Archive for the ‘Family’ category

It Is What The Holy One Did For Me When We Came Out Of Egypt

March 28, 2013

It’s Passover, as I’m sure y’all know, and tonight we’ll be heading over to a friend’s house for a distinctly unorthodox (and late) second seder.

The seder — the ritual Passover meal — actually follows a Hellenistic form:  it’s a symposium, a feast in which the gathering converses into the night on some topic of interest or importance.


When a symposium is a seder the focus is on liberation, on justice, on the meaning of freedom and on the obligations that such a transformation imposes on those who are no longer slaves.  Most important, by long tradition and, in the best of my family’s customs, the Passover story is one to be told and re-imagined in the present tense.  That’s the meaning of the phrase in the traditional text (the Haggadah) cited in the title to this post.  Every year we are enjoined to tell the tale and to discuss its meaning understanding that we ourselves took part in the exodus.  We talk through the ritual of getting up on our own hind legs and moving (fitfully, incompletely) along that long arc that bends towards justice — us, ourselves — with no “as if” caveats involved.

I thought of all this reading Tom Junod’s post over at Charles Pierce’s shop on the gay marriage battle.  In it, he writes of his 28 year marriage, and his understanding that no one else’s nuptials constrain his own.  He writes, rightly, “like anyone who has ever been married, I understood that whatever threat there was to my marriage came from within rather than from without.”

That’s true — or rather, it’s a commonplace, obvious, the baseline of a humane understanding of love, connection and commitment.  But Junod is after more than a well-spoken penetrating glimpse of the obvious.  The meat of his piece lies with his account of the way in which his straight family is, in the eyes of those fighting the bad fight against same-sex marriage, gay as the day is long:


…my wife and I are not of the same sex; I am a man and she is a woman. But we are infertile. We did not procreate. For the past nine years, we have been the adoptive parents of our daughter; we are legally her mother and father, but not biologically, and since Tuesday have been surprised and saddened to be reminded that for a sizable minority of the American public our lack of biological capacity makes all the difference — and dooms our marriage and our family to second-class status.

…..before long I started hearing an argument based on biology or, as groups such as the National Organization for Marriage would have it, “nature.” For all its philosophical window dressing — for all its invocation of natural law, teleological destiny, and the “complementary” nature of man and woman — this argument ultimately rested on a schoolyard-level obsession with private parts, and with what did, or did not, “fit.” There was “natural marriage” and “unnatural” marriage, and it was easy to tell the difference between them by how many children they produced. A natural marriage not only produced children; it existed for the purpose of producing children. An unnatural marriage not only failed to produce children; it resorted to procuring children through unnatural means, from artificial insemination to surrogacy to, yes, adoption.

To be clear:  Junod is not pulling a Portman.  He makes it plain that his conviction in favor of gay civil rights derives not from his personal skin in the game as discovered in the “gayness” of his family, but from the idea limned above, that one’s marriage is one’s own business, and the opportunity to experience marriage is a universal right.

No, the point Junod makes here is that the recent arguments have distilled the anti-civil-rights position to its most craven and ugly core. To those seeking to bar same-sex civil equality, the only acceptable form of marriage is one in which children emerge the old fashioned way.  It is one in which the core function for the woman involved is as an incubator.  It is one which denies every other possibility that two people could form a lasting commitment to each other centered on affection, on daily business of making a life across all the dimensions we traverse in this world.  As Junod re-articulates, the campaign against gay marriage is not mere selective disdain for one class of people.  It is (as all civil rights battles are at the root) an affront to everyone‘s claim to full humanity.



Again, that’s the nature of civil rights:  when you deprive people of rights to their own labor, their own person, those slaves suffer the worst of the damage by far — but no one gets out of that relationship unscathed.  Masters and indifferent bystanders suffer diminuition too.  When you deny access to the vote, and hence to power, and hence to practical autonomy…well, hell.  It’s not as if Jim Crow brought the south a dynamic economy or cultural life.

And, as Junod writes, when you demand that some among us must do without the full emotional, spiritual and public benefits and obligations of marriage because only baby factories need apply?  The contraction of human possibility is obvious, and universal.

This all struck home the more because like Junod, my wife and I are adoptive parents.  I try never to discuss personal matters on the ‘tubes unless they belong to me exclusively.  My wife’s life and that of my son are theirs; I try not to trespass there in any matter of substance.  So I’m not going to provide any context, any further information, nothing, except that one fact, and it’s bearing on this issue.

