Friday, September 23, 2016

A Lesson from Everfair

Decisions of when to fight, and where to fight, and how to fight, are never automatic; however decisive and clear an unjust incident may be, why does the responsibility to respond always fall on the shoulders of those we think are the most aggrieved?

Nisi Shawl's Everfair, proposes an alternative outcome to the late-19th, early-20th century genocide in the Congo perpetrated by Belgian King Leopold on the way to thoroughly expropriating the valuable resources of that African land. Mark Twain, who wrote several polemics denouncing the genocidal Belgian attack on the Congo (including King Leopold's Soliloquy), believed that Leopold ranked as one of the most villainous figures in all of world history.

"In fourteen years Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives within the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and peity-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there--which will be soon, let us hope and trust," Twain wrote in the post-humous Mark Twain in Eruption.

In Shawl's alternative history novel, a diverse collection of demographically distinct groups, including faith-based, back-to-Africa, American blacks, European socialists, and native Africans, unite and eventually establish their own free state on parts of the Congo wrested by force from Leopold. The book is full of singular characters, important resurrected history, and subtle moral lessons. I haven't yet reached the end of the book, but before I do, I'd like to highlight one of those lessons.

One of Shawl's major characters, Lisette Toutournier, is a bi-racial Frenchwoman. She is smart, passionate and apparently fearless, a set of characteristics that makes her appearance in the Congo as a dedicated opponent of Belgian colonialism unsurprising. As the resistance to Leopold grows and the utopian Everfair begins to take shape, Toutournier finds enough free time to pursue a number of love affairs.

At a critical point in their affair, one of her lovers, a white European woman who has come to occupy a revered position in Everfair's pantheon of heroes, cluelessly insults Lisette's racial heritage; an incident that leaves Lisette both speechless and unwilling to continue their affair. But though the affair has ended, Lisette's lover cannot begin to guess the reason why.

Perhaps, by the end of the story, Lisette will have shared the pain and anger that she felt at the moment her lover so casually and ignorantly derided one of the central aspects of her identity. Regardless, the reader knows that Lisette's lover, a respected leader of Everfair, is nevertheless a product of the racism of her time and place. The reader also knows that it is not possible for Lisette, however gifted and disciplined she may be, to address and remediate all insults and the racism that underlies them.

This brings us (or me, anyhow) to #blacklivesmatter and the growing refusal of African Americans and their allies to stand aside in the face of police brutality and police killings in black communities nationwide. Huge numbers of white Americans seem surprised by the growing militance, though both that surprise and the number of white people who pretend or allow themselves to be surprised seems to be diminishing in the face of the persistence of #blacklivesmatter, North Carolina's Moral Monday Movement, and similar local and national groups.

The surprise white folks seem to feel is a fundamental manifestation of white privilege, which is ultimately the privilege to ignore the realities of one's surrounding community, or country, or world. It is more than a little ironic that white folks, who have for generations reaped the benefits of exploiting the black community, seem to need those same people to do one more thing for them; to clarify with endless patience what racism is, how it permeates our society, and how it is manifested and sustained in feigned shock at acts of black resistance and rage.

That white folks need such remedial instruction from black folks is outrageous. Fundamentally outrageous. After all, African Americans live every day with insults and assaults simply because of their skin color, and must decide to ignore so many of those insults and assaults so that they might instead both live their lives and maintain their sanity. Who has time in the face of the daily demands of life and the tactical demands of resistance to racism to also scrub clean the souls of white folks? 

That Sisyphean tasks reminds me of a truth I stumbled upon some years ago when I first wondered how many times a gay friend of mine needed to come out in order to best take care of himself and to move forward in solidarity with comrades organizing to resist homophobia in all its manifestations. Eventually it became clear that the question of coming out to new people in new places was an endlessly repeating requirement that he was forced to reconsider under constantly changing conditions.

It struck me then and seems equally clear to me now that addressing homophobia and racism are not primarily the responsibility of gay men and lesbians and bisexuals and transgender people or of African Americans. Indeed, if we are to rid the world of racism and homophobia, the main responsibility for rooting out such scourges belongs to those who carry those diseases in their most virulent forms. Straight people and white folks.

Postscript: I cannot resist adding that Shawl dedicates her book to Octavia Butler, whose books offer many lessons that complement Everfair. I reviewed one of those books, Parable of the Sower, a few years ago. To fight back in Parable's dystopian world, which shares many characteristics with our own, Butler develops a tool, a new religious "faith that that has no supreme being, only a profound and Buddhalike understanding of the world that humans must embrace, sharp points and sharp edges, notwithstanding. 'All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change,' she writes. In other words, there is nothing for it but to live in the world, and to see oneself as both responsible for what the world becomes and subject to its conditions at any given time. People are most present in the world when they are growing and changing.

I have to say that with Everfair, Nisi Shawl establishes herself as Octavia Butler's spiritual heir.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Follies: Medical bills and insurance

Always good for a laugh

Jeff Epton
3735 17th Place NE
Washington, DC 20018

June 30, 2016

Laboratory Corporation of America
PO Box 2240
Burlington, North Carolina 27216-2240

Re: Invoice # 00356327

To whom it may concern,

Over the last nine months or so, my son, Brendan Epton (17 years old at this time), has periodically received collection letters from your subsidiary, LCA Collections. Being a minor, Brendan is not actually legally liable for a medical debt. His parents, Marrianne McMullen and I, who reside at the above address with Brendan, are, in fact, the liable parties.

In light of the above information, it seems that if you continue to feel the need to send dunning letters in regard to the outstanding bill, you should address those letters to Marrianne and I.

But, perhaps before you do so, you should make an honest effort to identify and address the obstacles that might be delaying payment for your services. May I submit the following as suggestions and/or information that might guide how you proceed?

First, though I have no actual knowledge of why Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina refused to pay the bill you submitted, I have been told that they needed a formal affirmation that Brendan was, indeed, a qualified dependent on Marrianne’s BCBS insurance policy.

If that is the case, and we have received notification from either LCA or BCBS that they wanted us to speak up and affirm, then it is definitely our bad for failing to do so. However, if neither you nor BCBS followed up by asking us to make such an affirmation, or repeated the request as often as might have been necessary, than one or both of  you was certainly being sloppy about the whole matter, if not negligent.

Still, as it happens, some months ago I did contact NC NCBS and made that affirmation. And so the matter was settled. Not.

Another two or so months after my long, long, long phone conversation with BCBS (punctuated, as it was, by repeated and demoralizing hold messages), Brendan (still a minor), again, began receiving collection letters from LCA Collections. Again, I contacted NC BCBS to ask what difficulties might be keeping them from processing your bill.

I can’t help asking what you were doing meanwhile to address the problem, other than, perhaps, preparing to send out another of your stunningly effective collection letters. But I digress.

In any case, NC BCBS told me that they did not have a physician’s authorization for the tests on record. I will not outline precisely what followed, as it is described in detail in the message reprinted below that I just minutes ago e-mailed to NC BCBS, but it should suffice to say that I stayed on the line for even longer this time while the NC BCBS representative contacted Brendan’s doctor (Laura Hofmann, (202) 797-4950) to obtain that authorization, retroactively.

That done, I assumed that when and if we again heard from LCA, it would be to pay whatever balance remained after BCBS finally processed your bill.

But, much to my surprise, Brendan (still a minor) recently received yet one more collection letter from you. You must be so proud.

Finally, I will add that the LCA facility where the tests were conducted is based in Dr. Hofmann’s office! How hard could it be for LCA and NC BCBS to figure out how to put this matter to rest?

Sorry. I know it doesn’t help to shout. Below is the message that I sent to North Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield today.

