Friday, December 4, 2009

Program Notes: Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" at Bowdoin College

Program Notes
Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, Op. 37, is a title that confounds many people. It is a translation of the Russian Vsenoshchnoe bdeniye. The title refers to the Eastern Orthodox service of Vespers and Matins. Vespers encompasses the first six movements of the work, and the remaining nine movements are part of the service of Matins. In a monastery these musical offerings would be interspersed with prayers, readings and litanies. The service would begin at about six in the evening and last until nine the following morning. Since the tradition of writing musical settings for the evening worship service known as Vespers exists in the West (with settings by composers such as Monteverdi and Mozart, to name a few), the name has been attached to Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece even though, technically, the term Vespers refers only to the first part of it. In addition to “Vespers,” it also has been called “Vesper Mass” and “Night Vigil.” It is clear that Rachmaninoff intended his setting of the Vigil to be sung as a concert piece and not part of a long church service. In the following observations, the shortened name Vigil is used.
Rachmaninoff composed the Vigil in approximately two weeks during January and February 1915. It is dedicated to the memory of Stepan Smolensky, the former director of the Court Chapel Choir and a recognized authority on ancient Russian folk music and chant. Its premier performance was at a fund-raising concert on March 10, 1915 by the Synodal Choir conducted by Nikolai Danilin. It is astonishing not only that Rachmaninoff could have composed the work in such a short time but that the Choir could have learned it in less than a month.
World War I was causing great distress at the time. The Russian losses to the German forces were becoming increasingly serious. Rachmaninoff had reported for a pre-induction physical but was not taken into the armed forces. Instead, he was encouraged to go all around the country playing benefit concerts to raise funds for war relief. During the summer and fall of 1914 he had managed to write only one song. After the Vigil was finished, he composed nothing else for eighteen months. Music historian Glenn Watkins wrote in Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War, “The spiritual beauty of the (Vigil) ... invites interpretation as an oblique response to the sacrifices of the war years.” [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, page 302.]
No correspondence survives from the time of the Vigil’s composition but Rachmaninoff later told his biographer that he had conducted a performance of his 1910 Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in St. Petersburg in February 1914 and that he had concluded that there was much of it that was unsatisfactory. When he completed the Vigil he took it to his old teacher Taneyev, who had been a stern critic of his previous compositions. Taneyev gave the Vigil unqualified praise.
Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy had used only the composer’s own musical material and was criticized for its “spirit of modernism.” In the Vigil, Rachmaninoff used traditional ancient chants as the basis for nine of the themes in the work. Originally these melodies are believed to have come to Russia from Byzantium when Russia was converted to Christianity in the ninth century. But the tunes had assumed a distinctly Russian folk music identity and were passed on by oral tradition and only written down much later, not in Western notation but by a series of signs (‘znameni’ in Russian). This gave rise to the term ‘znamenny chant,’ in which the melody was noted in small symbols above the words.
Historian Orlando Figes makes an important observation concerning the connection between znamenny chant and folk music. “The polyphonic harmonies of folk song were assimilated to the znamenny plainchants ... which gave them their distinctive Russian sound and feel. As in Russian folk song, too, there was a constant repetition of the melody, which over several hours (the Orthodox service can be interminably long) could have the effect of inducing a trance-like state of religious ecstasy.... Churches famous for their deacons and their choirs drew large congregations – Russians being drawn to the spiritual impact of liturgical music, above all.” [Orlando Figes, Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, New York: Picador Press, 2002, page 298.]
In the seventeenth century znamenny chant began to be replaced by simpler melodies such as Greek and Kievan chants, and by Western importations. Western notation was not employed in church music until the eighteenth century, when foreign composers, particularly from Italy, were brought to Russia to westernize its music, along with the other arts.
In 1772 the old chants were published in Western notation for the first time by the Russian Holy Synod and rescued from oblivion. By the end of the nineteenth century Russian composers had begun to take a great interest in these ancient melodies and to use them in their compositions. Smolensky was one of the experts in this field, and Rachmaninoff took his courses when he was a student at Moscow Conservatory. In setting the Vigil, Rachmaninoff drew from the old music he had studied with Smolensky but also wrote some movements in imitation of their style. These he dubbed “conscious counterfeits of the ritual” in a letter to Joseph Yasser. The letter reads in part:
“You are correct in saying that Russian folk song and Orthodox Church chants have influenced the creative work of Russian composers.... I would only add – ‘some of them!’ As to whether this influence be ‘unconscious’ ... or ‘conscious’ it would be difficult to say. Especially about the unconscious! This is obscure! But the latter case, which could more simply be called ‘counterfeit style,’ is obvious. And the composers themselves, if they should care to, can show you instances of this. I too can point to one. In accordance with the rules of the Orthodox Church, certain chants of the Vigil must be written on themes from the ritual.... Others, however, can be original. In my Vigil all that applied to this second instance was a conscious counterfeit of the ritual.” [Quoted in Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, New York: New York University Press, 1956. Page 313.]
To help sort out the origins of the melodies in the fifteen movements of the Vigil, the following table presents them in the order of performance.
Movement Text Chant origin
1. Call to worship
O come, let us worship
“Conscious counterfeit”
2. Verses from Psalm 104
(Orthodox Psalm 103)
Praise the Lord, O my soul
3. Verses from Psalms 1-3
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked
“Conscious counterfeit”
4. Trisagion (Vesper hymn)
O gracious light
5. Nunc dimittis
Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace
6. Ave Maria
Hail, Mother of God
“Conscious counterfeit”
7. The Lesser Doxology
Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace...
8. Verses from Psalms 135 and 136 (Orthodox 134 and 135)
Praise ye the name of the Lord
9. Easter Hymn
Blessed art Thou, O Lord: teach me Thy statutes
10. Veneration of the Cross
We have seen the Resurrection of Christ
“Conscious counterfeit”
11. Magnificat
My soul doth magnify the Lord
“Conscious counterfeit”
12. The Greater Doxology
Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace...
“Conscious counterfeit”
13. Easter Hymn
Today salvation has come
14. Easter Hymn
Rising from the tomb
15. Hymn to the Mother of God
To thee, O Virgin
Rachmaninoff’s setting of the Vigil is a highly successful melding of these chant materials. A feature of Russian Orthodox chant is a great deal of repetition. In the hands of a less gifted composer these chants could be monotonous, but Rachmaninoff saw in them an opportunity for infinitely varied repetition of the brief diatonic melody with subtle alterations to outline, rhythm, harmony and vocal arranging. Rhythm is dictated most of the time by the stressed and unstressed syllables of the text. Eight of the movements were written with no time signature at all. Harmonically and contrapuntally, Rachmaninoff is more adventurous than he was in the Liturgy, although the restraints imposed by church performance practice kept him from the kinds of compositional techniques one finds in his instrumental works or his songs. Despite all this, his choral writing is unforgettable in its demands. He wrote the work for a particular choir (The Synodal Choir) and he took full advantage of its sonorous bass section and its ability to sing low B flats at full volume. Texts, even though they are sacred, are treated as if they were the libretto for a small opera. Solos are like brief character roles.
The opening movement serves as a joyful call to worship. Its theme, one of Rachmaninoff’s ‘conscious counterfeits,’ is repeated four times. Its quiet conclusion is somewhat surprising but establishes a regular pattern throughout the work of tranquil endings regardless of how loud the earlier portions of the movement may have been.
In our performances the alto solo in the second movement is performed by a small group of women rather than a single voice. The chant itself is unremarkable but the accompaniment provided for it introduces Rachmaninoff’s frequent use of humming by the chorus, creating a quasi-instrumental effect. Another choral accompaniment technique heard here and continued throughout the work is an alternative to humming in which the final vowel of a word is continued for many measures. These “vowel extensions” are used even more frequently than humming and permit a louder background when needed. The descending scale for the basses at the end of the movement reaches a low C, only the first of several passages to descend to the bottom of the male vocal range.
The alleluia refrains in the third movement create increasing excitement as they appear between verses of the hymn. Each time they are heard in a different key and with varied dynamics but always the same rhythm. The folk-like character of the refrains renders them quickly memorized by singers and audience alike.
The Kievan chant that forms the basis of the fourth movement, the Vesper Hymn known in Greek as Phos hilaron, is again very simple in construction. The tenors introduce it in its ancient form and then the other voices join in. The brief tenor solo emphasizes the most important words of the hymn, “We praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit: God!”
One of the most famous movements in the Vigil is the fifth, the Nunc dimittis or Song of Simeon. Rachmaninoff later stated that this was his favorite movement and that he wanted it sung at his own funeral. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented this wish from being fulfilled at the time of his death. This is the only wholly solo number in the entire work, sung by a tenor over rocking chords. After the central climax the basses begin a gentle descent down to a subterranean B flat, iconic writing that symbolizes the descent of Simeon down into the grave. This passage gave rise to an oft-repeated anecdote: When Rachmaninoff played the score for the conductor Nikolai Danilin, Danilin said to him, “Now where on earth are we to find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.” Rachmaninoff recalled later, “Nevertheless he did find them. I knew the voices of my countrymen, and I well know what demands I could make upon Russian basses!” [Quoted in Bertensson and Leyda, op. cit., page 191.]