I confess, I hadn’t been paying close attention to the “marriage-must-produce-children” nonsense until reading Junod just now.  First — it seemed purely risible, just monumentally stupid.  Menopausal women and low sperm-count-men shouldn’t marry?–and so on.  The claim reduces itself to absurdity without any external effort.  And second, who needed that deep foolishness to be persuaded of the case for marriage equality?  If I had a damascene moment, it came years ago, in the nineties, when I was working on a book in Berlin, and passed every day the unobtrusive triangular plaque on the side of the Nollendorfplatz U-bahn station, memorializing the 25,000 gay men transported to the camps under the Nazis.  If anything can wake one to the implications of any denial of full civil status, that one does. And there’s always the my-enemy’s-enemies test to fall back on too.

But Junod’s post reminded me of the deeper point.  It’s not that by virtue of being an adoptive parent I share in the stigma that anti-marriage-equality are trying to paint on my gay friends, neighbors, fellow-citizens. Rather, this is what the Hagadah said to me this Monday; what it will say again (eccentrically) tonight.  The fact that my son came to me from beyond the walls of biology is my joy, and it reminds me that this is happening right now — to me as I leave Egypt.

Try to deny that, try to diminish me to some fraction of myself, my procreative possibility or whatever, and I need to demand justice for me and my family.  And, as always, it can’t be justice unless it is not for me alone.  To paraphrase again the words of the old text:

This year we may all be slaves.

Next year may we all be free.

Images:  Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Last Supperc.1750

Jean-Marc Nettier, Madame de Clermont as a Sultana, 1733.

How To Spot A Bad Parent: Romney Family Case Study (1)

October 19, 2012

You know you have a problem when even the first runner up in the John McCain Get Off My Lawn Steeplechase — Tommy Thompson — has a better handle on setting standards for his kids than does the Party of Family Values nominee for president, W. Mitt Romney.

I know that the Thompson fils “apology” for going birther on the President was weak sauce indeed, but still, Thompson père was sufficiently engaged to assert a family norm:

Later, however, the campaign sent a statement: “The Governor has addressed this with his son, just like any father would do. Jason Thompson said something he should not have, and he apologizes.”

Flash forward to aspiring punk Tagg Romney, and that now-familiar bit of macho posturing (via GOS):

Bill LuMay, WPTF talk radio:What is it like for you to hear the President of the United States call your dad a liar?

Tagg Romney: Well, you want to jump out of your seat and rush down to the debate stage and take a swing at him.

Before getting into the meat of the parenting failure here, let me point you to a completely imagined footnote to capture my contempt for the kind person who utters such utterly safe, after-the-fact macho stylings.*

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been killing it on his blog lately, nails the brute fact that lies behind Tagg’s stated desire to beat down that African-American guy who had the temerity to speak to his father without the requisite deference.

It’s worth trying to imagine any black man associated with a credible black candidate for the presidency, joking about beating down the incumbent president of the United States. Racism isn’t just in what you do and don’t say, but in the terrain you walk. It is baked in the cake — a fact which is hard to understand when you are the party of white people.

In a follow up post, Ta-Nehisi allows Romney’s defenders to make his point. Katrina Trinko, writing at National Review, presented an alternative argument to rebut claims of racism.  Her take: lighten up, everyone. It was just a joke.  Both sides do it:

In Wisconsin, I asked her [Michelle Obama] if she was offended by Bill Clinton’s use of the phrase ‘fairytale’ to describe her husband’s characterisation of his position on the Iraq war. At first, [Michelle] Obama responded with a curt ‘No’. But, after a few seconds, she affected a funny voice. ‘I want to rip his eyes out!’ she said, clawing at the air with her fingernails. One of her advisers gave her a nervous look. ‘Kidding!’ Obama said. ‘See, this is what gets me into trouble.’

Ta-Nehisi’s response:

To point out the obvious, the phrase “black man” was not accidental. In America black men, specifically, enjoy the stereotype of being hyper-violent — one which regrettably spans the political spectrum. Michelle Obama is many things. “Black man” is not one of them.

Obviously (at least I hope so) I’m with Ta-Nehisi here.

Tagg’s bluster comes directly out of that haze of untouchability and unchecked agency that is the point of secure privilege.  Only those with unencumbered access to power get to say stuff like that — and the “boys will be boys” line of those making excuses for the insufferable Tagg is exactly the form in which privilege maintains the world view that makes such unearned goods available to those on top.  One can’t imagine a black man getting away with bragging about wanting to strike a white president because to do so violates all we know in our bones about the way power and authority is divided in this society…which, of course, is exactly what makes Obama so important, and so threatening to those for whom the end of the assumption of white privilege is unacceptable.

