Monday, May 31, 2010

Florence: The Preachers

Florence was the city that invented the Renaissance (and perhaps by extension modernity), but it was a medieval city. Medieval civilization did not die at all with the advent of the Renaissance. On the contrary, all the way through the 3 centuries of the Renaissance, and through all the life of the Florentine Republic, medieval culture lived and flourished. Historians throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century routinely described the Renaissance as a kind of pagan revival, as a revival of ancient Classical culture at the expense of the Christian religion. This would have been alarming news to just about everyone involved in the creation of the Renaissance and its humanist culture. People like Petrarch, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola would be very surprised and distressed to see themselves described as “pagan.” They considered themselves to be nothing of the sort. They saw themselves as loyal and faithful Christians who saw no conflict between what they were doing and the Christian religion. Perhaps the only Renaissance figures who might have happily embraced the term “pagan” were Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli, both of whom were hostile to the Christian religion, at least in their writings.

The emerging humanist culture of Florence, together with the city’s nascent capitalist economy, lived with the medieval city in a complex relationship. Many of the creators of Renaissance humanist culture were themselves ordained clergy and religious of the Church. Alberti was a priest. One of the pioneers of Florentine humanist painting was a Dominican friar, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico. The Florentine Neo-Platonist writer Agnolo Poliziano ended his days as a Dominican friar. It was Pico della Mirandola, the author of the famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man,” who brought Savonarola to Florence and enthusiastically recommended him. The Florentine textile and banking industries spent enormous sums of money on religious institutions and charities. The subject matter of the works of art made for the private homes of the growing Florentine business and professional classes was overwhelmingly religious.

The spiritual outlook of the medieval world is hard for us to recapture today, whether we are religious of not. The world of the spirit had an almost palpable reality for people of that time that is hard for us to imagine. To this day, there are shrines at street corners everywhere in Florence. The Christian saints were drafted into the roles played by the ancient gods, as protectors of crossroads.

Florentine street shrines from various ages

Everyone from learned humanist scholar to illiterate day laborer believed sincerely that angels, saints, and demons walked the streets of Florence together with mortals. In the much smaller medieval cosmos, it was easy to imagine that what happened in the streets, workshops, markets, halls, and private bedrooms of Florence had cosmic significance. This was a religious age, but not a particularly conscientious age. Everyone from saintly abbesses to highway robbers saw the world in religious terms. God was everywhere and always speaking, and yet church corruption was blatant and crime was rampant.

Religious participation in Florence was popular and enthusiastic throughout its history. The Florentines, like a lot of urban residents in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, organized themselves into confraternities, organizations of lay people dedicated to prayer and to good works. Great banking families like the Strozzi, the Ruccelai, and the Medici dominated the Confraternity of the Magi. The Company of the Magi staged elaborate religious processions through the streets of Florence during Epiphany. Those elaborate processions find their echo in Florentine paintings of the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. La Compagnia della Misericordia (The Company of Mercy) dedicated itself to taking care of the sick, the injured, orphans and widows, and to burying the dead.

Piero della Francesca, the Madonna della Misericordia, painted for the Misericordia of the artist's native town of San Sepolcro.

A detail from Piero's painting above showing a hooded member of the San Sepolcro Misericordia.

To comply with Christ’s demand that the “right hand not know what the left hand is doing,” that good works must be done in secret to remain good, members of the Misericordia were once required to conceal their identity under hoods and masks when making their rounds. They appear thus disguised occasionally in paintings. Today, the Florentine Misericordia still exists and runs the city’s ambulance and paramedic services.

The Loggia del Bigallo in Florence across from the Cathedral, the former headquarters of the Florence Misericordia.

The Madonna della Misericordia, an anonymous 14th century fresco in the Bigallo, Florence.

A Florentine ambulance, belonging to the Misericordia.

A major religious revolution played a large a role in the creation of Renaissance humanism. It played a role as large as the rise of the capitalist economy. That revolution was the creation of the mendicant orders, the preaching monks, in the early 13th century.

In the early Middle Ages, Christianity was an intellectual religion largely confined to monasteries and universities, to learned people literate in Latin. The Bible was inaccessible to most people. Making handwritten books was sometimes as large and expensive a project as building new buildings. The Bible was entirely in Latin or Greek, languages alien to most people at the time. What people knew about the Christian religion was what their parish priest told them. Usually that parish priest was barely more literate than the people in his congregation. What most people believed was a dimly understood Christianity usually passed on in the form of holy folk tales about Christ and the saints. Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend is the most famous collection of these pious popular tales. This was mixed together with vaguely remembered pre-Christian beliefs in magic, divination, demons, and protective spirits.

Cimabue, Saint Francis of Assisi

Francesco Bernadone, better known as Saint Francis of Assisi, was one of the greatest religious revolutionaries in history. He popularized the Christian religion for the first time in almost a thousand years. He did so by speaking directly to people, a broad cross-section of people, in their own language and in terms of their own experience.
Francis decided at an early age to imitate the life of Christ as closely and as literally as he could. When his wealthy merchant father very dramatically and publicly disowned him, Francis returned everything his father ever gave him down to the clothes on his back. He said that from then on God was his father.

