Lack of Parenting

When your parents are usually your bitter adversaries in a senseless, ongoing war, it is difficult to seek advice from them.  I had a sudden reminder of this when I read this line in an article about Elizabeth Warren, about a proponent of integration who excepted his own children from the school integration policy he fought for.

His story — as the idealistic father who moves his own children out of urban schools — was chronicled in J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “Common Ground.’’

I suddenly recalled my idealistic, liberal, pro-integration parents’ desperation when, during my two years in Junior High School, the local school zoning was changed (to increase racial diversity) and my local High School was no longer nearby highly rated Jamaica High but predominantly black Andrew Jackson High (talk about ironies, naming that school after rabid racist slaveholder and Trump favorite Old Hickory…) located squarely in a black area a few miles from where we lived.   Students could opt out of the rezoning plan by pursuing majors at Jamaica not offered at Jackson, I recall metallurgy was one such major, or by getting into one of the specialized schools that required passing an entrance exam.

I took the exam and passed.  It was my first inkling that I had a distinct talent for doing well on meaningless high-stakes tests [1].   My choice, as winner of this lottery, was between the nerd-filled Bronx High School of Science (where I’d travelled to take the entrance exam, as I recall) or much closer, much cooler, Stuyvesant High School, a school, as I learned much later, with a long reputation as a liberal arts high school.   My sister went there two years later and had the great Frank McCourt, later author of Angela’s Ashes, as her English teacher.  She loved Frank, as most of his students apparently did.

From Stuyvesant, then located in Manhattan’s hippyish East Village, students could walk to Chinatown to eat.   The trip to school was about 45 minutes by bus and subway from where we grew up in Queens.   A good friend of mine to this day went to Stuyvesant and had a fine time there.

Science, by contrast, was more than twice that distance from home.  It was located on a tundra, bitterly frozen in the winter where arctic winds off the reservoir would lacerate you on the long walk from the Grand Concourse.  It was not located near any place anyone would want to go.  Most of my classmates, outside of a few smart misfit friends of mine who happened to live in the Bronx (including the only musical genius I have ever met), were future engineers, computer geeks, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, quants, Nobel prize winners and so forth.   

Because I never had a real discussion about any of this, and had no guidance from my parents, a friend and I basically flipped a coin and chose Science.   As I recall we never thought about the length of the commute, what we were interested in by way of curriculum or any other factor.   To make the deal even more meaningful, we had little contact in High School, after a semester of taking the bus and subway there together I don’t even recall seeing the guy there.

I wound up setting the Bronx High School of Science record for lateness by a student, a growing record of incorrigible tardiness bitterly pointed out to me by a series of red-faced deans of discipline.  I was late to class virtually every morning.   The alternative to lateness was being up by 6:30 or so and out the door not long past 7:15 a.m.    I had few classes there worth my time, little of any interest at all.  The English department handed out vocabulary sheets containing dozens of fancy, unfamiliar words we were required to learn every week.   I applaud this practice, which instilled a lifelong habit of learning the meaning of every unknown word I encounter.   Outside of that, I recall little else academically from my three years of strife there.

One day in High School I ran into a girl I knew from the neighborhood, a cute girl I’d always liked.   She was going to Andrew Jackson and told me it was great.  She wound up graduating at sixteen, because the classes were apparently so easy there that she aced everything and was able to do her three years of high school in a little over two.  I promptly cut school and took the bus with her to Jackson.   I recall spending a very nice day there, meeting her bright, politically active friends, hanging out.  I remember standing on the steps of the school smoking a joint with her and some of her friends as classes went on inside.  I recall not a single menacing black kid hassling any minority white kid, the ultimate fear of liberal parents.

At the highly competitive Bronx Science, my 83 average put me at the bottom of my class.   As I recall I was somewhere in the 800s out of a graduating class of almost 1,000.   The same amount of work (those diligent, angry last minute hours I spent every year cramming for the New York State Regents) would have put me at the top of the class at Jackson, probably put me in line for many a college scholarship.

I write these words with no bitterness, I really regret none of it.  I merely point out that had my parents been capable of real parenting, as opposed to what they actually did, I might have had a chance of thinking through the some of the things I realize now so clearly.  I would have learned to think through a choice and make the best decision for myself, instead of flipping a coin with a friend equally clueless about such things.  The travel time alone should have been a decisive factor in my decision of where to commute to high school.

I’ve had to become my own parents, a process that no doubt set me back quite a few years, and cost me a ton of hard work.   It was good work, and I certainly don’t regret it, in fact, I recommend it for everyone who feels the need for good parenting, but, seriously, man, what the fuck?

 

 

[1] Years later I’d score in the top percentile in the National Teaching Exam.   I also got a perfect score on the exam for Census Supervisor, a test score that was later unaccountably erased along with my application.  I also passed a variety of high school subjects I had not studied by bitterly cramming, often in a day or two, for a series of Regents’ Exams.    I averaged very high scores on these predictable tests of subject matter that could be quickly learned merely by taking a series of past tests.   My scores would rise from an initial 20%, to the 85 or 90% I’d score on the last test I’d take on my sleep-deprived subway ride to school to take the actual exam.

