Archive for February, 2022

Dr. Paul Farmer’s beautiful example – posted 2/27/2022

February 27, 2022 2 comments

We live in an age of unparalleled cynicism. Kleptocratic dictators launch invasions of sovereign nations. Authoritarianism trends internationally, gravely threatening democracy. Powerful legislators sell out for the money. Billionaires pay no taxes and think it is fine. Ethics and truth are downgraded and dismissed. Dark money and misinformation are epidemic.

Our capitalist system has proven to be dysfunctional. The needs of working people are routinely disregarded by both political parties while the 1% makes out like a bandit. The system cannot accomplish absolutely needed reforms to tackle climate change, income inequality, or institutional racism. Our pandemic response was badly botched, leading to hundreds of thousands dying needlessly. It would be easy to despair.

But then the world also produces people like Dr.Paul Farmer. He proved that one determined and passionate man could defy all odds and change the world. From nothing, he almost single-handedly founded a global health movement that has provided high quality care to millions in some of the most impoverished countries on the planet.

Farmer died unexpectedly on February 21. He was only 62. Farmer had a broad vision of equity and justice for everyone. He once said:

“The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

Farmer lived that credo. He re-defined what it meant to be a good doctor. After graduating Harvard Medical School, he moved to Haiti, a country he loved. His mission was to provide high quality health care to patients from the most destitute backgrounds.

In 1987, he co-founded the organization Partners in Health. Its accomplishments are staggering. It now employs 18,000 people in twelve countries. It has helped create 230 medical facilities around the world. When Farmer died, he was in Rwanda where he helped with the creation of a hospital, a cancer center, and a medical school. He travelled tirelessly to places where there were grotesque health inequalities and he addressed that.

Partners in Health expanded to countries across Africa, Latin America, Russia and to the Navajo Nation in the U.S.. Farmer was not trying to bring basic services to the people. He wanted to bring the most sophisticated treatments.He brought HIV drugs to Haiti in the early 2000’s when that was not considered financially possible. His clinics treated drug-resistant tuberculosis, malaria, other infectious diseases and Ebola.

Farmer always fought for free, high quality health care. He never accepted that inequality of health care access was natural or inevitable. Part of what made Farmer so unusual was his philosophy which is up front in the Partners in Health mission statement.

“Our mission is to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care. By establishing long-term relationships with sister organizations based in settings of poverty, Partners in Health strives to achieve two overarching goals: to bring the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and to serve as an antidote to despair.”

Farmer engaged communities in designing solutions to their problems. 99% of Partners in Health’s 18,000 employees are from the countries where they work. A key part of Farmer’s philosophy was what he called “accompaniment”. The idea was to keep the patient company and share their fate and not for a little while. That runs so contrary to how medicine is now practiced in America.

As a medical anthropologist (he also had a Ph.D. in medical anthropology), Farmer studied the interconnection of health and poverty which he saw as very connected. He once said:

“You have to look at what’s happening to the patient in front of you and think about ways to address social disparities. If there is food insecurity then you provide food when you provide care. Or if patients drop out of treatment, you provide transportation to the clinic, or you send community health workers to the patient.”

In his wonderful biography of Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder describes Farmer’s attraction to liberation theology. That came alive for him living in Haiti. He had an enthusiasm and joy in service to the poor. When asked what kept him in global health, he replied, “Doing hard things with friends”.

The accomplishments of Partners in Health speak for themselves. Life expectancy in Rwanda doubled in the last ten years. In Haiti, community health workers stopped people dying from tuberculosis. Something similar happened in Peru. As his colleague Dr Joia Mukherjee explained, Farmer helped to create an enormous community of people committed to a new model of social medicine. His example is also a roadmap for health care in the future.

Farmer believed health care was a human right. He also worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston part of every year and he was intimately familiar with the quality of health care in America. He said it was very expensive to give bad medical care to poor people in rich countries.

He believed many deaths were “stupid deaths” and that who lived and who died depended on what type of health care system was available. To quote him:

“I was tempted to record the cause of death as ‘weak health system for poor people’, ‘uninsured’, ‘fell through gaping hole in safety net’ or ‘too poor to survive catastrophic illness’.”

