The Gates

I went to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s huge Central Park installation today. Tomorrow they take it down and I didn’t want to miss it. I had the following three reactions in quick succession while walking through the orange canvas arches:
1) Big effing deal.
2) In sheer quantity and scope, impressive.
3) Bored now.
The best thing about “The Gates” was seeing the hordes of humans who turned out on this beautifully sunny, cold day. It’s nice to see the city drawing so many tourists, and to see so many thousands enjoying the Park.

Book Review: Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace

Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace recounts in time-shifting chapters the author’s depression, pharmaceutical cure, and subsequent formative experience as a freelance war correspondent reporting from the siege of Sarajevo in 1993-4. The parallel stories are interesting and vividly told. But readers expecting something heavy, along the lines of William Styron’s depression memoir Darkness Visible, will be in for a surprise. Falk’s fast pace, breezy style and sense of humor make this relatively short book a quick and worthwhile read.

John Falk had at least two advantages over many depression sufferers. First, he had a large and supportive family. Second, his mother, having dealt with the illness previously in her family, appreciated his sufferings and tried unceasingly to help. The author’s relatively good luck is the reader’s as well, for it causes his story to shine an unusually clear light on depression’s most insidious aspect: the way it directs the victim to blame himself, to feel his pain and detachment as a personal failing rather than an illness, and to cut himself off from potential sources of help.

I knew I had a big problem… but never once did I think even the word depression. To me, it was the life I was leading, a life in serious need of an overhaul. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t different… It was my fault… I was the one who had built this prison for myself.

And when Prozac helps his sister, he reacts not with hope or even sympathy but with defensive anger:

“Sara, listen to me: I’m not taking any fucking drug… I’m not gonna cheat.” Then in the most obnoxious way I could, I whispered, “Prozac’s for losers.”

Falk’s good at giving the reader a feel for what cannot be expressed in words:

“It’s hard to describe accurately what complete hopelessness feels like because ultimately it’s a perfect void, a state of nothing. There’s nothing at stake. Reason doesn’t apply, logic is useless, and faith is something for fools.

But he’s also adept at reporting on the real world. Not coincidentally, immediately after his rescue by the antidepressant Zoloft he made a beeline for one of the worst places one could be at that time: Sarajevo, a ruined city with a terrified population surrounded by snipers. (Not a bad correlate for a depressive’s brain, actually.) Falk’s depiction of the way Sarajevo’s families tried to continue normal life under hellish conditions – constant danger, no electricity, food shortages – is both heartbreaking and inspiring. In spite of their own hardships, several families took him in, and lasting friendships resulted; Falk eventually helped three young Bosnians escape to attend school in America.

Falk writes with humor:

The highlight of the trip was getting stopped by four Serb soldiers… A little on the pudgy side, they were dressed in purple-and-blue tiger-pattern fatigues that could only have been useful if they were fighting their way across Liberace’s living room.

and with evocative color:

The two [Bosnians] … were scheming together to sneak through the siege lines and make it to London.

“God,” the short one said to me. “Will you look at that. It’s almost pretty in a way, isn’t it?” He was pointing out the window with his Gauloises at the tracer fire I had noticed earlier, only now there were green tracers as well as red arcing across the sky.

“I believe the green are ours,” the tall one said.

But occasionally the language jars, as when Falk refers to a group of young women as “chicks,” or sacrifices grammar for colloquial familiarity: “my inner thighs burned so bad it felt as if I’d just dismounted a Brillo pad.” This inconsistency of tone is a small flaw, however, and doesn’t persist after the first few chapters. A bigger problem is that both stories – Falk’s battle with clinical depression, and his wartime adventures – seem a little sketchy. The Bosnian tales are so interesting (the most dramatic of them became the HBO film “Shot Through the Heart”) that one wishes they’d been told at greater length. And the memoir of illness and recovery, while intense and dramatic, leaves one wishing the author had gone deeper.

Of course, depression is an illness that can leave long stretches of one’s life essentially blank. It may be that we should be grateful for people like Falk who have good enough memories, and write well enough, to even partially convey what the depths of the illness are like. There are so many sufferers who can’t speak for themselves, locked in their own thoughts as they are – or dead of it.