Hereditary Trait — war between siblings?

Years ago I had a terrible fight with my sister.   A few days later I was visiting my father’s first cousin Eli, a rough character as capable of tenderness as he was of socking somebody with one of his hard fists.  The old man thoughtfully listened to my description of the fight.  He paused to take it all in, then gave me his advice.

“Look, she’s your sister, I hear what you’re saying about the fight but don’t let the bad feelings linger.   You have to swallow your pride, tell her you’re sorry you two fought, you don’t have to apologize for starting the fight or not starting it, you’re just sorry about the whole thing.   Tell her you want to make up, put it behind you, tell her you love her and you feel terrible and you want it to be over.  Don’t let your pride stand in the way of making up with her.  Do it sooner rather than later when it might be too late.”

I told him it was good advice, and that I appreciated it, but that I was still too hurt and angry to make that move, and then, taking a page from my mother’s book, I told Eli it was a little ironic coming from him, a man who hadn’t spoken to his own sister in over thirty years.   This got the same reaction my mother’s challenging comments always got from Eli.  His face immediately turned magenta and he leaned forward menacingly, ready to attack.

“My sister is a completely different story!   There is no comparison between my sister and your sister!   My sister is a complete bitch!” he yelled in a cry of pain and anger, as acutely stung by the painful falling out they’d had decades earlier as if the unforgivable offense had just happened.

Fast forward three decades.  I get a call from Eli’s daughter.  She and her sister are visiting the cemetery where their parents and mine are buried.  She asked if I’d like to meet them, it’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.   I took the train up to Peekskill and we drove over to the cemetery.   It is a Jewish tradition to take a small stone and place it on the gravestone of the dead person we are visiting.     We gathered our stones and walked among the graves.

At their parents’ grave we put our stones on Eli’s side of the large headstone and then, as I put a stone on their mother Helen’s side, I said “she was a sweet lady.” That was my memory of her — long-suffering, hospitable, kind smile.  I was a boy when Helen died young, but I remember her pretty well.  Neither of her daughters said anything when I said their mother had been a sweet lady.

Afterwards, over lunch, they told a couple of stories involving their mother, as though to set the record straight, letting me know that their mother, in her way, had been as problematic as their emotional, sometimes violently opinionated father.

If your father is tyrannical, as the beloved Eli also was, and your mother always goes along with the tyranny… well, an ally of your enemy is also your enemy.  I know this well from my own childhood.  Helen always seemed sweet to me, she’d smile warmly and bring us good things to eat.   She was quiet and kept herself busy being the perfect hostess during our visits, she laughed easily.  She died of cancer when I was about 11 or 12.   Why wouldn’t a boy remember her as a sweet person?   Particularly if his own parents often attacked him, sometimes quite savagely.

We can think of these childhood observations without attaching value judgments to them, somehow, but it’s not easy, or even always a great idea, I think.   Value judgments are our assessment of what’s the right way to act and what not to do.   Even the doltish Nazi Adolf Eichmann, the subject of Hannah Arendt’s brilliant book on his trial in Israel, was able to accurately summarize Immanuel Kant’s view on this, the Categorical Imperative.   When pressed by the judges at his trial he defined it: to act in such a way that you could will your actions to be universal principles.   Would the world be better or worse if everyone acted like I am acting now?

I think of this as another statement of Hillel’s famous summary of morality: what is hateful to you, don’t do to somebody else.   Loving your neighbor as yourself is a difficult golden rule to follow.   Phrasing it the way Hillel did cuts through difficult theory to practical practice.   It’s a simple matter to know what you hate, you hate it instantly, always, it’s like a chemical reaction.  

You can do something hateful to you to somebody else, if you don’t expect that person to treat you any differently in return, but what kind of world would it be?  If everyone treated everyone in this hateful manner we’d have a state of constant war, each against all.  If we all stopped ourselves from doing things to others that we hate done to us, that would be a huge step toward solving problems before the oceans rise to drown all of us not turned into desperate climate refugee/cannibals determined to not to die by water.

But back to my original thought about whether we inherit certain idiosyncrasies regarding siblings (begging, of course, the equally valid question of whether we learn them as children).   Eli didn’t talk to his sister for the last 30 or 40 years of their long lives. He lived to be almost 90, his sister to 103.  I believe their final dispute was related to sharing their father’s modest inheritance, more than 40 years before Eli’s death.    Eli’s daughters have a younger brother I haven’t seen or heard from in years.  When I asked his sisters about him they said he was fine.  I got the feeling that they haven’t talked to him for a long time.

Although I often ascribe this family harshness to the brutal pruning of our family tree back in 1942 and 1943, and the centuries-long culture of persecution my surviving family comes from, I suspect these estrangements between siblings happen in many cultures.  I just read a book about sibling strife by psychologist Jeanne Safer,  Cain’s Legacy.  She states her credo at the start of the book:   “Cain’s Legacy reflects my passionate conviction that it is essential not to gloss over the dark side of life.”   She states my credo as well.  

