Category Archives: history

It’s our Independence Day, too

 

 

I know it’s been too long since I actually blogged here – even though my book is finally done! But this crosspost is kind of time-specific.

Today, politicians both active and aspiring are pressing the flesh at Fourth of July gatherings. Many, perhaps especially on the Tea Party end of things, have been claiming the mantle of that week in July pretty hard for the past few years. And now, just in time, Harvard University tells us that Fourth of July parades inherently turn kids into Republicans, claiming that “there is a political congruence between the patriotism promoted on the  Fourth of July and the values associated with the Republican Party. Fourth of July celebrations in Republican-dominated counties may thus be more politically biased events that socialize children into Republicans.”

But like Jonathan Turley, who teaches at Harvard, I refuse to concede the Fourth of July, or the idea of America, to any one political faction. Today belongs to me, too.

It belongs to women too, from Abigail Adams to Sally Hemings, mother of some of Thomas Jefferson’s children; from Maj. Alice Davey Sheldon to Dolores Huerta (left), co-founder of the United Farm Workers.

The best of those Fourth of July parades are the small-town ones, like the one I saw 20 years ago in Saugerties, N.Y., where moms cheered the local Junior ROTC contingent and everyone sang the town song, “Oh Saugerties,” before the Star-Spangled Banner. Or they’re the raucous multicultural festivals we see in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and Philadelphia, where tonight I’ll stand and watch fireworks not far from where the Declaration of Independence was brewed.

I don’t claim to know whether that document was a simple declaration of war, with all that “general welfare” stuff thrown in for fun, as pundits have claimed. But I do know that those words have been cited by men and women around the world, from hundreds of countries and a thousand political perspectives. And today is about celebrating the sense of infinite possibility that America at its  best can represent. And yes, we could all list what America at its worst might mean. But that’s not what today is about.

I’ve watched fireworks on the Fourth when I was 13 and called myself a “democratic socialist”; when I was 16 and a fan of Atlas Shrugged, like Ron Paul; when I was 35 in San Francisco and newly realizing I was a lesbian. None of those times came with a partisan agenda, though my determination to preserve that sense of possibility has only increased. So has the range of fighters for freedom worth applauding. Yesterday, it included the kids, from 3 to 19 years old, dancing at a block party nearby. They deserve the Fourth, too.

Thank you, crazy 18th-century men who gave us this day. Before I go out tonight, I’ll make sure to watch a little of that movie.

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missing cairo

Like everyone else, I’ve been mesmerized this whole month by events in Cairo : by the stirring scenes from Egypt, careening from the January 25 Facebook-organized protests, with hundreds of thousands converging in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere to demand that their leader relinquish power after 30 years; to the harsh, government-inspired “Days of Rage” of February 2; to Friday’s “Day of Departure,”with redoubled protests and open negotiations for the future.

It’s 21 years since my only visit (sob!) to that part of the world. My Cairo memories are mostly blurred (nowhere near as vivid as those of the masseuse who befriended me at Sharm-el-Shaikh, or what I still call “the Pyramids of New Jersey”). I do remember its insane traffic and brutal smog, and like everyone else felt the reports of the smog clearing this week (due to cars being replaced by bodies) a harbinger of something good.

Of course, I went off to find the women in this story, to post them at my other shop.

The names most often associated with these world-changing events were, of course, those of prominent Egyptian men, such as President Hosni Mubarak, nuclear scientist and popular opposition figure Mohammed el-Baradei, Army strongman and vice president Omar Suleiman and Mohamed Beltagui of the Muslim Brotherhood. On today’s chat shows, you’ll likely see those names tossed around as Middle East experts try to predict the future.

But what we’ll most remember is the women’s leadership that has evolved right alongside these protests —including human rights activist Nawal al-Saadawi, who speaks above about her return to Egypt years after being imprisoned and exiled by successive Egyptian regimes. Hundreds of images like these adorn the Women Of Egypt Facebook page. “The country’s sisterhood,” notes the Los Angeles Times, “has sparked a movement within a movement.”

Much more here,, including tons of video and Mona Eltahawy laughing in Bill Maher’s face.

Wolf in the Heart: Why journos love war

If I’d been nattering here as much as on Facebook, you’d have heard more than you care to about my interview with former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas. But I’m pretty happy with how it came out. At the bottom, click to read it at Guernica Magazine, and maybe throw in your two cents?

Wolf in the Heart

Chris Lombardi interviews Evan Thomas, September 2010

The historian and departing Newsweek editor on how he (like Remnick and Keller) caught war fever after 9/11, the obsession with being a man, and how his dad glowed in Navy whites.

