Monday, May 29, 2006
The Boston Globe's Charlie Savage filed another front-page report on the Bush administration's zealous use of signing statements on Sunday, finally giving David Addington — Dick Cheney's general counsel — the marquee attention he so richly deserves. Addington and his crew pore over legislation looking for provisions that could challenge Cheney's frighteningly expansive views of executive power. Only when a law has been vetted by Addington, or effectively rewritten by one of his "signing statements," does it go on to the Oval Office for approval. That's one mighty powerful vice president's office.
Mrs Philocrites and I indulged in a bit of tourism this weekend, taking her parents on a day trip up to Rockport, which none of us had visited before. Fodor's Boston 2006 says, "Rockport has refrained from going overboard with T-shirt emporia and other typical tourist-trap landmarks." Really? We quickly realized that "overboard" must describe places profoundly given over to kitsch. (We did visit one gallery of wonderful photographs, one appealing jewelry shop, and one shop with some great children's toys, so the town still has some good stuff.) Being flexible people, we decided that people-watching, perfect weather, and a chance for me to take some colorful pictures was good enough. Plus, the people staffing the visitor's booth and the shuttle parking lot were very nice — and Mrs P gives high marks to any town that has a clean public bathroom at its visitor's center. So we give Rockport one thumbs up.
I've used up my monthly allotment at Flickr, so this is the only photo from our visit that I can upload for a few days. There will be more. (If you enjoy my photos, you can syndicate my photo feed.)
Enrique Gómez reflects on the Mexican-U.S. border, which his family crossed many times in his childhood — just as hummingbirds and many other creatures have routinely migrated north and south from time immemorial. (You can discuss the essay with Enrique at his blog.) Unitarian Universalist Navy chaplain Cynthia Kane offers a noncombatant's thanks for the men and women of the U.S. military. And, from UU World's Reflections section, Tom Stites introduces UU sculptor Don Cheek's work, "In Praise of Lesser Gods."
In the news, as I mentioned here on Thursday, Harvard Divinity School has announced a new professorship in Unitarian Universalist studies. Don Skinner reports on UU congregational efforts near the U.S.-Mexican border encourage compassionate responses to undocumented immigrants. Jane Greer writes about a group of UU ministers who traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to oppose a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. And Sonja Cohen (with a little assist from me) tracks other Unitarian Universalists in the media for the news blog.
Saturday, May 27, 2006
Especially careful readers of this site will have noticed the run of stories this past week in my Scrapbook (featured here on the front page) about the sexual harrassment charges that forced the resignation of the head of the Boston Archdiocese's hospital system. In a series of front-page stories starting last Sunday, the Boston Globe chronicled Cardinal Sean O'Malley's initial decision to disregard the recommendation of the hospital system's top human resources executive, who determined that Dr Robert M. Haddad's behavior constituted a fireable offense. (According to several corroborated complaints, Haddad was kissing women on the lips, leering at them, and calling them about personal matters at home.) The vice president for human resources, Helen G. Drinan, directly challenged both Cardinal O'Malley's decision to reprimand Haddad privately and the Caritas Christi Health Care System's board of trustees, which had endorsed O'Malley's decision. In the end, O'Malley and the board were forced to change course when more women stepped forward with allegations against Haddad, and he resigned on Wednesday. It's a big story up here in Boston.
Today's Globe profiles Drinan. She sounds like an extraordinary woman. I'll call attention to two small aspects of the story that highlight the continuing ripples of Vatican II, especially here in Boston where the conflict between clerical privilege and the empowerment of the laity has become a perennial theme in Catholic news:
The mother of three children and grandmother of four, she shuttles between a house in Cohasset and a condomimium in South Boston. A lifelong Chatholic [hey, copyeditor!], she attends the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston regularly, and says that her faith has always informed her work. "My faith is central to who I am as a person," she said, "so, I take it everywhere."
The Jesuit Urban Center, like the Paulist Center on Beacon Hill where Sen. John Kerry worships, is a congregation sponsored by one of the Roman Catholic orders — which is to say, a congregation that is largely independent of the Archdiocese. The Jesuits and Paulists in Boston have a reputation for their relative liberalism and for their support of lay people's empowerment in the church. So that's one thing. Here's another rather more removed echo of liberal Catholicism:
Drinan graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received a master's degree and an MBA from Simmons College. She married her high school sweetheart, David Drinan, a real estate developer whose late father was a distant cousin of the Rev. Robert Drinan, the former congressman.
