By Paul

For those unfamiliar with the meaning of the word “shibboleth,” in its modern application it is most commonly used to signify a word, a custom, or a belief that distinguishes a particular class or group of people.  According to its origin, however, it applied specifically to the pronunciation of certain words, which helped to identify users as part of a particular tribe or subculture.  But by extension, as well, it can refer to a diet, a fashion, or even certain cultural values or a culture touchstone (i.e., specific words or phrases etc.) that would serve a distinguishing purpose, in order to help those in the group know who the insiders are, and to differentiate them from those who are outside the group.

The term comes form a Biblical passage and refers specifically to Chapter 12, verses 5 and 6, of the Book of Judges.  I quote here from the Douay-Rheims translation:  “The Galaadites took the fords of the Jordan toward Ephraim. When any of the fleeing Ephraimites said, ‘Let me pass,’ the men of Galaad would say to him,  ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’  If he answered, ‘No!’ they would ask him to say ‘Shibboleth.’  If he said ‘Sibboleth,’ not being able to give the proper pronunciation, they would seize him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan.  Thus forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell at that time.”

Now, given the marked Old Testament tendency toward hyperbole, let’s say only a tenth of that number were actually killed at the fords of the Jordan.  Still, that means forty-two hundred Ephraimites, which is a lot of people, were put to the sword that day because they could not distinguish between “s” and “sh.”

One of the most famous shibboleths in modern art is the well-known giant crack in the floor of the Tate Modern in New York City.  Created by the Columbian artist Doris Salcedo, it is actually called “Shibboleth,” and symbolically represents the dividing line between all of the categorizing that we so love to do in society, between the wealthy and the poor, the old and the young, the able and the disabled, the gays and the straights, and of course among all of the races represented in the human family.  Curiously, a number of people have tripped and fallen and injured themselves on this crack, even though it is only a foot wide at its broadest point, which leaves us to wonder whether this kind of blind clumsiness is actually a “plant,” used to graphically and literally demonstrate how again and again we stumble over such divisions in our everyday lives.

Closer to the original story of distinguishing between warring groups during battle, U. S. soldiers used the word “lollapalooza” as a shibboleth during World War II.  As the story goes, those fighting in the Pacific theater would employ this word in order to challenge the identity of someone whom they encountered in the jungle.  The idea, of course, was that speakers of Japanese have a famous difficulty distinguishing between the English sounds associated with the letters “l” and “r.”  Whether this actually happened or not, it does fit well with the original Biblical story, sadly to the point that, if the word came back with its first two syllables pronounced as “rorra” instead of “lolla,” then the order was given “to open fire without waiting to hear the remainder!”

Closer to home, and decidedly less deadly, I sometimes have my own issues with various shibboleths.  I moved to California many years ago, but still retain something of my upstate New York accent; or so I am told anyway.  And sometimes my old-fashioned usage of words.

My partner, for example, who was born and, for the most part, raised in California, always cringes when I refer to the front room of our house as “the parlor.’  He says that parlor is an old-fashioned term, and that anyway California houses do not have parlors.  Sometimes, I admit just to be contrary, I reply that in fact they do; it’s that room in the front of the house with the couch and the easy chairs, where we don’t usually sit, except when company comes over.  So, you see, this is both a regional and an ageist shibboleth!

And here’s a true story that happened to me that refers to a pronunciation shibboleth.  Years ago, before I retired and while I was still working at California State University, Long Beach, I was on a committee that met regularly.  There was a faculty member on the committee whose first name was Dawn.  Now, it happened that Dawn was absent one day from the meeting, and the chair of the committee asked me if I would serve on a particular subcommittee with someone whom I heard as “Don.”  Being a cooperative fellow, of course I said I would, but I inquired as to who this “Don” person was.  I couldn’t recall a single man with that name on the committee.  The chair looked at me in a puzzled sort of way, but patiently replied that he meant “Don” and then he gave the last name of the individual whom I knew well.  I too sat nonplussed for a moment, and then the light finally dawned (so to speak), and I said: “Oh, you mean Dawn, not Don!”  Everyone laughed and told me what an “Easterner” I still was, even after all these years.  In this case, the shibboleth came down to a matter of actual meaning, that is, the ability to distinguish between a male and a female name.  By the way, I still think that I’m right about my pronunciation of this particular name, and of the event that takes place at the beginning of each day.

