Maciej Ziembinski and the author (photo by Tomasz Cebulski)
My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.
Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past—the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.
He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu i Czemu (“For whom and what for?”). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.
Richard Hoffman’s elegaic new memoir, Love & Fury, is a powerful investigation into the impacts of race and class, boyhood and fatherhood, family pressures and pain, and how the mistakes of the past can haunt the present. Hoffman writes beautifully of his upbringing in a working-class Pennsylvania town where abuse, racism, sexism, and other toxic values seemed his inheritance. Hoffman was, in his own words, “a boy made of coal and steel and violence and trucks and shame,” filled with a yearning to escape but also a longing to connect with and understand his enigmatic, difficult father. A father who, Hoffman would come to understand later, carried a different kind of class shame, as he reveals in this passage:
I had tripped a switch and plunged my father from the safety of his lyric, humorous, emblematic scene into deep shame and remembered desperation, the very emotions that his ritual telling, with its shrug and goofball smile, its cavalier “fuck ’em” attitude, was meant to exorcise. I was of course the one who didn’t get it, sitting there on my elbow with a shine-ola-eating grin on my face. I was not the one who had stood against a wall at six in the morning for the shape-up, hoping to get picked to work like a donkey for the next twelve hours. I was not the one who’d had to go down to the PP&L office with money made from cleaning out somebody’s suburban garage just to get the lights turned back on. I was not the one who felt humiliated the year our Christmas presents came from the Salvation Army, complete with tags that said, Boy, 6–8 years old. My father had taken all those years and all that shame and locked them in a little box of a story, and just when he was clicking it shut again, as he had so many times before, I propped the lid open a moment longer with my fatuous cleverness, and a monstrous cloud, a genie of shame, escaped.
What is there to say, five years after the tragic murder of Dr. George Tiller, about the legacy of this remarkable man? The polarization—around Tiller specifically, and abortion in general—that occurred in Kansas during his lifetime has in no way abated. The abortion situation in Kansas in the post-Tiller era can be best understood as a series of both skirmishes and high-profile battles between the two sides of the endless abortion war.
Why are prescription drug prices so high in the U.S.? Pfizer’s attempt to acquire the giant British drug company AstraZeneca—which finally collapsed in late May—pinpoints several reasons in a nutshell. (Or should I say, in a once-a-day pill?)
Not by coincidence, this would-be merger also reveals some of the ways pharmaceutical companies bend their ethics.
Pfizer, which was already the largest drug maker on the planet, had hoped to puff itself up even more by buying AstraZeneca, which ranks Number 2 in the U.K. Even when the bid reached $119 billion, AZ’s board had the gumption to refuse, and Pfizer gave in.
Such an attempt is hardly new for either Pfizer or the pharma industry: Over the past 15 years, a lot of premier names in the business have disappeared, several of them swallowed by Pfizer.
(Try to find a phone number for Wyeth, Pharmacia, Warner-Lambert, Schering-Plough, Genzyme, Hoechst, Ciba-Geigy, Burroughs Welcome, Sandoz, or Searle.)
The new UUA and Beacon Press headquarters at 24 Farnsworth.
Over the past few weeks, the usual hush of paper rustling quietly amidst the gentle tapping of keyboards—the standard soundtrack to publishing houses everywhere—has given way to a clattering of boxes being filled and emptied, filing cabinets being rifled through, furniture and other miscellany being taken off to better homes. After many happy years in our Beacon Hill location, Beacon Press, along with the rest of the Unitarian Universalist Association, moved last week into shiny new headquarters right in the heart of Boston’s Innovation District.
The move is fortuitous in a number of ways. Not only does it position Beacon Press alongside a host of other creative organizations and individuals—including publishing colleagues Da Capo Press and Cengage Learning—but the move afforded the UUA a terrific opportunity to design a new space from the ground up, incorporating the seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism into the design of the space itself. “Our goal,” said Rob Molla, UUA Director of Human Resources and chair of the new headquarters’ design team, “was to design a space that was elegant, efficient, modern, technological, but that was environmentally responsible.”
Prison cell block (by Bob Jagendorf via Wikimedia Commons)
Numbers are tricky. Studies are done. Reports are written. Statistics released. And then people take the numbers and run with them, waving them like protest placards claiming how the numbers prove or disprove some long held “truth.” The Right does it. The Left does it. We all do it. Maybe there’s a tiny toggle in the human genome that manipulates us to manipulate the numbers. That's why I've never liked numbers, never trusted them.
