Sunday, August 10, 2014

Adventures with Zionists

An experience not to be missed

The last six weeks of escalating Palestinian-Israeli calamity has introduced me to a whole new adrenaline-driven experience, to wit, confronting others on Facebook with whom I have a fundamental disagreement about what Israel has been doing to Palestinians since its founding.

I won't say that the sometimes intractable nature of my differences with others persuades me that there is no hope, but it has convinced me that I don't have the skills to negotiate some of the vast differences of opinion that I've encountered.  I'd like to keep responding to their arguments, but by now I have the feeling that with some of them a lot of what I say is falling on deaf ears. I can't deny that our continuing and repetitious verbal disputes are tiring.

Perhaps I flatter myself excessively when I say that I think I'm pretty good at focusing on substance, but I am aware that many of the people with whom I disagree feel that I'm the problem. Some have quite purple feelings about who I am and what the f*ck I'm saying. But it's not like I haven't run into an absolute buzz saw of opposition before about my position in favor of Palestinian self-determination.

Natan Sharansky comes to town

In Ann Arbor years ago--the summer of 1986 to be exact--I was approached by a representative of the UM-campus branch of Hillel, a national Jewish youth organization which could legitimately be described as Zionist. He wanted me to participate in a program featuring Natan Sharansky, at the time (and forever after) the most famous of Russian refuseniks.

Sharansky was regarded by the Reagan administration and by many American Jews as both a symbol and exemplar of human rights activism. He had suffered through harassment and long imprisonment in the Soviet Union and had finally been released and allowed to leave that country in February, 1986.

American Jewish organizations had managed to get Sharansky to tour the U.S. and appear in a months-long series of events designed to focus on the plight of Russian Jews as an international human rights issue and to highlight Israel's willingness to accept any number of Russian Jews who might be willing to make a new home there. It seems a safe assumption that the sponsoring organizations also believed that Sharansky's story would play well in the media, in general, and keep the mainstream of American Jewry invested in Israel as a second home for Jews around the world.

As a member of the Ann Arbor City Council at the time, and a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee, I was publicly identified with a wide variety of human rights issues, among them equal rights for lesbians and gay men, free access to reproductive services for low-income women, and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. My version of human rights seemed unlikely to win friends among an audience gathered to greet Sharansky. I said so to the young man from Hillel who invited me to the event.

Under almost any circumstances, I should have been pretty low on the list of likely suspects for introducing Sharansky. But it was summer, and Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Don Riegle were out of the state at the time. Equally unwilling to help was Ann Arbor's representative in the House, Republican Carl Purcell, whose staff didn't know who Sharansky was and who were easily alarmed by phrases like "human rights."

In desperation, the well-intentioned Hillel kid had called the mayor of Ann Arbor, Jerry Jernigan, another Republican. Given that Sharansky had celebrity bona fides on an international scale, the mayor's office was pretty much the bottom of the celebrity barrel. But when the kid mentioned human rights, Jernigan couldn't see his way clear to help out, either. "Epton," Jernigan said. "You need Epton. He's into that stuff."

So there it was. I tried to explain to the young man, who was shouldering the organizing load for the event because Hillel's director was also out of town, that his idea of pairing me with Sharansky wasn't going to work out well, but he insisted. "I think the Jewish community is mature enough to respect differences of opinion about human rights," he said.

I told him that I didn't think he fully understood what might happen and invited him to my house for a beer and a more detailed discussion about the can of worms he proposed to open. He accepted the invitation, showing up with a second member of his group. We made a congenial threesome and drinking steadily and to great and positive effect--I was anyway--I repeated in detail what I had told him before. My recitation went something like this:

"The audience that's going to show up to see Natan Sharansky, is not only not going to be interested in me or my expansive definition of human rights, they're going to be pissed off by a lot of what I say, and they're going to be pissed off that I'm standing there between them and Natan Sharansky and pissed off that they're not going to see him or hear him until I shut up and go away."

The rest of the conversation went more or less like this: me, socialist and avid supporter of Palestinian self-determination; Sharansky, refusenik, also Zionist hero and, in my humble opinion, Reaganite tool.

The kid, who was actually the president of the Hillel U-M campus chapter, was cheerful, positive and optimistic. He seemed to love how worked up I was, though it was obvious that neither he nor his friend had not heard all that many dissenting views about Israel from other Jews. He insisted that  Sharansky and I, our political differences and shared values, would be great for fostering discussion within the local Jewish community. His buddy concurred.

"Okay, then."

I came up with a speech 12 minutes long. It was going to exceed my slot on the agenda by two minutes, but I figured I would get away with it. I was wrong.

At the appointed time I appeared on the stage at U-M's Hill auditorium and began speaking. I had gotten about as far as "the concept of human rights should be seamless..." maybe two minutes into my speech when a scattering of coughs erupted around the theater. A little confused by the interruption, I stopped, but the coughing grew and spread. An epidemic.

I kept speaking, even backtracked out of a concern that some in the audience might have missed what I had been saying. That this was a completely clueless assessment of the situation became entirely obvious within the next minute as some people in the audience began standing and yelling for me to get off the stage.

Finally tuned in to the fact that reactions I had predicted earlier had manifested, I was still mildly surprised. At that point, after all, I hadn't yet mentioned Palestinians. I was still building a case for a definition of universal human rights, but the crowd had already accurately intuited where I was heading.

Someone approached me from behind as I stood at the podium. It was the Hillel kid. "You should wrap it up," he said, in a polite indoor voice. I could hear him, but the crowd had come down with a coughing fit and wouldn't have heard him if he had been screaming at me.

"You invited me to be here. You should be telling them to be more courteous," I said as he turned and walked away.

Looking back out at the audience, which had already transitioned to crowd on its way to becoming a mob, I jumped ahead to my commitment to self-determination for Palestinians and my belief that no definition of human rights that included Soviet Jews and excluded Palestinians was valid. At this point, the mob was screaming for metaphorical blood, people were standing. Faces contorted with anger, they were shaking their fists.

I wasn't frightened; I felt oddly detached, but also believed that even though the rage in the auditorium was a palpable thing, I was in no real danger. I recognized a Hillel board member who had legally changed his name to an Israeli-style name intended to convey his fierceness and his descent from Judah Maccabee, or some other legendary Jewish fighter. In the performance unfolding before me, he was definitely a lead actor.

I was again approached from behind. "You should leave," someone said.

I did. I walked off the stage into the audience. The crowd quieted, parted enough to let me through, and watched me leave.

Outside, it was still summer, still light. The broad stone stairway down from Hill Auditorium was empty. I felt somehow liberated. Three friends, who had been in the auditorium but had left before me were waiting at the bottom of the stairs. One of them, Rose Hochman, was crying. She hugged me. We all agreed that I had done what I had to do.

The next day, the debacle was a front-page story (below the fold) in the Ann Arbor News. I do regret that I never saved a copy of the story, or of the headline, at least. I'd like to get a t-shirt made emblazoned with "Epton driven from lion's den" positioned dead center on the shirt.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

T.J. Spytma is out of prison

and we should all be happy about that.

Brendan and I drove 500+ miles northwest last Wednesday (and back on Friday). It was a great trip--lots of music along the way, things to talk about, fuel-stop food, wool to gather--but the point of the journey was Thursday, when we got to spend a few hours with friends T.J. Spytma and Penny Ryder.

T.J. will be 55 years old in November and when that birthday comes, it will be the occasion for his first party outside of prison since he was 15. Penny picked T.J. up at the Cotton Correctional Facility on Tuesday and, after a joyful moment of being together without supervision for the first time ever, they loaded a couple of boxes of personal items into Penny's car, the sum total of T.J.'s material accumulations these last 40 years. They headed first to the parole office an hour away, where T.J. would be expected to show up probably twice a month for the next four years to be urine-tested and to look his parole officer in the eye.

