Archive for the ‘discimination’ Category

On Saturday, as I tried to prepare for a class I’m teaching, I found myself instead glued to my computer screen as I On Saturday, as I tried to prepare for a class I’m teaching, I found myself instead glued to my computer screen as I watched a group of religious leaders, along with author Cornel West, slowly make their way, arms linked, down the streets of Charlottesville, VA.  The live Ustream feed on Facebook showed them lining up in front of a Confederate statue in a park, police barriers next to them, as they silently witnessed their support for the town officials who want to remove the statue.  Quietly, then with passion, they sang “This Little Light of Mine” and then offered a brief prayer – some of them in Spanish or in Arabic – for that moment.

I was filled with gratitude to see the Unitarian Universalist Association’s President, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, there.  I also saw other members of our clergy:  Rev. Jeanne Pupke, Rev. Wayne Arnason, Rev. Carleton Elliott Smith, Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, and many more.  They were there with leaders of many faiths, having answered the call to come to Charlottesville, sent out by Rev. Dr. William Barber and others.

Then, violence occurred – many injured, one dead; then, two more killed as a police helicopter, surveying violence on the ground, crashed.  It was, I am told, the largest white supremacist demonstration of current days.  It was terrible.  It still is.

When I was in high school in Hamden, CT (just outside of New Haven) I was in the Drama Club crowd.  It was a large school – about the size of Lexington High School – and if you were going to survive you had a niche group to connect to.  Mine were the artsy kids.  One of them, another lifelong UU, was a friend named Alison, an African American, gorgeous, kind, smart young woman.  We went everywhere together, and we were in LRY (precursor to groups like FUUY) at church.  Time changes memory, but mine holds this series of events:  one day, things just imploded.  The mostly-Italian youth who hung together had been taunting the African American athletes…football and basketball players – and the race-baiting reached the boiling point.  I walked into the cafeteria to see chairs flying, windows breaking, and kids running.  I turned and ran too, away from the cafeteria, to my locker to grab my bags, and outside to the street.

As police streamed in and students ran, I was relieved to see one of our friends in a car who yelled to me, “Get in!”  I did and, as we drove away, I said, “Where’s Alison?  We have to get her out of here!”  One person replied, “I saw her – she’s with the other black kids.”  The reality hit me like a thud:  of course.  She had to choose where to go, and she chose safety in people who looked like her and were, in many ways, like her.  Somewhere, a very big line had been drawn. It was the first time the reality of the division cause by race hit me, square in the face.

People sometimes strive for their ten minutes of fame.  Hamden High got its ten minutes that week, as a short piece ran in Time Magazine about the race riot, one that became similar to others happening around the country at a time when race relations were going from simmer to boil.  And then, there’s Charlottesville, right now – in 2017.  And here we are now, living in nice, safe, Lexington, MA, believing that these things won’t happen in our town.

We should delude ourselves no longer:  it was not that many years ago that the Westboro Baptist Church, spewing their hate-filled rhetoric, came into town.  It is a somewhat-regular occurrence that white supremacist groups appear on the Lexington green to celebrate the ‘freedoms’ that the American Revolution yielded.  We need to know that our voices – voices of UUs and all faithful people – must be heard, now, to counteract the hate-filled rhetoric.

And I know this:  this is why we have religious education…so that our children can learn about values that support equity and justice.  This is why we go to worship – many faiths, in many settings — whether we like the sermon or not…because in worship, we can share our values and find support for our message of love and hope.  And peaceful and continuing resistance.

Let us continue to pray that this does not happen in our town.  But let us remember that it happened in Hamden, CT and Charlottesville, VA.  It can happen here.  And we are called – all of us, of many ages – to learn the values of our faith and live it – bring it to the public square, to make sure that freedom and justice and equity endure.

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I got a call tonight that just crumbled me.  Our friend, Reinhard was on the line, from his lovely home near Reno, NV, to tell me that his beloved wife, Margarethe, had died in October after battling cancer for more than a year.  He’d received our ‘seasonal’ card – the one we never manage to get out before Christmas – and wanted to let me know the news.  I was crushed as I heard his voice, struggling not to break, as he told me of the passing of his wife of more than fifty years.

