Memorial Day Past, Present and Future

In May of 1865, a month after Abraham Lincoln had been shot and killed by an assassin, Walt Whitman wrote these lines as a tribute to the slain president:

When lilacs last in the dooryard blooms’,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

During the years since then, in late May when lilacs are blooming in much of the country, Americans have paused to honor the young people who have died in war. Memorial Day has been one of the most important holidays of the year especially for parents who lost children during those wars.

This year we have even more tragic deaths to mourn. Nineteen children were killed—not on a battlefield, but in their classrooms in Texas by a teenager with two assault weapons. A teenager killing children. It is hard to believe that such a thing could happen in a civilized country. But it did. And it has left grieving parents and grandparents who will never forget their loss. Every year when spring arrives across the country, people will grieve again for the senseless waste of innocent lives.

Christina Rosetti put that grieving into words for us:

Talk what you please of future spring
And sun-warm’d sweet to-morrow:—
Stripp’d bare of hope and everything,
No more to laugh, no more to sing,
I sit alone with sorrow.

The only way to end this endless cycle of loss and grieving is to take action. Those of us who have read and listened to the news of the mass shootings must remind our political leaders that we the people have the right to defend our children and our children’s children. We must protect them from the endless cycle of tragedies. Other countries have shown us the way. We can insist that Congress outlaw the sale of lethal weapons to young people. We can make spring a time to celebrate growth and rebirth instead of a time of mourning. We just need the courage and the wisdom to take action.

Veterans Graves decorated for Memorial Day

Our Favorite Gateway to Information–Wikipedia

The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of Wikipedia, an online source of information that strives to reach every person in the world.  When the free online encyclopedia was started, by Jimmy Wales, his stated goal was: “to give people a free encyclopedia to every person in the world, in their own language. Not just in a ‘free beer’ kind of way, but also in the free speech kind of way.”

At that time, almost no one thought a free encyclopedia would be a success. By now, however,  it has grown into one of the major sources of information around the world. Thousands are articles are available in more than sixty languages.  The English language version alone contains 6,420,755 articles.

Wikipedia Logo

“But why do we need an encyclopedia?” people may ask. “All we need to do is to google a question and find any information we want.” Or even, “But I learn all I need to know on Facebook or Instagram.”  But there is a huge difference between just declaring that something is true and stating an opinion that includes the reasons why you believe it is true.

These days some people don’t believe that vaccinations will protect people from Covid-19, others insist that vaccinations are necessary and should be mandatory in many situations. This same kind of prolonged argument went on when scientists first introduced the germ theory. Did germs cause diseases or was bad air or something else responsible for people’s illnesses? To follow the argument, you can take a look at the Wikipedia article on the Germ Theory Denialism

The extra ingredient in the Wikipedia article is the list of sources—those pesky footnotes that crouch at the bottom of encyclopedia articles. Most of us don’t often go to these sources and check out what is said, but if we care deeply about a subject, they are available. (Of course, we usually have to consult a library to track down the original sources.) That list of sources is the difference between providing information and allowing disinformation to spread. Perhaps if social media outlets asked people to give the sources for the beliefs they spout, the world would be saved from a lot of arguments and injuries.

So, three cheers for Wikipedia! One of the rare examples of a useful tool that has been made available to everyone with access to the internet free of charge and free of advertising! The Wikipedia pages offer a gateway to important information that you can verify for yourself, instead of offering, as social media does, a jumbled wall of unverified opinions leading to endless arguments and weird beliefs. 

If you agree with me that Wikipedia is an invaluable addition to our shared resources, you can send a donation through www.wikipedia.org.

The Climate Is Changing and So Must We—Fiona Hill’s vision

At the Glasgow Climate Conference this past week, world leaders signed an agreement to cut back on the use of coal and other fossil fuels. Mining, manufacturing and even farming have been revolutionized over the past fifty years and more mines and factories will close as a result of these international agreements. Jobs that used to be central to every modern economy are disappearing. We know that jobs must change, the question is, how can we help people to change so that they can find security in the new economy.

