Archive for the ‘Events and Society’ Category

How to Think: Book Review and Reflection

November 17, 2017

Alan Jacobs

Well, I guess that a book with such a title would strive to be that most-clichéd of written works: one that is “thought-provoking.”

Okay, mission accomplished, Alan Jacobs.  But for me, the book is better described as “introspection-inspiring.”

The book’s subtitle is “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.” I read a Wall Street Journal review of it a few weeks ago and was intrigued. The review didn’t lead me to believe that it was a self-help book. Rather, it held out the promise that How to Think would give the reader a measured and sober understanding of the causes and cures for the vast chasm that divides the left and the right in America’s body politic.

You can get a good deal of that understanding from this compact (156 pages) book by Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University. You’ll probably recognize attitudes and tactics from both your side of the political divide and the other side. You might even acknowledge the existence of your side’s version of the “RCO” — the “Repugnant Cultural Other” who inhabits the far shore (but who actually might be your next-door neighbor or long-time friend.)

Corollary to that will likely be a realization that you and those on your side are somebody else’s RCOs. It is, as he puts it, a “profoundly unhealthy situation.” Duh.

So, why is it this way nowadays? And is there anything we, as individuals, can do about it? If not to change the world (we can’t), then at least to chart a course through calmer waters and steer between the Scylla of the alt-left and the Charybdis of the alt-right? That we can do, and this book is a helpful guide.

Groupthink

Early in the book, Jacobs gives the example of people’s attitudes towards “The Puritans.” For the most part, to be called “puritanical” is to be insulted. Puritans are rigid, authoritarian, judgmental—right? Jacobs cites writer Marilynne Robinson, who states that this easy characterization is a “great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without the knowledge or information about the thing being disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”

Emphasis mine in that last sentence. I think Jacobs gets it about something, a phenomenon that’s common in these days of social media, the era of the knee-jerk retweet and the forwarded-without-thinking disparagement.

We all want to belong to a group or a community, and that’s usually a positive thing. No man is an island, and so on. But a problem crops up when the group exists primarily to exclude and denigrate others. Those who belong get their comfort and feelings of safety and power from belonging. But that belonging exacts a price, both from the individual person and from the wider society.

Jacobs mentions the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a card-carrying, insult-hurling member of the Westboro Baptist Church. She goes through a gradual and wrenching transformation when she encounters and is willing to talk to one of those RCOs. In the case of the Westboro crowd, the RCO is a gay guy – and she eventually sees his humanity and leaves the Westboro cocoon and her old comrades-in-arms behind.

This is an unusual example, but it’s proof that the battle lines in today’s culture wars aren’t permanent, that there’s hope. Jodi Picoult tells a story of such a transformation in her novel Small Great Things.  In that fictional account, the convert is a pickup-driving, tobacco-chawing racist who eventually come to see the loving decency and professional competence of a black nurse who has cared for his child. The guy sees the light; his wife remains behind.

Both the real person and the fictional person cited here experienced a loss: of group security, of friends, and of family members. Whether it was truly a net loss, in either case, seems unlikely, because new affiliations await those who are willing to change their minds and evolve.

These experiences also both predict the final words of Jacobs’s book, Item 12 on his “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” He writes, “Be Brave. “

Yes, it does take more than a little courage to be open to the possibility of modifying your views at the risk of distancing yourself from your fellow travelers. Not everybody is up to it. Jacobs says as much near the end of the book:

“You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you: the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.”

There are many pithy examples and light-bulb-inducing “Oh, of course” explanations sprinkled throughout the book.  I’d like to cite just a couple that struck me as particularly relevant.

C.S. Lewis and the Inner Ring

It’s not surprising that Jacobs turns to C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and many other works of Christian humanism, for an erudite and prescient look at what’s become of much of our society. Lewis delivered a lecture titled The Inner Ring at King’s College, London, in 1944. I remember reading and re-reading it a few years ago, and I thought it was spot-on even then.

“…you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring… And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems,” Lewis told students more than 70 years ago.

And he continued,

“And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world…I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. ..of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

In applying the notion of the Inner Ring to present-day social affiliations and communities of interest, Jacobs offers the following observations and advice:

“…once we’re part of an Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post-hoc rationalizations that confirm our identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those Outside…Smart people have a problem, especially (though not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize anything.”

But he does offer some hope to those who try to do better, suggesting,

“You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup…If you have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.”

And Now for Some of my Most-Admired Friends

As for the “introspection-inspiring” that I mentioned up front, I‘ll give this last example because I can relate entirely to Prof. Jacobs’s feelings.  I, like him, hold rather passionately to a set of beliefs and attitudes. Not all of those who are dear to me and whose friendship I treasure share those beliefs. In fact, we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum on some important cultural and political matters.

Of his friends, Jacobs writes,

“Over the years, I’ve had to acknowledge that some of the people whose views on education appall me are more devoted to their students than I am to mine; and that some of the people whose theological positions strike me as immensely damaging to the health of the church are nevertheless more prayerful and charitable, more Christian, than I will ever be. This is immensely disconcerting…Being around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid; and that alone is the reason to seek every means possible to constrain the energies of animus.”

Bingo there, Alan. I’m glad you brought that up, and put it as you did. It’s nice to know that someone else feels as I do.

I can think of several people whom I respect and admire greatly, for things like their love for others, their worldly wisdom, and their just plain personal class. I wish I were more like them. But I know I’ll not be voting like them either, or trying to bring them around to my points of view. Not long ago, I was reminiscing with one of them about our many years of friendship. She remarked that it was good that we never tried to make it as a couple because we’d probably have ended up trying to kill each other.

Anyway, I liked this book. And perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I also like to think that I’m the type of person for whom the book will work. If you do decide to read it, please let me know if you think the same way.

Remembering the American Football League

October 20, 2017

On October 18, 2017, the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Larry Eisenhauer of the Boston Patriots as its Man of the Year. Larry was a superb defensive end for the Pats; he played from 1961 to 1969 and retired just before the American Football League merged with the National Football League.

I served as Master of Ceremonies for the evening. My welcoming remarks follow.

Joe Foss, American Football League Commissioner

Good evening, and welcome to the 22nd annual “Legends Night” of the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston.

We usually call this “NFL Legends Night,” but that’s not true this evening. We’re honoring a hero of the American Football League, so welcome to AFL Legends Night for 2017.

The AFL, born in 1960. With commissioner Joe Foss. Let me tell you about Joe Foss.

He was governor of South Dakota at the time he was asked to be AFL Commissioner.  Joe was a Greatest Generation member. In World War II, he was Marine fighter pilot in the Guadalcanal campaign.  He was launched off an aircraft carrier, by catapult, and flew 350 miles to that island in the South Pacific.

