Monday, October 13, 2014

Up the Skirt Photos a Free Speech Right?

"The center cannot hold; things fall apart."    —W. B. Yeats

You probably missed it, but Washington D.C. Superior Court Judge Juliet McKenna recently declared innocent a man arrested for surreptitiously taking photos up women’s skirts of their private parts. Why? The photos were an exercise of “free speech." Besides that, woman do not have a “right to privacy” in public places if they are so foolish as to let someone do this. (2)

Do you ever get the impression that the definition of  “free speech” may be going too far—and all at the same time an ominous counter-trend in the law eats away at other protections to our freedom?

On the one hand, we’ve gained all kinds of ground for what sociologist Robert Bellah called “individualistic expressionism.” (3) On the other hand, laws that allow the government to confiscate personal property merely upon suspicion of a crime, for example, continue to grow apace. And this is to say nothing about the egregious ways in which the rights of minorities are violated daily in the justice system. (I sometimes have a momentary paranoid flash that increasing personal freedom may be a “bread and circuses” ploy to satisfy the population while the National Security State encroaches more and more). 

While legally a different issue, the reinterpretation of the Second Amendment away from its original social meaning (the need for militias) to a purely individualistic meaning (my absolute right to carry a weapon) is part of the same trend. 

An eroding societal ‘center’?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy to live in a country with a right to express freely my social, political, and religious ideas. But stealth photos of women’s crotches as free speech—give me a break! Better yet, give the judiciary some greater sense of the idea that every right carries with it responsibilities. I was taught, in Seminary, that any virtue carried to the extreme becomes a vice, and that even free speech was limited by a cultural sense of social responsibility.

But that stabilizing center of social sensibility, personal self-restraint and responsibility progessively erodes in our midst, more and more issues end up in court rather than settled by cultural norms and standards.

Where is the balance?

Early 20th Century Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the constitutional prohibition of legislation against free speech was not ”intended to give immunity for every possible use of language.” He was the product of a culture which considered free speech to be tempered by self-regulation for the common good.  Contemporary legal theorists like Nigel Warburton consider such ideas “outmoded.” (4)

"Free speech” has expanded to cover flag burning, most pornography, heckling near women going for an abortion, hurling anti-gay slurs at the military funerals and outside church services, and (still a mind-boggle to me) corporate and personal rights to give enormous amounts once forbidden to political campaigns. Liberals and conservatives alike applaud the freedoms they like and deplore those they don’t.

If rights have no limits, one set of rights clashes severely with another set of rights. All issues of freedom are, for Americans, very touchy. But so is the guy using stealth to peek up your skirt, which new technology makes easy to do secretly and stealthily.

How can we find a new stabilizing center? Or will our growing freedoms become the anarchy the Security State will find a tempting target for future expansion?
1. William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming.  See

2. See Jessica Goldstein,  "In the Light of the Upskirt Ruling, Some Fashion Tips for Ladies"

3. See Robert Bellah, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.

4. See Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Francis: In Touch with Earth’s Soul

Jesus said: ‘Pick up a stone, and I am there; 
split the wood—I am there also.’ (1)

St. Francis wasn’t the only one with a special connection to animals. From time immemorial some people have been able to live “deeper in” nature than others.

Francis once commanded a noisy flock of birds in a tree to be still while he preached, and they not only obeyed to but stayed for the whole sermon, leaving immediately when it was over. Something in the energy of his very presence drew animals to him. St. Seraphim of Russia who befriended a bear. St. Cuthbert of Britain's limbs were said to have been warmed by sensible seals after he had stood ascetically in a tidal basin for too long.

Fables? Talk to the young forest ranger who once described to me how he moved through the forest so that the creatures wouldn’t hide from his presence. “People barge in like they own the place, he said. You have to walk softly, silently. Then they come out of hiding.” Or talk to Native American shamans and connecting with animal spirits. For that matter, you can talk to my wife, who has a remarkable way of befriending skittish animals. 

Tap-rooted into Paradise

These folk seem to have a foot in two worlds—one in the fabled Paradise of our human origins, when the First Parents communed with the soul of bird and beast, and another in our present "eclipsed" state, remote from the ancient mammalian/primate rapport with nature. The bible is not the only sacred lore that remembers such a Before Time.

Jesus seems to fit in this company. “What manner of man is this?” his disciples asked, and told stories about the effect of his presence not only on people, but on the natural world around them. He spent a sojourn in the wilderness ‘with the wild beasts’ and emerged unharmed. He stilled a violent storm on the sea of Galilee by speaking directly to it, as if to something intimate and familiar.  Jesus himself fits in this company.

Jesus seemed to live “deeper in,” in more vital contact with the soul and spirit of the world than other folks, like other holy men and women throughout history. They breathe the soul of earth as well as the Spirit of God.

The skepticism modernity brings to these stories goes hand in hand with our own soul’s disconnect with the spiritual aliveness of the world around us.  As bedazzling and beneficial as our civilized advances have been for humanity, they have come with a price—progressive distancing from direct rapport with the soul of nature, the soul of the planet itself. The Jesus described in the gospels is in touch both with his own civilization and the deep currents of power and life that flow through the soul of the world around him.

A way back into the world?

Perhaps, like some Zen monks, he and Francis, Seraphim of Moscow, the wise women of every earth-rooted culture, and the shamans could live with mind and body simultaneously in two states: deep, meditative connection with the depths of the ever-springing Life that pervades this world and the ordinary events of the day.

Early Christians, following the highly-disciplined Path he laid out for them, claimed that initiation into Christ “opened the gate to Paradise" and looked forward to a "restoration" of earth to its primal vigor. Maybe it's time to reclaim that ancient reading of Jesus and his Way. Is it a path back in to the world we are so ‘progressively’ destroying?

Surely there is a better path than the one our civilization is on.

1.  Gospel of Thomas, Logion 77

The graphic is St. Seraphim of Sarov with his companion bear. For more on this famous Russian saint, see