It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
-- Eleanor Roosevelt

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In America, first they came for the women …

In Germany, first they came for the women …

In Pastor Niemoller’s famous quote, the Nazis came first for the communists, and he didn’t speak up because he wasn’t a communist. I’m not one to disagree with Pastor Niemoller, and I’m not an expert on the chronology of Nazi persecution, but he left out several groups. Very early in Hitler’s reign, the Nazis targeted women, and specifically women’s reproductive rights. So when our new regime sets out to defund Planned Parenthood[i] before Trump is even inaugurated, warning bells start clanging loudly in my head.
In May 1933, just after taking power, the Nazis updated a law banning abortions, including punishments for the woman and her doctor. (In an interview with Chris Matthews last summer, Trump advocated something similar.[ii]) The Nazis also expanded the law to include prison sentences for anyone who advertised abortion services or recommended an abortion.  A few months later, the Nazis went on to pass a law authorizing forced sterilizations of those deemed “unfit.” They also passed laws which offered special loans to newlyweds if the women gave up their jobs to dedicate themselves to being wives and mothers, and later celebrated Mother’s Day as a national holiday and created a special award for women who had more than four children.[iii] Other laws marginalized single women as wards of the state, banned all women from the professions and drastically limited opportunities for women in higher education. The Nazis even attempted to influence clothing and hairstyles to encourage femininity.[iv]

Forcing Aryan women to reproduce and banning non-Aryan women from reproducing both fit into Hitler’s view of racial engineering. His other policies regarding women can also be “understood” in the general framework of his master plan. In similar ways we can “understand” China’s one-child policy in the face of over population, and we can “understand” pro-reproductive policies in France after the devastation of World War I.

But what about our own country? In the United States today, what is the interest of the state in controlling reproduction? Seriously … think about it. Don’t get distracted by the false narratives of the culture wars. Why should the government of the United States be interested in controlling reproduction?

I don’t have the answer, and my speculation leads down some admittedly crazy roads. We live in a world which is overpopulated, so it would make sense to discourage reproduction. We live in a country in which there are more people than jobs, in which resources are already stretched, so it would make sense to discourage reproduction ... IF you want everyone to be properly housed, fed, educated, and able to find employment.

So to have a government which is actively trying to limit access to not only abortion, but also birth control and sex ed? That is counterintuitive. Unless you want that overpopulation. Unless you want a working class which is struggling just to survive. Unless your goal is to keep people so desperate, to make their lives so tenuous, that they will do whatever you want just to live, just to keep their families alive.

Of course, if that’s what you want, you would also want to eliminate the minimum wage; reduce the power of labor unions; destroy the social safety net (unemployment, social security, food stamps, etc.); defund public education; and probably build a wall to keep people from escaping.

But first, you’d come for the women ….

[iii] J. Llewellyn et al, “Women in Nazi Germany”, Alpha History, accessed Jan. 9, 2017,
[iv] Ibid.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall"

In case you don’t recognize the title, it’s the first line of Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” In a tenth-grade English class, I was quizzed on the first and last lines of the poem. I did not remember them for the quiz, but have not forgotten since. It ends with “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost’s poem keeps coming back to me as I hear more and more about Donald Trump’s proposed wall. Now all along he has said two things: 1) that he would build a wall along our southern border and 2) that he would force Mexico to pay for it.

Trump has now, of course, co-opted the name “Great Wall” for it, while he’s also admitted that it may be more fence than wall, and American taxpayers will have to pay for it. To be clear, that means you and me, because Trump and his super-rich buddies barely pay taxes and he’s already planning bigger tax cuts for them, so we get to pay extra.
But lost in this was another announcement about the wall, and that was that there might be a northern wall as well, apparently to protect us from big, bad Canada. Now facts are regularly lost in this hype about a wall, including the fact that illegal immigration from Mexico is down considerably in the last eight years, and that the 9/11 terrorists entered the country legally through Canada. So it’s unclear what, exactly, this wall is supposed to do aside from adding to our national debt.

That’s where Frost’s poem comes in, because the message in the poem is actually the opposite of that last line. Good fences do not make good neighbors. Frost asks his neighbor why they worry about mending the stone wall, saying:
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offense.”
The frightening truth is that Trump (and/or Putin) may be more concerned with walling us in than in walling anyone else out. Human rights scholars acknowledge that one of the first signs of trouble under totalitarian regimes is the restriction of freedom of movement. Dictatorships cannot survive if everyone is allowed to leave the country at will. That’s why the United States was so opposed to the Berlin Wall, why Ronald Reagan so famously demanded “Tear down this wall,” why freedom-lovers the world over celebrated its demise. It’s why Castro wanted to keep people from fleeing Cuba, why Jews were restricted to the Warsaw ghetto. Our own history includes restriction of freedom of movement in the form of Indian Reservations, Internment Camps, and, of course, slavery.