Please don’t get the idea that we are tired of dealing with you guys. As we all know, into every life a little rain must fall. Nevertheless, you people at Laboratory Corporation of America (and Blue Cross Blue Shield) ought to improve your business practices, particularly billing, bill processing and collections. After all, you are in business to get paid and, if you don’t do better than you are currently doing, you ain’t ever gonna get paid.

Jeff Epton


My message today (verbatim), to North Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield:
“The member ID is actually for Marrianne McMullen, Brendan's mother and the person to whom I am married. We live in Washington, DC and are enrolled in the Federal Employee Program.

“I am writing in regard to a bill for laboratory tests ordered by Brendan's doctor, Laura Hofmann (202) 797-4950) in the fall of last year. The bill was submitted for payment to the NC Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) by the Laboratory Corporation of America (LCA), apparently because LCA is an NC-based company.

“The bill has never been paid or, to my knowledge, properly processed. After receiving collection notices from LCA for Brendan (a minor, who cannot be legally liable for the debt), I contacted BCBS to ask why the bill had not been paid. I was told that was because there was some NC regulation that required that Brendan be identified annually as a qualified dependent on the insurance plan. When I spoke to an NC BCBS representative and formally claimed Brendan as a dependent, I was told that the bill would be processed.

“When some time later, LCA resumed sending debt collection letters, I again spoke with a representative from NC BCBS who told me that there was no record of a doctor ordering the tests for Brendan. After I explained my frustration with the process to that point (some six months or so after the tests were conducted), the NC BCBS representative kept me on the line while she contacted Dr. Hofman's office directly to complete the record. At the conclusion of that call, the representative told me that everything had been taken care of and that the bill would be processed.

“Now, some two months later, I sit here with another collection letter sent by LCA to Brendan, who is still a minor. I am writing you now because I have absolutely no desire to spend another minute, let alone an hour (which is how long I was on the phone last time) with an NC BCBS representative.

“It strikes me that this whole situation is no fault of anyone in our family, but a consequence of an insurance company's failure to conduct its ordinary business in an appropriate fashion, but what do I know?”

Sunday, April 24, 2016

If I were a teacher, this is the reading comprehension test I would give:

Part A
In which the reader reads,
and makes an effort to understand what is written.

Say you were a thirty-something and had worked for a decade with the same large company. You are a marketing specialist and well-respected by your closest colleagues who, at this point in their careers, are already so jaded that they don’t otherwise respect much of anything or anybody else. You work this job about 35 hours a week and commute round-trip in your car about two and a half hours everyday.

You hate the commute, but you do look forward somewhat to the drive home, which is the occasion for smoking a joint and listening to Isaac Hayes, Pat Benatar and the Decembrists, among others. You don’t mind cooking and, upon arriving home, generally spend an hour or so in the kitchen, smoking another joint and preparing dinners with more than one course.

After dinner you usually watch TV for a bit, though quite frankly there’s not much on that makes that feel like time well spent. Sometimes, you call your boyfriend who lives about two hours away. Sometimes, you call your girlfriend who lives about the same distance away, though not in the same direction.

As it happens, your boyfriend and girlfriend know and like each other, though you are somewhat hazy about how they actually met. Neither of them seems aware that you have an intimate relationship with the other. You’re not really hiding that fact from them, but the subject never seems to come up. Ironically, you think the two of them would make a great couple.

You grew up in a pretty religious household, but you and God drifted apart a long time ago. You still always capitalize God’s name, but only because that’s his name. You capitalize Shani’s name for the same reason, but don’t capitalize tyson’s name because he doesn’t do so. Needless to say, you don’t go to church.

You spend about one weekend each month at Shani’s and she stays one weekend a month at your place. You have the same arrangement with tyson. Though these arrangements mean you drive an extra 8 hours and 400 miles, or so, every month, at least it’s not rush hour traffic. Also gas prices are pretty low right now and your probably saving about $125 this year on what it cost to get laid every other weekend last year.

You used to go on long bike rides every Sunday, but you just recently decided that the bike rides are part of a routine that helps you to not think about the parts of your life that you don’t really like anymore. Lately you’re thinking that you need to spend Sunday afternoons figuring out what needs to change. That’s a little scary because you’re afraid that the answer is everything.

Part B – Multiple Choice
In which the reader walks in the shoes
of the thirty-something described in the text and begins to respond.
This may not be as easy as it seems.

A.  I am a person of color
B.  No, I’m not
C.  I am ambidextrous
D.  I am bisexual
E.  No, I’m not
F.   I am a fugitive in hiding, a witness protection program, perhaps
G.  I should be in hiding
H.  I am a marketing expert
I.   That’s what I do for 35 hours each week, not what I am
J.   I also drive about 60 hours a month, give or take, but that’s not what I am, either
K.  I can’t decide whether I drive too much or too little
L.  I should be able to figure that out
M. My neighbors are worse off than I am
N.  What difference does that make
O.  I spend about 24 hours every week with lovers—that’s a good thing
P.   I am completely indifferent to the fate of others
Q.  No, I’m not
R.  Yes, you are
S.   I am something other than what has been described here
T.   It’s written in the second person singular, if this is not you, who are you?

Part C – Essay
In which the reader chooses one
of the following topics,
and writes until he or she cannot endure any more

 1.   Explain yourself. 
2.  Explain someone else.
3.  Explain nothing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Activist passion sometimes subverts peace and justice

More than thirty years ago, Richard Cleaver, a colleague at the American Friends Service Committee, led me to the realization that as a peace and justice advocate, I ought to have an elevated concern for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ever since, I have maintained a focus of sorts on the issue.

After twenty years of some sort of activism on the issue, Henry, an old Ann Arbor friend--also Jewish, like me--signed on with a heightened concern of his own. After Sept. 11, it became his soul focus and, over a period of time, he and I began to develop diverging perspectives on the issue, on root causes, on strategic considerations, on tactical steps. Five years later, we had a pretty complete falling out. It has been about ten years since we last talked. 

A couple of months back, a journalist working on a story about Jewish activism on behalf of justice for Palestinians contacted me about Henry. He was trying to flesh out a story about Jewish activists facing considerable pushback from their own communities.

For part of our discussion, I went off the record. I think now that I did so because I still hadn't worked out an understanding of my conflict with Henry that satisfied me. But going off the record was a mistake. It was safe, I guess, because I wasn't sure exactly what I thought. But it was lazy, too, because it was my way of putting off careful reflection about why I had fallen out with Henry and the important lessons that could be learned from the experience.

But now, in the form of a letter to the journalist whose piece ran in al-Jazeera at the end of January, I've tried to get a handle on the whole episode. At any rate, the letter below captures what I'm thinking now.

Dear Dien,

Thanks for sending the link to your January article, "US Jews struggle in the fight for Palestinian rights." Nice piece.

I especially like the part that focuses on Rabbi Brant Rosen, whose support for Palestinian self-determination cost him his job as the leader of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill. Rosen's experiences as a political activist and his continuing efforts to share his justice commitment with his Jewish co-religionists makes his experience a perfect example of the conflict between  Jewish belief and mainstream Jewish support for the state of Israel.

In one of our recent e-mail exchanges, I mentioned that I did have a bit of an argument to pick with the article, in particular the way in which my relationship with Henry Herskovitz is portrayed. Simply put, Henry and I did not fall out with each other because I, as a Jew, was somehow offended by his pro-Palestinian beliefs. In regard to an article about the way the Jewish community sometimes penalizes Jewish dissent, this is a crucial point, I think.

Unfortunately, I have been slow to follow up with an explanation for my objections. That, I have concluded, is because my problems with the article are really based in my own failure to explain my perspective on Henry properly. I have also repeatedly postponed writing my own full version of Henry's evolution as a pro-Palestinian activist and my perspective on his journey.

