The Declining Quality of Protest – posted 11/16/2014

November 17, 2014 1 comment

The 2014 Pumpkin Festival held in Keene New Hampshire did get me thinking. What was that about? Why did a pumpkin festival become a riot scene? Was it really a riot to fight for the right to party, that most fundamental of all American rights?

I was not in Keene to witness the mayhem but from most accounts it did seem to be a protest about the right to party and drink. Possibly it dignifies the riot too much to consider it “a protest”.

Thousands of college students descended upon Keene looking for beer. The students came from UNH, University of Rhode Island, U. Mass – not just Keene State. It was not as spontaneous as it might have seemed. Social media helped to build the event encouraging kids to rage.

The Daily Beast reported that Finnarage, a company which hosts pop-up parties on or near college campuses, advertised for a month and a half before the Pumpkin Festival that it was coming to Keene. On September 10, Finnarage tweeted, “# KSC Spring weekend!! Pumpkin Fest 2014 will be 10x crazier..YOU READY KEENE #Finnarage.”

It does not seem surprising that if you add together young people drinking excessively, setting fires, tipping cars, smashing windows, throwing rocks and bottles and police in swat gear with tear gas, tasers, pepper spray and canine units, you have a recipe for insanity.

I do not see the Pumpkin Festival riot as nihilistic. I think it is more an example of mindlessness.

At the age of 63, I feel like I have earned the right to indulge in being a curmudgeon. May I say that the behavior of the student/rioters was incredibly dumb if not moronic. Congratulations! If I was asked to give a leading example of the dumbing-down of America, I would point to the 2014 Pumpkin Festival riot, a riot about nothing.

I remember when people connected protest with a cause. Now there is a novel concept! When I was in college, I do not recall anyone feeling the need to riot for the right to get blitzed. That right was always taken for granted.

I suppose I cannot help but think back to my own college experience. Along with many others, I spent a considerable amount of time during college protesting the war in Vietnam. Demonstrating against that war may have been the archetypal experience of my whole generation. To this day, I feel proud of that dissent and protest. We college students of that era educated the nation and turned the tide of public opinion against that monstrous war.

Thinking about the Pumpkin Festival, it is hard not to see it as reflecting some debasement of the honorable act of protest. Protest at its best is about speaking up for what is right and putting human values above material values. It is about creating a more democratic and humane society. I think of values like caring, compassion and empathy.

I certainly do not see the Pumpkin Festival as the only recent example of debased protest. Before leaving Keene, a city I genuinely like, I would also mention the so-called Keene Robin Hooders. These individuals closely follow city parking enforcement officers around as the officers check on whether parking meters have expired. The Robin Hooders have put change into expired parking meters before the city’s parking enforcement officers can write tickets. They have been accused of harassing and intimidating parking meter officers by taunting, crowding, making video recordings and accusing officers of stealing people’s money. The harassment has caused one officer to quit his job.

We all pick and choose our battles in life but parking meter enforcement officers? C’mon man. That is sad. I mean in an era when we have extreme income inequality, they focus on poor beleaguered parking meter officers. Hey what about the 1% if you need a focus? I would classify this protest as stupid too.

I think the use of Robin Hood’s name is misplaced. In English folklore, Robin Hood was portrayed as robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The Keene Robin Hooders are most certainly not doing that. No one loves paying for parking but no doubt city government needs that money to pay for essential services. The lack of revenue is a perennial problem that probably hurts the poor the most. I also think that if parking was not paid some folks would hog spaces and less people would have access to shop or do the things they need to do downtown. Paid parking allows for more turnover of the limited space available.

The dumbing down of protest is certainly not just an American phenomenon. In the international realm, I do want to give honorable mention to the Islamic State. Here we are not talking mindless drinkers on a rampage. We are talking an extremely dangerous political movement with a medieval, viciously misogynist bent.

I have read that young people from various countries have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join that fight on behalf of the Islamic State like it is some kind of idealistic mission. In between video beheadings of innocent hostages, blowing up religious holy sites, selling women into slavery , suicide and car bombings, you have to wonder about the reasons for the appeal of this movement.

Amnesty International has found the Islamic State guilty of ethnic cleansing of ethnic and religious minority groups in Northern Iraq. It is hard to keep up with the Islamic State’s track record of kidnapping, torture, executions and rape. And this from a group that publicly describes itself as acting in the name of a religion.

On the scale of mindlessness to nihilism, I think we can safely place the Islamic State as tipping the extreme nihilism end of the spectrum. As has been said about them, they are not about violence as a means to an end. They are about violence as an end in itself.

While protest may be as American as apple pie, even in the area of protest, quality matters. I have to believe we can do much better than the mindlessness-nihilism spectrum.

Book Review: “Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund” by Arnie Bernstein – posted 11/11/2014

November 12, 2014 1 comment

Arnie Bernstein’s book, Swastika Nation, peers into a little known bit of American history. Bernstein investigates the Nazi movement in the United States before World War II. I have to say it is not a movement I knew anything about. I had heard of Father Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith and the Silver Shirts but I did not know anything about the German-American Bund.

