Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Big Brother Is Reading Your E-Mails


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The best public-affairs show on television these days is NOW, airing every Friday at 8:30 p.m. on KPBS in San Diego. (Out-of-town readers should check their local listings because, unlike the commercial networks, PBS gives its stations the authority to show national programs any time they like, or not show them at all.) On February 16, NOW broadcast an especially chilling episode in which the host, David Brancaccio from National Public Radio, and reporter Brian Meyers revealed a secret federal program to spy on every single e-mail sent by, or through, AT&T’s telecommuncations network.

It’s not like this is such a big surprise. After all, it was already a matter of public record that AT&T — the sprawling conglomerate, formerly Southwestern Bell, that is industriously merging with the other “Baby Bells” to reassemble the telephone monopoly broken up by antitrust litigation in 1984 — had already thrown the doors open to federal investigators from the National Security Agency (NSA) to tap every single phone call involving an AT&T customer at either end. Under orders from the Bush administration, NSA and AT&T did this even though it was flatly illegal for two reasons: first, the government wasn’t bothering with search warrants for this information (not even from the secret court set up under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Services Act); and second, NSA isn’t allowed to spy on American citizens or residents at all unless they’re communicating with people in other countries.

Not long after the Democrats took control of Congress in the November 2006 election, attorney general Alberto Gonzalez announced that the Bush administration had suspended the phone taps. Only a few days later he had backtracked, saying the administration was still doing them but now it had got blanket authority from the secret FISA court, so it was no longer being done without court approval and therefore the lawsuits filed to stop it were now moot. Now, thanks to NOW, we know that the NSA, under orders from the Bush administration and with the active connivance of AT&T, is monitoring not only all telephone calls that run through AT&T’s lines but all e-mails as well.

The story Brancaccio and Meyers told at times seemed reminiscent of a bad spy movie. Mark Klein, the former AT&T employee who blew the whistle on the program, and James Brosnahan, his attorney, described secret rooms that were set up at AT&T offices in San Francisco and St. Louis. Only AT&T employees with special security clearances were allowed in those rooms, which contained hardware that electronically read every e-mail traveling over AT&T’s lines, copied it, then sent the copies to NSA while the originals were routed to the intended recipients.

What’s more, unlike the phone-tapping program, the e-mail monitoring appears to be perfectly legal. That’s because 20 years ago, before most Americans had even heard of the Internet, Congress passed a law that said that, because employees of an Internet service provider can read an e-mail as it’s passing through their network, e-mails are no more private than postcards. Unless the legal team of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) can persuade the courts that government spying on people’s e-mails is a constitutional violation of the people’s right to be “secure from unwarranted searches and seizures” under the Fourth Amendment — a difficult task now that the Bush administration has been in office long enough to pack the federal judiciary with judges who reject the idea that a constitutional right to privacy exists — there’s nothing to stop a willful government and a compliant private corporation from cutting a deal that allows Big Brother to read all your e-mails.

NOW’s report documented the personal cost of this government program. “I’ve personally never been afraid of my government, until now,” attorney Nancy Hollander said. “And now I feel personally afraid that I could be locked up tomorrow.” Hollander’s concern stems from her legal work for Muslim Americans, including a group called the Holy Land Foundation, which in 2004 the government accused of aiding Hamas, the combination armed militia and political party in occupied Palestine. To defend her client against the charge of supporting terrorism through its alleged links to Hamas, Hollander had to find out more about Hamas. In the old days, before the Bush administration and its systematic assault on privacy, that might have meant surfing the Web, sending a few e-mails and placing some phone calls. Now it means a week-long trip to the Middle East to meet a Palestinian representative and pick up his documents in person, out of the reach of the long arms of the federal government and its electronic spying program.

What’s more, according to NOW, the federal government, while justifying spying on e-mails as necessary for “national security” and to fight the “war on terrorism,” is using information gleaned from e-mail surveillance for much more trivial prosecutions. NOW interviewed Martin Weinberg, attorney for the owner of a company that’s being accused of fraud because it allegedly marketed herbal supplements on line and claimed they could enlarge a penis. You can be righteously indignant about all the ads for penis enlargement that clutter up your inbox and still be equally upset about the authoritarian tactics the feds are using to nail a purveyor of these products.

According to Weinberg, the government built virtually its entire case against his client by subpoenaing deleted e-mails from his Internet service provider. “These orders, these subpoenas, were limitless,” he said. “They didn’t protect husband-wife communications. They didn’t protect communications to friends and to family. They provided the government with the entirety of any e-mail that was retained by the Internet service provider.” What’s more, Congress is now considering a bill that would require ISP’s to keep copies of all e-mails forever — and make them available to government investigators on demand.

Unless and until America’s government passes into the hands of rational people who actually accept the right of privacy and see the Constitutional guarantees as worthy of protection instead of an impediment to an aggressive ‘war on terror,” there’s not much you can do to protect yourself against government spying. Bear in mind at all times that Big Brother is watching and listening to you, and that he’s armed with digital software that can not only intercept all your phone calls and e-mails but scan them for supposedly “suspicious” words that can get you arrested and accused of aiding and abetting terrorism. Don’t be lulled by the appearance of privacy on the Internet. A good rule of thumb for the modern era is: if you wouldn’t be willing to shout it out on a street corner and let it be heard by all passers-by, don’t say it on the phone or write it in a e-mail.

CHRIS: “Slut Bottom” Lives a Life of Anal Pleasure


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

For many people — even an estimated 37 to 50 percent of Gay men — anal-receptive sex is the last taboo. Not for Chris, who was penetrating his own butt with dildos, hair-brush handles and anything else that would serve the purpose and letting women massage his prostate and fuck him with dildos and strap-ons a decade before he acknowledged a sexual interest in men as well. Chris, who asked that we not publish his last name because he makes both his living and most of his dates through the Internet and doesn’t want people to be able to cross-reference his professional and personal Web sites, has given a talk to the “pan-sexual” (male/female, straight/Queer) Leather group Club X and at press time is scheduled to repeat the presentation Friday, March 2 to the San Diego League of Gentlemen Gay men’s Leather group at 7 p.m. at the Joyce Beers Community Center, Vermont Street north of University Avenue in Hillcrest.

Chris calls his talk “Intro to Anal: Open Your Ass and Your Mind Will Follow.” In his presentation, and in this interview, he debunks many of the myths surrounding anal sex and talks about his personal odyssey as a sexual being. He also mentions many of the people who mentored him along the way, notably the late Perry Morris, founder of the now-defunct Ringold Alley Leather store on 30th Street near Upas, who helped him come to terms with his Gay side and overcome a lifetime of homophobic brainwashing. Chris also talks about how he manages a nonmonogamous sexual lifestyle in an era in which the increasing conservatism of the Queer community’s leadership, the demand for legal recognition of same-sex marriage and the continuing fear of AIDS have made it unfashionable to acknowledge that your sexual needs cannot be met by just one other person.

Zenger’s: How did you first develop or discover your interest in anal sex play?

Chris: It pretty much started with a girlfriend I had when I was 16. I was trying to get in her pants, and she’s the one who introduced me to my butt. I don’t know if it’s related to her being Middle Eastern, where the culture is a little different, but she was able to rub my prostate and the head of my cock, and press on my asshole, through my jeans and make me come. That rocked my world. She got to where she would finger me, use multiple fingers, probably finger-bang me, and I really, really enjoyed the butt sex. That started it all. It’s her fault. Ever since then, she

Over the next 10-plus years I had sex exclusively with women. I always went with kinky women who would use a dildo or a strap-on. The entire time I would masturbate with toys in the shower, and thankfully when I was in the military no one caught me!

Actually I did have a brief moment of Bi-curiosity. It was in 1994, at the tail end of my service in the Navy. I’m kind of oblivious to a lot of things. So it never dawned on me that Gay men were in the Navy, which looking back is pretty hilarious. The whole time, I’d had my brain scrubbed and brainwashed: “Gay = bad,” “We’re kicking Gays out of the Navy,” and that kind of repressed my sexuality as far as liking anal sex so much.

So when a boy started flirting me, it was interesting. He jumped in my lap and planted a kiss on me. I was excited, shocked and stunned all at once, and I just froze. I didn’t know what to do. So the moment passed, and just after it was when I realized that his unshaved face or five o’clock shadow scratched on my face, and I’d never felt that before. That freaked me out, because it’s a guy thing, and I could smell cologne on me afterwards.

It was the start of my exploration of men. We played around a little bit. I think he jerked me off once, or maybe twice, total. Then I went back to being het for a few years.

Zenger’s: You said you exclusively dated what you called “kinky women.” How, in the era before the Internet, did you meet them?

Chris: I have no clue! I guess I would flirt, and as part of the flirting, looking back, I would negotiate for kink. Normally it was like who got to fight for the bottom. We’d both fight over who gets to get beat up, or dominated. That was kind of hilarious, looking back. And maybe girls are pretty naughty, too, so it was that they’d do just about anything.

Zenger’s: How long was it before you finally started coming to grips with your Gay side?

Chris: It was with my second wife. She’s just an amazing person. We had an open marriage, and at some point she said, “Why don’t you play with boys?” “Like, well, wouldn’t I be Gay?” And she said, “Well, no. You’d just be you, whatever.” “Do you think that’s O.K.?” She says, “Yeah.”

