Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Alabama Election Day

Yesterday, Dec. 12, 2017, was election day in Alabama.  Last night, with their votes, the good people of Alabama chose dignity and reason over bigotry and ignorance.  You may feel, as I do, that almost every word coming out of Roy Moore's mouth is nothing but a loud and stinky fart.  But you also may feel that many Christians who support him are hypocrites.  I do not.  In their minds they are God-fearing Christians.  And they are dangerous. Moore's reported lust for young women is not the issue here.  The other things he stands for are the real issue, things these Christians support, things that the Bible specifically condemns as sinful. I think a little historical clarity about the Bible could help put a lid on much of this. But make no mistake.  The views many Americans hold are based on scripture that in today's world must be called homophobic, misogynistic, racist, chauvinistic, and just plain paranoid.

Homosexuality and bestiality are held up by God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as actions that can put you in everlasting hell after your die.  Why is that?  I cannot examine God's mind, but I can imagine why a small group of people living in the Palestinian desert between about 1000 B.C. and 800 A.D. would not want men to "waste their seed" on other men or in the butts of animals instead of helping women bring more people into the group.  Making as many babies as possible would be the aim. If you happened to be a gay man back then, you would be required to have sex with a woman, even if you had to do so with closed eyes and clenched teeth.  But you could father a child.

As for the sex life of a woman In Biblical times we don't hear much.  We know that girls could be wed to older men, who often already had other wives.  That was fine.  Perfectly in line with the aim of making a small group stronger.  But what about lesbians?  Women who naturally were sexually attracted to women.  The Bible doesn't say anything about them.  I suppose men could have sex with them against their will (we call that rape), but in those days women had even less power over men, much less their own bodies, than they do today.  As one of them found out, they could even be turned into a pillar of salt just for turning around to look back fondly on a place the group was leaving.

Another hot-button issue today is abortion.  Until the 1970's women had no choice, abortion was not an option, at least a safe one.  Abortion is as old as the Garden of Eden, or at least the Stone Age.  But there was no knowledge of how to do it safely. My mother was one of eighteen children.  In addition, her mother, my grandmother, had two miscarriages, or so my mother told me.  My parents spent the first 17 years of their marriage going to college and taking care of her siblings, before deciding to have me, their only child. (I never asked what sort of birth-control they practiced, in case you were wondering.)

My mother says she felt sorry for women ("Catholics" she thought) who kept having babies.  But she felt sorrier for women who had horrible abortions, due to dangerous home remedies or physical methods, such as throwing themselves down stairs (think "Leave Her to Heaven" with Gene Tierney) or back-alley butcher-shop surgeries. The Bible doesn't mention abortions, but the Pro-life movement today condemns women who have abortions (and their abortionists) to hell, making this issue as Christian as it gets, with Evangelical Christians stepping in to do God's work.

Times have changed.  I remember how "bad" girls in my junior and senior high school classes, who found themselves in the "family" way, suddenly disappeared for a year.  If they returned, they were whispered about, especially by boys. Most Catholic kids attended the one Catholic church school in the little Oklahoma town I'm from. I assume Catholic girls graduated, got married, and had lots of children.  So looking back, I realize it was only Protestant girls in my schools who were sent away to abort their "illegitimate" babies. Anyway, we Protestants hated Catholics.

In addition to homosexuality and abortion, there is something else on the right-wing Christian agenda today, albeit under the radar, so to speak. I'm talking about bigotry. People today, including Christians, hate bigotry.  Nobody wants to be a bigot.  At least I don't know of anybody who is not against bigotry. This is tricky.  People I grew up with were all white, except for the black women who cleaned our house and the Indians at Ft. Sill.  (My parents were in charge of the Ft. Sill Indian School.) At the same time, blacks and Indians were poor, and as a child I saw how whites spoke to them differently. But by the age of five or six my best friends were Native Americans (playmates and old men who taught me secrets about the natural world) and African American women (maids who taught a spoiled white kid how to behave.)  I secretly began to despise the bigotry around me. 

My own family was almost an exception.  The prejudices I saw were subtle, but undeniable. I worked one Christmas in a menswear store owned by one of two Jewish families in town, and talked for hours to my employer. He seemed to know about everything. This prepared me for my experiences in New York, from ages 14-17, as a part-time student at the old Julliard School, where I was taught by brilliant musicians, many of whom had escaped the holocaust.  Their stories about inhuman behavior took on fuller meaning for me over the years. In college in Texas I learned not to talk about it too much, but married life there and in Chicago (for graduate studies) taught me how to spot bigotry wherever it raised its ugly head.  I became a lifelong protester of inequality. The one thing I cannot abide is a belief that human beings are different and therefore should be discriminated against -- on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, culture, intelligence, sexuality, and all other things we have no control over.

To bring things closer to home, I must mention the 50+ years I have spent developing a reputation as a specialist in Japanese art, history and religion.  My doctoral research was centered on Japan's Momoyama period, involving the written and pictorial material in Buddhist temples built in Kyoto during the Keicho period, between about 1590-1620. I was particularly interested in Emperor Gomizuno-o, whose patronage of Zen priests and artists (many of whom were given the title of Zen priests) is well known. 

In the course of that research I was told by my Kyoto University professors that to do a good job I would have to train in Zen temples myself and know Buddhist iconography backwards and forwards. During some four decades of study and training, I finished a PhD (1970), was ordained as a Zen priest (1980), and retired in 2004 after holding teaching positions at three American universities and one in Japan. This has made me quite aware of cultural differences.  Japan was a great teacher not only for me but for my wife and our two sons. I can barely remember the time during WWII when Japan was my enemy. But I do remember, and that memory clearly inspired me to become what I am now.  To think of the Japanese as scary brutes in WWII, defeated victims of the war, or as colleagues and teachers makes it impossible for me to categorize them. They are my fellow human beings.   

Last but not least, the Moore and Trump defenders are suspicious of science and the media.  They are of one mind on climate change.  It's a hoax.  Even with all the fires and blizzards going on in our own country right now, and the melting ice in the cold regions of our world, they defend religion and deny scientific proof that we are the culprits in raising the world's oceans and precipitating earthquakes with our extractions of fuels and minerals. White isolationists (aka nationalists) are crawling out of their hiding places at this particular time in history to thrust us all back into the dark ages.  Most all of these things on their agenda in fact have to do with religion, mostly within the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, where even regarding each other, still, after all these centuries, bigotry reigns supreme.

People with such beliefs are like magnets to me:  I cannot wait to sit down with them and try to bring them to their senses.  I do not see them as hypocrites.  They are Christians who claim to live by Biblical texts they haven't really studied, are against homosexuality, abortion, and most scientific explanations of phenomena. In short, they are bigots wrapping themselves in a myth about goodness over evil a la "Star Wars". To hell with that.  We all have good and evil in us.  They do not exist outside us.  The more we explore our own demons and angels the sooner a peaceful outcome can emerge. Most importantly, we need to spend all the time we have on earth realizing how fortunate we are to be here, together, using all the technology and wisdom that is available to us now. History need not repeat itself, but we damn sure need to heed its lessons as we move forward.    

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