Few people have been able to observe the effects of changing economies on the lives of everyday people as closely as Fiona Hill, the author of There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century.

Fiona Hill

Hill was born in 1965 and grew up in County Durham in Northern England in a community that had been devastated by the closure of coal mines during the decades following the second World War. Although Hill’s family had been miners for generations, both her father and mother were hospital workers during most of the years when they were raising their children. The title of Hill’s book, There Is Nothing for You Here, comes from the advice given to Fiona and her sister as their parents realized that education was the key to moving ahead in the modern world.

During the 1980s when Hill was growing up, education was easier to obtain in England than in the United States or in many other countries. Government support enabled children to move from local council (public) schools to university. Publicly funded stipends meant that poverty was not an insurmountable obstacle for many students, but Hill clearly shows the obstacles that stood in the way of young people who wanted to move ahead. Expenses that were ignored by the government, such as the insufficient supply of books in local libraries and schools, the cost of transportation to cities where scholarship tests were available, and the prejudice shown against students who did not fit into the middle-class mold of most university applicants made entry into the university system very difficult. Hill describes her interview for entry into Oxford as one of the worst experiences of her life.

Despite all the difficulties of moving ahead, Hill managed to acquire a university education at St. Andrew’s where she found mentors who helped her find opportunities for further study. Later, she was able to attend Harvard and earn a PhD. She also spent time in Russia where she could observe the results of the post-cold war economic turmoil on the lives of Russian students. This varied background has given her a wide range of experience about the ways in which different countries are meeting the challenges brought by changing economies.

When Hill moved to the United States, eventually becoming an American citizen, and marrying an American, she observed many similarities between the way working class families coped with change in the two countries. The American Midwest, where her husband grew up, faced the loss of manufacturing jobs just as County Durham had. Towns in the Rust Belt of the Midwest were experiencing the same difficult adjustments as towns in the UK, except that class differences in America are complicated by racial differences which also affect people’s education and job training.

There Is Nothing for You Here is a dense book, filled with the stories of various individuals who are adjusting to a new world. Hill became an expert in National Security and relations with Russia and worked in the White House during the early years of the Trump Administration. She became well known after she gave testimony during Trump’s First Impeachment Trial where the focus was on relations between the United States and Russia. Now she has given us a broader picture of growing up in a changing world. Her book raises questions about how countries can help individuals find a path to changing their lives.

While leaders sign proclamations and declare goals, Fiona Hill reminds us that it is individuals who will bear the brunt of fitting into the new world. There Is Nothing for You Here points the way to some of the changes that are needed.     

The departure of a world leader—Angela Merkel

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, which had separated Russian dominated East Berlin from West Berlin for 28 years, was suddenly breached. Thousands of East Berliners rushed to push through the crumbling, graffiti-laden wall to see the glories of West Berlin. Most of these people hurried to the famous department stores to find the lavish goods that had long been unavailable to “Ossies” as East Berliners were called. But according to an article in the New Yorker, Angela Merkel, a young chemist in East Germany,  did not participate in the rush for luxury goods. She retained her quiet, unobtrusive habits—took one look at West Berlin and then went home.

No one at this time would have predicted that she would become the most successful European politician of this century. All the important German politicians before her had been large, dominating white men. How could an unprepossessing, quiet woman ever replace them? But replace them she did.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel has always been very different from most politicians. She grew up in East Germany and rather than participating in social actions, she studied science. Eventually, she earned a PhD in chemistry at Leipzig University. It was not until the reunification of Germany that she became active in public life. Slowly and usually unnoticed, she became a major force in Germany and then in the European Union.

Merkel became overwhelmingly popular in Germany and throughout Europe. But when the migrant crisis occurred in 2013, she sacrificed some of her popularity when she welcomed migrants into Germany. Despite intense pressure from both the radicals and conservatives, she stuck to her guns. Eventually the crisis eased and Europe grew more prosperous and more united. Although many problems remain, we should acknowledge how much she accomplished and how much the world has suffered from not allowing women to take their place as leaders.   