The sixth movement, an Ave Maria, is often sung as a separate anthem, due undoubtedly to the fact that the basses are not required to sing in their extreme lower range and that Rachmaninoff set the piece with traditional Western time signatures. This is one of the “conscious counterfeits,” but the chant-like theme, particularly when sung by the altos in thirds in the middle of the movement, sounds so much like the real thing that it would be hard to distinguish it from the original melodies employed in other movements.
The Matins portion of the Vigil (starting with the seventh movement) opens with a radiant setting of the opening text of the Gloria in excelsis, combining restraint of expression with a rich choral tone like that of many bells ringing. As usual, the movement ends quietly. A full setting of the Gloria (with the same chant) text comes later, in the twelfth movement, entitled “The Greater Doxology.”
The eighth movement presents psalm texts interspersed with alleluias. Sopranos in three parts and tenors in two parts sing in a high register as the altos and basses sing the znamenny chant with great gusto in unison. The setting is memorable for its rhythmic vigor, and at the climaxes the intensity of tone required pushes the singers’ vocal power to the maximum.
The ninth movement is the centerpiece of the work. It retells the Easter story in a dramatic presentation with innumerable rhythmic and harmonic variations. A particular feature of the movement is the way in which different paragraphs of the text are connected to the repeated refrain with humming. The refrain, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes,” appears always in the same key in this movement. Rachmaninoff later used the znamenny chant in this movement as one of the principal themes in his Symphonic Dances.
The next three movements are Rachmaninoff’s own melodies. Rachmaninoff fans will probably notice that the theme of movement 10 closely resembles the opening theme of his Third Piano Concerto and is in the same key (D minor). This robust melody is sung in octaves, with the performance marking “Strongly. Resolutely. Accenting every note.”
Number eleven, a setting of the Magnificat (Song of Mary), weaves dramatic exclamations into a fabric of quiet meditation. The low basses intone the chant melody but do not sing the refrain, “More honorable than the Cherubim …,” a simple-sounding melody that illustrates Rachmaninoff’s remarkable gift for using the complex rhythms of the text to create memorable choral writing. In spite of this, the movement was composed without time signatures.
The twelfth movement is a more elaborate setting of the Gloria in excelsis Deo and shares the same opening chant as the seventh movement. It concludes with the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us”) in a jubilant, fast-paced setting that is less rhythmically intricate than the setting of the same text in his Liturgy, where 5/8 and 6/8 measures alternate.
Movements 13 and 14 are both Easter hymns and share the same chant. Number 13 is the shortest movement in the entire work (only 17 measures) and serves as an introduction to the fourteenth movement. In this movement we hear the chant melody sung in quarter notes in the tenor part while the sopranos sing the same line in augmentation (half notes) at the beginning of the movement.
The last movement is derived from the Greek text ‘Ti Ipermaho,’ a lively hymn of praise to the Virgin Mary. It offers an animated and radiant conclusion to the Vigil.
The premier performance of the Vigil was on March 10, 1915, and was an immediate success with the public and critics alike. Five additional performances were immediately arranged. According to Rachmaninoff’s biographer, Sergei Bertensson, the first performance gave the composer “an hour of the most complete satisfaction.” [Bertensson & Leyda, op. cit., page 191.]
But history tragically intervened before the work could receive the attention it deserved. The war dragged on with worsening consequences and the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 prevented further performances in Russia except one in Kazan in 1922 and two in Moscow in 1926 in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory. The work did not fare well outside Russia either. An English version supposedly authorized by the composer was published by H.W. Gray in New York in 1920, entitled Songs of the Church: Fifteen Anthems for Mixed Chorus, with a translated text by Winfred Douglas. This edition took enormous liberties with the original notes and rhythms to accommodate English prosody. The worst example can be found in the final movement, a hymn to the Virgin Mary, where Douglas’s translation offered “Heav’n elected chieftain, triumphant victor in our glorious war …” For nearly fifty years the work remained in obscurity, though one Soviet musicologist credited Rachmaninoff’s choral writing with influencing the style of later composers such as Georgi Sviridov and Rodion Shchedrin.
In 1965 the Vigil staged a comeback when the State Academic Choir of Moscow under the direction of Alexander Sveshnikov made a definitive recording of the work on the Melodiya label. Since that seminal recording, many others have appeared, including two excellent American performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale and the Dale Warland Singers. Recent recordings by Russian choirs such as the Choir of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi and the Voronezh Chamber Choir have set new standards of excellence and imagination in the performance of this magnificent piece.
Anthony Antolini