Robert Drinan was a Jesuit priest and Boston College law school dean who was elected to Congress in 1970 and quickly became controversial. (He took a strong human rights stand on Latin American politics and supported abortion rights.) A papal decree in 1980 that priests leave electoral politics brought Drinan's political career to an end.
The point here is that Helen Drinan's professionalism and many years as a corporate executive certainly helped her step up to a very difficult confrontation with her boss and his boss. But her religious commitments — and the particular form they've taken within the Catholic Church — also seem to have emboldened her to take on an overly cautious cardinal archbishop who, for reasons I find hard to fathom, put a predatory man's interests ahead of his victims once again.
Update: My Catholic theologian buddy Baptized Pagan is hoping the cardinal's penitential tour initiative doesn't get entirely overshadowed by the Haddad scandal. I also realize, rereading my post, that I'm not really pointing to ways that Helen Drinan has been influenced by the lay empowerment initiatives that followed Vatican II; I'm pointing instead to ways that she's connected to liberal Catholic communities and that she's a clearly empowered and bold Catholic woman. She represents the good work that an empowered lay person can do — and that the church needs them to do.
Yearly Kos, the convention of Daily Kos enthusiasts and assorted "netroots" progressives, is June 8-11 in Las Vegas. I'd guess there are gobs of Unitarian Universalists who plan to attend. But will they recognize each other as co-religionists? Will they tell any of their secular friends at the convention about their congregations? (The Rev. Deb Mero is taking part in an interfaith worship service coordinated by Pastordan of Kos's partisan religion site, Street Prophets, so that's one UU.)
I won't be there, but I'd love to hear from Unitarian Universalists who are going. Leave a comment (and a link to your diary, if you have one), or drop me a line.
Friday, May 26, 2006
Thursday, May 25, 2006
General Assembly-bound bloggers, take note: The UUA's Office of Electronic Communications is hosting a reception for Unitarian Universalist bloggers after the opening ceremony on Wednesday, June 21, from 9:45 to 11:15 p.m. in the Benton Room at the Renaissance Grand Hotel. (The reception is cosponsored by the UUA's Information Technology and Electronic Communication Committee.)
There's a catch, however: Please RSVP to Deb Weiner by June 15 so she can order the right number of drinks and munchies.
As Jane Greer and I reported this morning for uuworld.org, Harvard Divinity School and the UUA announced today that HDS has created a new professorship of divinity in Unitarian Universalist and liberal religious studies — and named it after the sage of Concord. Today also happens to be Ralph Waldo Emerson's 203rd birthday — and the 181st anniversary of the formation of the American Unitarian Association, one of the UUA's predecessors — so it's a propitious development all around.
Serious verbiage can be found not only at uuworld.org but also at the HDS website and at UUA.org. Here, however, we must immediately begin speculating about potential candidates for the professorship, which could be filled as early as fall 2007. Will it go to an English professor noted for historical research like David Robinson, Cynthia Grant Tucker, or Andrew Delbanco? Will it go to a historian like Dean Grodzins? Are theologians Thandeka, Paul Rasor, and Rebecca Parker likely candidates? Who else belongs on the short list?
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Oh the joys of having a blog! In the last day and a half, my spam blacklist intercepted 80 attempted spam comments, but 38 more got through. I've cleared them away, but I'm quite sure there will be more very soon. This is barely a week after my host changed the name of the comments script to try to evade an earlier infestation. Friends, I am slowly exploring what it will take to relaunch this site using Movable Type 3.2, because the version I'm using now is two years out of date and no longer comes with adequate ways to keep the spam out. So please forgive me if I can't keep up for the next, oh, couple of weeks and you stumble across off-topic ads for habits I don't encourage you to indulge. If the Latest Comments shown on the front page get clogged up with spam, you can always burrow a little deeper and see the last 75 comments on the Archives page.
Monday, May 22, 2006
Jonah Eller-Isaacs describes his six months in Africa, where he studied musical responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Find out how traditional choirs in Malawi mourn the dead, how hip-hop musicians promote sexual health in Tanzania, how a pop song helped Ugandans break the silence, and how music gives HIV-positive orphans a sense of hope in Kenya. You can also hear some of the music — and be sure to check out the radio documentary Jonah put together for Minnesota Public Radio.