As Margaret Thatcher once said: “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman”. So let’s give a cheer for the quiet politician who kept the EU going through some of its most difficult days—Angela Merkel.

Leaving Afghanistan—one more time

For the past week American TV screens have been crowded with views of people trying to leave Afghanistan.  Crowds scramble to board the departing planes at the Kabul Airport. The pictures are harrowing. The panic of terrified people fleeing from the incoming Taliban fighters can be felt by viewers thousands of miles away.

This isn’t the first time that foreigners have been ousted from the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Almost two hundred years ago the British invaded the country. They too were chased out, and the ordeal of their leaving was recorded by a brave British Army wife, Florentia Sale. Last year I wrote an account of her ordeal in this blog. Perhaps we can learn something about the folly of foreign wars by revisiting her experience.

As wise men have reminded us ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’

Lydia Maria Child—A Lifelong Fighter for Justice

When Europeans arrived in North America during the 1600s, many of them were surprised to find that people were already living in this “new land”. Nonetheless, the Europeans believed they had the right to take over the continent. Several centuries later, Americans are still struggling to undo long established injustices. After President Biden was elected in 2000, he appointed the first person of Native American ancestry to his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior—Deb Haaland. The rights of Indian tribes have been recognized as an important value. But it took many arguments over hundreds of years to start ensuring justice for Native Americans. 

One of the earliest and most persistent fighters for fair treatment of Native Americans was the novelist and activist Lydia Maria Child. During her long life she fought for social equality for all races and sexes while at the same time carrying on her career as one of the most popular writers of the 19th century. Unlike many of the more famous suffragists, she was not willing to place the importance of women’s rights above the importance of justice for enslaved people and Native Americans.

Lydia Maria Child

Child was born in Massachusetts in 1802 into a family of strict Calvinists. As a girl, she did not receive much formal education, but her brother, Convers Francis, shared his books with her and encouraged her studies. After her mother’s death, Child lived for a time with her brother’s family and was introduced to many of his friends from Harvard. With his encouragement she wrote her first novel, Hobomok: a tale of Early Times, in 1824 and its success started her on a lifelong career as a writer.

Hobomok was widely acclaimed and brought a level of fame to the young author. She was even given a free ticket to use the Boston Atheneum, a valuable library from which women were usually barred. But Child was not content to support only popular causes. Ten years later, when she published an abolitionist pamphlet, “Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans called Africans” the ticket to the Atheneum was snatched away from her and her books were removed from the library. Despite this rejection, Child continued to support the three causes that were most important to her—Indian rights, Abolition, and Women’s Suffrage. Throughout her life, she never wavered in her loyalty to her causes.

After her marriage in 1828, Child continued to write, and her works were popular. Her practical domestic guide, The American Frugal Housewife, was one of the most successful books of the 19th century. Her husband, David Child, was an activist and public speaker, but he was never able to support himself and his wife. He developed many commercial ideas and borrowed money to carry out projects that rarely succeeded. His wife was responsible for earning enough money to support the couple, but she was not allowed to make decisions about spending it. Her husband could invest her money in any way he wished. Even when she wrote her will, she found that she was forbidden to distribute her money or the property her father had left her unless her husband signed the will. This must have made her more aware than many other women of the need for women’s rights to include the right to own property as well as to vote. Nonetheless, despite some short-lived separations, the couple continued to maintain their marriage.  

Lydia Maria Child lived until 1880 and during all those years of life she continued her tireless support of the important social reforms of the time. It seems ironic that such a tough, committed fighter should be remembered, if she remembered at all, by a sentimental children’s poem she wrote. It is the traditional Thanksgiving poem “Over the river and through the trees, to Grandmother’s House we go…”

To learn more about this tireless fighter for human rights, you can read the excellent biography The First Woman in the Republic by Caroline Karcher (1994).