When I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, I was struck by Farmer’s audacity. He had a can-do, positive attitude with an expansive vision that permeated his whole career. He called Partners in Health a “house of yes’.

Dr. Farmer inspired a generation of medical and public health workers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:

“The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

Although he left us way too soon, Paul Farmer more than made a difference. He pioneered what is possible as one engaged human being.

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America and some troubling Holocaust questions – posted 2/20/2022

February 20, 2022 3 comments

There are some Holocaust-related questions which have long piqued my interest. When did Americans become aware of the genocide being conducted by the Nazis? What efforts were made to grapple with it? Why were the efforts to respond so pitifully weak?

From the vantage point of 2022, it is hard to get a picture of what the European world then looked like to Americans. There was no internet or even TV. Radio and newspapers were the dominant forms of mass communication.

A new book by Daniel Green and Edward Phillips, Americans and the Holocaust, provides a wealth of helpful information. The authors collected primary sources including newspaper stories, government reports, Gallup polls, photographs, and cartoons from the 1930’s-1940’s. They offer a view of what information was publicly available to Americans as well as a window into public thinking.

Some might think that the Spring of 1945 when U.S. troops first encountered the Nazi death camps in Europe was when large numbers of Americans first became aware of the Nazi genocide. That is not the case.

There was much public information available about much of what the Nazis were up to long before 1945. In 1933, there were over 2,000 daily newspapers in the U.S.. Many households received one. Just a review of publicly available newspapers and magazines is clarifying.

The cover of Time Magazine on July 10, 1933 featured a large picture of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels above the caption “Say it in your dreams: THE JEWS ARE TO BLAME”.

In March 1933 American newspapers reported the Nazis were putting 10,000 political prisoners in concentration camps. Also in that month, the United Press reported on a nationwide boycott against Jews in Germany carried out by the Nazis. The Associated Press reported that Nazi storm troops cleared the Berlin law courts of Jewish judges and lawyers.

In May 1933, the Associated Press described mass book burnings carried out by German university students throughout the country. Books by famous American authors like Jack London and Helen Keller were pitched into huge bonfires. Any world literature that was deemed to “contravene German spirit” got torched.

Even as early as 1933, Americans in Germany started getting physically assaulted on the street. Members of the Nazi Party SA militia attacked Americans at least 35 times during 1933 alone. The U.S. counsel general in Berlin reported the attacks were unprovoked but it was thought they were brought about through the assumption those attacked were Jews.

In November 1938 mobs of Nazis launched pogroms against Jews all over Germany. The Nazis destroyed hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish-owned shops. Nearly 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and were sent to concentration camps. These events were widely covered and came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass..

A Gallup poll in November 1938 found an overwhelming percentage of Americans (94%) disapproved of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany. However, awareness of mistreatment did not lead to any willingness to act on behalf of Jewish victims. When asked if a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany should be allowed to come to the United States to live, 72% said “no”. Only 21% of Americans favored admitting more Jews into the U.S..

The 1924 Immigration law greatly restricted Jewish immigration to America. There was only a small quota allowed in every year. That gap between awareness of Nazi evil and unwillingness to support immigration reform remained a constant throughout the war. Undergirding the law was a vicious anti-semitism that was entrenched in America during the period.

Influential “scientific” racists like Madison Grant and Edward Ripley saw Jews as one of the most racially inferior European immigrant groups coming to America. Their view that Jews were a “deficient” race of immigrants was widely shared. Grant raised the spectre that Americans of “Colonial stock” could be replaced by racially inferior people.

A February 1939 bill jointly sponsored by Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Republican Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts proposed admitting 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14. I am assuming the bill sponsors believed children would be the most sympathetic potential immigrants. The bill got nowhere and never made it to the floor of Congress for a vote.

Opponents of increasing Jewish immigration argued that more refugees would cause Americans to lose jobs. In the case of children, they argued that America’s first duty was to feed, clothe and educate the millions of children living in poverty here.

