Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King’

PRECAUTION, NOT PANIC

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote as America struggled to birth itself. Now, we face the coronavirus pandemic. To strengthen our souls, looking back may offer a clearer picture of the future.

Is the sky falling? Gray clouds have gathered and they’re darkening. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “It is going to get worse.” At my age, Covid-19 poses a risk, although my health is excellent. Still, the world won’t come to an end.

Am I a Pollyanna? No, a realist. Major events of my 75-year lifetime provide some perspective.

When I was six, Americans were fighting in Korea—wherever that was. At P.S. 174 in Queens, I joined classmates in duck-and-cover drills to protect from a Soviet nuclear attack on New York. Polio still took a heavy toll on children. A friend survived it but emerged with a limp.

Jim Crow was alive and well in the south and practiced unofficially elsewhere. This, too, was a health scare since African Americans’ health was imperiled by being hung from a tree or shot or burned while at home.

The Cold War produced Vietnam. The American toll in Southeast Asia totaled 58,000, including my friend 1LT Howie Schnabolk, an Army medevac pilot shot down on 3 August 1967. Killed and wounded GIs were just part of the story.

The nation was coming apart at the seams. Nightsticks and dogs attacked civil rights marchers. Martin Luther King was assassinated, which led to riots producing death and destruction in urban ghettos. Political unrest forced Lyndon Johnson to forego running for another term as president in 1968. Which gave us Richard Nixon.

American industry took a header. Japanese cars battered Detroit. Then all sorts of industrial jobs fled the Midwest—soon to be known as the Rust Belt—for the American south and then Asia. AIDS emerged in the 1980s. It took the lives of as many as 700,000 Americans, including three of my fraternity brothers.

In the ’90s, the Dot.com Boom lifted a lot of people’s spirits—until the Dot.com Bust sent them plummeting. On 9/11, the Twin Towers fell and turmoil reigned. The nation rose up yet launched a foolish and costly war with Iraq. The stock market soared again until, in 2008, the financial industry collapsed with the market hitting its low point in March 2009.

Yet even recovery from the Great Recession wasn’t enough to calm a deeply divided America. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

I’ve seen a lot, but so did my parents: The First World War, the Spanish flu (1918-20) which killed over 50 million worldwide and more than half a million Americans, the Depression, World War Two.

In time of crisis, I turn to the English writer Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . you’ll be a Man my son!”

Keep washing your hands. Keep maintaining your social distance. Keep your head on your shoulders and your chin up. Male, female or nonbinary, you’ll be a mensch. And as a nation, we’ll get to sing along with another Briton, Elton John: “I’m Still Standing.”

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THE DIRT ON “AMERICAN DIRT”

They’re at it again. The new novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has drawn lots of attention. Following a major publicity campaign by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, American Dirtreceived a number of terrific reviews. Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club (Flatiron published four of Oprah’s books), the ultimate U.S. sales driver. Then the dirt flew.

Although bestselling crime/mystery author Don Winslow (published by William Morrow) cover-blurbed, “A Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and other leading writers praised the novel, a number of Latino/Latina/Latinx authors, critics and social commentators stomped on American Dirt.

Many of those opposed to American Dirt haven’t read it. (Neither have I.) The issue: Jeanine Cummins is white with a single Puerto Rican grandparent. That should disqualify her from writing about Mexicans fleeing to America. Imagination? Empathy? Writing chops? Not in play.

From what I’ve read about American Dirt, the novel offers an inventive take on the Mexican migration story. The heroine, Lydia, owns a bookstore in Acapulco. She gets involved—at least regarding books—with a charming man, who turns out to be the head of a drug cartel. Lydia’s husband, an investigative reporter, writes about the drug lord. Cartel gunmen then slaughter Lydia’s family. Only she and her son Luca survive.

One critic asked why Lydia didn’t fly to Canada since she had the means. It seems there’s an answer. The drug lord can reach any nation but the U.S. (Why, I don’t know.) Traveling with poor migrants offers Lydia and Luca cover. But they discover that they must face the same horrors encountered by the poor and defenseless migrants whom they accompany.