It’s Labor Day But Who Is Celebrating?—the Rana Plaza tragedy

May 1 is Labor Day (or Workers Day) throughout most of the world, but despite the celebration, these are not good times for many working people. Over the past several years, injustices and tragedies have struck around the globe.  And now workers who were already suffering from low wages and poor working conditions are among those hit hardest by the pandemic. But while wealthy countries struggle to help India and other third world countries to overcome the tragedy of illness, we should not forget that even ending that plague will not end the suffering of many workers caught in a cycle of unfair working conditions.

Eight years ago this week in Bangladesh, more than a thousand garment workers were killed when a factory building collapsed. The Rana Plaza tragedy brought an immediate outcry and urgent calls for reform. An international chorus of voices were raised to decry the conditions that led to this tragedy. Even the pope was moved to respond.  

Rana Plaza Protest in Bangladesh

On May 1, 2013, Pope Francis spoke out: A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was ‘Living on 38 euros a month’. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour. Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us – the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation! Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God.

From the amount of publicity surrounding the Rana Plaza tragedy, many people have probably assumed that conditions must have improved. Surely changes would have been made to ensure that workers received better wages and safer working conditions. That is what happened after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City a hundred years earlier.

But, this is not what has happened to today’s workers.  As reported in Vogue this month In November 2020, 12 people were killed in an explosion at a garment factory in Gujarat, India. In March this year, 20 people were killed and dozens left injured after a fire tore through a clothing factory in Cairo, Egypt, with a further eight killed and 29 injured when a 10-storey building collapsed in the same city later that month. (Vogue 27 April 2021)

The worldwide pandemic has brought greater suffering to the workers in India and other countries because fashion companies cut back on their production of clothing. Orders were cancelled and workers lost their jobs. Now that many developed countries are once again ramping up production, they are looking to cut costs and are encouraging lower wages and fewer safety rules.

How can Western consumers help? Primarily by pushing clothing manufacturers to support reasonable wages and to insist on better safety measures in factories. Of course prices will have to rise, but do most consumers really want to save a few dollars on an outfit at the price of costing a human life? Clothing production is a woman-dominated field. From the factory workers in Bangladesh to the fashionable professional woman in New York or London, it is women who drive the market and purchase the products. It is up to women to make sure that our clothes are not causing suffering and death.

Several organizations have been begun to describe what a consumer can do to help improve the fashion business. One website (fashionabc.org) offers suggestions on how to fix the problem, starting with the resolving to buy less clothing. You can also examine labels and find companies that support international labor agreements. You could also shop in thrift stores for some items and perhaps take the time to learn basic sewing skills at your local adult education classes.

The threat of Covid 19 will eventually fade, but let’s not forget that the struggle against unfair labor practices will continue. The time to start fighting for better lives for all is now.

Stacey Abrams–a Star for the Future

Events in Washington D.C. this past week have been so disturbing that they have dominated all American news outlets. On Wednesday, when Congress gathered  to cast ceremonial votes to accept the reports of the Electoral College, President Donald Trump called on his followers to protest the vote. And protest they did—they broke into the Capitol building, knocking over desks, scattering papers around the floor, and carrying the Confederate flag through the halls.  Their aim, apparently, was to reverse the findings of the presidential election and throw out the votes that had brought Joe Biden a victory. They did not succeed in overturning the election, but they left the country in a turmoil that will last for weeks and affect the political life of the country for months and years to come. 

While we can’t ignore the drama of the attack on the Capitol, it is important not to forget the momentous news that came earlier in the week. In Georgia’s runoff election for the Senate on Tuesday, the two Democratic candidates were elected. This will give the Democrats control of the Senate for at least the next two years. When President Biden takes office on January 20th, he will have more Senatorial support for his policies than anyone had anticipated. The times they certainly are a-changing. What is it that has brought about this change?

