Monthly Archives: December 2013

Do we need a new broom for 2014?

Will 2014 be a peaceful year? There are bad precedents for years numbered 14. world globe with peace symbol

One hundred years ago in 1914, Europe blundered into World War I, a story of chilling diplomatic failures brilliantly told in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914—a book every member of Congress and the diplomatic corps should read over the holiday break. It’s scary to see how peace can fall apart so easily.

Then there was 1814, a year during which much of the world was at war. Napoleon won a few battles, but lost bigger ones. Paris was occupied and Napoleon finally abdicated and was sent to the island of Elba. Meanwhile the Americans were fighting the British in the War of 1812. The Americans won at Niagara Falls, but lost when British troops marched into Washington and burned down many of its most important monuments. Another inconclusive set of battles which accomplished very little but brought death to far too man young men. The centuries roll on, but young men in every time and every country continue to be treated as though their lives were of no value.

So what will 2014 bring? The world is not starting out in very good shape. There are wars in Syria, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. Unrest continues in most of the Middle East including Egypt for which we had such high hopes only a few years ago. Israel and Palestine continue their seemingly endless and dangerous dance. And violence is reappearing in Russian cities.

The world needs a new broom. Does anyone besides me still remember the poem “Welcome to the New Year” that Eleanor Farjeon wrote more than half a century ago? I found it again in one of the favorite books of my childhood More Silver Pennies by Blanche Jennings Thompson.

Hey, my lad, ho, my lad!
Here’s a New Broom.
Heaven’s your housetop
And Earth is your room

Tuck up your shirtsleeves,
There’s plenty to do—
Look at the muddle
That’s waiting for you!

Dust in the corners
And dirt on the floor,
Cobwebs still clinging
To window and door.

Hey, my lad! Ho, my lad!
Nimble and keen—
Here’s your New Broom, my lad!
See you sweep clean.

(Eleanor Farjeon Come Christmas)

What would a new broom consist of these days? Perhaps a new approach to solving the world’s problems without war. If each of us decides to raise our voice and let our leaders know that we are sick and tired of constant fighting and endless wars, maybe at last we could get something done.

I strongly support the efforts of the Friends Committee on National Legislation to urge Congress to take four steps to stop the endless wars:

1. Repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force
2. Disclose the Rules for Using Drones: No More Secret Wars
3. Repeal the Patriot Act
4. Close the U.S. Prison at Guantanamo Bay and End Indefinite Detention

Perhaps if enough of us speak out, we can build a new broom that will make 2014 a better year and the 21st century more than just a repeat of earlier centuries and endless wars that accomplish nothing except to sow the seeds for another war. Let’s stop the cycle now.

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On being an outsider—Helen Suzman in South Africa

South Africa flag

Flag of South Africa

The death of Nelson Mandela has turned the attention of the world to South Africa and its long struggle to build a nation where all of its people will be free and safe. Mandela’s towering figure overshadows all of the other people who contributed in one way or another to developing a free, democratic South Africa. The major glory of the transition of power certainly belongs to him and to the ANC, but let’s take some time to honor the often-ignored and forgotten voices of others who fought for a better South Africa.

In August, 1986, the respected New York Times columnist William Safire wrote about Helen Suzman and her lonely fight for equality in South Africa. At that time the argument in the United States and Europe was mainly about whether other countries should impose sanctions on South Africa. The quest for real political equality seemed unreachable. Safire wrote in his article, “No democrat can oppose the idea of majority rule, but no realist thinks the outside world can bring it about now or soon. Forget about the imposition of black rule in this decade; it will not happen.” And yet in that same year, 1986, Nelson Mandela was beginning his negotiations with all-white government for his release and a new model in the country. In 1990, Mandela was released from prison and in 1994, eight years after Safire’s article appeared, he was elected president of a multiracial South Africa. The prophecies of even the wisest pundits often turn out to be wrong.

One of the people who had fought hardest and demonstrated the greatest patience was Helen Suzman, a white South African, whose lonely years as the sole representative of the anti-racist Progressive Federal party in Parliament lasted for

Helen Suzman in Parliament

Helen Suzman

thirteen years from 1961 to 1974.

