Thursday, May 30, 2013

An open letter to Kelly Stewart, producer for Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson

Yesterday, as the hits on my CNN article soared, I received an email entitled "National Radio Interview Request" from the producer for the Jesse Lee Peterson show.

1. I mis-read the email. I admit it, this article has reached a level of audience that dwarfs my most-read essays in the past, and I was feeling pretty excited. I read, "National Public Radio Interview request," inserting the public where it didn't belong.

2. I said yes, even though my friends were urging me not to, but I had never heard of Peterson. I don't watch Fox News, and really, who has the time to keep up with all the hatemongers out there. It's a good business, spreading hate, but who has the time to keep track of all the players. Then I started listening to clips of him talking about gender issues. There's the sermon where he reveals that women (later amended to liberal women), are destroying society by being whores, and that they never should have been given the vote. Well, ok, that's offensive. But then I listened to him interviewing lots of smart, activist, women. He lets them have their say, I give him that, but it's not because I disagree with him or because he's so offensive that I withdrew from the interview. It's the way he argues. Peterson's style is to simply assert first principles and then extrapolate from them. These principles include: Women should be in the home. Men should be in charge of their women. And so forth. In a discussion where these are the unambiguous principles, there is no room for discussion, as I operate from principles of equality and freedom.

3. I'm honestly not ready to go on a show like this. I did a radio interview yesterday with a friendly interviewer, and while it went fine, I knew I wasn't skilled at that kind of format yet. I'll get there, hopefully, with more opportunities. But I am fundamentally a writer, not a debater. I give a good lecture and enjoy a lively Q&A, but not in the context where I'm living in a radically different moral universe than my interlocutor. I need time to think, deliberate, draft, and revise. Peterson isn't the big leagues of hate, that's more Hannity or Rush, but he's definitely a pro, and I'm still a radio rookie. I'll get there, and you know what, Peterson needs foils like me. I'll let you know.

4. Had I gone on the interview, here's a question I would have asked him. Why doesn't he fire you? We spoke on the phone and you are clearly a bright, professional, woman. According to his theory, you should be in the home, with the kids, without the vote, serving your man. Is he just a hypocrite, saying shocking things in order to get more air time? Or does he really believe it? If he believes it, he should fire you. But here's a better question - why do you work for him?

5. I write this blog, in part, to provide historical context for contemporary phenomena. I have to say, although Peterson blames most contemporary problems in society to the rise of liberal women, there is nothing new in his beliefs. I was recently re-reading Christine de Pizan, a 14th-century single-mom (widow) and writer, who was confronting so much of the same type of language as Peterson uses now. Usually, patriarchy is invisible, pernicious, creeping into our minds and shaping our perceptions in ways that we cannot recognize.  But while Peterson may be a modern-day Matheolus (you can look it up), I have to tell you - no one reads Matheolus today; and we all read Christine and those who were inspired by her.

6. But hey, supporting a man spitting into the wind of history earns you a good living, I guess.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Anti-Semitism on Twitter - Jews = Greedy

One of the themes of my essays and blog posting focuses on language, particularly the pernicious effects of unconscious language. I wrote about "the Angel/Retard Dialectic" last November, for example, but both the NYC new wheelchair symbol and yesterday's piece about gender norming in pre-school focus on unconscious use of language and symbols and the consequences therein.

This morning Jon Heyman, a sports reporter I follow on Twitter, retweeted the following:

Let's unpack. The language says that if the San Francisco Giants were not so utterly greedy, so greedy that the only way to describe their greed is to call them Jews, the Oakland A's could have a nice stadium.

This is the old calumny, the calumny still used today in much of America, as a casual way of talking about people too obsessed with money. Last April, a GOP House Majority leader in Oklahoma talked about being 'Jewed down.' He did apologize when called on it, saying hey be didn't mean anything by it, but guesses some people can find these things offensive now, and anyway, some of his best friends are Jewish (warning - Johnson didn't actually say that last thing).

Heyman is Jewish. Did he read the tweet? Did he think no one would care?

I re-tweeted to both "Ernie" and Heyman. Neither has responded. Ernie, who had a following of a few hundred and a long history of tweeting, has deleted his account (in a panic, I expect). And life goes on.