Musical Happenings

Heard some incredible music from Steve Gorn last night at the Knitting Factory’s Concert for Darfur. Steve’s a master of the bansui, a bamboo flute from India. Accompanied by a second bansui player and the large, droning stringed instument called the tambura (played by a somewhat distractingly beautiful woman, but that’s just me), Steve played a long, late-night raga that sent the audience swooning into clouds of relaxation and beauty. I’m sure glad we didn’t have to follow him on stage; it would have been a jarring transition to Halley DeVestern’s music. Fortunately, Terre Roche was scheduled in between us, and meeting her was something of a thrill since I grew up listening to the The Roches. Her voice was as high and strong as ever.

Our set went extremely well. Maybe this is a non-p.c. thing to say, but I’m beginning to think the key to a really successful Halley DeVestern show is having a few black people in the audience. You New York readers are invited to catch Halley and me with The Hot Button All-Stars at Cornelia St. Cafe this Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 10 PM. (We’re preceded by Little Toby Walker, a wonderful country-blues wizard I’m proud to have in my line-up.)

More on Summers and Women

Harvard President Lawrence Summers has released the full transcript of his controversial remarks about the paucity of women in tenured positions in science and engineering. A quick reading shows that Summers posited three primary causes of the disparity, as follows in decreasing order of importance: the “high-powered job” hypothesis – that the disproportion comes from choices women make; “availability of aptitude at the high end,” which is the controversial point; and “different socialization and patterns of discrimination.”

The question of aptitude ought to be scientifically testable. What I find more interesting, and surprising, is Summers’s low ranking of socialization. Many of the women I know, from many walks of life, strongly believe that as children they were “socialized” out of – in effect, discouraged from – taking an interest in science and math. And not just older women who one could say were raised in a different era; their discouragement may have taken more active forms than occur today, but passive forms seem to have persisted.

Can these women be wrong? Is this anecdotal evidence leading us astray? I’m finding that very, very difficult to believe.

Another point:

Larry Summers: women may not have the same aptitude as men in certain mental areas. Buffy Summers: The Vampire Slayer. Coincidence?

Less Is Not More

It will be news only to the very few in my large circle of friends and acquaintances who missed the Whisperado show last night that our drummer David sprained his ankle just before the gig, so Patrick and I performed as a duo.

We did have a little vocal help from the redoubtable Halley DeVestern, who has been the subject of heated discussion on The Velvet Rope this week (but that’s another, albeit probably more interesting story).

I’m sure I learned valuable lessons from having to play our music in unfamiliar circumstances. I’m sure I did. Honest. Really valuable ones. Lessons, I mean. That I learned.

The only thing I really noticed, though, was that my tolerance for alcohol seems to have dropped to virtually nothing. I couldn’t even finish the single beer the bar bought me. My semi-nightly glass of red wine has been throwing me for a loop recently too. Something horrible has happened! This can’t be. This Can’t BEEEEEEEEE……. Halley’s quit drinking for health reasons and now she can’t stand the smell of alcohol on anyone’s breath, including mine. Could I be becoming an involuntary sympathy-teetotaler???

Competitive Bidding: What a Concept!

The MTA’s decision to seek competitive bids for the Hudson Rail Yards undercuts Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for a West Side stadium for the Jets, and puts a damper on the city’s hopes for netting the 2012 Olympics. Maybe I’m just a big contrary grouch for not wanting the Olympics, but many people feel the same way, and opposition to the Jets stadium itself is just common economic sense.

Ironically, it was “common economic sense” on the part of the city’s population that put this Mayor in office. We needed a guy who could handle money matters rationally, and that’s what we got – except, apparently, where sports teams are involved. I don’t know enough about Mayor Bloomberg’s personal history (other than as a businessman) to know for sure, but could this be the revenge of the unathletic nebbish?

