Thursday, September 30, 2010

On Intellectual and Moral Courage – Part II

The second site I found which proved useful in bringing to consciousness this question of intellectual courage v. cowardice comes from perhaps an unlikely source. Lloyd Flack is an Australian statistician, according to his limited biographical information, writes a blog entitled “It looks different from here: Irregular postings on science, politics, science fiction, games, comics, history and whatever takes my fancy.”

What took his fancy on May 15, 2006, was a discussion “On the Nature of Fear and Courage.” While statisticians are hardly known for their philosophical reflections, being among the lowest disciplines in principled moral reasoning according to results from the Defining Issues Test, this statistician clearly is an exception to both the ideal type of statisticians and the stereotype that is easily drawn from it of amoral number crunchers.

Flack begins his musings with a critical overview of fear from an evolutionary perspective:

Fear is an emotion that tends to override all other others and to control our actions….[I]ts function is to protect our safety, our very existence. Those among our potential ancestors who did not react strongly to fear tended not to leave descendants. But evolution is a short sighted mechanism and what has evolved in one environment can be quite dysfunctional in another. And it does not take account of an organism's needs other than leaving descendants of itself or its kin. It cares nothing about happiness or morality.

He continues by dividing fear into four categories: physical, moral, intellectual and personal/social fears. He notes three basic strategies of dealing with fear: flee, freeze or fight. And then he discusses each type of fear and response in detail.

While Google picked up on the search terms “intellectual courage and cowardice,” Flack’s site was one of hundreds produced by that search. What caught my attention was his distinction between moral and intellectual courage/cowardice:

Moral courage is the ability to act according to one's conscience despite the risk of disapproval from those whose approval one wants or the fear of bearing the moral responsibility for an action.

Intellectual courage is the ability to accept unpleasant truths and to act on them. It is the courage to admit that you might be wrong.

Flack lays out many aspects of moral courage: acting according to one's own conscience rather than the judgment of others; words or deeds that tell others that they are wrong; incurring the disapproval of those whose approval matters to oneself; accepting responsibility for a judgment call rather than acting according to a set of rules.

His definition of intellectual courage contains aspects of resisting the temptation to believe what one wants to believe if the evidence and reason say otherwise, being willing to admit to oneself [or one’s parents?] that one might have been wrong or to admit that one doesn't know the answer, that uncertainty and doubt might be appropriate.

These are very fine delineations of moral and intellectual courage. But it is not until the two are considered in tandem that they prove useful to the student encountering cognitive dissonance. Flack draws a bead on the many would-be martyrs among my undergraduates who feel compelled to “take a stand” for their revealed truth observing that moral courage “is not taking a rebel pose. Those taking such poses are offending only those whose approval they don't care about. They are usually seeking to impress an in-group of like-minded people.”

In other words, self-imposed martyrdom is almost always less about principle than about ego and the perceived need for affirmation from one’s tribe. Flack continues, “Moral courage can come from intellectual cowardice. A zealot can have moral courage. They don't have intellectual courage.” Hence the reason they avoid classes in which their zealous but often poorly considered and often insupportable understandings would be drawn into question.

He also exposes the disingenuity about “I had no choice” arguments to which undergrads – and sadly many adults who know better - tend to be prone. Flack observes that arguments about
[d]uty can be a mask for moral cowardice. Especially duty to the law or duty in war. Seeking a wickedly excessive sentence because the law demands it or it is what is usually done by prosecutors is often an act of moral cowardice. Currently this is especially common for drug offenses in South-East Asia or in the United States. Moral cowardice is involved in many, perhaps most atrocities in wartime.

Sadly, he’s got us pegged.

Flack is particularly critical of fanaticism observing that:

Fanatics and zealots all have the combination of intellectual cowardice and obsession. Almost by definition.

But intellectual cowardice does not have to lead to fanaticism. It can simply lead to prejudice. To refusing to admit that homosexuality is not a choice. To refusing to admit that transsexuality is real or that chronic pain or chronic fatigue syndrome are real. I'm not talking about ignorance. I'm talking about willful blindness about other people stemming from religious or ideological motives.

No one likes to think their understandings and values could be wrong. No one likes to have their prejudices exposed. And most of us like it even less when the prejudices – if not fanaticisms – of our trusted moral agents, our parents and significant others, are brought into the harsh light of critical reflection. It is painful to consider we’ve been wrong and that our beliefs could have harmed others. It is often even more painful to consider that our parents could have held views which we now recognize as wrong, sometimes even destructive.

Intellectual cowardice is not terribly surprising when human beings are exposed to potentially disaffirming arguments and evidence which draws their previous understandings into question, particularly undergraduate students, many away from home for the first time, trying to figure out who they are. Some humans deal with cognitive dissonance better than others. And some are more comfortable with a lack of definitive answers than others, particularly those who score high on the Perceiving (as opposed to Judging) temperament on the Meyers-Brigg Temperament Inventory as does my students’ instructor.

The question then becomes what we do with such recognitions. Do we confront ourselves, wrestle with our conscience, talk with others to get other opinions? Or do we avoid the disaffirming other, skip the classes and assignments where we will be confronted with critical consideration of our inherited understandings, and rationalize it with ad hominem attacks on the Lucifer who would dare to shine light in the darkness of our inner recesses?

Ironically, if there is anything undergraduate students seek, it is to be seen with respect by others. This is particularly true vis-à-vis their peers but also extends to the faculty whose courses they take. Students who confuse questioning of their thought with attacks on their persons are often merciless on faculty evaluations and usually direct their comments in ad hominem form. Not surprisingly, such students are often seen in less than respectable ways by the faculty member who has called them to grow and develop only to be demonized for their efforts.

