Saturday, June 27, 2009

Stonewall Day and the Power of Myth

It's been a big day today, being tour guide with Gai Lemon on the first Priscilla gets Historical Brisbane Queer History Bus Tour. Below is a photo of Gai (in the middle) and I together with Carol Low who is the History Project Officer at QAHC:

The photo was taken near the grave of Lillian Cooper and Josephine Bedford who are buried together in Toowong Cemetery

Gai picked me up this morning around 8.30 and I got back here a bit after 5.30, feeling in a kind of stasis, wired and buggered simultaneously. I managed to feed the cat and after getting some equilibrium back started packing for my move to my next catsitting gig at Chelmer tomorrow. I've made a start and that was enough to feel up to eating and so now I'm able to write this piece.

Tomorrow is Stonewall Day and originally Pride Festival in Brisbane used to start around Stonewall Day and back in the early 90s Gai and I and the rest of the Queer Radio crew used to do a day of Queer Radio on Triple Z for Stonewall day. Sydney's Mardi Gras started as a Stonewall Day celebration in solidarity with the queer communities in California who were fighting a homophobic ballot proposition. If you check out the movie Milk you'll get the details of those struggles. And such was the power of the Stonewall myth that the Sydney cops got into the act and put on a display of police thuggery just as the New York cops did on the very first Stonewall Day back in 1969. Such is the power of myth I suppose.

When I was coming out in late 1972, Stonewall had already taken on the aura of myth. I remember as a closeted young anti-war activist Catholic Workerish hippie first hearing about Stonewall in '71 or maybe early '72 and being thrilled and excited and empowered. In 1972, Gay Liberation groups started appearing in the anti-war marches in Melbourne. In those days the symbol was the pink triangle and that presence was an impetus for me to get down and seriously work through my own issues and finally bite the bullet and come out, a fabulous radical fairy - I identified myself as an effeminist - bursting out of the chrysallis or straightjacket. I'd grown myself a beard and one of the first things I did to kick out the closet door was to shave it off - I have never regrown it. Carter Heyward aptly describes coming out as a journey without maps and that's what it felt like for me and I'm sure it must still feel like that for so very many even today.

Of course, I also realise that there are many who have no idea of what I speak when I talk about Stonewall Day. You can read the full details on Wikipedia here but I will give a brief synopsis. The Stonewall Inn was a Mafia owned bar in Christopher St Greenwich Village New York. As bars went it was a pretty downmarket affair catering mainly to the folks who were on the margins of the Greenwich Village gay scene, transvestites, young folks, especially street kids, bull dykes etc. At 1.20am on the morning of June 28 the place was raided by the cops. They thought it would be the usual routine bust rounding up a few queers and taking them back to the station. More often than not their names would be published in the newspapers. In those days in New York even the more well heeled gay bars existed on police sufferance and police raids were a risk of the time and anyone arrested would be likely to have their names published in the papers.

Rather than tell the story badly I'll quote from the acccount on Wikipedia:

The police were to transport the bar's alcohol in patrol wagons. Twenty-eight cases of beer and nineteen bottles of hard liquor were seized, but the patrol wagons had not yet arrived, so patrons were required to wait in line for about 15 minutes. Those who were not arrested were released from the front door, but they did not leave quickly as usual. Instead, they stopped outside and a crowd began to grow and watch. Within minutes, between 100 and 150 people had congregated outside, some after they were released from inside the Stonewall, and some after noticing the police cars and the crowd. Although the police forcefully pushed or kicked some patrons out of the bar, some customers released by the police performed for the crowd by posing and saluting the police in an exaggerated fashion. The crowd's applause encouraged them further: "Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic."

When the first patrol wagon arrived, Inspector Pine recalled that the crowd—most of whom were homosexual—had grown to at least ten times the number of people who were arrested, and they all became very quiet. Confusion over radio communication delayed the arrival of a second wagon. The police began escorting Mafia members into the first wagon, to the cheers of the bystanders. Next, regular employees were loaded into the wagon. A bystander shouted, "Gay power!", someone began singing "We Shall Overcome", and the crowd reacted with amusement and general good humor mixed with "growing and intensive hostility". An officer shoved a transvestite, who responded by hitting him on the head with her purse as the crowd began to boo. Author Edmund White, who had been passing by, recalled, "Everyone's restless, angry and high-spirited. No one has a slogan, no one even has an attitude, but something's brewing." Pennies, then beer bottles, were thrown at the wagon as a rumor spread through the crowd that patrons still inside the bar were being beaten.

A scuffle broke out when a woman in handcuffs was escorted from the door of the bar to the waiting police wagon several times. She escaped repeatedly and fought with four of the police, swearing and shouting, for about ten minutes. Described as "a typical New York butch" and "a dyke—stone butch", she had been hit on the head by an officer with a billy club for, as one witness claimed, complaining that her handcuffs were too tight.Bystanders recalled that the woman, whose identity remains unknown, sparked the crowd to fight when she looked at bystanders and shouted, "Why don't you guys do something?" After an officer picked her up and heaved her into the back of the wagon, the crowd became a mob and went "berserk": "It was at that moment that the scene became explosive".

he police tried to restrain some of the crowd, and knocked a few people down, which incited bystanders even more. Some of those handcuffed in the wagon escaped when police left them unattended (deliberately, according to some witnesses). As the crowd tried to overturn the police wagon, two police cars and the wagon—with a few slashed tires—left immediately, with Inspector Pine urging them to return as soon as possible. The commotion attracted more people who learned what was happening. Someone in the crowd declared that the bar had been raided because "they didn't pay off the cops", to which someone else yelled "Let's pay them off!" Coins sailed through the air towards the police as the crowd shouted "Pigs!" and "Faggot cops!" Beer cans were thrown and the police lashed out, dispersing some of the crowd, who found a construction site nearby with stacks of bricks. The police, outnumbered by between 500 and 600 people, grabbed several people, including folk singer Dave van Ronk—who had been attracted to the revolt from a bar two doors away from the Stonewall. Though van Ronk was not gay, he had experienced police violence when he participated in antiwar demonstrations: "As far as I was concerned, anybody who'd stand against the cops was all right with me, and that's why I stayed in.... Every time you turned around the cops were pulling some outrage or another." Ten police officers—including two policewomen—barricaded themselves, van Ronk, Howard Smith (a writer for The Village Voice), and several handcuffed detainees inside the Stonewall Inn for their own safety.

Multiple accounts of the riot assert that there was no pre-existing organization or apparent cause for the demonstration; what ensued was spontaneous. Michael Fader explained,

We all had a collective feeling like we'd had enough of this kind of shit. It wasn't anything tangible anybody said to anyone else, it was just kind of like everything over the years had come to a head on that one particular night in the one particular place, and it was not an organized demonstration.... Everyone in the crowd felt that we were never going to go back. It was like the last straw. It was time to reclaim something that had always been taken from us.... All kinds of people, all different reasons, but mostly it was total outrage, anger, sorrow, everything combined, and everything just kind of ran its course. It was the police who were doing most of the destruction. We were really trying to get back in and break free. And we felt that we had freedom at last, or freedom to at least show that we demanded freedom. We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around—it's like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that's what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't.

Garbage cans, garbage, bottles, rocks, and bricks were hurled at the building, breaking the windows. Witnesses attest that "flame queens", hustlers, and gay "street kids"—the most outcast people in the gay community—were responsible for the first volley of projectiles, as well as the uprooting of a parking meter used as a battering ram on the doors of the Stonewall Inn. Sylvia (Ray) Rivera, who was in full drag and had been in the Stonewall during the raid, remembered: "You've been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it's our turn!... It was one of the greatest moments in my life." The mob lit garbage on fire and stuffed it through the broken windows as the police grabbed a fire hose. Because it had no water pressure, the hose was ineffective in dispersing the crowd, and seemed only to encourage them. When demonstrators broke through the windows—which had been covered by plywood by the bar owners to deter the police from raiding the bar—the police inside unholstered their pistols. The doors flew open and officers pointed their weapons at the angry crowd, threatening to shoot. The Village Voice writer Howard Smith, in the bar with the police, took a wrench from the bar and stuffed it in his pants, unsure if he might have to use it against the mob or the police. He watched someone squirt lighter fluid into the bar; as it was lit and the police took aim, sirens were heard and fire trucks arrived. The onslaught had lasted 45 minutes.

A black and white photograph showing the backs of three uniformed police officers and a man with short-cropped hair in a suit pushing back a crowd of young men with longer hair dressed in jeans and contemporary clothing for the late 1960s, arguing and defying the police; other people in the background on a stoop are watching
This photograph appeared in the front page of The New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969, showing the "street kids" who were the first to fight with the police.

