the sweeping up the heart

We met in midsummer 2001. He was barely six months old but already silver, deep-chested, long-legged, gregarious poodle, the smartest and most sensitive dog I have ever known. Here is how we looked back then. Two days ago we put him to rest in order to circumvent a cruel and painful death of another kind. A vicious tumor had undermined his lower jaw. He would have been fourteen this December. We called him Murphy.

All deaths are significant, those of animals (beloved or not) no less than those of humans. The fact of death is most commonly present to us as the loss of a single creature out of the aggregate of those present to us. It is this singleness that most discloses to us the mystery of the abundance of God, at whose heart is the blink of an eye and a vanishing. Murphy died in Kathleen’s arms without struggle and apparently without pain. It was as though a wind passed over him and he was gone.

He came to be called Murphy by an agreement of sorts. Kathleen had lost another beloved dog in early 2001. At that point in our relationship we commuted back and forth across the distance between Iowa City, where Kathleen was a professor at the University, and Denton, Texas, where I was beginning my final year of service before retirement from UNT. We planned marriage but had not yet done the deed.

Kathleen called me from a conference in Washington D. C. in late May that year to tell me that she had found a new dog. She described him to me and asked, “Can I keep him?” The question was pro forma, and I knew it. We were pretty sure of one another then. So I answered her question with a question. “What’s his name?” I asked. “Murphy,” she replied. He has been my constant companion since we all moved in together in late August, 2002. Here’s one of my favorite pictures of him perched on the bed in our bedroom.

Murphy had failed at the dog show game. His legs were too long. He had raccoon eyes. But he was built like a whippet and could run like one too. Besides a walk he had three gaits. He could leap into a full-out sprint off the back porch to chase a squirrel. He never caught one, but I was pretty sure he could have done but that the short distance between the porch and the back fence in our tiny city backyard didn’t allow him to get quite up to speed.

He had a jaunty, devil-may-care trot too, that he usually adopted on the leash, but he revealed his true nature when he had a big space to run in. Our friend, Leslie, has a large (and beautiful) backyard in Iowa City, a bit like a second home to us and to Murphy. Countless times I have watched him, when we would arrive for a visit, sprint down the two-story back stairs with an abandon almost painful to see and race around and around Leslie’s yard, running by the fence at the perimeter, quickly settling into a long, soaring lope that he seemed to be able to continue almost indefinitely.

I shall not lack for good memories of Murphy to stand against the memory of the last illness that sapped his life. Among them will be the memory of his bony back against mine in the bed at night and the way he worked the room when we had guests. But since he has now entered the realm of my memories and those of others who knew him and with whom he shared his life, there is another sort of memory I want to memorialize.

We are told that dogs study us; study, particularly, our faces. I have watched Murphy study me for a sum of hours over the years and thought I could see in those raccoon eyes a thing worth my study as well. I speak now not of a study like the study of books or languages or science, but of something far more profound and unsentimental. Here are some lines about it that I found in Rilke’s Eighth Duino Elegy and made into a poem for him at the time I first realized Murphy had joined me in the community of aging. I close with them.

For Murphy, Growing Old

With all its eyes creation sees
an open space. Only our eyes invert,
entrap, surround free beings as they emerge.
What is outside, we know only from the gaze
of animals; already as young children we are
turned around, constrained to see backwards
to live among objects not in the open, which
in animal faces is so deep. Free from death
(only we see that) the animal has its demise
continually behind it and God before, perhaps—
the movement of its being wells up like a spring,
already in eternity.

after Rilke

Murphy Farrell/Long (December 12, 2000—July 28, 2014) RIP.

Another summer day

I’ve been to the mountaintop, he said, and I’ve seen the promised land. Then, the very next day, he was shot dead.

For me the occasion was marked forever as I arrived at my church for choir practice on the fourth of April, 1968 to words more or less barked at me by an acquaintance in the bass section with whom I had often sparred about politics: “Well, we’ve killed that son of a bitch! What do you think of that?” Now that Dr. King is as close to being a national saint as anybody ever gets in this country, those words and the events that occasioned them stand in my memory as a poignant memento.

