The Supreme Court and a question of priorities

In the early 1990s, when I was attending college in Columbus, Ohio, one of my living situations included renting a room in an ornate Victorian-style house. Since I was sharing with a bunch of guys I didn’t know, I made the mistake of having a locksmith install a lock on my bedroom door. Later in a phone conversation with the landlord, she told me she wished I hadn’t done that, because it took from the house’s character. After that, I started noticing the elaborate molding on the walls and some faded wallpaper from a long-ago era. Later, one of the guys living there told me the house would soon be 100 years old.

One day I followed the guy who lived in the room across from me and some of his friends down to the basement. There we found obsolete rusty farm implements, like an old plow apparently untouched for decades.

It was an interesting house, but it was an impossible living situation. We couldn’t even agree on things like paying the electric bill, so we had no power for over a month. When the power finally came back, I volunteered to clean the refrigerator where food had been left and was infested with maggots.

Shortly after finding other living arrangements, I was watching TV when the local news flashed a picture of the house I had recently moved from. In the news story, the guy who lived across the hall from me had gone into the house’s attic where he found skeletal remains of a baby wrapped up in old newspaper.

It was clear that the remains had been there a long time. The first clue was the date on the newspaper, which was in the early decades of the 20th Century. I can’t remember now exactly, but I don’t think it was anything past the 1920s.

It was ghastly to think about this and what probably happened. I could imagine the house’s original inhabitants with a daughter in her early twenties or late teens with a boyfriend and an unplanned pregnancy. Perhaps she found ways of hiding her pregnancy from her parents and friends. Then when it was time, maybe her boyfriend was there with her in that attic and when the baby emerged, they made sure to kill it and hide it, taking this secret to their graves.

The whole scenario is incredibly sad and tragic to me. I remember being in the delivery room when my son was born. I was surprised by how aware he was, turning his head to look at the doctors and aids who had been waiting for him at his first appearance. He seemed to be thinking, all these people are here for me?

After being inside ‘the dryer,’ we brought him to my wife who held him for the first time. It then seemed to dawn on him that something strange had happened, that he wasn’t in his old home. And he started to cry. My wife and I soothed him and let him know it was ok. Unlike the movies, where they cry when they first come out, he surveyed the situation for a few minutes and then expressed his shock over his eviction.

But he stopped crying after a bit as we both comforted him. Later, with my wife, he would watch his first movie, though he was sleeping much of the time and probably didn’t understand a lot. It was a cautionary piece the hospital showed to all new mothers about baby shaking.

He was born on a Monday, but because the hospital had to treat him for jaundice, we had to wait for late Wednesday afternoon before we could take him home.  We had trouble getting a cab, so we finally gave up and took him in his carrier to the subway. On the way as I walked with him, I remember him looking up at a small tree above — this was the first time he was looking at a tree.

Maybe it was my imagination, but he seemed to be soothed by the sound of the subway train we rode in. Maybe this was a sound he remembered from when he was in the uterus, although the sound was probably a bit different.

My parents were with us on Wednesday when we brought him home. I don’t think anyone doubted that he was aware of his environment and the people around him.

The reason I am bringing up both stories, one horrible and one joyful, is because I’m thinking about how wrong infanticide is and how much more likely we are to see its rise if The Supreme Court changes to overturn Roe versus Wade.

While the CDC had no studies, here’s what I found from Wikipedia on Infanticide:

In 1983, the United States ranked eleventh for infants under 1 year killed, and fourth for those killed from 1 through 14 years (the latter case not necessarily involving filicide).[129] In the U.S. over six hundred children were killed by their parents in 1983.[130]

In the United States the infanticide rate during the first hour of life outside the womb dropped from 1.41 per 100,000 during 1963 to 1972 to 0.44 per 100,000 for 1974 to 1983; the rates during the first month after birth also declined, whereas those for older infants rose during this time.[131] The legalization of abortion, which was completed in 1973, was the most important factor in the decline in neonatal mortality during the period from 1964 to 1977, according to a study by economists associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research.[131][132]

I’m not minimizing the responsibility for people who would commit such acts. But I would also hope we would have a society that would minimize its likelihood. City planners and police forces work all the time on ways to decrease the likelihood of crime — they don’t avoid this social obligation and instead shout, “what about personal responsibility?”

We need to think about wholistic approaches to protecting babies, and not just insist that we’ll punish the parents when this happens. But from the political right and religious fundamentalists in the U.S., we see misplaced priorities, crying “murder” over the termination of cells that are forming, something that possesses no memories (perhaps the foundation of consciousness), in the first trimester.

Also from the political right, gun rights appear to supersede human rights to life. The firearms industry is worth billions of dollars. And sales and profits rise from mass murders or even from day- to-day homicides, and we are a capitalistic society. So I get it — as every company carefully studies what drives sales and profits and as companies live by bringing profits to shareholders, the executives in these industries and their advocacy groups have an obligation to see that gun violence continues to take human lives in exchange for profits.

I also understand that some supporters of unlimited gun rights see gun ownership as a matter of personal protection. Never mind that if one person’s rights are unlimited, so is everyone else’s and the means to easily commit murder if you shoot first.

And I understand the Second Amendment underscores the personal unlimited rights to gun ownership if you strike out part of the phrasing and bury its historical context:

Second Amendment

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

In the early days and founding of our republic the founders sent soldiers to crush not one but two rebellions: Shays Rebellion and the Whisky Rebellion.

Militias preceded professional police forces and the states organized them. The Supreme Court’s Heller Decision seems to disregard the Constitution’s words and what they mean and also their historical context, going instead with a more recent interpretation. Oh well, maybe the judges saw something more than the Constitution’s mere words. But then didn’t Scalia claim to be an Originalist?

If you can believe anything from Fox “News” [sic],  or other media sources, Brett Kavanaugh plans this same creative interpretation of the Constitution.

Again, we see a question of priorities. Are guns more important than the law? Are guns more important than lives? Are embryos more important than babies?

And what about children? Do they have any rights? Again, at least if they are children of undocumented people south of our country’s border, many fleeing dangerous places and claiming asylum, they have no right to be with their parents, according to much of the political right, presumably mostly “pro-life”voters.

Back to the probable overturning of Roe V. Wade, we also have to ask about the quality of life for children whose parents didn’t want them and might have trouble supporting and raising them. Parents’ love is one of the most important components in a child’s psychological well-being. There have already been multi-pronged attacks to abortion access across the country since 2011, and, according to Jessica Arons, Senior Advocacy and Policy Counsel for Reproductive Freedom, at the ACLU,  when a woman seeking Medicaid coverage for an abortion is denied that, “she is more likely to be in poverty, less likely to have a full-time job and twice as likely to experience domestic violence.” Furthermore, there is a very strong case that abortion reduces crime, including homicide. Again, which lives should we prioritize? Does a fully conscious individual have any right to life or must that life take a back seat?

Understandably, a drop in crime threatens jobs, as so many people depend upon the prison industry. And the United States “locks people up at a higher rate than any other country.” We have to ask whether we want to ruin people’s lives as we use the prison industrial complex for minor infractions or victimless crimes or do we value a society with less crime, even if that would require shifting federal and state budgets and job re-training for some?

I understand that justices are there to interpret, not create the law. So a good justice might have one opinion on how to rule in a case that differs from his/her personal feelings on how things should be. The Roe V. Wade decision comes down to the 14th Amendment. For me, “pro-choice” has often sounded like it suggests that it prioritizes a woman’s choice over another’s life, except if you don’t consider the life not yet conscious, when it is just forming, the same as a human being. It’s the first section of the 14th Amendment where the court in Roe V. Wade found the individual protections to one’s body:

14th Amendment, Section 1

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Can we allow the surrender of so many of the rights that have protected all citizens in what we call a “free country” to a “Koch-selected Supreme Court justice, on the court just in time to affect what [Charles] Koch is actually seeking… changes in our Constitution so radical as to be called a constitutional revolution?”

Nancy MacLean, on Real Time, discusses Brett Kavanaugh, the Koch brothers and a possible Constitutional convention.

I propose that the majority that cares about this country and future generations block all Supreme Court justice nominees from this sitting president, who is under an investigation that could find its way to the court.

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Jihad vs. McWorld and Hegel in Trumpland

A few people have been attempting to analyze the Trump phenomenon in extremely thoughtful ways, even if the “so called” president hasn’t. There’s an attempt to see the big picture as to why some people are talking and behaving in ways the rest of us would have thought impossible only a few years ago.

That brings me to two people, one from the 19th century and one more recent, who attempted to understand history and where and why history takes us to certain places.

The first one is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who tried to break down all of history as a process of competing ideas. The ideas are in opposition to each other: thesis and antithesis. The ideas clash and collide, creating a new idea from the two: synthesis. His big idea is that history has move and will move in this pattern.

The second one is Benjamin Barber, with his idea, first an article in the Atlantic back in 1992 and then a book in 1995: Jihad Versus McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World. This became a must-read after the September 11th attacks, to help answer the question at the time: “Why do they hate us?”

The book describes the conflict between a reversion to tribalism, in the Middle East, but also all over the world, the fragmentation of nations, even in Spain, where some call themselves Catalonians instead of Spanish. The idea of jihad is loyalty to one’s place and tribe and a hostility to an interconnected world. The idea of McWorld is an attempt to consolidate businesses into massive empires, to interconnect the world where everyone is a consumer and where large companies attempt to monetize every experience in every place.