In our exchanges, I did not provide you with sufficient detail about how Henry and I grew apart politically. And, worse, I insisted that we discuss certain points off the record that should have been part of the story. Perhaps, if I had spoken entirely on the record, I might have had an improved grasp of exactly what I thought and needed to say.

Given the limits that I created, I have to acknowledge that you told our story as thoroughly as you could. I give you props for respecting those limits.

But when it comes to the question of Palestinian human rights and the way some elements of the mainstream Jewish community police the boundaries of "acceptable" political perspectives, it has become obvious to me that everything I have to say about Henry and his advocacy for justice for the Palestinian people should be on the record. So, here, without restrictions, but as briefly as I can put it, is the version I wish I had shared with you.

Henry came to political activism after he retired from his nearly career-long employment as a research and development engineer at a brand-name manufacturing firm. We had become close friends years earlier in Ann Arbor in the late '60s. But though I was politically active against the Vietnam War, and continued to focus on social justice issues for the next 40 years, our intimacy was primarily based on our shared social life. We hung out together, we played in municipal softball and basketball leagues together, we partied together, travelled together, and I sometimes lectured him (at unbearable length, I'm sure) about why he needed to come off the sidelines and join the fight for social change. But during most of our friendship, though he seemed to be largely sympathetic to left perspectives on the country and the world, Henry was apolitical.

Then, in a few short years after his retirement, and with the Bush threat to launch a war against Iraq in 2002, Henry suddenly found himself a vocal advocate for peace. With his hands-on, engineer's soul, he decided that he needed to visit Iraq and see what the people and the place looked like to him. So, he went. By himself. Less than a year before the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

I don't remember how long Henry was there, or know where he went in Iraq, but he talked to Iraqis in Baghdad and elsewhere about the threatened war and about how they perceived America and Americans. He discovered that they were happy to meet him and welcomed him as a visitor to their country.

Some were freely critical of Saddam Hussein, but quick to point out how a decade of U.S. sanctions against Iraq had done little to hurt Saddam, but much to harm Iraqi civilians. A number of Iraqis told Henry that U.S. policy toward Iraq was most certainly a cause of the anger that fueled the 9/11 attacks, but many also noted that another important cause was Arab and Muslim anger over U.S. support for the Israeli state and the occupation of Palestinian territory.

In point of fact, the message that Henry heard repeatedly--that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a significant cause of anger at the U.S. and the West--inspired Henry to take another trip; to go to Israel and the West Bank in order to better understand why the Palestinian-Israeli conflict loomed so large in the geo-politics of the Middle East and the world.

Henry visited a number of different Palestinian towns in the West Bank, enjoyed a great deal of Palestinian hospitality, and had several frank conversations with Palestinian political activists. Again, he discovered that the people who he talked to seemed unaffected by the fact that he was Jewish, except for their insistence that as an American Jew, he might have an opportunity to influence other American Jews to rethink their apparently absolute support for Israel and Zionism. During his visit, he listened to Palestinians who argued that if the American Jewish community was less generous towards Israel, and more critical in its support, the Israeli state would be more likely to seek a peaceful and productive resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Henry returned from that trip intent on discussing the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian self-determination with other Jews in Ann Arbor. Though he had always identified as a Jew, he had never been particularly religiously observant. In fact, Henry was one of those Jews (not uncommon) who show up at temple only during high holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Regardless, his emotional connection to his identity as a Jew was crucial to him, and he was certain that there would be no significant resistance to his effort to open discussion of the conflict within the Jewish congregations on which he initially focussed.

He quickly discovered that he was naively optimistic. At Beth Israel, the congregation that he eventually targeted with a continuing public protest, Henry made an initial approach to the rabbi. Their first private conversation was cordial, and included the rabbi's observation that his concern with and dissent from mainstream Jewish support for Israel and Zionism was well within the boundaries of tolerable opinion. But by the time of their second conversation, it was obvious that the rabbi would refuse to schedule a forum at Beth Israel.

Henry made further efforts to engage a broader portion of Ann Arbor's Jewish population. He went to Hillel, the leading University of Michigan organization for Jewish students, to see if he could rent space for a public forum. His early contacts with Hillel were positive, I think, but as the moment for commitment approached, Hillel representatives became uncooperative. Henry's other efforts to reach out were similarly stymied. He came to believe (rightfully so, I think) that some people within the mainstream Jewish community were letting it be known that the community should neither engage Henry or allow him a forum.

We talked a lot in those days about what was happening, and about our shared certainty that ending the silence within the Jewish community about the illegal Israeli treatment of the Palestinian people and the illegal occupation of their land could lead to a more vigorous American Jewish opposition to Israeli policy. Though I had always believed that Zionist organizations, and many leading Jewish figures, as well, actively and effectively narrowed the possibilities for dissent within the Jewish community (see my blog post "Adventures with Zionists," for instance), Henry was experiencing the phenomenon for the first time, and in excruciating detail.

But the resistance served only to inspire him to seek other ways to make his point. It was then that he conceived the idea of beginning a silent vigil outside Beth Israel congregation's Saturday morning services. Henry showed up wearing a suit at that first vigil, a kippah (skullcap) on his head, holding a sign that read, simply, "End the Silence." On his car windshield, parked nearby, another sign said something like "End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine."

That first Saturday, Beth Israel congregants responded in a variety of ways. Some were incensed. It was the Jewish sabbath, they reasoned, and Beth Israel a house of worship that ought to be off-limits for political protest.

Other congregants, who shared at least a portion of Henry's political perspective, acknowledged his presence and, in some instances, spoke with him. Though Henry was careful to stay on the public right-of-way, one congregant turning into the synagogue driveway went out of his way to drive as close as he could to where Henry stood. It would be only the first of dozens of angry gestures and implicit, or explicit, threats aimed at him over time. Such extreme hostility was an over-the-top response to the moderation of his early protests, and likely contributed to how adamant and hardline Henry became subsequently.

Regardless, Henry kept showing up on Saturday morning and the vigil grew. Among the first to join him were other Jews who believed as he did that the Jewish community was generally closed to discussion of the most perplexing ethical issue the community faced. Area peace activists, who felt that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was a major cause of a number of political conflicts in the Middle East, also joined the vigil; some of them becoming regulars.

Meanwhile, within Beth Israel, itself, some members argued that Henry should be allowed to convene a forum on the issue within the temple. Others agreed that the issue needed to be widely discussed. But most of the congregation remained strongly supportive of Israel. Some accused Henry of being an anti-semite or, at the very least, an enemy of Israel.

Though disputes grew within the congregation, a new unity also began developing around the idea that the divisions in the congregation were largely Henry's fault and that the protest at Beth Israel was inappropriate. Some argued the Henry's protests should be declared illegal on the grounds, however dubious constitutionally, that it was a violation of the congregation's religious freedom. Even some of those who were critical of Israeli policy began to call on him to stand down.

But that was the last thing Henry was willing to do. The vigil and the signs condemning Israeli policies and Israel, itself, began spreading beyond the side street entrance to Beth Israel and on to the side walk bordering the four-lane road that ran along the property in front of the temple.

As the attitude of Beth Israel congregants became almost exclusively hostile or coldly indifferent, people driving by began to honk in apparent support of the growing and increasingly visible protest, which at some point had become an official activity of the new political group, Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends (JWPF), formed by Henry and his most enthusiastic supporters.

Though I was living in Chicago for much of this time, I had lived in Ann Arbor for more than 20 years and my daughter still lived there. This made me a regular visitor to the city and allowed Henry and I ample opportunity to discuss his activism and political strategy.