I saw this all play out in a recent Boston Globe Op-Ed piece about the high rates of recidivism in U.S. prisons. Using the most recent data from the Bureau of Statistics, the numbers roll out: Within six months of being freed 28 percent of former prisoners were arrested for a new crime; three years, 68 percent; five years, 77 percent. Twenty-nine percent of the returnees had been arrested for violent offenses; 38 percent for property crimes; 39 percent for drug offenses; 58 percent for public order crimes. I think everyone would agree that the numbers paint a pretty bleak picture.
Over the past few decades, public activism has—with growing success—pushed companies to act in more ethical ways. From Apple to WalMart, businesses are monitoring the working conditions at factories overseas, reducing energy use and carbon emissions, buying products only from animals that were raised humanely, using organic ingredients, and taking other socially responsible steps.
All this is, of course, good for the planet, customers, neighbors, and employees.
But in the glow of these achievements, have we forgotten a more fundamental type of corporate ethics? Ethical behavior that predates the Corporate Social Responsibility movement. Ethical behavior that applies even to executives who hate unions, love to drive SUVs, and don’t believe climate change is a problem.
Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal is one part history lesson, one part human drama. In it, Chomsky furthers her mission to advocate for and educate on behalf of undocumented immigrants in the US, delving into their very real experiences from a legal, social, economic, and historical context. The result is as compelling as it is illuminating. As in her previous book, “They Take Our Jobs!” and 20 Other Myths about Immigration, Chomsky seeks to set the record straight, correcting common and egregious misperceptions about the immigrant experience, as well as introducing key facts (such as the ten listed below) about the impact—and importance—of immigration to the US.
Mount Storm Coal-Fired Power Station in West Virginia (by user Raeky via Wikimedia Commons)
“Even if Stanford [University] divested itself fully of all its stocks, both fossil fuel and nonfossil, it would probably take the market less than an hour to absorb all the shares. It would not lead the executives of the affected companies to engage in soul-searching, much less to changes in operations.”
Ivo Welch, a finance and economics professor at UCLA, wrote those sentences recently in a New York Times Op Ed column, after Stanford announced that its $18.7 billion endowment would dump all holdings in coal-mining companies.
But where else have we heard that refrain? Ah yes, about 30 years ago, during the movement to divest stockholdings in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.
Selling a few shares of stock won’t do any good, the refrain goes. Instead, you should do A or B or C...
Back during the South Africa divestiture movement, skeptics said that people who really hated apartheid ought to keep their money in General Motors and other multinationals, and then use their clout to pressure those companies to improve conditions for nonwhite workers. For his part, Professor Welch says that Stanford should invest in “research and development of clean-energy technology.”
However, these naysayers are proffering a set of phony choices and premises.
“It’s disappointing that we were not able to all move in this morning at 9:00 as planned,” said the Rev. Harlan Limpert, chief operating officer of the UUA, on Monday, May 19, when the UUA had hoped to begin operations at 24 Farnsworth Street. “But in a project this size—the first move in almost 100 years—this three-day delay is small potatoes.”
The UUA has been renovating the first three floors of 24 Farnsworth Street for use as its new headquarters since September. It moved staff out of 25 Beacon Street, its historic headquarters, and 41 Mt. Vernon Street late last week.
In November of 2003, when a Massachusetts court declared the ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional in that state, Catherine Reid was left with an unexpected choice: to get married, or not. As the ten year anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts approaches, Reid, in this excerpt fromFalling Into Place, takes us back to those heady early days of victory and apprehension after the first marriage licenses could be issued to same-sex partners.
We have sixty days to take action before the marriage certificate expires, less than thirty before our blood tests will no longer be valid. We still have time to change our minds, and we consider backing out often, though now that we’ve agreed to do this with two other couples, we’ll be considered traitors if we develop a case of cold feet. Besides, my short list of excuses—how to deal with the bizarre notion of “wife,” or the difficulty in telling my ninety-nine-year-old grandmother, or the support this lends to the institution of the privileged—can’t compare with the number of reasons to go through with this, which became longer with an unexpected Sunday-night phone call.
