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Archive for the ‘Public Life’ Category

Two weeks ago, J. K. Rowling published a blog post justifying recent anti-transgender tweets, in what many have called “a transphobic manifesto.” Just nine days later, a US Senator used that essay as justification to block The Equality Act, which would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected from discrimination under federal law. In doing so, he demonstrated the real world consequences of Rowling’s betrayal.

I understand the word “betrayal” seems harsh, but it is apt, because in her essay, tweets, and insistance that transgender women are not really women, Rowling has betrayed the values she taught a generation of young people. The Harry Potter books emphasize respect for difference and standing up to bullies, but Rowling has used her prominent position to ridicule transgender people. Make no mistake – to deny the reality of a person’s lived experience – which Rowling does repeatedly – is to dehumanize them.

The books emphasize truth and honesty, but Rowling makes blatantly false claims about Maya Forstater, a think tank consultant whose expired contract was not renewed, due to her repeated harrassment of transgender people while at work.  In a 26 page opinion, a judge ruled that it is “a sleight of hand to suggest that the claimant merely does not hold the belief that trans women are women.  She positively believes that they are men and will say so whenever she wishes….  It is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment…. The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society.”  Dishonestly describing Forstater as a woman fired for her opinions rather than her behavior, Rowling reveals her agenda. She is looking for an excuse to portray Ms. Forstater – and by extension herself – as victims of an overzealous “politically correct” agenda. Rowling portrays the views of anyone who criticizes her, or questions her denial of transgender identity, as “misogynists” and opponents of free speech – a claim of victimhood made in the process of actively harming some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Rowling introduces Dolores Umbridge, whom she later described as “one of the characters for whom I feel the purest dislike….  Her desire to control, to punish and to inflict pain, all in the name of law and order, are, I think, every bit as reprehensible as Lord Voldemort’s unvarnished espousal of evil.”  Sadism aside, Umbridge’s defining characteristic is that she detests “half breeds” and “part humans.” In other words, Umbridge’s hostility springs from an inability to conceive of beings who are in any way ambiguous – a half-giant, a centaur, a werewolf, or the child of muggles with magical powers. For Umbridge, everything must stay in its neat little category, and to stray from that category is to betray all wizarding kind.  Against that backdrop, Rowling’s anti-transgender statements seem jarringly familiar – and a betrayal of one of the strongest and noblest themes in her writing.  

Rowling, the wealthiest author in the world, complains that she has been “canceled” several times. I’ve never been completely sure what that means, but I, for one, have no wish to “cancel” J. K. Rowling. If some people wish to stop reading her books because the author’s attacks on transgender personhood make them feel sick, I certainly understand. This is someone who has described transgender identity as a “costume.”

I suspect that part of the reason Rowling’s essay makes so little sense is that her views on transgender issues are at odds with some of her own cherished values. These are the values she wrote into her books, and that she continues to express even as she dehumanizes people she claims to support. It’s hard to get past prejudices, and Rowling’s struggles are normal and human. Unfortunately, because of her position of power, they are also deeply damaging, despite her repeated assurances that she has transgender friends and believes in transgender rights. (It’s hard not to wonder how those transgender “friends” felt when they read Rowling’s essay. I wonder if they spoke to her about it – or if she still takes their calls.)

The good news is that Harry Potter fans have learned the novels’ lessons far better than the author. Members of the Harry Potter Alliance – an international group dedicated to social justice – created the project Protego!, with over a thousand actions small and large to aid the transgender community – including a series highlighting transgender authors and a “Marauder’s Map” of gender neutral restrooms. (Many of these resources are still available through the Protego Tool Kit.) The leaders in the Harry Potter Alliance trace their activism to the lessons they learned through Rowling’s work. This is the gift of these books – they are bigger than any one person, even their author.

Maybe it’s time for J. K. Rowling to reread her own novels.  She might learn something.  She might even rediscover herself.

First trans solidarity rally and march, Washington, DC USA

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Tonight we received confirmation of 100,000 known deaths in the United States to COVID-19. The news is heartbreaking, not least because so many of these deaths could have been prevented if leaders had chosen to act differently, and because so many more preventable deaths are likely. So my heartbreak is tempered with anger.

But today, my overhwleming feeling is grief.  Some who died were people I knew, repsected, admired and loved. Some were neighbors. Some were artists. Some were strangers who, in ways most of us will never know, made this world better with their living. Each one of them had a name, a story, a family, and a community.

