Righteous Among the Nations

There is a dark place in Washington, DC, and not one of the ones you might be thinking of. I mean a place that is physically dark as well as metaphorically, a place with black walls and low light, and terrible things on display: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is an intentionally oppressive and uncomfortable place, where visitors walk through the records of death.

There is, however, a literal bright spot: a white wall, well-lit, standing out from the gloom. It is the list of rescuers, the “Righteous Among the Nations” as honored by Yad Vashem: the ones who risked their lives to save the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They were listed by country. I found a few familiar names quickly: Raoul Wallenberg among Sweden’s contingent, for instance. Then I looked for Denmark.

Denmark, after all, had one of the more remarkable rescue efforts of the Holocaust. The Germans had let Denmark be, to a great extent; the Jews had not even been required to wear the hated yellow star. This unfortunately means that the legend of King Christian X wearing the star in solidarity is apocryphal, although elsewhere in Europe non-Jews did put on stars in protest. But eventually the Holocaust reached Denmark, too. Continue reading

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Secession

Today in Charleston, South Carolina, a “Secession Gala” will be held to mark the Sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s leaving the Union–or, as the event’s website describes it, to “celebrate the state of South Carolina for the second time becoming an independent nation.” The event is sponsored in part by the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” and what appear to be a variety of reenactment groups; the whole affair is organized by the Confederate Heritage Trust. The event’s website describes it as a fairly glamorous affair–black tie if you don’t come in period costume. There is no mention of slavery on the site.

To bring slavery back to the public eye, the NAACP will hold a protest march in response. It is altogether fitting and proper to do that. After all, the Gala will gleefully display the original Ordinance of Secession, but I saw no mention of the Declaration of Immediate Causes which was published four days later and spelled out, “in deference to the opinions and wishes of the other slaveholding states,” the reasons why. They cited the Declaration of Independence as well as Article One and the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing them sovereignty, along with numerous other historical examples; in many ways it is quite well-reasoned, especially when we come to the core of their objections. They point out that many states have neglected their constitutional obligations to South Carolina, citing Article Four: “No person held to labor or service in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up to the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” South Carolina was citing laws made in the Northern states to protect fugitive slaves–and they were right, it was a violation of the Constitution to do so. As the last straw, South Carolina points out, the northern states “have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the Common Government because he has declared that that ‘government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free.'” In short, South Carolina argues, the Constitution was written to protect slavery and as it was now failing to do so, they had the right to dissolve it just like any other “political bands which have connected them with another.”

So yes, while tonight’s Secession Gala will not speak of slavery, slavery was absolutely in South Carolina’s mind, and it is good that the NAACP is here to remind us.

For my part I will just remind my readers that there will be a lot of such anniversaries coming up, and I encourage you all to reflect on the events as they roll by, remembering the horror of war as well as its most positive outcomes. In April it will be 150 years from Fort Sumter; in September of 2012, we will have the anniversary of the bloodiest day in American history, the Battle of Antietam, worse by far than September 11th or even Pearl Harbor. And on January 1st, 2013, it will be the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Mark the occasion somehow, when the day comes.

I am certain that President Obama will.

Forgive Us

For over a century, women in this country had no real legal rights, except perhaps as widows. They had no right to vote, no right to own property while married, no right to a divorce except in cases of adultery, no right to even a modicum of control over their own bodies. That last was not a comment about abortion: women were denied access to information about controlling their fertility. Not abortions, not condoms, just pamphlets. Such information was declared “obscene” by the Comstock Laws, and Federal officials would routinely search the mail and seize educational material on human sexuality. The lack of control would go even further, as spousal abuse was not considered a crime and rape would generally be blamed on the victim.

For over a century, African Americans could be killed with impunity in this country. They could be lynched for talking back to a white man, whistling at a white woman, owning a gun, or trying to vote. As local law enforcement usually organized the lynch mobs, blacks had no legal recourse or protection (State and Federal officials ignored the problem). Nor was this an exclusively southern phenomenon. The north and west had “sundown towns,” so called because the rules were simple: blacks could come into town during the day to work or do business, but had to be beyond the city limits by sundown, or face arrest or worse. Lynchings the country over were family affairs for whites, an occasion for a picnic and taking photographs. They were so solidly entrenched in the American culture that Franklin Roosevelt could not get an anti-lynching law passed in the heyday of the New Deal.

For nearly two centuries, gays and lesbians in this country were effectively persecuted. Sodomy was a felony. Just being at a gay bar could get you arrested for public indecency. If a gay man got arrested, he could expect to be beaten by the police (who would he complain to?) and have his name published in the newspapers, unless he could bribe his way out of it. If his name was printed up he could expect to lose his job, his friends, even his family.

Lesbians could expect all of the above as well; they would also be raped.

Things are better now, of course. Teachers can’t get in trouble for teaching about sex, just for teaching anything other than abstinence-only birth control. Blacks can’t get lynched by the police, just shot by them. Gays and lesbians can’t get beaten by the police, just by the general population. Continue reading

August 6

It’s been 65 years now.

Hiroshima Day always sneaks up on me, so I have little of my own prepared, but here are the words and works of others.

This Is How It Feels to Be Under Nuclear Attack. (For a somewhat lengthy but interesting and sobering video, click on the link to the right of this page, “The Explosions of Every Nuclear Bomb.”)

