Debaptism Is Your Human Right

Lately I’ve been fascinated by the debaptism phenomenon in Italy, called “sbattezzo.”  The numbers of debaptisms aren’t high yet (a few thousand are presumed), and it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many people debaptise themselves (I prefer the reflexive form) because the only records are kept by the Catholic church itself. Being a strictly individual act, there is no association of debaptized persons. The option is, however, promoted by the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) as coherent with religious freedom and freedom from religion.

Below are three videos about debaptism. They’re in Italian, so get a dictionary out if you have trouble understanding. This is one of the most interesting new developments in Italy in recent years, challenging the widely held belief that “all Italians are Catholics” and, far more importantly, the self-granted authority of the Catholic church over the lives of unwilling subjects. 

It’s important, in my view, that people know that debaptism is an option. I’ve never been baptised, so this is not my personal war against the Catholic church (in case you were worried). But it is consonant with human rights and individual freedom to be able to undo a symbolic gesture like baptism. There are also legal aspects related to Canon Law, but that’s Adele Orioli’s job (the woman in the videos) to explain. I’d bet most people don’t even know they have this right, which is why they’ve launched this campaign.

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

In Case You Thought Bats Were Birds

They’re not. And they’re not kosher, either, which is odd because we find them among other non-kosher birds: storks, cormorants, owls, herons, the hoopoe (Israel’s democratically elected national bird) and the ever-abominable falcon in Leviticus 11:13-20 (JPS Version, for you citers out there). Of course, I crosschecked other versions of the Bible and they all say the same thing. This is no mistranslation. The authors of the Bible really thought bats were birds. Of course, we know they’re mammals–like us.

Thanks to Richard Dawkins for pointing this out in his recent book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.

The Same Old Yada Yada Yada…

Roberto Vacca calls them "air-claws."

I’m a sucker for memes. This might sound odd to anyone unfamiliar with meme theory, called memetics, but anyone who has been around me in the last few months has certainly received an earful on this tantalizing topic.

What is a meme, you ask? Susan Blackmore, the author of “The Meme Machine,” explains: “When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This ‘something’ can then be passed on again, and again and again, and so take on a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behavior, a piece of information…but if we are going to study it we need to give it a name. Fortunately, there is a name. It is the ‘meme.'”

The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene.” Memes are superficially related to genes in that they are self-replicators. Essentially, memes are like cultural genes. Large groups of them are referred to as memeplexes. Memetics is still a fairly embryonic theory by scientific standards. But, like I said, it’s a tantalizing one that anyone can grasp by simply paying attention to daily life.

Here are a few examples of well-known memes: baseball caps worn backwards; the word “meme”; apparitions of the Virgin Mary; shoe-throwing as political dissent; little green men; Obama-as-Hitler; Obama-as-Spock; designer keffiahs (emblematic scarves popularized by Yasser Arafat); circumcision; cakes with cherries on top.

I remember noticing, in the mid-1990s, memetics in action (though I didn’t think of it in those terms). I was living in New York, which is a great meme-factory. I had been listening to Lenny Bruce’s performances from the ’50s and I was hooked on them. One of the sketches, “Father Flotski’s Triumph,” parodies popular prison-revolt movies of the day. “Dutch” is the gun-crazy criminal who has taken a hostage, and it’s Father Flotski’s job to talk him down. Dutch speaks Neanderthal; his only phrases are amusical variations on the non-word yada: “Yada yada. Yada yada yada, Father!” Mindlessly, I began aping this non-word in company and making friends listen to the Bruce performance. It caught on, at least among those in my circle.

Around the same time, the Seinfeld episode “The Yada Yada” was broadcast. Suddenly everyone was saying “yada yada” at the end of every sentence. “Sharon and I fooled around on her parents’ bed. One thing led to another, and yada yada yada…” That is, you know and I know so why bother with the details?

Yada-yada died out at some point. Today nobody uses it, but there are discussions on Wikipedia over the etymological origins of the term. Did it come from Hebrew via Yiddish? Did it hop the Atlantic from London to New York? Was the term ever recorded before Bruce’s performances?

