Time to Learn Our Real History

I’ve frequently observed that my high school history teacher taught us that the Civil War was fought between us and them. Since this was in Texas, you can probably guess which side was “us”.

In the past, I said this more or less as a joke. Not that it wasn’t true – it was very true – but my intention was to mock those history lessons, to point out that the small town where I went to high school was so far behind the times.

Now, though, as Texas and other states pass laws to prevent history teachers from telling the truth about U.S. history, this memory of my education makes me want to cry. While I was fortunate to grow up in a family that rejected the Lost Cause narrative and Jim Crow racism, the rest of the world in which I lived was defined by those lies at every turn.

I saw those lies for what they were, but I somehow managed to both assume that things were changing – it was the time of the activist Civil Rights Movement – and that some things, like monuments to the traitors who led the Confederate Army, would always be with us.

I turned out to be wrong on both counts. We did make some progress on racism, enough that these days there are many powerful African American voices that call it out regularly, but not enough to keep it from remaining a powerful force in this country and not enough to fix all the systemic racism that we are only now beginning to discuss.

And we are finally reckoning with the fact that the Civil War was an act of treason by those who wanted to continue enslaving other human beings. Despite the backlash going on from white supremacists and in some state legislatures, we’re talking about this horrific part of our history in terms I never expected to hear. Continue reading “Time to Learn Our Real History”

Mother’s Day

A few years back, a man I passed on the street wished me a happy Mother’s Day. I thanked him. He was a man in his 40s, trying to be friendly to an older woman. He meant well.

But I’m not a mother and I will never be one. At this point in my life, I’m not only far past the point where I could get pregnant in the ordinary manner, but also too old to be considered as an adoptive parent.

I still have my uterus, so I suppose I could be implanted with a fertilized ovum and carry it to term. You hear of people past menopause doing that these days, usually to help a relative. While it’s fascinating that such technology exists, I’m not going to do that, either.

I don’t have any regrets about not having children. It’s not that I don’t like young people. Many of them are delightful and I have a lot of friends who fall into the age range where they could be my kids – some even my grandkids.

But I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not having kids of my own. Continue reading “Mother’s Day”

The Purpose of Life

As most readers of this blog know, I write a daily senryu (a haiku-like verse) and post it on social media. My purpose is to capture what’s on my mind each morning.

Back in March I wrote this one:

Productivity
is not the purpose of life.
Not civilized yet.

I am not a professional philosopher nor a religious leader, so my pronouncements on the purpose of life are strictly those of a lay person. But I do have opinions.

I have read excellent fiction of late from people who, in addition to writing complex and thought-provoking novels, do fascinating and important work in their day jobs. I’m extremely impressed by the ability of people like Malka Older, Arkady Martine, and Andrea Hairston, just to name three, to do great work in more than one direction.

The New York Times did a piece on Stacey Abrams this week that left me exhausted just reading it. She’s leading the important fight for fair voting, might run for governor of Georgia again, and is turning out novels while finding time to read work by others.

Clearly some people are able to be usefully productive in a lot of different ways at the same time. In the case of the people I mentioned, I hope they continue to do all the things.  Continue reading “The Purpose of Life”

Get Your Vaccine!

My reaction to the pandemic was intensely personal. I saw no reason to believe that I couldn’t get the virus and no reason to believe that if I did get it I would survive.

Not only was I frightened, I was furious at the incompetent and maliciously dangerous handling of this crisis. People like the criminal who occupied our White House for four years were actively trying to kill me and a lot of others.

Some of them even said so, like Dan Patrick, the “lite gov” (lite in all senses of the word) of Texas, who said people over 70 should die for the good of the economy, by which he meant Wall Street.

Getting the vaccine made my personal fear go away. I no longer worry that I’m going to end up dying alone in an ICU every time someone gets too close. I could feel the difference in my gut from the first shot.

But it did nothing about my fury. So many people dead for no reason. People still dying even as the vaccine is becoming widely available because those in authority insist on opening things that should stay closed or performing hygiene theater instead of dealing with issues like indoor ventilation.

