When is enough, enough? The question resonates today. Last Wednesday, when the U.S. Capitol was overrun by a mob, I hoped we had finally arrived at an answer, at least on the national political stage. I had enough of Trump and his rhetoric long, long ago. I hoped that my fellow citizens would finally arrive at the same place: enough of Trump, enough of conspiracy theories, enough toxic politics. It remains to be seen whether that will be the case. I hope we have reached the bottom and are on the way back up. It is hard to imagine wanting more of the same. But the question of when enough is enough applies in many situations.
I was thinking about it in a totally different context as I was listening to an interview with Mandy Patinkin, the actor/singer. He commented that performing for an audience was fulfilling up to a point. Needing applause can be problematic because you can be left with feeling like it wasn’t enough – maybe not enthusiastic enough, or not long enough. Or, you get the adulation, and then you come off stage and go back to your hotel, and what do you have? Is it enough to fill you up? And then you do it all over again. You can drive yourself crazy – the thirst for validation can be unquenchable.
I am not a performer, but I totally got what he was saying. If you are doing something mostly for the feedback, you can set yourself up to be in endless pursuit of more. If I get 150 reads of a blog entry, I could feel unsatisfied because I didn’t get 200. Then if I get 200, I can be thinking ‘why can’t I get 300?’ I can forget that when I first started, I was often lucky to get 30 or 40 views. And if I get one meaningful comment, is that enough? What if I get 50 likes and no comments? By the way, I was told by a literary agent that you need 40,000 followers to be seriously considered for publication. So, there’s that. Clearly, since there is no monetary reward to my blogging endeavor, and the numbers aren’t impressive, where does that leave me?
Of course, it isn’t reasonable to discount audience reaction entirely. If you are putting something out into the world, if you choose to share it, part of the reason is to be in conversation with others. It is only natural to want that dialogue to be plentiful and positive. But there needs to be balance. The process of creating itself, in my case of finding the right words, conveying my thoughts, doing the research, has to offer its own reward. I need to be able to find satisfaction in putting down on paper clear ideas, authentic emotions and compelling images. Sometimes that needs to be enough, regardless of the reaction or the numbers. As the years of blogging have gone by, I am getting better and better at this.
Another pitfall can be comparing yourself to others. If I compare myself to others, I can set myself up to feel like it isn’t enough, depending upon who I use as my measure. I can continually fall short because there will always be authors with far more success, no matter how it is quantified.
This calculation, how much is enough to feel sated, is complicated. I was struck by it in yet another setting. My father-in-law died almost three weeks ago. My husband has received countless calls, texts and sympathy cards. Many of his patients offered their condolences when they saw him in his office. I think Gary has the capacity to allow himself to be comforted by the show of support. I don’t believe he spends much time (if any time) thinking about who didn’t call or whether enough was done for him. Having the capacity to receive, whether it is comfort or praise or love, is essential for our mental health.
Not having preconceived ideas seems to be part of the equation, too. Do you have expectations? Of course we do! But are they reasonable? Can you accept what you have been given, rather than focusing on what might be missing? I sometimes find myself thinking more about the latter, but then I check myself. Like the classic question of seeing a glass as half full or half empty, or as was the case with my brother’s friend, who in the midst of his fight with ALS, said he saw his cup as overflowing – we can choose to change our focus. For some of us it may come easier than for others. I have to work at it, but I can do it.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to pursue excellence and growth. We can and we should. The motivation needs to come from a healthy place, from curiosity and creativity, rather than from a bottomless well of need.
When is enough, enough? More often than not, I think the answer is now – we have enough right now.
“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” I said.
I don’t remember what prompted my remark, but Leah, my daughter, had an interesting reaction.
“Maybe you can. What do we know about genie-world?”
“Well, true, but it’s an expression…”
“I know, but why is it? What are the rules of genies? Who knows?”
She had a fair point. If I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s T.V. show that I loved when I was growing up, was any guide, genies went back into their bottles regularly. I remember the inside of Jeannie’s bottle. It was colorful and decadent with silk draped on the walls and velvet cushions. Not a bad place to hang out actually, though it seemed quite limited. Jeannie blinked, turned into purple smoke and went back in when directed by her ‘master’ or when she was angry at him and wanted to sulk. In hindsight it was a ridiculous show. I think I knew it was ridiculous at the time but couldn’t resist the romantic angle and attractive characters. But, I digress.
Sometimes when you stop and think about the expressions we use, you realize that they aren’t what they seem. In this case, the first known use of ‘letting the genie out of the bottle’ was in Tales of the Arabian Nights in 1706. We are familiar with the story of Aladdin, but there was actually another earlier one. The moral of that story, though, was the opposite of our use of the phrase today. In the original tale a quick-thinking fisherman outwitted the genie, convincing him to get back into his bottle, thus avoiding the mischief the genie might have wrought. How the message evolved to take on a different meaning, I don’t know. It is not the only example of the transformation of language or concepts over time.