My reason for wanting to read the book came out of curiosity about how far the movement actually got in the United States. Where did they get their supporters? Who were they? What was the sociological make-up of the movement? What was the Bund’s relationship to Nazi Germany? I wondered if there are any lessons we could learn about right wing extremism.

Bernstein’s book provides some answers. It is more a pop history and a character study than an academic work. I think Bernstein was trying for more of a mass than academic audience. Swastika Nation tells some good stories, especially about Fritz Kuhn, who was the major Bund leader in the 1930′s. Also, Bernstein chronicles the opposition to the Bund, Jewish and otherwise. He shows how opposition came from some unlikely places, including from Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen.

I guess the good news to report is that the Bund never got far in America. Even before the crimes of the German Nazis became more widely known, they never moved beyond being a very fringe movement. They struggled with self-definition. Were they German or were they American? Were they an arm of the German Nazi Party or were they an independent American variant? They never seemed to figure that out.

In the Bund constitution, membership was open “to all Americans and prospective citizens of Aryan blood of German extraction and good reputation.” It is hard not to think such a self-definition was incredibly limiting. Such an absurd self-definition contrasted with the diversity of America. On its face, it ruled out huge numbers. Unless people already saw themselves as Hitler sympathizers, I have a hard time imagining that there were Americans who were proudly seeing themselves as having Aryan blood. i think that was probably true even in the South.

The Bund always remained focused on Nazi Germany. They wanted to be just like the German Nazis, swearing allegiance to Hitler, but they were living in another country. Their efforts to adapt to America and to Americanize were never successful.

At their height in 1939 when they packed a rally with 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York City, they attempted to manipulate the image of George Washington as some type of Nazi precursor. They surrounded a huge image of Washington with swastikas, Betsy Ross American flags, and anti-Jewish propaganda. Kuhn argued for an America ruled by white gentiles, labor unions free from Jewish communists, a thorough cleansing of the Hollywood film industries of all alien, subversive influences and a return to the policies of George Washington, free of any foreign influence.

Kuhn apparently did not appreciate the irony of his call for Americans to be free of any foreign influence when the Bund was obsessively and slavishly mimicking all things Nazi Germany. Bernstein shows how Kuhn and the other Bund leaders were always trying to get the German Nazis to give them the official nod as the true American Nazi entity, blessed by Hitler.

The German government never did strongly endorse the Bund. Kuhn made a pilgrimmage to Germany in 1936 and met with Hitler and other high-up Nazis but the German Nazis always maintained a distance.

Bernstein reported that in the 1930′s, Kuhn said the Bund had 200,000 members nationally. This is highly doubtful and there is no way to check it. In 1936, the New York Times reported the Bund membership was between 6000-8000. Most lived in large cities on the coasts or in the midwest. Bernstein wrote:

“The vast majority of the Bundists were blue-collar workers, employed as mechanics, at restaurants, lowly office clerks, itinerant job hoppers. There was a smattering of professional people within the ranks…”

The Bund was viciously anti-semitic. They despised FDR as a man with a secret Jewish past. They referred to President Roosevelt as “Rosenfelt”. Kuhn described Jews as “conniving sorcerers” devoted to the persecution of German-Americans. Jews were “money-mad leeches” and “master magicians”. Kuhn described a fantastical version of American history where Jews were a secret cabal behind the scenes pulling strings. Kuhn said Jewish carpetbaggers swept through the post-Civil War South exploiting newly freed blacks with promises of “a white woman for a sweetheart”.

It is truly amazing that anyone could have believed this delusional crap. I am reminded of the words of Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Interestingly, Fritz Kuhn was inspired by Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company fame. Kuhn was actually a Ford employee. Henry Ford, who was one of the most powerful, wealthy and famous men in America was also a committed anti-semite. Ford was extremely public about his anti-semitism. He used a paper he financially controlled, the Dearborn Independent, to repeatedly warn that Jews were the root of America and the world’s ills. He spent heavily to take what was an an obscure local paper to try and turn it into a national force. He called his regular feature column, “The International Jew”. Eventually the columns were collected into a four volume book of the same name. Ford car dealerships were required to meet a quota for subscription sales.

Ford is the only American Hitler mentions in Mein Kampf. In 1931, Hitler told a reporter from the Detroit News that he regarded Ford as his inspiration and he explained he kept a life-size portrait of Ford next to his desk. Ford actually reprinted The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in the Dearborn Independent. In 1938, Ford received an award from the German Nazis, “The Grand Cross of the German Eagle.”

Henry Ford created nightmares for Ford Motor Company. Others at the company tried for years to repair his damage.

Kuhn modelled his leadership on the corporate Leadership Principle used by Henry Ford. As Bernstein says, Kuhn felt one man with vision and determination could control people on a monumental scale. Hitler was the leading example of giving one man almost total power.

Kuhn called himself the Bundesfuhrer. The term president was too mild and American-like. He wanted to follow the Hitler example. Hitler was a fuhrer so Kuhn successfully sold his colleagues on this meglomaniacal title.

Things did not end well for Kuhn. He was tried for grand larceny (diverting Bund money for his personal use), forgery and falsifying entries in Bund account books. Bernstein shows how the married Kuhn used his control of Bund money to finance a long string of mistresses on the side. When he was not playing Bundesfuhrer, he was quite the playboy. Kuhn had the chutzpah to argue that as Bundesfuhrer with total control and power he had the freedom to use money however he wanted.