A more recent meme-word is “truthiness,” thought to have been coined in 2005 by comedian Stephen Colbert, but later traced to prior inclusion in the OED. No matter, however, because Colbert gave the word new life through television. Within a year, “truthiness” had been used in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today… yada yada yada. You get the picture.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that at the time of the “yada yada” craze, I felt that I had actually had a role in the popularizing of this meme (though of course I didn’t think of it as such). It was a coincidence, of course. I had happened on the term thanks to recent reissues on CD of Bruce’s old comedy albums. Is it really so unlikely that a writer for Seinfeld was listening to the same CDs around the same time, and brought one of the gags back to life on America’s most popular television show?

The man behind "yada yada?"

The memes are all around us. We tweet and Facebook ourselves into self-referential tantrums of narcissism. The other night I was having dinner with some friends on Rome’s Via Cavour. “Did you see that article I posted on my Facebook page?” “What about the photos of my trip to Greece?” “Did you read my witty status update?” We soon realized that nobody — not even one’s close friends — reads much of anything anyone posts. Yet we keep posting day in and day out. Blackmore would say we are being manipulated by our memes.

Yesterday, in fact, I was struck by what seemed to me to be a perfect meme just waiting to be coined. Memes, neither good nor bad, just “want” to replicate. Those that replicate and lodge themselves in as many brains as possible are successful memes, and there are probably as many extinct memes as species on this earth. The word I wish to coin is a verb, to quotate. As a working definition, let’s say it means “to make air-quotes with one’s fingers.” In my experience, Italians are always struck by the American tendency to air-quote. I’ve been asked what this is called (in Italian they say “tra virgolette”) but no satisfactory verb exists as far as I know. An example of possible usage:

Larry (making air-quotes): “Our new band is ‘alternative.'”

Marc: “Would you stop quotating, for chrissakes? That went out ten years ago.”

Air-quotes themselves are a rather successful meme, an observation which should require no explanation.

And what about “commenter?” The first time I read this, on Ron Rosenbaum’s blog, I wrote it off as just another ‘knotch’ on his bad spelling belt. Commenter sounds like a deliberate corruption of commentator, coined for purposes of cultural taxonomy. The word probably existed in its own right (though it’s not listed in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate) before blogging made it viral. It has now found a comfortable home, signifying anyone who comments on an online forum.

I plan to push “to quotate” in the following months, and monitor the results. If it ever pops up in a Google search (it doesn’t yet), if ever there is a Wikipedia discussion on the origins of “to quotate,” remember you read it here first. I’ll let you know when I get a call from The Colbert Report.

Published in The American

The Choice: Islam or No Islam?

Sergio Romano concludes – in his advice column - that Italians have essentially two choices regarding the teaching of Islam in public schools:

1. Get used to it. Muslims are second only to Catholics in number, and growing.  In Italy we must teach religion in school. It’s in the Constitution – duh! So it’s only fair that majority religions get a bigger slice of pie. Screw the Jews, Buddhists, atheists and Lutherans. They’re ballbreakers anyway.

2. Abolish religious teaching in public schools. Be fair to everyone by giving priviledges to no one. The only obstacle to this benign and wise solution is the Constitution, which recognizes the Lateran Pacts signed with Mussolini’s government, giving the Catholic church the priviledge of teaching its dogma in Italian schools.

So the answer to this conundrum is the same as it was before we tuned in: the Lateran Pacts must be abolished.

Let the church teach its Catechism in Catholic schools. Let the Qur’an be taught in Muslim schools. Let public schools be a place where children are taught to think for themselves, reason, and learn universal knowledge like scienc and mathematics, history and languages. We will have a better society for it in the end.

Ora et Labora

Piero Marrazzo is on vacation, and he’s looking for a monastery in which to “find himself.” Only, after the recent scandal that forced him out of politics, he’s having a hard time finding a monastery that will take him. A few notes on monastic life, from Corriere della Sera:

Life in a monastery observes very strict rules and a rigid schedule: you get up at 5 a.m., spend the whole day in prayer, recited my the monks seven times a day. Prayer, but also work, according to the Rule of St. Benedict, Ora et labora. “Laziness,” says the saint, “is the enemy of the soul.”

Penitence? That sounds like torture to me.