“As a father of two children,” the automated voice begins, “I am horrified at the changes about to take place in our country.” Despite my own horror, I don’t hang up; I want a phone number, I want to register protest. “We urge you to support Article 8,” the voice insists, describing a bill that will empower the legislature to repeal “activist judges” and prevent married homosexuals from tainting our nation’s moral character.
My mom gently shook me awake. It was 5 a.m. “Quick—you’re going to miss it!” she whispered excitedly, rushing out of my bedroom and downstairs. I was still half-asleep, but I followed quickly. This had happened before, and I knew I didn’t want to miss it.
The coyote was back.
Groggily, I scampered downstairs and sidled up against my mother, who stood with her face squished against a window pane at the front of the house, peering outside. I squeezed my face next to hers. Our noses pressed flat on the cold glass, spreading a fog of collective breath across the pane. I used the sleeve of my Red Sox pajamas to wipe it away. I didn’t want anything to ruin the view.
The summer I turned twelve, this was a regular occurrence at my family’s house in Massachusetts. Our home, nestled in a heavily wooded housing development and closely bordered by horse farms, was no stranger to wild visitors. Still, the coyote was different from the deer, rabbits, foxes and even wild turkeys that frequently made cameos in our yard.
His presence could draw a twelve-year-old willingly from bed at the break of dawn. He was majestic. His vaulted ears made him look like a king. And he was intelligent. His calculating eyes flashed yellow in the dusky dark as he assessed his surroundings.
The racist comments of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling have been analyzed from a multitude of viewpoints—American culture, history, sports, free speech, even our obsession with celebrity. But to my knowledge, no one has discussed a critical aspect that directly affects more people than most of the other topics:
What is the role of an ethical consumer in this kind of situation?
I haven’t seen any suggestion, for instance, that Clippers fans should boycott the team’s games.
After touring colleges with my second and final child this spring break, I am suddenly aware that I am approaching the end of an era. Parenting has felt like an endless and all-consuming way of being for me, a role I took on with great joy in my thirties, after years as a journalist. In motherhood, I became a PTA President, a leader in our interfaith families community, the schools columnist for the town paper, and ultimately the author of a book on religion and parenting. I was the mom that other parents called for tips on negotiating the school system, or organizing an interfaith bar mitzvah, or finding the best music teachers.
Somehow, I am only just now realizing that this excellent 20-year adventure in mothering may turn out to be, if I am lucky, only a small fraction of a long life. My grandmother lived until 98, my father is working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations at 90, my mother plays the ukulele at 83. So my own period of day-to-day mothering may only fill a quarter, or a fifth, of my lifetime.
“Is music universal?” It’s one question among many raised by S. Brent Plate in his new book A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, and a question I struggled with for some time myself.
When I first started practicing capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art informed by live music, I had trouble picking out the tinkling rhythm provided by the lead instrument. Not understanding the rhythm meant not knowing the specific set of rituals involved.
At the time, I was traveling through Japan, and my Japanese was a becoming a burden, rather than an asset. While visiting a capoeira group in Tokyo, I did not want to embarrass my mestre (teacher), or my mestre’s mestre, still leading classes in Brazil at the age of 76.
In retrospect, the discussion was about me, though I didn’t realize it while sitting there. My colleagues’ conversation this day swirled around teachers not following State Mandates—how enforced curriculum mapping would ensure every teacher is on the same page, teaching the same topic, at the same time. Later, I realized I was the cause of my cohorts’ discontent, but not until a parent e-mailed, alerting me my job was in jeopardy from teaching “peace instead of literature,” not until students said they were “sorry about next year,” and not until a colleague cautioned that I was “not teaching the State Standards and Benchmarks.”
Languishing under the sweltering sun of New Mexico, where unemployment rates climb nearly as high as the temperatures, in part because of job outsourcing to nearby Juarez, Mexico, two thirds of my students subsist below the poverty level. For many, they would be the first in their families to finish high school, assuming the daily drudgery of educational irrelevance doesn’t dull their enthusiasm for learning, wouldn’t rob them of a lifetime of opportunity. For example, because of the frenzy to meet our high-stakes testing goals, most language arts teachers conformed their curriculum to the District’s thirteen “scientifically research-based” literacy strategies, none of which included reading books. These were disseminated and reinforced through countless vertical alignment meetings, horizontal alignment meetings, and daily team meetings with other content area teachers. These District-mandated literacy strategies promoted robotic writing and acronyms such as ACE (Answer question, Cite evidence, Explain further) and KIM (Key Idea, Information, Memory Clue) as they prepared for their MAP (Measurement of Academic Progress) before taking their CRT (Criterion Referenced Test) under the auspices of NCLB. But after teaching ACE and KIM ad nauseam, while watching my students’ eyes glaze over, I simply couldn’t take the monotony anymore.
