Saturday, June 28, 2014

"I'd Like To See Paris Before I Die ... Philadelphia Will Do." --WC Fields

I've already seen Philadelphia so that leaves ...

Official Blog Notice:

I will be away on a First World safari for the month of July.  I will be gone from July 1st to August 5th.
I will be exploring countries with the world's highest standard of living to map them out ... for me anyway, not really for humankind.

I will be traveling with an old friend of mine, a retired Lutheran pastor from Brooklyn, Bill Paulsen.  Alas, Michael is not able to join us; the biggest hardship of the whole trip, and my biggest regret.

We will first travel to Norway (where else would a Brooklyn bred Norwegian go first?), to Oslo and surroundings.  We will then spend a lot of time in Germany; Hamburg, Nuremberg, Berlin, Frankfurt, Münster, with some possible day trips to Cologne, Munich, Koblenz, and maybe Lübeck.  We will then go to France; five days in Paris with a day trip to Chartres, and then to Lyons and surroundings for a few days.  Finally, we will spend a few days in Amsterdam and then back to New York.

In all of those places, we will be staying with Bill's friends and family.  Paris is the only city where we will be staying in a hotel.  We will be meeting another mutual friend of ours, Paul Lane, in Paris.  Fortunately, Paul speaks French and knows the city, especially its public transportation since Bill is slightly disabled and walks with a cane.

This will be my biggest travel adventure since 1988 when I spent 2 months in Italy.  I've never been to any of these places except Frankfurt (and the airport in Amsterdam; best public restrooms I've ever seen in my life).

Play nice with each other while I'm gone, and I look forward to boring you all with travel stories and lots of pictures when I get back.

Au revoir!

Auf wiedersehen!

Happy Gay Day Everybody!

I've decided to do something a little different this year.  Instead of Maurice Chevalier singing "Up On Top of a Rainbow," I'll let Freddy Mercury speak for us this time.  We do indeed have a lot to celebrate this year, and a lot of fights remaining out there.
To all our friends I say, we love you all; you're the best friends anyone could have.
And to our enemies I say, In Your Face!

Diana Davies' photograph of Marty Robinson and Tom Doerr during a zap of the Nelson Rockefeller campaign headquarters in New York in 1970.  They were both arrested soon after this picture was taken.  Both eventually died of AIDS; Tom in 1987, and Marty in 1992.

Gay Day parade in New York in 2012, my picture.  How far we've all come since that first picture 42 years before the one above!  What was once the seemingly futile gestures of a brave handful of people grew into a huge mass political movement that is now global in scope as expectations are awakening around the world.  All this was accomplished in the face of persecution, violence, plague, marginalization, government policies, religious pronouncements, criminal exploitation, etc.  After years of enduring setbacks, it appears that in the West the tipping point is finally here, and decades of work and struggle are rapidly coming to fruition.  So much has happened since the 2012 parade pictured above:  the end of DOMA, the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell, Marriage Equality spreading rapidly through the states and internationally.

As Freddy Mercury sang, "Don't stop me now!"

Governments see us as issues to be dealt with or as obstacles to be removed.
Many religions see us as demons or as aberrations of nature.
Social scientists see us as case studies.
Businesses see us as a marketing demographic.
Thugs and demagogues see us as easy prey.
For generations, people knew us first as locker-room jokes.
Then people began to meet us and get to know us as family, friends, and colleagues.
We are not abstractions and we never were.
People realized that all we want is what everyone is entitled to from birth -- freedom and dignity.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Great War

The blood stained uniform of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Tomorrow marks the centennial of the terrorist act that caused the crisis that started the First World War, until 1939 known simply as the Great War or the World War.  The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, together with his wife Sofie, was gunned down in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip with the connivance of the Serbian government.  Decades worth of tangled alliances, imperial competition, secret military planning, rising nationalist passions, arms races, provocations, and blundered diplomacy collapsed like a house of cards within weeks of the assassination.  By August 1914, most of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa were at war.

The First World War is barely remembered in the USA, probably because we entered the war so late and were in it very briefly, hardly a year in 1918.  And yet, within that brief span of time, the USA lost over 50,000 soldiers in combat, an alarmingly high number for so short a time.  Now, war memorials across the USA which stood decaying for decades are being refurbished and restored for the First World War centennial.