In his pocket, T.J. had a check for $176, his savings from decades of paid work at a Braille production facility inside the prison. But T.J. had no complaints about the job, which he considered a good one compared to the other options. T.J. and Penny had plenty to talk about on the way to the parole office, but there were lots of distractions, too, like how green the world is, how tall the trees were, how fast the cars go, and how a free and quiet moment felt.

Of course, there was lots of strategizing to do; the two of them have few illusions about how difficult the adjustment would be for T.J. individually, and for both of them together. Before T.J. had even gotten out, they had already decided they would begin couple's counseling right away. They knew they would need plenty of structure. There was so much to learn, including, as it happened, that he would be billed $2,000 by the state for the four years worth of drug-testing and parole officer eyeballing that lay ahead.

In a week, T.J. would begin a part-time job with the American Friends Service Committee's Criminal Justice program, the same program that had brought the two of them together in the first place, and that Penny had run for more than 25 years before she retired. T.J.'s job would be to staff the program's Parole Workshop project, which helps lifers and other long-term inmates prepare themselves for parole and, in particular, for the routine, but grueling, hearing before their parole board.

The parole hearing is usually so stressful for long-time inmates that many end up dreading it more than the prospect of doing additional time. For years, lifers in Michigan prisons had difficulty even getting to the hearing stage. But one attorney in Michigan, Paul Reingold, spent a good deal of his own time lobbying for regulatory changes that would at least allow long-time inmates to get a hearing. To his dismay, he discovered that most of them, frightened and unprepared, would mess up the hearing, unable to cope with aggressive questioning from staffers whose job amounted to making sure that if the inmate harbored any doubts about himself, could not manage his own anger, or had an untreated mental illness, the breakdown would happen at the hearing, and not after parole was granted.

Already familiar with AFSC's Criminal Justice program in Michigan, Reingold went to Penny to express his concern about the alarming rate at which lifers blew their parole hearings. After considerable strategizing with allies, Penny and AFSC developed the Parole Workshop, which included readings, reflections and discussions aimed at getting participants to think more deeply about the factors that drove them to commit their crimes, the consequences for their victims and the communities they came from, and how they had changed in their understanding of their own life, how their capacity for empathy had grown, and how they would use freedom, if it came to them.

For T.J., who has spent the last 30 years in prison thinking about his own crime and the crimes of others with whom he has served time, working in therapeutic groups and individuals sessions to understand who he was developmentally at the time he committed his crime, the changes he had to make, and how to cope with his own victimization as a child, the job is a perfect fit. He won't be able to go into the prisons to lead the workshops himself (at least not right away), but he will be able to coach the coaches, and communicate with inmates taking the workshops, encouraging and guiding them by mail and telephone.

A horrifying crime
[Note: Even though the names of the victim and her family members are part of the public record, T.J. has asked me, as a sign of respect, to not to use their names, and I have honored his request.]

In 1974, T.J. (then 15) and another boy broke into a neighbor's home with larceny on their minds. The two teenagers, already regular abusers of barbiturates, were high. Before they were done ransacking the house, the neighbor, a local school employee, wife and mother, returned home.

During the crime, T.J.'s accomplice raped the victim and perhaps struck the blow that killed her. But T.J., himself, struck the first blow, and also slit the victim's wrists before he left, with the intention of sparing the dying victim from further suffering.

In the many years that I have known T.J., and the even longer initial period in which I knew of him, he has never denied any of the details of the crime and has acknowledged the gravity of what he did, not only to the victim, but to her family and to the social fabric of his community.

Though some of his statements have been qualified by observations about his drug use and juvenile status, T.J. has been clear:

"I, along with my co-defendant, did the unthinkable... It was my idea to do the breaking and entering. My judgement was not that of a mature adult and my decision making was further influenced by my use of barbiturates prior to [the victim's] death. When my co-defendant and I were discovered by [the victim], in the home, I was the first to strike her from behind."
--from T.J.'s letter to me, October 23, 2010

It doesn't take much imagination to guess at the degree of community outrage and grief that accompanied the news of the killing in Muskegon County, Michigan. Even 40 years later an on-line Michigan news service headlined the story of T.J.'s parole this way: "Notorious murderer Timothy Spytma paroled from life sentence." The article itself is a reasonably measured description of what T.J. did, how the murder/rape affected the community, how the case proceeded through to sentence, and, using a judge's letter regarding a possible parole, how both Spytma and the laws regarding juvenile prosecutions and sentences have changed. But the headline very likely speaks louder than the story.


"In one way or another, we articulate what has happened to us through the person we have become."

On the way back to DC, while Brendan, using his ear buds, communed with his music, I listened to Azar Nafisi, on audio disc, reading her own book, Things I Have Been Silent About. It was the second time around for me with Nafisi reciting her own words. I love the book. Nafisi (also the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran) is a luminous writer inspecting her own life, so modern and so old-school, so gothic and so exotically Persian. But I stopped the disc and roused Brendan to quickly take down a quote from Nafisi that put me in mind of T.J.:

"In one way or another, we articulate what has happened to us through the person we have become."

Maybe, I thought, but looking at the person T.J. has become, how could anyone begin to grasp what has happened to him, what he did, who he was, who he has become? How could anyone meet T.J., feel his warmth, watch him with Penny, watch his absolute focus on Brendan when they were in conversation, and also guess what a terrible thing he did when he was 15 years old?

Certainly, there are people, including [the victim's] children, who were (and remain) entirely opposed to setting T.J. free. At 17, the victim's son, discovered her maimed and tortured body on his return home that day. He opposed T.J.'s release on the very reasonable grounds that he doesn't believe that T.J. could possibly be rehabilitated because the U.S. prison system does not effectively rehabilitate and that T.J. would be a danger to the community upon his release.

It's difficult to argue that prisons do little to rehabilitate, do little to address mental illness, do little to treat drug addiction, do little to teach literacy, and do inflict, nearly every day, an unusual level of indignity and deprivation that goes far beyond the fact of imprisonment. But there is now quite a lot of evidence that T.J. is not only rehabilitated, but that he has achieved that rehabilitation largely through his own efforts, through his personal will, through the diligent application of his considerable intelligence, and through the remarkable expansion of his capacity for compassion and empathy.


Doing time, lots of it

There's no question that T.J.'s rehabilitation in prison was a lengthy process. He didn't even begin any kind of psychotherapy until 1986, eleven years after he was first sentenced to prison. Michigan prison practice at the time was actually to deny therapy for inmates with life sentences until they had served at least ten years of their sentence. For T.J., this only compounded the difficulties he faced--a 16-year old felon with a history of substance abuse and emotional trauma--in adjusting to a life sentence in an adult prison. That he survived long enough to make it out is a tribute to human resilience. The prison system, itself, deserves little credit for T.J.'s personal triumph, powered as it was by T.J., assisted as it was by Penny Ryder and a handful of other believers who worked hard on his behalf.

In early 1986, as part of a court hearing on an appeal of his sentence, he had a psychiatric evaluation conducted by the same psychiatrist who conducted his evaluation before his 1975 sentence. At the conclusion to his 1986 report to the court, Dr. Denis Walsh wrote this:

"He wishes to see his crime over and done with and yet, I do not see it that way. I feel his crime is significant and indicates weakness in ego functioning which enables primitive aggressive impulses to erupt into overt behavior. I think Mr. Spytma is unaware of what conflicts are defended against by these hostile acts. I must, therefore, take the position that he needs psychiatric treatment before he can be considered for release... He has worked very hard, using whatever tools he has been given to do his best to ready himself for release, but no psychiatric treatment has been given... Up to this point, what has happened is that a mentally ill individual has been warehoused and struggles against despair."