As a former member of the Ann Arbor City Council, I had a sort of limited celebrity in the area that Henry wanted to exploit to better promote the vigil. Though the characterization of me as a "celebrity vigiler" made me mildly uncomfortable, solidarity with Henry and the announced perspective of the vigil--to foster open discussion within the Jewish community--encouraged me to show up when I was in town. But when I did so, I was always careful to hold a sign like "End the Silence" or "End the Occupation;" phrases that I believed were simple, clear and not obstacles to further discussion between people with differing viewpoints.

But the protest signs, like "End Israeli apartheid," or "Boycott Israel," became more openly critical, often stridently so. The orientation of the protest away from the temple and towards passers-by became points of contention between Henry and I. We would often disagree about whether or not it made good tactical sense to rely on slogans that suggested that Israel was an apartheid state, or that Israeli policy was the first steps toward a Palestinian holocaust, or that Israel had no right to exist.

I believed that the truth was more nuanced than the slogans suggested, arguing in a subsequent piece on my blog (Painful Truth: Israeli Apartheid") that "if anything defines the difference between the South African and Israeli apartheid states, it is that the South African version named itself. Israeli apartheid is the apartheid that dare not speak its name. It is understandable that large numbers of American Jews cannot concede this truth, Richard Cohen among them. Israel was created at a moment of celebration and hope for Jews around the world. Freshly scarred by the Holocaust, and still fearful that history might repeat itself, [the vast majority of] Jews were inclined not to notice that their [joyful achievement] might be the occasion for the suffering of others."

Though it took me many years to get to that sort of a full articulation of my own position on the question of Israeli apartheid--a position much influenced by Henry--I maintained that phrases like "End Israeli Apartheid" were an obstacle to open discussion, that they provoked stiff opposition, and polarized the discussion. That result, I observed repeatedly, would lead to a vigil that never ended and, ultimately, render it ineffective.

Indeed, by that point, when I would ask Henry what his endgame was, what it would take to end the protest, he would respond that it would end when the congregation voted to join the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement. Henry was fully aware, of course, that the congregation would never take such a position. I expressed strong objection to a strategy that publicly advocated dialogue, but privately had no real commitment to further engaging Beth Israel congregants, the ostensible audience for the vigil.

In response, Henry argued that the vigil's effectiveness could be measured by the fact that some drivers going passed would honk, raise fists and flash peace signs in obvious support. Henry began, then, to formulate the notion that it was actually American Christians, opposed to Israeli policy toward Palestinians, but silent because they were afraid of being branded as anti-semites, who could play an even more pivotal role in changing U.S. policy toward that favored the Jewish state at the expense of justice for Palestinians. That, he concluded, meant that maintaining the vigil at Beth Israel served the larger goal of justice for Palestinians, even if the idea that the vigil was a sincere attempt to open discussion within the Jewish community became nothing more than a pretense. Such insincerity, I contended, meant that Henry's strategy was flawed and that he could not be an effective advocate for justice for Palestinians on that basis.

In a 2009 blog post (American Jews and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict"), I followed up on this disagreement with Henry:

"It is a further irony that the polarization in Ann Arbor has come to resemble the deadlock in Palestine. But both situations seem a symptom of a larger problem in the politics of the US. Our inability to move toward reasonable and just outcomes in virtually all policy areas, health care, climate change, quality public education, market regulation, reliable public transit and reduced dependence on fossil fuels to name just a few, seems endemic. And ultimately traceable to the politically expedient marriage of religious fundamentalism and corporate interests. When oil companies, weapons manufacturers, Big Pharma, insurance interests, hospital corporations and the Southern Baptist Convention find themselves working together against broader social interests, we are all in trouble."

Ultimately, those disagreements with Henry marked a turning point in our relationship. But we remained in contact, and continued to spend time together when I visited Ann Arbor. I should note that our growing disagreements did not keep me from appreciating both the intensity of Henry's commitment and how extensively educated he had become about the history and politics of the conflict. Though I had always been an advocate of the two-state solution to the conflict, his position persuaded me to look harder at the realities, the facts-on-the-ground, of Palestinian disenfranchisement.

By then, it was clear to me that after 40 years of occupation (and the continuing forcible takings of occupied Palestinian territory) that a Palestinian state created on Israeli terms would not be viable, but I had not backed off of support for the two-state solution. Discussions with Henry eventually convinced me that it made no sense for me to continue to support a non-solution masquerading as the way to resolve the conflict; the creation of a Palestinian state, with borders enforced by Israel and with limited access to water and other resources, would only cement the injustices that Palestinians had suffered since the creation of the Jewish state.

These conclusions moved me to advocate an eventual, single, secular state that would be the home of Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, Jews and Christians. But even then, it was impossible for me to go forward with Henry.

To me the path to a single state had to begin with a two-state solution with equal access to resources, like water, and with borders guaranteed by an international force, not by Israel. This would not be a process with much to assure the eventual outcome, but to Henry it was a simple sell-out.

Though I had sometimes been characterized as a "self-hating, Israel-threatening" Jew (a web-based "S.H.I.T. list" had once named both Henry and I as enemies of Israel on that basis), Henry's feeling that I was a sell-out wasn't new, either.

At a Detroit teach-in on the conflict, I had been on a panel with filmmaker Michael Moore, whom I had known from his days as an activist and publisher in Michigan. Based on my experiences and discussions in Israel and the West Bank at the time of the first Palestinian Intifada, I advocated an end to U.S. military aid to Israel and a repurposing of those funds toward joint Palestinian-Israeli development projects, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza. But Moore blasted me directly for suggesting that there was a gradual way to wind down the conflict, characterizing my position as "constructive engagement," a phrase that Ronald Reagan had first used to describe his policy toward South Africa, which emphasized working with the white South African government to "phase out" apartheid. Coming from Moore, the suggestion that my proposals were simple appeasement resonated with the audience (and to some extent, with me) as a stinging indictment.

But criticisms like Henry's and Michael's notwithstanding, the stipulation that I supported a single state in the area was a position that I believed had to be nuanced by a concern for both the process and the speed by which the goal was reached. Though I maintained that the privileged position of Jews in Israel must also change, and that Israel had to become a truly democratic, not a theocratic state, this could never happen without an open and continuing discussion among Jews in both the U.S. and Israel. Adopting such a position without acknowledging how threatening the idea was to both Israeli and American Jews would make it impossible to move further, I believed.

Yes, my perspective had and has a distinct air of unreality, but then so does every other proposed solution to the conflict that began brewing more than one hundred years ago during the days of the British Mandate in Palestine and almost a half-century before the Nazi holocaust. The idea that Israel can continue to exist indefinitely as a Jewish garrison state in the Middle East (without the eventual elimination of the Palestinian people as a national group) ought to be regarded as at least as fantastical as my notion that an Israeli state can cease to be a theocratic state and that Jews would have a secure future in a democratic Palestinian-Israeli state that evolved over time.

As Henry began seeking ways to work around American Jewish resistance to his message, he came across Norman Finkelstein's controversial book, The Holocaust Industry, in which Finkelstein makes a distinction between the historical event that he refers to as the Nazi Holocaust, and the subsequent use that Israel and major Zionist organizations made of "The Holocaust." Finkelstein contends that major Jewish figures in the United States and the organizations they led used the tragedy to obtain settlements on behalf of Holocaust survivors with Switzerland and other European countries, while actually enriching their own organizations and positioning themselves to more powerfully influence U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The book is a well-documented and persuasive read, written by the son of Holocaust survivors. But as Henry began to see how powerful the Nazi holocaust was as a tool in defending and advancing Israeli interests, he began to question historical accounts of how and, particularly whether the Nazis had proceeded with genocidal intent. To me, Henry's entire discourse on the issue reflected how he had become emotionally captured--at a high cost to his ability to proceed strategically--by the idea of fighting all comers on behalf of justice for Palestinians.