In the October, 2001 “Talk of the Town,” New Yorker editor David Remnick called George Bush’s post-9/11 speech “reassuring.” Despite the fears of some, he explained, “taken as a policy pronouncement of sorts, it pointed in the right direction.” Even as it became clearer that the “policy pronouncement” was signaling war in two countries, many, if not most, writers and editors were as much participants in the preparations as observers. By April 2002, the New York Times’s now-notorious Judith Miller was deep in her dance with Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, reporting enthusiastically on the “important new discoveries” of weapons of mass destruction. The New Yorker again chimed in with similar reporting by then-staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, whose 2002 stories led with graphic details of the gas poisoning of Kurds in 1988. “In five years,” Goldberg wrote in October, 2002, “I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.” So adamant was The New Republic’s plumping for war that editor Peter Beinart recently felt the need to write an entire book, The Icarus Syndrome, bemoaning American war hubris. Also caught in the fervor was Newsweek’s Evan Thomas.

TR Pose-Body.jpg
Newsweek, which emblazoned “God Bless America” on its post-9/11 cover and followed that issue with articles in the coming weeks entitled “A Fight Over the Next Front” and “Blame America at Your Peril,” became perhaps the most visible of the Ernie Pyle-wannabes. By December of 2001, Thomas, an editor-at-large who announced last month he will be leaving the magazine he joined nearly twenty-five years ago, was on CBS calling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “a great war leader,” and by March 2002 his byline was on a story about a “growing consensus” in the Bush administration that “the next target” in the war on terror was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. All this less than twelve months before the magazine’s “Shock and Awe” cover breathlessly reported the devastation that resulted.

Seven years later, all of the media outlets above have recanted some of what they published back then, even as the buzz for a new war with Iran threatens to repeat the cycle (with participation of some of the same personnel, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, now with The Atlantic). Beyond a few journalism-ethics seminars, few have tried to examine why they did it. Thomas, who now admits that he and the others were in the grip of “war fever,” has turned to history to help himself understand what that means.
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any pre-1980 Hunter High alums in Philadelphia?

I’m sitting here listening to WHYY and Talk of the Nation’s report on Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. I’m as obsessed with the nomination as many women in America — especially those who, like me, attended Hunter College High School around the same time she did. When I called my best friend, who I met in 1974 during the first week of school there, she didn’t need to ask why: “Is the press conference starting?” were her words upon answering the phone.

But I was calling instead to tell her that the New York Times had run perhaps the first published mention of our reality back then:

The school, which then occupied two floors of an office building at 46th Street and Lexington Avenue, was and remains one of New York’s elite public high schools. It drew girls from across the city and an array of backgrounds — all admitted on the strength of their performance on an entrance exam, rather than money or family connections.

“We were really exposed to tremendous diversity there — whether it was a Jewish girl from the Upper West Side or a cop’s kid from the Bronx or the daughter of a C.E.O. from the Upper East Side or kids whose parents worked in sweatshops in Chinatown,” said Ellen M. Purtell, a high school classmate of Ms. Kagan’s. “It was never about what you were wearing. It was: Did you bring your best game academically with you today and could you contribute to the discussion?”

I wish I knew the exact day in September that I first got into the elevator of that office building — to me, my exact crossover from the east Bronx into a bigger world. And its all-girl status was part of its magic, one that has been lost for awhile. (I was in the first class that admitted boys, but they were too a test case, and too few to change that magic.)
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Henrietta Lacks’ grandkids: "How can you judge the 1950s by the ethics of today?"

When Rebecca Skloot walked into the Kimmel Cancer Center in Philadelphia last week to talk about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she was riding a wave of positive reviews for the book she had been working on for nearly half her life. The Boston Globe had called it “a well-written, carefully researched, complex saga of medical research, bioethics, and race in America.” Salon termed it “a heroic work of cultural and medical journalism,” and the New York Times thought it “a thorny and provocative book about cancer, racism, scientific ethics and crippling poverty [that] floods over you like a narrative dam break.”

At the Kimmel Cancer Center (part of Thomas Jefferson University), the crowd was made up of scientists and physicians, many of whom knew Henrietta Lacks only as HeLa, for the cell line named after her unusual, fast-growing cells. Over the years, HeLa cells have been used for cancer research, to test the polio vaccine, unlock the secrets of DNA transcription, and thousands of other medical projects.