Reinhard and Margarethe were once strangers in this country.  They had met at a tuberculosis sanitorium in Germany; he from the former East Germany – as a youth he had been forced into the Hitler Youth movement – and she from the Black Forest.  She had tales of going outside with her mother to bury the dead English soldiers on their property; stories of what the second world war was like as a child and youth – a terrible time.  Together they had decided to make a new life in America.  Reinhard was a chemist and worked for Dow and other large chemical companies; Margarethe was a bookeeper and met my mother at the real estate agency they both worked at.  The social connections grew;  my father – son of two Orthodox Jewish immigrants – quickly developed a close friendship with Reinhard and Margarethe.

christmas-candlesAs a child and a teen, I found them fascinating.  Margarethe taught me how to make gooseberry and currant jam and homemade spaetzle; Reinhard taught me how to decorate a Christmas tree with real candles, which they carefully lit.  And then I would listen to my father and both of them sing “Stille Nacht” in German, as the tree sparkled with magic.  We’d sit down to a supper of homemade baked beans (New York-style, as my mother made them) and German sausages and later, enjoy shots of homemade bootleg brandy (made by my mother’s uncle in a copper still during prohibition) to chase the food down.

When I married, I introduced my husband and my children to our friends, and some years ago, we took my mother on her final airplane trip, out to Nevada for a lovely German Thanksgiving in the mountains.  It was smashing.

And now, Margarethe is gone, leaving me with these memories and all of us with the footprint of her life, well-lived, in America.  Reinhard and Margarethe came to this country for a better life – in search of stability, democracy, opportunity.  They received it, were sponsored into American citizenship by my parents, and have loved and supported this country.  Their story, of course, is one that has been – and hopefully will be – repeated, over and over again.  I say this, while knowing that the new American President is busy building a wall that we are all going to pay for – not just in money but in so many other devastating ways.

Margarethe lived a life of love, of generosity, of friendship.  She embodied the warmth that one hopes will come of any friendship.  She shared generously of her life, her culture, her perspectives which enriched my own.  I loved her.  Tonight I just might pour a small glass of some clear liqueur and raise it to her memory, and to Reinhard, her beloved husband.  Downstairs in my pantry there is still a jar of Kiwi and orange jam that Margarethe made…a jar I had been holding on to, waiting for some really special occasion.  Maybe that time is here.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll open it up, and remember her sparkling smile, her warmth, her friendship – the second mother I always adored.  It’s a legacy that will live on in blessed memory.

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Last night, we arrived home from our road trip that took us to New Orleans and back – a trip of nearly 3,500 miles — traveled over twelve intense days.  We did the trip in our 2006 Toyota Prius, which now has an odometer nearing 100,000 miles, with a car top box on top (and, for half the trip, a bicycle lashed to the roof as well).

I’m  old enough to remember the ads that ran when I was a child, featuring Dinah Shore singing, in a convertible, “See the USA in your Chevrolet!”  It seemed so exciting – everyone wanted to get out on the open road and visit different states, with the wind blowing through their hair, with spouse and kids in tow (probably a dog as well), cigarette in hand.

I took such a trip when I was sixteen, traveling from my home in Connecticut to Vail, Colorado with my parents, and then on to California, with a return across the South and up the Northeast.  It was a nearly four week journey, as I recall, and even though my parents criticized me for reading movie magazines in the back seat and sleeping much of the time, it’s remarkable how much I remember from the trip.  I remember how remarkably flat Kansas was…those miles of farmland were impressive – and the awe I felt as we approached the Rocky Mountains.  I had altitude sickness in Denver, but that passed soon enough, and Vail – which was a new development at the time – seemed like an Alpine village.  It was there that I tasted fondue for the first time, rode on a cable car up a mountain, and hiked through that lovely mountain resort.

I had a summer snowball fight with my father at a picnic lunch stop at Yosemite National Park, snuck into a gambling casino and played at a slot machine until I was discovered by a security guard, and saw a young Liza Minelli perform in Las Vegas.  I also went to a topless club in San Francisco (I was snuck into the club, with a fake ID, along with my parents and several social workers), tasted authentic Chinese Food for the first time in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and, as we neared home, got my first sense of the South when we stopped in Louisville, Kentucky.  I also was struck by the poverty of Appalachia (just after the time that Robert Coles had published his landmark book, “Death at an Early Age,”) as we traveled through West Virginia en route to the nation’s capitol.  I climbed to the top of the Washington Monument with my Dad in sweltering August heat, felt awe as I visited the Lincoln Memorial, and celebrated the fact that – while in Los Angeles – I had finally made it to Disneyland.  It was a pretty great summer trip.

