Archive for the ‘BOOKS/ART/CULTURE’ Category

QUEENS SYNDROME

I’m not spoiling season three of Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when I say I love the show, but one episode offended me.

Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) declares that her son will attend private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and not a public school in Queens. With those people. I’m one of those people—P.S. 174, Russell Sage Junior High (J.H.S. 190) and Forest Hills High. I’m no big deal, but many outstanding people (and some less so) come from Queens and the other “outer boroughs”—Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island.

As a kid, I never heard the term outer boroughs. It’s a pejorative used by Manhattanites—many from Ohio, Nebraska, Alabama and California—describing the uncouth working people whose sole function is serving the interests of the educated, taste-making elite living on the only island worth inhabiting. Until rents forced many trendy, stylish citizens to flee to Brooklyn (Park Slope, Williamsburg) and from there to—gasp!—Queens (Astoria, Long Island City).

Actually, I’m not all that terribly put out, but— Okay, I am. Queens Syndrome is typical of attitudes throughout America. Manhattan looks down on Queens. New York City looks down on New Jersey and, well, almost everywhere. The coasts look down on the heartland. The East Coast looks down on the Atlantic shore south of Washington, D.C. excepting South Florida.

Those put down as near-Neanderthals (who were quite accomplished) return the favor. The heartland condemns coastal elites as fake Americans surrounding themselves with dangerous immigrants (to garden, work in restaurants).

Note: Chicago is the hub of the Midwest, but Cook County’s Mexican-American population numbers over 750,000. Then there’s the Windy City’s huge African American population. And history as a Democratic bastion. For many conservatives, Chicago is a city to scorn along with New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Faux-heartland cities like Dallas and Atlanta are also upsetting the conservative apple cart.

America’s problem is that many people refuse to look past geography and ethnicity. Different becomes a synonym for bad. Differences exist among varying cultures but also considerable similarities. Still, how can you possibly talk to thosepeople. Those Queensites!

Sadly, America’s divide—hardly new but more public these past three years—has encouraged the rest of the world to widen its own long-standing rifts. It’s okay in Europe to be anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant. Look at the U.S. It’s fine for India’s Hindu nationalists to bar immigrant Muslims from citizenship. (As it stands, India has 200 million Muslim citizens.) And if China terrorizes its Uighur Muslims, so what? Hiding behind security concerns, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants, refugees and visitors from seven nations, five predominantly Muslim.

Of course, Islamists seek to impose their version of Islam on fellow Muslims. Blood flows. They also target others. Christians in Muslim lands are suffering. Jews—not only Israel—remain objects of hatred. But don’t confuse Islamists with Muslims who wish to live in peace with the world.

Entering 2020, my Queens soul offers bad news and good. The bad: Baseless hatred will continue. Half the world believes I’m going to hell. The good: We can abate such hatred if only we demonstrate the will.

We could start by trashing the term outer boroughs.

In spite of what you just read, Happy New Year!

The post, following this feverish bout of writing, will take two weeks off and return on Friday, January 17.

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“JOJO RABBIT”

Each November, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) provides members like my wife Carolyn with screenings, discs and streaming codes to see the year’s best films and TV shows. This precedes nominations and the January election for the SAG Awards. The first movie we saw left a lasting impression.

Jojo Rabbit, set in wartime Austria (could be Germany, not made clear and doesn’t matter), presents the relationship between a 10-year-old boy, Jojo (played wonderfully by Roman Griffin Davis), an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth with a good heart, and a young Jewish woman, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his house. Sounds like quite a drama, right? It is—and it isn’t.

There’s nothing amusing about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, but there’s everything downright funny about Jojo Rabbit, directed and co-written by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Taika’s name? Maori. So what connection could he have to this material? His birth name is Taika David Waititi, and he’s also known as Taika Cohen (his mother is Robin Cohen).

Here is a film filled with humor but not for cheap laughs. JoJo Rabbit offers satire at its best. The day before we saw it, I presented a talk to members of my synagogue, Sherith Israel, about the uses of satire and comedy in a political context: “Chuckles, Laughs, Guffaws: Autocrats’ Biggest Fears.” Tyrants can fight violent rebellion with more violence. They can counter logical arguments with opposing arguments, no matter how illogical. They can choose to ignore protest, though attention is generally paid. They can even survive a dramatization of the plight of their country. But no tyrant can stand to be ridiculed and laughed at.