I have to peer into the darkness until I can see the fucking thing, I can’t stop myself, nor do I want to.   I need to understand what is there.  If it can be fixed, let’s fix it.  If it provides a lesson, let’s take the lesson from it.  If it is too monstrous to survive in the light, we’re better off leaving it there in the dark and both walking away from it.  To pretend it’s not there does not seem to be a life-affirming option.

The common peace-seeking instinct is to move toward the anodyne, the inoffensive, compromise version of conflict that blames nobody.  An explanation that lets everybody off the hook, you dig.  This is the purportedly non-controversial version of sometimes unbearable things we often hear from those who urge us that both sides always have an equal right to their opinion and that we should not judge.  We always judge, it’s part of our nature.  It’s how we survived as a species, as individuals.   It’s what we’ve learned to do from the experience of our lives, to the extent we ever really learn anything.

My father’s brother was younger, sickly as a boy and mom’s favorite.  Where my father was literally whipped in the face by mom, from the time he could stand, his brother was coddled.   Neither one emerged from their childhood without deep emotional scars, although my father’s problems are easier for me to understand now than my uncle’s.  My uncle, to his credit, spent years in psychoanalysis.  His son, my first cousin, would scoff to read the reference to his father’s long exercise in denial, dressed in a suit, lying on a shrink’s couch week after week, gaining so little insight. What did he learn?  When the mood struck, he remained tyrannical in his rage until the end. My father, for his part, had a lifelong scorn for people so weak they needed to whine to a shrink about the demons all of us must battle in our lives.

My uncle, much smaller than my father, often cringed around his brother, like a younger brother who’d often been sucker punched by his older, bigger, stronger antagonist.  One of the few stories my father ever told us about his brutal childhood of grinding poverty was the time he stuffed his little brother’s mouth full of raw chopped meat.   He told us the story more than once, chuckling each time he did.   The brothers had a strained relationship throughout their lives.  One time my father stayed at his brother’s overnight and I asked him over the phone how my uncle was doing.  I wrote his immortal reply on the page I was doodling on:  “let’s just say he remains unchanged.”

Yet, check this out– when my father was dying, he kept asking for his brother.   I picked my uncle up at the airport and the two brothers clung to each other morning to night for the last couple of days of my father’s life.   It was incredibly poignant to my sister and me.  After my father died his brother sat with his dead body (along with my brother-in-law) until members of the Chevre Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) claimed the body to watch over it and prepare it for the funeral.

My paternal grandmother, a savage little woman who died before I was born, used to yell at her sons when she saw them at each other’s throats.   “Seenas Cheenum!” she would shout — baseless enmity!   No reason on earth for these boys, growing up in extreme poverty, one beaten, the other coddled,  to be at each other like that!  I can imagine my grandmother grabbing my father roughly, pulling him away from her beloved younger son.   This kind of thing is detailed in the Old Testament where sibling treachery abetted by mothers and deadly fights between brothers are reported multiple times.  

This tendency for eternal ruthless war between siblings appears to wind up in the blood.  A combination of nature and nurture,  I suppose.  It is seemingly replicated down the generations.   Without insight into it, we remain prisoners of strong feelings we cannot understand or get past.  We pick up a rock and slay, sometimes.  

This unreasoning, murderous side of us lurks in our wounded hearts– there are circumstances that will bring out this rage.  The challenge is never to pick up a rock and slay, or maybe, to learn, without a doubt, that the wisest thing to do is to remove yourself from a situation so emotionally fraught that, under pressure, it will inevitably yield to the impulse to pick up the rock.   

A thought about my father’s talent for empathy

I was thinking about the mild, kind, nurturing side of my complicated father recently.   It was not his default setting, he was usually guarded and ready to attack if he felt in any way threatened, but his talent for comforting was a memorable side of him that needs to be brought out in describing him to you.  He was capable of great sensitivity and supportiveness, in the right emotionally threatening situation.   Anybody who ever found themselves in a tough spot, and was calmed by the way my father’s used great intelligence, warm humanism and a hint of humor to relieve worry, will remember him gratefully.

It was his ability to be conciliatory, reassuring and merciful while, at any given moment, also capable of merciless verbal violence, that made being his child so tricky, so disorienting, made it so hard to get a handle on what was real and what was ridiculous.   Ultimately, I think it was this highly rational man’s irrational need to unconditionally vilify, coming from someone equally capable of great empathy, that proved so damaging to his offspring.

My sister, who identifies with our father as much as I do, noted that our father was always playful and tender with young children (as well as small animals, he took a particular delight in lifting small dogs by the armpits and rocking them, rigid legged, in front of his face).  She concluded this was because they posed no threat to him.   I think she was right.  He was a different person when he wasn’t worried about being attacked, as any of us are.  Little kids of a certain age are cute, playful and trusting as puppies.  They can be fun to play with — plus they pose no harm and are very happy for attention.  He was at his best goofing around with them, sounding them out about things, going with the flow, making them laugh.