There are actually lots of these, what linguists refer to as “minimal pairs,” that is, two words that sound very much alike, but which differ mostly in the pronunciation of the vowel lying in between two consonants.  Very often, these too are shibboleths.  Take, for example, the distinction at least in my mind between the famous “pin” and “pen.”  Where I come from (originally anyway), these are two very distinct phonemes.  But an old friend of mine, who came from the South, used to tell me that the way the two words were distinguished between where he came from was to inquire whether you meant “a writin’ “pen” or a stickin’ “pin.”

So, shibboleths can be sticky and funny, but as we have also seen, they can be dangerous and even deadly, as well.  It all comes down yet once again to that insistent, stubborn, perverse, recalcitrant, infuriating, stiff-necked, and sometimes downright perilous need human beings have to make distinctions between one another.   Sometimes, of course, we have to admit it can be useful to differentiate between friend and foe.  But not, for God’s sake, in the parlor, and not, please, with pen in hand at the dawn of the day.


By Paul

I have many times in my life questioned what it is about organized religion that can take such a hold on people.  Why is it that so many in the world, Americans in particular perhaps but many others as well, particularly in the Middle East, adhere to faiths that, though in their essence may be benign, yet in their practice are so often unkind, uncompassionate, and even predatory?  And although I may not have the academic authority to ask, I can at least inquire into such questions with a sense of history all my own.  When I was a young man, I was a devout Catholic, and even spent seven years in a Catholic monastery.  That was some fifty years ago now, and I have changed, I dare to say evolved, in my thinking about such things.  And yet, just as one of many examples that could be given, when I read about a young person struggling with too often quoted Biblical passages, or with preaching from the pulpit that condemns him or her for being gay, I wonder yet again what hold religion can have on the human heart.

Of course, not all religions are necessarily heinous and reprobate.  Some clearly fit into these descriptors, but others come off as more benign, or at least less condemnatory of those who do not hold to their putative truths.  I will leave it to the reader to identify which religion might fall into these varying categories, and move on instead to the brief exploration I mention above as to why I believe it is that people so often cling to religion, good or bad.

One further clarification first, however, if I may.  In discussing religion, I want to emphasize that I am speaking about the organization thereof, that is, the need to codify, to hierarchize, to set out dogma, teachings if you will, about what is considered good and bad, right and wrong, proper and improper in thought and behavior, as well as the apparent need to arrange, assemble, and marshal human communities that believe in and promulgate these tenets.  This, after all, is what most religions deal with, is it not?  What I am not doing is discussing (at this point anyway) whatever we might call the inner impulse to seek to understand the immutable and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions of the universe, such as life, death, meaning, love, cruelty, sickness and suffering, or who if anyone made the universe and for what purpose, and whether or not there exists a Supreme Being, who in some way, either directly or indirectly, interacts with fallible human beings.  For better or for worse, all this lies these days more often within the domain of science, philosophy, or mysticism, than in that of organized religion.

So, back then to my original query: what is it about the organization of religion that exerts such a gravitational pull on so many human beings?

Perhaps surprisingly, the first and the most common reason is simple indolence.  By that I mean that an individual is brought up in a particular religion that she or he has learned from the very beginning.  Most everyone that person knows belongs to that same religion, and so what else ought he or she to do?  Such people stay in the religion of their birth not so much out of strong conviction, but because it is what they know, the whole thing seems to have been given to them in some sort of set and preordained way, and why not just stick with what you know?  After all, it’s just a matter of going to the church or the temple or the mosque on the appointed day, or whatever the house of worship may be called (for simplicity’s sake, I will use the term “church” throughout, although we understand it can be applied more widely), sitting passively and listening, or allowing one’s mind to wander freely, and then going home afterward, feeling a vague sense that one has done one’s duty.  Even so, it’s somehow thought to be an important duty, and others in the community would think less of them if the rituals were not properly performed.