So all of this talk about a wall is scary. But even scarier is the current proposal in Congress to defund the United Nations. Since 1948, the United Nations has, through its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asserted that freedom of movement, including the right to leave your own country, is a fundamental human right. And right now Donald Trump and members of Congress are threatening to withdraw financial support. To do so would cripple the United Nations, and its ability to serve as a watchdog over our rights.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall? It’s called freedom. Freedom doesn’t love a wall. And neither should we.


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

All democracy is temporary. And not.

I wrote this (below) four years ago, reeling with the shock of Sandy Hook and holding tight to a baby boy who wasn't mine and a little girl who was. Today, I am reeling again in a world somehow more violent and more dangerous -- for them and for me -- a world with fresh fears and new levels of uncertainty. I am disappointed in the electoral college which today failed at its essential mission, proving that it is, in fact, vestigial and unnecessary. But I fear that it is just the first domino of our democracy to fall.

And I know that the rise of Donald Trump has been fueled largely by the hatred of a black man in power and of a woman who dared to seek it. The racism and misogyny in America has undermined our basic values. Or perhaps they are more basic to American society than what I thought were our values. And since the GOP seems willing to ignore Russian interference in our election, it's clear that "white nationalism" is more about white than nationalism.

So today, I say goodbye to my country. No, I'm not moving. But what I have believed to be good, and true and right about it is dissolving before my eyes, and I believe in saying goodbye.

Please understand .... I've never been a flag-waving America-first kind of cheerleader (unless it's at the Olympics). As an historian and an activist, I have often been critical of America's history and policies. But I believed in the promise of America, in the long arc of justice, in the obligations of "We the People" to continue to "form a more perfect union."

This election has upended all of that. I don't know what the coming years will bring, but it's not going to be "great." Not for the large majority of Americans, not for people around the world who have looked to us, not for our planet. It's going to be hard, and it's going to be scary, and many of us will not make it through. And for that I grieve tonight as I say goodbye to the country I knew.

But then I read this again, and from the perspective of four years, I can see things a little more clearly. That little boy ... he left ... and we grieved. And, after a rather circuitous journey, he's back. I tucked him into bed tonight. That love that bonded him to us so early eventually led him back to us, and the love that he was given by others along the way still encircles him.

And so may it be with my America. I hope it is possible that the core values, the things which have defined "greatness" when America has truly been great -- things like justice, equality, community, respect, mutual responsibility -- will come back around too. But I'm afraid that can only happen if we truly saturate them with love, nurture and nourish them, cultivate and sustain them. We must seek them out in every interaction. We must encourage them and, yes, foster them.

When we were foster parents, I'd often say that our job was to fill them up with love and send them on their way. And that's exactly how I envisioned it -- giving them so much love that it would imprint itself on their hearts and last for as long as they needed, for a lifetime if necessary.

So today, that's what I resolve to do for our democracy. I will fill it up with love & respect, with visions of justice and equality, and I will send it on its way through the crazy world that's about to descend upon us.

I will try to trust that our future is not limited by my current understanding, but by our collective imagination. And I will resolve to imagine bigger.

All love it temporary. And it's not.
Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012

     He reached for me today, for the first time. Lying in his crib, he saw me coming and reached out. He’s reached for things before, but not for me. And as aware as I am of this as a first, I also know that eventually he will be reaching for someone else. Someone ...who is not me. That’s how it goes with foster parenting … I get to witness some of his firsts. I get to rejoice with him, and laugh and babble with him, but I will also have to say goodbye to him, and let his little hands reach for someone else.

     I remind myself that all love is like this; all love is temporary … It’s just not always so obvious.

     I helped my sister move today. Not into a new home, but out of an old one. Not into a new life, but out and away from a 24-year marriage that had turned into a nightmare. It was the last step in a very difficult divorce. And I remember the day she got married, her hopes and dreams of the perfect family … three children born, two still living, and 24 years later the dream has died. All love is temporary.

     And yesterday, 27 families not far from here learned the same thing. Twenty children and six adults killed at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Parents who dropped kids off at school that morning, and will never pick them up again. Husbands and families who sent loved ones off to another day at work, and they won’t be coming home. A gunman who killed his mother, and eventually himself … but in between killed 26 others and terrorized an elementary school. All love is temporary.

     But it’s also not.

