Archive for December, 2013

The Importance of the Bachelet Victory in Chile – posted 12/ 29/2013

December 29, 2013 2 comments

When Michelle Bachelet won her December run-off election for the presidency of Chile, I was surprised how little attention the story received in the United States. Maybe it is because Americans generally pay little attention to any foreign news.

Bachelet, leader of the center-left coalition and the first female ever elected president of Chile (from 2006 to 2010) won an overwhelming victory over Evelyn Matthei, the right-wing candidate. Bachelet garnered over 62% of the vote. I think it was the first Latin American election where both major candidates were women.

This was not any old election. The story is deeply rooted in the history of Chile from the era of Allende and Pinochet and it has the flair of an epic novel. The candidates, Bachelet and Matthei, grew up living across the street from each other. They played together as little girls, riding bikes.

The girls’ fathers were best friends. Albert Bachelet and Fernando Matthei both had Air Force jobs. They shared a love of classical music and loved to talk sports, politics and philosophy. Bachelet gave Matthei two olive trees and a flowering cherry. Those trees are still in front of the Matthei house.

When President Salvador Allende was overthrown by the military in 1973, very tragic events were set into motion. Shortly before the coup, another Chilean general, Gen. Gustavo Leigh, who was a coup supporter, forced Gen. Bachelet to step down from his high ranking position in the Air Force. Apparently this happened because Gen. Bachelet was an obstacle to coup planning. Bachelet was loyal to President Allende and the democratically elected government.

After the coup on September 11, 1973, the military detained Bachelet and he was subjected to months of daily torture. Bachelet died in custody in March 1974 due to a heart attack almost certainly related to his torture. He wrote his son Alberto:

“I was detained incommunicado for 26 days. I was subjected to torture for 30 hours and finally sent to the Air Force Hospital. They destroyed me inside; they were exhausting me mentally.”

In early January 1975, the military also detained and tortured both Michelle Bachelet and her mother. They were taken blindfolded to Villa Grimaldi, a notorious detention center in Santiago. Because of sympathetic connections in the military, unlike thousands of others, Bachelet and her mother were exiled instead of being murdered. They first moved to Australia and then East Germany. Bachelet started study to become a doctor when she lived in East Germany. She moved back to Chile in 1979 and continued her medical studies, ultimately becoming a pediatrician.

Fernando Matthei rose to a higher position three months after the coup. He became head of the Air Force War Academy. Four years after that Matthei became the head of the Air Force.

Matthei’s office was not at all far from the place his former friend was being interrogated and tortured. Matthei did nothing to save his friend. He says he raised his friend’s treatment with Gen. Leigh. In 2009, Matthei wrote:

“He told me not to get involved in issues which were none of my business. I confess that I never went to see him in the basement of the academy nor in prison, something which I am ashamed of. Perhaps on that occasion prudence superceded courage.”

As for Evelyn Matthei, she moved into the private sector before launching her political career. She was a Pinochet defender late in the day. In 1999, when Gen. Pinochet was arrested in England for crimes against humanity, she and a small faction of right wing Chileans flew to London to publicly support the dictator.

Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer, added a further dimension to this story of which I was not aware. Also part of the recent presidential campaign was Marco Enriquez-Ominami, who was a candidate of the Progressive Party, a smaller party on the left. His father Miguel Enriquez had been a famous militant leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), a group that favored an insurrectionary approach to achieving socialism. Miguel Enriquez had been MIR General Secretary from 1967 to 1974 and he was a critical supporter of the Allende government. The military found Enriquez’s safe house in Santiago, surrounded it and shot him dead in October 1974. Miguel Enriquez had been organizing opposition to the coup from underground.

The 2013 Chilean election brought all this history center stage again. It also offered up continuing differences and visions about Chile and how to address its problems.

For someone who observed from the United States the devastating tragedy that was Pinochet’s coup, the victory of the Chilean Left is both deeply satisfying and inspirational. I wanted to say a bit about the lessons I see coming out of the election.

For leftists and progressives of my generation, the election of Salvador Allende in 1970 was electrifying. At that time, it was popular wisdom that no socialist could ever win a democratic election. Allende won in 1970 and then again in 1973. Allende proved the pundit class wrong.

I remember Henry Kissinger’s quote from 1970:

“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

The background role of the U.S. in the Pinochet coup remains a shameful episode in our history.