The second reason is, simply, fear.  Some individuals are convinced that, if certain ceremonies are not performed in the prescribed way, and if specific dogmas and beliefs are not adhered to closely, then something terrible will befall them in this life; or worse, that just and awful punishment will be meted out to them in the next life.  And so, they go to church in order to hedge their bets, and in an attempt to ward off what is sometimes called their “just deserts,” if they were not to do so.

A third, and ancillary, reason added to one and two above is the need for reinforcement of belief.  This pertains to people who in the secret enclave of their hearts are either not sure of their own beliefs, or who are themselves fearful of not being capable of toeing the line on their own.  As a result, they need the company of a congregation of watchful co-religionists in order to sustain and reinforce belief in the received dogma.  Without that societal fortification and bolstering, they understand they might lose interest and fall entirely away.

But with number four, we come closest to seeing why it is that organized religion so often appears rigid, overbearing, and condemnatory.   Here we meet those who can be called “the true believers,” that is, those who are convinced to the marrow of their bones concerning the rectitude of the preachings of their religion, and of the common interpretation of those preachings by prominent practitioners and leaders of the faith.  This, too, goes hand in hand with a belief in the unerring and literal veracity of every word found in the “holy book” of the religion, or the infallibility of the exalted leaders of the faith.  These are the people who rail against sinners and apostates, who condemn to hell anyone who does not follow their particular take on religion, who attempt to get their narrow dogma imposed as the law of the land, and who in so doing cause no end of unnecessary suffering to so many.  Just as one example, think of the various roles the Roman Catholic Church, and any number of Protestant Evangelical Churches, to say nothing of Sharia Law, have played, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, in condemning and blocking same sex marriage, and gay rights generally, over the last several years.

Again, I will say that not every religion is oppressive and denunciatory.  Neither is every religious adherent filled with censure, vilification, and disapproval.  There are some who are willing to allow others who don’t hold to the tenets of their faith to live according to their own lights, and who do not wish to impose their view of the world on everyone in the world.  There are even a few who seem capable of using the symbols and teachings of their particular religious traditions in ways that stimulate and advance personal piety, as well as love and acceptance of other human beings.  But, in my experience, these are the few, rather than the many.

So, what to do, if you are among those who eschew organized religion?  Not to worry.  Either ignore dogmatic faiths entirely, and lead your life in as naturally moral and loving a way as possible, forgetting for now things supernatural, but living the best and most honorable life you can.  Or, if you are like myself and find that you are still drawn to an understanding and even a hoped-for connection with what can only be called the Supreme Unknowable, then find your own way!  Do not wait for priests, or preachers, or mullahs to lead you; do not rely on teachings and dogma.  Go within and discover for yourself.  After all, even for those who follow more traditional paths, the seeker must ultimately learn to transcend all stories and images, leave behind all saints and depictions of the divine, indeed, all qualities and thought, and find for him or herself what cannot be found, but what – after long search and hard work — in the end can only be called the great Gift of Enlightenment.


By Paul

I have to say, I never thought it would happen.  After more than thirty-three years of living together, my partner – well, now my husband — and I have gotten married.  For a long time, while the Supreme Court deliberated about DOMA and Prop. 8, we too were thinking things over.  Neither of us has ever been all that enamored with the idea of traditional marriage.  We’ve both seen enough marriages fail over the years.  Still, when it finally came down to our making an actual decision, the outcome was clear enough:  the federal benefits outweighed any other reservations we may have had.

Once that decision was made, then came the particulars of it all.  We knew from the get-go that we didn’t want a fuss made.  Our friends and relatives were hinting that they might maybe want to make an occasion out of this.   But that’s not how we saw things.  Keep it simple, we thought, just the two of us; after all, we had for decades already considered ourselves married, at least in essence.

And so we made the trek over to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s Office, located some twenty miles away from us in the city of Norwalk.  Now, I have nothing at all against Norwalk.  It was in fact the first time either of us had ever set foot in the city.  But we wondered what kind of a reception a middle-aged, Anglo same-sex couple might expect when they presented themselves to get married there.

We weren’t actually nervous. It was probably more what might best be described as a state of heightened awareness. The first thing we noticed upon finding out where to go in the county complex was how few people there were in line.  Somehow, I’d imagined dozens of fidgeting couples.  As it turned out, there were exactly four people ahead of us, two middle-aged lesbians, and a very young, straight Asian couple.  The latter were so young looking to me, in fact, that in a moment of only half-conscious, avuncular concern I almost asked them if they’d really thought through this momentous decision.  Fortunately, in the end, I kept my unasked for advice to myself.