Circle of Giotto, Saint Francis Renounces His Father, fresco from the upper church, San Francesco, Assisi

Francis noticed that Christ and His disciples were very poor men dependent on the charity of others. When he heard the passage from the Gospel where Christ said that “foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Francis decided that he too should have no permanent roof over his head.
Francis noticed the way Christ talked to people in the Gospels and who He talked to. Christ talked to people not in elaborate strings of syllogistic arguments, but in their own language using the items and experiences of everyday village life as metaphors. Christ talked to the poor, and tended to avoid the company of professional intellectuals. Francis decided to do likewise, taking the Gospel directly to people in the form of preaching and example.
In order for his project to succeed, Francis had to believe that popularizing the Gospel mattered. There certainly were those at the time who didn’t think so. He had to believe that people’s experiences of the world mattered. There were a lot of religious thinkers who didn’t think that they mattered at all. What mattered was the mind of God and our efforts to discern it, not our flawed experiences of a mortal world. Francis’s conviction that our experiences of the world do matter, and that they are all we have to find our way, opened the path to the revival of humanism.
This project had a revolutionary quality which Francis himself recognized. Francis and his followers put the Gospel back into the hands of ordinary people. They no longer depended on a paternalistic hierarchy to dole it out to them. Francis’s more radical followers, the Fraticelli, seized on the egalitarian implications of this popularization of the Gospel, and applied this to a broad rejection of the hierarchies of the Church, the feudal order, and emerging capitalism. Francis intended nothing quite so broadly radical, and made a special point of going to Rome to apply for papal recognition of his new order of wandering and preaching monks.

The Franciscans, the Friars Minor, were the first order of preaching monks. Their task was to take the Gospel directly to the people, and to preach to a broad cross-section of humanity.

Saint Bernardino of Siena preaching, early 15th century

The Franciscan preachers were very effective and tremendously popular. They would draw huge crowds of thousands of people. Cities like Florence would bring in Franciscan preachers and set up temporary outdoor pulpits and altars for them in central piazzas, especially during Lent. These sermons were not always serious exegetical meditations on Scripture. Frequently, they were great theater, and the most famous preachers were virtuoso performers holding their listeners spell-bound for 2 and 3 hours at a stretch. Preachers resorted to all kinds of dramatic devices from imaginary dialogues with the devil, certain saints, and with God, to the use of props, to bursting into tears and rending garments. Audiences loved this.

Saint Bernardino preaching in Siena before the Palazzo Publico. He is using a prop, a painting of the Name of Jesus inscribed in the Sun, a vision he claimed to have seen. Notice how the congregation is segregated between men and women. Early 15th century.

The congregation did not sit passively listening. Listeners frequently shouted and shrieked, publicly confessing sins, or announcing dramatic sudden conversions. It was all the drama and emotionalism of an evangelical tent revival, only the crowds were much bigger, and Mass always followed the sermon. Just as in some current revival meetings, miracles sometimes were reported to happen during these sermons: visions, healings, even reports of raising the dead.

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Vincent Ferrer raising two dead with his preaching.

These preachers frequently played major roles as unofficial influential powers in Florence. Long before Savonarola’s famous regime, the preachers had enormous influence on the politics and culture of Florence. Saint Bernardino of Siena and Saint Antonine influenced popular opinion greatly across class lines, which in turn, shaped government policy. What was unique about Savonarola was his claim to prophetic powers, and his de facto rule of the Florentine Republic.

The preachers had their constituency, usually the middle class, the shopkeepers and lesser tradesmen who were shut out of the major policy making bodies of Florentine politics. The preachers sometimes gave voice to the anger and frustrations of Florence’s large and completely disenfranchised working class, especially in the textile industry. The preachers very effectively pointed out and condemned the abuses and exploitation of employees in the mills. They presciently criticized the tendency of Florence’s early capitalism to reduce all things to commodities, including people. Concealed beneath the extravagance of Florence’s mercantile nobility, the preachers told their congregations, were cruelty and a cold indifference to humanity. The preachers sometimes courageously took on the all-powerful banking industry (including that other great banking power, the Church) with sermons condemning the sin of usury.
More frequently, the preachers voiced the resentments of the middle class, especially their resentment of what they saw as the extravagance and decadence of the new banking nobility that built its greatness at the expense of everyone else. It was those articulated resentments that drove Florence’s episodes with sumptuary laws, regulating public displays of extravagant dress and jewelry, usually (though not exclusively) aimed at women. It was this resentment that sometimes drove the city to crack down on vice, on gambling, prostitution, and public drunkenness. The mendicant preachers enthusiastically played the role of morals police and prosecutors.

The preachers’ most frequent target for wrath and indignation was the descendants of Eve, women.

Domenico Ghiralandaio, Giovanna Tornabuoni, a young woman from a very rich and prominent Florentine banking family.

Women played the role of temptress, whore, witch, penitent sinner, and spotlessly pure virgin in the imaginations of religious men. They never played the role of equals. It was thought necessary to strictly regulate and police the lives of women for the sake of social health and civic stability. Women of most classes in Florence led very cloistered lives. Only those women at the bottom of society worked, and they did so out of necessity, in the textile industry, or as waitresses, laundresses, seamstresses, or as prostitutes. While opportunities opened up for men in the Renaissance, they dried up for women. Medieval women could learn trades, run businesses, and even become scholars in the much less settled and more chaotic world of early Medieval Florence. In the Renaissance, they were kept at home and frequently kept illiterate. As in most other Mediterranean cultures, women were the dependents of men in Florence.

An elaborate Florentine wedding cassone, 1472. These were very elaborate and expensive wedding gifts for a wealthy bride that contained her trousseau.

Marriages in Florence, as in most of Europe at the time, were matters of property and inheritance among all classes. Marriages for love were extremely rare and almost unheard of. Love was to be legitimately given to children, not to spouses. Love was to be shared illegitimately (and frequently) with mistresses and lovers, not with spouses. A marriage was the end result of months of negotiations between families. Betrothals were legally binding contracts between families. Breaking them risked law suits and civil penalties. The first duty of the newly married couple was to produce a male heir.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Birth of the Virgin, imagined as childbirth in the palazzo of a great Florentine family. Men were excluded from childbirth.