The question posed by the genie and the bottle, or Pandora’s Box, is still relevant. Once an idea is out in the world, can you contain it? When I was growing up, we talked about this in the context of the threat of nuclear weapons. We wondered if the existence of nuclear weapons would inevitably lead to their use. Thankfully it hasn’t, at least not yet. They remain a threat, but steps were taken, and treaties were signed, to reduce the risk.
Today I think about it in terms of social media. Is it out of our control? Sometimes it feels like it is. Disinformation takes on a life of its own.
But social media doesn’t have to be that way. Some will find this objectionable, but regulation would help. We all know free speech isn’t unfettered, you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, there are limits to hate speech, etc. Some of the standards that are applied in that context should be applied to the Internet. It is a matter of having the will to do it and applying the resources to the task. It needs to be a cost of doing business for Facebook and Twitter. God knows they make enough money! Newspapers and magazines have fact checkers and editors. Wikipedia has found a way to deal with the need for facts – it isn’t perfect, but it does pretty well compared to the wild west of other of social media platforms.
I know that the devil is always in the details (another expression worth examining since I’ve also heard it said that God is in the details too). I’m not suggesting it will be easy to regulate but we need to start. The fact that something is difficult doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done. The damage to our culture of the current hands-off approach, in sowing division and inspiring violence, is a real threat to our democracy and our society.
It is indeed time to put the genie back in the bottle and I believe we can.
Healing is on my mind. I thought Joe Biden struck the right tone in his speech Saturday night. He appealed to Americans to stop looking at each other as the enemy if we belong to a different political party. Easier said than done, though.
I am fortunate in that I don’t have a lot of experience in needing to heal relationships. I have never been estranged from my parents or brothers, or aunts, uncles or cousins. At least not that I am aware. I’m not suggesting that there hasn’t been ebbs and flows, or hurt feelings here and there, but never a breach in the relationship. The one significant friendship that was broken happened when I was in elementary school. I learned a lot from that experience. I think about it today because though it was a personal relationship, I think it bears on the challenge that faces our country.
I wrote about this incident previously on this blog (here). I was playing with my good friend in the alley between our houses when other kids from the block showed up and started taunting her. Rather than defend her or take her into my house to escape, I joined in. I’m still horrified by having done that, but I can’t deny it. I felt terrible and after some time passed, I apologized to her. She accepted my apology and we went back to being friends and remain so to do this day – more than 50 years later. I can’t speak from her perspective, but I have thought about why we were able to overcome my betrayal.
I did offer a genuine apology. I knew I was wrong, and I think I owned that. Whether she truly accepted my apology immediately, or whether she decided to give me second chance to see if she could trust me, I can’t say. Either way, her willingness to do that was huge. Many people would not be able to move on from that hurt. I don’t know if over the years I have disappointed her, but I do know that she has remained in my heart even when we don’t see each other for long periods of time (she lives on Long Island, while I am in upstate New York). When we do speak or get together, we pick up right where we left off.
What does this have to do with our country? I’m doubtful that the conditions that allowed us to repair our relationship are in place, despite Joe Biden’s appeal to our better angels. Will anyone take responsibility for the wrongs they have done? I’m not painting myself as a hero, but there is risk in apologizing. I needed to accept that I had done wrong, and I needed to take the chance that she would reject me and we both had to give each other time to rebuild the trust. Is either political party up to the task?
Democrats have participated in gerrymandering and their rhetoric has been extreme at times. Democratic candidates have been guilty of putting the desire for power over good policy choices. I think the Clintons, in particular, were guilty of that. Will they own it? Will any prominent Democrat acknowledge their responsibility?
From where I sit, though, I believe the Republicans have more to apologize for. In allowing Trump to behave as he has, in turning a blind eye to his (and his family’s) corruption, in not rejecting his hate speech, they have a lot to answer for. And, actually, going back to Newt Gingrich, who ushered in (I believe) this culture of scorched earth politics, is any Republican willing to disavow that approach. Will anyone apologize to Merrick Garland, or more importantly, the American people?
It seems to me that Biden was suggesting that we put all of this behind us and start anew – rather than reckoning with the damage. For healing to happen, though, I don’t believe you can just sweep it all under the rug. Maybe, in truth, he isn’t suggesting that we heal, but rather just move on.
I think healing would be far healthier, if we can do it. We have never faced our divisions or confronted the wrongs – we still haven’t reckoned with the Civil War for crying out loud. It is a huge undertaking but if we don’t do it, will we inevitably face another one?
The path forward requires that those who have done wrong to publicly acknowledge it. And by wrong, I am not talking about policy mistakes. We can debate immigration or economic policy (though putting children in cages is more than just a policy mistake). I am referring to processes – the systematic hoarding of power, the disrespect shown to adversaries, the corrupting influence of money and the spreading of lies. The fact that these things have been done has to be admitted.
If Democrats and Republicans take that first step of taking responsibility, then they will have to take another difficult step. They will have to give each other another chance.