I got an AOL account and used that for several years, and trolled chat rooms to find guys. I probably had four or five off-and-on boyfriends. We’d meet once or twice a month. And about the time I stumbled into a monthly group, called Submissive Voice. It’s mostly a sewing circle for girls to get together and gossip and talk submissive stuff. Probably a lot of the Gay in me is also the girl in me, I think, looking backwards. They were my first introduction to the Leather community. Through them I learned about Club X; and through Club X I learned about Ringold Alley.

Perry Morris, the man who opened Ringold Alley, mentored me and helped me with a lot of fundamental issues. Basically, internalized homophobia was a big one: shame, guilt. That was basically the gateway to, I guess, full Bisexuallty, maybe. Words are hard for me. Labels just don’t stick to me. Sometimes I feel like a boy, sometimes I feel like a girl. Sometimes I’m Gay, sometimes I’m straight. You could almost say I’m confused, but it’s my life. I’m fluid, and whatever I feel is right at the moment, I can be, because I enjoy whatever works in the moment.

I’ve had Lesbians play with me, because they see the girl in me, and like her. I don’t really identify as “girl” a whole lot, but they feel comfortable with me. I’ve introduced a couple of women — many, I should say — to anal fisting. I’ve been referred to a lot of people to be their first anal fistee, because I’m so able to stay in the moment, I’m comfortable with my body, and I give great feedback.

I’ve got an interesting relationship right now. My primary romantic partner is my boyfriend Roger, whom I met through my involvement with Ringold Alley, or with Perry, I should say. Roger and I started off as fuck buddies and grew a great bond and stayed together. As I grew to enjoy and embrace my sexuality more, I grew apart from my second wife. So we divorced — very happily, amicably; we’re still good friends —and now I consider Roger to be my primary romantic partner.

Meanwhile, I’m living with a Leather lady from the community, and she’s basically my primary Leather partner. If I have a dominant that I serve the most, it would be her.

Zenger’s: How do you juggle all these people, especially in a context where there’s this big push for same-sex marriage? We’re supposed to be pairing off and be monogamous, and there are probably people reading this who would be less bothered by the kinds of kinky things you like to do than the fact that you like to do them with so many different people. How do you manage a life like this, and how do you keep everybody from getting jealous of each other, and getting too possessive?

Chris: I collect people that are very open-minded, either accepting or embracing an open, polyamorous kind of lifestyle. If people want to be around me and my energy, they’ll stick around. If they get busy, they disappear. not like we have to work really hard. Everyone just needs to be honest, and communicate. That’s the key to polyamory, I think.

It’s O.K. to say, “Hey, you know, I miss you. You haven’t been around lately.” If that’s the beginning and end of the “problem,” as it were, then that’s something that’s going to last. I recently had this woman visitor from Atlanta, and unfortunately my boyfriend got somewhat excluded because he doesn’t like to be around women in a sexual context. So we had a little bit of a dry spell, but then I’d call and visit him once or twice, and it’s O.K. He knows I love him, and he understands how I’m kind of a crazy boy, and need to flit around and be playful.

Zenger’s: It’s just not something that most people are conditioned to, so that even if they have more than one sex partner, they’re likely to feel that they’re doing something wrong.

Chris: Well, Leather is all about coming to terms with your guilt and your own being. To me, everything about Leather is exploring your emotions, your feelings, your wiring. “Wiring” being that if a situation is presented to you, what is your physical response? Are you repulsed? Are you horny? Is it something you feel is good? Is it something that feels bad? So I’m always analyzing my emotions, when I can really catch them.

So if something makes me happy, I’ll look at it. If something makes me sad, I’ll look at it and try to understand. That’s part of how what started out as a girl being behind me with both of us clothed becomes this naughty boy that’s as piggy as the rest of them, you know? I feel humans are not designed to be monogamous.

Another issue is that I’ve been in Europe, and in Europe love is promoted and violence is repressed, whereas here in the United States, everything is about violence, and sex is repressed. We see, a lot of government and religious influence on repressing sexuality. I just try not to push my agenda on them, and I ignore their agenda being pushed upon me.

Zenger’s: How far have you actually gone, and can you recall any time when a scene got so kinky you had to say the safe word and pull the plug on it?

Chris: It’s never been about extreme or kink. Whenever I haven’t felt 100 percent good about something, it’s been more of a state of mind of not enjoying — or not thinking I’m being enjoyed. If I feel that the person I’m with, if they’re a dominant, is just simply exercising abusive power or something and not appreciating my gift, I’ve occasionally ended scenes before they started. And if I’m going to top, my being, my entity needs to feel, on a subconscious level, from the person I’m with that they need to be topped. And when I’m drawn out like that, it’s an amazing event.

Zenger’s: What are the circumstances under which you would top somebody? So far we’ve pretty much just discussed the bottom part of your life.

Chris: I considered myself 100 percent submissive/bottom until I was at a Club X social. There was this really cute girl, and I was just drawn to her. I asked, “Are you a top?” — and she was so cute — and she said, “No, sweetie. Sorry. I’m a bottom.” Then the words just flew out of my mouth: “Oh, I could beat you.” It was like, “What the hell did I just say?” I leaned over and looked at her ass and said, “Oh, yeah, I could spank that ass.” And she threw the switch.

It was as though I could hear her subconsciously telling me, “I need to get beat.” I’ve felt this with five or six different people, always women so far — which probably has to do with my het beginnings — and every time it’s been basically a spiritual experience. It has been so right, so wonderful, on both sides.

Zenger’s: That’s a phrase I’ve often heard from people involved in Leather and kink and S/M: this idea that it’s a “spiritual experience.” How so? What does that mean to you?

Chris: I think that word is invoked because there is an energy or connection in our communication that is not something we can define. You can call it “chemistry,” “magnetism,” “pheromones.” You can call it whatever you want, but it’s hard to define it, so we just call it a spiritual thing. Maybe it raises goosebumps for no reason. Or maybe you’re with this person, and it’s like you can see their soul, and you two have been waiting for each other for your whole lives. It’s just so right, and that’s a little bit of it.

Perhaps the other part of it is that you, as the top or the bottom, become so involved in the scene that you leave your body, you leave your mind, and you leave consciousness. Basically you trance out, or make yourself high. So that’s spiritual. You’re able to go places that you can’t define. It’s getting deeper.

I guess we could talk a little about kink. If I feel comfortable, I’ll try just about anything. But that comfort comes in so many different ways and directions. When it comes to butt play, like I say in my workshop, “Shit happens.” If I know my partner is going to be O.K. if shit happens, then I’m not going to make my butt more sensitive by doing an ultra-good clean-out if both of us are comfortable with the result of a little bit of shit getting in the way.

In a way, it shows two or three directions of consensuality: I’m O.K. with it, you’re O.K. with it, the both of us are O.K. with it. Yeah, let’s try something. And if I feel those conditions are met — and whoever’s doing some act has the technical ability to pull it off safely — then I’ll try just about anything.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you talk about some of the inhibitions that people have regarding anal sex, and how they can overcome them?

Chris: I look at my own past for that. I look at my own guilt and shame. Really, someone has to figure out what they don’t like about something. What’s wrong? Oh, I’m afraid of this. This seems to be a parallel to the Leather journey of exploration itself. If you’re in a scene with somebody and you say, “I’m afraid of this,” and then they break it down and say, “Why? What makes you afraid?” That’s covered.

The first thing that’s “wrong” with anal sex is that it’s sex, because we’re in America and we’ve got this intense amount of sexual repression that comes from our religious traditions. It’s not sex for procreation, which again is something religious people — at least some religious people — hate. Whatever religions I used to flirt with didn’t talk about that so much!

Then it has to do with the butt, and the butt’s where you eliminate. That’s where shit happens. The butt’s dirty. You combine these together, and if a person is continually told, “This is bad” — regardless of what it is in reality — you can’t help but think about that. And it’s what you think about that, and how you think about that, that can get in the way of enjoying it.

A big part of my workshop is about shit itself, and there’s a great reason why humanity is repulsed by shit. Because until only recently, it’d kill you. We didn’t have running water. We didn’t have hot running water. We didn’t have soap with hot running water. There was a time when you would have to travel to find water to bathe with. It’s a good thing that we eventually learned to stay away from our own shit, because until modern times, it was a bad thing. And we haven’t gotten rid of that programming.

Zenger’s: What do you get out of anal sex that you couldn’t get out of anything else?

Chris: It’s probably the prostate. That is a lot of it. Also, I like to be penetrated, to have my body intruded upon or violated, any of these form words. I enjoy the sensation of my body’s natural reaction to respond — either to push, like you’re going to the bathroom; or to clench, like you’re trying to not go to the bathroom. I enjoy when I’m being fucked or fisted, and I’m fighting all these natural urges, or giving in to them, and it’s the power exchange of the moment, and just being dominated or owned by the person inside me. And the prostate zings, and it makes me insanely crazy and horny to come.

Maybe part of the reason I’m so sensitive and able to enjoy it is I’ve masturbated with dildos almost my entire sexual life: dildos, insertables, a hair brush, anything. I started small and worked my way pretty huge. I’m probably about as big and deep as I’m going to be right now, and I’ve learned how to move my prostate into what’s violating me, or clench the muscles to pull them into the prostate. And then it’s been trained and attuned with my body, so that when it gets stimulation, it’s a huge sexual moment for me.

Zenger’s: Could you talk about the risks involved in anal sex, both the exaggerated risks and the real ones?

