Recently in Cults Category

Galileo Galilei's 1633 recantation: Science did not wait 350 years for the Church's halfhearted apology, and women and queers aren't waiting now

I received a letter today from Robert Niehoff, S.J., the president of John Carroll University, a small Midwestern Jesuit liberal arts university where I matriculated in 1958. The letter was addressed to the university community at large, and I soon learned that it was apparently a response to a February letter written to Niehoff, in his official capacity, by a number of faculty members (approximately a quarter of the total) who were concerned about the Catholic Church's intransigence over the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010.

I'm not Greg Smith (I've had no connection to my own addressee in 50 years) and John Carroll University is not Goldman Sachs (for starters the school is presumably a not-for-profit institution), so the letter I wrote in response, copied below, will not have much impact on anything. I still want to broadcast it however, because I believe the subject itself is important.

Dear Father Niehoff,

The position of most of the contemporary American Catholic hierarchy on the issue of contraception (an issue which, by the way, I am certain you are aware was virtually unknown in previous ages both more and less benighted than our own), is one which has been manufactured by late-20th-century Catholics and other absurd fundamentalist cults--in an unworthy, nay, disgusting, collusion with opportunistic political neanderthals.

Beyond all reason and, yes, beyond all issues of genuine morality, it is an offensive which, with the possible exception of the Church's virulent campaign against the rights, dignity, and physical survival of hundreds of millions of homosexuals (I count myself within their number), has been singularly, aggressively and continuously prescribed and launched against both its own members and, most grievously, all of those who do not recognize its domain or its primitive postulates.

It is just one of the reasons I have been unable to have anything to do with my undergraduate college for the past half century.

James Wagner
Class of 1962

Niehoff's letter, to which the above text was a response, is reproduced below. The still earlier JCU faculty letter can be read here.

To: The John Carroll Community
From: Robert L. Niehoff, S.J.
Date: March 16, 2012
Re: Religious Liberty and Public Policy

By now I am sure you are aware of the public policy issues surrounding the implementation of the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 and the controversy these new regulations have caused related to Church teachings.

As part of a broad effort to increase access to healthcare for all Americans, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a new set of norms for health insurance provided by all employers--including the nearly 250 Catholic colleges and universities like John Carroll. In particular, HHS generated significant attention by mandating contraceptive coverage for all health plans, which many in the Catholic community regard as disrespectful of its teachings and as an infringement on religious liberty.

On February 10, an "accommodation" was announced by the White House stating that institutions like ours would not be required to pay for this new coverage--however, insurers would have to make it available (at no cost) for those within our health care plans.

I want to reaffirm what I have stated publicly, that "our values are important to us, and our religious freedoms are fundamental to our mission at John Carroll University." Further, I have stated that "we share the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' concerns about religious liberty and church teachings, and we will continue to work with them and with other Catholic colleges and organizations toward a constructive outcome with the Department of Health and Human Services."

In the midst of our national debates about public policy and values, there are two key points that I ask all of us keep in mind:

1) The need for civil discourse, which at its core is a respect for those with whom we disagree, is essential to who we are as an institution and our Catholic and Jesuit character.

There are many tensions surrounding this issue. I understand the strong feelings that many have for this particular subject. Let me make it clear that our University must be a place where this issue--like any other--can be discussed in an environment of mutual respect.

2) The public policy situation is far from being resolved.

I am engaged in this national dialogue together with the leadership and members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU), and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU). I continue to stay in touch with Bishop Lennon concerning the conversations between those institutions, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The issues related to the HHS mandate are significant and it is unclear that the mandate can survive the legal challenges, which have already begun. At this time when our nation is engaged in a very politicized election period, this issue--among others--will receive considerable attention. It will be the center of much debate, and various points of view will be presented.

Again, I encourage all to remember that our University is at its best when we engage in a respectful dialogue.

[image from the University of Chicago Press]

what would David think?

Sunday's march up Museum Mile attracted around 400 to 500 people to the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Museum to demand the return of David Wojnaroowicz's video, "A Fire in My Belly," to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) exhibition, "Hide/Seek."

I've uploaded here a few images from my experience of the rally; they are arranged in chronological sequence.