In Place, Not Race: A New Vision of Opportunity in America, now available from Beacon Press, legal scholar Sheryll Cashin reimagines affirmative action and champions place-based policies, arguing that college applicants who have thrived despite exposure to neighborhood or school poverty are deserving of special consideration. Sixty years since the historic decision, we’re undoubtedly far from meeting the promise of Brown v. Board of Education,but Cashin offers a new framework for true inclusion for the millions of children who live separate and unequal lives. In the following excerpt, Cashin examines one case where a seeming setback in affirmative action policy resulted in more inclusive legislation and a surprising outcome for students throughout Texas.
In 1997, Texas adopted a new law after the US Court of Appeals banned race-based affirmative action in Hopwood v. Texas, a case brought by four white applicants who were denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law. The law guarantees admission to the public colleges and universities of Texas to graduating seniors in the top 10 percent of every high school in the state. The program, which was developed by a group of Latino and black activists, legislators, and academics, passed in the Texas legislature by one vote, after a conservative Republican rural member whose constituents were not regularly being admitted to the University of Texas decided to support the legislation. As predicted, the plan increased minority enrollments and that of rural white students at the flagship public universities in the state. Those students who gain entrance under the plan do so by class rank, not standardized tests or extracurricular activities that they may not have time or money to afford. The program has repaired one shred in Texas’ social contract, forcing the same kind of trade-offs that robustly diverse private institutions like Rice University make in order to enrich their racial, geographic, and socioeconomic demographics.
Julia Ward Howe originally conceived of Mother’s Day in her 1870 “Appeal to womanhood” (later renamed her “Mother’s Day Proclamation”), arallying cry to protest the bloodshed of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. Howe was a prominent women's rights and social activist, a poet, a lecturer, Unitarian, and the author of the poem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She worked to end slavery, helped to initiate the women’s movement in many states, and organized for international peace.
The traditional “Mother’s Day” holiday of flowers and Hallmark cards, celebrated this year on Sunday, May 11th, is also “Mamas Day”—a day to honor all mamas with acts of justice and love. This year, the Unitarian Universalist Association is joining with Strong Families and other organizations to help return Mother's Day to its activist roots. Let’s especially celebrate those who bear the brunt of hurtful policies or who are weighed down by stigma in our culture, and, for me, this is a call to remember mothers and women in prisons.
That was the question the woman was asking me, while we stood on the rooftop of a Brooklyn apartment building enjoying a cookout and celebrating the release of my first book. She had just been introduced to me as someone important in the Holocaust community (I won’t say how) and her response to the fact that I had just co-authored a book with a Holocaust survivor left me stunned.
It had never occurred to me that the Holocaust was something that was private or unshared by the rest of the world. In fact, one of the reasons Rena—the women I wrote Rena’s Promise about—wanted to tell her story was so she didn’t have to bear it alone anymore. She hoped that by telling her story the pain of her experience would lessen, and it did. It is through sharing our stories and through empathetic listeners that pain and horror is not validated and in that way the pain and horror can shift from being solely a personal burden. That is the purpose of Holocaust Remembrance Days and Weeks—it is a chance for us to touch history and honor its place in our lives. It is a chance for us to remind ourselves of the importance of preserving our humanity.
Are you worried about the future as you approach retirement age? Did you watch your 401(k) shrink dramatically during the 2008 recession, taking your dreams of retirement with it? Are you worried that your retirement account may never recover from those losses? Sadly, you're not alone. According to a recent study of 2.2 million large-company employees who have 401(k)-type plans, 85% will not have sufficient resources to meet their needs if they retire at age 65.
How did we get to this state of affairs?
In Social Insecurity: 401(k)s and the Retirement Crisis, retirement expert James W. Russell shows how and why a majority of Americans moved from the stability of traditional pensions to more volatile market-based 401(k) accounts. In the process, he exposes what amounts to a massive and international retirement robbery—a substantial transfer of wealth from everyday workers to Wall Street financiers via tremendously costly hidden fees.