Dear Kevin,

There is no doubt that being gay sometimes brings with it a heavy burden in our too often violent and homophobic society, infused as it is to the hilt with religious fundamentalism.   I left the (Catholic) monastery, myself, at the age of 21 after seven years there because I realized I was gay and believed it to be incompatible with my religious vows.   My plan at the time was to date women, somehow magically “get cured” (it wasn’t exactly clear to me how, but surely it would work, I felt), and then return to the monastery again.  Well, needless to say, things didn’t quite work out that way, for which I am more grateful today than I can probably ever really express. 

The reason why I say this is because I have come to realize that, while being gay carries with it – as we have both said – many undeniable burdens, it is also a great blessing in one’s life.  I will say more about that in a moment, but before going on to do so, I guess I have to admit that, in some ways, I have had it pretty easy.  I did not choose as a career path to enter into the world of big business, where, as you no doubt rightly point out, you’d better keep your mouth shut and your head down if you’re gay and if you know what’s good for you.  I didn’t work for a church either, any church, most of which as I have seen are highly prejudiced against gay people.  The one you mention in your letter, whose name we both know but which I will leave blank here, ought very much to have known better.  Actually, I think most churches are uncomfortable with sexuality in general, of any variety, let alone gay sexuality, because we are somehow supposed to be above such carnal thoughts and desires.  I reject that premise on its face, and believe that it has been the source of much of the “gay burden” you mention in your letter.

But I was fortunate to have chosen the path of education, and higher education in particular, and while I never announced to my work world that I was gay and had a partner, I also never felt I had to hide or dissimulate.  I did not, in fact, do so.  No one ever said a word to me, at least not to my face.  And so far from being fired, I never felt I was held back in terms of promotion because of it, either. 

But I want to return to what I was saying above in regard to the “gay benefit” (as opposed to the “gay burden”).  I guess the world we know is, in a sense, the only world that exists for most of us.  Yes, of course, we can imagine, we can put ourselves into somebody else’s shoes, and we all do that to one extent or another.  But in the end, our own private and personal experience of the world is all that we can truly say we understand.  That world, a gay one in my (our) case, has for me been filled with wonder, delight, and I will even say magic.  If I had not been gay, I would never have met my partner, Andy, whom I have lived with now for over 32 years.  These years have been far greater and more filled with joy and happiness than anything I ever could have imagined when I first left the monastery (46 years ago now, almost to the day).  Just that in itself is evidence, proof positive I would say, of the “gay benefit,” at least so far as I’m concerned.  And going on from there, there are all of the profound friendships I have formed over the years, with you and with many others, gifts of inestimable value, friendships which in all likelihood would not have been formed had we not all been gay. 

In the end, I think that what will count is how well we have loved and how well we have treated others.  Being gay has helped to teach me real compassion for others who have at times experienced their own form of oppression – Blacks, American Indians, Latinos, Jews, women in general in many cases, disabled people, the poor, the homeless etc.  It has given me a perspective on the world which I might never have been able to otherwise achieve. 

Please don’t get me wrong, in no way am I am saying that you have to be gay in order to form friendships, or to feel love and compassion for anyone.  We all have that capacity, and it is indeed one of the great gifts of being human.  But, as I was saying above, my own world is the world I know, and I feel that being gay has offered me a special window on that world. 

So, this is what I will always be grateful for.  I can only hope – and yes even pray – that young gay people will be able to somehow struggle through their own burdens and difficulties, dealing with the oppression and bigotry that they all too often experience.  Not only does it get better, as activist Dan Savage has said – which it absolutely does – but it even gets wonderful!  Or at least it can, if you open your heart and your mind.  Being gay does not define who you are – that is a much bigger and far more complex question – but, in my experience anyway, it does, or it can, set the stage for a life filled with friendship, with love, and with the great joy and wonder of being alive.  And who could ask for more than that?