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The AIDS emorial Quilt in Washington, DC

In 1985, a group of activists started The Names Project, creating a giant quilt, with panels made by families and friends of AIDS victims.  Today the quilt has over 200,000 panels, each representing a name.  Seeing the quilt on display for the first time at the National Mall inspired Cathy Fink to write the song “Names,” which she and Marcy Marxer recorded in 1989.

And I know that my name could be there
And I feel the pain and the fear
And as human love and passions do not make us all the same,
We are counted not as numbers, but as names.

Cathy’s song remains, after all these years, one of the most powerful I know.  With her permission, I’ve made a quick home video of the song.

I’m going to keep singing this one, hard though it is to get through without tears.  I need those tears; I think we all do. They help us hold on to our humanity, and as deaths contnue to grow, they remind us that “we are counted not as numbers, but as names.”

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excerpt from The New York Times

 

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Dear Congressional Republicans,

You’re not helping.  And you know it.

The course you are choosing through this shutdown – now the longest in history – is damaging to our country, our democracy, millions of federal workers and contractors, and millions more who depend on them.  And it’s costing the government billions.  All for the ego of Donald J. Trump.

Of course, you could stop this at any time – simply pass a funding bill and override a veto – but choose not to, perhaps for fear of being on the wrong side of a Presidential tweet, or of a primary challenge.  Satisfying your base seems to you the only way to protect your job.

It won’t, though.  The longer this shutdown drags on, the more lasting damage will be done to our country, its citizens, and our economy.  The longer you ignore your constitutional responsibility to act as a check on the President, the more the public will see and name the cowardice at the heart of your inaction.  When you are blamed for a collapsing economy, for suffering farmers, for the inevitable resuts of long term security lapses, you will find yourself discredited, out of office, and out of power.  

And for what?  A border wall?  Very few of you actually believe a wall would do much to slow illegal immigration, or that it will ever be finished if it is ever started.  So why is it?  Why are you dragging your feet?  The Senate voted to fund the government, by unanimous acclamation, before Christmas.  The House was ready to do so.  Why not do so now?

Are you waiting in the hopes that loyalty to President Trump will garner you favors?  One has only to look at the history of his “friends” to recognize that Donald Trump feels no loyalty to anyone but himself.  Are you doing it out of fear?  This situation will not end with a Presidential victory.  Sooner or later the pressures will become too great, the hungry too many, the news too awful, and you will vote to reopen the government, whatever the Presidential consequences.  Are you doing it out of principle?  You know better than most that the cost of this shutdown goes against everything you claim to stand for, and that the longer it goes on, the less secure we all are.

So I implore you – not only for the sakes of federal workers, contractors, their families, all who depend on them, our national lands, our economy, and all of us – but for your own sakes.  Stop the bleeding before it becomes fatal.  End this shutdown.  Vote to fund the government.  Stand up to a bully.  Do what you know is the right thing.

Do it for your country.  Do it for your party.  Do it for yourself.  You might even get reelected.  You’ll certainly be thanked.

Sincerely,
Dan

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As of this week, 130 migrant children taken under the cruel practice of child separation have yet to be reunited their families, and despite court orders and stated changes in policy, children continue to be taken from their families, sometimes for no reason beyond a prior immigration violation or the inability of their parents to produce a birth certificate.

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US government photo

Almost 15,000 children remain imprisoned in detention centers and camps.  Almost two dozen have died there. Others have been abused.  All have had their freedom and their childhoods stolen.  Migrant children seeking asylum have been subjected to tear gas.

But for the most part, we’ve stopped hearing about the cruel treatment of migrant children and families.  News stories have become hard to find.  It is as if, having heard it all before, the public has grown accustomed to the reality of state sponsored cruelty to children. We have stopped paying attention.  Instead, we are consumed with the ludicrous proposal to erect and maintain a wall across thousands of miles of rough terrain, and with alarmist falsehoods about terrorists coming over the southern border (they are not).

Policies that persecute migrant children are not new in the United States, but they have been taken to a new level.  We cannot allow ourselves to forget or to turn away from the pain these policies cause, or to imagine the problem is solved simply because we are not hearing about it.

This is what has been in my heart these last few weeks, and as so often happens, the words and melody of a song came to mind.  In this case it was an old song, written by Robert Lowry in 1877:

Where is my boy tonight?
Where is my boy tonight?
My heart o’er flows for I love him, he knows
Where is my boy tonight?

Over and over, those words ran through my head.  I sang them through tears, until at last I found myself adapting the old words into something quite new:

Where is my stolen child tonight
The child that I love so dear
To save his sweet life we came in flight
But they took him away in tears                                         

Chorus:
  Oh, where is my boy tonight?
  Oh where is my boy tonight?
  My heart o’er flows for I love him, he knows
  Oh, where is my boy tonight?

