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Lockdown

Photo © copyright by Axel Schmidt on October 13, 2019: demonstrators in Bebelplatz Square, Berlin after the synagogue burning in Halle.

I was sitting in the Writing Center at a two-year community college where I had been hired as a professional tutor to help students with their essays and other assignments. The college has a wide catchment area, urban and rural. I am new to the area having just moved from New York City about a year ago, and am still trying to figure out the culture. There is a lot of poverty, a lot of struggle, big houses alongside shacks and trailers, the gentry coming up from the city to buy up cheap property and ride their bikes on weekends on the narrow country roads. In other words, the community, and this particular college, and the writing center within the college, is a microcosm of our divided country with its huge income gap between rich and poor. I've had affluent overseas students, and students whose families have been in the county for generations leading hardscrabble lives. I've had veterans suffering from PTSD and a young mother who is going back to school for the first time since she dropped out of high school. So when a young man walked into the center wearing a fancy head set, which he did not remove, I was hopeful that either I, or one of my colleagues that day, would be able to help. But he was not in the center to get help with an assignment, apparently, though he obviously needed help, of a different kind. His movements were erratic, impulsive; he seemed unstable and troubled. He said hello to my two colleagues and then he swiveled, stopped in front of me, pointed his finger and said, "Jew." Immediately I questioned whether I'd heard him correctly.


"What did you say?" I asked him.


But he didn't answer my question.


How did he know I was a Jew? I look Semitic, but I could be Iranian, I could be a Cree from Saskatchewan, I could be Greek. Where did he pick up his racist ideas? His racist impulse? What radio programs or internet sites had he been ingesting without understanding their meaning and import?


I had just finished reading Eli Saslow's book, "Rising Out of Hatred," about the infiltration of mainstream political culture by the white supremacist movement. But the student who had called me a Jew was African American, so I was puzzled. Had he experienced so much racism and brutality himself that his scrambled mind now turned it on others? Maybe it wasn't music playing on his headset but a racist screed urging him on? Maybe he imagined himself to be white, or didn't know who he was, or where he was. What might he have hidden in his backpack?


The proliferation of weapons, the proliferation of foul ideas, one feeding the other as they take root in a mentally ill man, albeit an African American man. As a part-timer I'd missed the most recent lockdown drill, but had reviewed the various protocols before the term began; there have already been 22 school shootings in the USA in 2019. I am used to tight security at NYU where I have been an adjunct since 1997, and puzzled by the lax security at this public college which has an "open door, open campus" policy. Even members of the community can wander onto the campus, walk their dogs, or use the library. But this utopian ideal can be ruined by one terrible incident. The non-discriminatory policies enshrined in the Americans with Disabilities Act that protects students' rights and applauds access for all, education for all, is non-negotiable, as it should be. But what about the rights of the faculty, the other students, and the ancilliary staff?


My mind flashed to the "safe" closet just steps away, but we were all sitting, and this big, strong young man was standing, blocking the aisle. He rushed away and then turned back. Now he was standing in front of me again, jabbering nonsensically, and staring at me intently. I should have done a lot of things in that moment, but I was paralyzed. I'm a Jew, I thought, how does he know I am a Jew? Has he heard about synagogue shootings this year, seen the images on television? Does it make a difference that I am a secular Jew? That some of my European family are, in fact, Catholic? Is he going to hurt me?


My colleagues were watching, but didn't seem as alarmed as I was. Neither of them is Jewish, so how could they understand the iconic terror that had been unleashed in me? How could they understand that I still feel my parents' and grandparents' terror the day that Hitler marched into Vienna and my grandmother, Nanette, was forced onto her knees to scrub stones? She had been at work that day and was on her way home. How did the German soldiers know she was Jewish? She wasn't religious, did not wear a wig. How did they know?


Finally, the man left and I reported the incident to my supervisor who sent an email I wrote to document the incident to campus security. The Director of Safety and Security Services and the Dean of Students arrived to talk to me immediately and discussed what could be done. They were kind, professional, reassuring. The student has been suspended for now, they said, and there will be a hearing in a few days time. They didn't think he was dangerous, but one never knows. "I've been profiled based on my appearance," I told them. "Something triggered him. I feel shaken."