I think of Hegel and Barber when I think of the Trump phenomenon because Trump seems like a synthesis of the two, though we might have thought that this contradictory state could never exist. To be fair to Hegel, a Synthesis is a resolution and a latter stage from when the thesis and antithesis collide. The example on Hegel’s Wikipedia page is as follows:

“thesis” (e.g. the French Revolution) would cause the creation of its “antithesis” (e.g. the Reign of Terror that followed), and would eventually result in a “synthesis” (e.g. the constitutional state of free citizens).

In the case of Trump, where the administration has tried to engage its followers in doublethink (the Newspeak term), we have a president who maintains contradictory positions. He is “draining the swamp” and inviting corporate leaders into his administration to execute the laws intended to regulate the same industries they come from and corporate sweetheart deals, such as to the coal industry, which no longer produces many jobs, but are now free to pollute the waters of Trump country.

When my high school history teacher introduced our class to Hegel, he had a question for us: How did Marx turn Hegel on his head?

When I first heard the question, it made no sense to me. But later, I knew the answer, since Marx used Hegel’s ideas about history and turned them upside down. Accordingly, it’s not ideas that move history, but material conditions, that then collide and create new economic orders.

But I see history as moving not entirely through economic orders or ideas, nor do I wholly agree with Václav Havel’s statement:

Consciousness preceded Being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.

Rather, I see the two as intertwined, constantly interacting with each other. Thus to the question of whether it was racism or economic hardships for poor rural whites that put Trump over the top, I see the two weaved together. The poverty fueled the racism which fueled the poverty in those they have been electing to serve them, voting to keep the government from assisting those people, i.e., the fear or repulsion to assist minorities, for example, keeping many rural whites in harsh conditions and with fewer chances of escaping poverty.

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The Threat to Freedom and Safety

In my first post after the Trump election, I discussed the possible dangers of a Trump presidency, both to our freedoms and personal safety. With his pronouncements of “I alone can fix it” and “a total and complete shutdown…” it’s hardly a big jump to suppose that many of his supporters feel he’s a refuge to our fears, a strongman who will protect and watch over us and our country.

My problem is that I have been and continue to be afraid of the Trump crowd with their support of violence against dissenters or those they identify as outsiders. Leading up to and just after the election, hate crimes, including murder, spiked.

The environment looked and sounded eerily similar to 1930s Germany, but relying on that overused comparison risks intellectual laziness, sounding a popular false alarm. Except more recent examples, such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s, suggest a sudden surge of xenophobia moving into genocide might not be a one-off but more a tendency for distressed nations to fall into.

Where many voters showed signs of being willing to sign off from checks on executive power, surrendering their freedoms in exchange for safety, as the habitual con-man conspired to give us neither, I had to decide whether it would be safe and wise for my family and me to stay in this country. I remember the morning of 11/9/2016, after being awake most of the night, going for my run at dawn, before getting ready for work, thinking about what we should do.

And I remembered all the stories of all the Jewish families and dissenters who insisted on staying in Germany. You can find articles from the New York Times dismissing any kind of reason to fear Hitler as many inside Germany also dismissed concerns about Hitler. Of course, there are limits to comparisons — Trump isn’t Hitler and the U.S. isn’t 1930s Germany. But how closely future events may, or may not, resemble past ones is not always obvious, just as the 2016 election itself surprised most of the country. While it’s reckless and panicky thinking to assume mass genocide and/or civil war is coming to the United States tomorrow, it’s important to look at the situation carefully and exclude the kind of thinking that dismisses certain possible outcomes simply because they’re too horrible to imagine. That could be what happened to many people in Germany in the 1930s and it could be one of the reasons a lot of election watchers dismissed any possibility of a Trump victory. Outcomes follow a logic of their own, that have nothing to do with what is deemed as being too horrible.

If we did leave, I wasn’t sure if we’d be leaving people behind nor was I sure I could obtain work and residency abroad.  We didn’t yet see pogroms in the streets. Many cities, including New York, under Mayor Bill DeBlasio, affirmed their commitments to diversity and tolerance. I decided to carefully watch the situation and stay for now. I still felt a strong sense of betrayal toward all those who put my family, our country and the whole world in danger by giving power to an intellectually lazy, narcissistic, impulsive, demagogue, megalomaniac and serial con-artist.

Indeed, the so called “fake news” has been revealing and confirming more and more Russian connections with the Trump campaign, which right-wing media outlets would, perhaps correctly, call treason if the other side had done the same.

While we still don’t have the spectacle of public executions in stadiums that the Pinochet regime, after its 9-11-1973 coup, employed to consolidate its power and instill fear, we have the specter of toxic exposure, especially for our children, with their smaller bodies, hampering their development and leading to fatal illnesses, through the poisoning of water systems, just one item on the list of unraveling of environmental protections. And we have the never-ending attempts to cut health insurance to millions of Americans, many of them in states that voted for Trump. We may still have to wait for horrific violence and endure slow death instead, but we should prepare ourselves for self-fulfilling prophecies of crisis and the possibility of massive social shock, just as the shock of 9-11 paved the way for the completely unnecessary Iraq War, a war that has created more wars and more threats to our national security.

I can’t predict with any certainty that such events will happen, but I’m insisting that we inoculate ourselves against a Reichstag moment, where the executive branch uses a horrible event, that it may or may not have played a role in, to seize and consolidate power, ensuring an endless cycle of horror that it claims to be protecting us from. And if it seems I’m overreacting, remember that Trump praises strongmen, like the dictator of the Philippines, Dtuerte, who sends assassins out to murder suspected drug dealers and users on the street, in front of the public view and President Erdogan of Turkey, who has seized total power of the Turkish government and has been jailing dissenters.

To me, a strong element of fascism is gladly giving up your own rights and protections within the law in an attempt to hurt another group’s rights and legal protections more.* We already see that in the demagoguery that threatens people’s right to due process, that most of us value for ourselves, in a rush to paint whole groups as criminals.

We see this from the results of years of demagoguery in some of the “news” media, journalistic practices that cross every line of journalistic ethics, such as using ethnicity as supporting evidence of guilt and calling people who refuse to indict everyone in the out group(s) as weak on protecting our society from the threat from outsiders. It’s the president and his supporters’ thing to focus on crimes that immigrants or the undocumented commit — their spotlight is creating a distorted picture and fueling a lynch mob, a strategy that the Nazis successfully employed against Jews.

crimes

Obtained from The Washington Post — originally: A 1935 article from the Nazi periodical Neues Volk entitled, “The Criminal Jew.” This article shows photos of Jews alongside their alleged crimes. (Image courtesy of Richard Weikart)

No one is clamoring to kick out the people who were born in the U.S., but it’s this group, not immigrants, who are committing more crimes. And I’m not arguing for kicking out all the white people, for example, even though it’s fair to suggest that may be more of a problem. I am arguing for prosecuting only the people who commit crimes, but with a process that’s fair, and that ethnicity or immigration status should have nothing to do with determination of guilt or innocence, and instead of taking efforts not to ruin their lives, if they’re rich and white. I can’t side with the efforts to demonize certain ethnic groups and create distortions that they’re somehow predisposed to commit violent crimes, especially rape, against the in group. That’s simply the sort of talk designed to make people angry enough to kill.

Another place where the out groups may lose rights is with voting. Trump’s “voter fraud” panel is doing more than trying to flatter the president’s ego. Their “investigation” is set to create false positives to purge eligible voters, more often in minority groups. And if you’re not worried, because that won’t affect you, that will still affect election outcomes. Furthermore, if the federal government can take voting rights away from some people, how long before it can take voting rights away from you?

White Panic

If I try to understand the Trump voter mind, one thing I understand is that increased diversity is creating an identity crisis. What is America? Are the fears that we’re being overrun justified? Have we lost a way of life?

The U.S. has had immigration waves in the past that have redefined what being an American means and survived. Still demagogues find another group to identify as invaders. We have seen over and over that the first generation of immigrants are often less educated and they take low-paying jobs. They look rougher to the people who have been living here. But they come here with goals and wishes — they change America, but they make us richer in language and ideas and wealth, for example, that child of Syrian immigrants, Steve Jobs, who started Apple Computer.

loweEastside

The Lower East Side of New York in the 1900s

1-Riis-Bandits-Roost-New-York-City-Slum-18901-300x240

Hell’s Kitchen New York, ca 1900, a neighborhood of Irish immigrants

And despite the sordid history of Jews, Irish, Italians, etc., now the good immigrants, after subsequent generations, areas that receive more immigrants experience a drop in crime, even if they are here illegally. They also create more jobs and higher wages.

It’s also important to keep pointing out that in the past few years, we’ve been experiencing a net loss of Mexican immigrants, despite the constant barrage in right-wing news media to the contrary.

The places that have the most problems with immigrants have the fewest immigrants. And one study confirms what we might suspect, as we see again and again that people close enough to be aware of immigrants, but far enough not to mingle have the most problems, and perhaps are most susceptible to the propaganda about a threat to our way of life.

Whenever people try to refer to a golden era when everything was good, I think of a scene in I, Claudius where an aspiring Roman actor talks to a Greek slave actor who has just performed for Caesar Augustus and his family. The Roman complains to the Greek that the theater isn’t what it used to be. The Greek replies, “the theater never was what it used to be.

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Norman Rockwell’s America

But let’s look at this golden age that we supposedly lost. Maybe we’re thinking of 1950s America. College was suddenly affordable for more people than ever with its relative low cost or free, with the GI Bill or many free schools. Wages were higher than they had been — the New Deal had guaranteed a minimum wage and unions were strong, further guaranteeing higher wages for everyone. All of the above is everything the Trump administration has been fighting.