Chris: Well, obviously, these would be from my experience, and I’m not a doctor or anything. But my primary concern is not catching HIV, and if it a dick enters my ass it has a condom. And that’s been my rule — or, I would say, a safe barrier, because if you’re fisting with grease, then you need to use either a polyurethane condom or a so-called female condom. That’s kept me HIV negative through a lot of partners, many of whom I know were positive. I feel pretty comfortable with that kind of absolute rule. Part of that, too, was not putting myself in risky situations where there were drugs or alcohol involved.

I think the big exaggerated risk that non-practicing anal players worry about is your butt’s going to be loose, and you’re going to be incontinent. Perry is the first one who addressed that with me. He said, “I know fisting bottoms who have fisted their entire lives, and they’ve got the best anal health of anyone, because they know what they’re doing with their muscles. They can feel what’s happening within their body. They can feel where the shit is.”

I’ve kind of grown to be like that. I know exactly when I have to go to the bathroom. I may not know when something is a foot inside of me, but I know when there’s something ready to go. And I do really extreme insertions, really big toys. When you’ve just played, or when you routinely practice like I do, you may not have the best control of your bowel. But it seems once or twice a year I’ll be ill or busy, and I won’t have time to play, and I’ll become pretty normal pretty quickly.

Another health-related thing is I think the medical community is starting to believe that a lot of anal play for men helps stimulate the prostate and reduces the risk of cancer or prostate-related problems. As for hemorrhoids, that’s going to happen whether or not you have anal sex. Finally, enough people in the medical community have studied it, and I’ve read in Internet searches that, if anything, anal sex reduces the chance of hemorrhoids a little bit. It definitely does not increase it.

Zenger’s: What would your advice be to the person who said about anal sex, “I tried that, and it hurt”?

Chris: I’d say if they want to continue pursuing it, or if it excites something within them sexually, turn to their community. Talk to others. Find “experts” who’ve played a lot and have the experience to help you figure out what was going on. Try to understand what went wrong, what made it hurt. Every person I’ve learned about, from beginning to end, who’s done something like that has always found that the person who caused the hurt wasn’t patient, didn’t know technique, maybe didn’t use the right lube. There was some technicality or lack of experience that caused that hurt.

It’s like there’s always something better, you know? The beauty of everything I’ve found in life is that there are always people less experienced, less skillful than you. There are always some people who are your peers, and there are always some people who are more advanced than you. Look to those who are better than you, and learn and grow.

JOHN FANESTIL: Ex-Minister Takes the Helm at the Foundation for Change


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Most nonprofit foundations who are looking for a new executive director are primarily concerned with finding someone who’s experienced in the nonprofit world, someone who’s worked as a fundraiser and is used to schmoozing donors and reviewing grant proposals. But the San Diego Foundation for Change, housed in a storefront office on 30th Street in North Park on the same block as a used computer store and MacLeo Leather, is not your typical nonprofit.

Their last director, Joni Craig, was an activist with Planned Parenthood; and their new one, John Fanestil, served as a pastor in the United Methodist Church for 15 years, including four years in the border town of Calexico. He brings to the job enthusiasm, a long-standing commitment to the progressive goals and ideals the Foundation seeks to further in its philanthropy, a desire to break the nearly automatic association of the term “Christian” with radical-Right politics, and a special interest in funding organizations and programs that work on both sides of the border.

Zenger’s: Could you just tell me a little about yourself and why you wanted this particular job?

Fanestil: I’m a San Diegan. I think of myself as a San Diegan. I was born here, raised here, and had traveled sort of near and far. I had studied abroad, and then I had been working as a pastor for the United Methodist Church in southern California for 15 years. I always knew that I wanted to come back to San Diego. That was a long-term goal that kept getting clearer and clearer for both me and my wife, Jennifer. So a couple of years ago we said, “We’re going to move to San Diego, and look for the best work we can find.”

I’ve also had a long-term interest and passion for issues relating to the border, so I was looking for work that would allow me to engage with the border as a social and political issue. When this job opened up, I was interested because I knew of some of the grass-roots organizations it had funded. I’d worked for the Central America Information Center here in San Diego in the 1980’s. And so I had history with a number of the organizations that the San Diego Foundation for Change had funded over the years. So it seemed like the right time and place to sink my teeth back into grass-roots San Diego organizing.

Zenger’s: For those of my readers who don’t know about it, can you talk a little about the Foundation for Change, how long it’s existed and what it does?

Fanestil: Sure. It’s been in existence, under different names, since 1983. It was launched originally as a chapter of the Liberty Hill Foundation, a progressive funder of grass-roots organizations in the Los Angeles area. Its mission is to fund grass-roots groups working for social change. The fields it concentrates on are environmental health, social equality, and economic justice. SBy giving small grants to grass-roots organizations working in those areas, the Foundation for Change seeks to invest in social change in the San Diego/Tijuana community. Because we don’t have big money to give away, we’re really planting seeds of change, trusting that some of those will grow and flourish, and will make a difference.

Zenger’s: Are there examples of organizations that began at the grass-roots level that you funded, that have since become major organizations and able to get funding from other sources?

Fanestil: Yes, there are. I’m just learning this myself, of course, being new, but among those that I’ve spoken with that credit some of their success to our early funding include Earth Day San Diego, the Environmental Health Coalition, the Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice, and San Diego Coastkeeper. Those are all organizations that in their very earliest stages got grants from the Foundation for Change, and so while we don’t pretend to claim credit for their success, we’re proud to say we were a part of it.

Zenger’s: You mentioned the priorities of the foundation being “environmental health, social equality and economic justice,” which are very broad categories that encompass just about everything. Within those, what would you say would be your personal priorities, in terms of looking for organizations to fund?

Fanestil: Well, there’s a caveat about that. I do have my own personal interests and passions, but the grant-making process at the Foundation for Change is a little unique in that the grant-making committee is composed of former grant recipients, and I as the director don’t sit on that grant-making committee. So, while obviously I will have a major role in giving shape and direction to the organization, I don’t actually administer the grants. That’s done by community activists who themselves have been recipients of the grants in previous years.

That said, one of my great interests and passions is border-related issues. I know from personal experience that small chunks of change can really make a huge difference on the other side of the border. So I am hoping to expand the Foundation’s work in Tijuana. My hope would be that we would be granting money to organizations in Tijuana who are working similar turf. Also, given my interest in border issues, I’m very interested in immigrant-rights issues and access to economic power, health care and other issues faced by the poor and by immigrants in our community. Those are some of the issues that are front and center of my intention.

Zenger’s: Wouldn’t it get legally complicated to fund an organization in another country?
Fanestil: There are different ways around that. The grants to Tijuana organizations to date have been given through a sponsoring agency on this side. Partnerships between organizations on both sides of the border are really essential to accomplishing that.

Zenger’s: One thing that particularly fascinated me about your background is you’ve worked as a Methodist minister and you’ve contributed articles to Christianity Today. It seems like such a contradiction in an era in which the word “Christian,” as applied to politics, has become a synonym for anti-choice, anti-Gay, Right-wing. How do you reconcile being a Christian and being a progressive?
Fanestil: Very easily. I’m glad to report that we Left-leaning Christians are legion, even though the Christian Right has stolen much of the public limelight. But people should not be confused, or should not think that all Christians are on the Right side of the political spectrum, because that’s just not true. I’m a long-term, long-time participant in a number of Christian movements that are progressive-minded, including Sojourners magazine and, here in Southern California, Progressive Christians Uniting, a Pasadena-based organization.
In my own church tradition, the United Methodist Church, the history of the church is one of social reform. The Methodists were in on the ground floor of the abolition movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the civil-rights movement. So when I find myself leaning to the Left and advocating for progressive social causes, I don’t feel alone at all, because I know I have good company both in the present and also from the tradition. None of which is to deny the truth of your observation, which is that a lot of the prominent Christian voices out there are on the Right wing and are advocating for things very much the opposite of what I believe in.

Zenger’s: One group you mentioned was the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, I was at the City Council hearing where they were arguing for the living-wage ordinance, and there were a lot of people there who had some really far-Right positions on other issues. One in particular, Bishop George McKinney, has said that the worst thing that ever happened to America and morality was the teaching of evolution. I just saw these people coming to the podium again and again, and I had to keep reminding myself, “Mark, on this issue they’re our allies.”

Fanestil: It’s funny how things cut across issues sometimes, don’t they? To be clear on the one issue you raised there, the idea that evolution should be taught in schools seems to me to be utter common sense. The vast majority of Christians in this country believe that the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming.On that particular issue it’s the minority of voices, Christian voices, like the folks who run the museum out in Santee and all that stuff, who get the press, but people should not be confused to think that that represents a majority Christian view.

The Christian tradition is a lot more diverse and flexible in reality, in the way it actually works, than the media, mainstream media, would lead you to believe. To be honest, I take some satisfaction in knowing that maybe I can be a part of presenting an alternative view of the Christian tradition to people. When I say that I believe that Gay and Lesbian people and Transgender people have every right to as full and as happy a life as everyone else, it’s fun for me to be able to say that as a Christian person, and as a Christian pastor. I know that when I say it I’m also helping to break some impressions of what Christians are all about.

As you noted, the Christian traditions don’t line up neatly into a lot of the political categories of the American “Right” and “Left.” Sometimes you will find those who will advocate strongly for the rights of immigrants, but will still be anti-Gay and -Lesbian. I’m not pretending that those kinds of contradictions don’t exist. They do.

