Everyone following the Olympics is aware that an openly gay male figure skater named Adam Rippon won a bronze medal for free skating on Monday, and in doing so gave gay people everywhere a new love. He also won hearts and a lot of press with his charm and cheer, to say nothing of his courage.

Now this morning on Twitter, he posts this:


Yes, more reason to admire his courage. But note also what is the occasion for his courage: a charming, talented young man is getting hate tweets for no reason except that he’s gay.

Without knowing Adam Rippon, or even knowing much about him, I can tell you a few things about this. First, he knew he’d get vicious crap like this, because it has happened to him hundreds or even thousands of times before. And second, it will continue to happen to him every time he enters the public eye. If he succeeds, people will, as they have here, be angry about and contemptuous of his success. If he fails, people will celebrate his failure.

Terrible. Sad. Shameful.

Now try a thought experiment. Imagine that you’re a gay person, not Adam Rippon but just any gay person, delighted and heartened by Adam’s success, openness, and joy. Now read his tweet again, and answer some questions for me:

How, reading that he has received such hate tweets, do you keep from crying?

How do you keep from despairing at the knowledge that some people will see everything you do, ever in your life, as diminished by the fact that you’re gay?

How do you overcome the fatigue that comes from knowing that you will face this question every fucking day, forever?

How do you keep from hating straight people, all of them, since so many of them hate you?

How do you keep from hating yourself, since so many others hate you?

Do the Stonewall riots, and all gay activism since, seem a little clearer now?



George Wallace

In 1979, George Wallace, crippled by an attempted assassination seven years before, went to Martin Luther King’s church in Montgomery, Alabama, and asked the mostly black congregation to forgive him for the hurt he had caused black people throughout his life. The story of that is told here in a recent Washington Post column that is well worth reading.

I had forgotten this about George Wallace. In my mind, he remained the red-faced, spitting bigot he was throughout the civil rights protest era. This is unfair to him, of course, and I was glad to be reminded of that unfairness by the Post article.

When I think of George Wallace’s redemption — because that is what it was — I wonder if a similar redemption is possible for Donald Trump and the worst of the other Trumpites. I’m afraid that I doubt it…but then, George Wallace.

When he spoke to the Montgomery congregation, Wallace accounted for his change of heart by saying, “I have learned what suffering means.” He was speaking, of course, of the paralysis and pain that followed the assassination attempt that nearly killed him.  I’m sure he suffered greatly, but the suffering alone could not have accomplished the change in him.  For that to happen, he had to be open to it. He had to have enough humility and grace to look past his own overwhelming suffering and to apply the understanding of it to the experiences of others. The fact that he could do that is testimony to George Wallace’s intelligence and character, whatever one might say about his actions through the ’60’s.

People of faith might say that Wallace’s wounding and subsequent repentance were actions of God in the world. I don’t really believe that; the ideas of a Master Plan and a personally-involved God are too much for my cynical, modern mind. But the not-quite-extinguished Methodist that still flickers somewhere in my brain conjures up a picture I can’t quite shake. It’s a picture of a small, elderly black woman somewhere in Alabama praying for the salvation of George Wallace’s soul. Perhaps that woman is imaginary, and perhaps the answering of prayers is imaginary too, but it’s a powerful picture nonetheless.

Kristallnacht in Charlottesville

Today in Charlottesville, VA, young white men are rioting in support of white supremacy. The least oppressed group in human history is howling that they “won’t be replaced”…by Jews, women, people of color. They came to the event armed and carrying shields, but the police, although present, are treating them far more gently than they would treat even peaceful demonstrators who were black. It’s on television and the internet for anyone to see: this is what Trump has unleashed.

Trump just tweeted this: “We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!” The emphasis on “all” is, of course, his. His statement implicitly equates this mob of trash in Charlottesville to peaceful protests on the left…which is certainly deliberate.