The Tactical Police Force (TPF) of the New York City Police Department arrived to free the police trapped inside the Stonewall. One officer's eye was cut, and a few others were bruised from being struck by flying debris. Bob Kohler, who was walking his dog by the Stonewall that night, saw the TPF arrive: "I had been in enough riots to know the fun was over.... The cops were totally humiliated. This never, ever happened. They were angrier than I guess they had ever been, because everybody else had rioted ... but the fairies were not supposed to riot ... no group had ever forced cops to retreat before, so the anger was just enormous. I mean, they wanted to kill." With larger numbers, police detained anyone they could and put them in patrol wagons to go to jail, though Inspector Pine recalled, "Fights erupted with the transvestites, who wouldn't go into the patrol wagon". His recollection was corroborated by another witness across the street who said, "All I could see about who was fighting was that it was transvestites and they were fighting furiously".

The TPF formed a phalanx and attempted to clear the streets by marching slowly and pushing the crowd back. The mob openly mocked the police. The crowd cheered, started impromptu kick lines, and sang to the tune of The Howdy Doody Show theme song: "We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don't wear underwear/ We show our pubic hairs". Lucian Truscott reported in The Village Voice: "A stagnant situation there brought on some gay tomfoolery in the form of a chorus line facing the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops. Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the TPF advanced again and cleared the crowd of screaming gay power[-]ites down Christopher to Seventh Avenue." One participant who had been in the Stonewall during the raid recalled, "The police rushed us, and that's when I realized this is not a good thing to do, because they got me in the back with a night stick". Another account stated, "I just can't ever get that one sight out of my mind. The cops with the [nightsticks] and the kick line on the other side. It was the most amazing thing.... And all the sudden that kick line, which I guess was a spoof on the machismo ... I think that's when I felt rage. Because people were getting smashed with bats. And for what? A kick line."

By 4:00 in the morning the streets had nearly been cleared. Many people sat on stoops or gathered nearby in Christopher Park throughout the morning, dazed in disbelief at what had transpired. Many witnesses remembered the surreal and eerie quiet that descended upon Christopher Street, though there continued to be "electricity in the air". One commented: "There was a certain beauty in the aftermath of the riot.... It was obvious, at least to me, that a lot of people really were gay and, you know, this was our street." Thirteen people had been arrested. Some in the crowd were hospitalized, and four police officers were injured. Almost everything in the Stonewall Inn was broken. Inspector Pine had intended to close and dismantle the Stonewall Inn that night. Pay telephones, toilets, mirrors, jukeboxes, and cigarette machines were all smashed, possibly in the riot and possibly by the police.

More riots broke out in the Village over the next week and from this time of public resistance to the cops and powers that be a new militant gay identity was born and in those early days gay was a term to cover everyone, conveying a politics as much as anything else, in ways reminiscent of how queer took off especially here in Brisbane in the early 90s as denoting a politics as well as an identity.

The significance of Stonewall was that it was about resistance and it took on a mythological quality. Many people think there was nothing before Stonewall. There is a history of organising and struggle by LGBT people going back over 150 years especially in Europe and even in the US, in 1968 the queers in LA had felt empowered enough to establish the Pink Panthers to protect themselves against anti-queer violence. But Stonewall did mark the first documented spontaneous uprising in the face of an enterenchd homophobic system. The fairies were fighting back, something that wasn't supposed to happen.

Back in my undergrad days, I wrote a study of the utopian relgious dimension of the old Gay Liberation movement and in that long essay I wrote an account of the Stonewall riots. Part way in I noticed I had shifted unconsciously to present tense. I realised I had been taken over by the power of the myth but instead of correcting myself I left it unchanged as an example of mythic power. Sadly nowadays, there is an attitude that there is something wrong with myth. Back last century the German theologian and biblical scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, called for the demythologisation of Christianity. Modern 'man' had grown up and mythology was no longer relevant in the modern rational world of the 20th century. Myth is unreal, does not reflect the real world.

I regard myths as stories that convey power and meaning (for good or ill - the Australian ANZAC myth works for ill). A myth may or may not be based on real events. The Stonewall story is a classic example of a myth based on real events. But the Stonewall story has always functioned as one that conveys power, empowers people, and gives meaning. Even forty years later the story has a power and I think in these days of appropriation and almost assimilation of LGBT folk into the heteronormative system, at least in our Western societies, it might also serve as a dangerous memory. The Stonewall story I received came in a package that was liberationist, anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist and anti-war. I think those elements should be reclaimed. Rather than gays and lesbians in the military, lets abolish the military; rather than same-sex marriage lets abolish marriage and develop something better (and there is a very worthy history of marriage resistance going back centuries).

A myth's power also lies in its ability to provide a point of connection, of significance for people's personal stories, personal myths. In my case I have a very real point of connection, one that I've never quite been able to put into words but nevertheless makes me feel personally linked to those events in Christopher St on the other side of the world. On the eve of the Stonewall riots here in Brisbane June 27 in the evening, which in New York would have been the early hours of 27 June, I was being operated on for what would turn out to be testicular cancer (and yes it was removed). It was a week before I turned 17 and I was discharged from the hospital the day before my 17th birthday and I was told that I had cancer, I think the day before I was discharged. But by then I already knew. Believe it or not I didn't really know about astrology back then [1]; I had been talking with another patient about my coming birthday and they made the comment "Oh, Cancer" and at that point I knew what I had (the body always knows). So when the doctor told me the next day, it was almost like a sense of relief swept over me. It was confirmation. Back then testicular cancer was a major killer of males my age. No one told me that, I found that out later. But I was told my health would be monitored for the next five years but part of me knew that there was a good chance that I might not be around in five years time (and I found out later on that a good many people feared that might be the case). As a highly closeted Catholic gay teenager the fact of cancer, and testicular cancer to boot, came as quite a jolt to the system. A couple of years later I found out about Stonewall and realised the importance of the dates. By that stage I had already taken the path of so many young queer folk and fled Brisbane to go to Melbourne, in my case, to join the revolution. I saw myself as somehow marked by Stonewall in what I realise now might be termed a shamanic way - I didn't really know anything about shamanism then. And I still don't really have the words to decribe how the confluence of dates resonated with me. But that resonance set me on the journey without maps, I hesitate to say a vocation. But maybe vocation is the word because I understood myself as being called to do something, to contribute to what would be the unfolding, still unfolding struggle to tear down the disciplines of homophobia, kick down that closet door for all time. And if there was a vocation for me it was to tackle the beast in its lair, religion. It took me many years before I reached the point where I could follow that call to tackle the religious roots of homophobia. And over all those years without any map, there have been plenty of times when I have lost my way. And one thing I think is important is to reassure people that, hey there is no shame in getting lost along the way, there ain't no maps; we are merely tracing outlines that might one day be maps for people a long way down the track. Hence we all need to be gentle with ourselves and with each other.

So happy Stonewall Day everybody. Here's to those fabulous fairies and dykes and trannies who one night in June 40 years ago decided to fight back!

"We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We don't wear underwear/ We show our pubic hairs".

[1] Astrologically, at the time of the cancer I was experiencing a solar arc progression of Mars squaring my natal Pluto. In 1991, I had another life threatening medical emergency, one that propelled me to university the following year. This time transiting Pluto was squaring its natal position.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Romantic and Protestant themes in Biblical Studies

Some time ago, my friend, Mad Hatter, wrote a very interesting piece on the Protestant themes emerging in Western Buddhist modernism. So I was very interested to find that Kevin Edgecomb has been reading one of the founding fathers of the historical critical method in biblical studies, Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780-1849), and reflecting on the Romantic and (Liberal) Protestant biases that inform his work and that set the framework for the dominant scholarly approaches to biblical studies, Old Testament and New in the subsequent two centuries. The historical critical method not so long ago was the only way of doing Old Testament Studies but its hegemony was shattered when archeology began showing that its history was not so historical after all. At the same time, critical methodologies and paradigms were changing radically in the rest of the scholarly world, while biblical studies remained trapped in a 19th century critical paradigm. As I said the historical critical methodology has been pretty much abandoned by any Old Testament scholarship worth its salt nowadays but it still seems to thrive in New Testament studies, at least in the West, most notably in the circles that make up the Jesus Seminar (in fact it strikes me from reading Edgecomb's posts that the Jesus Seminar remains thoroughly imbued with much of de Wette's liberal Protestant and Romantic framework).

In his first post, De Wette, Devolution and Deuteronomy, Edgecomb sketches the cultural political background dominant in the Gemany of de Wette's day:

The German intellectual scene of de Wette’s time was in lively ferment. Much discussion was taking place regarding the unification of the various German principalities and territories into a single German national state, particularly after the end of the Holy Roman Empire (so-called) and the disturbances caused by Napoleon. To have a single, democratic, liberal, Protestant Christian German state was the thinking (German) person’s ideal.