The World War I memorial in Saint Louis, Missouri

The First World War a century later is still a fresh open wound and a source of fierce contention in Europe and the Middle East.  We Yanks tend to forget that most of the crises that we face today in the Middle East and in Europe are direct consequences of the First World War; its lingering aftermath is like radioactive fallout.  The countries of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Palestine (and ultimately Israel) are all creations out of the First World War.  The victorious Allies in 1919 drew arbitrary borders through the remains of the defunct Ottoman Empire setting the stage for all the crises that have happened there since, including the Sunni versus Shiite war that we are witnessing now in Syria and Iraq that threatens to undo both of those countries.  The Islamist extremists' dream of a reborn universal Caliphate would make no sense outside the legacy of the First World War.
Likewise, the map of central and eastern Europe is a creation of the First World War, out of the remains of the German Empire, the Russian Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, and the Balkan states are legacies of the Great War.
Vladimir Putin's ambitions, and the anxiety that they are causing throughout eastern Europe are consequences of the First World War.  It was the First World War and the map of Europe that it created that set the stage for the even bigger and more consequential Second World War and its long legacy.

It is hard for us now to recall what the War was like for the people who lived through it a century ago, what a shock it was to them.  Its length, destructiveness, and death toll were a horrible surprise for just about everyone.  It's hard for us to imagine that sense of the world transformed-- an old world destroyed and an unknown new one rising out of the ashes -- that people lived through back then.  The First World War was our first experience of mass industrialized warfare, of total war in which entire economies, societies, and populations were mobilized for the war effort.  For the first time ever, the majority of deaths in war were from combat and not from disease or accident.  For the first time since the Napoleonic Wars, death tolls were in the millions, and in the First World War casualties were in the tens of millions for the first time ever.  An entire generation of young men was decimated in the war.  These new and unprecedented experiences shocked and horrified people.  That horror and revulsion brought down empires that everyone assumed would always last:  the 500 year old Russian Empire and its 300 year long Romanov dynasty; the 500 year old Hapsburg dynasty that ruled Austria-Hungary; the 700 year old Ottoman Empire whose sultan was the last ruler of almost all of the Middle East to claim the title of Caliph of All the Faithful.  Those ancient empires are now gone forever.

Australian recruitment poster

German recruitment poster

People on all sides across the board greeted the outbreak of the War with almost joyous enthusiasm.   Thinkers as different as Filippo Marinetti and Theodore Roosevelt welcomed the coming of the War as a necessary redemption by fire of a Western world grown soft and decadent from too much peace.   Roosevelt saw the War as an opportunity to recover a somehow threatened sense of "manhood" and historical purpose.  By the end of the War in 1918, Theodore Roosevelt was inconsolable over the death of his youngest son Quentin in combat in France.  He died the following year.

The recruitment posters during the War were aggressive with appeals to duty and patriotism and featured lots of fingers pointing right at us.

James Montgomery Flagg's famous recruitment poster for the US military in World War I

British recruitment poster

Italian recruitment poster

In the opening days of the War, people responded enthusiastically on all sides, almost joyfully.  People saw the War as a great big football match that no one expected to last beyond Christmas of 1914.  All expected their countries to emerge victorious, and young men dreamed of glory and adventure and returning home sporting a glamorous saber scar across the cheek.

French reservists reporting for duty, Paris, 1914

French soldiers in Avignon marching off to the front in September, 1914, from a postcard sent by Picasso to Gertrude Stein

A German recruitment rally, Berlin, 1914

German recruits reporting for duty, Berlin 1914

German soldiers off to the front in 1914; graffiti on the train reads "Express to Paris" and "See you again on the Boulevard!"

And what did soldiers find once they reached the front lines?  All sides had strategies for lightning attack and aggressive offense to decide the war quickly.  Despite those plans (or maybe because of them) the War quickly bogged down in stalemate and a long grinding war of attrition.  Soldiers arrived to find not glorious attack, but the horrors of trench warfare.

British soldiers, Arras, 1915

Wounded British soldiers with German prisoners of war, Bernafay Wood, 1916

A British tank coming over a German trench

The First World War was the first to see tanks used in combat.  They were introduced in an attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare.  Tanks didn't appear until late in the War and broke down too frequently to be decisive.  But they would decide many a battle in the Second World War and in many later wars in the Middle East.

Austrian Uhlans, 1915

The First World War was the last major war to see extensive use of horses.  In earlier wars, few things were more feared than the cavalry charge.  Those charges meant little against the large artillery used in the First World War, and especially against machine gun fire.  See the photograph below for the damage those weapons could do to the surrounding landscape.

