1. Religion can be a comforting fiction. It’s much easier going through life with an imaginary friend, especially one who is powerful enough to have created the whole world, who answers your prayers and provides a home with many mansions for you to live in with all your loved ones after you die. Religion can also be a toxic waste dump. It frequently supplies the motivation and the justification for cutting off people’s heads, invading one’s neighbor's turf, subjugating women to male control and replacing a healthy appreciation for sexual pleasure with shame and disgust.

    Fortunately, there are lots of people who don’t use religion to make believe or to justify an attack on people just too different from themselves for comfort, but to collect their ideas about moral behavior and the virtues of compassion, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and love. They associate it with lofty thought, uplifting music, great art and architecture, optimism about the future and a shared fate with one’s fellow human beings. Religion is not exclusively an excuse for uncritical thinking or domination. Religion is what you make it.

    Unfortunately, American religion tends toward the toxic variety. Shoddy religion is on full display in the Trump administration. Despite our official endorsement of the separation of church and state, the Republican Party has managed to sucker the authoritarian religionists of the nation – the Evangelicals, the traditionalist Roman Catholics, the Mormons and a few others (but mainly these groups) – into thinking they have a friend in Trump. Vote for our side, these groups are told, and I’ll rid the nation of abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex and other evils. Just follow us. This is your time up at bat.

    Those of us fed up with the daily dismantling of decency, fair play, truth and honesty in government, are told that we must not call Trump supporters stupid or uninformed or wrong-headed. We must try to see things through their eyes and find common ground.  I understand it’s not only practical, but both smart and high-minded to go easy on the criticism, that the best way to handle an enemy is to turn them into a friend, whenever possible. But there are times when one cannot give way. One does not suggest to a parent putting cigarettes out on on their child’s arm that they should spank the child instead; one gets the child out from the dysfunctional home into a safe space. One does not tell Jews that they have to be nice to neo-Nazis and “lead by example.” One joins forces with Jews against anti-semitism so they don’t have to fight this battle alone. One does not let white supremacists run school boards so they can bring in textbooks that teach kids black people in the Southern Confederacy were “mostly well cared for” and the Civil War was fought for the dignity of states’ rights. One makes sure the history of genocide of the American Indian and the slavery and segregation of the ancestors of modern-day African-Americans is recognized as a stain on American pride every bit as much as the holocaust is on Germany history.

    And one recognizes that in this country no religious group can be allowed to speak for the rest of us. And that a terrible thing took place when the Trump Administration moved the U.S. Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem. It rode roughshod over the sensibilities of the Palestinian people who have as much claim to Jerusalem as Israelis do and is to the Mideast Peace Process what strangling a child in the crib is to educating the next generation. On top of this, the insult to both Palestinians and peace-seeking Israelis is compounded by a knife in the back. The opening prayer of the dedication ceremony was assigned to the likes of Pastor Robert Jeffress and the closing ceremony to Pastor John Hagee, two of America's best known Christian zealots. Hagee made a name for himself declaring Hurricane Katrina to be God’s punishment for New Orleans’ sinful ways. Jeffress once suggested that the Holocaust was God’s plan to return the Jews to Israel.

    These are not momentary lapses in judgment, but clear indications these men are Christian supremacists who on many other occasions have preached to the masses that Jews, Mormons, Hindus and Muslims are going to hell. Hagee is known as America’s chief apologist for, and uncritical supporter of, Israel. Jeffress' and Hagee’s support is bible-based, they declare, because the Rapture and the Second Coming cannot take place without the conversion of the Jews and the damnation of those who fail to get on board. Israelis are only too happy to have them exercise their influence among American evangelicals. Most Israelis are secular and tend not to question support for their besieged country wherever they can find it, even if they know the support is based not on a dedication to Israel's right to exist but on a conviction that God will soon demolish the Jewish nation. They accepted help from apartheid South Africa; why not the likes of a wacko American evangelist?

    These are American voices clearly selected not for their special power to persuade the Good Lord to rain down his blessings on Israel and the new embassy, but for reminding Him and the rest of the world that Trump is His chosen president. 

    It’s one thing to tolerate religious differences, to allow anybody to claim God loves them and hates you. Free speech is free speech.

    But it’s quite another to go about the government’s business of establishing embassies with foreign nations while granting semi-official status to religious bigots.

    While all this adoration of the Liar-in-Chief was going on, by the way, while Jeffress was assuring the crowd that God is on Trump’s side, no mention was made of the fact that the Israelis had shot and killed 58 Palestinians, as of this writing, and injured another 2700 for protesting this very bad decision.

    The Palestinians don’t stand a chance. How could they possibly participate as equals in negotiating a fair and balanced peace with the Israelis when Americans such as John Hagee represent the United States? Hagee believes Americans must support Israel because it’s part of biblical prophecy, conflating the Nethanyahu government with the nation of Israel and giving no thought to whether today’s Israel is in fact the Israel of biblical prophecy. If there is a better example of the toxicity of religion and the need for keeping religion out of politics, I can’t imagine what it might be.

    I recognize that with Pruitt’s systematic dismantling of the EPA and the removal of oversight in all directions, having a couple of right-wing Christian zealots speak for America at the Jerusalem embassy is pretty small stuff.

    But not if you’re a Palestinian. Or an Israeli with any pride in your country.

    And if you’re an American, could you speak up, please?


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  2. Diane, with younger politician to her right,
    eight years her junior.
    If you’re of my generation, you will remember taking civics in junior high school. Civics didn’t seem like a real course. Geography and History were real. English was a lot of work. But in Civics you got to meet the police chief, shake hands with firemen, take time off from school, go to the Town Hall and sit in the mayor’s chair. In our one-movie theater, one bowling-alley town there wasn’t a whole lot to do, so getting to go to the Town Hall was a treat.

    I remember the discussions about how Congress worked, what the Electoral College was all about, and how much effort went into figuring out which laws it was up to the states to make, which to the federal government. And I remember how we were urged to read up on politicians running for office so that we could choose the one we liked best. And then stand back and say, “May the best man (sic) win.” Politicians were always men. I grew up in the 40s and 50s.

    Fast forward to life in America today. Civics courses are a thing of the past, and nobody thinks it makes sense to look at all the candidates and pick out the best one. You already know going in that a) you pick the lesser evil, and b) some of them are really sinister. And who in his or her right mind picks individuals anymore? You vote your party. 

    In my case, how could I possibly vote Republican? They are the folks that have allowed Donald Trump to speak for them, the folks that pushed through a tax cut for the super rich, that are pulling back regulations on banks, on oversight over our air and water, the folks who are allowing the corporations with big bucks to make even bigger bucks. Why on earth would I vote Republican?

    Then there is the fact that I live and vote in Northern California. Here we think of Republicans in the same category as sex traffickers and drug kingpins. Here, the fact that the Republicans are in power in both the Congress and the White House is viewed positively only by those who see it may get more people out to vote democratic in November.

    Now there is a new hitch in efforts to bring back a balanced two-party system, both California and nationally. On the democratic side ideological purists are down on our senior senator, Diane Feinstein because she too often crosses the line (they say) to vote with Republicans when she thinks it’s a way to get things done. She voted for the Iraq war, she opposed single-payer health insurance, and her smooching up to Chuck Grassley when he comes to Trump’s defense, is inexcusable. They're talking up Kevin de León. He’s younger, more energetic, and is putting his efforts into the causes I care most about – the environment, closing corporate loopholes, helping immigrants, especially the DACA kids, battling for Planned Parenthood and other women’s issues, gun control and much more. We Anglo progressives learned to write the accent on San José. We're fine with de León.

    But Diane still has broad appeal. I used to argue with my soul-mate Harriet Buchanan back in the day when Diane was mayor of San Francisco. Harriet loved having a woman as mayor. I thought Diane was in bed with big money and I wasn’t moved by the feminist argument. Today, I have become not quite but almost a fan of this soon-to-be 85-year-old old lady off in Washington fighting for gun control and trying to get full disclosure on America’s policy of backroom torture practices.  I just got the primary ballot for June 5 in the mail and I see there are thirty-two people running for Senate. In an ideal world this would mean a healthy competition. But this is America, where real representative democracy is a train that left the station some time ago, and the only two who count are Kevin de León and Diane. More significantly, if you follow the polls, you see that Diane is so far in the lead it’s almost a joke, between 24 and 29 points ahead of de León.

    So in November, the democrats' choice of “best man to win” will probably be Diane. And who are the Republicans putting up? Looks like they’re going for Patrick Little.

    Now if you've got the time, you should go to Snopes.com and type in the question:

    “Is a Neo-Nazi Running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in California?

    I'll save you the time.  Snopes says this is:


    How ‘bout them apples!?  The guy’s from Albany, which is the town that borders Berkeley on the North. The little shit lives only a few miles from me.

    Little, according to an article in this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle
    ...was backed by 46 percent of Republicans in the poll that SurveyUSA did for a number of California television stations, including KPIX in San Francisco.
    Feinstein should have no trouble getting re-elected. She’s ahead of Little 39% to 18%, with de León running at 8%. We’ll see. Nobody’s comfortable with polls anymore.

    But to have a serious candidate running for the Senate in California whose platform actually includes (again, quoting from this morning’s Chronicle):

     ...limiting representation of Jews in the government and making it U.S. policy that the Holocaust is a Jewish war atrocity propaganda hoax that never happened.

    I know it’s not 1953 any more and I’m not in a 7th grade Civics Class reading about how one should be a good sport and hope the “best man” will win, but Jesus, Mary, can you believe this?

    What’s the line from the McCarthy hearing that John Welch made famous, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

    Republicans, I know you sold your souls some time ago to keep the Cheeto-in-Chief in power.

    But a Holocaust denier?


    Photo credit: A Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images photo from an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency from last November 29th about Jewish American Senators protesting Israeli policy of destroying Palestinian villages.


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  3. What is it in us that makes some of us inclined to be conservative, others of us focused on the things that need to be fixed or changed? It’s a naïve question, of course. I know we are all subject to different experiences that form our opinions and that we are all conservative in some ways, progressive in others. We’re not born born one way or the other; it’s the whole of life’s experiences that goes into whether we incline toward the status quo or look forward to a new and better world, and debate the how and where.