This report, when it got back to T.J., could have compounded his despair. But by that point, already well along the path toward eventual rehabilitation, he was motivated to do more. Finally eligible for psychotherapy, T.J. kept moving. In a report filed with the Department of Corrections in 1987, clinical psychologist Stephen Purcell praised him:

"...from his very inception into the group, Mr. Spytma showed high interest and motivation in wanting to explore the underlying psychological precipitants to his crimes... The subject has been very cooperative in terms of group participation and support of other members of the group... this clinician views Mr. Spytma as being a very intelligent and affable individual who is willing to work on the problems that have precipitated his [original] offense. It appears that the subject will make impressive movement in therapy providing he continues to attend on a regular basis."

But it was years after that before T.J. actually told anyone about having been sexually molested at 10 by an older step-sister and, subsequently, at 12 years old, abused multiple times by an adult sister-in-law. Up to that point only T.J., himself, and the two women who victimized him knew what had happened.

For a 2004 psychiatric examination, T.J. wrote a 20-page account of his relationship with his mother and his feelings about his father's death when he was nine. In writing the report, he described his feelings about what he had done to [the victim] and to her family:

"I came to realize much, much more how my actions affected the [husband and children of the victim]. My God, I caused them all such needless pain and suffering. [Prison psychologist] Dr. Purcell helped bring the feelings home. He would ask, 'What if that were your mother? What if you came home to find your mother in the same condition as [the victim's son] found his mother?' Contemplating those personalized questions was emotionally draining for me. I felt I had come to know the sadness, the loss, the suffering they each experienced. What if [the victim's children] had children of their own? They would never have their grandmother. My actions that sad day were so far reaching. Birthdays, holidays, they must be particularly difficult for each of them.

"When my own mother passed away on April 16, 1992, I knew, with a much greater degree of certainty, what all of them must have felt that day in 1974. [But] while I have a fairly good understanding of the moments leading up to my mother's last breath, they didn't have [even] that. I can't imagine them having total resolution with unanswered questions about their mother's death. I feel for them. I carry the guilt of having deprived them of so much potential happiness."

Through it all, or most of it, from the mid-'80s on, Penny was there for T.J. In another 2004 report to the psychiatrist conducting a pre-parole exam, T.J. wrote about Penny:

"Aside from my immediate family, my most significant and cherished relationship is with Penny. I was especially fortunate to have Penny in my life when I was going through group therapy and at the time of my mother's death. Admittedly, because all of my relationships prior to Penny were short ones, I was hesitant to be entirely trusting, but the longer our relationship continued, the more trusting I seemingly became. Like my group experience, I can be vulnerable with Penny. I can admit when I experience fear. I can cry. I need not ever worry about her thinking less of me... She saw and helped me understand that it wasn't until my mother passed away that I could finally mourn the deaths of both my parents."

Penny also wrote the psychiatrist. He quotes from her letter in his report:

"I have helped him to own his emotions and to realize that emotions were appropriate for people and prisoners to have. Yes, in prison there are times when exposing your emotions is dangerous, but that he needed to express them to people he could trust... The friends that he has picked to share with over the years have for the most part been ones that actually helped him to grow. The ones that he has been hurt by he understands that it is very much a normal part of life."

Few people are ever more deeply and systematically exposed than a prisoner who wants to heal, to move on, to seek parole. But to get where he is today, T.J., had to learn to let his defenses down more than the rest of us routinely do.


Growing up in prison

And could learning to do so be any more difficult than it must have been for a 15 year old with a history of drug abuse entering an adult prison, an inmate who kept secret the facts about two separate experiences of continuing sexual abuse for some 30 years while serving a 40 year sentence in prison? But he did it, and in the process became a paralegal and a member of the Mass Incarceration Committee of the National Lawyers' Guild, and is only a few credits short of a bachelor's degree.

Even prison guards who know T.J. laud him. Psychologist Alison Jones summarizes the remarks of one prison official for a pre-parole report on T.J. in 2008: "She knew him both at Coldwater and at J.C.F. She asserts that he is definitely a model prisoner, is very respectful towards prisoners and staff, and never has to be checked about anything. He was a geriatric aide for elderly prisoners when she knew him at Coldwater. He went way above and beyond his job duties and went out of his way to be helpful to others. She sees him as a very caring and compassionate person. Given the age when the crime occurred and the growth that has occurred over time, she feels that he could function well within society and that there is little more that the prison system has to offer him in terms of rehabilitation. She notes her perception that he has rehabilitated himself and grown up in prison. He has succeeded where many prisoners have failed. She notes that he did hard time and was able to overcome his circumstances and turn a negative into something positive."

But even after this report, it would be another six years before T.J. got out of prison. And the first day out he discovered that he wasn't done paying the state. The next day, T.J. and Penny were off getting a state ID for him, and getting him registered for Medicaid. Of course, the bureaucrats he encountered needed to know why he didn't already have ID, why he wasn't already registered for health care. Because this is my first full day out of prison in forty years, he told them.

People were cordial, he said. "Some of them just smiled and said 'welcome.'" But either way, both T.J. and Penny are going to take everything in stride. They know that he will keep paying in small ways for the crime he committed in 1974. But they also know that a new life is beginning for T.J., and that he has work to do; helping others understand what they have done and preparing themselves for freedom.





Monday, June 9, 2014

Larry Summers misses another important point

He's clueless about the consequences of inequality

From time to time, Larry Summers gets things very wrong. He hypothesized that women were largely underrepresented in the sciences at least partially because of innate gender differences.

He championed bank deregulation during the Clinton years ("...it would take a Republican Congress and the Clinton administration’s Robert Rubin and Larry Summers at Treasury to repeal Glass-Steagall."), a deregulatory step that others, including Ron Suskind, author of Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, suggest had much to do with the economic collapse of 2008.

And, following that collapse, from which he seemed to have learned the wrong lessons, Summers, along with Tim Geithner, was one of the leading actors pushing bank and corporate bailouts and downplaying stimulus spending and infrastructure investment within the Obama administration.

As Dean Baker put it in "How Larry Summers' memo hobbled Obama's stimulus plan," posted on common dreams.org, "In short, while the data was crying out for more stimulus, the Obama administration openly embraced the need for deficit reduction, effectively slamming the door on the prospect of further stimulus. The basis for this original sin can be found in [Summers'] December memo, which, unfortunately, provided the administration's game plan long after it should have been clear that it had been superseded by events."

Susskind makes it clear that Summers' policy recommendations suffer, in part, from his high opinion of himself. "Instead of looking at [Summers'] record pockmarked with bad decisions, people see his extemporaneous brilliance and let themselves be dazzled. Summers' career has come to look, more and more, like one long demonstration of the difference between wisdom and smarts," Suskind wrote in Confidence Men.

But no matter the various judgments of history, Summers isn't going to go away. He blogs on economic and political issues for Reuters, gives lots of interviews and writes a lot of op-ed pieces. His latest piece, "American inequality goes beyond dollars and cents," ran in today's (June 9) Washington Post.

Summers' op-ed begins with a nod to Thomas Piketty's new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which examines the growing inequality in income and wealth in the United States and around the world. "This is indeed a critical issue," Summers writes.

Later he observes that increasing "tax productivity" would not do "any noticeable damage to the prospects for economic growth," but quickly moves on from serious consideration of policy changes that might reduce inequality. Instead, he considers unequal outcomes in life expectancy and educational achievement, two areas in which Summers has never previously demonstrated much interest.

Nevertheless, he's happy to point out that differences in life expectancy for older people "more likely have to do with lifestyle and variations in diet and stress..." Summers also cites figures that make it clear that children from affluent families are exposed to many more "enrichment" experiences than are children from poor families, but, he concludes, that to address unequal outcomes we should not merely focus on inequality. "...it is crucial to recognize that measures to support the rest of the population in other ways are at least equally important," Summers writes, though he does not specify what those other "measures" might be.