Allende provided the positive example of democracy and socialism that inspired Bachelet. Allende showed it was possible to win. I do not minimize any of the questions provoked by the coup about Allende’s strategy and whether the end result was inevitable. Those debates are important but I do think democracy remains the essential precondition for social change in both advanced capitalist countries and in countries like Chile which have a profound democratic tradition.

I think Americans can learn from the Chilean example. Instead of pursuing armed struggle, which likely would have guaranteed their extermination, Chile’s progressives redoubled their democratic efforts. Now on their agenda is addressing economic inequality, creating greater access to higher education and raising corporate taxes.

All these items could easily be on an American agenda. We face the same issue of extreme economic inequality. Nobody defends the economic interests of working people these days. Higher education has become ridiculously expensive. How about an agenda that stood for addressing unemployment, free higher education, health care as a human right, reasonable gun control, support for womens’ rights including abortion rights, opposition to racism and support for immigrants’ rights, support for LGBT rights, and an anti-imperialist foreign policy? Enough with the stupid wars that maim new generations.

I think American progressives and leftists need to learn how to engage electoral politics far more effectively. We give up too easily. I think we could learn from the Right on this score. I do give the Right credit for persistence. Their efforts to influence the Republican Party have been far more successful than the Left’s efforts to influence the Democrats. In saying this, I can hear the litany of complaints on the Left about the impossibility of electoral politics, Citizens United, and the power of money to buy elections.

Although it is about a decade old, the perspective I would advocate was outlined in James Weinstein’s book The Long Detour. To quote Weinstein:

“Building a national movement requires commitment to continuous electoral activity, year-in and year-out…In organizing such a new movement the left will have to think nationally – especially in terms of its program and critique of current government policies – but act locally and start modestly.”

I will write more about this but I did not want to get too far away from Chile. For those who would like to learn more about Chile and its history over the last 40 years I would suggest reading Ariel Dorfman. I am indebted to Dorfman for his articles in the Guardian and the Nation. He has a fine new memoir Feeding On Dreams which I would recommend. I also would recommend the wonderful Costa-Gavras movie Missing which starred Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. It tells an important story well and conveys a feel for the time.

It will be interesting to see how Bachelet and her progressive agenda fare.

More on Football and Brain Injury – posted 12/23/2013

December 24, 2013 10 comments

Another football season is winding down and I have to say it has been remarkably entertaining. With so much parity in the NFL, it is impossible to know which team will win out in the end.

There have been so many good story lines. Can the Pats win it all without Gronk? Can Peyton Manning come back with the Broncos and lead them to the Super Bowl? As a Philadelphia Eagles fan, I am excited about the team’s future with Coach Chip Kelly as well as the emergence of quarterback Nick Foles.

At the same time, remaining in the background, are the gnawing, unanswered questions about football and brain injuries. Except for the occasional stories about the increasing number of players whose lives have been destroyed, the football/brain injuries story has receded.

Possibly the settlement of the federal court lawsuit between the players and the NFL at the start of the football season had something to do with this. The deal was generally applauded although a cynic might say the NFL was essentially making a large payoff to make the lawsuit go away.

It remains to be seen how well the NFL has provided for the long-term health needs of its players. When I wrote about this for the Concord Monitor in September, I struck a skeptical tone. I had pointed to the NFL’s long history of denying the link between concussions suffered playing football and long-term brain damage. I compared the NFL’s denial around brain injury to the tobacco companies’ denial of the link between smoking and lung cancer.

I think the parallel is instructive. The matter of football and brain injury is at a very early stage of awareness. Concussion science is young. Careful students of the NFL will note the league has refrained from making any admissions about the health risks of football. The lawsuit settlement has given it some breathing room.

The NFL’s earlier position of absolute denial is no longer tenable because of all the player disclosures of death and disability. The NFL’s public stance has now morphed into more subtle forms of denial. I would describe the NFL’s new posture as “debating the science”.

This is a well-worn strategy frequently employed by a variety of industries. When accused of bad actions which expose the public to a significant public health risk, the industry seeks to generate doubt about the probability and magnitude of the risk.

The goal is to create a controversy and a debate about the science. If the science is inconclusive, there is no need for immediate action. An epidemiologist, David Michaels, has written about the manufacture of doubt. He has described doubt as the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public.

