Posts Tagged ‘Slavery’

DEMOCRACY’S NOT DEAD YET

Several nights ago, I heard a symphony of foghorns. I live two miles from the Pacific and half that distance from San Francisco’s Baker Beach and the Golden Gate. Yet extended periods of time often pass between my visits to the beach to admire the ocean’s size, energy and mystery.

So it is with much in life. Beauty and wonder often are much closer than we realize. Politics, war and disasters—natural and man-made—attract our attention. We close our eyes and minds to the good that also surrounds us.

Another matter relates. Tomorrow (Saturday) night, Jews will celebrate Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah). Then or on Sunday, synagogues will unroll a Torah scroll and read the last verses of the year’s final portion, V’zot HaB’rachah(And This is the Blessing), which concludes with Moses’ death. Without a pause, reading will continue with the first verses of B’reishit(Genesis) with which the Torah starts, presenting creation and life.

Why read the same text year after year? The scholar Jeffrey Tigay explains that we find new insights on every page (as we might at the beach or in a forest), “not because the Torah has changed, but because we have changed since we read it a year ago.”

Looking past immediate concerns, Americans can gain new perspectives on our present situation and our past—hear the call of the Liberty Bell too often drowned out by shouting. We may discover that the nation’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses.

I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. As I write, I’m gazing at the cover of October’s The Atlantic. This special edition asks a disturbing question: “Is democracy dying?” Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg titles his introduction “The Crisis in Democracy.” A toxic brew of populism, tribalism, Donald Trump and technology worries a number of The Atlantic’s writers and contributors. Nothing new here. A recent edition of Foreign Affairsconsidered the same matter. The non-Fox media continue to do so.

Sure, there’s plenty of worry to go around. Witness the hyper-partisanship surrounding yesterday’s Senate testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanagh. Yet America weathered previous storms.

White people enslaved black people. The Ku Kux Klan promoted racism and segregation not just in the South but all over the country. Universities and medical schools restricted Jewish matriculation. Women couldn’t vote until 1920. In the 1930s, upwards of thirty million Americans listened to Father Charles Coghlan’s anti-Semitic radio broadcasts. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans. Throughout our history, the nation also suffered a series of economic depressions and, of course, 9/11.

Un-democratic, prejudicial laws and customs have always had strong proponents. Hence the secession of the Southern states leading to the Civil War, considerable opposition to women’s suffrage in Congress and later political maneuvering like Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. All these battered and bruised American democracy. We moved forward.

I’ll give the last word to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, writing from Greece: “Democracy is stubborn. It raises our gaze. It is the system that best enshrines the unshakable human desire to be free. Athens reminds us of that. America reminds us of that. It fails. It falls short of John Winthrop’s ‘city upon a hill.’ It strives still to fail better.”

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LOUISIANA

Most Californians think about Louisiana—New Orleans aside—as God, guns and gumbo. Carolyn and I spent Thanksgiving week in Baton Rouge with our son Seth, a graduate student at Louisiana State. The visit demonstrated that there’s more.

Our hotel room overlooked the Mississippi River. We were thrilled. Here flows one of the hearts of America—a highway meandering 2,300 miles and antedating the railroads and interstates. Long strings of barges still carry goods up and down the big river. No surprise—I’m now re-reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

West lies Cajun country. People were unfailingly cheerful and polite*. I like southern Louisianans, who differentiate themselves from folks further north. The owner of the company with which we took a swamp tour asked Seth if he lived north or south of Interstate 10. Seth lives south. Our welcome was confirmed, although our host asked the question tongue in cheek.

I enjoy food in southern Louisiana, although I eat kosher-style. That eliminates shrimp, crawfish, catfish, pork and bacon. What’s left? I had fabulous fried chicken and a great biscuit at the Boudin Shop in the Cajun town of Breaux Bridge. Baton Rouge menus included steak, brisket, barbecue chicken and salmon. Also, very good pastries, including a wonderful carrot cake and a super-rich pre-birthday chocolate cake for Carolyn. Sadly, the beignets didn’t come close to those at New Orleans’ Café du Monde. Maybe it was a bad day.

Near our hotel, we discovered the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in a refurbished railroad depot. The planetarium offered a show about the constellations. Then—to our surprise—it played animated videos featuring classic (non-religious, fortunately) Christmas songs. The last video filled the dome with five-pointed stars. But in the middle floated one star with six points—the star of David! I don’t know if the audience got it, but we did. Someone on the animation team signaled that Jews also exist.

*Asterisk time: Yosi, who is transgender, felt uncomfortable in Breaux Bridge, where Santa Claus was about to start the Christmas Season. They don’t do “the holidays” there. Yet Yosi has lived in the South—including New Orleans—for years, previously stopped in Breaux Bridge on tour and traveled the state.

I’m a realist. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s presidential ballots. Behind the smiles and good wishes lie different points of view and possibly some awkwardness. A garrulous Lyft driver mentioned that all the quarters at plantations had fireplaces because owners were good to “the help.” Carolyn used the word “slavery.” He continued referring to “the help” as if we spoke different languages.

I conclude that America remains a patchwork of diverse regions and cultures. Our problem consists of too often dwelling on the differences—and equating different with bad—rather than acknowledging what we share. A timely symbol of the latter may be the cell towers that rise above flat, swampy Cajun country just as a similar tower peers over the Presidio National Park blocks from my house.

Yes, differences do matter. They can’t be sugar-coated like beignets. Still, we might spend more time listening to each other and getting past stereotypes. Real human connections could unite Americans and help the nation offer life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.