“After a while, a whirlpool of fire approached us from the south. It was like a big tornado of fire spreading over the full width of the street….” — Akiko Takakura

“I could not sit beside the windows because I had seen so many people badly wounded by pieces of glass. So I always sat with the wall behind me for about 10 years.” — Akira Onogi

Bad as Hiroshima was, a nuclear war now would be much, much worse. “Castle Bravo was about 1,200 times more powerful than each of the atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.” — Wikipedia

8:15, 8/6/1945

As for myself, whenever I see clock hands at 8:15, I remember Hiroshima.

Port-au-Prince, January 2010

The news out of Haiti wrenches at me.

Disasters always make me feel bad; in part because I care for all the people hurting out there, and in part because I regret that I don’t care more. I read the news and went back to having breakfast, a reaction I fear will be extremely common the world over. Certainly the news out of Haiti has been atrocious for decades if not centuries, and the world rarely bats an eye. Still, this is not going to be a white-guilt post. I fired off a donation to the Red Cross and signed up to give blood, and given my current circumstances that’s about what I can do right now.

Disasters, however, also raise the hard questions again. Haiti is a land that has had  no luck at all, and now the biggest earthquake the region’s felt in two centuries hits the poorest city in the hemisphere? That’s on beyond bad luck, that’s almost malice. As if God has it in for them; that has, in fact, been suggested. Seeing the devastation in Port-au-Prince, it would seem God is cruel, vengeful, or simply not there. So I have to ask, as with every disaster, how can I watch such tragedy and still believe in a holy power that is both vast and compassionate?

As with everything else, there are many causes at work; the simple answer is almost never right. Haiti is a classic example of all the factors that govern human life going wrong at once, and combining to produce even greater horror. Continue reading

Tradition!

I am not a huge fan of traditional marriage.

By “traditional marriage,” I mean the way marriage was established for thousands of years: a partnership formed by consenting adults. The adults, however, were not the people getting married — but instead their parents, specifically fathers. It usually had everything to do with property management, and very little to do with the feelings of those involved. The women in particular were traded around almost like poker chips, and were often considered so worthless that a father had to pay a dowry to get her off his hands. There could also be horrible age mismatches, particularly older men with younger women. Of course the women could also be legally beaten, had no right to refuse sex, and had no control over their fertility.

That is how it was done for a very, very long time. Speaking as someone who supports liberty for all peoples, especially women, I just can’t get behind the idea.

The idea that young people should have the right to marry who they choose is actually a fairly new one. More loving parents would take their children’s opinions into consideration… but they, and not the two getting married, would have the final say. Letting people decide for themselves is so recent that within my grandparents’ lifetimes it was still “the done thing” for a young man to ask a young woman’s father for permission to marry her, as if she couldn’t make her own decisions.

Speaking of my grandparents, the story goes that my grandfather’s father did not approve of him marrying my grandmother. Great-Grandfather Crawford was a wealthy man, whereas the Myers family wasn’t well-off, and great-grandfather felt that the marriage was beneath his family’s station. So he went to Great-Grandfather Myers and asked, “How much will it cost me to call this off?” You see, he was playing by the old traditional rules that a marriage was decided by the parents, and also by the old traditional rules that marriage had nothing to do with love and everything to do with property. A business transaction, and in this case one that he thought he would lose by.

Great-Grandfather Myers, bless him, answered simply: “They’re in love, and they’re getting married.”

So you see, I have something of a personal stake in disliking traditional marriage, too: if we still played by traditional rules, I wouldn’t exist.

As such, I’m rather in favor of expanding the rights of marriage to pretty much every consenting adult. I’d point out that marriage isn’t for everyone, of course, and also I have points to make about the religious side of affairs elsewhere. Moreover, when we get married for love alone we overlook that marriage still does have a lot to do with property and finances; legally speaking, that’s the only thing marriage is about. Finally, when we get married for love, we  forget the way love changes and grows over time, that the passion makes way for the peace, and that love in our age looks very different from love in our youth. Regardless, by all principles of liberty and justice, the decision to marry should rest with those doing the marrying, and neither other people nor the laws of the land should stand in their way.

So when people object to expanding the right of marriage to non-traditional couples such as two men, or two women, I have to ask the objectors: what do you mean by traditional marriage?

If you mean “marriage between a man and a woman because my church says so,” or “marriages between men and women because I’m not comfortable with the idea of men having sex,” or “marriage between a man and a woman, just like mine,” then you are certainly entitled to your belief, and we can hash things out using different terminology. But I have to say, on the basis of the historical evidence, that traditional marriage isn’t exactly what you’re talking about.

Do you instead mean an institution where fathers would dictate the rest of their children’s lives? Do you mean one where blacks and whites could not marry, or where rich and poor couldn’t either? Do you mean one where women surrendered all legal rights as soon as they said “I do,” and one where wife-beating and husband-wife rape were actually encouraged? Going further back, do you mean one where a man could have many wives if he wanted, but a woman having two husbands would be grounds for stoning? Do you mean one where a woman was worth two cows, if they weren’t terribly valuable cows? Because that’s how things went for a long, long time. That’s the real tradition. And most of us have walked away from that — indeed, fiercely fought it — because the tradition intolerably trespasses on our liberty and our love.