Taika Waititi bought the rights to the novel Caging Skies by the New Zealand-Belgian writer Christine Leunens. It’s a serious piece. Waititi loves comedy. He made a movie in which humor dominates, heightening rather than obscuring the drama inherent in the story. (Some of his approach seems inspired by the offbeat filmmaker Wes Anderson). Waititi also plays Hitler—an insecure clown, who speaks with Jojo in the boy’s imagination.

Some things we know. The Allies won the war. Hitler committed suicide. Six million Jews perished in camps, in ghettos, on city streets, in forests. Some survived. Joao Rabbit makes a point of demonstrating that some Germans/Austrians resisted. Many paid with their lives. When Jojo sees several men and women hanged and left on display in the town square, he asks his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) what they did. In one of the best lines of dialog I’ve ever heard, she answers succinctly, “What they could.”

I’m not about to give details away, although I must give a shout-out to Sam Rockwell, in my judgment one of America’s finest screen actors, as Captain Klenzendorf. Let me just say that you will laugh at the idiocy of Nazism and its ferocious anti-Semitism, and you’ll cry.

Satire can be a two-edge sword. Poorly wielded—too obvious, too crude—it can injure its creator and those it wishes to help. Sharpened to a fine edge, it can do what drama often can’t: tell a truth that explodes autocrats’ inflated ego and hypocrisy. As with Humpty Dumpty, all the kings horses and all the king’s men can’t put them back together again.

The post will take off next Friday for Thanksgiving. Enjoy the holiday.

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OUR BOYS

The dust-up in Israel regarding HBO’s 10-part mini-series Our Boys began even before its August 12 premiere. Israelis on the right, having seen only the trailer, were incensed. They remained so when the show aired. Were they correct?

Our Boys, a Jewish-Arab Israeli collaboration, explores the 2014 arrest and trial of three Orthodox Israeli men—an uncle and his two nephews—for the murder of a Palestinian youth. It’s important to recognize that as faithful to events as the creators tried to be, the recounting is fictional. Some actual personalities were merged into a single character, the scope of TV and film having limits. The writers also created dialogue, revealing conversations they’d never heard, to add to the drama. I don’t know if they accessed transcripts of interrogations and the trial.

Critically, the show’s opening scenes lay the groundwork by marking a painful moment—there have been many—in Israel’s history. Eighteen days before Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s murder, Palestinians kidnapped three young Israeli Yeshiva students: Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar. Israelis prayed and demonstrated for their safe return. When the students were discovered murdered, the nation mourned. Many on the Israeli right erupted.

Had the creators begun with the killing of Mohammed, ignoring the Yeshiva students’ murders, negative response to the show would easily be understood. Israelis would see themselves simplistically rendered as haters of Arabs (some are, hardly all) and wanton killers.

But Our Boys portrays the revenge murder as wrong and a violation of Jewish values. Yet it never condemns Israel. Rather, it calls to task those who would kill illegally in the name of the state and lauds Israel as a nation dedicated to morality, law and peace.

What’s the problem? As I mentioned, pushback began when Israelis saw only the show’s trailer. Seventy years of attacks by Arab states and Palestinian terrorists have left their mark on the Israeli psyche. Yet to be legitimate, dramas like Our Boys must present complexity and subtlety. The reason is obvious: Human beings are complex and subtle. Murder horrifies us yet we’re often struck by the desire for revenge—more murder. We can celebrate our best attributes only if we confront our worst.

Speaking of complexity, Our Boys presents Mohammed’s parents, Hussein and Suha, sympathetically. They’re human. They’re Mother and Father! Yet the right may fail to note that the show also presents many Palestinians as ardently desiring Israel’s destruction and in thrall to the concept of martyrdom that fuels terrorism against Jews in Israel and (non-Jews included) elsewhere. Many Palestinians disregard the wishes of the mourning parents. Israelis who don’t see the show can’t know this.

Three months after the deaths of the three Yeshivah students, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian suspects in a shoot-out. The three killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir received prison sentences ranging from life down to 22 years for the youngest, an emotionally disturbed teen.