    It’s a never-ending fascination to watch conservatives and progressives argue with each other over their values and their world views, a constant reminder that, much as we’d like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, we are so much a product of our accidental histories.

    I tuned in the other day to one of those many talking head programs I like to watch on German television. This one was Hart Aber Fair (Tough but Fair), and this particular program carried the title: Unter grauen Haaren der Muff von 50 Jahren – Streit ums Erbe der 68er, which I would translate something like “The musty smell of fifty years (now) with grey hair – debate over the legacy (of the protests) of ‘68. I take it that the reference is to the motto of the student movement of those days, “Unter den Talaren: Muff von 1000 Jahren” - "Under the university gowns, the musty smell of 1000 years," which in turn was a reference to Hitler’s 1000 Year Reich.

    Before I get into the discussion, first a little background. It’s now an open question how many in the German audience are still familiar with the mass student movements that were part of what was quaintly called the APO (Ausserparlamentarische Opposition), the “Extraparliamentary Opposition”. The leading movement, most would agree, was the one led by Rudi Dutschke of the SDS, the  Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund, the Socialist German Student Union. It was analogous to the American SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, active in the United States at the same time with different goals but similar values. In America the focus was voiced in the Port Huron Statement. It singled out the Arms Race and the Cold War, but also racial and economic inequity, advocating civil disobedience as the means for increasing participatory democracy. In Germany, students were united against the Grand Coalition of the day, the administration of Georg Kiesinger of the CDU and the SPD, not coincidentally the same coalition of socialists and conservatives running Germany today, fifty years later.

    In Germany one of the major criticisms of the movement was the failure of the ruling class of the day in their parents’ generation adequately to address the crimes of National Socialism.  In doing this, they tied themselves to Americans protesting the Vietnam War, to Che Guevara and others seeking a revolutionary change in the world status quo. Each saw itself not merely as progressive, but in fact as revolutionary. Each sought to overturn the status quo. Conservatives, they maintained, were trying to paper over fundamental national character flaws to keep the power structures in place.

    In America, the mentality of this group of young people was captured in a book by Charles Reich called The Greening of America. Reich posited that there were three distinct ideologies (the words “ideology” is for all practical purposes interchangeable with “mentality” and the third term, which Reich used, “consciousness.” Americans were either “frontiersmen” – cowboys, independent folk who hunted their own dinner and didn’t need no damn government to force them to pay taxes and take away their rights; or “systems men” (today we’d add “and women”) who believed you made a better world through education and the training of experts to run the world. A third group, the idealistic young folk, had come to realize that the answers lie within, that one doesn’t fix the world until one has first fixed him or herself.

    At the heart of the German movement was the foundation of a commune – Kommune 1 – by Fritz Teufel, Rainer Langhans and Dieter Kunzelmann, set up on principles put forth by philosophers such as Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Jean-Paul Sartre.

    And – back now to the German TV program - who’s that sitting on the panel on today’s Tough But Fair? – Rainer Langhans, fifty years older now, with wild grey hair flying out from his head in all directions. Langhans could be described as the hippie who never stopped being a hippie. Today he lives with five women, maintaining that he is modelling a way to break down the traditional couple-centered nuclear family, which, he still maintains, is the foundation for fascist authoritarianism. We don’t have time to explore how it is Langhans with his five female hangers-on is fighting the patriarchy, but trust me, he would have an answer.

    The admirable thing about Langhans is that, unlike his partner in the foundation of his commune, Fritz Teufel, he put his focus on making love and not war. Teufel ended up going to jail for eight years. Langhans went into writing books and making movies, and into putting his belief that “the personal is political” into practice by forming a family unit with what is known as “The Harem,” a collective which is still going strong today.

    On the surface, the conservatives may be seen to have won out. Langhans isn’t taken seriously by the majority of his countrymen and women, and the Grand Coalition they fought in the 60s is back stronger than ever. For a brief period after the 2016 election, it looked as if Merkel was going to be making a coalition with the Greens, i.e., the representatives of the old left now in the establishment, but that attempt fell through, and she had to go back to working with the Democratic Socialists.

    That seems to be the way with progressives. Their fire burns hot for a time, but it eventually burns out. Embers may remain, but much of the energy is diverted. And that raises the question that this panel took up: is the 60s mentality still relevant today? Or was it just a flash in the pan?

    Predictably, progressives will tell you the world has become a better place thanks to the energy of those student and other protesters of the 60s. All the major social changes, the Civil Rights laws and the battle for racial equality, the women’s movement, and ultimately the rights of LGBT people all owe their existence to the folks who took to the streets in the 60s for an expansion of democratic freedoms to more and more people.

    And conservatives will tell you it all would have happened without their efforts, that all they did was create disorder and slow down the evolution of slow but certain change.

    Alongside Langhans on the panel was a representative of Germany’s conservatives, Dorothee Bär, a member of the Christian Socialists, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats. It didn’t take long for Langhans and Bär to come to blows.

    What got Ms. Bär’s blood boiling was Langhans’ attack on the family (as she defined it). “You need to show more respect for those who work to pay your pension in your old age,” she told Langhans. What set the whole battle off was a quotation by another member of her conservative CSU party, Alexander Dobrindt. As he stated it, “The majority of people in this country live a middle class life, but they are dominated everywhere by the leftist elite among us. It’s time we had a conservative citizen’s revolution.” Trump’s base couldn’t have said it better.

    It’s sobering – not to say depressing – to watch this all play out, the same battle between conservatives and progressives that took place internationally in the 60s and today. The bigger picture is complex and is not adequately addressed by simple divisions into left and right, progressive and conservative, much less hippy and bourgeois. You can’t tell the story of the fight for equality in the 60s without recognizing that the women behind the men in the 60s student struggles were not included, and had to postpone the fight for women’s rights to another day. Gay rights were not even on the horizon, and even today, this same Alexander Dobrindt shows what he means to include and exclude in his conservative revolution: he is an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage in Germany. It’s less a fight between two fairly balanced sides and more a seething struggle over what to change and what to maintain.

    And at the same time, to point out that the same Grand Coalition (between Democratic Socialists and Christian Democrats/Christian Socialists) the students of the 60s were fighting is the same coalition in power today would be to overlook just how radical the progress has been. Germany today is a land of immigrants. Women are represented on all political levels, right up to the chancellor’s seat. Dorothee Bär would have to admit that if her conservativism had had its way, she’d be out of a job. Until October of last year she was Germany’s state secretary for transport and digital infrastructure. Since then she has jumped to food and agriculture. The switch among ministries, one assumes, suggests she’s being groomed for even higher positions in time.  Without the efforts of those she dismisses on the left, she’d more likely be home with her three kids today.

    Which brings me to my problem with conservatives generally. I’m talking about the fact that so many of them are brought kicking and screaming into the modern era. “You didn’t need a student movement to have a feminist revolution,” Bär says at one point. No, but how would it have come about without the same energy that drove that student revolution, is the question.

    At every historical juncture you can find “conservatives,” as they are defined by the circumstances of the day, defending the status quo. Change always comes, and they are forced to update their stance, now settling for less but still dragging their heels and throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery to slow things down. Conservatives once defended raiding gay bars and throwing the denizens in jail. When they could no longer do that, they argued that gays should be allowed to do what they want, so long as they didn’t “rub our noses in it.” When that became understood as too restrictive, they found it in their hearts to defend the right of gays to live and work where they wanted, but there should be laws preventing any depiction of a “gay lifestyle” or discussion of the gay liberation movement in schoolbooks. When that became socially acceptable, they argued that gays should be allowed to live together but not to form partnerships. When society came to accept those partnerships, conservatives came to defend them but held out against gay marriage. When forced to recognize that gay marriage had become socially acceptable elsewhere in the world and in some places in the U.S., they argued that it should be a states’ rights issue and there should be no federal support for same-sex marriage. Today same-sex marriage is the law of the land, and there are still conservatives trying to take back those rights.  One can understand why, to the majority of gay people in this country who vote overwhelmingly for democrats, gay republican is an oxymoron for people with no sense of history.

    *                                  *                                  *

    One of my earlier memories of the 60s in regard to Germany was the 1961 film with Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster and a host of other famous stars – Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich… – Judgment at Nuremberg.  Getting rid of Nazis. Putting them on trial. What one often failed to notice was that to many – and that includes many on the left today – these were show trials. What was really going on was that many Nazis were being incorporated into the new Germany under Adenauer. The excuse was that these were the people who understood how to make the wheels go round – they were too useful to be discarded. The fight between left and right was what you’d predict: conservatives argued for “letting bygones be bygones – put these people to work and say no more”; progressives argued they needed to pay for their crimes against humanity.

    And what the far left was doing – and this is Langhans point – was saying, “You’re all missing the point. What we need to root out is not just the bad guys among us; we need to root out the Nazi in the German DNA.”

    The parallel to the American context is obvious. The far right is arguing we need to “make America Great” again – bring back the good old days, defend those who are being forgotten by this new push to bring all the blacks, Hispanics, other non-waspy types now taking over into power positions. The establishment left put Hillary Clinton up as their candidate to keep up the good fight to bring about greater equity, greater distribution of wealth. And somewhere in the back of the room are voices arguing that it’s time for white America to face its deep-rooted racism, for men to face its deep-rooted patriarchal sexism, for America to face up to its history of slavery and genocide and stop pretending that all that is needed is for more people to vote democratic. In the news today is the opening of the new Lynching Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, recognizing and honoring the more than 4000 black men who were lynched for the flimsiest of reasons – and sometimes simply for nothing more than being black. And what are the conservatives saying, “Let bygones be bygones. No sense in stirring up old animosities.”

    We can cluck and say, “it was ever thus.” People wronged at some point in history want their wrongs put right. People who would have to concede guilt in wrongdoing insist we can’t fix the past. But what’s going on in Montgomery these days reveals the wrongheadedness – not to say hypocrisy – of the conservative cause. If it were in fact just about the past, “letting sleeping dogs lie” might be the best course of action. The problem is the mindset that existed in the past is still alive, and without focusing on the wrong, the rot in the system doesn’t get rooted out.