Jonah's article is the lead feature in the Summer 2006 issue of UU World which began arriving in subscribers' mailboxes last week.
In the news, Don Skinner reports that this summer's UUA General Assembly will introduce a lot of changes, including a new schedule, a two-day miniconference for congregational leaders called UU University, and some significant proposals for the social witness resolutions process. Jane Greer reports on the new regional leadership development conferences for young adult and campus ministry leaders. And news blogger Sonja Cohen, tracking UUs in the media and drawing on her YRUU days in the Pacific Northwest, recognizes the woman on the cover of Newsweek's AIDS issue as a fellow UU.
Sunday, May 21, 2006
Remember the story of Kai Leigh Harriott, the little girl who was paralyzed by a stray gunshot but who told the shooter she forgave him during a victim-impact statement? The Globe follows up with a story about the owner of a bus company who was moved by her story and decided to offer Kai Leigh and her mother a free trip to New York. Another benefactor is sending the family to Disney World.
("At 6, her forgiveness inspires their kindness," Megan Tench, Boston Globe 5.19.06, reg req'd)
Saturday, May 20, 2006
Jon Carroll, whose "Unitarian Jihad" column in the San Francisco Chronicle last year turned into an Internet sensation, was one of the featured speakers at the UUA Pacific Central District Assembly last month. You can hear his speech [mp3] — in which he talks about the very real cultural crisis the fictional Unitarian Jihad was trying to address — at the PCD site. (Hat tip to UU Mom.)
Jaume de Marcos calls attention to an upcoming theology symposium at the Unitarian College in Kolozsvar, Transylvania, July 3–8. "Unitarian/Universalism: Liberal Religion for a Changing Global Society," sponsored by the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, will feature former UUA president John Buehrens and several other international leaders. Paul Rasor is scheduled to speak on the topic "Postmodernity, Globalization, and the Future of Liberal Theology." Here's more information.
In a gaffe that won't even be apparent to many religious liberals, UU sexologist and minister Debra Haffner talks with the Chicago Sun-Times about The Da Vinci Code and gets her Catholic doctrines mixed up. Can you spot the error? Here's part of Cathleen Falsani's interview of Haffner:
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
(Special General Assembly bonus at the end!) Several Unitarian Universalist bloggers this week are trying to help their readers understand the basics of their religion. CK, at Language Games and Miscellaneous Arbitrary Marks, offers a UU FAQ. The Happy Feminist calls her version Unitarian Universalism 101. And Peter Bowden, the small-group ministry guru, has launched an entire website focused entirely on what newbies need — and calls it, naturally, Frequently Asked Questions about Unitarian Universalism. They join several other recent projects, including Jess Cullinan's Best of UU directory. (My own quirky contributions to this genre are Do Unitarian Universalists have morals?, A handful of liberal religious definitions, and (at great length) Unitarian Universalism: In search of a definition. But I don't think I've ever bothered to write my own definition. Hmm.)
By the way, I'm eager to meet CK at the General Assembly in St Louis next month. She's hard at work on a process-theology thesis, which interests me a great deal because Alfred North Whitehead is in the upper ranks of my personal pantheon. (True story: At my first job out of college, I was in the habit of reading one of his books at lunch each day, making my slow way through Adventures of Ideas and Modes of Thought. Because the Free Press editions I owned all featured the same photo of Whitehead on the back cover, I and my coworkers started calling it "the daily showing of Whitehead." A kind of darshan, you might say. Also true: Mrs Philocrites has forbidden me to name a son Alfred. That's okay: North will do.)
A brief note of thanks to several new contributors to the UU Blogs advertising campaign: We're funded for several more weeks. Thank you very much! On a related note, I've noticed that Beacon Press is now advertising some of its books via Google's AdSense network. I suspect that over time other UU-related groups will also begin advertising this way, making the ads that show up here and on other UU sites increasingly relevant.
It's practically impossible to keep up with all the good UU blogging, much less with all the various religion blogs and other interesting writing on the Web, so I hope you'll promote great conversations you've come across or unjustly neglected posts you've seen (or written!). I scan the UUpdates aggregator a couple times a day, but I confess I don't have time to click through to even a fraction of them. I'm trying to keep my guide to UU blogs current, though, so if you have started writing a UU-themed blog (or even a very occasionally UU-themed blog), please let me know.
