In Praise of Amber Ruffin, or How Seth Meyers could help your church

For a comedy fan, YouTube and late-night talk shows are the perfect combination. All the monologues, all the skits and sketches, none of the boring interviews. Just the laughs, and the hard thoughts sometimes behind them.

My current favorite of the late-night comedians isn’t a host but a writer-actor, Amber Ruffin, a writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Meyers is very funny, and he’s confident enough in his abilities to put his writers on stage with him. At least weekly the woman writers–most of the sketch/skit acting is done by women–are on the show, with good juicy parts, often upstaging Meyers. Here he’s playing straight man so Ruffin can be top banana:

There is so much to love in that sketch. Ruffin pulls laughs out of unpleasant places. Her girlish demeanor is a great pivot point. She can go from there to sarcastic, contrarian, sexy, angry, almost anywhere. Here she makes the hugest move with it: At the time of the Charlottesville attack, a frightening time, she shows us how she guards her soft spots with a happy “Come oooooon!” Most comedians don’t ever get to that level of public insight.  She’s early in her career and doing it in front of a national audience.

Until I started to write this, I did not know that in 2014, Ruffin became the first black woman to write for a network late-night talk show, but I had figured she’s on track to be the first black woman–and maybe the first woman–with a late-night network talk show.

Apparently I’m not the only person who’s considered that. Just this week, Seth Meyers was interviewed in The Atlantic:

Continue reading In Praise of Amber Ruffin, or How Seth Meyers could help your church

Kim Kardashian Shines A Light

Not Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette: Melania or Ivanka? Neither, says Slate’s Matthew Dessem: It’s Kim Kardashian. It’s a slick piece of understandably sharp mockery. As Dessem asks, “In the long term, has anyone ever been glad they lent their celebrity to Donald Trump?”

That’s a fair question, and I’ll answer it: Kim Kardashian is glad, because Alice Johnson now has a better chance of being pardoned.

Dessem doesn’t quite get the “optics”–and is there a more cold clinical hateful way to describe the care with which a human being presents herself in search of justice for another?–of Kim Kardashian asking Donald Trump to show mercy to Alice Johnson.

There’s a lot to be said for representation and empowerment stories, whether fantastic or realistic, but when someone has spent twenty years behind bars on a bullshit charge, denying those bars’ existence doesn’t get a body out of jail.

This is a very different kind of story, in a very long tradition of those on bottom appealing to those on top for mercy. It doesn’t cast Kim Kardashian in the leading role. She has a piece of paper in her mind. She’s going to see the warden, going to free her friend.

I don’t know what was on Kim Kardashian’s piece of paper. I don’t know if it was a bail receipt, a poll result, a Kanye tweet, a well-timed insult, a Tennessee bondsman’s guarantee, a letter of recommendation, a role for Melania on TV, a gratuitous link to Formation. I expect she said whatever she had to say, just like going there to ask was what she had to do.

If you can look down on her for that, then you’re a better man than I.

A Memorial Day sermon, followed by songs

Memorial Day is a holiday I don’t fully appreciate. I’ve had to work at it. I’m not in favor of war, even when I don’t see any alternative, so it feels hypocritical of me to wave the flag for it. But I think I’ve found my text for the day, at last:

The fight for Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest of World War II. A tiny island in the Pacific dominated by a volcanic mountain and pockmarked with caves, Iwo Jima was the setting for a five-week, nonstop battle between 70,000 American Marines and an unknown number of deeply entrenched Japanese defenders. The courage and gallantry of the American forces, climaxed by the dramatic raising of the American flag over Mt. Suribachi, is memorialized in the Marine Corps monument in Washington, DC. Less well-remembered, however, is that the battle occasioned an eloquent eulogy by a Marine Corps rabbi that has become an American classic.

It’s easy to forget, in these days of optional wars and eternal conflicts, that people go to war with pure motivations. Not all people, but many. Consider Pat Tillman, who turned his back on a lucrative football career, only to be disillusioned before his death.

Reading this remarkable sermon is a reminder of that. I present it to you not to support the idea of war–I do not–but to remind us that people are complex creatures who destroy and create with the same hand. To remind us that good sometimes follows from darkness.

These are the words of Roland B. Gittelsohn, Marine lieutenant and Reform rabbi, said over the Jewish dead at Iwo Jima:

THIS IS PERHAPS THE GRIMMEST, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us, as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the individual who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may rest now an individual who was destined to be a great prophet to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory.

IT IS NOT EASY TO DO SO. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very moment only because men who lie here beneath us, had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them, too, can it be said with utter truth: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here.”

No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our division who are not here have already done. All that we can even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that, by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their job well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it be the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.

WE DEDICATE OURSELVES, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors, generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and [privates], [Blacks] and whites, rich and poor…together. Here are Protestants, Catholics, and Jews…together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudice. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.

Anyone among us the living who fails to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against another, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, them, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the right Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, of all races alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them have here paid the price.

TO ONE THING MORE do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America’s fighting, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering, is but the beginning of our generation’s struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here; we will not do that. We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia—in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died.