    Langhans wants to root out the nazi in all of us. He sees fascism in the two-person family unit and puts his own life on the line by broadcasting his distain for such a unit. This “progressive” fails to connect with the overwhelming majority of people today who see him as pissing in the wind.

    But is he? Is he just another example of a blind idealist who has failed to keep up with the times? You know the saying, “if you’re not a communist at 20, you haven’t got a heart; if you’re still a communist at 30, you haven’t got a brain.” Is this Langhans’ problem. What about the need for rooting out, for “deep cleaning”? While folks in Alabama protest the monument to the black men lynched by the thousands, in other parts of the state – including Montgomery itself, they are still holding on to monuments to the leaders of the Confederacy, the folks who fought to the death for the right to hold black men and women slaves. There is still a powerful lot of rooting out to do. And the fact that the neo-nazis are back in some strength in Germany suggests that Langhans is much more than a superannuated hippie.

    Personally, I cannot deny I find Langhans with his harem and his white Afro an unpersuasive figure. The man who speaks to me from those days is Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the German SDS. I think it's one of the tragedies of history that Rudi Dutschke was put upon by a right-winger and died some years later as a result of that attack, having spent much of that time regaining his facilities and learning to talk again. Dutschke's goals, to rid the world of war and hunger, are not trivial goals. And I love the fact that his desire for world revolution was grounded in his Christianity. I wish he were around today. His youngest son, Marek, born after his death, is active in the Green Party. His American-born wife put out a documentary recently which I recommend if your German is up to it. For me the question of whether the legacy of the 60s lives on is an idle question. Most assuredly it lives on.

    But that fact will probably never stop being contested. Nothing came of the 60s movement, says Dorothee Bär. Not feminism. Nothing. Her views are echoed by the other conservatives on the panel. A big lot of noise by the likes of such as Rainer Langhans, but then Germany came to its senses. 60s radical Joschka Fischer, once known for having joined the violent faction of the 60s and 70s and for having clubbed a policemen, later joined the establishment and even became Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor as well as one of the founders of the Green Party. A sell-out, as far as Langhans is concerned, proof of the ineffectiveness of the 60s radicals, as far as Bär and other conservatives are concerned, proof that the utopian "revolutions" of the 60s were never more than a flash in the pan.

    What makes conservatives? I asked at the outset. What makes people want to hold on to the illusions of any given age? Is it the folly of overzealous progressives like Langhans, who would rid the world of loving family units with a sweep of his hand? Is it the blindness of unenlightened democrats who got behind Hillary Clinton and gave the conservatives a reason for throwing their weight behind a pied piper that is to blame?

    I have the benefit of the internet. I can look back on these events of the 60s and fill in so many blanks. Learn so much about the what I missed as a figure living that history, all the events playing  out all round me in Germany and in the United States. I can wallow at will in my memories of the 60s and fight off the urge to cry like a baby. If I could go back in time with the mindset I hold today I'd be far more engaged, I'm sure. No doubt I'd be no more effective the second time around than I was as somebody on the periphery the first time. I'd be just another voice urging people to avoid deceit and violence, just another body in the crowd of demonstrators "marching through the institutions" as Dutschke phrased it - or trying to, so what would be the point of time travel? Anything I might have done then I can still do now.

    I was present in the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I'd shout louder and longer if I could go back and do it again. I'd join with progressives earlier on to fight for gay liberation, but I'd also join the conservatives among the gays who would hold out for the right to marry, despite the fact that the "progressives" of an earlier time considered marriage a heterosexual institution that only the unenlightened would aspire to. I'd try to avoid the dualisms of right-wing and left-wing, conservative or progressive, but would embrace, as I do now, the dualism of open and closed, and choose open.  Open to change, open to possibility, open to a redefinition of truth as new information comes in.

    There’s a German saying from the 60s that is being remembered these days, “Wer zweimal mit derselben pennt, gehört zum Establishment.” – “Sleep with the same person twice and you’re a member of the establishment.” Has more of a punch in German, where it rhymes.

    Hyperbole, to be sure. Not a piece of history that I feel the need to claim.

    But that doesn’t take away from the good advice to

    “Make Love, Not War.”

    photo credit - the iconic Thomas Hesterberg photo of the German protests of the late 60s - folks lined up against the wall naked - shouldn't require explanation, but for details, check out the source linked here.


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  4. -->
    Jenny Erpenbeck

    flâneur is somebody who strolls through life with no particular drive, no particular goal other than amusement. A boulevardier, a “gentleman of leisure” who lives off the wealth of the land and works hard at remaining detached. That image is contested by others who maintain a flâneur is a keen observer of the lives of those who cross his path, with talents not unlike those of a careful research scientist, but the term can also be used to characterize those we sometimes describe as “all hat and no cattle,” those who sit around and discuss a problem to death and never lift a finger to find a solution.

    “Moral flaneur” is New Yorker staff writer James Wood’s way of describing himself when, in Italy on vacation, he becomes aware of the large number of Africans trying to cross the border into France and Germany. He remembers Edward VIII’s response when learning about massive unemployment in his country: “Something must be done.” Wood raises this issue in a review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s 2015 novel, Go, Went, Gone, which I’ll get to in a minute.

    I include myself among the thousands of Americans looking for a way to join the “Resistance” to the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle health care, environmental protections, voting rights, all the while working with Congress to assure the rich get richer. Mostly I just sit and cluck at the state of things, the failure of democracy, the lack of will on the part of my countrymen to “do something.” Color me a moral flaneur.

    At the heart of the political analogue in Europe, the populism and nationalism in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere is the question of what to do with the Africans and Middle Easterners pouring into Europe in search of relief from war and social chaos. In Germany, resistance to immigration has engendered a new right-wing party, the “Alternative for Germany” Party, whose members now comprise 12.6 percent of the seats in the Bundestag.

    Angela Merkel, normally a remarkably efficient stay calm, let's wait-and-see kind of boss lady, was nearly toppled from her position as world leader because of her policy of allowing in a million refugees and immigrants, hoping in vain that her fellow Europeans would take some of the responsibility for that task off her shoulders. Instead they circled the wagons. Merkel saw no way out but to follow suit eventually and narrow the flow of migrants, despite earlier insistence that Europe had not only a moral duty but a legal one as well to take in refugees fleeing for their lives.

    The political “solution” was to make a sharp distinction between “asylum seeker (refugee)” and “immigrant applicant” – to make space for the former – Syrians, mainly – and turn back illegal immigrants simply seeking relief from economic hardship in their homelands. Here the Germans were able to hide behind the bureaucratic solution – the Dublin Regulation (also known as “Dublin III” and before that “Dublin II”) – which determined that responsibility for these migrants would fall to the first country they landed in. The problem is that put an excessive and unfair burden on Italy and Greece. Things went from bad to worse to cruelly absurd when the numbers meant that opportunities for work in Italy and Greece are now minimal while ironically, Germany, France, Holland and other economically better off destination countries actually need workers. Germany has the same problem with illegals as the United States and blames them for the fact that they are being drawn in by what in legal terms might be called an “attractive nuisance,” the tort law that states that a landowner may be held liable for injuries to children trespassing on the land if the injury is caused by an object on the land that is likely to attract children. Workers wanted, in this case.

    Twisting the knife in the back of migrants who manage to make it all the way to Germany is the law preventing them from working while they wait to be processed, knowing all the while, that most will be deported. From the German perspective, why should they give them jobs when they are not going to give them permanent resident permits. Probably. It's the uncertainty that creates the injustice.

    Jenny Erpenbeck, one of Germany’s most noted authors, took up this subject in her 2015 book, Gehen, Ging, Gegangen, (“Going, Went, Gone”). It is a fictionalized tale of a retired philology professor (here we’d say “language and literature”), who has lived the past five years alone since his wife died, and comes up with a project learning more about the refugees he sees protesting around Berlin, and how they came to be there in the first place.

    He uses his status as professor emeritus to fake a research project when he discovers that a former nursing home near his house has been converted into a dormitory for migrants in limbo. The migrants, he finds, are surprisingly forthcoming with their stories, and as the novel progresses, Richard, his name is, gets increasingly involved in their lives. Their lives are lived with little hope of being admitted as legal immigrants. These are not Syrian refugees; they are men whom the state believes need to be deported precisely to make room for more “worthy” immigrants. What Erpenbeck eloquently conveys is that to know these men is to understand how cruel one is in suggesting they are any less worthy. And this makes the novel, like it or not, politically sensitive. Erpenbeck was suggested for the German Book Prize in 2015 but was passed by, allegedly because the prize givers did not want to be caught taking a political stand.

    This brings us to the question of perspective. If you are a modern-day German politician, no matter of what stripe, you don’t want to be caught dead arguing for “open borders.” Not only would that be political suicide; it doesn’t work on a common sense level, either. One simply cannot move millions of people from the African continent into the cities and country towns of Europe. The only good long-term solution is to improve the conditions in the countries of origin so there will be no need for its citizens to flee – and you can see how much easier that is said than done. If you are a person with a heart, and you hear that a young man has made his way across North Africa to Libya, climbed in a boat with his mother and father and pushed out to sea only to have the boat capsize and his mother and father drown before his eyes, but by some superhuman stroke of luck has made it to Berlin, are you really going to say, “It’s not my fault that you have no home to go back to; you can’t stay here. We need to make room for the Syrians.”?

    I started the book in German and read about a quarter of the way through, without a whole lot of enthusiasm, on the recommendation of a good friend who urged me to take it on. I had trouble with the style, with what I took to be the cluelessness of the protagonist as a character. Rather than give up on it, I got the book in the English translation and picked up from there. That enabled me to read at a faster speed and whether it was that, or the fact that the book finally picks up at about that point, I can’t be sure, but it was smooth sailing from then on.