In the world of occupational health and safety, examples immediately come to mind. I think of miners and silicosis, construction workers and asbestos, workers exposed to lead and hazardous chemicals, among others. Owners in these industries denied hazards as long as they could until government regulation forced minimum standards to protect workers.

In a different context, I also see a parallel to climate change. Even though there is overwhelming scientific proof of climate change and consensus among the great majority of scientists, deniers, with economic and political motives, use doubt as justification for inaction.

I do not believe the public yet appreciates how bad the NFL’s actions have been. The players’ lawsuit accused the NFL of intentional misconduct, concealment, and fraud in misrepresenting the long-term effects of concussions. The NFL failed to properly treat concussed players and actively worked to conceal the causal link between football and brain injury. In effect, the owners’ profits were placed ahead of everything.

It is a mistake to gloss over the history. Going back almost 20 years when the NFL set up its Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, it placed a rheumatologist in charge. The rheumatologist, who had no background in brain science, had been then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s personal physician.

In the eyes of that Committee, the NFL did not have much of a concussion problem. The NFL’s PR department argued that when concussions occurred, 92% of players returned to the field in less than 7 days. Rather than pointing to a health concern, the NFL saw the players’ quick return as evidence the problem was minimal. Until very recently, the NFL’s position was that concussions were minor events that went away quickly with few long-term effects. The examples of Mike Webster, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, rather than anything the NFL did, have demolished the NFL’s former position.

Let me raise some of the questions which I see as ongoing and unresolved. Are efforts to alter rules and improve playing equipment sufficient? Do teams need independent trainers and physicians? Are team doctors compromised by a conflict of interest since their loyalty is to who pays them? Isn’t it true they are not medical advocates for the players but their role has been to get the player back on the field as soon as possible?

What about the health needs of players who were not part of the lawsuit, including those who played 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago? What consideration, if any, do these players get? Or how about those retired players who are on the borderline. They may have some symptoms like memory loss, severe headaches, and insomnia but no clear diagnosis. A difficulty in assessing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the football-related brain injury, is that it is a post-mortem diagnosis. I am not aware of any test that can determine if it exists in a living player.

Outside the NFL, one large question is: should children play football? At what age is it safe? When is it safe for a child to return to a game after experiencing a concussion? How many concussion events are too many? This is a game played by millions of children and adolescents. We know developing brains are at a higher risk of concussion incidence.

One generalization I would make: in the NFL, players with concussions get cleared to return to play too soon. Bennet Omalu, a brain pathologist who has been a key researcher of football-related brain injuries, has written that recovery from a single concussion episode might require three months – not days.

Maybe in the future, players will have to wear the following statement on their uniform: “Playing football carries increased risk of brain injury that may have long-term effects and helmets do not prevent that”. Or maybe they will have to sign a waiver to that effect. As with cigarettes, we might get to that place.

These issues are not going away and neither is football. It is safe to say there are more questions than answers.

“Angel Face” by Uri Avnery – posted 12/21/2013

December 21, 2013 Leave a comment

I am reprinting a piece written by Uri Avnery, chair of the Israeli peace movement, Gush Shalom. Avnery writes regularly about Israel and the Middle East. He has a perspective you do not see in our media. I would encourage readers to check him out at his own website Jon

SEEING HER face on the TV screen, one is struck by her beauty. It is the face of an angel, pure and innocent.

Then she opens her mouth, and what pours out is vile and ugly, the racist message of the extreme right. Like seeing a cherub parting its lips and revealing the teeth of a vampire.

Ayelet Shaked may be the beauty queen of the present Knesset. Her name is enticing: Ayelet means gazelle, Shaked means almond. But she is the instigator of some of the most outrageous right-wing initiatives in this Knesset. She is also the chairwoman of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home faction, the nationalist-religious party of the settlers, the most radical rightist party of the current government coalition.

Her latest exploit is a bill which is now being debated in the Knesset, which would levy a huge tax on donations given by foreign “political entities” to Israeli human rights associations, those who advocate a boycott of Israel (or of the settlements only), the indictment of Israeli officers accused of war crimes in international courts, and more.

All this while immense sums of money are flowing from abroad to the settlements and their supporters. A large share of these sums is practically donated by the US government, which allows their exemption from US income tax as philanthropic. Much of it comes from American Jewish billionaires of dubious repute.