And now for the General Assembly bonus: It looks like we're going to have a great turnout of bloggers at the UUA General Assembly in June. Peacebang is organizing a Friday evening dinner for bloggers between the last afternoon workshop session and the "prime time" plenary session. If the company isn't enough to draw you to dinner, consider the menu: Tapas! Folks, please RSVP for this. Let Peacebang or me know you plan to attend so we can let the restaurant plan for us.
I have started looking through the G.A. program book [5M pdf!] to see when else we might propose a blogger Q & A session. If dinner on Friday isn't good for you but you want to be sure to talk with other UU bloggers, please leave a comment expressing interest. Last year we ended up with a late-night session that was impossible for people with family obligations or early-bird tendencies. There may be enough of us this year to set up a few meeting times that could accommodate different groups. See you in St Louis!
Fareed Zakaria — whose book The Future of Freedom I highly recommend — writes in Newsweek that there are two parties to blame for the current surge in oil prices. Bad guy #1: The state-run oil companies in the five largest oil-exporting countries, which are keeping the supply down by failing to develop new oil fields. Zakaria explains:
When the clouds finally parted late yesterday afternoon, the sunlight felt almost like a new experience. People in Boston were smiling. (Think of it.) Field trips and tour groups had sprung up throughout the day like mushrooms in the Common as if they'd all been hiding in the underground garage. And cast-off umbrellas were everywhere. This one was at the intersection of Prospect and Harvard Street in Cambridge; the puddle reflects both the blue sky — hooray! — and the building across the street that just so happens to house the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
Elsewhere, of course, the flooding left terrific damage. News reports say it was the worst flooding in 70 years in the Merrimack Valley. More than 1,000 homes were damaged in southern Maine, and flooding streams and rivers left numerous roads and bridges impassable.
I have not yet heard how the various UU churches and properties fared in the storm. If anyone has word from North Shore, southern New Hampshire, and southern Maine congregations in the flood zones, please feel free to post a comment and let us know how it looks up there. What a storm!
(Oh: Please fold up your broken umbrellas and neatly dispose of them in the conveniently located trash receptacles. There's one right there at the left edge of this picture. And, um, no, I didn't think of it at the time. I just took my picture and went merrily on my way.)
Monday, May 15, 2006
The Rev. Liz Lerner likes the way The Da Vinci Code has provoked all kinds of questions about the origins of Christianity, especially about Mary Magdalene. Unfortunately, the novel and the movie are wildly misleading. She takes us on a quest for the historical Mary Magdalene.
In the news, Don Skinner reports on organizations working to protect immigrant workers' rights in Mississippi and Louisiana with funding from the UUA-UUSA Gulf Coast Relief Fund. And Sonja Cohen's news blog locates the first Unitarian Universalist "U2charist" I've heard about, a superintendent who plagiarized a UU minister's sermon in a recent op-ed, and more from around the web.
(Psst: The Summer issue comes out later this week.)
Sunday, May 14, 2006
Am I testing Flickr — or am I testing my endurance of this endless rain? I think I preferred the snow. So, waxing nostalgic, here's the view from my office window at the end of a day of heavy snow in Boston last December 9. I am thinking of snow, of course, because Mrs Philocrites and I have put away our winter coats, gloves, and hats four times this spring only to bring them out again three times. We wish we had done it again today.
We went out after church to see the David Hockney portraits at the MFA — on the last day of the exhibition, naturally — and were soaked and shivering by the time we got to the bus. The exhibit warmed us right up, but not even great art can obscure the fact that it's miserable out there.