I offered a friendly hello to all of them.  The Asian couple, or at least the groom-to-be, gave a shy greeting in return.  One of the lesbians smiled at us and said a quick “Congrats!”  I bowed slightly, smiling, and replied: “And to you, too.”  Several other couples, all heterosexual, soon took their place behind us. No one seemed even to notice us.  Appropriately enough, I thought, each person in each couple seemed intent on his or her partner.  And when we got up to the window, a very friendly Asian woman took us through our paces, clicking boxes on her computer with flair.  Not only was she efficient, she was friendly and jocular:  “Dress up, dress down, rings, no rings, doesn’t matter!”

So, that was that:  no problems, no dirty looks, no questioning glances, no nothing, if I can use the double negative positively.  We walked away, marriage license application in hand, with an appointment for the following week to do the deed itself.

When we returned a week later, we were first in line for a wedding ceremony.  It’s a question of sliding the proper paperwork under the correct window, getting checked in, and then waiting until we were called into the chapel.  Now, I was the one fidgeting.  I could not believe how much all this was affecting me.  All along, I’d thought of it as perfunctory, but now sitting there waiting, I realized it somehow actually meant something to me.  Stupidly, the words from that old song about going to the chapel and going to get married kept running through my head.

A distinguished looking Latino gentleman in a black robe, a retired judge, I think, called us in.  The chapel was decorated with a kind of faux arbor, an arch covered in artificial flowers, where we were asked to stand.  The County of Los Angeles graciously provided a witness ($18 please), and the judge told us to face each other and hold hands.  I was near tears all through the brief ceremony, wherein we were admonished “to covet one another to the exclusion of all others.”

Afterwards, on the way to the car, I actually did start crying, to the amazement, I think, of my new husband.  But, knowing like no one else my sentimental side, he smiled indulgently.  I kept thinking, why am I crying?  Could it be because, by rights, we ought to have been able to marry more than thirty years ago and by now be celebrating our thirty-something-eth wedding anniversary, instead of walking out as newlyweds?  Or was it due to the simple notion that we were just now, finally, recognized by the state as a married couple?

I dried my tears as we got into the car, and we kissed.  I do, in fact, covet him above all others.  The judge needn’t have told me.  But in the end I was glad that he did, and I was proud and moved to reply, quickly and without hesitation, “Yes, I do.”  Anyway, it’s over and done with, and I will say I’ve gotten used to it rather quickly.  Even so, when I suddenly think of myself as “a married man,” it does still strike me as really something.




By Paul

It is not very often that I find myself amazingly in agreement about anything with the likes of Pope Francis, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Rand Paul, and – as they say – the citizens of Teabagistan.  In fact, I must admit that such bedfellows make me extremely uncomfortable, and the very idea of being in any sense in political company with them leads me to question yet again my decision to come out against US military intervention in Syria, as I did on this blog last week.  Normally, my comfort zone is on the side of President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, Minority Leader Pelosi, Senator Boxer, and many other liberals, who now favor such military strikes.  If I had to put it in terms of friendship, I would say I think of this latter group as my compatriots and fellow countrymen, while the former gaggle would represent to me those who live on a distant and alien planet, far removed from my own.   And yet, here I am in agreement with them on this topic.  How has that come about?

Well, it has not been an easy journey, and I continue to examine myself each day to see if I still feel as though I must hold myself apart from my usual political alliances, my philosophical friends of the heart.  Let me, then, briefly explain how it is I feel I’ve come to where I’m at, and you be the judge as to whether or not my thinking is faulty.  I will not burden any reader with a verbatim reiteration of everything I said in my Aug. 29 “Bombs Away” posting, but for those who may not have read it, the main argument centers around the fact that military action against a country such as Syria can have untold, unforeseen, far-reaching, and frightening consequences, no matter how noble the motivation, and no matter how restricted the intended scope of the action.  That was the heart of the argument.  Tangentially, I also believe that, as heinous and despicable as chemical weapons truly are, in the end, death is death.   You cannot be more dead from a chemical attack than you can be from an artillery attack, or from a mortar shell, or a bullet.  And while at least a thousand people were killed in the chemical weapons attack (the numbers vary, depending on whose statistics you read), including women and children, no one also disagrees that well over one hundred thousand Syrians – one hundred times as many – also including women and children, have died as a result of conventional weapons in this terrible civil war.   Why then is the Obama Administration, and seemingly not many other countries thus far, hell bent on punishing Syria now, when earlier we were content to allow events to unfold with little outside input from us?