There’s more than just race at play, to be sure.  Class is a big thing here, at least as I see it.  As I say below, we’ve all encountered a Tagg — all noise and fury after it’s wholly safe to bluster. But there’s more than just barroom courage here (or, in deference to Tagg’s beliefs, I guess I should say soda-fountain fortitude).

Tagg Romney has never had to face a moment of material uncertainty — much less want — in his life.  He spent his life in the company of those similarly fortunate, or those who defer to his material and status advantages.  He gets to think that whacking someone — anyone, not just the President — is perfectly routine reaction to his frustration because no one in his charmed circle has ever dared to school the young prince.

You don’t get this kind of nonsense unless the speaker is at some critical emotional level unaware of the meaning his words — and such obliviousness is born of the bubble in which class advantage secures and imprisons you.

And that’s where the Romney parents’ failure comes in.

I known some seriously wealthy people, and count as good friends some of their number.  I know their kids.  I’ve seen what you do when you want them to grow up right.

The essence of the lesson:  manners.

Simple as that. (And yeah, I know I’m channeling my inner fogey.  Live with it.)

Regard for others; awareness of the debt of gratitude and obligation of respect due to those whom you encounter along the way; acceptance of the duty of courtesy you owe both strangers and your own — hell, just remembering to say thank you for the most anonymous of services, the busser filling your water glass or whatever.

The purpose is not simply to reward a favor done, nor to recognize some stranger momentarily encountered, nor even to inculcate an awareness of the degree to which you depend on, say, those who clothe you and feed you and keep you warm (though all of these are damned important).

Rather, the ultimate reason parents try to teach their kids the basics of social interaction is the same behind the instruction in basic training:  the sergeant puts you through the repetition of drill not because troops in combat use parade-ground manoeuvres, but because the system aims  to create a world view, a set of mental reactions that don’t have to be thought; they’re just part of who you are.  And as a parent, you — I! — want my kid just to know that other people matter, and never have to step through to the understanding that those folks out there are real, and that they exist in relationships to him that impose obligations on everyone involved.**

Tagg somehow missed that lesson.  The words are his, and he owns whatever scorn and disgust he earns with them.  But Tommy Thompson understood at least this much:  that it was his job to say both that his son’s words were not acceptable: not as public discourse, and — crucially — not as part of his own family culture.

Mitt’s reaction to Tagg’s tantrum?


I’ll leave it to others to decide what this tells us about a man who would be president.

*Here it is:  anyone who’s been out and about even a little has run into a guy like Tagg.  He’s the fellow with store-bought abs who’s watched the entire Mel Gibson filmography who when he gets really, really mad, throws his chest out, spreads his arms wide, fists forming, bends his elbows — ready to grab — and tells his friends “hold me back!”

And then again:  “really guys, I’m ready to go for him, better hold me back.  Hold me.”

And then his makes his  strain and his face twists.  He shouts something and his buddies tug a little on him.  He shrugs, as if breaking a way — but not too hard; never too hard. And then he lets himself be led away, telling anyone in earshot how that other fellow was lucky, lucky, that the gang wouldn’t let him get into it.

Chickenhawk, in other words. Coward, in a party that seems to thrive on an endless supply of those hollow men who talk the talk but never walked the walk.(Why yes, five-deferment-shoot-your-friend-in-the-face-Dick Cheney, I’m looking at you. Why do you ask.  And at your codpiece too, Mr. Bush.)

Tagg’s a punk, and all I can think when I look at his image is how much I’d like to take his lunch money.

****An aside:  my son came home from school yesterday telling me about how he and his best friend were trying to get a couple of other kids they know to stop taunting and goading their classmates.  He was upset that the teachers monitoring recess weren’t on the case, but he wasn’t letting it slide to them either.  I couldn’t have been more proud. (Though my wife did send off an immediate email to the proper folks, of course.)

Images: Thomas Eakin, Between Rounds, 1899

J. W. M. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840.  I think I’ve used this painting before, but hell — it’s a truly great work of art, and I believe it’s important to remember as best we can the sustained, lethal violence at the heart of the history of race in America.  Turner’s picture does that better than any words of mine could.  So you get to look at it again.

God Bless The Child (Or Not…Depending)

June 14, 2011

First the good news:

Growing numbers of gay couples across the country are adopting, according to census data, despite an uneven legal landscape that can leave their children without the rights and protections extended to children of heterosexual parents…

Same-sex couples are explicitly prohibited from adopting in only two states — Utah and Mississippi — but they face significant legal hurdles in about half of all other states, particularly because they cannot legally marry in those states.