Committed artists, writers, thinkers and other citizens demand that the Smithsonian, which controls the NPG, restore the work so the public can see the exhibition as the curators intended. G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the man who cowardly pulled the art from the show one month after it opened, must apologize to the entire country, and to the people of all the first, second and third world countries which should be able to expect of the United States something other than institutional and governmental censorship and the pandering to demagogues and the benighted.

The arbitrary suppression of words and images inconvenient to those who wield power cannot go unchallenged.

We attracted a lot of press coverage both before and after the protest. The issue and our demands have been broadcast to a lot of people, but even as I headed uptown on Sunday I was wondering if, in defending light and reason, we might also be helping the devil. Those thoughts disturbed me then and they still do.

It's like this: Bill Donohue is dumb, and although John Boehner and Eric Cantor may be little smarter, none of these hollow men is too dim to know that when they and other self-appointed censors and moralists pull these publicity stunts they only ensure that more people get to see what they think they shouldn't.

So while Donovan and the others make lots of money off of their bullying and intimidation, they and others drawn into encouraging and supporting this transparently-cynical chicanery continue to do so because of both the illusion and reality of power produced by the wide media attention it draws. What discourages me most is the thought that the more public the blowup today, the more successful the censorious attacks of the wacky Right may be tomorrow, intimidating future victims from doing anything which might offend the morality police. These rows may actually inhibit free speech and expression going forward, and we have already seen that the leaders of our institutions are spectacularly lacking in courage.

While I'd rather not dwell on these gloomy thoughts, unfortunately the National Portrait Gallery show remains expurgated as I write this, with no sign of any change. Of course the whole thing is ridiculous, but are the censors winning? We have to know what we are up against if we hope to defeat them.

Since the demonstration on Sunday I've come across two links which may help explain to those who first came across this old war story only this month: They describe the issues, relatively unchanged in over two decades, and their historical context.

James Romberger, David's collaborator, writes about his friend. And this 1990 video, showing the artist talking about the right-wing backlash against the NEA and arts funding, helps us to realize how much we lost when David's voice was silenced, in the end not by the bigots, but by AIDS.

A printed excerpt from the video, David speaking:

And the thing that makes me laugh is that in the last twenty years images and words that artists or writers make have had absolutely no power, given that we're essentially competing against media, you know, in order to create something that reverberates in those image or words. And the fact that, if at this point the images and words that can be made by an individual have such power to create this storm of controversy, isn't that great?

It means the control of information has a crack in its wall.

Recent national and international stories, involving an explosive challenge to the dominance of corporate and government news sources, suggest that the crack can be protected, and enlarged, only if we're willing to work at it.

Betsy Crowell and Louise Fishman on the steps of the Metropolitan

the picket forming on Fifth Avenue

Jonathan "Ned" Katz below the steps

our spanking-new ART+ banner

A-list establishment queers, plus one random journalist, checking out the scene

the picket about to head north

international sign

Jerry Saltz loving David

target Smithsonian, here its Cooper-Hewitt satellite

masks as epithets designating "the other" (black, red, yellow, queer, female. etc.)

on 91st Street, haranguing the Smithsonian

family of art ants outside the museum (Target is a major funder of the Smithsonian)

ADDENDUM: Philip Kennicott has a smart, even electrifying piece in the Washington post, "After removing video from 'Hide/Seek,' Smithsonian chief should remove himself".


I never thought we'd still be doing this 20 years on. The image above is of a thin stenciled sign I held up on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art August 1, 1989.

I thought of it as a work of art; I was thinking of both the sign and the afternoon.

I didn't make the sign. Along with a lot of others just like it, and any number of other images and texts, it was a small, elegant part of a powerful New York demonstration protesting the Corcoran Gallery of Art's cancellation of the D.C. exhibition of the show, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment" and the Helms Amendment. The amendment was designed to prohibit the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funds from ever being used for so-called "obscene" or "indecent" materials, descriptions that at the time had repeatedly been applied to much of Mapplethorpe's art, and to that of Andres Serrano, who had also become a target in what was being called the American "culture wars."

While the artists attacked became more famous than ever, neither the NEA nor our other cultural institutions ever recovered from the assault on their artistic integrity and independence. I'm reluctant to employ the war metaphor (we're going off in every direction with real wars already), but I think most people would say that, whatever it is called, a fundamental culture struggle continues today: There are too many frightened people in this country, and too many anxious to profit from that fear.