My father was also at his best in times of crisis, when you were very upset in the midst of an emergency.  He would quietly lay out his understanding of your worries and then calmly walk you through all the reasons you shouldn’t be so upset.   He had a great ability to reassure. 

The mechanism of this, I realize now, was similar to his unguarded playfulness with children.   When my sister or I were most vulnerable, our father was least concerned with being attacked by us.  This freed him to express his better nature.   The memory of his consistent kindness in these tough situations also served to make my sister and me often blame ourselves when he was enraged at us.

It was an emotionally confusing situation to grow up in, being raised by someone so reflexively critical and angry who was also capable of such soothing compassion.   One of the hallmarks of my father’s fighting style was the insistence that you were wrong to feel what you were feeling.  “You’re wrong,” he’d say flatly, in the face of your upswelling emotion, and then reframe things to tell you what you should actually be feeling, if you weren’t so fucked up, and why you’d be much better off simply feeling the opposite of how you felt.   

I’ve since learned that this refusal to acknowledge another person’s hurt is perhaps the most provocative thing a person can do in response to someone else’s vulnerability — tell them they have absolutely no right to feel what they are feeling. 

There was rarely an attempt to de-escalate anything in our home, this was not in either of our parents’ emotional repertoires.   They had both suffered greatly at the hands of strong-willed, violent mothers.   They were ill equipped to deal with their frustrations, our own frustrations were maddening to them.    

There would be angry confrontations at the dinner table, virtually every night.  Accusations would fly, authoritative pronouncements by my father delivered in the style of a prosecutor’s closing remarks to the jury.  What you were doing now, in this moment of anger, was what you always do because you are an irredeemably angry person, a bad seed, a hater.   In my sister’s case, she was portrayed to the imaginary jury as not angry, so much, but reflexively dishonest, scheming, vain, empty-headed.   This reduction of each of us to the sum of some purported faults or weaknesses did a great deal of harm, as you can imagine.

When my sister and I discuss our childhood there’s a phrase we bat around that often gets a chuckle out of us “twisted and contorted with hate”.   My father must have directed the phrase to me more than once, since we both recall it so clearly.  He would snarl this at me whenever I’d sit across from him, my face twisted and contorted with hate.    Hate, mind you, is a very strong word.

My grandmother, whose six brothers and sisters were marched to a ravine and shot in the back of their heads by local townspeople who hated them, always reacted with disgust when I’d report that I hated my teacher.  She tried to teach me what a strong word hate is.   “You HATE her?  Be quiet! You don’t HATE her… you don’t know what hate means, hate means you’d kill her,” she’d say, correctly.   I’d stick to my guns, as my grandmother waved her large hands dismissively.

“Yeah, grandma, I’d kill her…” I’d insist, as righteous children often do. 

“Please…” she’d say turning away with incomparable dismissiveness.

 

                                                                                    ii

In thinking about my father now, and the deeper values he imbued in me, and what he tried to teach me to never tolerate,  I grasp something impressive.   At the same time that he often acted tyrannically, he also instilled in me a profound resistance to tyranny– not only by an instinct to refuse his overbearing assaultive behavior toward me but also by his philosophical example, the courageous people he admired.  

He truly hated tyranny, an irrational assertion of unchallengeable, often brutal, will, and I digested this hatred, which on some level he supported, even as he reflexively acted like a despot and fought me without restraint.  I could see that on some level he respected me for fighting back against his attempts to tyrannize me.  Tyranny, he taught me on a cellular level, is evil — straight up.   I would come to lose many jobs, even my chosen profession, animated by this high-minded belief in higher justice and by a visceral inability to yield to a bully — or to seeing others bullied.

My father told me, the last night of his life, that his life was basically over by the time he was two.  I’d learned the reason for this a few years earlier from my father’s closest cousin, Eli, a first generation American tough guy 16 years older than my father.  I spent many a Saturday up at Eli’s retirement bungalow during the last few years of the old man’s life, talking about everything.   My father would vehemently dismiss any insight I believed I’d taken from my talks with Eli.  Eli’s accounts were bullshit, he’d insist, portraying Eli as a hopelessly muddled and unreliable historical revisionist and pointing to his estrangement from his own children as the proof that Eli was full of shit.   

When, at 1 a.m., I entered the room my father would die in nineteen hours later, one of the first things he said was “those stories Eli told you… everything he said was true, though I’m sure he spared you the worst of it.”  The worst I’d heard from Eli was bad enough.   Eli’s mother died when he was a year-old.    He instantly bonded with his Aunt Chava, his father’s youngest sister, a red-haired beauty who arrived by boat when Eli was six.  Eli and his father were at the dock in lower Manhattan to greet her.

“It was love at first sight,” Eli told me happily and recounted all the ways his beloved Tante Chava doted on him throughout his life.  There was no mistaking the painful ambivalence in Eli as he prepared to tell me a horrible detail I needed to know about his beloved Tante Chavah, my father’s mother, in order to help me make sense of our tangled, violent family history.  To give me a painful insight into my father’s most painful secret.