I understand that globalization has forced U.S. workers and companies to compete with low-wage workers across borders, but some have been able to adjust better than others. Government can play a role in helping people adjust, by providing job training and giving incentives  to companies to hire and train workers.

By the way, the 1950s wasn’t great for everyone. If you were black, you were still living under Jim Crow in the South and discriminatory laws nationwide, including where you could buy a house. And if you were gay, you were seen as subversive and you could go to prison if you were caught in a consensual act.

As history shows, over and over, if we try to resist progress and change, we go into decline and the promise of America has always been its ability to self-correct, to better live up to its ideals. The U.S. had a significant slave population when it first raised the freedom battle cry.

Problem

The other side of Norman Rockwell — the America we get if we don’t move forward

‘Freedom isn’t free.’

So what do we do? And who are the freedom fighters? Perhaps it’s more than soldiers who defend fsamreedom. Maybe it’s activists and journalists and some entertainers, but also the rest of us with the courage to put ourselves at risk to speak out and hold people in positions accountable, before we all lose that power.

If America is more than white-Christian nationalism (more than a Christian, mirror image of revolutionary Iran), but an idea of human rights, dignity and opportunities for all, in a society that is constantly self-correcting, working to obtain its highest ideals, then all of us need to fight for that America.

Sign up for Daily Action, so you can get text alerts and call representatives and leaders every day.

Try to get your news from multiple sources, that are unafraid to broadcast stories and editorial content that look at potential flaws in political leaders and interests on all sides. Try to read overseas publications to get outsider perspectives, but from countries where journalists aren’t imprisoned or killed for printing unflattering stories.

Participate in at least one protest every six months.

Be aware of what the other side is saying. Understand their arguments and also their emotional appeal and how their talking points undermine higher reasoning. But try to avoid contributing financially to “news” media that engage in demagoguery.

Contribute financially to at least one organization that’s working to protect all of us, such as the ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union), the SPLC (the Southen Poverty Law center), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Sierra Club, GreenpeaceMoms Demand Action (to keep our society safe with sensible firearms safety) the Human Rights Campaign (to protect gay and transgender rights and safety), and Black Lives Matter — remember that even if you’re not black, when police can kill unarmed black people, you could be next, as we see from the recent, not surprising, shooting in Minnesota.  Stand up for others, not just yourself or your group, through any of the above listed organizations.

Get involved through the groups and strategies listed and laid out in the Indivisible Guide.

Defend more than just your own group’s rights. You’re less likely to lose your rights if other people’s rights are also protected. If the country is divided into small groups willing to take other group’s rights away, it will be easier for your group to lose its rights, even if that doesn’t happen right away. This is an old strategy, divide and conquer or Divide and Rule, from the Ancient Romans to the Conquistadors to the Nazis to Putin’s regime.

Use your pocketbook to strike back, avoiding Trump family owned or supporting businesses and companies or entities that support hate or advertise on white supremacist publications such as Breitbart.

Remember to vote, including during midterm elections. Don’t try to be cool by being above it all. You’re never going to get a perfect candidate. The point is to support the best available candidate and to continue your involvement with elected officials, so that they hear from you and not just lobbyists after elections. Keep working for progress with them — remember that Lincoln didn’t start out as an abolitionist when he ran for president.

Finally, be careful with social media, as they are terrific platforms for spreading disinformation and manipulating people through big data companies.

 

* Is fascism too strong of word? Maybe what we’re experiencing in the U.S. isn’t yet fascism, and maybe it demands a new word, maybe Trumpism? I can still write this blog without going to prison and people and representatives are still resisting in our cities and in our Congress.

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The Bogeyman of Otherness

In my last post, I mentioned that in the U.S., “there hasn’t been an open campaign to wipe out people considered citizens.” After I posted, I realized I had just leaped over an area where people have spilled a lot of ink, pounded a lot keyboards and spewed a lot of vocal venom over, probably since they have existed as a species. The green light to do horrible things to a group has normally come when they attain the label as outsiders, such as the Nuremberg laws in Germany in 1935, stripping Jews of citizenship.

We can start with the problem with “illegal Mexicans,” where, whether as disguised racism or a real concern for our nation’s laws and security, the Trump movement cites this as a national problem. There’s a simple argument of convenience, insisting an advocacy that we live under laws — never mind the disregard for laws our so called president shows. These people are here illegally, so they shouldn’t be here.

However, beyond the scope of our nation’s laws are international laws, standards and agreements on how to treat foreigners. So, for example, refugees can claim amnesty under certain conditions.

Additionally, our nation’s food supply and production is heavily dependent upon mostly illegal immigrants from Mexico. Farms and companies have sought this labor pool because they will do jobs U.S. citizens won’t do, at wages they won’t do.  And they are fleeing places that are impossible for many to work and safely raise families, circumstances that our country and its citizens has played a role in, through subsidizing crops and buying illegal drugs.

Also, despite the propaganda and propagandistic images, Mexicans aren’t flooding our border. More are trying to leave.

Let’s acknowledge some things. We all need food. Even poor Mexicans need to feed their families.We depend on illegal Mexican immigrants as they depend on us. Our immigration laws are broken, but we haven’t seen any hope of our Congress fixing that.

However, the return on feeding voters a diet of images of immigrants flooding the border includes winning elections or initiatives.

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Living in Trump Nation

Every day I wake up with the horror of knowing Donald Trump will be our president. It’s not just the man in his love of violence and scorn of intellect that scares me, but that so many people voted for him in this country, supposedly the land of the free, a haven from tyranny, with a Bill of Rights enshrined in our laws.

I fear for the safety of my family and friends and wonder if I will have to witness brutality in public places as Trump supporters go after their declared enemies, knowing the law, more and more, is on their side. And what will I do? Will I will be able to help the victims? Will others help? Will they go after me? Or will the firewall of cities and states standing up to Trump hold against the power of the federal government?

Will we go to nuclear war? I made fun of Trump’s enthusiasm for nuclear weapons on my Facebook page, only to find comments from someone saying that it’s time our country show who’s boss by using nuclear weapons. Even if people are unconcerned about innocent children and families dying in this horrific way, are they also unconcerned how the rest of the world will see the U.S. if we did that? Do they understand the U.S. would have no moral authority and would be a target for nuclear retaliation? I used to think I would only have to raise such points and debate this with insane people who have no influence on our country’s policies.

The day Donald Trump announced his candidacy should have been the end of his campaign, when he decided he wanted to talk about Mexicans and how they’re rapists. I’ve met many people from Mexico, and, as far as I know, not one of them was a rapist. Indeed, crime statistics show more native born, Caucasian people in the U.S. commit rape, most often against people of the same background. However, I understand Trump’s saying what he said taps into people’s fears and thus aggressive instincts. The Nazis used this idea effectively against Jews, that they were filthy devils raping the nation’s women and contaminating the nation with their degenerate genes. I figured most people in the U.S. also understood how he was trying to manipulate people by taking a page from the fascist playbook.

(By the way, I tried the same, supposedly harmless, rhetoric back on a Trump supporter online on election night, stating that Trump supporters “are people with lots of problems — they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people…” The guy found these words too offensive to continue the dialog from there. Indeed the Trump rape lawsuit fell apart only because the accuser dropped it, after receiving death threats.)

jew-raping-white-women

Nazi propaganda depicting Jews as money grabbing rapists

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Trump announcing his candidacy in front a crowd of paid extras

However, his campaign picked up more support. Much of the news media were happy to give him free, mostly unchallenged, airtime, most of his talk unchallenged lies. He continued to speak in rallies where he and the crowd pushed each other farther and farther than either side would expect into hate speech, much like Hitler. In his “thank you” tour after the election, he openly mocked his adoring crowds.

When protesters attended and spoke out during his rallies, he encouraged the crowd to beat them up, breaking a norm within our republic that tolerates dissent and does not meet opposing views with violence in order to silence them. Donald Trump was never charged for inciting violence and his momentum continued.

Will it be safe to have different opinions from the majority in the future? Isn’t dissent from the majority opinion a protected right crucial for our republic? And, on the other side of that, does the majority opinion count at all over rules meant to keep former slaveholders happy?

One thing about the election is that it woke me from my slumber inside a bubble. I came to New York in my mid-twenties largely because I thought the city was more open and sophisticated, a place of tolerance and emerging ideas. Perhaps I’ve been shielded from red America, though in New York City, I have still met people with a conservative bent, especially where it comes to government regulation of the economy, but I have also listened to bigoted rants from New Yorkers. Overall, New York City seems to be better for tolerance toward different people than other places in the country.

When I was in high school, in an Ohio suburb in the mid-80s, when Reagan was the U.S. president, I had a darker view of our country’s future than I did just before the 2016 election. I told classmates that the United States would become a fascist dictatorship within twenty years. Apparently, I was off by just a dozen years. At the time I said the new persecution target would be homosexuals. One kid doubted it because families would never let that happen to family members, and I said they wouldn’t care. The event that would precede this rise in reactionism would be an economic catastrophe, where the deficit would cause inflation and unemployment (stagflation), i.e, economic collapse.

I have since dismissed much of what I said as my misinformed teen years, as far as understanding economics better and where I lacked a more complete understanding of how ingrained democratic thinking and culture is in our country. However, we’ve seen more and more people in recent times dismiss democratic values.

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A Trump rally in Alabama — the sign refers to a belief that God sent Trump as Hitler’s supporters said of him.

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A Hitler rally — is the comparison fair?

And perhaps I took my own dealings with racism to be on the same page as the rest of the country to think the U.S. was better than other places in many aspects.

