Americans have a too casual attitude toward war. It is often attributed to the fact no war has been fought on American soil for a very long time. Without first hand experience, Americans lack knowledge of the awfulness of war.
In my lifetime, the Vietnam war was the big war. It was a monument to pointlessness. More recently, we have had the Iraq War which started in 2003. That war was based on lies and falsehoods cooked up by the George W. Bush – Dick Cheney administration.
How many lives have been snuffed out or irreparably damaged by these stupid wars? The mind reels thinking about that. The numbers are vast.
Now we have war-mongering politicians talking about a new war with Iran, not to mention the war against the Islamic State. Have these politicians learned anything from our wars over the last 50 years (and I am leaving smaller wars out)? It would appear not. There is the same blindness, the same uncritical acquiesence and a new generation of young and innocent soldiers to be sacrificed to the gods of war.
But not everybody is so naive.
I first became aware of the poet Denise Levertov because of her opposition to the war in Vietnam. She was outspoken and a fierce critic of American intervention in Vietnam. Levertov’s husband at the time, Mitchell Goodman, was also an activist against the war. Levertov used to speak and read her poems at anti-Vietnam war rallies. I saw her do that. I also saw her read when she visited my old school, Trinity College, in Hartford, Ct. in the early 1970’s.
I thought of Levertov when I was reading Seymour Hersh’s new article in the March 30, 2015 New Yorker about his return visit to My Lai, the scene of the most famous Vietnam massacre. Levertov did see the horror. She did not sugarcoat or lie or look away as was all too common. She would have appreciated Hersh’s piece.
Reading Hersh, I was struck by the lack of American reckoning and remorse for the crimes committed. As Hersh reported, American troops cold-bloodedly murdered 504 victims from 247 families. Among the dead were 182 women. American troops executed 173 children including 56 infants. Although an army jury convicted Lieutenant William Calley of mass murder and sentenced him to life and hard labor, President Nixon intervened and Calley was released from jail. Three months after Nixon left office, Calley was freed altogether. As Hersh points out, he was the only officer ever convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre. Where was the American price paid for this enormous atrocity?
While Levertov is much more than an anti-war poet, I wanted to recognize her for courageous and honorable opposition to the war. She used her poetry to speak out. Poets are ignored in America but I would ask where are the poets now? Where are the Denise Levertovs’ of our day? Our society is lacking moral compass.
To honor and remember Levertov, I wanted to print two of her poems.
What Were They Like? by Denise Levertov
Did the people of Vietnam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?
Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight,
Who can say? It is silent now.
Living by Denise Levertov
The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer
The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day
A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily
moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.
Each minute the last minute.
I had not planned to write anything this weekend but I could not ignore the death of Danny Schechter, the News Dissector. I lived in Boston during the 1970’s. Danny’s voice on Boston’s progressive rock station WBCN was absolutely unique. He was a most trusted journalist who had a very wide following that was entirely different from the relationship most journalists have with their audience. He was part of the movement for social change and he chronicled events from a decidedly partisan perspective. Boston had a very vibrant alternative culture scene. I also think of the Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix of that era. That news was not homogenized, shallow or phony. Danny always made it lively.
I know Danny had a very successful career in media including working on 20/20 after his Boston period but I will always remember his great reporting at WBCN. This was before BCN went over to all hard rock all the time.
I saw two quotes that I wanted to share about Danny. The first is from Noam Chomsky and the second is from Danny himself. Danny will be missed.
“No one who was in Boston during the days of “Danny Schechter Your News Dissector” can ever forget the exhilaration of those marvelous broadcasts, their enlightenment and insight and humor, often in dark days, a legacy that Danny left behind him when he went on to a remarkable career of critical analysis and breaking through media and doctrinal barriers.” Noam Chomsky
“All I seem to have these days is this keyboard to crank out more condemnations and calls to action, knowing full well, as I do it, that I don’t know what else to do. I am compelled to make media, compelled to do what I can, thinking modestly that perhaps somewhere, in hearts I don’t know, words or images can still stir souls to rise.” Danny Schechter
Raising the Minimum Wage is a Blow Against Economic Inequality – posted 3/15/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/21/2015
The Republican-led Legislature in New Hampshire just killed all bills introduced this session aimed at raising the state’s minimum wage. Both the New Hampshire Senate and the House voted against a minimum wage increase. The bill sponsored by Senator Donna Soucy of Manchester would have raised the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 an hour. It also included a further increase up to $10.00 an hour by 2018.
While the actions of the legislators were not surprising, I find the Legislature’s failure to raise the minimum wage reflected a callous disregard for the needs of low wage workers. In 2015, $7.25 an hour is not remotely survivable. There is a sad cluelessness about these votes and an inability to see that stagnant wages, including at the minimum wage level, are hurting our state and nation.
The arguments that have been raised against a minimum wage increase are stale, ahistorical, and not supported by persuasive evidence. They are exactly the same arguments opponents have been making for the last fifteen years. They were made by opponents before the minimum wage was raised to $7.25. I know because earlier in my life, when I worked as a lobbyist for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, I had worked on the issue.