While the House Un-American Activities Committee usually attacked the Left, they did go after Kuhn. The famous reporter Walter Winchell also pursued Kuhn with a vengeance. Winchell called Kuhn : Phffftz Kuhn, Kuhnazi, The Shamerican, Son-of-a-Fritz and Chief of the Ratzis.

The criminal case against Kuhn ended in a conviction. The jury found Kuhn guilty of larceny and forgery. Kuhn went to prison for 3 and one-half years.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the political heat greatly increased on the Bund and other American fascists. The Bund dissolved itself within weeks of Pearl Harbor.

In 1943, when Kuhn was paroled from jail, his problems did not end. He was denaturalized and eventually deported back to Germany. In a little poetic justice, after his return to Germany, Kuhn was sent to Dachau which had been turned into a prison for German war criminals. He wanted to return to the U.S. but that request was denied. Kuhn died in obscurity and poverty in1951.

In reading Swastika Nation, I was struck by how support for anti-semitism could come from elite sources like Henry Ford. Anti-semites and fascists are not necessarily uneducated bigots. I worry that the United States remains susceptible to irrational strands of right wing populism. We are likely past Nazism but we seem to have little respect for science or intellectualism. There is a quote famously attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” I think this is still closer to the truth.

Bernstein’s book provides insight into why the American Nazis did not succeed. Hopefully they will never learn from their mistakes.

What Happens When a Federal District Court Judge Beats His Wife? – posted 11/2/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/8/2014

November 2, 2014 2 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on November 8, 2014 under the title “Why are athletes held to a higher standard than judges?”

Ever since the Ray Rice domestic violence case exploded across the media, public attention to domestic violence has probably reached an all-time high. The video of Rice’s brutal assault on his then-fiancee opened a window into a world that is almost always locked behind closed doors. Just about everyone had an opinion about how the NFL should punish Rice. The NFL ended up suspending Rice indefinitely after first blundering with a two game suspension.

Since August, there has been another high profile domestic violence case which has almost inexplicably received much less public attention. That is the case of Alabama Federal Court Judge Mark Fuller. Fuller has been on the bench since 2002 when he was appointed by President George W. Bush. Previously, Fuller was best known for presiding over the highly controversial bribery trial of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

While there is no video of the alleged domestic violence, there is a recorded 911 call from Judge Fuller’s wife, Kelli Fuller. The call came from a Ritz Carlton hotel room in Atlanta on the evening of August 9. Mrs. Fuller reported that the judge had assaulted her during an argument about her suspicions that the judge had been having an extramarital affair with a law clerk.

In a police report, Mrs. Fuller stated that after she confronted him, the judge pulled her hair, threw her to the ground and kicked her. She also stated that she was dragged across the hotel room. She reported that the judge hit her in the mouth several times with his hands. Mrs. Fuller further reported the judge had been drinking that night.

The officers on the scene reported Mrs. Fuller had “visible cuts on her mouth and forehead when she answered the door in tears”. The officers observed bruises on Mrs. Fuller’s legs. Judge Fuller had no visible injuries.

In his interview with the police, Judge Fuller said he acted defensively after his wife hurled a drink glass toward him while he watched CNN.

Judge Fuller’s 17 year old stepson who was also at the hotel told the police that this episode was similar to past confrontations between Mrs. Fuller and the judge.

After his arrest for misdemeanor battery, the police released Judge Fuller from jail and he posted $5000 bail. He then subsequently accepted a plea deal in which he agreed to go to 24 weeks of counselling. After the completion of once-weekly abuse counselling and a drug/alcohol evaluation, his arrest record will be expunged. There will be no trial to establish facts. As Margaret Talbot pointed out in an excellent article in the New Yorker, nationally fewer than 10% of domestic abuse charges lead to pretrial diversion programs like Fuller’s. The judge is effectively getting a slap on the wrist.

Meanwhile, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appellate court overseeing the federal court in Alabama, suspended Judge Fuller from hearing cases, pending an investigation. For now, all Fuller’s cases have been reassigned to other judges and he will not be assigned new cases. He does continue to receive his salary.

So far Judge Fuller has refused calls that he resign. He has made it clear he intends to resume his judicial duties soon. He has requested privacy so his family can heal.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama’s 7th Congressional District has publicly called for Judge Fuller’s resignation as has the entire Alabama Congressional Delegation including both Republican Senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. If Judge Fuller does not resign, Congresswoman Sewell has announced an intention to initiate impeachment proceedings.

In a recent interview, Judge Fuller and his attorney, Barry Ragsdale, both dismissed calls to resign as response to “public pressure and public passions that a federal judge doesn’t have to respond to.” Judge Fuller’s attorney took it a step farther:

“It got caught up in the Ray Rice and NFL scandals and it’s gotten lumped into a category of domestic violence that I don’t think it belongs in”.

I do not think it is going out on much of a limb to say that if a federal judge commits domestic violence, Congress should impeach him if he does not resign. While impeachment for off-the-bench misconduct by a federal judge may be rare, I do not see the circumstances as a close to the line situation. Judge Fuller is way over the line. Wife-beating is one of those off-the-bench acts of misconduct that makes the impeachment-worthy list.