Zenger’s: And people in that position wouldn’t necessarily see it as a contradiction. They’d say, “The Bible says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and the Bible also says that homosexuality is a mortal sin and people who commit it should be put to death.” In fact, when I was growing up my mother used to say that you could argue anything from the Bible, because it composed over 5,000 years or something, and it involved many different authors.

Fanestil: The Bible is a collection of books. It is not a single book. Many authors, many writings, many contexts. The Bible does not speak with a single voice. So for me, that’s part of what makes it fun. It’s like joining an ongoing conversation thing. For me, reading the Bible is like joining an ongoing conversation. It’s not like reading a rulebook or pretending that you’re going to be able to find a single point of view on every issue. The fact is there are multiple points of view on multiple issues within the Bible itself. So your mother was right, I think. And history would suggest that folks have used the Bible to justify quite a lot of things across the years.

Zenger’s: Including slavery, which was quite specifically condoned in the Bible.

Fanestil: Except right there, it’s interesting that the prime movers in the abolition movement were Christians who had read other parts of the Bible, and had concluded that the commands in the rest of the Bible trumped the isolated passages that condoned slavery. The reason abolition happened is because of radical Christians who were themselves giving up their slaves and demanding, out of their own religious convictions, that others follow suit.
So when we talk about today’s American Christians being conflicted over homosexuality or immigration, that’s nothing new. Throughout history, different groups of Christians have always been conflicted over pressing political issues.

Zenger’s: In fact, one of the things that fascinates me about this topic was that the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1831 by Southern congregations who didn’t want to have to listen to Northern ministers come down and denounce slavery.

Fanestil: That’s right. All the mainline churches split beween North and South on the issue of slavery. There were anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions within each. Even today, the vast majority of Southern Baptists are quite conservative. There was something on the news recently that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and a bunch of Southern Baptists have just tried to assemble an alternate group of Southern Baptists to present the alternative political voice, which is a minority political voice in the Southern Baptist Convention, but the fact of the matter is that not all Southern Baptists are Republicans. They’re just not.

Zenger’s: In fact, not even all white Southern Baptists are Republicans.

Fanestil: No, they’re not. That’s right.

Zenger’s: Historically Baptists, of all people, believed in one’s personal relationship to Scripture, but in the last 10 years the Southern Baptist Convention’s leadership has got so conservative that they have essentially issued marching orders on abortion and homosexuality and some of these other hot-button issues. Some of the more moderate people in the Southern Baptist Convention are saying, “Hey, doctrine from on high is not part of our tradition. It’s why Protestants broke away from the Roman Catholic Church five centuries ago!”

Fanestil: That’s an interesting topic, but those divisions and tensions within the Christian tradition are often entirely missed by the mainstream media. The mainstream media don’t take the time to parse those differences and present the nuance and variety that’s out there. Instead, the mainstream media lump all groups together and pretends that there is “the Christian position” on X, or “the Christian position” on Y, as if there were unanimity within the Christian church about these things. And the fact of the matter is there’s not.

Zenger’s: In other words, your criticism is that they’re willing to take the statements of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or James Dobson at face value and say, “Yes, they are the spokespersons for the Christian position.”

Fanestil: Yes, folks like that pretend. They would like to be, and they claim that for themselves: “The Moral Majority,” and all of that language. I understand why the mainstream media fall for that sometimes, and a lot of other people do, too. They assume that when folks like Robertson and Falwell say they’re presenting “the Christian perspective,” that must be the Christian perspective. But it appalls me — you can put that down — it appalls me that people would think Pat Robertson represents “the Christian perspective,” because he sure as hell doesn’t represent me.

Zenger’s: Yet you see these chilling poll results sometimes that up to 25 percent of Americans describe themselves as “evangelical” or “born-again”; that, according to a Pew Research survey last year, more than twice as many Americans believe in the Second Coming as believe in evolution. Granted that there’s a lot of diversity within the Christian tradition, isn’t the Christian Right really beating the pants off the Christian Left?

Fanestil: In practical political terms, I would say the answer to that is yes, in recent decades. But I do think the counter-swelling is also at work. The Christian Left is becoming better organized, more outspoken and more sophisticated in its engagement of these public issues. And there are some profound signs of success. The most visible, of course, is Jim Wallis and Sojourners magazine, and his book God’s Politics, which has hit the best-seller lists.

I would say that even mainstream Democratic politicians are reclaiming their religious identities and their roots in the religious tradition, and are learning to do a better job of rooting their politics in their own faith traditions. Partly I think that the Left is moving on those fronts precisely because, as you observed, the Christian Right has been so much better organized and so much more influential for so many years.

Zenger’s: Your point about mainstream Democratic politicians reclaiming their Christian identities reminded me of the rather embarrassing moments in the 2004 campaign when Howard Dean and John Kerry were trying to talk about their personal faith. It was obvious they were very uncomfortable with this idea because they were not part of publicly confessional churches for whom that kind of rhetoric would come naturally. They were not from one of these Southern churches where you do talk a lot about your personal relationship to Jesus, blah blah blah.

Fanestil: Yes, and it’ll be fascinating to see how different that is in 2008. For instance, the three front-runners — Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards — are all in fact very comfortable talking in those terms. As distinguished from Howard Dean and John Kerry, those three are all self-identified religious people who are very comfortable talking about God and their own faiths. I don’t know any of those three, but it’s my perception that that’s how they were raised and part of who they were, and in that respect I think they’ll play far better with the broad American public.

Because you’re absolutely right: one of the profoundest disconnects with Dean and with Kerry among mainstream Americans, most of whom are religious in one sense or another, that somehow there was a disconnect between the Kerrys and the Deans of the Northeast and them.

Zenger’s: That’s kind of a sea change in American society, isn’t it? I mean, no one expected Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower to give these kinds of testimonials. And it says, essentially, not only need an atheist or an agnostic not apply for public office in this country, but certain kinds of Christians needn’t apply either — possibly including people from your denomination, which is not exactly a big faith-talking church either.

Fanestil: No, it’s not, but Hillary Clinton is a United Methodist, and my tradition is not a big one for wearing your religion on your sleeve either. Hillary Clinton’s language isn’t littered with it. As you say, she doesn’t wear her religion on her sleeve. But when she’s asked about why she’s in the race, she brings it down to her religious upbringing and her own beliefs that are both religious and political, and she hangs out and feels altogether comfortable with that.

Zenger’s: Maybe being married to a Baptist has helped her be a little more comfortable with it.

Fanestil: That may be the case. She may have learned how to have that conversation. What tradition was your mother? You mentioned your mother and her line about the Bible.

Zenger’s: Actually, I come from a freethought household and I’ve never believed in God. My mother had grown up in a Jewish family that had by the time of her childhood had pretty much ceased to practice, so I’ve never grown up with a religion. I’ve never experienced this, and frankly it’s taken me a long time to understand why other people regard God as so important in their lives, and respect that belief in others. It’s taken me a long time to accept that, and if there is, as some people have suggested, a gene for religious belief, it didn’t end up in my genome.

Fanestil: You missed it. Whether it’s genetic or just cultural, I do believe that stuff runs in family trees. I’m a religious person in large measure because I come from a family that believed, and I have no trouble recognizing that that’s still handed down from generation to generation. I’m not saying that that validates or invalidates it; I’m not saying that to be for or against it. It’s just part of how a lot of these things work.

Zenger’s: Sometimes I do a thought experiment on myself and try to think. “What would it have been like growing up in a religious home?” Because I can’t really connect to that experience. Whether I would have taken it seriously or whether I would have rebelled and ended up where I am.

Fanestil: Or done both, as I did, because I left the church. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the church as a young person, so when I graduated from high school I went away to college and I went away from the church, and I didn’t come back to it for almost 10 years. What brought me back to it, interestingly enough — and it goes back to some of my political commitments — was Central America. I often tell people that I was re-converted to Christianity by the people in Central America.

Zenger’s: How so?

Fanestil: I was doing Central America solidarity work in the 1980’s, taking trips to Nicaragua and El Salvador, and I was speaking with groups who were fighting U.S. policy in Central America. The folks who were fighting the big fight in those days were religious folks. I was really enamored of Oscar Romero in El Salvador [the archbishop who in 1979 was assassinated after delivering a series of sermons challenging the country’s government and ruling oligarchy], and the kind of base-community organizing that was happening in Nicaragua, for instance, was incredibly inspiring. People were taking charge of their own lives and throwing out political dictators, and doing so because they felt their faith demanded it of them. So I was exposed at that time of my life to a part of the church, or a manifestation of the church, that I hadn’t realized existed. And that was really what brought me back to the church.

Zenger’s: One of the things the Foundation does is a particular outreach to the Queer/Lesbian/Gay/Bi/Trans/whatever community. Could you tell a little about that?

Fanestil: The Foundation for Change has administered Pride Grants for many years. It has served as the grant-making agency for Pride funds. That’s one of the long-standing relationships. Among the people on the ground floor of the Foundation for Change included Bruce Abrams. He’s a prominent person in San Diego’s Gay community, and there have been many others. One of the awards given annually is the James Cua award, named after James Cua [a former Foundation board member and prominent Queer community activist in the late 1980’s who died of complications from AIDS in 1994]. To use the genetic metaphor, it’s in the genes of the organization to be supportive of LGBT folks and their efforts to organize.