I’ve long dismissed alternative historical scenarios where the Germans won World War II as extremely remote possibilities, but now I feel like my family and I could be characters in such a book or show. Indeed Trump has put Jews on his list, but I would oppose his hatred even if it were other groups instead — how hypocritical of me if it weren’t otherwise, and I would be on his list as a dissenter in any case.

I understand the appeal to allay economic distress and how the lower middle class has been displaced, but I think they often blame the wrong people or causes, not worrying about details. Obama had talked about a jobs bill that went nowhere in Congress with GOP leaders hoping and planning for Obama’s failure so that the blame would go to him. Again, here with the resultant devastation to working Americans, Trump has used the same strategy as Hitler, with the same appeal. And Hillary, maybe inspired by Robert Reich and  whole list of ignored Democrats, had offered a strategy for worker displacement, i.e., government assisted job-retraining for one, but whenever I mention that to people, it seems like I’m the only one who heard — people seem to have been too preoccupied with emails and what she was wearing to listen to that.

By the way, people in blue states are getting more jobs where they have elected people to raise the minimum wage, while red states continue electing people who decimate their economies versus the more prosperous blue states.

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Death threats from Trump supporters against Politico reporter Hadas Gold

One thing I’ve noticed is that it is impossible to reason with Trump supporters. Their support is emotion-based, same as Hitler’s appeal. I’ve noticed male Trump supporters make ad hominem attacks and attack the sexuality of their targets (belittling the masculinity of male targets and the appearance of female targets), as Trump has done repeatedly. Trump, and his supporters, exhibit the same preoccupation in asserting their masculinity, as if it’s under threat, the same issue Hitler had.

So what’s my point of the Hitler comparison, often a trite comparison online? Am I trying to suggest Trump will choose a similar path for the United States as Hitler did for Germany? I’m hoping that if enough people predict this danger, we can prevent this, just as the failure to anticipate Hitler’s danger helped him succeed.

What if Trump’s deeds match his rhetoric? It’s impossible to accurately predict and horrifying to ponder. It’s important to understand what Nazi Germany can teach us, that changes happened in stages in a steady progression toward genocide.

If we can just step outside the moment to compare the kind of talk we hear about different population segments versus what we have heard in the past, we can see the thresholds we have already crossed.

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Gregory Stanton formulated the Eight Stages of Genocide.

However, there has been a movement of scapegoating and hate from right-wing media outlets for decades gradually making it to the mainstream.

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Pulled from Salon.com

And hate speech evolves into actions that become normal, as shocking as it seems to outsiders.

But Germany in World War II is probably just the genocide most people recognize among many. It’s important to understand that genocide might be more of a norm than an exception. For example, we celebrate Columbus Day in the U.S., the beginning of an era of terror, slavery and mass death for the original inhabitants. But even if we dismiss that as something from our distant, more brutal past, the U.S. military committed genocide in the Philippines at the end of the 19th century“Never Again” is the phrase we hear about the Nazi orchestrated holocaust, but since then, there have been many more, including GuatemalaCambodia, East TimorRwanda, Yugoslavia, and Darfur (and Syria?) among a long list.

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A refugee before a mass grave in Rwanda, from IB Times UK

With the Rwandan genocide, hate speech, especially on the radio, helped fuel the killings. But we prefer to think we are different, even when we see evidence that we are not. Regarding Donald Trump and anti-semitism, we shouldn’t draw too much comfort from his son-in-law being Jewish. This hasn’t stopped him from welcoming the support of white supremacists. Also, it was largely through manipulating his father when he suffered from dementia and denying hospital care to his brother’s infant child, forcing his brother to give up a legal fight,  that he acquired his inheritance. And he cheated on at least two of his three wives. So we can’t put our faith in his family loyalty.

A few days ago, Trump referred to his “enemies,” presumably, but not necessarily limited to, people who disagree with him, even while he might have worked with an adversarial state. At this time, we have overwhelming evidence of an adversarial state assisting him, something he publicly asked for.

Maybe there’s hope in just how diverse we are and, although people have committed thousands of lynchings, there hasn’t been an open campaign to wipe out people considered citizens, even though the U.S. committed genocide against America’s first inhabitants. And Trump has been using anti-immigrant rhetoric in a nation of immigrants.

But even if we’re only flirting with going down that dark road of genocide, there are plenty of other upcoming problems to worry about. For example, even though Hillary was supposedly the corrupt one, suddenly, corruption is something we are embracing. And many Americans could die because they won’t be able to access health careeven if they voted for Trump. Couldn’t they see he was a con-artist, after “Trump University” and all the people he never paid fully? Didn’t his fearful picture of our country that he said he alone could fix sound off alarm bells of an autocrat and con-artist? (And aren’t we a people who fix our problems in partnership with those who serve in government, and not as  passive, dependent infants?)

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NY Daily News ad Donald Trump paid for advocating the execution of “The Central Park Five,” teens who were later found innocent

Some make the laughable claim that they support him because he’s a successful businessman. He would have done better with his inheritance by leaving it alone in a fund. By the way, being successful in business has been no guarantee of translating into success in governing, but Trump lacks even that.

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Trump’s New Years tweet mentioning his “enemies”

So far, Trump has been appointing “successful people” to positions that seem to conflict with their own interests. But we have a Congress that seems only too happy with this development, as they probably were last time, in 1928. I consider the socio-economic policies I advocate similar to what astronomers call the Goldilocks Zone — I understand that being too close to the sun makes life impossible, but being where Pluto is, where Paul Ryan and other Ayn Rand followers live, also destroys life’s chances. While capitalism can be the most efficient means of producing wealth, left unregulated it, ossifies with a tiny group of wealthy people making all the rules and locking the rest out, creating a plutocracy. One of our strengths in our country has been its pragmatism — we have been able to work outside the system and tweak it, as no system is complete or perfect. When I was in college and I met Marxists trying to convert me, I always countered that they’re simply advocating for a system that creates a monopoly, the same problem they have their grievances with, when a small group controls the whole economy. I find it no accident that people don’t know whether to call Putin a neo-commmunist or crony capitalist. I always saw the two as vehicles to the same situation, though their ideologies may be different. And their adherents both ignore and change facts to support their view, instead of allowing them to penetrate. Thus, it’s no accident that the right has so much admiration for Putin.

The middle class in the U.S. grew after World War II largely from cheap or free college education, easy credit for buying houses, protection of organized labor to negotiate higher wages and minimum wage laws. For the latter two, even for people not in labor unions or working at minimum wage, this forced employers to raise everyone else’s wages or salaries. And this created a class of people with money to spend, helping small businesses and new companies.

Hopefully, when the economic inequalities and failures under a Trump administration get bad enough, enough people will see what is happening. Hopefully, they are not easily misled into blaming Mexicans, Muslims or Jews. Hopefully, there will be enough power in numbers to finally do something about it like in the ending from the movie version of Animal Farm, that could just as well be about plutocracy and crony capitalism as it is about communism. It’s unfortunate that we will have to come to such a reckoning of suffering and risk to our national security with a president who hardly bothers with PDBs (Presidential Daily Briefings) — things didn’t work out the last time we had a president (George W. Bush) who ignored them. At that point, the NATO alliance and Europe could be in shambles. We can still use the recent past as a guide to resist and follow the steps laid out in a recent New York Times editorial. Maybe he will be impeached, but there’s still the Vice President and Paul Ryan in respective succession.

In spite of all the bad news, there are a few reasons to hope that the U.S. will not become a totalitarian regime, something right-wing Republicans despised when Reagan was president. Trump has taken a stand against our country’s national heroes, from Jefferson with the Bill of Rights to Lincoln in his anti-slavery stance and talk of “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” to Franklin Roosevelt fighting against the axis powers and fascism to Reagan’s resistance to Soviet totalitarianism.

And while Trump has his own private security, they are not the reactionary paramilitary troops of Hitler’s SA. Nor have we gone through regional insurrections and counter-insurrections to welcome reactionary forces.

We should also remember that protagonists in our most popular movies are fighting for a republic and against autocracy. They are the good guys.

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A scene from Rogue One — the main heroine and her (diverse) band fighting for the republic

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Those opposed to the republic are the bad guys in Rogue One.

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Americans fighting fascists in Normandy, France, June 6, 1944

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Madison Square Garden filled up for a rally of the Nazi Party In America in 1939

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still, American fascists will cloak themselves in the flag and insist they’re fighting for our freedom. And it’s worth asking fascists, or ‘alt-right’ Americans, if they were trying to find someone to destroy our country, wouldn’t they pick Trump? After all, his constant us versus them rants and hostile divisions he has been stirring up in his hateful rhetoric fits perfectly with the divide and conquer (or divide and rule) strategy that allowed the Spanish to conquer much of the Americas.

Recent history has shown it unwise to underestimate The Donald. We can still think he’s a buffoon if we want, while fighting back hard. People laughed at Hitler and constantly underestimated him outside Germany and within. However, if people who believe in our country’s ideals (always a work-in-progress), in Roosevelt’s four freedoms (for all citizens) and in working on making the U.S. a land of opportunity for all, constantly peacefully resist and fight decisively, there is an opportunity to make everything we now fear an alternative outcome that never happened. Congress’s recent backing down on gutting the Ethics Committee is a perfect example, but it’s up to all of us.

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Norman Rockwell’s illustration of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (preceding our ‘multicultural’ present)

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Wearing a safety pin, as part of a movement fighting against Trump-inspired hate-crimes

 

 

 

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Remembering My Father

On a Wednesday evening before the weekend before Thanksgiving, I received the awful and unexpected news that my father died suddenly. Although he was 81, he was fit and exercised regularly. He looked years younger than he was supposed to look at his age. And he was still strong and taller than I.