At present we have Ray Rice going down and losing his job but Judge Fuller gets a sweet deal and skates. At least that is where things stand now. I have been surprised how muted reaction has been to Judge Fuller’s case. To date, the federal judiciary’s response to Judge Fuller has been weaker than the NFL’s response to Rice. I would think the court would be worried about double standards and such a tiny punishment for a serious crime.

The Code of Conduct for United States Judges could not be clearer: “A judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities”. The prohibition applies to both professional and personal conduct.

Commentary on the judicial canon goes on to state: “Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges…A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny and accept freely and willingly restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen.”

As should be obvious, it tarnishes the federal judiciary to keep a wife-beater on the bench. I also think it is an insult to victims of domestic violence as Judge Fuller’s continued presence on the bench trivializes the crime. The judge should not be able to hide behind a veil of privacy.

The feminist movement over the last 50 years has shown how the concept of family privacy shielded wife abuse. It is now recognized that wife-beating does not fall into a zone of privacy. It is a crime against the community – not just the victim. As law professor Reva Siegel has pointed out, there is a long history of men who assault their wives being granted immunity from prosecution supposedly in order to protect the privacy of the family and domestic harmony.

So what happens when a federal judge beats his wife? Apparently not a lot. It needs to be studied. Judge Fuller must be hoping he can simply ride out what storm there is. Are we really going to let a professional football player be held to a higher standard than a federal judge? It remains to be seen what price Judge Fuller will pay.

My sister, Lisa Baird, 5 Years later – posted 10/19/2014

October 19, 2014 3 comments

It has now been 5 years since my sister Lisa died. My family organized a memorial event on November 22, 2009 at the Germantown Jewish Center. Many people attended and quite a few people offered remarks. On this occasion I wanted to remember Lisa by reprinting the remarks of Lisa’s friend, Sherri Grasmuck, as well as my own remarks on that day. I also wanted to add a very artful video tribute to my sister that was created by my son Josh. This also was shown at the 2009 memorial event. The video is about 10 minutes long. The link is http://vimeo.com/7766076

Sherri’s remarks

I would like to begin by publicly thanking Deena for the generous way she opened her home to so many of us who loved Lisa and felt the need to be very close in the final days of her life and for the attentive and brave way she confronted the unbearable process of watching her second child die in her presence. Lisa felt that it was in her mother’s care that she wanted to have her final days and to have that relationship affirmed by those final days spent together. Thus we are even more grateful that you shared these treasured moments and your beautiful canopied bed with so many of us.

Though I have known Lisa for more than 30 years, she remains a mystery to me. Since she died I have been trying to get my head around that. I knew her in Texas in overlapping political circles, and lived with her at two different times in Germantown in the early l980’s, once as single women and once when she lived with John and me in a quasi-group house and through the years between then and now. Lisa was a very happy soul back in those early days. We shared many happy solutions to life’s challenges.

Rather than repairing or repainting ugly chipping walls in my house, we drove to French Creek State park with John and painted on huge rolls of paper, murals of bold red and black streaks. We then nailed them over all the questionable surfaces of my house, deluding ourselves that it worked aesthetically.

We had the good fortune to wear the same shoe size. So when we were shifting from hippydom to our early professional jobs, we managed to share for one solid year, on alternative days, the one acceptable pair of shoes— we had. A pair of flat heeled, blond Spanish leather pumps. We mourned that lost capacity when she moved out- a sweet kind of shoe intimacy.

Another challenge related to our commitment to shared meals in that group house. In those days, Lisa was one of the worst cooks imaginable. There was not a noodle casserole, one of her favorites, which she did not overcook by at least an hour. We coped by giving her one less night to cook than the rest of us. She loved to assure me later in life that she had overcome that early disability. But since one of her favorite contributions to potlucks was strudel made not by her but by Deena, her mother, my doubts lingered.

When I think of Lisa I think of polka dots.

There is a lot to celebrate about polka dots

and a lot to share in that spunky, playful, out-there side of Lisa.

Think about it.

Polka dots are perky, mischievous and stick together, devoted to collective solidarity, ready but huddled on the same surface.

Their mere presence, especially if they appear on someone’s grandmother’s underwear, can bring a smile, like Lisa–an announcement that frivolity is allowed.

Her gray blue eyes, those golf ball pink cheeks, curls and more curls.

The way she leaned forward to tease. Lisa was game.

Always happy to see you, taking time to remember details of our lives that so many others seemed to forget.

Polka dots and Lisa in their essence just make us smile.

Polka dots also huddle together, ready for action and but clustered together on the same surface.

They dramatize, like Lisa, solidarity. Lisa’s was the human kind.

She cared about and was interested in human dramas. No conversation with Lisa failed to include a detailed account of someone else’s life. She knew a lot about the people she worked with, carried those stories around with her. Recently she hired my daughter, Tessa, to do some official translation at a deportation hearing and what struck her most, even more than the intensity of the drama involved was how much time Lisa spent beforehand offering details of the lives of her clients so that she would see them through their human yearnings, even though it was not essential to the task of translating their words.