Edgecomb then locates de Wette within this milieu before then summarising his overall theoretical framework:

Drawing especially on the works of Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1802) and Jacob Friedrich Fries (1773-1843), and strongly influenced by a Romanticism that led him to view religion as a matter of aesthetics and feeling, de Wette systematized various intellectual strands into a dialectic of the development of true religion (liberal German Protestantism, of course) out of false religion (post-exilic Judaism, of course). It is this dialectic that he applied to the Holy Scriptures; this was his “method.” The development proceeds as follows. First there was Hebraismus, the religion of the patriarchs and of Israel in pre-exilic times, which went through several stages:

1.) pre-Mosaic polytheistic Hebraismus

2.) Mosaic Hebraismus

3.) degenerated polytheistic-Mosaic Hebraismus

4.) the ideal Hebraismus of the Prophets and Poets

In this series, 1 and 3 are bad, while 2 and 4 are good. Then comes the Exile, and de Wette makes this the end of Hebraismus (overall a better thing than not) and the beginning of Judaism (an entirely degraded form of Hebraismus, of no value)

At this point he quotes the man himself:

[W]e must consider the nation after the Exile as another, with a different thinking and religion. We call them in this period Jews, before that Hebrews; we call what pertains to the postexilic cultural formation Judaism, and what pertains to the pre-exilic cultural formation Hebraismus. de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 48; quoted in Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism, 81.

And herein lies the rub. Edgecomb points out that the underpinning framework for the historical critical project was an anti-Judaism, even an anti-Semitism again reflceting the tenor of the times:

To have a single, democratic, liberal, Protestant Christian German state was the thinking (German) person’s ideal. There was, however, a problem with this: the Jews. Living amongst the various German Christians was this group that held to its own culture, its own religion, and was effectively a nation amongst nations. The coming German state, however, was envisioned to be a single cultural entity, a German one at that. There would be no room in the plan for any Jewish “particularists” who will reject the German “universalist” position of the unification supporters by not completely assimilating.

In his next post on the subject, More of de Wette's Charm, teases out some further striking ideological associations to this anti-Judaism:

de Wette proposes that Hebraismus, his label for the religion of the Patriarchs and Moses as a discrete entity separate from later manifestations of Israelite religion (which, however, includes the Prophetic strain), becomes the intellectual source of life

from which Christianity, and after the killing of it in Catholicism, true Christian Protestantism has come forth, and with Christianity and Protestantism, the scholarly spirit of the new European culture. (Gerdmar, Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism, 80; quoting de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 59-60)

So, we see de Wette equating here “original religion,” Hebraismus, the best of Israelite religion, with earliest Christianity, with Protestantism (the German strain, of course), and European scholarship (again, German, of course). He does not neglect to declare Catholicism “dead,” in the same way that he declares Judaism dead. He describes Judaism elsewhere as “degenerated, petrified Hebraismus” (Gerdmar, 81; quoting de Wette, Biblische Dogmatik, 114). Presumably, Catholicism is thus conceived by de Wette as a degenerate, petrified Christianity. In this sense, he sets up the equation of Judaism (Hebraismus’ degenerate successor) with Catholicism (Christianity’s degenerate successor), and Christianity (Hebraismus’ revival) with Protestantism (Christianity’s revival). Just as dead Judaism was followed by living Christianity, so dead Catholicism is followed by living Protestantism, which finds the flower of its expression in scholarship, namely, de Wette’s own!

I was lucky when I started my studies as an undergrad in the early 90s that not only was it a time when the historical critical paradigm in Old Testament studies was collapsing but that I was being taught by one of the scholars who was challenging that paradigm and paving the way for a new and more open and more indeterminate biblical studies. I refer, of course, to Ed Conrad. And I remember at the time Ed highlighting the anti-Jewish assumptions in the classical historical critical model. At the time I also discovered some of the work of Jewish scholar, Jon Levenson, especially his work The Old Testament, The Hebrew Bible and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies. Reading Levenson crystallised my own gradual realisation that when these historical critics were reading Jerusalem they were also reading Rome, or reading Jerusalem through the lens of Rome, Papal Rome, Catholic Rome. The irony is that nowadays historical criticism seems to thrive in Roman Catholic seminaries and universities, perhaps because since Vatican 2, Reformation has been resurgent in the Roman Church, albeit more often in a more Enlightenment and Romantic mode, than the devoutly and bitterly contested dogmatics of 16th century Europe.

But there is a further irony in the heart of the historical critical project. It's model works on the assumption of a pristine and pure beginning grounded in a pure spirit that gets corrupted and loses its way to be ossified in the dead hand of religion. The intersting thing is that the Ancient World put a value on the past that we don't hold to nowadays (although it still lurks in the Romantic back alleys of the culture). The Golden Age long gone and replacd by a more prosaic and corrupt present was the dominant understanding of the world and 'history'. This understanding was as much a Jewish as it was a 'pagan' way of thinking and it structures the Hebrew Bible/Old Testaments as much as it does any ancient Greek or Roman mythopoetry. The broad panorama of these Hebrew Bible/Old Testament texts is one of a golden past degenerating to a prosaic present. Eden to the Deluge, Noah to Babel, Abraham to Egypt, Moses to Babylon; a pristine beginning begins degenerating into disaster, the final one being the destruction of the Davidic state, exile and then the reality of life under Empire and a time when the people not only no longer are sovereign in their own land but dispersed throughout the nations. And perhaps the saga of degeneration, of trashing the community's past, serves in some way as a supporting myth to explain why Israel is dispersed throughout the nations and subject to foreigners in its land.

And it seems that de Wette and the subsequent historical critical school were seduced by this, oh so Romantic, ancient paradigm played out in the biblical texts.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Realpolitik, Change and the Iranian Struggles

I have almost given up on the Australian news media these days. It strikes me as sadly dumbed down and virtually irrelevant to anyone wanting to get some grasp of what's happening in the world and that includes our ABC. Since I've been catsitting over the last couple of weeks I've really largely ignored the TV and, of course, I don't bother with newspapers either. The internet gives me access to a wide variety of news sources, including analysis, undreamt of 15 years ago in Brisbane when I would buy Guardian Weekly to complement the daily papers but could rely on a good news coverage and analysis from the ABC and SBS.

One of the news sites I like to check out is Asia Times Online (you can find out more about them here). Yesterday, I read two rather fascinating and somewhat contradictory articles about the situation in Iran. Even though their assessment of the situation there is contradictory, I think both shed fascinating light on the current crisis.

The first, 'Color' revolution fizzles in Iran, is by M K Bhadrakumar. Ambassador Bhadrakumar is "a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey." As the title suggests, Bhadrakumar holds no hope for a people power movement for democracy in Iran and believes the whole game is now over. on Ahmadinejad versus Mousavi, Bhadrakumar draws on the analysis of regime critic and author, Amir Taheri to say:

Taheri estimates that while Mousavi's fame might have spread far and wide in the Western intelligence circles, his principal appeal at home is confined to the urban middle classes who wish the "Khomeinist revolution would just fade away ... People like Mousavi and former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani have long ceased to be regarded as genuine revolutionaries".

From another direction, Taheri came to virtually the same definitive conclusion as the Israeli intelligence chief reached. Namely, that a weak interlocutor without a "Khomeinist base" like Mousavi could never make concessions that the US, the Europeans and the Arabs demanded, whereas Ahmadinejad can afford a softening of position as it will only seem a clever maneuver. Paradoxically, negotiating with Ahmadinejad might prove easier for the West, as he has a genuine constituency.

Looking back at the past four years, the fact remains that Ahmadinejad restored the connectivity of the regime with the radical populist discourse. "Four years ago", Taheri writes, "the image of the regime was one of a clique of mid-ranking mullahs and their business associates running the country as a private company in their own interest. The regime's 'downtrodden' base saw itself as the victim of a great historic swindle. Under Ahmadinejad, a new generation of revolutionaries has come to the fore, projecting an image of piety and probity, reassuring the 'downtrodden' that all is not lost."

Ahmadinejad's populism is a double-edged sword. If carried too far, it may undermine the legitimacy of the regime, which included corrupt sections of the clerical establishment. But Ahmadinejad is a clever politician. He has certainly grown while on the job these past four years. Although he self-portrayed with gusto as a locomotive that charges ahead without brakes or reverse gear, he knew where to stop and when to glance over his shoulder. Thus, he hit at many corrupt practices and threatened to bring key figures to justice, but stopped short of landing the big catch. The big question is whether Ahmadinejad will cast his net wide in his second term....

As Taheri put it, "So-called 'Iran experts' did not realize that Mousavi was a balloon that a section of the Iranian middle class inflated to show its anger not only at Ahmadinejad but also at the entire Khomeinist regime. Otherwise, there is nothing in Mousavi's record ... to make him more attractive than Ahmadinejad."

But what I found most fascinating about this article was the way Bhadrakumar outlines some of the realpolitik being played out internationally involving most surpisingly Israel as well as the United States:

the first warning that the adventurous project to mount a "Twitter revolution" in Iran was doomed to fail had to come from the Israelis....