I’m not sure anyone is ready to take either of those steps. It won’t be enough if it is only Joe Biden who does. We need more Democrats and we need a lot of Republicans to step up. With Trump at the helm, and still denying defeat, it seems unlikely. I have no expectation that Trump himself is capable of taking responsibility, but if those Republicans who remain in leadership positions don’t do it, I don’t know how we make progress.
While I am very relieved that Biden and Harris won, and I want to be hopeful, the challenge before us is daunting.
First, ultimately the truth comes out; maybe not immediately, but in time it would emerge, and you would be embarrassed or ashamed to be caught in that lie.
Second, your lie could hurt someone, and we didn’t want to hurt other people if we could avoid it. [They did offer this caveat: If it was a white lie, intended to protect someone from harm, it might be okay.]
Third, it can be hard to keep track of lies and you might contradict yourself later (“What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” – I remember that adage from that font of all wisdom, Sargent O’Rourke on F-Troop.)
Fourth, if you make a practice of lying, you won’t be trusted, and when you need to be believed, you will be out of luck (see the fable ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’).
Finally, and possibly most important, when you lay your head down on your pillow at night you want to have a clear conscience so you can sleep peacefully.
I was convinced. I am not perfect – I can’t say I’ve never lied, but I am really bad at it. Ask my family.
It appears that our president didn’t learn this lesson, or he has conveniently forgotten it. It is hard to believe that we need to review the reasons to value honesty. Let’s take a closer look at how Trump fails:
The first argument assumes a person can be embarrassed. Trump has no shame. When he is caught in a lie, he doubles down on it.
The second argument assumes that we value not hurting people. Trump is unconcerned about people’s feelings – he puts this on display every time he mocks someone for their disability and, more generally, how he treats people in his life.
Trump could not care less about keeping track of his lies, he makes no attempt to do so. When a reporter brings up statements Trump has made in the past which were incorrect or contradictory, he pretends it never happened or shrugs his shoulders.
Trump doesn’t value relationships and doesn’t want to acknowledge dependence on anyone, so he moves through the world without worrying about whether his word means anything. He has been sued repeatedly for not fulfilling commitments. His lack of credibility has done damage to our relationships with allies across the world.
Considering that he is known for tweeting at all hours of the night or early morning, sleep appears to elude him.
Trump’s enablers and followers apparently didn’t learn that lying is wrong either. It frightens me for our future – lying has become normalized. What will it mean for our country if our culture no longer values personal integrity and if we believe the ends justify the means?
Trump’s lying may in fact be criminal when you consider his handling of the coronavirus. I believe he has blood on his hands.
I understand the temptation to lie when it is expedient. If a lie gets you what you want in the short term, it can be quite tempting. Sometimes we lie to avoid conflict or unpleasant conversations. Whatever the motivation, it is short-sighted. If you lie to avoid conflict, it puts off the inevitable and possibly makes it worse when you finally do have to confront it. If you lie to achieve a short-term goal, it may jeopardize more important long-range accomplishments. We need to take a longer view, in our personal relationships and in our professional lives. I think any number of societal issues we face would be improved if we did that.
I was thinking about this because of a Facebook exchange I had with a neighbor. She is a Trump supporter and she posted a comment that she wasn’t voting for Trump’s personality, but for his principles(!). What principles? I was stunned. She made this remark in response to someone that criticized Trump for lying. Incessant lying is incontrovertible evidence of a lack of principles and/or mental illness. In either case, it is not a quality that someone who is entrusted with the presidency of our country should possess. This neighbor’s world is upside down. But, that’s what happens when you depend on Fox News and talk radio for your information.
Yesterday that same neighbor criticized Biden on Facebook for being boring. I long for boring. I am exhausted after four years of outrageous statements. I can’t wait for us to turn the corner and heal from this divisive and painful time – not to mention finally getting a handle on the pandemic with thoughtful, scientific federal guidance.
Tomorrow is election day. I pray that Americans send a resounding message by rejecting the Lying Liar and those that have enabled him in the House and Senate. While I also hope that Trump is held accountable for his crimes after he is out of office, I think I will be satisfied if he and his family fade away and are no longer part of our national conversation. It is an interesting question: what is best for our country? Pursuing investigations and possible prosecution or focusing on the future and turning the page on Trump. But, I am getting ahead of myself. We can debate that question after he is sent packing.
I am practically holding my breath with anxiety – I need to remind myself, and you, to breathe until we get through this, hopefully in 48 hours.
Note: Today is Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day. It seems apropos to revisit another historical controversy – one not quite so long ago. Also, I’d like to give a shout out to my cousin Ira, celebrating a milestone birthday today, having been through a lot more than most. I wish him health, happiness and many more celebrations.
In a series of previous blog posts, I wrote about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike of 1968 because it was a seminal event in both the history of New York City and my family. My Dad was a union activist and walked that picket line. That strike is seen by many as a turning point in the relationship between the Jewish- and African-American communities, damaging it so much that it reverberates to this day.
As part of my exploration of the topic I attended a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society in late January of 2019. Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School in 1968, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Gravesend, way across the borough of Brooklyn, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.