IN A way, this Gazelle is the face of an international phenomenon. All over Europe, extreme fascistic parties are flourishing. Small despised fringe groups suddenly expand into large parties with a national impact. From Holland to Greece, from France to Russia, these parties propagate a mixture of super-nationalism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and immigrant-hatred. A deadly witches’ brew.

The explanation seems to be simple. All over the place, the economic crisis has hit the people hard. Unemployment is high. Young people cannot find jobs. The victims look for a scapegoat on which to vent their anger. They choose the foreigner, the minority, the helpless. That has been so since antiquity. That’s how a failed painter named Adolf Hitler became a historic figure.

For politicians without vision or values, this is the easiest way to success and prominence. It is also the most despicable.

An Austrian socialist said more than a century ago: “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of the fools”.

Social reformers may believe that the whole thing is instigated by the world’s billionaires, who are concentrating an ever larger part of the world’s assets in their hands. The gap between the upper 1% and everybody else is growing relentlessly, and the beneficiaries are financing radical right-wingers to divert the anger of the masses in other directions. Stands to reason.

HOWEVER, TO my mind the economic explanation is too simple. If the same phenomenon appears at the same time in so many different countries, with different economic situations, there must be more profound reasons. There must be some elements of Zeitgeist in it.

I think that we are witnessing a basic cultural breakdown, a crisis of accepted values. This kind of upheaval generally accompanies social changes, often caused by economic and technological breakthroughs. It is a sign of social dissonance, of disorientation. On the eve of the Nazi revolt, the German writer Hans Fallada wrote an immensely successful book called “Kleiner Mann was nun?” (Little Man, What Now?), expressing the despair of the newly disinherited masses. Many little men and women around the world are in the same situation now.

In Israel, too.

LAST WEEK, we saw a spectacle that would have shaken our grandparents to the core.

Some 300 black people, many of them barefoot in the biting cold of an exceptionally severe winter, were walking dozens of kilometers on a central road. They were refugees who had managed to flee from Sudan and Eritrea, to walk all the way through Egypt and the Sinai and had crossed the border into Israel. (Since then, a wall has been erected along the Sinai border, and this stream has practically stopped.)

There are now about 60,000 such African refugees in Israel. Thousands of them are crowded in the most run-down slums of Tel Aviv and other cities, causing deep resentment among the locals. This has proved a fertile breeding ground for racism. The most successful agitator is another beautiful member of the Knesset, the Likud’s Miri Regev, a former army chief spokeswoman, who is inciting the inhabitants and the country in the most primitive and vulgar manner.

Looking for a solution to the problem, the government built a large prison in the middle of the desolate Negev desert, unbearably hot in summer and unbearably cold in winter. Thousands of black refugees have been crowded there without trial for three years. Some called it a concentration camp.

Israeli human rights associations – the same as above – applied to the Supreme Court, and the imprisonment of the refugees was declared unconstitutional. The government thought again (if thinking is the right word) and decided to circumvent the decision. Not far from the forbidden prison a new prison was built, and the refugees were put there for one year each.

No, not a prison. Something called “Open Live-in Facility”. We are good at naming things. We call that “verbal laundry”.

This “open” desert prison is closed during the night, but inmates are free during the day. However, it is far from anywhere. The inmates must register three times during daytime – thus making it impossible to go anywhere, not to mention finding work.

It is from this “open” prison that the valiant 300 have walked out and marched all the way to Jerusalem, some 150 kilometers, in order to demonstrate in front of the Knesset. It took them three days. They were accompanied by a few Israeli human rights activists, mostly female, their light faces very conspicuous among all the black heads.

In front of the Knesset they were brutally attacked by specially trained riot police. Each demonstrator was surrounded by half a dozen bullies and violently thrown into a bus, which brought them to the old non-open prison.**

I AM dwelling on this incident because I am profoundly ashamed.

Racism is not a new thing in Israel. Far from it. But whenever we accuse
our gazelles of racism, they answer that this is pure libel. There is a conflict between us and the Palestinians, strict security measures are called for, this has nothing to do with racism, God forbid.

This is a very dubious argument, but at least it has some plausibility.

But we have no national conflict with the refugees. No security considerations are involved.

It is racism, pure and simple.

Let’s imagine that suddenly, in a remote corner between Eritrea and the Sudan, a Jewish tribe had been discovered. Its 60,000 members want to come to Israel.