So as we set out this time, I realized how many years it had been since I’d last taken a really big road trip. Ben, too, had been on extended road trips, but it had been forty years since the last one (for him, the route had taken him to Rocky Mountain National Park and then down through New Mexico and Texas to New Orleans, and through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky on the way home).

We were driving Abby to Tulane in New Orleans, and we were really excited to be doing this trip – partly because we wanted Abby to have the chance to see part of the country that she had never visited before.  Our first night took us to Chambersburg, PA, home of Ben’s maternal grandmother.  He’d visited there when he was a small boy;  he’d returned two years ago while on a service trip to West Virginia.  But Abby and I had never been there, so we were excited to see this town that had been burned by the Confederate Army; the town where Ben had had adventures in his grandmother’s rather grand (now, non-existent) home.

Abby and Ben in front of historical marker

Abby and Ben in Chambersburg in front of historical marker

We went on to visit friends in Rutledge, Tennessee – thirty miles or so from Knoxville, and near very little in the way of commercial services…but their house, located on a pristine lake, was in a terrific location…and they had five boats to ‘play’ on.  We took a ride on the lake in their pontoon boat as the sun set, and went out fishing again early the next morning as the sun rose. As we drove away, we saw more little Baptist churches than we could count, and listened to Dolly Parton singing about life in Tennessee and thought, “this is beautiful and uncomplicated and hidden away from society – a great life.”

We stayed in Birmingham, AL next.  We had the best dinner of our trip, at a Greek restaurant in Homewood, AL (who would have thought that there would be a Mediterranean enclave there?) and in the morning, visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where Martin Luther King had preached, and walked the civil rights walk through the downtown area.  We were dismayed to learn that the church had been broken into the night before, the glass doors smashed.

And then, the Jazz City:  still hurting in many neighborhoods, but not broken:  full of music, unique Cajun and Acadian and African American culture.  There was an afternoon monsoon – not uncommon for the hot, humid summers of New Orleans – and our car got flooded on the street near Tulane.  After bailing it out and wet-vac’ing the rugs three times, it was reasonably functional.  We observed – and I rely on New Orleanians to tell me their truth – that this city’s culture is more authentically multi-racial and multi-cultural than that one might encounter almost anywhere else in the US…people seem more at home with one another, more willing to engage with people who might be different than they are.  We loved this sense.

Deb and Abby in front of the bakery

Deb and Abby in front of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery

Along the way, we visited Dwight Henry’s Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Café in the Seventh Ward – he, one of the stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” owns a place filled with friendly staff who make the most amazingly, sinfully delicious doughnuts we’d ever had.  Go there if you can – you will be glad you did.  We also managed to get into the French Quarter to enjoy Café du Monde late one night, scarfing down the beignets, café au lait, and of course, loving the attendant people watching.

A highlight was our trip to Plaquemines Parish, to visit our friends, Tyronne and Gail Edwards.  I have written elsewhere on this visit so I won’t repeat myself here.  Suffice it to say, for now, that this trip was a blessing and a joy, Gail’s cooking delicious, and it was a thrill to see all that had been accomplished in Tyronne and Gail’s town of Phoenix in the seven years since Katrina.

We ate brunch with Abby at a café near the Garden District called Atchafalya while listening to a jazz combo; then, we were gone – we watched Abby walk away, wave to us, and disappear around the corner of her dorm.  We headed down the coast into Mississippi, observing the gorgeous beaches and the stairs leading to nothing – washed away in the last storm.  We decided to go into the Beau Rivage Casino to take a look, spend $5 in the slots, and eat a hot dog for lunch.  It’s opulent and a stark contrast to the poverty we knew existed in Biloxi just a few blocks away.

As we drove away, we saw battalions of bucket trucks headed in the other direction – staging for hurricane cleanup, we were sure.  The storm was still two days away, but there was an ominous air on the Gulf Coast, as people gritted their teeth and prepared to hunker down for a storm they hoped would veer away at the last moment.

