put them into our politics.

And I looked at just one corporation, Exxon Mobil, which is the biggest corporation in America. In 2008, they posted profits of $85 billion. And so, if they decided to spend, say, a modest ten percent of their profits in one year, $8.5 billion, that would be three times more than the Obama campaign, the McCain campaign and every candidate for House and Senate in the country spent in 2008. That’s one corporation. So think about the Fortune 500. They’re threatening a fundamental change in the character of American political democracy.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about President Obama’s response? He was extremely critical, to say the least. He said, “With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics . . . a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Yet a number of conservatives are pointing out that President Obama spent more money for his presidential election than anyone in U.S. history.

Jamin Raskin: OK, well, that’s a red herring in this discussion. The question here is the corporation, OK? And there’s an unbroken line of precedent, beginning with Chief Justice Marshall in the Dartmouth College case in the 1800s, all the way through Justice Rehnquist, even, in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, saying that a corporation is an artificial creation of the state. It’s an instrumentality that the state legislatures charter in order to achieve economic purposes. And as Justice White put it, the state does not have to permit its own creature to consume it, to devour it.

And that’s precisely what the Supreme Court has done, suddenly declaring that a corporation is essentially a citizen, armed with all the political rights that we have, at the same time that the corporation has all kinds of economic perks and privileges like limited liability and perpetual life and bankruptcy protection and so on, that mean that we’re basically subsidizing these entities, and sometimes directly, as we saw with the Wall Street bailout, but then they’re allowed to turn around and spend money to determine our political future, our political destiny. So it’s a very dangerous moment for American political democracy.

And in other times, citizens have gotten together to challenge corporate power. The passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 is a good example, where corporations were basically buying senators, going into state legislatures and paying off senator — paying off legislators to buy US senators, and the populist movement said we need direct popular election of senators. And that’s how we got it, basically, in a movement against corporate power.

Well, we need a movement for a constitutional amendment to declare that corporations are not persons entitled to the rights of political expression. And that’s what the President should be calling for at this point, because no legislation is really going to do the trick.

Now, one thing Congress can do is to say, if you do business with the federal government, you are not permitted to spend any money in federal election contests. That’s something that Congress should work on and get out next week. I mean, that seems very clear. No pay to play, in terms of US Congress.

And I think that citizens, consumers, shareholders across the country, should start a mass movement to demand that corporations commit not to get involved in politics and not to spend their money in that way, but should be involved in the economy and, you know, economic production and livelihood, rather than trying to determine what happens in our elections.

Amy Goodman: This is considered a conservative court, Jamin Raskin, but isn’t this a very activist stance of the Supreme Court justices?

Jamin Raskin: Indeed. The Supreme Court has reached out to strike down a law that has been on the books for several decades. And moreover, it reached out when the parties to the case didn’t even ask them to decide it. The Citizens United group, the anti-Hillary Clinton group, did not even ask them to wipe out decades of Supreme Court case law on the rights of corporations in the First Amendment. The Court, in fact, raised the question, made the parties go back and brief this case, and then came up with the answer to the question that the Court itself, or the five right-wing justices themselves, posed here.

There would have been lots of other ways for those conservative justices to find that Citizens United’s anti-Hillary Clinton movie was protected speech, the simplest being saying, “Look, this was pay-per-view; it wasn’t a TV commercial. So it’s not covered by McCain-Feingold.” But the Court, or the five justices on the Court, were hell-bent on overthrowing McCain-Feingold and the electioneering communication rules and reversing decades of precedent.

And so, now the people are confronted with a very serious question: Will we have the political power and vision to mobilize, to demand a constitutional amendment to say that it is “we, the people,” not “we, the corporations”?

Recommended Off-site Links:
Citizens United vs. FEC: Shed a Tear for Democracy
- Robert Weissman (The Huffington Post, January 21, 2010).
U.S. Supreme Court Abolishes Restrictions on Big Business Political Spending - Tom Carter (World Socialist Web Site, January 22, 2010).
A Supreme Victory for Special Interests
- John Dean (, January 21, 2010).
Corporate Personhood Should Be Banned, Once and For All
- Ralph Nader (, January 21, 2010).
Citizens United Is a Radical Rewriting of the Constitution by the Pro-Corporate Supreme Court
- Lisa Graves (PR, January 21, 2010).
If Corporations Were Human
- Scott Klinger (, January 22, 2010).
Obama Blasts Supreme Court Campaign Finance Ruling - Darlene Superville (Associated Press, January 23, 2010).
Campaign Finance Ruling Reflects Supreme Court’s Growing Audacity
- Michael Waldman (Washington Post, January 22, 2010).
The (New) Gilded Age: Supreme Court Delivers the Goods to Corporations - Peter Laarman (Religious Dispatches, January 24, 2010).

Want to Take Action? Click here.

UPDATES: Citizens United: The Court Ruling That Sold Our Democracy – Tiffany Muller (Common Dreams, January 22, 2020).
Bernie Sanders: 10 Years Fighting Citizens United – Brett Wilkins (Common Dreams, January 21, 2020).

Images: Michael J. Bayly.