He had been recovering from surgery after a hip fracture, from getting up suddenly and stumbling when he was trying to get the phone. After doing exercises at a physical therapy facility, he said he wasn’t feeling well and it was clear something was happening with his heart. The ambulance came and took him to a hospital farther away instead of the one across the street, since the other hospital had a cardiac unit. And I think by the time they got him there, my father was dead.

And that’s what “the greatest healthcare in the world” did for my father.

I flew out to Detroit airport on Saturday, where my sister and two nieces picked me up to take me to a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up. Landing under the gloomy, windy sky at the Detroit airport was like landing in a cold, dreary hell. It was a perfect weekend for a funeral.

My father had sometimes said no one would come to his funeral. On Sunday for the funeral service, over two hundred people showed up.

The rabbi mispronounced our family name, and a few of us in the front row corrected him — most people say the “a” with a long sound, but it’s a short sound, even though there’s just one “b” after the “a.”

He said a few things about how important helping others was for my father in his work as an attorney, often representing people with little money and taking less for his services than he was supposed to, which I knew was true growing up.

Then he compared my dad to Abraham challenging God in his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, asking God to consider whether there were any good men. He might have appreciated the metaphor, but my father was a strong atheist.

It was still cold and cloudy on the way to the cemetery, my mother, uncle (my father’s fraternal twin brother) and sisters riding in the funeral limousine through Toledo’s Old West End, not far from where my father’s old house used to stand, now a parking lot. We passed old tattered building after building and old, poorly kept houses.

I couldn’t help noticing and feeling the similarity between the city’s state and my father’s. He loved Toledo more than I ever had. He grew up there and never moved anywhere else.

Although Toledo didn’t vote for Trump, I understood nearby areas had. Toledo’s whole raison d’être has been either automobile or automobile parts manufacturing. Finally, looking out the window in disgust, I said, “they just keep trying the same thing, over and over again. Why can’t they adjust to the new economy? Maybe they could try attracting biotech companies.”

My uncle and the driver exchanged news about people they both knew. We tried to think of funny stories about my father. One thing he used to say that made me laugh was, “Don’t worry, Mike. We stuck up for you. They said you weren’t fit to sleep with pigs and we said you were.”

I still couldn’t believe he was gone when we arrived at the cemetery. I kept wondering what he would have to say about the ceremony and burial. Perhaps he would have told us to quit making all this fuss for him.

The Jewish tradition requires that the family members each put a shovel full of dirt on top of the coffin once it’s in the ground. I had my turn and did as I was supposed to do, the dirt pile landing on top of the coffin and making the horrible hollow sound, reminding me that he was inside. My inclination was to help him out. Or if he had to be down there, I should be there too. I know that’s not what I’m supposed to feel, that I’m supposed to go on. I felt a pointlessness to life, knowing I will be there soon, in the scope of the larger picture of time. I tried to think of my son and wife and how I’m supposed to think that it’s my job to go on.

When we got back to the temple for a luncheon, we were back in the more affluent suburb where I had grown up. The worst part was over — the worst part was watching my mom shovel the dirt on top of my father’s coffin and watching her cry. We sat and talked with family and friends, some I hadn’t seen for a long time.

Since that day, I’ve half expected to speak with my father over the phone, like I have often done, about politics, one of the top two favorite topics in our household. The other one for my father, who was born and 1935 and remembered the war as a child, was Hitler.

All our lives, my father would read books and watch documentaries about Hitler, trying to know more and understand how he came to power and how people chose him to be dictator, starting a world war with a genocidal mission.

We used to give my father a hard time for his preoccupation with Hitler. I once joked that if he had a DVR program, which starts picking shows for you based on prior choices, it would record The Life of Hitler, Hitler A Study In Tyranny and on and on, with nothing but a massive list of Hitler episodes.

So now as news develops about the U.S. president-elect who tapped into the same strategies and same rhetoric to stir up crowds into an orgy of mass hate, I wonder what my father would say about Trump. Would he be as pessimistic as some people or would he think that Trump’s supporters would catch onto his demagoguery and the way he manipulated them with a barrage of big lies?

When I go to sleep and wake up in the morning, it hits me that my father’s no longer around. Then I tuck it away into the back of my mind, like it never happened. Sometimes I think of the news I’d like to tell him about since he’s been gone, and everything else in my life. So here’s my letter/email to my father.

Dad,

A lot has been happening, as you might imagine. Trump won the electoral votes too — so it’s official now — the United States has lost its mind.

Even though you could be cynical and doubtful about many things, I often found you overoptimistic about the United States and its resilience. I admit that I was wrong about some of my predictions of the U.S. decline that I made when I was in my twenties. And traveling abroad helped me see the United States through outsiders’ eyes, to understand how influential our country is on the rest of the world.

So now we’re going to endure the biggest test since the Civil War. You have to admit, however, that in the past, we’ve had a lot of luck. Maybe we make luck happen. For example, just when things were declining, we had the internet boom in the ’90s under Clinton. But there was a limit to that, and bubbles burst.

December 19th was one of the most nauseating days of my life, of many people’s lives. I have to say, however, that it is funny to see Trump’s childish tantrums even after winning, and how easily he can be provoked.

When I was growing up, you told me about Hitler’s tantrums and kicking his feet, something only his closest advisers saw, but with Trump, we can see a lot of it in the open. Perhaps that will undo him, along with his tax returns and how much of a Russian puppet he is — maybe we’ll find out about that.

So I’m not sure if you’d be laughing or afraid right now. I think the whole family is apprehensive. I think we all understand that Trump has used the same rhetoric used to get crowds to kill a presumed enemy, and that one of Trump’s closest advisers is a neo-Nazi. And there was a gathering of Trump supporter-white-supremacists sic heiling near the White House. We understand the parallels. Trump wants to create a registry for all Muslims.

Trump’s alleged rape victim talked about how Trump disparaged his Jewish “friend’s” penis and sexuality, linking it to his Jewishness. Trump has talked about how he has good genes but others do not. Trump has talked about his sexual endowment in a presidential debate, as if it were part of the reason people need to affirm him and reject other candidates. We understand this goes beyond the comical, because we know the history, how people used this sort of talk of their own dominance and superiority (projecting themselves as strong men), and others’ supposed degeneracy, creating the false narrative that supposed outsiders are rapists, with poisonous genes, and murderers who don’t deserve to live.

I sometimes didn’t know whether to take the literature and movies depicting a world where the Nazis won and took over the United States seriously. Now I’m interested. At some point growing up, I wanted you to stop talking about Hitler. It was too much for me and something from history not relevant enough for the present.

I’m sorry for telling you to be quiet about Hitler. Now I’m startled by all the people who don’t appear to know history and are manipulated through old tricks. One of your favorite quotes, from Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — I used to get tired of you repeating that quote.

One thing to be optimistic about, however, is, first, we have so many brave people in this country already resisting Trump. Resistance to tyranny is still ingrained into our culture.

Although, I understand the day to resist was election day. And I remember your arguments with me when I voted for Nader in 1996 and 2000. However, in this election, I understood the choices and how important it was to stop Trump, and I voted for Hillary, even though Bernie was my first choice. And though I thought Hillary was from that standard party cut of going to bed with special interests and she pandered at times and she voted in favor of Bush’s Iraq war, creating crises spilling out into the rest of the world, destabilizing governments searching for a balanced approach to the refugee crisis and sparking people’s xenophobic fears, I still voted for her.

The second thing is Trump is really stupid. So far, that hasn’t affected his support base. In fact, they like him more for it, his lack of grammar, his small vocabulary, his primitive understanding of international politics. However, he might do something so stupid that it will be his undoing. He is his own worst enemy. His quest for power, however, has probably left a long trail of imbecilic actions, like probably making questionable deals with questionable Russian oligarchs. And he likes bragging so much that he bragged to his own supporters in a public rally how he fooled them.

He also made impossible promises, like building a wall (with no apparent purpose except for propaganda, since more Mexicans are trying to leave) on the Mexico-U.S. border. He’s also promised that he will bring back manufacturing jobs that have left. What happens when people discover he doesn’t have magical fairy dust? He might succeed in getting his supporters to blame some ethnic group. Or maybe he will be exposed as the fraud he is.

What else can I tell you? Often we’d talk politics, and then you’d do a quick check with me how I am and my family, and then you’d hand the phone to Mom. You were almost always watching something on TV.

Anyway, we’re ok.

I finished that novel I was talking about, even the rewrites and edits. Now I’m looking for an agent and publisher.

I have two parts in two independent films. The director released the trailer for the one where I play a South African judge in 1948, just a few days after I came back from the funeral. I think you would have liked seeing me in this role. I haven’t seen the movie yet. Mom watched the trailer and said I looked good. I wanted to see how my acting is, but my words were muted in the trailer — I have to wait for the movie.

Ben is good. He couldn’t wait for Christmas, and Chanukah too. On a Saturday earlier this month, we had some snow and I took him sledding in the park.

Lilla is ok. She was crying when you died. Also, she is worried for both of the countries where she has citizenship.

I know you didn’t believe in life after death, and neither do I really. Is there anything you would tell me now if you could? Well, if there is anything, I’ll see you on the other side at some point.

Love,

Michael

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My mother and father in 1958, on their wedding day

So who was my father?

He was born in the depression and his family lived in a decrepit house while his father struggled with getting well-paid work. He remembered seeing some horse and buggies on the street. And a handful of old veterans of the Civil War were still alive when he was a kid.

He started working when he was seven years-old running a paper route and then lying about his age when he was older, so he could work in a store.