She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.
I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over. It made me think of my own experience in 1973 attending junior high school in Canarsie despite a boycott of the schools because parents were against the proposed busing of black students into our district. I walked a gauntlet lined by police and white demonstrators who were yelling and shaking their fists at the few of us who dared to attend classes. It was unnerving.
Monifa continued, explaining how based on this incident, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). To her radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced. I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. As a young teen she joined the Black Panthers in Brooklyn and they became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
Hearing about the Black Panthers brought back images I saw on television when I was growing up. Angry young black men, wearing berets, camo and armed to the teeth came to mind. Those images were unsettling when they flashed on the nightly news in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The energy and anger that radiated was scary – especially when coupled with footage of cities burning. It felt like revolution was in the air.
As a young white girl in Brooklyn, it was beyond my control or understanding. I remember my Dad coming home from the picket line, tired and frustrated; talking about the ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘opportunists’ that were stirring the pot. He viewed the strike as necessary to protect union rights, to ensure due process for teachers who were disciplined. He thought schools needed to be protected from local politics. I implicitly trusted my dad’s judgment – I knew him to be an ethical, thoughtful person.
I later came to understand that the students and parents in the community felt unheard and disrespected in the current system. Though it wasn’t my dad’s intent, the structure he was supporting likely contributed to the community’s alienation. It was a dangerous situation – with the mostly white picketers (the teachers) in a Black neighborhood, Black Panthers on the scene, epithets flying both ways, anger bubbling to the surface, police sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings across from the junior high school. Each side believing in the righteousness of their cause. The civil rights movement, which had been nonviolent, was undergoing a change, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier that year.
Years later I watched the documentary Eyes on the Prize and learned more about the Black Panthers; I gained a fuller understanding of the organization. Their ten-point program doesn’t seem quite as radical today. These are the ten points:
What We Want Now!
We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
We want full employment for our people.
We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
I’m sure some of those demands would trouble people today. Freedom for all incarcerated black men is not realistic, though I can’t deny that racism is embedded in the criminal justice system. ‘Robbery by the capitalists’ is still incendiary language, as well. But the thrust of the program addresses legitimate grievances.
The Black Panther platform also included statements of belief. This part likely stoked more of the controversy.
What We Believe:
We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.
We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American business men will not give full employment, the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities: the Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
We believe that if the White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make a decent housing for its people.
We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peers. A peer is a persons from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical, and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of “the average reasoning man” of the Black community.
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such a form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accused. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.
When I read it now, I am first struck by the reference only to men. The organization may have been progressive, but they didn’t extend the call for liberation to Black women. I am also struck by the rage that permeates. We needed to acknowledge that fury. We didn’t then, and we are still dealing with the consequences. While I don’t accept a number of their remedies (or all of the assumptions), some of their answers seem appropriate (decent housing, education that includes contributions beyond those of White men, and, reparations should be negotiated). As is often the case, more attention was given to the extremes, rather than focusing what could be agreed upon.
I can certainly imagine that a young person, like Monifa, would find all of it empowering and tantalizing.
Sitting in the audience that night listening to the discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I thought there was a hole in the presentation. The perspective of someone like my father, whose motivations were not drenched in bigotry or a hunger for power for power’s sake, who legitimately believed that the principles of the union were at stake, was not represented. While giving parents a voice in schools is essential, it is reasonable to ask what their role should be if teaching is a respected profession. Having served as a school board member for nine years in an upstate New York suburb, I have grappled with this question. It is not easily answered. Sadly, in 1968 the union and the community could find no middle ground.
I think in one respect that panel discussion repeated the sins of the past. An important voice wasn’t heard.
Sitting in the audience that night, I was also reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. I absorbed messages that I still need to examine, so did Monifa Edwards. It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.
Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message that white people were devils. Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took.
How many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized?’ How many will do the work that Ms. Edwards did to move beyond hate? And, I wonder how she feels today, eighteen months later, in the wake of continued instances of black citizens being murdered by police, seemingly without consequence.
And, finally, I wonder when we will truly learn to listen and try to understand, beyond just the words.
Moral clarity. Those were the words that came to mind when I learned that Rep. John Lewis had died. He had a moral compass and followed it. I asked my husband, “Is that a rare quality?” Gary thought about it for a bit and said, “I don’t know.” “It sure seems like it is,” I responded.
I can’t help but compare our current president, who clearly doesn’t have a moral molecule in his heartless body, to John Lewis. There is no comparison. In fact, I can’t bring myself to type Trump’s name in the same sentence.
After thinking for a bit, Gary looked at me, “You have moral clarity.”
Wow, that’s a major compliment. I thanked him but know that I am not in the same category – it is embarrassing to even write this. My family gives me more credit than I deserve for doing the right thing. I fall short often.
Thinking about John Lewis’s life I can’t help but be awed by his courage, consistency and vision. If I have moral clarity, I have not come close to living it in the way that he did. Some people live big lives. John Lewis did. Why? What is the difference between those that lead on a national or international stage and those that don’t. I’m thinking it is a combination of having a compelling vision, a willingness to step up, a calling to shoulder responsibility, and seizing the opportunity to act.
