Across The Great Divide

We apparently have arrived at a new high, or more appropriately – low, in cultural divisions. There are armed men in full camo on the steps of statehouses and courthouses. There are shaming comments on social media, from all perspectives. Who did they plan to shoot? Why do you need a rifle to peacefully protest your right to be an ass? Maybe this is just a new incarnation of the divide we were already living with.

There is the “live free or die” perspective – which takes on a new and very real feel. Those who won’t wear masks, who don’t socially distance and who truly believe that this is all a bunch of bs, or a hoax, or some weird conspiracy. The rate of growth of conspiracy theories is astounding, but that is a rant for another day. Since I am in the wear a mask, stay home as much as you can and social distance camp, let’s talk about live free or die.

The slogan for this perspective should be “I will live free and you will die.” As happens more frequently than not, folks are waving the constitution like a suit of armor. Don’t get me started on the right to bear arms…to form a militia for the common defense. For those who wish to argue with me, here is the language:

“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.”

So now it is the right to assemble. …[T]the right of the people peaceably to assemble[.]” This poses the now somewhat timeworn issue of your right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. The core idea of this famous Holmesian quote, not at all timeworn, is that the exercise of every right has a corresponding burden or obligation, generally on someone(s) other than the person exercising the right.

So how do you balance? An excellent analogy is travel. Courts have long found that an essential element of “liberty” is the right to travel freely. But the courts have also long upheld multiple restrictions on that right – the need to have a valid license, traffic restrictions, the need for insurance, DUI laws – for example. So your right to travel is balanced against my right to be safe from unlicensed, uninsured and impaired drivers.

And in the same way, your right to free speech is balanced against the public good, or damage, that the speech may cause. So back to the point. Your right to go out in public without a mask, gather in large groups and ignore social distancing places what may of us consider an undue, unfair and unbelievable burden on the rest of us.

If you read credible and unbiased scientific articles with real data, it is clear that, for instance, religious gatherings are one of the prime “clusters” of illness, along with nursing homes and extended care facilities. It is also clear that if you ignore New York, which is in total lock-down, the rest of the country is still on the upside of the curve. You also know that you can spread the virus most efficiently before you have symptoms, are tested or are diagnosed – for up to two weeks. You are essentially as impaired and dangerous as that drunk driver who is breaking the law.

Now I have to go out for groceries occasionally. And I am stunned by the number of people not wearing masks, ignoring the distances and generally walking around as if none of this ever happened. So your right to “live free”, maskless and in close groups, should be balanced against my right to live at all. This exercise of your right- to ” live free” – imposes a possible death penalty on the rest of us. The constitution is not a suit of armor, it is a living document that provides us with a framework for our democracy. Democracy is a living framework that must and does flex with the times. And of course there are a lot of us going out with masks, maybe gloves, wipes and taking good care.

The exercise of every right has a corresponding burden. When you exercise your rights, there is always a cultural cost. Granted when you exercise your right to speak, I don’t have to listen but there are boundaries; when you exercise your right to assemble in your neighborhood, there are rules about what you can do; when you exercise your right to carry a gun, there are laws and restrictions about what you can do with it. Based on my current experience, I am tempted to tell you where to put the gun. Instead I will just say wear a mask, stay away from me and unless you are a constitutional scholar, keep your constitution to yourself.

Peace and Justice

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

We packed a lunch, and snacks, and set off for Alabama. Why? Glad you asked. The Peace and Justice Memorial Center and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama had been calling my name for quite some time.

From the New York Times, April 25, 2018:

“In a plain brown building sits an office run by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, a place for people who have been held accountable for their crimes and duly expressed remorse. Just a few yards up the street lies a different kind of rehabilitation center, for a country that has not been held to nearly the same standard.”

The Center, which opened in April of 2018, is a small building in the city that was the center of the slave trade in the United States and was itself a slave warehouse for those brought by river and train.

The old brick wall at the entry to the warehouse building reverberates with the chains of the imported, calling out for justice. The center is a museum that is overwhelming with the physical evidence of the cruelty and evil that is part of the American heritage. Glass jars filled with sand from the known sites of lynchings, some with names, some unknown. And so much more.

The signs collected from everywhere segregation and hatred were overt were startling but not unexpected in retrospect. One sign in particular I will never forget:

“No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs”

You will forgive the word, but it is what the sign said and it would be cowardly to edit it. As a Jew, this resonated in a more personal way. My thought was this – of the three, the dogs had experienced the least oppression.

The Memorial itself is both beautiful and grim, a field of 800 hanging metal coffin shaped boxes in a roofed area that includes fountains and quotes. The metal coffins hang at varying heights, at first at eye level, like a grave monument and finally above, as the lynched would be hanging. Each is inscribed with a county, and the names of those lynched in that place, some simply marked as unknown, most not. It is stunning and horrifying and important.

The Memorial stands in a rolling green field, quite beautiful in stark contrast. Just as the lynched might have, and did, hang from a beautiful tree in bloom in a green field. You cannot help but cry, and feel shame at what this represents, and pride that it is memorialized now in a way that cannot be ignored.

Bryan Stevenson said:

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is Justice.”

In that field, aside from the structure of the Memorial, are enormous “tables”. These are raised areas that hold duplicate metal bars, exactly like those that hang. They are not affixed, they are just lain in these beds. The point is that each and every county has been invited to take the one marked with their name and erect it as a memorial in that county.