My father often said that we mustn't bring more Jewish children into the world only to be killed. He argued for assimilation, for secularism in the American diaspora. I was relieved to marry a man from Polish/Russian/Jewish ancestry who does not "look" Jewish, who would not be singled out and could—and this was probably an unconscious thought—protect me. And I was relieved when my daughter did not inherit my Semitic nose and then married a British man, an Anglo Saxon, and changed her name, all of these also unspoken thoughts. In fact, I am the only one in my immediate family to carry Middle-Eastern and/or North African genes on my face. Although I experienced anti-Semitism in England for the first time in my life, I had always felt safe in America, until I wasn't.

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Two More Shootings

Photo © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, AFP/Getty Images

 

I needed a break from Facebook, or so I thought. I don't have any "friends" on Facebook I'd be ashamed of, or wouldn't want to meet for a coffee. There are one or two people I have not met and my impression of their lives is only what they choose to present—in photos and text—on the social media platform. For all of those I have not met, I hope one day to meet them. This is an open invitation. Still, I felt oddly disgusted the other day—not with political conversation—it wasn't that. All my FB friends are civil, or they would not be my friends. It was something else: the unending coldness of a medium—à la Marshall McLuhan—that fools us into thinking it is "warm," concerned and intimate. Because we enter the portal at a whim, according to our own timetable, we may or may not connect or converse. What we see and read is static, unlike a dynamic real-time conversation. The comments usually are quick, short and shallow. And I am a writer; I like to talk, to spin out ideas. So, from the start of FB, whenever that was, I have written long posts and I also post my blog. There is plenty of space to comment; there are no word restrictions. Indeed, I suggest to my students to take their time, to use Facebook as an opportunity to practice their writing. Readers can click off or scroll away; it's up to them.


So I was off Facebook for a day or so, maybe not even that long—and not entirely—as I kept lurking. A friend in Florida had a terrible car accident and how would I have known about this if I hadn't been checking-in? I wrote to her on Messenger and also sent her an email. She's not someone I've seen a lot over the years, but I care about her, of course I do. Our kids were toddlers in London together. We saw each other again in California years later, our kids grown, and we've kept in touch via FB. Pretty nice, I'd say. I wish we could talk on the phone, see each other, write more long, discursive emails like correspondents of yester-years because I don't want FB to become a substitute for deep, human connection. That is not sustainable for me. A writer, solitary so much of the time, requires more than sound-byte micro-connections. Well, we all do, I suppose. In fact, I am sure of it. More so in these hard times than ever. That's why I decided to go off FB for a while, to think about a rehabilitation of strong, close human connection and the uses and abuses of social media.


Here is my FB post of August 2:


Dear Friends,
I have decided to go off FB for a while. If you would like to have a real time, voice conversation, please call, or come to visit. You know where I am and I know where you are. You will be hearing from me, but not on FB. In other words, let us stay in touch with actual F2F or voice communication. Please text only to arrange or confirm, or if you need to get my attention quickly, but not to converse. Converse, as in conversation.
FB is a deceptively "warm" medium I plan to write about. I think it is because of the photos, but I am going to think more about this. (Back to my grad school subject.) We also know how it's being used politically—positively and negatively—so of great interest.
I will continue to post blog (notes )on my professional page, but I won't share them here.
Have a good rest of the summer— in reality, not virtually. Local friends, let's meet for a coffee—and talk.
All best,
Carol


A few dear friends responded, said they understood, said they'd miss my posts. I didn't thank them on FB, so I thank them now. Thank you.