American soldiers in the Argonne Forest, 1918

World War I was the first to see the brand new technology of airplanes used in warfare.  Planes were mostly used for reconnaissance and battlefield surveillance.  Occasionally, they would strafe a battlefield with machine gun fire.  They were too small and flimsy to be effective for any kind of large scale aerial bombardment.  That was mostly left to large, slow-moving, and very vulnerable dirigibles that usually attacked at night.

British planes over France

British air ace Major Edward Mannock

Ironically, it was this brand new modern-as-tomorrow technology of air war which brought to the First World War a small and rare manifestation of very old fashioned man-to-man combat.  The battles of the air aces meant little to the outcome of the War or to particular battles, but the courage and daring of these battles thrilled the public on all sides of the War.  However, this new and little tested technology was full of hazards that took their toll on pilots.  Above is the dashingly handsome young Irishman Edward Mannock, the most decorated and highest scoring British air ace.  The strain of these battles took their toll on young Mannock who by 1918 was frequently physically ill from anxiety before assignments.  He suffered from shaking hands and occasional outbursts of tearful panic.  He was terrified of burning to death in a falling plane, and that's exactly what happened to him in 1918 when he was shot down by ground fire over France.


The First World War saw the first use of chemical weapons in battle, usually tear gas and mustard gas, but also deadly ammonia gas.  Men were sprayed with deadly chemicals and killed en masse like cockroaches.

British soldiers blinded in a gas attack in Belgium

Canadian soldier suffering from injuries in a mustard gas attack in 1917

Whether from gas or gunfire, the death toll in the First World War was unprecedented.  Millions of soldiers died on all sides.  There was not a single family in France that did not suffer at least one war casualty.  By 1916, inflicting the maximum casualties possible became a battle aim.  At the Battle of Verdun, German generals wanted to weaken the French by inflicting as many casualties as possible.  The whole aim of the attack was to kill French soldiers.  Over a million died in the battle of Verdun.
Since governments on all sides heavily censored battle reporting, there are comparatively few photographs of the dead from the First World War.  Soldiers' and reporters' accounts of battlefields covered in corpses remain unphotographed.

German soldiers burying British and Australian war dead.

Corpse of a German soldier

The heavy fire power of the War altered landscapes.  Miles of countryside in northern France and in Belgium were dug over by high explosives to a depth of 10 feet.

Remains of a forest outside Ypres, Belgium, 1918

The Belgian countryside outside of Ypres, Belgium, 1918

By 1917, the suffering and destruction of the war caused many soldiers to seriously reconsider what sent them to the battlefield in the first place.  Desertion rates were high among armies on all sides.  Open mutiny began to breakout among soldiers throughout the War.  An entire division of the French army threatened to march on Paris if peace talks did not begin.  The whole Russian army walked off the front in the winter of 1917 and began marching home.  Soldiers murdered the officers who tried to stop them.  This disintegration of the Russian army lead to the abdication of the Tsar.  Disillusionment with the War created a loyal constituency for the Bolsheviks among the military rank and file.  They eagerly provided the manpower for the coup which brought down the Provisional Government and took Russia out of the War.
The German Empire would be brought down by a combination of soldiers' mutiny and labor uprising in the summer of 1918, the Spartacus Uprising, leaving a shaky new Weimar Republic to sue for peace.

Russian soldiers protesting in Petrograd (today St. Petersburg) in April, 1917

Disabled German veterans marching in protest in Berlin in December 1918, shortly after the conclusion of the War

The War finally ended in 1918.  General Erich Ludendorff who effectively ruled Germany from the front, saw that the war could not be won and for all intents and purposes ordered the Kaiser to abdicate. He ordered the long marginalized German Social Democrats to form a new republican government (in the hopes of good terms from the Allies and to head off growing revolt in the military rank and file and among German workers).  German delegates showed up at Compiegne expecting to negotiate peace and instead were presented with an ultimatum to surrender unconditionally by the Allies.  The fragile new German Republic was in no position to resist the terms.

The Allies decided that they won the War, and celebrated.

Americans celebrating the Armistice, New York, November, 1918

Things were very different for the designated losers.

Disabled German veteran begging in Berlin, 1918

And today:

The shell-cratered battlefield of Verdun today

The Menin Gate at Ypres in Belgium today; the walls of the memorial are covered with the names of British soldiers whose remains were never recovered.

