Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — a novel of identity

February 22, 2019

Min Jin Lee

I read this 2017 novel for a book group. A nice thing about such groups is exposure to rewarding reads you’d never otherwise pick up.

Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. Sunja is born there around 1916. Her mother subsists running a humble boarding house. Teenaged Sunja is pursued, and impregnated, by businessman Koh Hansu. She vaguely expects marriage; but surprise surprise, he already has a wife back in Japan.

Then an ethereal young Korean Christian minister, Isak, rescues Sunja by marrying her. They relocate to Japan, where he has a posting waiting, and live with his brother and sister-in-law. The child is named Noa; later Isak and Sunja have their own son, Mozasu. (Their names are derived from Noah and Moses.) Both eventually wind up running pachinko parlors; pachinko is a pinball-like game very popular in Japan.

But the book’s main focus is on Korean identity in a Japanese culture that despises Koreans. They are stereotyped negatively and suffer systematic discrimination (despite the impossibility of identifying Koreans by appearance). Japan’s forcing many thousands of Korean women into brothels for soldiers during WWII is well known. Japan (unlike Germany) has been recalcitrant on repentance for this and other crimes.

The novel barely mentions those “comfort women,” but describes much other mistreatment suffered by Koreans. Isak is jailed, suspected of insufficient loyalty to the Emperor, and dies from his horrible ordeal.

Koreans living in Japan remain distinctly second-class citizens — if allowed citizenship at all, after generations of residence. Mozasu’s son, in 1989, works there for an investment bank, until he’s screwed over because he’s Korean.

But what really prompts me to write is Noa’s story. (BIG SPOILER ALERT) He didn’t know Koh Hansu was his real father. Koh reappears, now quite wealthy, as Noa’s benefactor, financing his much coveted university education. Noa and his mother Sunja are resistent, but accept Koh’s largesse. But then Noa’s girlfriend meets Koh, sees the resemblance, and taunts Noa with the obvious. Also that Koh must be a yakuza— a gangster.*

These revelations crush Noa. Cursing what his mother did, he runs away to start a new life, cutting all ties to his family, and starting his own new one, with a wife and children (and passing as Japanese). He sends Koh money to repay what he’d received. He also sends Sunja money but never divulges contact information. For sixteen years.

Finally Koh locates Noa, now 45, and Sunja goes to him, in his office. The reunion is difficult but doesn’t go too badly. Noa promises to come visit her. Then he shoots himself.

He had thought he’d escaped his parentage, but now must have realized he could not. And he could not live with that.

Koh was indeed a gangster. A nasty piece of work, as revealed in only a few glimpses. But as far as Sunja’s family knew, he was just a “businessman.” Noa’s girlfriend could not have known the truth about Koh, nor could Noa, it was just an unsubstantiated suspicion. Perhaps Noa should have probed further before shooting himself.

Or perhaps that’s nitpicking. The real issue here is the heart of human identity. Noah felt himself irremediably contaminated. He had bad blood.

This idea of “bad blood” reverberates throughout human history. The sins of the father visited upon the sons. How many people have indeed been punished for crimes or derelictions (real or just imagined) by forebears?

It’s the heart of racism. The notion that all members of some group are birds of a feather, sharing some (stereotyped) characteristics. As vividly depicted in this book, where the antipathy of Japanese toward “those people” (Koreans) is a constant.

Here’s some science. Biology is not destiny. Even where genes are indicative of certain behavioral traits (and there are such), genes never determine how any individual will behave in any situation. At most, they may delineate proclivities, but an individual’s actual behavior results from too many variables to be predicted by genes or anything else. And it’s certainly untrue that any human subgroup shares biologically determined behavioral traits (different from other subgroups).

Of course there are human behaviors, genetically evolved, which we share as a species. But they don’t differ among subgroups. And even if there were such subgroup-specific genes, their effect would be overwhelmed by all the other factors influencing a given individual’s personal behavior.

That’s not to deny cultural differences. Cultural groups do have their own characteristics, that’s the definition of culture. But it’s not genetic. Remove an individual at birth from their specific culture, and there’s no innate biological reason for replicating behavior particular to that culture.

So Noa’s human identity was not dictated by his father’s gangsterhood. His blood was no more bad than anyone else’s. It was up to him to shape his own life. And, even if there were gangster genes inherited from his father (a dubious idea), those genes would not anyway determine his own character, which would still be his to create.

You can be what you choose to be.

*An echo of Great Expectations? Noa studies literature — he loves Dickens!

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Sex, religion, and perversion

February 14, 2019

It started with civilization’s Middle Eastern beginnings, with the idea not that sex is dirty, exactly, but that afterwards you had to cleanse yourself, as part of an overall purification, before communing with the divine. But, as people will, some eventually carried this idea to an extreme, seeing sex as indeed dirty altogether.

