Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Father of the Bride

My daughter Mae got married this weekend. That gave me a special status as father of the bride. But exactly what that means is not so clear.

The 1991 comedy “Father of the Bride” starring Steve Martin, and its predecessor from 1950 starring Spencer Tracy, portrayed these men as foolish protectors of their adult daughters, only slowly reconciled to losing them to their future sons-in-law. That wasn’t an attractive model for me, but it was based on widely accepted ideas.

For centuries fathers have given away their daughters to new husbands. That ritual reflected the idea that women were not independent beings, but for their whole lives dependent upon men. Marriage represented a moment of transition, when a father handed over responsibility for his daughter to her husband.

This transfer of responsibility for a woman was also symbolized by changing her name from her father’s to her husband’s. The question of whether women should change their names at marriage became controversial in the 1970s, when many women influenced by the feminist movement decided to keep their names.

It’s hard to find out how frequently women have kept their names since then: you can read quite different percentages from different studies. An academic paper says around one in five over the past couple of decades, with a slight decrease since 2000, while a Facebook study estimates about one third. When women talk about making that decision, they often describe the social pressure to change their names. The phrase we use to label a women’s birth name reveals the ancient thinking behind this tradition: the words “maiden name” imply women’s virginal state before marriage.

Mae is 30 years old, and didn’t need or want anyone to give her away. She and Ben had developed pretty definite ideas about how their wedding should be celebrated. They wanted to get married in the woods of northern Wisconsin, to eat homemade foods, to have wedding pies instead of a cake, to dance to a musical playlist they put together. They wanted every element of the ceremony to display the equality of their relationship. They wanted fun rather than formality.
The weekend was a family event. Not only did third cousins and third cousins of third cousins come from all over to celebrate their wedding, but they also baked and cooked and set up and cleaned up. Their friends created silly games to play outdoors on the wedding afternoon. In fact, weddings are two-family events, when groups of people, who may have never met, find themselves joined together by matrimony. Members of both families pitched in, inspired by this do-it-yourself approach and joyous for their opportunities to participate.

My role as father of the bride, of course in tandem with my wife, was to facilitate those plans: arrange the food they wanted to eat; rent the tents they wanted so guests could eat outside; buy paper plates and plastic spoons and vinyl tablecloths; procure a generator to run lights and sound system on the lake shore; and write a few checks.

Of course, that’s not enough. The father of the bride is expected to address the wedding party and the guests with words of love and wisdom. There are countless websites offering advice to fathers on how to give a wedding speech. They are strong on well-phrased platitudes, and thus not very useful, except to display the many themes that a father could express.

Generic phrases were not able to express my feelings about this wonderful milestone in Mae’s and Ben’s life. Ultimately, my status as father of the bride depended for its meaning on my daughter. For her, as for me, following traditions is less important than making her own decisions about the role she wanted me to play. Being father of the bride is nothing more than continuing to be a father. That role doesn’t end with a wedding. Nobody is lost or given away. Strong women don’t need protection. I was delighted to support her thoughtful choices, to welcome a new set of relatives, to carry on being a father, a man’s most joyous role.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 12, 2014

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Politics Are Not That Important

Here in the northern Wisconsin woods, life seems simpler. Perhaps the woods and the lake and the birds allow me to see some things more clearly. Here’s a woodsy insight – politics are not so important.

Certainly for some people, politics make all the difference. Gay couples waiting to get married, people unable to get health insurance before the Affordable Care Act, and the long-term unemployed – the quality of their lives are directly affected by political decisions at the national level. Members of the armed forces are crucially concerned with our interventions in foreign wars. The continuing uncertainty about federal economic policy affects business decision-makers big and small.

But for most people most of the time, the political controversies which so agitate television news reporters, internet bloggers and radio screamers, are merely background noise. For example, many political commentators write obsessively about taxes. They claim that people’s most significant decisions, such as where they will live, are based on tax rates. Over my lifetime, I have talked with hundreds of people, young, mature, and old, about where they will live and to where they might want to move. People move to be near relatives, to take a new job, to go to college, and to seek a different climate. Financial considerations often play a role. But I have never had a conversation about moving that involved tax rates.

Guns are another political issue which occupies outsized territory in our public lives. A small minority of Americans appears to believe that their happiness depends on being able to carry guns everywhere, even in schools and churches. A smaller number of our fellow citizens have lost their lives to heavily armed crazies. For most of us, however, the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment is a mainly theoretical question.