     My little foster baby will reach for someone else, but my love has already made an imprint on his heart, and his smile on mine. He will not be forgotten, and my love for him will remain, long after he is gone.

     Yes, a 24-year marriage is gone, but the remnants of love remain in two wonderful children, my niece and nephew who have developed into incredible human beings. And they are already invested in creating a better world, and in spreading joy. For love grows and spreads, rippling out far beyond its starting point.

     And yes, families in Newtown and all around the world are in mourning for the sweet children and brave educators who were killed yesterday. Our grief is so powerful and so tangible that it fills the room, and the street and the town, and the state. It sucks the air out of your lungs and makes hearts beat heavily. But not one of those people will be forgotten. We continue to love them, to treasure them, beyond death. And in this case, they are now loved by people worldwide who never knew them, but are sending prayers and healing and love anyway.

     All love is temporary, but only in our limited understanding.  Because our love is not limited to this physical plane – not limited by geography or relationship or even time. Our love is transcendent because it is a reflection of God’s love, which is limitless and unbounded. God’s love exists in the past and future at the same time, in all places and for all people. And our love can do the same. So our foster baby will always have our love, wherever he goes. And my niece and nephew will spread love, and probably suffer some heartaches too along the way. But they will spread love. In Newtown, wounds will never fully heal, but they will be bound up with a thousand threads of love, from people near and far, and held together by the memories of the loving children and adults we’ve lost. God bless them, and us, and all.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

From Sandy Hook to Syria

Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of the massacre of children at Sandy Hook. And yesterday marked the end of the battle for Aleppo in Syria.

In Newtown, Connecticut, 20 first graders were slaughtered. Six educators died trying to protect them from a gunman who, it is believed, wanted to rack up a high score like on all the warlike video games he loved. We lived in Danbury, 13 miles away, and early news reports said the school was in Danbury. Local schools were locked down. Friends were teaching at Newtown High School. A colleague’s daughter was killed. Early reports also told of three people injured, transported to Danbury Hospital which itself went on lockdown awaiting further trauma cases. There were no more to come. All the rest were living or dead. The shooter was dead – adding his own name to his list of kills. I remember watching the news that day and waiting, feeling so helpless. And then the magnitude of the tragedy was revealed and I could no longer breathe. Four years later, their names are all so familiar to me, and my heart aches for each one.

But my heart also aches for Aleppo. For five years, Syrian president Bashar Assad has fought against rebel forces in Syria, with much of that fighting targeting the rebel stronghold in Aleppo. The city now lies in ruins, much like those same war-like video games. At one point on the brink of collapse, Assad’s regime has been propped up by the Russian government, which also prevents the United Nations from taking action against this genocide. And so my heart breaks … for the children whose city has been destroyed around them. For the little ones who have known only war. For the civilians executed in the streets. For the victims of bombings, and gunfire and chemical weapons. For the hundreds of thousands who have been killed in the Syrian civil war, for the millions of refugees who have fled, and for those who have died in the in-between. I don’t know their names. They don’t live in the next town. But I mourn for them just the same. And I feel just as helpless.

I want someone to do something about Syria, to save the children of Aleppo. But then I remember that it’s been four years since Sandy Hook and our country has done nothing to protect our own children. And I remember that the NRA and the Russian government just handed us four years of Donald Trump. There are those who have claimed that Sandy Hook was a hoax, who have attacked and threatened the parents of the children who died that day. One of those people, Alex Jones, has been praised by the president-elect. Now one of Trump’s loyalists is similarly claiming that Russian interference in our election is similarly a hoax, just as Bashar Assad claims that the chemical attacks came from the rebels, not from his government forces. But these claims of a hoax, or a “false flag”, are just excuses to do nothing, at home or abroad. These people want to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist so they can feel justified in ignoring it.
And with these people in charge, I fear for our world – for the children all over the world – because the people charged with protecting them aren’t like the teachers at Sandy Hook. They won’t hide their students like Victoria Soto, or shield them with their own bodies like Anne Marie Murphy, or try to disarm a gunman like Dawn Hochsprung.

No, to Trump and many of his followers, the lives of these children are as insignificant as those in video games. And what scares me most is that nearly 63 million Americans supported his incoming regime.
Image result for remember sandy hook

Dear Electors ... History is calling. Also, I'm sorry.