I have an old friend who is a historian who says that all the people wringing their hands over the decline of Western civilization are wasting their time.  He says that it is already over, and has been over since August 1914.  Some argue that the 20th century really began with the First World War.  Hannah Arendt said that the thread of continuity through all of Western history broke in the War.  The War began ambiguously and it ended ambiguously.  But there is no mystery about its terrible and unprecedented cost, and about the impact it continues to have on our own history today.  We are still very much living in the world created by that War.

The French military cemetery at Verdun

The Langemarck German military cemetery near Ypres

I doubt that there are many war memorials in the USA that still draw emotional crowds like the Menin Gate in Ypres where the local fire department buglers play The Last Post every evening, and have done so every day since 1918 except for the years of German occupation from 1940 to 1945.  Even now, a century later, the First World War remains an open wound in Europe.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.
Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod.
All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—
An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

--Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est" (tip of the tin hat to JCF)

And in the end, I have to agree with Ernest Hemingway:

“(World War I) was the most colossal, murderous, mismanaged butchery that has ever taken place on earth. Any writer who said otherwise lied, So the writers either wrote propaganda, shut up, or fought.”

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


A New Self Portrait

The first I've done in about 6 years.  Still a little grumpy.

Corpus Christi

Jan Davidz de Heem, The Sacrament, 17th century

I confess to being a deeply closeted fan of the Feast of Corpus Christi.  All of my Protestant instincts cry out "NOOOOO!" but I can't help it.  It's not about the cookie or all the white magic hocus pocus that surrounds the Sacrament for some people.  It's about the idea at the heart of the whole thing, that our human nature and our flesh, and by extension the whole natural world, are now part of God.  God is with us and we are with God in our very substance.  No more flesh and spirit dualism.  The two are bound up together.  The spirit illumines the flesh and the flesh informs the spirit.

Our old friend in Brazil, Luiz Coelho (now Fr. Luiz) turns out to have had a conversion experience with Corpus Christi.  From a recent Facebook post:

A few days ago, we celebrated Corpus Christi, a feast that is held as a commemoration in most Anglican/Episcopal calendars. This has always been a very dear holiday to me, since one of my many conversion experiences happened while attending an Evening Prayer and Benediction service at an Episcopal church years ago. I used to be a quasi-atheist turned into a liberal Christian who defied all dogma. Thanks to a series of mystical experiences that drew me closer to God "who is beyond all understanding" I felt called to a closer walk with God who is Trinity, God who is present in the Blessed Sacrament, God who is transcendent and does not follow our logic. This is a God who is beyond what makes sense to me and, as such, can be compassionate and forgiving, even knowing we commit so many faults.

This is why Benediction is very important to me. That mystical encounter with God amongst clouds of incense and a consecrated host - the Body of Christ - in a monstrance was one of the many turning points of my life. Now we don't do that very often at my parish church. This year, I think we did it only twice. Once, during Lent, after a service of Stations of the Cross and now, right after Corpus Christi Mass and procession. Both occasions were very special though.

I firmly believe we must not live in fear. And because I'm very proud of my church community and the wonderful work we've been doing in the neighborhood of Méier, Rio de Janeiro, I posted (and will continue posting) pictures of Corpus Christi. I have no reason to hide this very special moment which really was a blessing in the midst of one of the most terrible weeks of my life. Plus, around the world, many Roman Catholic and Anglican churches were doing the same stuff, so why hide it?

Sadly, I noticed that these pictures can be very offensive to some of the people who can see my wall. Either they are progressive minded and find the whole thing medieval and backwards or they are Evangelicals who accuse me of idolatry. I can relate to that. I've been there. And, to be frank, I see lots of things I find weird, silly or against my beliefs here on facebook. But I just don't feel like pointing that out because, maybe, I'm wrong and, mostly, because I do not have time for long arguments on facebook anymore.

So, that's it. If you post something irrelevant to me, it will be deleted. If you are interested in real engaging theological discussions, send me a message or e-mail and I'll try to reply as soon as possible, but without hordes of random people turning it into a huge debate which I do not have time to follow. But, most importantly, remember I'm still a human being who deserves respect and acceptance. Thanks.