But as an historian, let me be clear: This language associating Jews with greed is very old, has survived across the centuries, and is NOT harmless.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Quick thought - Write their own stories

At the end of my essay, I cite my daughter's decision that her award was for "Best Bowler." That's the message here - it's not about raising "strong" girls, but about raising our children, boys and girls both, with the freedom and tools to write their own stories. 

And if that's the goal, how do we get there?

Gender Norms - New Essay on CNN

I have a new essay up on CNN on gender norms and pre-school. Here's the summary. But please read it anyway and share it, if so inclined. I feel this one, unlike the more theological pieces, has a chance at a broader readership and maybe even changing a few minds - or at least providing language to people already on the same page.

When the rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died in March, The New York Times celebrated her as the maker of a "mean beef stroganoff" and "the world's best mother." When my 4-year-old daughter, Ellie, a wildly creative and interesting girl, finished a year of preschool last week, her teachers gave her an award for being the best dressed.
Sometimes, I find the prospect of raising a girl to be terrifying. The forces of patriarchy conspire to render girls weak, subordinate and sexually objectified. When we respond to infants by gendering our speech, strong for boys and lilting for girls, we immediately start to shape their interactions with the world.

Our culture constantly projects the message that only appearances matter, and this message is aimed squarely at our children. We can fight this only by working against the grain, resisting gendered language and emphasizing the internal over the external.

Here's a list of some of the inspirations and sources for the essay.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 27, 2013


I'm increasingly sure that doubt, being not 100% certain that your beliefs (political, religious, economic, culinary) are correct, is an important part of what makes a pluralistic society run. More to come on this.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Representation - the new wheelchair symbol.

I have this theory that representation matters. I wrote about my ideas here back in November, and will have a piece about gender and language coming out next week.

So I like what New York City is doing with these new "handicapped" symbols.

It's a small thing, but many small things add up.


Not long before the election of Pope Francis, Abi Sutherland, a blogger at Making Light, wrote about monarchy and myth. Sutherland worked through some thoughts based on recent movies and books, to discuss "monarch as catalyst," and that the myth of the "true king" focused on transforming us to our better selves. Towards the end, Sutherland wrote:
"But my first monarchy is the one that concerns me right now. The organization is in deep, structural trouble. The holder’s sudden choice to vacate the throne is worrying, and I am torn between curiosity and dread to hear (what we will ever hear of) why he really stepped down. And although I’m sure the Conclave is intending to vote for the Pope who will make us all our best selves, I don’t think they’re the right electorate to identify him. I think they, and the entire hierarchy, have forgotten (or never knew) what it is to be a Catholic in the world. I don’t think they will elect a Pope who will make us our best selves (or them their best selves), and when he does not, I think they will continue to blame everyone but themselves.

I wish it were not so. I’d love a Pope who renewed the church, and turned us from an engine of politics and condemnation to one of love and healing. That’s what I hope for. But I know better than to expect it. Because the True Monarch is a fairy tale, no more real than its cousin-myth of the Philosopher’s Stone. The Conclave will choose someone in scarlet robes who won’t, even if he wants to, be able to turn the rumbling Juggernaut of the hierarchy from its course....But the fact that fairy tales don’t come true doesn’t rob them of their value. The problems they describe are real, even if the solutions that follow aren’t. There are no True Monarchs, but the hunger to be our best selves endures. In the end—as in the beginning and the middle—we turn ourselves into those best selves, every day, piece by piece and act by act."
I've thought a lot about those lines since I read them. Although the occupant of the Throne of St. Peter is no longer a secular monarch, and hasn't been since the 19th century, the Papacy continues to operate like a monarchy. And monarchies encourage myths. If the "true king" takes the throne, as Sutherland comments, one can dream that the changes of which we dream will simply come to past. The king will wave his hand, the villains will be imprisoned, and we'll all live happily ever after.

In America, we've seen how hard it is to effect change. Whatever you happen to think of Obama's agenda, he has not been able to enact it. The limiting factors of  checks and balances (built into our system) and the new phenomena of constant filibuster and gerrymandered districts have restricted his ability to bring about wholesale change (assuming he in fact wanted to do so).  This is the blessing and curse of the American democratic system. But oh, a king, if only they knew what was wrong, they could solve all our problems. Of course, this was never true for even the most powerful kings. Medieval kings found themselves limited by all sorts of factors, including those internal to their courts. But still, at least they don't have to get through the US Congress ...