    I think the sluggishness at the beginning is due to Jenny Erpenbeck’s effort to keep the book from turning into a romantic story, a political pitch for bleeding hearts. She manages, in the end, to get you to climb into Richard, the professor’s shoes, and grow as he grows in understanding. And to begin to feel how he feels as he gradually develops the skill to experience what his research subjects are experiencing. Erpenbeck does this with her sparse writing style. There is no dialogue; there is only the story being related from a variety of perspectives in a variety of voices simultaneously. Pulling this off is no mean feat. Overlapping stories, overlapping perspectives, layers upon layers of meaning. Richard is himself a “displaced person,” as is the author, an outsider to modern Germany as an Easterner whose East German pension is less than his Western colleagues’ pensions, who went to sleep in a socialist cradle-to-grave welfare state and woke up in another country where he suddenly has to put aside money to pay his taxes and his rent has quadrupled.

    Since the book came out in 2015 it has had more than enough time to elicit reviews worth noting.  One that speaks for me is this one from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:

    Obwohl diese Geschichten sehr bewegend sind, appelliert „Gehen, ging, gegangen“ nicht vordergründig an das Mitleid des Lesers. Vielmehr bringt dieser Roman sehr reflektiert und durchaus unterhaltsam die Literatur als Medium des Verstehens zur Geltung, indem sich das Fremde und das Eigene als zwei Seiten eines Zusammenhangs erweisen. Oder wie der Anwalt die alten Römer zu zitieren pflegt: „Wenn das Haus deines Nachbarn brennt, geht es auch dich an.“

    Although these tales are very moving, Gehen, Ging, Gegangen calls not so much for the reader’s sympathy. Rather, this novel, in a very thoughtful and thoroughly entertaining way, reveals the power of literature to make one see what is strange and what is familiar as two parts of a single whole. Or as the lawyer who likes to cite the ancient Romans puts it, “When your neighbor’s house is on fire, it concerns you too.”

    The review in Der Spiegel I take strong exception to. It’s common to label as “orientalism” anything Europeans have to say about the exotic other from a far-off land, very often with justification. But what is one to make of this?:

    Das neue Buch der vielfach ausgezeichneten Erfolgsschriftstellerin ("Heimsuchung") zeigt, wie schlecht es um die politische Literatur in Deutschland bestellt ist. Statt die Geschichten der Geflüchteten in den Vordergrund zu stellen, wird "Gehen, ging, gegangen" von einem Wohlstandsbürger dominiert, der sich weltoffen und aufgeklärt fühlt und die eigene, von Ressentiments durchsetzte Ignoranz nicht bemerkt. Erpenbecks Roman ist ein klassischer Pressetitel, auf Feuilletons und Preisjurys zugeschrieben; anders gesagt: auf Leser zugeschrieben, die sich in Richard wiederfinden werden.

    The new book by the much lauded and successful writer (Heimsuchung) shows us what bad shape political literature is in in Germany. Instead of putting the stories of the refugees in the foreground, Go, Went, Gone is dominated by a citizen secure in his middle class status who sees himself as sophisticated and enlightened and overlooks his own resentment-laden ignorance. Erpenbeck’s novel is made for the media, for book reviews and those who grant book prizes. In other words, it’s written for readers who will put themselves into Richard’s shoes.

    That’s not only nasty, it’s wrong-headed. I remember when Cry, Freedom came out in 1987 and I first became familiar with the cinematic trope “White Savior,” where what is touted as a story about black Africans (or American Indians or any oppressed minority) turns out to be about some white man who comes to their rescue. That may be an appropriate criticism for Cry, Freedom, but there is a logical fallacy in the suggestion that one cannot write about a white man’s personal growth when dealing with cruelty and injustice. I keep remembering that wonderful response by Alice Walker to criticism for not portraying black men as heros in The Color Purple: “You tell your story and I’ll tell mine.” In this case, though, the charge that the stories of the refugees was not placed in the foreground doesn’t hold water. To my knowledge, a more sympathetic portrayal of the plight of economic refugees in Germany has not been told. The fact that they get to speak in their own voices is the very essence of what makes this book a quality read.

    James Wood, whom I mentioned in the opening paragraph above, came back to the novel a second time, this time to call it "(o)ne of the best novels published this year [2017] (and) also one of the most scandalously neglected, at least in this country." He's talking Nobel Prize. And he confirms my view that Going, Went, Gone, "is an effort of inquiry, not a political statement or a liberal appropriation."

    Elsewhere, in lectures and other writings, Erpenbeck speaks of wondering about how much of her socialist paradise dreams she had as a youth she should hang onto in this brave new world in which she finds herself. How, similarly, does a refugee handle the yearning for home combined with the terror of memory and the need to learn the language and the ways of a new home, all the while uncertain whether this home will take them in?

    Having taken up one of Germany's central social problems and written a politically oriented novel, Erpenbeck has to contend with the question of whether she has suggested a solution. Two quick answers come to mind. One, it’s not the job of a writer to find political solutions, even when writing on political topics. A writer has the same job as any other artist, to entertain and to provoke thought. But OK, no. She only kicks the can further down the road.

    And that, in turn, inspires two more quick responses. Maybe that’s the tragedy: there is no solution (other than the long-term solution I mentioned above of getting the countries of origin on their feet again). And maybe she has inspired her readers to look at their fellow beings with greater sympathy. Cash, food, a smile, a place to stay for a time. At the very minimum a recognition of the truth that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

    Which I’ve always considered the essence of the bullshit that is what many in our culture call religion. That it allows one to live with the illusion that God answers your prayers but not everybody else’s.

    That’s why I urge us all to get involved in some form of democratic socialism, especially now that the Evangelicals of America have decided Christianity means America first and the rest of you can go drown in the Mediterranean Gulf of Mexico. And ditto for the leading German parties, the Christian (sic) Democratic Party and the Christian (sic) Social Union.

    photo credit: A search for the origin of Jenny E's picture leads to a home improvement ad. Can't find another link. Sorry about that. Don't mean to break any copyright laws.


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  5. I was struck by a delightful little coincidence this morning. In my last blog entry I started off with the memory of having gone to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Radio City Music Hall in New York at the age of fourteen. And ended after a string of youthful memories with the fact that I shared a birthplace with the radical abolitionist, John Brown, who raided Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in 1859, for which act he was soon captured and hanged. The coincidence is the fact that in 1929 the Pulitzer Prize went to the writer Stephen Vincent Benét for his poem John Brown’s Body, the very same writer whose story, “The Sobbin’ Women” about the myth of the Roman rape of the Sabine women, became the basis for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

    I dug up this bit of trivia because I was struck with the charge by at least one modern-day feminist (supported by many of her commenters) to the fact that this Broadway musical purports to be about song and dance and love and marriage but is in fact about rape and the Stockholm syndrome. One of the commenters even writes: "I’ve never seen “Seven Brides…” and don’t plan to!"

    The six younger brothers, if you remember the plot, go into town, grab up the single girls, and steal off back to their mountain cabin with prospective brides.  A politically correct sensibility comes into play here. Millie, the wife of the oldest brother Adam, had been duped into marrying her backwoodsman husband before learning he was looking for someone to cook and clean for him and his six brothers.  She comes around to accepting her lot for herself, but when the boys follow their brother's example and show up with six “brides,” Millie insists the girls be well cared for until they can be returned to their families in the springtime, when the road, which has been cut off by an avalanche, can be cleared. Stockholm syndrome – because the girls have time over the isolation in the winter months to fall in love with their captors.

    The past, they say, is a distant land, with different values, attitudes and belief systems, and nothing illustrates this better than the contrast between the view in 1954 of a “jolly good romp” and the view in 2018 of a “crime scene” to describe the very same phenomenon.

    Everybody familiar with theater is familiar with the need for a “willing suspension of disbelief.” Plays, even the good ones, are easily subjected to exaggeration, to coincidence, to unlikely plot twists and too readily resolved dilemmas. Corners have to be cut to accommodate the need to squeeze what would take months or years in real time into a two or three hour period to be represented on stage. In opera, characters fall in love instantly, love turns to hatred and back in seconds, and people are suddenly willing to die for somebody they only met fifteen minutes ago. Emotions are not so much real as expressed by proxy. They become real when sung about, rather than experienced through interaction.

    I have mentioned many times before what I call the moment my life went from black-and-white into technicolor, when I was twenty and for the first time I got to experience on a daily basis what life can be in a world-class city. I saw my first opera in Munich, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges.  A perfect combination of the sublime and the ridiculous. Sublime because there was something magical about sitting in a theatre with a whole bunch of strangers and being transported by an orchestra of talented people playing for singers and dancers, also capable of lifting you out of your ordinary circumstances to a place where imagination runs free.  Once you get used to the idea of princesses coming out of oranges and dying of thirst, the rest is a piece of cake. [Here, by the way, is a video of San Francisco’s Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the march from The Love for Three Oranges.]

    I love all kinds of musical performance, piano, violin, cello concerts, chamber music, symphony orchestra performances, operettas and operas. And the American answer to the operetta, the Broadway musical. I remember my reaction the first time I heard somebody tell me he hated opera. “The voices sound too unnatural, too strained,” he told me. “Not strained,” I answered back. “Trained!” Cultivated. Disciplined. How could he possibly not see the work that goes into training an operatic voice? OK, so I'm not so crazy about hard rock and I find a lot of rap too aggressive.

    Every musical genre has its followers as well as those who remain unmoved. Some people don’t like jazz, others turn their noses up at baroque. Even more do so at countertenor voices. And many people find the American musical too hokey for words. I love blue grass, country, gospel, blues. Love Dolly Parton and honky tonk. Love Japanese enka.  Love folk guitar.  The Mighty Wurlitzer. And the music of the oud and the zither and the sitar.  Hell, I even love bagpipes. So I really have trouble understanding how it is that people take exception to American musicals. But obviously, the thought of people suddenly bursting into song when you least expect it is too big a stretch for some people.