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Où sont les Mugniers d'antan?

The Catholic Church's almost certainly illegal, six-figure involvement in efforts to repeal Maine's same-sex marriage law has certainly highlighted in my own mind my complicated family history with the Roman faith. My parents were married in a Catholic church in 1950, but my mother was an inactive Presbyterian and did not convert. I know my parents were required to receive religious counseling and my mother promised to raise her children as Catholics--a promise she made, as we joked in my family, with one hand and fingers crossed behind her back. My father, who came from a devout Catholic family, had received a Catholic secondary education and had a brother in the priesthood, was quite a thorough backslider at that time and was not moved to press the matter.
I have thought long and hard about why my parents got married in a Catholic church--there is no one living to ask now--and I have concluded it was for my dad's mother's peace of mind. She was a very devout, and had been disabled by multiple strokes. I expect it was very important for her, and hence a kindness.
Despite my mother's crossed fingers, I was baptized Catholic by my uncle, John L. Farrand, Societatis Jesu. Mostly blood triumphed over dogma, I think. Since I was a couple of months old at the time, I had little say in the matter, other than screaming lustily--Uncle Jack was very generous with the baptismal H2O.
Uncle Jack's over-enthusiasm at the baptismal font was uncharacteristic of his kindly, broad-minded interest in and acceptance of the world and, indeed, of his Christianity. According to family legend, my mother grilled Jack early in their acquaintance about what she felt was beyond her grasp in Catholic dogma. Limbo, for example--how could God judge little babies so harshly? Oh, I don't believe that anybody is actually in Limbo, said Jack. What about Purgatory? I don't believe anyone's there either, said Jack.
If my mother had pressed on to inquire about Hell, she would have drawn Jack into repeating his likely source for this line of thinking: a remarkable French priest named Arthur Mugnier. Since Uncle Jack was a lifelong teacher and dévoté of French language and culture, particularly concerning the work and life of Marcel Proust, I am sure he had read French sources about Mugnier (although Mugnier's remarkable journal, covering cultural life in Paris from 1879 to 1939, was not published until 1985, and still awaits translation into English). Abbé Mugnier was the darling both of the old aristocracy of the Faubourg St. Germain in Paris, and also of decadent fin de siècle writers and artists. He was an intimate of Proust, and converted Joris-Karl Huysmans (a naturalist and decadent novelist) to Catholicism. Mugnier was welcome in these diverse corners of French society because he was truly humble, very intelligent, passionately interested in literature and art, and, most importantly, he cared for people as they were, always hoping they would go on to see and to do good.
There are many touching and revealing stories about Abbé Mugnier. Edith Wharton tells several from her own experience:
"I was administering the Sacrament to a dying parishioner," Monsieur l'Abbé said, "and at that moment the poor woman's pet canary escaped from her cage. He flew down, lighted suddenly on her shoulder, and pecked at the Host" [presumably on the woman's tongue, as she struggled to swallow]. "Oh, Monsieur l'Abbé --and what did you do?" said Ms. Wharton. "I blessed the bird," he answered with his quiet smile.
Another is about the plump and rather vain actress who confessed to him (at a soirée) that she spent time gazing at herself naked in a full-length mirror. "Is it a sin?" she asked. "Non, madame," answered Mugnier, "it is simply an error."
These anecdotes, of course, tend to diminish, even to trivialize their subject, as all anecdotes risk doing. While Abbé Mugnier enjoyed the company both of the cultural avant garde and of high society (and was honest with himself, in his journal, in acknowledging this personal vanity), he did not shirk responsibility for the poor and sick in his parish. Wharton also tells this story:
Another day he was talking of the great frost in Paris, when the Seine was frozen over for days, and of the sufferings it had caused among the poor. "I shall never forget the feeling of that cold. On one of the worst nights--or rather at three in the morning, the coldest hour of the twenty-four--I was called out of bed by the sacristan of Sainte Clotilde (his parish), who came to fetch me to take the viaticum to a poor parishioner. The sick man lived a long way off, and oh, how cold we were on the way there, Lalouette and I--yes, the old sacristan's name was Lalouette ('the lark')," he added with a reminiscent laugh.
The play on the name was irresistible, and I exclaimed: "Oh, how tempted you must have been, when he came for you, to cry out: ' 'Tis not the lark, it is the nightingale'..." I broke off, fearing that my quotation might be thought inappropriate; but with his usual calm smile the Abbé answered: "Unfortunately, Madame, we were not in Verona."
While many might find Wharton's witticism callous--Abbé Mugnier and his sacristan had suffered physically and had been on their way to give the last rites to a dying man--Mugnier's answer is an acknowledgment of the quotation and perhaps the kindest of rebukes, but remarkably devoid of condemnation.
Wharton tells another story: "Once, in another vein, he was describing the marriage of two social "climbers" who had invited all of fashionable Paris to their nuptial Mass, and had asked the Abbé (much sought after for these occasions also) to perform the ceremony. At the last moment, when the guests were already assembled, he discovered (what had perhaps been purposely slurred over), that the couple were in some way technically disqualifed for a church marriage. "So," said the Abbé drily, "I blessed them in the sacristy, between two sterilized palms; and of course I could not prevent their assisting at Mass with the rest of the company."
Did the assembled company even know that the good Abbé Mugnier did not marry the couple? One wonders. In any case his exertions are wholly focused on saving them disgrace in front of their invited guests, despite their having deceived him.
Uncle Jack seems to have taken another leaf out of this particular page of the Abbé Mugnier's pastoral playbook. He married my father, a widower, to a divorced Catholic whose first husband was alive. They weren't married in a Catholic church, of course; but Jack signed the marriage license. And I heard him bless the marriage publicly, at my dad's home.
Since I did not learn about Arthur Mugnier until after my uncle Jack had suffered a severe stroke, I did not have an opportunity to ask him whether Mugnier was an important influence on his own sense of what it meant to be a good Catholic and a Christian. But I can attest myself to the fact that I never heard Jack utter a single word in judgment of another person, even when baited or even mocked by others, including my father. Jack's limited free time was largely taken up with visits from former students, who clearly relished his company.
I am very glad that Uncle Jack has passed out of this life and not lived to see what his church is doing this year in Maine. And I also wonder what would have happened to Arthur Mugnier, had Bishop Richard Malone been lord and master of his diocese.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cat Wisdom