The truth is that there is nothing respectable about intellectual cowardice. There is even less respectable about ideologically self-blinded approaches to higher education which by its very nature demands critical reflection and evaluation of one’s perspectives. Arguments that Bibles speak and dictate certain required understandings of the world, that the invisible hand governs and guarantees the best economic policy possible, that the US is inevitably the best country in the world in every aspect are simply not credible given their birthplace in ideological matrices - much less respectable.

All of us are capable of operating out of less than critically considered lenses. All of us are capable of intellectual and/or moral cowardice when something near and dear to our hearts is challenged. The question becomes simply what we do when that challenge arises. In my own life, I have developed a sort of fall back position when such challenges arise in which I simply admit to myself and others, “But I could be wrong.” And I could be and have been. But the chances are I will wrestle with such questions for weeks if not months on end. Living with one’s understandings in an ongoing state of being under construction is not comfortable and probably would prove untenable to many. But it is the only way I have learned to live with as much intellectual integrity, if not courage, as possible.

As for my intellectually cowardly students, they have my compassion but not my respect. I realize that my classes will not prompt every student who walks through my doors to become critically reflective human beings and it would only be a monumental ego who would set such as a pedagogical goal. For those who would avoid the opportunities to grow and learn that I seek to provide, I console myself with the belief that even if they have avoided confronting themselves this time, they no longer have the luxury of naïveté in assuming that there are no possible problems with the understandings they felt the need to protect from critique.

Borrowing from the parable of the sower found in all the synoptic Gospels, in some the call to critical reflection my classes offer is a seed that will lay barren on the stony ground on which it fell waiting for the birds to swoop down and eat it. In others it is a seed that may take years to sprout but eventually it will do so. In either case, the sower has done his job.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

On Intellectual and Moral Courage – Part I

Last week I assigned students in one of my classes to examine the findings of the Princeton Review regarding life on the nearly 400 campuses their review covers. In addition to assessing academic standards at given institutions, the Review also provides a consumer guide to schools by having students respond to surveys regarding everything from campus food to dorms to religious and social life. While such surveys are questionable as to their accuracy due to sample size, they provide an interesting lesson in considering ideal types, actual types and stereotypes.

The first part of the assignment was to examine the top 20 colleges on the self-reported gay hostile campus list. The assignment required students to examine all of Princeton’s top 20 listings in which those schools were included and to try to develop an ideal type understanding of those campuses: What other prominent factors are found on those campuses? What elective affinity might be seen here regarding the types of students drawn to those schools as a result? The ideal type emerging from the Review listings suggests that they are largely religious schools in the South and Midwest which also avoid intoxicants and draw largely politically conservative students. Big surprise.

Similarly students were asked to develop an ideal type for the top 20 gay friendly colleges. The Review’s listings suggests these are largely northeastern private colleges with high tuition rates where students tend toward liberal causes such as vegetarianism. Again, big surprise.

Finally, students were asked to look at the top 20 “Studies the Most” and “Studies the Least” schools, the latter of which ranked their own university #2. The ideal type emerging from the “Studies the Most” list were largely Ivy League schools with good libraries and driven students. The ideal type emerging from the latter category included large state universities in the South and Midwest with reputations for being party schools which draw largely middle class students. In other words, mega-universities like their own.

The point of the assignment was to understand how ideal types are formed and used, what their limitations are, and how they differ from actual types (i.e., individuals who might affirm or contradict the ideal type when examined individually). The second point was to examine how ideal types, based in observable qualities held in common by group members, differ from stereotypes, which tend to focus on the negative aspects of some members of a group as a means of dismissing the entire group up front.

Assignments like these are often difficult for college undergraduates, particularly those new to college. In a time of standardized test driven secondary education, critical thinking has not exactly been emphasized prior to their arrival at the university. Moreover, many students are being confronted with the reality that their understandings of politics and religion, almost inevitably inherited from parents, significant others and the circled wagon group of like minded friends without much critical consideration, often prove difficult to support in a diverse mega-university setting.

From my experience of teaching college students over the past 20 years, I know that on the day assignments like these and others I assign (such as the difference between Jesus and the Christ, the problems reconciling equal protection with prohibitions against gay marriage, or the many problems with state killing), a number of students will simply skip class. Their absences are predictable. And the reasons for their absences are apparent. Being absent on the days such assignments are due and the avoidance of critical consideration of the topics that absence signals suggest that intellectual cowardice plays a large role the maintenance of understandings that these students perceive to be otherwise indefensible.

This year, after the sparsely attended class on ideal types, I decided to try to bring to consciousness this practice of intellectual cowardice. In researching intellectual courage for purposes of creating a link for the course website, I found two sites in particular that were very helpful. The first was the site for the Critical Thinking Community, an organization whose website reports its location to be Dillon Beach, CA. Under the link “Fundamentals of Critical Thinking,” the site offers this commentary on intellectual courage: 

  • Intellectual Courage: Having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which we have strong negative emotions and to which we have not given a serious hearing. This courage is connected with the recognition that ideas considered dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part) and that conclusions and beliefs inculcated in us are sometimes false or misleading. To determine for ourselves which is which, we must not passively and uncritically "accept" what we have "learned." Intellectual courage comes into play here, because inevitably we will come to see some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held in our social group. We need courage to be true to our own thinking in such circumstances. The penalties for non-conformity can be severe. (emphasis added)
I often remind my students that what college asks students to do is tantamount to treason. We ask students to actually think about what they have inherited from their families and significant others. They are asked to critically examine whether those understandings are defensible. But often implicit in that process is the question of whether the people they have trusted in simply accepting those former beliefs were credible. It’s very difficult to think that one’s parents could have been wrong, much less prejudiced if not mean spirited. To question - much less reject - their teachings at some level is tantamount to betraying them. And, perhaps more unsettling is the realization that if they were wrong about these ideas, what else might they have been wrong about? The result? Cognitive dissonance.