Maybe the truth is that we all have opportunities to act, and either we don’t step up or we try and fail. Perhaps we don’t have the courage required to put ourselves on the line – there is so much to fear, from losing a job to physical harm. Or maybe we try but don’t have the leadership qualities that inspire others, or maybe we don’t offer a message that resonates. It is amazing to think that John Lewis was 23 when he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. So young and to already have ascended to that height! His willingness to put his body – his very life – on the line by participating in the Freedom Rides and the protests in Selma, among other activities, is awe inspiring.
I’m trying to think of times I have been in the presence of someone who had that kind of vision, determination and integrity. I can’t think of any. I can think of times I saw a speech on television that moved me. Mario Cuomo’s and Barack Obama’s convention speeches come to mind. But, again, that is different than a Black man sitting at a ‘Whites Only’ lunch counter and waiting for the painful consequences. Taking action is a different animal than soaring oratory. We need both to stir change. John Lewis did both – he used words and actions.
I think about my father who had a very strong sense of right and wrong and he communicated that in no uncertain terms to his children. The three of us benefitted from the clarity of his vision. He was a chapter chair in the teachers’ union and walked the picket line in New York City as a teacher in the 1960s, but he didn’t march on Washington or go to other protests. I wish I could talk to him about his choices. I’m not judging him – he lived an admirable life. I do wonder what he would say about leadership and courage, especially in this moment when both seem to be in such short supply.
We are living at a time where there is a paucity of leadership on the national level, certainly a lack of leadership that embraces an ethical code. We have a leader – we have a president. But he is so devoid of values, he has failed us miserably during this pandemic (and in addressing the systemic inequalities that the pandemic has made glaringly obvious).
I miss John Lewis already. Knowing his voice was out there gave me comfort. I know there are people doing good work, courageous work, trying to steer this country in a healthier direction. I hope leaders emerge who can bring us together. I am keeping an eye out for them.
Night and day (Photo on left: AP/Alex Brandon; Photo on right: AP/Seth Wenig)
I watch with horror the violence and destruction that seems to accompany peaceful protest. I admire the protesters, the ‘wall of moms,’ and believe they are acting in good faith. Who is to blame for the fact that it devolves into riot? Is it because the response by the police and ‘troopers,’ (from whatever Federal agency they may come – which is another troubling issue) are so aggressive? Is it troublemakers who seize an opportunity? Is it both? Who is benefitting from the chaos? And, is it really chaos? How much violence and destruction is there really? These days, when where you get your information makes such a difference in your reality, it is hard to know what to believe.
I have attended a number of protests in my life. Gary and I went to Washington D.C. for the Women’s March. I’ve gone to several Planned Parenthood demonstrations. I went to show support for our local Jewish Community Center after it had been targeted with anti-Semitic bomb threats. All of them were peaceful. None of them were held at night. Something seems to change at night. Why?
I continue to reflect on the role that law enforcement plays in our society. I wrote about it previously here. I have been thinking about my own experiences. I am my father’s daughter and that means that I have an instinctive negative reaction to authority figures – at least those who are heavy-handed. Dad left the Air Force as soon as he could; the culture of taking orders without question wasn’t a good fit.
Fortunately, I have had minimal interactions with police officers, other than a few speeding tickets. The blaring siren, the lights flashing in your rearview mirror and the realization that it is directed at me gets the adrenaline flowing full force, even though I know that I haven’t done anything seriously wrong. I have been envious of friends who have been able to sweet talk their way out the ticket. I don’t have that skill set. On those rare occasions when I have been stopped, I try to curb that instinctive resentment (sometimes not that successfully), minimize the interaction, obey their direction, and move on.
Once back in the late ‘80s, Gary and I were pulled over in Brooklyn. We were heading to a friend for Sunday brunch and wanted to pick up a cake or pie, so we were looking for a bakery or grocery store in an unfamiliar neighborhood. As a result, Gary was driving a little erratically – stopping and starting, pulling over to the side to see if shops were open. Next thing we know, we hear the siren from a patrol car and look back to see we were being flagged down. After the police officer explained why he stopped us, we understood his concern, but the officer was more than a little rude and condescending in questioning us. Gary was very respectful (more than I would have been capable of being), explaining what we were looking for, producing his driver’s license and registration. When the interaction was over, we breathed a sigh of relief. We agreed that the cop seemed to take pleasure in his power trip, he enjoyed seeing us quaking in our boots.
On the other hand, we had a positive experience with a state trooper in Pennsylvania. Our car broke down and we managed to pull over on the shoulder of the highway. It was cold and damp out. Within minutes a patrol car arrived. The trooper radioed for assistance and let us sit in his warm, dry car until the AAA tow truck came. We took the trooper’s name and Gary wrote a letter to the state police to thank him for his service.