Dear Paul,
I deeply appreciate your May 23rd article “Dharun Ravi, The Latest in Homophobia.” Your essay is very intense, passionate and undeniably true. I especially admire the way you were able to capture “the gay burden” in words – what it feels like to live as a gay person with the constant requirement to decide how “out” to be in every social moment, and how exhausting that is, especially when one is in a part of the world where being gay is anathema, as it is here in this ultra-conservative backwater region where Robert and I live deep in the woods. But even in big progressive cities, as you point out, it is necessary for us gay people to decide how open to be in the course of daily life. Just mentioning my “partner” at lunch with a trusted client in the course of normal conversation, is a HUGE deal! So I usually don’t do it, because the consequences are potentially economically devastating. I did many creative problem solving projects and consultations for the national offices of the church in which I was raised, until I happened to mention in one event over 15 years ago, that many of my closest friends had died of AIDS. I have not been invited back since then. Even progressive clients don’t want to take the risk of being seen as supporting an openly gay “vendor.” In corporate America today, gay people are absolutely invisible and silent. When gay associates happen to identify one another in meetings and board rooms, they automatically stay as far away from each other as possible, in order to avoid inadvertently outing one another. Gay is NOT okay in corporate USA.
We gay people live with psychological violence daily, and you did an excellent job of defining that as well as the potentially disastrous hazards of such a life for sensitive young people who may just not feel that they have the stamina and courage to live with this “gay burden” day after day for a whole lifetime. Things have gotten both better and worse for young gay people. I knew I was gay from the very early age of 10, but there was no way for me to know that there were lots of other gay people in the world. Everything I read or heard about homosexuality defined it as a psychological pathology — an illness that had to be treated. Since I didn’t know any other gay people, I concluded that I must be one of 10 or 12 such freaks in the entire world, and I hoped I would outgrow my “illness.” But I didn’t outgrow it, and by age 14 I was literally crying myself to sleep every night over the realization that I could not possibly marry and have a family with my “condition.”
As a 14-year-old child, I was devastated by the thought that I would have to live my life alone, without love. As I think  back to that agony, it is easy for me to understand why some young people take their own lives during these very sensitive and vulnerable teen years. I did not consider suicide, but in desperation I wrote to Ann Landers and poured out my heart. She (or her staff) wrote back that I should seek psychological treatment for my problem. So I did. At 15 I could not abide the agony any longer. I told my parents that I was gay and wanted to be straight so that I could marry and have a family, and that I would need psychological therapy to achieve that goal. Unlike so many kids, I was incredibly fortunate to have very understanding parents. They scheduled weekly counseling for me immediately. The first small town Midwestern counselor I met with was clearly homophobic. He sneered and leered at me throughout the entire first session. I went home and told my parents that I would never speak to that man again, and that my counseling was over unless they could find me a more sympathetic ear. I have always been proud of myself for firing my first therapist. The one they found next for me was perfect. He was a Rogerian, which meant that he did not believe a counselor should speak at all in sessions. Well, I didn’t know what to say, so we sat in silence for the entire hour week after week for six months! I don’t know why, but after six months I started talking. I talked and talked and talked. For six months I talked a blue streak, and at the end of one full year I had talked myself into feeling just fine about being gay. The Rogerian approach had worked for me! I said “Thank you very much. Good bye.” But how many kids are as lucky as I was?
Today things are much different for gay kids. They know very well that they are not alone and that there are millions of gay people in the world. There are gay clubs in high schools and gay support services everywhere to help scared and conflicted kids. But those kids still get the very strong message from our culture that it is not okay to be gay. Just yesterday the Illinois state senate failed by one vote to pass an anti-bullying bill, and the reason given was that the bill would “promote a pro-homosexual agenda.” There was no mention of bullying gay people in the bill. It was a generic bill about bullying. Today’s gay kids experience more pressure in many ways than you and I did. When we were in school 50 years ago, nobody talked about homosexuality, and nobody was identified as gay. Well… almost nobody. The coach showed our gym class homophobic films on “Health Fridays” and talked about how homosexuality was “sick.” And the principal’s boy ran around the locker room naked, with his flaming red hair and a raging hard-on. But even that was just interpreted as a hilarious prank! Today, gay kids are identified early and harassed by their schoolmates and others, long before they have had a chance to sort out their own feelings and attitudes and approaches to their sexual identities. Most of them don’t get the chance I had to spill out their hearts to a Rogerian psychologist for a year. And some of them crack under the pressure. Dharun Ravi’s incredibly cruel actions drove poor Tyler Clementi to suicide because Tyler could not live with the forced exposure and humiliation. Much of the Illinois legislature apparently thinks that kind of bullying should be allowed.  
I have been wondering lately what I might have achieved in this life if I had not been seen as a gay man, because, let’s face it, being gay is generally NOT an asset in most human pursuits. That’s why it is such a farce when people call it a “choice” or our “sexual preference.” A man once asked me why I made the “choice” to be gay. I responded with a question: “Can you tell me when and why you CHOSE to be straight?” Who would choose this kind of life when they are 14 and terrified?! I can assure you that I would have preferred to have lived my life on a level playing field, thank you very much. Would I have been fired from my position as art director for a church publishing company after ten years of loyal and effective service? Probably not. I believe my sexual orientation was most likely the secret weapon that my persecutors used to get me sacked finally after several failed attempts. Would I have been passed over for management and administration roles in the various positions I held? Probably not. Might I have been offered other more lucrative and powerful professional jobs in the world? Maybe so. As things stand, I AM gay and it IS known, and I have accomplished quite a lot in my professional life, despite carrying this “gay burden,” as have you. I’m happy with the way things turned out, and I feel relatively proud and satisfied with my public professional history as it winds toward a close, and you should feel extremely gratified by all of your stellar accomplishments in academe.
What remains now for both you and me is autonomous creative expression, loving our husbands and friends, contemplation, meditation, gardening and exercise. That is certainly a wonderful place to arrive at in one’s life. But I can’t help wondering if I have chosen to live at the dead end of a dirt road in these remote woods partly to escape the daily grind of the “gay burden.” The squirrels, frogs, trees, wildflowers, streams and ponds do not require me to decide “how openly gay I will be today.” I can just …BE… And that feels like a tremendous luxury and freedom. At the same time, of course, I have to acknowledge that Robert and I are surrounded outside of our private paradise by people who would want to do us harm if they knew that we are a couple. So, whenever we interact with them, I am “Old Uncle Kevin,” and Robert is my “nephew.” They are more comfortable with this lie, even if they happen to know the truth. Around here, any other approach would be suicide. And here’s the rub… even relatively accepting people tend to be uncomfortable with our reality. Many are willing to be tolerant as long as we don’t rub their noses in our lives. And unfortunately, rubbing their noses in it consists of engaging in very common everyday behaviors like kissing one’s lover goodbye or holding hands by the bonfire or mentioning the crazed cardinal that we saw through the window while we were having coffee and tea in bed this morning. We cannot do or say those common, ordinary, everyday things… and we don’t. We wouldn’t think of it. We value our safety. But gay children and young people are much more exposed and vulnerable. Once they are identified as gay in schools and communities, a certain segment of the population will persecute them just for being who they are, like Mitt Romney did 45 years ago when he instructed a gang of his bully friends to forcibly hold down a terrified and screaming gay boy, so that he, Mitt Romney, today’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Presidency, could violently cut off the gay boy’s long bleached blond hair and publicly humiliate him. Needless to say, even if, God forbid, Mitt Romney becomes U.S. president, he will never be MY president, for this and so many other reasons. We need a president who, among thousands of other deeds of courageous moral leadership, will help gay kids to survive the burden of growing up homosexual – a president who might even support gay marriage. Oh!… We already have that president. Let’s keep him. Then all we’ll have to do is persuade him to save the world from Global Climate Change… Easy!

— Kevin

The Power of Creative Expression

 By Kevin

Many of the men and women in my extended family were public speakers, ministers, and educators — teachers from grade school through graduate school. My role models were always speaking and writing in public about their beliefs, values and opinions. It was clear to me in childhood that they were both praised and persecuted for those activities, and sometimes that spilled over into my life as a “PK” (preacher’s kid.) When my dad was the pastor of a small Midwestern church, and we sold our old church building to the 2nd Baptist African-American congregation, causing them to move two blocks farther into the white neighborhood, my bicycle tires and basketball were slashed, and death threats were phoned in to the parsonage. When we built our new church using a lot of volunteer labor from the congregation, some vandals came the night before our first church service and threw molten tar all over the exterior brick walls and on the cross. I was about 13. As long as I live I will never forget my father in the pulpit that morning, setting aside his prepared sermon and delivering an incredibly powerful extemporaneous address entitled “Tar on the Cross,” in which he asserted that Christians who don’t have some tar thrown on their crosses are not really doing their jobs. To this day you can visit that church and see some tar on the cross out front.

As an artist and writer I have learned that public expressions of all kinds have consequences. Everyone thinks they are experts about art, and people feel compelled to render judgments ranging from rave reviews to condemnation. A few people offer astute analyses and critiques, while many others have no idea what they are talking about. I try to accept both praise and blame with equal objectivity. But I learned early in life that reviews can also have serious consequences. When I was a senior in high school one of the English teachers asked me to bring a painting to his class and talk about the creative process. A student complained that there were stylized nudes in the painting. The school board confiscated my painting and fired the teacher who had to leave town. On the other end of the spectrum, Robert and I were lauded, featured, and praised in the newspapers and in a fancy formal banquet for 125 of the most powerful and influential people in our nearby city, for our exhibit of 65 canvases during the opening months of the new library. So… It can go either way, and any individual who wants to engage in public expression in the arts, education, activism, politics, or other forums, has to be ready for whatever comes, from honor to persecution. One has to develop a thick skin.

Regardless of the specific reactions that occur, it is clear that creative expression carries real, mysterious power to change consciousness, life and society. The power of speech and art is every bit as great as the power of money and position. In fact, there is a strong case to be made that speech and art are much more powerful than money and position, because words, images, music, poetry, dance, philosophy, and spirituality endure through the ages, whereas money disappears and position is often forgotten almost immediately when a wealthy, influential person leaves the scene. But it is a different story when someone leaves behind a creative legacy that lasts for generations or longer.