We came here alone, afraid and poor
My child playing at my knee
No face was as bright, no heart so pure
And none was so sweet as he

Oh, could I hold you now, my child
Six months we’ve been torn apart
Oh, could I hear your voice so mild
And heal my poor breaking heart

Bring me my stolen child tonight
Please look for him where you will
And if he should come into your sight
Tell him I love him still

  ¿Donde está mi hijo?
  ¿Donde está mi hijo?
  Se rompe mi corazón, por que lo amo
  ¿Donde está mi hijo?

On the night that President Trump declared a “crisis of the soul” at the border, I sat in my living room and recorded a simple video of this song, as a reminder to myself and others of our real crisis of the soul.

Where are the stolen children tonight?  What will we do to return them to their families? How will we change as a people because of what we have done?  How will we end the cruelty, and make sure that we are never again complicit?

Where is my boy tonight?

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On Wednesday of this week a man fueled by hatred attempted to enter a Black church in Louisville, Kentucky, only to find the service had ended and the doors were locked. Instead, he went to a nearby supermarket and began shooting at African Americans.  This week a far right extremist sent bombs through the mail to the critics of his favorite politician. And today, a man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and reportedly shouted “All Jews must die” before opening fire and murdering at least eleven people.

These are not isolated incidents. They are symptoms of a society whose leaders increasingly give comfort to White supremacist ideologies, lending their tacit and sometimes explicit support.

Violent extremists are frightening, but mercifully few.  What is more concerning is the fear and hatred that finds traction among ordinary people who themselves are afraid for their livelihoods, or their ways of life, or their place in a world that is changing. Because extremism depends on on corrupting the intentions of basically good people, it cannot prevail in the end. It is always overcome in the end, not with guns or fists, but with integrity, justice and truth.

It is up to all of us to counter this movement. We are not helpless, but we have to take responsibility. We have to counter the narratives of hatred and fear. We have to speak out and act up. We have to come together to change the leadership of the nation. And yes, we have to vote.

I am grieving today, and I am angry, but I am also determined.

We have power. It is time to use it.

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In a service at the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester a few weeks ago, just before Yom Kippur, I spoke about the Jewish spiritual practice of teshuvah – turning in the heart. How do we turn, I asked, when the failings belong to all of society?

Today those failings are more in evidence than ever. Women and others who report sexual assault continue to find themselves ignored, blamed, and belittled by privileged men in power. Children continue to be separated from their parents at the border, even when the children are United States Citizens and the parents legal asylum seekers. Evidence of global climate change and our failure to address it is greater than ever.

In the pain of the news, I find myself coming back to the that service. Here are some of those words.

“There is a natural instinct in the face of overwhelming grief to cover our eyes with our hands. When we’re mourning, we tend to turn away from what is giving us pain and find whatever is most comfortable. A friend, a prayer, a song, a comforting phrase, we find something, anything, to take us away from the agony of the moment. It makes sense that we would do this; it’s part of being human.  We need to do this sometimes. As we grieve, eventually and slowly we allow ourselves to confront our sorrow, and we emerge wistful, perhaps wiser, certainly more empathetic. It is a healing process.

“In the grief of global and societal injustice, we naturally turn away, because it is our human instinct to do so, and hard truths cause us pain. The spiritual practice of turning bids us to uncover our faces, open our eyes, and turn back towards the pain.  

“Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that ‘prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.’ And he put those words to practice, marching in Selma with Dr. King and so many others. When he came home, he said, ‘I felt like I was praying with my feet.’

“I want to ask us to turn and face realities we would not like to admit, to accept the leadership of those who are most directly affected by those realities, and to pray with our feet. I want to ask us to let go of whatever stands in the way of this work, to forgive ourselves and ask forgiveness whether we think we need to or not, to forgive others whether or not they have yet completed their own turning. I want us to look into our hearts, so filled with goodness and love, and remember why we care so much for other people, and this sacred earth.

“Then, we take that love, that goodness, and let it feed our living in the world, as we give ourselves to the work before us.”

Members of the Unitarian Congregation of West Chester vigil in support of survivors of sexual assault.

 

 

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Dear Speaker Ryan,

This week, a 19 year old man walked into a high school and murdered 17 people, wounding countless others. In response, you said this is not the time to talk about gun laws.

“This is one of those moments where we just need to step back and count our blessings….  We need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically, and just pulling together. This House, and the whole country, stands with the Parkland community.”