There was a slight problem, inasmuch as sex was necessary for procreation (which everybody thought good). Well, okay, they said, so sex is acceptable but only for making babies, not to gratify lust. This is the Adam-and-Eve story. God did tell them to be fruitful, but Adam’s sin was doing it lustily rather than mere dispassionate fulfillment of duty. And note that it’s usually called Adam’s sin. There’s a reason. Ancient peoples didn’t read their biology books. They thought impregnation entailed a miniature person, in the sperm, being seeded into the woman’s body. They didn’t understand her genetic contribution. So while Adam’s “sin” was transmitted down the generations via repeated lustful couplings, that was only through the male line. Thus, voila, Jesus — immaculately conceived without sperm — was born free of original sin! Neat!

Eventually though, the Church realized this didn’t square with biology. So to fix the story, they belatedly (in 1854) posited that Mary too was — somehow — herself immaculately conceived.

You might be confused here, thinking the original sin was not lust but disobeying God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Same thing, said Saint Augustine (around 400 AD). The whole convoluted nonsense about “original sin” is traceable to him. Because he was tortured by his idea that the lust he himself experienced was a dirty sin that kept him from true communion with God. And, as Augustine’s legacy, Christians to this day torture themselves over this.

This attitude is itself a kind of sexual perversion. It loads ordinary, natural sex acts with a meaning and significance that make no sense. And, by the way, if humans were made in God’s image, does She feel lust? How does she handle it?

But actually we are products of biology. Even if you close your eyes to evolution, you cannot close them to biology, and the role of genes — with their be-all and end-all the promotion of reproduction.

One thing an organism needs to do to reproduce is to eat. Obviously. But (with very few exceptions) organisms aren’t smart enough to realize that. They need to be programmed by genes to eat; otherwise they’d just die without knowing why. So genes make organisms feel hunger, and feel good when eating.

What has this to do with sex? Everything. Would organisms even think of copulating (a pretty bizarre activity, really) if not biologically programmed to feel the analog of hunger, i.e., lust, and to feel good when satisfying it?

Nobody thinks hunger and eating are dirty or sinful. That would be nuts. So by what logic are the analogous lust and sex deemed sinful? Only by Augustine’s very twisted thinking.

Well, sex does bring a second person into the picture, which complicates matters. There’s always the key principle against gratifying oneself at another’s expense. So rape is a sin. Likewise assuaging hunger by eating another person. But that wouldn’t mean feeling hunger, or sexual desire, are themselves wrong. Only gratifying them in wrongful ways could be. (Which we don’t need God to tell us.)

Yet we so get our knickers in a twist over lust. The irrationality is exemplified by masturbation. Here (generally speaking) there’s no issue of harm to others.

An offense against God? Of course there’s no God, but even if there were, what kind of perverted human logic imputes to her a disapproval of self-gratification? What kind of perverted God would create us with powerful sex drives and punish us for expressing them in harmless ways that come naturally? It’s all hopelessly fucked up.

The ancient idea that conversation with the divine requires purification eventually got transmogrified into the Catholic Church’s priestly celibacy. As though sex is so profoundly dirty that no amount of pre-liturgical cleansing could suffice, hence our interlocutors with divinity must abjure sex altogether. So crazy extreme is this idea that the unsurprising result is to attract into the priesthood a disproportionate share of men whose own relationships with their sexuality are messed up.

Indeed, with more than just sexuality. There’s something deeply awry in the souls of men who ostensibly dedicate their lives to God’s work yet somehow convince themselves molesting choir boys is okay. Or that protecting rapists somehow serves God. Still holding themselves out as moral shepherds of their flocks. And what of the sheep who look to such men as their shepherds?

The Catholic Church may be a special case, but other faiths have similar fundamental hang-ups about sex. They condemn homosexuality as a sinful perversion, while loading up on guilt even over normal heterosexual feelings. Thus denying gays — and themselves as well — the right to feelings which cannot be willed away. Who are the real perverts?

Sholem Aleichem and my Jewish roots and American identity

January 18, 2019

We watched a PBS documentary about Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) — making me ponder what I feel as my personal identity.

People used to be securely rooted in distinct cultures, but those boundaries have become fluid in today’s cosmopolitan world. Yet many still crave the belongingness of cultural identity. (It’s a big factor in Trumpism.)

Sholem Aleichem’s roots were in the Jewish shtetl culture of Russia and Eastern Europe. Mine too. My mother (now 98) arrived in America in 1938 as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. My paternal grandparents were apparently born here, but their ancestry was in Sholem Aleichem country. “Robinson” was presumably anglicized from something like Rabinovich (which was Sholem Aleichem’s original name too).

I had long supposed that all these Jews were traceable back to the Holyland. But when I wrote an autobiography, research indicated that isn’t likely. We may well have derived instead from the Khazars, a Central Asian people whose ruler, for some reason, decided to go Jewish around a millennium ago. (Making “anti-Semitism” a misnomer; the Khazars were not Middle Eastern Semites.)