Born in 1917 to parents who were Lithuanian immigrants, Helen Gavronsky grew up in a small town outside of Johannesburg, attended Witwatersrand University, and married a doctor. During her university years, she studied South African racial laws and was angered by the pass laws which restricted where blacks could live and work. When she entered politics she objected to the United Party’s tolerance of racial segregation and founded the Progressive Party (later the Progressive Federal Party). For many years she was the only member of parliament who consistently raised questions about the government’s racial policies. When one government minister accused her of embarrassing South Africa with her parliamentary questions, she replied, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”

Eventually more Progressive members were elected to parliament and the apartheid government was put under greater pressure to change some of its rigid laws. Helen Suzman was a popular anti-apartheid voice around the world although her opposition to economic sanctions during the 1980s made her unpopular even with anti-apartheid opponents. On American college campuses she was sometimes booed instead of cheered because of her unwillingness to support sanctions.

Nelson Mandela, however, supported her efforts and appreciated her visits to the Robben Island prison where he was held for so long. She used her parliamentary visiting rights to visit the prison in 1967, and returned frequently. “It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard,” Mr. Mandela recalled in an interview when he was released in 1990 after serving 27 years. “She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.”

It is not easy to fight for many years for a cause that separates you from the majority of the people you grew up with and who consider themselves your natural social group. Cast out by many white South Africans, Helen Suzman could not share completely in the life and experiences of Black South Africans either. Always an outsider, she nonetheless continued her struggle and finally saw South Africa take great strides toward becoming a truly multiracial and democratic society.

As she grew older and South Africa changed, Helen Suzman received many honorary degrees from universities around the world and was named a Dame of the British Empire. She died in 2009 at the age of 91. You can read her views about her life and work in her memoir. In No Uncertain Terms: A South African Memoir (1993).

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A comet is a sometime thing. Caroline Hershel among the stars

Astronomers around the world were waiting this past week for a mighty comet to come swooping past the earth. The comet, called ISON, was first discovered more than a year ago and astronomers, both professional and amateur, have been following it ever since. Many sky watchers were excited about the prediction that it might provide an amazing display in the sky during the holiday season. But that just didn’t work out.

The comet seemed to flame out over the Thanksgiving weekend, then reappeared and then, unfortunately, disappeared again. This scenario is

Comet ison

Comet ison

apparently familiar to astronomers and accepted by them as all in a night’s work. Much information can be learned from the progress of comets and their disappearance so all is not lost if they fail to flame across the sky and make the TV news. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about astronomy to know what they will be learning, but I wish them well. You can learn more about ISON from the website Space.com .

News about the comet reminded me of Caroline Herschel, who worked with her brother William, and specialized in discovering comets. Caroline Herschel was born in Hamburg in 1750; William was twelve years older. The Herschel family was chiefly interested in music, not astronomy, but both William and Caroline wandered into the world of science. William was a successful organist and he sought escape from his strict German family life by moving to England. A few years later, in 1772, he sent for Caroline, his youngest and most congenial sister to join him. She was pockmarked from smallpox and her growth had been stunted by early illness, so her family considered her unmarriageable.

Caroline managed William’s household (which included another brother, Alexander), kept the accounts, and learned enough English to do the shopping and supervise the cook. William was then left free for his job as organist and choirmaster at the Octagon Chapel in Bath—and most importantly for his secret passion—observing the stars.

It wasn’t long until Caroline joined William in observing all of the heavenly bodies they could see through the elaborate new telescope

Caroline and William Herschel at work.

Caroline and William Herschel at work.

William built, with Caroline’s help for some of the polishing. It was far more powerful than the telescopes most other astronomers were using at the time. Night after night the two of them would stand on the lawn with their telescopes watching the planets and stars and keeping track of everything they saw. To keep warm on cold English nights, Caroline would wear layers of petticoats under her skirts.
Caroline’s task was to write down the information that William called out to her as he methodically swept the telescope across the sky. This saved him from having to take his eyes off the stars and adjust his night vision. In between her duties, Caroline was observing the sky herself and learning more and more about how the stars and planets moved.

Ten years after Caroline moved to England, William was offered a position as the King’s Astronomer to King George III. He and Caroline moved to Dachet and later to Slough where they could concentrate just on astronomy. They worked as a pair and Caroline specialized in discovering comets. She discovered eight comets during the 1780s and was recognized as William’s assistant given a small pension by the king.

Caroline’s life became more complicated after William married in 1788 and Caroline no longer ran the household. However, they still worked together as astronomers. After William died, Caroline moved back to Hanover in 1822. Then at last she began to get some recognition. She was awarded a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. At the age of 96, in 1846, she received another gold medal from the King of Prussia.

Despite the late and scanty recognition compared to her brother, Caroline Herschel at least had the satisfaction of spending a lifetime doing the work she loved. You can read more about her life as well as the lives of many of the scientists and intellectuals of the period in Richard Holmes’s fascinating and readable book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

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