The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Widow’s Houses and The Widow’s Mite” A Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

[In lieu of the usual invocation of the Trinity, the Deacon, with the help of the Director of Music, leads the congregation in the hymn Dona Nobis Pacem]

On Friday evening, at the Diocesan Convention, I participated in a Liturgy for Listening and Lamentation in which our bishops played an unusual part for them. They were supplicants, confessing “sinful complicity with the evil actions of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse within our Church.” Imagine, all our bishops—Andy Dietsche, Mary Glasspool, and Allen Shin—confessing to the laity and the clergy gathered in Convention.

We heard stories of the victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation, and all three orders of the Church—bishops, clergy and the people of God—lamented and confessed our “arrogance in insisting that our claims to being right outweigh” our duty to build honest relationships, and to acknowledge that we contribute to the injustices within our diocese, the larger church, and—let me add one more category—the world.

And at the end of the Liturgy, we sang, as we just have tonight, Dona Nobis Pacem.

Give us Peace.

Just before that, we had watched a drama with music and movement, and dance, in which the complicity of our diocese, the Diocese of New York, in slavery was laid bare. Using stories of the enslaved, those who enslaved them, the defenses of slavery written by Samuel Seabury, the grandson and namesake of the first Episcopal Bishop in America, and the story of William Jay, the abolitionist son of the first Chief Justice of the United States, we confronted again the shadow side of our beloved Episcopal Church.

Now, this morning just at the 11:00 service, as I sat in the marble seat reserved for me just to the right of the altar—very nice, really, one of the best seats in the house, if you don’t mind my using the theatrical jargon—I was dressed in this nice long white alb, the richly embroidered green deacon’s stole I’m wearing now, and the heavy but handsome dalmatic—that’s green and gold, with two bands across the front, in case you’re wondering what a dalmatic is—I was mentally rehearsing the Gospel, and—well, actually, I was beginning to wonder just how much trouble I was in. I was, quite frankly, a bit nervous.
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

You see, the shadow side of the Church stretches all the way back to before there was a Church. To when the Temple had to be cleansed, to when the scribes leading the synagogues, the priests, the Pharisees and the Saducees all had to be rebuked.

But today it's the scribes' turn. Ah, the scribes. Actually, they’re also referred to as the lawyers. And since deacons are non-stipendiary, did I mention my day job is--you guessed it--a lawyer. My tribe doesn’t get rave reviews in the Gospels. So here I am, wondering why I agreed to preach tonight, anyway.

Bt since we're here: Today, Jesus focuses his righteous indignation on the scribes. He’s in Jerusalem, at the Temple, but he’s not indicting the priests. No, he’s condemning those who made copies by hand of the scriptures, and who taught the law, and interpreted it. Outside of Jerusalem, they often kept the lights on at the synagogues, keeping alive the tradition of prayer and reading of the scriptures for those too far away to go to the Temple.

So, maybe they got a little puffed up, a little arrogant. They liked the distinctive apparel, the prominent seats. Understandable, isn’t it?

Maybe they were showboating with increasingly ornate prayers, and were losing themselves in the part. Is that really so bad?

Yes. Yes it is, Jesus tells us. Because that arrogance brings complacency with the way things are, and institutional thinking, and that in turn leads to entitlement—the kind of entitlement that leads to exploitation and covers up abuses.

The very entitlement to which our bishops, clergy, and laity confessed, and the effects of which we lamented just this past Friday night.

And Jesus levels a charge of just such abuse against the scribes—they “devour widow’s houses,” he says. But what does he mean by that?

As it happens, the question answers itself. Jesus is sitting opposite the Treasury, in front of the trumpet shaped chests into which the members of the congregation throw their offerings to support the Temple. And a widow, comes up, and throws in two copper coins, amounting to the equivalent of a penny. Jesus says to his disciples “this poor widow has put in more than all who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in all she had, all she had to live on.”

Heartwarming, isn’t it? Emphasizing the widow’s devotion to her faith, and to God? On one level, yes, but there’s a deep irony here. The widow is in fact a victim of the scribes’ exploitation of her faith, of their betrayal of her love of God, which they have manipulated through their teaching to the point where her gift is more akin to an act of self-immolation.