I was never just angry on my own behalf. I was frightened on my own behalf, but I was angry on everybody’s. We could have done so much better.

Bad leadership was an obvious problem, but there’s a deeper one. We seem to have lost any concept of taking care of ourselves as a public. Continue reading “Get Your Vaccine!”

Police Brutality and How My Jury Found For a Black Plaintiff

As I write this, the Derek  Chauvin trial is still under way, another Black man has been shot by law enforcement, and a Black Army officer has been brutalized and his life threatened. As outraged and saddened as I am by these heinous events, I also remember a time when I served as a juror on a civil trial that pitted law enforcement against a Black victim. This was many years ago, a time before Black Lives Matter, a time when it was assumed that police actions, no matter how brutal, were acceptable and justified. The case received no notice. It made no difference, except to me and, I hope, the plaintiff. But I think it’s worth telling now.

The events, as I remember as related in the course of the trial, were that two law enforcement officers stopped a car for a broken tail light. It was at night in a fairly well-to-do area. The driver was a young Black man. In the course of the traffic stop, the officers beat him so badly as to leave him with permanent injuries and needing years of recovery. The officers would have had us, the jury, believe that their actions were necessary. The plaintiff asserted that he posed no threat and offered no resistance.

The two officers were white, and they were at least six feet tall, muscular, and clearly fit. The Black man was small, about my size (I was 5’3”), lightly built, well-spoken, a professional. As the testimony proceeded, I found myself more and more appalled by what happened, and more incredulous that two trained officers could not have found a non-violent way of managing a routine traffic stop.

After we heard the testimony, we were instructed as to the law that we must follow, which required that the officers have malicious intent, or something to that effect. We wrestled with the language of the law and with how to interpret it in light of the events. For myself, my conscience and my sense of what is right and just were far more compelling. It was luminously clear to me that the plaintiff had been horribly beaten for no other reason than being a Black man. That the officers, who were supposed to act in a responsible, fair manner, were guilty of a gross abuse of power. Through the deliberations, I argued passionately for justice as I saw it. Some of my fellow jurors were already of my opinion, others were persuaded by my arguments, and a few insisted the case did not fulfill the letter of the law and the officers were justified.

In the end, however, we found for the plaintiff. (A civil trial does not require a unanimous vote.) The jury did not award him everything he asked. There were no punitive fines, but reimbursement of medical expenses and, if memory serves, a portion of lost income. After the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney said she was not able to tell us before, but the award of just a single penny in a trial of this sort meant the plaintiff could now take the case to Federal court for civil rights violations (or a similar next move—I may be fuzzy on the exact details). I will never forget the look on the Black plaintiff’s face after we delivered our verdict. I don’t know if was hope or amazement or relief. In that moment, I felt myself part of something greater: a very small step toward justice.

 

There is more to this story, a post-script as it were. The judge thanked us for our service and then advised us to leave the area as soon as possible. The year was 1992. The jury in the Rodney King case was about to deliver their verdict, and protests were expected. Outside the court house, the streets were almost deserted except for police vehicles. My usual bus was not running because the route had been blocked. Eventually I made my way home on another bus, watching the fires from the freeway.

I’d like to think that what I did, that infinitesimal step towards a more just society, made a difference. The temptation, though, is to become discouraged and stop trying. I’ve learned since that giving up is a luxury born of white privilege. My Black friends don’t get to take a vacation from racism because it’s difficult or terrifying. Today, almost 30 years later, white law enforcement officers are still brutalizing Black people.

I am reminded of a teaching in my own tradition, (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, part of the Talmud), attributed to first century rabbi Tarfon:

“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (2:21)

Let us persist, then, and accomplish what we are able, knowing that the next generation will take up the task after us.

 

Too much excitement (trigger warning – I don’t talk about things in detail, but I do mention potentially triggering events)

Every fortnight, I am tempted to begin with the words, “I had intended.”  I had intended to write about Women’s History Month and to introduce the guests on my blog and to take a quiet moment and think about the past. I wrote a post for Women’s History Month myself this year. It’s about debating circles in the 1970s and 80s. There is a sudden wild interest in the nature of those circles because of what may have happened in them in 1988. Our Attorney General (AG) is suing the national broadcaster (ABC) over a report on something that may or may not have happened in that year. Porter (the AG) was not named in that article and was one of three possible guilty parties according to what was reported. I have my opinion on what happened in 1988, but if the AG is suing the ABC… then I might have to keep it to myself for a bit.