Lisa enriched so many lives; she had a powerful urge to have children, and to love them deeply, to make them know this. She certainly succeeded in this just as she succeeded in enriching, improving even rescuing the lives of so many others, clients and friends alike.

Polka dots and Lisa, make us smile and feel their solidarity.

But polka dots also float in a mysterious darkness, something below the surface that contrasts with the happy dance. Lisa could delight us with her stories, but they also served to direct our attention away from her present, from her own unresolved personal struggles.

Lisa was a master at looking away from her present.

Listening to Lisa sometimes I wanted desperately to stop her from talking about so many other people, to admit in a shouting voice that she deserved more personal happiness, to face what she needed to do to rescue her heart from manipulation, to rescue herself from the need to fight for her right to love her children in an unfettered way. But Lisa was a master of camouflage, she would trick you, she would turn that gaze on you, on your needs, making you collude in turning away from her deepest longings.

Lisa said to me at the end of her life, “Sher, you know that I’ve has always been my own worst enemy,” her form of, personally taking on the blame for not having gotten her house more in order. Though my head tells me otherwise, my heart rebels and leaves me with a lingering despair that perhaps more could have been done to help her feel more entitled to a defense of her own welfare. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t shake the haunting feeling that we did not find the way to help her rescue herself in a manner similar to the way she rescued others. But Lise was a master at directing our and her own attention toward the happy polka dots and away from the darker isolation of her life. But both were part of the truth of her existence.

I hope Molly and Lou will take comfort in the years to come in the depth of her love for them, by remembering how much meaning and joy they gave to her existence. She held onto life so tenaciously precisely because of them. I am profoundly grateful to Lisa for the way her friendship enriched my life. I share the profundity of the loss that her family feels. But it is a small comfort to me to realize that Lisa is also now free from the burdens she privately endured as she sparkled, danced and delighted the lives of so many of us.

My remarks

This event stirs up many feelings. Pride in the person my sister was. Horrible sadness in the tragedy of her death. Regret at what we will not be able to share. And fear that life will go on its normal way with Lisa forgotten.

I was recently told that in early Polynesian culture, the world was not divided up into the living and the dead. Rather, there were the dead and forgotten, the dead and remembered and the alive.

I am glad we are here today remembering Lisa and honoring her memory. Lisa was an unsung heroine, although I know she would have resisted that characterization. She attended to the small daily tasks of family and the injuries to her clients with zealous devotion. But she also had a bigger picture view that she remained true to. Lisa represented the best of the New Left generation.

In looking through Lisa memorabilia at my mom’s apartment, I came across her old Baldwin School yearbook from 1970. The quote under her picture read, “Hello I love you won’t you tell me your name.”

That totally evokes the Lisa I knew my whole life. Lisa’s magic was her warmth and capacity for empathy. That was a great connector with all kinds of people from all walks of life. She redefined the attorney client relationship to something warmer than the norm. To resurrect an old phrase, Lisa could feel your pain. Instead of turning away from other peoples’ pain, she took the person in. Lisa was about as down-to-earth as you could get.

That empathetic quality was at the heart of Lisa’s politics and her lawyering.

I am reminded of a quote from a beautiful book, Song of Ariran, about a Korean revolutionary, written by Nym Wales, Edgar Snow’s wife.

“I like unhappy people. I understand them. Suffering creates character and human feeling. Cheerful, happy people seem like idiots to me. They seem to fly over the surface of life and never to know its meaning. They are not close to the heart of humanity but are remote and isolated. Perhaps this is why they can remain cheerful.”

Lisa did know about suffering and pain. She was schooled in it and maybe that is why she was close to the heart of humanity. She never seemed to do anything the easy way. I think this was true in many areas of her life. I wish it had not been so true.

I have to say that in her last weeks I never saw even an iota of self-pity. She faced her death with bravery. On mornings when she got up and felt a little better, she would say to me, “I don’t think I’m going to croak today.” Her focus remained her kids and her clients.

Her selfless quality drove me crazy because so often she left herself out of the equation. That is very unusual in this culture, but Lisa was stubborn and pretty much went her own way.

Marion Wright Edelman has said that “service is the rent we pay for living”. I think that was Lisa’s ethic.

She was very precocious politically. She figured out capitalism at age 16. She made it her business to educate me. Lisa was a critical thinker, but she was always engaged in practical politics to help poor and oppressed people. Her activism was lifelong and it never stopped. Lisa never surrendered. I am glad that she got to see Barack Obama elected President.

Lisa had a lighter side with a fine sense of humor. I wanted to mention some random memories of happy times:

* playing stair games at 284 Melrose Road when we were little
* Lisa’s boffo performance as the Artful Dodger in Oliver singing “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” at Friends Central School in 4th grade
* her encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway show lyrics and her frequent singing demonstrating that memory
* her horseback riding, especially with my Dad
* her being Winnie captain at Camp Red Wing where she had fabulous good times and adored being a camper
* her falling asleep in my bedroom early doing her Baldwin homework because she was a morning person
* her long distance swimming, especially with Joyce Abrams
* bobbing contests with me at the Longport Seaview pool in Longport NJ
* just being at the shore in NJ with Rob, Mom and Dad
* teasing Lisa for her whole life with her affectionate way of responding to my teasing by saying, “Shut up, you asshole!”.