Sholem Aleichem bopped around various European locales but finally wound up in America — like a couple million other Jews. The documentary said most jettisoned their traditions. “Tradition”  is the insistent refrain of a lead song in Fiddler on the Roof, which was based on Sholem Aleichem’s work. Again we see the powerful role of cultural tradition in delineating one’s personal identity.

Religion is a big element of that. And many Jews in America have — like me — eschewed the religion. A big issue for Fiddler’s main character Tevye was his daughter’s marrying a non-Jew. As many American Jews have — like me — also done.

But a great thing about the human animal is our adaptability, always changing ourselves to fit new circumstances. And if we Americans of Jewish ethnicity have cast off old traditions, it is to create new ones.

Yet my lineage is by no means irrelevant to who I am. My Jewish immigrant heritage is important to it — not the Jewish part so much as the immigrant part. I feel spiritual kinship with all those who made the journey; the leaving behind and the creating anew. That indeed is the very essence of what America represents. This country was conceived as a new human beginning, free of all the stifling old baggage of the lands from whence we came.

So my identity is as an American. I feel embedded in that American story of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” to reinvent not only themselves but the world. Creating a great society where human beings can best flourish. America has indeed enabled me to have a wonderful life, and that’s thanks to its openness and fundamental character, which has been such a magnet for others to come here.

Many Americans today, however, see their identities rooted not in such universal ideas and values but rather in an ethnic parochialism. Thus the hostility to those migrants who are the latest legions of “wretched refuse” knocking on our golden door. Thousands of children, taken away from their parents, are in detention camps, in horrible conditions. This cruel inhuman treatment, by an America that seems to have forgotten its own true identity, breaks my heart.

UPDATE: I received a message from Kevin Alan Brook who authored a book addressing recent DNA evidence about the origins of European (Ashkenazic) Jews. He says there actually is no material Khazar connection after all. I will quote his e-mail: “About 45-50 percent of Ashkenazic DNA derives from the ancient Israelites. The deep-ancestry calculator Eurogenes K36 has categories called “Near Eastern”, “East Mediterranean”, “Arabian”, “Armenian”, and “West Caucasian” and Ashkenazim always score big amounts in those.”

George H. W. Bush

December 3, 2018

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That was a novel’s famous first line. George H.W. Bush was president in just such a foreign country.

It is hard to imagine a major political candidate in today’s America who isn’t some kind of ideological/cultural warrior. That wasn’t Bush. In his foreign country, it was all about just doing the job. You know, “public service,” remember that quaint concept? Bush was a capable man; a serious man; who took his responsibilities seriously. A thoughtful man of honor and integrity, who spoke and acted carefully, and whose word could be trusted. A thoroughly decent human being.

Of course you know where this is going.

Gary Hart

Another candidate in the 1988 election, that Bush won, was Gary Hart, and there’s a new movie out about him, The Front Runner. Hart’s campaign was ended by his adultery. In a different country.

Our president now not only had extramarital affairs — with porn actresses no less — but paid them hush money to cover it up — and lied about that. (And smeared his own “fixer” who revealed his lies.) And even bragged about committing sexual assaults, too.

Meantime he paid $25 million to settle the “Trump University” fraud case. And the New York Times ran a huge analysis of how his whole business history was one big lie; built on cheating, fraud, and tax evasion. His “charitable foundation” has been exposed as a fraud too.

None of it seems to matter. But just look at him, listen to him. Anyone with half a brain can see he’s totally full of shit. Is a total piece of shit. Yet we elected him president — and his poll ratings have hardly budged since.

I often talk about human evolutionary history, being shaped by our living in social groups, where cooperation and mutual trust was central. Thus we evolved highly tuned lie detectors, and instincts to punish those who violate behavioral norms. But now we’re a different species, inhabiting a different kind of society.

I heard an interview with one of the makers of The Front Runner. He commented that Trump is not being judged as a politician or public official would once have been (and as Hart was), but instead as a celebrity. And that Trump is not an aberration; rather, the new normal. He doubted we’ll ever go back to the old model, with leaders of the George H. W. Bush type. Now celebrity culture rules.

The President of the United States

The 2006 movie Idiocracy depicted a future where intelligent Americans have few children while nitwits breed like rabbits. Result: a nation of nitwits. Unsurprisingly, its president is a flamboyant performance buffoon. The film was a comedy.

Our reality is a tragedy.

What American nationalism should be

November 5, 2018

Trump now, defiantly, calls himself a “nationalist.” For lefties it’s a dirty word. Some dream of “one world” uniting all humanity. John Lennon sang “imagine there’s no countries . . . nothing to kill or die for.” (But imagine what a united world’s politics and governance would be like, dominated by backward ideas of Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Turks.)

Disagreement about nationalism is part of our own cultural divide. Some say Americans have nothing to be proud of; our history a litany of crimes, our present a cesspool of racism, inequality, exploitation, oppression, and corruption. That’s epitomized by Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. Should have been titled A Cynic’s History. Zinn condemned America because it was not a perfect egalitarian utopia from Day One, flaying every social ill that ever existed here. With nary a word of recognition that any progress was ever achieved on any of it.