As the Nazis expanded the war in Europe, they made it harder for reporting to occur in the areas they occupied. They banned Western press. Still, some stories emerged about Jews being forced to wear badges as well as their being concentrated into walled ghettos. It was not until late 1942 that word of the physical extermination of Jews seeped into public consciousness.

After Japan attacked the U.S. on December 7, 1941, public attention shifted to the broader war effort against the Axis powers. What later became known as the Holocaust became a background event set against broader carnage.

There was some superb reporting. In the December 22, 1942 issue of the New Republic, Varian Fry wrote an article entitled “The Massacre of the Jews”. He accurately depicted the genocidal project and exactly how it was being carried out. But Fry was an isolated voice. Reports coming from Fry or the handful of Jews who escaped were discounted as unreliable. As Fry noted, “There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe”.

In a war in which fifty or sixty million died, the death of six million Jews did not register as a central event. A Gallup poll from November 1944 asked Americans to estimate how many people may have been murdered by Germans in concentration camps. 36% answered 100,000 or less. Another 16% guessed between 100,000 and a million. 11% guessed two million to six million. 5% guessed six million or more.

Efforts by the Jewish community, led by Rabbi Stephen Wise, a founder of the American Jewish Congress, failed to gain much traction. President Roosevelt would not commit to supporting any rescue operation. He remained worried about domestic repercussions for a policy perceived as pro-Jewish. No efforts were undertaken to bomb crematories or death camp facilities.

William Shirer described the American frame of mind as “a silly sort of super-cynicism and super-skepticism”. There was a failure to grasp the truth of the genocide.

Call it fatalism, anti-semitism, xenophobia or dehumanizing the other – all were at play. Inside the honorable struggle against fascism was the tragic abandonment of the Jews of Europe. Americans, broadly speaking, failed to connect the dots about fascism’s crimes, leading to devastating inaction.

There are no death camps now but when desperate people from Latin America seek asylum, we still use exactly the same excuses that Americans used in the 1940’s to keep out the Jews who were trying to escape persecution. You have to wonder how much we have learned, if anything.

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The coup plotting never quit – posted 2/13/2022

February 13, 2022 2 comments

As we keep learning more about the events between the 2020 presidential election and January 6, 2021, it becomes clearer that Donald Trump remained entirely focused on one goal: staying in power. For Trump, that time period was about desperate ploys.

With his legal strategy failing, Trump and his circle crafted a succession of shady schemes. Desperation led to consideration of wilder ideas. As he acknowledged in his Conroe, Texas speech, his goal was to overturn the election.

Trump and his lawyers, John Eastman and Jenna Ellis, had plans to throw out the electoral votes from swing states. The idea was that if enough states contested the election, Biden would end up short of the 271 electoral votes needed to win because these states could not be counted as in the Biden column. Then the presidency could be thrown back to the House pursuant to the 12th Amendment. The Republicans had the edge there in state delegations and they could then anoint Trump the winner.

Even though he lost the vote tally, Trump wanted state legislatures in swing states to declare the election in their states null and void. Having electors sign fake electoral vote certifications was part of the plan. The hope was that the creation of uncertainty about the election would justify a pretext for delay and not counting electoral votes.

84 Republicans from 7 states signed similar bogus documents claiming Trump won their state and they sent electoral college certification forms to Congress and the National Archives. It would appear this was a coordinated effort coming out of the White House but we are still learning more about who were the plan architects.

I would expect the January 6 Committee will be seeking to find out how much pressure Trump placed on local Republicans to create false certifications and how much originated from the grassroots.

A related scheme has been described by former Trump economic advisor Peter Navarro. Navarro called his scheme, jointly authored with Steve Bannon, the Green Bay Sweep. The scheme was named after a football play designed by legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi where a Packers running back pounded the ball into the end zone behind a “phalanx of blockers”.

Navarro wanted members of the House and Senate to raise challenges to the electoral vote count in six swing states on January 6. The challenges would force up to two hours of debate per state. During that time, Navarro hoped to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to hold off on certifying the election. Navarro has claimed that Trump was on board with his strategy as were more than 100 Republican members of Congress.