The challenge any people confront when struck by violence is that killing, or convicting and imprisoning suspects, doesn’t necessarily bring matters to a close. Deep wounds heal slowly if at all.

Five years later, Israelis and Palestinians remain at loggerheads. Peace—true peace—seems unreachable. Our Boys touches emotions still raw. If negative Israeli responses seem off the mark to me, they’re nonetheless understandable.

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WHALES, DOLPHINS AND AWE

I read Moby Dick ages ago and found myself fascinated by Herman Melville’s lengthy discourses on cetology, the study of whales. Last Wednesday, I joined my friends Ira and Dan on a whale watching trip hosted by the Oceanographic Society. In a word: awesome!

We departed on the Salty Ladyfrom the yacht harbor at the Marina Green off Scott Street. The two naturalists onboard and the captain all emphasized the incredible weather we’d have at sea: clear skies and mild—a relative matter—temperatures. (San Francisco hit 94 degrees that afternoon.)

On the way out, we spotted dolphins, porpoises, humpback whales and sea birds, including more than one albatross, and a rarely sighted skua. Because of the great weather, our captain decided to bypass the Farallon Islands at first and sail to the edge of the continental shelf. There, the seabed drops precipitously from 300 feet to 3,000. An upwelling of water brings nutrients and food sources providing great feeding to whales and other sea life.

Jaws dropped as humpbacks spouted then rose out of the water. We’d see their backs then a huge length of white foam as they submerged. Several jumped out vertically well past their heads. Others displayed their flukes—tails—as they dove.

At the peak of activity, we sighted a pod of at least three whales and maybe five. Spouts rose like the fountains at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel. Dolphins and porpoises leapt by the boat with great frequency. A huge turtle came close—another rare sighting. An ocean sunfish swam alongside. I called out to the sea life, “Guys, slow down. There’s more to see here than we can take in!” They didn’t listen. No complaint from me.

Almost everyone missed the best sighting. After stopping by the Farallons to check out the birds and sea lions—we also saw houses for researchers and Coast Guard personnel—we headed back to San Francisco.

As we sat and chatted, Ira, who’d been seasick until noon and missed the action out at the continental shelf’s edge, spotted a humpback leap entirely out of the water and expose its white belly. By the time he called out, Dan and I could see only the splash. Only one or two others onboard saw the event. We were glad for Ira and had no problem missing what we’d love to have seen because we’d seen so much.

Sunday night, the Jewish world will observe Rosh Hashanah, marking the New Year 5780. The whales, dolphins, porpoises and birds I saw provided me with much added meaning. The ten-day period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is known as the Days of Awe. As we contemplate how we’ve lived our lives and acknowledge the Source of Creation, the majesty of the synagogue service can raise our spirits only so far. We need perspective.

Being out on the Pacific, rising and falling with the swells, witnessing the sea’s sheer size and power, and seeing the magnificent creatures with whom we share the planet showed me how small I am and how huge is creation.

At this, or any, time of the year, a little awe-inspired humility can bring us closer to the marvels we can see and the mysteries we can’t.

The post will take next week off and return on October 11. For everyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, may you be written and sealed into the Book of Life.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,  is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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THE VIEW FROM NORWAY

Eighteen months ago, Donald Trump called for more immigrants from Norway (aka white people). Norwegians seem content to stay home. Derek B. Miller, a Massachusetts native and author who lives in Norway’s capital, Oslo, offers some perspective.

Miller wrote the best-selling novel Norwegian by Night. He provides a sharp take on the country of his birth in a follow-up, American by Day. It’s as didactic (unfortunately) as it is witty (very) but worth examining.

A female Norwegian police chief, Sigrid Ødegård, travels to northern New York State to search for her missing older brother. Speaking with a younger American policewoman, Sigrid declares that American culture is all about individualism. “The way you perform individualism is through self-reliance. But acting self-reliant usually means acting alone.” That, says Sigrid, weakens America as a community. “You worry that working together undermines your myth of self-reliance, so you hyperexaggerate its value to mask the fear.” America, Sigrid warns, is “basically doomed.”