Among the crowd was Dr. Leonard Freedman, dean of research at Thomas Jefferson, whose lab invented a new tool for DNA research using HeLa. “You know, I used to do a lot of science with these cell lines,” Freedman said to this reporter just before the lecture. But the book was a revelation: “We knew the cells came from some woman, but we even had her name wrong. And we certainly didn’t know any of what’s in the book.”
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Roman Polanski: The 1970s Are Over, Thank God.

! CML07pride This week’s arrest of Roman Polanski felt weirdly unsurprising. It fit somehow with all the flashbacks to 1969 the media’s treated us to this year — as that TIME cover put it, “From the Moon to Charles Manson.” What will the 1970’s reminiscences be like, one wondered? Maybe like this.

But who really remembers 1977? And what does anyone really remember about Polanski’s arrest?

I actually remember that time pretty vividly. I was fifteen years old, and in some circles at my high school, relationships with older men were all the rage. They meant we were cool, outre, too daring for dating. (Not for me, mind you, though I still hoped to grow into it.) When the tabloids shrieked about Polanski’s statutory-rape conviction, I even blithely wrote an op-ed in my high school journalism class about how such “relationships” shouldn’t be illegal, even if the girl in question was 13 years old.

Of course, like most opinion writers then and now, I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I certainly didn’t know that the girl had told a grand jury that she was given Quaaludes and then raped, that she’d said no and asked to go home, that Polanski pled guilty to a lesser charge and then fled before final sentencing.

My main excuse now for my blitheness then is that I was fifteen, and that it didn’t last long. I’ve never been able to see a Polanski film. and cringed every time he won another award. Knowing the traumatic facts of his life, from the Holocaust to the Manson murders, plays differently with me: it can explain, perhaps, but it’s the opposite of an excuse.

This week, I was floored as news reports kept saying that Polanski had been arrested “for sex with an underage girl,” without explaining what had happened; at the sudden movement to “Free Polanski,” giving the perp what Slate’s Elizabeth Wurtzel calls “a genius exception for rape.” Even Whoopi Goldberg made my old mistake: “Things are different in Europe,” she said, and besides “It’s not rape-rape.”

I have no doubt that Goldberg has since been shown the grand jury testimony, but what’s her excuse for talking before she’d done the research? It’s on TheSmokingGun.com, for godsake.

Or she could have paid attention to Kate Harding on Salon.com’s Broadsheet column. In Reminder: Roman Polanski raped a child,”

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for more Mount Airy news….

go here, from now on. As the book’s publication year approaches, I need to give more energy here to its concerns. But I did want to let you all know how the move came out!

I’ve mentioned, methinks, that I’ve  had a longstanding not-so-secret crush on the City of Brotherly Love (and sisterly affection) for more than ten years, a side grace note to my torrid love affair with the city of my birth. New Yorkers (and I’ll likely call myself one till I die) like to feel with Colson Whitehead that “I was born here, and thus ruined for anywhere else…..” The first Pelham in the subject line is Pelham Bay, the Bronx neighborhood from which I [was] sprung.

But I’ve always had  a soft spot for small cities, and when I first got to know Philly I was living in San Francisco, which is even smaller, and came here because my organization had an office here. Philly struck me as a cross between Baltimore, where I once moved to heal from divorce, and that other colonial town where the Lenape first met Europeans.

Of course, as you know I actually moved nearly a year ago from Manhattan, to which I moved in 2000 an exultant new lover. The circumstances even made the papers. But it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that we felt able to look for an apartment here — and less than a month ago, had the incredible luck to find a place in Mount Airy, not the first Philly nabe I fell in love with (that honor goes to Old City) but a place that already feels almost as much home as did Washington Heights/Inwood, where we lived for six years, or my long-cherished Mission District. (Those two years in Greenwich Village were dreamy, but always felt borrowed.) I do feel a little like a stereotype, being so happy about the food co-op, the lesbian-owned bookstore, but there we are.

phillyview

Mount Airy, where we live now, is none of those places: it’s completely itself. Its history is slightly younger than NYC’s, though settled first by Germans in the 1680s (and first called by the English “Beggarstown,” which feels kind of appropriate for us if not the actual neighborhood).

Boy_with_SquirrelThe major street nearest to me also bears the name of Pelham, an estate owned by the Revolution’s hardest-working engraver (or someone else in his family). We don’t live in one of the nabe’s stained-glass beauties, but a Victorian that has its own deep charm

I’m writing this now as a transitional post between this and New in Philadelphia. There, I might feel more free to include quieter observations, like how it feels to be reunited with a cat or why I’m beginning to suspect that I’m actually in Berkeley.