We spent the night in a tiny ‘microtel’ in Montgomery, AL.  I was verbally pinned by the owner of the hotel, who wanted to know (while I was at the breakfast buffet) who I liked in the upcoming election.  I tried to give non-committal answers, not wanting to get into such conversations while traveling, but finally acknowledged my strong preference for the President.  An Indian who had come to the country forty-two years ago (he said), he barraged me with reasons why the opponent was a better choice.  I finally managed to excuse myself and mutter to Ben, “Let’s get out of here.”  We visited the Civil Rights Museum in Montgomery that is run by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and saw the fountain and monument that commemorates civil rights struggles since the late 1940’s.

Marker at Civil Rights Museum

The Civil Rights Monument and Museum in Montgomery, AL

In Atlanta we were impressed with the kudzu overwhelming the trees.  We chowed down on authentic southern cuisine at Mary Mac’s Tearoom.  And we had absolutely terrific help at a Car Spa from two young men who, in random acts of kindness, not only extracted water from the floor of our car but cleaned it from top to bottom – for no additional fee.

As we headed north toward Durham (with a nice stop in Greenvile, SC) and then on to Alexandria, we had the sense that we were leaving the country as we’d been experiencing it in the South.  Headed out of Washington, DC, we ran into huge amounts of traffic, aggressive and often jerky drivers, many more billboards, and really ugly highways through New Jersey and New York.  The drive up from Washington through Connecticut was a bear, and it stood in stark contrast to the open spaces we’d seen in the south.  We talked about how smart Canadians are to ban billboards and wondered why the US had taken another path.

And we wondered why we hadn’t done trips like this before.  On this trip we saw evidence of the Civil War, and of the Civil Rights movement:  signs for sites, sometimes juxtaposed, named after people who had led each of these struggles.  Where have we come from since the Civil War was fought on this land?  How far  have we come from since the struggles of Birmingham and Montgomery?  And, we wondered as we caught snippets of a political convention and news of poor coastal communities struggling again to survive devastating natural disasters — where will we go in the future?

What role will we, fellow travelers, play in the next chapter?  You never know what you can find out until you get behind the wheel of the car and visit some place that you’ve never been before.

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Years ago, I saw the movie “Groundhog Day,” which featured Bill Murray as a broadcaster who had reported on Punxatawney Phil on Groundhog Day, and then found that he kept reliving the same day, over and over again.  As I continue my path home from the Gulf Coast, wracked with worry over my daughter (who I believe will be OK on the campus of Tulane University) and more to the point, over my friends in Plaquemines Parish — which appears to be sustaining worse damage than during Hurricane Katrina — I keep thinking about that movie.

I write seven years to the day after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.  I can tell you (in case you had any doubt) that there are many parts of the greater New Orleans area that have not recovered from that storm, and that will never recover.  The city and the area are wonderful, but it is not the same place it once was.  The people that stayed, and those that have come since those days, have a grittiness and sense of perseverance that is sobering to observe.

For those who stuck around – because this is where their home is, and their heart and their culture – the challenge has come round again.  I was in Plaquemines Parish with my friends last Friday.  I saw all that they had done to recover from Katrina, heard about the plans they had, visited their churches, reveled in their spirit and their vision for reclaiming a life and a future on the Gulf Coast.  Today, I haven’t been able to reach them because Hurricane Isaac rages on and will not move:  more than a foot of water has fallen in the area, the power is out, the levees in Plaquemines Parish have been overtopped, and everything that these folks – along with countless volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars – struggled for has been thrown into a cocked hat.

So it’s a little like Groundhog Day.  Do we keep working at it till we ‘get it right’ or till the levees are so high that they can not be breached, even by a twelve foot storm surge?  Do we politely suggest that the people who have lived on this land for generations just give it up and go somewhere else?  Do we build an ark (which was one of the solutions suggested in the film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”)?

I refuse to believe that the people who will now have to rebuild again, following Isaac, should be expected to give up their homes.  Our friend, Rev. Tyronne Edwards, embraces the name of the Zion Travelers for his church.  Their slogan, in the days after Katrina, was “Let us arise and rebuild.”  So it was, and so it will be, again.  As fellow citizens and compassionate friends, we must respond to the struggle to reclaim the land our sisters and brothers love, and have lived on, for generations.  So, as the damage reports come in and the flood waters subside, we will likely be asked, once again, to answer the call for assistance, and to help our friends arise and rebuild.  We have done this before, and we will do it again, in a partnership informed by faith, a deep belief in justice, and the need that people carry, deep inside them, to be able to just go home.