Yesterday’s cowboy movies and today’s superhero films establish the rugged individual—often a rogue—as a prized figure in American culture. The Hollywood icon John Wayne played those types to the hilt and was himself deemed an American hero. (For the record, he was acting).

Many Americans in rural areas and their relatives in red-state urban and suburban areas sized from Waco to Houston (I lived in Texas long ago) still cling to the myth of the rugged individual and reject the role of broad community. This while the carpool has replaced the roundup, the gas grill the campfire. Yet Montana author Ivan Doig, in novels like Dancing at the Rascal Fair, shows how important community was in settling the West.

Still, the rugged individual remains the conservative ideal. The mountain man went off on his own to trap, hunt and scrounge off the land with little or no connection to the new towns growing around him and certainly not today’s shopping malls to which conservatives flock. Self-reliance—forget Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—means everything. Failure warrants censure. Can’t find a job or one that pays a living wage? Can’t afford health insurance or medications? Can’t pay for college? Your fault. Me pay taxes—if I have a job—to help alleviate your problems? My right to say “Hell, no.”

Liberals often thrive in older urban environments, which historically drew large numbers of immigrants and retain many of their descendants. These Americans survived—and thrived—by organizing ethnic and religious communities, as well as supporting labor unions. Unlike many conservative communities (yes, they exist), these groups often formed coalitions with others unlike them but also looking to government, the broadest form of community, for solutions to difficult problems.

Individualism, Sigrid advises, is “why you all buy guns rather than build institutions. None of it makes you safer, but it does make you more American.”

Given the 40,000 annual gun deaths in the U.S. (2016, CNN) and a homicide rate seven times greater that Norway’s (2010-12, nationmaster.com,) plus many other grave problems, Derek Miller, through Sigrid, makes us think.

Perhaps Mr. Trump might have someone read the novel for him. Then he might understand why Norwegians no longer flock to our shores, and why instead we attract so many desperate people from other countries whose governments represent not the solution but the problem.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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15 MINUTES OF FAME

In 1968, the artist Andy Warhol wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Until last Sunday, I found myself fourteen minutes short. So I added a few seconds to my meager sum.

I held a launch party for Big Truth: New and Collected Stories. My guests gathered at Lokma Turkish restaurant in my neighborhood. They found parking! I enjoyed treating them to Turkish appetizers, selling some books and, most of all, reading two very short stories and the beginning of a third. Hear for yourself on YouTube.

Yes, I’d love to top Warhol’s 15 minutes. My book Solo Success: 100 Tips for Becoming a $100,00-a-Year Freelancer sold about 3,300 copies, and I was interviewed for radio and print. I relished the whole process, but as I stood in the national spotlight, it barely flickered.

In truth—a big truth—life owes us nothing. Most of us live in anonymity, although I’m delighted to say that I’ve had a very nice life. So when you have the chance to celebrate something special—something that means a lot to you—you jump on it.

I’ve never been taken with recurring calendar dates. They strike me as artificial. In this regard, I confess to not caring about my approaching birthday. It’s for family and friends to say, “Glad you were born.” The accomplishment belongs to my parents, Morris and Blanche. Another big truth: My mother did the heavy lifting. It’s doing something yourself that calls for a little back patting, even if you risk dislocating your shoulder.

I admit to being picky about celebrations. High school graduation? No biggie. A diploma was an expectation and never in doubt. College? The same, although I confess that my four years as an undergraduate were the worst in my life. The fault was not the school’s—Alfred University in western New York is wonderful—but my own. I had no idea why I was so often miserable and detached. Only later did I understand that I was a fairly extreme—if functional—introvert. It took decades for me to come to grips with, although not perfect, myself. I get by reasonably well now, but I avoid situations I know I’ll find uncomfortable.

Then there was graduation from the Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1967. OCS was a challenge and thus something to celebrate. Getting my M.A. from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio? I worked for an ad agency days and went to school on the G.I. Bill nights—three courses per semester for two years. No free time. But Carolyn encouraged me. That was worth a little applause.

But I’ll always revel in bringing out a new book. Readers often have no idea about how much effort and psychic pain is involved along with the joy of creating a story. If I flog my books—and ask people to read them—you know why.