In an extraordinary media leak at the weekend, just as Khamenei's historic speech at the Friday prayer meeting in Tehran ended, Meir Dagan, head of Israel's Mossad, let it be known that a win by Iranian opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the presidential election on June 12 would have spelled "big problems" for Israel.
Israelis have a way of saying things. It was a subtle acknowledgement of political realities in Tehran. Speaking to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset (parliament) last Tuesday, Israel's spymaster could foresee that the protests in Iran would run out of steam. According to Ha'aretz newspaper, Dagan said: "Election fraud in Iran is no different than what happens in liberal states during elections. The struggle over the election results in Iran is internal and is unconnected to its strategic aspirations, including its nuclear program."

He explained: "The world, and we, already know Ahmadinejad. If the reformist candidate Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem, because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived in the international arena as a moderate element. It is important to remember that he is the one who began Iran's nuclear program when he was prime minister."

The assessment is faultless, perfect. By a masterstroke in "back-channel" diplomacy, Israel signaled to Tehran it had nothing to do with any "color" revolution. It was a timely signal. Indeed, divisions have come to surface that have existed for years within the Iranian regime. But it is very obvious that there is no scope for a "color" revolution in today's Iran.
He then continues:

At the end of it all, the international community can only heave a sigh of relief that while this complex and extremely confusing political drama unfolded, George W Bush was no more in the White House in Washington. United States President Barack Obama could grasp the subtleties of the situation and adopted a well-thought-out, measured policy and broadly stuck to it despite apparent pressure from conservatives.

His remarks have not even remotely called into question Ahmadinejad's locus standii, let alone Khamenei's, to lead the country. Nor has Obama identified himself with Mousavi's call for a new poll. If anything, he ostentatiously distanced himself from Mousavi. Certainly, not once did Obama threaten to go back on his offer to directly engage Iran in the near future.

Most fascinatingly, he concludes:

Clearly, the Iranians took note that Obama's statements remained carefully modulated, although Voice of America might have meddled in the turmoil, as Tehran alleges. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's broadside on Saturday in Tehran singled out Britain, France and Germany, but omitted any reference to the US (or Israel). Among European countries, Tehran trained its guns on Britain.

Clearly, it's in the interests of the US to keep the situation in Iran 'stable' even if it means a government led by Ahmadinejad under Khamenei. It's Iranian influence that keeps a form of stability in Iraq thus enabling a US withdrawal form the Bush disaster so as to concentrate on its main game in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Again, here there is a certain confluence of interests. Neither Iran or the US want a restored Taliban regime in Afghanistan and both are regarded as the enemy by the Al Qaida inspired movements. Certainly, in Pakistan the country's Shiite minority has been regularly targetted by Taliban and Al Qaida militants and Afghan Shiites suffered grievously under the Taliban regime.

But I was struck by the way Israel saw its interests best served by the maintenance of the Iranian status quo. A reformist Iranian government swept into office by a tide of people power is likely to have a greater moral authority with the world than the current regime and would thus put Israel under greater scrutiny and pressure. A democratic Iran is certainly not going to be a pro-Zionist country. It was only under the Shah's dictatorship that there were friendly relations between Israel and Iran, demonstrating that greater freedom and democracy in the Middle East is not in the interests of the Zionist state, especially under its current rightwing government. Ironically, Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad need each other.

In contrast to Bhadrakumar, Pepe Escobar is far more upbeat. I have long been a willing reader of Escobar in a variety of online forums and have always had respect for his analysis. So maybe he is calling something promising in his piece Meet Shah Ali Khamenei. Escobar clearly admires former President Mohammad Khatami (as do I; I'm sure a lot of the neo-cons and Busheviks in Washington were glad to see him replaced by the easily demonised Ahmadinejad). He says:

The key move for the next few days revolves around Grand Ayatollah Husayn Montazeri's call for three days of mourning for the dead, from Wednesday to Friday. The progressive view in Tehran - and among the exiled Iranian intelligentsia - is that this is a very sophisticated, back to 1979, civil disobedience code, suggesting citizens should go indefinitely on strike.

To strike is safer, and much more subversive, than hitting the streets and being bloodied by the paramilitary Basiji. Strikes were a fundamental element for the success of the revolution 30 years ago. Montazeri is also subtly signaling the strategy to seduce Iran's silent majority - which may hover around 30% to 40% of the total population. This strategy, judiciously applied over the next few days and weeks, may expand the people power river into a formidable ocean.

It's as if an irresistible force might be whispering in his ear - "Mr Montazeri, tear down this [Islamic] wall."

Meanwhile, at street level, people power will be grieving the dead but at the same time fighting the state's implacable crackdown on all forms of modern technology by resorting to ... paper. Welcome to the 21st century return of the samizdat (distribution of government-suppressed literature or other media in Soviet-bloc countries).

In only one week, the green revolution, then people power, in Iran, has morphed into an entity way beyond Mousavi. The anger, rage, sense of having suffered a tremendous injustice (never underestimate this feeling in a Shi'ite society), the pent-up resentment; these emotions were so phenomenal, the regime so lost control of the arena of political debate, and the repression has been so brutal. A very simple idea underneath it all has finally revealed itself: we are fed up. You are liars. Death to the dictator. Allah-O Akbar. And we will cry every night, across our rooftops, at the top of our lungs, and we will not be silenced, until you get the message...

Mousavi, Khatami, Montazeri - they are not neo-revolutionaries (much less counter-revolutionaries). They are all accepting the principles and institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Basiji, but criticizing "deviations and deceptions", in the language of Mousavi and Khatami. They want nothing else but the "return of the pure principles of the Islamic Revolution". And they are keen to stress this implies every single form of freedom of expression.

People power in Iran now dreams of a constant, no-holds-barred dialogue taking place within civil society. And this step ahead does not necessarily have to do with Iran adopting Western liberal democracy. Persians are way too sophisticated; the whole thing goes way, way beyond. It's as if a road map was being laid out not only for Iran's post-modern remix of the French Revolution, but for Islam's Reformation as well. This is as serious as it gets

I hope he's right because the Iranian Revolution deserves a chance to break out of its theocratic straight jacket. But I suspect that, sadly the pragmatic diplomat might be closer to the mark. But there was one final piece of information in Escobar's piece which really brought home to me, despite all the demonising of Iran and Shiite Islam over the decades in the West, how much Iranian Islam shares with the West in terms of a common intellectual legacy. Escobar observes re the structure of Iranian government with it's Supreme Jurisprudent and Guardian Council superintending the whole political process "Khamenei's central thesis of velayat-e-faqih (the rule of jurisprudence) was never a divine revelation... it was influenced by Khomeini's reading of human, oh-so-human Plato and Aristotle"

Plato and Aristotle! I'm wondering whether Plato's Republic might be the text that was most influential for Khomeini. Earlier in the decade, I was part of a history of literary criticism reading group at UQ and I remember us reading the Republic. At the time some of us noted how much Plato's system resembled aspects of the ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic church. And Plato's ideas have also been brought to bear in Iran. A Platonic Islamic Republic!

UPDATE: Escobar has another piece in today's ATO, The Streets are Lost, but Hope Returns. It's definitely worth a read. I'm not certain if he's moving towards Bhadrakumar's 'pragmatic' position. Even if he is, he can still conclude:

The 1978/1979 Iranian revolution lasted, back to back, roughly one year. The seeds of the next one have already been planted. The angel of history silently surveys it all.

I hope so.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Deluge and Chaos in the Mind of God

My last post was on Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's wonderful book, The Murmuring Deep. I made the following observation that "Zornberg, discussing the Noah narative reminds us that in Jewish tradition, the name YHWH (Adonai/LORD) represents the merciful aspect of God whereas Elohim is the name of strict justice." In response Allan made this comment

Interesting, but doesn't the Noahic narrative suggest that Yhwh decided to destroy the world due to the mixing of blood and the creation of the Nephilim whereas Elohim instructs Noah to build the Ark? In the story, Yhwh speaks of “wiping off ” all creatures, and ruthlessly enumerates all kinds of them that he will destroy (vi 6). Elohim acts as though in spite of himself, since he says that “the end of all flesh is come before me” (vi 13) and he speaks only generally about destruction, without any specification. My impression is that it's the other way around to: "the Noah narative reminds us that in Jewish tradition, the name YHWH (Adonai/LORD) represents the merciful aspect of God whereas Elohim is the name of strict justice."

Allan's observation is correct however Zornberg is also correct about the Jewish tradition concerning the names and aspects of God. So how can these two facts be reconciled?

First off, it's important to understand that, at least as Zornberg presents it, the Flood is not something that God does or enacts but in a sense ratifies. Zornberg says:

God looks again at the earth and sees that it has already been wrecked: "and God saw how corrupt (nish'chata) the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted (hish'chit) its eways on earth" (Gen. 6:12). Decomposition has already, in a sense, set in.... All flesh human and animal has corrupted its way upon the earth, it has degenerated to a point where the end both of flesh and earth rises up before God, a reality that God has only to ratify. Powerfully, the Torah suggests that a world of violence and anarchy has disintegrated of its own accord. In the Zohar, God declares" "You wish to repudiate the work of My hands: I shall fulfil your wish" (Zohar 69) [Zornberg, 46-7].