The example I use in class to illustrate cognitive dissonance is the inevitable deconstruction of belief in Santa Claus that occurs in most children’s lives about the time they hit kindergarten. Consider how you felt when that snot nosed kid from down the street said, “You don’t still believe in Santa Claus?” in a tone that suggested if you said yes you were an idiot. While you probably did the expected thing, succumbed to peer pressure and said, “No, of course not,” a gut check would have revealed something quite different:

Santa Claus isn’t real? You mean my parent lied to me? Man, this is no little white lie. I’ve got a lot invested in this. I behaved all of November and December because “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows if you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake.” If they lied to me about something this big, what else might they have lied about? How can I ever trust them again?

Now fast forward 12 years and multiply this cognitive dissonance about 100 times.

Being confronted with the possibility that one’s parent’s teachings about politics and religion, handed down from Mt. Olympus, could be wrong is a real shock for most undergrads. Most freshmen haven’t yet realized that their parents are actually human and capable of mistakes. And many have not yet learned how to accept their own frailties and limitations making it even more difficult to deal with the possibilities that key portions of their worldview, again, largely inherited from parents and significant others from their pre-college lives, could be challenged if not simply wrong.

Some feel the need to defend their inherited views with arguments that occasionally raise good questions but more often devolve into ad hominems of the Lucifer, the one who has dared to cast light onto areas of their thinking they’d taken for granted. The less courageous simply skip the classes where they perceive they’ll be required to consider the contents of their belief systems critically. And then there is the handful of intellectually courageous students who simply say, “This is something I’ve got to think about.” And then they do, some of them returning for a visit during office hours years later to talk about what they’ve been thinking.

At a very basic level, it is not hard to understand where intellectually cowardly students are coming from. No one wants to deal with cognitive dissonance. It is painful and troubling. It can become an existential crisis – What can I believe? What’s the point of all this? Why bother? – if not dealt with. And yet, it is an important part of the college experience.

That’s where the second website on intellectual courage and cowardice comes in.  Part II.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Idiocy and the Twilight of American Culture

Last week I had my students read an excerpt out of Charles Pierce’s Idiot America as one of the six readings assigned for the unit on critical thinking. Scathing in his critique, Pierce begins his rant with a discussion of the Creation Museum in Ohio where a literalist approach to Genesis has led religious believers to create models of dinosaurs with saddles on them, a striking statement that dinosaurs cohabited the earth with human beings since everything was created in six 24 hour days of creation. Pierce concludes that discussion with this litany:

Dinosaurs with saddles?

Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?

Welcome to your new Eden.

Welcome to Idiot America.

What Pierce is driving at is the willingness of Americans to buy into ridiculous ideas which cannot be supported or defended with reason or evidence but are held as indisputable truth nonetheless in the face of that reality. Indeed, given the tendency among many true believers to fancy themselves martyrs when their unsupportable assertions are held up to ridicule, confusing ego for principle, it’s precisely the least defensible of assertions that become litmus tests among the faithful.

Pierce lays out his case for Idiot America in three major premises:

• First Great Premise: Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.

Second Great Premise: Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough

• Third Great premise: Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

When I first read Idiot America, my mood ranged from irritation with his thinly veiled sarcasm – if not condescension - at so many points to elation that someone was finally calling Americans on their crap to despair in the realization of how poorly this bodes for the future of our nation. In all fairness, Pierce is not a doomsayer. He concludes his second chapter, entitled “The War on Expertise,” with this statement:

There is still hope for any country that remains as easy to love as this one, in no small part because this is still the best country ever in which to be a public crank. The United States is an easy country to love because you can take it on faith that, at some point in every waking hour of the day, there is among your fellow citizens a vast exaltation of opinions that test the outer boundaries of the Crazoid.

But Pierce is also clear that such testing never occurs without effort:

We will have to sort ourselves out again here in America. We will have to put things back on the right shelves. We will have to remember where our cranks belong in our national life, so that they can resume their proper roles as lonely guardians of the frontiers of the national imagination, prodding and pushing, getting us to think about things in new ways, but also knowing that their place is of necessity a lonely and humble one. There is nothing wrong with a country that has people who put saddles
on their dinosaurs. It's a wonderful show and we should watch them and applaud. We have no obligation to climb aboard and ride.

This is where I begin to get nervous. In another article I have my students read entitled “There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification,” a scholarly paper authored by a team of social scientists at institutions across the country seek to explain essentially why we believe lies. The team focused on the understandings of Americans polled just before the 2004 election in which voters reported that the US had invaded Iraq in retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s role in the 9-11 attacks. Were that true, it could be at least a defensible reason for having entered into this costly, destructive and ultimately pointless invasion and occupation.

Problem is, it was never true. While it could be argued that George Bush misled the people prior to the invasion as a means of garnering support for his foregone conclusion to invade, even he has admitted publicly that Iraq simply wasn’t involved in 9-11, adding his affirmation to the flood of news stories which had already reported the same thing. Even so, a majority of Americans held fast to that understanding in the face of fact to the contrary, choosing to lie to ourselves rather than admit we were wrong. And many cast their ballots for Bush on that basis.