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We went to see “The Help” last night at our wonderful little movie theatre, the Lexington Venue.  It was as full as I’ve ever seen it, full of folks about our age, baby boomers in an upscale Boston suburb, who wanted to see what Hollywood had done with Kathryn Stockett’s novel based on a particularly sad time in our U.S. history.  I expected to hate the movie, and had squirmed in making a decision about whether to see it.  I’ve had enough anti-racism/anti-oppression/multiculturalism training and work to set off my internal radar with cheery, do-gooder versions of other peoples’ histories, and I was afraid that this movie would fall into that hole.

But it did not.  Some have called it a little too upbeat, but I squirmed in my seat as I saw mean-spirited women take on their maids to make sure they did not behave in a manner not befitting their status, watched other characters cast their eyes down as hard-working domestic workers were demeaned and dissed.  And I was transported back to the time when I recalled – as a young girl — the assassination of Medgar Evers, Jack Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

More than that, I thought about our own ‘help.’  My mother had grown up with parents who believed that African Americans were less than others.  She once handed out a stern warning to her mother, I remember, when Gram referred to the “niggers” across the street, telling her that such language was not OK while I was around.  She knew, I suspect, that she couldn’t change her parents, but she wasn’t about to let them launch a verbal attack in my presence.

When I was five and we lived in Akron, Ohio, my mother decided that she would like to go back to work, at least part time.  She signed up as a substitute teacher, and often, she got called to come in to school.  She had hired a woman name Elizabeth Baileys — large, Irish, a little rough around the edges, always wearing a blue maid’s uniform — to come and help clean the house and look after me when she wasn’t there.  On days when Mom was at a school, I’d walk home from school for lunch (as we did in those days) to find burned tomato soup and a peanut butter sandwich on my plate.  I didn’t mind, though…in fact, I got to like the burned soup, which developed when Mrs. Baileys would turn the heat on the stove and then go off to clean something, forgetting what was on the fire.  She would sit and talk to me while I ate, send me off to school again, and continue her work.

When we moved to Connecticut Mom began working at Planned Parenthood of New Haven as a volunteer, and later, board member.  She would meet women who wanted access to birth control.  Some of them needed jobs, and she would hire them to help at our house.  She’d pick the women up at the bus stop, bring them out to the house, they would clean some and talk some to Mom about ways to get better jobs, and she would share recipes for ‘economical and healthy’ food, like Sloppy Joes, food that would help stretch a dollar and feed a hungry family while getting a few servings of vegetables in at the same time.  They came and went, some with curlers in their hair (as in the film, “The Help,”), some disappearing into the social welfare system or moving away.

And then Zula Simmons came to our house.  I don’t know where Mom met Zula.  She was elderly, moved slow, and reminded me, when I saw the film, of Constantine (beautifully played by Cicely Tyson).  Zula had served all her life as a domestic worker, and I think she was grateful for the job at our house.  I don’t know that she had much energy left to clean, but she was a presence.  My mother had been hit by psoriatic arthritis and diverticulitis, and her health was not good.  I was in high school and though I was the center of the world, so I expected attention.  I’d come in the door and be greeted by Zula, shaking her finger at me:  “Now your mother is sleepin’ down the hall.  Don’t you make no noise and bother her!  She needs to rest!”  She scared me enough to pay attention — I was not going to take Zula on — so I did as she said.  She was in charge while she was there, made dinner for us, did the laundry, kept me in line, and when my father would come home from work, he would drive her to the bus stop, and off she’d go until her next date at our house.

It was a difficult time.  Our high school had a race riot, with the Italian kids fighting the Black kids, that made it into major news outlets.  On a trip across the country the summer of the Watts riots, we saw groups of restless people gathered on street corners.  The Viet Nam war added yet another element of heat to the mix.  And through it all, there was the help in our house, keeping things moving, keeping the child in line, adding a level of stability.