It is only natural when confronted by an opportunity to speak, write, perform, or exhibit in full view of the world, that many people feel somewhat daunted by the implications of “going public.” It is very human to feel inadequate to the task. It is normal to experience stage fright, anxiety and fear. Sometimes, a certain degree of nervousness heightens one’s energy level and concentration. But, of course, too much anxiety can have an adverse impact on our ability to do a good job and say or show what needs to be said or shown. When making and sharing art, writing, music, dance and creative public expressions of all kinds, and when engaging in public discussion about them, it may be useful to keep some basic principles in mind to alleviate fear within ourselves and in others:


  1. Be compassionate toward your audience. People who engage in creative public expression are often moved to do so because they see a compelling vision of how things are today and how they will become in the future. Their pronouncements, art, writings and performances, therefore, often take on a rather prophetic quality, predicting significant changes in life as we know it. That can be frightening to large segments of the public who are quite happy with the way things are now and more than a little resistant to change. In fact, for them, the idea that the world might change in directions that are revealed by artists, authors, speakers and thinkers, is frankly terrifying. This is not a cause to refrain from creative public expression, but rather a reason to engage in it. Society requires visionaries who will define its needs and suggest alternative futures. However, in doing so, the compassionate speaker, writer or artist will hold some private empathy for the individual who reacts violently and negatively out of fear that reality as they know it may be crumbling and that they will not be able to survive the change and adapt to new forms and directions. It is kind and effective to acknowledge their anxiety and offer empathetic support.
  2. Learn how to harness your ego to useful purposes. The individual who even conceives of engaging in creative public expression has to have, of necessity, a big and healthy ego. Otherwise s/he would never consider opening herself / himself to the inevitable praise and blame, support and attack, success and failure, that come when one makes oneself vulnerable in all kinds of public expression. The successful writer, speaker and artist learns by trial and error that ego is both an asset and a liability. One must have a strong ego in order to believe that s/he has something worth sharing with the world, and to survive all manner of responses. But one must also learn how to suspend ego attachment to outcomes and do the art, the writing or the speaking for the joy of the process regardless of worldly success or failure. Moreover, it is essential to banish all thoughts of ego gratification and get completely out of the way while creating, or the result will be stilted, didactic, and lacking in authenticity. The expression is not about you… It comes through you. The creative individual practices, studies and prepares to become a receptive and open channel through which the expression flows. Authentic creativity requires its own intrinsic balance between intentionality and spontaneity, which are both destroyed by egoistic desires for success, notice, praise, power and monetary gain.
  3. Look at both praise and condemnation as two sides of the same coin. Human responses and behaviors are ever unreliable until anchored in Ultimate Love and Wisdom, and how many of us have achieved that lofty goal? So it is essential that the presenter of creative public expression must not take himself / herself too seriously, nor the praise or criticism that comes inevitably. In fact, it is wise to develop an internal attitude that receives both commendation and condemnation with equal skepticism, as one and the same thing. One is not better than the other, because they are both founded on flawed human likes and dislikes, based on both lowly and lofty motivations from fear and anger to understanding and wisdom. At one of my first one-man shows, over 40 years ago, I overheard a man say to his wife, “This artist is insane and should be committed to a mental institution!” I instantly thought “Eureka! I got to him.” I have always thought that the most devastating reaction is not rage or condemnation, but apathy. Lack of reaction means that the work had no impact. But the creative must become his/her own ultimate critic. It is only the authentic inner vision and voice that can finally render judgment regarding creative expression. Having said that, every creative seeks and finds trusted private critics to whom s/he turns for evaluation, advice and an objective opinion. We all get too close to our work and need that outside perspective from time to time. But the final decision belongs to the creative alone.
  4. Be courageous. Creative expression, especially if it is prophetic, can have very serious consequences as history attests in the tragic lives of scientists, artists, writers, performers and other creatives who have been imprisoned and even executed for their public expressions. For 20 years I wore a decorative T-shirt sporting the slogan “Art Can’t Hurt You!” Of course, that’s not true today. It’s an unrealized goal for the future. Today art can hurt you, the artist, and you, the audience, because we have not yet learned the art and science of civil discourse. So it is essential for the creative to be certain of his/her convictions and think through the specific expressions of those convictions thoroughly before going public with them. If the courage of conviction to withstand persecution in defense of a public creative expression is not there, then cultivate it! Go public when you are so full of the courage of your conviction that you cannot any longer repress its expression. Then you will be able to accept the assault of condemnation and commendation with equanimity anchored in the essence of your very identity.
  5. Accept your role as an educator and welcome attacks as “teachable moments.” Persecution is often rooted in ignorance. If the public presenter who is attacked can suspend ego and remain calm and objective, it is often possible to use that occasion to gently engage in a dialogue to educate and inform both the perpetrator of the attack and those who are watching, listening or reading. In this way we have an opportunity to educate the public not only about the specific subject at hand, but also about civil discourse in general. A few years ago Robert and I hosted a two-man art exhibit at our studios and grounds in the woods. One man complained to me that he simply could not comprehend Robert’s abstract expressionist paintings and he said that they looked like infantile scribblings to him. We happened to be standing by one of Robert’s paintings entitled “Wildfire.” I asked him whether he saw any connection between the title and the painting. It took him a little while, but eventually he said that the brush strokes looked like flames. I asked what he felt when he looked at those flame-like marks. “Hot!” he said. I asked if there was any sound, and he said that he could hear the crackling of a fire. Then I asked him where he was relative to this fire – what was his vantage point. Slowly his eyes opened very wide and he gasped, “I’m right in the middle of the fire looking up through the column of heat!… Now I’m going to have to go back and look at every single one of these paintings again. I have been missing the point.” Admittedly not every “teachable moment” dialogue ends up being quite that gratifying, but when we remain calm and make the effort, both parties walk away richer for it.
  6. Avoid strong emotion in public discourse and business. Put all the intensity of your passion into the private creative work. Then when expressing yourself in public, strive for a more neutral tone. Corporate experience has taught me that one can say almost anything if it is uttered in measured, professional tones, with a neutral expression, and without emotion. Strong public expressions of emotions such as grief, rage, or euphoria are almost always immediately discounted as being hysterical in some way. But when one says the very same words in a professional tone with a neutral manner, the very same ideas are received and considered. Rage, grief and euphoria are at the root of the concept, process and ultimate form or performance of many creative expressions. That is as it should be. The emotion belongs in the art. But when the time comes to talk about the art or creative work, dialogue is best served by cooler heads.
  7. Do your work thoroughly and with integrity. Work hard with an attitude of pure enjoyment. If any piece of work makes you feel dead inside, abandon it, for it is not an authentic part of you and you will not be able to stand by it. Do all the required research. Be disciplined in your creative output. Do it every day and do not work by default, but by intentional conviction and design. Be deliberate and mean it. When you work diligently with joy, self-discipline and rigor, opportunities to share your work in meaningful ways will simply materialize out of the ether. Even so, do not rely on magic, but be bold and make your opportunities for public sharing even while you produce the work. Bake the cake and invite the world to eat it with you. Too many would-be artists, writers and other creatives live in a fantasy world in which they imagine that some benefactor will discover them and coax them into creativity with support and money. That is not how it works. Do the work with excellence first, last and always, and then push yourself to go beyond what you believe to be your limits. The opportunities will emerge from the work, not visa versa. If all else fails, and everything overwhelms you, forget it. Just do the creative work! The rest will come.
  8. Never show works in progress to anyone except your most trusted advisors. Respect the difference between the very private and personal creative process as contrasted with public sharing and dialogue about your finished work. Do yourself a big favor and make it a rule to keep your work private while it is in gestation. The embryonic form of any creative effort is extremely vulnerable and can be severely damaged when exposed to external influences. Your personal creative acts from conceptualization through completion are as private and sacred as your love life or your spiritual practice. Do not discuss them or show them to anyone other than your long-term trusted creative counselors, and even then it may be wise to set boundaries regarding what kinds of reactions and comments you will entertain. Some creative projects involve highly collaborative phases. Be certain that your private preliminary creative concept and preparation work are completely finished and solid before opening the project to collaborators. Then consider any worthwhile changes that they recommend. Flexibility emerges from strength and conviction.
  9. Let your public art or statement marinate for a day or two before releasing it. It is smart to sleep on a creative public expression at least overnight before publishing it. I always find that I edit my initial statements and artworks considerably before publishing them. It’s like counting to ten. A little cooling off time and perspective are the better part of wisdom. I have sat on this very article for well over a month, because I knew it was not quite ready to hatch. Even after going public, be willing to suspend ego and make some improvements and changes or corrections when it becomes apparent to you that you can make the piece stronger by doing so.
  10. Honor and value your own work and the work of others. Creative work is a precious gift to the world, especially when it is shared in public. Such gifts must be nurtured if civilization is to thrive and grow. Cultivate an attitude of pure gratitude and respect for your own creativity and for the creativity of others around you. Thank and support anyone who is willing to take the risk of becoming vulnerable by presenting creative expressions to the world and inviting comment. Support and encourage your fellow creatives as you would like them to support and encourage you. They are not your competitors. They are your collaborators in the grand creative design.