Zenger’s: Obviously, one of the big tasks in a job like this is to say no. There are going to be a lot more applicants for funding than you can fund, a lot more worthy applicants that you would like to fund and you won’t be able to. How are you going to handle saying no?

Fanestil: Again, this may be a little bit of a dodge, but I don’t direct the actual brass-tacks functioning of the grant-making process, So at the end of the day, I’m personally not the one that has to say no. It’s the grant-making committee, and several of those people have shared with me how difficult those decisions are. The grant-making committee does a very thorough process of analyzing applications, site visits — which means visiting the groups and organizations where they work, and to see first-hand what they’re doing, and makes those decisions as best they can. But you’re right to say that those are difficult decisions.

I get to try to raise some money and move things forward with the overall organization, but I don’t have to be the bad guy, at least not on the front lines of saying no. I’m just behind the scenes, encouraging the grant-making committee to do as good a job as they can.

Zenger’s: You briefly mentioned the other side of this, which is raising money. What kind of a base of funding is there for a group like this in what is known as a pretty conservative city?
Fanestil: It varies from year to year, and actually that is one of the problems this organization has had. The grant-making has risen and fallen according to the annual budget. Last year the annual budget was around $140,000, of which only $43,500 went to grants. The goal has to be to increase both the annual budget and the amount of grants given. They’ve hired me full-time, and it only makes sense for there to be a full-time director if we can move those numbers up, right? So that’s part of my job, to try to grow the organization so it can afford to give more grants.
As with any nonprofit privately-funded organization, there’s a small group of lead donors who provide a lot of the resources. If we’re going to grow, we’ll need to tap into some foundation and grant-making resources as well. We have a list of 225 people here who have given at least $200 in a single year in the last couple of years. That’s not to say we had 200 donors at that level last year, but in recent years 225 people have given more than $200 in a single year. So there’s one. That’s sort of a broader base, and I think our mailing list is 1,800.Those are folks who we count as part of the network of support.

Zenger’s: How much experience have you had raising money?

Fanestil: Once again, my most immediate professional experience has been in churches, where the ways of raising money were very different. But at churches I worked at, I did run special campaigns for special causes. I’ve also worked on a number of nonprofit boards, where I was involved in fundraising campaigns. I’ve had my hands in lots of different kinds of fundraising projects across the years. So I have pretty good experience in that realm, but obviously I have some learning to do because I’m working in a different environment now, in the strict non-profit sector.

Zenger’s: There are essentially two routes a foundation like this can take with regard to grants. They can write large grants to a handful of organizations and really concentrate on building a few programs; or what has been this foundation’s history, to write a lot of small grants to a lot of different programs, and see it more as seed money than as actually building a long-term funding relationship. Do you see that changing?

Fanestil: I’m not sure. Our grant-making guidelines are going to be revised this spring, so that kind of conversation is actually ongoing as we revisit our guidelines. Because we don’t have the kinds of resources to give away large chunks of change, I can’t believe we would radically alter that current philosophy, which is to give small grants that are meaningful to the organizations that receive them, precisely because those organizations aren’t far enough along to qualify for more mainstream sources of funds.

As the grant-making guidelines are revised there might be some wrinkles on that. But that core philosophy, I would suspect, would remain. It’s a philosophy of seed-planting, trying to make catalyst kinds of — using the grants as catalysts for organizations, because we don’t have the resources to be sustaining funders of a lot of organizations. It may be a philosophical choice driven by necessity, but that’s where it’s been.

Zenger’s: Where in the San Diego community do you plan to look for more money?

Fanestil: Of course, the short answer to that is anywhere. My principal goal in this first six months is just to meet as many of our current donors as I can and ask them to introduce me to friends. It’s a networking kind of process, and our network is scattered around the city. But there are some pockets. Hillcrest is a pocket, because there’s been a lot of support from Hillcrest across the years. La Jolla is a pocket, because our organization’s founder, Victorla Danzig, lives in La Jolla; and I was raised in La Jolla, so I know some of the people there.

But I’ve got a dinner party up in North County planned, and I’ve got a dinner in El Cajon. You follow the relationships and where they lead. At this level of organization It’s relational work more than it is demographic work, because we’re not out sending mass mailers to Zip code search. We’re courting people and trying to find out if they believe in the mission that we’re trying to accomplish; and if they do believe in it, asking them to step up and help make the mission happen. Right now we’re planning some donor/fundraising events. I’ve got some speakers coming into town who will speak at private homes and invite people to come and make a donation. You’ve got to pursue multiple angles, of course, to try to raise the money.

Zenger’s: Where would you like to see the organization go in five years?

Fanestil: I’d love to see it give away $150,000 a year, with half of that — about a half, a good chunk of it — going to groups on the other side of the border as well as on this side. Through that grant-making process, as you mentioned earlier, getting money directly to groups in Tijuana is complicated, but giving to organizations who are working binationally and thinking binationally, that’s stuff that we can do to encourage folks to address issues of justice by working on both sides of the border. That’s part of what I hope we accomplish.

And that $150,000 figure that I use isn’t based on any serious long-term strategic planning. That’s just a nice round number that I would feel good about it if we were willing to make it.

Zenger’s: Ultimately what would you like to see the Foundation accomplish, and you personally accomplish as its director?

Fanestil: I would like to see the sort of progressive and social-change constituencies on both sides, San Diego and Tijuana, raised in their profile and their influence. I’d like to see some of the seeds that we plant flourish, as some of the seeds that we’ve planted in the past have flourished, so the political landscape around here would be well represented on the progressive side. Personally, I’m not a person who sets five-year goals and tries to reach them. I try to make as much of a difference as I can with what’s in front of me, and I’m pleased that this is what’s in front of me. I’m a writer, too. I don’t know if I mentioned that, but I’d like to have another book or two published in the next five years.

Zenger’s: Yeah, I noticed on your résumé that you mentioned a book with a rather interesting theme that kind of made me go, “Huh?” Mrs. Hunter’s Happy Death: Lessons on Living from People Preparing to Die. What was the inspiration for that, and what, in the proverbial nutshell — in about a minute and a half of trying to distill your entire book — are the lessons we can learn from people preparing to die?

Fanestil: The book was inspired because as a pastor I got to know a lot of people as they approached the end of their lives, and some people did that just beautifully. They did the end of their life very, very well. I’m not saying this happened all the time, by no means, but every once in a while someone would come along and they’d do that part of their life so extremely well that I was struck by it. So the book is filled with stories of people who finished their lives with great courage and grace.

The nutshell definition of a happy death is one in which the dying person serves as an inspiration to others; or, to use the religious vernacular, as a blessing to others. So you can take your pick there. But some people manage to do that. Even as they’re preparing to die, they’re an inspiration to others. They are still encouraging others and inspiring others to lead for a happier and better land, and those are the kinds of people I wrote about in my book.

Zenger’s: You said you’re interested in pursuing another book. What would that be about?

Fanestil: I’m looking at one that would tell, in similar fashion, stories of people who’ve crossed the border and immigrated to the U.S., and what they have to teach us, and what we can learn from them. I hope to have that published sometime in the next few years. It would be something — I don’t know what the title would be, but it would be something like Lessons on Living from People Who Have Crossed the U.S.-Mexico Border.

Zenger’s: That seems in itself like a provocative topic, especially with all the folks on talk radio talking about undocumented immigrants as if they’re the scum of the earth, and saying we need to build ever-higher fences over ever more of the border to keep these people out.

Fanestil: My experience is the exact opposite. I’ve lived out there; I worked on the border for four years, in Calexico, and my experience was that these people often led incredibly noble and inspiring lives. I know for a fact that I learned a whole lot from them. So what I’m hoping to do with that next book is just get on paper some of the things that I’ve learned, that I’m convinced other people would benefit from learning if we would just treat these people as brothers and sisters in one human family. Because that’s what I think of them.

Zenger’s: I know that there are some people who are otherwise progressive but are still concerned about the influence of immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, on the poorer people in this country. I’ve read articles about the competition between undocumented immigrants and African-Americans for jobs at the lower end of the economic scale: the fact that the opportunities that existed for people without high-school educations, which were already meager enough, have been really decimated by this influx of immigrants. Personally, as a progressive with a very strong interest in border issues, how do you reconcile wanting justice for the immigrant population and at the same time having to have a concern for the native-born working-class people who are being adversely affected by them?

Fanestil: Well, the question is in the immediate sense they’re being adversely affected by “them,” referring to the immigrant workers, but of course what they’re being adversely affected by is the economic forces. I don’t pretend to have a neat answer or solution to that problem, but the fact of the matter is we are living in a world in which our economies are profoundly intertwined. And, for better or for worse — and I’m sure for better and for worse — we’ve created NAFTA, the “free-trade agreement,” but of course the commodity that was excluded from the free trade was labor.

It turns out that doesn’t really work. You can’t create a free market and have goods and services and resources and capital flowing all over the place, and still keep labor in nice, neat little contained boxes. That’s not how free markets work. So I understand and sympathize, and can wish perhaps that we could thrash out a line in the sand. I do believe in living wages for the working people. I would prefer to see living wages for all people, whether they be immigrants or not. But I hope you’ll forgive me for not having a solution to the grand macroeconomic conundrums of our day, you know what I mean?