And Zornberg reminds that in the Genesis account it's the cosmos that performs the work of destruction not God.

But Zornberg goes further and explores the impact on God of world decomposition. God is not an impassive observer or a bloodthirsty tyrant. In fact God is also impacted by these processes. God is not aloof or impassive at all.

The complexity of God's inner world as narrated in these early chapters of the Torah finely matches human comlpexity.God sees human evil, penetrates to the very heart of darkness, takes it to his own heart, where it becomes regret and mourning... God as a character in the narrative merely acquiesces in the (unconscious) human wish to destroy the world... God's active role in the Flood is thus reduced in the narrative. Even the apparently forceful expression "And I, behold I am about to bring the Flood upon the earth (Gen, 6:17) is translated by Rashi following the midrash: "I am now ready to agree with those who urged me long since, What is man that you should remember him?" Destroying the world is, after all, a long-term consutative process: those angels who originally disputed God's intention to create man have now convinced God of their case. The complexity of God's mind is thus intimated: sometimes divided, sometimes at one with itself. Here the consensus is sinister: there is no dissenting voice to plead for mercy. Even His name is transformed, from the Tetragrammaton (Adonai) to Elohim, the name of strict justice. At the moment of reversal, strikingly, the merciful name is used, together with a decree of doom: "And Adonai regretted that He had made man on earth... Adonai said, I will blot out from the earth the men whom I have created" (Gen. 6:6-7), as though a habit of mercy is being undermined from within. And conversely, when God remembers Noach and ends the Flood, His name of justice, Elohim, is still used, even as the tide turns toward mercy. This yields the effect of movement within the divine ecology, from one modality of relation with the world to another [Zornberg 46-48].

I'm struck by this notion of switching modalities, actually even more an almost confusion even undermining of modalities descrbed by Zornberg here. This God is not aloof, uninvolved, unchanging. Instead it's a God who can even be destabilised and undermined as the creation itself unravels.

The final section of the Flood narrative shows Noah emerging from the ark building an altar and offering sacrifice. Genesis then describes God's response "God smelled the sweet savour, and God said to Himself: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisngs of man's heart are evil from his youth, never again will I destroy every living being, as I have done" (Gen. 8:21). Zornberg says:

God seems to be so delighted by the fragrance of the buring meat that He vows never again to destroy mankind and his wolrd. Moreover, He speaks to His heart, evoking the process that inititated the Flood: "He was saddened to His heart". The separation of God and His heart seems unhealed. But Hizkuni suggests that the later phrase represents a real advance over the earlier: God is now in dialogue with His own heart. However mysteriously, some metaphysical alienation does find healing. Language is no longer totally in exile. Mourning and destruction have unexpectedly led God to dialogue and renewed desire [Zornberg 68-9].

And Zornberg will remind us that before the Flood God spoke only in soliloquies whereas afterwards God engages in dialogue. Even Noah, who has been speechless all this time finds his voice. Furthermore she tells us that Hizkuni, a 13th century rabbi, probably of Rashi's school read that line from Genesis, "the devisings of man's heart are evil from his youth" very generously, "the human heart is evil because of its youth." [1] Humans are new and young and have much to learn. "Now implicitly God is more at peace with His own heart and with the human heart, so that youth can become a pretext for tolerance" [Zornberg 69].

Get this book and luxuriate in and be enriched by her rich and generous readings.

[1] I am reminded here of Dame Julian of Norwich's own generous reading of the Eden and Fall story where she likens the first human sin to a child keen to show its parents it can look after itself and so sets off running down the road only to trip and fall into a ditch. God then like the parents comes forward to help the human/child up out of the ditch so that they can continue running along the road.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Murmuring Deep

That's the title of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's latest book, which I ordered over the internet a little while ago and which has arrived in the last couple of days. The book's subtitle says it all 'Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious'. Zornberg has an uncanny gift of moving between the spaces of the words, between the spaces of the syllables and bring to light hitherto undreamt of possibilities. She is in that sense quintessentially Jewish in the way she engages with the Hebrew scriptures.

I first discovered her back in, oh, 1996/7. My first lecturing gig (as opposed to tutoring) was in 1997 and I remember that I was waxing quite rhapsodic over her in many of my classes. Back then I was reading her marvellous book Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. As the title indicates it's a reading of Genesis, which she did in the company of the Midrashim and great Rabbis such as Rashi, along with a range of contemporary psychological and literary theorists. It is her ability to engage with such a range of texts, as she reads (closely) the biblical narratives, that makes her work so breathtaking. Her work is quintessentially Jewish in that, in Judaism, the heart of scripture is Torah and the heart of Torah is Torah, and so, in Judaism, Scripture, Torah always remain pregnant with meaning, there is no end to meaning, in actual fact [1]. Thus, commentary is valued in Jewish tradition and shares in the capacity for revelation. The meanings of Torah are infinite - when God was creating the world God was reading Torah - and so all commentary, no matter how contradictory, opens up new possibilities of meaning and revelation. The act of commentary puts a person at Sinai at the moment of the revelation of Torah on that fiery mountain. And surely Zornberg's work deserves the epithet revelatory.

In The Murmuring Deep, she revisits many of the vistas, many of the themes of Genesis. Indeed the greater part of the book deals with narratives and characters from Genesis and so what I've read so far calls to mind that earlier work. However I can also see how she has moved from back then, how she turns these stories yet again to winnow further possibilities, to glean fragments that were previously undreamt of.

I've only finished her Introduction and the first chapter, which is a superb exploration and playful re-appraisal of the Eden and creation narratives. As well as reading with the Midrashim and such Rabbis as Rashi, Zornberg is also reading in company with some of the 19th century Hasidic scripture commentators. Her first chapter is called 'Seduced into Eden: The Beginning of Desire'. The chapter title derives from a Hasidic reading of the second creation story that, noting Adam's creation is actually outside of Eden, imagines God luring, seducing Adam into Eden. And, unsurprisingly, desire is a paramount theme in this chapter: the desire of God for humanity, the desire of humanity for God, the desire of humanity for each other, and the desire of Satan for the Woman.

Desire. It's such a conflicted category in religion. It's generally understood that desire is the big no no of eastern religions. Desire is the cause of all suffering according to one of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths but I've had it put to me that the actual word used is craving. I don't know Pali so can't say how much of a distinction there is between craving and desire. Presumably one must desire liberation to a certain extent to get started on the way to Nirvana. And I think it's attachment that is the problem with desire/craving in Buddhism, as it is too, interestingly, in Christianity (and I suspect most spriritual systems). In Christianity, attachment is good provided one is attahced to that which is not transitory. God is not transitory, neither is a person. From a Christian perspective (and I would add Jewish, Muslim and I think Zoroastrian and Bahai) a person is never lost. People change, of course; everything changes; ultimately we all die. The Buddha was right to say that craving attachemtn to that which is transitory is the cause of suffering. But though we die, we are not lost, at least that's the perspective of the Middle Eastern religous trajectory.

God desires. Creation is an act of loving desire. The God who seduces Adam into Eden is YHWH (Yahweh) (of) Elohim. Zornberg, discussing the Noah narative reminds us that in Jewish tradition, the name YHWH (Adonai/LORD) represents the merciful aspect of God whereas Elohim is the name of strict justice. From a Christian and history of religion perspective, YHWH/Yahweh/Yahu/Yao was the first born of the Elohim, the Son of El Elyon, the Most High God. It is El Elyon who stands behind the Father of the Christian Trinity while YHWH is the Son (and the early church recognised Jesus as the incarnation of Yahweh who is both Logos/Memra and Wisdom/Hochmah/Sophia). My friend, Rollan McCleary, suggests that Jesus is the erotic lure to the Father, which is consistent with the notion of YHWH seducing Adam into Eden.

Here's to the God who desires, the God who seduces, the God who yearns and suffers and dies, who takes flesh. Marguerite Porete met this God and fell in love to the extent that she released all attachment surrendering her life in martyrdom rather than submit to the powers that be of the (male controlled) late medieval Church. She entered eternal life on the 1st June 1310, burnt at the stake outside Paris. June belongs to her as much as it does us queers but of course June is a construct that belongs to no one.

I'll close with a quote from Zornberg, the last paragraph of her first chapter:

And so God, in the daring imagination of the Hasidic master, desres the complex desire of human beings for God and the godly in their tents. More than that, He waits for them to create the model of compassion that will inspire Him - and that will, in effect, create an imaginable God with whom they can engage. Thus He enters into a conversation that is human in its very uncanniness. "Deep calls unto deep, in the roar of Your cataracts" (PS 42:8). Unconsicous desires inform family relationships, constructing an intimate universe of knowledge and mystery, language and silence. And GOd allows himself to be mirrored in this universe, enigmatic, seductive, evoking transcendence [35].