In any case, what seems mightily important here is a point missed by Summers, but noted elsewhere by others, notably Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in "The Widening Gyre: Inequality, Polarization and the Crisis," which they wrote for inclusion in The Occupy Handbook, edited and compiled by Janet Byrne. Citing the work of political scientists Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal and Nolan McCarty, Krugman and Wells argue that there's no separating inequality from the political polarization and gridlock of our time.

"Soaring inequality is at the root of our polarized politics," they wrote. That polarization has "made us unable to act together in the face of crisis. And because rising incomes at the top have brought rising power to the wealthiest, our nation's intellectual life has been warped, with too many economists co-opted into defending economic doctrines that were convenient for the wealthy despite being indefensible on logical and empirical grounds."

Krugman and Wells may not have been including Summers in their list of "co-opted economists," but given his demonstrated preference for bank deregulation and bailouts over significant stimulus spending, we should be forgiven for assuming Summers belongs on the list. Krugman and Wells see many of Obama's policy compromises with his intractable opponents in Congress as a direct result of inequality-linked political polarization.

In 2009, they wrote, "we arrived at a Keynesian crisis demanding a Keynesian solution--but Keynesian ideas had been driven out of the national discourse, in large part because they were politically inconvenient for the increasingly empowered 1 percent."

Summers would probably prefer not to be reminded that the policies he has advocated in the past have done little to protect ordinary Americans from economic hardship. His Post op-ed actually includes a shout-out to progressive economist Dean Baker, suggesting that Summers would like us to forget his track record. But we ought not forget--if we want to reduce income inequality (and political polarization), and if Hillary Clinton follows Obama to the presidency, we want to do our best to make sure that Larry Summers finds employment somewhere other than the federal government.


Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Life and memory, a continuing story

Today, Bernie lives

I will be 67 years old in a couple of months. I am not feeling particularly morbid at the moment, but it gets easier and easier to count the number of my days. It’s reasonable to assume that I could live another 20 years—unless something unexpected comes up—and also reasonable to assume that I will be in decent health most of those 20 years. Beyond that point, all bets are off, and both disability and death will loom much larger.

But it occurs to me, in this moment, that the true span of an individual life includes the years in which others will remember the otherwise departed. My father, Bernie Epton, died in 1987. But today he is alive in memory. Mine.

Today is not a special day. It’s not an anniversary of anything that happened to Dad. But I have been reflecting on my own life, and on my children, and how we have lived, separately and together. One thought triggered another, and Dad was suddenly present.

Today, Dad is a young boy in Chicago, living through the Depression and writing his father in Atlanta. Not to worry, Dad, he writes. Do what you have to do in Atlanta. I will take care of everything here.

Today, Dad will drop out of school at the University of Chicago and enlist in the Army Air Force. Today, Dad will leave for an Air Force base in England, where he will begin leading bombing runs over Germany and Eastern Europe.

Today, Dad will meet Audrey Issett, a private in the British army assigned as a plane spotter with an anti-aircraft unit on the coast of England. Today, Audrey is a combatant in the Battle of Britain. Today, Audrey and Bernie will fall in love.

Today, the war in Europe has come to an end and Dad will be rotated back to the states for the invasion of Japan, which will never happen. Today, Audrey, pregnant with Teri, will finally make it to the States and meet the maniac in-laws who will be her family for the next 65 years.

Today, Dad will pass the bar exam and become a lawyer. Today, Bernie Epton will lose his first race for Congress.

Today, Audrey and Bernie and their four children will stop at Rosenbloom’s after going to a movie together at the Hamilton on 71st Street. We will order five hot fudge sundaes and one strawberry sundae to go. (“Teri, Jeffrey, Mark and Dale, they are simply full of schwale,” Dad will sing endlessly throughout our childhood, or at least until his oldest two become teenagers, and things stop being so much fun).

Today, Dad and I, divided by all the things that divide fathers and sons, will argue about the war in Vietnam. I will tell him that the war is evil and so are the war makers. I will not support the war or acquiesce to the domination of the war machine, I will tell him. And he will show me his multiple medals and insist that we owe service to our country.

Today, after being drafted, I will leave for Canada. Dad will be deeply grieved by my decision, but he will give me money to help me on my way. He will pretend the money was actually left to me by my grandfather, but I will know better.

Today, Dad and brother Mark will board a plane for Memphis, where they will join in solidarity with the Memphis sanitation workers marching in a memorial parade for Martin Luther King.

Today, on a visit home, I will knock on the door of my parent’s apartment. Home alone, Dad will shout “what’s the password?” the first phrase of a great Marx Brothers routine.

Today, Dad will pay for a naming ceremony at his synagogue for Nathan Nightrain Epton, my first child. Nate won’t be there. Neither will I. Nor will Nate’s mom be there. Dad will have Nate named Adam Nathan Epton because he doesn’t approve of the name I gave Nate, and Adam begins with A, the first letter of Dad’s father’s name. In the Jewish tradition, this is the way to name a child after an ancestor. Nate won’t care, at all. Over time, I will learn not to mind, either.

Today, Dad will retire from the Illinois State Legislature after 16 good years during which he only screamed in frustration at his legislative colleagues maybe a dozen times, okay, maybe a couple dozen. Today, Dad will stop saying he’s the smartest guy in the legislature. Today, Dad will stop saying he’s the richest guy in the legislature.

Today, Governor Thompson will call Dad and ask him to be the Republican candidate for mayor of Chicago, and run against whoever wins the Democratic primary, Jane Byrne, Richie Daley or Harold Washington, an old friend from the state legislature.

Today, Washington will win the Democratic primary and because racism will motivate many white Chicagoans to cross party lines in the general election, Dad will become the first truly competitive Republican candidate for mayor in decades. Today, Dad will try to explain to the media that his campaign slogan, “Epton, before it’s too late,” is not a coded racial message. Almost nobody will believe him, but he will insist that he’s right, they’re wrong and the slogan will remain in use.

Late tonight, after a long day of campaigning, Harold Washington will say to a campaign worker who has come to hate Bernie that the man they are campaigning against is “not the Bernie Epton I know.” She will be surprised by the depth of Harold’s compassion and his obvious affection for Bernie.

Today, finally, the race will end. Washington will win, becoming the first African American mayor in Chicago history. Dad will lose and begin lamenting the damage the campaign has done to his reputation.

Today, I will talk to Dad, who has woken up, as he does every day, feeling humiliated by his defeat and horrified by the belief that he is a pariah. I will try to tell him that the reality is not so awful as he imagines, but nothing I say will seem to help and the smiles seem few and far between.

Today, four and a half years after the 1983 election, and less than a month after Harold Washington died, Dad will die. Today, Dad will be buried in Oakwood Cemetery on the south side, where Washington is also buried, and where generations of Chicagoans, mostly African American and Jewish, are buried.

Today, more than 26 years after Dad died, I remember him. Today, Bernie Epton is alive.



Monday, May 26, 2014

Reparations: Ta-Nehesei Coates tells it like it is.

But plenty of folks will want to argue the point.

As the cover of the June issue of Atlantic Magazine advancing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ argument for reparations for African Americans puts it: “250 years of slavery. 90 years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of state-sanctioned redlining. Until we reckon with the compounding moral debris of our ancestors, America will never be whole.”

I’m with Coates. I believe that 450 years of oppression and expropriation of wealth requires compensation. Making the effort strikes me as both a moral obligation and a fantastic investment in our collective future.