Interestingly, both the Jets stadium plan and the one for the Nets in Brooklyn depend upon rail yards. In not entirely unrelated news, President Bush’s budget calls for pulling the rug completely out from under Amtrak. Good thing, too; who needs a high-speed, efficient transportation system that’s not entirely dependent on the oiligopoly and its boy in the White House?

Max Schmeling, German Boxer, Is Dead at 99

Max Schmeling’s death at the age of 99 conjures up a rainbow of feelings. Joe Louis’s famous knockout of Schmeling occurred in 1938, right around when my parents were born and exactly a generation before I popped into the world. Schmeling was born in 1905, the same year as my grandfather Martin Panzer (whom I seem to resemble in more ways than I could ever have thought).

As a child and teenager in the 1970s I was fascinated by the great heavyweight boxers of the day, the mythic figures Frazier, Foreman, Ali, even Ken Norton and Leon Spinks. The end of my adolescence coincided with the ascendancy of Larry Holmes, a great but boring fighter about whom there was nothing – except for his longevity – remotely mythic. Holmes seemed almost a corporate entity, blandly efficient, compared to the rascals and characters who preceded him. Not until Mike Tyson did character return to the heavyweight arena in a big way, and unfortunately that character was nearly 100% despicable.

I don’t know if heavyweight boxing will ever again be as exciting as it was in the 70s, or during the time of Louis and Schmeling, when the boxers sometimes represented far more than their sport. Maybe these things come in waves. Schmeling’s death doesn’t mark the end of an era – his era ended many decades ago, and how many of us even knew he was still alive? (I didn’t) – but it certainly does make you reflect on how important boxing was to the culture of the whole 20th century – and before – and probably after.

If Only She Meant It

It must be my birthday – actually, it is! – because Maureen Dowd has answered my prayers and announced the end of her unhelpful, sophomoric columns.

If only she weren’t being facetious. The childishness (Alberto Gonzales is “Torture Boy”???), ad hominem attacks and throw-the-words-in-the-air-and-see-where-they-land writing will continue giving the Anti-Bush League a bad name.

The Bush Economy

Amid the warnings of further military, social and ecological disasters bruited about during the 2004 election season, I tried to point out that in a second Bush term the economy was probably going to suffer along with our military families, our senses of common decency and national pride, and our Earth.

I wish John Kerry had taken my advice and stressed economic matters during the campaign. The Bush team won by scaring the public about terrorism. It wouldn’t have hurt the Dems, and might have helped, to try a few scare tactics of their own concerning the pocketbook issues on which some Americans do tend to vote. Now we are facing four more years of Bush, and as his domestic agenda takes form, more commentators are seeing the light – or the dark, as it were, for I expect dark economic times ahead.

Robert Kuttner, for example, lays out a scenario for US bankruptcy. Central banks are switching to Euros. And how soon before the headlines blare: “Bush To City: Drop Dead”?

Here’s a broad-ranging round-up of criticism of Bush economic policies.

CD Review: Blaine Larsen, Off To Join The World

Through ignorance or bad advice, very young artists often bite off more than they can chew, applying precociously mastered technical skills to adult material they can’t quite get their souls around. Teenage country singer Blaine Larsen, who sings in a clear, rich baritone that sounds at least a few years more aged than he is, has not made this mistake. He and his producers have written and chosen a nice variety of songs expressing real-life matters from a youth’s point of view, and Larsen has the voice and the skills to put them across.

A number of the songs are frankly autobiographical. “The Best Man,” which pays tribute to a devoted stepfather, has a sweet, if obvious, lyrical payoff in the last verse. I was nervous about a song called “In My High School,” but while its depictions of “jocks” and “rednecks” and “outcasts” carry no surprises, its sentimentality stops short of the cloying: “In my high school they hold assemblies for the football team / But never for the kids with different dreams.” Heck, you can’t argue with that.

The clever, banjo-powered love song, “That’s All I’ve Got To Say About That,” along with “Teaching Me How To Love You,” which features Larsen’s most affecting vocal, show his ability to sing convincingly about both the light and heavy sides of love. “Yessireebob” is a cute novelty number that highlights a playful sense of humor, and “The Man He’ll Never Be” couches a softly intense vocal performance in a lovely, folksy minor-key arrangement that brings the young Paul Simon to mind.