Because Henry had the sense not to embrace Holocaust revisionism publicly, I had always believed that it was not up to me to "out" him and would only talk off the record about that to you. But I take that step now because I have reached the conclusion that a journey that began with the honest belief that American Jews could have an awakening to the injustices suffered by Palestinians beginning with the creation of the Jewish state morphed into a devotion to the Palestinian cause that no longer required him to believe what he was publicly proclaiming.

I believe that effective dissent requires dissenters to proceed ethically precisely because lies and misrepresentation are frequently the tools of those who defend the status quo. As Henry became increasingly focused on tactical effectiveness, he lost perspective on the social justice goals of the struggle he had engaged. To me such a disconnect between devotion to principal and tactical success (measured, for instance, by Henry's belief that he would be "...even less popular the next time you talk to me...") made him willing to embrace any position that undermined support for the Jewish state. Thus, his embrace of "Holocaust revisionism."

My point in sharing that information off the record was to further drive home my argument that Henry faced virulent opposition from the Jewish community not because he was a dissenter, but because he attacked the community and made it a prop in his Kabuki play of political activism; unlike, say, Brant Rosen, who had lost his job within the Jewish community precisely because of his advocacy for Palestinian self-determination.

Unfortunately, my decision to do so left you in a position where you had to choose between telling a story based on on-the-record sources, about a Jewish activist who has taken plenty of flak from the Jewish community, or not telling the story merely because I maintained that the secrets I wouldn't allow you to share should be sufficient reason to leave Henry's story out of your piece. My bad, I know, and I apologize.

I take the central point of your article to be that activist American Jews who think that true justice is best served by vigorous opposition to Israeli policy toward Palestine and Palestinians (and American support for that policy) often face significant challenges from fellow Jews, in some cases becoming pariahs in their own communities. Of course, this is often the fate of dissenters. To persist in the face of that opposition frequently requires a sort of heroism that deserves our respect. But, as I have noted, I do not consider myself (or the withering of our friendship) as an obstacle that I created and that Henry had to overcome. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if I was an enabler, encouraging Henry as he went through a transformation so rapidly that balanced response to setbacks became increasingly difficult.

Henry's commitment to justice for Palestinians and his persistence in that effort may be heroic, but I would contend that his political immaturity exacerbated confrontations, escalated conflict, polarized discussions, and defeated the goal of productive debate. If, in the face of such a debacle of action/reaction, Henry's persistence required courage and inspires admiration, so be it. But that seems to me to have led to a situation where the fate of the Palestinian people is no longer the central question.

In that respect, Henry's decision to go to virtual war as a way to create justice for Palestinians reminds me of the fatal decision by a small percentage of anti-war activists to choose violence as a strategy to end the Vietnam War and to defeat the foreign adventures of the American war machine. Groups that resorted to violence at the time also linked their fight to the domestic repression of African Americans and other minority groups.

The perception that only violence, a left revolution, could overthrow a corrupt American government serving the interests of the wealthy, was shared by a significant part of the anti-war movement at the time. But only a tiny minority of them ended up advocating "armed revolution."

The decision by that tiny minority to resort to domestic terror, helped instigate a repressive counterattack by the authorities at activists of all sorts, including non-violent activists. Certainly, there were other factors at work in provoking the counterattack. Black nationalists, militant workers within and outside of unions, feminists and counterculture organizers were, indeed, threatening corporate control of the economy, and work and social life.

But I have to say that the decisions people made then, to abandon dialogue and advocate confrontational strategies at the expense of smaller victories that could be won and could be the foundation for further victories, seemed ego-driven to me. They had ceased to be about the goals of progressive social change and became about the delusions of people who considered themselves to be working-class heroes.

Henry calls the end of our friendship "the 'most painful break-up' as a result of his activism."  I can't agree. My contention is that Henry allowed his own role as a political activist to become a cause in and of itself, an obsession, a delusion, that long ago lost its connection to justice for Palestinians. The end of our friendship was simply collateral damage.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Baby steps to the revolution

And stumbles on the way

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it,” says Arundhati Roy. “To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our relentlessness—and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we are being brainwashed to believe.

“The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling—their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

“Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Thank you, Arundhati Roy. This should be our mantra.

But we also have our bad moments when we forget where we are headed, forget what we are trying to do. I have had such moments, moments when I should have been channeling Arundhati Roy. Or channeling any one of a thousand other activists I have known who did not believe that the obligation to make change was somehow a personal obligation, an outcome on which they personally would have been judged. But we all have our bad moments, moments in which our frustration and confusion leads us to the conclusion that we, as individuals have failed. Our egos get in the way.

I recall just such a missed opportunity. At the time, I might have said, channeling Ms. Roy, something like this:

“So tell a story—any story—that shares your vision of what ought to be, of what real justice looks like, of why you resist, of who you remember, who you honor, what you hold sacred, of the community that sustains you.”

But I didn’t.

That moment, which has stuck with me, came a little more than a decade ago. I was the publisher of In These Times (ITT), a left-wing magazine based in Chicago. A few years before that I had been, with Marrianne McMullen, the co-publisher of an alternative weekly originally named the Dayton Voice, later Impact Weekly.

I was not generally a person who could be relied on to focus on a task until it was done, but some of Marrianne’s motivation and work ethic had rubbed off on me, and together, and with a cadre of dedicated staff, we had pushed the Voice more or less forward for seven years.

Our explicit mission was to select, report, edit and publish stories that treated working people, women, communities of color and the LGBTQ community as legitimate subjects, sources and audiences for the news. We did not always succeed in this mission, but as a staff we tried to remain mindful of our goal. The larger reality of the paper, editorial consistency or no, was that as an entrepreneurial effort, the Voice was permanently (and fatally) undercapitalized.

Designed to be a for-profit enterprise, we did not have donors, but investors, who were never rewarded with profits. More often, they were the targets of desperate appeals to “invest” more. But our editorial ambition consistently outran the resources available to support it. Never flush to begin with, Marrianne and I went broke trying to hold up our end of the financial bargain. By the time our son, Brendan, was born in December 1998, I had fallen into the habit of sometimes covering expenses, occasionally an entire payroll, with credit cards.

We staggered through another year with the paper, but spent part of the time looking for jobs that would pay us. Eventually, Marrianne found a position in Chicago with the Illinois State Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Soon after we moved, I found a job, too. Together, and for a couple of years, Marrianne and I made more than five or six times what we had been able to pay ourselves at the Voice, had benefits, good health insurance, paid down debt, and managed, with next to no down payment, to buy ourselves a place to live.

Then I took the job with In These Times, an estimable publication on the left, but one that required a constant transfusion of funds from reliable donors, especially from its founder, James Weinstein. As it happened Weinstein was nearing the end of his life and tiring of the magazine’s inability to provide for itself. As publisher, my principle task was to correct that condition, but, though I made a few smart moves to keep the magazine going, I ended up using funds that Weinstein had intended for another use, pissed off the entire Weinstein family, and alienated several other donors along with virtually the entire board of directors.

Into the bargain, and without telling Marrianne, I used my personal credit cards to inject thousands of additional dollars into the ITT operation without creating a proper paper trail to account for what I gave. With the magazine in bad shape, the board arrived at the defensible conclusion that I had done far more harm than good and fired me with a warning that I should make no claims on the magazine to repay loans that I could not conclusively document.

Despite the two-year debacle that constituted my term as publisher at In These Times, I have to say that I learned more than just a few grim lessons while I was there. In fact, I met a long list of skilled and passionate writers and activists, and got to participate in a variety of ways in valuable discussions about defining and working for social change.

One of my more instructive experiences came in the spring of 2004 with the opportunity to meet with a journalism class at Northwestern University. The class kicked off with my overview of high-priority peace and justice issues of the time.