Thus some friends questioned why my house flew the flag. But I was indeed proud to be an American — a supportive member of what, despite its flaws, is as good a society as human beings had yet succeeded in creating. I flew the flag to honor the principles, values, and ideals America at its best stood for.

The progress Zinn refused to acknowledge is this nation’s central story. We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world, but strove “to form a more perfect union.” A society that could and did rise toward its highest ideals.

That is what our nationalism should embody. Not blood-and-soil but goodwill, civility, generosity, courage. Not truculence toward others but truth, reason, progress, and justice under rule of law. All people created equal, endowed with inalienable rights: to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. E pluribus unum — out of many, one.

I once stood on a corner, passed by a Muslim woman in a headscarf, then a black man, a turbaned Sikh, an Hispanic, an Indian lady in a sari, a Chinese girl, and, yes, a Caucasian too. This was in Westchester. Nobody batted an eye. This is America’s greatness. E pluribus unum. A place where all kinds of people can make homes, be welcomed, and thrive. This is humanity transcending its boundaries and limits.

Our Declaration of Independence was truly revolutionary when, as Rousseau put it, mankind was “everywhere in chains.” We lit a beacon light in the darkness, guiding countless millions of others to liberation. And as America grew more prosperous and powerful (thanks to its ideals), we took on an ever greater role as the vanguard of global efforts to expand freedom and prosperity and combat the forces that would hold people down. That U.S. world leadership has been noble. But also, it recognized that other countries becoming more democratic, and richer — and the resulting peace — are good for America itself.

These then are the values and ideals that made America great, and make for an American nationalism worth holding to. A nationalism not of ethnicity but of principles. Alas, Trump’s us-against-them “America First” nationalism is the antithesis of those values and ideals. Their evil twin, throwing them under the bus.

That is why, on November 9, 2016, I furled my flag. I look forward to — I burn for — the day when I can fly it once more.

Jamal Khashoggi, and murderers we love

October 16, 2018

The rule used to be that you could murder all the people you liked within your own borders, but doing it elsewhere was a no-no.

Or was it?

Trotsky

In 1940, Stalin’s arch-nemesis Trotsky, having been thrown out of Russia, lived in exile in Mexico. But Stalin still wanted him dead, and an agent of the Soviet secret police killed him with an ice axe. Exiled Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed in 1978 in London with a poison-tipped umbrella. Alexander Litvinienko, a defector from Russian Intelligence, was murdered in London in 2006 with radioactive poison. More recently a similar defector, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter survived a nerve agent attack that wound up killing a British woman. Iran’s regime has perpetrated the overseas murder of many opponents including a former prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar, killed near Paris. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had his half-brother murdered in a foreign airport. Israel has done an overseas job on a Hamas terrorist. China has grabbed an inconvenient person in Thailand to whisk him back.

Khashoggi and fiancee

The latest, of course, is journalist Jamal Khashoggi, critic of the Saudi Arabian regime, who had left the country in 2017, relocating to America and writing for the Washington Post. On October 2, he went to a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey for some routine paperwork relating to his upcoming marriage, while his fiancee waited outside. Apparently knowing of Khashoggi’s plans, the Saudis had flown in 15 operatives, on two private planes, arriving and leaving the same day. Inside the consulate, they tortured Khashoggi to death, chopped up his body, and somehow disposed of it. These facts are pretty much beyond dispute.

Saudi Arabia’s nominal king is Salman (the last of the numerous sons from the harem of the founding King Saud), but the real ruler is Salman’s 33-year-old son and crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”).

MBS

This family’s rule has never been exactly benevolent. But MBS, under the guise of modernizing and reforming the Saudi state, is actually taking it to the next level of viciousness. (Women are now allowed to drive — while advocates for their driving are being locked up.) Apparently MBS’s model for a modern state is Putin’s Russia.

And apparently this young genius MBS either imagined nobody would notice 15 guys flown in and out and Khashoggi missing, or else imagined that the world would simply yawn and move on. As to the latter, he might yet turn out to be right.

With the fact of the murder no longer plausibly deniable — facts do actually still have a toehold in this world, imagine that! So retro!! — now the Plan B is the “rogue elements” line. That is, MBS had no knowledge of those 15 guys and two planes, of course he would never have countenanced such a horrible crime. Of course not. Or maybe they never intended to kill Khashoggi, just a little good-natured horseplay, and it got out of hand. Something like that.

Trump, with his usual eloquence, said what the Saudis did was “not good.” He said there would be “severe punishment” if it were proven true. Of course, in Trumpland, words don’t necessarily mean what you or I might think they mean. Especially the word “true.” But anyhow, the “severe punishment” would not include canceling our arms deal with the Saudi regime, because that might cost us money. So now we know exactly how much, in dollars, America’s morality, principles and ideals are worth. (And never mind that the Saudis use our weapons to commit horrendous atrocities in Yemen.)