I’m not sure what “step back and count our blessings” means in the wake of the grizzly murder of 17 teenagers and teachers.  Perhaps it is meant to stand in for the now discredited “thoughts and prayers” Congressional leaders have offered so many times in the past.

While I understand that special cases make bad law, this is not a special case.  This is normal in the United States of America.  According to the Gun Violence Archive, 30 mass shootings have resulted in 58 deaths and 124 injuries in the first 45 days of 2018 alone.  In that same time, there were 1806 gun deaths and 3126 injuries.  69 of those reported deaths and injuries were young children.  331 were teenagers.

So my question is this.  When is the right time, Speaker Ryan?  How long a pause in the bloodshed is required for Congress to begin addressing its cause?  You speak of mental illness, but every country in the world has mentally ill people; among Western nations only the United States experiences violence on this kind of scale.  Blaming the problem on the mentally ill distracts from the true causes of violence while perpetuating a hurtful and harmful stereotype.

The issue, Speaker Ryan, is easy access to guns.  The issue is a lack of any form of training or licensure to own a deadly weapon, widespread legal ownership of assault weapons, a lack of universal background checks, and above all, a Congress beholden to the National Rifle Association.  (Last year you personally received $171,977 from that lobby, more than $90,000 more than the next highest recipient.)

So I ask again, when is the right moment?  The longest we have gone between mass shootings in 2018 has been three days.  Would that be enough time to “count our blessings?”

If it is not, then I submit that you do not “stand with the Parkland community,” nor any community that has suffered such an attack.  You do not stand with the over 150,000 American students who have been witness to a school shooting.  You do not stand with the vast majority of the American people, who overwhelmingly support universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.

More importantly, you do not stand for life.

How long, Mr. Speaker?  How long must we wait?

In faith,
Rev. Dan Schatz

 

photo by Elvert Barnes

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My Dear Friends,

We live in an era of hatred and intolerance directed against those who do not conform to an increasingly archaic set of “norms” – White, cisgender, male, ethnically and economically privileged. This hatred is stoked by those who would elevate their own power at the expense of another human being’s dignity.
Anti-Transgender “bathroom bills” and the incredibly cruel announcement from President Trump (which could potentially start a purge from the military of well over 5000 openly transgender troops currently serving our country) serve no legitimate purpose. They protect nobody, save nothing, accomplish nothing beyond the undermining of our national security, credibility and moral authority. They exist entirely to bolster the status of politicians who view bigotry as a convenient path to power.
It is an old story, and an intolerable one. It is the story of Dixiecrats, the “Southern Strategy,” “Defense of Marriage” acts, anti-immigrant racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, continued legal discrimination against the lgbtq community, and much more; the list stretches far too long. Always the method is the same – find a vulnerable group in society, paint them as less deserving of human rights, and therefore less than human, and use them as objects to create societal division. Always the consequences are the same – violence, discord and despair – and in the extreme, genocide.
To my transgender family, friends and neighbors who are suffering today, I give you my support and my solidarity. You have been victimized, not because of who you are, but because of what you are – an easy target. It is wrong on every level, and I pledge myself to your struggle.
I am far from the only one.  I only hope you know, in this moment of suffering, the love that is yours, the support you have, and the determination with which we will continue on behalf of your dignity, your freedom, and your rights.

Please do not be silent. Tell us what you need, and we will listen. We must listen. At stake is the soul of humanity.

In faith,
Rev. Dan Schatz
and human being
photo by Tim Evanson, used with permission

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Pete Seeger once said about Woody Guthrie’s music, “Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity.”

Saro Lynch-Thomason has written a simple song, and it’s genius.

I first heard the young Appalachian folklorist, ballad singer and songwriter last Fall at a Washington, DC area folk music retreat. In a mini-concert which featured a number of traditional and older songs, she ended with one of her own, leading the packed room in harmony.

There are more waters rising,
This I know, this I know,
There are more waters rising,
This I know.
There are more waters rising –
They will find their way to me,
There are more waters rising,
This I know, this I know,
There are more waters rising,
This I know.

As she led the crowd through verses about fires burning and mountains falling, I began to hear echoes of voices past – Jean Ritchie and others whose deeply rooted music documented the devastation brought by mountaintop removal mining, often falsely referred to as “clean coal technology.”

Then the song took a turn.
I will wade through the waters,
This I know, this I know,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know.
I will wade through the waters
When they find their way to me,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know, this I know,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know.

Saro Lynch-Thomason had not written a lament, as I originally thought, or even a warning. Hers is a song of resistance and hope. It stayed with me for a long time, and after the election last Fall, the song began to take on new meaning.