The country would be in a delirium. The red carpet would be rolled out in Ben-Gurion airport. Both the President and the Prime Minister would be there, ready with their most banal speeches. They would receive an “absorption subsidy”, free housing and work. ***

So it’s not an economic problem, nor a question of absorption, housing or employment. It’s not even a question of skin color. Black Jews from Ethiopia are readily welcomed.


No room here for other people. They would take away our jobs. They would change the demographic balance. This, after all, is a Jewish State!

OR IS it?

If this were a Jewish State, would it treat refugees this way?

A hundred memories float into our minds. Of Jews being hounded from country to country. Of the mighty United States of America rejecting Jewish refugees on a German ship, fleeing from Nazi persecution. And later exterminated in the death camps. Of the Swiss pushing back Jews escaping from the concentration camps who had made it to their border.

Remember “The Boat Is Full?

If this really were a Jewish state, would it try to bribe African states to accept these refugees without asking what would happen to them there? For a refugee from the hell of Darfur, Zimbabwe is as foreign as New Zealand (unless one subscribes to the theory that “all blacks are the same”.)

If this really were a Jewish state, would the Minister of the Interior, a Likud functionary, send his force of goons to go hunting for refugees in the streets?

No, this is not a Jewish state. The Bible commands us to treat the stranger in our midst as we would want to be treated ourselves. “Also, thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 23:9)


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Book Review (longer version): “They Were Soldiers” by Ann Jones – posted 12/15/2013

December 16, 2013 1 comment

I wanted to follow up on my earlier post about “They Were Soldiers”, written by Ann Jones. Due to space limitations in the Concord Monitor, I had to make my original piece very brief. I did have more to say about this book.

“They Were Soldiers” tries to do something I have not seen before in war books. Dispensing with the heroic narrative, the book tries to capture the cumulative effects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on American soldiers. Most war books tell the story of battles or focus on the heroic details of soldiers’ war-time experience. Jones is up to something very different.

The end of the war for the soldiers is the beginning of the story for Jones. She looks at outcomes for the individual veterans. Not that it should come as a big surprise but what she finds is horrifying. The accumulation of damage done to soldiers has been minimized by the mainstream media.

Jones appropriately starts with those who died in the wars or as they are called “the fallen”. She debunks this polite euphemism. She describes the process for how the specialists of Mortuary Affairs do their job. The job is often ghastly. “The remains” are often that: bodies blown apart where the specialists are searching to identify which pieces belong to which soldier. Contrary to the idea that a battle death will be heroic, she describes a different reality.

“Most will simply put a foot down in the wrong place, or drive over a bomb that leaves only an upper torso wedged behind the steering wheel, or fall into a lake in the dark wearing full body armor.”

Jones quotes a Mortuary Affairs specialist Jessica Goodell who summed up her view of the war:

“War is disgusting and horrific. It never leaves the people who were involved in it. The damage is far greater than the list of casualties or cost in dollars. It permeates lifestyles. It infects cultures and people and worldviews. The war is never over for us. The fighting stops. The troops get called back. But the war goes on for those damaged by war.”

Jones then moves to an extensive discussion of the wounded. She argues that American counterinsurgency tactics especially in dismounted patrols have caused many casualties. The military command has forced soldiers to get out of their vehicles and walk in areas strewn with old landmines left by the Russians as well as newly designed improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Jones says many American casualties have occurred as a result. Because of its history. Afghanistan has more buried landmines than probably any country and it has never been de-mined.

She says IEDs have grown bigger and the injuries they cause are worse. Soldiers have been losing more of their bodies in these blasts. Jones says that more than half the soldiers hit by IEDs lose both legs and often fingers, a hand or an arm. She also describes the frequency of smashed genitals.

Jones says the number of the these injuries have not been presented straight up. By early 2012, 3000 soldiers had been killed by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan and 31,394 wounded. Among the wounded were more than 1,800 with severe injuries to their genitals. When Jones asked for an update on these numbers in July 2013, the Department of Defense would not answer. They told her she would have to file a formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. It is wrong to speculate about the number but they did not want to give it up. As Jones says, it is hard to think the number is small.

An ER nurse stationed at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan tells Jones that catastrophic cases pass through the ER four days out of seven and she sees quadruple amputees “often”. When asked to describe a typical case she sees in the ER, she replies: “Amputees up to the waist. No arms. No legs. No genitals. Age 21 or 22. We cry.”