Remember the status of widows in Biblical times. Robin Gallagher Branch, in the Biblical Archaeology Review reminds us that a widow is “lacking the protective care of a husband” in the patriarchal society in which that care is often critical for survival.[1] That’s why widows are, as Branch notes, “grouped together with the fatherless, poor, and resident alien,” and “come under God’s protective care,” with God “command[ing] that they not be oppressed.”[2]

Branch evokes the precarious status of widowhood in the Bible by quoting the Book of Lamentations, which uses the word “widow” to describe Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar razed the City. “Gone is her resemblance to a queen,” Branch writes, “vanished are her protectors, lovers, friends. Slavery, affliction and harsh labor await her in exile.” [3]

The widow who gives, as Jesus put it, “all she had, all she had to live on,” is not an exemplar of stewardship, but rather a vulnerable woman who is being preyed upon by the scribes, who are literally consuming her household, and her ability to support herself. Jesus acknowledges the sincerity of that love, and the magnitude of her generosity—but as the very next verses, the start of the next chapter, indicate, her self-sacrifice is in vain; every stone of the Temple will be thrown down.[4]

The predation is not sexual in nature, it’s financial, but as Robertson Davies has an investigator say in The Cunning Man, “financial fraud is awfully dull," but it’s awfully cruel. I can tell you this myself from any one of a number of cases my wife has handled in her practice of defending homeowners in foreclosure cases.

And, as we are gathered in a Byzantine style national landmark of extraordinary beauty, well—this passage can’t help but make us ask—ok, make me ask—have we got it wrong? Are we as far from the teachings of Jesus as the false prophets of the Prosperity Gospel—you know the ones, they tell you that if you just give enough and believe enough you’ll be rich yourself. And not just in heavenly wealth that you can’t touch until you die. Oh, no, good solid coin of the realm.

Of course, if it doesn’t work out that way, you’ve only yourself to blame. You just didn’t have enough faith to move that mountain.

That’s how exploitation works: The abuser takes what he wants, and uses his authority to convince the victim that it’s her own fault, that she brought it on herself, or, at a minimum, that the consequences to her fro reporting the abuse will be devastating, and she won’t be believed anyway.

Recent events have shown that those dire promises can come true. Just this past Thursday, NPR reported that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is still receiving death threats. She had to move four times, has had to pay for a private security detail, and hasn’t been able to return to work.

Dona Nobis Pacem.

Give us Peace.

But how can there be peace without justice?

That’s the question the Diocese is wrestling with, both as to our complicity in slavery and as to the exploitation by clergy of vulnerable lay and clergy members of our church.

What would justice even look like?

Question: What was the crime the scribes committed?

Proposition: to use the language of Friday’s Litany, it was that they failed to honor the indwelling God-given dignity of those entrusted to their care.

More bluntly, they viewed the widow who gave all she had as a means to their end—preservation and glorification of the Temple—and not as an end, a person in her own right. They treated her as a thing, and taught themselves to believe that their treatment of her was justified because it served the Temple.

You can be sure, as Jesus indicated, that she was not alone.

So, in addition to dehumanizing the widow, and those like her, they made an idol of the Temple. It became more important to beautify and honor the thing than to care for the people for whom it was built.

No wonder the thing was torn down.

If we—all of us, clergy and laity—fail to honor the indwelling God-given dignity of those who come to us trusting us to care for them, we too will fall.

And we’ll deserve it.

But we don't have to. We can choose the alternative. We can use this building, our combined treasure and talent, to honor the indwelling, God-given dignity of all who come to us. And when I say we, I mean we--clergy, laity, all of us. We can welcome the stranger, comfort the grieving, be with each there, for each other.

We can meet each other in the love of Christ.

Then we won't fall. And we won't fail, even if, one day, we do fall.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.


[1] Robin Gallagher Branch, “Biblical Views: Biblical Widows—Groveling Grannies or Teaching Tools,” Biblical Archaeology Review 39:1 (Jan/Feb. 2013).
[2] Id., citing Deut. 24:17, Ezek 22:7, James 1:27, Zech 7:10.
[3] Id., paraphrasing Lamentations, 1:1-3.
[4] Mark 13: 1-2.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Wither the Doctor?