Eli had seen it more than once.  I picture him standing in the doorway to the kitchen of Chava’s home as his one year-old cousin stood in front of his chair, eyes downcast in terror, as his mother, Eli’s beloved Aunt, reached angrily into the drawer behind her chair for the rough, heavy cord of her iron, and whipped him across the face with it.

Across the face?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Eli with infinite sorrow.

“How old was he?” I asked.   

“However old you are when you can stand on your own two feet, I don’t know, one, one and a few months, I guess… a baby…”

After a while, of course, all Chava had to do was rattle the drawer where she kept the rigid, burlap-wrapped cord and my infant father would stand rigidly, eyes fixed on the floor in front of him, shuddering in terror.  A terror and humiliation that never left him, vicious pain inflicted for no reason by the mother who called him “Sonny”.   From the time he could stand.

It is impossible to reckon the damage this betrayal by your own mother would do to a person.  My father was often very mean to my sister and me, and the damage of that is hard to reckon.   I can only imagine the soul destruction my father experienced was ten times worse, maybe a hundred times worse.

“My life was pretty much over by the time I was two,” said the dying man as I stood beside his deathbed, the tiny digital recorder propped on his chest.   Many mysteries remain, all these years later.   One is how he managed to limit his abuse of my sister and me to harsh words.  Another is how he retained the ability, when things were darkest and scariest for us during our childhood. to empathize and calm us.   There are deep lessons in my father’s life for me and I will continue to delve until I have some answers worth sharing.

 

We never study this part of our history

Americans are famously unconcerned with history.   Even recent history is quickly forgotten, dismissed as “been there, done that.”   The president’s controversial acts are forgotten almost as quickly as he commits them.  All that skullduggery detailed in the Mueller Report?   Old news!   We heard about it already, the president openly and innocently admitted it, the partisan witch hunt completely and totally exonerated the poor guy!  We look forward here in America, not back, like Obama so high-mindedly did with state-sanctioned American torture that was rebranded as “enhanced interrogation” for purposes of immunizing American torturers.   “We tortured some folks,” admitted the president, citing the best of intentions with which good Americans unfortunately did these admittedly wrong things, and we moved on.   America, land of opportunity.

I heard this report, of the hundredth anniversary of a racial slaughter in rural Arkansas, one among many in our bloody history of racial violence, a racist slaughter I’d never heard of.  I’m an American who takes history seriously, and I’ve read a good bit of it over the years, but I’d never heard of this particular massacre. Oddly, like the racist bloodbath in Colfax, Louisiana on Easter Sunday eight years after the end of the Civil War, it didn’t appear in any of the books I read in school [1].   

The Elaine Massacre took place during the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, at a time when some very fine people (including progressive president Woodrow Wilson) were recasting the history of the Confederacy’s bloody rebellion against the federal government as a glorious lost cause for the highest of ideals.   The Civil War, American history students were taught for decades, had not been fought over the constitutionally protected right of the wealthy to own slaves (as every Confederate state’s articles of secession stated) but for “States’ Rights” — local sovereignty, something everyone wants and is sympathetic to.   MAGA, baby. [2]  

I only know about the Elaine massacre because Amy Goodman reported, on October 1:

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine massacre, when white vigilantes in Arkansas massacred hundreds of African Americans in one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history. The massacre began after black sharecroppers attempted to organize with the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to demand higher pay for cotton. A new memorial to the victims of the massacre was recently unveiled in the county seat of Helena, Arkansas.

source  

Sure, you can look it up now, in the age of instant information, and find the story documented somewhere (but only, of course, if you learn about it in the first place, somehow):

The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.

source

(you will have to overlook the unintended irony of the article’s anodyne title: The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System — yah, mon, they curbed that shit back in 1923…)

You can also learn things more troubling still, from the same article:

Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.

And as to the fate of the twelve black men convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged murders of the whites who died in the pogrom (the African-American men were the only ones prosecuted in relation to the Elaine massacre in which virtually all of the victims were African-American), this interesting footnote, from the same article (which leads to the title referred to above):

In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.

Tulsa, Oklahoma .  We’ve got a couple of years until the centennial of that massive anti-black rampage.

I think about my concern with this American denial of our history and wonder if maybe I’m just oversensitive because of my peculiar family history.   My father’s side of the family back in Belarus (then known as White Russia) was wiped out by the Nazis with no trace of what happened to them.   My mother’s side lived in a Ukrainian town where local Jews from neighboring areas were assembled in a makeshift ghetto and finally led to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town where several thousand were executed one August night by bullet to the back of the skull.   One searches the internet in vain for any listing of this massacre among the many Nazi massacres of World War Two.  Go figure.

The family of everybody slaughtered during the Elaine pogrom, the Colfax pogrom, the Tulsa pogrom, surely remembers the people they lost a few generations back, murdered by violent strangers who acted with no fear of legal repercussions.   You tend not to forget that kind of thing, if it happens to you.

Forget history at your own peril, my friends.