There is nothing new here. Opponents always argue that a minimum wage increase will hurt business, especially small business. They assert, without strong evidence, that there will be job losses. They say that the way to help minimum wage workers is to lift up the economy generally. Supposedly, some gains will trickle down although how that will happen is never clearly spelled out.
We are supposed to ignore the reality that other states in New England have already raised their minimum wage and the sky did not fall.
The minimum wage in Massachusetts is $9.00 an hour. In Vermont and Connecticut, it is $9.15 an hour. Vermont has also approved legislation which increases the minimum to $9.60 in 2016, $10.00 in 2017 and $10.50 in 2018.
These other New England states still appear to be open for business. I have seen no reports of their imminent economic demise.
Since 2014, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have all passed minimum wage increases. A 2013 law will increase California’s minimum wage to $10.00 by 2016.
Seattle and San Francisco are phasing in $15.00 an hour and Chicago is rising to $13.00. Los Angeles is raising the city’s minimum to $13.25 over 3 years.
There will always be Chicken Littles predicting doom. Chicken Littles do not bother to explain how the minimum wage can be raised dramatically in other locations without all the predicted dire consequences.
The biggest problem I have with the arguments against raising the minimum wage is their lack of context. Opponents do not situate the minimum wage issue inside the context of our increasing economic inequality. Minimum wage workers have been losing for a long time now. They are a grim part of the picture of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Since I think context matters, let me outline how I see the minimum wage fitting into the bigger picture. Since 1979, the wages for the vast majority of American workers, including minimum wage workers, have either stagnated or declined. At the same time, wealth of the upper one percent has skyrocketed. The one percenters have claimed a larger and larger share of the economic pie. Consider that the average CEO makes 774 times more than a minimum wage worker and 331 times more than an average worker.
Over the last 35 years, that ratio has gotten more and more extreme.
I think wage stagnation has fueled our economic inequality and minimum wage workers are a prime example. When the minimum wage does not increase for an extended period, its inflation-adjusted value erodes. It has been estimated that since 1968 the minimum wage has lost more than 40 % of its value to inflation. If it had kept pace with inflation, the minimum wage would now be around $10.38 an hour.
Taking no steps to raise the minimum wage guarantees a continuation and exacerbation of economic inequality. Workers need added income just to keep up with the costs of rent, food, heat, child care and higher education to name some typical expenses.
I would acknowledge there are more complexities than I am addressing but I stand by my argument for higher wages. Mass purchasing power can contribute to a healthier economy. Our lopsided distribution of wealth actually restricts markets.
As presidential candidates start popping up in New Hampshire like spring flowers (or weeds), they all need to be asked where they stand on the minimum wage. They also should be asked about the stagnation and decline of wages which have been central to our economic inequality.
A 2014 poll conducted by Hart Research Associates shows that 75% of Americans – including 53% of Republicans – support an increase in the federal minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020. 63% of Americans supported an even greater increase in the minimum wage to $15.00 by 2020. Gary Molyneux of Hart Research had this to say about the poll:
“The findings here are very clear: Americans, regardless of region, socioeconomic status or demographic distinction, strongly favor a very significant increase in the federal minimum wage.”
In spite of our Legislature’s short-sighted action, you can count on this issue returning.
Tom Reiss’s book The Black Count can be read as an adventure story, a biography, or a history of slavery and the French Revolution. I confess that I did not read the book. I listened to the book on tape going back and forth to work. It grabbed me so much that I did not want to turn it off when I got to work. It was one of those rare books you did not want to end.
The book tells the story of French General Alex Dumas, the father of the writer Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. General Dumas was the son of a black slave mother and a fugitive white French nobleman. I do not think it is exaggerating to say that the son worshiped the father. General Dumas was a a figure of remarkable heroism and accomplishment.
While, as I pointed out, there are different ways to look at this wonderful book, I wanted to discuss it because of the picture it presents of slavery and the French revolution. The book educated me about both. Even though I was a history major in college and have always loved reading non-fiction, there are plenty of gaps in my knowledge. Reiss does a tremendous job of recreating the French revolution through the life story of General Dumas.
With the French revolution as background, he shows the historical struggle in France and the colonies around the issue of slavery. General Dumas provides a perfect vehicle to tell the back and forth anti-slavery struggle. The General went through some very heady highs and some extremely tragic lows.
As an American, I admit to less awareness of the international dimensions of slavery. History here is so much about what happened in the U.S. only, with less curiosity about the rest of the world. Reiss’s book presents a broader, more cosmopolitan view, which allows the reader to see the American anti-slavery struggle within the context of a broader international anti-slavery struggle.
Reiss shows that in the 1750’s, during the reign of Louis XV, a generation of crusading French lawyers fought the powerful colonial sugar lobby to establish rights for people of color. Reiss calls this the world’s first civil rights struggle. I never heard about this. It is inspirational to know that there was a tradition of pioneering and creative lawyers in the 18th century who used the law to fight this most fundamental form of oppression. Reiss writes:
“Slaves taken to France from the colonies brought lawsuits against their masters and won their freedom. (Compare this with the infamous Dred Scott ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which – in the 1850’s – would find the Blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. The ruling actually contains language mocking the French freedom trials of the previous century.) The French lawsuits were decades earlier than the Somerset case, which launched abolitionism in England.”
