Category Archives: Politics

Are We Better Than This?

People waving to a train carrying 1500 persons expelled from Los Angeles to Mexico in 1931. (Photo: NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Suddently everyone seemed to be saying it. Often in reference to the current presidency and its supporters. My congressman, Elijah Cummings, said it to Michael Cohen, formerly Donald Trump’s“fixer,” after testifying to the oversight committee that Cummings chairs:

As I sat here and listened to both sides, I felt as if we are better than this. We really are. As a country, we are so much better than this. I don’t know why this is happening for you, but I hope a small part of this is for our country to be better. If I hear you correctly, you are crying out for getting back to normal. Sounds to me like you want to make sure our democracy stays intact.

While Cummings was praised for his remarks, I wondered whether he, like me, recalled watching—both of us barely old enough to vote—John Dean’s televised testimony on the abuse of power by another president, Richard Nixon, who resigned in 1973 under the threat of impeachment. No doubt he had since he referred to Dean in calling for Cohen to appesr. Which meant that he knew as well as I did that there was at least one “watershed moment” in the relatively recent past when we were not much better than than we are today.

Something similar occurred when Senator Kamala Harris kicked off her presidential campaign in California. “America, we are better than this,” she said, citing a slew of current problems. She repeated it in a message aimed at immigrants after Trump threatened mass deportation raids. As an immigrant myself, I wondered whether she knew that we illegally deported 600,000 US citizens in the 1930s because they had Mexican ancestry or simply had Mexican-sounding names. Families were separated and far worse. “In Los Angeles,” Professor Francisco Balderrama states, “they had orderlies who gathered people [in the hospitals] and put them in stretchers on trucks and left them at the border.” Moreover, as an undergraduate who faced the impossible choice of a dangerous, illegal abortion—some five years before the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade—and giving up her newborn for adoption—there was no respectable way to be what we now call a “single mother“—I wondered whether she had ever heard of the Jane Collective, which existed between 1969 and 1973 and taught ordinary women how to perform surgical abortions. An estimated 11,000, mostly for low-income women and women of color And, finally, as someone who lived in Boston during the violence of the school bussing crisis of the Seventies, I wondered whether she was too young to remember what that was like. Turns out, at least for this, she was not. And passionately said so to former Vice President Joe Biden during last week’s first televised Democratic debate.

While I respect Harris, there is also something to be said for a statement made by a less quslified debate participant, author Marianne Willioamson. “He [Trump] didn’t win by having a plan,” she claimed. “He just said, ‘Make America great again.’ ” I am convinced  that coming across as a policy wonk rather than an inspirational leader was a serious obstacle for the previous Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton. And that this could trip up Senator Elizabeth—”I have a plan for that”—Warrenin the 2020 election. To the extent that congressional incumbents such as Cummings and presidential hopefuls such as Harris use “better than this” in an purely aspirational sense, they could have a winning way to connect with constituents. But it could also sound too much like Trump’s mantra, positing an idealized past that never existed. When I wrote “It wasn’t Always Like This” in response to the Parkland school shooting, I never meant that we were somehow better in the Fifties, simply that the civilian-use semi-automatic AR-15 was not yet for sale. At some point, even inspirational leaders need to produce plans. Addressing those times when we, as a nation, were not one bit better seems like a good place to start.

 

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It Wasn’t Always Like This

Some of my silly classmates in Michigan in the 1950s.  (Photo: Ilse Jurgis)

Growing up in the United States was never easy. Certainly not during the decades following World War II. Not for displaced kids like me, at least, who were born amid foreign invasions and occupations. Whose families were forced to flee their homeland, leaving nearly everything behind. Including loved ones deported and imprisoned in godforsaken gulags. Nor for native-born American kids whose family members had served overseas and returned to a nation that knew almost nothing about armed conflict. Adults seemed all too ready to dismiss our difficulties. Parents responded by telling us how easy we had it compared to them, and healthcare providers responded by offering us platitudes and placebos. While young people these days have it better in these respects, they have also lost one important advantage that most of my generation took for granted: access to safe public places, particularly schools, where they could do dumb-assed kid things and still survive.