The Marines had already landed there. They were in desperate straits, surrounded by the Japanese, hemmed into a small perimeter that fortunately had an airfield.

Joe Foss became head of what they called the Cactus Air Force. Guadalcanal was code named Cactus.

The fight for that island, and in fact the fight for the Pacific, was decided largely in the skies. The Japanese fought with Mitsubishi Zero fighters; there were 72 of them shot down in the skies over the Solomon Islands. Joe Foss shot down 26 of them.  He received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. Joe Foss’s total victories matched those of Eddie Rickenbacker, the “Ace of Aces,” in World War One.

What better guy to lead the American Football League – to lead a revolution against the establishment National Football league – than Joe Foss?

Joe Foss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as his wife and mother look on.

He would have been a great president of the United States of America.

Joe came to mind when I was thinking about how we might begin this evening’s program. But something else that kept coming up was a television show about early America.  I’m sure some of you remember it.  The HBO series about John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti, back in 2008.

Now, John Adams is a guy I’ve always felt a little sorry for. He was a one term president, between Washington and Jefferson, and the history books have always given him short shrift. The HBO series and the biography by David McCullough changed that. That’s a good thing.

Adams made a lot of mistakes and made a lot of enemies. But he was a true patriot, devoted to his country and his cause, and he was right on all the big questions.

What brought the series to mind, as I was thinking about tonight, was an interview with the producer. He talked about how they did not sugarcoat the portrayal of colonial times.  There was hardship always – worried about money – violence, brutality and unfairness. It was hard, just to survive. They wanted to show just how hard it was.

Boston Patriots’ founding owner Billy Sullivan

Well, it wasn’t easy for the American Football League to survive, back in those early days. In fact, it was pretty darn hard. The money? Well, let’s just say that an AFL salary might pay for a couple of practice sessions of NFL players today. The playing and practice conditions? Maybe we’ll hear something of them later in the program.

But like John Adams as president, the AFL with Joe Foss at the head, got one thing right. One very big thing, that the NFL did not get right.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on that Friday afternoon, Foss and the guys he worked for, Billy Sullivan and his fellow owners, cancelled the games for that coming Sunday. Billy, if memory serves, was the league owners’ representative at JFK’s funeral.

Pete Rozelle ordered that the NFL play its games anyway. And to Pete’s everlasting credit, he always maintained thereafter that the decision was the biggest mistake he made in his illustrious career as NFL commissioner.

But the AFL got it right the first time.

The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston’s 2017 Man of the Year, Larry Eisenhauer.

In drawing analogies between the birth of the American football league with the American nation – I really don’t mean to say that they are remotely comparable in importance. Pro sports are society’s toy department, and the AFL owners were building another section of that department. Our Founding Fathers were building a new country.

And it was a whole lot harder for General Washington, John Adams, and all of the founders of that day, to take on the British Redcoats than it was for Billy Sullivan and his motley band of revolutionaries to take on the mighty National Football League.

But take on the NFL they did. They prevailed. And unlike the Founding Fathers and the people of those colonies that became the United States of America, they had one helluva lot of fun along the way.

And so did we who watched them and cheered for them.

Let’s hear about those days now, and begin our speaking program.

 

Farewell to The “Sweet Kentucky Babe”

July 16, 2017

Vito “Babe” Parilli, the first of the truly great quarterbacks to play professional football for the Boston/New England Patriots,  lost his battle with cancer and passed away on July 14, 2017 at the age of 87.  The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Babe as its Man of the Year in 2006.  I was Master of Ceremonies and program editor for the Man of the Year Dinner. Before the dinner, I spent some time with Babe and learned the story of his life in football, which is appears below.  If you’re a fan of football, especially of Patriots football, you’ll enjoy getting to know Babe. He was one of a kind. 

By Tom Burke

Vito “Babe” Parilli, Boston Patriots’ quarterback

Back when he was in college, lunch hour was always a singular experience for Vito Parilli.

Rather than sipping sarsaparilla and munching burgoo with fellow students on the campus green at Lexington, Kentucky, Vito would report to the office of the university’s head football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. They would sit across from each other and engage in a nerve-wracking board game of the Bear’s personal design, a daily test that made organic chemistry look like basket weaving.

“It was a simulated football game. He’d say ‘I’ll give you a down and distance. What play do you call?’ Then after I answered, he’d say, ‘Okay, you gained three yards. Now what do you call?’” explained Babe recently.

“Sometimes I’d even stay over to his house and play it. The Bear programmed me.  He never sent in the plays, but I always knew what he wanted. In every situation. In four years there, I don’t think I ever got a delay of game penalty either,” he adds proudly.

 

Babe led the Wildcats to the most successful three-year stretch in the school’s football history.  They rolled up a 28-8 record and appeared in the 1950 Orange Bowl, the 1951 Cotton Bowl, and the 1952 Sugar Bowl. In the Wildcats’ 13-7 Cotton Bowl upset of mighty Oklahoma, Babe completed nine of 12 passes for 105 yards and was named the game’s top offensive player. In the Sugar Bowl his senior year, Babe had two TD passes and was MVP in a 20-7 win over TCU.

The Rochester Rifle

Babe in action at Kentucky

Parilli’s father August emigrated to America early in the 20th century, just in time to don an American army uniform and head back to Europe to fight the Kaiser. He was wounded in the Argonne Forest but made it home and went to work for the Phoenix Glass Company in Rochester, Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh.

Vito was the youngest of three kids in the Parilli family. There was no television in those days, and every high school boy lived for Friday nights and football. Vito was a fullback in a single-wing backfield. Bryant did not recruit him, but he had always wanted to be a Wildcat. He tagged along on a couple of campus visits to Kentucky with a high school friend who eventually enrolled in a Big Ten school.

After seeing Parilli in a high school all-star game, though, the Kentucky coaches got interested and invited him back down to Lexington for a workout.  They decided that he could become the quarterback to follow George Blanda.

Babe worked out all summer long in Lexington before enrolling, taking in strategy sessions in the morning, field drills in the afternoon, and practicing faking and ball handling in front of a mirror at night. By the time sophomore year rolled around, he was more than ready.

Babe as a Kentucky Wildcat

Known as the “Rochester Rifle” after his home steel country, Parilli set four NCAA passing records – for touchdown passes in a season and a career, and most passes competed and passing yards in three varsity seasons. He was twice a first team All-America selection and finished third and fourth in Heisman Trophy balloting.