Monday, June 23, 2014


On Saturday June 14, I took advantage of the near perfect weather we've been having in New York to see Kara Walker's A Subtlety, a series of sculptures made out of sugar housed in the the old Domino Sugar refinery down by the East River in Brooklyn next to the Williamsburg Bridge.  She uses the term "subtlety" in a very old fashioned sense meaning a kind of visual caprice with a puzzle to be solved, or of a message to be discerned, as something cunning or even deceitful.   The centerpiece is a huge sphinx made out of refined sugar.  Scattered throughout the exhibition area of the refinery are sculptures of children made out of molasses candy and left to grow mold, to fall apart, and to melt onto the floor.  When I visited the refinery, it smelled of sugar and the floor was sticky, not just from the sculptures, but from more than a century of sugar refining at that plant.  The old refinery will be torn down to make room for high rise luxury housing (oh what a surprise).  The sculptures will come down with the refinery after the exhibit closes on July 6.

Kara Walker specializes in work about the African Diaspora, and in this unusually large work she confronts the origin of the transAtlantic slave trade in a single commodity, sugar, and specifically cane sugar of the kind once refined at the Domino plant.  As Simon Schama explains in his book A History of Britain: Volume II, The Wars of the British 1603 - 1776, cane sugar was a very expensive rarity in early Europe.  It originated in the monsoon dependent regions of southern Asia and did not do well in the much drier climate of the Mediterranean despite efforts to cultivate it in Cyprus as early as the 13th century.  It was the colonization of tropical America that made mass cultivation of cane sugar possible for the European market.
But there was something else that sugar cane needed if its golden juice was going to pay off, and that was intensive, highly concentrated, task-specific applications of man-power.  For the cane was an unforgiving and volatile crop.  It could not be farmed and harvested in a single growing year since it took at least fourteen months to ripen.  But once it had reached maturity, the cumbersome grass needed to be harvested quickly to prevent the sugar going starchy.  Once stripped and cut, the cane in its turn had to be speedily taken to the ox-powered vertical crushing rollers before the sucrose concentration of the juice self-degraded.  Every subsequent stage of production -- the boiling of the juice, the arrest of the boiling process at the precise moment for optimum crystallization, the partial refining in clay-stopped inverted cone moulds, the lengthy drying process -- demanded the kind of strength, speed, and stamina in tropical conditions that indentured white Europeans or captive Native Americans were ill equipped to provide.  Both populations proved themselves hard to discipline, prone to drink and rebelliousness.  They ran away a lot, and they died like flies from the stew of insect- and water-borne diseases that simmered away in the humid sunlight. 
The solution was African slaves who were thought to be better suited for the hard labor in tropical conditions.  It turns out that they were not.  The labor was just as hard and brutal for them as for everyone else.  The advantage of African slaves was that there were so many of them,  a seemingly endless supply from across the Atlantic always ready to replace those who died from disease or exhaustion.  Schama describes this as the "Faustian moment" of early capitalism, a devil's contract for high profits at an obscenely high human cost.

Kara Walker's sculptures are about that "Faustian moment" and the high human cost of the sugar trade.
Instead of appealing for sympathy and pity for those generations of mostly African workers who fed the growing European craving for sugar, she decided to do something quite contrary.  She turned a representative of the African women who did most of the refining work into a great and mighty goddess figure, the labor without whom the whole sugar industry would not be possible.  It is a common slogan among generations of labor activists to remind workers that their work is their power, that without it, profits would not be possible.  Kara Walker takes that power of production and makes it into a colossus made from the very thing that she produces, refined sugar.  The sphinx is attended by molasses representations of the children who did most of the carrying and hauling in these sugar refineries.

Below are my photos made with my trusty little digital camera.

The Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn was first built in 1882 with many later additions, and in use until the plant closed in 2004.  It was the largest sugar factory in the world.  Kara Walker's exhibit takes place in a huge hall where sugar was piled up to be packaged and shipped out by river barge.  As vast as this hall is, it is but a small part of the enormous complex slated to be destroyed in July.  There was an operating sugar mill on this site since 1856.

Somehow, Kara Walker's sculpture and the destruction of the old Domino plant to be replaced by luxury high rises is the perfect emblem for the transformations taking place in the USA and in the world: from productive manufacturing capitalism to the post-modern capitalism that is more about profiting from moving money around; from manufacturing heavily dependent on human labor to service economies where labor is even more superfluous and expendable; from a world where labor always holds the power of its production to a world where capital is everything, reducing all other human activities from politics to culture to dependency on capital's largesse.

I will miss the old sugar plant.  I love all that old mechanical architecture of manufacturing, and I'm grateful to Kara Walker for providing an opportunity to see it up close, and to give this life-long sugar addict something to think about.

And here I am at the Kara Walker exhibit in the old Domino factory Saturday, June 14, 2014.