The up-tempo “That’s Just Me” is a by-the-books “I’m just a gool ol’ country boy” tune, but it’s hard to resist. The waltz “Off To Join The World” echoes “Mr. Bojangles” and puts an amusing twist on running away with the circus. And the CD closes with one of its best tracks, “How Do You Get That Lonely,” about the suicide of a teenage friend. Thus the circle of a modern teen’s experience is closed with a tragic last link.

Of course, the music industry chews up and spits out a hundred Blaine Larsens every week, and the persona expressed in our young hero’s music is so goshdarned nice that one almost fears for him. But with a deep, welcoming voice, strong songwriting ability, excellent guitar skills, impish good looks and a smart team behind him, he probably has a better chance than most. This would be a good record from any artist, and it’s certainly a fine start to a career.

NOW Calls for Resignation of Harvard University’s President

The National Organization For Women (NOW) has called for Harvard University’s President, Lawrence Summers, to resign because of his suggestion that women may be innately inferior to men in their ability to excel at math and science.

That disturbs me.

Summers’s statement was a suggestion, not a claim, and there’s evidence to refute it, but isn’t science supposed to ask all questions and consider all possibilities? We’re talking about the brain, one of the most complex and, as yet, least understood subjects of scientific study. As The New York Times reports:

Researchers who have explored the subject of sex differences from every conceivable angle and organ say that yes, there are a host of discrepancies between men and women – in their average scores on tests of quantitative skills, in their attitudes toward math and science, in the architecture of their brains, in the way they metabolize medications, including those that affect the brain.

Summers may have spoken in a provocative manner to a sensitive audience, but he was doing what institutions of higher learning are supposed to do: seeking the truth by asking questions. NOW’s knee-jerk reaction serves neither science nor feminism.

CD Review: Willie Hightower

Willie Hightower’s time in the spotlight was far shorter than you might expect from the quality of his recordings, the best of which can stand tall beside the classic work of Sam Cooke (his number one influence), The Temptations and Smokey Robinson. Hightower recorded on Bobby Robertson’s independent labels and on Capitol, and with Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall (who’d made his name working with Etta James, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin). So the elements of success seemed to be present. I suppose the problem was timing: Hightower’s late ’60s recordings came at the tail end of the era of “classic” soul, when tastes were changing.

This collection should help bring Hightower, who is still active, out of his unjustified obscurity. “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” one of his two Billboard-charting singles, is one of the greatest soul records ever made. The other hit, “It’s a Miracle,” is a gorgeous, celebratory love song sung with achingly pure, strangely sad tones unlike anything Cooke had in his vocal arsenal.

Tracks like “If I Had a Hammer” and Hightower’s own utopian “Time Has Brought About a Change” reflect the passions surrounding the civil rights movement: “Once I wasn’t considered a man / Given no respect at all / But now I’ve got my pride deep down inside / And no one will ever take it again.”

“It’s Too Late” is another track worthy of classic status. Hightower wails this dark you’ll-come-crawling-back poor man ballad like his life depended on it.

Willie Hightower brought a strong, beautiful and versatile soulfulness to a set of fine songs over his recording career. This great collection, which appears to contain all his important recordings, will be a welcome delight to all lovers of soul music and an important discovery for many – like myself.

CD Review: The Great Unknowns

Joining an increasingly extensive and rich body of new roots music is this first release by The Great Unknowns, a quartet of seasoned musicians fronted by singer Becky Warren. Warren, who co-writes the songs with guitarist Michael Palmer, has a voice reminiscent of Lucinda Williams’s, but her tones are easier on the ears, and though the Unknowns’ songwriting isn’t as sharp as Lucinda’s (but whose is?), it’s good enough to earn this CD a place on my Americana shelf. With layered, guitar-heavy but understated arrangements and clean production, it’s a sweet listen nearly all the way through.