To close the circle, let us return to the beginning and ask, “Where does the impulse for creative public expression come from and why does it happen at all?”  I can only respond with another question: Why do we feel moved by another human being to know and fall in love with them? As we live and move through the world, one of the most fundamental and natural human reactions to everything we experience around us is to attempt to “know” it with such a thorough understanding that we merge with it. As with the merger that takes place in some kinds of interpersonal love, this “knowing” leads to offspring – children, in the case of some couples, and art or other creative expressions when individuals attempt to achieve unity with All That Is. Just as it is natural and desirable for us to present our children to the world and to ask them to play a role in making it a better place, so it is right and proper for us to present our creative expressions to the public. We believe that the motivating desire behind our art, to overcome separation and merge with Creation, will in some small way inspire people to overcome their alienation from one another and from Nature. It is humanity’s fond hope that our children will find a way to save the world. Creative expressions are our children as well. We send them forth to lead their independent lives and do their work. And if we are lucky, sometimes, now and then, they make us proud of them, and we smile alone, privately.


By Paul

Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student whose spying with a webcam on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, led to the roommate’s subsequent taking of his own life, has been sentenced to thirty days in jail.  He was also fined $10,000, given three years probation, and assigned to 300 hours of community service.  In all probability, he will not face deportation back to his native India.  The question remains: does such a punishment fit the crime? 

The gay community has been split on the answer to that question.  Some believe that it is far too lenient, that thirty days behind bars pales to nothing in comparison to the life of a young man.  Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, it is a safe bet to assume that Ravi will be alive and building his career and family.  His ex-roommate, however, not to put too fine a point on it, will still be as dead then as he is now, a life unfulfilled and cut too tragically short, due to a stupid and uncaring so-called prank that Dharun Ravi somehow thought would be a fun thing to do.  To call such an act, with such consequences, insensitive, as the judge did, is nothing less than a colossal understatement.   It was a horrendously callous, heinous, and hateful act maliciously perpetrated on an extremely private and highly sensitive young man. 

Ravi could have been sentenced to up to ten years, but the judge maintains that he took into consideration the fact that the defendant had no prior record and that normally charges of so-called bias crimes are reserved for violent assault or murder.  If Ravi’s actions were not a violent assault, and I suppose no one could reasonably say that they were, at least it could well be argued that the effect of his actions surely did turn violent in the end. 

I am not advocating here for a harsher sentence for this young man, as unfeeling, cold-hearted, and uncompassionate as I think he clearly was.  His actions were utterly stupid and vacuous, and as much as he claimed to have had no bias toward gay people, what he did clearly contradicts and gives the lie to what he says.  Even so, I do not see the good that would come from putting him in prison for a long period of time.  We can only hope that he will live his entire life with the memory of the evil he perpetrated on an innocent man, who had never harmed him in any way.  And if it is true that karma brings to all of us the fruits of our actions, good and bad, we can only assume that Dharun Ravi will in one form or another reap what he sowed.

On the side of Tyler Clementi, it does no good to wish that he had been able to better weather the storms of hatred and bigotry.  All gay people experience this kind of thing, perhaps not so directly as Tyler did, but still no one who grows up in the United States and who is gay, whether man or woman, can escape the sting of hostility, ill will, and homophobia.  Witness, merely just as the latest example, the bigoted and hate filled Baptist preacher in North Carolina, who recently declaimed from his pulpit that all lesbians and gay people ought to be put into a pen surrounded by electrified wire and left there to die.  These are the kinds of messages that LGBT people grow up with in this culture, and given the fact that the messages are so pervasive, so invasive, and so insidious, especially for young people it is difficult in the extreme not to allow them to penetrate to some extent. 

As one grows older, for the most part, one finds ways to ward off and deflect the hostility that so often surrounds us.  Indeed, it manifests itself in so many ways, large and small, that gay people are well advised to learn ways to manage and cope.  Some do so by hiding, or at least by dissimulating, and sad to say there are times when that may be the wisest thing to do.  On the other hand, if you live in a large city, especially on either coast, perhaps for the most part you can be relatively, or entirely, open.  Even so, the act of coming out is one that keeps on presenting itself.  Every time a gay person meets someone new, or is put in a new situation, a kind of decision has to be made as to how “open” he or she will be.  Just how safe is it?  What could the consequences be?  Is it worth the effort to do or say what a straight person might not even think twice about in the same circumstances?  Should we, for example, make reference to “my partner,” or “my husband,” of “my wife,” or would it be better entirely if nothing at all were to be said?  How am I feeling, how strong, how much energy do I happen to have right now, how much gumption, how much will, how much courage?    

These are questions that LGBT people face every day, sometimes multiple times a day.  For the most part (although with some very notable exceptions), it is true at least in this country that these are not life-threatening things, nor are they any longer likely to land anyone in jail (as they can in such countries as Uganda, or Zimbabwe, or even Russia).  All the same, they can be unrelentingly exhausting.  And young people in particular, who are just coming to terms with who they are and opening up to friends and family, as I have said, are especially prone to the insidiousness of it all. I do not doubt that it was this kind of atmosphere, as well as the distorted bias and bigotry of his roommate, that contributed to that terrible and fateful decision on the part of Tyler Clementi

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this story.  Tyler will not go on to flourish as a musician, or anything else, and for the rest of their lives his parents are going to somehow have to come to terms with the gaping wound of the absence of their son.  Dharun Ravi will go on to put this behind him, even if – let us hope – he will never forget what he did.  Perhaps the bigotry in this case was unthinking on the part of a senseless and delusional young man; perhaps it was more malevolent.  We will probably never know which.  In the end, however, it makes very little difference.  One way or another, a unique and promising life has been snuffed out, we are all the less for it, and homophobia has triumphed once again.


By Paul

I’ll just come out and say it: I believe it is wrong to kill people.  No one has the right to take another person’s life. This may seem an obvious enough statement to most people, as no doubt the great majority of humans believe that murder is an evil act.  However, I also believe that the same holds true in regard to what we call state-sanctioned killing, in other words, I am speaking here of the death penalty. 