This included a long look at the preparations for war in Iraq, especially the accusation that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction (WMDs),” and a further look at the massive loss of Iraqi lives and destruction of civilian infrastructure that accompanied the war when it was finally launched in March of 2003. In discussing the war, I also observed that the global anti-war movement, which had been celebrated as the largest and most significant anti-war mobilization in history, had failed to stop the war, though it may have succeeded in keeping a few European countries from joining in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Other topics I covered with the class included the anemic economic “recovery” of the time and the continuing erosion of the purchasing power of the average wage, and the fact that the United States imprisoned a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world and targeted, in particular, young black men, at a considerable cost in lives, treasure and human potential.

These problems, I observed, were linked. A country whose leadership manufactured non-existent weapons and argued that an enemy with an imaginary capacity for destruction could only be stopped by going to war, was also a country that would logically underfund public education, neglect crucial domestic investments, embrace climbing prison populations as an economic development strategy, and ignore widespread environmental damage in favor of laying waste to several countries in the Middle East.

By the time I concluded my indictment of the policies and political leadership of the country, the class of aspiring journalists was pumped, ready to do their part in the work of exposing fundamental problems with our politics. One student raised her hand and asked a broad general question along the lines of “what can we do about all this bad stuff?”

I should have been ready for the question. I had written stories and op-eds for In These Times and The Voice about the movement for social change that I thought was developing across the country and manifesting in a variety of ways. I had been part of any number of union and community organizing efforts and worked on a variety of political and issue-oriented campaigns. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I had even run for public office. Ordinarily, I was an optimistic sort, seeing in every initiative and every new organizing effort the potential to make a significant difference, to connect to and support suddenly promising movements for social change.

Nevertheless, the question threw me off. I looked out at the classroom of 20-somethings and felt a wave of despair. For more than 35 years, I had been organizing, writing, protesting, above all, believing that together we, the people, were finally on our way. But we were nowhere.

We hadn’t stopped the war in Iraq. Hell, we hadn’t stopped the one that had begun in Afghanistan two years earlier. The rate at which Americans were being thrown into prison had been increasing for two decades. Wages had been stagnating since the 1970s. Industrial unions were collapsing. And the presidential election of 2000 had been outright stolen from Al Gore, who was nothing more than a centrist Democrat who seemed overmatched by the son of the man who, in Texas Governor Ann Richards phrase, “had been born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”

What could they do to fix things? At that moment, somehow focused only on myself and the notion that I had been on a very long losing streak, I forgot completely that I was part of an effort much larger than myself. I had no answer. I felt the weight of failure. I got nothing I told them. I wish I could tell you what to do. I’m sorry.

The air went out of the room. The instructor tried to save what was left of the class. Well, thank you, she said and shook my hand. As I walked out the door, I could hear her try and refocus. “Well, what do you think we can do?” she asked.

I don’t know how the class ended. I never talked to the instructor, again. And I’ve returned to that terrible moment over and over in the years since. What can we do about all this bad stuff?

Oddly, I do have an answer to that question. I’ve always had an answer, even if there are also times when the question catches me standing there, looking like a deer in the headlights.

The first part of the answer is that the changes we want to make are big changes. They happen when people organize and don’t give up. They happen when people pursue justice, bit by bit, with and for their own communities. The big changes depend on the little things that each of us do. They happen because we commit to be part of something larger than ourselves. They happen when we build something that will outlast our own efforts. That will endure and continue the work when we have nothing left to give.

Individually, we don’t leave much of a mark. Our own footprints will get washed away. But we should join hands and join up and build something larger than ourselves, something that will leave a mark. Work with groups and organizations that will multiply our aspirations and leverage our energy. Support groups that will move ahead, even when we are feeling a bit feeble and very alone.

What would I tell those young journalists now? I’d say, excuse my moment of brain freeze. I’d say, reach out. Find allies. Build networks. I’d tell them I have my own list of organizations that I try to help, that I support with contributions, whose stories and positions I try to amplify, groups that don’t falter, that have an institutional existence that helps to aggregate the individual energy that each of us can add to their work, that will persist when we are tired, that will move ahead even we are not there.

If they were to ask what groups are on my list, I would say my list includes the Equal Justice Initiative, Planned Parenthood, Jobs withJustice, The Center for Economic and Policy Research, Jewish Voices for Peace, the North Carolina NAACP, and the group with which I currently volunteer, Teaching for Change. But I would add that the possibilities are endless. At the time, I would also have mentioned In These Times, of course, and maybe it should be on my list today. It has a decent on-line following, still reports important stories, and offers a perspective that is reliably at odds with the mainstream media.

Maybe my list should also include some more self-consciously revolutionary groups, as well—they are certainly out there—but I have this feeling that not only will the revolution not be televised, we won’t really know it’s upon us until it’s actually the new world we are living in. In other words, I don’t believe that there are any giant steps we can take to change the world. It’s all baby steps, a little bit at a time. It’s two steps forward, one step back, at best, and sadly, from time to time it’s two steps back, or even three. But we can make that work. We have to make that work. We build something, something small to carry on after our energy runs out. We play a long game and the moral arc of the universe will bend our way.

And, I would say, you journalists. You tell the stories that need to be told, that will help us make the choices we need to make about peace and justice and sustainability.

Go find the truth and tell it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Happy 55th, Marrianne

Loving the Case girls was gift to all of us

August 14, 2015

Today is your 55th birthday, Marrianne, and, on this day I want to publicly share my own testimony of respect and love for you.

I know I don’t need to say I love you. You know that.

Our friends and family know who you are, too, know that they can rely on you to be present when they need you. They know they can count on you to listen, to support, to comfort, to counsel, to give fully and not to demand more than they can give back. None of that requires repeating, either.

Your colleagues, past and present, know you will fully invest in the work that needs to be done, pursue just outcomes, and follow or lead with respect for the abilities that each person brings to the work you do together. These qualities are evident to almost everyone who has had the opportunity to work with you for any appreciable length of time.

As for the few who have decided to move in a different direction, somehow concluded that you are actually in the way of whatever it is they may be trying to accomplish—well, we know from experience that the work that is important to you requires progress, not unanimity. Or, as your plainspoken mother put it when you were seven years old and struggling with a mean teacher, “Honey, some people are just a**holes.”

But, even though so many people understand and appreciate these virtues, I still want to take this opportunity to testify in some detail about one continuing aspect of your life that captures something singularly important about you and about our almost 30 years together as partners and parents and comrades. I do this now because I’m 13 years older than you are and who knows how many chances I’ll get to celebrate you before I wear away and lose my mind in the process? And I do this also because I’ve been thinking about it since earlier this summer when we headed to Fort Wayne for Joyce Case’s wedding to Larry Hout. Though a good number of our friends know something about your history with Joyce and her sisters, the details about your relationship with Nancy, Allie, Leslie, Mary Ann, Kathy and Joyce says something unique about your ability to overcome obstacles to loving and being loved. For these reasons, today seems a good day to testify.

Some 30 years ago, as a member of the West Elkton, O. Friends Meeting you had made an effort to get the meeting more involved in the surrounding community. At the time, the Friends meeting was approached to help a family of girls who weren’t going to school because they didn’t have shoes. As with so many other things in your life, you decided to get personally involved and ended up making a deep commitment to the Case girls.

They were Irish twins, to be sure—six of them between the ages of five and twelve years old. Their father, inclined only to petty theft and other criminal schemes, got himself busted shortly after you met the girls. His parents, sometimes employed at primarily low-wage jobs, had somehow managed to buy themselves a home. It was barely adequate housing, but it was a place where their son could live with his family, while they lived in a trailer out back.

