Reflections on Newport

Note:  I know I said I was taking the week off, but then I felt like I needed to write this and share it. So, it’s Tuesday. It is my blog and I make the rules 🙂

Newport, Rhode Island encapsulates much that is great about our country and, at the very same time, much that isn’t. The duality that defines our history plays out there.

Today: Newport is beautiful. The views of the ocean, with ships of every size and shape dotting the water, are spectacular. Families enjoy themselves at the beach or strolling the streets, looking at the over-abundance of charming shops and restaurants. Old and young amble the cobblestone streets. A surprising number of folks speaking languages other than English. Though predominantly white, there were many people of color.

Today: As we walked by, a homeless man was sweeping the sidewalk that he claimed as his own. He had his meager things set up against the low decorative wall that separated the park from the street. It is hard to miss the income inequality so evident in Newport. The huge mansions, the extraordinary wealth of some – how much is enough? The conspicuous consumption, in contrast to those sleeping on a bench.

We took a trolley tour of Newport. The tour guide did not ignore the fact that the original wealth of Newport was built, at least in part, on the slave trade. She also acknowledged the role of Native Americans in assisting the colonists. It is a complicated history, filled with the duality that is our country’s history. Rhode Island was also the colony founded on religious freedom, but it profited from the slave trade and from piracy. These contradictory strands are not easy to reconcile.

We took a tour of the Touro Synagogue, the oldest temple in the United States (though I would’ve sworn that they said the same of the synagogue in Savannah). The synagogue’s founders were descendants of those who had escaped the Inquisition. I had not remembered a pretty significant event associated with the Touro Synagogue (Gary recalled learning about it, though I’m not sure if it was in Hebrew school or in American History), but learning of it made quite an impression on me, so I would like to recount it here (the photos below are of the exterior and interior of the synagogue).

 

After Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790, George Washington came to visit. He stopped in Newport before heading on to Providence and was greeted very enthusiastically. The leader of the synagogue, Moses Seixas, presented him with a letter. Here is the letter (I know it is written in a style that is difficult, but I think it is worth the effort):

Sir:

Permit the children of the Stock of Abraham to approach you with the most cordial affection and esteem for your person and merits – and to join with our fellow citizens in welcoming you to NewPort.

With pleasure we reflect on those days – those days of difficulty, and danger when the God of Israel who delivered David from the peril of the sword, – shielded Your head in the day of battle: – and we rejoice to think that the same Spirit, who rested in the Bosom of the greatly beloved Daniel enabling him to preside over the Provinces of the Babylonish Empire, rests and ever will rest upon you, enabling you to discharge the arduous duties of Chief Magistrate of these States.

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People – a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: – deeming every one, of which Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental machine: – This so ample and extensive Federal Union whose basis is Philanthropy, Mutual confidence and Public Virtue, we cannot but acknowledge to be the work of the Great God, who ruleth in the Armies of Heaven, and among the Inhabitants of the Earth, doing whatever seemeth him good. 

For all these Blessings of civil and religious liberty which we enjoy under and equal and benign administration, we desire to send up our thanks to the Ancient of Days, the great preserver of Men – beseeching him, that the Angel who conducted our forefathers through the wilderness into the promised land, may graciously conduct you through all the difficulties and dangers of this mortal life: – And, when like Joshua full of days, and full of honour, you are gathered to your Fathers, may you be admitted into the Heavenly Paradise to partake of the water of life, and the tree of immortality.

Done and signed by order of the Hebrew Congregation in NewPort Rhode Island August 17th 1790.

Moses Seixas, Warden

We visited the synagogue just two days after the 227th anniversary of the letter. George Washington was quite moved by this expression of support and wrote a letter in response:

Gentlemen:

While I receive with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of affection and esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

George Washington

I think that the two letters are pretty damn impressive.  In Newport, they read Washington’s letter publicly every year on its anniversary. Though we did not attend, it was read on Sunday, August 20th outside on the grounds of the synagogue.

I recognize that Washington may not have been including women, African-Americans or Native Americans when he used the term ‘people;’ he was, after all, a man of his time. I am also not a believer in God as credited in these letters. But the ideas, of moving beyond tolerance and allowing all citizens the freedom of their conscience are still revolutionary and the letters remind me of that. These ideas are still relevant and timely in 2017.