Now, I’ll back away from another date with celebrity until my newest novel, almost completed, comes out. I hope it will bring my minutes of fame—among family and friends at least—up to two or even three. I also hope you’ll celebrate yourachievements and the few minutes of fame they’ve earned you.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy.

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ROBERT MUELLER AND BIG TRUTH

What do the Mueller Report and David Perlstein’s latest book, Big Truth: New and Collected Stories, have in common? A great deal.

Mueller, looking into a possible Moscow-Donald Trump connection, searched for “big truth”—something that might shed light on what happened. Although he didn’t find a smoking gun, he discovered many “small truths” to which attention must be paid.

David, too, finds big truth elusive. So his new volume of 25 stories, substantially shorter than the Mueller Report, puts a spotlight on small truths—some reassuring, many painful.

As to Robert Mueller, he spoke last Wednesday when he announced his retirement from the Department of Justice. Mueller repeated what he wrote in his painstaking if heavily redacted report. Hearing it from his mouth amplified the message: Mueller’s team did not recommend an indictment against Trump because DOJ’s long-standing policy prohibits that. Likewise, if he could have cleared Trump of wrongdoing, he would have. But he could not.

Here, one of David’s small truths comes into play: Read between the lines (although the space between these is large enough for big truth to peak out). Mueller’s task was not to get Trump but to gather facts. This led him to indict many Russian military operatives along with Americans, including Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen.

Not-so-small truth: DOJ policy gave Trump a free get-out-of-jail card. Indicting a sitting president was off limits, so Mueller never considered doing so. Kind-of-obvious truth: If Trump is to be brought to justice for ties to Russia and/or obstructing Mueller’s investigation, that authority rests with Congress. More in a moment.

What about Attorney General William Barr? Mueller’s message conflicts with Barr’s, who stated that the special prosecutor informed him that the DOJ guideline had nothing to do with Mueller not charging Trump. That seems to be news to Mueller. Good-size truth: Barr has dissembled from day one.

A Russia hoax and witch hunt? On Thursday, Trump tweeted: “And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.” So Russia did interfere in the election, according to Trump. Yet he’s denied that from the outset. Damn-close-to-big truth: the Mueller investigation, as Mueller reiterated, was legitimate and of great national concern.

Back to Congress. Many Democrats want to impeach. Democratic leadership is hesitant. For Senate Republicans, nothing short of Trump’s shooting someone on Fifth Avenue—Trump once bragged he could get away with that—would produce a guilty plea.

Small (humble) truths from David: Impeachment may be nearing. But why rush? Information gathered and aired by Congress can sway enough public opinion to make a broad case for impeachment even if conviction defies the odds. New York State made it easier for Congress to obtain Trump’s state tax returns. If financial ties with Russia are found, some Americans who voted for Trump may wake up and smell the coffee. Democrats who sat out the 2016 election and third-party voters may see how important it is to step up and vote for the Democratic candidate.

Life’s complicated, so Big Truth asks questions instead of providing answers. You’ll find funny stories and serious ones and maybe enough small truths to keep you going through the 2020 election. Get it at Amazon or other print and digital sources.

You’re invited to my party launching Big Truth: New and Collected Stories—Sunday, June 9, 3:30–5 pm at Lokma Turkish restaurant, 1801 Clement Street at 19th Avenue, San Francisco. Yes, you can buy a copy, which I’ll sign. RSVP with number in party: dhperl@yahoo.com.

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SHALOM, DOLLY!

Carolyn and I just saw the road revival of the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! My life passed in front of my eyes.

Dolly Gallagher Levi is a matchmaker and hustling Jill-of-all-trades in 1885 New York. Widowed a decade, she sets her sights on Horace Vandergelder, a Yonkers widower and reputed half-a-millionaire. All the rest is commentary.

Except, who is Dolly? Originally Dolly Gallagher, she’s Irish. But she married a Jew, Ephraim Levi. (Ephraim was one of the biblical Joseph’s two sons, Levi Jacob’s third son and antecedent to Israel’s hereditary priests beginning with Aaron). The musical’s roots lie in Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. Making Dolly’s late, beloved husband a Jew seemed to have been a rather brave undertaking on Wilder’s part.