I’ve often wondered what happened to Zula, just as Skeeter wondered about Constantine in Stockett’s novel.  I hope that she was able to end her days with some dignity and grace, but I fear that she lived in deep poverty and privation.  And now, early in the morning, I drive through the town where I have lived for the last twenty-some years and I sometimes watch the current generation of help get off the bus.  Few of them wear uniforms now, as they walk to the large, elegant houses where they raise other women’s children and cook, clean, and do the laundry.  But they are here, and they, too, call for us to know their names and tell their stories.

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I went into my chiropractor’s office last week.  I like my chiropractor – he’s a nice guy, we usually chat about his children, the weather, or how my back is feeling.  On this particular morning, I walked in and he said to me, “What do you think about Donald Trump running for President?”  “Donald Trump for President!,” I exclaimed.  “Now there’s a stupid idea.  How dumb does he really think we are?  This birther stuff is ridiculous,” I blathered on, referring to Trump’s stated obsession with the idea that the State of Hawaii’s “Certificate of Live Birth” for Obama is not good enough.  “Who the heck believes this stuff?”, I exploded.  One look at his face told me the answer:  he did.

Deciding to dig myself in completely, I continued, “And Michele Bachmann’s just as bad:  giving a speech in Concord, New Hampshire about the ‘shot heard round the world’ that started the American Revolution…in Lexington and the other Concord (Massachusetts).  Please,” I continued, “Can someone ask these people to just get their information straight before they sound off?”  Not content with the amount of damage I’d done myself, I suggested that it would be nice if these supposed candidates for President showed that they had a clue about matters of foreign policy and government relations before they decided they should make a run for the nation’s highest office.

The exchange, among other things, proves that one really shouldn’t have discussions about politics with those whose views we don’t know in advance (yes, the chiropractor started it, but I shouldn’t have taken the bait).

On the other hand, Trump and the birther devotees have reminded me, on this day when we are noting the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, that such down and dirty arguments connect back to the racist history of the United States — and so, I suppose, we really shouldn’t be that surprised that the birther argument — and similar arguments about Obama’s heritage, religion, what-have-you, have taken hold.

The ‘inconvenient truth’ is that the seeds of this behavior were sown long ago, when the country’s Declaration of Independence was being written. New England communities were built off the proceeds of the Triangle Trade to Africa.   Thomas Jefferson, statesman and slave owner, included references to slavery in early drafts of the Declaration, James Madison supported the repatriation of slaves to Liberia and the Caribbean, and the Civil War ripped the country apart as battles raged over slavery, as Katrina Browne and James DeWolf Perry discuss.

So even while many rejoiced at Obama’s election as President, many others focused on all the reasons why this man of mixed race and heritage could not, should not, be President of the United States.  Which brings us to Candidate Trump.  I find Trump’s bombastic blathering outrageous and obnoxious, and I can’t take him seriously.  Unfortunately, my chiropractor, and thousands of others, do.  Trump is, I believe, just one more face that shows us the racist history of our country — a man who will swear that his pursuit of the ‘truth’ about Obama’s heritage has nothing to do with racism, but with the laws of the United States.  And those laws can not, surely, allow a black man to be president.

Back in September, I wrote a piece focusing on the fight Al Sharpton and Glenn Beck were having around Beck’s so-called “Restoring Honor” rally, which compelled Sharpton to stage a “Reclaiming the Dream” event. The two threw mud at each other, and it was not a pretty scene.  At its core, the fight occurred about race and class, I believe.

And here we are again.  It is the anniversary of the Civil War. Yet, 150 years later, we are still wrestling with pigs.  I fear we are doomed to keep engaging in such wrestling matches until we confront the realities of this country’s racist past, and the huge challenges of building a future of equality, together.

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Years ago, I remember reading Lillian Hellman’s book, Scoundrel Time.  In 1952, Hellman, a peppery character known for being a brilliant playwright and novelist, refused to become an informer for the House Un-American Activities Committee, thereby taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy as well as many other artists and politicians who caved to McCarthy’s demands to rat out their friends and colleagues.  I had become interested in this colorful story because it occurred when I was far too young to remember the political scene…a time that led to “duck and cover” air raid drills in school and images of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table for emphasis.