Zenger’s: No, I was just asking how you reconciled those values personally, and what do you do about the campaigns on the Right to get the African-American community to advocate for a hard line on immigrants on the ground that they’re threatening “your” economic interests. You hear all the stories about the fry-cook jobs in Los Angeles that used to be done by Black people and are now done by undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

Fanestil: That’s an old tactic, isn’t it? I mean, people in power pitting people out of power against each other. I daresay that’s as old as the Bible. There are some pretty tried and true tricks by which folks in power stay in power, and that’s one of them. Labor and immigration, those are ancient questions.

Humanist President Speaks in San Diego

Says We Can’t Attack, but Must Critique, Religion


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers: call them what you will, but people who reject the concept of a supernatural deity are the last group of people it’s considered socially acceptable to discriminate against in America, said American Humanist Association (AHA) president Mel Lipman Sunday, February 11 at the San Diego Public Library. And it’s only getting worse, he added, with the unprecedented influence of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians over the political system and their stated goal to erase the separation of church and state and make the U.S. a “Christian nation.”

Lipman seemed like an unlikely leader of a counter-movement to the Christian Right. He’s middle-aged, short, not particularly charismatic and dressed for his library appearance in a dark suit and a pair of black-rimmed glasses that made him look like the accountant he used to be. (He’s now an attorney and history professor in Las Vegas.) He noted that 2007 is the 25th anniversary of the founding of his organization, and that at 8,000 members the AHA is larger than it’s ever been — but its membership is only a drop in the bucket compared to that of radical-Right Christian churches and political organizations.

According to Lipman, humanism has many of the same concerns as religion — notably working out and promulgating an idea of ethics and a way that human beings can live with each other with honesty and justice. “The only place where we differ from well-intentioned religionists is in the absence of the supernatural,” Lipman said. “In the humanist view, reason will dominate the cultural sphere. We are seeing overwhelming scientific and technological changes, and humanism is the only philosophy that can accommodate them. Humanists owe it to the next generation to guarantee increased access to the rational alternative.”

Alas, Lipman acknowledged, the world in general and the United States in particular are moving in the opposite direction from reason and the humanist alternative. “We live in a supernatural culture in which ‘believing’ has become more important than what we believe,” he said. All too many Americans believe not only in God, but in a directly interventionist God issuing “revelations” through clerical hierarchies, which according to Lipman are invoked to block scientific progress and “make it acceptable not to fund stem-cell research, not to give out condoms, to reject the theory of evolution and refuse to act to stop the reality of global warming.”

According to Lipman, various polls indicate that from 15 to 30 million Americans — five to 10 percent of the population — “don’t believe in a supernatural God.” The problem is that only a handful of them are “out” as atheists, agnostics or humanists, and even a tinier fraction actually belong to atheist or humanist organizations. Lipman said that humanists are beginning to break through to the general culture, largely due to the best-selling books and TV appearances by humanist authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — but the biggest single factor holding back the humanist movement is the reluctance of humanists to come out of the closet and go public about their non-belief in God.

“With the unprecedented growth in this age of information, humanists no longer have the luxury of talking to themselves,” Lipman said. “Our alternative must be effectively promoted. Unlike 25 years ago, today every humanist, atheist or freethought group should have a major budget for publicity. We have run ads on Air America and in progressive magazines like The Nation, The Progressive and Mother Jones promoting humanist values. Our attitude has shifted from private philosophizing to public action. We are mobilizing to get people to identify publicly as humanists and are offering free AHA membership to all recent college graduates. We are offering a $500 prize on YouTube for the best humanist video, and some of the entries include humanist authors like Daniel Dennett and Kurt Vonnegut.”

Lipman said the AHA needs to put together this kind of P.R. offensive to “rekindle the torch for future generations” and “aggressively promote our lifestyle. Until 25 years ago, it was sufficient to keep our beliefs or non-beliefs to ourselves. Now we have to assert ourselves, if for no other reason than self-defense.” Lipman quoted Christian-Right religious and political leaders like both Presidents Bush, Left Behind author Tim LaHaye, Presidential advisor Karl Rove, federal judge Janice Rogers Brown and Alabama governor Bob Riley not only calling for “a crusade to restore Christian values to America” (LaHaye) but explicitly denouncing “secular humanists” as the enemy and calling for the exclusion of humanists from political office and public life in the U.S.

“Anti-humanist discrimination has become fashionable and ‘patriotic,’” Lipman saoid. “A University of Wisconsin study showed Americans associate atheists and secular humanists with criminality. We are seen as a major threat to American life.” He also noted other poll results that said a majority of Americans would not vote for an avowed atheist for political office, and that twice as many Americans believe in the Second Coming as accept the scientific reality of evolution.

One positive step Lipman pointed to is the formation of the Secular Coalition of America (SCA), consisting of eight atheist and humanist organizations, including his own. “We now have a full-time lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to protect the interests of non-supernaturalists. We have had sympathetic meetings with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and our lobbyist has appeared on MS-NBC and three times on Bill O’Reilly’s program. Each appearance has resulted in individual humanists coming out and joining our fight to prevent America from becoming a theocracy.”

At least part of the problem facing humanists is how to deal with religion in general, and in particular whether, and on what terms, to ally with liberal and moderate believers who also are concerned about the growing influence of the radical Christian Right in the U.S. and fundamentalist movements worldwide.

“I believe the extent of radical fundamentalism will subside, and direct attacks on religion will only encourage fundamentalism,” Lipman said. “I can work with religious people, but we must not refrain from attacking irrational beliefs. Our primary purpose should be to define the positive characteristics of humanism and the joy we can derive from our naturalistic stances. Christianity offers heaven, Buddhism offers Nirvana, New Age philosophies offer inner peace and Islam offers 72 virgins. We need to offer our own promise, rather than attacking the promises of others. The big promise of humanism is the good life here and now. Our claims and promises are true and have been proven true again and again. We have to brand humanism as a good and caring way of life.”

Sonia Nazario Brings “Enrique’s Journey” to Life


After seven previous attempts, 17-year-old Enrique finally makes it from his home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, up the length of Central America into southern Mexico, then across Mexico to the Rio Grande and over into the United States to reunite with the mother who left him behind 12 years before to live and work in the U.S. What’s more, Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario hears of Enrique’s story and decides the only way she can tell it is if she goes to Central America and duplicates Enrique’s hazardous journey, crossing through Mexico on the tops or sides of freight trains and taking the same risks he did.

The dangers include being thrown off the train and crushed under its wheels, running into bandits or police and being robbed (in the interior of Mexico, all too often police and bandits behave pretty much the same way), being deported by Mexican immigration police, being turned in by Mexican citizens who have the same jaundiced and sometimes racist attitudes towards Central American immigrants that people on this side of the border have about Mexicans, and a risk Nazario, as a woman, had to worry about more than Enrique did: rape. The stories of both journeys sound like a film script — and, indeed, Enrique’s Journey, the book Nazario wrote about Enrique’s trip and her own, is being filmed as a six-part miniseries by HBO — but it’s a true story, and one which at once highlights the nuances of the immigration issue and puts a human face on it.

Nazario spoke at the San Diego Public Library February 12 and recalled how she stumbled on Enrique’s story and ended up writing first a series in the Los Angeles Times and then a book, Enrique’s Journey. “I was 37, had been married six years, and my housekeeper, Carmen, was perplexed about whether and when I was going to have a baby. I really did not want to answer her question. I wanted to deflect, and I asked her if she was planning to have more kids. She went silent and started sobbing. She said she had four children she had left behind in Guatemala, where she could only feed them once a day. She had left them with their grandmother and had not seen them in 12 years. The youngest had been only one year old.”

Nazario said she wondered how a mother could possibly leave four children behind to come to a strange country, and what she herself would do in a similar situation. “That started me on a journey to Central America and back along the immigration routes,” she recalled. “Carmen’s choice seemed terrible to me, but it’s incredibly common. In Los Angeles four out of every five immigrant nannies has a child left behind. We know these women in San Diego as well.” Nazario explained that, contrary to the common impression that most undocumented immigrants are men, over half the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today are women or children.

“We’re experiencing the largest wave of immigration in our nation’s history,” Nazario said. “One million immigrants enter the country legally every year and another 850,000 come in illegally. One out of every four immigrants lives in California. In our public schools one out of every four children are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.”

According to Nazario, most of the women who left their children behind in Central America to cross Mexico and enter the U.S. don’t expect to be gone longer than a year or two. “But they find out life in the U.S. is a lot harder than advertised,” she explained. “A lot of these separations drag out five years or more, and a lot of those kids decide, ‘If Mom isn’t going to come back for me, I’m going to see her.’ So there’s this small array of kids from Central America, three out of four of whom are looking for a parent.”

The story of Enrique, her book’s protagonist, is all too typical. “Enrique’s mother left when he was five, and at first he’s just bewildered by her absence and begs people, ‘When is she coming back?’,” Nazario explained. “At 11 or 12 he waits by the door of his grandmother’s shack and prays that she’ll come back. After that he decides to set out and find her, with the question, ‘Does she love me?,’ on his mind. All he has to guide him is a scrap of paper with her phone number in his pocket. In Texas, at the Border Patrol detention centers, they’ll often have this piece of paper wrapped in plastic, and it’s all they’re carrying on them.”

Nazario’s estimate is that about 48,000 children attempt this hazardous journey from Central America through Mexico and into the U.S. each year. While Enrique was 17 when he finally made it — after seven previous tries — most of them are younger, sometimes as young as seven. “I traveled with a 12-year-old boy,” Nazario recalled. “It’s an amazing adventure but also harrowing beyond belief. Most of them don’t make it. They’re returned to their countries of origin, or they’re crushed by the trains, or ambushed by Mexican bandits or corrupt cops. The migrants talk about the trains as if they were living beings.”

