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Archive for January, 2014

The Poverty of Racialist Thinking – posted 1/26/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 2/1/2014

January 26, 2014 3 comments

I wrote this piece in response to a three part series the Concord Monitor recently ran about a white racist prison gang organizing inside New Hampshire prisons. The group is called the Brotherhood of White Warriors. This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on February 1, 2014 with the title “Let’s not forget ideology behind white pride”. Jon

I read with interest the series the Monitor ran about the New Hampshire prison gang with a white supremacist ideology. Some readers objected that the Monitor should not have run the story because it gave the gang too much undeserved publicity.

I disagree. I think the Monitor performed a public service by exposing that a group like that exists and is organizing in New Hampshire. We should be vigilant and have no illusions about racist movements and their agenda. Better to know about them than to pretend they do not exist.

One thing missing in the series was much of an explanation of what these white supremacists believe. Clearly it is far more than alleged white pride and the whole picture should not be ignored. I suspect the white supremacists were deliberately fuzzy because their message is so offensive. Unfortunately, there is a wealth of depressing history which leaves no doubt about their beliefs.

The most fully realized example of white supremacy has to be Nazi Germany. There the beliefs were fully put into action. I suppose 19th century American slavery and South Africa under apartheid might also be considered contenders. All lived out a racist vision.

The Nazis sought unity of the German people through racism. Racism and anti-semitism were official state ideology. They obsessed about the racial purity of the German people and they constantly worried about mingling between races they considered higher and lower. They passed many laws to prevent that mingling.

The Nazis designated many categories of people as defective and subhuman. These groups included, among others, Jews, Blacks, Slavs, gays, gypsies and the physically and mentally disabled. As these groups were by definition enemies of the Reich, they needed to be eliminated.

Their plan was to create a world of Aryan perfection by removing all the groups considered defective. The six million Jews who died in Hitler’s concentration camps and ovens were no aberration. Those murders followed directly from a racist ideology and plan, as did the millions of other murders perpetrated by the Nazis.

The Hitler vision was based on hatred of all deemed “non-Aryan”. The Nazis created a pseudo-science to certify Aryan background, blood, and traits. They identified facial features and head shapes they felt were characteristic of subhumans. This would all be laughable except that it was in the service of their eliminationist agenda.

Nazi racist ideology desensitized the Germans to the plight of the Jews and others. There was a long incubation period prior to the Final Solution. The Nazis gradually escalated the level of public hatred. I would note that the Nazis saw hatred as noble and they coached Germans to feel no pity when they inflicted pain on those considered inferiors.

Dehumanization allowed the Nazis to categorize their opponents as “human trash” and “useless eaters”. That created justification for all the unspeakable acts of cruelty, including their sick medical experiments and the millions of premeditated murders.

When the white supremacists say they only support white pride, skepticism is more than called for. There was a direct line from Aryan pride to the the concentration camps and murder on a mass scale.

I do not know if New Hampshire white supremacists would object to my use of the Nazis as expressing their values. Not that I am listening that hard, but to this day, you do not hear white supremacists saying Hitler got it wrong. Some deny the Holocaust happened but you do not hear criticisms of Hitler from them. As far as I know, they still celebrate Hitler’s birthday. Also, there must be a reason so many racist prison gangs love their swastika tattoos.

White pride is an utterly false category. It is like having pride in green eyes, O + blood, or skinny legs. It is a wrong-headed basis for a group association. Why have pride in an accidental feature of your genetic make-up? Pride, in this instance, is not based on something good you did. It is based on an accident of your birth. Nobody has control over the skin color they get when they are born. It is the luck of the draw.

Having a group identity based on white pride is what Kurt Vonnegut called a granfalloon. A granfalloon is when a group of people affect a shared identity or purpose and the association is meaningless.

Human beings have plenty of differences, including genetic differences, but I believe all of us are fundamentally the same. We all have good and bad complicated baggage. We feel the same range of emotions. We are all struggling to find some meaning in this life and we are all going to suffer. What we have in common is far more profound than our differences.

Given the appalling history of the Nazis alone, white pride is a scary concept. In a place like New Hampshire where racial diversity is lacking, it is especially pernicious. I would submit that racism is more likely to flourish in places where people have less contact with minorities. There are always exceptions but it is easier to maintain false racial stereotypes when they remain unchallenged in daily life. I think personal contact generally challenges the stereotypes because that experience will show the falsity of racism and racial hatred.

I sincerely hope that white racist prison gangs and white racists generally can come to see the error of that kind of hateful thinking. The 21st century world so needs us to move beyond that outdated and viciously destructive mindset.

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Eulogy for my sister, Lisa Baird – posted 1/17/2014

January 18, 2014 5 comments

January is the month of my sister’s birthday. Lisa would have been 61 on January 29. To remember and honor Lisa’s memory, I did want to post something I wrote right around the time of her death. Here are remarks I delivered back in October 2009 at Lisa’s graveside service held in Roosevelt Memorial Park in Trevose, Pa. Jon

Not so long ago we were here at Roosevelt burying my dad. Lisa gave the eulogy. It is with both shock and some degree of disbelief that we are here again burying Lisa. I do not feel reconciled to this event. Lisa, her family and friends have been cheated. There is no fairness in this death.