I confess that I liked the aesthetic changes Peter Beinart brought to The New Republic, from the overall redesign of the magazine to the use of striking cover photographs and illustrators (especially digital "woodcuts") to "Notebook," a spread of brief, often vicious takedowns of Washington insiders illustrated with a caricature by David Cowles. My response to the changes introduced since Franklin Foer replaced him in March have been largely negative. "Notebook" is gone, with nothing brief to replace it: Boom, the essays start. That's a mistake. Three of the covers since Foer took over have been provocatively bad: The April 10 Anna Nicole Smith cover was bad enough, but the April 17 cover made me think the magazine was about to be renamed Political Maxim; a week later, the cover depicted a demonic president of Iran, sharp fangs and all. I very nearly cancelled my print subscription. With the May 1 Harold Bloom cover, I started to pick up Foer's cover sensibility, and I have to say that it strikes this Gen-Xer as too ironic. Maybe Beinart's liberal nationalist gusto wasn't selling newsstand copies, but will Foer's high-low mishmash do much better? This week's cover is the first one in Foer's tenure that strikes me as genuinely interesting and worth keeping out for a week — and the theme is pop culture. (Foer praises Simon Cowell, the Edmund Wilson of our time. Criticism is on the march!)
I still read the magazine, especially Leon Wieseltier's back of the book, but I'm not yet sold on Foer's regime.
Saturday, May 13, 2006
Prove your mettle, Boston-area UU bloggers and readers! Don't let a little rain keep you penned up in your homes! Put on your raincoat, grab your umbrella, and paddle your canoe down to Milton for the second annual Unitarian Universalist Bloggers Picnic. The picnic starts at noon at the First Parish in Milton. Bring some food to share. Years from now, you'll be able to say that you weathered the Storm of Ought-Six with a dollop of Philocrites' potato salad, and people will look at you in awe.
Friday, May 12, 2006
I was so busy yesterday that I only caught a hint of USA Today's report confirming that the National Security Administration is collecting information about every phone call made in the United States without a warrant or explicit legal authorization beyond President Bush's say-so. (The penumbra of his rights is glorious to behold.) Because I'm still catching up, I'm posting links to the coverage before I've had a chance to read it all — something I don't normally do — and I'm likely to expand this post as I learn more. From the Q&A sidebar in USA Today:
Q: Is this legal?
A: That will be a matter of debate. In the past, law enforcement officials had to obtain a court warrant before getting calling records. Telecommunications law assesses hefty fines on phone companies that violate customer privacy by divulging such records without warrants. But in discussing the eavesdropping program last December, Bush said he has the authority to order the NSA to get information without court warrants.
Here's what I'm going to be reading more thoroughly later today:
- NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls (Leslie Cauley, USA Today 5.10.06)
- NSA secret database report triggers fierce debate in Washington (Susan Page, USA Today 5.11.06)
- Bush says privacy protected; sources tell of 'spider web' use (John Diamond and David Jackson, USA Today 5.11.06)
- 'Climate has changed' for data privacy (Paul Davidson, USA Today 5.11.06)
- Gathering data may not violate privacy rights, but it could be illegal (Joan Biskupic, USA Today 5.12.06)
- Phone company that refused to comply was concerned about illegality (John O'Neil and Eric Lichtblau, New York Times 5.12.06)
The story keeps developing:
- Cheney pushed U.S. to widen eavesdropping, Scott Shane and Eric Lichtblau, New York Times 5.14.06
And here's some background reading, since we've had hints about the extent of the NSA's domestic intelligence gathering for a while:
- Taking spying to higher level, agencies look for more ways to mine data (John Markoff, New York Times 2.25.06)
- Spy agency mined vast data trove, officials report (James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, New York Times 12.24.05)
- Bush lets U.S. spy on callers without courts (James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, New York Times 12.16.05)
Thursday, May 11, 2006
Now that endless rain is upon us here in the 021 — threatening to turn Saturday's picnic into the second annual rainy UU bloggers' picnic! — I'm especially glad I trekked down to the Boston Arboretum to see the lilacs Sunday afternoon. Granted, there are no lilacs in this picture, but it's my favorite from Sunday's batch. This is down the hill from the bonsai hut, and hopefully some of you botanical types can tell me what I've photographed.
Here are a handful of recent springtime photos — an opportunity for me to share, but also for me to figure out how to use Flickr:
Purely for fun, folks, let's name fictional characters — from novels, films, plays, TV shows, etc. — who are (or should be!) Unitarians, Universalists, or UUs. Now, we could rile ourselves up arguing about the ethics of claiming famous real people who never claimed to belong to our religious tradition — Emily Dickinson and Albert Schweitzer spring to mind — but we can avoid that unpleasantness by nominating famous fake people!
I confess that this topic shamelessly revives a Chalicechick-led discussion thread from years ago over at Beliefnet.