The word “Nazi” gets thrown around too much, by both the left and the right. But in this case, it’s appropriate: that’s who these people are. And Trump is enabling them.


“I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” — Will Rogers

A few hours after Tom Perez was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Michael Moore took to Facebook to lament the Democrats having once again spurned the youth and the progressive wing of the party by failing to elect Keith Ellison. Others showed up all over social media to whine and complain and once again threaten to start  a third political party because the Democrats didn’t elect their guy.

To Michael Moore and to the young firebrands want to leave the Democratic Party, I have only one question: what the hell is the matter with you?

It’s instructive to note that also hours after the DNC election Trump tweeted this:

The race for DNC Chairman was, of course, totally “rigged.” Bernie’s guy, like Bernie himself, never had a chance. Clinton demanded Perez!

Beyond the fact that this isn’t true, look at it. Look at it, and understand that Trump would like nothing more than for Democrats divide themselves over this issue or any other. That kind of division helped to elect him last Fall, and he knows it. Why don’t we?

There was a lesson in the November election, at least for those willing to learn it. The fundamental truth of our system is that it’s a two party system. Perhaps it would be better if it weren’t, perhaps it would be better if the Democratic Party were further to the left, perhaps it would have been better if Bernie had been nominated instead of Hillary, and so on. Perhaps. I don’t know any of those things for sure. What I do know is this one inescapable thing: right now, for better or for worse, it is a two party system. Third-party candidates will succeed only in draining support away from one or the other of the major party candidates.

This is especially true at the presidential level, because of the Electoral College. Yes, the Electoral College stinks…but it’s the current law. It’s also, of course, how Clinton could win three million more popular votes than Trump and still lose the election. Those of you who could not bring yourself to vote for less-than-perfect Hillary Clinton and who either didn’t vote or voted for Jill Stein contributed to the election of Donald Trump. If you don’t believe me, go and look at Stein’s vote totals  in the critical states, and then look at how much Hillary Clinton lost those states by. Go and look at the fact that something on the order of 80,000 votes in just four states cost us the presidency.

Don’t tell me that the Democrats brought this on themselves by nominating a less than perfect candidate.  There is no perfect candidate.  This is always going to be the case, now and forever. But if we are not united  because some of us are too pure or too stiff-necked to vote for anybody except our guy, we guarantee leaving the Republicans in power for the foreseeable future. Perhaps we even ensure the re-election of Donald Trump in 2020.

I understand very well the idealism that drives the desire not to accept a candidate that you see as “only the lesser of two evils.” But I understand something else as well, and that is that in politics and perhaps in the rest of life sometimes the best we can hope for is the lesser of two evils. We absolutely didn’t get that in November, did we? Can you seriously believe that any Democratic president would have given us the travel ban, or would have signed on to allowing coal companies to dump waste into streams? Can you seriously believe that any Democratic president would sign the gutting of Social Security and Medicare, or the repeal of the ACA? Can you seriously believe that any Democratic president would sign current House Bill 610, which voucherizes all federal education funds and repeals the school lunch program? Can you imagine any Democratic president winking at mosque burnings and desecration of Jewish cemeteries? Can you seriously believe that any Democrat wouldn’t be better than Trump?

And please don’t tell me (as so many if you did during the election last Fall) that if we don’t militate for change now, that if we accept a compromise like Hillary Clinton, nothing will ever change and we will always be accepting sub-optimal candidates. Even if it were true, that idea is a luxury we cannot afford right now. Right now the situation is that the country has elected a fascist to the White House, partly because of people who insisted on ideological purity instead of practical reality. Right now, nothing is more important than getting Trump out of office. Nothing.


The Question

During the Korean War, when I was just old enough to read, I read a newspaper headline that said “Red Army Advances”.  My five-year-old mind conjured up two things from this. The first, naturally, was an image of an army dressed all in red suits, which struck me as strange. The second was a frightening, urgent question, which I asked my mother: “Is there going to be another war?”