I remember the exact day that this started: 1 August 1966. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan and heard that someone had gone on a shooting spree at the University of Texas at AustinCharles Whitman, a former Marine turned engineering student, had murdered his wife and mother and then brought several guns—including semi-automatics—to campus, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others, mainly from the 28th-floor observation deck of The Tower. An intelligent 25-year-old with a history of being abused by his father, Whitman claimed in writings left behind that he did not understand his own behavior and requested an autopsy. The Connally Commission was convened and concluded that a brain tumor “conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions.” A aberration, we were conveniently led to believe.

Almost 52 years have passed since that day. And 19 since carnage occurred at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, where 13 people were shot and killed and 21 others were injured. And about five since 20 children between the ages of six and seven as well as six staff members and the shooter’s mother were slaughtered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. And only six weeks into the start of this year since seven multiple-casualty school shootings have occurred. Including the one last week at a high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were shot dead and 15 more taken to hospitals. Over those 50 some years, the  frequency and scale of such shootings has increased to such a degree that no one can, in good conscience, call them “aberrations” anymore. They have become so common  in the States—as opposed to anywhere else in the world—that a recent  Los Angeles Times headline read, “Here’s a morbid exercise: Can you keep track of which school shooting was the last before Parkland?”

So common that I needed a reality check. Had our schools ever been as safe as I remember them being back when I was growing up? And, if so, what changed in 1966? Not surprisingly, I had trouble finding definitive data. The federal government does not study gun violence in the States because The National Rifle Association has opposed any measure to fund research on or accounting of America’s gun epidemic. But I did find a list that I could pare down for my purposes. Here it is, with a brief description and number of casualties for each instance:

1 July 22, 1950; New York City, New York. A 16-year-old boy was shot in the wrist and abdomen at the Public School 141 dance during an argument with a former classmate.
1 November 27, 1951; New York City, New York. A 15-year-old student was fatally shot as fellow pupils looked on in a grade school.
1 April 9, 1952; New York City, New York. A 15-year-old boarding-school student shot a dean rather than relinquish pin-up pictures of girls in bathing suits.
1 July 14, 1952; New York City, New York. Bayard Peakes walked into the offices of the American Physical Society at Columbia University and shot and killed secretary Eileen Fahey with a .22 caliber pistol. He was reportedly upset that the APS had rejected a pamphlet he had written.
1 September 3, 1952; Lawrenceville, Illinois. After 25-year-old Georgine Lyon ended her engagement with Charles Petrach, Petrach shot and killed Lyon in a classroom at Lawrenceville High School where she worked as a librarian.
1 October 2, 1953; Chicago, Illinois. Fourteen-year-old Patrick Colletta was shot to death by 14-year-old Bernice Turner in a classroom of Kelly High School in Chicago. It was reported that after Turner refused to date Colletta he handed her the gun and dared her to pull the trigger, telling her that the gun was “only a toy.” A coroner’s jury later ruled that the shooting was an accident.
1 October 8, 1953; New York City, New York. Larry Licitra, 17-year-old student at the Machine and Metal Trades High School, was shot and slightly wounded in the right shoulder in the lobby of the school while inspecting a handmade pistol owned by one of several students.
3 May 15, 1954; Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Putnam Davis Jr. was shot and killed during a fraternity house carnival at the Phi Delta Theta house at the University of North Carolina. William Joyner and Allen Long were shot and wounded during the exchange of gunfire in their fraternity bedroom. The incident took place after an all-night beer party. Long reported to the police that, while the three were drinking beer at 7 AM, Davis started shooting with a gun obtained from the car of a former roommate.
1 January 11, 1955; Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. After some of his dormmates urinated on his mattress, Bob Bechtel, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College, returned to his dorm with a shotgun and used it to shoot and kill fellow student Holmes Strozier.
3 May 4, 1956; Prince George’s County, Maryland. Fiftheen-year-old student Billy Prevatte fatally shot one teacher and injured two others at Maryland Park Junior High after he had been reprimanded by the school.
1 October 2, 1957; New York City, New York. A 16-year old student was shot in the leg by a 15-year old classmate at a city high school.
1 March 4, 1958; New York City, New York. A 17-year-old student shot a boy in the Manual Training High School.
1 May 1, 1958; Massapequa, New York. A 15-year-old high school freshman was shot and killed by a classmate in a washroom of the Massapequa High School.
1 September 24, 1959; New York City, New York. Twenty-seven men and boys and an arsenal were seized in the Bronx as police headed off a gang war resulting from the fatal shooting of a teenager at Morris High School.
2 February 2, 1960; Hartford City, Indiana. Principal Leonard Redden shot and killed two teachers with a shotgun at William Reed Elementary School before fleeing into a remote forest, where he committed suicide.
1 June 7, 1960; Blaine, Minnesota. Lester Betts, a 40-year-old mail-carrier, walked into the office of 33-year-old principal Carson Hammond and shot him to death with a 12-gauge shotgun.
2 October 17, 1961; Denver, Colorado. Tennyson Beard, 14, got into an argument with William Hachmeister, 15, at Morey Junior High School, during which Beard pulled out a .38 caliber revolver and shot at Hachmeister, wounding him. A stray bullet struck Deborah Faith Humphrey, 14, who died from her gunshot wound.
23 School gun casualties between the start of 1950 and 1 August 1966 (13 fatalities, 10 non-fatal injuries with suicides excluded)