    OK, so it's absurd for Freddy Eynsford-Hill to ring Liza Doolittle's doorbell in My Fair Lady and then launch into a first tenor paean to the street on which she lives. For me that absurdity is just part of the nature of theater. If you want real life, you can wash, dry and fold your laundry, follow the latest shenanigans of a crooked politician, watch cars go by on a freeway. Me, I’ll take every moment I can snatch away from real life to watch people do things that I myself can’t do, particularly things that require talent way beyond the ordinary. Dmitri Hvorostovsky when he sings, Gene Kelly when he dances. Yo Yo Ma and his cello.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek-to-cheek. The way over-the-top choreography of the finale of Chorus Line, and the many hyper-athletic performances like the barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

    Seven Brides is not usually listed among the top musicals. It doesn’t pop into your head as readily as Oklahoma, or South Pacific, or The King and I. West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s a long long list. Cabaret. Rent. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Guys and Dolls. Showboat. Man of La Mancha. Camelot. And they extend right up to today with such winners as Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera. And most recently The Book of Mormon and Hamilton.

    But it still holds its own for a musical from sixty-four years back in time. It was the highpoint in the careers of several of the principals, but others had talent that obviously couldn’t be contained. Marc Platt, who played Brother Daniel, went on to dance for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and to become director of the ballet company at Radio City Music Hall, among his many other accomplishments.  Jacques d’Amboise, who played Brother Ephraim, was principal dancer for the New York City Ballet with dances created for him by George Balanchine and is the winner of several prestigious awards, the Kennedy Center Honors Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, National Medal of the Arts, among them. Russ Tamblyn went on to an unforgettable performance as gang leader of the Jets in West Side Story. And Howard Keel and Jane Powell are in their own way legendary.

    The musical nearly died out in the late fifties, and Seven Brides is associated in many people’s minds with its decline. I’ve been trying to figure out why and am not completely satisfied with the standard explanations,  the rise of television, the vertical nature of the film industry, etc.  But I don’t really care. I loved The Book of Mormon and will get to Hamilton one day when I win the lottery. And their success suggests the day of the musical is not done.

    And thanks to all those people out there transferring film to digital and getting things out on YouTube, and others fixing up old stuff, as well as the staying power of theater, including movie theaters showing classics, the rumors of the death of the musical are clearly premature. As for that other issue, the problem of reading and watching material from that foreign land that is the past, with its racism, sexism, homophobia and hokey humor, I think we should recognize that one can still appreciate a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace without worrying about the medieval religious self-loathing behind such expressions as “a wretch like me.” 

    And just as we shouldn’t cry “Nazi” every time a right winger calls for something that exposes a fascist mentality, and trivialize the horror of Auschwitz by overusing the word holocaust, we shouldn’t trivialize the real victims of Stockholm Syndrome by self-righteously dismissing a tale of the Old West in which some backwoods yokel talks about goin’ into town an’ gettin’ me a good woman!

    You can hate Japan for their defense of hunting whales, hate the U.S. for their support of Donald Trump. And you can hate the past for their misogyny and racism. And still marvel at Japan’s exquisite knowledge of beauty, the U.S.’s capacity for embracing diversity, and the past’s rich storehouse of people who could sing and dance.


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  6. From Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
    Everybody’s down on Face Book these days. With good reason, I think. They’ve got some heavy splainin’ to do. But while they work at fixing things so we can get out from under ethically challenged organizations such as Cambridge Analytica, I hope people don’t go to the other extreme and overlook the pleasure Face Book has brought into our lives by providing a means to reconnect with people from the past. To say nothing of a place to store those Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance scenes, political satire and the latest of 799 photos of my dogs.

    Even as the woeful state of my short-term memory continues to remind me that things will never be the same, and as the trees continue to fall in what was once a rich forest of friends and familiars, I try to follow what I think is good advice – to live in the present. Easier said than done, once you reach an age when there is far more of your life behind you than ahead. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve got rich memories, and why, I ask myself, should I not enjoy going back in time and lining them up like toy soldiers and playing with them for a while, now and again.

    I’ve largely tuned out on the news that my country now wants to put a man in charge of National Security who has advocated a preemptive strike on North Korea and that that news is now in second place to the news that our president is wrapped up in a scandal with a porn star he was diddling at the time his wife was giving birth to their latest offspring.  I’m reading more. Listening to music more. And also using the internet to reconstruct missing pieces of my past. Here’s a sample:

    A couple days ago, an old high school friend posted on Face Book a link to the YouTube video of the Barn Raising dance, that wonderful dancing scene from the 1954 film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. I just sat here and kvelled over with delight, remembering the time I went with my mother to Radio City Music Hall – I think it was in 1954 when the movie first came out – and left the following comment:

    It was 1954. My mother took me to New York City and got us tickets to Radio City Music Hall. I was 14 years old. The movie was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It's a memory that keeps on giving. Have seen this dance a million times. Even at 14 I knew I was watching a spectacular performance of talent and not everyday stuff. What I took away from it, though, was what a magnificent place New York City was!

    My sister responded:

    I never realized you got to do this-what a great experience!

    And that set me to thinking there was something wrong with this picture.

    All throughout my time growing up, my parents would pack us into the car for the long drive to Nova Scotia every summer. My father only got two weeks’ vacation and his emotional home was the place where his mother had grown up, at the end of an 8-mile dirt road in rural Guysborough County in the eastern part of the province. For me, and in time my sister, this place was paradise. Cousin Betty was there, and she showed us how to milk cows and turn the cream separator. We played with lambs and goats and jumped, to the great consternation of my great aunt Carrie, off the barn beams into the hay. To my father, who lived for hunting and fishing, it was a chance to do those things with his beloved uncles, Cliff and Clarence and his favorite uncle, Harold. To my mother, who spent all her time with the women folk snapping beans and peeling potatoes, it was a horse of a different color. She would have loved to spend that time in New York City, which at the time was a three-hour trip (today it's only two) by train or car away from our hometown, Nowhere, U.S.A., where we lived most of the year. Spending it in Nowhere, Nova Scotia instead was her lot as a dutiful wife. She had no say. She signed my report cards “Mrs. John S. McCornick,” and when I asked her once why she didn’t sign her own name instead of Mrs. My Father, she said, “That’s just the way it is.”

    So how could I possibly have seen Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the age of 14 in New York City. Was it a dream? Try as I may, I couldn’t dislodge the memory of that trip to Radio City. I remember the chorus line, and I remember the movie. No doubt whatsoever it’s a real memory.

    So where was my little sister, age 9 at the time? Was she there too? Did we all four go?  Did we stay in a hotel?  I have a very vague memory of a trip to New York with the whole family, where we stayed with friends of my parents on Staten Island – or maybe it was Long Island someplace. Could it have been this visit?

    Doris Day at Horn and Hardart's
    The other memory that anchors this trip to reality was the memory of Horn and Hardart’s, that wonderful cafeteria where you could put a quarter in a slot and take out a piece of pie or a hot dog or a whole range of other things you could see through the window. A marvel of technology for a 14-year old in 1954.

    The wheels kept spinning. Could we have gone by train? Until 1958, when I went off to college, there was a branch of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad that went all the way up to Winsted. We might actually have taken the train in.

    My grandmother lived across from the depot in Torrington in 1945, the next town down the line, the town where I was born. In the early days before trains went out of style, she’d take the train up and we’d pick her up at the Winsted Depot and traveling back with her was a grand adventure for a small child. I am able to recall the year 1945 because I was with her when the factory whistles started blowing on May 8, when the war came to an end.

    Torrington train depot in 1907 and as I remember it in the 1940s.
    It was demolished, as a safety hazard, on January 4, 2011, after
    113 years despite efforts to have it declared a historical site.
    “Come on,” she said to me, grabbing my hand and pulling me down the stairs. “We’ve got to find your father.” He worked for what was then the American Brass Company, and that was directly across Water Street. We had no luck. The crowd was too large and it was pouring out of the gates. We kept looking for him all the way down to Main Street where people were dancing in the street, I remember. Pretty heady for a five-year old. Not even. VE Day was a week before my fifth birthday. My sister at the time was just nineteen days old. And my memory of that time is clear as a bell.

    The depot was a few hundred feet to the east of my grandmother's apartment building. A few hundred feet to the south, across Water St., was  the American Brass Mill, where my father worked before he was transferred to Waterbury and the company was absorbed by Anaconda Copper Works in 1960. 

    The place where the Torrington train depot used to stand
    as it looks today.
    Here’s what that place looks like today. You can see that a single track is still there, probably because they continued to use the line for freight for some years and then found it not worth the trouble to rip out anymore.

    The depot was replaced by the building you see there with the white façade and at first I suspected that the building Großmutter lived in in the 1940s wasn't there, either. It’s far more likely it was torn down years ago and replaced by the building you see on the left that contains Alfredo’s Deli.

    But then, thanks to Google maps, which allows me to swivel a photo around, I see that there is an old building still in existence behind Alfredo's that must surely have been there in my youth. That must be the building where my grandmother lived on the second floor.

    I still have a memory of being taught to draw two points, a comma and a hyphen (Punkt, Punkt, Komma, Strich) and then draw a circle around it and call it the face of the moon (Fertig ist das Mondgesicht) in those days with
    Großmutter. Back when I got to play the role of the little prince, first born of my generation on both sides of the family (except for cousin Pauli, who died at 7), but especially adored by a grandmother who had lost her first husband in the First World War and been forced to hand her daughter, my mother, over to her sister to raise so she wouldn't go hungry in a country that had just lost a war. Großmutter then worked as a stewardess on the Hamburg-Amerika Line, jumped ship in New York and found her way to Torrington and her daughter she had not seen in four years. She then stayed until she was discovered to be a German alien living in the U.S. without papers, was arrested and brought to Washington to stand trial as a spy - a story for another day. Now, she at least had her daughter and her dignity back (my father managed to convince the judge his mother-in-law was no Mata Hari) and her daughter's little boy and girl to devote herself to.

    I'm conscious, suddenly, that I'm back now in time not to my college years or my early adult years in San Francisco, but all the way back to the age of five, and the memories are flooding in strong and clear.  And thanks to the internet, I have located the building and can see the windows of the apartment I was in when I learned that World War II had come to an end - at least in Europe.

    I can scroll forward, ahead to my first days of school, to the time I visited my cousin Pauli, who was dying in the hospital of leukemia, to the time I was myself in the hospital having my tonsils out and realizing afterwards that my mother had lied to me, that I would still get a sore throat sometimes even though the tonsils were gone. Or back to the time I was playing slap-jack with my Aunt Doris as my mother left the house with my father to give birth to my sister.