None of this is about the casting of Jodie Whittaker. She’s great, and the best thing season 11 has going for it is her performance, and her rapport with her supporting cast, who are all quite engaging. The casting is great.

So I like Jodie fine, but it seems to me that she’s propping up an increasingly rickety season.

Edited to Add: The Tsuranga Conundrum is slightly better than Arachnids in the UK, though it has enough plot holes and unused Chekov's Guns for a shootout at the OK Corral. I did like the way the Doctor worked out a way to save the ship and send the Pting off happy. It was a cute-comic end for a monster that didn't quite cut it.

The cast seem to be working well, as an ensemble and individually. It’s just the writing is....blah. Some good ideas, some good sequences—a very watchable first episode, and Rosa had some great comedic moments mixed in with the history (Ryan awe-struck addressing Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King by their full names was well handled). Bradley Walsh's agony at having to make a seat unavailable to force the conflict between Rosa Parks and the bus driver grounded the moment quite well, but Vinette Robinson brought enough gravitas to the part that the scene would have worked without him.

But the villains have been dreadful. Krasko was a bore, and Robertson actually started out as a great takeoff of Trump, only to blow out of the storyline when he got bored. "Tim Shaw" isn't exactly making anyone's "best of" list, either, I suspect.

At least we are being spared (thus far) the misanthropy that made Torchwood so dreary, leaching all the fun out of Captain Jack.

The new visual aesthetic is excellent, I should add, richer color palettes and new sights that up the spectacle quality of the program. The music. . . not so much. Even the theme--if you're going to stretch it out, can I have the middle 8, please--is slightly off.

We are in rough waters, right now, and if this incarnation of Doctor Who does find its way, Jodie Whittaker will have been its savior for keeping it moving and afloat.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"I Can Be Wrong!"

Susan Howatch's character Lewis Hall: "Now just reflect on that sentence for a moment. Say to yourself quietly, calmly, intelligently: 'I CAN BE WRONG'"

I am reminded of my late grandfather, whose medical condition went undiagnosed, because his GP assumed that his memory lapses and befuddlement had to be Alzheimer's Disease. It wasn't; it was the result of a lifetime's work with asbestos and brick. But the doctor--no doubt well-meaning--assumed that what seemed true at the surface must be--that the easy answer was the right one.

The lesson I took from that, and which I have tried to take with me in every professional capacity, from public defender in criminal appeals to the present, is to look in the mirror every morning and say to myself, as Howatch's Lewis Hall advises, "I CAN BE WRONG." And to review every case from scratch.

Every professional whose work impacts the lives of others owes that to them, to try to resist complacency and self-regard smothering our doubts, and treating any case--any person--as routine. No case is routine for the client, the patient. They only have the one life, and we owe them our best work, and a healthy dose of self-doubt in our assessment. And as Trevor Howard almost ends Ryan's Daughter, "That's my gift to you--dat doubt!"

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"Even When You Fail": A Sermon on Mark 10:17-31

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church,
October 14, 2018]

Today’s Gospel made me think of that great moment in The Four Musketeers when Charlton Heston—as the villainous Cradinal Richelieu—tells his henchman Rochefort, “I love you, my son—even when you fail.”

Ok—you may not see how that applies, but we’ll get there. Or I’ll just slip out the back door.

The first thing I have to remind you is this:

Don’t let familiarity breed content. Not contempt, content. Just because you’ve heard it over and over again, shouldn’t make it easy.

Today’s Gospel is as tough as it gets, as counter-cultural as you can imagine, not just in Jesus’s time but in our own.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Think about it, hear it fresh—and understand that he means it. He’s not kidding. How do we know this? The shock of the disciples. They “were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’" And, even though Jesus’s answer brings some reassurance, it isn’t by diminishing the seriousness of what he has just said. Rather, he says to them that “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

This encounter of Jesus with the young man—traditionally, he was called the “Rich Young Ruler,” suggesting that he enjoyed a position not just of wealth but of power—is one that Christians have long tried to water down, to soften.