Bryant called Parilli the best fake-and-throw passer he’d ever seen, with hand strength so formidable that he could pump three times before releasing the ball.  One sportswriter said “Parilli could take an elephant out on the field and, told it was a football, hide it.”  Another opined, “He handled the ball with the skill of a trans-Atlantic card shark, and can dot a receiver’s eye (right or left as the occasion demands) at 80 yards.”

Parilli was in Army ROTC at college, but he did not have to go into the service upon graduation. Drafted by Green Bay and its new coach Vince Lombardi, he split the quarterbacking with Tobin Rote for two years. Then came the call to military duty.

“I think we were called up because of Senator Joe McCarthy. One of the things kept saying was that the country was not going to give any special privileges to professional athletes,” said Parilli.

Babe spent an uneventful two years in Rabat, Morocco as a traffic controller at an air defense command center. He was able to cross the Mediterranean while on leave and see his grandmother for the first time at her little village near Naples. One poignant memory of that visit was a sign that simply read “October 17,” commemorating a day late in World War II when Nazis bent on retribution stormed into the village and killed all the young men they could find.

Babe returned to pro football in 1956, but his full brilliance as a passer and field general did not emerge until 1962, the third year of the American Football League and Babe’s second campaign with the Boston Patriots. It was a lengthy and sometimes painful route to stardom for the kid from Beaver County.

The first stop was Cleveland, who had traded for his rights when Babe was in the service, hoping that Parilli would take the mantle of the retiring Otto Graham. Five games into the 1955 season, however, Colts’ defensive end Gino Marchetti blindsided Parilli and battered his throwing shoulder so badly that Babe could hardly move the arm.  Six months of convalescence and little response followed.

“I went to a doctor in Kentucky who gave me a cortisone shot and just said to go out there and throw as hard as I could.  That was the way to break it up,” said Parilli.

The straightforward remedy worked, and 1957 found Parilli back in Green Bay. He shared the quarterback job with Bart Starr for two years. The 1959 season rolled around, and Parilli got word that he’d been traded to Philadelphia to be Norm van Brocklin’s understudy. Sick of playing second fiddle, Babe went to Canada instead where he put in a season with the Ottawa Roughriders.

In 1960, the American Football League was born, and Parilli went to Oakland where he and Tom Flores divided the qb duties. Traded from Oakland to Boston after the 1960 season along with Billy Lott for Dick Christy and Hal Smith, Babe shared the quarterbacking duties with Butch Songin in 1961.

Holovak Puts Babe in Charge – at Last

Babe in action as a Boston Patriot

The Pats sent Butch to the New York Titans for 1962, and Babe took over the number one slot. Ably backed up by Tom Yewcic, Babe at last had a team he could call entirely his own.

“It was really the first time in my career that I didn’t have to split the top job with someone.  Mike Holovak was the first coach who gave me that opportunity, and I’ll always be grateful to Mike for that,” said Babe recently.

For the next six seasons, Parilli’s schooling under Bryant paid back all the accrued dividends that Babe’s previous coaches in Green Bay, Cleveland, Oakland, and Ottawa might have collected for their respective teams.  With a talented receiving corps that included Gino Cappelletti, Jim Colclough, Artie Graham, Tony Romeo, and Larry Garron out of the backfield, Babe directed an exciting offensive show in virtually every game.

Parilli set every passing record in the young club’s history during over seven seasons, and his stats have endured in the Pats’ record books where he is now fourth all-time behind Drew Bledsoe, Steve Grogan, and Tom Brady. Babe threw 2,410 times as a Patriot and completed 1,140 passes for 16,747 yards and 132 touchdowns.  His 31 TD tosses in 1964 was the team’s single-season record until Tom Brady surpassed it with 50 in 2007.

The Patriots had a winning record in five of Parilli’s seven seasons and posted an overall mark of went 50-39-9. Babe was a three-time league all-star and the comeback player of they year in 1966 when he led the team to a record of 8-4-2 after a 4-8-2 campaign the previous season.

“He was just a very smart quarterback. Not a scrambler. It was the way he conducted himself out there, and way he called the games,” said Gerry Philbin, a defensive tackle and member of the AFL all-time team who played against Parilli as a member of the New York Jets. The two became teammates for 1968 and 1969, the final two years of Babe’s career when he served as backup and mentor to the Jets’ young quarterback, another Bear Bryant protégé from Pennsylvania named Joe Namath.

“Babe was a tremendous athlete. He ought to be in the Hall of Fame. He was a good punter, and he was the holder for Don Maynard, our kicker. It was very comforting to us, knowing that Babe was there if we needed him,” said Philbin.

The Jets, of course, made football history by upsetting the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in the 1969 AFL-NFL championship game, the first such contest to be dubbed “Super Bowl.” Namath’s brash guarantee of an upset was the most memorable episode of Joe Willie’s entire career. But the prediction and outcome of the game did not surprise Parilli.

“We were lucky to beat Oakland [27-23] in the AFL championship game. But I remember watching films of the Colts along with Joe. We turned to each other and agreed, “Hey, the Raiders are better than these guys. We can beat ‘em,’” recalls Babe.

One other title game in Parilli’s career is not such a good memory for long-time Pats’ fans. The San Diego Chargers won the 1963 AFL West division outright. The Pats and Bills tied atop the East and had a playoff game in snowy Buffalo. The Patriots won 26-8, but then had only three days to prepare and fly cross-country to meet a well-rested foe. San Diego had had two close wins over Boston, 17-13 and 7-6, during the season. It should have been a good match up, but the Patriots were at a hopeless disadvantage and lost 51-10.

Babe and Gridiron Club of Greater Boston president Dave O’Brien in 2006

After his playing days ended, Parilli remained with his beloved game as a coach and front office executive. Babe tutored Terry Bradshaw for three years as a member of the Steelers’ staff.  He also put in three years at Denver and one with the Patriots before casting his lot with the World Football League.

Gridiron Club historian Ned Cully points out that Parilli is the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first coach of the Charlotte Hornets?” The Hornets were a reincarnation of the New York Stars of the short-lived WFL. Babe was coach of the Boston Bulls, Stars, Hornets, and Chicago Fire of that league. Later on, he got into arena football in venues that included New England, Denver, Las Vegas, Anaheim, and Palm Beach.  He has also worked in real estate, public relations, and as owner of a golf course. He now resides in Denver.

“I really liked working with the arena ball players. They’d play for $500 a game, and they were looking to make their mark. It was just like us, back in the old days,” he smiles.

 

Book Review and Reflection: Disturbance of the Inner Ear

June 6, 2017

disturbanceWhen a best-selling author recommends someone else’s book, you listen. That’s what happened to me recently, and I’m glad it did.