A Florentine birth tondo, or round picture, usually made to commemorate a successful childbirth for a great and wealthy family. Birth and death were public affairs in Florence. Note the trumpeters with the city stemma on the flags announcing the birth to the city at large. Also note that the only ones entering the birthing room are women.

Daughters were to be married off to good or better families, to secure business and political alliances. Youngest children of both sexes were usually destined for holy orders, sometimes against their will. Dating was unheard of. Young men and women usually had very little contact with each other until their betrothal. It is likely that for most people of both genders, marital sex was not a pleasure. It was a quick bodily function between two people who hardly knew each other, and may not have liked each other, to fulfill an obligation. Many husbands and wives looked elsewhere for sexual pleasure, and for romantic love. The love stories of the day (especially in Bocaccio’s tales, and even Dante’s famously unrequited infatuation with Beatrice Portinari) were all adulterous. As in many Mediterranean cultures, women were kept strictly segregated, so opportunities for sexual contact were few and difficult, but not impossible. Young men had little outlet for sexual activity except in prostitution, or with each other.

Sex between women is very rarely mentioned in the city’s records (though it certainly existed), but sex between men was talked about obsessively.

Filippino Lippi, Portrait of a Youth

Middle class resentment of the decadence of the city’s oligarchs drove the occasional crackdowns on the sin of sodomy. We usually identify sodomy today as anal sex between any 2 people. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, it meant any sexual contact between two people of the same sex, especially men. Florence was famous for its tolerance of homosexual activity, as the preachers constantly reminded their Florentine congregations in order to shame them. Florence became synonymous with homosexual activity throughout Europe. The city’s large and rich homosexual culture was famous. Sex between men was the subject of numerous bawdy songs and serious poems praising it (some of them written by Lorenzo the Magnificent and other humanist writers). Same sexuality among men fills all levels of Florentine culture (something that is obvious to even the most casual of visitors to the city, but which historians largely ignored until recently). Humanist intellectuals praised the “philosopher’s love” of classical antiquity (especially the Neo-Platonists of the Careggi Academy). Examples of male beauty abound in Florentine art from all periods from the work of minor artists like Gozzoli to major masterpieces by Donatello and Michelangelo. Love affairs between masters and apprentices, scholars and students, and among apprentices and students were very common. Fashions, then as much as now, showcased the sexual appeal of young men with tight colored hose, loose shirts or short tunics, long hair, and conspicuous weapons. This was the street dress of choice for young men of all classes. Derived from the garb of mercenary soldiers, it was the right combination of sexuality and criminal glamor sought by young men in every age including our own.

detail from a painting by Benozzo Gozzoli

It was common for married men to keep male lovers as well as mistresses. As in most of the Mediterranean world, it was usually a sexual relation between an older man and a young boy that ended when the boy reached maturity. However, sexual relations between young men and boys of the same age were common in Florence. The vast majority of those arrested during the city’s periodic crackdowns on sodomy were young men and boys. While the upper classes were usually the object of the popular resentment causing the crackdown, Florentine police records from the 14th through the 16th centuries indicate that the vast majority of those arrested for sodomy were middle and working class young men and boys, usually apprentices and journeymen. Prostitution appears to have been very common among working class boys in Florence.

Sodomy was considered especially offensive to God. People believed that its presence put the city in peril. Preachers constantly reminded people of the fate of the namesake city of the practice. Laws against sodomy were severe calling for the death penalty for those convicted of the practice. In many cities in Italy and the rest of Europe, governments enforced these laws ruthlessly, hoping to avoid divine wrath. However, enforcement records in Florence tell a very different story. The Florentine criminal courts were usually very reluctant to fully enforce the law. They usually only did so in clear cases of rape. Most offenders were usually let off with a stern warning and a fine, even multiple offenders. The Florentine criminal magistrates understood that sodomy accusations had a long history as a way to settle scores with enemies, personal and political. They gave very little credence to anonymous depositions. Preachers always railed against this reluctance of the Florentine criminal courts to fully enforce anti-sodomy laws. The language of the preachers could be violent and downright bloodthirsty on this subject. In the 14th century, Bernardino of Siena condemned Florence’s reluctance to prosecute sodomy. In one of his sermons, he described in gory detail sodomites drawn and quartered in Verona, and burned alive in Genoa. “They don’t pardon the gentleman or the important citizen for sodomy,” he told his Florentine congregation, “but banish irrevocably even the greatest citizens.” He went on to urge the Florentines to build execution fires on every corner and to burn without mercy family and friends guilty of sodomy; “To the fire! They are all sodomites! You are in mortal sin if you try to help them!”

Execution of a Knight of Hohenburg and his page for sodomy outside of Zurich, 1482

The population of Florence, under Bernardino’s influence, pressured the Florentine government to harden its laws and enforcement against sodomy. In 1365, a fifteen-year-old boy named Giovanni di Giovanni was convicted and sentenced to death for repeatedly offering himself as a passive partner to numerous men. The city decided to make an example out of him to terrify the other youth of the city into compliance with the law. He was driven through the streets on the back of a donkey to a place outside the east wall of the city. He was publicly castrated and mutilated in the anus with a hot iron, and then burned to death. This kind of barbaric punishment for sodomy was never repeated in Florence, not even under the rule of Savonarola. Giovanni di Giovanni’s execution remained exceptional for its cruelty in a city that was not squeamish about violence. Capital punishment was routine in Florence, by beheading or hanging for all kinds of criminal offenses. Executions usually went unnoticed except by the clerk who entered them into the court records. That Giovanni’s execution was recorded and noted by the city’s many diarists and chroniclers indicates its exceptional nature, both its brutality and the age of its victim.
(Most of this material is based on Michael Rocke’s research in the Florentine civic archives published in Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence).

The Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence

The preachers not only profoundly influenced the politics and morals of Florence, they changed the architecture of the city. In the 13th century, a huge church rose on the east side of the city, the Church of Santa Croce (the Holy Cross). When finished, it was one of the biggest churches in the city. It was not the city’s cathedral. It was not a parish church, and it was far too big for the monastery attached to it. Santa Croce was a huge church built to accommodate enormous crowds for public preaching. It was a church built for preaching. When the crowds became too large for the church to hold, a huge piazza was cleared out of the slums on the city’s east side in front of the church.

Exterior of Santa Croce, Florence. The facade and bell tower are 19th century additions. The facade was designed by Niccolo Mata and completed in 1863, paid for by an English benefactor, Francis Sloane.

The Piazza Santa Croce, originally intended for the spill-over crowds from the church.

Saint Francis himself founded the Franciscan community of Santa Croce in Florence in 1211. Construction began on the present church about 1285, and was very controversial within the Franciscan order split between factions wanting to soften the original rule and those who wanted to keep the strict vow of poverty. The size and opulence of the church, the largest and most elaborate Franciscan church in Italy at the time, drew more outrage from within the order. Compounding the controversy were the close ties between Santa Croce and Florence’s leading banking families funding the construction of the new church, families such as the Bardi, the Peruzzi, and the Baroncelli. Santa Croce funded itself by offering masses for the dead for the price of a donation or a legacy to the monastery. As a result, the church filled with tombs and burials.

Floor tombs in Santa Croce

Family chapels in Santa Croce, the chapels of the Bardi and Peruzzi families.

The city’s wealthiest families acquired chapels in the church by granting legacies. Ten such chapels were built near the apse and in the transepts for just this purpose. Many members of the order, including residents of Santa Croce, viewed these arrangements with alarm and saw them as scandalous. They said that these arrangements compromised the independence of the community. What is more, many friars wondered what would Francis himself have thought, a man who insisted that his followers have no permanent roof over their heads, let alone a cloister attached to the largest church in town.

Santa Croce is the masterpiece of the great architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio.

Interior of Santa Croce

. It is a very conservative Italian version of Gothic architecture, an import from France. As in the much earlier church of San Miniato, the traditional wooden beam ceiling of the Early Christian basilican churches was kept. Arnolfo beautifully integrates it with a Gothic design that values proportion and clarity of form over the more traditional French taste for soaring height and complexity.

The bay arches in the nave, looking toward the entrance in Santa Croce

Instead of compound piers made of bundled colonettes of French and German Gothic, Arnolfo keeps the octagonal pillars of Italian Romanesque architecture. The arched bays are wide rather than high and make a smooth and easy transition to the simple clerestory of lancet widows between single flat pilasters to the open wooden beam ceiling. The composition remains based on flat wall planes and clear simple structural lines of pillars and pilasters. He limits round forms to the curves of the arches themselves. Instead of nave halls opening out into complexes of ambulatories and side chapels, Arnolfo gives us a very simple and clear plan of a five sided apse, transepts, and 7 equal bays to the entrance forming a single uninterrupted hall. This kind of modular carefully proportioned architecture looks forward to the work of Brunelleschi.

The apse and high altar of Santa Croce; note the abundance of painted imagery in the windows, on the walls, on the altar, and even hanging in mid-air in a painted cross.

Surviving fragments of a Last Judgment from the 14th century on the nave wall of Santa Croce.

Santa Croce was once richly painted inside. Fragments of the fresco work in the nave survive, once concealed underneath layers of Grand Ducal plaster and whitewash.
At the second bay down from the transepts, a screen separated the monks from the laity. In English speaking countries, this would be called a rood screen. In Italy, this feature is called a tramezzo or ponte. It was topped with a huge painted cross by Cimabue in the center. The tramezzo was removed in the 16th century, but the cross still survives.

Cimabue's great cross from the tramezzo of Santa Croce in its current state, badly damaged in the 1966 flood. It now hangs in the former refectory.

Aerial view of the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella. The main railroad station built in the 1920s and 30s is behind this church. The Grand Hotel Minerva where Henry James once lived is next to the church's facade immediately to the left.

The church of Santa Maria Novella with Florence's only Renaissance church facade, designed by Leon Battista Alberti over an unfinished earlier structure.

Santa Croce was not the only, or the first preaching church in Florence. The rival Dominicans began building their great church of Santa Maria Novella earlier in 1275 on the west side of town. A Spaniard, Dominic de Guzman, founded the Dominican Order at the same time Francis founded his order. He too wanted a preaching order. The Dominicans were founded specifically to combat heresy and to teach church doctrine.

The recently cleaned and restored interior of Santa Maria Novella. The striped patterns on the vault arches are ultimately derived from Islamic architecture (via French Romanesque at Vezelay). The black and white patterns recall the black and white habits of the Dominican friars. The nave bays are square toward the entrance, but narrow gradually toward the apse.

As in Santa Croce, the interior was once filled with painting, most of it removed by later changes in taste. Santa Maria Novella also had a tramezzo topped by a great painted cross, this one by Giotto, Cimabue’s famous pupil. The cross was recently cleaned, restored, and returned to its original position in the church. It now hangs where it once stood on the long vanished tramezzo.