The citizens of the state of California are finally going to get a chance to weigh in on this issue come November with the recent approval of a proposition that will forbid the government from taking the life of convicted murderers.  The proposition has already been approved by the Secretary of State as having the requisite number of verified signatures, but it has yet to be assigned a number.  For the moment, I’ll refer to it simply as Proposition Y, as in “why not” vote for it? 

Or perhaps some may think the designation ought more properly to be seen as Y, as in “why do such a silly thing?”  Why not kill a convicted murdered who has willfully taken the life of another?  To be sure, there are both legal and fiscal reasons that are put forward as to why it is not a good idea for the state to kill people. Indeed, most countries of the world have done away with the death penalty.  The majority of the legal reasons center around the extreme fallibility of human judgment, that is, the fact that juries and judges sometimes make terrible mistakes, which can never be rectified in the case of the execution of an innocent person.  Additionally, there is the undeniable reality that the vast majority of condemned murderers are so-called people of color, while it is supposed by many – incorrectly – that the majority of victims are white.  What clearly does not follow ipso facto from this is the facile reading that Blacks and Latinos kill Whites in disproportionate numbers.  Instead, what does follow is that it is more common for minorities not to be able to afford good attorneys, and that they are therefore convicted of murder in greater numbers, whether they are guilty or not.  The other common argument against the death penalty that is often raised is a fiscal one.  It turns out that most murder cases are tried multiple times, given the fact that in a majority of states,California among them, a murder conviction brings with it an automatic appeal to a higher court.  Additionally, convicted murderers are housed in special cells in separate areas of penitentiaries.  The cost to tax payers is enormous, particularly when appeals can and often do go on for years, or even decades, before a case is finally settled. 

But I will pass over the fact that such appeals are not always themselves fair.  I will pass over the fact, as well, that prosecutors have sometimes even illegally withheld evidence, which might have helped exonerate a convicted murder, in some misguided belief that somehow justice would be served and families would get so-called “closure.”  I will pass over the fact, too, that it has been shown over the years that some one hundred and forty convicted murderers were later exonerated.  And who knows how many innocents have actually been executed?    

All this is true enough.  We can add to this the fact, as well, that it has been demonstrated that the death penalty, in itself, is no great deterrent of crime, or at least no greater a deterrent than is life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Given all this, it ought therefore at very least to put some measure of doubt into the minds of reasonable persons whether we should have such laws on the books that allow the state to kill people. 

Even so, some will no doubt argue that I am being hopelessly naïve and that there are truly sinister, malicious, even demonic people out there who mean great harm to the innocent, and who commit crimes so horrific and of such indescribable cruelty as to fall into the category of pure evil, that they are utterly irredeemable and past all hope of remorse or regret, let alone actual, meaningful contrition.  Surely these people, when the proof of their crimes is so far beyond any question as to be almost self-evident, or when they proudly, even gleefully confess to having murdered innocent children or old women, let us say, that such individuals are beyond the pale and no longer deserve to live.

No, even so, it is my belief that we have no right to kill anyone.  Just because it cannot be denied that evil people exist in the world, just because it is clear that sick people, incurable psychopaths and sociopaths, live among us, who feel no sense of remorse whatsoever at inflicting great pain and suffering, even death, on other people, it does not follow that we, who are not psychopaths and sociopaths, have the right to execute them.

Would I kill someone in self-defense, you may ask?  Would I kill someone who was trying to inflict great harm on one whom I loved, or even on someone whom I happened to see, but whom I did not know?  And what about a terrorist, hell-bent on the mass murder of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people?   In my mind, these a far more challenging questions than that of whether or not state sanctioned murder ought to be permissible.  It is clear to me that the latter is wrong, that planned, legally warranted, I would even go so far to call it premeditated execution on the part of the state is absolutely indefensible and unacceptable.  As for the other questions, I can only say that I am a human being, too, and I have to admit that, in a moment of utter terror or of uncontrolled rage, I cannot with any real clarity predict exactly what I would do. 

I am a pacifist only so far, I have to say.  I would definitely defend myself if it came to that, or a loved one, or probably even a stranger, whom I saw to be in great harm.  I believe, or at least I hope, that in such circumstances I would do what I could to inflict bodily harm, even great bodily harm, on such a person in attempt to incapacitate him or her, to stop that person from inflicting harm on myself or another.  I do not think I would try to kill them, but I must admit I do not know and cannot say for sure.  I am greatly thankful that I have never been tested in such a way, and very much hope I never will be, and so at this point it remains only a hypothetical question for me.

Still, I say again that this is a very different question from that of the premeditated, planned out, legally sanctioned taking of another’s life on the part of the state.  If it is proved beyond a reasonable doubt that someone has killed another person, let him or her be put in jail for the remainder of that person’s life with no possibility of parole.  Society has every right to demand protection from such people, lest they once again do the unspeakable.  But death?  No.  Just because cruel or crazed or damaged or deranged people take the lives of others, does not give the rest of us the right to take theirs.  Everyone’s heart must go out to the almost indescribable suffering that the loved ones of such murder victims must experience.  But compassion must not be confused with retribution.  In the end, we do not have the right, and we do no one any good, least of all ourselves, when we give permission to take the life of another human being.


By Paul

I have grown tired of hearing fundamentalist preachers accuse gay people of having a “Gay Agenda.’  Personally, I have never seen such a document, and it was not part of any training I ever received.  As a result, I decided I ought to come up with one myself, so that the next time I am accused of having such an agenda, I will know exactly what I am being accused of.  So, here’s one version — mine, that is — of what could be thought of as “The Gay Agenda.”

1.  Do what you can to live in beauty.  Grow vegetables and flowers; create, appreciate, and display art; attend plays and dance performances; listen to music; paint and decorate your home, however grand or humble it may be.  But remember that beauty is not just what you do; more importantly, it is what you think and who you are.

2.  Speak nicely to people.  Treat them well.  Unless, of course, they are small-minded fundamentalist bigots, in which case you may do whatever is necessary to as politely as possible point out their small mindedness and their bigotry to them.

3.  Infiltrate as much as possible every profession and every area of work.  Do not forget blue-collar jobs, so-called, as well as professional and artistic ones, again so-called.  And by all means become a soldier or join the police force, if you feel so inclined.  At least for now, however, you might wish to avoid hairdressing and window dressing, as we may already have a monopoly on these professions.

4.  Have children, if you wish (although not too many — the world is already over populated).  Better still, adopt them.  Work with children.  Young people need to know that we love them and wish them well.  Otherwise, they grow up to become small-minded fundamentalist bigots (see #2 above).

5.  Enter politics, if you dare.  Politicians make laws which in part control our lives.  It’s better to be in control of the controls, than to be controlled by controllers who wish us ill.

6.  Think carefully before becoming a priest, a preacher, or a mullah, as many religions are predatory toward gay people.  If you must chose such a state, you may have to hide who you are and live a life of misery and repression.  Most importantly, never allow the ignorance and small mindedness of organized religion to spoil your relationship with the all-loving Divine Spirit.

7.  Get married, or enter into a domestic partnership, if you can find a compatible mate.  Be as happy, or as unhappy, as straight people living with their mate.  In so doing, you will show that, so far at least, we have not completely unhinged the bonds of holy matrimony.

8.  Travel the world, learn other languages, visit and appreciate other cultures, and be open about who you are, unless it endangers life and limb.  In the latter case, be most circumspect, or avoid those places entirely whenever possible.