This is the turbulent soup of 21st CE American politics. As Pierce notes, we live in an age where media seeks to boost ratings through sensationalism, where voters opt for entertainment over information and where truth is seen as the product of popularity of an idea, no matter how crazy, if it sells merchandise, is shouted long enough and loud enough and if people believe it fervently enough, regardless of its intrinsic credibility.

It is an age where diffuse anger congeals in Tea Parties where wacko fundamentalists of both religious and libertarian varieties are nominated for office and where voters appear ready to return to power the party who has brought them financial ruin and international shame.

Perhaps Pierce sees something I’m missing.

Pierce’s argument was brought home to me this week by two unrelated events that hammered home the Idiot America point he is making. The first came from a Pew Research survey in which American perceptions of the religion of the president are discussed. Obama, an adult convert to the United Church of Christ, has long noted his Christian faith citing it in his speeches and his writing. While his middle name is Hussein, a name given him by his Kenyan father who abandoned him and his mother when he was just three years old, Obama was drawn to African-American churches during his work with black churches as a community organizer and he was baptized in 1988.

Unlike those who simply inherit their parents’ religion (and often have no clue why they believe it other than their parents said so and thus get violently confrontational when questioned about their faith), adult converts are true believers. They can actually tell you what they believe and why. If you listen to Obama talk about his faith and how it shapes his approach to the world, there is little doubt about his religion.

Now these are the facts. But apparently facts are not sufficient for many Americans. The Pew survey found that the percentage of Americans capable of recognizing these facts has dropped to 34% in the Aug. 2010 polling. Another 18% report seeing him as Muslim and 43% of Americans say they don’t know what his religion is.

What’s not to know? In America, if we want to know what religion someone holds, we simply ask them. We have always presumed in this Protestant ethic country that the individual speaks for him or herself on such matters. And yet, when the president says he is Christian, two thirds of the country reports they won’t believe him. Why not? And why should such responses be taken seriously given the facts?

Moreover, the survey found that how people respond to the religion question turns on their perceptions of his job performance. Of those who approve of his presidency nearly 2/3 correctly report him to be Christian while among those who do not approve the same number inaccurately report him to be Muslim despite the facts to the contrary. As Pierce notes, even ludicrous ideas can become irrefutable truths if believed fervently enough.

This week, some of my honors students presented a power point in class using a graphic of President Obama with the title “Osama Obama.” Not only does such usage attempt to tie the president to Islam – a potentially dangerous connection in an increasingly Islamophobic culture like our own – but moreover it ties him specifically to the leader of the Muslim extremist group who has taken responsibility for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. When I asked the students why they chose the graphic, they said it was just an illustration. Of course, that was a disingenuous response, as they knew and everyone else in the classroom did as well. As always, dishonesty with oneself is the beginning place for dishonesty with others.

As I watch the maximum amount of rancourous television discussion of the elections I can stomach (which, admittedly, on most days is not too much), I find myself getting increasingly apprehensive about the future of my country. As Pierce notes, it’s not that Americans are incapable of “sort(ing) things out…[and] remember(ing) where our cranks belong in our national life,” it’s that we seem increasingly unlikely to do so. Indeed, more and more it appears to me that America no longer sees itself as a single people nor does it see such a vision as desirable.

Abraham Lincoln saw the danger in that thinking 150 years ago when he quoted remarks attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Some of the other writers I assign my students to read take that prognostication one step further in predicting that a nation of self-focused, distracted and largely disconnected Americans is headed for a “dark age” (Maggie Jackson, Distracted)  a decline into The Twilight of American Culture (Morris Berman).

I came home sick from school yesterday at the end of my last class and collapsed onto the couch. The evening’s fare of everything from PBS to Fox left me in near despair. I wish I could be more hopeful about America’s future. I’d like to believe it’s just the lingering effects of the flu that are painting my perspective so gray this morning. But a nation where idiots dominate the public discourse, where the honors student representatives of an entire generation report they are disinterested in politics thus leaving it to the idiots is enough to keep thoughtful people up at night. I simply do not see how a country marked by an ongoing paralysis of policy in a system controlled by corporate moneys with a media which confuses entertainment for information can sustain itself. I desperately hope I am wrong.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Punishment of Ben Stein

One of the articles that came up on the opening page of this morning was a lament by actor and sometimes economist Ben Stein entitled “Raising My Taxes Is a Punishment.” The deadpan Stein, known for his Visine commercials and his role as the deadly boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, argues that ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, tax cuts Stein has already enjoyed now for six years as the earner of more than $200,000 annually, is somehow a punishment.

To wit, his opening comments:

I am a fairly upper income taxpayer. Not anything even remotely close to sports stars or movie stars or financial big boys. But I am above the level Mr. Obama says makes me rich. So, in the midst of a severe recession, I am to have my taxes raised dramatically. 

I am not quite sure what my sin is.

You can read the remainder of this rant at

Stein knows better than this. He is well educated (Yale Law School) and has worked in at least two presidents’ administration (Nixon, Ford). He knows that it’s not Mr. Obama’s assessment that makes him rich, it’s his income. And he also knows that income is not made in a vacuum, there is a social context which has allowed him to amass his fortune.

Hence, the following response I left at the CBS site:

First of all, Ben, we love your comedy but it doesn’t translate well to serious discussion of economics.