The book is Disturbance of the Inner Ear by Joyce Hackett. I was surprised to learn that it was Hackett’s first book; it’s so beautifully written and masterfully crafted. I enjoyed Hackett’s writing style and learned a great deal about music, about human nature, and about a subject that’s of particular interest to me, The Holocaust. Hackett is both a gifted writer and a thorough, meticulous researcher.  This book won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize when it appeared in 2002.

The author who made the recommendation to me was Jacky Collis Harvey, whose smashing debut book Red: A History of the Redhead, came out two years ago. My review of that book is here. Jacky, with whom I’m connected on Facebook, made the suggestion after learning of my interest in The Holocaust.

Jacky didn’t know that I’ve also been trying to learn a little bit more about music – its history, its techniques, its people. I’m totally ignorant about all things musical, but even I know how important that music has always been and will always be to humanity. Disturbance gives deep and informed insight into the motivations and mindset of the musically gifted and into the instruments that they play.

Joyce Hackett

Author Joyce Hackett

The protagonist of Disturbance is Isabel Masurovsky, daughter of Yuri, who was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. That camp was smaller and somewhat less well known than the giant complexes like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald. It was a Potemkin Village, a “model ghetto” that the Nazis spiffed up on the surface for visits by the International Red Cross. The Nazis had promoted the place as a resort or spa; they even conned many elderly Jews into paying large sums of money for “lakefront” locations that did not exist. Yuri’s parents were among those that paid up in this manner.

Yuri makes it out of the camp, aided by his musical talent and by the several favorable twists and turns of fate that we hear in many survivors’ stories.  He settles in Brooklyn, where Isabella is born. She becomes a child prodigy on the cello, making her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 14. But her parents get killed in a car accident and she gives up playing.

Ten years later, she’s adrift in Milan, Italy.  The elderly Signor Perso, her teacher, guardian, and the last person on earth who knows her story, suddenly dies.  Isabel takes up with the smooth and seductive Giulio Salvagente, a surgeon and a part-time male prostitute who is carrying his own heavy load of emotional baggage.  She also gets a gig teaching the viola to the American teenager Clayton Pettyward, whose father happens to own a priceless cello that she calls The Savant.

In an article in Bella Online, Hackett said that she interviewed about 400 cellists before writing.  She also visited the city of Terezin, where Theresiendstadt is located, and spoke with many Holocaust survivors. That’s the type of research that I imagine is done by another of my favorite fiction writers, Jodi Picoult. An author who works that hard obviously has great respect for her readers as well as for her subject.  Hackett, who doesn’t play an instrument, stated

“I think research is mostly about, not being ‘right,’ but about being ‘not wrong.’ So often it introduces a vocabulary for a life and a set of concerns and a way of perceiving, but once a writer knows everything, she is able to write very little on a topic.

“…While I was doing my research, at a certain point a cellist I was interviewing, Gary Hoffman, quoted a sentence to me almost word for word that I had written the week before in the voice of my narrator. He said: ‘When you are playing in that perfect zone, the notes come in slow motion, like a series of home run pitches you can smack–one after the other.’ Well, my narrator knew nothing about baseball, but I’d written in a line about how in a perfect performance the notes come in slow motion, and time stops.”

Giulio and Isabel need each other, but it takes a while for them and us to realize it. Hackett’s descriptions of their erotic encounters are alone worth the price of the book. They’re refresher courses in the facts of life, imparting new insights into lovemaking while giving the reader palmar hyperhidrosis and tachycardia.

Isabel neatly links Giulio’s sexual performances with her own musical performances, musing, “I wondered about the sex he had with the women he hung around with. Having to sweep away one rich, dead-bored woman after another seemed to me like having to perform the same program, over and over, to one tone-deaf music hater at a time.”

She brings in another musician-analogy when she jumps into the driver’s seat of Giulio’s new standard-shift automobile and teaches herself, on the spot, to drive it so that she can make a climactic escape to Theresienstadt with the precious cello:

“But I was not about to hand myself over to Giulio. Driving a car, I told myself, could hardly be more difficult than playing the Rococo Variations. I occurred to me to listen for the sound I wanted, the smooth, rhythmic groan from the groin of the engine that Giulio had made, and work back toward the movements. This was the secret: in second, my limbs had molded themselves to the needs of the machine. I managed to circle the parking lot without chugging, and then I was coasting up the exit ramp as if I’d always known how.”

We see more of Hackett’s elegant descriptions in Isabel’s climactic escape. She steals Giulio’s car and dashes from Italy through Austria and Germany into Czechoslovakia. She has no papers or passport, but manages to get through the border crossings with luck and guile. With the tension of the chase building, she approaches the Brenner Pass into Austria and says

“I was approaching the border with no passport but Clayton’s…There was no break in the rail, no exit to make a U-turn.  The slopes beside the highway were thickly covered with sharp, spiky evergreens that looked as if they’d impale you if you pulled over and jumped. “

But she makes it to Czechoslovakia. In the grimy town of Litomerice, adjacent to Terezin, she muses,

“I wandered around the won for what seemed like hours. Litomerice looked as if it had aspired to charm for fifteen minutes during the Hapsburg reign, then gotten drunk and let its face go to hell. Most of the buildings were decrepit and peeling: a few had been refaced in gooey apricot. There was not one tree in town.”

This is great writing. It not only paints pictures; it evokes strong, visceral reactions. You’re there, and you feel what she must have felt.  Hackett’s style here reminded me of Catherine Marenghi’s elegant yet gripping descriptions of everyday phenomena in her superb 2016 memoir Glad Farm – which, like Disturbance of the Inner Ear, was also its author’s first book.

Isabel and Giulio do exorcise their respective demons. She makes peace with her past. As she does so, Hackett gives the reader much food for thought about The Holocaust, about the people who survived it, and about their descendants who keep memories alive.

Of her own experience in the research and writing of the book, Hackett later wrote in Boston Review,

“More than anything else my book turned out to be about the task of living after trauma, about accepting that there is no mastery of the past, or another’s experience, while also facing the stark ethical imperative that is adulthood: to extricate ourselves from the warped narratives we inherit in order to avoid doing damage to others in the present. I wrote my way out of a past that was not my own by hurling myself back into its reality…”

She cites Holocaust survivor/author Imre Kertesz’s writing of the prisoners’ greatest fear, that the truth of history would not be told and recorded.  She also points out that when she took her trip to Terezin, “Still, all over Europe, the battle for the story was still being waged.”

That would have been close to 20 years ago, and I’m afraid that the battle for the story of The Holocaust is still being waged. Maybe the battle will never be over. That’s why books like this will always be important.

History I Never Knew: Table Manners

March 14, 2017

In the end, you’ve got to give the credit for the rise of dining etiquette to the Italians. Not surprising. But it wasn’t always that way.