But now Trump is himself mouthing the slimy “rogue elements” lie to get MBS off the hook. Trump is not going to smack MBS, because he loves dictators, bad guys, ruthless villains, and killers. Because looking at them is like looking in the mirror. At least he fancies himself in their tough guy image.

This is in fact the Trump who recently stated that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love. (“No, really!” Trump added; “He wrote me beautiful letters.”) Yes, our president has fallen in love with the blood-soaked North Korean dictator who had his uncle killed with anti-aircraft guns and his half-brother poisoned in a Malaysian airport. Melania, asked recently about Trump’s affairs with porn stars, said that doesn’t faze her. But what about this thing with Kim Jong-un? This is different; Trump never said he’d fallen in love with any porn stars.

Is there a new “first lady” in our future?

(Note to readers: nothing in this blog post, unfortunately, is satire.)

The Anti-Trump Albany Book Festival

October 4, 2018

This event, put on by the wonderful New York State Writers Institute, was not really political. But nobody would read this if I just titled it “Albany Book Festival.” And in fact it says a lot about our times how politics did inevitably color these proceedings. There’s no escaping America’s current crisis of the soul.

The kickoff was a reception installing Colson Whitehead as the New York State Author and Alicia Ostriker as State Poet. Both were introduced by former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, who did an admirable job talking about their work.

Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, drolly previewed his plans for his first hundred days as State Author. Ostriker read some of her poems which didn’t seem very poetic to me. But she also read from a great one: Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus. That choice was obviously timely, with the golden door being slammed shut.

As is customary for Writers Institute events, the munchies were superb: little cakes, a chocolate fudge & whipped cream confection, cookies, fruit, etc. (A thankyou to Paul Grondahl, the Institute’s dynamic leader.)

Broderick

A legion of local authors manned individual tables showcasing their work. Noteworthy among them was poet Therese L. Broderick, author of the acclaimed Breath Debt. (My wife.)

And a legion of other great literary luminaries spoke to packed audiences. Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of our leading historians, and talked about her new book, Leadership in Troubled Times. It focuses on the lessons from four presidencies: Lincoln, TR, FDR, and LBJ.

Goodwin

Goodwin’s theme was that character, above all, is what matters. She ticked off a list of key traits: humility, empathy, valuing diverse opinions, ability to connect with all manner of people, controlling negative impulses, and keeping one’s word. In sum, emotional intelligence. Goodwin’s rundown here elicited loud laughter from the audience, for the obvious reason that our current “leader” is so glaringly devoid of all these virtues.

Hegel

I next listened to a panel of four other historians. One noteworthy discussion reminded me of Hegel’s concept of thesis and antithesis cycling to synthesis. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, ending legalized racial segregation, produced a big backlash among white southerners, resisting it, sometimes violently. But that in turn energized its own backlash, in the civil rights movement, eventual civil rights and voting rights legislation, and, one might say, the eventual election of an African-American as president. Which in turn generated another big backlash culminating in the election of a very different sort of president. Which in turn has energized civic engagement against what that represents (very much in evidence in the responses of attendees at this book festival).

SPOS

I don’t know that we’re near Hegel’s final synthesis. I’m hopeful that Trumpism is a doomed last gasp, and that America will flush its toilet for good in 2020. But experience with my own bathroom suggests a different outcome is possible.

Next I went to Marion Roach Smith’s talk on memoir writing. The room was not ideal; her husband, Times-Union editor Rex Smith, had to kneel by her side manning the computer with her power-point presentation, advancing the slides every time she signaled.

Smith

Though sometimes he misinterpreted her gesturing. But it was an excellent talk applicable not just to memoirists, but to writing in general. Her key theme: focus on what the piece of writing is really about; what its argument is. A memoir’s reader is not interested in the details of what may have occurred but, rather, in gaining some insight on a human issue.

William Kennedy is Albany’s leading literary light, who founded the Writers Institute, and recently turned 90. He’s a literary energizer bunny who just keeps going, premiering a new book at the festival.

Kennedy

His talk was a meditation on writing and the writing life. I particularly relished his discussion of Faulkner, probably my own favorite. He adverted to the idea that Faulkner’s work is uplifting. “This uplift business baffled me,” Kennedy said. Faulkner certainly depicts the worst human behavior. Yet Kennedy said he was uplifted after all, “exalted,” by writing that reaches into a person’s heart. (I have written about Faulkner on this blog, with a somewhat similar take. In fact, it was a Faulkner quote I used as the epigraph for my Rational Optimism book.)

The final event was a panel titled “The New Americans” — a group of authors born elsewhere. Again, a theme with particular resonance in today’s political environment.

Iftin

One panelist was Abdi Nor Iftin, who I got to meet and chat with at the previous night’s reception. He was the Somali guy whose tribulations getting to America were told on NPR’s This American Life. Hearing that story so moved me that I wrote a poem (previously posted here), and sent him something. He now has a book out, Call Me American. What a thrill it was for me to connect with Abdi in person.