The Murmuring Deep
is published by Schocken Books (New York, 2009) and the ISBN is 978-0-8052-4247-8

[1] And here I think from a biblical studies perspective, Judaism has it over Christianity. In Christianity the referent for scripture is Jesus, which I'm afraid tends to often make for some very boring, if not predictable, readings of scripture. But for Judaism the referent for scripture is scripture, giving much greater scope for play. Not that having Jesus as a referent for scripture should automatically lead to boring readings but it invariably does, perhaps revealing how small so many Christians' vision of Jesus actually is.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some Thoughts on Animals in the Biblical World (for JH)

I'm starting this on Saturday night after being at Pride all day but will probably finish and post it tomorrow. On Monday I begin almost 3 weeks of housesitting at two different addresses. When I say housesitting, I really mean catsitting. Their humans are going away and so they need someone to attend them. For the next roughly two weeks, I'll be at Corinda looking after a delightful cat called Pi. And then on the 28th I go to Chelmer to look after Gerald. Gerald is quite elderly and will sometimes get distressed late at night which can make for disturbed sleep. But he's quite a sweetie too.

There's a number of cats that I've gotten to know over the last five years or so and I look forward to being able to spend time with them. It's not easy to have pets when you're renting and where I used to live, when I was studying, was also not a good place for animals, being unfenced and on a corner block, the kind of corner that seemed to bring out the worst in drivers. So I look forward to spending time with my animal friends. One place I regularly sit, they also feed their possums and four years ago I was there for almost five months. I got quite friendly with one possum and of an evening I would call out "possum" and I would hear the thump and scratchings of a possum on the roof and next thing I knew the possum would appear on the back deck. It would often hang down by its tail and I used to put food into its paws, which it would eat still hanging above me.

My first experience of death was the death of our first family dog. I was only about 4 or going on 5 when it happened. It was while we still lived in Lithgow so I know how young I was at the time. I have never forgotten him and after we settled in Brisbane there was a hankering from my brothers and I for a dog. Eventually we were adopted by a dog. I remember after school I was lying on the grass in the back yard and next thing I knew there was a snuffling at my ear. I opened my eyes and there was this dog who'd just wandered in off the street. Much pressure on our parents to keep him was successful and he lived with us for many years until he was run over in the street in 1968. I would be adopted by another dog in my 20s who turned up one morning at the front gate of the house I was living in at the time. She was very timid at first. I think she'd been dumped as she turned out to be pregnant. And I think her previous owners did not treat her well. She loved kids. I remember coming home early from work one day to see her on the front footpath surrounded by some school kids who were patting and fussing over her. And she loved it. I have also been adopted by a number of cats, too, in my life.

There is a book that didn't get into any biblical canon, 2 Enoch or the Secrets of Enoch. It only survives in Slavonic but it probably dates from the 1st century and from before the first Jewish War. In chapters 58 and 59, there are some strong and remarkable pronouncements concerning animals. Chapter 58 basically expands on what human dominionship over creation entails vis a vis animals. It recounts how God made all the animals and brought them before Adam to name them. It then declares

The Lord will not judge a single soul of beast for man's sake, but adjudges the souls of men to their beasts in this world; for men have a special place.

And as every soul of man is according to number, similarly beasts will not perish, nor all souls of beasts which the Lord created, till the great judgement, and they will accuse man, if he feed them ill. (57: 6-7)

In other words at the final judgement, the animals will be there to give account of human actions towards them. Chapter 59 opens saying, 'WHOEVER defiles the soul of beasts, defiles his own soul.' and, after summarising the correct way of sacrificing animals concludes, 'And he who does any beast any injury whatsoever, in secret, it is evil practice, and he defiles his own soul.' Furthermore in the Testament of Zebulon, part of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a text that was part of the Armenian Old Testament for many centuries, Zebulon exhorts his children:

And now, my children, I bid you to keep the commands of the Lord, and to show mercy upon your neighbour, and to have compassion towards all, not towards men only, but also towards beasts. For for this thing's sake the Lord blessed me; and when all my brethren were sick I escaped without sickness, for the Lord knoweth the purposes of each. Have therefore compassion in your hearts, my children, because even as a man doeth to his neighbour, even so also will the Lord do to him (T.Zeb 5:1-2)

Perhaps the thinking expressed by these texts lies behind the 7th injunction of the Noachide Covenant for righteous Gentiles, as taught by the Rabbinic sages, not to eat flesh torn from a living creature. I have read a number of accounts in the last few years arguing that this injunction is meant to enforce ethical treatment of animals. In Leviticus as Literature (2000), Mary Douglas argues that the whole purpose of the Jewish dietary laws in Leviticus is to enforce an ethical approach to animals and the relationship of human beings to other creatures. Being denoted as unclean, out of bounds for sacrifice and food, is actually a good place to be for pigs and rabbits and prawns and crabs. And Douglas points out that at the time Leviticus is thought to have been written "the whole world as it was known to those who lived between the Mediterranean and the Aegean and on through Asia Minor to the Himalayas, was engaged in theological controversy about the right to take animal life" (171). And her observations are underscored by the fact that the Orthodox rabbi here in Brisbane I met with regularly, while doing my PhD, to learn more about Jewish biblical interpretation, was in fact vegetarian.

Christianity abolished the Law or, perhaps, opted to live under a simplified Noachic rule rather than the Mosaic one. But at least up until the Renaissance and Reformation, Monasteries observed a vegetarian regime with meat only reserved for the sick in the infirmary. In the West, there is also the outstanding example of Francis of Assissi famous for his preaching to the birds. Here is Bonaventure's account from Friar Jack Wintz's Musings

“He came to a spot where a large flock of birds of various kinds had come together. When God’s saint saw them, he quickly ran to the spot and greeted them as if they were endowed with reason….

“He went right up to them and solicitously urged them to listen to the word of God, saying, ‘Oh birds, my brothers and sisters, you have a great obligation to praise your Creator, who clothed you in feathers and gave you wings to fly with, provided you with pure air and cares for you without any worry on your part.’…The birds showed their joy in a remarkable fashion: They began to stretch their necks, extend their wings, open their beaks and gaze at him attentively.

“He went through their midst with amazing fervor of spirit, brushing against them with his tunic. Yet none of them moved from the spot until the man of God made the sign of the cross and gave them permission to leave; then they all flew away together. His companions waiting on the road saw all these things. When he returned to them, that pure and simple man began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.”

And Wintz adds:

Thomas of Celano, who wrote an earlier biography of St. Francis, told this same story of Francis’ sermon to the birds, including Francis’ admission of “negligence,” but Celano adds this sentence: “From that day on, [Francis] carefully exhorted all birds, all animals, all reptiles, and also insensible creatures, to praise and love the creator…” (see I Celano XXI)
And I am also reminded that it was humans not animals that drove St Seraphim of Sarov from his forest hermitage. A band of robbers assaulted him and left him for dead.

In many respects, the medieval world (and eastern Christianity almost to this day) is strongly influenced by a Platonic theology of a hierarchy of being ranging from the angelic world through to the humblest insects and worms. This worldview comes to an end or at least loses its dominance around the time of the Renaissance and Reformation. The Reformation desacralises the world. Then Descartes puts the human 'I' at the very centre of all existence, disconnected and non-material. The world of matter is a mechanical world, only humans have souls. Consequently animals don't count. And with the rise of a reductionist and mechanist world view and an economic system based on it, the way was open to view animals as little machines, programmed by God or Nature or DNA. But creatures like us with their own fears and joys? Not at all, hence the rise of factory farms and the incredible abuse of animals. And we laugh at the medievals for wanting to put animals on trial but at least they acknowledged some kind of personhood to the animals in their world as the story of Francis shows.

Yakov Leib HaKohain from Donmeh West highlights a different perspective drawing on Jewish tradition. Firstly here's his take on the story of Balaam's ass in Numbers 22:

Moreover, consider the following story from the Bible of Balaam's donkey, a dumb animal:

"Balaam's going kindled the wrath of Yahweh, and the angel of Yahweh took his stand on the road to bar his way. He was riding his donkey . . . . Now the donkey saw the angel of Yahweh standing on the road . . . . and she turned off the road and made off across the country. But Balaam beat her to turn her back on to the road. The angel of Yahweh then took his stand on a narrow path among the vineyards with a wall to the right and a wall to the left. The donkey saw the angel of Yahweh and brushed against the wall, grazing Balaam's foot. Balaam beat her again. The angel of Yahweh moved and took up his stand in a place so narrow that there was no room to pass right or left. When the donkey saw the angel of Yahweh, she lay down under Balaam. Balaam flew into a rage and beat her with his stick.

"Then Yahweh opened the mouth of the donkey, who said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you? Why do you beat me three times?' . . . . Then Yahweh opened the eyes of Balaam. He saw the angel of Yahweh standing on the road, a drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed down and fell prostrate on his face. And the angel of Yahweh said to him, 'Why did you beat your donkey three times like that? . . . . The donkey saw me and turned aside from me three times. You are lucky she did turn aside or I would have killed you by now, though I would have spared her.'" (Numbers 22:22)

Here we see that Balaam's donkey, a dumb animal, could see the angel of Yahweh whereas Balaam himself could not and, intuitively understanding its intention, she surrendered to its will three times, out of what could only have been her soul's inherent knowledge of its creator. Now ask yourselves this: Who here has the "higher" soul? The man who cannot see the angel of the Lord, or the dumb animal who does?"