Second, it’s important when discussing public policy to be as honest as possible about the facts. The fact is, no one is raising your taxes. You’re simply being required to again pay your fair share, something you’ve been able to avoid since Mr. Bush decided to place the burden of the revenue system on the backs of the working poor and the middle class with his tax cuts for fellow millionaires. If you wish to be taken seriously, as I presume you do in this article, you must begin with the facts.

Third, if you insist upon framing this discussion as punishment for a sin then consider that your sin is a failure to grow and mature into a responsible adult member of society. What is striking about your article is the use of the pronouns “I” and “my.” This is one of the most self-focused columns I’ve read in a long time, even more than those of my usually narcissistic and self-focused undergraduates. This kind of inability to escape the lens of self is somewhat charming in children. But we do expect more from adults.

You live in a society that has made possible the earning of your fortune. You drive on public highways to work, you work in an industry with federal protections against copyright and regulations which insure your television programs and movies are accessible to willing customers. Your doctors use procedures and medicines approved by federal protocols and trials and your own teachers along the way were educated in public schools.

Had you grown up on a desert island with no contributions from others, you would have no obligations to others. But you didn’t. And so your sin is your unwillingness to honestly confront your own selfish desire to keep from paying your fair share. Time to repent, Ben. There is still a possibility of redemption.

Your mileage may vary.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Why Marriage? Why Now? – Part 3

There were a lot of hoops to jump through before our marriage could happen. We decided to ask the bishop of the independent Catholic movement (CACINA) who had blessed our union in 1999 in the chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA to officiate. We figured that now that he was able to actually marry us, it ought to be his role to finish the rite he had begun eleven years previously. He was delighted when we asked him. But before D.C. would allow him to officiate, he had to file a form indicating his desire to do so and his proof of orders with a national religious body with the D.C. clerk’s office.

Then there was the license, the waiting period and the filing requirements. D.C. does not require blood or HIV tests and only requires a three day cooling off period. But that meant being in D.C. a full work week to get the license on a Monday, conduct the service on a Friday after the three day waiting period, and file the certificate that same day before 5 p.m. So, we’d need a house sitter to care for our animals. My nephew agreed to do that for a small fee. And we’d also need to remember to have enough cash on hand once at the clerk’s office to pay the fees for the issuance of the certificate and the filing fees to record it and obtain certified copies.

Then there was the question of rings. I have worn a silver wedding ring since our union was blessed eleven years ago. It was created by the Equality Project of the Human Rights Campaign, of which I am a member, and it bears the inscription Aequalitas, Latin for equality, inside the band. There has never been a time when I considered my relationship with Andy anything less than equal to any other, regardless of its legal status. So buying another ring made little sense to me. But Andy had no ring and spent hours searching the internet for a ring which would not cause undue constriction of his fingers. He finally came down with a slender platinum band which came by Federal Express four days before we left for D.C.

Of course, we also needed a rite to follow. Being the lover of liturgy that I am, I decided to create our own rite. I began with the Marriage Rite from the Book of Common Prayer, my starting place for all weddings I conduct. I drafted a rite which recited our history as a couple together, noted the recent change in the law in the District permitting our marriage and then launched into the BCP service. My friend, Bill Fite, who we asked to co-celebrate the marriage, added an Apache Wedding Blessing to the end of the rite. He also agreed to print out the booklets and bring them along.

We were ready.

Marriage is a symbol laden institution. And so we would have to be very conscious of our own symbolic interaction in this process.

We chose Friday, Aug. 13 as the day for our marriage very intentionally. Six years previously, I had been on the way home from a trip to Canada and had stopped in Washington to see a long time friend in nearby College Park. I had spent Friday, Aug. 13, 2004 at the Smithsonian art museums. I was loaded down with books and posters I convinced myself I needed for my classes. I was taking my first sip of merlot in the Sculpture Gardens, jazz quintet warming up, when I called Andy to see how things were going in Florida. “You haven’t heard the news, have you?” he began, telling me Hurricane Charley had changed course, jumped two categories in strength and was now headed directly for Orlando. Before the night was over, we would lose our home to a three ton oak tree, the beginning of a four year nightmarish process of rebuilding.

We intentionally chose this day to hold our wedding in part as a tribute to resilience of our relationship in the face of disaster. But we also sought to redeem this day, to make whole (and thus holy) once again a day with ragged, painful memories, and perhaps to defy fate by getting married on a Friday the 13th.

We also very intentionally chose the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court as the location for our marriage. Over the portico of the court is the ultimate promise of the judiciary system to the world: “Equal Justice Under Law.” It seemed fitting for a marriage which both reflected the justice of the District of Columbia’s new law as well as the ensuing challenge to the jurisprudence of a largely discriminatory nation to be conducted at that site. As I explained to my friends, “The promise is ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ and we’ve come to claim our share.”

Our plans were set when we ran into a snag. It seems the National Park Service does not permit weddings in most of the national monument and buildings area it polices. That is particularly true of the U.S. Supreme Court where even an act of praying can be considered a political event requiring permit and punishable by fine of $250 for violating that requirement. We would have to be strategic in our approach.

The day finally arrived. We began the service in the hotel where we were staying, working through the rite with its exchange of promises, its vows, its blessing and exchanges of rings and the Apache Blessing. At that point, we recessed the rite, left the hotel, got onto the Metro and rode over to the Capital South station and walked over to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, on the lowest level of the steps, among camera laden tourists and under the watchful eye of the Capitol security officers, our celebrant finished our service:

“By the power vested in me by the District of Columbia and the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, I now pronounce you legally married. Those whom G-d has joined together let no one – nation, state or people – put asunder. AMEN. May the peace of G-d be always with you!”