Coates lays out the argument for reparations with at length. His piece is concise, but also a marvel of detailed reporting and history I won’t try to match. But I still want to set up some of the arguments against reparations that one is likely to hear, to try and wrestle those arguments to the ground.  I can’t help but think that there can be only a limited number of explanations for those that oppose reparations for African Americans. Included among them:

1.     Having grown up in a society that normalized that theft, opponents of reparations may believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, that they are inferior, and that they do not deserve relief.

2.     Opponents of reparations might claim that compensating for the generations-long theft of labor and wealth from African Americans will come at a direct cost to them, or that we as a society cannot afford reparations.

3.     Some opponents may believe that others have suffered systemic oppression and have not been compensated for their losses.

4.     Some people might argue that they (or their family) just got to the United States; they are not part of the problem.

5.     Some people may not oppose reparations, but they don’t believe it will ever happen.

6.     Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans or benefit in some other way from the continuing humiliation of the African American community. They will fight against reparations as hard and as long as they think necessary.

7.     Some politicians, who would lead the fight against reparations represent the interests of those who entertain one or more of the above beliefs.

8.     And then there’s Clarence Thomas (who arguably fits into more than one of the above categories), who even opposes affirmative action and claims to feel stigmatized by the policy, and who apparently believes that he has not been properly celebrated for his accomplishments.


African Americans’ problems are of their own making

If you are simply one of those who believe that African Americans’ problems are of their own making, or that they don’t deserve relief, or that they are in some way inferior, the problem may be that you simply don’t know enough black people. This would not be a surprise in a country as segregated as ours.

You are probably white, but you could still free yourself from that apparently limiting condition by expanding the same sort of empathetic response that you presently feel on behalf of battered women, say, or Syrians, or Rwandans or dolphins or puppies.

Or you could free yourself from the zeitgeist with the same act of political will and forethought that has already persuaded you that the 2008 stimulus package wasn’t big enough or that climate change needs to be addressed now. Regardless, if you even remotely agree that the wealth rightfully earned by generations of African Americans has been plundered, ask yourself who has benefitted from that theft.

Maybe, it doesn’t feel like you are one of the beneficiaries, but a lot of great fortunes were built on the backs of slaves and tenant farmers and convict laborers, and job competition between white workers and black workers that held down wages for all workers to the almost exclusive benefit of the owning class. Reparations are a way to begin repairing all those problems.


It will be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses.

Perhaps, it could be too expensive to compensate African Americans for their losses, but in general we should think of the cost as a legitimate liability, the settlement as a negotiated agreement that acknowledges responsibility, as a good-conscience effort to compensate the recipient without causing unbearable harm to the party wishing to make good, and as an investment in an egalitarian society that prioritizes equality, peace and harmony.

Besides, think about how much the lack of compensation for unrewarded effort, for theft, injury and harm, has already cost us. Reparations could hardly cost us more.


Others have suffered systemic losses and have not been compensated.

There aren’t a whole lot of people who would argue against paying reparations to African Americans just because some other group ought to get paid—though there are certainly a fair number of groups who have suffered losses. But it would be hard historically to identify a group that suffered more harm for longer. Working people come to mind. So do women. Central and South Americans. Africans. Asians. Lesbians, gay men and bi- and transsexuals.

There are certainly important considerations raised by this point of view, but, well…everything in its own time, I guess. Moreover, a society operating under an elevated understanding of justice that would come into being after reparations to African Americans would be a different world, which would be more prosperous and egalitarian. Under such transformed conditions some injustices would feel like they mattered less. And other legitimate claims would be more easily addressed.


Paying reparations would make recent immigrants to the United States responsible for the suffering of African Americans.

Well, we are collectively responsible. It’s our country. And you’re here now. What kind of society do you want to build? If we work together to restore equity, recent immigrants likely will prosper along with the rest of us.


Reparations will never happen.

Well, yes, in a country in which no-nothingism seems to define our politics, our African American president is the target of unreasoning hatred and right-wing billionaires spend whatever it takes to elect uncritical henchman, it’s easy to understand such pessimism.

But it took 250 years to end slavery in the United States. Addressing the damage that has continued to accumulate since that time, might take another 250 years. But it will happen faster if we don’t indulge in such pessimism and choose to take action instead. In the meantime, in the pursuit of such a great good, our collective health would probably improve. And we’d make new friends.


Some people profit directly from the continued theft of wealth from African Americans and other people serve the political interests of constituents who get some benefit, real or imagined, from the continuing oppression of African Americans.

It’s certainly true that some people receive such valuable benefits from ripping off others, but we need to be able to distinguish which ones receive a material benefit from race-based exploitation and which ones receive less tangible benefit, like the relief associated with the knowledge that some people are worse off or more despised than you are. That second group should not be a priority, but they should be labored with if the resources or inclination are there.

Forget about the first group and their retainers and close beneficiaries. They are the enemy. They probably won’t completely disappear, even after the rest of us have moved on.


And then, finally, you might oppose reparations because you are Clarence Thomas.

Well, never mind, Justice Thomas, you may be the most lost of all lost causes. It’s nearly impossible to guess what it’s like to be you and what you’ve given up to get where you are now.


But let’s give Ta-Neheisi Coates the last word:

And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.

“Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt.

“What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

:

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Through Audrey's eyes

The 1983 Mayoral Campaign in Chicago

Audrey Epton wrote this piece, recalling the tumultuous 1983 mayoral campaign in Chicago. She wrote it while Bernie/Dad was still alive--in 1985 or '86, I'm guessing. She gave it to me sometime during the summer of 2010, I think, just months before she died. I put it in a to-read pile in my office and later buried it beneath other less important papers (my bad). But I unearthed it this week and decided to post it.

It is, after all, a first-person account of the 1983 campaign by someone who was there and who loved Bernie Epton. I wish it was longer and more detailed, but to my knowledge it is still the longest thing Mom ever wrote. I also wish it was more emotionally forthcoming, but Mom was an emotionally reticent person to the end--she does not, for instance, even try to describe how deeply depressed Dad was in the last four years of his life. Even so, it's clear that the '83 campaign and its ramifications for her family caused her a lot of anguish.

She certainly wasn't a neutral observer--she was all-in for Bernie, but her perspective matters, nevertheless. And she's right about a few important things. Dad wasn't a racist, she wrote, just really, really stubborn. But his refusal to retract the "Epton, before it's too late" campaign slogan conveyed that unfortunate impression to hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans, something Mom doesn't really acknowledge here.

But I find her summary statement here, about Black Pride, both awkward and somehow right on. The Washington campaign was an important moment for African-Americans and Chicago, itself. Had Dad not been Washington's opponent, he and Mom would have had no trouble recognizing how important Washington's victory would be.

I was there at the moment the phone rang on Thanksgiving Day, 1982. When I picked up the phone, it was Governor James Thompson on the other end. He had called to ask my husband to run for mayor of Chicago in the 1983 election.

After some discussion and a promise to get back to the governor, Bernie hung up the phone—and said to me, guess what, Jim Thompson just asked me to run for mayor.

I said, I know. I was listening on the other phone.

Bernie asked me what I thought about the idea and after talking back and forth for some time, I said to him I think you should go for it. You’ve been in politics in one way or another all your life and besides, you would make a great mayor.

Bernie was completely taken aback because he was sure I would say no. He was finishing his last term after 14 years as a state rep and he knew I was very happy about that.

I was tired of our separations. I could not always be in Springfield when the legislature was in session for varying reasons. And it seemed as though each year the sessions started earlier and ended later. Besides that, Bernie is a loner and if I wasn’t down there, he would tend to go from the floor of the House to his apartment after the day’s session, eat improperly and generally not be too happy.

He had a distinguished career as a state representative from his freshman term on. He was always chairman of a committee of one kind or another—he had many feathers in his cap, but never felt he had done enough and was rarely satisfied with his accomplishments.