They talk about other things as if they were living beings, too. Among them is the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which the migrants call La Bestia — “The Beast.” “There are gangsters who prowl the tops of the trains in gangs of 10 to 20, armed with machetes, wooden bats and guns, and hopped up on crack,” Nazario said. “They’ll strip you of your clothes and rob you of the few coins you have, beat you and sometimes throw you down to the ground below.” In her book, Nazario explained that on some of his earlier attempts to make the journey through Mexico, Enrique had had friends in the Mara Salvatrucha (“M.S.”) gang, based in El Salvador, but once he refused to kill another person at the command of his M.S. traveling companion, that protection was withdrawn.

At the library, Nazario vividly described what happened to Enrique on the train in Chiapas once the M.S. were no longer looking out for him. “ Enrique was beaten with a wooden club and lost three teeth,” she said. “They stripped him to his underwear and tried to strangle him. One of them said, ‘Throw him off the train,’ only one of the gangsters slipped and Enrique was able to escape by throwing him off the train. The next day the women of the town surrounded him, gave him coins and tried to get him to go home.”

Not everyone the migrants encounter on their journey are out to rob, beat, rape or kill them. While Nazario described Chiapas as the most hostile place for the migrants — once they’re out of that state, even though they’re only a third of the way towards their destination, they figure the worst is over — she identified the state of Vera Cruz as the part of Mexico where they’re treated most kindly. “When the trains have to slow down, there are people who meet them with food and water,” Nazario said. “Those are the poorest Mexicans, who make only $1 to $2 per day. The poorest Mexicans give to these strangers from other countries they’ll never see again. They’ve seen them fall off the trains or die from hunger, and they think it’s the Christian thing to help them.”

Sonia’s Journey

Most reporters, confronted with a story as moving and laden with human interest as Enrique’s, would have been content to interview him, maybe call up a few Mexican officials through the consulate in L.A., collect a few statistics about immigration, and write from that. Not Sonia Nazario. She came to the conclusion that the only way she could really understand Enrique’s story and communicate it effectively to her readers was to take the same journey he had, traversing Mexico from south to north on the tops and sides of trains. In fact, she took two trips, each three months long, though only the first trip was train-bound.

“You would see 300 to 400 people on the trains,” she recalled. “The conductors say the train looks like a beehive and joke, ‘When we see the president of El Salvador on a train we’ll know the whole country has emptied out.’”

Of course, Nazario had some advantages the Central American immigrants did not. One was a letter from an assistant to the president of Mexico, which she called her Carte d’Oro (“golden letter”) and which did indeed keep her out of jail three times. Another was the fact that, even though she was riding on trains, she didn’t have to sleep outdoors the way the migrants do: she could check into a motel. Yet she also had one vulnerability the male migrants usually didn’t share: she was a woman traveling alone, and the bandits and corrupt cops who see the migrants as prey regard a woman traveling alone as fair game for rape.

“Women know they have an almost 100 percent chance of being raped,” Nazario said. For that reason, she added, most women migrants historically have avoided the trains and sought other means of travel through Mexico to the U.S. border. But when she took her second journey in 2003, there were more women desperate enough to come to the U.S. to take their chances on the train — and many of them were either pregnant or carrying babies with them.

“When I started this journey, I was judgmental,” Nazario admitted. “I thought, ‘What kind of mother walks away from her children?’ I understood Enrique’s mother’s decision better when I went to Honduras and saw what happens to the children whose mothers stay. They would hang out at the garbage dumps, and mothers and children would look for bits of tin and anything they could sell. Much of the garbage came from hospitals, and the stench was so oppressive I had to breathe through my nose.”

What Is To Be Done?

Nazario’s experience also made her understand better why so many Mexicans and Central Americans are immigrating to the United States — and why the policy prescriptions from the Right and Left alike won’t work to stop them. “People in this country don’t understand the gritty determination of these people to get to America,” she said. “I met a 17-year-old who had been robbed, and his girlfriend had been gang-raped. He told me, ‘Tomorrow the Mexican authorities will deport me, and the next day I will start on attempt number 28.’”

According to Nazario, media coverage and political debate on the immigration issue in the U.S. focuses on only three alternatives — “tougher border enforcement, guest-worker programs or amnesty” — all of which have been tried and have failed. The U.S. tried an official guest-worker program for farm laborers from 1942 to 1964, the bracero program, and it didn’t stem the tide of undocumented immigration. The U.S. tried an amnesty when Congress passed the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill in 1986 — and, as hard-line anti-immigrant activists are fond of pointing out, since then the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. was three million then and is 12 million now. In the 1990’s, the U.S. tried “Operation Gatekeeper” and other attempts to seal the border with fences, double fences, triple fences and a high-profile Border Patrol presence — and undocumented immigrants kept coming, often taking more hazardous routes through the desert and, according to immigrant advocate Enrique Morones, frequently dying of heat or thirst.

“You have to tackle this exodus at the source,” Nazario said. “You have to create jobs in Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. Rather than try to ignore our neighbors to the south, we need a new federal policy focused on jobs, including microloans and trade policy. Most migrants would rather stay at home with their families, language and culture than come to a totally foreign place like the U.S. The women tell me it wouldn’t take much to keep them at home, and we wouldn’t see the thousands of children in the U.S.”
Bridges: Charming Stories Play with Romantic Conventions


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

You’ve got to hand it to the folks at 6th @ Penn Theatre. Not only do they frequently perform two shows at once — a main production on Thursday through Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon and another work on the usual “off” nights (Sunday through Wednesday) — but usually the shows have some connection. Maybe one is an authentic Greek tragedy and the other a recently written play set in ancient Greece that comments on the convention of the dramas of the time; or, as in their current pairing of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and local playwright Doug Hoehn’s Bridges: Two Love Stories, the connection seems to be to give their audience a bit of the milk of human kindness after having put Mamet’s acid in their saucer.

Hoehn’s Bridges, directed by himself, actually consists of two one-act plays about love and relationships. The first one, Fourth Street Bridge, takes place in a small caretaker’s cottage under the titular bridge in a carefully unnamed Midwestern city. A nicely dressed set (no set designer or dresser is credited but the interior of the room is obviously based on the office set for the second act of Glengarry Glen Ross) tells us quite a lot about its inhabitant, Dirk (Ryan Schulze): it’s a sort of amiable clutter with posters for the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup and the Stanley Kubrick film of Lolita on the walls and two volumes of “501 Must-See Movies” lying face-down on different surfaces.

Dirk, it turns out, is a “partially disabled” veteran of the most recent Iraq war who has been given the job as caretaker of the bridge property by the city because his disabilities (which Hoehn doesn’t reveal until well into his play) make him unsuitable for ordinary employment. When the play opens we see him talking to a woman who remains offstage, and at first the reason for her presence there is a mystery. Did he pick her up and he’s trying to coax her into his apartment to top off their evening with a romp in the hay? “I don’t want to have sex with you!” snarls Tasha (Katharine Tremblay) when we finally do see her. Nor, she adds, does she want to be preached to; it seems virtually every man she’s met lately has wanted either to bed her, save her soul, or both, and she’s tired of it.

In fact, Tasha is tired of a lot of things. Her parents were competitive swimmers and they threw her into a pool almost as soon as she could walk, pushing her to compete as a child, a high-school student and as a college student. Now she’s so sick of their pressure that she’s determined to take one final dive off the bridge and end it all. “Oh, here we go again,” Dirk is clearly thinking as he girds himself to try to talk her out of it, having long since learned that in addition to mowing the lawns under the bridge towers, his caretaker gig also involves doing amateur suicide counseling. Tasha says she’ll leave her backpack with him before she takes her final leap, and Dirk matter-of-factly shows her two other pieces of luggage left him by other Fourth Street Bridge suicides.

Though the events in Fourth Street Bridge move unnaturally swiftly — Hoehn was clearly racing to tie up all the loose ends of his plot in 35 minutes — and the ease with which the characters overcome their physical and psychological wounds and pair up at the end (I don’t think I’m really spoiling the suspense here!) seem almost intended as a parody of romantic fiction rather than a serious attempt at it, Fourth Street Bridge is a charmer from start to finish. Ryan Schulze is just right for his part, personable and physically attractive without being too hunky; and Katharine Tremblay manages to establish the character’s bitterness even before she opens her mouth, just by her tight body language when she enters. Hoehn’s writing is sensitive and lovable, punctuated with nice lines that work both as jokes and as expressions of the characters’ mutual incomprehension — as when Dirk introduces himself as having the same name as the British actor Dirk Bogarde, and Tasha says, “I remember him. He was in The Maltese Falcon!”

The second half of Bridges, called Sea Change, is considerably grimmer. At the start we see Ed Warren (Patrick Hubbard) in a wheelchair, reminiscing about how he met his wife in a classic Hollywood “meet-cute” (they were in a Midwestern city shortly after World War II, he slipped and fell on a patch of ice while running for a streetcar, and she ran into him while trying to catch the same car) that suggests Hoehn may have a future as a romance-film screenwriter. Then we see the real Ed Warren in the grip of Alzheimer’s, and we also see Ingrid (Joan Westmoreland), the wife he met so charmingly in his flashback, as she is today: tough, bitter, hardened by years of putting up first with his infidelities and now with his disease, but also insistent that she can offer him better care at home (the California condo to which they retired) than the staff of a nursing home can.