Bill Donohue is a vile and disgusting little opportunist with a computer and a fan base which he regularly whips up to get them to send checks his way. A retrogressive darling of the crazy Right, he invents issues and targets which can attract enough visibility to provoke the fears and hatreds of ignorant older Catholics, allowing him to draw a very generous salary of some $400,000 a year. His primary targets are gays, jews, women, progressives of any kind, and all news media (excepting the just-pretend one, Fox).

While Donohue does not represent the Catholic Church, officially or otherwise, he operates within its comfort zone. He may be the crazy ranting uncle everyone would like to ignore, but the Church hierarchy has never disavowed anything he has said; and they all go to the same banquets.

I thought that the kind of primitive depravity he represents had been pretty much squished twenty years ago, but on the 1st of December, which was, whether incidentally or not, World AIDS Day, the head of the Smithsonian, institutional parent of the National Portrait Gallery, pulled the David Wojnarowicz video, "A Fire in My Belly." from the excellent NPG exhibition, "Hide/Seek," and apologized for its contents. The show had already been open for an entire month when complaints from Donohue's Catholic League, several Right-wing House Republicans, and Fox News [sic] resulted in its peremptory censorship, or debasement.

So we have a professional gay-bashing Catholic fanatic leaning on two fellow political and social fundamentalists, House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor, to blackmail a great museum by threatening to cut its funding if it did not remove a work of art to which the Catholic nut objected. Viz. ants on a crucifix. We know it's not about ants: Donohue and his own coterie are unhappy about everything that has happened in the West since the suppression of the Spanish Inquisition. His Republican fellow-travelers may be in it for power, but their sympathies may actually be sincere, however warped.

I hate to do anything to give more visibility to Bill Donohue, or his Congressional altar boys, but this madness has now been covered by the media everywhere, and roundly condemned in as many places, and the Smithsonian has so far failed to reinstall the art it was so anxious to agree with the nasty little man was offensive.


A lot of people are going to be on Fifth Avenue this Sunday demanding that the Wojnarowicz video be returned to the National Portrait Gallery. We will be demonstrating as colorfully and dramatically as we can that we care about censorship and homophobia.

We have to be there, at one o'clock on the steps of the Met, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street. And why the Met? Because it's the front porch of the art world, because there's plenty of space and a grandstand of sorts. From there the group will march up to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, which actually is a part of the Smithsonian.

The 1989 demo included the ACT UP group "Art Positive" (broadcasting a double meaning for the second word); the primary target then was homophobia and censorship. The 2010 demo will include members of the 1989 collaborative, and the entire demonstration has been designated "ART+" (only a slightly altered written form of the 1989 name); the primary target is essentially, and shockingly, the same, homophobia and censorship.

But since we're talking about the public treatment of work by an artist closely identified with a disease which as a nation we still haven't fully confronted, the subject of AIDS must not be left out of the discussion. Silence does equal death.

Finally, because we are dealing with people identifying themselves as representing the interests of the Catholic Church, we also have to understand that the targets of their assault necessarily include all women everywhere.


And there's more: America's continuing failure as a society to deal with what it thinks of as the very scary subjects of sex and art (and not only when they are combined, or ignited by the inclusion of AIDS) is inseparable from the ignorance and fear which prevents it from addressing our newest, and rapidly-mushrooming real problems.

In this country the public conversation always gets back to religion (if it ever leaves it in the first place). Organized and intensifying public religion gums up the works of virtualy every institution and increasingly ties our hands when we have to deal with impending national and planetary disasters. We may never grow up enough to understand the damage it has done and continues to do, but there's a slim hope that a larger percentage of the next generation will be able to think for itself.


For more information on the censorship outrage:

ART+ [the demonstration site]

Modern Art Notes [Tyler Green - one of many posts]

NEWSgrist [Joy Garnett - see many posts]

Diamanda Galás [Washington City Paper, Arts Desk]

[the second image is of a slightly-battered veteran ACT UP foamcore-mounted sign which spends its retirement leaning on a wall in our apartment, a constant reminder; the third photograph includes, in addition to the Sontag volume and an old ACT UP "Stop the Church" button, the cover of "Seven Miles a Second", a posthumously-completed graphic novel written by Wojnarowicz in collaboration with James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook, and a small globe turned toward Africa]

looking at the light cast from the west toward the stones to the east

As I prepared to leave the apartment this evening to go to the market, Barry reminded me that the phenomenon known as Manhattanhenge was about to light up our east-west street in its semiannual visitation. He said he'd heard on Twitter that it would take place precisely at 8:17. At that moment it was only 8:05, but as I didn't know exactly what I would see when I got outside, I immediately headed out the door.