A rather charming story was invented, dating to at least the 15th Century, possibly as early as the 9th, which explains that the “Needle’s Eye” was the name of a gate in Jerusalem, and that a camel loaded down with its owner’s many possessions could not get through the gate. No, the owner would have to remove a bag or two, and leave them –for the poor, in some tellings, or just remove them all, and then reload the poor beast after guiding it through the gate in others.

This fable, which you can find used in biblical commentaries, in sermons across denominational lines (I won’t cite any, because there are far too many to single out just one or two of those who have fallen into the trap), was known to be false as long ago as the 19th Century.

Sources from The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, [Brown, Fitzmeyer & Murphy, 1990) at 618] to Vincent Taylor’s Gospel According to Mark, agree with the Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley, that there was no such gate.

Oh, there’s one now, if you go to Jerusalem. Of course the City was razed by the Romans in 70 AD, so the City was rebuilt by the Cusaders when they took Jerusalem. They added a Needle’s Eye Gate then, which means they went to a lot of trouble to convince themselves that it wasn’t that hard for the rich to get to heaven.

The medieval roots of the fable disprove Nibley’s almost too perfect suggestion this gate idea was “invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.”

Which could have been describing the St. Barts of his time. It may even apply to our own time.

In fact, the 19th Century clergy debated the topic vigorously, with the Rev. Edmund Tew rather neatly dismissing the notion of such an ancient gate as it “falls short in one important desideratum, the support of any authority which recommends itself to the acceptance of those most competent to form a true and impartial estimate of its worth.”

Which is a very oblique, proper Victorian way of saying “They made it up.”

In the same exchange, he rejects the notion that the camel isn’t an error for the ancient Greek term for “cable”, which at least you could try to find a bigger eye to pass it through, say, tethering a boat to an eyehook. But I trust Reverend Tew; he’s pretty thorough.

So, no. We are stuck with an actual camel and an ordinary sewing needle. What can we do with them?

Well, there’s one last way to try to escape—maybe we can treat the story as being one of the stories attributed to Jesus for which the evidence is thin.

Trying to know when the Gospel of the day is closest to the Jesus of history is not an easy thing to do. John P. Meier, a Catholic priest who has written five volumes—so far—trying to do just that--and is pretty much the gold standard on the subject-- gives us several criteria that suggest a story or saying in the Gospel is more likely to be authentic.

By all of Meier’s criteria, we are looking at what is very likely an authentic story of Jesus—it appears in all of the synoptic gospels, today in chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, in Chapter 19 of Matthew, and in Chapter 18 of Luke, so it passes the multiple source test.

Jesus’s indictment of the wealthy would certainly help get him into trouble with the authorities, especially in an imperial domination system, in which the religious and Temple authorities were profiting from their collaboration. So that’s another test passed—it helps explain why the authorities wanted to kill Jesus.

It’s consistent with a plethora of other scriptural passages about money. The Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament have 15 separate conemnations of usiry—lending money out at any amount of interest, nit just an unreasonable rate, which is the biblical definition. In the Beatitudes as described in Luke’s Gospel, after the blessings on the poor are pronounced, Jesus warns the rich, the well-fed, and those who laugh, that they have received their comfort now, and will not receive the Kingdom.

And it certainly fits what Meier calls the criteria of embarrassment and of discontinuity—far from claiming the titles attributed in the Gospels, titles like Lord, Son of Man, Son of God, or Christ, Jesus will not even let the rich young man call him good.

Let’s think about that for a second. When the rich young man approaches him, he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus brings him up short: “Why do you call me good? There is no one who is good but God.”

So what are we to do with this teaching, in such close proximity to Jesus’s refusal to be called “good”?

Is there no way to come to terms with this difficult gospel?

Maybe. Maybe if we start by asking the question the other way around. Instead of trying to domesticate this gospel, and make it easier, let’s try admitting that it’s uncomfortable. In fact, it’s impossible.

This is a pretty familiar scene in the Gospels, actually. Every time some well-meaning type goes to Jesus for affirmation, it goes down this way: Jesus praises what they’re doing right, and then ups the ante. Hey, Jesus, someone will say to him, I’m following the law, and then he’ll tell them that if they have felt lust, it’s just as if they’ve committed adultery, and broken the law.

The rich young man seems on pretty solid footing at first—he knows and has kept all of the commandments.