Giotto's cross hanging inside Santa Maria Novella in its original position

Giotto's great painted cross at Santa Maria Novella with the apse and monk's choir behind. The walls of the apse are painted with scenes from the Life of the Virgin by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

These two great crosses remind us of the fundamental role the preaching orders played in making the visual arts among the greatest of all of Florence’s intellectual legacies. It is no accident that the preaching churches were filled with imagery. It was the preachers who created the demand for imagery, and who began the transformation of craftsmen who made imagery into artists who created original visions.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nice Pictures

I'm tired today.
It's been a very busy and stressful week. I finished all of my grading (term papers, portfolio reviews, essay exams, and final grades) just hours past the deadline yesterday. I catered the reception and exhibition for the graduating students last week. I attended commencement and got my cap and gown at the last minute. I watched Governor Patterson get dissed by some of the faculty at commencement over proposed cuts to the CUNY budget. The campus was crawling with cops and security people.

The highlight of my day today was replacing my computer screen background with one of these two sixteenth century screens by Hasegawa Tohaku. I used the painting on the bottom, but they are both wonderful. If you look carefully at the bottom painting, you can see a little glimpse of Mount Fuji in the splendidly evocative mists in the pine forests.


The President of Malawi pardoned Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga after meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon today.

That's two rescued and several hundred to go.

George Orwell and Conservatives

I've always been puzzled by conservatives' perpetual embrace of George Orwell. He never thought much of them. While Orwell bitterly opposed Communism, he was no friend of capitalism or imperialism. The same author of those famous anti-communist novels Animal Farm and 1984 also wrote the anti-capitalist Down and Out in Paris and London, and the anti-imperialist Burmese Days and Shooting Elephants.
Though Christopher Hitchens always hauls in Orwell to make his case for supporting the Iraq invasion, I can't imagine Orwell being enthusiastic for so aggressive and arbitrary a military adventure based on the flimsiest of (ultimately false) evidence. I can only imagine what he might have thought of George W. Bush, a president who believed that God spoke to him, and who plowed through legal, constitutional, and treaty restraints like snowdrifts in July.
I suppose it would also complicate Hitchens' evangelical atheism that Orwell requested Anglican rites and burial at his death.

A number of conservative anti-communist causes tried to enlist Orwell after World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War. He always turned them down. He was a true believing socialist to his dying day, a believer in democratic socialism and "anarcho-syndicalism" (whose cause he fought for in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War).
I'm still trying to find where I read this, but Orwell sometime in the late 1940s when he was in declining health was invited to hear a speech by a noted British conservative thinker. The speaker deplored liberal pluralism and called for a re-militarization of Western society to face the Communist threat. Orwell congratulated the speaker on a fine speech and then said, "I don't think you fear the Communists so much as you envy them." That for me is the epitaph of Cold War conservatism. Substitute "Islamist" for "Communist" and that remark would still be true today.

The Sestak Scandal

It looks more to me like business as usual among politicians, which is a disappointment, certainly. It doesn't look to me like it's much of a crime.

I mean, come on folks! It's not like he invaded a country and started a war for totally made-up reasons. Who would ever do a thing like that?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

One Step To Heaven

Our Troll

Brad Evans (recent photograph)

In the (almost) 2 years that I've blogged, I've had maybe 2 or 3 drivebys and only one troll.

I'm not sure what he thinks he's trying to accomplish. It certainly isn't to change my mind about anything. If he really has something to say to the world, then he should stop being a lazy parasite attaching himself to other people's blogs and get his own blog. I suspect that the reason he doesn't is because he knows that no one would read it or visit it. It would be all about him and his abundant hatreds. As Gertrude Stein once said about Los Angeles, "There's no there, there." He doesn't stand for anything. He keeps trying to attach himself to whatever cause I'm against, not because he believes in it (he doesn't), but because he thinks it pisses off people like me. I don't think he represents anything except his own obsessions. My right wing antagonists deserve a better spokesman than Brad.
He sometimes tries to comment as "Anonymous" or "Brian" but his fixations give him away every time. It's always the same comment over and over again. Sometimes he insults me or the other comment posters, but it's always the same thing like a broken record; he hates Episcopalians, Mainline Protestants, WASPs, brown people, black people, immigrants, Jews, women, gays, liberals, blah blah blah blah. He's convinced in his own mind that I'm some kind of East Coast WASP with a plush tenured position at Columbia or Princeton. In fact, I'm from Texas, descended from sharecroppers, and I spent my youth walking through cowshit, falling off horses, pulling out cactus thorns, getting stung by fire ants, chased by tornadoes, threatened by rattlesnakes (human and reptile), and catching crawdads with string and bacon (sorry Grandmere, but it's crawdads west of the Sabine). I live in a small railroad flat in Brooklyn with a sweeping view of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, and I teach at a community college in the Bronx. But, he keeps trying with that same comment, and I keep blocking him. Doing the same thing over and over again in the hope of a different result is the definition of madness.

Pushing his buttons is kind of fun, mostly because it's so easy.

Hey Brad, I'm gay, Episcopalian, I'm progressive, I live in New York, and I teach art to immigrant brown people up in the Bronx, including some illegal ones, and I'm damn proud of all of it (I think that presses most of his buttons).

Get your own blog asshole.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


One person's adventurously daring exotic meal is someone else's home cooking.

I'm told that many Asians find the very idea of cheese to be unspeakably revolting.

And when you think about it ...

Here's A Lovely Thought...

... Laura Bush as the headliner at the Dallas Gay Pride events. According to Joe-My-God, it could happen.