Best I could tell, more people were killed and injured in the Parkland high school incident alone than in the first 15-some years that I was in school. Many instances occurred in urban areas, with New York City and Chicago being overrepresented. Most resulted in single casualties, frequently non-fatal ones. And none involved the use of assault weapons resembling the ones used by Whitman in 1966. Which is why I believe 1966 can be considered a turning point, not only for me but also for countless students that followed. And for other victims of gun violence, including the troubled young people whose ill-considered acts could have concluded so differently had they not had such easy access to weapons designed for use by our well-trained soldiers.

On a positive note, I came to conclude that Parkland could be a turning point of another sort. Amid the all-too-familiar images of frightened kids collapsing in the arms of relieved parents and tearful teens carrying flickering candles in the dark, some images emerged that I had not seen in any meaningful way since I came of age in the Sixties. Students as angry activists, and for similar reasons. Many of my generation felt betrayed by adults in positions of power and decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. Particularly when it came to life-and-death issues. Back then, young men were forced by law to fight and die in a war that many felt was immoral by a government that many considered corrupt. Through mass protests and other means, they helped bring about (1) the end of the draft and the establishment of an all-volunteer armed forces, (2) the resignation of President Richard Nixon and (3) disengagement from the Vietnam War.

If my generation could effect such far-reaching change, imagine what a generation endowed with a wealth of technological resources could do. Particularly if mine uses these resources to keep reminding everyone that there was a time when classrooms were not killing fields and that, with leadership from today’s students, it could be like that again.

 

Note: To see what being a teen in the Sixties was like for me, read my short story “Winter Wonderland.” To see why Sandy Hook affected me on a personal level, read my essay “So You Know About Guns?” To learn about upcoming student-led gun control events that you can support, click here. And, if you happen to be a young person, feel free to take what you need from the past. I recommend that you start with “The Port Huron Statement,” written in 1962 by Tom Hayden, a University of Michigan student,

 

Reading DH Lawrence in Grand Rapids, MI

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the Secretary of Education slot, speaks at the Grand Rapids, Michigan stop of his USA Thank You Tour last December. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

For years after my release, I couldn’t find the right words to describe what it was like to be a five-year-old war refugee from Latvia forced to spend her formative years in the most stifling city in the United States. I thought it would get easier after Gerald Ford, who grew up there, shared the Republican ticket with Richard Nixon and became President once Nixon resigned. I said, “Everyone’s exactly like him there.” But that didn’t work since people kept confusing him with Chevy Chase. Decades later, I insisted it was not by chance that GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin chose to kick off her book tour there. But that didn’t work either since people couldn’t believe such a person could exist and saw her as a Tina Fey impersonator.