Warren sings these original but quintessentially American tales of lost love and wandering souls in a drily expressive drawl, like an alto Patty Griffin, or a less affected Adam Duritz. You can hear both a pervading sadness and a persevering spirit in her unhurried delivery. The band has a knack for concise, penetrating lyrics: “Since you’ve been gone/My heart is a fist.” “Don’t try to blame it on no one else/You broke my heart all by yourself.” And, from “Something To Do,” a Patty Griffin-like plaint which ought to turn up on the Americana charts: “I’m just something to pass the time when you feel blue/Just something to do.” “Round Hill,” another highlight, has a chorus that climbs into your ear and settles in for the long haul.

Of the slower songs, I liked “Don’t Come Home,” sweetly sad with its 6-8 sway, and “Deliver Me Home,” whose angular melody and unexpected minor chords give a nod to The Band. “We’ll Be Okay,” though, doesn’t rise above its lyrical cliches (did we really need another song that goes “We’ll spread our wings and fly away”?). And I wouldn’t have opened the CD with the shambling “Las Vegas.” But overall, the sharp wisdom of the lyrics, the grown-up, straight-ahead power of the music and Warren’s sweet-and-sour vocals make this debut a keeper.

CD and Concert Review: The Explosion

As long as there are kids and parents, there will be authority and rebellion, and as long as there is authority and rebellion, there will be punk or something like it. If you define punk broadly, as music that symbolizes youthful rebellion, then jazz was punk in its day and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis in theirs.

But jazz has long since gone highbrow, while rock-and-roll became an object of nostalgia hardly two decades after its invention. New generations may discover and appreciate those forms, but they don’t adopt them in large numbers. So one may justifiably wonder why the loud, high-speed, often angry form of rock created in the 1970s by bands like the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks is still vibrant and popular today. It’s not old punk fans from back in the day filling the clubs to see bands like The Explosion, who played last night on a bill with Rise Against at BB King’s in New York City. It’s today’s teenagers and college kids on the floor, pointing their fingers, jumping up on stage and smothering lead singer Matt Hock in bear hugs.

The Explosion is a 21st century punk band that seems to be approaching the top of its game. While clearly inspired by the Buzzcocks and others, their intelligent, self-aware lyrics make it clear that they appreciate the wider picture of where punk – narrowly defined – fits both in music history and in the context of youthful rebellion.

For one thing, the band is politically outspoken, as in their protest song “Atrocity”:

I try to sleep, I grit my teeth,
I’m so afraid, what will tomrrow bring?
I won’t fight in any wars
and I can’t stand to see much more atrocity

“No Revolution” seems to blame apathy on existential doubt, and is worth quoting at length:

When the blood was red and the lies were black and white
They put their hands together they thought they had the right
We know they made mistakes but we still imitate
Keep the spirit alive when there’s nothing left at stake
Now our heroes seem further away
Your fists in the air but nothing has changed
Would they shake their heads would they feel ashamed
Fists in the air for a fucking name
All we know is what came before
There’s no revolution anymore

And the fans sing along, fists in the air.

What makes the band’s seriousness work is the high-spirited energy of the songs, some of which have the kind of great hooks that will always make crowds sing along (when not bodysurfing). Those hooks, along with charismatic stage presence and solid musicianship, probably had something to do with the band’s signing to Virgin Records after becoming successful in their hometown of Boston. Look at on-line fan reviews of their major-label debut, Black Tape, and amid the raves you’ll find a couple of cantankerous cries of “sell-out,” but the fact that The Explosion has recorded new songs that are a bit longer and better produced than those on their indie releases doesn’t make them Green Day. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

On the CD, Hock does more singing – as opposed to shouting – than he does in concert. That makes the lyrics intelligible without reducing the music’s intensity. The best tracks include the irresistible “Filthy Insane” (a desperate protest from a frustrated office drone), and the catchy anthem “I Know.” I also like the protest song “Here I Am” and the elemental speed-chant “Go Blank.”