But having put the home up as bail, they lost it and inherited the care of the girls when their son and his wife skipped town. As it happened, though the grandparents were able to keep the girls together, they were poorly equipped to do anything else to help them thrive. And though, from time to time, a social worker took an occasional interest in helping the girls in their growing up, the truth is that from the first, and for decades after, you would prove to be the one adult in their lives who made a constant commitment to them, and who would do her best to give them the love and attention that we all require as we make our way through the world.

While they were still preteens you would pick them up at their house and bring them to yours to spend the weekend with you. You’d take them places they’d never been before, to libraries, museums, music festivals, performances, to Sunday Friends meeting where they could participate in the youth group and learn to interact with a much wider world. And before every school year began, you would take them shopping for a new pair of shoes, for new blouses and jackets. Those weekends continued, sometimes two or even three weekends a month, even after you moved to Dayton, further away from their grandparents’ home.

Not so long after you first met the girls, you and I, both working for the American Friends Service Committee, had also met. By 1988, though I was living in Ann Arbor and you in Dayton, we were deeply involved and I, too, would occasionally visit you, in the process meeting the girls, also.

When the oldest, Nancy and Allie hit adolescence they ran away with young men much older than they were, bouncing from one rural trailer park to the next. The weekend they ran away, I was visiting and tagged along while we searched the backwaters of southwest Ohio, looking for two girls the world had long ago decided were expendable. I remember being astounded that we spent our weekend in a hunt for two runaways I would not otherwise have met, and even more surprised when we found them.

Though the girls were not done rebelling, they came back to Dayton with us quietly enough. After all, you were the one adult in their lives who had ever put aside the priorities of her own life to focus on theirs. You even went and got yourself certified as a foster parent so that you could legally take them into your home and keep them outside the juvenile system.

This would prove not to be enough. Dayton public schools would also prove incapable of reaching them and the streets of Dayton, rougher and infinitely more exciting than the roads of rural Ohio, overwhelmed and seduced Nancy and Allie, and the juvenile system ended up getting them anyhow.

Now is not the time to tell the whole story of the Case girls, nor am I the one to do it. You might be that person, or one of the girls, Allie, perhaps, or Mary Ann. Who can say for sure?

But what I do know is that if not for the commitment you made, I would never have crossed paths with the girls. And I wasn’t equipped to love them without hesitation, either; not the way you did. Nor, for that matter, were they equipped to easily survive what the world does to poor, mostly abandoned children, with only a single adult around to treat them with respect. For Nancy and Allie, the oldest, who suffered longer and more relentlessly from neglect and abandonment, your love, coming as late in their childhoods as it did, had less of an impact than it did on their younger sisters. Still, the girls were each distinctly different personalities and, each with a different set of skills, made their separate ways in the world.

Mary Ann, the most reserved of the sisters, likely learned how to avoid self-destructing from watching how challenging adolescence was for her older sisters. The only one who went to college, she has proved to be a capable, careful and thoroughly committed mother, able to put herself second and insure that her daughter, Kiya, would have a secure childhood so very different from her own.

Joyce, the baby, always seemed to be the most comfortable with the thought that someone could absolutely like her and love her. The stable home and family life she has built for herself, with her daughter, Alisha, husband, Larry, and her stepdaughters and their children, makes it clear that one can start off on a hard road and still make it to a very good place.

Allie, too, bright and always quick to fight, has somehow survived multiple tribulations and gotten to a place as an adult that seems to suit her. Along the way, she has acquired a delightful and capable companion with whom she shares life, work and travel.

Of course, these are not happily ever after stories. Life does not stop throwing mud pies and bricks at us. Thirty years ago one might have guessed that the girls faced a future filled with nothing but sadness, want and tragedy. It has not happened that way for Alice and Leslie and Mary Ann and Joyce, mostly because they found within themselves the strength and endurance to overcome.

But they also found you. They are your daughters, not because of some miracle of birth, but because you volunteered to love them a long time ago and never stopped. In the process, they are mine, too, and let me say now that I love them because you showed me the way to do that.

Have a happy 55th b-day, Marrianne. You flat out deserve it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Separately and together, we must invent joy

I'm trying to complete a post I started on July 25. Though I don't remember my original intention, the post has quickly become a mashup of thoughts about Marilynne Robinson's Lila, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and an estranged childhood friend who occasionally takes a swing at me via e-mail or Facebook message. Since the piece, tentatively entitled "Life crushes us all," ranges across issues of class and race and whiteness and the deepest disappointments that life can deliver, it has proven not merely difficult to bring to an integrated, well-reasoned conclusion, but has also become, into the bargain, no damn fun.

Of course, I am quite familiar with all the tactics I routinely rely on to both avoid bringing a writing project to a conclusion, and to excuse each failure to simply sit down and write. I should add, also, that in regard to the twin challenges to write and to keep writing, though familiarity does breed contempt, it does not reduce the effectiveness of those stale, old maneuvers.

In the 1990s, the decade that Marrianne McMullen and I shared major responsibility for publishing the Dayton Voice/Impact Weekly, I had the happy experience of quite often bringing writing projects, news stories, opinion pieces, et al., to a conclusion. But even then stories begun in a burst of inspiration would sometimes grind to a halt and find themselves forever abandoned. As any writer can testify, such failures are common and ought not even be remarked. After all, the opportunity to succeed once more, or even for the first time, arises with each new day, with every new story.

Sometime, in that period, I came across The Courage to Write, a book by Ralph Keyes, who lived in nearby Antioch, Ohio and was a leading figure in the Antioch Writer's Workshop. I fell instantly in love with the title, with the idea of the courage it takes to write. Surely a whole book on the subject was just the thing, and so I bought a copy; several copies, in fact, and gave some of them to people I knew who also trekked through the unmapped writer's swamp.

As it happened, the book did me no obvious good. Keyes' repeated assurance that no writer is alone in that boundless swamp did not seem to empower me, however hard he worked to document the point. But, in struggling with "Life crushes us all," I have found myself thinking about The Courage to Write. And for about four days running, I'd sit down and read a few pages from the book and find myself able to add 300, 400, even, 500 words after each reading. It was as if I had finally found the secret that works for me, that gets me sitting down, that gets me confidently picking my way through the swamp.

Alas and predictably, the moment I felt that I had discovered the right path for me, it turned out to be a mere trick, dissolving quickly into wisps of smoke. But a day or two ago, I encountered a 2013 Atlantic Magazine post of a video featuring Ta-Nehisi Coates himself talking about writing. In the video, he also uses the phrase "the courage to write."

"I think breakthroughs," Coates says, "come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take and hoping you can grow some new muscles. It's not really that mystical. It's like repeated practice over and over and over again and then suddenly you become something you had no idea you could be... I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage, almost an act of physical courage..."

Writers, Coates says, need to go back to their work repeatedly. Revise, rewrite and after awhile the idea you had in your head is 50 percent realized, then 60 percent, then 70 percent. It's never fully realized, he says, but you can get closer when you don't let up.

I am certainly writer enough to know that Coates is correct. You don't let up, you go back repeatedly and you revise and refine and every once in a while, after all that pressure focused on putting an idea into words, you achieve real clarity, a sentence, a paragraph, a whole piece to make you proud.

So, I'm going to get back to "Life crushes us all," though it might help if I came up with a new working title that was less of a club with which to whack myself, but not right this instant. In point of fact, the struggle with the piece really is not merely about the courage to write, it is also about clarifying my own thinking in a way that weaves together several related ideas that are nonetheless separate and most often considered independently of each other.

There is whiteness and the struggle, as Coates describes it, of black folks to both live with and within the havoc that white supremacy visits on a daily basis and to live and to forge independent identities beyond the reach of whiteness; there is also the injuries and insults of class as portrayed in Lila, and the special victimization of women who are further silenced and marginalized even in a time of extreme poverty when solidarity ought to be the default state of human relations; and there is also the accumulating losses and humiliations that the world has inflicted on my estranged childhood friend.