"I always sail on French ships. None of that nonsense about women and children first."
--W. Somerset Maugham

Monday, July 14, 2008

Send in the Calvary?

Maine's Christian Civic League seems to have finished licking its wounds after its anti-LGBT referendum drive went belly up last month. Now the CCL is once again promoting Republican far-right candidates. Unless their copy editing improves, however, you have to wonder if their endorsement will help much.

The CCL refers to Bob Nutting, Paul Davis and Kevin Glynn as “The GOP Calvary” [link to it here]. Calvary, of course, is the English name for the place of Jesus' crucifixion; it derives from a Latin translation (Calvariae Locus) of the Greek New Testament translation (Kraniou Topos) of the Aramaic word Gûlgalthâ (Hebrew Golgotha), meaning “Skull-Place”. I trot out all this philology just as a reminder of of how layered and how removed any matter of biblical understanding truly is. And, for the truly curious, Wikipedia offers a nice summary [here] of the reasons some have disputed that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in fact on the site of Calvary.

Anyway, I have thought and thought why the CCL would have christened (sorry) these public servants “The GOP Calvary”. I mean, when metaphorically used, Calvary means a place of torture and suffering. Will these guys be the death of the GOP? Will their campaign bring torture and suffering to the people of Maine? Or, will their sacrifice redeem the party? No, wait! There are three of them. The real question is, who is who?