And A Little South African Synod of Anglican Bishops Shall Lead Them

Statement from the Anglican Bishops in Southern Africa on the Imprisonment of Stephen Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga

We, the Bishops of the Anglican Church in Southern Africa call upon the Government of South Africa to seek the release of Stephen Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were recently sentenced in Malawi to 14 years imprisonment with hard labour, after they shared in a traditional ceremony of engagement.

As we have previously stated, though there is a breadth of theological views among us on matters of human sexuality, we are united in opposing the criminalisation of homosexual people. We see the sentence that has been handed down to these two individuals as a gross violation of human rights and we therefore strongly condemn such sentences and behaviour towards other human beings. We emphasize the teachings of the Scriptures that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore must be treated with respect and accorded human dignity. .

These principles are at the heart of South Africa's own Constitution, whose provisions we see as setting an example for the world to follow. We therefore call on our President and Government to pursue the same values and standards for the upholding of human well-being, dignity and respect, in our external relations; to engage in dialogue with their counterparts on the rights of minorities; and to oppose any measures which demean and oppress individuals, communities, or groups of people. In particular we call on our President and Government to lobby the Government of Malawi at every level to uphold the commitment it shares through the SADC treaty to promote human rights (Article 4). We urge them to press for the swift release of these two individuals, who have committed no act of violence or harm against anyone; for the quashing of the sentence against them; and for the repeal of this repressive legislation.

More generally, we wish to reiterate our deep concern at the violent language used against the gay community across Sub-Saharan Africa, and at the increased legal action being taken against gay individuals, communities and organisations. Even in South Africa we are aware of instances of violence against the gay and lesbian community. We therefore appeal to law-makers everywhere to defend the rights of these minorities.

As Bishops we believe that it is immoral to permit or support oppression of, or discrimination against, people on the grounds of their sexual orientation, and contrary to the teaching of the gospel; particularly Jesus’ command that we should love one another as he has loved us, without distinction (John 13:34-35). We commit ourselves to teach, preach and act against any laws that undermine human dignity and oppress any and all minorities, even as we call for Christians and all people to uphold the standards of holiness of life.

Issued by the Office of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town
Posted by MadPriest at 15:27

Thank You!

My faith in God was always there, but my faith in Church was getting very shaky lately. Thanks to the South African bishops for so clearly and forcefully taking the lead on this matter, and for restoring at least a little bit of my faith in Ecclesia.

Hat tip to Madpriest.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Vanity of Earthly Greatness

Everything that you think is the ultimate in cool will be a laugh riot to your kids.

Everything that you think is the ultimate in cool will be quaint nostalgia for your grand-kids.

The same will happen to your kids and grand-kids, and so on forever.

It's the end of the semester and I'm cranky.

21st Century Economics

Whole populations must bear austerity measures in the middle of the worst economic slide since the 1930s so that their governments can rescue the assholes who own and run everything from their own bad bets with loaded dice, from the mess they've created for all the rest of us.

I'm especially entertained by the spectacle of BP executives just blowing off federal and state government officials (military and civilian) like so many pesky underlings.


Get a load of His Majesty ...

So, Why Is This Company Drilling In the Gulf?

Aftermath of the 2005 explosion in Texas City

On this the one month anniversary of the BP explosion and oil spill in the Gulf, it might be useful to look at another incident that has gone down to oblivion in our collective memory.

Bob Herbert this morning reminds us of an earlier BP disaster, the 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City that killed 15 employees.

Here is a Chemical Safety Board video about the technical causes of the 2005 explosion. It should have a ring of familiarity about it:

The refinery in Texas City is the third largest in the country. BP acquired the refinery in a merger with Amoco. The CSB investigation found BP negligent in the events that led up to the explosion. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, imposed its biggest fine ever on BP, $87 million dollars. As high as that is, it is but an operating expense to such a massive international company. Civil suits by families of the victims are still in litigation. You can find more info here.

And now we are finding out that BP and other companies routinely got environmental waivers for deep water drilling, and that those waivers are still being issued after the explosion in the Gulf.

I wonder if anyone remembers that under President Bush/Cheney, the petroleum industry was the federal government for all intents and purposes. I wonder if that might still be the case in the so far tepid response by the Obama administration to a major environmental disaster that may turn out to be the worst ever.

This administration's response to this disaster is perilously close to the Clinton administration's response to the Valuejet crash of 1996, another disaster due to corporate negligence. Almost immediately, the FAA went to work, not to investigate (which they eventually did), but to defend Valuejet and the airline industry.

Money talks.

One month later, I'm puzzled by the tepid response from the rest of the country. I suppose it will take oily shrimp, or better, a big jump in gas prices and seafood prices, and closing down some popular resorts, for anyone to notice.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Classical Stravinsky

Finale of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto:

It's been decades since I've listened to this. I forgot how delightful it is.

Another Pagan Pleasure for a Sunday Morning

The late great Rudolph Nureyev dances Nijinsky's original choreography (or something like it) to Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

This production supposedly shocked the French, seriously, the French!

Debussy wrote this ballet to be a setting of a poem by Stephane Malarme.

Here is Nijinsky himself in the role:

I'm just not much in a mood to celebrate the "birthday of the Church" this morning.

Thanks to JCF for putting this idea into my head.

Something to Ponder for Pentecost Sunday

I will not be going to church this morning. I have to finish grading student papers today.

As Pentecost arrives, here is an editorial from The Observer (UK) to ponder:

Homosexuality is not a sin or a crime. There is no caveat or quibble that should be added. The repression of gay men and women by legal means and public intimidation is an offence against the basic principles of a free and just society. Where it exists, which it does to varying degrees in many countries around the world, it must be confronted and defeated.