Here’s (some of) the rest of the story, taken from the latest National Geographic  History issue.

Dogaressa Theodora Anna Doukaina

By the end of the first millennium, knives, spoons and cups – usually shared – were available at dinnertime. But the fork had a terrible time getting established as a third utensil. One of the earliest recorded uses of a fork was by Theodora Anna Doukaina, a Byzantine princess who came to Venice in 1070 to marry Doge Domenico Selvo.

Dogaressa Anna brought a two-pronged fork with her, and she used it to put food into her mouth. The horror!  The Venetians, seeing themselves as cultured and sophisticated, were scandalized.  The Vatican’s representative (surprise, surprise) to Venice suggested that the fork was a diabolical instrument.  Maybe it looked like Satan’s pitchfork.  But Anna’s new tool caught on, and its use started to spread through Italy.

The rest of Europe continent was slower on the uptake than were the Italians. Some other Europeans tried to put some class into dining manners. Spanish theologian Francesc Eiximenis  wrote in 1384, “If you have spat or blown your nose, never clean your hands on the tablecloth.”  But if the diner did need to spit during a meal, he advised “do it behind you, never on the table or anyone else.”

Erasmus

Erasmus, the great humanist of Rotterdam, also took a crack at table manners. In his De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (Handbook of Good Manners for Children) he wrote “Some people, no sooner than they have sat down, immediately stick their hands into the dishes of food. This is the manner of wolves…To shove your fingers into dishes with sauce is very rude. You should pick up what you want with a knife or fork. And you should not pick out bits from all over the dish.”

The doyenne of manners was Catherine de Medici of Florence. She went to France to marry King Henry II in 1533. She was appalled by French table manners. An account by the Italian court ladies stated,

“Here in Paris many people still laughed at ‘those Italian neatnesses called forks’ and gulped down great chunks of strongly seasoned meat with their knife-ends or greasy fingers.”

Catherine de Medici

Catherine, the Martha Stewart of her day, mounted a campaign to bring class to French dining. She introduced individual cutlery, plates, napkins, and fine stemware for grand occasions.  The napkins were used to protect delicate, decorative tablecloths and the diners’ clothing. Proper placement of the napkin was over the left shoulder.

The French didn’t accept the fork right away. It took until the 18th century for etiquette guides to recognize the fork as an individual dining implement. Catherine de Medici’s son, King Henry III, was widely mocked for his use of a fork.  He was also regarded as effete and homosexual, and was a favorite target of the local snobs.

French writer Thomas Artus, ridiculing courtly manners in his work Description of the Island of Hermaphrodites, wrote “When dining, they never touch the meat with their fingers but instead with forks, which they put in their mouths by stretching their necks.”

Sheesh.  I guess people have never needed the anonymity of social media to be downright nasty.

Nowadays, I suppose, French cuisine is thought of as the crème dela crème.  But before the French say “Bon appetit,” maybe they should first say “Grazie” to the Italians.  If they don’t, I will.

Grazie!

Book Review and Reflection: Hillbilly Elegy

February 17, 2017

hillbillyPerhaps the best thing that I can say about J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy is that it reminds me of Catherine Marenghi’s Glad Farm.

Both are personal memoirs of people who grew up in dire poverty and “made it” despite the odds that their respective backgrounds had stacked against them. But there are as many differences between the tales as there are similarities.

Marenghi grew up in Milford, Massachusetts, a dreary Boston exurb. Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio. But he considers Jackson, Kentucky, his native town. His great-grandparents had a place in “the holler” of Jackson, in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country. He spent most of his summers there and a lot of other time visiting Jackson, which he called “the one place that belonged to me.”

Shortly before World War II, his grandparents had traveled the “Hillbilly Highway” that brought thousands of hill people to work in the smoky factories and steel mills of Rustbelt America. But those folk brought their hillbilly values and culture out of the hills to wherever they settled.

Glad Farm, which I reviewed here, is an inspiring personal odyssey. So too is Hillbilly Elegy. But Vance frequently steps back and explains what’s going on and why. That’s good, and much needed in America – especially at this time in our history.

The plight of poor white citizens, a virtually forgotten segment of our society, hasn’t been discussed much at all.  Be warned, however. Don’t refer to it as “plight” if you’re talking to one of Vance’s kin. You’ll likely get busted upside your head. Or worse.

Jackson is in Breathitt County, Kentucky. It’s called “Bloody Breathitt” because it was the only county in America to fill its World War I draft quota entirely with volunteers.  There’s much to admire in its rough-hewn people, with their loyalty to family and country topping the list. But hill folk take those loyalties and many other things to extremes.

The stories Vance tells of his family history and his early life bring their share of chuckles. But they are rueful, dread-laced chuckles. You wouldn’t want to be there.

A distant cousin of Vance’s married into a family named Hatfield and joined a band of former Confederate soldiers. He murdered a former Union soldier named Asa McCoy, thereby launching one of the most famous and violent family feuds in American history.

An uncle, called a “son of a bitch” by a truck driver, pulled the man out of the truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Somehow, the guy survived.

Author J.D. Vance

Author J.D. Vance

Another uncle, called “Teaberry” because of his fondness for that brand of gum, once heard a young man tell a female relative that he’d like to “eat her panties.” Teaberry drove home, obtained a pair of the woman’s panties, sought out the kid, and forced him at knifepoint to consume them.

After World War II, many poor whites had a choice to make: whether to stay in the hills and work in the coal mines or take the Hillbilly Highway to find work in the industrial Midwest.

The book’s hero is Vance’s grandmother Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance. She was known as the toughest and meanest woman in Jackson, even long after she and her husband had taken the Hillbilly Highway out. She once saw a couple of guys trying to steal the family cow. She fetched her rifle and brought down one of them with a shot to the leg. Mamaw was fixin’ to put the final bullet through his skull when Papaw intervened.

Later on, when Vance was in the seventh grade and teetering close to taking up with weed-smoking peers, she told him blithely that, if she saw him with any of that crowd, she’d run them over in her car.   “No one will ever find out,” she warned.  He stayed away from them.

Still later she was paid a visit by a Marine recruiter.  Not happy with her grandson’s decision to enlist, she greeted the recruiter from her front porch and said, “Set one foot on my f—- porch, and I’ll blow it off.”

The Marine stayed down on the lawn. I could only think of a deadly serious version of Granny Clampett. Again, a chuckle, but one from a respectable distance, just as that Marine guy sensibly kept.

Vance lived most of his high school years with Mamaw. His mother, one of her three children, was one of the tragic cases who never made it out of the desperate cycles of poverty, addiction, and despair in Appalachia. She went through several husbands and common-law husbands and eventually succumbed to heroin.