9.  Cherish the world in general: rocks, plants, rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans, animals and all creatures, as well as people.  The planet is your home, too.  Do not despoil it.

10.  Above all, as much as possible be honest, forthright, and kind to all.  Remember that not everyone is a bigot, and many people are open and welcoming.  The best way by far to spread The Gay Agenda is to act like a real human being, which by the way you are — no matter what those who push The Anti-Gay Agenda may say.


Balancing Spiritual and Moral Imperatives — “The Good Life”

By Kevin

Grandma called it “The Good Life” – praying and meditating and singing hymns (she used to whistle to “save her voice for the choir”) while working her tail off, whether that meant ironing and house cleaning, or making quilts, or visiting people who were ill or depressed, or stepping into the pulpit to preach the sermon the very Sunday after my beloved grandfather died. It was Valentine’s Day and Grandpa had given Grandma a golden heart locket at breakfast, before they both went out to perform a funeral service as part of their pastoral duties. They always considered it to be a two-person ministry. At the graveside, he threw a handful of dirt into the void, lifted his eyes to Heaven, and said, “Earth to earth and dust to dust… Father into Thy hands we commend this spirit.” And he dropped dead to the ground with a massive heart attack. Until she died at 103, when Grandma spoke of the death of her “Beloved,” she said, “I was sitting right there, just a few feet away when he fell. I rushed to his side and said into his ear, ‘Don’t worry, Honey, everything is going to be all right…’ and it has been…” They both lived profoundly good lives, full of love and wisdom and daily prayer and meditation, balanced by very hard work and acts of selfless kindness and goodness despite their own heavy sorrows – the gold standard for “The Good Life.”

So I understood from a very early age that as much as I might long to devote my life to utter hedonism on one hand, or spiritual and mystical contemplation on Ultimate Love, Wisdom, Peace, Bliss, Beauty, Integrity and Union, on the other hand, inhabiting a physical body comes with very real responsibilities to act and “do good works” in the world. Sometimes those can be as simple as sweeping the floor and doing the dishes. Sometimes they involve profoundly complex social and political interaction. Thank God they can be as fun as dressing up like a clown and playing a slide whistle, or as fulfilling as brushing paint onto a canvas. But I continue to believe that it is equally important to balance action and “good works” with praying, meditating, singing, chanting and dancing for miracles of growth, in our own consciousness and the world’s. And, of course, a healthy dose of hedonism is only natural and right, if one is to enjoy this life. But the older I get the more crystal clear it becomes that balancing spiritual and moral imperatives is the key to living “The Good Life.”

While meditation upon Spirit has become an entirely private matter for me and many others, quite apart from “organized religion,” which I now consider to be an oxymoron, the moral imperative to act in the world has become so profound that it forces many of us out of our comfort zones and toward visible activism. Thank goodness the peace of meditation in the woods balances out the stress of acting in the world, because the stakes could not be higher. Today’s moral imperative to act is nothing less than a life and death matter for all of us. Consider this quote from James Hansen, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in his May 10, 2012 New York Times Op Ed, “Game Over for the Climate:”

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.”

Hansen laments that President Obama was quoted in a recent “Rolling Stones” interview as having said that Canada will exploit the oil in its vast oil sands reserves “regardless of what we do,” and he ends his Op Ed article with a vision of moral judgment against us by future generations, if we do not act to arrest and reverse Global Climate Change immediately:

“Every major national science academy in the world has reported that global warming is real, caused mostly by humans, and requires urgent action. The cost of acting goes far higher the longer we wait — we can’t wait any longer to avoid the worst and be judged immoral by coming generations.”

The 71-year-old internationally known climatologist and activist for the fight against Global Climate Change is both revered and hated in today’s utterly polarized world, in which so many people choose to ignore the urgent warnings of 98% of the world’s scientists and 100% of the national academies of science, in favor of sticking their heads in the tar sands. It is clear that those of us who believe in science must accept the moral imperative of taking action to support James Hansen and all of the activists who are raising the alarm about the dire impending consequences of Global Climate Change. This is a THE moral and ethical issue our time for people of conscience who believe in responsible stewardship of the Earth and who wish to save as many species as possible from extinction, including our own. A more profound challenge than this fundamental immediate threat to our survival has never confronted the human race before. We must persuade President Obama to use his power and authority to stop the Keystone Pipeline and the Canadian oil sands development. We must make the case loudly and clearly through political and social involvement and all kinds of action that it is time to break our addiction to fossil fuels and develop clean alternative energy sources now. Go to and click on “End Fossil Fuel Subsidies” to support the Bernie Sanders/ Keith Ellison bill to do just that. This falls into the category of “good works” and it just happens to be a matter of life and death. So DO it!

Beyond taking whatever actions we can think of to save the planet as a habitat that will support life, if you happen to believe in the unseen world of Spirit and know how to pray, meditate, chant, dance, sing or whistle your way to communion with the Infinite, now would be a good time to humbly and sincerely ask for a miracle of growth in our own individual consciousness and that of the entire world. We must work as hard as we can and then pray and meditate for enlightenment and miracles, so that our efforts to act in service to the moral imperatives in this world might be guided by the Love and Wisdom and Peace of Spirit. If we can do this, then we will be living “The Good Life” regardless of the outcomes, and “…it will be all right.” Now… let’s spend some hedonistic time outside, enjoying this incredibly beautiful Earth and expressing gratitude for its existence, while we still can.

Eggheads, Elections, Marriage Equality, Etc. (Exchange of Letters)

Dear Kevin,

I do think that there are lots of subliminal lines running underground, as it were, between humor and art, and spirituality, too, no doubt.  I suppose you’re also right that to a certain extent we’re both hopeless eggheads when it comes to what and how we write.   Case in point: I also just posted something on the blog this morning, mine being about the recent European elections in France and Greece, and how they are both similar to and dissimilar from US politics.  Could you get much more “eggheady?”

Anyway, as you say, I guess the blog will be what it will be, and we leopards appear to be more or less unable to change our spots.  Nor do I think it’s even desirable to try, do you?  Once you start attempting to be somebody other than who you are (for better or for worse), you come off sounding inauthentic and, well, just a little silly.  So, if people want to read us, I suppose they’ll have to read us as we are.  In fact, maybe we ought to change our blog name from TwoOldLiberals, to TwoOldEggheads, what do you think?

This all makes me think about poor old Adlai Stevenson, too, back in the fifties, when he was running for the presidency against Eisenhower, a Republican.  My parents — and everybody I knew at the time — were staunch Democrats, to say the very least, but even so they were very leery of Stevenson.  People called him an “egghead,” and I remember thinking at the time: “What in the world is an egghead?”  I guess Americans have always mistrusted anybody who comes off as an intellectual.  I don’t have to remind you, of course, that Stevenson lost, and when reporters talked to him afterwards and mentioned the whole egghead controversy, his comment — perfectly apropos — was: “Via ovicipitum dura est!”   I assume that some of the reporters listening didn’t understand what he was saying in Latin, which was: “The way of the egghead is a hard one.”  But it certainly was perfectly in keeping with who he was.