I knew there had been a war, of course, and that it had been right before I was born. I knew that my father and my uncles had been in it and had come home, and I knew that the father of my slightly-older friend Kathy had been in it and had not come home. I had a clear if undetailed understanding that wars were bad things, and that people died in them.

And I had read of an army, so of course that caused me to ask what I asked.

My mother’s answer was “I don’t know.” She didn’t say “Of course not, dear”, which would have been the easy answer. But she also didn’t quite say the truth: that there already was another war, in Korea, and that there would always be one, forever.

I was frightened by her answer, and for many years into my adulthood I remembered this with some resentment…hadn’t my mother owed me the easy, reassuring answer? Now, I’m not so sure. For one thing, my mother was only in her early thirties at the time, and World War II had ended only five years before. She was probably, I now realize, just as frightened as I was. For another, I’m fairly sure that even at five I wouldn’t have believed “of course not” — there was the Red Army in the news, and there were air raid drills in school, after all.

On balance, I now think that my mother gave me the best answer she could, however hard it was for me. The other answer, the heartbreaking truth that there would always be another war, is not an answer for a five-year-old. It shouldn’t be an answer for anybody, but even now it remains…the truth.

What’s He Really Doing?

Since the morning after the Executive Order we’re not supposed to call the Muslim ban, I’ve read at least a dozen articles exploring the question “What is Trump really doing?” Many of them take the position that the order is a distraction from something else, that the administration issued the order not for the order’s own sake but rather to conceal some other, even more damaging action. One candidate for what is being distracted from is the appointment of Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council. I suppose part of the thinking here is that the ban is so stupid as policy, and was so clumsily put together, that it can’t be what’s really going on.

No. I think the order is about the order, though I don’t think it has anything to do with enhancing security or with protecting us from potential terrorists. It will do neither of these things anyway. I think Trump’s purpose for issuing the order is the same purpose that drove Hitler’s early actions against the Jews:  it is a way to further bind and control the slavering brownshirts that compose his most enthusiastic, reliable support.

This is also why so few Republicans have come out firmly against the order. Even though the brownshirts are certainly a minority of Republican voters,  Republicans in Congress need their votes as much as Trump does. Now that the order exists, they are unwilling to alienate them by opposing it. It’s also why the order was formulated and released by the Trump administration apparently without consultation with anyone in Congress or the departments of State, Defense, Justice, or Homeland Security. Consultation might have delayed the order, or gummed it up with bothersome exceptions and controversy. What the administration wanted was an immediate dramatic gesture to its base, and assurance that most Republicans couldn’t come out against it because it is a fait accompli. They got those things, and nothing that can be done to eliminate or palliate the order will change that. In fact, the administration now can (and has, and will) characterize opposition to the order as anti-patriotic appeasement of terrorism, hoping for a modern Kristallnacht.

Of course the order is wrong on legal, practical, and moral grounds, and of course it should be fought on those grounds. The administration has already backed away from including green card holders in the order (because it’s clear that a travel ban for them is a direct violation of statutory rights granted to green card holders). Other parts of the order may be able to be thrown out or at least watered down on constitutional grounds. The fact that the existence of the order probably serves as an excellent recruiting tool for jihadist groups should have some impact on its future as well, but may not. We need to exert every effort we can not to allow the order to stand. That is clearly the right thing to do.

But…we should not delude ourselves that even a successful fight against this order is enough. Even if this order can be defanged or eliminated, another one — perhaps one less legally laughable — will take its place. We should also expect further Executive Order sops to the brownshirts, perhaps dealing with policing or with LGBTQ issues. What this is all about is consolidating and cementing Trump’s power so that he can begin to exercise his real reason for being in the presidency: enriching himself and his family.