Despite this legal patchwork, the percentage of same-sex parents with adopted children has risen sharply. About 19 percent of same-sex couples raising children reported having an adopted child in the house in 2009, up from just 8 percent in 2000, according to Gary Gates, a demographer at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The overall numbers are still relatively small.  The Times piece reports that the 65,000 adopted kids living in gay-headed households account for 4% of the total.  But the point is that (a) kids who need love and care are gettng it, and (b) in another “both sides are not the same moment” there is increasing recognition of and support for, essentially, the ordinariness of same-sex families, up to and including from the administration of that known enemy of teh gay, President Obama:

The Obama administration has noted the bigger role that gays and lesbians can play in adoptions. The commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Bryan Samuels, sent a memo to that effect to national child welfare agencies in April.

“The child welfare system has come to understand that placing a child in a gay or lesbian family is no greater risk than placing them in a heterosexual family,” Mr. Samuels said in an interview.

The bad news:  in many states, same sex households are still the families that dare not speak their names.  Arizona, for example, continuing its campaign to supplant Mississippi as the most benighted state in the union, set into law a principle of discrimination against same sex adoptive parents.

More generally, bars to same-sex marriage produce obligate single-parented children.  Why?

Because in states that prohibit the marriage of gay and lesbian couples, it is a common feature that two unrelated people may not jointly adopt.  In those states — the Times focuses on examples from Ohio — one half of the couple or the other adopts, and the other just kind of hangs around, legally speaking.

Which is what produces such terrible threats to the American family as this:

The Leeses took turns. Ray adopted three — two who were originally from Haiti and a baby — and Matt is completing an adoption of five siblings whose drug-addicted mother could not care for them.

“When we first considered it, we thought, people are going to think we are crazy for having eight kids,” said Matt Lees, 39. But they did not want to split the siblings and after careful thought, decided to take them.

…It was hard for them as two fathers at first. Their eldest daughter, 6 at the time, cried and asked who would cook and do her hair. But those days are long past. And though the family is a curiosity in their neighborhood — two white men driving eight black children in a large Mercedes minivan — they are not alone. There are at least two other gay families raising adopted children nearby…

“It was the best way we could think of spending the next 20 years of our lives,” he said.

But of course, it is out of the question to provide this family the legal structure that actually gives kids the maximum protection against the chance and hazard of real life.  Fortunately, the Lees are clever as well as (on the reporting here) exemplary human beings, and so they are taking care to guard their children from both random threats and the hostility of a state, that on the face of it would rather kids suffer than thrive in the “wrong” home.  Their arrangements aren’t perfect, but the couple is doing what Ohio law now allows:

They bind their two legally distinct families together with custody agreements. They do not provide full parental rights, however, because like many states, Ohio does not allow second-parent adoptions by unmarried couples unless the first parent renounces his or her right to the child. They have to maintain two family health insurance policies.

If folks — not naming names here — but if folks actually possessed family values, among such precepts would be included the recognition that parents willing to devote themselves to children in need are heroes.  They’re people to be celebrated — and supported, to the full extent that law and communities can.  Just sayin.

(Also too:  Yglesias has a good bit up today on another example of GOP love of the family whilst hating, you know, actual families — this time on the subject of actually feeding children in need.)

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image:  Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Jan Pellicorne and his son Caspar, c. 1634

Pure Family Happiness: I Should Age So Well/Happy Birthday, Bob Seidman/Sunday Night Tuneful Optimism Before Reality Comes Crashing In: Marley-Hopper-Marley Edition

March 1, 2010

We celebrated my father-in-law’s 90th birthday this weekend.  (The actual day was last Wednesday.)

Bob was born in February 24, 1920, just three and a half months before my own father was. There were odd near-intersections that followed that coincidence of birth years:  they were classmates — but did not know each other — at Harvard, class of ’41.  Still, they must have passed close by — both men counted among their acquaintences/friends the historian of technology/American Studies Leo Marx, for example.

They both had plans after graduation — my dad signed up for graduate school in Chinese history, which he ultimately completed, to good effect, (and yes, I’m inordinately proud of him, and have not begun to pay the full measure of my filial duties to him, but that’s for another time), and as for Bob…

…Well Bob was and is much smarter than your average bear.  (See this if you aren’t old enough to catch the reference.)

He planned to become a teacher, and in October, 1941 enrolled at the Graduate Teachers College of Winnetka, Illinois (as he wrote later to his kids, a school “known to a very select few as “the Harvard of Winnetka, Illinois”).  But he grasped the reality beyond the ocean barriers that muffled American senses of urgency, and so, just before heading west, he took the examination for an officer’s commission in the Coast Guard (then a unit in the Navy)

Why did he do this?  Especially given his politics, which were and are on the left, and as anti-war in a general sense as  you can get?  Because, he told his daughter, my wife, once, it was already obvious to him that someone had to be prepared to kill Germans.