I leave it to professional journalists to investigate criminal records, all-male dinner parties, and instances of ass-(presumably Democratic) riding within city limits.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Some moving words from Susan Lebel Young of Falmouth, Maine:

Some of my best friends are gay. Trite, yet true. I know some of what gay people hold in their hearts, what makes them laugh and cry. I spend a fair bit of time with them. My Godfather was gay. I have gay cousins, all raised as Roman Catholics. I’ll let a secret out of the closet: they think about the same bittersweet things we do. Human beings are human beings. One of my gay friends teaches high school; he worries that gangs grow while literacy declines. Another of my gay friends runs a non-profit social service agency which tries to find jobs for those who are homeless. She’s troubled by federal and state budget cuts. A gay man I called “Uncle” loved to walk his cocoa-colored dog, and to wash and wax his car.

Some of my favorite young people are gay. One just graduated from dental school, wants to serve inner city populations and hopes soon to repay his student loans. Another works as a certified public accountant, and struggles to balance heavy workloads with life’s demands, which include a Christian Civic League neighbor who leaves hate notes on his door. (What part of Christianity preaches prejudice?) Another thirty-year-old, a deacon in her church, wonders how long her aging sick parents can survive independently and how she will pay for their health care.

I asked one of my beloved gay twenty-somethings, “What is the gay agenda?” He laughed, “When we move into an area, we like to spruce it up. We enjoy beauty. We make green spaces and parks. We plant azaleas and rose gardens. We open nice shops. We paint apartments. We’re happy people. That’s why we’re called gay.”

As a straight girl raised close to gay adults, and as a teenager who worked for a gay couple, I felt society’s intolerance. Now a middle-aged woman, I often hang out with peers, “the gays”. As a mother-teacher-counselor, I see the next generations embrace difference and diversity more Christ-like than some supposed grown-ups. I’ve learned about the lives, joys, sufferings and longings of those Michael Heath would strip of basic civil rights (Has he not tried that at least once? Have we not been-there-done-that?). Here is what I know: Just like us, gay folks go to work, buy food, come home, wash clothes, cook meals, pay bills, and watch the news. Just like you and me, they strive to eat less and exercise more. Just like you and me, they make strong vows to those they love, say “yes” to mutual support, comfort, encouragement and respect, because “since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another” (John:4:11). They yearn to be free of their pain. They do their best to share their gifts in this world.

So I’ll help spread the word not to sign the petition on June 10 for a referendum that would repeal non-discrimination protection for all Maine citizens and end funding for civil rights teams who fight to end harassment. We are the same, “I in them and you in me,” (John 17:23). We birth from one Source, return at death to one Earth and in our human time together struggle with similar mortal questions: How can I love well? How do I live fully? How will I leave a meaningful legacy?

This referendum campaign stands as a huge exception to liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness for all. So I won’t sign. I hope you won’t either. It’s a lone small act. But it counts since, as Mother Theresa said, none of us can do great things, “only small things with great love.” Can we be kind? May we continue to meet and learn. May we all be happy.

Susan Young, MSEd, MSC, LCPC


Saturday, May 31, 2008

Eighth Commandment Watch 2

Reading Michael Heath’s op-ed pieces is like eating soup with a fork—occasional, random bits of substance in a liquid mass of frustration. Pagan Rome, Christian Byzantium and Colonial America are swirled together is this particular minestrone alla puttanesca. If Mr. Heath wants to talk about madness in high places and about people whose “willingness to compromise the truth secured their place within the ruling elite”, then, heaven knows, he has pressing examples very much closer to home.

Mr. Heath is deeply troubled by what he terms “truth squads” keeping company with his signature-gatherers (“dear Christian grandmothers”) at the primary polls on June 10th. I share his disquiet—it’s a sad day for democracy when one has to work very hard to see that one’s fellow citizens are telling the truth.

Mr. Heath is not telling us the truth when he politely refers to “gay activists” and the “gay rights movement” is his op-ed. He prefers to refer to them as “homos” and “trannys”—terms I could find only on pornographic web sites—when he electronically works the crowd from the Christian Civic League’s web site. Just what is Christian and civic about language like that? And just what is Christian and civic about electronically publishing contact information for and pictures of your opponents?