In his book, Vance frequently critiques and analyzes what’s going on.  In a cri de coeur about the hillbilly mindset and pathology, he writes,

 

“This was my world; a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way to the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans…We spend to pretend we’re upper class. And when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity, there’s nothing left over….Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. ..We don’t study as children and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. We choose not to work when we should be looking for a job. Sometimes we get a job but it won’t last…We talk about the value of hard work  but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

 

But Vance was one of the rare hillbillies who took advantage of the few good cards in the hand he was dealt. Of his grandmother, he states, “Thanks to Mamaw, I never saw only the worst of what our community offered, and I believe that saved me. There was always a safe place and a loving embrace if I ever needed it. Our neighbors’ kids couldn’t say the same.”

Mamaw died at age 72 when Vance was in the Marine Corps.  The Marines were a positive and transforming experience for Vance. After military service he went to Ohio State and Yale Law School. Generous scholarship help as well as the GI Bill enabled Vance to finance his education.  He did well in both schools. But even then, as he was discovering the richer and more prosperous side of America, he was torn between his new life and his hillbilly roots.

One time, on a visit to the old home country, he was wearing a Yale t-shirt while filling up at a gas station. When the attendant asked if he went to Yale, he denied it and said that his girlfriend went there. “I lied to a stranger to avoid feeling like a traitor,” he writes.

So J.D. Vance escaped his past. Or did he? You can decide that, after reading his book.

I can envision a college course built around Hillbilly Elegy and Glad Farm.  Book clubs and discussion groups might also consider taking up the two of them together. These two fine authors, both penning their first book, have much to teach us.

Catherine Marenghi’s writing style is more lyrical and picturesque than Vance’s meat-and-potatoes prose. Glad Farm has a Hallmark ending; it would make a better movie or miniseries than would Hillbilly Elegy.  You feel a nice, admiring glow for its author when you put it down.

You also admire the dickens out of J.D. Vance. But you can’t help but feel a bit depressed when you close his book. At least that’s how I felt.  The intractable problems that he lived through can be overcome, as his story shows. But those problems will always be with us.

What Two Soldiers Can Teach Both Our Political Leaders and All of Us

January 22, 2017

Today I would like to reflect on long-ago wartime deeds of a couple of soldiers. One of them wore the uniform of the United States of America; the other, the uniform of Nazi Germany.

May the actions of both men serve as moral and ethical guideposts for everyone: for those who hold positions of political and personal power and make decisions affecting the lives and fortunes of millions, and for those of us who make our own, seemingly less consequential decisions that affect our fellow human beings as we go about our daily lives.

Lawrence Colburn

Lawrence Colburn

The first of these soldiers is Army Specialist Lawrence Colburn.  I recently read of his passing, which took place on December 13, 2016. Colburn was the gunner in the three-man helicopter crew that passed over the Vietnam hamlet of My Lai in March 1968 and saw a horrific scene of mass slaughter taking place. The chopper landed between the villagers who were being gunned down and the U.S. solders, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley.

Colburn remained in the helicopter along with specialist Glenn Andreotta.  They trained their guns on the clearing, covering their pilot, Hugh Thompson, as he angrily confronted Calley. Thompson ordered Calley and his troops to stop the carnage, and threatened to fire on them if they did not. The killing stopped, but not soon enough to spare the lives of the 500 or more villagers that Calley’s men had murdered.

My Lai is perhaps the darkest chapter in American military history. As the magazine that mentioned the news of Colburn’s death pointed out, the mass killing took more lives than the Nazis’ slaughter of 340 people of the town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia. That mass murder was a reprisal for the assassination of the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler’s man in charge of that region.

We all know of the policies and practices that drove Nazi Germany to the mass murder of some six million Jewish people. But the Holocaust, or Shoah, also brought forth here and there some tiny glimmers of heroic charity of the kind shown at My Lai.

One Holocaust survivor, my dear and admired friend Mary Wygodski, tells of a German soldier that a friend of hers encountered in a concentration camp. Mary never saw him herself, but she heard of him. He was a young man of short stature, working as a guard and wearing the uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German regular army. He was not a member of the SS, that diabolical rabble that were charged with little more than killing Jews.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

Somewhere along the way, that guard encountered a young woman known to Mary. He offered to leave his lunch for her every day, stashing it in a place that would be known to just the two of them.  How and why he came to that decision, what motivated him to risk severe punishment if not his very life, we’ll never know. He also admonished her, “You don’t know me. You never saw me. We never spoke.”

So it was, until they had to move on. Mary’s friend shared the lunches – real food like wurst, bread, cheese – with a few others who were being fed starvation diets as they were worked to death. We don’t know if that shared food saved their lives, but it doubtlessly gave them hope and strength to carry on.

I singled our Lawrence Colburn here only because his death was the most recent.  Andreotta died in combat in Vietnam, and Thompson died in 2006. Thompson was probably the one who determined what they did on that awful day, but all three were heroes.

They were initially regarded as traitors for reporting the massacre and testifying against Calley. They all received, belatedly in 1998, the Soldier’s Medal.  Thompson and Colburn were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, but they were passed over.  No surprise there.

That nameless German lad undoubtedly did not receive a medal for his quiet and unsanctioned heroism from his government.  I only hope that he survived the war and lived a good life. Perhaps, either now or in the hereafter, he can take comfort in knowing that he may have saved the lives of several Jewish girls. Their lives and those of their children and descendants are his gift to all of us.

Finally, as the writer of the story on Colburn noted, he and his crewmates never forgot that their highest duty was to humanity and to the law.  Nor did the kid from the German army.

There is a new group of people assuming the mantle of power in Washington D.C.  I hope that they too remember that their highest duty is to humanity and to the law. That goes for them and for those who opposed them at every turn, and still do.

It is also a good thing for us all to remember. Our decisions and deeds may not have the grand, widespread impact of those of our leaders.  But they are no less important to those whose lives touch our own.

Book Review: Glad Farm, by Catherine Marenghi

August 12, 2016
51rtPP7-DvL

Glad Farm Second Edition Front Cover

(Note: Glad Farm’s second edition is now available. The review that follows was done upon the first edition’s release in the summer of 2016.)

It’s tempting, and too easy, to describe Catherine Marenghi’s memoir, Glad Farm, as a great American success story.  It is that, to be sure. She lived her first 17 years with her parents and four siblings in a ramshackle home in Milford, Massachusetts.  The grinding poverty of her childhood reminds one of Jeannette Walls’s early years in her 2005 memoir Glass Castle.