The only real cure for this is impeachment. But in the meantime, until we can get there, we need to throw every monkey wrench we can in Trump’s efforts to stabilize his power: oppose every appointee, demonstrate in response to every action, keep the pressure on Congress with phone calls and letters. Democrats in Congress need to delay confirmation votes for as long as they can, every time they can. Keep Trump and his henchmen insecure, keep their plans from being realized or at least delay their realization as long as possible.

The Germans didn’t do this in the 1930’s. We have to.

RMN Redux

Talk of torture, gag orders on government departments, building a wall, limiting immigration from Muslim countries, investigation of non-existent voter fraud, cutting veterans’ benefits. Lies, lies, and more lies. And still more lies.

I hear people saying things like “this isn’t the America I grew up in!” But it is, you know. If you were here during the Nixon Administration — and you’re honest about it — it is in fact exactly the America you grew up in. Or in my case, were a young adult in.

A few of the specific issues, such as Islamophobia, are new, but the atmosphere and the underlying mindset are very much the same. An executive branch filled with people who give the term “henchmen” a bad name, executive secrecy and paranoia, a damaged and deranged president and a vice president who in some ways is even worse…same old song.

Repression of dissent, fake news (think body counts in the Viet Nam era), racism pretending to be something else, enemies lists, excoriation of the legitimate press. The FBI an out-of-control partisan organization, the Congress and much of the public in deep thrall to a psychopath, false dangers (Communism then, “Islamic jihad” now) hyped to justify unjustifiable government actions. Nothing new under the sun.

If you listen, you’ll hear people my age talking about how we already did the dissent and the demonstrations once, and for years. None of us really want to do it again. But we have to, and we will. It took 10 years of active dissent to end it the last time. Let’s all hope it won’t take as long this time.


Merry Happy Whatever

I grew up in the 1950’s in a very small town in Upstate New York. Everyone I knew was white, except for one black family, whose father was (as I recall) a lawyer. After I was grown and gone, a Chinese-American family appeared, but I never knew them.

There were a few Jewish families, and an even smaller number of Catholics, but in general it was a very WASP-y place.

Christmas was, of course, the high point of the year for kids, except for the Jewish kids. We felt sorry for them, really. Sixty years later, I recognize that they certainly felt left out, and perhaps somewhat alien and disrespected, but we didn’t understand that then. The concept of marginalization hadn’t yet appeared. Christmas was the norm, as was being white and Protestant.

My mother, who was a considerate and forward-looking soul, taught us two things about celebrating Christmas. First, we should not say “Merry Christmas” to the Jewish kids, but rather “Happy Holidays”, so as not to be offensive. Second, religious Christmas cards were vulgar and should be avoided, since not everyone believes the same thing. They were, in fact, “Catholic”, which was a 1950’s WASP synonym for vulgar. Our nascent multiculturalism was imperfect.

Public schools all had Christmas programs or pageants. Most of the plays were Christmas-themed but secular, but musical programs always included religious Christmas carols. Christmas decorations in commercial areas leaned heavily toward Santas, elves, and reindeer, but even department stores occasionally had Nativity scenes in windows or angels hovering over aisles. So far from there being a war on Christmas, it was more that Christmas was staging a war on everything else. We thought nothing of this, naturally; it was the norm.

A lot of the overt religious things are gone from our public Christmas season now, and we are well rid of them. The thoughtless assumption that everyone is Christian is beginning to disappear from our cultural norms as our culture has become more varied. And it should disappear, no matter how much the Neanderthal right wails about the (non-existent) war on Christmas. I’m even uncomfortable with the continued huge display of secular Christmas themes, though I recognize the commercial motives for this. I also think this may be slightly mitigated by increasing (but still minor) public attention to other traditions’ holidays, like Hanukkah and Diwali. Maybe recognizing major holidays in non-Christian traditions makes it OK to recognize major Christian holidays too. I’m not sure.

However that is, one thing that irks me every Christmas is the caterwauling about “the war on Christmas”. When I was a child, and well past that time, the religious holiday of one religion dominated our commercial and cultural discourse, and that can only be wrong. There is no “war on Christmas”; there is only a belated and still fractional recognition that Christianity is only one of half a dozen major world religions, and that America is not and never was intended to be a “Christian nation”.