Furthermore, Mr. Heath’s own piece is ample proof of why a little truth-squading is needed. The piece is all about gay marriage, as if that were all his ballot question addressed. Nothing could be further from the truth—one only needs to read the measure to see this. Mr. Heath also wants to repeal all civil rights protections for gays and lesbians, AND ban the attorney general’s civil rights teams in schools, AND ban all legal recognition of same-sex couples and same-sex headed families. Maine already has a law on the books banning recognition of gay marriage—Mr. Heath’s add-on serves no legal purpose there. But gay marriage, of course, is the issue from which he feels he can get the most traction from his supporters.

How convenient for Michael Heath that all these additional features of his initiative slipped his mind. That’s why we need witnesses to the facts to remind him.

Think of it as human truth-o-meters. You can be sure that the dear Christian grandmothers—even the middle-aged male ones in pants—have nothing to fear from this straight, middle-aged, male truth-o-meter in pants. Other than the truth, ringing loud and clear.

MEMO TO MICHAEL HEATH: Consider telling the truth. It will be refreshing; there is a Mosaic Commandment about it. Be a better Christian and a better Jew.

Yukking it up with the Euks

I have a friend from college who really disliked evangelical Christians. This was 35 years ago, so the role of the evangelicals in American society and politics was, of course, completely different. He consistently called them ‘Euks’ (pronounced ‘Yukes’), from Eucharist, I think. Euks was generally preceded by ‘stinking’ or another, less acceptable word ending in –ing.

After reading The Record’s home page this morning, (the online newsletter of Maine’s Christian Civic League), the child in me is sorely tempted to revive Euks. Under the headline “Taxpayers Fund Maine's Homo/Tranny Disease Summit”, CCL “staff” (surely Mike Hein) proceed to dehumanize Maine’s sexual minority populations in what is, even for them, a remarkable way.

I can’t remember the last time I heard the term ‘homo’ used in conversation (perhaps I lead a sheltered life); ‘tranny’ is completely new to me—it seems to be the term of choice for pornographic web sites. In any case, I can’t quite believe that the CCL folks think that this infantile kind of name-calling rallies the troops for them. Or perhaps it’s simply that Misters Hein and Heath are giving rein to their very nasty inner children.

Many other things here, of course, are not quite so childish. It’s quite noticeable, for one thing, that the CCL is shifting its focus to the 'T' in the LGBTQI rainbow. This is exploitative politics, pure and simple. As a transgendered friend put it to me years ago, the T group is small, sails in the wake of the bigger L and G movements, and is unevenly embraced by them. Most of us have gay acquaintances, if not friends; transgender folks are less well-known. It’s easy to set up a straw bogeyman of ‘men in dresses in the ladies’ room’. Frankly, I am more afraid of closeted congressmen in men’s rooms, since all of the transgender folks I know are gentle, nonviolent, and (understandably) rather timid people.

Surely this article’s author must understand the difference between ‘health disparities’ and ‘disease’. Like many minority populations in this country, LGBTI folks suffer from a range of elevated health risks. This is NOT because of their sexual identity, but rather because of risky behaviors that are a consequence of discrimination. Suicide, alcohol and drug use are all conspicuous among these.

Of course, the CCL isn’t concerned about wrecked lives and consequences in behavior of facing bigotry and hatred every day. They seem to view disease and sin in the same light —a personal choice to turn away from God and embrace evil. Clearly, there is no moral imperative to them to improve the health of people who are ‘choosing’ to be ill.

Let’s shift the terms of the discussion for a moment. If the CCL were to make a habit of attending conferences on African-American health disparities (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, obesity, exposure to heavy metals and other toxins), use belittling and bigoted language about this group of people, and focus attention on participants’ frustration and rage at the fact that this disparity exists and has real consequences for African-Americans (Rev. Wright, anyone?), what would happen? Would Michael Heath be offered a regular mainstream media platform? Would he be a standard ‘go-to’ resource?

And one last thing. I am extremely disquieted by the CCL’s ongoing tendency to publish contact information and often pictures of their opponents. What purpose does this serve, other than making them more likely targets of harassment or physical harm? This must stop.

Memo to CCL: Gay and lesbian people do exist. They have a right to be healthy, too. They have a right to be safe.