I noted this morning, too, that the good Christians of North Carolina voted overwhelmingly to shut gay people up when it comes to their annoying demand for equality and constitutional rights.  In fact, what they seemed to be saying was, let’s actually change the constitution in order to make absolutely sure that “these people” don’t get too uppity!  Of course, voters did the same thing here in California, so I shouldn’t be too surprised about the Carolinians, should I?  It is curious, though, that every poll you see indicates that a majority of Americans are now in favor of allowing gay people to marry, at least by a slim majority, and yet time after time initiatives to allow that are defeated in one state after another.  I do think that eventually this will change, once the demographics change and — I hate to say it — once some older conservatives die off.  But nobody seems to know how long that will take. – Paul

Dear Paul,

I absolutely LOVED your blog article about the European elections. I found it so informative and balanced. I think you ought to submit it to “The Economist” or some other publications that explore global economic trends. As you know, I am a Francophile as well, having lived and studied in Aix-en-Provence for six months as a very young man, and spending a month-long Christmas holiday in Paris, where I painted a mural on the kitchen wall of my hostesses in exchange for lodging and meals. I certainly wish Francois Hollande the best. And I agree with you that the economic answer lies in a combination of stimulus and belt-tightening, even though almost nobody seems to be in the mood to strike such balanced and inclusive compromises. We must do the same thing here. If we don’t, we will be in very big trouble rather quickly, I should think.
Regarding our eggheadedness, I think we can only wear it as a badge of honor. I remember Adlai Stevenson very clearly and with great affection, because he was a hero in our household, when I was a child in the 50s. My parents were very disappointed by his second loss to Eisenhower, who now looks like a raving liberal, by the way, when compared with today’s mainstream Republicans. Eisenhower wouldn’t have a prayer of surviving today’s Republican primaries. Dick Lugar proved that yesterday in Indiana. Anyway, I have to tell my very favorite story about Adlai Stevenson — one that demonstrates his wit and intellect: A reporter asked Stevenson to comment on the fact that Norman Vincent Peale was preaching his conservative right wing politics from the pulpit, in light of the fact that Saint Paul had also talked about politics in his sermons. Adlai Stevenson shot back, “In Paul, it’s appealing. In Peale it’s appalling!” Smart man, that Adlai Stevenson. He would have been a great president.

Where the NC vote to amend their state constitution to ban gay marriage is concerned, I don’t think anybody is surprised, even though it is certainly disappointing. Similar ballot initiatives will soon be considered in three more states – MD, MN, and WA. So far gay marriage has lost every contest even though the majority of Americans support it in polls. One commentator said yesterday that it appears that the subject of gay rights motivates the right wing to come out to vote in greater numbers than progressives. Also yesterday, President Obama surprised me and many others by making a strong statement in favor of gay marriage, just a few days after Vice President Biden had paved the way, whether by design or by default. In either case, the Obama campaign seems to have calculated that it was a worthwhile risk for the president to reveal his true colors on this matter, since the majority of Americans are with him. We’ll see come November. I personally think that President Obama may also simply be the kind of man who doesn’t want to win another term if he has to do it by falsifying his true positions and beliefs. Yes, I am suggesting that he is, in fact, a man of real integrity, unlike his adversary, Mr. Romney, an opportunist who will say and “believe” whatever he thinks will thrust him into power, regardless of whatever beliefs he may actually hold. For Romney the ends justify the means. So, he’s a flip-flopper. Such people are dangerous and not to be trusted in my opinion.

It looks to me like it is going to be a very close election on all fronts this season. The recall election of Gov Walker and many of his lieutenants in WI is coming up in a little over three weeks. Even though Walker is funded by out-of-state right wing sources at a level 20 times the campaign accounts of his challenger, Tom Barrett, the Democratic Mayor of Milwaukee is currently one point ahead of Walker in the polls. I suspect that the results in WI will be interpreted by many as a harbinger of things to come in November, no matter how it turns out. It is hard for me to imagine how the contest between Obama and Romney could possibly be close, but apparently it is going to be a squeaker. Robert and I were certainly planning to vote enthusiastically for a second term for President Obama, whether or not he had come out in favor of marriage equality. As it is, we will just pull that lever with a bit more vigor.

Our fervent wish is that he would wake up and get with the environmental program to reverse Global Climate Change and stop the Keystone Pipeline. I would trade those positions for his support of gay marriage any day, because if we don’t make the tough decisions required to reverse Global Climate Change very soon, we won’t have the luxury of resolving any other issues confronting humanity, including gay marriage. First things first. We have to save the planet as a habitat that will support life. Then we can argue about who may marry whom. Okay, okay… I guess it isn’t a matter of doing one or the other. We can probably do both things at the same time. But my point is that in the face of the potential extinction of all life on Planet Earth, every other issue looks miniscule and insignificant to me. Global Climate Change is by far the most fundamental challenge that humanity has ever had to face, because it is about the survival of our species, as well as all the other life forms on the planet. We have to go into warp speed in reverse on Global Climate Change, and I want President Obama to “evolve” all the way to full enlightenment on this issue as well as gay marriage, and the sooner the better. – Kevin


By Paul

France elected François Hollande president of the Republic this past weekend, replacing Nicolas Sarkozy, in a contest that pitted against each other two very different ways of addressing the financial crisis that has plagued Europe, and the rest of the world, for the past several years.  Sarkozy seemed to represent to the majority of French voters all that went wrong in the first place:  the indifference and arrogance of the powerful and the moneyed over the lives of everyday working people.  But Hollande, a Socialist in the classic French vein, has a Herculean task ahead of him.  He will have to come up with some kind of plan that calms everybody down a bit, including those who voted for him in the first place, those who voted for Sarkozy (still some 48% of the French electorate), the Germans, the rest of Europe, the Americans, the markets, and just about everybody else in the world, it would seem.  He’s going to be a busy man.

Greece, too, had something of a troubled weekend.  The results there were not quite as clear-cut as in France, but still things got pretty badly shaken up.  Given a parliamentary style of government, the winner of the majority of votes had three days to attempt to piece together a ruling coalition from among an enormously fractured and fractious bunch.  That didn’t work, and so now others are trying, although with very little hope of succeeding.  The Conservatives initially came up with the most votes, but even so that was a measly 20%.  Their archenemies, the Socialists did even worse, getting less than 14%, a paltry amount given the former popularity of both parties.  In the end, the basic message seems to have been the axiomatic: throw the bums out!  Unfortunately, some of the bums are probably still going to have to attempt to work together to solve very basic problems, along with a few other parties now thrown into the mix.  These others include the radical leftists (neo-communists?), who got over 16% of the vote, and those far-right anti-immigrant thugs, the so-called Golden Dawn Party, which came away with almost 7% of the vote.  Add to all this muddle one other very important, if rather stark, item, namely, that it could also be said that one of the big losers this past weekend in Greece was none other than the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her politics of European austerity.

But why should we even care very much what happens on the other side of the Atlantic?  Yes, of course, we all know that world markets are impossibly intermingled these days, and so from that point of view, if the thread breaks in Europe, the garment can quickly unravel in the United States, as well.  So, there is that to keep in mind.  And as a result, no one should be surprised that the markets have developed a serious case of the heebie-jeebbies.   But aside from these considerations of intertwined markets, the basic politics of the situation in Europe may not be all that different from what’s playing out right here in our own backyard.

It’s probably unfair and maybe even a little dangerous to make too many one-for-one comparisons between Europe and the U.S., but, well, I’ll go ahead and make a few all the same.   The first that occurs to me is the Sarkozy-Romney mix.  I don’t mean so much in terms of personality (Sarkozy appears to have something of an annoyed, and annoying, Napoleon complex, while Romney goes for a well-scrubbed and over-starched Mr. Clean look).  But each one champions the rich, and appears to be just fine with telling the rest of us to suck it up and act responsibly, the theory being that those tax breaks to the wealthy are somehow supposed to magically rescue the economy and create new jobs.  How has that approach worked so far, Monsieur Sarkozy? France is weakened and teetering economically, and the jobless rate is well over 10%. 