I will walk through the fires
When they find their way to me,
I will walk through the fires,
this I know….

When I finally asked Saro if she could send me a recording of her song, she did one better, creating a video for everyone to share. I thought of this song when I marched through the streets of Philadelphia the day after Inauguration, with my child beside me holding a sign that read: “March today and work everyday for justice, equality and compassion.” I remembered its words when airports filled with demonstrators, and immigration lawyers became the new heroes of the age. I heard its melody as I worked with my Unitarian Universalist congregation to reach out to immigrant communities made vulnerable by the government’s actions. Its echoes came to me as I watched the fires burn at Standing Rock. I sing it again today as we face the very real impacts of climate denial and environmental policies that place profit over responsibility.

We are all walking through fire.

There will be damage, it’s true. Many of us are learning what the people of Appalachia have known for decades – that we can’t stop all the harm done by those who act without regard for the land, the water and the people. It would be easy – too easy – to fall to hopelessness. But there is another lesson here – when the people stand strong, holding on to what is important, we can begin to repair what has been broken. We begin to make a difference simply by letting our voices be heard, and we are only beginning.

I will rebuild the mountains,
This I know, this I know,
I will rebuild the mountains,
This I know.

Saro Lynch-Thomason’s song ends as it begins –

There are more waters rising –
They will find their way to me….

– but somehow, having crossed waters and fires and rebuilt mountains, these words no longer feel like a cry of despair. Instead they are a call for resistance and resilience, an affirmation of what is possible when communities from across a country and a world come together in support of human decency. This we can and will do, although the task will be difficult. It always has been, but we will wade through these waters. We will walk through these fires. We will rebuild these mountains.

There are more waters rising!

This I know.

(This article has also been posted at The Huffington Post.)

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George Stephens, Lisa Null, Saul Brody, Brendan Phillips, Terry Leonino, Duncan Phillips, Greg Artzner, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer "Singing Through the Hard Times"

George Stephens, Lisa Null, Dan Schatz, Saul Broudy, Brendan Phillips, Duncan Phillips, Magpie (Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner), Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer “Singing Through the Hard Times” in 2010

When I was a very small child and I needed comfort for whatever reason, sometimes my mother would sit up on her bed and take out her guitar. I would sit beside her and she would sing to me. It didn’t really matter what the song was; I sang with her, and we would make music together. It was closeness and connection, a reminder that not everything had to be hard. There was goodness to be found.

Recently many of us have needed that kind of comfort. The rise of open race hatred, misogyny and religious intolerance in the United States and elsewhere is terrifying. For many it has been a wake up call, bringing new clarity to the work we have before us. There are entire communities at risk, and it is up to each and all of us to be allies to these communities and to one another.  There are principles of human rights, human dignity, and respect for the environment which will need defending.

But it can be hard to get started in that work when the weight of it seems so heavy. After all, the usual day to day events of our lives go on – school, work, getting ready for the holidays, and everything else that fills our attention.  When we combine all of these things with the national mood, it becomes easy to get depressed or defeated, or to turn our attention entirely away from the need that seems so much greater than our ability to help.

That’s where the singing comes in. Several years back, when I was producing a CD to honor the folksinger Utah Phillips, I learned a relatively unknown song of his called “Singing Through the Hard Times,” which eventually became the title of our album. “We are singing through the hard times,” he wrote, “working for the good times to come.” These were exactly the kinds of times he was thinking about when he came up with this verse:

And when the war clouds gather, it’s so easy to get angry
And just as hard not to be afraid.
But you know in your own heart, no matter what happens
You just can’t turn your back and walk away.  

Our “singing through the hard times” may take any number of forms; it doesn’t need to be musical. We might share food, do art, or enjoy conversations with people we love. We might come together in congregations, gatherings or holiday celebrations. Whatever it is that we do, it will be important to keep our spirits whole and strengthen our hearts as well as our communities for the work ahead of us.

Then we do the work.  Bringing “the good times” will take the dedicated effort of a great many people, and we know it won’t be easy. It will be up to all of us together to protect those who are unsafe, speak up for those whose voices are taken away, rebuild broken relationships and begin to create new and stronger ones with all kinds of people. That’s our task, and as daunting as it is, others have done this work before, and successfully. Now it is our turn.

So hand in hand together, we help each other carry
The light of peace within us every day
And if we can learn to live it and walk and talk and give it
The world of peace won’t be so far away.

Sing through the hard times. Work for the good times to come.

“Singing Through the Hard Times,” from the Righteous Babe CD, with footage from U. Utah Phillips

 

 

 

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