And then Jesus puts his finger on the weak spot: Jesus “loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’"

And when the rich young man hears this, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

And from there, Jesus castigates the rich—who were considered the favorites of God in traditional Judaism—look at Job both before and after Satan’s bet with God. Today we also tend to venerate the rich and the famous, to equate wealth and good fortune with virtue.

But Jesus says not once but twice how hard it will be for them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as hard as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle

The heresy of the Prosperity Gospel brushes aside Jesus’s words to valorize wealth as a sign of God’s favor, a linkage that Max Weber traced Max Weber traced back to Calvinism and the insecurity it instilled in believers who were left of wondering if they were among those lost forever or among the elect—the saved. Success in their calling became a way of validating their faith. We look to money for reassurance, for security, even though Jesus reminds us in the parable of the foolish rich man who is plotting how to enjoy his wealth, while his life will be required of him that very day, that we can try to protect ourselves from life’s hardships with our money and possessions—but they will not save us from grief, or death.

So what is it about wealth that makes it especially dangerous? Maybe that very sense of security, that temptation that we stand right with God—or worse, do not even need God, because we are cushioned by wealth and the comforts it can bring us.

It’s one form of idolatry, isn’t it? Finding something other than God to worship—that is, to honor at the fire of our hearts. Politics, sex, the quest for increased physical fitness—anything can become an idol, even things that are good in themselves, if they become ways to wall us off from our own need for God.

And we tend to want to worship idols, like the Israelites and the Golden Calf, and the Baals, and all their “whoring after idols” as the Hebrew Scriptures remind us again, and again. Why?

Maybe because idols don’t ask anything from us but our worship. But God asks more. God wants us to be in loving relationship with each other, as well as with God.

When the rich young man leaves sorrowing at the thought of losing his possessions, the disciples, stunned at the notion that the Kingdom may be inaccessible to the wealthy, the privileged, exclaim: Then who can be saved? Jesus answers, “With men, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

In other words, we can’t solve this; only God can.

Like Jesus, maybe we should not worry about being called good, and focus instead on doing the good works we are called to. And not presume to think that those works make us good, since only God is good.

In my training as a deacon, I served for an academic year—only one day a week—on the chaplaincy staff at New York Presbyterian Hospital. A large part of my days there was going from room to room on my assigned floor or floors, introducing myself as part of the pastoral care team. We were strictly told that when people declined our company, we had to accept it with good grace.

And lots of people did just that—most kindly, some gruffly, a very few with annoyance or even anger. Lots with comments about why they didn't have any interest. But they all perked up just a little bit in asking me to leave.

After a few days, I realized that patients had almost no control over who came into their rooms and what they did there, and I realized that giving them that control was one gift I had to offer. So I took to introducing myself as “the one person you can throw out.” And once I did that, even those who took me up on it, usually did so with a smile.

And that offer to be of service, or to be a companion with no strings attached, was the opposite of idolatry—it wasn’t about me at all. I just took “no” for an answer, and learned not to mind if the barrage of refusals made me look a bit ridiculous. The smiles more than made up for it.

And maybe that is our answer. To just show up and do our part. Answer the call. Try not to be afraid of rejection. Open our hearts to being hurt. Don’t mind looking a little ridiculous.

Because we’re not good. Only God is good, and that’s just fine.

There’s a reason that the Lord’s Prayer has us ask God to forgive us our sins, while reminding us to forgive those who have sinned against us. So that we can remember to act as lovingly as we can, and trust God—who’s a much better employer than Cardinal Richelieu—to love us—even when we fail.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Friday, October 5, 2018

"It's Dogged as Does It..."