The case last week of two gay men sentenced to 14 years' hard labour in Malawi is a stark reminder of how urgent the task is. The judge said it was a "scaring sentence, so that the public will be protected". The country's president has described homosexuality as "evil and bad before the eyes of God".

In five countries around the world – Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen – the death penalty can be applied to gays and lesbians. They can be prosecuted for the fact of their sexual orientation in 76 countries, 38 of them in Africa.

There are also countless jurisdictions where homophobic attacks are tolerated by police. Britain hardly has an impeccable record on that front. But the UK has undergone a cultural revolution with regard to gay rights in the last decade: the repeal of Section 28, which banned teaching about homosexuality in schools; an equalised age of consent; civil partnerships and the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

Britain is also not without influence in countries where persecution is institutionalised. A particular obligation falls on the Anglican church, which counts in its communion clergymen who preach venom and hatred. The Anglican bishop of Uyo in Nigeria, Isaac Orama, has described homosexuals as "inhuman, insane, satanic and not fit to live".

The Anglican hierarchy in Britain has avoided speaking out too frankly on this matter to avoid a schism, but the church's quiet diplomacy has done nothing to help the victims of homophobic repression. Increasingly, it looks like complicity.

Is homosexuality the issue that we really want to define the Christian faith? Already, when people are asked what the Christian faith is all about, opposition to abortion and homosexuality immediately comes to their minds, not the Incarnation or the Resurrection, or salvation, still less anything that could be called "Love." Are those who are breaking up the Anglican Communion solely over this issue prepared to shoe-horn opposition to homosexuality into the Nicene and Apostle's Creeds? Do they really see it up there with belief in the Resurrection and the Trinity?

The State Departments of 2 different American presidents have spoken out more readily, clearly, and forcefully on these persecutions in Africa than any Christian bishop anywhere. I agree with the Observer editorial, this looks like complicity.

This is a matter where Christian bishops should be leading the opposition, not aiding and abetting the crime or bringing up the rear.

I would argue that what's really in peril are not gays and lesbians. We'll always be around no matter how many of us get killed.
What's really in danger is the Christian religion. If it wants to be taken seriously by the rest of the world as anything other than institutionalized bigotry and superstition, then it must take the lead on a major human rights issue. As I've argued repeatedly before, what the institutionalized homophobia of the churches offends is not people's sense of permission (as the right argues), but their moral sense, their deepest sense of what is right and fair. That's why there are so many heteros out there willing to go to bat over this issue on behalf of gays and lesbians.

The moral authority that Christianity used to enjoy with non-Christians is in the toilet these days over this and related issues. The almost monthly drum beat of scandal and hypocrisy over this issue, and other sexual issues, is making Christianity look ridiculous as well as churlish.

If Christians are not willing to stand up for the rights and dignity of gays and lesbians, then are they willing to stand up for the rights and dignity of anyone? Is our concern for human dignity and welfare limited to embryos and fetuses, and ends with birth? How authentic is the universal call of Pentecost with its babel of languages coming together if we must add an asterisk with a footnote listing exceptions and preconditions? Does the Great Commission mean anything other than a license for imperial conquest without the Great Commandment? Did the Savior who forgave His murderers from the Cross without their asking limit His Love and Mercy to those who meet membership requirements, or to those who could pass a catechism exam? Did God put another asterisk beside His pronouncement that His creation is good? Did God make anything that was not good? In a world full of tests and ordeals, is the Gospel really Good News or one more ordeal? In the words of William Blake, "To God, if you would make a circle to go into, then go into it yourself and see how you would do."

The Gospel is supposed to be Good News. Its hearers are supposed to recognize it as Good News, not as an arrest warrant from a bailiff, or instructions from a proctor.

I believe that in some form (perhaps that we cannot anticipate and might not recognize) the Christian faith will survive. I'm not so sure about the Christian religion.

Hat tip to Thinking Anglicans.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Rite of Spring

I found the Joffrey Ballet's reconstruction of the legendary original 1913 production with Nijinsky's choreography. I'm not enough of a music and dance maven to pronounce on the authenticity of this, but it is very striking. This is supposedly what provoked the Paris audience into a riot on opening night.

I can imagine that audiences used to Giselle and Swan Lake would find this very upsetting. I would imagine Nijinsky's choreography provoked the rioting just as much as Stravinsky's music.

I've loved this music since I was a kid. Cat Stevens and James Taylor (what my little circle of geeks and freaks in high school listened to) seemed very tame compared to this. Even Led Zepplin is mild compared to this.

So far as I know, Stravinsky never wrote anything quite like this ballet again.

My favorite interpretation is still Seiji Ozawa's from the 70s.

Here's a painting by the artist who designed the sets and costumes for the original 1913 Paris production, Nicholas Roerich.


A Facebook friend, Kathryn Jensen sent in this article from the NY Times archives. The production in the video dates from 1987.
I've only seen old photos of the sets, costumes, and dancers for the original 1913 production. I had no idea anyone at anytime ever tried to reconstruct that production.
Most of the productions I've seen of this ballet universalize it, the common pagan ancestry of us all. What strikes me about Stravinsky's and Roerich's original production is how specifically Russian it is, as much so as Stravinsky's earlier Firebird ballet.

Happy Birthday Harvey!

Harvey Milk would have been 80 years old today. Back in 1978, Dan White had other ideas.

The struggle continues and the bodies keep piling up.

Maybe we should consider flying this flag with our Rainbows.

I know the Teabaggers fly this flag. Let's just wave it right back in their faces.