This is one of the reasons Australia found itself at a pivotal point for the history of women this weekend. Another is that on Monday (yesterday!) tens of thousands (or more – no-one did a proper count that I could see) of women marched for justice. A rape was done in Parliament House and the guilty party got support where the victim was … victimised. She spoke at the rally.

The Australian government was in trouble before then. It was trying to recover from the shock of the West Australian state elections on Saturday. The vote was pretty decisive. The ALP won at least 50 seats (52 predicted, at this point in time, 30 needed to govern), the Liberal Party won 2 (and might get one more, and their allies, the Nationals, won 3 (possibly one more, too). Upper House results are not yet finalised, either, but there was a swing towards the ALP there, too.

The ALP is not in government nationally. It is not the party the current Attorney General belongs to. It is not beyond guilt, but it’s been accused of harassment in workplaces in Parliament House: the alleged rape was in an LNP (governing party’s) office.

While the Federal government was reeling over so many events, Australian women were angry. We made jokes about the march of the ides, or the Ides of March. Australia will make jokes about most things. We did not, however, make jokes about safe workplaces and abuse of position by people in power. In fact, when our Prime Minister made what I think now may have been intended to be a joke in Question Time when there were protesters outside, it was the icing on the cake of abuse.

I didn’t even realise it was intended as a joke at first, because one does not joke about not shooting demonstrators in Australia. One MP tweeted about water cannons, but deleted that tweet.

This week is impossibly big for Australia and this post is very difficult to write. There’s so much stuff. And most of that stuff is scary-uncomfortable. Our weekend began with the vote in the west then moved to human rights and raging anger.

Two days ago I would have given links to reports on this or that element, but now… Australia is changing. I don’t know where we will end up, but I live in hopes that this is the rebellion against the fearful and wildly conservative government that has been hurting many people.

Right now, though, I’m tired. Every single Australian who watches politics (which is most of us) is exhausted.

It’s not boring here, that’s one thing.

Another Rant on Vaccination

Back in April, 2019, I posted a personal rant, Why I Am Adamant About Vaccination. This was way before Covid-19 and the more than half million American deaths. The issue was childhood vaccination against measles, mumps, rubella, and the like. I shared a deeply personal story:

During my first pregnancy, an antibody titer that revealed I’d had rubella as a child. A series of conversations with my mother and sister put together the pieces of my own family tragedy due to contagious disease. In most cases, rubella is a mild infection, except when a woman is pregnant. Contracted in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, babies have an 85% chance of Congenital Rubella Syndrome, including deafness, cataracts, heart defects, neurological issues, and other significant problems. The risk goes down as pregnancy progresses.

This is what happened to my baby sister.

My mother had been mildly ill, and I had been, as well. My sister Madeleine was born blind and with heart defects. She lived only 6 months.

At the time (1950) there was no vaccine, but there is now. Today this loss would have been completely preventable by vaccination, not just for the mother but for all the people around her. This is a public health issue that involves us all.

So when I hear the anti-scientific justifications for refusing to vaccinate children, I think of the baby that could have lived and the grief that haunted my mother the rest of her life. I don’t care about personal choice or fears of governmental conspiracies. None of them count in my mind against the lives of my baby sister, and everyone’s sisters and brothers.

I honestly do not care what their reasons are. This is not a “tomaytoe, tomahtoe” discussion where understanding through respectful dialog is the goal. This is about whether we as human beings are capable of acting for our common good (which in this case includes protecting our most vulnerable from preventable severe disability and death itself), at the cost of a much smaller risk and a little inconvenience. Do not ever try to convince me that this area of public health is an infringement on civil liberties, or is a plot on the part of Big Pharma. My sister’s life was more precious than your conspiracy theories.