Now I’m giving it another go, emboldened by the fact that a hometown gal—which I’m sure is what they still call women back there—is in a position of power as the Secretary of Education, no less. And because it’s the beginning of Banned Books Week. So help me here and imagine emerging me surrounded by a bevy of Betsys. And a bunch of books. And a family where no one even remotely resembles a Jerry or Betsy. And, while you’re doing that, allow me to backtrack a bit.

Viktors Jurģis, Middle Age
My father, Viktors Jurģis, at the time he revisited Lady Chatterley in Grand Rapids.

In 1928, when DH Lawrence had Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately printed in Italy and Alfred A. Knopf published a censored abridgement in the States, my father was an undergrad studying the likes of philosophy and theology at the University of Latvia.

In 1930, when Lawrence died and US Senator Bronson M Cutting proposed amending the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act to end US Customs censorship of imported books and Senator Reed Smoot opposed that, threatening to read obscene passages from Lady Chatterley and such on the Senate floor, my father was starting what he believed was the best job in the world, or at least Latvia: reading books by day–at the beach, if he chose–and screening films by night. If he had to ban one now and then, well, that was simply how it went in most civilized countries.

The first banned book my father placed in our basement bookcase and I found

In 1959, when my father was 52 and I was 15 and we lived in Grand Rapids, Grove Press published an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley and the post office promptly confiscated copies. Owner Barney Rosset sued the New York City postmaster and won. And won again on federal appeal. My father then legally bought the book, probably for 50 cents, curious to see if he would still ban it as a more circumspect middle-aged man. I don’t recall his conclusion or whether he even cared to share it with me.

What I do remember is him stashing the controversial novel in a small bookcase, one of several unused pieces of furniture brought over from our previous house and stored in the basement. Soon, Lady Chatterley was joined by John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the remainder of the trio whose ban Rosset’s attorney Charles Rembar had managed to get overturned. Other tantalizing titles subsequently appeared, most notably Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, written by the notorious Marquis de Sade.

Our conservative, Christian-Reformed neighbors, I’m sure, would have been appalled had they known that a seemingly decent man was leaving smut out where a teenaged girl could find it, but—even at the time—his actions seemed reasonable to me. My father had always drawn a clear distinction between what one chooses to read and how one chooses to behave. And left no doubt about the latter.

Still, I approached the basement books hesitantly, not sure whether reading would be right or wrong. On the one hand, their location suggested that they weren’t fit for the coffee table; on the other, the fact that they weren’t under lock and key suggested that this merely meant caveat lector. In the end, the inherent demand characteristics of all books—Open! Read!—prevailed. And I had access to more than a dictionary to explain the titillating terms that I had overheard.

Naturally, I focused on the raunchiest parts first. But—ever the critic—it wasn’t long before I became distracted by elements of context and style. What modern girl wouldn’t roll her eyes while reading something similar to, say, the following from Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

Whilst all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamoring, like a sea-anemone under the tide, clamoring for him to come in again and make a fulfillment for her.

And whilst the tone of Tropic of Cancer was far more modern, what girl who occasionally read Seventeen and Glamour, as well, would want her sex scenes served up with some seriously repulsive stuff?

“You’re cancer and delirium,” she said over the phone the other day. She’s got it now, the cancer and delirium, and soon you’ll have to pick the scabs.