This was a historic flag from the American Revolution long before the Teabaggers were born (a long time ago). The right appropriates national symbols (including those created by left/liberals) all the time for their own purposes. Why not appropriate this one back?

Thanks to IT for the reminder.

Friday, May 21, 2010

That Black Guy in the White House Is Really Changing Things

I still really like this guy despite my complaints about how he's handled the Bush/Cheney War On Terror.

I hope the linked article is right about his major project to undo 35 years of growing inequality. That would be a major -- and most welcome -- historic accomplishment.

He's been in office not even 2 years, and he's already accomplished a lot with Healthcare Reform, START negotiations, major reforms in education that have been under-reported, and now Financial Regulatory Reform. None of these are perfect, but they are a lot, and done despite a gridlocked Congress and a polarized electorate. These will be major transformations in American life.

Texans Fight the Right

Apparently, Texans are not quietly endorsing the State School Board's proposed textbook changes to a very rightward ideological direction (including the science curriculum; evolution, cell formation, and the Big Bang are not patriotically correct according to the 10 Republicans on the Board). As the vote nears, meetings are noisy and packed with protesters. There appears to be a lot of resistance to this in the state.

Most people assume that Texas is deep red, but if you look closely, it's really purple.

Rand Paul and the Libertarian Civil Rights Problem

I think Rachel Maddow hits the nail on the head with the whole controversy over Rand Paul:

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This whole controversy has the sad ring of familiarity to it, at least to me. I heard people for many years articulate just this sort of position, that private business owners should be allowed to serve whoever they want and to refuse service to whoever they want (and I saw that in action with stores and restaurants in 1960s Dallas displaying signs in the windows reading "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone," and we all knew who "anyone" meant) . I should point out that none of the people I remember taking that position was racist, though taking such a stand in the all white relatively affluent part of Dallas I grew up in was not especially brave. The people who took this position always called themselves libertarian. One of the things that always struck me about libertarian thinking is how abstract it all is, how ideas and principles become divorced from practical effect. The practical effect of scuttling Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act would be to effectively void all the rest of the Act. If desegregation was confined only to government facilities and (maybe) government contractors, then Jim Crow would be very much alive and well. All we would have accomplished is to replace legal segregation with de facto segregation (some would argue that is what we have now).
This would affect not only African Americans. The "gay ghettos" in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco were not the creations of gay folk simply flocking together. They were the only neighborhoods with landlords willing to rent to them. Gay folk were lawfully refused leases in most other neighborhoods. That is still the case in most states and cities. It is still legal in most states to fire someone from their job for being gay. This is what everyone who is not white, straight, and male would face if there was no Title II in the Civil Rights Act. What the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did was finally enforce the Fourteenth Amendment which said that every male born or naturalized in the United States is a citizen regardless of color (the Nineteenth Amendment would rectify that little mistake of leaving out the female half of the population). The Amendment states clearly that all are entitled to the full benefits and rights of citizenship. Citizenship does not end when we cross a threshold into a private business, our own or someone else's.

Libertarians make me fond of Adam Smith. I'm not a fan of capitalism, but its ideologues make me appreciate the old Scottish pragmatist who first articulated a case for capitalism. Adam Smith was not an ideologue. He would probably look upon ideologues of all stripes with astonished incomprehension. He would probably be amazed at the idea of selfishness promoted to moral virtue. For him, human selfishness was a fact of life. He proposed using natural human selfishness toward socially useful and benevolent ends. I doubt that he ever considered selfishness to be especially virtuous any more than urination is virtuous. It's simply natural and necessary. He would probably not agree that property rights are absolute, and that taxation is always theft. He believed that taxes and some measure of government regulation were necessary for any decent and livable society. He believed that labor was fully within its rights to organize independently, and to bargain collectively for advantageous contracts. I doubt Adam Smith could find work these days at the Cato Institute, or at the American Enterprise Institute. He was a pragmatist, not an ideologue.

My argument with libertarianism is precisely that it is so abstract and ideological. On that score, it probably owes more to Lenin than to Adam Smith (the Soviets had an ideology, and some people believed we needed an ideology to counter theirs). My other argument with them is their tendency to put property rights above all else. I think otherwise. Human rights take precedence over property rights. I don't dismiss or trivialize property rights (very unsocialist of me), but I think they have their place and should stay there. That place is not on top over all.

Just to be clear,
I do not think that Rand Paul represents the Republican Party, conservatives, or even most libertarians. However, there is that extreme ideological school of libertarianism out there that would end a lot of law and policy (from Social Security to Medicare to much of the Civil Rights Act) that are popular and historically are beneficial.
I've not personally encountered anyone who holds these views in 30 years. I'm very surprised that this has become an issue again 45 years after the Civil Rights Act passed.
The Civil Rights Act complete with Title 2 is settled history with almost everyone including Republicans. However, the Republicans do have an abiding and growing credibility problem with minorities. The party does have a history of exploiting white anxieties and resentments over race for the sake of political expediency. Until recently, a lot of conservatives beginning with Lee Atwater tried to expand the appeal of conservatism beyond its historic white base. Now, that seems to be thrown into reverse.


Rand Paul gets curiouser and curiouser. He has ties to some very far-right groups like the Constitution Party which has ties to the Christian Reconstructionists (of Rousas John Rushdoony "Biblical law" and "stone the fags" fame).

... and even curiouser. This morning, he rushed to the defense of BP on the matter of responsibility for the oil spill.

... and still more curious, most people seem not to have noticed that the voter turnout in the Kentucky primary was higher for the Democrats than for the Republicans. I would imagine that Senator McConnell is worried. I'm thinking that 2010 will perhaps not be a rerun of 1994 after all.