 

Fast forward to 2020. People are dying or suffering chronic, debilitating effects from Covid-19. Not a handful here and there but by the tens and hundreds of thousands. As much as 80% of all Covid-19 patients experience some degree of long-term symptoms. All we had to stem this dreadful pandemic were tried-and-true public health measures: wearing masks, social distancing, isolating the sick, hand-washing and disinfection. And the same anti-science nonsense is going on. People are refusing to wear masks. They’re gathering indoors, although every public health agency and responsible news outlet is telling them this is the way the virus spreads. Even as cases and deaths surge and surge again, they reject both logic and science.

It’s 2021 now and we have several effective vaccines. None of them is perfect in terms of absolute prevention of Covid-19, but all of them have proven remarkable in 100% protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death. Even so, lies abound. Vaccine refusal, especially when coupled with rejection of public hygiene measures, threatens us all. Continue reading “Another Rant on Vaccination”

Getting Very Tired of this Nonsense

The incredible failure of basic systems in Texas this past week sent me over the edge. Again.

Mind you, I’m not in Texas. I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the weather’s been mild and mostly sunny (though we are worrying that we’re not getting enough rain).

But I’m from Texas and I have a lot of friends and family there. And I do still own a house in Austin. The last time I checked with my tenant this week, she was doing OK — she had power, though the water was off. My fingers are crossed that nothing too bad will happen.

I’d be worrying even if there hadn’t been a massive failure of the entire energy grid, a failure caused by years of bad energy policy in Texas. (Here’s a piece in The Washington Post that explains it better than I can.) Bad weather makes me worry, especially when it’s weather that’s out of the ordinary for that time and place.

But it was the collapse of all the systems necessary to provide energy and water to people that did me in. That was avoidable, just another example of government not doing its job and leaving millions of people in the lurch.

If it wasn’t as bad as the nightmare management of the pandemic, that’s only because it was mostly in Texas and a lot fewer people have died. Sure, Texas has 29 million people and at least 20 million of them were affected, but it didn’t affect everyone in the entire country like the pandemic has.

(Many other states had weather emergencies, but only Texas had a collapse of all basic systems.)

It’s starting to feel like every time I start to feel like things are getting better, something else comes along to show me we’re in perpetual crisis. Continue reading “Getting Very Tired of this Nonsense”

January 20, 2021

U.S. flagThe National Anthem made me cry.

Specifically, when Lady Gaga sang “that our flag was still there,” I cried, because it reminded me that our country is still here. Battered and bruised and all too aware of its many shortcomings, but still here.

We’ve got another chance to help our country develop into the place it ought to be now that it’s been rescued from the narcissistic criminal who occupied our White House for the last four years.

I’m not really a fan of the flag – the performative patriotism of flag-waving has always repelled me – nor do I usually react to the National Anthem. I know it well and always sing along when I’m in a public gathering.

It’s a matter of respect, of duty as a citizen. (I am, in fact, often appalled at how few people sing it, even at political conventions.)

But it doesn’t usually move me any more than the flag does. I’d prefer a song that wasn’t focused on bombs and war, not to mention one that recognizes all of the people in this country including those who were here long before European settlers set foot on our soil as well as those brought here in chains, not to mention all the immigrants from all the other places who have made us strong.

Still, metaphors work and last Wednesday the flag as a metaphor for our country surviving the last four years did wonders. Continue reading “January 20, 2021”

Narrative and Agenda

I just finished reading Prairie Fires, a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I recommend highly. The author of the eight Little House books, she wrote about her childhood during the push west by homesteaders and farmers. “I told the truth,” she said. “But not the whole truth.” The books are a “good parts” version of her life, but some important “truths” were omitted, because Wilder (and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who was her secret beta reader, line editor, and editorial advisor) took out things that didn’t underscore her narrative. The narrative? That her family (in particular her adored father, Charles Ingalls) survived and flourished through hard work, love, and self-reliance, and that self-reliance, a core virtue of westward expansion, is a uniquely American virtue.

This is a weird time in American history to be reading this book, let me tell you.  The message Wilder was crafting seems to me to have curdled, fueling rage and insurrection. Rose would have loved it. Continue reading “Narrative and Agenda”