When I was a child we learned American history in public school. I remember learning how different groups contributed to the founding of our country. A prominent person from each group (Crispus Attucks – African-Americans, Haym Solomon – Jewish-American, Baron Von Steuben – Prussian-American, Lafayette – French-American, Tadeusz Kosciuszko – Polish-American) was studied to show that the success of the Revolution was based on the contributions of many different groups. I felt proud of that history. I believed in the ideals of the Revolution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. My understanding of ‘all’ was more inclusive than our forefathers (and my understanding continued to expand as I became more educated), but I loved the idea of America. I felt pride when the national anthem was played, especially during the Olympic Games!

Something changed as I grew older. The pride I felt was tempered by the realization that we were not fulfilling our ideals, we were falling short of our promise. I have been especially discouraged since the election of Trump. Reading these letters, though, even in the context of their time and understanding the limitations, reminded me of our potential. They remind me of the ideals at the heart of our country. This is something to be proud of and to aspire to fulfill.

While I don’t subscribe to American exceptionalism (because it implies superiority), I do believe in our potential. Perhaps there is a parallel between Jews being the ‘chosen people’ and American exceptionalism. I was always uncomfortable with being labeled chosen, that idea could be translated as arrogance or supremacy. Instead, maybe being ‘chosen’ or ‘exceptional’ can be thought of as a responsibility to fulfill, not as a birthright; an ideal to work towards, not an entitlement.

I come back from Newport reminded of the roots of our country, both good and bad. I hope we all can agree on the merit and meaning of the values that were at the heart of our founding. I hope we find our way forward with a shared understanding of the potential of this country.

 

There Are No Sides

I cannot be silent. The president’s response to the tragedy in Charlottesville is not acceptable. He started off okay, but then went off track:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides…”

“…on many sides” What is he talking about? There are no sides when it comes to torch-bearing, Hitler-esque saluting men marching through the University of Virginia campus in support of white nationalism. Is there a side I am missing?

In the late 1990s, when I served on the school board in Guilderland, we reviewed a policy entitled ‘Teaching Controversial Issues.’ One of my colleagues on the Board wanted to include language that said that both sides of an issue would be represented in these situations. On the surface this sounds like a reasonable request. But, when you look more closely, it isn’t so simple.

The first problem is in defining controversial topics. To me, evolution is not controversial (just as being against racism isn’t debatable). A biology teacher is not obligated to present ‘another side.’ There is no other scientific side and schools (certainly public ones) should be teaching science.  In fact, the teacher would be doing a disservice to give class time to intelligent design. There is a small, but vocal, minority who are still arguing the validity of evolution. I think it is wise for a teacher, who knows or suspects that there are students whose religious faith may conflict with evolution, to note that their views will be tolerated (I am using that word purposely), but the information presented in class will be based on science.

The second problem is that there can be many more than two sides to a ‘controversial’ issue. Everything doesn’t break down into pro and con. As much as we might like to set up issues debate-style, for and against, most subjects are more nuanced.

The third problem is that all ‘sides’ are not equal. Do all views need to be given equal time? When we study American history there are interpretations on the far right and far left that are distorted. The curriculum and materials used should represent the consensus of historians, relying as much as possible on facts and original source documents. Teachers should encourage students to think critically about the material, ask questions and facilitate discussion. But, again, ‘all sides’ aren’t legitimate and don’t deserve attention.

Sometimes there is a right side of history. The Confederacy lost the war, thankfully. While it is useful, actually critical, to understand the issues that led to the Civil War and what the South was fighting for, that is not the same thing as endorsing its mission. There is no defense for slavery. We can understand its economic role, we can understand its historical roots, but that can’t be confused with sanctioning it in any way, shape or form.

One of the elements that led to the white nationalist march in Charlottesville was the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the removal of Confederate statues in his city in a powerful speech that was articulate, eloquent and right on point. In sum, he said that those statues belonged in history museums not city squares. (Please watch the speech! It didn’t get nearly enough national attention. Here is the link). We can’t and shouldn’t erase history, but monuments to individuals are meant to celebrate accomplishments and contributions, to remind us of our better angels. Robert E. Lee may have been a great general militarily, but he does not merit celebration.

When my well-meaning colleague raised the question of adopting a policy on teaching controversial issues, the Board decided it was better to remain silent on the subject. We had a healthy discussion and debated the various implications, but concluded that it was best to leave the issue in the hands of educators.