I'm not a monarchist (I once gave a talk on Theodoric the Ostrogoth for a group of monarchists, but that's a different story). I'm ready for Popes to be chosen by the acclamation of the laity. But if this monarch happens to re-direct the course of the Church, I'll be pleased. And that's my final point (the privilege of the blog post, rather than the formal essay, is to wander a little). Much of the criticism of the church focuses on its "medieval nature," the way that autocratic hierarchies limit the influence of the believers over the workings of their church. I share these criticisms. I think that hierarchy encourages the elites to believe that they are the only voices worth hearing, that it enables the culture that concealed the abuses of the clergy, and has kept the church from embracing the changes so demanded from the laity.

And yet, here we have a monarch, Pope Francis. The very structures that make the church seem so antiquated and remote are now in the hands of a man who seems determined to change things. He can act, though like all kings, he must be careful of his court, or his impact will be brief, at best.

And remember that the Cardinals chose him. In a landslide. They knew what they were doing.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Francis' Wager? - Or - Ignore the atheist thing, focus on encounter

I have a new essay up on The Atlantic.

Money quote:
Perhaps the focus on atheism, as breathtaking has this issue has proven to be for the  media and the blogosphere, misses the more powerful concept at the core of Francis' homily: the culture of encounter. In the documents from the Second Vatican Council, as well as much older texts, one finds numerous explicit statements about our shared humanity, universal rights, and the necessity to find common ground. This idea of encounter lays out a pathway for us to locate and recognize those commonalities.
 What do you think?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Today Pope Francis said the following:

All people are called to do good and not evil, the pope said. Some would object, "'but, Father, he isn't Catholic so he can't do good.' Yes, he can. He must."

The idea that others cannot really be good and do good in the world creates "a wall that leads to war and to something that historically some people have thought: that we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that one can kill in God's name is blasphemy."

"The Lord has redeemed us all with the blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone," he said. Some may ask, "'Father, even the atheists?' Them, too. Everyone."
 (Also he cited St. Rita, patron of impossible things. This makes me happy too).

So this is a big deal. If the Catholic hierarchy explicitly endorses that salvation for all is possible, it's a big step towards pluralism. If the powers of Catholicism focus their energy on pluralism, rather than excluding people, we'll see a better world.

Also apparently if I am a good secular Jew, then Jesus will redeem me even if I lose Pascal's wager. Which is good, as long ago I decided to make Perry's Wager. I'll tell you about that on another post.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Inspirations for the next essay on gender and pre-school

  1. Yvonne Brill's obituary.
  2. Deborah Kogan's life in publishing. Or, why the publishers made her call her first book, "Shutterbabe."
  3. Seanan McGuire's response to being accused of too much self-promotion in regards to the Hugo Awards. She promoted herself once. But she's a woman, so ...
  4. What Disney Princesses really teach girls.
  5. Bratz.
  6. Underwear.
  7. Elizabeth Smart.
  8. The great cover posing of Jim Hines.
And then of course the famed Joss Whedon quote:
Q: So, why do you write these strong female characters?
A: Because you’re still asking me that question.

I'm feeling surly.

Edit: 9. Thanks to my friend Dawn, this piece on Carolyn Heilbrun.
Edit: 10. Thanks to Jay, "What's wrong with Cinderella." A thoughtful piece from 2006.
Edit 11. Thanks to Kurt, we have the Vatican (2009) calling the washing machine the liberator of women.

Reactions - Seamless Garment/Consistent Life Ethic

John 19:23
 Vulgate - Milites ergo cum crucifixissent eum, acceperunt vestimenta ejus (et fecerunt quatuor partes, unicuique militi partem) et tunicam. Erat autem tunica inconsutilis, desuper contexta per totum.
 NIV - When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
 Response to my Atlantic essay has been interesting to track, if limited. One Irish blogger, a former journalist with Opus Dei connections tweets:
His argument here is that I'm right, they were inconsistent when ignoring life issues in the past, but the dissent over Notre Dame and now BC is a sign that things are improving - by getting more rigid.  This is consistent with Opus Dei perceptions, but it's useful to see it laid out so clearly here.