The Green Bay Sweep was fundamentally about delay with the expectation that Pence would buckle to their pressure. Navarro was unable to access Pence whom he says was walled off from him by Marc Short, Pence’s chief of staff. Pence obviously had other ideas. He would not go along.

Trump was also enamored with the idea of seizing voting machines. Even after his Attorney General William Barr refused the plot because there was no credible voter fraud and no probable cause that any crime had been committed, Trump improvised with new schemes.

Always anxious to get others to break the law for him, Trump schemed to have the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security confiscate voting machines.

Trump advisors drafted two Executive Orders around this idea. One plan centered on using the President’s emergency power under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to permit the Pentagon to seize voting machines. It is not clear who drafted the Executive Orders (possibly Sidney Powell) but Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell aggressively advocated for them at a contentious White House meeting on December 18, 2020.

Flynn and Powell pitched conspiracy theories at Trump. They argued the Chinese Communist Party, Iran, former Venezualan President Hugo Chavez (deceased in 2013), Dominion Voting Systems and George Soros were all hacking voting machines. They wanted the Department of Defense to use soldiers to commandeer the voting machines so that there could be a recount or a new vote.

Flynn wanted Trump to declare martial law in the post-election period. He wanted to serve as “field marshall”. He floated the idea of Trump seizing all voting machines in the country and then deploying the military to swing states Trump lost. The plot also included a proposal that Trump appoint Sidney Powell as “special counsel” to oversee election integrity. Those things never happened. Trump staffers Pat Cipollone, Mark Meadows and Eric Herschmann pushed back hard against Flynn and Powell.

When Trump got resistance on using the Pentagon, he called on Rudy Giuliani to ask acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli from the Department of Homeland Security if that agency would seize voting machines. Giuliani made the call although supposedly he was opposed to the idea of the military seizing voting machines. On behalf of Homeland Security, Cuccinelli declined to participate. Trump did not sign the Executive Orders.

According to the New York Times, we also know that in December 2020 Trump attempted to persuade Michigan and Pennsylvania legislators to have local law enforcement agencies seize voting machines in their states. State lawmakers nixed Trump’s request.

I would suggest there was a method to the madness. Republicans saw creating chaos as their best way forward after losing the presidential election. With enough delay, uncertainty, and contestation, maybe somehow Trump could be re-installed.

Imagine the shock and chaos that would have been created if Pence had buckled or if Trump had gone forward in seizing voting machines. Where would the voting machines have gone? What would have been done with them?

It would have provoked an unprecedented constitutional crisis. The Trump forces knew that. It is safe to assume that Democrats would have flipped out. Likely the mess would have provoked huge demonstrations and street violence. Resolution would have probably landed at the U.S. Supreme Court, also a possibly promising result for Republicans.

The clock ran out on the Republicans and they could throw no more Hail Marys but they are, no doubt, studying the lessons for 2024. Looking back, democracy had a very close call. Forces opposed to democracy almost found a way to circumvent the will of the voters. As Rep. Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts described it, Trump was a “constitutional wrecking ball”.

In the last week, we found out more about Trump’s spoliation of evidence and his pattern of destroying presidential records. He had a habit of tearing up documents at the end of meetings.

Maggie Haberman of the New York Times reports that White House staff repeatedly found upstairs White House toilets clogged with wads of printed papers. It was apparently Trump’s preferred method of document destruction. He also had burn bags and he removed more than a dozen boxes of White House documents to Mar-a-Lago when he left the White House. Some were marked “top secret”. We also know that phone logs on January 6 are missing.

For those who remember Watergate, it was the eighteen minute White House recording gap that did in Nixon. Trump’s destruction of evidence makes Tricky Dick look like a minor leaguer.

On Twitter, I saw a picture of a golden commode with a sign on the wall that said, “Notice Please do not flush paper towels, cigarettes, sanitary items, or classified government documents”. That is a perfect metaphor to describe the Trump presidency.

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Censoring Maus is part of the mass forgetting of history – posted 2/6/2022

February 6, 2022 Leave a comment

In January, the McMinn County School Board located in east Tennessee removed Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Maus from the school curriculum. Maus was an anchor text for an eighth grade module on the Holocaust.