Dear presidential electors,
Let me first say that I’m sorry. You have, over the last six weeks, been put through an ordeal different from anything you may have signed up for. It reminds me of the young men and women in the military at the start of the Gulf War who may have signed up in peacetime for the education and training, but suddenly found themselves facing deployment. They knew it was possible, but never expected it to become reality. I’m guessing many of you have been feeling the same way. Your role, as electors, was supposed to be easy, pro-forma, non-controversial. And yet you have been deluged with emails and phone calls and letters, with petitions and opinion pieces, with lawyers and lawsuits and legal advice. You are stuck between hundreds of years of electoral college history and allegations which should worry every American. It must be a very difficult time for you, and for that I am sorry.

Of course, the electoral college is controversial because it is a strange stop-gap place between democracy and oligarchy. If you believe in democracy, then Hillary Clinton should be the president of the United States, having won the popular ballot by over 2.8 million votes. There’s no good reason why the votes of 79,000 people in three states should outweigh 2.8 million voters nationwide. If you believe in democracy, then you should cast your vote for the popular vote winner and make Hillary Clinton the next president.
If you believe in the electoral college, however, then you must take that role seriously. I will not review here all the reasons that the founders invented the electoral college or all the arguments made by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. They have been well explained elsewhere, and I don’t want to waste your time rehashing them. My point is that if you believe in your role as electors, then you must understand that America is counting on your wisdom, your discernment and your patriotism. You have been called to this moment – a moment unlike any that previous electors have faced but which Hamilton foresaw – and, as in the musical, “history has its eyes on you.”

It is up to you decide, by Monday, whether you will blindly follow the dictates and traditions of the electoral college, or whether you will take seriously your duty to the United States of America. To do that, you will have to seriously consider whether Donald Trump is worthy of the office of President of the United States – worthy of the mantle worn by Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. None of them were perfect, by any means, but they each strove to do their best by their country. Do you honestly believe that Trump belongs in that company? Is he capable of putting aside his own interests? Has he demonstrated any commitment to the American people? Is he working in the interests of a foreign government (to which he owes huge sums of money)?
Consider these things:

·        He has never released his taxes and continues to evade requests to do so. These documents would provide valuable information of his holdings, debts, and potential conflicts of interest.

·        He has disclosed no plans to divest himself of his businesses, and has now postponed a press conference to answer questions related to that. Again, there will be no way to prevent him from using the office of the Presidency for personal gain.

·        He refuses the daily intelligence briefings and repeatedly suggests that he is “smarter” than our national intelligence personnel. How can a president protect the United States “from all enemies, foreign and domestic” if he refuses to even learn about those enemies?

·        He has repeatedly attacked the press, refused to hold a press conference since early summer, and attacks private individuals for criticism of him. These are acts which undermine or attack the first amendment, one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

·        And, most frightening, are the latest reports of the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election for the explicit purpose of undermining Hillary Clinton’s campaign and putting Donald Trump in the White House. In the past, when a foreign country has attacked us, we have united to fight back, not handed them the keys to the government. Can you imagine if, after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had given Hawaii to the Japanese and asked if they wanted California as well?
I think any of the first four items are enough to disqualify Donald Trump from the presidency. But if these last reports are true (and I encourage you to demand the intelligence briefings like some of your fellow electors have already done), then you are one of 538 people acting as a bulwark against a Russian takeover of the United States.

You are Fort McHenry at the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. You are the ones who will decide if the Star-Spangled Banner yet waves ….

So yes, you’ve gotten a lot of attention this year for a job which usually gets none. But this is what you were called to do, and like the Gulf War soldiers I mentioned above, it will soon be time to make your decision. Will you choose tradition or duty? Will you choose party or country? Will you demand to have all possible information before you make your decision or will you bury your head in the sand and hope for the best?
As an historian, I will tell you one thing I know about American history. Our greatest moments have come not from some great people doing great things, but instead when ordinary people, facing difficult circumstances, find the courage and the will to do what is right.

That has always been what has made America great. It is the only way to make it great again.
Thank you for your time & your consideration. I hope to also thank you for fulfilling your duty to the United States of America.
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P.S. – Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get back at Vladimir Putin and the Russian hackers without firing a single shot or risking our economy? Actually … we can! We could put someone in the White House that Putin both hates and fears more than anyone else. As a bonus, she happens to be someone who won the popular vote by 2.8 million. Democracy wins and Putin loses all in one fell swoop!


Thursday, November 24, 2016

May Our Myths Become Us

Happy Thanksgiving! And by that I mean “Happy Day to Eat Turkey and Pretend American History is Not So Bad After All.” That is, of course, separate from the other day, back in October, when we pretended that some lost guy actually discovered something and our history was not so bad.