On the article page itself, a commenter named Curt made this point:

A president has less influence on post Roe and post Casey abortion than most people acknowledge. Obama is wrong on abortion, but we have FIVE Catholics on the Court and yet Roe stands.
In contrast, a governor or president can personally commute a death sentence, and by implication, not commuting an execution is to affirm its moral rightness.
Accordingly I would hold a president or governor more accountable for his capital punishment record than his abortion rights platform.
Curt's bio on Disqus describes him as "politically conservative." I'm pleased, as I tried to write this so that it would appeal across party lines. Curt strikes me as someone with whom I might not agree, but whose reasoning I can respect. I like that.

I've always been impressed with the unyielding notion of the seamless garment/consistent life ethic. The term was coined by Chicago's former Cardinal Bernardin (a man much missed by many of the Catholics I most respect), and to me it makes a lot of theological sense. All life is sacred (as all beings are created beings, a notion Aquinas raises too), and if you take that seriously, you can't subdivide between guilty and innocent, young and old, armed and defenseless. All[human] life. No seams. Full stop. But it's hard to live up to, unless one is willing to become a pacifist, and the unrelenting focus on abortion at the expense of other life issues by the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has, I think, betrayed their positions as political creatures. Abortion is the life issue in the U.S., and the conservative hierarchy tracks that. As noted in this article, in 2011, some of the inflamed rhetoric claiming religious warfare about the Obama contraception mandate emerged from Texas, where the death penalty is king and injustices well-documented.

This has always been my stance - if you want me to respect an absolute pro-life, anti-assisted suicide and anti-contraception position, then you also need to be a pacifist and an activist against state-sponsored execution. I understand the theological arguments why only abortion and euthanasia (as they see it) are worse than executions and war, but I reject them a hair-splitting and arbitrary.

Which is, I suppose, the point of my essay. You can make an arbitrary judgment about what issues are important, but then we're in the world of dialogue, debate, and compromise, not unyielding theological principle. So come to the table and let's talk about complexity - AIDS vs Condoms, abortion to save a mother's life, contraception vs poverty, legal abortion vs illegal abortion, sex ed., and so forth.

Friday, May 17, 2013

New Essay on "The Atlantic" - The Cardinal, the Prime Minster, and Abortion Politics

I have a new essay up here. In it, I talk about the decision by Boston's Archbishop, Cardinal O'Malley, to boycott the graduation of Boston College. BC is honoring Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who is sponsoring an abortion bill back home. I work through some of the reasoning and the potentially inconsistent (or at least very arbitrary reasoning) used by O'Malley.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Finding a public voice - An introduction to my writing and this blog

I've built this site for three reasons:

1. Publish pieces that I can't publish somewhere else (particularly when needing to get a piece out before an event or news cycle).
2. Publish half-baked ideas that aren't ready yet (and may never be ready), brainstorm on issues, organize and store data, and otherwise chat about interesting non-essay-ready issues.
3. Stash all my essays (well, links) in one place (like that handy tab at the top of the page).

I started writing essays six years ago when a number of public figures started linking medieval interfaith conflicts to modern interfaith conflicts. I wanted to make one point in particular: Winners may write the histories, but losers hold the grudges. My close friend, Bruce Schneier, helped me take my inchoate ideas and hammer them into an 800-word or so essay, then gave me the contact information at the Star Tribune. They published it on the front page of the opinion section on a Sunday along with a picture of a knight/re-enactor and a title that I didn't like. It's not the essay I would write today, but it was a start.

I discovered two things: 1) Editors control titles (and layout, pictures, etc.), not writers, so I have to get over it. 2) More people perhaps read that piece then will likely read my scholarly writing (Sunday distribution was about 600,000. Let's say 1% looked at the article on the front of the opinion section - I'd have to be pretty lucky to have 6000 people read my book or my essays, as I write for specialized audiences).