Like Ms Walls, Ms Marenghi set herself free through her education.  She earned a full scholarship to Tufts and went on to a prosperous career in writing and public relations.  That’s the bare outline; that’s the American success story.  That’s not enough, however. It doesn’t do justice to this elegantly written but searingly honest tale.

The Glad Farm that gave the book its title was the plot of land where she was raised. Her parents had grown and sold gladiolus flowers. The business did well for a time but failed before Catherine, the fourth of their five children, was born.

The family remained on the land and barely eked out an existence.  The author is unsparingly frank in describing it all, including her inability to have school friends come to visit, her dealings with thoughtless peers and adults, and her often-contentious relations with mother and sisters.  We also read of her coming of age on the outskirts of hippiedom in college, of her happy junior year abroad in Italy, and of a unique job as one of America’s first telecommuters.

Biography and memoir are best writ small. How well we experience the fine details – the colors, the smells, the images – are usually the difference between an average read and a superior one. Glad Farm is the latter.

Catherine Marenghi has a delightful knack of painting pictures with her words, of crafting similes and metaphors and of employing all those rhetorical devices that we’ve heard about but never could do ourselves.

It’s impossible not to feel the chill in that unheated home in the woods of Milford, or the cold wind on the slushy, ash-strewn pathway to the outhouse.   We can see the streets, the artworks, and the people of Florence and Perugia, Italy. We can also feel her joy in motherhood and the swirling emotions that accompanied her divorce proceedings.

Author Catherine Marenghi

Author Catherine Marenghi

It takes the author almost a full lifetime to discover all that she, and we readers, need to know about her parents and about her extended family’s past.  Her discovery of family correspondence and clippings in an old cedar chest reveal the details of her parents’ dreams and ambitions.  She also learns of a betrayal, by relatives, that kept her family out of a much better house that was rightfully theirs.

Finally, she and we learn of another family tragedy that had proved too much for her father to overcome. It wasn’t just the failure of the gladiolus farm that crushed his spirit.

As she puts it, after first seeing a picture of her father in his younger days, “He was a good-looking man – not at all like the world-weary, gray haired father I remembered. I could see what my mother saw in him.”

To endure and prevail through the hardships and injustice that Catherine Marenghi experienced is remarkable enough.  To endure and prevail without allowing bitterness to take hold would be much, much harder for most human beings.

I don’t think I’m revealing too much to report that that’s not what happens here.  Catherine’s final words are a precise and eloquent summation, the essential message that readers should remember.

“Life, precious life, always wins over death. Life gets the last word.”

Yes, it does. And this wonderful book shows why.

 

Media Bias – and a Book Review, Sort Of

July 29, 2016

city roomDo you suppose that “media bias” is a new thing in America? It’s a familiar topic nowadays, so familiar that it’s almost a throwaway line in what passes for political discourse. Whatever side you’re on, there’s “media bias” against your candidate. Right?

Now that that’s out of the way, let me retell a story on that topic. I just read it in “City Room,” a memoir by Arthur Gelb, the former managing editor of the New York Times.

I haven’t finished the book yet. There’s no need to, in order to make the point that I hope to make. But I will say it’s been an enjoyable and informative read thus far, especially for someone like me who is interested in history and who has seen his own byline in print.

I hope that Mr. Gelb’s story gives you, dear reader, a little more food for thought. Before I do, though, two items for digression and full disclosure.

I Bring My Own Biases to this Post

The Times: I once wrote for the New York Times. For seven years, I was a correspondent on the college hockey beat, usually filing short pieces for the Sunday paper. I loved the affiliation. I reveled in being “the gentleman from The Times.” Everybody returned my calls – pronto.

NYT-logoOnce I overdid the schtick when covering a national tournament in Detroit. I wore my best business suit with a bright red tie and matching handkerchief sticking out of my breast pocket. Reporters just don’t dress that way – but what the hell.

When my gig ended, the editor explained that staff reporters had been complaining that there were too many stories being assigned to stringers. One of those who didn’t complain, I’m sure, was the late William N. Wallace.

Bill took over all of the college hockey coverage and was sheepish and apologetic to me. I loved the man. He’d been a contact and mentor, and we stayed friends until his death. Bill had been a college baseball buddy (and drinking pal) of George H.W. “Pepper” Bush at Yale.

So I’m not totally objective about The New York Times – especially about what it used to be, the national paper of record. That was before the Internet changed everything.

The Holocaust: I’m not objective about the Holocaust either. How could anyone be? It was the largest and most methodical organized crime in history. I never had an inkling of it until reading Primo Levi in college. Almost everything I’ve learned about it, I’ve had to learn on my own. Even today, it is downplayed, short-shrifted, and still denied by some.

Arthur Gelb

Arthur Gelb

I’m one of those people who believes that we must continue to tell the story of the Holocaust and its survivors “unto the Tenth Generation,” as Deuteronomy warns. If we don’t, and if we don’t remember the larger lessons of history, then Winston Churchill’s immortal words may well come true. He said, as Britain took up the battle against Adolf Hitler,

“…if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

I don’t think that’s overstating it. If I’m biased on the subject of The Holocaust, so be it.

Burying and Bowdlerizing

Arthur Gelb began working as a copyboy at The Times during World War II. When Germany finally fell, and the stories of concentration camp atrocities began to trickle in, the paper all but ignored them. That was serious business.

If something was not in the national paper of record, either it didn’t happen, or it wasn’t important. Every newspaper in America emulated The New York Times.

Some excerpts from Chapter Six of Gelb’s book. They are worth quoting at some length:

Arthur Hays Sulzberger

Arthur Hays Sulzberger

On when the Russians liberated Majdanek and Auschwitz in 1944, Gelb writes, “while the Jews were predominant among the inmates, they weren’t singled out until the story jumped to an inside page.”

Notice this technique – “burying” the important details. Sound familiar? There’s more.

More from Gelb, on the coverage in April of 1945 when American soldiers liberated Buchenwald:

“…descriptions of barbarism trickled out day by day, one horrifying revelation following upon another. Many Americans began to feel that they had not been adequately informed over the years by their newspapers about the torture and slaughter of innocent people who, as it turned out, were mostly Jews.”

“Unfortunately, the country’s mainstream press generally followed the Times’ lead. To my dismay and that of many of my colleagues, the stories about the American liberation…were not displayed on the front page. And there was scarcely any attempt early on to put into perspective what was emerging as the genocidal epic of modern times.”

“Among the most egregious examples of news misjudgment by The Times was the story it ran on April 13 that American troops had freed the inmates at Buchenwald. The Times used only three brief paragraphs from the AP dispatch, which was placed at the bottom of page 11 among several other short items, including one headed ‘War Dog Honored Here.’”

Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger

Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger

“It was as though the top editors, in the beginning at least, simply could not bring themselves to entirely accept the reports filed by seasoned war correspondents. Since the stories tended to describe the liberated inmates as “victims” and “prisoners,” rarely as “Jews,” many of us in the city room simply couldn’t fathom what was on the minds of the editors.”

The editors finally began moving coverage to page one in response to readers’ outrage, but even then they fudged and obfuscated. Details about Buchenwald, such as gallows, torture rooms, and crematoria made it into a page one story – below the fold, so rendered less important – and none of the victims were identified as Jews until, far down in the story, it told of a nine-year-old boy who had survived a medical experiment.

One more distressing example. Again, Gelb’s words:

“What I found incomprehensible was…the hollow editorial, third in sequence on the page, with no mention of Jewish victims…Equally disturbing was the reserved manner in which the paper, two weeks later (April 26) handled its second account of Nazi extermination tactics at Buchenwald…The gruesome facts obviously belonged on page one, but they appeared instead under a constrained single-column headline on page six that read, “Buchenwald Worse Than Battlefield.”

“As the Twig is Bent…”

Adolph Ochs

Adolph Ochs

What the devil was going on here? The paper’s publisher was Arthur Hays Sulzberger. His father-in-law Adolph Ochs had been publisher before him.  Why did the paper under the second-generation Jew who was running it do such a shameful job with such an important story?

Gelb tells of his conversation with the third-generation publisher Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, in 1993, shortly after the opening of the National Holocaust Museum.  In this telling – which sounds most plausible – Arthur Hays Sulzberger had been following the lead of his father-in-law who had been adamantly determined that The Times never be regarded as a  “Jewish paper.”  And why was that?

Well, Adolph Ochs had once suffered a nervous breakdown over the issue. He had always been wary of “calling attention to his ethnic origins” anyway, believing that it would undermine the paper’s image of objectivity as a source of news.

But there was one instance when he let The Times take a stand. In 1913, there was a murder trial in Atlanta that became a cause célèbre. The accused was a Jewish factory manager named Leo Frank. Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.

Ochs thought Frank had been railroaded, and he used The Times’s influence to advocate for an appeal. Georgia’s governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, and Frank was subsequently hanged by a lynch mob. According to Gelb,

“Ochs’s worst nightmare became reality. The Times was widely accused of taking up Frank’s cause because he was Jewish and because The Times, indeed, was a ‘Jewish paper.’ Clearly, Arthur Hays Sulzberger wanted no such reprise.”

Fear of “What They’ll Think”

So there you have it. I believe this account, and Gelb’s take on it.

One little incident, followed by one barrage of criticism many years in the past, turned the world’s greatest newspaper into a quaking, fearful rag.  The New York Times choked on one of the most important stories of all time, and all because one man couldn’t take the heat.

The consequences of Holocaust non-coverage were tragic then, and we’re still feeling them today.

Two takeaways:

  • History so often turns on seemingly insignificant happenings. What would have happened if the author of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler, had not been twice rejected for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna?

In the “whole vast configuration of things,” the Ochs position on the Atlanta murder trial was just one more sad little incident. What followed from that position was enormous.

  • Adolph Ochs didn’t have the courage of his convictions. Nor did his son-in-law. Or maybe they had no convictions. Or they had the wrong ones. Whatever, it was fear that drove them. Fear of being labeled. Fear of being accused of bias. Fear of doing something that was right – in this case, using the enormous power of the New York Times – to print “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Fear of being labeled. Fear of being accused of bias. Now does any of that sound familiar?

I suggest that we still feel, and see, and experience, the consequences of such fear today.

Some Thoughts for This Memorial Day Weekend

May 27, 2016

A couple of items that I read recently set me to pondering just what it is that ought to make Memorial Day special to us as Americans.   I agree that the Memorial Day weekend, traditionally regarded as the beginning of summer, is more than an opportunity to sell cars or to cook hamburgers.  But it’s an occasion to do what, exactly?

I’m reflecting on the tribute to her husband Walter Brown, who was also my cousin, by Candace Smith Brown. I shared that tribute on my Facebook page yesterday.

I’m also reflecting on an op-ed piece in today’s (May 27, 2016) Wall Street Journal by rabbi Meir Soloveichik. He writes of an annual pre-Memorial Day service, held at a small cemetery in lower Manhattan, by members of his temple.

Candace’s husband Walter devoted his adult life to service to his country; he did not die in combat.  He was an army ranger who survived the Vietnam War but lost many friends there. After that war he waged a long personal battle, and ultimately triumphed, over demon rum. He counseled and supported many others in that same fight. He kept bright the memory of those who did not return from Vietnam and who did not, in the words of Joyce Kilmer, “laugh or love again, or taste the Summertime.”

Candace wrote of an American hero of recent years. Rabbi Soloveichik wrote of the 20 or so Jews, buried that New York cemetery, who were heroes of more than two centuries past.  They served in the American Revolution. Memorial Day is for them, as it is for my cousin Walter, and for all those who gave their lives for our country in the many years between then and now.

One of the greatest strengths of Jewish folk of all nations, one of the secrets to their endurance through the agmemorial_dayes, is that they never forget who they are or whence they came. The rabbi, in his op-ed piece, goes on to say,

“For many Americans, Memorial Day obligates us once a year to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Yet for Jews, memory, bridging the gap between past and present, is a constant duty. ..‘bygones turn into facts, pale memories into living experiences and archaeological history into a vibrant realty.’

“I am reminded of this every spring, when, in a small cemetery in downtown Manhattan, patriotic Jews, buried for centuries, are given the chance to live again.”

Does Candace not also give Walter, who lived and died centuries later, that same chance to live again? After recounting what he and she used to do on Memorial Day, raising the flag, tending the flowers, cleaning and tending his personal memorial to a fallen comrade, she writes,

“And then, we got out the barbecue and planned our menu and decided what and if we wanted to do anything other than what was most important to us. I will lower the flag and play taps for you and all the others that fought for what we all take for granted.”

That Walter and Candace did, and that all of us may still, decide what and if we want to do anything other than what is more important to us, answers the question I posed at the beginning of this piece: Memorial Day is an occasion to do what, exactly?

Memorial Day is an occasion, first, to make that decision of which Candace writes. We are free to make it because they died to give us that freedom.

Those who died would want us to plan our menus, to be with our loved ones, to associate with whom we please. In short, to laugh and love and taste the Summertime, which begins now. So let us do so, and thereby give all our departed heroes a chance to live again.

We take all those freedoms for granted.  We should enjoy our freedoms on this lovely weekend. But only after we also remember all those, from the founding of our nation to the present day, who died to make us free.