This kind of statement drives the inflated ego of some people crazy. How dare anyone, they assert, imply that an animal's soul -- in this case, that of a dumb ass -- is not only on a par with, but possibly higher than, that of a man? The answer, of course (whether they like it or not) is because that's precisely what the Bible story of Balaam's donkey is saying . . . . for anyone, that is, who has ears to hear it.

But just as Balaam's own bloated ego led him to whip his donkey three times out of his spiritual blindness, so too we dismiss and "whip" our animals out of ours -- never understanding that without their intercession on our behalf we, like Balaam, are threatened by Yahweh's punishment for being unable to see with our spiritual eyes what they can see so readily with theirs. (Numbers 22:22)

His comments are oddly evocative of those pronouncements in 2 Enoch. And here is a remarkable story from the Jewish Midrashim which share in the quality of Oral Torah in Judaism.

This point is made even more forcefully in a Midrash (Oral Scripture) which states:

"Because the dogs of Egypt did not bark when the Children of Israel fled Egypt, Almighty God rewarded them with the [unkosher] hind-quarters of cattle. Therefore, whenever anyone who has eaten unkosher meat comes to the Gates of Paradise, the dogs who stand at guard there say to him, 'You may not enter here because you ate our portion'."

When I was told this Midrash by a Hassidic Rabbi at his Shabbas table, I asked him, "Rebbe, what does this mean?" To which he answered (somewhat impatiently, I might add), "It means that Jews are not to eat unkosher meat." To which I replied, "But Rebbe, does it not also mean that dogs have souls? Otherwise, how could they be standing at the Gates of Paradise? And does it not mean as well that God has given to these very dogs the power to judge among us humans who is fit to enter into heaven, and who is not?" I was never invited back to his Shabbas table again.
I think his is a quite delightful perspective here. I can't help but think of 2 Enoch again and the animals that testify for or against humans at the last judgement. Animals are persons, too, with their own desires, loves and fears. We humans are persons too but as 2 Enoch suggests, we have a capacity and an awe-inspiring responsibility towards the planet. That we have made such a mess is testimony enough to that capacity and responsibility.

HaKohain quotes one more passage from Jewish Oral Tradition which is evocative of the story of St Francis

consider this quotation from Jewish Oral Scripture (Torah Sh'Baal Peh):

"Every being -- from the heavenly hosts, to man, to the tiniest creature -- blesses God with the words of the Psalm (89:53), Boruch Yahweh l'olam, omayin v'omayin! -- 'Bless Yahweh forever, amen and amen'." (Midrash, quoted in The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet, Rabbi Michael L. Munk, Mesorah Press, 1983, p. 56)

Given that the "Oral" Torah (set down in the Midrash, Talmud, Zohar, etc.) is considered in Jewish tradition to be equal in authority to the "Written" Torah (i.e., "Old Testament") -- and that both were given simultaneously to Moses on Mt. Sinai (e.g. see Abraham Cohen, Everyman's Talmud, Schocken Books, 1995, pp. 146-149)

On the strength of such Oral Torah, HaKohain argues that animals have souls, "even the tiniest among them." He goes on to state that they also know the Torah and can speak Hebrew, which strikes a jarringly literalist note. But rather might it mean that animals have no sense of separation from the Divine, unlike we humans. So blessing the Divine comes easily to them (I hesitate to say automatically).

I remember as a child in convent school, the question would recur "Will animals get to heaven?" It represented a concern for the wellbeing of our pets who we loved. I've seen such concerns crop up on the sites of Left Behind Religion. Will our pets be left behind? The discussons can be quite touching, really.

And so I want to close these jottings with some passages from Isaiah, which very much more than Thomas is the fifth gospel of Christianity. Both pertain to the vision of the final restoration and consummation of all creation. "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them." (Isaiah 11.6). This passage might be exuberant metaphor but it also signifies that humans and animals, all, will join in the new order, an order of overarching solidarity, both amongst animals and animals and humans. This chapter of Isaiah continues, "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11.9). And it is echoed here, "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD." (Isaiah 65.25). The holy mountain is the Temple, which represents Eden. The consummation marks the restoration of Eden. Revelation closes looking forward to a new heaven and new earth with a vision of a new Jerusalem descending without a Temple, the place where earth and heaven meet, because Earth is now permeated by Heaven through and through. All of earth is now heaven, which is why Hosea can proclaim, "And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely." (Hos. 2.18). All of animalkind is included in a covenant with Yahweh.

So are animals unimportant in the cosmos? Are they locked out of Heaven and its ways? Are they just objects subject to the bow and sword of human desire and convenience? Do they have no stake in the tikkun olam, the repair of the world? Those who might answer 'yes' think carefully before you speak. Remember the dogs who guard the Gates of Paradise (I'm sure the cats are there, too, to give back-up).

Happy Pride

June in Brisbane is Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Pride Festival month. This year it's the 20th Festival; it began back in 1990 before we even got Law Reform through. The big event on the Pride calendar is Rally March and Fair Day. And that was today. It's always a huge day. It begins with a rally in the City, this year back in Emma Miller Place. The Rally is a time for speechifying and in the early years of Pride there was a lot happening as Brisbane's queer communities were addressing a range of crucial issues and at the same time emerging from the shadows after many years of vicious homophobic (amongst other things) and repressive government. The last few years, I must admit, I haven't paid much attention to speeches. I use that time instead to circulate and catch up with folks.

After the rally comes the March led by the wonderful Dykes on Bikes and then behind them a large Rainbow Flag and then a plethora of groups and a whole lot of folks not with any group at all. This year was a very big turnout. I was quite surprised by the numbers. And for me most striking was a contingent of very loud and very proud, young teenage queers calling for equalised age of consent laws. They were determined, they were organised, and they weren't gonna take shit. It does the heart good to see such energy and determination and boy were they loud. What a wonderful change from the days when I was their age. And their energy and confidence certainly augurs well for the future. The March makes its way to Musgrave Park South Brisbane, which is the venue for the Pride Fair. That's a huge event now and goes on through the rest of the day into the early hours of the night.

In the 90s so many Fair Days for me were very busy as I would be on one stall or another, mostly the UQ Campus group but also other groups I was involved with at the time. The last few years I've been unattached to any group so I've spent the day catching up with friends, having a few drinks etc. But this year was a bit like the old days. For the last few months I've been involved in the QAHC History Project. And we had a stall today operating out of the QAHC tent. So I was at the park at 8.30 this morning to help set up the stall, then off to the Rally, marching back and then doing stuff on the stall through the day until we packed up around 4.30pm.

So it's been a big day and not surprisingly I'm a bit tired tonight. But it was a great day and I caught up with a lot of people, including a dear friend from back in the first half of the nineties and who I haven't seen for almost 15 years. Back then we were part of the Queer Radio Collective and my friend was this fabulous baby dyke, very passionate, a full on campus activist at QUT and she and I made an interesting pair. We even had a breakfast slot together for a short while on Saturday mornings on 4ZZZ. And she had a heart as big as a planet. Fifteen years later, my friend still has a heart as big as a planet, is still very passionate and is now a passionate transman. He's been living overseas for most of those years away and is in town for the next couple of weeks so I'm looking forward to catching up with him a few times while he's here. He says he's looking forward to talking "man to man" with me. Goodness, I don't think ever I've done man to man stuff. Well, I've done plenty of man to man in my time but not "man to man".

And then when I get home and I get changed I find someone has left a sticker on the seat of my jeans. A little round pink sticker and on it the word 'Princess'. How did they know? How did they know?

Happy Pride to everyone!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Obama and Antichrist

I wrote last month about a particularly guilty pleasure of mine, checking out "the various sites of the Left Behind Religion that has so thoroughly infected US Protestantism." One of my favorites, as I said then, is 5 Doves and its Bulletin Board, the Latter Day Letters. What's been most interesting on this and other similar sites is the attitude to the US Presidency. Needless to say, this type of religion is infected with that other heresy, US exceptionalism. Consequently the occupant of the White House is a really hot topic.