Khan

Another panelist was Khizr Khan, whom I’ve also written about (here, and here). It was likewise a thrill to shake his hand and tell him what a privilege that was. Khan continues to remind us how our Declaration of Independence and Constitution enshrine human dignity. He said no other country’s constitution rivals ours in that regard — and that he’s actually read them all! He also said that in over 200 appearances, in connection with his book, he has everywhere found Americans wanting to hold onto these values, and hopeful not only for America but for America as “a source of light” for the rest of the world.

We must not allow that light to go out.

White pride and white privilege

September 23, 2018

Omarosa, in her book, tells of asking Steve Bannon whether it’s true that he’s a racist. “No,” he answered. “The same way you are a proud African-American woman, I am a proud white man. What’s the difference between my pride and your pride?”

All the difference in the world.

Pride can have many sources, some appropriate, some not. I’m proud of many things about human culture that I associate myself with. Whiteness isn’t one of them. Talk of white pride (or black pride) makes the racial identification salient, which it can be only in relation to the other race, and relations between them.

The central fact of that relationship is the long past history of blacks, as a people, inferiorized and suffering at the hands of whites. Black pride is an aspect of rising above all that. Like Jewish pride at overcoming all that Jews have suffered. If you’re not Jewish, being proud of your non-Jewishness would equate to anti-semitism. Likewise, white pride can only be understood vis-a-vis non-whites, setting oneself against them rather than for something. It’s negative rather than positive; a rejection of racial amity. It has the odor of burning crosses.

And of Confederate monuments. They’re not about honoring a supposedly noble past history. They were erected to send a message: that blacks are lesser beings. Why else memorialize men who fought to preserve slavery?

White pride, in fact, has the odor of burning flesh. Of the thousands of innocent human beings lynched, often hideously mutilated, burned alive, to keep blacks terrorized “in their place.” I don’t think American white southerners have a noble past history to memorialize and take pride in. It’s a vile history requiring instead atonement.

So white pride cannot be whitewashed as merely some innocent positive feelings about one’s own race. It’s not remotely analogous to black pride.

Yes it is

If blacks take pride in overcoming, can whites take pride in creating the evils blacks overcame? Human beings, acting in their humanity, have achieved great things. White people, when acting in their whiteness, conceiving themselves apart from non-whites, have perpetrated horrors.

White priders take a leaf from the victim playbook, as if merely seeking fairness. This is an Orwellian mockery. For all the affirmative action practiced — at the edges of society, really — the far bigger reality is still that one is better off white. Those who march for white rights are not disadvantaged because they are white. They are disadvantaged because they are the sort of losers for whom “white pride” seems to make sense. That’s what puts them on the outs in today’s America.

No we’re not

At the opposite end from white priders are liberals suffering white privilege guilt. We’ve been hearing an awful lot about white privilege. I’m reminded of the Eddie Murphy SNL skit where he discovers white privilege by masquerading as white. Sitting on a bus, everything is quietly normal . . . until the lone black passenger exits. That frees the rest to break out the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, turn on the music and start dancing in the aisle.

Of course that’s not how things are; “white privilege” is a misnomer. People aren’t favored because they are white (“You’re one of us, so you get special treatment”). That certainly doesn’t apply for the losers described above. Instead, it’s just that whites are not discriminated against on account of race.

No it won’t

Some non-whites may take offense at whiteness being seen as the normal, default condition of a human being, implying that non-whites are something apart, not quite full members of the club, or members on sufferance. But that reads too much into the situation. All it is is that if you pick an American person at random, she’s more likely to be white than black. More likely brunette than a redhead too. That doesn’t mean redheads aren’t part of the club. In fact there is no such club. True, there are some whites who do see there being a club. And for them there is one: a club of losers to which blacks shouldn’t want to belong. It sure isn’t the club of American society.

So white privilege is not a thing. It’s the absence of one. Whites do not get some undeserved benefit as the other side of the coin of non-whites undeservedly disadvantaged. What whites get is nothing more than what everyone should get.

Seriously??

White privilege does not invest Caucasians with the guilt of original sin. Instead we are individual human beings, each of us come fresh into the world, and who we are is defined by what we do.

 

Robert Ingersoll — the greatest man you never heard of

August 28, 2018

We went to a Syracuse shindig celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Robert Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. Run by the Center for Inquiry, a secular humanist organization, its first day featured presentations, the second a bus tour to Ingersoll’s and other freethought landmarks. About ninety attended.

Ingersoll

Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was known as “The Great Agnostic.” A lawyer, he was America’s foremost public speaker in the late 19th century, traveling the country giving lectures, mostly anti-religious. People flocked to hear him. In those times, other kinds of public entertainments were almost nonexistent. And Ingersoll was such an engaging speaker that he always got a respectful hearing.

How different America is today. People were ignorant then, but knew they were. Now Americans are a little less ignorant but a lot more sure they know everything (regardless of empirical truth).