Something else had happened during that time, too.  We were living in Akron, Ohio, where my father was the Director of the Summit County Children’s Home, working with children who were orphaned or abandoned, removed from their homes because of mistreatment or because their parents were otherwise unable to care for them.  My father had written an op-ed piece which the Akron Beacon Journal (the local paper) published, in which he applauded the day care programs that had begun to operate in the Soviet Union.  He suggested that our country might learn something from what was going on in the USSR.  Late one night, the phone rang and an anonymous voice on the other end of the line told my father that unless he retracted what he said, his wife and daughter were dead.  Click.  Dad was supposed to retract, cave, and get the message that the Russians were bad in all ways.

Designed to strike fear into the heart of the person on the other end of such a call, that story’s worth recounting today because so much of what I see going on in our country, in the political environment, harkens back to the early 1950’s…particularly now, at the end of the Silly Season which ends on November 2nd. A message is sent out and passed on and on, and pretty soon, we’re all repeating it like robots.  That’s how things catch on, and it’s how phrases and behaviors get rooted in our culture.

A positive example of such viral communication can be seen in the progression of the “It Gets Better” slogan through large parts of our culture.  As far as I can tell, writer Dan Savage was the first one to use it, in response to the suicide of Tyler Clemente and a number of other gay, lesbian, transgender or questioning teens or young adults.  The Youth Pride Chorus, Ellen DeGeneres, and many, many others picked it up, and it continues to grow.  Thank heaven for this.

But a not-so-positive connection can be seen throughout the political landscape, as tea partiers make comments about Obamacare and plant scary messages about how taxes will be raised and what else will happen if “they” are re-elected.  Life as we know it, they would have us believe, will disappear.  This environment does bad things to people, and politicians are at the center of the behavior pattern.  Not all of them:  I’ve seen a number, including Massachusetts’ own Barney Frank, locked in a tight re-election fight, who have stood their ground.  But Sen. Harry Reid is trying to hold on in Nevada (and the odds are very iffy, if recent polls are to be believed), Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Barbara Boxer in California…and the politicians tend to start changing their songs when they’re afraid they’ll lose a race.

It is Scoundrel Time.  John McCain may offer us one of the most distressing examples of this behavior in which someone will say or do anything to get re-elected. McCain, who was once the sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform along with Sen. Ted Kennedy (a position that won him no love among the conservative electorate) moved in a different direction this year. Focusing on border security, McCain embraced Arizona’s controversial hard-line immigration law and, in an ad, called on the federal government to “complete the danged fence” — three years after dismissing the notion of a border fence in a Vanity Fair article. Four years ago, McCain told students he supported repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military. But in May, the former war hero and Navy prisoner of war promised to filibuster any bill including that change that landed on the Senate floor.

When the going gets tough, too many politicians run, as one Worcester, MA, politician proclaimed some years ago, “like rats” to avoid the damage.  When the heat is on, as it surely is in the final days of the mid-year election cycle, way too many have suddenly reversed their original positions, having found a ‘change of heart’ somewhere in their souls (inspired, no doubt, by their reading of the latest political poll).

To go back to my story from the early 1950s:  after he received that threatening phone call my Dad sat up, thought for a while, and then called the police.  But he also decided that the person on the other end of the phone hadn’t understood the point Dad was trying to make – that we in America could learn from another country’s model of child care, not so that we could all become Communists.  He called the editor of the Beacon Journal and asked if he could rewrite the op-ed to run again in the paper, not changing the focus of the piece, but changing the words, to make the points clearer.  The editor gave him a go-ahead, and the piece was republished.  The police watched our house, I am told, and went through it with bomb-sniffing dogs.  And obviously I am still here.

Those were bad times, back then…times when anyone who uttered the word “Communist” was subject to suspicion and innuendo.  McCarthy was denounced, of course, when someone finally stood up to him, stood up to his bullying and his allegations and his career-destroying tactics.  Later the playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, overtly about the Salem Witch Trials, but really about McCarthyism, to point out what happens when one person influences a whole population to turn on their neighbors.

It was a long time ago when all that happened.  But from where I perch, it seems like it’s back again:  the name-calling, the suggestions that people are going to destroy our way of life. The scoundrels are out, running for office, saying what they will to influence our vote and build fear in our hearts.  I know that those words ‘hope,’ ‘courage,’ ‘commitment,’ have been over-used.  Yet surely those are the elements we need to survive this generation’s scoundrel time.

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