But, was Ephraim really Jewish? During a monologue by Dolly, we see the store Ephraim owned—a haberdashery—a men’s clothing store. In 1966, a Jewish-owned men’s store was the first thing I saw in Anniston, Alabama heading to Fort McClellan and advanced infantry training. And when Dolly is asked to name a great American, her reply: Moses!

In 2006, the Jewish actress Tovah Feldshuh decided not to play Dolly as Jewish because she herself was. The late Carol Channing, who originated the role, did play Dolly as Jewish “On the basis of my own early marriage right out of Bennington. I married into a Galician, Yiddish-speaking family.”

Which brings me to me. Actually, to my wife. Carolyn was raised in Waco as a Catholic but had many Jewish friends and a Jewish aunt, uncle and cousin. She was falling away from Catholicism when we met. No, she never converted. A justice of the peace married us. 

But over the last 50 years (this September marks our golden anniversary), she’s been a true helpmate to a Jewish man, raised three Jewish children, supported our synagogue and championed Israel, which we’ve visited together twice. I should add that she often enlightens her friends (many or most Jewish) on Jewish practices and Israel.

This may be due in part to my parents, Morris and Blanche, who welcomed Carolyn into the family sight unseen. Of course, my mother had to meet this girl after we called from San Antonio to say we were getting married. A sophisticated woman with perfect hair, makeup, nails, clothing and accessories, Blanche Perlstein flew down and brought gifts—among them a potato grater and jar of chicken fat.

It was love at first sight. My mother signed me over to Carolyn as Dolly Levi gave Horace Vandergelder no choice but to marry her. Carolyn has “guided” my life, clarifying what I really wanted to do about various things because how could I be expected to make decisions about the menu at our kids’ b’nai mitzvah or our 36th (double chai/2×18) recommitment ceremony at Congregation Sherith Israel, or the colors for the exterior of our house.

Doubtless, Ephraim Levi knew how lucky he was to marry Dolly Gallagher. I feel the same way about Carolyn. So does my entire family, who from the outset made Carolyn their own while relegating me to “Carolyn’s husband.”

Without Carolyn, I’d be nothing. So from now on, I’ll refer to Hello, Dolly! as Shalom, Dolly! because the moment I met Carolyn, I said hello to a better life.  

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LAURA AND DUKE—A HATE STORY

America generally accepted racism in 1871, even though the Civil War had ended six years earlier. A century later, bigotry stood officially condemned. Yet prejudice had its champions. Today, those champions have champions. 

On Laura Ingraham’s February 20 Fox News show, author/journalist Raymond Arroyo rebutted the furor resulting from the resurfacing of a 1971 Playboy interview with John Wayne. The Hollywood legend friends called Duke told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” 

Arroyo claimed that Wayne shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. Ingraham agreed and likened protestors to the Taliban and ISIS, who “don’t want any vestige of what was.” 

So, what “was” in 1971? Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act seven years earlier. Although millions of whites fought desegregation and equal rights, America officially took a new stance towards racial equality. It was inevitable. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against the concept of separate but equal schools. In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. Before and after that decision, thousands of black Americans died for our country. Theircountry. 

Educated and responsible citizens? In the ’60s, I viewed my fraternity brothers Paul and Bob, my officer candidate school buddies Kent and Cliff, and L.M., starting center on the Fort Sam Houston post basketball team I coached for two seasons, as more than well-educated to the point of responsibility. Exemplary African Americans? No. Exemplary men.

Duke Wayne’s comments become more reprehensible because he stood as a symbol of American manhood. The symbol was false. His real name? Marion Morrison—although that’s not an issue. Until about the time of Wayne’s comments, Hollywood required actors to adopt short, Anglo-Saxon sounding screen names. These often mollified moviegoers uncomfortable with seeing “foreigners” on the silver screen. (Blacks played maids and train porters, Asians maids and gardeners.) Tinseltown disguised Jewish stars like Paul Muni (Frederich Weisenfruend), Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch), Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske) and Judy Holliday (Judith Tuvim).

Wayne’s heroism? Celluloid myth. He played courageous cowboys and World War Two servicemenas an actor. During the war, the military rejected him because of his age and status as a father. To Wayne’s credit, that dissatisfied him. He made USO tours and visited wounded veterans in hospitals—worthy endeavors but hardly on a par with those who endured combat.