I remember one bill that was a tremendous plus to the general public—the insurance bill that he initiated and passed... if your insurance company went broke and became insolvent for whatever reasons, the public never had to be the loser. If one had a claim, by law the other insurance companies had to pick up your claim. A tremendous factor, for instance if your house burned you would always have a place to turn.

Bernie was also in the leadership for many years before he retired in 1983. He has been a practicing lawyer from 1947 and also has been in big business and has been active in community affairs for the 42 years I have known him. That’s a lot of time spent away from home, but we also went to a lot of affairs together. You might say for a little girl born in England, Bernie made me a political animal. In our home, what was going on in the community was always of vital importance to us.

So that is first a very [short story] of Bernie’s life and some of the reasons I told him to go for it. I said at least you will be in the city, no further than City Hall, except on occasion.

Sometimes, looking back, I wonder if I should have said, “no, Bern, don’t do it.” There is no doubt about it that that campaign changed our lives. Whenever Bernie [had] entered a campaign [previously], he got extremely good press. He was always endorsed by all the newspapers, as was the case [early] in this campaign. All of the newspapers gave him glowing editorials, saying in part that Republicans were lucky to have such a fine candidate—one glowing description after another.

He also had never taken a dime politically for any of his previous campaigns, sending back any contributions that came in (not that he was so wealthy) but he did not want to be beholden to any one group. Once you take somebody’s money, they expect you to do their bidding, vote their way. Bernie always wanted to be free to vote his conscience.

On the floor of the House, he would declare if he had a conflict of interest—his colleagues respected him enough to [clear him to] vote. There were times he would not attend a party caucus because he would not want to be bound by them. A rebel perhaps—but we could do with more like him.

Going back to the campaign of ’83, it was such a larger scale that he had to accept contributions, but even these were different. They were smaller amounts from people on the street that just wanted to see him elected. One old man of 90 came to his [headquarters] with a $5.00 contribution and said when he gave it, I just want to see a Republican mayor of Chicago before I die.

When I say I think I did our family a disservice by encouraging Bernie to run, it is because of what happened after the primary when Harold Washington became the Democratic nominee.

Up until the primary we had a small staff and a small army of volunteers. We campaigned together, we went into the neighborhoods. Because the fight was on the Democratic side and Bernie had no opposition, the press sort of left us alone, which irritated me. I didn’t think it fair that Bernie got so little coverage.

A funny thing happened one night because of that. Bernie had two meetings to go to and I went with him. The meetings were in opposite directions and we were on a tight schedule. It was a cold, snowy night. We had made the first meeting okay, but got lost going to the second one. We were in an unfamiliar part of the city.

Frantically, as we drove, we looked for a policeman or a telephone or a person to tell us where we were, but it was such a miserable night, nobody was out. Finally Bernie said to me, I think we’re going in the wrong direction—there being no traffic, he made a u-turn, and, guess what, we found a policeman. All of a sudden a blue light appeared and pulled us over. We were delighted to see him. Bernie said, “Officer, I’m Bernard Epton. I’m running for mayor and we’re lost on our way to a meeting. Will you tell me where so and so is?”

“Certainly, sir, after I give you this ticket,” he said.

We finally got to the meeting a little chagrined and bedraggled.

Bernard Epton was a victim of the bias of the press. Before the primary, Bernie was treated with a measure of respect by the media. After the primary, when Harold Washington became the Democratic nominee, Bernie was portrayed as a racist immediately—if Bernie criticized Harold for anything, at all, it was because he was a racist.

The media, both print and electronic, could not have done a worse thing to a man who his whole life had worked for civil rights and racial equality. We are both still bruised and bleeding from that treatment.

Small comfort when I think it would have [happened to] anybody white once Harold was the nominee. Bernie and Harold had know each other and been on a friendly basis for years, but the press took exception to the fact that Bernie would refer to Washington by his first name, inferring that Bernie was treating Washington with no respect. Harold Washington immediately worked on that sore, always referring to Bernie as Mr. Epton. Nevertheless, when the campaign was over, it was back to “Bernie.”

How could the media be so blind? The media was manipulated and they in turn manipulated the voters, which of course is nothing new. I think, too, that one of the problems the press had with Bernard Epton was the fact that they were dealing with a totally honest man and they couldn’t cope with that. My husband, also being a rather stubborn man, would not change an ad that had been planned before the primary that [what] was needed [was] fiscal responsibility as Chicago was financially in bad shape. But the press decided that the slogan, “Epton, before it’s too late,” was racist.

Bernie refused to change it knowing in his heart that it was not racist. He was also blamed for an ugly incident at St. Pascal’s Church when Washington and Mondale visited there one Sunday afternoon. There were people picketing with racist slogans. The press indicated they were Epton supporters, which was a tremendous blow to Bernie. He immediately called Harold Washington to tell him how upset he was and that of course he condemned the incident.

Harold, of course, knowing Bernie, so well believed him. But the damage was done to the Epton campaign by that incident—it is hard to erase something like that from one’s mind. I like to think that in time more of the 1983 campaign will come out and it will be found that Bernard Epton is not a racist—but rather somebody that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was steamrollered by black pride.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Leadership on race

A new generation must take us where we need to go

In August 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. Two months earlier, I had graduated from a large urban high school that was more than 90 percent African American. Most of the white graduates went on to college. Most of the black graduates did not. I've been thinking about race, and especially about the position of African Americans in the United States, ever since.

Race and racism, and what the United States has done to African Americans and continues to do--the reality of slavery, the race-based evil present at the founding of the country, the promises Americans have broken to themselves and their neighbors since, the history and present and future that we refuse to confront, the lies that we tell ourselves--is our original and continuing sin, is democracy and fairness unrealized, is lives tossed away, is the disability we have been unable to overcome. Or so it seems to me.

Next month, my son Brendan and about 25 E.L. Haynes high school classmates will be taking a week-long trip to Atlanta, Birmingham and Selma, where they will learn more about the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s. Student preparation for the trip includes watching parts of three different movies that illuminate various aspects of slavery, of Jim Crow and of the continuing oppression of African Americans.

The first of the three films, "Slavery by Another Name," documents the post-Reconstruction criminalization of joblessness, vagrancy and debt, which made blackness the face of crime for the first time, and allowed Southerners to continue the exploitation and treatment of former slaves under virtually the same conditions that had existed before emancipation. The biggest single difference lay, perhaps, in the fact that the ex-slaves were no longer owned as assets by plantation owners. They became more disposable than they had been on the plantations.

And just as slaves had been used to create a good portion of the infrastructure and great wealth that would put the United States on the path to becoming the wealthiest country in the world, sharecropper and convict labor would continue to be a means to build more wealth utilized by those in a position to benefit. U.S. Steel, the largest corporation in the world at the beginning of the 20th Century, is only one example of a corporate expropriater of the labor of African Americans, who were used to break strikes in Pittsburgh area steel mills, and to mine coal, build factories and operate the steel mills of Birmingham, Ala.; in reality, de facto slave labor after Reconstruction built the industrial center of the deep South.

"The Loving Story" the second in the series of films, screened at Haynes last week. The documentary tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple convicted in 1959 for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. The Lovings were not activists by any understanding of the term. After their conviction, and a suspended sentence of one-year in prison, they moved with their children to Washington, DC, motivated exclusively by a desire to avoid continued persecution.

But Washington was too urban and distressing for the couple. For years after their conviction, the Lovings continued to sneak back into Virginia to visit family. Eventually, Mildred wrote Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. Attorney General, seeking his help. Kennedy recommended that she contact the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an appeal of their conviction. The appeal reached the Supreme Court, and in 1967 the court struck down the Virginia law under which the Lovings had been convicted and explicitly struck down the other anti-miscegenation laws still on the books in 16 states from Texas to Delaware (though it took until 2000 for Alabama to formally repeal the last remaining law).