To Molly and Lou, I want to say your mother unconditionally adored you. To say she was proud of you does not do justice to the depth of her feelings. She kvelled talking about both of you. Your happiness was probably the most important thing in her life. She was a warrior for both of you and I hope the memory of her love can be a source of strength for you.

To my mom, I want to say thanks for opening up your home and allowing Lise to have as humane an end to her life as possible. Mom, you have always been a tremendous, caring mother. Lise, Rob, Rich, and I have been and are blessed to have you as a mom.

To Lisa’s friends, I again want to say thank you for your amazing support and help during this most trying period. Tish, you were an angel. Bob, John and Sherri, Bebo, and Eva, I will always be grateful for your stepping up at the hardest times. Kate Winkler, I also want to mention because she was there in the trenches for Lise. I think Kate gave Lisa courage to go on and vice versa. I know I am not naming others who I should name and thank. Please do not be offended. Lisa had a wide circle.

Finally, I want to say “Lise, I will miss you.” I was incredibly lucky to have a sister like you. You taught me so much and helped me in a million ways. I miss the simple act of calling you up everyday and chatting. Please know that I will miss you everyday I am alive.

Jose Pepe Mujica: An Unorthodox President Who has Lived His Ideals – posted 10/13/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 10/22/2014

October 13, 2014 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 10/22/2014 under the title “The People’s President.” Jon

Probably there is no more powerful political force on the planet today than cynicism. Nothing acts to prevent activism and positive social change more. Cynicism is the ultimate inaction producer. It is a bulwark of the status quo.

The conventional wisdom is that regardless of political party, you cannot trust any politician. Politicians are like con men – they take you in and then they sell you out. Cynicism makes it hard to believe in any cause or collective effort toward any social justice objective. It promotes doubt in the sincerity and goodness of everybody.

But then along comes someone like Jose Mujica, the President of Uruguay. To friends and foes, he is known as Pepe. Still little known in the United States, Mujica can shut up cynics and force reexamination of fundamental assumptions. He was elected in 2010 and his term ends this year. He is not seeking re-election. Here are some of his accomplishments as President:

* reduced extreme poverty and successfully focused on lessening economic inequality
* raised the minimum wage 50%
* legalized gay marriage
* legalized marijuana so the state can regulate it
* confronted corporate abuses, especially by tobacco companies
* made Uruguay the first Latin American country to ban smoking in enclosed public places
* supported women’s reproductive rights, including passing the most liberal abortion rights law in Latin America
* promoted environmentalism and recycling
* opposed war and militarism
* helped pass a historic affirmative action law to help Afro-Uruguayans who have faced a long history of racism and discrimination
* increased education funding and helped to promote a program which gives all Uruguayan children a laptop and internet access

In a recent profile in the British newspaper, the Guardian, President Mujica said:

“A left-wing vision of the world requires you to imagine a future utopia but one doesn’t have the right to forget the most important thing for every human being is the life they lead now. The fight to make today better must become your central task.”

As president, he has shunned all the perks of the presidential office. He has not lived in the presidential mansion which had a staff of 42. He has stayed in his modest, long-time, one-bedroom home located on the outskirts of Montevideo. He has no servants. He and his wife raise chrysanthemums which they sell at local farmers’ markets. He never wears a tie. He is frequently accompanied by his three-legged dog, Manuela.

Mujica has donated 90% of his $12,000 monthly salary to charities that benefit poor people and small entrepreneurs. He drives a 1987 VW Beetle. When asked about being a poor president, he quoted the Roman philosopher Seneca: “It is not the man who has too little but the man who craves more, who is poor.”

For anyone who has stereotypes about Latin American dictators or strongmen, Mujica is a total contrast. He describes himself as a left-wing libertarian. He idolized Che Guevara as a young person but he evolved to temper his idealism with flexibility. He has worked persistently to advance reforms inside the Uruguayan political system.

You might wonder about his background. There again, Mujica is anything but typical. In the 1970′s, he was a member of the Tupamaros, left-wing armed urban guerillas. For those who recall it, the Tupamaros were central to the Costa Gavras movie State of Siege.

In 1970, after being recognized in a bar in Montevideo, Mujica engaged in a shoot-out with the authorities. The police shot him six times and he wounded two policemen. A surgeon on call at the local hospital who was a secret Tupamaro member saved his life.

Mujica actually escaped prison several times in the early 70″s. The Tupamaros had some success in tunneling their militants out. Mujica kept getting recaptured. After a recapture in 1972, things turned for the worse for Mujica. A military coup led to an extreme crackdown on the Tupamaros. Mujica ended up spending 13 years in prison in the most squalid conditions. He spent a decade in solitary confinement. He has said his companions were a tiny frog and rats with whom he shared crumbs.

In 1985, Uruguay restored constitutional democracy. An amnesty freed Mujica. After getting out of prison, Mujica reevaluated his politics. He adopted a more pragmatic left-wing stance. He and other Tupamaros joined the Frente Amplio, a broad coalition that included liberals, social democrats, Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists.