Into this already combustible mixture Hoehn throws two sparks. One is the Warrens’ third and youngest child, and only daughter, Veronica (Barbara Cole), a strident attitude queen fresh from two busted marriages of her own and a career-destroying inclination to leave a job at the first drop of a boss’s insult. The other is a notice from the Veterans’ Administration that they’re not going to pay for Ed’s home care anymore because — you guessed it — they’ve decided it’s more cost-effective to put him in a nursing home. Their oldest child, Tony, lives with his family in the Midwest and never comes out; the middle child, Gary, is talked about as if he did something really terrible to alienate them (at times it seemed like he’d come out Gay and they’d disowned him), but Hoehn has given him a quite different sort of tragic fate.

What makes Sea Change work more than anything else is the utterly convincing acting of Patrick Hubbard. You actually believe that he’s lost control of his memory, and that vividly recalled flashes of scenes that took place years ago suddenly come to the forefront of his consciousness, only to sink again into the morass of his dementia. His running line about wanting to make up for all the wrongs he’s done in his life only frustrates his wife and daughter, who can’t tie it in to any of their memories of him and his actions. Westmoreland and Cole both play their characters well — a bit hobbled by the way Hoehn has made them both so bitter they hardly get to act any other emotions — but it is Hubbard who runs away with the acting honors here.

Bridges makes an interesting double bill. Hoehn’s direction of both plays is insightful (how could it not be when he wrote them?) and he knows how to get good performances from his actors. He also uses the 6th @ Penn’s problematic playing space effectively, and his scripts have the intriguing combination of sentimentality and jaundice that made so many of the productions of the (mostly) late, (very) lamented Fritz Theatre so effective. Neither of the plays is a masterpiece, but both are well written and convincingly dramatic, and it’s clear from them that Doug Hoehn is a talent quite likely on his way to better things.

Bridges plays through Wednesday, March 7 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are Sun. at 7 p.m. and Mon., Tues. and Wed. at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $15 and can be purchased by phone at (619) 688-9210 or online at www.sixthatpenn.com

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Glengarry Glen Ross: 6th @ Penn’s Workmanlike Performance of a Modern Classic


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

My first exposure to Glengarry Glen Ross — and to the work of David Mamet in general — came when I saw the film version in 1993, a year after its release, at the old Guild Theatre in Hillcrest when it was in its last days, being operated as a house for major U.S. releases at the tail end of their theatrical runs. I went into the theatre having read a piece about Mamet that praised his plays for their “well-turned dialogue,” and after I left the film I had the impression the material was powerful and theatrical but also didn’t see what I’d just seen and heard on that screen had to do with “well-turned dialogue.” The lesson seemed to be that if I ever wanted to write a play and be praised for my “well-turned dialogue,” all I had to do was make every other word an obscenity.

It’s true that — as a friend of mine told me afterwards — it would have been utterly ridiculous to make the pathetic, driven, desperate real-estate salesmen who make up most of the dramatis personae of Glengarry Glen Ross talk like characters in a play by Noël Coward (who’s still the playwright that comes first to my mind when I hear the phrase “well-turned dialogue”). It’s also true that any stage company that takes up Mamet’s 1984 play now is going to be competing with the memory of the 1992 film, not only because director James Foley and the usual committee of producers assembled an all-star cast, including Jack Lemmon as over-the-hill salesman Shelly Levene and Al Pacino as current hotshot Ricky Roma, but also because, in adapting his own play for the screen, Mamet considerably improved it.

The movie Glengarry Glen Ross begins with one of the characters on his way to the office of the real-estate company where he and most of the other characters work, then cuts to a sequence in which Blake (Alec Baldwin), a high official of the company, delivers a Wall Street “Greed is good”-like speech in which he explains that they’re having a sales contest and, “As you all know, first prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Anybody want to see second prize? [Holds up prize] Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Blake doesn’t even exist in the play — Mamet added him for the film — and the stage version begins in a tacky Chinese restaurant near the office where most of the salespeople have their lunches, either alone, with each other or with their clients.

Mamet’s stage version suffers from the fact that we don’t see these people first in their work environment even though work is clearly the most important thing about their lives — indeed, the only important thing about their lives; aside from Levene’s grown daughter (represented only by a lot of mentions of her in the dialogue and a photo of her he keeps on his desk, but which we are not allowed to see) none of these men seem to have families or any other interests outside the office and the pitiless grind of commission-only sales work. It’s a strong play — it did win the Pulitzer Prize for drama for its year — but the stage version is just a knock on the real-estate industry whereas the film script broadened it to a critique of capitalism itself.

The plot deals with four increasingly desperate salesmen (and they are all men; no women appear as characters in this play) for an unnamed company dealing in retirement estates in Florida and trying to extract the life savings of elderly couples to sell them lots in fancifully named developments that exist only as blueprints on paper. The script’s grimmest — and funniest — joke is the whole idea of a community called “Glengarry Highlands” in Florida: a marvelous commentary on the utter meaninglessness of brand names and how they’re concocted to create an image for a product regardless of what the words in the names mean in plain English.

Shelly Levene (Jonathan Dunn-Rankin) is the company’s veteran, a former hotshot who boasts that he was once such a fantastic producer that he kept the place in business and put his daughter through college with his earnings. Now, however, he’s either on a cold streak (his own explanation) or is burned out completely (everybody else’s). Ricky Roma (Jonathan Sachs) is the current golden boy, well ahead on the chalkboard in the race for that Cadillac (and to dodge the pink slip awaiting the third-place finisher in that contest). Dave Moss (played by 6th @ Penn’s producing artistic director, Dale Morris) is avuncular, mediocre and weighing a job offer from a competitor. George Aaronow (Haig Koshkarian) is pretty much along for the ride, dragging up the rear on the chalkboard (though Levene hasn’t made a sale in so long he isn’t on it at all) and alternately flirting with Moss’s schemes and trying to duck blame for them.

The other characters include an office manager, Williamson (Ash Fulk), who goes throughout the play with a frown of disdain Fulk retained even when he took his curtain call (doesn’t this man ever smile?) and who makes his contempt for the people who work for him and generate the income to pay his salary all too clear; James Lingk (Joey Georges), the only actual customer we see; and Baylen (played by an actor identified only as “B.J.”), a police officer who investigates a burglary on the office in Act Two. The device the story revolves around is the “leads,” the papers giving the names, addresses and phone numbers of potential customers along with some idea of just how likely they are to buy, and for which the salespeople are willing to bribe, steal or, we suspect, worse.

Without the magnificent prologue Mamet added for the film version, the debt Glengarry Glen Ross owes to Arthur Miller in general and Death of a Salesman in particular is a good deal clearer in the stage original. Even the names of the central characters, “Shelly Levene” and “Willy Loman,” sound similar. But whereas a large part of Miller’s tragedy lay in the effect Loman’s failure as a salesman has on his family, Mamet couldn’t care less about family. What turns him on is the intensity of the pressure surrounding these men and the extent to which the audience can be manipulated to feel sorry for them and root for them even while being totally aware of the scumminess of the business they’re in. When Lingk, Roma’s latest customer, comes in and asks to be let out of his deal, apologetically saying, “It’s not me, it’s my wife,” we’re not sure whether to hate this unseen woman for gumming up Roma’s deal or like her for keeping her husband from a rotten business transaction that will cost both of them big-time. (It’s also an indication of how Mamet feels about women: either they’re opportunities for recreational sex or harpies who get in the way of the alpha males he loves to write about.)

Glengarry Glen Ross gets a good production from 6th @ Penn. Dale Morris’s first-act set design, constructed by Vince Sneedan and Ian, is a simple table and lounge chair against a red curtain to suggest the Chinese restaurant, but the second act is a convincing presentation of an office that takes up virtually all the small theatre’s playing space. (The opening performance February 9 was so overbooked the theatre had to bring out portable chairs to seat the last few audience members in front of what’s usually their first row. After the intermission, the poor souls sitting in these seats were suddenly confronted by the disappearance of all their leg room.) The direction by Jerry Pilato and Bryan Bevell (a San Diego theatre veteran who returned from Minneapolis to serve as this production’s “dramaturge,” an all-purpose theatre term that in this case seems to have meant co-director) is taut and fast-moving, and in a strong cast it’s Jonathan Dunn-Rankin who stands out. Playing the only character who actually seems to change, he’s closer to Brian Dennehy than Jack Lemmon as a physical type, but his age, size and deliberately bad dye job on his hair perfectly equip him to play the burned-out salesman who’s taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride by the events of the story.

Ash Folk’s Williamson has the arrogance of his character down cold — when the others upbraid him for never actually having been in the sales trenches it’s hard not to see their point — and Jonathan Sachs’ Roma is a strutting cock-o’-the-walk, though even he gets a few feathers plucked before the night is over. If the other actors aren’t as well defined, blame David Mamet for giving them less interesting characters — though Joey Georges does a nice job in Act Two as the befuddled customer caught between the high-powered salesman and the decent (unseen) wife back home. Glengarry Glen Ross is a play worthy of its (and Mamet’s) reputation, and overall 6th @ Penn’s production is worthy of the play.

Glengarry Glen Ross plays through Sunday, March 18 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest. Performances are Thurs., Fri. and Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $23 and can be purchased by phone at (619) 688-9210 or online at www.sixthatpenn.com