There I found that our doorman already knew all about our modest urban astronomical occasion, just as he always seems to know everything that goes on inside the building and anywhere in its proximity, so I didn't have the satisfaction of inducting a new member into the cult. I then learned that, if anything, I may have been a moment too late rather than too early. The sun seemed to have already hidden itself somewhere in the Hudson River, but its corona was centered on the street axis and was still able to impede a direct glance.

I turned around to see what the eastern axis of the street might look like, stepped into the middle of the holiday-emptied six-lane thoroughfare, and snapped the picture above. Just as I got to the corner of Seventh Avenue (it was now 8:17 exactly), where the traffic signal was momentarily arresting the progress of the few east-west vehicles, a dozen or so pedestrians suddenly appeared in the crosswalk out of nowhere. Everyone seemed to have a camera and was snapping pictures of the setting sun, all the while totally ignoring the rich golden light momentarily transforming everything behind them, even to the white lane-dividing lines on the pavement.

I'm thinking the original stone-age celebrants on the Salisbury Plain would also have been more interested what the stones made of the sun's rays running east, but there's no way to know for sure. As I told my friend at the front desk, nobody stayed around to tell us.

and looking at the sun positioned in the portal between the western stones


Today is the eighth anniversary of this blog.

I said it last year, and I'm delighted and incredibly privileged to say it again: This is also the anniversary of what turned out to be the most important event in my life, the night Barry and I met (now nineteen years ago).

Last year I also wrote, looking at the world outside our circle of close friends, that I was "more upbeat about the world" than I had been the year before, the eighth year of our second Bush, adding, "but only a bit". That hasn't changed, a bit.

And happy birthday, Paddy Johnson!

[the image is of a portion of the street number on the glass above one of the Art Deco entrances of the former Port Authority Commerce Building (1932), 111 Eighth Avenue the wall seen several feet behind the glass is covered with gold leaf]


Barry and I don't observe anything religious, but we can't help it if our historical memories kick in once in a while. Usually it involves a good meal, and there's definitely one of those in the works for tomorrow, which happens to be the day celebrated as Easter by some.

Easter has come to be associated with colored eggs, but I think it was only a coincidence that I came across these giants earlier this week.

The picture is of some of the ostrich and emu eggs being sold by Roaming Acres (Sussex County, New Jersey) at the Union Square greenmarket on every Friday. The off-white and the dark blue/green colors are achieved without benefit of coloring. The big birds responsible, while hardly native to these climes, are actually local stock (as they must be, by greenmarket regulations, and in their case also "all natural"). The farmer himself sells the big eggs (one ostrich egg equals 18-24 chicken eggs) both fresh and hollowed out. He also offers ostrich meat and handsome ostrich leather goods, but the emu are cherished for their eggs alone (both with and without original content).

This picture, or one similar, will probably soon find its way onto our food blog, since I picked up a frozen ostrich fillet while I was there. We already have an ostrich egg sitting on a table in the parlor, one I brought with me when I moved back from South Africa 35 years ago, but I have my eye on one of those dark emu beauties.

just how much could it have hurt?

I know I'm one of the publishers, and so it may not be quite proper for me to sing the praises of the online arts magazine Barry and I introduced late last summer, but I'm going to risk it anyway.

Although so much else of IDIOM is just as good or even better, because of its particular timeliness and its unexpected format I wanted the conversation between some of the publication's writers, "On the passing of J.D. Salinger", which we published yesterday, to get more attention than it might otherwise attract.

So consider this a flag.

The spirited short piece is nothing like the fulsome academic discourse available almost everywhere this week, and you'll feel like you're sitting in the room with the three young participants - even contributing to the conversation. The voices you'll hear are those of Alice Gregory, Editor Stephen Squibb and Jessica Loudis.