I’m guessing some of the tourists present were startled when Andy and I kissed each other in front of the Court during the exchange of the Peace. That wasn’t my intent but it also wasn’t my great concern. Given the bombardment all of us receive daily of heterosexual imagery, a public gay kiss is a drop in the bucket.

I’m sure these folks had no idea we had just been married right in front of them, a rite to which they were unknowing witnesses. I’m also sure that many probably have no idea what is coming down the road when the wrongs surrounding same sex marriages will be finally be righted. But their children know. And their grandchildren will wonder, as our children do today regarding Loving v. Virginia, how people could have ever thought that way in the first place.

From the Supreme Court, Andy and I walked the five blocks back to the District of Columbia’s clerk’s office. When we filed our duly executed license for marriage, we gave as the location for the marriage 1 First Street NE. It is the address of the U.S. Supreme Court. The court clerk smiled when we told her what was located at that address. “I like that,” she said. “It just seems like the right place for this to happen.” Our triple sealed certificate of marriage arrived in the mail the next week.

I do not expect everyone who knows me and even many who love me to understand our decision to get married. Ultimately, they will have to find their own way to come to grips with this changed reality in the friend and family member they have known for 57 years as single. However, most people whom we have informed of our marriage have congratulated us, many offering a variant of “It’s about time.” The others have simply remained silent. That is their right and I respect that right at the same time I expect our right to decide to marry be respected in the same way.

In many ways, I feel no different than before the marriage. My bones still creak first thing in the morning when I put on my tennis shoes to go walk my two miles before boarding the bus to school. Andy still snores at night accompanied by the beagle and the dachshund, requiring me to gently elbow him to turn over. And we still watch TV at night as we eat our dinner in the living room on the futon amidst our five fur babies. If this is the infamous “gay lifestyle” so many fear, it’s really pretty mundane.

But I have to admit I now get a small delight out of answering questions on forms which inquire into my marital status. I find it a privilege to be able to choose how I describe our relationship, whether I call Andy my partner – the blessing to my life he is and will always be – or my husband. And while I do not look forward to the contentiousness which all litigation inevitably involves, I am grateful to have an opportunity to be part of the movement for justice for all people regardless of their sexualities.

So why marriage? Why now? My answer is simply that this is a change whose time has come, both in our lives and in the world in which we live. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed “Justice delayed is justice denied.” On Friday, August 13, 2010, the promise of “Equal Justice Under Law” came a baby step closer to reality. For that, I am thankful to a very generous and compassionate G-d. And I thank our officiants and the small band of witnesses who accompanied us to the steps of the very seat of justice to claim our share.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
In the beginning...Kappa Sigma Fraternity, University of Florida, 1974
Andy was my big brother. We lived in my dad's former room in the house.

Why Marriage? Why Now? – Part 2

So, why buy in? Why bother? Why would we want to be like the breeders (to use the cynical, bitchy term with which we queers sometimes respond in kind to homophobic epithets)? Why not settle for domestic partner benefits and just be done with it? Why do we need to be married?

Looking back, there were two major turning points that ultimately changed my mind . In December 2008, the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission reported back to the state legislature that its domestic partnership law failed to provide the same protections as marriage. The commission noted that civil unions, as they were called in New Jersey, were not widely recognized because they were not marriages. That was particularly true outside the state of New Jersey. Even within the state, numerous employers refused to recognize civil union status for a variety of purposes including partner benefits and visitation rights in hospitals.

In my recent reading of the case law coming out of California’s Proposition 8 litigation, a theme that has been well developed by California courts is the problem with the separate but equal nature of domestic partnerships. While many would suggest that domestic partnerships are the result of largesse of well-intentioned straight people wanting to do something nice for “those people,” in fact the real purpose of domestic partnerships, as the California Supreme Court recognized, has ultimately been to avoid providing equality in marriage rights. It is effectually the protection of a privilege, not a magnanimous extension of benefits to those denied them.

Ultimately, separate but equal is no less pernicious in this context than it was in its former incarnation in racial segregation laws. As in the Jim Crow South, disparity in legal status clearly insures separation, but it also effectively insures that equality will never be the result.

That reality came into complete focus in the second event which proved the deciding factor in our decision to marry. In February 2007, Lisa Pond and her life partner of 18 years, Janice Langbehn, were preparing to launch off on a cruise from the port in Miami when Pond suffered a brain aneurysm , collapsed and was rushed to an emergency room at Miami Jackson Hospital. Pond’s life partner and their three adopted children followed in a taxi to the hospital. Pond was semiconscious but responsive upon arrival.

Upon their arrival, Langbehn and the couple’s children were denied visitation of Pond by the hospital clerk. That denial continued even when the required legal and medical forms the couple had previously executed were faxed to the hospital, Langbehn was subsequently told by the hospital social worker that she was in an “anti-gay city and state” and thus had no right to visitation. She was also advised that she would be unable to procure a court order to require visitation because it was a weekend.

For eight hours Langbehn and the children waited in the waiting room until they were finally permitted in to see Pond. By then she had lapsed into a coma, having been transferred from the emergency room to the intensive care of the hospital without notice. It was not until Pond’s sister arrived, eight hours after Pond’s admission, that Langbehn and the children were allowed to visit her just before she died and then only because the sister gave her permission. Pond never regained consciousness.