    Back to the time when all my aunts and uncles were alive, all my three sets of grandparents - my mother's sister and husband who adopted her took on the title and role of grandmother and grandfather as well as Großvater, Großmutter's second husband, who died at some point around 1947 or 8, leaving me with a connection to his brother Otto and his Lebensgefährtin (life partner) in Berlin, my Tante Frieda, who came to be a major figure in my life in later years. She would become a reason for me to go back to Berlin some 20 times over the years until she died at the age of 94, outliving all other members of her family and all her friends.

    All these people are gone now. All loom large in my memory and anchor me to specific locations that I recognize today as my roots. I've had an interesting exchange with two close friends this week, also, about growing up as an outsider because of being gay. When I want to, I can shift my various identities at will. I was gay in a straight world, a child of immigrants who could get an invitation to the Country Club because I had a WASPish name, a bookish kid in an anti-intellectual high school social environment, a poor kid at an upper middle class college filled with preppies and skiers, where I didn't have the money to join a fraternity or run with the skiing set, cursed, I believed for many years, to be an "other" - a perennial outsider.

    But my memories force me to see the other side of that coin. How rooted I am, how comfortable I am admitting that within this California persona I have fitted into, hand-in-glove, for many many decades now, there are also New England roots which, despite very little watering over the years, are still strong.  I am both German-American and the child of Scottish and Irish immigrants who were headed for Ontario but when shipwrecked off the Eastern shore of Nova Scotia, decided to stay.  Protestant Nova Scotia which once warred with their neighbors, the Scots Catholic heirs to Mary Queen of Scots. And when the Gaelic-speaking priests from St. Francis Xavier University came to visit me daily that month I was in the hospital in Antigonish at age 16, because my family, now back in "Connect - tikut", as they pronounced it, weren't able to get there, I was deeply grateful to them. I had little to do but listen to bagpipe music on the radio and dream of going to college at St. FX.

    If you dig in the right places, you will discover that Torrington is the home of the largest Elks Lodge in New England. I love absurdist trivia like that. And did you know that Torrington, Connecticut is one of 536 micropolitan areas in the United States, a designation that signifies a place with a growing population far removed (by as much as 100 miles) from larger metropolitan areas? And that Torrington was named the number one micropolitan place in the country to live in by Bizjournals in 2008? All this information is easily accessed if you only type in Torrington, CT on the Wikipedia website. The wonders of the modern world where information now rules supreme and you can actually drown in it, if you are not selective. What, you don't read Bizjournals?

    Torrington, Connecticut is where I was born. It is also the home town of John Brown, whose body lies a-moulderin' in the grave.

    lead photo - the scene is from the Barn Raising Dance - Check it out on YouTube here.  I've marveled at this choreography and talent a million and forty times, forty in this last week alone.

    Punkt Punkt Komma Strich

    Torrington train depot

    other photos are grabbed from Google maps


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  7. -->
    Kevin Kühnert
    If you share my view that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – an expression which, I realize, marks me as 110 years old – you will probably appreciate the occasional suggestion that comes down the pike that the news is not all bad. I felt the uplift when I read the other day that Kevin Kühnert, the young socialist in Germany currently making the rounds on all the talk shows on German television as the great hope of the Socialist Party, just came out as gay.

    I’m marked as old not just because I tend to use expressions like the handbasket one – or think in terms of something “coming down the pike,” but because I still have a keen awareness of how the world has changed since homophobia was as much a part of the fabric of American society as separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites and the custom my mother followed when she signed my report cards with my father’s name with a “Mrs.” tacked to the front of it. I remember when.  And I’m now in a place in my life where future shock is a constant companion, as I imagine it must be to everyone my age.

    “I thought people like that killed themselves,” was the attitude of the day toward LGBT people when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s. No member of modern society would say that anymore, thank God. We’ve progressed. Mightily.

    I shared the happy news to some of my gay friends yesterday that one of our tribe had made a splash on the German political scene by coming out. One friend wrote back, “We’ve come a long way since Ernst Röhm was the model for homosexuals.” Words to that effect. He clearly meant it as a way of saying thank God we’ve risen out of the darkness, but I zeroed in on the use of the word “model” in connection with this thug who was close enough to Hitler to call him Adolf, long before “Mein Führer” became the prescribed form of address. Röhm created the SA, the “brown shirts,” a private police force to protect the Nazis as they roamed the country in the days of the Weimar Republic, hunting down communists, Jews, journalists and editors and university professors and anyone else conspicuously hostile to the Nazi Party. Their methods were violent and commonly lethal. Röhm was the very essence of National Socialism. He was also homosexual.

    I wrote back that my first impulse in reading the suggestion in my friend’s note that “we’ve come a long way” was not to celebrate progress but to want to go back to beating the drum on the importance of keeping the distinction alive that “gay” does not mean the same thing as “homosexual.” Homosexual is a neutral term to describe a sexuality. Gay is a political term. Anybody can be homosexual. One has to earn the right to be called gay.

    I am a great fan of Tony Kushner, as a man and as a writer. You may remember the scene in the movie Munich where Golda Meir has set up a clandestine assassination team to hunt down the killers of Israel’s Olympic Team who were massacred at the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972. A profoundly moving scene is the one in which one of the revenge killer team finally tracks down the man he is assigned to kill and finds he can’t pull the trigger. He hears the voice of his grandmother, and she is saying, “It isn’t Jewish.”

    Jews don’t kill, his grandmother believed. Good Jews don’t murder people.

    By the same token, I believe that gays cannot kill people either. They cannot support an Adolf Hitler, cannot dedicate themselves to intimidation, cannot become fascists. Homosexuals can; gays can’t.

    We’ve merged the terms and it is now common to hear people substitute “gay” for “homosexual,” thinking they are simply bringing their language up to date, as they do when they say “African-American” instead of “Negro.” There are similarities, of course. Both are attempts to shed the negative connotations of a word used to identify a disparaged class. But whereas African-American is largely the substitution of one neutral term for another (there was never anything inherently wrong with Negro - the problem was always with the users), gay carries the additional connotation of pride and a seizure of the power to define oneself by a political-cultural term rather than a medical one.

    The official name for the modern-day socialist party in Germany is the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD). They are not socialists, strictly speaking, but social democrats. The SPD is active in 14 of the 16 state governments, and it has ruled in coalition with the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists (the CDU and the CSU, respectively) since the 2013 federal election. It is the oldest party in Germany, going back to 1863.

    When Hitler came to power in 1933, he outlawed the socialists and had their leaders killed or sent into exile. Only in 1949 did they regain their earlier power and influence. Social Democrats held the office of chancellor from 1969 to 1982 and 1998 to 2005. It (the SPD) is the chief rival of the Union Parties (the CDU and CSU govern “in union” at the federal level – the CSU in Bavaria and the CDU in the rest of the country), and at the risk of oversimplification, they represent the kind of right and left division represented in the U.S. by Republicans and Democrats, the “right” representing the interests of the corporations and big business, the “left” placing a higher value on social equity and social justice – including a decent minimum wage and a fair distribution of wealth. The midpoint of the division is further to the right in the U.S., but the parallel between the two sides is still valid, I believe.

    Imagine what it would be like if we had a multi-party system in the United States, with the Republicans taking the place the CDU/CSU holds in Germany, the Democrats taking the place of the SPD, the Green Party being the same in both countries, and the left represented in Germany by Die Linke (the Left) and in the U.S. by the communists. Then imagine we had an additional party – let’s call it the Business Party, which we might propose as a counterpart to the German Free Democratic Party (FDP), currently shrunk to such a point they represent only about 10% of the electorate.

    Now imagine a new party is created in the U.S. Let’s call it the Nationalist Party. Its main raison d'être is to keep out immigrants. Some of their members are relatively moderate, but many of them are neo-fascists and outwardly racist. And imagine that for the past eight years, the U.S. has been run by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, because neither party won enough votes to go it alone. The Republicans dominated and the Democrats played the role of Junior Partner in order to get a few jobs where they might exert influence – the State Department, say.

    Over time, the Bernie Sanders Democrats got fed up with what they saw as the ass-kissing nature of their leaders, all for a few crumbs from the table, and they began leaving the party in droves, many leaving to join up with the party of the far left.

    To make sense of what I’m getting at, note that in the most recent federal election in Germany, Merkel’s CDU party won only 33% of the vote, a drop of 8% since the previous election.  The Schulz-led SPD did even worse, with only 20%. And, probably most disconcerting is the fact that many of the those who fell away from the two parties went and joined the AfD, who, with 12.6% of the vote got to take seats in Parliament, where they are free to push their anti-immigrant agenda and generally wreak havoc with the traditional way of doing things.

    I’ve pushed this US/German comparison much too far already, so I’ll stop. Except to say in the U.S., the hopes of the democratic socialists were on Bernie Sanders. And the failure of the Hillary Clinton democrats to inspire general enthusiasm among the Democratic mainstream led in large part to the rise of the nationalist Donald Trump. (Don’t let my comparisons tempt you to make too many one-to-one comparisons – I’d hate to have to take responsibility for that).

    And in Germany, the feeling is the old school SPD’s time has passed and the only way around the horror of watching the nasty folk with their anti-immigrant agenda take over is a serious infusion of young blood. Ditto for the U.S., by the way, and even more so when you consider that in addition to Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda you’d have to add anti-environment, anti-globalism, anti-abortion, pro-gun and pro-corporate welfare. (And an obscene level of deception and incompetence, but that’s a story for another day.)

    Enter young Kevin. Cute, if a bit nerdy. Smart as hell. Articulate. Still in his 20s (he'll turn 30 in July of next year), he plays with the big boys and holds his own.

    With the embarrassing showing in the 2016 election, the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats looked like it was going to be over and done with. Socialists were tired of selling out their principles, and their new leader, Martin Schulz swore he would never work with Angela Merkel again. He would become the opposition party instead.