Interestingly, the impetus for her recommendation was her perception that the Vietnam War had been taught in a one-sided manner when her oldest children went to Guilderland High School in the 1980s. When we were having this policy discussion, it was the late 1990s and Vietnam was no longer controversial. I long for a day when the same can be said of the Civil War.

A Defining Summer – 1979

Growing up in Brooklyn in a tight-knit, large Jewish family created a kind of myopia. I didn’t know there were other ways that people lived their lives. Fortunately, I had an experience in college that helped lay the groundwork for having a broader perspective.

One might think that going away to college in and of itself, going from Brooklyn to SUNY-Binghamton in the Southern Tier, would have broadened my horizons. Given the demographics of the school, though, it really didn’t do much to expose me to diversity. Most of the students came from Long Island and the boroughs of NYC.

I was a political science major. In my junior year in 1979, Professor Weisband, who I admired greatly, announced to our international politics class that a summer research position was available. The National Science Foundation was offering funding to support a research project and would award grants based on an application process. It sounded like an exciting opportunity, so I applied. Much to my surprise, I was awarded the grant, so I spent the summer in Binghamton working for Professor Richard Rehberg, who was engaged in a project to study a ‘company town,’ where the company left.

Professor Rehberg was conducting community development research, in conjunction with a non-profit think tank, The Institute for Man and Science. Corbett, New York, located about 70 miles east of Binghamton, in the heart of the Catskills, was founded as a company town in 1912. The Corbett-Stuart Company established an acid factory there and the company owned the land, property and houses. They rented homes to the employees.

The acid factory went out of business in 1934, but the company held on to the property. Residents continued to live there, paying rent, but finding work elsewhere, cobbling together a life. In 1976, there were 170 residents in Corbett. The Stuart family, which still owned the town, put it up for sale. The headline in the classified section of New York Times read:  One small town for sale, fully occupied. The description went on to say: 130 wild acres; a cluster of 30-odd white frame houses, an abandoned schoolhouse whose black iron bell still hangs in the belfry cocked at an angle as if waiting to peal out a last ring; an abandoned general store with a Canada Dry sign on the door reading, “Glad You Stopped, Come Again”; an old horse barn with a blacksmith shop right next to it; and alongside the road, traces of the old rail bed where the trains of the Delaware and Northern Railroad used to roll when Corbett was a prospering acid factory town and a good place to live.*

Corbett was no longer a prospering town, part of the research project was looking at whether it could be a good place to live again. Although there were other interested buyers, the residents of the town teamed with the Institute of Man and Science (now known as the Rennselaerville Institute) to buy the town!

Part of the Institute’s arrangement with the residents included permission to do research on the process of community development. To continue to survive, the town would need physical improvements (to address water and other infrastructure needs). Given the economics of the area, the residents would have to do a lot of that work themselves. This presented a unique opportunity to study the process of the residents organizing to accomplish those goals.

In fact, the town developed a compact. The Corbett Compact included the following:

We, the members of the Village of Corbett and The Institute on Man and Science set forth on an adventure which requires our full cooperation and commitment. Like the passengers on the ship Mayflower we herewith draft and sign this compact setting forth some articles of common faith and agreement.

In so doing, we give our pledge to rebuild Corbett as a small community in which people help each other…in which we can get a good night’s sleep…in which our children can range safely…in which we can feel good about our town, our neighbors, and ourselves…in which we do not waste.

At the same time we seek a community in which people live and let live, respecting the rights of others to be different. We want people to grow. Some will grow and stay. Others will grow and leave. But for all of us, Corbett may always be home.*

All of this was incredibly foreign to me. I had never heard of a company town. The notion of a whole town being owned, not self-governing, was outside my frame of reference.  I was pleased to learn that this town was embarked on such a huge transition, and I was interested to meet the people who aspired to realize the promise of their compact.

Another element that was alien to me was the size of the town. I couldn’t imagine living in a place made up of only 170 people. There were more than 170 people living on my block in Canarsie.

Although my family had done some traveling in America, I described my reaction to driving through Wyoming in 1973 in another blog post, I had never come face-to-face with rural life in America. Corbett was rural America.

My job that summer was to assist in administering surveys to the residents and to do my own research on utopian communities. I would produce a research paper on commonalities among utopian communities that contributed to their success and failure. The idea was that, perhaps, I could uncover some lessons that might be useful to the Corbett project. Though Corbett was not conceived as a utopian community, it was endeavoring to be a planned community.