Watching Israel

There was an op-ed in the New York Times a week ago by Robert L. Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, highlighting some of the differences between Israel and its neighbors. Why do they pick on Israel? First, because Israel lets them. This post is meant to be purely informative. Please do not reply.

Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.

HRW replied here:

Human Rights Watch does not believe that the human rights records of “closed” societies are the only ones deserving scrutiny. If that were the case, we would not work on US abuses in Guantanamo Bay, police abuse in Brazil, the “untouchables” in India, or migrants in South Africa. “Open” societies and democracies commit human rights abuses, too, and Human Rights Watch has an important role to play in documenting those abuses and pressing for their end.

Finally, Bernstein stuck up for himself:

I believe that Israel should be judged by the highest possible standard and I have never argued anything else. What is more important than what I believe, or what Human Rights Watch believes, is that Israelis themselves believe they should be held to the highest standard.

That is why they have 80 Human Rights organizations challenging their government daily. Does any other country in the Middle East have anything remotely near that? That is why they have a vibrant free press. Does any other country in the Middle East have anything remotely near that? That is why they have a democratically elected government. That is why they have a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political societies, etc etc etc.

From Nobodaddy to No One

It has been observed in the comments of this blog that William Blake was perhaps not an atheist. That’s fine by me. I love Blake, and I’m not trying to convert anyone to atheism, agnosticism or indifferentism. But what did Blake mean by “Nobodaddy” if not a compromise between nobody and daddy. Perhaps he was a deist, like Karen Armstrong, ready to pull the plug on organized religious cults but not on the supernatural itself. Paul Celan, who survived the Nazi slaughter, took Blake’s innovation to it’s conclusion. “Nobodaddy” has become “No one.”

Psalm by Paul Celan

No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,
no one incants our dust. No one.

Blessèd art thou, No One.
In thy sight would
we bloom.
In thy
spite.

A Nothing
we were, are now, and ever
shall be, blooming:
the Nothing-, the
No-One’s-Rose.

With
our pistil soul-bright,
our stamen heaven-waste,
our corona red
from the purpleword we sang
over, O over
the thorn.

(Translated by John Felsteiner)

An Unimportant Phenomenon?

Yesterday was Debaptism Day in Italy. Here is an interview with an Italian gay couple, both of whom have debaptised themselves. Apparently, the Catholic Church would like to pretend this is an unimportant phenomenon, but it is by now transnational and – apparently – growing due not only to lack of faith but also mounting disgust at the political and ethical (?) positions of the church. Who can blame them?

We decided to de-baptize for our self-respect, our freedom, and above all, our consciences. Today, in our country, the Catholic Church is a violent and arrogant power center, at war with the aspirations to happiness of many men and women, entirely centered on the defense of its own privileges, more interested in imposing its own ideas — on same-sex couples, gender, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, assisted fertilization — than in the actual lives that people live on a daily basis. We absolutely do not want to be complicit with this, not even on a purely formal level.

Prostitutes. Cocaine. Blackmail. Italy, as Usual.

Life, like a friggin box of chocolates.

Italy is like one of those Whitman’s Sampler boxes of chocolates my mother used to buy at the Safeway. Only, instead of chocolate confections, here we have political scandals. As the world chortles at the Berlusconi affair, the (now ex-) president of the Lazio Region – where Rome is gently nestled- Piero Marrazzo, has stepped down. The details are succulent and confusing: corrupt Carabinieri involved in a cocaine ring, transsexual prostitutes, blackmail, payoffs and secret films. Sex, lies and iPhone video.

Of course, Marrazzo denied everything at first. This is a kneejerk reaction and I can understand it. But, of course, he soon realized he’d better start asking for forgiveness before he lost everything. A choice quote:

“I asked [my wife's] forgiveness, I screwed up, maybe she understood. I’m a Catholic and I can now say I’ve sinned, but a very important monsignor said: ‘One may enter the Church even through sin.'”

So here we are, in Italy, where eveything circles back to sin and absolution. Just invoke your religious belief with a tiny tear in your left eye and cite some obscure church dogma. Nothing works like preying on people’s superstition. What does it matter that he deceived not only his wife and children, but his electorate as well? Presto!

Now repeat after me: You are absolved, the cocaine was really sugar, and the prostitute was really an angel in disguise.

Hey, it really works!