Our daily lives won’t be influenced by gun laws until the weapons enthusiasts start showing up everywhere we go ready to shoot anything that moves. Maybe by that time the majority, who would feel safer if guns were kept at home, will regain control of this debate.

The issues which do affect us most closely are rarely discussed and barely seem political. Filling potholes, fixing bridges and keeping parks open can make our daily routines safer and more enjoyable. Because they are less susceptible to partisan passions, they get less attention. If polls were taken about whether we want our roads kept in good repair, the left-right divisions would seem less important.

The things we wake up thinking about are rarely political. In daily life, politics fall far behind meal planning, job tasks, recreation, or school activities. We’ll ask ourselves whether we need to put gas in the car a hundred times more often than what we think about gasoline taxes. Most people’s lives are barely affected by Supreme Court decisions, Congressional debates or Presidential decrees.

So why do we get so exercised about politics? Why let the things that divide us take up so much emotional space?

I don’t have good answers. I do have a suggestion, drawn from my experience of being called every name in the book by people who only know a little about my politics and nothing about me. Let’s focus more on what is really important in our lives and recognize that politics can be a noisy distraction. We’ll find more agreement and get more done.

Steve Hochstadt
Springbrook, WI
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, August 5, 2014

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Praying With Women

What is the worst offense that a religious person can commit? Murder? Rape? Grand theft auto? Nope. According to Catholic Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, the worst thing a Catholic can do is attend a worship service led by a woman.

As Caryn Riswold wrote two weeks ago, Bishop Paprocki has threatened to excommunicate any Catholic who attends a worship service of the Holy Family Inclusive Catholic Community, led by Rev. Mary Keldermans. She was recently ordained as part of the international Roman Catholic Womanpriests movement. One does not have to participate actively in this heretical worship to incur this extreme penalty: attendance alone is sufficient.

The Catholic Church does not automatically excommunicate murderers or rapists or other criminals. That punishment, the worst which the Church can impose, means the offender is excluded from the religious community and may not take communion. It is reserved for the worst offenders – those who pray the wrong way.

Organized and institutional religions all regard praying the wrong way as a capital offense. Deadly religious wars within a faith have a long history. The efforts of a few Christians, like Martin Luther, to reform some of the beliefs and practices of the organized Church in Europe in the 16th century touched off centuries of warfare between Catholics and Protestants.

The schism within the Russian Orthodox Church a bit later developed out of an argument about the proper way to make the sign of the cross, among other similar questions about daily ritual practice. The result was centuries of persecution and exile for those so-called Old Believers, who refused to change their ways.

Jews have done the same thing, although with less violence. Some German Jews tried to bring changes to worship practices in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as translating prayers from Hebrew into German. That caused a split among European Jews into Orthodox and Reform wings. Orthodox Jews continue to control religious observance in Israel, and do not consider reform Jews to be sufficiently Jewish.

The deadly rampages of Muslims in Iraq against other Muslims who worship in a different way, Sunnis vs. Shiites, are making headlines again. Boko Haram terrorists are killing other Muslims in Nigeria.

Murderous hatred between different religions is even greater. Across the world and across the centuries, Christians have killed Jews and Muslims, while Muslims and Hindus have fought in southern Asia. In and around Israel, being Muslim or Jewish is enough to condemn a person to death by the other side. Radical Muslims have declared holy war, jihad, against Westerners.

So Bishop Paprocki is following a long tradition. His anger has been provoked by a very modern issue which divides religious traditionalists of many faiths from reformers – the role of women. When the world’s major religions were institutionalized, human societies subordinated women and excluded them from all leadership positions. Theories and practices were developed to justify women’s unequal place, such as that women represented sexual temptation or that menstruation made them unclean or that they were biologically and intellectually inferior. Over the past two centuries, these social assumptions have been demonstrated to be unscientific and illogical. As our social and political organizations have slowly and certainly reluctantly adapted to this revolution in gender understanding, so have some religious organizations. In many faiths, women now play roles once reserved exclusively for men. The theological dogmas which seemed unchangeable have changed.