All of these are part of the collective experience of life and history in the country we live in together, and are more easily considered separately, but if we are ever to move into a world of justice, deep and shared, we need a more profound understanding of who we are separately and what we each have been through. And since it is impossible to both succinctly and comprehensively explore the variety of oppressions that afflict both our separate and collectives selves, the challenge is, to pervert a phrase from Lord of the Rings, to construct the one metaphor that will rule them all.

I haven't figured out how my draft of "Life crushes us all" gets from where it started to that happier place. But while I've been thrashing about in search for the courage to write, I've tried also to write in my journal, to sneak up on the problem(s) before me, to write around and through it. I might be getting somewhere. Yesterday, in my journal, I got to here:

is for the love, the people, the things
taken from us...

"This, of course, is not enough because one cannot be forever sorrowing. In the face of the standard litany of loss that people endure, we must each rise up again after every lying down. We must proceed, not merely stoically. We must rise and proceed in spite of the beat-downs. Separately or together, we must invent joy."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Cops who want the guys on the corner to speak up should go first

Time for the police to step up

Last week, I went to a neighborhood meeting called in response to four separate shooting incidents in or near Taft, the neighborhood park at 18th and Newton NE. No one was hurt, but the gunfire aroused understandable concern in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Apparently other somewhat less ominous incidents had prompted a similar meeting just a couple of weeks before.

In any case, meeting attendees included all sorts of officials from the Parks Department and from the city agency that manages construction projects, from Councilmember Kenyon McDuffie's office, and three police officers, one of them the actual Fifth District commander. There were neighborhood residents of all ages, with varying lengths of residency in the 'hood--the established residents mostly black, the newcomers, mostly white.

There was also a group of probably a dozen young black men, most of them with roots in the neighborhood that go back a generation, or more. A neighborhood advisory board member had managed to persuade the young men to come to the meeting, but they sat separately from the other attendees, some wearing an expression of glowering disapproval.

At the invitation of the meeting's chair, the police commander and Councilmember McDuffie's representative kicked off the discussion acknowledging the crime problems and the real fear for safety in the neighborhood. Both speakers declared themselves willing to work closely with residents in order to develop a truly strategic plan for building neighborhood solidarity and improving safety.

But the young men, who seemed to be loosely led by a man named Fats, were not inclined to dance to the conciliatory tune called out by the district commander. Several of them spoke in a challenging even angry tone. Collectively, their message went something like this:

Yes, we hang out in the park, but we respect the rules and respect the community. We don't drink in the park and we let other people know, from in and out of the neighborhood, that there will be no messing around with neighborhood residents. But that doesn't appear to make any difference to you folks. When something happens, we get the blame for it. We say hello to some of you and you ignore us. And the thing is, we've lived here all of our lives. Some of you just got here, but you act like we're the ones who don't belong.

In response, one homeowner, indeed a newcomer, stood up to declare himself free of any such attitude, and to assert his emphatic concern for the safety of his young family. We use the park, he said, but I don't make trouble for anyone. I just served two tours in Iraq, he added, and I expect that my wife and child and myself will be safe here. What I want, he said, is to hear what others think will make us safer, I don't want to go over this other stuff, I want to move on.

Following, as he did, immediately on the heels of the declarations of indignation and wounded pride laid out by the young men who had just spoken, his apparent lack of interest in acknowledging their concerns led to immediate blowback. The young men muttered and cussed under their breath, and stood up to grab the floor without being recognized by the chair. A couple of them repeated their earlier positions and pointed out that the previous speaker was a good example of newcomers to the neighborhood who blame them for the problem.

It was a perfect, we-say-they-say sort of set up and promised to pretty much blow the meeting apart if the character of the discussion didn't change quickly. But one fellow stood up and, out of order himself, pretty much claimed the floor. I agree, he said, that the goal of this meeting ought to be about how we can work together to make everybody safer, but if we want to move on in that direction, I think we should begin by acknowledging how important and valuable it is that these young men showed up to speak for themselves. His statement provoked universal applause and reduced the gathering heat. But it didn't put the meeting on a productive path and things wound down without any real clarity about how to get to an effective strategy that would serve our collective concerns.

I didn't even stay for the end, but on the way home I stopped off at the park to see what might be happening. Not much, it turned out. The park itself is mostly closed at this time for resodding the big field, and for restoring the basketball courts. And, perhaps because they were at the meeting or otherwise engaged, there weren't any young men hanging out. But there were two cops, one in a car idling nearby and one sitting on a picnic table.

I told the cop at the table, Officer Smith, as it happens, about the meeting and told him what the young men had said. He heard me out, but challenged a bit of what apparently seemed like a sanitized story to him. Well, they may say they don't drink and smoke, and there might be some truth to that, he said, but there's an awful lot of times when there's empty liquor and beer bottles lying around, so we have to tell them sometimes to cleanup. But they usually do and it's only some of them making a mess.

He also observed that they might be innocent of some of the things that they get accused of doing, and they may not be doing the shootings, but somebody is coming by here to shoot at somebody else for a reason, and they all say they don't know anything, which, he added, is hard to believe. What he said made sense, but it didn't invalidate the story the young men at the meeting told.

Mindful that some of these young men are not much different from others around the country that have been wrongly detained and arrested, and sometimes beaten and shot by police officers themselves not discernibly different than the officer to whom I was speaking, I simply observed that police in big cities like DC have a responsibility to figure out how to keep everybody safe. I said I sympathized with the stress that the Metropolitan Police must experience at times, but there must be some cops who don't relate to these young men with the same understanding that he appeared to bring to his job.

Then I told him how two days in a row I had seen a cop, the same cop both times, following kids walking from the Brookland Metro stop to the high school nearby. In neither instance did I see those kids doing anything except acting like school kids engaging each other. The situation looked like bad policing to me, like a white cop sending a nonverbal but clear message to black children that they needed to be watched by someone in authority.

The second time it happened, I walked quickly around the block to get to the kids before they got to school and to ask them if the same cop had ever followed them before. No, they said. I asked if they knew why he was following them. No, they said, we weren't doing anything.

As my conversation with the kids concluded, the cop stopped up the street, about half a block away. But when I walked toward him to tell him that I'd seen him doing the exact same thing the day before and to ask him why, he drove away.

Officer Smith's reaction to the story was to vaguely acknowledge that what I was describing probably wasn't right, but we hardly knew all the facts. Yeah, maybe, I responded, but I'd seen enough two days in a row to provoke concern on my part.

Still, I wished Officer Smith well and moved on. But here's the thing. The young men at the neighborhood meeting probably did know the names of some of the people who had driven by the park and started shooting. But they hadn't shared any information with the police--a choice that the district commander said was extremely frustrating.

But consider, also, the white police officer following black children to school for no obvious reason. In itself, perhaps, not a meaningful indication of a problem. But in every big city, there are, indeed, police officers who their fellow officers know to be brutal. Police officers who police differently in black neighborhoods than they do in white neighborhoods, and treat black suspects differently than white ones.

Odds are that Officer Smith himself knows the names of a couple of cops who have mishandled incidents and roughed people up. But neither Officer Smith, or his fellow officers, are inclined to go public with such information. Neither are they likely to raise a concern internally.

This, I think, brings us full circle to the young men who might know full well who the perpetrators were in the recent shooting incidents. They ain't talkin', even though sharing what they know might make the neighborhood just a little bit safer.

But should we be surprised when young men prove unwilling to share what they know about bad guys in the 'hood with cops who have proven themselves equally unwilling to share what they know about bad guys with guns and badges?