WHEN THE LAST SHOT has been fired, there will still be those eyes that are turned backward not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this, too, we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man. We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of miners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers—will inherit from your death the right to a living that is decent and secure.

WHEN THE FINAL CROSS has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind than, by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen: We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed by shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again people seek profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground.

THIS DO WE MEMORIALIZE those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain. Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come—we promise—the birth of a new freedom for all humanity everywhere. And let us say…AMEN.

There’s really nothing to follow that but music:

A proposal for Armistice Day: Sunday, November 11th

Armistice Day was established as a Federal holiday in 1938 as “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’.” It was repurposed as Veterans Day in 1954.

A Proposal: Let’s return to the old tradition of observing Armistice Day as a day for peace.

2018 is the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I. The war ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month: November 11th, 11:00am.

At 11:00am this November 11th, a Sunday, most Unitarian Universalist congregations will be holding worship services. At that time, let’s all focus our services and our activities on peace.

There will be other activities taking place on and around November 11th. Most of those will emphasize relatively transient concerns, many of them important. Peace is a permanent issue. We have never known a time of world peace. We don’t know if it can be achieved; and if it can, we don’t know how. We will be challenged by peace for the rest of our lives. We remain hopeful.

Last month, the Arkansas UU Cluster and the Arkansas UU Justice Ministry “decided to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day on 11/11/2018. On November 11, 1918, at 11:00 a.m., World War I ended with an armistice. While the War to End All Wars never fulfilled that promise, UUs in Arkansas wanted to celebrate peace and the end of war. Join us as we celebrate a peace worthy of the name and honor all people of peace through Arkansas, the United States, and the World.” This proposal is an effort to amplify that call and to encourage people everywhere–especially Unitarian Universalists, but everyone who wants more peace in the world–to celebrate Armistice day this Sunday, November 11th, at or about 11:00am.

This is a dedicated page for Armistice Day resources. Your suggestions and contributions are welcome.

One Good Thing About the Rise of Authoritarianism

If you’ve read a lot of inside stuff about Unitarian Universalism the last few years, you’ve noticed ministers (and others, but a lot of ministers) decrying the “antiauthoritarianism” of rank-and-file Unitarian Universalists.

Equating “antiauthoritarianism” with “antiauthority” is just as dishonest as the people who try to equate “spirituality” and “spiritualism”, and in just the same word-warping manner.

So here’s the good news: I haven’t seen one such use of “anti-authoritarian” since the last election. As Samuel Johnson said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Looking authoritarianism in the eye reminds the weary and forgetful of the virtues of standing firm and saying no, middle finger and all.

It’s a small blessing, but I’m not in a position to turn anything down!

Dear Dahlia Lithwick: The Story Is The Ending

Dahlia Lithwick at Slate wrote a wonderful piece yesterday, How to Survive Trump’s Presidency Without Losing Your Mind. It’s short. You should read it before going on.

At the end, after repeating a story to us, she says:

I told this story to a roomful of people the other night and someone asked me after how the story ends. I had to admit to him that as a formal matter, the story ends where I ended it: the madness and the markings. But the truth is that the story doesn’t end so much as invite us into it, to contend with it on its own terms.

That’s true, but incomplete. The story, the telling of the story, the very existence of the story is itself the ending of the story. Consider: What if the plan in the story had gone terribly wrong? Who would be left to tell it? That the story is told shows the plan was successful enough that this piece of knowledge passed from those two men, through that time, to us.

Of course, it’s just a story. It’s not like history, a story which is more than just a story. But stories is what people do. We consume stories. We tell our stories; we tell the stories of others; we make up stories when we run out. The person who told that story lived; the writer who created that narrator lived. Choose to read this story as one of coming through the storm.

(Personal to Ms. Lithwick: I’d love to know what children’s record the version of the story you know comes from.)

Why I’m Not Thanking Black Women For Electing Doug Jones

The black folks who showed up to vote against Evil certainly have my thanks, as does everyone who shows up against Evil. I don’t think that’s how people think about it, though. I doubt anyone woke up in Alabama Tuesday and thought, “I’m going to go save the world.” No. They thought, “I have a chance to elect a senator who will protect and advance my interests.” And they voted, and I’m glad, because I share their interests.

But who deserves the most thanks? James Luther Adams used to talk about the “immaculate conception of virtue” and why that was a silly idea. So let’s apply that insight here: What got people to the polls that day? Local organizers. People who consciously act beyond their own interests to make a better world.

And here’s the big thing: It costs money, lots of money, to put boots on the ground.

So if you want to offer thanks, go right ahead. I think you’re better off finding out who was effective in turning out voters and giving them your thanks in the form of cash.

Shame Can Do What Guilt Cannot

I learned something about people this week: When you call someone a fascist or a Nazi or a racist, they shrug it off. When you tell them they are bad and should be better people, they take offense. The labels as guilt don’t carry much weight to people who are skeptical of them. Failing as a human being, though, needing to be better, that gets through.

Shame can do what guilt cannot.