Best laid plans. I am back. It was because of the shootings on Saturday, August 3rd, one day after I had decided to take a break. I had a terrible night's sleep, as did my husband. First thing in the morning, I read a 2012 Jill Lepore article about guns in America on the New Yorker Today feed, and decided to post it on FB:


https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/23/battleground-america?fbclid=IwAR0Zs5L19_2aU9e6EaazB7vXokIFP3P4adzHPiD8sgYgnJyI2RdeQfqhzYM


The commentary from friends started to come in, and it was long, narrative commentary. I was grateful and felt a sense of community, a sense of purpose, even a sense of safety, illusory as that might be. Any one of us can find ourselves in the line of fire. In fact, there was a shooting in the mall in New Paltz a few weeks ago: a son shot his father in front of the diner. No one else was hurt, thank goodness. I arrived a few minutes later during the stop action, everyone frozen in their cars and shoes. I parked far away from the huddle of law enforcement –it's a huge lot—and chatted to my real-time friends in the health store, a human-size store where it is easy to have a conversation. We all hypothesized about what had happened. And it was odd, we all agreed, that life—or shopping—was already back to "normal."


Racists with guns are on the loose in America abetted by racist politicians in Washington. As one of my FB friends said so succinctly this morning: It's a national emergency. Let us shout this loud and clear on every media platform at our disposal: It's a national emergency.



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Sanctuary

Photo courtesy Rough Draft Bar & Books, 82 John Street, Kingston, NY

 

I drove up to Kingston, NY to deliver "Say Nothing," to Rough Draft Bar & Books on John Street. I'll be one of the local authors signing books there on September 9th. It's a beautiful store; paper is making a comeback.


It was a hot day and I parked as close as I could. I poured quarters into the meter and set out. John Street is in the old "stockade" part of Kingston, the first capital of New York State. The landmarked stone houses were built as a fortress against the Munsee Esopus tribe who fought like crazy to push back the European colonial advance. No luck; the houses still stand, but the Native Munsees are gone. The tribe migrated—what was left of them—north and west, merging with other Algonquin-speaking tribes for safety and survival.


I can't get their fate—their story—out of my mind. I don't know why I think about it so much, maybe because I only recently arrived in upstate New York, and can't abide omissions in the history, maybe because my own family was displaced and killed.


I'm walking through the Munsee history slowly, absorbing whatever there is to read, preparing to write something, I'm not sure what. Once injustice takes hold of me, I can't let it go until I've written about it. It hasn't always been easy.


"Go back where you came from." I've heard that before, from an English Lord in the House of Lords where I'd been called to testify in front of a committee. The Lord didn't like an article I'd written for The Times Educational Supplement exposing the treatment of West Indian immigrant children in the London schools. He addressed me as "Mrs. Bergman," and continued, as follows: "We thank Mrs. Bergman for her article and ask that she return to America from whence she came." Fair enough. I wasn't a citizen, I was an "alien," working and living in London. But I was also a journalist exercising my freedom to write in a parliamentary democracy albeit without a Bill of Rights. Still, unless I was in contravention of the Official Secrets Act, I was free to write what I pleased, and what my editors commissioned me to investigate.


When we exercise our freedom to write, we cannot control our readers' response. I remember that when I received a death threat because of something I'd written, I was in shock. I had been naive and never anticipated rage, hatred, shunning, or threat of violence because of something I'd written. I have learned to accept it, but it's not pleasant, to say the least.


Insularity, parochial mentality, bigotry, racism, hate speech, incitement to violence. The escalation is obvious and—historically—well tested.


And now four elected United States representatives, women of color, have been deliberately, aggressively—verbally—attacked. Trump's rallies feel like lynch mobs, the border patrols like fugitive slave catchers. How will historians tell this story years from now? Honestly and thoroughly, I hope.


I ended my sojourn in Kingston with a pleasant, healthy Bento Box lunch at Yum Yum on Fair Street. It was quiet, well air-conditioned. A man at the counter greeted me warmly. It felt like a sanctuary.