In 1964, I left conservative, Christian-Reformed Gand Rapids for The University of Michigan, which put me smack in the middle of a full-blown socio-political and sexual revolution. There, I read Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and other erotica, but that was immaterial. With the invasion of Vietnam underway and the Roe v. Wade ruling nine years in the future, the obscenities concerning me were those related to war and a woman’s right to control her own body. I wonder whether that wasn’t so with my father, as well. Salacious literature mattered less in light of the wholesale slaughter of civilians and annihilation of nations Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had undertaken,

Given that reasoning, I could expect that those who would like to restrict what today’s youth reads would also be focused on more pressing matters. After all, we are only one careless tweet away from nuclear war with North Korea. But, as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said, the current administration can “walk and chew gum” at the same time. And one never knows what will attract our president’s attention. So it’s not that hard to imagine a man who hardly ever reads suddenly coming out in support of the reinstatement of censorship. With Betsy DeVos standing at his side. After all, one previous education secretary of a similar mindset—Terrel Bell during Ronald Reagan’s administration—tried to ban “controversial” books that had come to be considered classics. Books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five.

So, even though—or perhaps precisely because—I am deeply concerned about the current geopolitical crisis, I must speak out during Banned Books Week. Because I believe that we would be far better off if we had people in positions of power who were well-read men capable of rationally reconsidering previous positions and literate women who had been allowed to grow up thinking for themselves.

Grove Books owner Barney Rosset in 1967. (Source: The New Yorker)

Note: Parts of this piece first appeared in “Lady Chatterley, My Father and Me,” posted in 2012 while I was Online Editor at Little Patuxent Review. It also suggests various ways to celebrate Banned Books Week.

The Nativists and Me

Some common seed-dispersal systems. (Illustration: David Plunkert)

Certain aspects of spring make me squirm. Particularly those related to advice on what I should and should not plant. Even what I should actively eradicate. Insistent voices and ubiquitous manifestos inform me that I must limit myself to native plants—that is, those established before European and African settlement—and wage war on all others. Which you might think is mere hyperbole on my part, but that is not so. The desire to make my local environment resemble what it might have looked like before 1492, when Columbus crossed the ocean blue, is what drives the definition of “native” in a booklet just published by the Maryland Native Plant Society. Which makes me wonder why this document was not produced by a printing press, invented circa 1440, instead of some digital device available only recently.

On the surface, I have at least two problems with people who espouse this sort of nativism. First, I am not convinced that they love nature nearly as much as they claim. If they did, they would readily embrace an essential aspect: constant change. Which is particularly important these days since phenomena such as global warming are rapidly accelerating the rate of this change. Meaning that trying to make current vegetation resemble that of previous centuries, where the natural and man-made environment was decidedly different, is maladaptive, at best. If they must mess with Mother Nature, they might better ask what her future needs were and attempt to meet them. Second, they do not seem to understand the inherent futility of their efforts. Both plants and animals, including the human kind, are set up to spread. The salient difference between flora and fauna is that the former relocate by more subtle means. Say, through seed dispersal. And between autochory—most notably the use of gravity—and allochory—wind, water, animals and humans—them flora sure do get around. Of course, much of seed dissemination is polychorous, which makes those nativists that come down particularly hard on the human-vectored sort of dispersal come across as somewhat silly.

Deep down, there is another problem that I do not bring up with such nativists. Much like my father, who seemed to fear for his manhood each spring that my mother made him to lop off tree limbs and prune bushes, I—a non-native Marylander (here by way of Latvia, Austria, Germany, Michigan, Massachusetts and Alabama), a merely naturalized US citizen and a former displaced person—fear for my place in my present community, my adopted country and even the world as a whole at the start of each growing season. Because, invariably, I get sucked into discussions with those finding the likes of the multiflora roses and butterfly bushes on my riverbank offensive and then wonder just how they find me. You see, there is a political form of nativism that seeks to preserve or reinstate status for established inhabitants against the claims of newcomers and seems disturbingly similar to that of those seeking to reinstate some prior status of the riverbank.

The arguments used are certainly similar. And similarly questionable. They say, for instance, that the trouble with non-natives is that there are no natural predators to keep them in check. And that unchecked growth decreases biodiversity. Try telling that to our native beavers, who indiscriminately destroy the Japanese cherry trees, non-native but beloved, planted along the Tidal Basin and the native dogwood that I planted in memory of my mother. And to those humans, presumably native-born, who attack immigrants in our area and made life miserable for my family and five-year-old me when we arrived in Michigan. If diversity really is at issue, those nativists would beat on beavers, not butterfly bushes, which beavers blessedly leave alone. But they do not, any more than the other sort fights anti-immigration groups. Most would readily revert to 1965, when white people still comprised 85 percent of the population rather than rejoice that non-Hispanic whites will no no longer represent the majority by 2044.