The other side of the severity of the injuries is the impressive effort made by the military to provide emergency care for the grievously wounded. More soldiers survive horrific injuries and return home as single, double, triple or quadruple amputees. Jones writes about the formidable challenges facing these veterans. As noted, many are in their early 20’s and their lives are just starting.

Jones highlights the signature injuries of these conflicts, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). TBI is controversial and the military wants to get invisibly wounded soldiers back to work. Jones raises difficult questions about how TBI has been handled. After an explosion, it is not clear how many soldiers even report a blast to their head. If their comrades have been killed or seriously wounded by an IED, the soldier may just suck it up. They may feel like their injury is nothing compared to the dead or seriously wounded person. The long-term consequences may not be apparent.

This is a bit analogous to the problem NFL players who have suffered concussions have later in life. The scope of TBI is hard to quantify initially.

As for PTSD, Jones looks at the special circumstances of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers and notes the more profound suffering of veterans who experience not a single catastrophic event but repeated traumatic events over an extended period of time. Multiple deployments have been a common feature of this prolonged military conflict. The traumatized soldiers then ultimately return home to traumatize their partners and children.

Jones mentions the matter of veterans’ suicides. Before a 2008 CBS news investigation, the VA was not even collecting data on the incidence of soldier suicides. In 2012, a Texas paper, the Austin American-Statesman, investigated Texas Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ health issues. It found suicide was the fourth leading cause of death behind illness, accidents, and drug-related deaths. No one knows how much war experience impacted the soldiers who were dying in all these categories.

Along with the suicides are acts of violence committed by former Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers. A large number return as disturbed, violent and destructive men who struggle with reintegration into civilian society. Jones tells some of these stories.

Jones suggests googling “veterans homicides” or “veteran crimes” in your area. She says the stories are not collected anywhere. Many soldiers are from small isolated towns in rural areas, She says that murders and violent incidents are not well-covered and the Iraq and Afghanistan link is typically missed in connection with these cases. To the extent they are covered, it is usually in small local papers.

After reading this book, it is impossible to see the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the same lens as previously. The accumulated harm done to American soldiers has been staggering but it has been insufficiently acknowledged. In numbed out fashion, we move on to the next war and the next without critical assessment.

For anyone thinking about whether it was worth it, that is an excellent question that is not asked enough. This book forces the question. I hope it obtains a wide readership. It exposes how glorification of war is such a sham. War should be obsolete but as Jones shows, there is no evidence that is happening.

Tip of the Day: Wooten Brothers Band -posted 12/14/2013

December 14, 2013 1 comment

Last night I went to the Flying Monkey in Plymouth NH and saw Victor Wooten and his 3 brothers play. All I can say is “WOW!”. The Wooten Brothers are on tour. They play in Boston at the Paradise tonight. Then they go to Albany, Buffalo and Chicago. If you have a chance and can possibly make it, do yourself a favor and go. They did a retrospective that featured many influences including Sly Stone, James Brown, and John Coltrane. The show is a very high energy knockout. Trust me on this: if you can go, you will not regret it. Victor Wooten is the best!

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Book Review: “They Were Soldiers” by Ann Jones -published in the Concord Monitor 12/13/2013

December 13, 2013 Leave a comment

I wrote this brief review for the Concord Monitor holiday book gift suggestion issue published today. A longer review of “They Were Soldiers” written for this blog will be forthcoming. Jon

This book is not for the faint-hearted. “They Were Soldiers” explores the multiple harms done to American soldiers by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, the story has been inadequately told to the American public but in her short book, Ann Jones goes far to remedying that deficiency.

Put briefly, the harm is much worse than has been publicly acknowledged. The fallen aside, you have the post-deployment suicides, the catastrophic wounds, the traumatic brain injuries and all the PTSD. It is an endless amount of suffering that goes on lifetimes.

You might think this is an anti-war book but I think it is more a book of witnessing. Jones embedded with our troops in a forward operating base and she follows the wounded soldiers through all stops as they come home.

I think the book is essential reading. Really we do not support the troops. If we did, we would never let them engage in these awful, endlessly destructive wars. Does anybody know the point now? Jones graphically shows the futility and extreme cost incurred.

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Deena Baird, 3 Years Later – posted 12/7/2013

December 7, 2013 2 comments

It will soon be the third anniversary of my mom’s death. I got one of those blue notices from Levine’s, the funeral place in Philadelphia, announcing that yahrzeit for my mom is observed today, December 7. They suggested lighting a candle along with saying kaddish.