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A Mythic Election

Marie Antoinette as portrayed in a scandal sheet before the French Revolution. These "libelles" were the tabloids and Fox News of their day. The hate speech they used with abandon led to the guillotine.
I’ve never enjoyed mythology, fairy tales or biblical stories nor have I –consciously—used any such references in my writing. I have not had a classical education, never learned Greek or Latin and was terrified by the grim Grimm Brothers Fairy Tales my European parents read to me. “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue ...” wrote psychologist Bruno Bettleheim in his book, “The Uses of Enchantment.” Exactly. And so it struck me as bizarre to find myself conjuring the character of Jezebel—that wicked, controlling woman from the Book of Kings --in an attempt to understand the unrelenting demonization of Hillary Clinton. Beyond the objective reality of her political and personal “mistakes,” why has she been so vilified? Why have those vicious accusing words “crooked,” and “liar” stuck to her and not come unstuck. She has been portrayed as a demon and as Satan himself.

I am reminded of Marie Antoinette’s fate during the French Revolution. Long before she was beheaded, she had been lampooned and stripped of her royal dignity in “libelles,” the tabloid scandal sheets of the day. Many of the writers were hacks tempted by money, without conscience or professional ethics. Gossip and rumor titillated a willing public fearful of the Austrian princess who had arrived in Paris to marry Louis XVI at the age of fourteen. Pornographic images of the Queen often accompanied salacious text. She was accused of stupidity, sexual deviance and treason. Surely, her entourage were all spies for her Hapsburg relations, these spin masters wrote. The constant repetition of words and images ignited a deep mythic fear in the French populace. It remains to this day. Ask anyone about Marie Antoinette and they will probably know nothing about her artistic achievements, her courage, or her devotion to her children.

How can we, as writers and journalists, begin to rewrite the false myths and false analogies we have been pummeled with in this election? Because it isn’t only Trump supporters who believe that they are true; I know Democrats who would never vote for Hillary. These educated “liberals,” believe everything they have heard or read about her. She is a lesbian, surely, one male friend said to me without blinking the other day, which, he implied, is much worse than being black. He is either going to abstain, or write-in a candidate, or vote for a third party candidate. I have tried to persuade him that he is deeply mistaken but I haven’t, as yet, been able to find the right words.  Read More 
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Words Matter; A Demagogue Speaks

The Demagogue: his hair looks like a croissant, his mouth like Mussolini's.
“How Does a Nation Turn to Hate?” That’s a tag line on the New York Historical Society website this month. I went to see their small exhibition, “Antisemitism 1919-1939,” and took lots of notes. It was the only way I could concentrate without becoming very upset.

First of all, as many of my readers know, my parents were genocide survivors. Secondly, the Nazi propaganda displayed in the vitrines felt eerily familiar in this 2016 election year. At first, Hitler was dismissed as a fringe crank. It didn’t take him long to become Chancellor.

So I’m weighing in on the “Trump Phenomena.” His campaign is not at all funny or entertaining. It’s terrifying. Like Hitler and his cohorts, he is a master of media manipulation and inflammatory, subliminal messages, nuanced enough to avoid accusations of “hate speech" yet remain within the realm of “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. It's incendiary nonetheless. Trump is the voice of bigotry and has given bigotry a voice. And if he now claims—cynically—that he’s just a regular guy and is going to calm down, that’s even worse. The damage has been done.

In Nazi Germany, Hitler had many “willing executioners,” as Harvard scholar Daniel Goldhagen wrote in a 1995 book of that title. Men and women who were acquiescent, men and women who obeyed. The Nazi killing machine revved up incrementally. It began by endlessly repeating words and images of dirty money-grabbing Jews who were “repulsive parasites,” the cause of all Germany’s problems since the beginning of time. There were even children’s books written to reinforce these messages and a couple of them are on display at the NY Historical Society exhibition. I had never seen them before. They are shocking.

The indoctrination of ordinary citizens ended in The Nuremberg Laws—the legal foundation of Hitler’s Holocaust—and the death camps. Where will Trump’s campaign lead us as a nation? His anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim epithets deny our citizens, asylees, refugees and applicants for American citizenship, the fundamental right to live without threat of violence. His language inflames those who hate, those who may carry guns; we are a well-armed nation. Hate crimes against Muslims have spiked in recent months. And no wonder.

We have had other demagogues running for office in the past, but that fact does not make Donald Trump any less dangerous. We must stop him for the sake of our children and our democracy.  Read More 
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