Ingersoll was a great humanist in every sense of the word — refuting the canard that “atheists believe in nothing.” Ingersoll believed in the power of human rationality to give us progress and good lives. That the happiness of sentient beings is the ultimate source of meaning. That the time to be happy is now, and the place is here, on Earth. That one’s happiness is entwined with that of others. And Ingersoll lived these principles, earning the love and admiration of everyone he touched.

His birthplace museum is in Dresden, NY, a tiny town. We were shown a screenshot from “Tripadvisor” labeling the Ingersoll site “#1 of 1 things to do in Dresden.”

Flynn

Tom Flynn (editor of CFI’s Free Inquiry magazine) placed Ingersoll in the context of what he called “the Braid of Reform” in 19th Century America. The two great causes were abolition and women’s rights (including suffrage). Not all these movements’ adherents were religious freethinkers, but many were; and most freethinkers were abolitionists and suffragists. “Freethought” means thinking outside the box of traditional religious dogmas.

Blumner

Robyn Blumner heads the CFI. She noted that its $5 million budget is the largest for any U.S. secular organization, but is dwarfed by funding for the Christian right. “Campus Crusade for Christ” has a budget a hundred times larger. Blumner said, however, that we have reason, science, and truth on our side. Though truth used to have a bigger constituency.

One CFI program she discussed had particular resonance for me: “Secular Rescue.” I am a fearless blogger — not courageous, but literally fearless because in America there’s nothing to fear over what one writes. Not so in other countries, especially Muslim ones, where “blasphemy” is a crime, sometimes punishable by death; a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes (to be administered in installments). In Bangladesh there’s a vigilante crusade murdering “blaspheming” bloggers. “Secular Rescue” is engaged in protecting such people and even relocating them to safer places.

Smith

Norman Dann spoke about Gerrit Smith (1797-1874), another great figure you never heard of. Extremely rich, all Smith wanted to do with his money was to advance human rights, especially abolition. He freed a lot of slaves by simply buying them. Initially he felt “moral suasion” could end slavery. Then political activism. Finally, a fellow came to him with a different approach: violence and war. That was John Brown, and Smith funded him.

Sue Boland talked about Matilda Joslyn Gage — the third woman’s suffrage triumvir, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though much less famous now.

Gage

Gage was a freethinker whose battle for women’s rights targeted religion, with all its patriarchal ideas. Indeed, Christianity was the most powerful force opposing female suffrage.

Gage’s son-in-law was L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz — which Boland called a freethought fairy tale, telling us that everything we need is already inside us. (No need for that fraud behind the curtain!)

The bus tour included Gage’s house in Fayetteville, as well as, in Peterboro, the Gerrit Smith site and the National Abolition Hall of Fame.

Another program centered on D.M. Bennett, publisher of a freethought periodical, The Truth Seeker, who in 1879 fell victim to “anti-vice” pervert Anthony Comstock, being imprisoned for mailing obscenity — a book of conjugal advice. Whose author President Hayes pardoned. But, bowing to church pressure, he wouldn’t pardon Bennett.

Grube as Stanton

We also had two costumed dramatic impersonations. Melinda Grube channeled Stanton (Gerrit Smith’s cousin). A focus was how her life was shaped by her brother’s death in youth and her father’s inability to take equal pride in her, being the wrong gender. “She couldn’t change her father, or herself, so she’d have to change the world.” Like Gage, Stanton saw women’s oppression rooted in Christianity and the Bible; she authored The Woman’s Bible with plain English explanations of its pernicious passages relating to women.

Margaret Downey gave us Eva Parker Ingersoll, Robert’s wife, focusing on their love story. She quoted from a letter he wrote to Eva: “The world is getting free. I thank God every day that he does not exist.”

After dinner, the keynote speech was by Susan Jacoby, Ingersoll biographer and author of several other books (one of which I recently wrote about). Her theme: what would Ingersoll think of today’s America?

Jacoby

Jacoby stressed Ingersoll’s linking religion’s rejection of reason with the whole spectrum of social issues like women’s rights and immigration. Yes, he was enlightened even on that, battling against the onset of immigration restrictions with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As ever, his argument was moral: Chinese are human beings who should be treated the same as any other. “A great nation,” he said, “should be bound by the highest conception of honor and justice.” (Funny how believers insist morality comes from religion, when so often religious dogmas make them morally blind.)

Jacoby sees increasingly successful efforts by today’s religionists to undermine church-state separation, using protection of religious freedom as a wedge, twisting it into a right to impose their beliefs on others. She said Ingersoll may have been too optimistic about science’s ability to overcome all this.

The word “tribal” has been invoked a lot in analyzing Trump support. Jacoby sees that tribalism as being animated more by religion than anything else (such as economic concerns). It’s a fact that the 40% of Americans who back Trump are largely the same people who are Christian fundamentalists. And just as religious faith works to seal people off from reality checks, the same seems true in the political realm, with Trumpism more like a faith cult than a mere political viewpoint.