So why does music like this still sound fresh to young fans? “That old-time rock and roll” had great hooks too. Maybe it just comes down to speed and volume. Nothing expresses anger and frustration better than screaming and making a lot of noise and smashing things up, as The Who discovered forty (!) years ago. BB King’s in New York, which has a little bit of the flavor of an old-time ballroom, was actually a pretty good venue to see punk bands. Moshers and surfers jostled up front, while the raised areas in back and along the sides provided refuge for those who just wanted to listen. On a bill with three other bands, The Explosion had time for only a 30-minute set, but they crammed a lot of songs in and put on a tight, energetic show. Good songs, good musicians, an excellent CD and great live energy make The Explosion well worthy of carrying on the tradition of their punk forebears.

Requesting a Transfer

I’m serving notice: as a liberal, I no longer want Maureen Dowd on my side. Her column this weekend begins:

On the first day of Christmas,
my Rummy sent to me
a Saddam pigeon in a palm tree.
Not knowing Osama’s address,
Rummy hastened to ‘Potamia – and a mess,
exhorting his pal Cheney,
“Let’s bomb Baghdad again, golly gee!”

It’s not funny, it doesn’t scan, it barely makes sense, and it only gets worse. If you want to subject yourself to further torture, and a serious case of the D.C.’s, read the whole thing here.

Please consider a new career, Maureen. You’re not helping.

Athletes and Steroids

When it comes to sports fandom, we’re all kids. And kids love superheroes.

We don’t just want our sports heroes to win. We cheer them on because their abilities go beyond our own. In an idealistic sense they may represent, as Olympic officials and other sports boosters profess, the best that humanity can achieve. But in their physical feats they are superior to us, and thus, to us, superhuman – just like Spiderman, Buffy, or Harry Potter. We enjoy seeing a slugger break a home run record or a runner achieve a record time in a race in the same way we enjoy seeing Spidey vanquish a super-powered foe.

If just a few athletes are found guilty of taking performance-enhancing drugs, fans’ sense of fairness will render harsh judgments upon them. This week’s New York City newspaper headlines excoriating Jason Giambi express this. But if many, most, or all the athletes in a sport are taking such drugs, now or in the future, there will be little if any outrage.

Today’s steroid drugs cause health problems, but in the future there will be better ones that don’t have adverse side effects. At that point there will be no medical disincentive to take them.

Get ready for a new world. This genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Fighting For Our Country

Ted Rall claims, in an article reproduced on the Common Dreams progressive website, that American soldiers killed in Iraq (and Vietnam, Korea, and even WWII) have not died “for their country” but merely for their country’s “geopolitical interests.” Rall bases his position on the fact that throughout its history the US’s military actions have almost never been in defense of its national existence.

But the sense in which Rall is correct is so narrow that his argument amounts to an oversimplification and probably doesn’t contribute to the cause of peace.

It is specious to distinguish so sharply between an actual invasion, such as occurred in the War of 1812, and an enormously destructive attack such as 9/11. Although 9/11 itself may not have threatened the very existence of the nation, Rall’s argument falls apart, for two reasons.

First, the war to dislodge the Taliban, who nurtured and protected Al Qaeda, was an act of national defense: defense of the lives of our citizens from further attacks by an enemy that had in effect declared war on us. Rall doesn’t even mention the action in Afghanistan – could it be because it doesn’t fit his argument?

Second, the real possibility of terrorist organizations acquiring weapons of mass destruction forces us to consider scenarios in which our national existence is, in fact, threatened.

Rall, however, focusses on the past:

For one American president after another, winning or losing doesn’t matter. For an empire, military action is its own reward. Our willingness to wage war intimidates adversaries and their neighbors into giving us what we want: cheaper oil, military bases, favorable trading terms. When American sailors invaded the Falkland Islands in 1832, it was “to defend American interests.” Ditto for 1855, when U.S. forces stormed Fiji. Ditto for the 1903 Dominican Republic action (where defending U.S. interests meant suppressing a popular revolution), Honduras in 1911, the Soviet Union in 1918, Lebanon in 1953…you get the idea. The soldiers who fought in those invasions were told they were fighting for their country. Those who lost their lives were called heroes.