The Frente Amplio has proven to be a powerful vehicle for electoral change. Politicos like Mujica worked to turn activists and the uncommitted into voters. The results have been very impressive. Since 2004, The Frente Amplio has arguably turned Uruguay into the most liberal and tolerant society in Latin America. It is notable that Uruguay has the lowest illteracy rate in Latin America.

Mujica has been quite vocal that Uruguay should not go the way of more advanced industrial societies. He has raised prophetic concerns about the environmental cost of a culture based on acquisition, greed, and growth.

“What are we thinking? Do we want the model of development and consumption of the rich countries? I ask you what would happen to this planet if the Indians would have the same proportion of cars per household as Germans. How much oxygen would we have left? Does this planet have enough resources so seven or eight billion can have the same level of consumption and waste that today is seen in rich societies? It is this level of hyper-consumption that is harming our planet.”

In the last year, Mujica’s popularity in Uruguay has fallen off. At the time of his election, he had a 66% popularity rating. Last month, that number had plunged to 43%. When asked about it Mujica responded, “I don’t give a damn. If I worried about pollsters, I wouldn’t be President”. Part of his appeal has been his blunt, down-to-earth speaking style.

I think over the last decade Americans have paid inadequate attention to Latin America. So much attention has been lavished on the Middle East with its history of endless vicious wars. Latin America has pioneered a far more creative, positive way forward. Multiple Latin countries with democratically elected governments have struggled to address poverty with some positive results. Uraguay is among those countries and we could learn from its example.

As for Mujica, he says he will be happy to go back to full-time farming. He did manage to govern without giving up his revolutionary ideals. His story should be a movie.

Music Review: “Tooth and Nail” by Billy Bragg – posted 10/5/2014

October 5, 2014 Leave a comment

It is a little late to be reviewing Billy Bragg’s 2013 CD, “Tooth and Nail”, but I wanted to write an appreciation. It is a great album all the way through. It is rare to find an album that has so many consistently good songs.

For those who do not know Billy Bragg (and I have been surprised to find many who do not know of him), he is a British leftist folk/rocker. He has been around, performing for almost 30 years. The closest American parallel I could think of is Phil Ochs. Like Phil did, Bragg plays at many political events in addition to his touring. I heard he was recently in Ferguson Missouri which does not surprise me. Bragg is an activist musician.

I first learned of Bragg when I heard Worker’s Playtime, a fine album he cut in 1988. He has been knocking around since then. Artists like Bragg seem to operate outside the celebrity machine. You will not find him on Access Hollywood. While it is extremely difficult for musicians to survive and make a living, Bragg has succeeded.

“Tooth and Bone” is a mix of political and love songs. Bragg has a knack for writing in an appealing, non-polemical way. Plus his songs are melodic. I cannot think of any current political songwriter who is as skilled as Bragg in combining the personal and the political. I would acknowledge there does not seem to be much competition. Probably those who would compete cannot reach any mass audience so they remain unknown.

My favorite song on the album is his version of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”. That song is timeless and universal. I believe it originally appeared on Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. It could have been written today. I actually think Bragg’s version is better than the original. I imagine it is hard to write songs about homelessness but Bragg’s version captures the sadness and hopelessness. In hearing the song, it did make me think that it is surprising there are not more songs like it.

Bragg writes, “My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road, a hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod..” Now it is like millions have trod that road but it is amazing how little we talk about it or sing about it.

Maybe it is too real a topic for singers to take on especially since most singers are likely so removed from it. Considering the numbers of people experiencing homelessness, there should be more songs about it than there are. I do think we are anesthetized as a society to not feel and to not imagine. We generally lack the ability to put ourselves in the position of the other.

I also really liked “There Will Be a Reckoning”. The lyrics are about attempts to divide people by hate. I assume Bragg is talking about racism, sexism and homophobia. The song has some fire and it is like an anthem against hate. I think the title is cool.

The song “Over You” is poetry. I am not sure I can say exactly what it is about but the song moves well and the words seem right. I really like it.

There are some love songs on the album too. I will mention “Swallow my Pride”. That song speaks to the need to own up to mistakes. Also “Handyman Blues”…that song is one I can particularly relate to not being a Mr. Fix-it.

The album ends on a positive note. “Tomorrow’s Going to be a Better Day” is a mature, glass-half-full perspective. The tone is not whiny negativity. On the contrary, it is upbeat and reflects Bragg’s activist bent.

Listening to Bragg made me wonder about the decline of political folk music. Maybe I am too removed from contemporary music but the political music genre seems moribund. I suppose the music scene follows the culture generally. The 60′s revival of political folk followed the Movement. Our lack of political music reflects the sadly internalized world view that dominates our social lives now. In a world of every person committed to a best private outcome, music is mostly an endless succession of love songs. The dark side may get covered but not in a politically aware way.

If you are unfamiliar with Billy Bragg, just go to youtube and check him out. If you are familiar, consider buying this CD. Independent musicians need the support and I fully expect you will love it. I sure have and that is after many listens.