The small-group discussions that followed the screening were guided by a series of questions, one of which asked participants to note the ways in which "whiteness" continues to be a protected condition today. The responses noted, in particular, the differential enforcement of drug laws and sentencing that send a disproportionate number of African Americans, young black men, especially, to prison. Other examples included failing public schools, particularly in urban areas where minorities live in significant numbers.

Watching the films, sitting down with teachers and parents and children, discussing what we watched and what we think, has made me, by turns, weepy and sad and angry. But listening to 15- and 16-year old Haynes kids express their feelings about the film, about the legacy of slavery and about the persistence of social conflict and problems that have their origins in race-based oppression and bigotry, also made me hopeful.

At about the same time as the Haynes discussion, I encountered this reflection, posted by Robert Reich on his Facebook page:

"I'm sitting here in the Toronto airport, after giving a lecture here last night. Every time I visit Canada I'm reminded what Canadians -- who look and sound almost exactly like us Americans south of the border -- don't have that we do (guns, the National Rifle Association, huge piles of money corrupting their democracy, withering poverty, strident and vitriolic politics), and what they do have that we don't (single-payer health care, affordable public universities, civil discourse, conservatives that would be called moderate Democrats in the States). Can any of you from Canada please explain why?"

I'm not Canadian, but to me, the single most important distinction between the United States and Canada, accounting for a good bit of our political polarization and contested social terrain, is rooted in our race-based history and culture.

It's the kidnapping and murder of Africans. It's slavery. It's a constitution that made African Americans less than Euro Americans. It's a constitution that declared African Americans less than human.

It's the Dred Scott decision and the Missouri Compromise. It's the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres and a mule. It's the fatigue that ended our national willingness after the Civil War to undo what we had done, and brought the end of Reconstruction and of black empowerment in the South for the next 100 years.

It's the near-century in American history after the Civil War when no white person, anywhere, was prosecuted for the murder of a black person. It's the post-Reconstruction decisions that made blackness criminal and lynching endemic. It's slavery by another name.

It's separate but equal. It's Jim Crow. It's Selma. It's the murder of black children. It's the Supreme Court decision in 2013 striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act.

It's the terrible disproportion between the percentage of African Americans in the population (about 12 percent) and their percentage in the prison population (approximately 40 percent). It's the collapse of public education in African American communities.

Race and the history of race in the United States, all of it, is the biggest single difference between the United States and Canada and explains, better than any other factor, why we are an angry and ungenerous people. But were we to confront that history, and look at how it has led us to where we are today, we could free ourselves, and make amends, and move forward. We would end up a different country and the future might find Canadians asking how come they don't have what we have.

During the discussion following "The Loving Story" Te, a sophomore at Haynes, asked how come it took so long (33 years) after the Loving decision for Alabama to formally repeal the state's anti-miscegenation laws. I'm going to presume to answer that question, too.

For the biggest problems, there are no easy fixes, Te. We should all be mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.'s formulation: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Yes, two hundred fifty years of slavery and another 150+ years of segregation and a continuing war, not on poverty, but on the poor, is edging toward a long time, a very long time, by human standards. Twenty generations, maybe.

But getting to where we are now, getting from the Middle Passage and the establishment of slavery in the British colonies in the 17th Century and getting through a civil war and to the passage one hundred years later of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, is no small accomplishment. And, in the process, the list of movements and heroes who have pursued and fulfilled some dreams, but nowhere near all of them, is no small accomplishment. New voter ID laws passed in many of the states of the Old South creating new obstacles for African American and other minority voters, the continuing impoverishment of historically black communities, the generation-after-generation imprisonment of young black men, and the daily murder of black children on the streets of some of America's richest cities, are all measures of how far we still must go to achieve the dream of a just society.

That will take more than the 33 years you asked about, Te. And it will take new heroes, perhaps you and Brendan and your classmates, to lead us, lead us with the kind of love for each other that kept the Lovings going when the odds were stacked against them. Pleased be assured that I will help.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I’m Going To Be A Writer When I Grow Up


I wrote this awhile ago, but delayed posting it because I don't quite understand what I'm getting at here. I'm already a writer and already reasonably grown up, so the sort of provisional future I'm outlining here depends on something else. What that something might be is not entirely clear, but it certainly depends on me spending more time writing. Like long hours every day, which seems almost unimaginable. Maybe short hours, but consistently reliable ones. In any case, we're never done wrestling with ourselves about the things that we need to do more and do more diligently.

Still, there is line or two here that I'm happy to have written. I can't see the harm in sharing.


If I were to sit down and take a test designed to measure interests and skills and personal characteristics and vocational choice, I’m pretty sure it would peg me for a creative type and recommend writing or some other form of artistic expression as the right career path for me. And I do so want to be an “artist” that if I were at all worried that it wouldn’t produce the outcome that I desired, I would game it. I would manage my answers to the test in such a way that—assuming I am sufficiently cunning—the results would reflect my desire.

But the same test would not necessarily measure my ability to produce artistically, or to do it well. I might be, in reality, a square peg of sorts, forcing myself into a creatively round hole and discovering I have none of the true grease that it takes to revolve productively in that hole, or to slide in and out as my art might require.

I might be a lousy writer. Or a long-winded one. But, based on my own compulsively repetitive navel-gazing, I am persuaded of the sincerity of the tune that vibrates my heartstrings. I am lost in here and out there in my desire to produce something that moves others. I want to write. And sing. And dance. Sketch and stretch and paint and perform.

But wanting to do any of these is not the same as doing them well. Which is the real point. I want to produce something that moves others, but how will they be moved if the appeal is not moving, or, even, coherent?

I would dance, but not if you would laugh at me. I would sing, but I’ve tried that—and people told me to stop. I would draw, and might someday, when I move beyond remedial cave-painting.

Writing becomes almost the default choice. And I’ve done it. Quite a lot, really. Nothing like the millions of words that, say, Dickens or Faulkner or Morrison have written. But a million, maybe.


That’s a start.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Contested Terrain of the 1960s

Who are we together? How much better can we do?

Lingering by a CVS pharmacy desk, waiting for a prescription to be filled, I read a column in Time magazine the other day. The piece, "Boomers can't let go of the '60s," by P.J. O’Rourke, recalled the 1960s, and, in most ways, trivialized the decade. O’Rourke clearly believes that the ‘60s deserve little credit for driving cultural and political change.

The ‘60s, he wrote, loom particularly large in the rearview mirror mostly because baby boomers are strategically placed to produce and circulate the myths that make the era appear to be more important than it was (and is) in reality. In O’Rourke’s version, the decade is stripped of all its drama and significance.

Without researching the question, I’d guess that O’Rourke subscribes to the notion that the generation which begat the boomers, a mix of World War II vets and prosperity builders, is the “greatest generation,” while their children, the boomers, are smug, spoiled and over entitled. I believe something entirely different.

I believe the ‘60s (a decade, more or less, that neither began or ended precisely by the clock and ran slightly longer than most decades since) were a time of true political ferment, of hotly contested political terrain, of dramatic cultural change, of revolutionary promise. And I believe that the young activists of the period devoutly wished to do good. Of course, the specifics of that good, and how much good was achieved, are eminently debatable details.

The angry reaction the column provoked in me did not outlast the walk home on a cold winter afternoon. But later that day, comfortably situated in the living room, a fire burning in the hearth, we watched “The Butler,” a movie that adroitly contrasts the personal and tactical accommodations with which many Blacks negotiated the mid- to late-20th century with the urgent passion for change generated by the Civil Rights movement and injected into most Black households by both their children who entered adulthood during the ‘60s (or thereabouts) and by the Black media of the time.