Thanksgiving is a screwy holiday that I actually really like. I like the cooking, and the fuss, and the football, and especially the pie. But as an historian, I am also very aware that America’s fantasized “Pilgrim-Indian Thanksgiving Feast” is far removed from the reality of 17th century life in what is now known as Massachusetts. To put it bluntly, this is not your kindergarten hand-turkey story.
There are many articles out there that can break down the real story of “The First Thanksgiving,” but let me give you an abbreviated version: there had previously been feasts of thanksgiving in St. Augustine and in Jamestown; Squanto (Tisquantum) had previously been enslaved by Europeans; the Pilgrims settled in an abandoned Wampanoag village whose inhabitants had been killed off  by European diseases; the “Indians” were not one monolithic group, but several rival nations competing for territory & trade; there had already been attacks by the English on the Narragansett.
In essence, the Pilgrims along with their Wampanoag, Narragansett and Pequot neighbors all lived a precarious existence in Eastern Massachusetts built on negotiating alliances, trade deals and territorial claims, against all the others. The story we like involves two of these groups coming together to celebrate a successful harvest, and it’s a lovely story, but it’s more myth than reality. Within a generation, the Pilgrim and Puritan settlers would fight several devastating wars against all of these native peoples and launch a campaign of conquest that led to nationwide genocide.

So does Thanksgiving mean anything at all? To me, identifying it as a myth does not diminish its importance. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite. The fact that we make a big fuss over this national myth of Thanksgiving tells us how we want to think of ourselves, what we want to believe about ourselves. You can say that it’s (literally) white washed history, but I think it’s more than that. It tells us who we want to be … We want to be those people who sat down with folks who were different from us, and shared a meal. The people who acknowledged with thanks all the ways in which “others” had enriched our lives. We want to be the people who live in openness and gratitude, rather than in fear.
And I think we need that myth now more than ever. We are now living in a precarious time, a time in which rival groups are being pitted against each other for resources and there are people stoking the fires of hatred and violence. We need Thanksgiving. Not so you can talk sense into your crazy Trump-supporting relatives, or so you can drown your sorrows in a tryptophan-induced haze. No, we need Thanksgiving because we need to remember how the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims to survive, to plant, to harvest.

The Pilgrims could have a feast because the Wampanoag had taught them to grow the Three Sisters – corn, beans and squash. These plants thrive when grown together, each complimenting the others, each contributing to the successful growth of the others. Together, they also contain all of the basic nutrients necessary for human survival.
And this is what we need to do … to use our individual strengths in service to each other and to the survival of our country. That is where we will find strength, support, growth, stamina, survival, and ultimately thanksgiving.

At the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, they had no crystal ball. We don’t either, but we know enough to know that there are dangerous times ahead. It is now that we need to cling to that myth of Thanksgiving, because it is now that we can give it meaning. Forget the hand turkeys … it’s time to extend a hand of peace, of solidarity, of friendship.
And we can start by standing with the Standing Rock Sioux …

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Oh Say Can You Protest?

When I taught college history, I’d often suggest that the entire history of our country could be framed as a history of dissent. The Pilgrims and the Puritans were dissenters. Many of the New England towns broke off to form new ones because of dissent (usually within the church), and of course our founding documents are filled with dissenting arguments.

So when someone says that people should not be protesting – individually and/or collectively – it strikes me as downright un-American. Whether it’s a football player taking a knee, people marching in the streets, the Standing Rock Sioux trying to protect their water, or the cast of Broadway’s Hamilton addressing Mike Pence, protest is inherently American, and it’s one of the best things about America. It’s one of the ways we know we’re still us.

Sure, there are times that protests have annoyed me – maybe because they inconvenienced me or maybe because I disagreed with (or didn’t understand) the object of the protest. But it is so intrinsic to what America is, especially America at its best, that honoring dissent is even more patriotic than honoring the flag. More importantly, it is very much like the flag in Francis Scott Key’s poem.*
When Key wrote it, he was imprisoned during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812, and was searching for sight of the flag to know if the United States was still a country, still alive as an independent nation. “The rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there …”

Those protests – those people on the streets who are loudly and publicly airing their grievances with a president-elect who has threatened so many of us in so many ways – they are the proof that our nation, our “land of the free” is still there. When they disappear, there will be nothing left but the flag, and it will have nothing left to represent.
So whether or not you agree with the protests, perhaps you should stand and salute when they go by. Maybe you should pledge allegiance to American dissent, write songs about its colors, and ask for God’s blessings upon it. It is inherent to who we are.

It is, after all, the words and actions of the brave which will ensure we remain the land of the free.

*-- As a footnote, I am not glorifying Francis Scott Key, who was not only a slave owner, but was an anti-abolitionist and held very racist views. While we're protesting, maybe we can also change the national anthem .... Just asking.