The book is a graphic memoir about Speigelman’s parent’s experience during the Holocaust, including their imprisonment at Auschwitz. Spiegelman also tells the story of his very difficult relationship with his father, Vladeck. Although Spiegelman’s father survived the war, he was not an easy man.

In the book, the Jews are depicted as mice and the Germans are drawn as cats. The visual aspect of the book is unique and highly original. The book has proven to be a powerful learning tool for young people.

The school board said they did not object to teaching about genocide but they objected to the book’s profanity, nudity, violence and the depiction of suicide. The book contains a visual of Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide. The school board voted unanimously 10-0 to remove Maus. One school board member explained his reasoning:

“It shows people hanging. It shows them killing kids. Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff.”

As Spiegelman told the New York Times, it seemed that these school board members were asking “why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”

The removal of Maus is part of a wave of book challenges at schools around the country. The American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom says there have never been so many people challenging books. According to the Association, just in the period between September 1, 2021-December 1, 2021 there were as many requests to remove books as in all of 2020.

The majority of targeted books focus on race, sexuality and gender. Interestingly, Spiegelman inscribed Maus with a quote from Adolf Hitler: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race but they are not human”.

I do think the book bannings, including the removal of Maus, need to be placed inside the context of the increasing authoritarianism and incipient fascism reflected in the Republican Party. Republican-controlled state legislatures are passing laws to make it easier to remove books deemed “divisive”. Forgetting the Holocaust figures into this project.

In getting rid of Maus, whatever the school board members say, the objective is removing a book that highlights bigotry and the danger of fascism. Anyone who censors Maus is actively opposing Holocaust education and denying Jewish history.

A 2020 survey by the Commission on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that almost two-thirds of young American adults did not know that six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. 23% of young American adults believed the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated. As we get farther away from the time and there are fewer Holocaust survivors, mass forgetting becomes a bigger problem. Today’s fascists do not want young people to know this history.

About Maus’s removal, Spiegelman also said, “It’s part of a continuum and just a harbinger of things to come”. Book banning has a long record as a fascist tradition. Bannings were a prelude to book burnings. I know there are those who will says I am overreacting but denial of the fascist trend is dangerous. There is a desire to normalize events and pretend there is no fascist threat.

Last November, Texas officials, including Republican Governor Greg Abbott and State Rep. Matt Krause issued directives against “obscene” books in local schools regarding books about gender, sexual orientation, sex education and race. Rep. Krause put 850 books on a watch list, most dealing with human rights, sex education and mention of LBGTQ people.

The San Antonio School District pulled 414 books from its libraries in response to pressure from Texas lawmakers and angry parents. Rep. Krause said he was opposed to books that might generate ‘discomfort, guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress because of a student’s race or sex’. This is language from Texas House bill 3979 which is an anti-Critical Race Theory bill.

I am reminded of a famous quote from Franz Kafka:

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen within us.”

If like Rep. Krause, you are opposed to books that generate “discomfort”, it is fair to say you are opposed to education. Reading is supposed to be challenging. Literature, like Maus, is about exploring the unfamiliar and life experience outside our own.

Maybe parents or educators who censor books like Maus are afraid of the effect the reading experience will have on their children. Would reading Maus teach empathy? Or opposition to racism and anti-semitism? Would it make young people more-open-minded and less bigoted? In the guise of protecting children, the school board makes them ignorant.

The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole writes:

“As a society the American people are being habituated into accepting cruelty on a wide scale. Americans are being taught not to see other people as human beings whose lives are as important as their own. Once that line has been crossed…then we know where that all leads, what the ultimate destination is. There is no mystery about it. We know what happens when a government and its leaders dehumanize large numbers of people.”

The definition of what is “inappropriate”, “obscene” or “distressing” is political and depends on point of view.

Americans need to refuse to live in a fascist world. The book banning like with Maus, is not normal. Historical memory matters and we must do much better in remembering oppression. Otherwise, we are more likely to repeat what has been forgotten.

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