The Big Bad Wolf

After Trump huffed and puffed and blew down first the straw house of the Republican primaries and then the slightly stronger stick house of the general election, we have to wonder if we have a brick house that will finally thwart him.

Theoretically, that brick house should be the Electoral College. If there is any purpose at all for the institution, it should be to ensure that someone like Donald Trump cannot become President.

I hope the Electors — or at least enough of the Republican Electors — understand that they have an opportunity that generally only presents itself to characters like Captain America or the Fantastic Four. They have the opportunity with a single act to restore hope to at least two-thirds of the American public, to save American freedom, and quite possibly to save the world. All they have to do is elect someone other than Donald Trump. It doesn’t much matter who it is — even the odious Pence or the repellent Ted Cruz would be improvements — but they have to elect someone. If they take the half-measure of failing to decide and throwing the election into the House of Representatives, it won’t help. The House, led by the Coward-in-Chief Paul Ryan, would almost certainly elect Trump in that case.

But the Electors aren’t going to save us, of course. The Electoral College is not going to be the brick house. In forty-eight hours or so, we’ll hear that Trump has been elected.

At that point, our only remaining hope is that the Constitutional limits on Presidential power combined with a few good souls among the Republicans in the Congress can with the help of activists and a vigilant press construct a house Trump can’t blow down. We have to hope this, and work to make it true.


Yersinia Pestis, and Other Plagues

In late 1346, the Genoese trading settlement at Caffa on the Black Sea was besieged by Mongol Tartars seeking to oust the Genoese from the town. The Tartars brought war with them, but also disease; Central Asia had been suffering from a plague epidemic for several years before.

By April, 1347, the majority of besiegers and townspeople were dead of either battle or illness. The remaining Genoese abandoned Caffa and fled westward to Constantinople, to Messina in Sicily, to Genoa itself, and to French Mediterranean ports. When the Genoese galleys arrived in the Italian and French ports, they carried dead and diseased passengers, and rats. The passengers carried the wildly contagious pneumonic form of the bubonic plague. The rats carried fleas, who in turn carried the bacterium yersinia pestis, the organism responsible for bubonic plague. By late 1347, the plague had spread throughout Italy; by January, 1348, it had reached France, Spain, Portugal, and England. Later that year, it reached Germany and the Low Countries.

By the end of 1350, something between one third and one half of the population of Western Europe was dead, including half of the population of Paris and as much as two-thirds of the populations of London, Florence, Hamburg, and Bremen. Fully 20 percent of the roughly 170,000 villages and towns that had existed in Germany before 1348 vanished completely in the three years of the Great Mortality, the Black Death. The European world was changed utterly, to an extent that even two much-later world wars couldn’t match.

Medieval people understood more about the mechanism of disease than we sometimes assume today. They understood the idea of contagion, that people who were exposed to people who were sick could get sick themselves. Having no understanding of bacteria, they still understood that something unseen — perhaps the breath, perhaps something else — could pass disease from one person to another. Some people, notably the Moors in Spain and perhaps Guy de Chauliac, physician to Pope Clement VI in Avignon, had some inkling that hygiene could have an impact on the spread of the plague, though they didn’t know why. Some people tried to avoid spices and other goods that might have been on Genoese ships, believing that those goods might somehow “store” the plague. Many people understood that people who had had the plague and somehow recovered were unlikely to get it again.

Of course, their understanding was incomplete. They didn’t understand the roles of yersinia pestis, or of rats or the fleas they carried. Most of all, though, they had no tools with which to fight the plague, beyond time and prayers. They attempted to retard its advance by banning ships and travelers from plague areas, and by burning huge fires in the hope that the smoke would stop the plague. But nothing worked; the plague continued to move through Europe. They had no way to make it stop.