I personally cannot imagine a world without Lisa. Her personality, warmth, inspiration and drive gave me hope and literally made the world a better, kinder place.

She has been at the core of my life and I have known her since the beginning. I spoke to Lisa everyday although there were days when she would say, “Boo-boo, now is not a good time to talk”. She knew pretty much everything about me and I knew the same about her. She definitely had a mother hen quality.

She had the audacity to tell me what to do and say in almost every situation. She was like a script writer. Her advice was invariably good.

To say that Lisa was caring does not do justice to that term. Lisa took caring to a whole new level. She redefined the possible as far as how many people one person could have as good friends. She was like an Olympic gold medalist in the category of friends. Friends of Lisa is probably a group that could rival Friends of Barack.

Her spirit of generosity is unrivaled. That outstanding quality defined both her personal and professional life. When it came to Molly and Lou, there is nothing she would not do for them. It is those daily, little things that Lisa attended to with persistence. Whether it was helping Lou with his homework or being on top of Molly’s financial aid, Lisa attended to those tasks with utmost devotion.

Professionally, Lisa was an accomplished immigration law attorney. A part of this tragedy is the loss of Lisa to the Bar and to her client population. She had expertise and knowledge which she used to the great benefit of a marginalized and often despised group. She took cases that others would not take. Her fee scale was off the charts – she redefined the cost of high quality legal work downward. If a client came in and said, “Ms. Lisa, I only have $250 but I’ll pay you when I get some money”, she would take the case. She appeared to have a hard time charging for her services.

At a time when lawyers are held in contempt as greedy bloodsuckers, Lisa carried on the most noble tradition of the advocate for the poor and oppressed. She did her part to rehabilitate lawyers and the Bar.

That big-hearted quality was who she was.

In rummaging through Lisa’s apartment yesterday, Molly brought back to my mom’s place a pillow case with numerous messages written all over it. The pillow case went back to Lisa’s days at Camp Red Wing when she was 16 years old. Some of the ink was hard to read but here are a couple of the quotes:

“Lisa – what an honor. I’m the first one to sign this thing – ample thanks for giving me the best thing in the world – a real friend – not just a friend for the summer but a friend for always. I mean it, Lisa, you’ve given me so much this summer, in all ways. Please let’s not let the distance between our homes break up the wonderful things we have. I mean it. Congratulations on winning. Keep in close touch. Love forvever, Nancy”

” Dear Lisa, It’s really been a fabulous summer. You’re the best captain the Winnies have ever had. You’ve got the most spirit of anyone I’ve met yet. When we won, I was sooo happy for you – you deserved it. Congratulations on your swimming. I knew you could do it. I’ll call you and maybe when I come to Ilene’s house, I’ll visit you. I’ll love you always, Lucy Trotter”

“Dear Lisa, You are one of the most amazing people I know. I have never seen anyone before who could have as many friends and be so all around as you. You’re really a great asset to camp and I’m really glad you could be part of my bunk. As far as Winnie-Tuskie goes, you were the best captain ever and don’t ever think differently. I really love you so much and hope to see you during the winter. Please write. Love ya, Nancy”

In Lisa’s pocketbook, I found a little trinket. It looked like a recent purchase. It was a piece of jewelry. There was an accompanying piece of paper. It read “creative gifts by your homeless neighbors.”

To Lisa’s friends, I want to say publicly “thank you”. Your support has been overwhelming. The whole Baird family appreciates all that you have done to help out. It has been above and beyond the call of duty.

Lisa, I do so wish we were not here today. This should not be happening. You deserve so much better. Please know that you are loved and will always be loved. I know i am speaking for the whole family in saying we will miss you forever.

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Book Review: “My Notorious Life” by Kate Manning – posted 1/12/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor 2/9/2014

January 12, 2014 3 comments

This book review was published in the Concord Monitor on 2/9/2014 under the title “Rags to Riches Tale of an Abortionist”. Jon

Kate Manning’s novel “My Notorious Life” grabbed me from the start and it did not let go. It was one of those rare books you hate to see end.

Manning tells the story of Axie Muldoon, a young orphan girl growing up in 19th century New York City. The story tracks Axie from her early life as an utterly impoverished street urchin to her later evolution becoming a wealthy 5th Avenue midwife serving women of all social classes. It is a rags to riches story but that is hardly all it is.

The novel is based on the true story of Ann Trow Lohman, later known as Madame Restell. Lohman developed an interest in women’s health and medicinal cures. She advertised and sold female products through the newspapers. Women came to her with all types of reproductive problems, but especially birth control and abortion. She practiced as a “female physician” for almost forty years in New York City from approximately the early 1840’s to her death in 1878. Lohman’s business was under constant attack from yellow journalists, criminal courts, and prudish reactionaries. Called “the wickedest woman in New York”, she went to jail for a year on an abortion-related charge.