I remember my first visit to Corbett. I drove with a graduate student, Kevin, who was also working with Dr. Rehberg.  We drove country roads, up, down and around the lush, green hills. We passed reservoirs. We saw more cows than people, by far.

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We passed many views like this as we traveled from Binghamton to Corbett.

We turned off the two-lane blacktop onto a gravel road and found ourselves in Corbett. This was the definition of being in the middle of nowhere. It was warm and sunny, the air was clear except for the dust the car had kicked up. The only sounds were the wind in the trees and bird calls. I saw a modest, run-down home in front of us. We went up the two worn steps to the wooden porch and knocked.  Marcus, one of the town leaders, pushed open the screen door and welcomed us in. He was expecting us.

The house was shaded by the huge trees, so it was cool inside. Marcus made himself comfortable on a large recliner. Kevin and I sat across from him. Kevin asked the questions from the survey. While I don’t remember the particulars, the questions focused on quality of life and the resident’s satisfaction. As I recall, most of the people we interviewed were quite satisfied.

This was a revelation to me. To meet people who lived such modest lives (in my view at the time), but who were comfortable with it, came as a surprise. I thought happiness was much more complicated. One of the things I realized is that for some of the people who lived in Corbett, living closer to nature was a source of pleasure. Cutting wood, drawing water from a well, hunting and fishing, and repairing your own house brought satisfaction. Working with neighbors to revitalize their town, even if they didn’t all like each other, was rewarding. It is one thing to read about other ways of life, it was another thing to meet it, up close and personal. I was not ready to sign up for life in a small community, but I understood it better.

I had another, more minor, revelation that summer. Dr. Rehberg invited me to a gathering at his home. I felt awkward about attending since I was the only undergraduate, but I felt like I had to. I remember sitting on his deck, everyone was drinking beer and relaxing, letting their hair down, so to speak. Even though I was a college kid, and beer was the cheapest beverage, I never developed a taste for it. I was politely sipping one, trying to be sociable. I looked around and it hit me. These ‘grown-ups’ were not that different from me and my friends. After drinking a few beers (or in my case, a mixed drink or two), they were every bit as silly as we were. Somehow, I thought adults were different. It was a relief (and maybe a disappointment) to learn that they weren’t.

Dr. Richard Rehberg was a good guy. I would address him as Dr. Rehberg or Professor, and he would say, “You can call me Dick.” I was of a generation where Richards were called Richie, Rich or Rick. Definitely not Dick. He was perplexed by my refusal and I explained that I was raised by my parents to call adults Mr. or Mrs., which was true, but wasn’t the whole story. As much as I started to see him, and other professors, as human beings, and despite his gracious invitation, I would not call him Dick.

The summer of ’79 was a defining one for me. I had come off a difficult junior year because of a break up that was very drawn out and painful. I grew a lot that summer. Staying in Binghamton, doing the research, having the experience in Corbett broadened my horizons.

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Me, in front of the house in Binghamton, the summer of ’79. Can you find the glasses atop my head amidst all that hair?

I also met Gary that summer. That is a story for another blog entry.

 

*”The Catskills Mountains USA – Physical and Cultural Restoration,” Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine, by Harold Williams, September 1986 (retrieved 7/22/17)

What is the Cure?

Note: I wrote the following essay about two weeks after the election of Donald Trump. I didn’t post it to the blog at the time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to take the blog into the political arena since it is such a divisive subject.  But, I am continuing to experience anxiety related to Trump’s presidency – in fact, I was motivated to write a poem, which you’ll find at the end of this essay. So, I re-read what I wrote, and did some editing and decided to share it. I hope it offers food for thought.

donald-trump-650-afp_650x400_61498283248

I am struggling. I have moments where I imagine I have the energy to do the things I need to do – laundry, cooking, planning stuff, paying bills, writing, etc. And then when I actually need to move to do them, I feel like I am in mud. My spirit is in quicksand and sinking slowly. Has it reached bottom yet?

I know that I need to move beyond that, but I am so profoundly disappointed. I feel drained. I’m hoping that writing this, as writing often does for me, will be a form of expurgation. Maybe I will be able to leave it on the page. So here goes….

In the wake of Trump’s election, I have been thinking a great deal about the people who voted for him and what they might believe.

Here are some beliefs I can accept, even if I don’t agree with them:

  • That government is not able to provide solutions to societal problems.
  • The primacy of individual responsibility, rather than “it takes a village.”
  • Big government is inefficient and incompetent.
  • American businesses and workers need more protection in global markets.
  • Religious faith, if one is a believer, should guide personal behavior and choices
  • Less regulated (or unregulated) capitalism is the best economic system.
  • Favoring national security over personal privacy.