    I want to keep the focus here on gay accomplishments rather than play amateur political historian, but just to finish the train of thought...  fast forward to today, when the Germans are breathing a sigh of relief that they once again have a government. The haggling took more than five months and the only reasonable solution – surprise, surprise – was for the two parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, to go back into coalition (CDU and CSU being considered as a single union party, remember).

    Bad idea, says Kevin. Don’t want to work with the capitalists. Got to get back to democratic socialist principles. Got to be a party we can be proud of, the socialists that represented the best of German political forces – most equitable, most committed to peace and freedom and equality. The party of Willy Brandt.

    No such luck. The SDP caved “for the sake of the country” – can’t have a country without a government to run it. What can I say?

    Kevin accepted defeat gracefully. His day is yet to come. Merkel is slowing down and the hawks are circling already. Tomorrow is another day.

    Now where am I going with all this, you (if you are still reading) will no doubt ask yourself. Are you saying that to be gay is to be leftist? To be a Bernie Sanders supporter and an opponent of both Hillary and Trump? No, I’m not saying that, although that’s where my heart is. On the contrary, I want to see gay people everywhere, speaking for conservatives in their role of keeping progressives honest, as well as for progressives. Much as I loathe the AfD in Germany, there is a part of me happy to note that one of its leaders, Alice Weidel, is a lesbian. How she manages that in such a homophobic environment I can’t tell you. I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming if you’re not a progressive Klaus Wowereit (the SPD former gay mayor of Berlin) you’re a Nazi Ernst Röhm, and Wowereit has more than a few bungles under his belt, so I have to assume at some level, Ms. Weidel has some integrity. Haven’t seen it, but I’m sure it’s there.

    A better example of good guys on what is in my view the wrong side is Jens Spahn, one of the people many consider might make a good successor in the CDU to Angela Merkel. Another well-spoken, articulate gay man, he has devoted much of his energy to health care in Germany. He is currently part of the Finance Ministry, a job many consider a proving ground for the chancellorship. A practicing Roman Catholic, he nonetheless used his influence within his party to push for same-sex marriage in Germany. A hero of mine, in other words, even if his efforts went nowhere. On the other hand, he’s on record for his criticism of Merkel’s refugee policy as being too „humanitarian“ somehow. Did I say hero? OK, maybe not hero.

    To balance off Jens Spahn's position to the right of the SPD, there is Volker Beck to the left of the SPD. Beck is a member of the Green Party. Beck went down in flames, unfortunately, when he was caught playing with crystal meth. But not before leaving parliament to a standing ovation for his efforts to bring about same-sex marriage. A real tragedy. Beck was the real advocate for gay rights in Parliament and is known as the father of the German Registered Partnership Act, the forerunner to same-sex marriage. I won’t list his many superb contributions (you can find them hereto human rights, inside and outside of Germany. Nor will I bang on about his wrong-headedness, in my view, in regard to Palestinians. He’s a politician. He takes stands. Some you support. Some you want to throw eggs at him for.

    My point is that gays are now at the heart of our modern political systems. They are not heroes, even when they perform what we consider to be ennobling acts. They don’t have to be heroic all the time to be entitled to call themselves gay, as opposed to homosexual. But they have to have a gay consciousness, have to seek to advance the cause of gay liberation in some corner of their brain, whether they are heroic or wrong-headed.

    At the same time, just as I feel a kinship with a Jew who tells me "it is not Jewish" to assassinate one’s enemies, no matter how much they may deserve to pay for unspeakable crimes with their lives, I feel we owe it to the likes of Harry Hay, Frank Kameny, Bayard Rustin, Harvey Milk, Cleve Jones and Barney Frank, just to name only a select few of the many American contributers to the welfare of LGBT people over time, to keep the word gay a word we can use with pride.

    Photo credit


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  8. Just watched New York Times reporter, and more recently columnist, Jim Risen debate one of my heroes, Glenn Greenwald. If you’ve got the time, have a listen. And if you don’t have the time, try to find it. It will restore your faith in the ability of Americans to address the flood of nonsense we’re up to our waist in these days. It’s only an hour long.

    Glenn Greenwald, Jim Risen
    Their issue, in a nutshell, is this. Risen’s perception of Greenwald, shared by most people on the left, I would guess, is that there is a gap between what he wants to communicate and how he is understood. Specifically, he is becoming a darling of the right because he is maintaining that the evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians simply isn’t there. Greenwald’s perception of Risen is that while his heart may be in the right place by worrying aloud that the country is in danger from the right wing, he is making a mistake in the long run by not insisting, as a journalist, that opinions and beliefs, no matter how broadly shared, are not the stuff of good journalism. Information based on evidence is.

    It’s perhaps a bit too overly simple to say this, but it is as if Risen writes from the heart, Greenwald from the head, and whichever of the two you find yourself siding with will reveal your own preference for head over heart or vice versa. The two men agreed, kind of, with Risen’s view that his primary goal in writing is the journalistic one - to reveal a good story. A true story, to be sure, but a good story. And Greenwald’s primary goal is an activist one – to achieve political ends. Greenwald suggests it’s not that simple, that he too is a journalist interested in getting at the truth of things.

    The moderator of the debate between these two good men is Jeremy Scahill, who dropped out of college to work with the homeless. He later went on to become a senior producer of Democracy Now. Most recently, he founded The Intercept with Glenn Greenwald, which has produced this debate. What the two men are getting at is what serves us better in the long run - the practical advantage of getting the dirt out to the masses quickly so they can act on it, or the ethical one of holding off until you are certain you are getting it right.

    If you’re not current on Glenn Greenwald, here’s a summary of this complex man reduced to one paragraph.

    And here’s one for Jim Risen, including his highs (Pulitzer Prize?) and his lows (NY Times getting sued for getting the Wen Ho Lee story wrong – the Chinese computer scientist they thought had stolen nuclear secrets for China – but couldn’t prove).  The Wen Ho Lee debacle would seem to make Greenwald's point that you don't publish until you've got the goods.

    What you have here are three of the more articulate voices of the left debating the best way to conduct the Resistance. In my view, something to watch closely.

    Here's the link again.

    photo credit - from The Intercept podcast site - which, if you're interested, also contains a transcript  and a podcast of an extended version of the debate in question.

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  9. Look up the word “communicate” in an English-German dictionary and you’ll find a plethora of possibilities.  There is mitteilen, first of all, a word which, when glossed, means “to share with”.  Both in the verb form: mitteilen, and in the noun form eine Mitteilung machen = “to do a sharing-with.”

    Then there is übermitteln, which is a bit harder to gloss. Mitteln is commonly used as a noun which corresponds to the English means, as in “the means to the end.”  “The end justifies the means” is rendered in German as “Der Zweck heiligt (= makes holy) die Mittel.” There is a verb mitteln, but it means either to average something, or “to take the mean” of something. So that’s a dead end. On the other hand, when used in compound words, like übermitteln, it is fairly productive. Literally “to means over” means “to convey meaning,” i.e. “to communicate.”

    Then, you’ve got vermitteln, also as a possible translation of “to communicate.”  The ver-prefix is one of those German morphemes seemingly designed in hell to drive people who like things simple mad. It can convey what the English prefix mis- conveys, (verrechnen=miscalculate; verlesen=misread, etc.) It can also mean “to move beyond the boundaries of the stem word in some way”: sprechen = to speak; versprechen = to promise. Note that the ver- in versprechen can also convery the first ver-meaning: to do something wrong. So versprechen means both “to promise” and “to make a mistake in speaking” and if you can find a better example of the irrationality of language I’d like to know what it is.

    But back to words for “communicate.” There is also verkehren.  Since Verkehr is the word for traffic, the word conveys the connotation of “being sociable”. Or to consort with somebody, keep company with them. And, of course, if you stick the word “sex” in front of it: Geschlechtsverkehr, you’ve got “sexual intercourse.” To “communicate sexually” in other words.

    Then there is übertragen, a medical word, literally to carry over. As in “communicable disease” (übertragbare Krankheit).

    Just as English has pairs of Latinate (via French) and Anglo-Saxon words: pork/swine, encounter/meet, question/ask, German has kundtun “to do knowledge” and kommunizieren as well as korrespondieren.

    If you know Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, you may be familiar with the opening lines of the Ode to Joy”, where the chorus comes in and generally blows the socks off the audience with their shouts of Freude, Freude (joy, joy).  Now the official anthem of the European Union, the German lyrics begin Freude, schöner Götterfunken..."  It is rendered "Joy, beautiful spark of the gods" in English, where it sounds to English ears much less like a VW ad than the original German. The part that brings tears is the "Alle Menschen werden Brüder" (All men will become brothers) part.

    Did you know the lyrics were written by Schiller?  

    A friend of mine once had two pet goldfish, which he named “Frieda” and “Freude” (Peace and Joy) and insisted he could tell them apart, something I was always doubtful of.

    And you know the German suffixes “-heit” and “-keit,” which make nouns out of adjectives.  Gesund = healthy; Gesundheit = health.  Sparsam = frugal; Sparsamkeit = frugality.

    Well, you’re now ready for the German word of the day – a word I just heard on television that I don’t remember hearing before:


    The joy of communicating.

    One of the good words, don’t you think?



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  10. Try as I may, I can’t help letting the outrages coming out of the White House get to me. I make every effort to listen to music, keep conversations going with friends far and wide and to limit the amount of time I spend listening to the satirists like Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher shooting fish in a barrel with this kindness and compassion-challenged thug at the head of government. It’s no longer any fun listening to him being ridiculed. It’s just painful.

    I'm not diminishing the importance of laughing at the Clown. It's an appropriate response. But I'm looking for more active resistance, as well. Not just against the man Trump, but against the disregard for truth,  the destruction of the environment, the manipulation of religious innocents for political gain, the return of open racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. 

    The recent move toward the political right around the world puts us all in the same boat. The mass migration going on in Europe has brought out all the fear and loathing of "the other," and made the insecure want to circle the wagons. Trump has found he can rally his troops by promising he will build them a wall on the Mexican border. In Europe, it's all about closing the door to refugees fleeing war in Syria and recognizing - just as the American rightwing now wants to redefine us as "no longer a nation of immigrants" - that Germany and France and Britain, and virtually all modern nations now are "nations of immigrants." And that means we continue to embrace our diversity, not surrender to notions of racial purity.