Three stories are in my mind this evening. The first, from Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset (ch. 61), involves the Rev. Josiah Crawley, an impoverished priest in a rural county who is wrongfully suspected of theft, but cannot prove himself innocent. Crawley receives a letter demanding his resignation from his parish, and melancholic as he has long been, sits in the rain struggling to decide what do. An elderly farmer approaches him, and, after trying to find out what troubles Crawley, takes his hand, and offers him the only advice he can: '
Tell 'ee what, Master Crawley;--and yer reverence mustn't think as I means to be preaching; there ain't nowt a man can't bear if he'll only be dogged. You to whome, Master Crawley, and think o' that, and maybe it'll do ye a good yet. It's dogged as does it. It ain't thinking about it.' Then Giles Hoggett withdrew his hand from the clergyman's, and walked away towards his home at Hoggle End. Mr Crawley also turned away homewards, and as he made his way through the lanes, he repeated to himself Giles Hoggett's words. 'It's dogged as does it. It's not thinking about it.'
The second, a parable told by the Doctor in Heaven Sent. The Doctor is trapped in his own bespoke hell--pursued by a childhood nightmare (called the "veil") in a clockwork castle that resets every time the Doctor dies at the Veil's hands, and he crawls, as he dies, to the "reception room" and himself starts the cycle over. If he tells what his captors want him to, it will end. The only thing that does not reset is a crystal wall, labelled "Home." The Doctor chooses to fight on, punching his way through the wall, despite the pain, despite the horrible moment that happens in each cycle when he remembers every previous one, and weeps, wanting to give in. As he struggles on, he tells himself--or his captors--a story:
There’s this emperor, and he asks the shepherd’s boy how many seconds in eternity. And the shepherd’s boy says, ‘There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it, and every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed." As the wall finally breaks, untold years later, the Doctor completes the story: "You may think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”
One last story. When Clarence Darrow was an old man, a detractor asked him what good his life had been, in view of the continuation of many of the evils had fought against. "Hasn't your life been for nothing?" Darrow replied: "Ask the men I've saved from the gallows. The men and women I've saved from prison."

My point is, if recent events have left you bloodied, exhausted, angry, or near giving it all up--think about how big the task is, and savor the victories along the way, the moments of connection, of friendship, of mutual support. Doing anything worth doing isn't a sprint; it's a marathon. And, slowly, that mountain gets whittled away, that wall breaks. Meanwhile, be good to each other, and to yourselves. And, bear Steven Moffatt's parting advice in mind:

Laugh hard.
Run fast.
Be kind.

Monday, October 1, 2018

"The One I'll Care for Through the Rough and Ready Years": Charles Aznavour (1924-2018)

It's with some sadness that I note the death of Charles Aznavour, a songwriter whose lyrics and melodies touched a melancholic strain of romanticism that has always moved me. (Like Inspector Morse before me, I've always "been more attuned to life's adagios than its legatos.") It's a sort of karmic pun that his death was reported on the seventh anniversary of my wedding to the woman whose impact on my life his lyrics so well described:
She may be the reason I survive
The why and wherefore I'm alive
The one I'll care for through the rough and ready years.
The lyrics are quite apt, though I'll spare you the personalia. So I will miss him.

Still, these two stories from his obit made me smile with the old rascal:
Mr. Aznavour’s career spanned the history of the chanson realiste, the unvarnished tales of unrequited love, loneliness and anomie that found their apotheosis in the anguished voice of Piaf. He wrote songs for her and for Gilbert Bécaud, Léo Ferré, Yves Montand and others. When Piaf rejected one of his songs, “I Hate Sundays,” he gave it to Juliette Gréco, then the darling of the Left Bank philosophers and their acolytes. When Piaf changed her mind, she was enraged to find that she’d lost the song and, according to François Lévy, one of her biographers, confronted Mr. Aznavour, shouting, “What, you gave it to that existentialist?”


In “Yesterday When I Was Young,” an autobiography published in 1979 — it shares its title with the English-language version of one of his best-known compositions — Mr. Aznavour recalled a Brussels promoter who had ignored him for years and was now offering him a contract. He offered 4,000 francs. Mr. Aznavour asked for 8,000. The promoter refused. The next year, he offered 16,000.