In both of those instances, we did not fear for our lives. The two interactions were very different, but even in the case of the unpleasant police officer, we weren’t concerned that we would be arrested, abused or killed. I would not have labeled it as ‘white privilege’ at the time, but we both recognize it as such now.
My feelings about the police includes quite a range of emotion, including fear, respect, resentment and appreciation. I guess it depends on the circumstances.
Many years ago, when we lived in the city of Albany, we heard screaming coming from our neighbor’s house. Our house was set on higher ground so we could see into the apartment, the curtains were not drawn. Upon hearing the sounds of distress, I looked out our bedroom window and saw a woman being chased by a man from one room to another. I waited a minute or two to see if things calmed down. They didn’t – I thought she was in danger. I didn’t know the couple despite the fact that they lived next door. I called 911. Fortunately, they responded quickly, and it appeared that they successfully deescalated the situation. I was grateful to be able to call upon them. The incident was never repeated.
As far as I know, that was a success story. I know it doesn’t always go that way. The couple, by the way, were Black. That scenario raises a lot of questions. Is that the role of the police? Who would I have called if the police were no longer assigned that responsibility? I suppose there could be another service, but what would that look like? There are so many unknowns in a situation like that. The man or woman could have had a gun; mental illness or drugs/alcohol could have had a role. Whoever responded to the call wouldn’t know what they were walking into.
I guess that is one of the problems at the root of this. We don’t know what we are dealing with and the situation can evolve. A peaceful protest may be proceeding without incident until it isn’t. A loud argument between people can turn violent. I attended a training for school resource officers several years ago where one of the presenters explained that police are taught to gain control of the situation – their mindset is to shut things down and get the upper hand. While that strategy makes sense in one way, in another it may be counterproductive, especially when someone is angry or desperate and wants to be heard.
It is clear to me that law enforcement needs to improve its ability to deescalate rather than inflame. In the meanwhile, as protest continues and may even be spreading, I pray it can happen without destruction, injuries or deaths.
As I understand the directive in New York State, you are supposed to be masked (nose and mouth covered) if you are in public when you can’t keep the appropriate physical distance (six feet). Seems simple, but it isn’t.
Some of the complexity I understand – I am confused by what it means in some circumstances (more on that in a bit). Most situations are crystal clear so when people aren’t masked inside stores then they are being defiant or selfish or both. I’m happy to report that the vast majority of folks I see when I go to the Price Chopper are doing it right.
I must confess that I don’t like wearing a mask. I am someone who, under ordinary circumstances, sweats a lot. If I walk around the block, I will be perspiring pretty much regardless of the weather. It is just a fact of my life. My forehead and face get damp easily. Wearing a mask makes it worse. I also wear glasses – contact lenses are not an option for a variety of reasons. The combination of these factors means that I am often looking at the world through fogged up lenses. I need a defroster. Someone should invent glasses that have that feature. Maybe windshield wipers?
Despite this inconvenience, I wear the mask. It isn’t comfortable, it isn’t pleasant, but I wear it. I don’t want to put others or myself at risk.
Now to the grey areas and questions I have…
Sometimes I see people driving in their car with their masks on. I wonder why. If they have passengers that would explain it. But many times, they are alone. I don’t wear my mask if I am alone in my car or if I am riding with my husband. Am I missing something?
The other day I stopped to put gas in my car. There were four other people getting gas at the other pumps. No one had their mask on. I did. Though we were outside, I didn’t think we were distant enough to go without. Again, am I missing something? Why weren’t others wearing their masks?
I wonder about the etiquette of mask wearing when outside in public. I don’t live in a densely populated area. When I go out to walk in the neighborhood, I am able to keep an appropriate distance even if I see someone else. Should I still be wearing my mask under those circumstances? Given that it makes me even warmer and that my glasses fog up, I prefer not to, but I also want to do the right thing. For all I know, my neighbors are grumbling, “why isn’t she masked?” Though, generally, when I see other walkers or bike riders on my street they aren’t masked either. Maybe I can stop fretting about this one.
If I walk in a more heavily trafficked area, I will have my mask on or at the ready so that I can mask up if I approach other people. I will give others a wide berth on the sidewalk and appreciate when others do that for me. Here is my question in this scenario: if all parties are wearing masks, do you need to still to be six feet apart? Can you just walk by each other without taking a detour into the street or onto the grass?
I got an estimate for some work to be done on our deck. The guy came to the house, he rang the doorbell and he backed away to keep an appropriate distance. I opened the door and asked him to go around back so we could talk by the deck. He was wearing a mask when he rang the bell, but it only covered his mouth. I wore my mask when I went outside to meet him in the backyard. I saw him adjust his to cover his nose and it stayed that way for about two minutes before it slid down. He didn’t fix it. I was wondering if I should say something to him. This is another etiquette question. I don’t feel comfortable correcting people on their mask usage. In this case, we were outside, and I could back away when his mask slipped, so I let it go.