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
Thanks to the generosity of several donors, I've had enough funding to run a month-long ad campaign using Google AdWords to promote UU blogs. (Give me a U! Give me a U! Give me a B! etc.) There's enough funding to go another week or so, and if you'd like to contribute to keep the campaign rolling even longer, find that "Make a Donation" button over in the sidebar and toss some money in the till. You'll be helping bring more readers to all the fine blogs listed here. I launched the campaign April 5, explained what I was up to on April 8, and offered an interim report on the 19th, for those of you who'd like to follow the full history. I've been impressed with the results, so here's my one-month report on how the campaign has gone and what I've learned:
Monday, May 8, 2006
Remember, dear readers: The second annual picnic for UU bloggers, their families, friends, and assorted fan clubs is Saturday, May 13, at the First Parish in Milton, Mass. — the site of our very successful first picnic last spring. Nosh with Peacebang, muse with Philo, grill with Fausto! If you're a Boston-area reader, or ambitious road-tripper, bring the whole family and a dish to share. We'll gather on the lawn if the weather is nice, or we'll retreat into the parish hall if the weather turns gray and drizzly as it did last year. Join us from noon to 2. (If you want to help set up, come by at 11:30.)
Let's get a show of hands: Who's coming this year?
(Originally posted 4.27.06, 22:06:31)
Hillary Goodridge describes the day her daughter was born — and the nurses wouldn't recognize her as the other mother. John Buehrens reviews two books on the complexities of women's lives in Unitarian Boston in the nineteenth century. And Lee Robinson writes a poem about the spiritual discipline of feeding the birds.
In the news, Jane Greer reports that Unitarian Universalists rallied last weekend to stop the genocide in Darfur. She also writes about an interfaith coalition that recycled 300 tons of computer equipment in Michigan. Big news for church employees and lay leaders: Don Skinner reports that the UUA is launching a nation-wide health-care program for church employees. Meanwhile, Sonja Cohen reports in the news blog that one California UU mom is walking 569 miles to raise visibility about GLBT issues — and filing reports to a newspaper along the way. That's one way to walk the talk.
Saturday, May 6, 2006
Let's say you're designing a logo for the American Humanist Association's annual conference (next weekend in Tampa, Fla.), and the conference is entitled "The Wave of Reason." Shouldn't your logo avoid an unpleasant allusion to something else in the surf — especially for a conference in Florida? (Subtext: Reality bites? Reason is gonna get ya?) Just sayin'.
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
I appreciate all the links and visits to my Colbert the Fool post, but a large portion of today's unusually heavy traffic is focused on another post about two songwriters whose country single about suburban SUV drivers turned into a cult favorite when "Car Talk" featured it back in January. Why the sudden surge of interest in "90-Pound Suburban Housewife Drivin' in Her SUV"? Because CNN aired a charming puff piece [QuickTime] about Rozanne Gates and Suzanne Sheridan yesterday, and apparently they struck a chord. Gates and Sheridan, who manage in their interview to promote fuel efficiency and gay marriage while being funny, are members of the Unitarian Church in Westport, Conn., which they proudly note on their bio page. At the moment, they're my favorite UU semi-celebrities.
As Pope Benedict XVI initiates a review of the absolute Catholic ban on condom use, Dr Marcella Alsan, a physician who worked in a Roman Catholic hospital in Swaziland, explains the consequences of the ban in Africa in the excellent Catholic magazine Commonweal. She is convinced the church has made a moral error in the fight against HIV/AIDS by not acknowledging the dilemma facing women:
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Stephen Colbert's 25-minute satirical attack on the Bush administration and the press at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner on Saturday was shocking in its audacity (see the video [starts at 50 minutes; link updated 12.28.06]; read the transcript). It's disconcerting that most of the news coverage of the event didn't mention Colbert's routine, which immediately followed the president's own self-ribbing, because it certainly seemed unprecedented for a comedian to stand barely ten feet from the most powerful man on earth and rather ruthlessly satirize him and the media establishment for almost half an hour. Some people at the dinner — most notably the president and the first lady — clearly didn't think it was funny. I didn't laugh very often, either — I watched in amazed disbelief — but I am grateful that someone had the opportunity and the gumption to play the fool.