I lived in Durham, NC at the time. When I arrived there almost three years earlier in August, 1965, I turned on the evening news to witness a Ku Klux Klan rally in which a number of costumed hooligans were brandishing guns. This wasn’t taking place halfway across the country but just across town at a watering hole known as the Confederate Inn. Many have wondered if Dr. King foresaw his own death. He seems to speak of it in this, his last great speech. Certainly, given the violence of those years it was a pretty good bet, if not a sure one, that he would be assassinated.

And it ought to be said any time one mentions Dr. King’s death that in life he was much hated by those on the political right in this country and still is by many. Newspapers still get letters opposing the naming of public things for him. The federal holiday that honors his memory has had a mixed history. Those on the right who pretend to honor him often misrepresent his accomplishments and/or parts of his career. But my purpose isn’t to argue about Dr. King. There is something nearer to hand.

Last summer about this time I wrote about trying to explain to myself why I love my country. Part of the thrust of that essay was contained in this paragraph:

For the past several days I’ve been trying to think of something to say about why I love my country, but that immediately puts me at odds with many people I know and love who believe that the country I love, the creation of a liberal establishment, needs to be dismantled in the name of freedom and creativity. I am now to understand that greed is not only good but socially redemptive as well; to accept the destruction of the fundamental institutions of a great nation, everything from public universities to highways and bridges in the name of privatization or that will-o-the-wisp, reform; and to adjust to a public sphere in which swaggering thugs strut about brandishing assault rifles.

Similar groups of thugs have recently forestalled federal agents attempting to enforce a court order in Nevada and are now attempting to reorganize and go to Texas to “secure the border.” There was a time when groups like these militias could be dismissed as part of the political lunatic fringe, but my country has now so embraced lunacy as to confer a kind of normalcy upon them. And we are a long way past threatened destruction of the country’s great institutions. That destruction is well advanced. In my last summer’s essay I used the memory of an old Pat Boone song sounding across a lake as an image of what I love about my country. Now Pat Boone has taken to writing hate-filled media pieces about President Obama.

What I have to say about my country this summer isn’t very optimistic. It used to be possible for us Americans to absorb and transcend the horror of our political violence, even in Texas, where a large fund of right-wing bigotry and hate is presently being ramped up again by vicious pols inside and outside the state, where a humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of innocent children is being held hostage by the same logic that has shut our national government down. The Republican party failed in its last attempt at formally shutting government down but has largely succeeded informally, and it has done so by plunging the country into perpetual chaos in order to blame the president for it.

Nobody will ever convince me that the present strategy of the Republican party isn’t racist. It works in precisely the same studied manner employed by Lee Atwater in the Willie Horton attack ads against Michael Dukakis. Its designers understand that the Republican base can be aroused by appeals that give its members permission to express socially impermissible hatreds by using language that masks their real nature. But when a mob of middle class white people prevents busloads of brown-skinned children from entering a town in California, all the while chanting USA! USA!, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. And when those same children are described as disease infested, etc., at a town hall meeting, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. And when the whole sorry spectacle is hyped by wannabe’s like Sarah Palin and Rick Perry as a way to stoke hatred of the president, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.

None of this is news any more. But there’s a bit of a new twist in claims such as this one from Jeff Stone, the chairman of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors as he spoke to a crowd at a town meeting in Murrieta, California after the mob action—“Obama needs to enforce the border and stop this action of exploiting traumatized women and children for his own political gain,”—when it is Mr. Stone and others who think as he seems to think who are exploiting traumatized women and children. Such statements are beneath contempt, but they are also signs of the times in Dr. King’s promised land.

It’s just business

When I hear somebody use the expression I’ve taken for a title, I think one of two things. Either some monstrous evil is about to be justified by appeal to the sacredness of profit, or it’s time to hold on to your wallet. I should likely leave this topic alone, since I’ve been trying not to write about political firecrackers. But there are so many things wrong with the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision that one hesitates to try to list them. Still, among the concatenation of fact, falsehood, and argument swirling around the decision’s aftermath a few things seem to me to be of particular importance.