After the death of her life partner, Langbehn attempted to obtain Pond’s death certificate in order to get life insurance and Social Security benefits for her children. She was denied both by the state of Florida and the Dade County Medical Examiner. Not surprisingly, Langbehn suffered mental distress including exacerbation of multiple sclerosis symptoms requiring hospitalization not long after these events.

However, even in light of the egregious treatment she had endured surrounding the death of her partner, her suit for negligence against Miami Jackson in federal district court was dismissed without trial. The judge, a former federal prosecutor, ruled that the hospital had no duty to allow a domestic partner to be with her life partner as she died even as some hospitals do so. The court took no notice of the fact that married spouses and their children streamed down Jackson’s halls to be at the bedsides of their loved ones even as Langbehn and the children sat in the waiting room while her partner and the children’s mother died. The judge ruled that two brief medical consultations with Langbehn (once the power of attorney arrived) in the waiting room over the eight hour period during which Pond lapsed into a coma and died were all the family was entitled to by any hospital.

I became aware of this event shortly after the New Jersey commission had released its report. The suit by Langbehn and the couple’s children was dismissed Sept. 28, 2009, at which point the event which gave rise to the lawsuit became national news. As I read the stories about Lisa Pond and Janice Langbehn, I found myself shaking with fear. I also found myself white hot with anger.

Part of the fear I experienced was recognizing that either Andy or I could have been in the same position as Langbehn. What are the chances that the self-appointed moral guardians at the desks of hospitals here in Orlando or wherever we might be would not pull exactly the same stunt as the clerk and social worker in Miami? And what are the chances that the more conservative and religious members of our families would agree to our presence at the bedside of our dying partner? For true believers, blind faith tends to blind its adherents to the humanity of the other even in the face of impending death.

The simple reality is that in this and many other situations, domestic partnerships and civil unions simply cannot provide the kind of protection gay couples need to deal with the centuries of homophobia and institutionalized heterosexism we are likely to encounter in venues ranging from hospitals to insurance companies to the courts. Separate simply cannot not be equal or even adequate as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in Brown v. the Board in 1954. Indeed, the very fact of its separation, with the hierarchy of value that almost inevitably attends any dualism, renders it incapable of insuring the dignity and respect to which every loving relationship of consenting adults is entitled.

That is the point I began to come to grips with my anger. As long as hospitals and employers are not required by law to treat same sex couples the same way they treat any other couple, most of them simply won’t. The potential for more Janice Langbehns is unlimited. No human being deserves this kind of treatment. As a colleague of mine recently said about racial profiling, it’s time to turn this around. Inaction in the face of injustice is complicity in that injustice.

California days - my 40th birthday, San Jose, 1993

And so about a year ago, Andy and I began to talk about getting married. In part, we sought to afford our own relationship some degree of protection it is currently lacking. Our marriage will be honored in a number of states without DOMAs and when DOMA is ultimately rejected by the courts, in all American jurisdictions. And I believe it is more likely to be taken seriously in any confrontation than a domestic partnership, much less relying on holders of power and privilege to simply recognize 36 years of life together as worthy of respect.

But, in a broader sense, we also wanted to do something about an unjust situation that is simply untenable for ourselves and many couples like us. We began to discuss taking part in a class action suit to challenge DOMA and other discriminatory laws such as the recent constitutional amendment here in Florida (passed by 60% + margin the same night as Proposition 8 in California). If we are to qualify as plaintiffs in a class action, we would have to have a case and controversy for standing.

It’s rather odd to think of marriage as a political act, perhaps even an act of social defiance if not civil disobedience. Of course, any social institution has political overtones. When one lives into a dominant paradigm those overtones serve to affirm that paradigm, a conservative praxis. When one challenges the dominant paradigm, they draw it into question, a destabilizing praxis. But entering into the dominant paradigm with the intention of changing that paradigm is a bit novel, to say the least.

Once we decided that marriage was the right initial step, we began to plan where we would go and how we would accomplish getting married. Though we both love California after our four years of living there, a very contentious initiative election (Proposition 8) in 2008 took away the possibility of getting married in the Golden State anytime soon. When I saw the news about the District of Columbia changing its law to begin marrying same sex couples, (which itself survived a judicial challenge two weeks before we were to arrive there to get married), I proposed a trip to Washington to Andy and he agreed.

We were going to be married. Gulp.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


Why Marriage? Why Now? – Introduction

At 11:15 a.m., Friday, August 13, 2010, I stood with my life partner of 36 years on the first row of steps sweeping up to the U.S. Supreme Court. With the inscription on the court portico “Equal Justice Under Law” looming over our heads and marriage license in hand, we listened attentively as the following words were spoken:

            By the power vested in me by the District of Columbia and
            the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, I now
            pronounce you legally married.

With those words and the signature of our celebrant on the marriage license duly filed with the D.C. clerk later that day, our long term relationship was transformed into a legal marriage. We had officially become old married men.

In many ways this was an unlikely event. Our road to the altar or, in our case, the steps of the Supreme Court, has had many twists and unexpected turns, much like the Celtic knot pattern which adorned the cover of our marriage rite booklets. In many ways, the fact our relationship had endured to this final fruition has been little short of miraculous. And yet, there we were.

As the day of our marriage approached, I found myself pondering the questions in the title above: Why marriage? Why now? This post is an attempt to articulate some of the many thoughts that have come in response to those questions. 

 As recently as last year, both of us would have scoffed at the idea of marriage. After so many years together, it seemed rather anticlimactic. Don’t marriages usually precede the life together for most couples? What does a marriage rite 36 years after its actual inception suggest about the life together which preceded it?