Through the Dumas story, Reiss demonstrates that the French revolution opened doors of emancipation for millions of people and greatly broadened horizons for those who had been enslaved. This is a different perspective than the one Americans typically hear with the focus almost always on the Terror. I think more than the American revolution or the British abolitionist struggle, it was the French revolution that expanded notions of freedom.
Reiss does not whitewash the Terror period of the French revolution but he puts it in a broader perspective. I am reminded of a quote from Edward Abbey:
“The “Terror” of the French revolution lasted for ten years. The terror that preceded and led to it lasted for a thousand years.”
The French had a notion that they were the land of the free. Reiss says that the French enlightenment philosophers liked to use slavery as the symbol of political oppression. He quotes Rousseau: “Man is born free but is everywhere in chains.” French lawyers nobly took up numerous cases on behalf of slaves who arrived in France.
I would not minimize this struggle. France had its own set of racist laws, the Code Noir, which applied in the French colonial empire. Reiss shows that while French lawyers won many victories inside France, there were contradictions between law inside France and in the colonies. There were also plenty of racist laws in France itself.
In 1777, King Louis XVI decreed the Police des Noirs. The goal of this code was “to extinguish the race of negroes from the Kingdom”. The Police des Noirs established “depots” – prisons, really – to hold blacks and people of color brought onto French soil. This was a strategy to try and get around the 50 years tradition of freedom trials. The King wanted the depots to be considered “extraterritorial” and not French soil. The Police des Noirs also included laws which called for rounding up all slaves who entered illegally before 1777, removing them to the depots and deporting them.
Other racist laws required colored people living in Paris to carry a special certificate, kind of like happened during apartheid in South Africa with identity cards. Whites were forbidden from marrying blacks, mulattos or people of color. Reiss says that the weak monarchy did not administer the race laws efficiently. It sounded like these awful laws only received infrequent enforcement.
Reiss then shows how in the early days of the French revolution, there was an unleashing of rights. In August 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, penned by Lafayette with help from Thomas Jefferson, passed the National Assembly. The Declaration was very much an Enlightenment document, recognizing rights to liberty, property, safety and resistance to oppression. It stated all citizens were equal .
In April 1792, the National Assembly extended full citizenship to free Blacks and men of color. While not the same as abolishing slavery, it did put the revolution much more on the side of people of color. Not surprisingly, General Dumas and other free blacks, felt even stronger cause to support and defend the revolution.
General Dumas was a passionate revolutionary. The revolutionary ideology of that time, French republicanism, opposed the divine right of kings and favored representative government. The revolutionaries wanted a constitution and an elected leadership. Dumas, who had had an illustrious military career, became a general during this period. He had started at the bottom. His strength, bravery, leadership, swordsmanship, and military skills earned him the high position.
In February 1794, the French government voted to abolish slavery. It was the first government in history to abolish slavery. This was 69 years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Candid observers of the United States must acknowledge how far behind we have been as a country on matters of race although we like to posture about our advances.
Answering every call, General Dumas made many military contributions to France both during the Reign of Terror and during the political ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. Reiss shows Napoleon to be an absolute scoundrel and a full fledged counter-revolutionary opportunist who hid his power hungry personal agenda. Reiss accurately described Napoleon’s rise as the replacement of a revolution with a king.
When Napoleon seized power eight years after the abolition of slavery, he proceeded to reverse all the gains of the anti-slavery movement. Napoleon received support from a coalition of slavers and exiled plantation owners. As Reiss notes:
“It’s worth repeating that the greatest emancipation in history had been initiated by the country possessing perhaps the world’s most lucrative slave empire.”
General Dumas lived to see the horror of Napoleon reinstating race laws and allowing only whites to command. Napoleon even forbade all officers and soldiers of color who had retired or been discharged from the army from living in Paris.
After not helping Dumas who had been imprisoned returning home from a military campaign, Napoleon ignored all entreaties for help from Dumas and his wife. General Dumas died in 1806. Napoleon and his government denied a military pension to the Dumas family after the General died causing them major financial hardship. Napoleon also made it impossible for Dumas’ son to be accepted in a military school or civilian college. Reiss says that this extremely shabby treatment fueled the son’s passion to write.
The French example is instructive on how battles against racism and slavery can go backward and forward. Unfortunately, neither the French nor the U.S. has figured out how to advance the anti-racist struggle in our current historical period. In the United States we are living through a blind period where we kid ourselves about being colorblind. France does not seem any better. It certainly has failed to address the issues of its underclass. Much more could be said but I will save that for another day.
This book is rich on many levels. Although in my review I focused on the history, I did want to mention that it is genuinely touching as a personal story with detailed vignettes. The son Alexandre Dumas adored his father and much of his work can be seen as a tribute to a beautiful and beloved man.
In closing I did want to note that there had been a statue in Paris of General Dumas. During the Second World War, the Nazis who were occupying the city, destroyed the statue. To this day, it has not been rebuilt.