At one point in the movie, Cecil Gaines (a fictionalized version of a man who served as a White House butler for 30 years) calls the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the most important governmental human rights action since the Emancipation Proclamation. This observation put me in mind of O’Rourke all over again. After all, his essay omits mention of the 1964 law, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

These omissions would be a major flaw in any summary of the ‘60s, except one with little purpose other than ridicule. One can’t help wondering just how well it might pay to be one of those rewarded for peddling a diminished version of the 1960s. And speculating about what ideological purpose might be served by such diminution.

Remunerative or otherwise, O’Rourke’s 600-word column included, by my rough count, at least a half-dozen trivializations of the period, with barely a nod to its most important achievements. In his telling, there is much to minimize:

“Then it all went so wrong. Shooting and killing and troops in combat gear, not only in Watts and Detroit but all the way over in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Feminists were angry for some, as far as men could tell, feminine reason. I had to maintain a C average to avoid the draft. Turns out you can’t fly after you take LSD. There was a war on poverty. We lost. And it rained at Woodstock,” O’Rourke wrote.

His shooting-and-killing-and-troops-oh-my attitude may arise from a lack of interest in the events that immediately followed Dr. King’s assassination, the enraged and desperate rioting that occurred in the immediate aftermath and that preceded the entry of National Guard troops into the ghettos of northern and western cities. There is no serious mention of the Vietnam War here, either; only a single Vietnamese city meant to stand in for a decade of war that devastated a sub-continent and left tens of thousands of dead and wounded warriors in its wake.

Accumulated unfunded debt from that war also crippled the Great Society, President Johnson’s ambitious assault on poverty and its most important causes. But O’Rourke spares only a derisive nod to the War on Poverty (which would come under attack from Republican politicians for the next 50 years, and some Democrats, as well).

He moves on then, dismissing feminism and inverting the distinctly feminist notion that “the personal is the political.” In O’Rourke’s telling, the political becomes the personal, becomes the C-average he was forced to maintain to stay in college and stay out of the military draft. With the observation that it rained at Woodstock, O’Rourke completed his reactionary rendition of ‘60s events.

“Perhaps 1960 to 1969 keeps bothering us because it was an unsuccessful tragedy,” he conjectured. “Aristotle’s Poetics explains the failure. First, says Aristotle, the subject of tragedy must be serious. Almost any adjective can be applied to the ‘60s except that one.”

I read this stuff and wondered what O’Rourke was really doing during that time. Something other than assuming a vanguard position in the fight for progressive social change, I’m sure.

It’s not like I consider myself an exemplar of right-thinking and right-doing at the time, or later, but I was witness to quite a lot and participant in some of the action, and though there were often little victories to celebrate, there was tragedy, too. Some of that tragedy was the desperate suffering from war and injustice that popular movements of the time set out to change. And some of it was the kind of tragedy that befalls efforts that fall short of their goal.

I knew plenty of committed people, too, some of them conscientious, some of them desperate. And some of them living lives so roiled by personal tragedy that just getting up in the morning and out the door was an achievement.

But O’Rourke doesn’t seem to have stepped up himself or to have known people who did. In hindsight, he sees farce where I see compassion and solidarity and magnificent striving. His essay doesn’t even mention Martin Luther King, Jr., except indirectly:

“We had heroes in the ‘60s. They had flaws. But their flaws didn’t lead to their destruction. They were killed by deranged fools.” Though O’Rourke is no doubt referencing King here (and John and Bobby Kennedy), I’m far from certain that King was ever a hero to him except in retrospect.

I don’t really care to argue whether King’s death was a tragedy in some Aristotelian sense; it seemed tragic enough to me and to millions of other Americans. I was a draft resister at the time, living in Toronto briefly when I heard the news report about King’s assassination.

It was the morning after his killing and cities across the U.S. had already begun to burn as enraged Blacks took to the streets in an orgy of destruction that led primarily to the torching of their own neighborhoods. The first report I heard focused on rioting in Chicago, my hometown. I called my father, an Illinois state legislator, from a pay phone on a Toronto street corner.

I don’t recall a moment in my life when I was ever more emotional than I was during that call, which lasted almost half an hour. “What have they done, Dad?” I cried. “What’s happening? What did they do to King?”

I couldn’t stop sobbing. I’m sure much of what I said during that call was incoherent. My father was relentlessly patient and sympathetic. Our relationship since I had left home at 18 to go off to college had not been a good one. On the question of the Vietnam War, which had become an obsession to me, we differed dramatically.

My path to Toronto had developed out of my opposition to the war. Away at college, I hadn’t done well academically. But in Ann Arbor, on the University of Michigan campus, I had discovered intellectual challenge and true political passion.

I wanted, more than anything else, to understand the historical roots of our involvement in Vietnam. How did we come to wage all-out war against a tiny, Southeast Asian country with no strategic importance to the United States and a history of resistance to foreign invaders and domestic tyrants? How could the United States conduct this brutal war overseas while Americans lived at home as though nothing was happening?

Dad had been a navigator in the Army Air Force during World War II, a much-decorated airman, proud of his contribution to that war and secure in his patriotism. He was part of that cohort that would later come to be known as the “greatest generation.” But he was also among a wealthier elite, one of the influential people who supported the war even after it was obvious to most everyone else that it was a mistake, an enterprise that had decimated Southeast Asia and a good part of a generation of Americans who served in or who opposed that war.

My father and others, heroes of the World War II victories, were also the decision-makers who launched the witch-hunts of the 1950s and the foreign interventions of the next 30 years. They were the architects and, in many cases, the most direct beneficiaries of the massive military build-up of the last half of 20th Century and the distortions of the American economy that led to economic stagnation in the ‘70s and the continuing economic devastation of the American working class.

I didn’t (and don’t) claim that Dad supported all of the policies that I objected to then and now. But he, like many of his influential contemporaries, rejected the critical analysis of governance and policy that were central to the popular movements of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Despite our political disagreements, Dad was there for me that day in Toronto when it felt like the world was coming apart. Perhaps that description, of a world falling to ruin, was a little overwrought, especially for a white, middle-class child of the ‘60s who would survive his occasionally alienated and disillusioned experience of his country with relative ease. To be sure, others have struggled, politically, socially and economically, with much worse, their personal difficulties unfolding in the context of widespread social disruption, like, say, New Orleans after Katrina.

But that, to me, was the whole point of the ‘60s. The Civil Rights movement, the Great Society, the Peace Movement, Feminism, Black Power, Environmentalism, the Farmworkers’ Union, the uprisings of Native Americans, left insurgencies within labor unions, militant demands for gay power and rights—all of these featured the agitation and activism of young people moved in their hearts and minds by the great promises of U.S. history.

We were rebelling against what the country was and did; we were moved by a belief that the greatness of the American promise—the self-evident truths, the inalienable rights, the huddled masses yearning to be free, a nation that might truly be dedicated one day to the proposition that all men and women are created equal—could be realized if we were passionate and committed and relentless. These beliefs, all of them, were resident and rooted in our minds and in our hearts.

That we would mostly fail to be true to our sense of our best selves may be the source of the angst that bubbles up as O’Rourke’s ridicule, or the source of the angst that has bathed my own brain in delusional memories of our collective heroism. Perhaps, that is my challenge. Not so much to persuade others that I am right and that the O’Rourkes and Limbaughs and Reagans and Palins of this world are wrong. But to satisfy myself that what I believed then, and mostly believe now, is not a strangely persistent naïveté, or the remnants of an altered state that merely soothes and comforts me. A half century after the yet-to-be-precisely-determined end of the ‘60s, what can I continue to reasonably believe about who I am, who we are together, and how much better we can do?