Moreover, why buy into an institution as laden with baggage as marriage in the first place? Marriage has historically been more about property rights and patriarchal privilege than anything remotely concerned with loving and cherishing another human being, much less a partner of equal stature. Indeed, the institution of marriage has been the very locus of inequality historically with women viewed as property exchanged from one male patriarch to another (“Who gives this woman to be married?”). And they came as a part of a larger package including an accoutrement of property called a dowry. 

 In our own lifetimes, marriage has been the locus of very pointed inequality. I well remember the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case which struck down miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage then remaining in 16 states including Florida. I remember thinking at the time how stupid it was that laws prevented people from marrying whomever they wished regardless of their race. And I thought so even in the face of the local wisdom of my small Central Florida hometown which warned that children of interracial marriages would be polka dotted or possibly striped but in any event they’d be ugly, hence the reasons white people should never marry negroes. (G-d forbid we would have seen them as actual human beings who happened to be black.) Today, that inequality is focused in the struggle for same-sex marriages. And by deciding to marry, we also decided to enter that struggle. 

But why marriage at all? There is almost a parent/child sense in most current practices of marriage in which couples in loving relationship, like children anxious to please a parent society, seek its permission and affirmation through marriage. Why do adult human beings need permission to love other adult human beings? Why would such permission be desirable, much less needed, to form lasting, stable relationships flowing from that love? How does the official societal stamp of approval make a relationship any better than it was without the same?

Of course, I recognize that a social support system is often key to the health of any relationship. The role of communal support is reflected by the line in the Episcopal marriage rite which asks the community assembled for the wedding “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” to which the assembled hopefully responds, “We will.” When I celebrate weddings, I am always struck by the similarity of this exchange to the portion of the baptismal rite in which the assembled community is asked “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” again to which the people hopefully respond, “We will.” Clearly, we human beings are social animals; we flourish only in supportive community.

t’s also not that either of us had a particular onus against marriage. Indeed, the examples in our immediate families have been rather positive. My partner’s parents in Georgia have been married over 50 years now, his brother and his wife married about as long as we have been together. My parents were married 53 years before my mother’s death and between my two siblings, one has been married nearly 30 years the other divorced but then only after 20 years of marriage.

Moreover, my own parents offered a very healthy picture of partnership. My father was very clear he had married his equal, a woman as intelligent and talented as himself, a woman whose judgment he trusted and whose counsel he sought. My mother trusted my father implicitly and she never hesitated to challenge his pronouncements about everything from politics to the daily menu. If ever a marriage offered a relationship of equal partners, they were that marriage, an example worthy of emulation by anyone.

One of my fondest memories of my parents is going shopping with them just before my mother’s death. Mom had sent me to the back of the grocery store to get something she had forgotten. As I came up the long aisle to the checkouts I was moved by the sight of an elderly couple pushing a cart, the elderly man with his arm around the woman. She was having some trouble with the cart and he was helping push it to the register. Their affection for each other was obvious. As the woman turned for a second, I realized it was my own parents I was observing. Tears welled in my eyes. Even as their marriage and their lives together were drawing to an end, it was clear they still adored each other.

But, why would two gay men choose to marry? Marriage as an institution historically has been strongly connected to another social institution - this one pathological - called heterosexism and its more virulent offspring, homophobia. Thus marriage as practiced has been a privilege of heterosexual couples denied gay couples for most of human history.

Indeed, one of the more pernicious aspects of this troubled history has been the tendency of the beneficiaries of that privilege to use religion to attempt to legitimate it. It’s common for societies to attempt to root socially constructed practices in the will of G-d or the gods (or in watered down versions such as tradition, Nature or rather vague references to “the way things are”) to gain some sense of authority. Of course, the fact that historically only opposite sex relationships have been seen as blessed by G-d while ignoring – if not demonizing – all other relationships says little about G-d but a lot about the people and societies who invoke the divine to place their socially constructed understandings beyond question. As Annie Lamott says, “We know that we have constructed G-d in our own image when he hates the same people we do.”

The weddings of heterosexuals often feature some of the worst examples of human behaviors. They are smarmy, sentimental, with excessive attentiveness to superficial, ultimately insignificant details such as cakes, flowers, tailoring, gifts and catering. They are often inordinately expensive, often beyond the means of the family footing the bill. Correspondingly, far too little attention is paid to important aspects such as the actual readiness of the couple to spend lives together as they promise and the availability of a social support system once married.

As an Episcopal priest, I have performed a number of marriages for both heterosexual and same sex couples. I observe that marriage is at least as often a result of social and familial pressures and the couple’s perceived need for social affirmation than the validation of healthy relationships capable of withstanding the years and the pressures of life together. I have married a number of couples whose love has stood the test of time. And I celebrate that with them. But I have also observed many very healthy long term relationships in which marriage has never been a serious consideration. And as an attorney, I have seen the sadness, the sense of failure and often some of the most vicious behaviors human beings can conceive (including the manipulation of children) that attended the divorces I processed.

On a good day, marriage is a mixed bag. For gay men, it has often been a burden, an obstacle to healthy lives together. So why would my partner and I change our minds, arrange for the priest who conducted the blessing of our union 11 years ago to come to Washington, D.C., become registered with the District to conduct weddings, write up a marriage rite, begin the rite in our hotel room and then transport ourselves by Metro to the U.S. Supreme Court to complete the rite pronouncing us legally married on the courthouse steps quite literally?

Why marriage? Why now?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.