By the time the plague reached France in 1348, a conspiracy theory — fake news, if you will — had arisen. The theory offered people the gift of believing that they could control the plague, and the hope that they could, in fact, make it stop. The idea was that the plague was caused by the Jews, either through poisoning the wells or through the application of witchcraft.

Everyone knew, at least in their inner hearts, that this was a lie. It was widely understood that the plague arrived on ships from Central Asia, and that it was spread at least in part by contact with the sick. But the complex truth didn’t offer the easy way out provided by the simple lie, and murders of Jews began. The first massacre was in Toulon, France, in April, 1348, and the anti-Jewish movement spread as fast as the plague through the rest of Western Europe, first to Portugal and then to Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries.

In 1348, Pope Clement VI, inspired by charity, common sense and his physician Guy de Chauliac, issued two papal bulls stating forcefully that the Jews were not responsible for the plague, saying that those who blamed the Jews “had been seduced by that liar, the devil.” But the bulls had little effect; even the threat of damnation could not overcome that most powerful of human ideas, the idea that if we can get rid of those people who are different from us, our troubles will be over.

By mid-1349, over 500 Jewish communities had been destroyed. Huge numbers of Jews were stoned to death, lynched, or burned at the stake, with notable massacres in Aragon, Flanders, Strasbourg, and many other places. In January, 1349, the entire Jewish population of Basel was burned; in March of the same year, the people of the city of Erfurt killed every Jew residing there. On a single day in August, 1349, the 6,000-member Jewish community in Mainz, the largest Jewish center in Europe, was eradicated. Jews in some communities killed themselves to escape the persecution; others fled east to Poland, where King Casimir III offered them sanctuary.  By 1350, there were virtually no Jews remaining in the Low Countries or in most of Germany. From that point forward, the majority of European Jews — 70% or more — resided east of Germany, primarily in Poland. The effect of the plague conspiracy theory had shifted the center of Ashkenazi Jewish culture from Western Europe (primarily Germany) to the east.

For six hundred years after the Great Mortality, Europe’s Jews survived and sometimes prospered, through purges and czarist pogroms in the east and the Inquisition and subtler actions in the west. By 1939, there were 9.5 million Jews in Europe, about 55 percent of the world’s Jewish population of around 17 million. Of the European Jews, roughly two-thirds, six million or so, lived east of Germany, 3.5 million in Poland alone.

We know what happened then: the Greatest German Liar convinced his people that “Jewish Bolshevists” were intent on destroying Aryan culture, thus creating a new edition of if we can get rid of those people who are different from us, our troubles will be over. By 1945, six million European Jews had been murdered. Almost all of Poland’s 3.5 million Jews were lost; after the war, it was estimated that perhaps 120,000 — about four per cent — were still alive. Today, 70 years after the Holocaust, the Jewish population of the world has reached about 14 million, or just over 80 per cent of what it was in 1939. Fewer than 20 per cent of these live in Europe.

The history of European Jewry is to a large extent the history of if we can get rid of those people who are different from us, our troubles will be over. The Jews are not alone in this, of course; this is also the history of Europe’s Roma population and to some extent of America’s Native Americans, to name just two groups. Apparently we cannot learn, still today, that leaders and movements who arrive with the message if we can get rid of those people who are different from us, our troubles will be over are always lying, and will never bring us anything good. Every world religion I know anything about contains parables and stories designed to counter this idea. St. Luke gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan, and there are many others. But they haven’t been able to put a dent in this most powerful, seductive lie.

I find myself thinking of Pope Clement and his warning to 14th-century Europeans that they had been “seduced by that liar, the devil.” But he couldn’t convince his people then. No one has convinced us yet.


For those who would like to know more about the Great Mortality of 1348 – 1351, I recommend the book The Great Mortality, by John Kelly (Harper Collins, 2005). For more information about the Nazi Holocaust, I’d suggest starting with the web site of Yad Vashem.