 

[1]  There was a footnote in the Constitutional law casebook I had in law school to a case called U.S. v. Cruikshank.  A single line, citing it as a precedent for a more famous case, the aptly named Slaughterhouse cases.   Cruikshank arose out of the organized slaughter of black men, women and children in a rural town in Louisiana. (you will get no sense of the horrific underlying events reading the Supreme Court’s dry, legalistic whitewash that signaled the judicial end of the Ku Klux Klan Act which became unenforceable in light of the Cruikshank decision).

Armed black Civil War veterans were defending ballot boxes in the county seat of rural Grant Parish after the 1872 election (one of the last with wide scale black voting in the former Confederacy until after passage of the Voting Rights Act almost a century later) which was angrily disputed by local whites.  Local whites (led by Cruikshank, et al) arrived in droves, an armed militia, with at least one cannon, and committed atrocities including the murder of prisoners who had surrendered.  

There was clearly no chance for a fair trial in the state court, so the families of the victims, and civil rights advocates,  sued in federal court, under the Ku Klux Klan Act, and things went no better for them there.  Cruikshank and the other killers walked, the Supreme Court found the federal charges against the local whites had been inartfully drafted.  The little remembered Cruikshank decision set an unshakeable precedent, was instrumental in instituting a century of “states’ rights”, giving local authorities the final say in how to deal with violence against its local troublemaking Negroes and those carpetbagging scoundrels from up north. Here’s the Smithsonian’s account of the Colfax Massacre. 

And racist monument makers get the last word, in 1951:

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2] “Make America Great Again” was one of Ronald Reagan’s several campaign slogans during his first successful presidential run.   A young Roger Stone, who has a life-sized image of Nixon’s head tattooed on his back, was part of Reagan’s campaign and profited handsomely afterwards as a pioneering lobbyist with direct access to the highest elected officials he’d help put into office.  Stone later became one of Trump’s closest advisers and is, you might recall, awaiting trial for a string of shady dealings on the president’s behalf.  Not much has been heard from the provocative loudmouth lately, now that I think of it.   Stone’s idol Nixon, incidentally, was the first to refer to an impeachment as a “partisan witch hunt.”

“Paul, Paul…” (note for the Book of Irv)

Had a vivid memory yesterday, probably dredged up by Mark’s older brother’s memory of how his little brother hid candy bars from his two older brothers and how quickly he ate his meals at restaurants, lest somebody else get a morsel off his plate.

My father was over six feet tall and carried up to forty or fifty pounds of excess weight most of the time I knew him.   His younger brother Paul was quite a bit smaller, and fairly trim.   My father, at least once, told my sister and me the story of taking as much of his little brother’s food as he could get.   He told the story with a chuckle.

I didn’t stop to think, a middle class kid when I heard the story, that my father and my uncle were probably frequently hungry growing up in “grinding poverty” (the phrase my father always used to describe it, the family’s desperation corroborated by his cousin Gene) during the Depression.   My father would finish his food, turn to his brother, who ate more slowly, and ask him for another bite.  

” ‘Paul, Paul…’ I’d say and hold out my hand to him and he’d very reluctantly break off a tiny crumb of food and hand it over.    He didn’t want to, you know, but he always gave me something.”

As I told this to Sekhnet last night I remembered something else, the walk back from Carvel with my younger sister.  

Our parents would give us some change to go buy ice cream at the Carvel two short blocks and one long one from our house.   Carvel had soft serve machines and we’d generally each get a cone, sometimes plain sometimes with sprinkles (my sister was partial to the multicolored ones) and sometimes dipped in molten chocolate that would instantly become a lovely, slightly soft, thin chocolate shell (the “Brown Bonnet”).  

We’d lap up the delicious ice cream as we walked that first long block.    As we turned the first corner the swirl of ice cream in mine would be flattened down to the cone, a few bites and I was finished.   My sister ate more slowly, turning the cone methodically to lick away the drips, savoring her ice cream.   I’d always ask her for a slurp of her cone.   When she resisted I mocked her as a “saver”.  She’d reluctantly hand over the cone, protesting the unfairness (and she had a point) and I’d take a slurp.

“Paul, Paul…”

 

 

Family is the most important thing

Although most mass murders happen within families,  as a ten second scan of the internet will show [1], fratricide, parricide and filicide are not the most common forms of murder, thankfully.    (Although 100% of all incest happens in families, by definition.)    In many families lifelong grudges stand in for murder.   My family, for example, has generally practiced this humane alternative to actual killing (those few outliers who survived the actual mass killings of 1943, that is).    Even within devastated, crazy, dysfunctional families, the common refrain is that there is nothing more important than family– except possibly keeping your insane fucking aunt as far from us as possible.

Sekhnet’s mother’s best friend for many years (they had a terrible falling out years later) was the sister of a woman married to a dynamic first generation Italian man named Uncle Tony.   Uncle Tony and his wife had no children of their own, but exerted a great influence on so far three generations of their nieces and nephews.   They hosted them every summer at their summer place near the beach, put them to work and instilled their values deep within these kids.   The youngest of these kids are now in their seventies, having passed the values on to their children and grandchildren.