It’s been known for some time that Hobby Lobby’s owners are connected with right-wing organizations whose goal is to push “a Christian agenda into American law,” as Eli Clifton has reported in Salon. Time has reported this week that the Green Family (Owners of Hobby Lobby) were recruited to act as poster children for this particular lawsuit against a portion of the Affordable Care Act. They had a family prayer meeting about the matter before they decided to act, but in the final analysis they signed their company up to front for a political action that originated with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

The Becket Fund is a right-wing Washington law firm that specializes in “religious freedom” cases. To be fair, Becket has defended persons and organizations of a variety of faiths. On the other hand, the Fund has made significant recent contributions to the current trend that interprets religious freedom as a Christian license to discriminate against individuals and has been allied with others, including Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, about which I’ve written earlier, the recently enacted Arizona SB 1062 that would have provided religious exceptions to protections in federal public accommodations law and specifically permitted discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer, and now in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

It appears as well that the Green family’s participation in this present case was not the sincere religious matter it has been portrayed to be by media and by the Supreme Court. The Greens are heavily invested through their pension fund in pharmaceutical companies that manufacture IUDs and the specific birth control medications to which the Greens affected to object as well as drugs used to induce abortions. The story was first reported by Molly Redden in Mother Jones and has been confirmed by Rick Ungar in a piece published today in Forbes, and elsewhere.

The Greens have a perfect right to invest pension funds in whatever way they choose, as long as their investments meet their fiduciary obligations. But they do not have a right, it seems to me, to support the manufacture of the very devices and medications to which they claim a religious objection that qualifies them for an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate. Conservatives have rushed to defend the Greens, claiming among other things that they were not responsible for these investments, didn’t know about them, and didn’t profit from them. Ungar pretty much demolishes those arguments and sums up as follows:

You simply can’t say that you will give your all in defense of your closely held beliefs when it suits you while seeking to make money in violation of those beliefs. You also cannot pretend you were simply negligent in learning what investments you hold if you are going to hold yourself out as an example of righteousness.

These observations underscore the extent to which this lawsuit is a move in the political chess game that is being played out over the Affordable Care Act. Justice Alito admitted in his majority opinion that the SCOTUS doctrine that corporatiions are people is a fiction, but claimed it is a useful fiction designed to protect the people who own corporations from harm.

[T]he purpose of extending rights to corporations is to protect the rights of people associated with the corporation, including shareholders, officers, and employees. Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.

Whether Justice Alito was aware that he had contradicted himself here in including employees in one sentence among those protected by the “familiar legal fiction” of corporation=person and excluding them in the next I cannot judge. But the contradiction makes clear the perversity of the fiction.

There is a second perverse fiction involved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and that is the fiction of sincerely held religious beliefs. The Greens’ beliefs as described in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby are at the very least problematic scientifically, but now it turns out that their sincerity is open to question as well. Women, it is claimed, may not use certain contraceptives with the Greens’ support, but it is perfectly all right for the Greens to profit from the manufacture of these same contraceptives.

To be sure, the court more or less invited the President and Congress to extend the arrangement devised for non-profits who claim a religious exception to for-profit corporations such as Hobby Lobby. I suspect that this will be done, and that the cost of covering Hobby Lobby employees for the contraceptives to which Hobby Lobby objects will ultimately be passed on to you and me. And perhaps this means can be extended to the many other corporations now in queue for the religious exception. I will be glad to pay it, but this eventuality merely invites the religious right to espouse another putatively righteous cause.

It’s tempting to dismiss this entire matter as just another example of the contemporary practice of religion as identity politics, though I have no dog in that hunt. But now that this deplorable Supreme Court decision has entered the realm of precedent it is being interpreted with some justice, as in Justice Ginsburg’s dissent but also on the right, as opening the door to all sorts of new exceptions to established law on the basis of religious scruple, which need not have a grounding in fact and may, perhaps, even be feigned. As Justice Ginsburg has wisely pointed out, the court has “ventured into a minefield,” exposing itself to the necessity of deciding perhaps thousands of supposed “religious freedom” cases ad hoc.