This too shall pass

Is there hope? Yes. One writer recently called the religious right’s ascendancy “a cultural stab from the grave,” demographically speaking. Throughout the rest of the developed world, Christian religion is in sharp retreat, with belief and churchgoing collapsing. In America, the younger you are, the less religious you are apt to be. The religious right’s flame will ultimately burn out. In the long run, reason will defeat unreason.

Was America founded as a “Christian nation?”

August 13, 2018

We’re often told that it was. The aim is to cast secularism as somehow un-American, and override the Constitution’s separation of church and state. But it’s the latter idea that’s un-American; and it’s historical nonsense. Just one more way in which the religious right is steeped in lies (forgetting the Ninth Commandment).

Jacoby

They assault what is in fact one of the greatest things about America’s birth. It’s made clear in Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.

Firstly, it tortures historical truth to paint the founding fathers as devout Christians. They were not; instead men of the Enlightenment. While “atheism” wasn’t even a thing at the time, most of them were as close to it as an Eighteenth Century person could be. Franklin was surely one of the century’s most irreverent. Washington never in his life penned the name “Christ.” Jefferson cut-and-pasted his own New Testament, leaving out everything supernatural and Christ’s divinity. In one letter he called Christian doctrine “metaphysical insanity.”

The secularism issue was arguably joined in 1784 (before the Constitution) when Patrick Henry introduced a bill in Virginia’s legislature to tax all citizens to fund “teachers of the Christian religion.” Most states still routinely had quasi-official established churches. But James Madison and others mobilized public opinion onto an opposite path. The upshot was Virginia passing not Henry’s bill but, instead, one Jefferson had proposed years earlier: the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

It was one of three achievements Jefferson had engraved on his tombstone.

The law promulgated total separation of church and state. Nobody could be required to support any religion, nor be penalized or disadvantaged because of religious beliefs or opinions. In the world of the Eighteenth Century, this was revolutionary. News of it spread overseas and created an international sensation. After all, this was a world still bathed in blood from religious believers persecuting other religious believers. It was not so long since people were burned at the stake over religion, and since a third of Europe’s population perished in wars of faith. Enough, cried Virginia, slashing this Gordian knot of embroiling governmental power with religion.

Soon thereafter delegates met in Philadelphia to create our Constitution. It too was revolutionary; in part for what it did not say. The word “God” nowhere appears, let alone the word “Christian.” Instead of starting with a nod to the deity, which would have seemed almost obligatory, the Constitution begins “We the people of the United States . . . .” We people did this, ourselves, with no god in the picture.

This feature did not pass unnoticed at the time; to the contrary, it was widely denounced, as an important argument against ratifying the Constitution. But those views were outvoted, and every state ratified.

It gets better. Article 6, Section 3 says “no religious test shall ever be required” for holding any public office or trust. This too was highly controversial, contradicting what was still the practice in most states, and with opponents warning that it could allow a Muslim (!) president. But the “no religious test” provision shows the Constitution’s framers were rejecting all that, and totally embracing, instead, the religious freedom stance of Virginia’s then-recent enactment. And that too was ratified.

Indeed, it still wasn’t even good enough. In the debates over ratification, many felt the Constitution didn’t sufficiently safeguard freedoms, including religious freedom, and they insisted on amendments, which were duly adopted in 1791. That was the Bill of Rights. And the very first amendment guaranteed freedom of both speech and religion — which go hand-in-hand. This made clear that all Americans have a right to their opinions, and to voice those opinions, including ideas about religion, and that government could not interfere. Thus would Jefferson later write of “the wall of separation” between church and state.

All this was, again, revolutionary. The founders, people of great knowledge and wisdom, understood exactly what they were doing, having well in mind all the harm that had historically been done by government entanglement with religion. What they created was something new in the world, and something very good indeed.

Interestingly, as Jacoby’s book explains, much early U.S. anti-Catholic prejudice stemmed from Protestants’ fear that Catholics, if they got the chance, would undermine our hard-won church-state separation, repeating the horrors Europe had endured.

A final point by Jacoby: the religious attack on science (mainly, evolution science) does not show religion and science are necessarily incompatible. Rather, it shows that a religion claiming “the one true answer to the origins and ultimate purpose of human life” is “incompatible not only with science but with democracy.” Because such a religion really says that issues like abortion, capital punishment, or biomedical research can never be resolved by imperfect human opinion, but only by God’s word. This echoes the view of Islamic fundamentalists that democracy itself, with humans presuming to govern themselves, is offensive to God. What that means in practice, of course, is not rule by (a nonexistent) God but by pious frauds who pretend to speak for him.

I’m proud to be a citizen of a nation founded as a free one* — not a Christian one.

* What about slaves? What about women? Sorry, I have no truck with those who blacken America’s founding because it was not a perfect utopia from Day One. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The degree of democracy and freedom we did establish were virtually without precedent in the world of the time. And the founders were believers in human progress, who created a system open to positive change; and in the centuries since, we have indeed achieved much progress.