The third weekend in August every year, for the last 65, is the Italian Picnic.   Family and friends would arrive on Long Island by the dozens, pitch tents, sleep in cars, in curtain-divided cubicles in the original cabin with Uncle Tony and his wife, in the “overflow”, a handmade structure in the back that housed an additional ten or so in various compartments.  Behind the overflow was the outdoor shower.   The sign over the toilet read “in these isles of sun and fun, we never flush for number one.”

Sekhnet attended the first Italian Picnic “in utero” as she likes to say.   She went that first time as a four month-old fetus (perhaps she was still an embryo, I’d have to look it up) and has missed only one or two in the following six and a half decades. I’ve been going every year since 2001, when I drove Sekhnet and her aged parents to the picnic when Sekhnet had a medical problem that prevented her from driving the 80 miles or so.    

I was welcomed warmly and instantly by this large, gregarious family.   It was beautiful to be in a gathering where everyone seemed to genuinely love, or at least like, each other.   The food was great, the controlled chaos of the festivities was cool, and there were several colorful characters that made these picnics a lot of fun.

Over the years I got to know a unique character named Louie, a truly larger than life nephew of Uncle Tony’s.   He was a jovial, powerfully built former cop with flowing white hair, impressive facial hair, an even more impressive belly and a great talent for storytelling.

Some years he’d drink everyone under the table (the table was in a thatched tiki bar across the dirt yard from the main house) while telling an endless series of detailed and often very funny stories.   Some years he didn’t drink at all, like the year he fasted, passing up the dozens of trays of delicious Italian delicacies, all that pasta, and seafood, and lasagna, and all the rest, including the table of homemade desserts.  He explained that he was doing this for his self-discipline and also as part of a purifying detox he’d been doing for a few days.   Early the next morning he broke his purifying fast with an enormous bacon sandwich he devoured standing over the outdoor breakfast griddle, cooking breakfast.  

One year early in my tenure, during a year when Louie was drinking, I first heard his stories,  They continued late into the night as one inebriated younger person after another staggered off to turn in.  He was in charge of the blender at the tiki bar and he induced me to drink perhaps ten delicious frozen drinks of some kind.   He drank at least that many himself, as one by one every other drinker mumbled good night, shuffled off, fell over.

I was the second to last man standing that night, kind of, I tottered off to sleep after slurring a goodnight to Louie. To my amazement, I saw (while up briefly to pee) that Louie was the first guy up in the morning, putting the coffee on, (in the big, dented aluminum drip urn), before anybody else was up, cheerfully at work out at the makeshift workstation near the tiki bar, breaking eggs, mixing pancake batter, firing up the grill to get breakfast started for everybody.

Over the years there were tragedies.  Louie’s younger brother, Frankie (they were two of four brothers), another beloved guy, a former NYC detective, had a terrible string of them a few years ago.   Frankie’s playful wife was diagnosed, too late, with the cancer that killed her a very short time later, right before the picnic one year. A few months later Louie came down with a sore throat he couldn’t shake.  The sore throat turned out to be esophageal cancer.   Louie’s funeral was on a brutally frigid day a month or two later.   Frankie underwent a heart procedure that had a very remote, less than one percent, chance of paralysis.   Frankie hit that jackpot too. Somehow, his faith sustains him.  He seems in most ways to be pretty close to how he always was, except that he’s in a wheelchair and attended by two caretakers at all times.

I’m thinking about this family today because we came back from that third weekend in August picnic last night.   When Uncle Tony’s widow died about fifteen years ago the picnic was in jeopardy.   It was unclear, as Sekhnet edited her beautiful movie chronicling the history of the picnic, if there’d be another one.  That was a big motivation to make the documentary, to capture this unique tradition.  In the end the property was purchased by a grand-nephew who rebuilt the place into a modern family compound.  

I first saw this guy as a young man in Sekhnet’s masterpiece. The young Anthony looks into her camera and says “it was just a weekend but it seemed to us like the whole summer, we couldn’t wait to go and we used to cry when we had to leave.”  In the end he and his wife bought the place and they continue to host the family tradition the third weekend every August.

Anthony runs the picnic much the way Uncle Tony used to do it when Anthony was a kid.  No elaborate planning of the menu is done, people bring whatever they bring, and it is always plenty, and delicious.  Lunch is at one, laid out on long tables.  People take a walk down to the nearby beach.    The traditional games are played as the assembled adults cheer and heckle: a line of kids trying to whistle with a mouth full of crackers, blow the largest bubble gum bubble, eat a round slice of watermelon by thrusting the face into the middle of it, three-legged sack races, tug of war with a gigantic rope.  Prizes go to everybody after each game.  