While you're at the site, take a look at the latest posting, which is equally timely, "Art and Culture in Haiti after the Quake", by Hong-An Truong, and browse through the still-modest-size archives.

My own two cents about Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" is the thought which came to me almost immediately after hearing about Salinger's death: I don't mean to minimize the importance of what he accomplished back in 1951, but, as a gay boy the year it was written, and a gay young man when I finally read it, "Catcher" never quite resonated with me in the same way it did with others. It seems to have attached itself to the psyche of many of my approximate contemporaries, or at least the straight, male, white, middle to upper class types.

Today I'm no longer gay; I think of myself as totally queer instead, but I can remember what it was like when being gay meant dissemblance, invisibility, powerlessness, desperation and, for "practicing" Catholics, eternal damnation. I'm now more than cool with my orientation, in fact I consider it a strength in almost every way, and I'm definitely no longer totally alone with it. So maybe I should try once again to make Holden Caulfield's acquaintance: His own much-analyzed disconnect looked pretty trifling to me at a time when the the whole world despised my, literally, unspeakable differentness and when I would have been crushed in an instant had I revealed myself.

This last thought can only serve as a footnote, and I don't want to make too much of a purely personal irony, but I can't help noting that, at roughly the same time I began emerging from a closet to which I had been condemned by others, J.D. Salinger shut himself up in one of his own construction. It's his odyssey that still baffles everyone.

[image from the Telegraph via IDIOM]

Beuys's cane continuously raps on the surface of Ustvolskaya's percussion box, one corner of which rests on a copy of Castaneda's "Don Juan"

the hugely-outsize Boli, constructed of sacrificial materials, including one of Evo Morales's acrylic sweaters, contemplates Malinowska's replica of Malevich's "Black Square"

a group of slightly-scruffy habitués of McCarren Park "performing the Solar System model falling apart", accompanied by toy piano, in a video using Messiaen's "Visions de l'amen" as sound

Joanna Malinowska has installed her own aggressively-idiosyncratic diagram of the universe, "Time of Guerilla Metaphysics", inside the two gallery spaces of CANADA, on the Lower East Side.

It's not a simple walk-through show. A certain amount of attention has to be paid when the universe is being re-imagined. Its appeal may only develop slowly, at least partly because it's surfaces are largely brown and gray, and because its pieces echo the diversity of Malinowska's model, the universe itself, but ultimately the installations, both separately and together, register as powerful, tantalizing, and, ultimately, deliciously enigmatic. Their mysteries mirror the artist's sources themselves, which include traditional West African totems, Joseph Beuys, Copernicus, Mammoths, Galina Ustvolskaya, Oglala Sioux dance, Spinoza, Kazimir Malevich, Evo Morales, and Brooklyn’s McCarren Park.

I left the gallery thinking that visitors to this, her second New York show could only be scratching the surface of this artist's creative imagination.

William Blake Hecate or the Three Fates 1795

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings."
[Cassius, in "Julius Caesar", Act I, Scene II]

The stars, the fates, Hecate, Parcae, Fata, the norns, the three sisters, they're us, and we should start acting like we know it.

The Transportation Safety Administration can't give us security; it's in our hands. All of the grotesque, costly, and invasive measures the TSA has already introduced, or might still introduce, are only reactive, and cannot match the efficacy of the initiatives which a look at the broader geopolitical picture would demand. We should also remember that all the current fuss is about passenger air travel, which is only a tiny portion of our national security responsibilities.

The only comprehensive security measure that makes any sense, and which incidentally would be acceptable to, if not applauded by, the entire world (including air travelers everywhere) would be an elimination of the cause, not a continual search for the effect of the intense resentment and hatred behind suicidal and other terrorist acts.

We should begin by looking at ourselves as others see us. We should end all of our current, totally optional wars, close the U.S. military bases and operations currently located within well over 130 countries, and begin to show a decent respect for the cultures of other peoples. 

Of course it would also be helpful if we could actually bring ourselves to extend real foreign aid, not military hardware, and only where it can be constructive, not where we believe we can buy love or increase our own wealth. 

[image from poor old dirt farmer]

minaret and church tower in Wangen bei Olten, in the northern Swiss canton of Solothurn

Tell me again: Why is this a problem?

[image from AFP, via Spiegel]

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Cults category.

previous category: architecture

next category: Culture