He managed to save his money and go to college, then study law and become a lawyer. He was born when the U.S. was at one of its lowest, most difficult points, to rise again in its fight during World War II and become a superpower. On the home front, life went from the depression era struggles, to World War II with its rations to the allied victory where food, goods and good-paying jobs were plentiful to more and more people.

I admire him for his hard work throughout his life. But he also grew up in an era where hard work was rewarded. More people than ever went to college after World War II. And through the government’s assistance in home loans, easy credit, guaranteed minimum wages and progressive taxes, a large, stable middle-class arose. My father rode that wave, allowing us to enjoy our comfortable, suburban upbringing.

I came onto the scene on the last day of 1967. One of my earliest memories is from when I was three and we made a trip out west. The tire blew as we were driving through the desert. My father calmly jacked up the car and changed the tire, as my mom cried, fearing the worst, as we stood outside. I didn’t really talk until I was four, so I used to act out the whole scene without words, just sound effects, for company my parents had over, when they asked me to “tell them about the blowout.”

When we were home from the trip, the car company sent a letter to our house that the jack that came with the car was defective. That’s why my mom was worried — she was afraid the car was going to fall on him, but my father managed to work with it anyway.

My father calmly saved our lives, or at least our vacation, another time in a trip out west, when we were driving through Texas and the rain started coming harder than anything we had seen. My mother was nervous and begged him to stop somewhere, for a room. My father insisted on driving through the storm. We kept going and past the storm and instead stopped somewhere overnight at least a hundred miles away. The next morning, my mom, my three sisters and I piled into our station wagon as my father drove and turned on the radio. Then we heard the reports about the flash flood that hit the area we had driven through. I remember hearing a horrible story about a woman dropping her baby into the rushing water as she was trying to run away with it in her arms. More and more news reports told how devastating the flood was.

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My father, in the ’70s

The ’70s was the time of my childhood. We can find old family pictures that we all think are hilarious now, my father in a ’70s style suit with a mustache and permanent.

He was a stricter parent, as many parents were back then, than we are these days with Ben. I don’t agree with everything about his ways as a father. But as our son gets older, I appreciate him more, and realize how important parenting is, that excessive permissiveness is also a problem, that we need to help children acquire good habits and self-control, keeping them from destroying themselves. Children need parents to help them master delayed gratification — now, I’m haunted by the marshmallow test.

My father was part of the older tradition of fathers.I never saw him cry — my son Ben has already seen me cry when my father, his grandfather, died. He was always the main provider for our family, though my mom went back to teaching when we were all old enough to go to school for the full day.I never saw him scared of anything — one time we had a home intruder, someone either psychotic and/or taking hallucinogens, and my father yelled at him to leave as my mother ran to their room and called the police. He spent a lot of time with his guy friends and clients watching the Saturday game on a large-screen TV at a sports bar.

One time he took me to this bar when I was still a kid and I met and spoke with a detective. Of course, I asked, “What was your most gruesome case?” So he told me a story about someone who had a body in his car trunk. Then he bought me a giant O’Henry bar. Meeting my dad’s friends was fun.

He had less time to come to school events than other fathers. I remember in grade school we gave a concert for fathers in the middle of the day, but my father had a court hearing scheduled for the same time and couldn’t be there. He said he was sorry, and I was mad and upset. During the concert where other kids’ fathers showed up, I pictured him looking at his watch, knowing he couldn’t be there. Later he told me he was looking at his watch, noting the time when the concert was starting.

A few years later when I was in sixth grade he did show up in my school when his career was related to our classroom work, to talk to kids about his job as an attorney. It looked strange for me to see him standing there, with his middle-aged adult face and some balding on top, dressed in a suit, among grade school kids. I was surprised by how short his little talk about his job was, but then he took questions — all the kids’ questions took about an hour. I was proud of my father for being there and telling the other kids about his job.

From my tween years and into my twenties, we were constantly battling and I even thought I hated him many times. One summer weekend, I wasn’t talking to him, and then I forgot it was Father’s Day. I had nothing for him. I felt guilty even though we were fighting. I had to go away that day and my mother found something in my closet. It was from a school assignment a few years’ back in seventh grade — we had to write an essay about someone we admired — it could be anyone, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, John Lennon, anyone. I wrote my essay about my father, how he had been working since the age of seven in the 1930s and worked his way out of poverty to be a successful lawyer with his own practice. My mother told me she showed him the essay as a Fathers’ Day gift — I thought I should have bought him a card and maybe some sort of gift, and it wasn’t until many years later that I realized how that was better than any gift I could have bought him.

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showing off on the beach in Spain in the ’80s

I might have also mentioned my admiration for his dedication to running. People in our neighborhood could rely on seeing him running by at the same time, in even the worst weather. He was running at least five miles a day up until a few years ago, when he developed arrhythmia and had to start taking medication.

One thing that might have shortened his life was his sharp temper when he was younger. When he screamed in his full, deep voice, things in the room would vibrate. By the time Ben was born and he was a grandpa he was calmer, no longer consumed playing the parent role.

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With Ben, the day we brought him home from the hospital

When we visited my parents in Florida, where they started living during the winter after their retirement, we had to listen to Frank Sinatra tunes any time we went somewhere in the car. At first it was interesting, but the endless play made my wife and me, and maybe my mom, nauseous. It was one of his habits that we had to accept as part of the deal. We still laugh about it.

I used to have differences with my father over food. He laughed at my enthusiasm for organic food, but I kept telling him how it was important for us to avoid growth hormones and antibiotics in our son’s and our food. He remembered The Depression, so that might explain why he, along with other people his age, was so enthusiastic for the Sweet Tomato restaurants, as Ben would call it (probably inspired by Shaggy from Scooby Doo), “All You Can Eat Buffet.” That became Ben and Grandpa’s thing.

Last year when we visited my parents in Florida, the community had an outdoor movie night with Home Alone playing. As we sat outside and Ben, around the same age as the protagonist, laughed uncontrollably, my wife and I looked at him and my father, enjoying Ben’s laughter. I saw a softer side to my father I hadn’t seen so much growing up.

Having lost my father, I still feel my love is strong for him, though saying stuff like that might have embarrassed him. I try to incorporate the lessons he taught me. His experiences that shaped him and that he shared gave him something valuable to my life. In these times, I may need that more than ever, as a citizen and a father.

 

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Of Jews and Muslims in Paris

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

–Mark Twain

When I was in college, in Columbus, Ohio, trying to recover from failed attempts in love and hating the 80s conservative mentality of making quick money, supposedly the only end in life, I thought maybe life was better in France. I might have idealized France, specifically Paris, from the images of its artists’ activities and gatherings in the 1920s.

In any case, Paris couldn’t be as bad as Columbus. Against my parents’ wishes, I used my bar mitzvah money to travel to Paris and try to finish college there.

Luckily, I had a list of contacts ahead of my trip and got in touch with a friend’s sister, who was in an undergraduate medical program in Paris. I took a cab with my things over to her apartment after she invited me to stay, while I looked for my own place and a job.

 

Catherine

Catherine was just a year younger than I was. She had golden hair and brown eyes, and spoke English with a British accent.

After offering me some food and we were talking, she said, “You’re cut.”

“What?” I said.

“Your pen-nis is cut. You’re Jewish,” she said with a grin.

I explained to her it wasn’t cut, exactly, and we talked about other things. She invited me to come with her to class the next morning.

She introduced me to some of her friends in the big lecture hall when we were seated. She pointed out others.

“She’s the most beautiful girl in the class,” she said, pointing to a young woman with dark hair and large breasts. There was a guy sitting behind us — she told me he was Jewish, like me.

“We’re the smartest,” he said to me.

Catherine told me she had another friend who spoke very good English.

After class, I met her friend she was referring to. He had left Iran to live in Paris some years earlier.

“You’re from America?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Why the hell did you leave?”

Then I explained something about the mentality in the U.S. and the economic policies that I thought would create an economic collapse.

“Yeah, I’ve met people like you from America. They all wear sandals and talk about their problems with their country.”

“Didn’t he speak good English?” Catherine asked me when we were leaving class.

“Yes, I guess.”

“Didn’t you think that girl was beautiful?”

“I thought you were the most beautiful girl in the class,” I replied.

That was in early December, 1988. My plan was to work as an au pair to learn enough French and then go to college. The friend whose sister I met and was staying with suggested I go with a tourist visa and switch it there, since I couldn’t get a student or work visa. Working as an au pair, I could get paid under the table.

Unfortunately, I soon learned that the only way I could change my visa was to go back to the U.S. first or get married to someone who was French. People who worked in the government agencies said, “your country does it to us.”

So I adjusted my plan to seek au pair jobs where I could get paid under the table. But the people I kept meeting kept telling me either they weren’t interested or that they didn’t think a guy would be a good choice as an au pair.

The holidays came and Catherine invited me to come with her to celebrate with her and her parents, in their home in a department in the middle of France. We took the train from Paris and then her father picked us up at the station when we arrived in the evening.

When Catherine walked me into their their home, Catherine’s mother was smiling at me. Both of them were looking at me, the interesting specimen brought home. I walked backward, a little shy, and knocked the dog’s dish. I looked down and said I was sorry.

Catherine’s mother starting laughing hard, saying “mon estomac!” Evidently, I made her laugh so hard she was in pain.

I celebrated Christmas and New Years’ with them, enjoying fois gras, boudin noir, oysters, cheeses, desserts and wines and liquors. I slept in the room of the friend I had met in Ohio. Writing about this now makes me feel a bit guilty for all their kindness that I was never able to pay back.