Remember King Lear's Fool? The jester in the play doesn't crack Bob Hope one-liners or play the lute; he introduces a very dark kind of comic relief. He satirizes Lear's misjudgments. He's the only person who tells Lear the truth, even though Lear can't bear to acknowledge the full significance of his mistakes until the end. He makes Lear mad, too. When his impersonations cut too close, Lear threatens to whip him. Their exchanges aren't funny ha-ha; they're funny oh-no. The Fool's sharp parodies of the king intensify the tragedy of what we're seeing. And that's an ancient function of comedy that I couldn't help but see in Colbert's shtick.
But unlike President Bush, Lear depends on his Fool — and when the Fool tells him that he wishes he could lie (the truth being so painful to report), Lear snaps back: "And you lie, sirrah, we'll have you whipped." The Fool replies:
I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They'll have me whipped for speaking true; thou'lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace. I had rather be any kind o' thing than a Fool, and yet I would not be thee, Nuncle: thou hast pared thy wit o' both sides and left nothing i' th' middle. (I.iv: 185-193)
Stephen Colbert's routine was uncomfortable to watch because it highlighted the tragedy of our national predicament. The politicians and journalists at the dinner complained that Colbert's routine was inappropriate, that he wasn't "funny." They are clearly missing the newsworthiness — and the cultural significance — of what happened. Colbert wasn't addressing them at all; he was addressing us, and that's why the video is spreading around the web like wildfire. He was given a rare opportunity to step into the center of the sealed bubble of the elite media's relationship with the government, and he decided to play the fool and call Washington's bluff.
Who, after all, is supposed to be telling the truth? And who is the "king" in this country, anyway? The sovereign in a democracy is the people, and journalists really answer to us as consumers but more importantly as citizen-readers, not to the government. They ask questions on our behalf. Here's the uncomfortable question Colbert was asking: Would we rather whip the media for telling us golden lies or for telling us the unpleasant truth? Colbert's character — the one on stage on Saturday — argued that we want to whip the media when it tells us the truth and deviates from the White House storybook. Ouch. The playwright, though, the intelligence behind the character, was suggesting something else altogether — and that's why the journalists and the politicians deserve to squirm.
Two small points: Colbert must have realized that his invitation was a one-shot deal premised on his show's fleeting political pop-culture status. As a comic and an outsider, he had nothing to gain in trying to get invited back next year for his congenialty, so why not say exactly what he wanted to say, just as Jon Stewart refused to play his appointed part in his famous interview with Tucker Carlson? Finally, someone at the Associated Press, the sponsor of the dinner that is ultimately responsible for inviting Colbert, must have known they were playing with fire. I suspect the AP, or even the entire press corps, will pay for Colbert's insouciance.
Here's an unexpected development: The United Church of Christ's web page is highlighting a post from the ol' Philocrites archives in its "Soul Stuff" column this week. The sidebar, which links to "cool stuff to inspire your spiritual journey," highlights a post I wrote back in February 2005 about Will Shetterly's UU World essay on science fiction and fantasy. The subject: Should you bring imagination to your religion? Thanks — and welcome to all visitors from UCC.org! (Permalink, scroll down to "Week of May 1, 2006.")
Monday, May 1, 2006
Mrs Philocrites and I just made a donation to MassEquality, one of the key groups that lobbies for civil marriage equality for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. The legislature may meet as early as May 10 to consider a voter initiative sponsored by a coalition of conservative religious groups that would amend the state Constitution to ban all same-sex marriages in the only state where same-sex marriage is currently legal. A citizen initiative only needs 50 affirmative votes in each of two concurrent legislatures to go on the ballot; the May 10 vote is the first time this initiative will come before the legislature. Your support now can help show legislators that the public doesn't want this amendment; discrimination doesn't belong in the Constitution.
Following on the announcement two weeks ago that an independent commission will review the governing covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Association, uuworld.org dusts off a story from the archives by Warren Ross about how the current Principles and Purposes came to be written.
In the news this week, Don Skinner reports that the UU church in Overland Park, Kansas, has been offering classes on the science of evolution to the general public. Tom Stites checks in with news from the UUA Board of Trustees meeting: The Board is moving toward governance changes; it also approved a new UUA health care plan that congregations can provide for their employees (details from UUA.org). And Sonja Cohen is keeping diligent watch on Unitarian Universalists in the media on the ol' news blog.