American soldiers who die overseas in wars of intimidation or wars over oil may not be, technically, national heroes. But that’s only if you consider a nation to be purely a moral entity. Real nations, by nature, want to benefit themselves and gain advantage.

Not to mention the fact that the soldiers may still be heroes to their families, friends and communities. A soldier may put him or herself in harm’s way for a “greater good” that is merely family or personal honor, a sense of duty or tradition, or merely the pride of doing one’s job to the best of one’s ability. Cartoonists and bass players might not know about or relate to some of these things.

Yes, “since Iraq neither threatens our freedom nor our borders, [our soldiers are] neither protecting our freedoms or (sic) fighting for America.” But demoting the soldiers from heroes to sacrificial lambs doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. They’re not victims. They’re part of the system. It’s a volunteer army. The opportunities offered to people who enlist in the armed forces are real, the risks known. The fact that soldiers who die in Iraq are called heroes may bug Rall, but no matter how you look at it, they died for their country. Whether we like what the country is – or has become – is the real question.

Tax the Churches

A recent discussion on Blogcritics along with this New York Times article about the separation of church and state in Italy have prompted the following thoughts.

I live in Brooklyn, the Borough of Churches. There’s practically a church on every block, and where there isn’t a church, there’s a synagogue or temple. There are also mosques in the neighborhood.

My block has a Seventh Day Adventist church. Its busiest day is Saturday, not Sunday. Crowds of kids play on the sidewalk out front. I don’t know too much about what goes on there, since it’s a Spanish-speaking church. I do know they sponsor food drives and clothing drives, and generally have decent relations with their residential neighbors.

Like all the churches, they don’t pay taxes. Why? Is it because they’re a non-profit organization? I wouldn’t know anything about their finances, but I do know how rich some churches are. The Catholic church, for example, and some of the evangelical churches. It’s a stretch to think of these churches as not-for-profit.

I believe that the tax-exempt status of a religious institution should be proportional to its nondenominational charitable activities.

For example, a church that spends money on fancy cars for its preacher should be taxed on those expenses. A church that runs a soup kitchen but requires its beneficiaries to pray for their supper should have to pay tax on the portion of its income used to run that soup kitchen. A church that owns its building and uses the facility for both worship services and charitable deeds should be taxed according to a formula, the same way a person can deduct home office expenses from his income taxes. Better financial minds than mine could come up with the formula.

If you agree with me that such a proposal is unlikely to be taken seriously in America, you will also probably recognize that we are a religious country, in the sense that religious institutions are given special privileges withheld from individuals, private landowners, and businesses. I don’t agree with these special privileges. But my view is in the minority. It would probably even be fair to describe it as marginal.

Still, think about it next time you walk (or drive) by the churches in your area. What if they all had to pay property taxes the same way you or your landlord does, the same way the commercial building owners on Main St. do? Then your municipality would have more income and could lower property taxes. Your tax burden (or rent) could be less. Meanwhile the churches, if they had to account for every untaxed dollar they spent, would be better practicioners of what they preach.

More on Civil Rights

Further evidence that gay rights are the civil rights of our time:

A federal Court of Appeals panel has ruled in a 2-1 decision that campuses can place restrictions on US armed forces recruiters as a protest against the military’s discrimination against gays.

A lawyer representing the law schools states: “Now every academic institution in the country is free to follow their consciences and their nondiscrimination policies. Enlightened institutions have a First Amendment right to exclude bigots. In a free society, the government cannot co-opt private institutions to issue the government’s message.”

This issue is not new. When I was at Harvard twenty years ago, well before “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” ROTC was banned from campus for similar reasons. (Students who wanted ROTC training could get it at the “trade school up the river” – MIT.) But the main issue galvanizing student protest at that time was whether the University should divest itself of investments in South Africa to protest apartheid. It was an instance of the international pressure that helped bring apartheid down.

The dissenting judge in the present case points out that “the military’s policy against homosexual activity has been adjudged by a number of our sister courts of appeal not to violate the Constitution.” He’s right, of course. But apartheid in South Africa, along with Jim Crow laws and the “separate but equal” doctrine in the US, had the force of law. That didn’t make them right.