Of course, nativists rarely seem to commit to reinstating the status of all plants or all people to anywhere near that of pre-colonial days. Few, for instance, show any interest in pushing for legislation restoring the status of Indian tribes. Even those who refer to them as “Native Americans” and admire their artifacts. And while dandelions are anointed by the Maryland Biodiversity Project and touted by the University of Maryland as nutrient-rich plants used by said Native Americans to treat a range of disorders, not many refrain from ripping those pretty but pesky natives from their lawns. Much like my mother in Michigan, who sought total annihilation as my father and and I stood by and smirked. (Monoculture lawns seem to be suburbanites’ sacred sites. When I worked in Washington, a colleague from posh Potomac said in all seriousness, “We have been invaded by violets.”)

Undogmatic by nature, I was pleased to learn that organizations such as the The Nature Conservancy now take a nuanced stance. Altering the orthodoxy that assumes that non-natives are guilty until proven innocent, points such as the following serve as rational replacements:

  1. Non-natives can have devastating impacts, especially on islands,
  2. But they can also provide much-needed habitats for endangered species and be the best bet for erosion and mudslide control.
  3. Trade restrictions and border controls have reduced the flow of known pests, and some eradication programs have succeeded
  4. But millions of federal dollars have been spent without any measurable impact on either biodiversity or ecosystem function.
  5. It is important to protect against certain highly invasive species
  6. But novel ecosystems are increasingly common and, going forward, will need to be viewed as part of the total ecosystem.

Not only are these points applicable to, say, my multiflora roses, which were, in fact, introduced to control erosion on riverbanks such as mine, but also to non-native humans such as me. Substitute some words in a Conservancy statement, and you will see. “Science-based conservation cannot be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views of good and evil” any more than evidence-based immigration or refugee policy can be about knee-jerk platitudes and simple views .  .  .

The mixed blessings of introduced species are well-illustrated by the Columbian Exchange, that widespread transfer of not only people but also plants and animals and microbes, not to mention culture and science and technology, that took place between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres as a consequence of the colonization and trade that followed from that somewhat ill-considered trip Columbus took. While non-native diseases certainly contributed to precipitous declines in indigenous populations, benefits accrued, as well. There was, for instance, no honey bee here back then. The same one that now is undergoing colony collapse and causing us to wring our hands about how we will feed ourselves in the future without this important pollinator. We probably will figure out a way, since humans—arguably the most invasive species of all—and ecosystems do eventually adapt.

Meanwhile, I will continue to root for those dastardly multiflora roses and butterfly bushes since those beleaguered bees sure do like feasting on their flowers. And that useless grassy hillside—it could barely be called a lawn—behind my house that I turned into some semblance of  a rain garden, full of non-native shrubs and small trees selected not only for their shade tolerance but also because they are not too tasty to our native white-tailed deer, who eat everything in sight. And those non-native lettuces and carrots that I plan to plant in our community garden. And the native tobacco plants, but only when they are restricted to the colonial garden, co-located with our own at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, which is dedicated to the first African-American man of science and son of a former slave.

I will also continue to support the Syrian refugees, not only because I was a refugee once myself but also because I cannot imagine how I would be able write another word without the elegant digital devices developed by a man whose biological father hailed from Homs. And the migrants who enter the country from the south, not only because part of the States once belonged to those below the border but also because one is my next-door neighbor. And to oppose those nativists who believe that closing borders and building walls will somehow “make America great again.” Not only because I cannot countenance their irrational hatred but also because they ignore their own history. Particularly the part where the Columbian Exchange and subsequent waves of immigration carried the seeds of greatness to their shores.

 

Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)
Some non-native plants, animals and microbes. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)