Here are some beliefs I cannot accept:

  • That immigration policy or immigrants are the source (or even a major source) of America’s economic and/or societal woes.
  • That building a wall will solve any of America’s problems.
  • That people of color have too much power (or that white people have too little power) in this country.
  • That by sanctioning same-sex marriage, we are on a slippery slope that will allow bestiality or polygamy.
  • That government has a role to play in regulating reproductive rights (other than its role in approving drugs and licensing doctors, etc.)
  • That one individual’s religious faith can trump another person’s beliefs.
  • That Hillary Clinton belongs in jail.
  • That registering Muslims, or preventing immigration of Muslims, will reduce the threat of terrorism.

The above is partially in response to something my nephew wrote after the election. He wrote about how essential it is to be willing to talk with and listen to people with differing perspectives and not live in an echo chamber (not his words, mine). I see the danger in that. But, I also don’t think the ‘echo chamber’ is the root of the problem. I think that makes the problem far worse, but the divisions in our country, at their root, aren’t caused by the failure to listen to others. I think the division is about fundamental beliefs and, in some cases, willful ignorance.

No matter how much I talk to someone who thinks Hillary belongs in jail, they are simply not going to be able to convince me (and it is highly unlikely that I will change his/her mind). My mind is closed to that notion. Unless and until evidence of a crime is presented, and despite the extraordinary effort to do just that, it hasn’t happened.

Some beliefs may be born of ignorance, for example, climate change denial may be based on ignorance of the science. But to overcome ignorance, you must be willing to be educated and accept information (facts) that doesn’t conform to your mindset (if actual evidence of Hillary’s criminality surfaced, I would change my view).  The willingness to be educated is different than being willing to exchange ideas with someone. Yes, I can learn something by listening to another perspective, but at some point we need to agree to a body of knowledge or a set of facts about our world. I see that failure as the root of the problem.

When we are receiving information, it seems to me, we look at it through the lens of our belief system. I don’t see things in black and white, I see many, many shades of gray (which is sometimes a pain in the ass), but it generally makes me open to considering alternative ideas. When I receive information, I ask myself a number of questions: where did the information come from? Is it observable? Is it consistent with other known facts? It’s like when I used to read journal articles in graduate school – what was the methodology? Can the findings be trusted? Do others do that when they receive information? And if they don’t, what do we do about that?

I see most things on a continuum; values, beliefs, philosophies. Here are some of the belief continuums I see:

People inherently good—————————————–People inherently evil

Individualism—————————————————–Collective Responsibility

Capitalism———————————————————State-run economy

Isolationism——————————————————–Globalism

Unfettered Growth———————————————–Environmental Protection

Business Owners’ Autonomy———————————–Workers’ Rights

National/Personal Security————————————Individual Privacy

Closed US Borders————————————————Completely Open Borders

Gun-Owner Rights————————————————Repeal 2nd Amendment

Obviously within these categories there are many sub-issues.  But, I think this captures the major issues of our day. Am I missing anything?

Here’s where I would put myself:
X(midpoint)

People Inherently Good———-L——————————People Inherently Evil

Individualism————————L—————————-Collective Responsibility

Capitalism——————————-L————————–State-run economy

Isolationism—————————————L—————-Globalism

Unfettered Growth———————————-L————-Environmental Protection

Business Owners’ Autonomy————————–L———-Workers Rights

National/Personal Security————–L———————–Individual Privacy

Closed US Borders———————-L————————–Completely Open Borders

Gun Rights————————————————-L———Repeal 2nd Amendment

Can you place yourself on these scales? Where do you fall?

Maybe this is silly, but I tend to weigh things (not myself, if I can help it).

Can we have meaningful discussion along these lines? Would it be helpful? If we recognize our predispositions, if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps we can look at information more objectively.

___________________________________________________________

Six months later, I was driving up the Northway, with a too familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach, as I listened to NPR report on the G-20 summit. Here is the poem that came to me:

His Presidency

What is that feeling?

My stomach grips

My arms are weak

I sigh deeply

 

Images and thoughts of our President flit across my mind

His signature hand gestures

His limited vocabulary

His callousness

It is unbelievable to me that he represents us on the world stage

 

I have physical symptoms

Of his presidency

What is the cure?