To be honest, though, I have never asked someone to adjust their mask, even when I have been in a store. It is all so fraught. I don’t want to be in a viral video where someone goes nuts in response to being called out for not abiding by the rules. I don’t envy store employees who have to enforce the policy. What a thankless, and possibly dangerous, job. It is hard to believe we have come to a point where someone would actually pull a gun (this happened in a Walmart, of course) when admonished to put on a mask. It’s craziness!
I find it very stressful thinking about it all the time and trying to figure out the right way to handle each situation. As I said before, sometimes it is totally clear – other than when I am in my own house, if I am indoors, I am masked. But there are all these other situations where I do this dance. I worry whether I am doing it right and then I worry whether others are. I don’t want to think about it anymore! Maybe it would be simpler to just wear it all the time.
Not that long ago ‘check your privilege’ was being bandied about. A white male student wrote a piece in the Princeton college newspaper in 2014 calling attention to the use of the phrase. Some were resentful of the comment (including the writer of that column), some were confused by it and others welcomed the dialogue. That conversation seemed to be limited to college campuses, then the moment faded away. Now we are in another moment where this idea of ‘privilege’ has currency – maybe this time it will have more traction. The murder of George Floyd was the latest example of brutality inflicted on an African American man that would be very unlikely to happen to a white one. While it is troubling to label that difference in treatment a privilege because one would hope that any living being would be treated with more respect than Mr. Floyd was afforded, what should we call it if not privilege?
My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about that idea. “I wish there was another way to say it,” Gary commented. “People reject the idea of privilege immediately, like it doesn’t apply to them. They say, ‘no one gave me anything,’ or ‘I worked hard for everything I’ve gotten.’ It’s hard to get people to see it.” Gary was reflecting on his experience talking with a range of people who come through his office – not that it comes up that often, but when it does, he has found resistance. I know he isn’t alone.
People can only see things through their own experience. If they didn’t grow up wealthy, and then they achieved a measure of success after working hard, it can be hard to accept that they were still advantaged (if that can be a verb). We want to believe in a meritocracy and that we earned what we have achieved. But the advantages can be taken for granted, and there is no reward for calling attention to it. The status quo has a lot invested in protecting itself.
The first time I read about the ‘invisible knapsack’ (otherwise known as white privilege) was in 2001. I was participating in training to be a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in their World of Difference program. The World of Difference program is a multicultural awareness effort that had a number of components, some geared to schools, others to workplaces. I participated in five full days of exercises, each designed to examine our assumptions about all the ‘isms’ (racism, ableism, sexism, etc.) in our society. Though I had always been socially-conscious, or thought I was, I learned a great deal about the insidious ways that our biases impact our behavior. On one of the early days of the training, we were given an article to read (I highly recommend it:
On the one hand, I find this all very discouraging. We have been having the same conversation for most of my life and yet it still comes as ‘news’ to many. I don’t understand that. On the other hand, there finally seems to be more widespread acceptance of the existence of systemic racism. I am hopeful that maybe now we can finally make some meaningful change. In the course of a given day, my mood can shift from optimism on one hand to despair on the other.
I take comfort in the words of our former president, Barack Obama, when he points out that we have made progress – that for all the anger, pain and disappointment caused by continuing tragedies, we have made steps forward. Despite the setbacks, and reminders that there is still much work to be done, there are more opportunities for African Americans in America today than there was when I was born (in 1959). Of course, that isn’t enough, as we see every day, we haven’t made nearly enough progress.
One of the things I have realized over the course of my career as a school board member and as a trainer of school board members is that we need to periodically refresh our knowledge of the fundamentals. We think, since we are doing the work day-to-day, that we know the essentials. But the truth is, we forget, or at least lose sight of them. In the midst of whatever crisis, we are facing, or even when we are carrying out the mundane day-to-day tasks, we stop thinking about the fundamentals. We can easily lose our way. That is why continuing education is critical in every field – medicine, law, every workplace. It isn’t just that we need to learn about new developments, we need to be refreshed on the core values that inform our work. There is always more to learn and more awareness to be had – and this applies to being a citizen of a democracy. I hope Americans are willing to do the work.
Note: This is an edited and reworked piece that I thought was timely. I continue to struggle with what is happening in our nation. The combination of Covid-19 and racism is toxic. I can only hope that we come through it to a better place, having begun to reckon with our history. I will look for opportunities to do my part. I think writing about difficult subjects, which many find hard to talk about, is one way. I would like to have those conversations. I’m not sure how to go about doing it other than to post it here. I welcome other perspectives.
In 1980 I was in graduate school. I lived in a studio apartment on West 80th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan in a building owned by Columbia University. Gentrification was taking place right before my eyes as the block transformed brownstone by brownstone. Drug addicts, homeless and working-class people were displaced. Mom and Pop stores were shuttered; boutiques and trendy restaurants moved in. I can’t say I was sad about the changes. Slowly but surely the neighborhood felt safer.
I commuted to campus by subway. I gave careful thought to my route to the station to avoid the junkies and panhandlers. My shoulders hunched, eyes surveying the street, almost always in daylight, I walked quickly. I welcomed the neighborhood changes that allowed me to relax my shoulders.