One of the times when we were shopping for the Christmas food, we drove into a valley to a small village. Catherine’s mom said she lived there as a little girl and remembered how the Germans hanged some people in the center square and how at night she was afraid to walk past their bodies left there on the ropes for people to see.

Also, during the time I stayed with Catherine and her parents in her home town, we went to a house of some of Catherine’s friends. They took out a Ouija board. Eventually, it seemed we had contacted someone from the afterlife who was mad about one of the people present.

“Porqoui,” Catherine asked.

 

“Juif,” was the answer.

 

Catherine asked who it was. The response was “Hitler.”

 

I laughed and said the game is all fake. I asked someone else to put their hands on the board and pointed out how the hands go where they want to go and questioned whether Hitler was really speaking from the afterlife, in French.

Then I asked who might have instead thought this up. Catherine? She smiled, but then didn’t acknowledge anything on her part either.

When we came back to Paris, Catherine set me up with one of her brother’s friends who lived in one of the suburbs.

I stayed in contact with Catherine. She had suggested I shouldn’t have a problem finding a job, since I was Jewish. I didn’t understand what she was talking about. But finally, out of desperation, I went to the Jewish quarter in Paris to look. Maybe some Jewish families preferred someone who was Jewish to work with and teach their children.

The Jewish Quarter

I remember talking to one guy there asking him for some information. He seemed a bit apprehensive of my mission. But then I found a synagogue the next morning. They were doing morning prayers. They asked me if I had been bar mitzvahed. I said I had, so they started fitting me with a tallit, a prayer shawl, and tefillin, leather wrappings with a wooden prayer scroll at the end.

Since I was a non-believer, this was even more of a burden for me to wear. I was still interested in meeting the people there. They invited me to evening services and then to Friday dinner at the synagogue. One of the guys I talked to told me he firmly identified as French. But this was a highly religious group, like Hasidics. One person said the only historical source we can trust is the Torah.

The rabbi was a man who appeared to be in his 80s or 90s. He had a problem when he walked, as if something were missing in his tailbone, and he had to move side to side. He had a long beard with traces of red, and he wore black clothing and a black hat. He spoke in a low whisper of a voice, so that he could only speak closely to people. He asked me in English where I was from, so I told him I was from America, from Ohio.

I ended up talking with someone who was studying there, at the Yeshiva. He had come from Los Angeles to study. He was trying to get me to study with him. In the evening, when we were talking outside as I was on my way back to where I was staying, we passed an attractive woman walking a dog. Their eyes met–it seemed that she was attracted to him and he to her.

“Just like a goy, walking her dog!” he said with scorn.

“What?! What do you mean?” I asked.

“One day you will know what I mean.”

When it became clear they weren’t going to help me find a family to work with — maybe they simply had no families making requests, I let him know I had to move along and search elsewhere.

He told me just before I walked into the synagogue, he had been praying and asked God to give him a sign. I laughed and told him it was just a coincidence.

The friend’s friend I had been staying with in the suburbs eventually told me I couldn’t stay any longer and I went to a budget hotel I found in the center of Paris. He felt bad that he had to kick me out, but he gave me a ride to the hotel and I told him it was ok, and that I appreciated his help — when I came back to the U.S., I sent him a little money to try to pay him back.

 

Student Budget Hotels

The electricity and heat to my room went out and when I went downstairs to talk to someone, there was a young woman, about my age, in a room with door with the blind pulled down. When I knocked, she peeked through the blind and motioned for me to go away.

The next morning, I went to where she served the guests the complimentary breakfast, but that was my last day there. I found another hotel in my budget travel book.

The hotel I found was called l’Hôtel de Nesle. I found it — this was before the Internet — through a budget traveler book called Let’s Go, France edition. It was in the Latin quarter, not far from the Sorbonne and a ten minute walk from Notre Dame. They put their guests with other guests, if they were traveling alone, which kept costs down. The owners were Algerian.

Breakfast was in their front room that looked like a luxurious harem from Morocco. The seats were little couches, full of cushions. The sweet smell of burning incense filled the room. And joyful Arabic music played on their radio.

Breakfast was a baguette with butter and a choice of fruity jams. You had a choice of tea or coffee, served in soup bowls. The first morning I chose coffee, which seemed strong and I could feel my heart beating fast. All the other mornings, I chose tea instead.

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Sitting at the hotel front desk was a large woman with long black hair and lots of eye shadow. She took care of the guests and would ask each of us every morning, “You stay?”

If the answer was “yes,” to indicate staying another night, she would say, “Give me money.” The way she said “money” was accented in a funny way to English speakers. It sounded like “Munn’ -ee.” When she noticed my French was getting better, she started saying, “Mike, tu restes? Donnes mois l’argent.”

Her husband, a stocky, dark haired middle-aged man ran the hotel with her.

The breakfast room was always an interesting place. Student travelers from all over the world sat and talked. Some guys from West Germany shared some meat sandwiches with us. There was a female-female couple from the U.S. who had just come from Turkey, that they said they loved. When they left the hotel, they gave me something they didn’t need that they thought I could use — I can’t remember what it was now. There were a lot of people from Australia and Sweden — the Swedish people often spoke English perfectly, with an American accent.

I had a roommate for a while who was from Melbourne. We got along well and didn’t bother each other too much. One time at night she told me some jokes. I noticed that one joke/riddle was one people in the U.S. told about African-Americans:

Q. What do you call an Aborigine in a suit?

A. The defendant

It made me wonder whether the same social conflicts created the same problems, around the world.

 

Working for a French Family

Through looking at handwritten posts on a corkboard at the American Cathedral in Paris, I did eventually find a family. They needed someone who was willing to work far outside Paris, and they were tired of dealing with agencies. There was another American, a guy from Washington State, who would be leaving them soon and was training me on everything.

One of my first evenings at the dinner table I told them more about myself, that I was from a Jewish family, in the process of studying Philosophy at a college in Ohio, etc. When I said the word “Jewish” the mother, who was from Brussels, let out a sound, like something was wrong.

The father worked in business insurance. Philosophy seems to have a respect in France as an academic field that it doesn’t necessarily always have in the U.S. So when I told him what I studied, he seemed to respect it but also suggested he was doing something more relevant and practical for the hard world we live in.

One evening, when their little girl and little boy was in bed, the adults played Trivial Pursuit, French version, so that the questions were geared toward France. I won. They were impressed that an American knew so much about France.

Another time, the American au pair wanted to play me in chess. The mother helped him, suggesting moves, so that I was playing both of them. I took every one of his pieces and got him in checkmate. He seemed to be a little angry with me about that.

The American au pair who was leaving and the family both had a conservative bent. I remember one time I was telling them a story about some Arabs I was speaking with, and how they told me France needed the Arabs. He later told me not to mention Arabs to the family.

Sometimes the father also made disparaging comments about gay people and black people.

Both the children were resistant to having someone besides a parent taking care of them. The American told me he had to deal with this for a time. The girl, Jennifer, was three and  the boy, Guillaume, was six. One time at dinner I mentioned that I was having trouble taking control of things with Guillaume.

The father became agitated and said I wasn’t to have any sort of control. He explained that as long as the boy wasn’t breaking any of the father’s stuff, I should let him have what he wants.

Another time, I checked on Jennifer when she was sleeping, making sure she was ok. I told the American I just checked on her. He said I shouldn’t do that, that I should wait until she’s up and out of her room instead of checking on her.

At some point when I left their house, maybe it was a weekend I got a chance to get away and go to Paris, I spotted a mezuzah in their doorway. Another time, in the garage, I found a bunch of books in a box by Emile Zola. I wondered if something had gone wrong in the deal the family had made with the previous owners, who were probably Jewish.

When the American left me on my own with this family, I was pushing Guillaume on the swing, and he kept asking me to push him higher. I remembered what the father said, so I didn’t want Guillaume to report me to his father. At some point he was upside down on the swing, but I caught him. I laughed and this made him angry –  he didn’t want me in his house.

I feel bad about this now. He was very little and I should have understood better how hurt he must have felt.

Another time, when Jennifer had gone to her room for a nap, I went outside where Guillaume and the mother were.

“Is Jennifer sleeping?” she asked.

“I think so,” I said.

Later, she asked me the same question and I gave her the same answer.

That was enough for them and they fired me. They told me I was being sent out the next morning. This was a lot for me to hear, since I was also losing my home. While the father said some flattering things about what a bright future I had, I replied with some vulgar comments.

The father’s sister, who was from the south of France, was there too. They were all disturbed with what I said, after they all had it translated.

The next morning, I had some items that I tried to sell to them, since I didn’t know what I was going to do for money any more.

“But you’re Jewish,” the sister said. “You don’t have to worry.”

The father took me to the train station and gave me 50 Francs, which converted to $7.50 at the time. When I got to Paris, I had to ask my parents for some money.

 

 

Back at  l’Hôtel de Nesle — Saving Money

I went back to l’Hôtel de Nesle. I had to find something different. I could never work and live in the same place. I had to find an apartment first, and then a job.

As I was running low on money, it also happened that the hotel had a group of female Japanese students staying with them who said they could not share a room with a male. The people running the hotel asked me if I could move from my room for a few days and sleep downstairs in the front room at no charge. I, of course, agreed. My duties there included feeding the ducks in the courtyard and making the coffee, an extra strong Turkish coffee that I boiled on the stove.

Then I discovered that there were student restaurants all around the city, where I could use my university ID, even though I wasn’t going to school in France, and eat a good meal for three Francs, $.45.