Most of the Doves despised Clinton and adored Dubya. Bush, of course, spoke the talk, whereas Clinton was a womaniser and what's more he was married to Hilary, a woman who really struck the Left Behinders with dread. I'm not certain why, I suspect it's because she represents a type of woman who challenges all the complementarian gender ideologies to which these people adhere. However it was the countdown to the last US Presidential election that added a whole new dimension to these Presidential twitterings. I refer, of course, to the candidacy of one Barack Hussein Obama. That he was a candidate was bad enough, that he would win was even worse. Although in a perverse way the Obama victory was a happy event for the Doves. As his campaign momentum built up, whisperings began that maybe, just maybe, he was the Anti-Christ that the Doves so decry but whose coming is really eagerly anticipated because it means that their time can't be long before, in a burst of sacred schadenfreude, they are lifted off the planet and taken "home." And since the election result last year I think I've seen some half a dozen dates for expected rapture come and go, the most recent being Pentecost Julian calendar (the Western Trinity Sunday). Such credence for Eastern Orthodoxy only arose because Western Pentecost proved to be such a disappointing fizzer. And now the hope has shifted to July, all on the strength of a presidential joke. If you followed the link you'll see that, according to that poster, at least, Obama is not yet the AntiChrist but will 'come into his kingdom' on 11 July. But others have no doubt who Obama is.

Anti-Christ is a term that only appears twice in the New Testament, in the first and second letters of John. As John Sweet points out the anti in the Greek can mean 'over against' as well as 'instead of' and so the word has a sense of 'usurpation as well as substitution'. In the letters of John the term is used tp warn against deceivers and false prophets and those who have left the community and denied that Jesus is the Christ (1 Jn 2:22) and everywhere in John is the indication of many antichrists who have come as well as one/those to come. However this warning in 1 John is prefaced by the call to recognise that the letter's audience are 'in the last hour' (1 Jn 2:18). It is this endtimes notion that enables the linkage of the letters anti-christ with a variety of figures found in various endtimes and apocalyptic scenarios throughout the New Testament, the most famous/notorious being the apocalyptic drama played out in Revelation.

This New Testament apocalypticism draws on a range of Old Testament imagery but most important is that of Daniel 7, in which the seer has a vision of series of beasts rising out of the sea culmnating in a final and 4th beast who initiates a time of persecution attended by disasters. THis vision is a prophetic rendering/commentary on the 2nd century Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes, who desecrated the Jerusalem Temple and suppressed various aspects of Jewish practice thus sparking the succssful Maccabean revolt and the rise of the Hasmonean dynasty of high priestly monarchs who created the only real independent Jewish state in the history of ancient Palestine. But as Sweet notes this imagery in Daniel itself has older antecedents in the ancient chaoskampf mythologies associated with the New Year. A good example is the battle of Marduk against the cosmic monster and mother of the gods, Tiamat, the acccount of which, Enuma Elish, was recited each year as part of the Babylonian New year festival. And in the Old testament texts are many echos of a similar chaoskampf myth in which Yahweh defeats a great sea monster or Leviathan.

So what has all this to do with Obama? Well, I'm interested in the New Testament instancing of trends associating the endtimes figure with deception. The beast, the anti-christ is a deceiver, as befits a lawless one (2 Thess 2:3). Now I'm wondering if these ancient apocalyptic and prophetic texts have a certain insight into the ways of power, which is no doubt why they still exert a hold over the imagination. Like the rest of the prophetic corpus, of which they are a sub-category, these texts provide a sacral commentary on events of the present and the past. Hence their power, still, to captivate and enthrall.

Bush was easy character to identify with the anti-christ. He told the most amazing lies (which he probably carried off so well because he believed many of them himself), he was a warmonger, he subverted much of the US governmental system, he squandered US wealth and resources, he subverted the US justice system. Worst of all he could talk the talk and so he wrapped himself in religion. Consequently he furthered the corruption of much of US Christianity morphing it into a form of USianity or Stars-and-Stripes-ianity, as evidenced by such treats as the Patriots Bible. The Sarah Palin campaign in last year's US elections (coming soon after the aborted Lakeland revival) was another example of how lost so much of Christianity in the US had become. Bush was clearly a deceiver, definitely a lawless one, a liar. Bush had also snared Tony Blair in his hypnotic spin, which quite corrupted the UK Labour Party beginning the rot which looks like it could now lose office at the next election, to be tossed out in disgrace, after compromising so many of it's preumably core principles. Everywhere Bush went he brought out the worst in people. Just look at Iraq.

The Doves clearly miss Dubya and Sarah and loathe Obama. From the moment he won the elections there was nothing but calumny against Obama on Doves. Most recently Obama's been in the Middle East on a 'building bridges tour' and many of the Doves are excited that this tour represents Obama's selling out of everything US is supposed to stand for in favor of a secret Muslim agenda. His speech at Al Azhar University in Cairo, to them, represented Obama's secret agenda to seel out US interests in favour of something called Islam no dout as part of his own agenda as the Anti-Christ. I must admit I hadn't paid attention to the speech as I had a lot on my plate at the time. I'd heard some soundbites on the news but I hadn't read the text itself. The soundbites were certainly impressive; quite a contrast, it seemed from the arrogance and contempt of the Bush era.

Credit goes to Mad Hatter, who I saw over the weekend, for flagging just how bad this speech actually was. As with Bush, the Doves are completely wrong and have it all upside down (presumably making them great Anti-Christ fodder). Rather than selling out the interests of the US hegemon, Obama has instead inscribed them at the heart of his whole agenda. Reading the speech closely one gets the sense of the velvet glove that covers the iron fist, of the honeyed words that hide the lies and half truths.

Almost straight away the pattern of the speech is set:

"We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world, tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.
"The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of co-existence and co-operation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalisation led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view

Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust

He doesn't say whose colonialism or acknowledge that it is US colonialist policy in the Middle East as much as any other power (UK, France, Russia) that have denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims and Christians and atheists, to people in the Middle East of all religions. Nor does he say whose interests are served by modernity and globalisation. He deflects attention in fact by framing the issue in terms of a Muslim-Christian divide, one in which 'violent (Muslim) extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims.' No acknowledgement that the US is guilty of promoting violence in the Middle East that far outweighs anything that happened in the US on 11/9/2001. This US promotion of violence and repression in the Middle East to support its own interests 'has bred more fear and mistrust.'

And from there it just goes downhill. After several paragraphs praising the achievements of Islamic civilisation comes this:

The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words within our borders, and around the world.

US exceptionalism strikes again. These aren't modest words and they aren't the truth either. Then comes this:

The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms. In Ankara, I made clear that America is not and never will be at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.

Well, all those US interventions in the Middle East in the last few decades represent the violent extremism of "we want this and you have to wear it whether you like it or not" which is of course the tone of the whole speech. And that is a liberal tone - the Busheviks didn't even waste their breath trying to explain themselves.

And then he cites examples of Afghanistan and Iraq. If the speech wasn't mendacious beforehand it certainly is now. And all the while deflecting US responsibility, transferring it to the Muslim Other. All of which illustrates the fact that at the US elections, only the pesonnel were changed not the system. The system grinds relentlessy along.

So as usual the Doves were wrong. Obama is not the Anti-Christ preparing to sell out US interests in favor of those belonging to a Muslim Other. If he is Anti-Christ at all it is because he is affirming the US hegemon and using honeyed words to do so, words that deceive and mislead and deflect responsibility.

Check out Angry Arab's take here.

So Obama is asking for a bargain: to end Western racism (but not wars) against Muslims, Muslims need to stop attacking US foreign policy and wars. This is chicanery--don't you like those old fashioned words? He talks about the US as a force of "progress." How untrue for Obama's audience: the US has consistently opposed forces of progress and advancement in the Middle East: in every conflict between an oil Sheikh or a polygamous prince against progressive socialists or Arab nationalist secularists, the US has always sided with the polygamous princes who have been in alliance with religious kooks and advocates of "holy wars." Hell, he just came from Saudi Arabia where he praised the wisdom of the Saudi king and he wants to talk to me about "force of progress"? Maybe if you can bring up the issue of Wahhabi fanaticism I would believe you. He said that his personal story as an African American (with an African Muslim name) who was elected president is not unique. Yes, it is: and it was not easy: and his name was mocked during his campaign, and he made his best to distance himself from anything Muslims. So here, Obama is assuming that his Cairo audience are a bunch of idiots who did not follow his campaign and the reactions that it generated.

UPDATE And check out Charles Hirschkind's Obama on Palestine: What new beginning over at Immanent Frame

Obama then proceeds to describe the plight of the Palestinians through a series of abstract nouns that evacuate Israel from the scene, and thus, from any responsibility: Palestinians have endured “dislocation” (by whom? by what means?); they endure “the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation” (as if the routine harassment and brutality exercised by the Israeli military against Palestinians were simply natural features accompanying that unfortunate condition identified abstractly as “occupation”). Nowhere in the speech is Israeli violence recognized. There is a brief moment, right as Obama turns to the situation in Gaza, where it seems like he will mention Israeli aggression. His one comment on Gaza begins, “And just as it devastates Palestinian families….” The word “devastates” leads one to believe that, finally, some mention of the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza will follow. Instead, Palestinian suffering again comes to be figured as the result of an abstract and agentless process: “And just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israeli security.” “Humanitarian crisis” has the ring of some sort of quasi-natural phenomenon, one for which culpability cannot be established. Moreover, here, as in all other references to Israel made during the speech, Israeli actions are never identified as a cause of suffering, but simply as part of the solution.