“Not enough,” replied Mr. Aznavour, now a major star. “I want more than you pay Piaf.” Piaf was then making 30,000 francs. Again the promoter refused. The next year, he gave in. “How much more than Piaf do you want?” he asked. “One franc,” Mr. Aznavour said. “After that I was able to tell my friends I was better paid than Piaf.”
"She"(1974), my favorite of his songs, heads this post, a cheerful-resigned celebration of the heights and depths of love, of the many faces the beloved presents at various moments. (If you're thinking Billy Joel's 1977 "She's Always a Woman" might bear some influence, well, perhaps, but Aznavour's Gallic philosophical resignation and muted yearning create a different vibe than Joel's song.) Rather than (as I've seen it described) a sexist musing on the mutability of women, I read Aznavour's lyrics as consistent with Robertson Davies's observation in Fifth Business that "I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two sides to him"--or her.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Advise and Dissent: A Question of Character

Judge Brett Kavanaugh in his opening statement this evening established beyond doubt that he will not be capable of serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court:
This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars and money from outside left-wing opposition groups. This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades. This grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country, and as we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around, comes around.
How can any party aligned with the Democratic Party or liberal causes appearing before Justice Kavanaugh--if he is confirmed--even pretend to believe that they are appearing before a neutral? In a closely divided Court, where most of the "big" cases will be decided on a 5-4 vote, Kavanaugh's vote will not carry legitimacy in the eyes of those who lose. That's a problem for the Court, which is itself becoming increasingly perceived as partisan, and, as a recent study has found, indeed appears to be ruling in a more partisan way even in the previously neutral area of free speech:
Ideology is not a significant predictor of votes—indicating no meaningful difference between liberal and conservative justices for conservative expression. The gap only emerges when the speech falls into a liberal grouping, as indicated by the positive Justice Ideology Liberal Speech. That is, the difference between liberal and conservative justices grows larger when the speech originates from a liberal enclave. Notice too that Liberal Speech is negative and significant, suggesting that conservative justices are less likely to support liberal speech than conservative speech.
And indeed, 4 of the 9 have recently indicted their fellow members of the Court on just such grounds, in National Institute of Life Advocates v. Beccaria:
If a State can lawfully require a doctor to tell a woman seeking an abortion about adoption services, why should it not be able, as here, to require a medical counselor to tell a woman seeking prenatal care or other reproductive healthcare about childbirth and abortion services? As the question suggests, there is no convincing reason to distinguish between information about adoption and information about abortion in this context. After all, the rule of law embodies evenhandedness, and “what is sauce for the goose is normally sauce for the gander.”
The Court is at a point where its own members are questioning its impartiality and its commitment to the Constitution which it is tasked with protecting. This is, quite simply, quite dangerous.

Kavanaugh's open contempt for the Democratic senators was striking--he tried to turn the tables more than once, and ask his questioners the questions they asked him. This was especially jarring in his blatant disrespect toward Senator Amy Klobuchar:
Kavanaugh's drinking as a high school and college student has become a line of questioning in a hearing about sexual assault allegations made against him. The Minnesota Democrat addressed her father's own struggle with alcoholism during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, including the fact that her father still attends Alcoholics Anonymous as age 90 to combat his struggle. She then asked Kavanaugh if he had ever drank so much he "didn't remember what happened the night before or part of what happened."
"You're asking about blackout, I don't know, have you?" he responded.
"Could you answer the question, judge?" Klobuchar said, looking somewhat surprised by the response. "So, you have, that's not happened? Is that your answer."
"Yeah, and I'm curious if you have," he added.
While he did apologize to Klobuchar (though not to the other senators he interrupted, and quizzed as though he were the judge, Kavanaugh's nastiness and presumptuousness--demonstrated that he is a bully and a partisan--just what you don't want in a member of the United States Supreme Court. (He similarly repeatedly asked Senator Whitehouse if he liked beer, after testifying that he did.) At times, he was, in my opinion, patently lying (the "Renate alumnus" testimony, in particular rang brazenly false), squirming away from questions, filibustering to avoid them. Kavanaugh's repeated refusals to request an FBI investigation does not bode well, either--he seemed desperate to avoid a closer look at his past. When Dick Durbin pinned him down, he simply rolled his eyes and sat in silence.

Finally, I cannot write about this without saying something about the compelling, heart wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. I felt utterly nauseous as I listened to her and watching the Republican men on the committee viewing her with overt indifference and as a speed bump to roll over. Simply, Dr. Ford was brave, credible--and ignored by the majority. It was a dreadful spectacle, and while Dr. Ford presented her account with grace and strength, the reactions in the room suggest that even if they acknowledge the truth in their hearts, these men will ram through this nominee.

The institutions we rely on are creaking.