I met a lot of different students at one of the restaurants where I used to eat. I met two Italian blondes who both seemed attractive to me. One of them thought I was funny. I had trouble with their names and introduced them to someone else as “Francesca and Franscheska” — that wasn’t correct, but she imitated me and laughed. One time I told her I heard in Italy the government was doing something about the mafia! She laughed, saying, “the government is the mafia.”

 

The Swedes

I ended up staying at the hotel for over a month as I looked for a place. One day a thin golden-blonde woman, a bit older than I was, walked into the main room as we were all having breakfast. She had a big smile on her face and she grabbed on tight to the hand of the man who ran the hotel, keeping her warm smile. She was part of a whole group of hotel artists guests from Sweden.

I later found one of them dancing by herself in the hotel courtyard. I asked her, “What do you do?”

“I dance,” she responded.

Another morning, the woman with the golden-blonde hair was in the room where we were having breakfast, saying she had wishes boxes. I told her I had a wish for an apartment.

“I will put it in my wishes boxes.”

I didn’t really believe it would work.

However, a few days before, in the evening when I was having dinner in the student restaurant, I sat across from a guy with dark hair and we made conversation with the French that I could manage. He said he was studying there and I mentioned something about looking for a place. He looked at me like he had a secret and said he might know about something.

When I got up, he gave me a slight tap, as if to remind me about the secret. So I saw him again in the restaurant that day and he asked me to come with him. We rode the subway together to his place in northern Paris. It was one room at the top floor in an otherwise nice apartment building, with its winding staircase and red carpeting. For the single rooms at the top floor, there was one shared bathroom, with a Turkish toilet, a hole with water that one flushed with a chain handle.

Yusuf was his name and he seemed likable. I told him “Je t’aime” — in French, as far as I know, there is no way to differentiate between “I love you” and “I like you.” So I tried to explain what I meant and he laughed. We put an agreement on a handwritten note and I agreed to move in the next day.

I had missed most of the art show that the Swedes had hosted in the hotel’s basement. It was an autobiographical photography exhibit. They held photo books open. It included details of a guy’s motorcycle accident and his recovery.

I was sorry to have missed the show, but I let the woman with the golden-blonde hair know I got an apartment and she was happy for me.

 

 Red Light District

I still had to get a job. I was looking through ads and spoke to someone named Marie Helene. I agreed to meet her in the evening.

The area seemed quiet, less lit and a little dirty.

I buzzed the apartment number and I was buzzed in. When I got upstairs, a woman let me in and I found myself standing in front of a scantily clad blonde haired woman doing some ironing.

“Is Marie Helene here?” I asked.

A bit irritated, in English, with an American accent, she said, “No, she’s not here.”

I was confused and said, “but she said she wanted me to come this evening for the interview!”

“Oh, just a second,” she said.

Then a scantily clad woman with dark, wavy hair and black horn rimmed glasses came downstairs. She introduced me to her son, a toddler who looked like his father was probably Arab. She also showed me a small one room apartment on the floor below where I would live when I worked for her. But I told her I preferred to have my own place.

Later she would tell me, since I didn’t want to live there, “Il ne marche pas” (“It doesn’t work”).

My next thought was to see if I could switch my visa by enrolling in school. My travel visa was only good for three months. I had visited a government agency, where someone told me I could leave and come back right away. Perhaps when I was outside the country, I could switch my visa.

I ended up going to London to make my arrangements.

 

London

I found a budget hotel in London and I sent some mail to some French learning centers regarding registration. I got in touch with a friend I had known in junior high school who was studying outside London, and I asked him if I could use his address to receive some things.

At the hotel where I was staying, I met a French guy around my age who complained about Arabs preaching in the middle of city squares, coming to his country and calling others ‘infidels.’ He said he had enough of elected government giving into them.

“Then what kind of government do you advocate?”

“You see my ring?”

I looked at his ring and saw the symbol of the French monarchy.

“You’re crazy!” I replied.

“I believe in older ways,” he said, or words to that effect.

My stay in London lasted for over three weeks, and I thought I would only need a few days. However, I heard nothing from the schools. I was running out of money and had to go back to Paris. When I returned, I discovered the schools had been closed for Spring break.

 

 

Back in Paris

At this point, I had to ask my parents and grandparents for money. It was getting embarrassing.  My roommate was away, and I survived on what we had bought earlier. We had no refrigerator, but there were some foods that could stay a while. We had one hot plate for heating food.

I had to go to the bank to see what was happening with the money my parents had wired. But I had no money for the metro. I watched a lot of the Arab kids who were jumping the turnstiles, right in front of subway employees who wore uniforms and were greeting people with smiles. The trick was to keep your body level and move your legs up. I managed to do it and got to my bank.

They said there was no money and I said it couldn’t be true. I knew the money was wired. I raised a big fuss. Eventually, someone asked me how much I needed. I said I needed 4oo Francs ($60.00), and he wrote me a slip that I used to present to a window where someone gave me that amount, which would later be deducted from my account.

As I waited for the money to arrive, I lived on less and less of the food we had left, which mainly consisted of instant potatoes. I saved money from buying toilet paper and used an old newspaper. But one day I was back in my room after using the bathroom and someone pounded on my door.

I opened the door and an older woman whose job it was to clean was screaming at me with pieces of the newspaper I had just used in a bucket. I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew she was mad.

My roommate finally came back and I got to know him a little better. He was from Algeria and he spoke only Arabic and French, so I was forced to get better at French. Sometimes he would talk to me in the morning, after I had been dreaming all night in English. So I had trouble understanding him at first. I had to warm up.

He could see I had no money and I was hungry, so he gave me some money to buy food every morning. And I later paid him back when I had money.

Soon my roommate heard from the landlord. It turned out that he wasn’t supposed to have a roommate and I was to be out. I was furious. He hadn’t told me anything about that. He said it was my fault for clogging up the toilet with newspaper. He had a discussion with the landlord, and it was decided that I could stay.

 

 

Leaving Paris

Finally, the money arrived, but I was ashamed that I had to ask. In some ways, it seemed like I was starting to survive. I was going to be able to enroll into a school and change my visa. Still, my living situation was hard. I had to squat over a hole when I had to poop. To shower, we used a portable system with some hosing that we hooked to the sink.

I just wanted to go home at this point. I told my parents I was going to come back. They were so happy they gave me money for my ticket and even sent me enough that I had a little extra, so I decided to enjoy myself with the time I had left.

The apartment was near a beautiful park called Buttes Chaumont.

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Hill from Buttes Chaumont

 

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Benches from Buttes Chaumont

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, this area would later get a different reputation, as I was surprised to later read.

There were more Arabs living in this part of Paris, but when I lived there, the neighborhood was still mixed. One evening I was coming home on the bus and an Arab woman sitting next to me was smiling and starting to stroke her leg next to mine. Obviously, some of the Arab immigrants weren’t very religious.

As my time was running out, I felt free to speak my mind with my roommate, while I respected his rituals and even enjoyed Ramadan with him. And you can read more about my experiences here. However, I let him know my skepticism about religion in general. He insisted God had to be real. It was always a respectful conversation, even if it was passionate at times. I learned to appreciate people, even if I don’t agree with all of their practices.

He sometimes spoke about America with scorn, and he would end his statements by saying, “and it’s run by Jews!” conveniently forgetting my identity. But he also seemed to have a love for the U.S. We both laughed at and enjoyed a Levis commercial. At the end, a voice over stated, “on est jamias trop Levi’s” (“One is never too Levis.”) It was interesting to see the U.S. from the outside, and to see the U.S. the ways others saw it.

Epilogue

My roommate was a good friend to me. And it was hard to say goodbye when I finally left. I would later meet more Muslims or Arabs when I returned to the U.S. Some I liked and some I didn’t. I met one guy who said he was from Lebanon, but later told me he was Palestinian, that he was in the PLO, and that he helped the U.S. troops evacuate from Lebanon.

After the first Iraq war, I met a few people from Pakistan and a guy from Yemen who had nothing good to say about the U.S. The Yemeni guy said, “George Bush [George Herbert Walker Bush] drinks blood,” so that I found myself defending a president I didn’t always agree with.

My experience has showed me that the Muslim and Arab world is complicated, with many points of view and variations in religious practices. And even if we don’t agree with people on everything, we should still understand how some of their practices work for them. And disagreements shouldn’t have to be a reason to kill people.

Some people are obviously easier to deal with than others. But, such as with my roommate, there was a perception of disrespect, not all of it incorrect. He would come home and lock the doors nervously, not without some reason to do so, since there had been incidents where gangs had murdered Muslims.

There is a feeling in the Muslim world that people want to harm them simply because they are Muslim. I’m not defending the fanatics who want to kill people who don’t practice as they do. But there’s room to consider how some situations help radicalize people who might otherwise be more tolerant, when people feel they are under attack.

As a Jew, who’s met people from both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I understand the real tragedy, that there are decent people (and horrible people) on both sides. Both sides have reasonable complaints from the other. Hopefully, one day, the killing will stop, and people will find respectful ways to sort out the disagreements.

I understand the land disputes are complicated. And the legacy of colonialism makes the knot even more complicated to unweave, as each side insists on ownership in a place whose rulers have been shifting for millenia. My point is simply that people on each side see the humanity in the other.

Seven years after leaving Paris my roommate called me. He left a message at my parents’ house in French. They didn’t understand it, but knew it was for me. I called my roommate back. I heard someone else talking to him in the background. At that time, Algeria was in a civil war. I was wary of having too much contact with him at that point, since it was strange not to hear from him for seven years.

If he did get involved in something, I still see the humanity past all the conflicts that might exist. It doesn’t mean I agree. Maybe some day seeing the humanity in each other will help us past our disagreements.

 

 

 

 

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