So, Cummins offers a rationale for the story. Does American Dirtstand equal to The Grapes of Wrath? No idea. I suspect Cummins never asked for all the hype but, like all writers, welcomes it. I would. Of course, only by reading a novel can you judge it.

But these days, a story and writing skills aren’t enough. Opponents of cultural appropriation insist that particular stories can be told only by writers of proper race, ethnicity, sex or gender identification or preference.

Some critics of American Dirt don’t mind Cummins writing the novel she did. They just don’t want her to profit from it. (She received a seven-figure advance). A New York Times article quoted Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose new memoir covers crossing the border and growing up undocumented in California: “The problem isn’t that a non-Mexican wrote about migration.” It’s “the gross bastardization of the subject and the erasing of others who have written about this and are writing about it.

In short, American Dirt is being heavily promoted by its publisher and heading for great commercial success. Why should Cummins cash in and not Castillo and true Latinx?

Of course, the novel may be a literary dud. Times reviewer Paruhl Seghal writes, “The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist.”

Fair enough. Ultimately, readers and awards committees will decide the worthiness of American Dirt. I hope their decisions will be based on the content of Cummins’ characters, not the color of her skin.

Or am I, as an Ashkenazi Jew, appropriating Martin Luther King?

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RACISM REVERSED

The recent presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s victory spurred new conversations about racism. Ironically, while America has made great progress, unexpected forms of racism have been cropping up.

White racism, of course, hasn’t disappeared. A week ago, Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa) represented it by tweeting in support of far-right Dutch prime ministerial candidate Geert Wilders: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” (Wilders’ party finished second on Wednesday with 20 of 120 parliamentary seats.) King believes non-whites can make no contribution to Holland. This isn’t new for King. In July 2016, he asked on MSNBC, “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” Last Tuesday, King predicted, “Hispanics and the blacks will be fighting each other” before white Christians become a minority in America in about thirty years.

Western European and American civilizations have accomplished much. We can be proud of this heritage. But humanity being what it is, they also gave the world the Inquisition, colonialism, Hitler and nuclear weapons. Slavery formed a backbone of American economics for centuries. Jim Crow followed for another hundred years. Meanwhile, major civilizations flourished elsewhere. They, too, committed atrocities.

Our faults acknowledged, a great many Americans believe that anyone of any genetic or cultural background can share our nation’s values and enrich our society. So many native-born people and immigrants have. Yet a new group is under attacked.

In some circles, it’s fashionable to condemn white Americans as racist. Not some whites. All. “Progressive” quarters speak of “white privilege.” Yes, whites often have it easier in a society not yet free of racism, overt or subtle. But the concept of “white privilege” is mean-spirited and distorting. It makes “white” or “Caucasian” an epithet in the way anti-Semites make an epithet of “Jew.”

This week, I discovered another variation of anti-white sentiment on a Facebook post. It’s called “white fragility.” In a 2015 article, a (white) woman named Robin DiAngelo, who holds a Ph.D. in multicultural education, told Michigan Radio, “Racism comes out of our pores as white people. It’s the way that we are.” Given that condition, DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility”—whites simply can’t handle the fact that they are racists.

Must genetics or upbringing condemn every white American? In reality, white Americans hold varying views about race and “the other.” So too, individuals in all racial groups hold varying beliefs—including racist attitudes—about people who are different. The problem: If all whites can be tarred with the same brush, white racists and anti-Semites logically can continue spewing foul stereotypes of all other groups.

Racial progress isn’t swift as we’d like, but America will move forward despite those on the far left who, like many on the far right, see genetics as all. In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that 84 percent of whites approve of white-black marriage. That strikes me not as white fragility but as white flexibility.

It also gives me hope that we might—eventually—realize Martin Luther King’s dream that people will be judged on the content of their character rather than on the color of their skin. That is, if the politics of some Americans’ doesn’t devolve into yet another form of racism.

Now for a purely self-serving word: Read the first two chapters of my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht on this website. I’ll host a celebration at the end of April, selling and autographing softcover books. Can’t be there? Go to Amazon for a copy in softcover or digital format.

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