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The Need For a Progressive Challenger in the Democratic Primaries – posted 9/21/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 9/27/2014

September 22, 2014 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 9/27/2014 under the title “Here’s Hoping a True Progressive Challenges Clinton”. Jon

For many people, it is a foregone conclusion that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 2016. There is genuine excitement at the prospect of a woman president. Plus, Hillary’s unparalleled name recognition, her wide experience as a politician and a campaigner and her access to big money all give her legitimate frontrunner status.

Things like her recent trip to Iowa and the many Ready for Hillary emails I continually receive do make me think she is serious about a 2016 run. That stuff is hardly accidental.

Still I have to express a degree of skepticism. As a progressive, I am not sure where she stands on a number of critical issues. In writing this piece, I offer no endorsements of any candidate. I think there is an increasing gap between proliferating problems and the meagre solutions offered by both political parties.

Without getting too dystopian, our political system is stuck in quicksand as the challenges grow. Political stalemate translates into a form of dysfunctionality. Politicians focus more on image and strategies for how to spin difficult divisive issues. Real action for change often seems like a fading hope.

I will highlight three major issues of concern – economic inequality, war and militarism, and campaign finance reform. Without a strong progressive challenger, I have a bad feeling about where Hillary and the centrists in the Democratic Party leadership will land on these issues. I would guess perceptions of how the issue affects her electability would trump other concerns.

I think a vigorous primary would be good for the Party and democracy. The base of the Democrats needs to shake the party leadership and try to exert influence. We do not need two Republican parties or a second party that is Republican-lite. I fear that a play-it-safe, bland, centrist approach will shrink enthusiasm and turnout. That could be a killer for the party even having a candidate with the positives Hillary does bring.

Economic inequality is our 800 pound gorilla issue. We live in a new Gilded Age. To say the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer is a gross understatement. The top 10% of the richest 1% have gotten astronomically richer. 16,000 families, the ultra-rich, possess $6 trillion in assets – equal to the total wealth of the bottom two-thirds of American families.

Meanwhile, middle class, working class, and poor people face a bleak landscape. Good paying jobs with benefits are like a dying species relative to the need. Students come out of college with cripplingly large student loan debts. Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality and poorer health outcomes. And I have barely scratched the surface of the negatives of extreme inequality.

Hillary embodies the dilemma at the core of the Democratic Party. Is it a pro-corporate party or is it a Labor party? It has tried to be both. Hillary has maintained cozy ties with Wall Street fatcats. Last year she gave two paid speeches to Goldman Sachs audiences. Her speaking fee: $200,000 a speech.

So I will ask: how does one challenge robber barons while being financially dependent on the same robber barons? I mentioned the Goldman Sachs speeches but since Hillary left the State Department she has given more than 90 speeches, many to powerful corporate interests, raking in over $5 million. This is the person who is going to lead a populist crusade? Everybody has contradictions but it strains credulity to see Hillary as a working class hero.

On the matter of war and militarism, progressives do have cause for concern about Hillary’s positions especially in light of her recent criticism of the Obama foreign policy. She has been positioning herself to the right of Obama , criticizing his reluctance to support moderate Syrian rebels. As she famously said in reference to Obama’s foreign policy, “Don’t do stupid stuff is not an organizing principle.”

This comes from a person who supported George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. We seem to forget so fast. It is like that absurd war never happened. It has cost America enormously. President Obama’s caution, in light of our history, has been very appropriate. We should not lose our minds because demented Islamic State terrorists have beheaded two Americans.

Instead of being world policeman, the United States needs far more restraint in the use of our military. Military intervention should only be a last resort – not a first resort. We also need to rein in the size of our military-industrial complex. I see no indication that Hillary sees things that way. She is far more prone to play the hawk card.

As for campaign finance reform, Hillary has spoken in favor of public financing of some campaigns. However, like Obama, she opted out of the public financing scheme for presidential elections. It is hard to see any fix coming from an insider like Hillary who preaches campaign finance reform but practices private financing. I do not diminish the likely difficulty for anyone who unilaterally accepts public financing. It is hard to compete against the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and right wing money. The billionaires try aggressively to buy the win.

The problem is that elections are now about collecting money from billionaires. Economic elites exert very disproportionate influence. The voice of the people is utterly drowned out by the avalanche of big money from the 1%. The U.S. Supreme Court, in some of the worst decisions in its history, in Citizens United and McCutcheon v FEC, have compounded the problem. The Court has fought all efforts to limit the ability of big money to buy elections.

Again, accepting millions from corporate donors does not provide credibility for leadership on campaign finance reform. We need leaders who are not compromised and who can offer a bolder reform agenda. For example, elections need to be shorter and cheaper. We need to guarantee the right of every citizen 18 or older to vote. We need to provide protection against attempts to disenfranchise individual voters. We also need to ensure all votes are correctly counted.

Probably we also need a constitutional amendment that states corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to real people. I question whether corporations should be allowed to make campaign contributions at all. States should have the power to regulate campaign finances. I expect Hillary’s efforts would probably be tepid at best in this area because she is ultimately beholden to corporations like most conventional politicians.

I have no idea whether a progressive challenger will emerge. I know both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been mentioned as possibilities. For the sake of our democracy and our collective future, I hope a passionate credible challenger runs.

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