I remember going out to Roosevelt Memorial Park in north Philadelphia along with my brother Rob after my mother died. The lady behind the counter who was a no-nonsense type said, “You again?”. I had to say “yes”.

I personally find the time around holidays like Thanksgiving particularly hard. Not that I always went home to my parents for Thanksgiving but their apartment was a bit of a sanctuary. It was so homey and it offered the reassurance of family ritual. My mom knew how to do up holidays and her Thanksgivings were no exception.

When she cooked a turkey, there was no chance it would be dried out. She did a chicken liver stuffing that was uniquely her own. She had all the side dishes down. She usually had been working for a week non-stop to make it all possible. My mom was organized and she ran family events with a disciplined efficiency.

She always used to say she wasn’t going to do it anymore. It was always the last time she was going to do the week long cooking marathon. But then it wasn’t the last time. That happened so many times.

Without even trying, my mom (and my dad really) were good at creating genuine warmth and a sense of family togetherness. I miss that Wynnewood world and it is sobering to know those moments are gone. It is easy to take family and family gatherings for granted – until they are gone.

In my family, food has always been central. It wasn’t just special holidays like Thanksgiving. I think about Sundays when my mom would do a lox and bagels spread. My dad would send my Pop-pop off to Hymie’s Deli in Merion after he dropped us kids off at Hebrew School. My dad would give my Pop-pop money to buy lox, nova, kippered salmon, white fish and bagels. My mom would slice up bermuda onions and tomatoes along with the poppyseed and sesame bagels. That era did not have the great variety of bagels we now see.

Since my dad liked sweet things, there might be cherry or cheese danish. That usually got served with coffee. In the fall, this was usually a prelude to football. We were either off to the Eagles game or we were getting ready to watch the Eagles on TV.

My mom’s role in our family makes me think of a very Jewish word: rachmones. The word came up recently when a vocational expert I know mentioned the word in a different context. Rachmones is a Jewish word which translates literally as “compassion”. It also connotes soulfullness and wisdom.

In his book, The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten had this to say about rachmones:

“This quintessential word lies at the heart of Jewish thought and feeling. All of Judaism’s philosophy, ethics, learning, education, hierarchy of values, are saturated with a sense of and heightened sensitivity to rachmones…
Note that the hebrew root rechem, from which rachmones is derived , means a mother’s womb.” The rabbis taught that a Jew should look upon others with the same love and feeling that a mother feels for the issue of her womb. “He is in such straits one can only have rachmones on him.” “The least one can show is rachmones”.

I think my mom would laugh that I used that word in connection with her. She was a critical thinker, not especially religious, and she wasn’t always easy on people. However, I think she embodied kindness and giving. She was thoughtful toward others and she was generous to a fault.

She cared for family and friends with unassuming devotion. Besides my sister, my dad and my Aunt Arline, in later years, my mom cared for Jane and Bud Fried and Ellie and Mort Keiser. All had health issues and periods of demoralizing decline. My mom spent countless hours visiting, caring, bringing food and talking to them. It was a labor of love. My mom was a hardcore friend and she demonstrated true loyalty. All that caring is part of the reason I do think my mom had rachmones. Even though she tended to be restrained, she was a deeply feeling person.

I don’t want to paint her in too saintly a light though. My other grandfather, Harry Keiser, known as Kize, used to call my mom “the Russian”. I always thought that was funny because i never saw my mom as too left. She and my dad were mainstream liberal Democrats. I am not sure if she ever was radical in her earlier years. I don’t think so. My sister and I pushed our parents. We did get them both to go to the massive Washington moratorium demonstration against the war in Vietnam in the fall of 1969. I always thought it was cool they did that because it probably was way out of their comfort zone.

My mom was a quiet person but she could be hilarious. She was well known for having a biting sense of humor. I have a funny memory of her commenting on a lawsuit in which she was a party. My mom was driving on Montgomery Avenue in Haverford on the Main Line. My friend Hank Fried and I were passengers in my mom’s Oldsmobile. At a pretty low speed, my mom’s car skidded on wet leaves and ran into the back of the car in front of us. That car had been at a standstill. I think it was very near the Merion Cricket Club. I remember skinning my knee but there was no big impact. The guy in the car my mom hit worked for a car dealer and he was delivering a new car. The guy sued my mom and he alleged impotence as a result of the accident. I remember my mom had a lot to say about that guy. The lawsuit got settled.