Axie’s story has some definite parallels. She too achieved notoriety after apprenticing as a midwife and starting her own business under the name Madame DeBeausacq. She also went to jail for her practice. Scurrilous newpapers referred to her as “notorious she-devil”, “hag of misery”, “Evil Doctress”, and “Foul Murdress”. She faced repeated criminal prosecutions with biased judges, hostility from the male medical profession and threats from mob violence that were instigated by vicious, lying press.

In the story she also has her run-ins with Anthony Comstock, Crusader Against Vice. He was a Rick Santorum-type except far worse. Comstock was a holy roller hell bent on confronting sin and smut. Through his political connections, he became a Special Agent of the Unites States Postal Service, a post he used to carry on his personal jihad. Unfortunately for Axie, she got into his crosshairs. For those unfamiliar with Comstock, he was a real 19th century guy with expansive ideas about what constituted obscene, lewd, and lascivious behavior. When not putting people he considered smut peddlers behind bars, he pursued midwives and abortionists. He proudly claimed he drove 15 people whom he opposed to suicide. He was a warrior against sin or as Axie called him “a rat terrier for Christ”.

As for for what I liked about the novel:

The heroine of the story, Axie aka Ann Jones, aka Madame DeBeausacq, is a feisty big-hearted character who you have to root for. She is not left alone by all the needy women who beg her for help. Women were really between a rock and a hard place in the 19th century. Sexuality was so castigated and stigmatized. When Axie gets into trouble, it is because she could not stand to see women suffer when she was in a position to help. Axie, a reject on the orphan train, ends up overcoming so much. The novel does an excellent job of evoking the extreme poverty of 19th century America. Book One of the novel artfully begins this way:

“In the year 1860, when the Western Great Plain of America was the home of the buffalo roaming, the cobbled hard pavement of New York City was the roofless and only domicile of thirty five thousand children. In our hideous number we scraps was cast outdoors or lost by our parents, we was orphans, and half orphans and runaways, the miserable offspring of Irish and Germans, Italians and Russians, servants and slaves, Magdalenes and miscreants, all the unwashed poor huddled slubs who landed yearning and unlucky on the Battery with nothing to own but our muscles and teeth, the hunger of our bellies. Our Fathers and Mothers produced labor and sweat and disease and babies that would be better off never born.”

The politics of the novel are dead on and the comparison to our era is not far off. Just as in 19th century America, women today continue to fight the same battle for reproductive rights, including facing off against the same type enemies.

I personally find America’s backsliding around reproductive rights almost incomprehensible. How can it be that in 2014 Roe v Wade hangs on by a thread, that abortion becomes almost impossible to obtain for poor women in many states, that abortion providers are actively persecuted and even murdered and that even birth control becomes an issue?

Twenty states now have unconstitutional and unenforceable bans that could outlaw abortion as early as the twelth week of pregnancy with no exception to protect a women’s health. There are numerous further efforts to chip away at abortion rights including efforts to eliminate insurance coverage of abortion. Some states like Texas are also trying to regulate abortion providers out of business. The anti-abortion movement has politically out-organized the pro-choice forces and it is hard to know where it will end. Pro-choicers remain on the defensive. It is better now than Axie had it but it would be a lie to deny that every inch of territory around reproductive rights is contested terrain.

One other observation i would make: poverty remains an almost unalterable fact of life both in the 19th century and now. As a society, we show callous disregard for the life circumstances of the poor. More often than not, we look the other way or we blame the victim. How can we want more poor children born, when our citizens neglect and abuse so many kids that do make it into this life? Don’t we have some societal obligation to the children already born? There is a remarkable obliviousness to the real lives of children. The sanctimoniousness of the pro-life movement is matched only by its silence about poor and victimized kids who are already born.

Manning succeeds in putting you inside the shunned orphan child. Reading the novel, you feel Axie’s distrust, her suspicion of any good fortune (because it will probably disappear), her desire for a stable family life and her anger at the world. There is a suicide at the end of the novel with some surprising twists and turns. Manning did not remain entirely true to the historical record of Madame Restell. She gave herself the novelist’s liberty to revise. Without saying more about the events at the end of the novel, I will leave the last words for Axie:

“It was the hounds of hell drove me to it. Mr. Comstock with his underhanded sneakery and Mr. Greeley and Mr. Matsell with their lies, and Dr. Gunning that sanctimonious snake. You never NONE of you did care about a WOMAN, no matter how misfortunate, and all of society shall think of its uncharitableness toward the fair sex when they think about me, who only tried to give sanctuary and comfort to your poor afflicted daughters and sisters, your mothers and discarded sweethearts. I can’t no more face the canker of your laws or waste away in your Tombs. So thus I choose to spare my family the pain of the trial about to start at Jefferson Market Court. It’s nothing but a charade. Farewell, and may my death be on the conscience of my false accusers for the rest of their days.
Signed,
Mrs. Ann M. Jones, April 1, 1880”