My hope is that I will visit there again someday, and all the bars in that beautiful green field will be gone, raised against racism, bigotry and intolerance.

HOPE

It is almost impossible, now, to describe what it felt to be incalculably hopeful. Our idealism, in the sixties and seventies, was boundless. We believed absolutely and completely that we would change the world. And in some ways the world was indeed changed. The civil rights act, the voting rights act, ultimately Title IX, the rise of feminism and a tectonic shift in our culture; music, art, attitudes.

And idealism dies hard. All my life I have held fast to some idealistic notions of good and right. Not to mention my steadfast belief in constitutional democracy and the protections it should afford us.

Having said that, the hardest thing for me about where we are now is the erosion of hope, the loss of idealism. I find it damn near impossible to watch the news without becoming angry, or depressed, or just plain sad. I find it almost impossible to believe that we are where we are. That racism, fascism, anti-semitism and all forms of bigotry are on the rise. That we cannot agree that saving the planet and all the creatures on it should be a first and urgent priority. That the short view is always the prevailing view. That civil discussion and disagreement are no longer possible. These are the big things, the small things confront us daily. My town now only pretends to recycle, my social security is taxed, there are hungry homeless children in our schools; and on and on.

I was watching a fictional television show in which a leading character made an impassioned speech about the values we should all be holding dear. About the pure and fantastical notion of a government by and for the people. And geek that I am, it made me cry. Good,grief. And it reminded me of that hope, that beautiful boundless hope.

And all I can do, as I witness the destruction of decades of progress on the environment, the recission of regulations that protect our air, our water, our parks, our children, the poor, the disenfranchised, is try to see the good. I watch for those moments when the best in us is evident, when my neighbors help me with things I can’t do, when people band together to help the victims of some senseless tragedy, when a restaurant feeds those with no money. Just examples, but sparks of hope. As I said, hope does hard, so we have to fan those tiny sparks and pray, every day, that the flames can rise again and carry us forward. Maybe hope is contagious.

CULTURE SHOCK

Fooled you, I will bet you thought it was when I arrived in Southeast Asia. Sure, that had its own newness factor, but that wasn’t the shock.

All through Thailand and Cambodia, in multiple airports large and small, we queued and queued and queued. And while you might see frustration on a random face, people stood quietly. And politely. And generally without complaint. If you smiled at someone they smiled back.

My favorite queue was for an airport ladies room where I was engaged in a spirited conversation by a lovely Thai woman. We were, it turned out, the same age, both freshly retired, both traveling to similar places for similar reasons. Yes, it was a pretty long wait. She apparently decided I needed to go more and graciously told me to go first!

All through Thailand and Cambodia, even in the poorest neighborhoods, I found the people to be almost unfailingly humble, smiling, polite. And it was an extraordinary pleasure. In Thailand there is a word that doesn’t really have its own meaning, it is just an”politeness” you add to everything you say. Even if you can’t remember the word for thank you, adding a “kah” to your English “thank you” brought a smile and a return “kah”. And in Cambodia it is the cultural norm to SMILE.

On my return to the states I entered the U.S. at Atlanta where I had to go through passport control/immigration. As might be expected in one of the busiest airports in the world, it was crowded. Airport staff were working hard to control the flow of people and the lines were long. The airport staff looked like dogs that had been beaten, for some good reason. People in line were swearing, yelling, complaining in an amazing show of discourtesy and arrogance.

There is the culture shock, returning to America. We are one of, if not the, youngest developed country in the world. In France people experience individual arrogance from, for example, shopkeepers who don’t like your French accent or non French. But people bring their babies to street protests. It has been many years since I was in Germany (I will be there soon and will update) but my experience was one of politeness notwithstanding that German tourists on holiday can be a bit much. Overall we seem to be the brashest, most arrogant and rudest people I have experienced. How sad is that? And it is only getting worse. I was shocked.

I Remember

 

So here goes with another movie. The other night I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody. And I know that Rami Malik got some not so nice and pretty snarky reviews. Some were downright nasty. I, however, thought he was amazing. He utterly channeled Freddie Mercury and held the audience’s attention as if he were the real person. I imagine it is hard enough to play a fictional character, but to re-create a real person must be unbelievably difficult. And he made it look easy, the acting part. Being Freddie Mercury could never have been easy, in the movie or in life.

Of course the music was wonderful, and nostalgic, but that wasn’t what struck me most. Don’t get me wrong, as a musician, the story of any iconic musician is fascinating to me. What struck me hardest was the evocative power of the film to bring me back to those terrible early days of the epidemic. The dark days when the virus was an unknown and nobody understood what it was let alone what to do about it, how to treat it.

Watching even the fictional story of a man dying of AIDS brought to mind all those I lost and all those we as a country, as a culture, lost. And it brought to mind the fear and ignorance, intolerance and distrust with which victims were treated. I remember people sick and dying with no human touch because of irrational and baseless fear. I remember the sorrow I felt and the helplessness, all I could do was hug the ones I knew.

And remembering what that fear and ignorance did to hundreds or thousands made me think of what fear and ignorance are doing to us now. If only there was a cure. But it was a wonderful cinema experience despite all that.