These issues of community change were being discussed in my grad school classes. The question was: Can the market provide low- and middle-income housing when there is so much more money to be made in high-end housing? What is the incentive to create housing for the poor and working class? Is the government’s role to create that incentive? If so, how should it do it effectively? Almost 40 years later, we are still grappling with those questions. Meanwhile gentrification has marched through other areas of the city, particularly Brooklyn, the borough where I grew up.
I had reason to think about the changes wrought over the last three decades in New York City when I did the Five Boro Bike Tour, cycling through Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn in 2018. Those two neighborhoods were off limits in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were hollowed out, drug infested and crime-ridden. I wouldn’t have considered visiting either one, much less bike through them. In contrast, in 2018 I cycled past art galleries and craft beer breweries.
I thought about how change happens in neighborhoods, and whether the changes were, on balance, positive. Gentrification is understood to be a bad thing especially for poor, immigrant communities. Activists who fight it paint a picture of an invading force that disempowers the current residents. While there is truth to that portrait, I think it is oversimplified.
There isn’t one monolithic army encroaching all at once – there isn’t one homogenous group of rich, white people. We need to acknowledge that when demographics are changing, it is a dynamic process. There can be hostility and an unwillingness to work with newcomers that contributes to the failure to integrate. Some may come to a neighborhood expecting their every need to be accommodated, without regard to those already there. But, not all come with that baggage. Some may come precisely to live and/or raise families in a diverse community.
I may be particularly sensitive to integrating across economic class based on my experience moving into a suburban development outside of Albany, NY. I grew up thinking suburbs were homogenous, but I learned otherwise as an adult. In my subdivision there were those who were stretching to their financial limit to live there, and there were others for whom it was very comfortable (my family fell into this latter category).
Our daughter became friends with a girl down the block. We made overtures to invite the whole family over. We were politely rebuffed. Over time, and as a result of a number of comments, I came to believe that the Mom made assumptions about us because my husband is a doctor. Maybe I was wrong, perhaps she just didn’t like us, but I think there was something more. They were of more modest means. We never got beyond neighborly friendliness. Eventually they moved away. An opportunity was lost to both of us. Economic differences can create awkwardness. It is something that is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about.
Economic status can be one barrier within communities, race is certainly another. Canarsie, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up, underwent a huge change in racial composition. Canarsie’s story of change is not one of gentrification.
In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My junior high school was 98% white. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan was received with tremendous hostility by white parents. A group was organized, Concerned Citizens of Canarsie (CCC), to protest. The choice of CCC as a name, which carried echoes of the KKK, was probably purposeful. The CCC slogan ‘neighborhood schools for neighborhood children’ seemed reasonable enough on the surface. A car, with a bullhorn on the roof, cruised through the neighborhood admonishing parents to keep their children home. The vast majority listened. Even though I was only 13, I believed that racism and fear was at the heart of their objections.
A boycott of the schools went on for weeks. I was alone in my 9th grade classes; just a teacher and me. I remember walking in the main entrance through a path defined by uniformed police and sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. My sense that the parents were racist was born out by their behavior.
Ultimately, the boycott failed and the busing plan was implemented. There was personal fallout; my friendship with Pia got caught in the crossfire.
Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to attend better schools and escape the violence. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them. After the boycott, Pia never invited me to hang out at her house again and she kept her distance at school.
In the aftermath, there was some white flight, but the neighborhood remained stable for a number of years. In 1972 Canarsie was about 10% black, by 1990 it shifted to just under 20%. By 2010 the neighborhood was over 80% black. While the racial composition changed, its economic status remained stable as a middle class neighborhood.
Caribbean immigrants who made Canarsie their home were looking for the same things that Jews and Italians sought years before. According to a New York Times article from 2001, “Canarsie had what many Caribbean immigrants wanted: single-family homes with backyards for barbecuing and growing roses or tomatoes, decent schools, affordable prices, quiet streets, proximity to family…”
These were shared values, but the white residents didn’t see it. It is sad that it wasn’t possible for the community to truly integrate. The exodus of white families accelerated in 1991 after the firebombing of a real estate agency that was showing homes to black families. Ironically, the firebombing was intended to frighten blacks away, but white families left. The neighborhood became homogenous again – today it is over 90% black.
In reading and thinking about the issue of neighborhood change, commonalities emerge. Problems start with assumptions based on stereotypes and ignorance. There aren’t effective mechanisms to get beyond that. We have no language to talk to each other about these subjects. Perhaps that is something we can remedy.
One essay I read analogized different segments of a community living together to ‘parallel playing,’ like toddlers who play with a set of blocks at the same time, building their own structures, but not interacting. This seems like an apt description. Maybe neighborhoods can be helped to mature beyond the ‘toddler’ stage. Perhaps opportunities can be created, by local government structures or nonprofit organizations, to facilitate community conversations, to break down assumptions and stereotypes.
We must find ways to do better. Forty years from now, I hope we aren’t asking the same questions about how to integrate communities across race and economic status.