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CHARLOTTESVILLE

You know the old saying, “There are two sides to every story.” Donald Trump repeated that last Tuesday. Regrettably, such clichéd adages lend themselves to ignoring horrible injustices.

Last weekend, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the city’s proposed removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Some carried Nazi flags and wore Ku Klux Klan regalia. Counter-protestors rallied. Tempers grew hot. Violence ensued. One man drove a car into a crowd of counter-protestors and killed a 32-year-old woman.

Trump bemoaned the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides—on many sides.” Is it bigotry to oppose the belief that non-white, non-Christians should be classified as second-rate citizens or sub-human? Charlottesville does not represent opposing but legitimate principles.

Not until Monday did Trump condemn white supremacy and hate groups by name—just as his American Manufacturing Council began to unravel in disgust. On Tuesday, he circled back and again defended the pro-statue protestors. “There are good people on both sides,” Trump said.

Two sides to every story? I once served as a juror on two criminal trials—a shooting and a stabbing—and a civil trial—a suit against a supermarket chain. These properly represented two sides to each story because jurors were mandated to decide the outcome based on facts. At no time did a judge suggest that any party deserved to be found guilty or innocent, or liable or not at fault, because of who or what they were.

In the criminal trials, the District Attorney’s office was required to make a case against the defendants’ actions, not their characters. In the civil case, the plaintiff’s attorney had to demonstrate wrongdoing by the company, not present an anti-corporate screed. The criminal trials led to convictions. The civil case was dismissed. The juries, after lengthy deliberation, based their decisions on the evidence. The characters and beliefs of all parties played no role in those decisions.

Donald Trump abhors facts. His statement about bigotry on both sides offered legitimacy to the grievances of neo-Nazis against Jews because Jews are, well, Jews. Likewise, he offered white supremacists of all stripes a measure of understanding. In doing so, he implied there must be a measure of truth behind their hatred of African Americans, East Asians, Latinos, South Asians—and Jews.

One could extend this kind of thinking to Hitler. Yes, he ordered the killing of six million Jews and millions of others. But he must have had his reasons. Should we thus tolerate statues of Hitler? By Trump’s logic later in the week, yes. After all, Hitler was a historical figure.

For centuries, American whites enslaved blacks. Weren’t slave owners simply capitalists promoting, like any good conservative, the South’s agricultural economy? Therefore, shouldn’t we maintain statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis as icons of a bygone, if misguided, culture? Trump also says yes to that.

Each week, I evaluate topics about which to write. With disturbing frequency, Donald Trump preempts them. I could ignore him. But how in good conscience can anyone overlook the moral chaos continually fomented by the White House? If Mr. Trump truly wishes to drain the swamp in Washington, he can resign and go back to flushing gold-plated toilets in Trump Tower.

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THE 4TH AND ISAAC NEWTON

Yesterday, July 4th, brought to mind Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This thought emanated from reasons historical, personal and contemporary.

On July 4, 1776—or close to that date depending on which historian you read—the American Colonies reacted in equal and opposite measure to such British practices as taxation without representation. The Continental Congress announced that Americans would represent themselves to their own government. If they paid taxes—not a popular thought—they’d at least pay themselves.

Human nature being imperfect—the Preamble to the Constitution expresses the desire to form a more perfect union—fulfilling the American Dream has required ongoing employment of the Third Law of Motion. Freedom in the U.S.A. did not instantly translate to freedom for all. Yet every hypocritical act of repression spawned an equal and opposite reaction. Thus in 1826 Maryland, founded to protect Catholics, finally passed the “Jew Bill” granting Jews the right to sit as members of the state assembly. In 1865, the 13th Amendment banned slavery, although securing equal rights for African Americans took another century to enshrine into comprehensive law and subsequent efforts to put into practice. Women didn’t achieve suffrage until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

For gay men, a lesbians and transgender folks, the struggle continues. But we’ve come a long way. Carolyn and I celebrated with our son Aaron and son-in-law Jeremy when they married last August in Vermont. Last Sunday, we marched with PFLAG—Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—in San Francisco’s Pride parade.

Which brings us to Newton’s Law beyond our shores. In Turkey, massive protests constitute an equal and opposite reaction to a democratically elected government cramming Islamic law down people’s throats. Ankara responds with its own “equal and opposite reaction.” Besir Atalay, one of four deputy prime ministers, pointed the usual finger at outside agitators—including “the Jewish Diaspora.”

In Egypt, a “soft coup” removed President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Egyptians developed their own equal and opposite reaction to the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak by deposing him. Secularists led the way then saw their efforts undermined by the nation’s one highly organized civilian group, the Brotherhood. Many Egyptians boycotted the election won by Morsi. After a year of Islamist power grabs and an economy descending from (very) bad to (much) worse, massive protests created another equal and opposite reaction. The military stepped in to avoid chaos. Another reaction, if not quite equal, already has spawned violence as the Brotherhood protests.

It’s anyone’s guess what further reactions await in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and possibly Iran under a new, more “liberal” president.

Fortunately, every attempt to establish authoritarianism prompts men and women to react in opposition. Their efforts are fraught with danger. When they manage to create a new government, the flame of freedom remains fragile. But the spark never dies.

May those people and parties who seek to impose narrow, rigid systems with an iron fist give more thought to a brilliant man whose contributions to physics also reveal much about politics and human nature.

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Read the first three chapters of David’s novels SAN CAFÉ and SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. You’ll also find online ordering links for iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.