I wrote a few more essays over the following years, including one in reaction to the discourse of Down syndrome after Palin was nominated, a teaching essay for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, and what I think is my most important essay to date: On disability and language - "The Angel/Retard Dialectic." Suddenly, this spring, two things happened: I shipped my book monograph to my press (currently under review) and the Pope resigned. After publishing three essays on the pope, a teaching piece on using Facebook in the classroom, and more pieces to come in the next few weeks, I've realized that writing for the public can be part of my professional life.

I plan to try and publish at least one essay a month, concentrating on issues relating to Down syndrome, religion in American life, and the ways that history helps us understand contemporary issues better - and better often means with more complexity.

I will be doing a certain amount of self-promotion as I try to become more established as a voice on key topics and I hope it never becomes too annoying. Please share this blog, my Facebook page, my twitter handle, and my essays, if you are so inclined.

Most of all, thanks for reading. I always want to hear your comments and criticisms.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

American Theodicy

Theodicy is the theological practice of trying to make sense of why bad things happen to good people. It was coined by the famous German polymath Leibniz, but was a common practice throughout the history of medieval thought as well in various ways. I am working on an essay on the topic of American theodicy. Here are some examples I'm currently considering. There are countless more.

1. Michelle Bachmann:
It’s no secret that our nation may very well be experiencing the hand of judgment. It’s no secret that we all are concerned that our nation may be in a time of decline. If that is in fact so, what is the answer? The answer is what we are doing here today: humbling ourselves before an almighty God, crying out to an almighty God, saying not of ourselves but you, would you save us oh God? We repent of our sins, we turn away from them, we seek you, we seek your ways. That’s something that we’re doing today, that we did on the National Day of Prayer, it’s something that we have chosen to do as well on another landmark day later this year on September 11. Our nation has seen judgment not once but twice on September 11. That’s why we’re going to have ‘9/11 Pray’ on that day. Is there anything better that we can do on that day rather than to humble ourselves and to pray to an almighty God?
2. Michelle Bachmann
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending," Bachmann said in Sarasota on Sunday
Bachmann's campaign said she was just joking.

3. Family Research Council

The scourge presently upon our nation - wars, devastating weather, acts of terrorism, confusion and failure among our government leaders, spiritual confusion in many of our churches, decimation of the family, economic decline, government oppression, advancing socialism, government promoted and protected abortion, homosexualized politics, etc., are all the fruits and consequences of individual and collective sin and a departure from the God of the Bible.

The Apostle Paul warned us plainly that God's righteous wrath is the result of willful disobedience: "all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness... envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful, who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them" (Romans 1:14-32). Unfortunately, all these evils are now woven into our popular culture. The church has not been as bright and salty as we've needed to be. But a tremendous opportunity lies ahead of us, if we will but humble ourselves and pray!
 4. Pat Robertson

I was reading, yesterday, a book that was very interesting about what God has to say in the Old Testament about those who shed innocent blood. And he used the term that those who do this, "the land will vomit you out." That -- you look at your -- you look at the book of Leviticus and see what it says there. And this author of this said, "well 'vomit out' means you are not able to defend yourself." But have we found we are unable somehow to defend ourselves against some of the attacks that are coming against us, either by terrorists or now by natural disaster? Could they be connected in some way? And he goes down the list of the things that God says will cause a nation to lose its possession, and to be vomited out.
The link goes to other examples of this kind of rhetoric in the context of Katrina.

5. (updated) James Dobson

I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn't exist, or he's irrelevant to me and we have killed fifty-four million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition.  Believe me, that is going to have consequences too.
And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.  I think that's what's going on.
Updates - Fall, 2013:

"Ex-transgender" speaker Grace Harley:
Moments later, Harvey said that Obama has “homosexual orientation tendencies,” proving that we are in the Last Days: “The spirit will not dwell with us too much longer because we truly are in the End Times. Any time you have the head of a country with homosexual orientation tendencies, and I say that because Jesus said, ‘if you look at a woman with lust you have committed adultery,’ if you have the heart of the homosexual in your heart and your mind then you are without even committing the act, you are there. We have countries, or America—it’s devastating what’s going on.”
And Michele Bachmann again:

"the U.S.'s funding of al Qaeda in Syria] happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists, now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history. Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice, Maranatha Come Lord Jesus, His day is at hand. When we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this; these days would be as the days of Noah.”