Catholicism has changed, too. Until the Holocaust, Catholic dogma considered Jews as Christ-killers, although most Catholics were able to treat Jews as fellow humans, rather than religious scapegoats. Since the Holocaust, Catholic teachings about Jews have changed. That will happen about women, too, perhaps not in my lifetime, but eventually. Reform will be fought by extreme traditionalists, who will use all the weapons at their disposal, including excommunication.

So go ahead – kill your neighbor. You may have to pay an earthly penalty, but eternal salvation can still be achieved. But don’t walk into the wrong church, especially if you see a woman in the pulpit. Then the wrath of the organized church or mosque or temple will be visited upon you.

Steve Hochstadt
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 29, 2014

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russia Has Lost Ukraine

Not long ago, Republicans were openly critical of President Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine. Their argument was that Obama was projecting weakness by not responding more forcefully, presumably with some military force. Former VP Dick Cheney urged “military options”, and Senator Ted Cruz spoke of coddling and appeasing our enemies. In March, Senator John McCain said our foreign policy was “feckless”. Senator Lindsey Graham called Obama “a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression”. In May, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn urged giving weapons to Ukraine’s military, as had McCain earlier.

A repeated Republican theme was how Russian leader Vladimir Putin was superior to Obama. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said in March, “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles.” One month ago, the National Review said Putin was winning in Ukraine, calling his policy there a “masterpiece”. Republicans seemed almost gleeful in their claims that the Russian aggressors were winning, perhaps because they identified with Putin, both having Obama as a common enemy.

How different things look now. Three weeks ago, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko signed the trade agreement with the European Union that was the cause of the revolution which brought him to power. When his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, refused in November to sign that pact, bowing to heavy pressure from Putin, months of protests in Kiev led to the current crisis. Yanukovych fled, a new Ukrainian government was formed, and pro-Russian separatists revolted in the east.

Poroshenko’s movement back toward the EU and away from Russia is precisely what Putin, in his heavy-handed way, was trying to prevent. Moldova and Georgia, former Soviet territories that Putin has been trying to keep in a Russian orbit, also signed agreements with the EU. Poroshenko said that Ukraine would eventually become part of the EU.

Then Ukrainian forces, without American weapons, began to show some muscle. Since its creation as an independent country in 1991, Ukraine has engaged in zero military actions. It is not surprising that the Ukrainian military initially seemed unprepared to face Russian-equipped separatists led by Russian infiltrators, backed up by the threat of a Russian invasion. But two weeks ago, the separatists were driven out of a stronghold in Slavyansk by the newly muscular Ukrainian military. As they retreated to Donetsk, they blew up bridges behind them to slow down their pursuers. You can see this on YouTube. That’s a sure sign of desperation, likely to anger the local population who care about the continued functioning of their economy.

These were major setbacks for Russia, but not as serious as the latest crisis. Using Russian weapons, the separatists shot down a Malaysian passenger plane, killing 298 people, mostly Dutch citizens. Right now the shouts of “You did it,” and “No, we didn’t,” are flying back and forth, but the eventual outcome is already clear.

Unwilling to give up their anti-Obama preaching, some Republicans continue to blame him for everything. Those efforts begin at the absurd: Allen West’s rant that “298 souls on MH17 have paid the price for Obama’s ‘flexibility’”. But more mainstream Republicans kept repeating their criticisms of Obama, rather than recognizing how this incident shifts the Ukrainian situation.

On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry offered the fullest indictment of Russian complicity: “We know for certain that the separatists have a proficiency that they’ve gained by training from Russians as to how to use these sophisticated SA-11 systems.” Evidence shows that Russia recently delivered the missiles across the border. The Ukrainian government released recordings of the separatists telephoning Russia about shooting down the plane and a video showing the missile unit returning to Russia after the plane crashed.

Putin will be playing defense for the foreseeable future. The EU, Russia’s biggest trading partner, has thus far been reluctant to follow President Obama’s lead in imposing economic sanctions. Now Germany, England and France have agreed to take a stronger stance against Russia.

It turns out that Ukraine’s military is able to push the separatists out without the provocative addition of American weapons or soldiers. It turns out that the separatists’ initial popularity in east Ukraine is not likely to last. It turns out that Obama’s patience beats Putin’s aggression. It turns out that Republicans anxious to score partisan points against the President, the same Republicans who cheered President Bush on when he invaded Iraq, offer only dangerous foreign policy ideas.

It turns out that letting the Ukrainians deal with their own crisis was the best idea of all.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 22, 2014