I am sorry my mom and my dad are not around to appreciate Nick Foles. My mom would be a fan. I know for a fact she would be rooting for the Eagles to beat the Lions tomorrow.

My mom was a drinker. It used to annoy the hell out of my sister Lise but my mom usually made martinis when my dad got home from work. I would say two martinis was the norm. My parents enjoyed drinking together.

I miss my mom, really everything about her. I wish she was around. She was great company. She did not sugarcoat anything. She knew how to “keep it real” long before that phrase became famous.

Categories: Uncategorized

Mandela – posted 12/5/2013

December 6, 2013 3 comments

I had no intention of writing about Nelson Mandela but then I heard he died today. I was driving home from work tonight when I heard the news on NPR. I was surprised how emotional I felt about it. There really has not been any leader on the world stage in my lifetime who matches Mandela. I tried to think about that and i could not come up with any names that I thought were comparable. Mandela put himself on the line in a way you never see from any American politician.

I know there must be many TV shows commemorating Mandela. I have tried to avoid those since i heard the news. These are my own thoughts.

What I think is most remarkable about Mandela is how one principled man can make a difference. Recognizing the evil of South African apartheid and racism, he and his movement the African National Congress (ANC), figured out creative strategies to oppose and ultimately overcome a hideous dehumanized system that denied the humanity of all people of color. He worked on this project for almost a lifetime. He had to confront awful adversities. He stuck to it. He endured 27 years in prison. Robben Island was no picnic. Persistence ultimately delivered results even though it must have seemed hopeless many times. Mandela is an example for activists of the importance of having a long range perspective. Change does not come easily, ever. It is amazing to think about a person going from being a prisoner to being president of his country.

As Mandela showed, the battle to create a more human South Africa was a lifetime affair. That perspective is grounding. It enabled Mandela to deal with the many defeats that inevitably accompany any political life. We here in America expect instant results. To give a contemporary example, activists here have been fighting for universal health care and recognition that health care should be a right. We are not there yet. The Affordable Care Act is the latest step in the direction of universal coverage. The focus on the failings of the website are misplaced even if the website could be better. Really the question about Obamacare is how many more uninsured people obtain coverage. It is a single reform in an effort that goes back many many years. As a sophisticated politico, Mandela would have certainly understood the political limitations facing progressives now. I expect he would have applauded the health care reform while pushing for more universal coverage. Mandela’s perspective allowed him to keep going because he did not get too bent out of shape when things went wrong as they always do.

I am impressed by the fact Mandela never dehumanized his political opponents. He maintained relationships with everyone including the racists who put him in jail. I think this is one of his greatest contributions. He treated all people with respect. This must have been very hard to do. So often people lose their values when they fight an injustice. The typical sins are numerous: self-righteousness, hatred, fanaticism for starters. The fact that Mandela maintained this perspective probably had a lot to do with how South Africa avoided a bloodbath in the aftermath of apartheid. There could have been huge score settling. Mandela channeled the rage into more constructive approaches like the truth and reconciliation commission.

Mandela is a role model example of the lawyer-activist but I am sure he would not like all the attention being focused on him. He was the leader of a movement and it was the movement that ultimately took down apartheid – not one man. I guess the other side of the argument is that the leader is critical in guiding the movement so it does not go off the rails down wrong directions.

In our era, the fight against racism remains a central fight. Racism is structural. It remains rooted in our institutions. That was true in South Africa and it remains true in America. Popular understanding of this struggle remains weak. Mandela provides a positive example of a successful struggle against racism. That does not mean the race problem in South Africa has been eliminated. The struggle now has a different form and different approaches are required. America seems lost in a collective delusion that racism has been solved and the answer is color-blindedness. There are ongoing issues with the distribution of wealth and power in America. Poor people of all races have been harmed. it is the challenge for American activists to figure how to unite all kinds of people to struggle against economic inequality while recognizing the special harm caused by racism in America. That sin is not expiated.

I will stop for now. I may write more about Mandela as he deserves a more reflective piece. i just did not want to let today go by without acknowledging both the magnitude of his loss and the wonderfulness of his example. I will end with a poem from Langston Hughes:

Black Workers

The bees work.
Their work is taken from them.
We are like the bees —
But it won’t last

Categories: Uncategorized