He was salty as hell — he’d been sailing since more or less the time he could walk, and was an excellent offshore navigator — and he passed, but did not receive word of a commission by December 7.  So he decided to head to the local Navy recruiting office to sign up any way he could.  Facing the crush of eager volunteers, the recruiters told him to check with the Coast Guard to see what was up — and he found that his commission had arrived from DC literally ten minutes earlier.  He was sworn in on the spot, and proceeded to have a real war.

Bob, the gentlest of men as I know him, served on the North Atlantic convey runs — on his first trip to Reykjavik to meet up with his ship, he sailed on a convey that hit a wolf pack, and arrived safely on one of seven vessels of the thirty four that left the US, and he helped shepherd three more convoys through wolf pack attacks on that duty.

Then, in 1944, he took over command of LST 767, which he led through several island invasions in the Pacific, the great typhoon of ’45, the kamikaze threat, and VJ day.  In that duty, he had another near miss with my dad, at the battle of Leyte Gulf — my dad was a Japanese-language officer on Admiral Kincaid’s staff on the flagship; Bob was landing troops on Leyte Island; and, as an added coincidental bonus, the father of one of our closest friends was flying a torpedo bomber of the decks of one off the jeep carriers in the action that saved my dad and Bob from the Japanese battleship task force that aimed to blow the landing group out of the water.

Along the way, Bob saw all he needed of violent death, death by drowning, by exposure, by blunt trauma or overpressure.  He came back from the war with a renewed, or never-flagged urgency for social justice, along with a temporary surcease to any wanderlust.  He married Ann (Wilcox) Seidman, his sweetheart from before the war, started a family, went to law school, and started a conventional law practice in CT, whilst co-founding an unconventional interracial co-housing community on Long Island Sound.

Boredom with the law side of things led to unwary conversation at a cocktail party in the early ’60s, which led to a career first teaching law in Africa sponsored by the Ford Foundation, then, with his economist wife, Ann, an intellectual passion for the use of law as an instrument of development and social change, and finally, the creation of an approach to legal drafting aimed at giving developing nations the tools with which to make laws that could do what those enacting them sought to achieve.

That idea turned into a UN and USAID sponsored third or fourth career travelling the world in partnership with Ann to new and emerging democracies (and anyone else that cared to listen) helping them think about the nuts and bolts of making law.  Their travels ranged across Asia and Africa; Bob only stopped showing up in the Vietnams, Khazakistans, Bhutans and South Africas — and the one Bagdad –of the world in the last three or four years.  (Ann, a mere 84, still takes the show on the road.)  The both of them are teaching BU law students right now and more from around the world via a distance program — when Bob shows up in class on Tuesday, he will be 90 years and 6 days old.

All of which is to say, this is a man who has seen if not the worst we can do to each other, acts much closer to that worst than I have, or hope I ever shall…and has spent many decades of a long life trying to help folks not to repeat the error.  I should do half as well…

Not to mention that he’s been a heck of a father in law, and a proud (if occasionally somewhat stunned) grandfather to the last of his grandchildren, my son, whom Bob first met a few weeks after his 80th birthday.  Not to mention the fact that he has proved extremely tolerant of his mostly land-bound and power-tool impaired son-in-law who, for all his patient attempts to instruct him, still cannot reliably tie a bowline when called upon.

So, happy birthday, Bob Seidman.  You are an emblem and an exemplar.  (And congratulations to you, Ann, without whose intellectual and emotional partnership there is no doubt that Bob could not have come up with a fraction of what he and you have done together.)

And on that note:  I’m not going to start my week thinking how gruesome our politics are, how bankrupt and morally contemptible so many of our GOP-aligned friends have become (and I’m not even going to rehearse the conversations I’ve been having in my head with the too-numerous folks like these, to whom I merely want to echo Army Secretary Joseph N. Welch’s question to Joe McCarthy:  “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”).

Instead, I’m going to think of Bob’s life, his work, still ongoing, the work to be done yet, and the pleasures of family of which I was reminded when I broke bread (actually, boneless leg of lamb stuffed with a ground veal and prune pate) with twenty people, just last night, three generations, starting and ending the evening with champagne, with eighty years of experience separating and joining Bob to my own kid, a grand evening in celebration of a life that evokes all the fabric of astonishing history, but is present, and lived, and in which, right here, a wife and children and spouses, and their children may share and share alike.

So, to that thought I offer this bit of music which, for all its associations of pain and struggle, and wrongs overcome, if not always righted, remains for me as sweet and hopeful as it ever could be.