The answer seems to be that a “red line” has been crossed, namely, the use of chemical weapons.   And while there is no doubt that this argument carries with it a degree of weight, is it strong enough for us to risk the other consequences that may well result from a military attack on Syria?  These include the possibility of sucking the United States, willy-nilly, into yet another Middle Eastern conflagration, a quagmire out of which we will not know how to extricate ourselves, and even of the widening of the current civil war itself to include other nations of the region and of the globe.  These are not mere fantasies of a frightened mind.  They are very real possibilities, which we must face in any decision-making process.

The other argument for “doing what we said” in regard to the “red line” has to do with the notion of credibility.  Pres. Obama said just a day or two ago in Sweden that his credibility was not on the line, but rather that of the world community.  By this, we must assume that he is saying he’s willing to do what he said he would do, but that others (the US Congress? the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Ban?  any right-thinking person or country?) might not be willing to do so.  The Chemical Weapons Ban itself stipulates that parties pledge to provide “assistance and protection,” and to swiftly dispatch “expertise” when needed, but it does not specify that military action must be taken against any rogue state that makes use of such weapons. Furthermore, speaking of agreements we have signed, the United Nations Charter does demand that no country attack another, for any reason, without the prior agreement of the Security Council.  Additionally, we might recall that Saddam Hussein, our ersatz alley at the time, used chemical weapons against thousands of Kurds, and the US government, for geopolitical reasons of its own, said and did nothing.  So, it would seem that, in the end, red lines come in many different varieties of value and intensity.

Indeed, what the credibility issue may really come down to might only in small part have anything to do with Syria.  Instead, it may have to do with Iran, and whether or not it is working on the creation of a nuclear weapon, and with our pledge to Israel in regard to this particular line in the sand.  The argument in a nutshell goes something like this: if we back down in the face of Syria, a much smaller fish in the region, what will we ever do in regard to Iran, the biggest fish swimming in the Middle Eastern sea?  And, therefore, would we in essence be pre-abandoning Israel, as it were, if we were somehow not to stand up to Syria now?

I am not asserting that these questions ought not to be asked.  I am simply saying, let us be fully upfront about them.  My own take on the answer to the red line question as it pertains to Iran and Israel is that we are comparing giants and midgets.  The overwhelming opinion of the American public, and of French and British public opinion too by the way, is against military action in Syria.  The same, however, is not the case in regard to how we feel about Israel, and its struggle to survive in a region where so many seem to want it to disappear.  In other words, let Iran beware, and be wary.  The Ayatollah should not mistake a robust debate about the wisdom of attacking Syria for the use of chemical weapons, or even – if it were to come to that – a decision not to attack, with an unwillingness to protect America’s long-standing alley and co-democracy partner in the region.  Nor, I think, would the US Congress balk, the way the House of Representatives (if not the Senate) currently seems poised to do concerning Syria, were it to consider a resolution for the defense and protection of Israel.

Thus, credibility, like a red line, must be viewed in its proper context.  In the end, I fear I remain still in the same unlikely and very uncomfortable bed I found myself in at the beginning.  I’ll say it again:  I don’t like it, but here I am.  So it goes with politics sometimes, and with world affairs.  You’ve got to follow your heart, and afterwards, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll work out in your head some reasons as to why you also think this should be the case.  So, move over Mr. Putin, your Holiness, and Mr. Paul.  I’m here, it would seem, with you this time.  Just, please, don’t get used to it. And don’t worry, either.  I fully expect this to be the first, and surely the last, time you will ever see me ensconced in this horribly cramped, unbearably uncomfortable, and highly disagreeable bed with you.