But still, let’s try to be fair about things.  The French debt is totally out of hand, and laws that govern how companies can hire – and fire – people are hopelessly out of whack.  Everybody is covered by a top-notch healthcare plan, toward which they pay very little at least in direct expenses, and come August, you will find très peu of the French still in Paris if you happen to visit, because they are all lounging  à la plage.  Their Greek counterparts were once able to boast similar amenities, but are now lucky to have a job of any kind, and even their once vaunted healthcare network is looking shakier and shakier.  On top of all that, both countries made a choice years ago to be part of a Euro zone, and so the threads that bind them together – for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer –are today far stronger than those which bind them to the rest of the world.    

But the choices, if not the answers, for all of us appear in fact to be coming clearer.  What really does any country do that finds itself overextended on the one hand, and underfunded on the other?   The same case can be made right now to an extent here in the United States, as well.  The reasons why this is happening depend on how you see things, that is, on your politics.  On the overextension side of the equation, it has to do either with giving out too many handouts to a bunch of laggards, or possibly with having decided to wage endless wars for questionable reasons, while on the underfunding side, it would be because we’re giving too much to the little guy who doesn’t pay his own way or pull himself up high enough by his own bootstraps, or because of years of unwarranted and unwise cuts to the wealthiest of Americans in the dubious name of “stimulating the economy” (again, depending on your politics).  These are all very familiar questions that we in this country have been grappling with for a long time, but they are beginning to sound all too familiar to our European cousins now, too. 

Which ought we to choose, the approaches of Sarkozy-Romney, or of Hollande-Obama?  Which will turn out to be the better choices to get us out of the ditch and back on to the road to prosperity?  Do we cut, cut, cut, that is, taxes and services, or stimulate, stimulate, stimulate, in hopes of jump starting the economy?  The French, and to a certain extent the Greeks, appear to be opting for the latter right now.  Here in the U.S. we chose something along these lines four years ago, and – again depending on your politics – it either has, or it has not, worked.

Personally, I’m still putting my money (literally, I guess) on Mr. Obama.  Just as if I were French, I no doubt would’ve voted for M. Hollande.  If I were Greek, I don’t know what I’d do, maybe just head for the hills and hide out for the next couple of years.  But what I really don’t get is the “all austerity, all the time” approach to economic crises.  Sure, we have to save, and we have to act – and to spend – responsibly.  No question, and no argument there.  But countries get “better” economically through robust growth and expansion, as well as through austerity, and nobody, “no body,” ever got fatter by dieting. 

It seems to me that what it will come down to in the end is some kind of a fair balance between the two extremes of austerity and stimulus.  That’s what I think M. Holland will have to try to do in France.  And that’s what Mr. Obama has attempted for the past four years, but that is not what M. Sarkozy has done, nor is it what Mr. Romney would do, if he could.  So, I’m with the French on this one – je suis avec les Français!    And OK, I’ll admit up front to being something of a Francophile.  But you don’t have to sit down every morning to croissants and café au lait in order to know that both sides have got to compromise in order for us to get out of the mess we’re in. 

So, finally, what I say is: vive la France, vivent les Etats-Unis, vive Monsieur Hollande, et vive Monsieur Obama.  Oh, and yes, God help them all, vivent les pauvres Grecs, as well.

LIGHTENING UP! — The Shared Aesthetics of Humor and Art

Dear Paul,

Your letter about lightening up is a most enlightening upper! The fact that American Indians employed clowns in their sacred ceremonies is fascinating. Holy Mother Church could use a good dose of that right about now, don’t you agree? But it has been my observation that humor often comes with age and maturity, and the Holy Roman Catholic Church is not nearly as old or as highly evolved in many ways, as most of the native cultures of our planet are. Allowing clowns in the temple requires enough humility among the authorities to permit them to laugh at themselves and their most cherished beliefs. Many authorities can’t do that. They hold rigidly to an unshakably solemn belief in their dogmas and their own sober roles enforcing them. Allowing anyone to mimic or make fun of these beliefs would be threatening to their sense of reality and their own importance, and out of the question.

When I was only 20 in 1969, living in Aix-en-Provence, France and studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, I had the great good fortune to rent a room in the apartment of Mme Marbain, who turned out to be well-connected in the art world, and a truly great art critic. Her husband and her father had both been artists, and she had known Henri Matisse when she was a little girl and used to sit in his lap when she went with her father to visit the master. Mme Marbain was kind enough to look at my paintings and drawings and offer her insightful critiques. One day I drew a self-portrait, looking at my very serious face in the mirror. It looked a bit like Trotsky and betrayed my ponderous view of my young self, trudging through the streets of Aix in my trench coat, with long hair, goatee and wire rimmed glasses, reading Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the original French. When Mme Marbain saw my self-portrait, she burst out laughing. I was offended, of course. I didn’t think my self-portrait or my life were the least bit funny and I did not appreciate her laughing at me, but I have never forgotten what she said next: “Is this how you see yourself?… Well… It’s the serious young men like you who grow into fun old men!” I hope she was right.

After all, what are humor and clowning but agents of change and growth? Social psychologists tell us that what makes us laugh is an unexpected or absurd twist in the presentation of reality. Clowns represent people or animals or beings who are behaving absurdly – inappropriately – irreverently – immaturely – and we find that very funny. So, humor is essentially a representation of reality with an unexpected, surprising element that strikes our funny bone. I have always felt that art and humor have a great deal in common. Art is also, largely, a representation of reality with a layer of abstraction, form, performance or interpretation placed over it, which causes us to see “reality” in a new way. Both humor and art give us the opportunity to look through a lens of excellent craft, formal technique and emotional expression, into an alternative universe. The humorist, or clown, and the artist are often saying, “Here is the world as YOU see it, and here is the potential world as I see it.” Both art and humor challenge society to see “reality” in a new way – as an evolving picture, rather than as rigid dogma – and to consider options for new behaviors, social forms, norms, institutions, and ways of being. Both art and humor are revolutionary and prophetic views of the future in this sense, and therefore, they can both be equally threatening to some elements in society that are not eager to embrace change.

Your assertion that clowning is a way of helping people to lighten up is right on target. And I have always felt that “lightening up” is one of the major goals of art as well. But in both cases, it’s more than that, isn’t it? Both the humorist and the artist, while urging us to lighten up and not take ourselves quite so seriously, are also challenging us to question reality – to deconstruct what we think we know today and put it all back together in a new form. And, of course, that process never ends. Change may be the only constant in the Universe. In some Asian religions, even God is defined as “ever-new, ever-changing Bliss.” I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that I believe both art and humor are part of humanity’s response to the Creator – our attempt to reflect back to the Heavens some of that ever-new, ever-changing Light of Creative Bliss that shines upon us every instant of every day. “Lightening up” is just that. Lightning is one of the few forms of light that moves from the earth upward into the heavens. Lightening up through humor and art is part of humanities effort to reflect what we receive, like lightning, adding our own surprising twists. We’re all clowns and artists in one way or another! It’s actually pretty funny, when you think about it. – Kevin