Gone is the candy tree of Sekhnet’s youth, a tree with candy on every branch where the kids found their prizes under the leaves and picked them right off the tree. Gone are the buzz cuts for the boys that Uncle Tony used to administer, but the traditions of the picnic are clearly prized and ongoing, as is the love and closeness of everyone there.   The children of Uncle Tony’s grandnieces and grandnephews are now becoming teenagers, young adults.    I knew all these kids as babies, then as toddlers.  If we live long enough, we’ll see their babies and toddlers, hard as that is to believe.  Sekhnet and I are among the older generation now.

Somebody took out a packet of photos yesterday after dinner.   They were passed around and cackled over.  Here is so and so (sitting across from me) at thirteen, forty years ago.  “Oh, my God, look at… is that so and so?!!”  Amid much hooting Sekhnet was examining a photo with a human shaped cut-out in the middle.  “I like the invisible man,” I said, pointing to the blue table cloth showing through the open space the shape of a person literally cut out of the picture.   The cut out person was not identified or commented on and I didn’t follow up.    

Over the years a few people have disappeared from the gatherings.  Not only because of death, but other things too.  This happens in families.   We don’t talk about that, beyond a mention and a shrug, sometimes a short summary of the sad tale.   Why talk about it?   Family, and being with those you love, is the most important thing.  Am I wrong?

 

[1]  Although familicides are relatively rare, they are the most common form of mass killing.    source    

 

Losing the Propaganda War

Back in the day, in ancient Egypt, when a new dynasty came into power they’d send goons into the tombs of the rulers of the past.   These goons would scrape the images of the dead off the tomb walls, making sure to remove the faces wherever they were depicted.   It was a way of messing them up good in the after-life — try living forever in glory with no face.   It was a way of effacing their image, and memory, from history.    The same technique has been used a million times since.  Who are you going to believe — me or this asshole who literally has no fucking face?

It’s now common to call this process something like controlling the narrative.  In propaganda terms, you take a complex issue and reduce it to a phrase that will make people angry.  “Moscow Mitch” pops to mind, a great recent example of this technique (and, by the way, Moscow Mitch is fuming about this vicious, if not completely unfair, nickname).   Mitch McConnell, the long serving lady-killer from Kentucky, has used his position as leader of the Senate to block votes on all legislation, and every appointment, he doesn’t like.  He simply refuses to allow a debate or vote, that’s how you guarantee your enemies lose every time.   Losers.

Included on this list, most recently, is his ungentlemanly, anti-democratic refusal to bring two House bills about election security to a vote on the floor of the Senate.   These bills are to ensure that our electronic elections are protected from the massive foreign manipulation we can expect in 2020, in light of what the Mueller Report documented as “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in 2016. [1]   Also in light of a recent government report that showed attempts to hack voting machines in all 50 states in 2016.  Moscow Mitch sees no problem with any of this, as long as his party, whose presidential candidate was openly favored by Moscow in 2016, and happily invited their help, stays in power.

So, instead of needing to say all that simply say:  Moscow Mitch.  The phrase stands in perfectly for a candidate apparently more loyal to Putin’s right to a favorable say in the election than any Democrat’s right to cast a secure ballot.   Hopefully the cool new nickname will help cost the obdurate, unprincipled, partisan obstructionist his job in the next election.

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This sort of thing is common in politics, of course.   “Lock her up!” was used to great effect by a demagogue and his cronies in a recent election.  It was simply a way of channelling hatred for Hillary Clinton and all she stood for.   “Build the Wall!” was as feel good a chant as “Block that Kick!” at a football game.   Makes people feel part of something virile and powerful, to fullthroatedly yell in unison like that, standing and rhythmically pumping their fists.  Winners.  

Odd to say, the same simplifying principle is routinely employed by most of us in our personal lives.  From time to time we judge something another person did as crossing a line, beyond the pale (whatever that cliche actually means — [2]) and based on that transgression we write the final unflattering chapter of our history with that person.   Everything was fine until this person I was friends with for thirty years refused to take “I said ‘no’ and I don’t have to say why” as a final answer, the infuriatingly overbearing fuck!

Bringing people to one side or the other in these wars is largely a public relations battle, fought on the miniature battlefield of interpersonal relations.   It is routinely fought in families — who is to blame for what, who is the black sheep, who brought honor or dishonor to our family name, who is on whose side against whom.   It is fought everywhere people are angry about anything, which is to say, everywhere.  I give you the following highly hypothetical illustration which resembles nothing in anyone’s personal life, I assure you.

[illustration REDACTED]

A focus on the truth of what actually happened is often seen as misguided in our Moscow Mitch world, or, to be more accurate: irrelevant.   A simple, easy to embrace belief is better, in the all-important public relations/marketing/branding arena, than a well-researched, compellingly written thousand pages nobody will ever read, particularly if you burn the fucking book and the godless witch who wrote it. 

Mueller [3] was a godless witch, by the way, just ask Moscow Mitch.

 

[1]    “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” Mueller wrote in the 448-page document, which lays out new details about a Kremlin-backed plot that compromised Democrats’ computer networks and targeted state and local election offices.

source     note that this article is from April 19, 2019!   

[2]  Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 3.47.27 PM.png

[3] Bobby Three Sticks