In the post-war years Wayne, a conservative, vociferously supported the red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC blacklisted many Hollywood actors, writers, directors and others for liberal and/or communist sympathies during the Depression years. It destroyed careers, damaged lives. 

Laura Ingraham’s giving a pass to John Wayne’s racist views helps maintain an environment of hatred that over the past three years has crawled out from the shadows. Recently, an Alabama newspaper editor called on the Ku Kux Klan “to night ride again.” And federal agents in Maryland arrested a white-supremacist Coast Guard officer with a large arsenal of weapons. They accused him of plotting to kill Democratic members of Congress, television journalists and others. 

Should today’s racists be exonerated because their views reflect those of a supposedly cherished—and deeply flawed—past? Should their views be accepted because they match those espoused by a current self-proclaimed hero who also never served in the military? The Laura-Duke hate story deserves no love.

For a detailed look at Washington’s Hollywood purges, read Victor Navasky’s 1980 National Book Award winner, Naming Names.

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A SERIOUS RESOLUTION—KIND OF

I love to laugh. So I’m going to tell you one of my favorite jokes—in a moment. But you may not hear much humor from me in 2019.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up in New York, exchanging banter was as natural as drinking mother’s milk. Although I was bottle fed. Scotch. When I outgrew my bottle, I learned to drink from a tippy cup. Vodka. But sometimes humorous comments get in the way. And as I grow older, I sometimes go to extremes. I reference the late George Carlin.

Carlin—also a New Yorker—offered, “Class clown becomes office schmuck.” I was never class clown, although I was chief comic among my friends. I was never office schmuck. But that slippery slope beckoned, and among friends, I often teetered on the brink. I’m pulling myself back. It’s so important to let other people speak and actively listen to what they say. Imagine if Donald Trump, the Oval Office schmuck, followed suit.

Not that I’m burrowing into a hole and clamming up. Although I did that recently. I experimented by spending one year of Torah Study rarely making comments. I wanted to learn more from our teacher and other students. Admittedly, I withheld observations that might have clarified our discussions. The Sages say not to do that. Apologies. When that year concluded, I dialed back my silence and shared thoughts I believed critical, particularly when discussions came close to veering off the rails. In that light, I’ll try to modify all my social interactions in 2019 to be less of a wiseass.

Not that I’ll stop laughing. Last week, Carolyn and I flew to Baton Rouge—a mirthless adventure that took over 30 hours thanks to electrical storms in Texas and Louisiana. Still, we had a wonderful visit with our son Seth, a grad student at Louisiana State University (LSU) in video game design. His degree combines art and technology, and he showed us some of what he’s doing. Fabulous.

Seth gave me a belated Chanukah gift, the book Old Jews Telling Jokes. It’s a compendium told by—yes—old Jews (60 and up) on the YouTube site of that name. Interestingly, Carolyn and I saw an off-Broadway version a few years ago. One of us laughed a lot.

Now for that joke I promised. (It’s not in the book). It was told, as I recall, by the late Myron Cohen. It involves ritual circumcision. If this seems too much for you, don’t read any further. But you won’t find in it the word penis or any of its Yiddish terms, like schlong or schwantz. Still reading? Good.

A mohel (MOY-al)—a ritual circumcizer—enters a luggage-maker’s shop. He says, “Fifty years I’ve been snipping baby boys, now I’ve retired.” He presents the luggage-maker with a large sack. “I saved every foreskin. Make me something to remember my life’s work.” The luggage-maker says, “Sure. Come back in a week.” The mohel comes back and receives a package in a plain brown paper. It fits in the palm of his hand. Wary, he unwraps it. “A wallet? Fifty years, and all I get is a wallet?” The luggage-maker grins. “Rub it. It’ll turn into a suitcase.”

Happy New Year!

The above commentary does not constitute a legal declaration—explicit or implicit—that the writer (aka David Perlstein) will refrain in whole or in part from telling jokes or making comments intended—but not guaranteed—to be humorous at any time and in any place of his (but not the listener’s) choosing during the year 2019 of the common era. Further, this statement does not constitute an agreement with his wife Carolyn that he will refrain from making adolescent comments typical of a man at the age of sixty-fourteen.

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