    When I lived in Japan, where I taught a seminar on culture theory, I spent a great deal of time analyzing the impact of cultures in contact, what happens when value systems collide. Japan has a singular history as an island nation, once shut off for some 250 years, long enough to leave Japanese marked with a sense of themselves as a unique people different from the rest of the world. One lasting effect is the tendency of Japanese to think in we/they terms. The world consists of insiders and outsiders. That’s common to most nations and people, of course, but when threatened, Japanese are easily manipulated into xenophobia. Because the birth rate is so low, they cannot keep the population level high enough to keep the economy running at the current level, and they really need a steady influx of immigrants. But immigration means an embrace of the “other,” and the backlash is as strong as it is certain. I remember long debates in Japan over how to deal with “Chinese criminals.” The rumor went around that the many guest workers from China were forming gangs of criminals. There was a grain of truth – outsider groups invariably stick together and poverty breeds criminality. But people were not looking at the statistics – far more crime was committed by Japanese than by these Chinese gangs.

    Now in Germany that same problem has been generated in spades, thanks to the wars in the Middle East and the availability of the internet and the need for Germans, also suffering (if that’s the word – it’s not my word!) from a low birthrate, to keep the economy going with guest workers. You all know the recent history. Once popular Angela Merkel is being blamed for overdoing it with her open door policy, letting in far too many refugees and immigrants at one time to be absorbed easily. Her motives were Christian, she tells us, as well as based on EU law – a refugee must be given shelter. Not interested, says the political right. And not just the political right – people normally classed as centrists or moderates joined in and began crying that an open door policy was madness.

    Trump supporters consist in large part of people easily manipulated by their fears. It has always been this way. The Germans under Hitler made scapegoats of the Jewish “other.” Trump, early on, told Americans that Mexicans were flooding across the border and they were rapists. The base ate it up. Just what they needed. Somebody to fear, to focus their discontents on. Never mind the facts, that Mexicans were actually returning to Mexico in greater numbers than they were coming in, or that drugs and criminality couldn’t possibly be curtailed by a physical wall, which would actually keep out more desirable workers (yes, desirable) than “bad guys” and be an ineffective means of stopping the flow of drugs anyway. The important thing was the appearance of things – it would look like Trump was taking positive action. For people who don’t dig deeper to verify his claims – which have been demonstrated to be false 80% of the time – it was sufficient to keep up their support.

    Xenophobia in Germany and the rest of Western Europe is not all that different from xenophobia in America, in other words. It’s more intense, in many ways, more overtly racist, and supported by the conviction that Islam is inherently threatening to Western Civilization. But these are differences in degree, not in kind.

    The news the other day that the U.S. will stop officially describing itself as a nation of immigrants hit me like a kick in the stomach. First because it is such a radical turnaround from what we have told ourselves for as long as I can remember, as a means of regarding out diversity as a positive thing. Second, because I see it as another bone thrown by the neo-fascist administration to the mob of xenophobic white supporters who make up the Trump cheering section. Truth doesn’t matter. Talk is cheap these days.

    Deniz Yücel
    A friend in Berlin called my attention to a speech given in the German parliament, the Bundestag, the other day. The Bundestag was debating a proposal by the AfD over how to approach the writings of Deniz Yucel.

    For the first time since the war, Germany has had to contend with a far-right political party, the AfD, whose platform is based largely on hostility to immigrants and foreigners. That party now sits in parliament and has a powerful forum for its xenophobic agenda.  They have to be listened to and dealt with.

    Before I go into the resistance to this wretchedness, a little background:

    ·      Deniz Yücel is a German-born journalist of Turkish heritage. He holds dual citizenship, Turkish and German. Until ten days ago, February 16, for a year and two days, he was being held in a Turkish prison charged with espionage against Turkey’s leader, Recep Erdoğan. One of hundreds of journalists similarly charged. 
    ·      In 2010, the right wing politician and writer Thilo Sarrazin, published a book titled, Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany is doing away with itself),  in which he launched a full-force frontal attack on Germany’s pluralist (now sneered at as "Multikulti") social and immigration policies, particularly in regard to Muslims. It became a best-seller, the best-selling hardcover in the history of the Bundesrepublik. And the book most checked out of the Parliament library between 2009 and 2013.
    ·      Some of the points Sarrazin raises are reminiscent of the issue raised in The Bell Curve. It should come as no surprise that the culture of Anatolia, where for centuries women have not been allowed to become literate, could not possibly have produced the level of critical thinking necessary to run a democracy, the argument goes. No wonder the Turks have limited intelligence. Common sense to some; racist nonsense to others.
    ·      Deniz Yücel took on Sarrazin in a satirical work in 2011. In 2012, he went over the line, suggesting it might be a good idea if Sarrazin had a heart attack. For this personal affront, Yücel’s newspaper, taz, was hit with €20,000 ($24,600) in damages.
    ·      The AfD succeeded in getting the whole question of Yücel’s remarks debated in the Bundestag, a move decried by the German Federation of Journalists as an attempt at censorship. To the right, he's an affront to German integrity. To everybody else, he's a German journalist who spent a year in jail for annoying the Turkish dictator.

    Among the many speakers that got up to comment on the move by the AfD to censor Yücel was Cem (pronounced like the English word “gem”) Özdemir, former head (for ten years) of Germany’s Green Party.  Özdemir, like Yücel, is German-born to Turkish parents. He is a model of the modern German multicultural citizen. Of Circassian background , he describes himself as a “secular Muslim,” is married to an Argentine journalist and has two children. He calls Bad Urach home, a small town in the Schwaben (Swabian) region, just south of Stuttgart.

    Cem Özdemir

    I am hoping somehow the Bundestag or YouTube will post a video of this debate on its website with English subtitles. Here's one in German only; the German original text is available here.  I’d love for people in the English-speaking world to see this man go. The passion of his outrage fills the room.

    And until you can get a professional one, here’s my translation of Özdemir’s speech. I have left out the catcalls and other interruptions:
    Madame President, Honorable colleagues:  
    We need to bring ourselves up to date on what it is that we are actually talking about here today. We’re talking about the work and the article of a German journalist. Normally we associate things of this sort with authoritarian countries. In contrast, the German Bundestag is not here to judge the work of journalists. We have no high-ranking censorship authority here in the Bundestag. That belongs in the countries you look up to. Germany is not among them. In Germany there is no “enforced conformity” [a term associated with the Nazi era], of the kind you dream of. What we have is freedom of the press, a term which, quite obviously, is not in your vocabulary, ladies and gentlemen.  
    And we would extend this freedom of the press just as readily to your comrades in Turkey who robbed Deniz Yücel of a year of his life. 
    We’re glad Deniz Yücel is free, and let me say here, so there is no misunderstanding, we would be just as happy if it were a Gustav Müller or whatever his name might be, because every citizen of this country is entitled to have his country behind him. That should be obvious. Everybody knows that, besides you.  And all of us, the democratic members of this house, are committed to the idea that the other journalists, the ones without a German passport also under arrest have the right to be released. Because journalism is not a crime, ladies and gentlemen.   
    But something else that is true is the fact that things have changed dramatically in the year that Yücel was in prison, and that has prompted this debate. In the meantime there are now representatives in this house that must be described as racists – must be charged with racism, ladies and gentlemen. 
    And I mean these ladies and gentlemen over here on the right – I have the microphone, and, thank God, you can’t shut me up. I know that in the regimes you dream of, you can shut off somebody’s mike, but here, thank God, you can’t. And you’re also not going to be able to change that, believe me.   
    You want to determine who is German and who is not. How can someone who despises Germany, our common homeland, as you do, decide who is German? How can somebody who shows so little respect for Germany, our common homeland, as you do, determine who is German and who is not?  I’ll tell you one thing. If you were to be the ones to determine that, it would be like putting racists in charge of deciding who is a Neo-nazi and who isn’t. And by the way, if you want the number for the Neo-Nazis, I can provide you with it.  
    [VP of Bundestag Petra Pau: Colleague Özdemir, will you allow a question? CÖ: No, I will permit no questions.] 
    If you were honest, all of you sitting here, then you would admit that you despise this country. 
    You despise everything that this country is looked up to for and respected for throughout the world: and that includes our culture of remembrance, for which I am extremely proud. It includes the diversity of the country, of which I am also proud. It includes Bavarians, Swabians, but also people with ancestors from Russia and people with ancestors from Anatolia, who are now equally proud to be citizens of this country. That includes – and I have to say this – that I feel personally offended as a football (soccer) fan – our great national team. If you are honest, you're crossing your fingers for the Russian team and not our national team. 
    Admit it! You show disrespect also for this worthy house as well as for the Enlightenment. You are carved from the same rotten wood as those who had Deniz Yücel arrested. You are carved from the same rotten wood as those who had Deniz Yücel sit in prison for a year of his life. Let me put it into a single sentence. The AKP (Turkish president Erdogan’s ruling party) has a branch in this country. It’s called the AfD, and it is sitting here. 
    Finally, let me say in conclusion, you had a political Ash Wednesday a little while ago. What it reminded me of was a speech in the Sportpalast [a clear reference to a major Hitler speech.] 
    I want you to know: this Germany, our Germany, is stronger than your hatred will ever be.  You, the raging mob, wanted to deport me on Ash Wednesday. Well, that’s easier done than you might imagine.  This coming Saturday I’m going home. I’m flying to Stuttgart and from there I’ll take an S-Bahn and get off at the final station in Bad Urach. That is my Swabian home. And I will not let you ruin it.

    We can't fight City Hall, they say. We can't take down the Trump administration, so long as the 1% find him useful to their purposes, they say. We can't hold back the tide of right wing neo-fascism on the rise around the world, they say.

    Maybe not. But some of us can stand up and talk back.

    When you find somebody talking back, I think you should share with others ways it can be done.

    That's what I'm doing here. 

    Doubt it will reach many people. 

    But one does what one can.

    photo credits: Cem Özdemir

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