Stacey Abrams

One cause of the change was the overwhelming turnout for the election. And much of the credit for inspiring that turnout should be given to Stacey Abrams. We should not become so preoccupied with the crisis at the Capitol that we forget to pay tribute to this young political star who is having a huge impact on the future of Georgia and perhaps of the entire South.

Stacey Abrams was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1973, but grew up mainly in the South where both of her parents were Methodist ministers. She was the valedictorian in her high school class and later graduated magna cum laude from Spelman College where she participated in political activities including burning the Georgia state flag to protest the Confederate flag that was part of its design. She later earned a law degree from Yale University.

After serving for ten years in the Georgia General Assembly, Stacey Abrams ran for governor of Georgia in 2018. Winning the Democratic Primary for that race made her the first Black women ever to be nominated for governor by a major political party. Winning the governorship was a more difficult challenge.  Her opponent, Brian Kemp, was not only the Republican nominee but was also the Secretary of State and therefore was in charge of voter registration for the election. Thousands of registered voters were removed from the roles in questionable actions during the year preceding the governor’s race. Abrams lost the election by 50,000 votes, but she gained countrywide fame and was one of the speakers at the 2020 Democratic convention.

In the years since 2018, Abram was worked energetically to increase voter turnout for all elections, especially in the South. She founded an organization called Fair Fight 2020 to support Democratic candidates. And she continues to encourage all voters, especially those in minority communities, to participate actively in elections. The remarkable turnout in the 2020 election owes a great deal to her hard work and advocacy.

Let’s celebrate Stacey Abrams for what she has achieved and look forward to her further achievements in the years to come.

It’s Your Vote So Vote Your Way

Do you get the feeling that casting a vote has become a huge chore this year? Although voting used to be a routine task, conducted at leisure in a local precinct, this year it has been beset by troubles.

–long lines for in-person voting

–social distancing regulations

–lack of polling places

— slow mail delivery

–suspicious observers at the polls

Is it worth taking the time to vote?

Two centuries ago, when our first voting systems were set up, officials tried to make it easy for people. A November election was convenient because the harvest would have been completed, but the worst of winter would not yet have arrived. And all the voting and counting would be finished before the new year began.

Times have changed. For most people Tuesday is an inconvenient time to vote. Unlike colonial farmers who set their own calendars, most people today work Monday to Friday. But many states cling to an outmoded history and have not changed to reflect the way people live in the 21st century.

Some state and local government officials are not trying to make voting more convenient or easier for citizens. They are trying to make it more difficult. Many seem intent on preventing people from voting. But there are ways to get around this.

REMEMBER:

You only need to vote in the races you care about. Be sure to vote for one of the candidates for President. That’s the vote that counts most.

For Senators and Representatives, you should normally vote for candidates who will support your presidential choice. That’s the way work gets done in Washington.  

You don’t need to vote every line on the ballot. If you don’t recognize the names of the people running for the school board, just leave them blank.

If you live in a state that asks you to make a choice on a long list of ballot measures, skip the ones you don’t know or care about. Let elected officials make those complicated decisions. That’s what they get paid for.

THERE IS NOT MUCH TIME LEFT—VOTE FOR THE DECISIONS THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO YOU AND DO IT NOW!

IT’S YOUR VOTE SO DO IT YOUR WAY.

Elections Come and Go but the Climate Keeps Changing

American news has been dominated this week by stories of President Trump’s illness and hospitalization. But it is important to remember that even a hard-fought presidential campaign may not be as important in the long run as the dramatic events happening in the natural world. The bizarre weather generated by changes in climate will affect us long after our next president has been chosen. This year’s hurricane season on the Southern coast has sent one hurricane after another up through the Gulf of Mexico. Weather watchers have even run out of names for new hurricanes, although the season is not half over. 

Wildfires in California and Oregon have filled the skies with smoke over large parts of several states. On September 9, San Francisco and much of the Bay Area suffered through a day of darkness. Skies were bright reddish orange soon after sunrise and faded to a deep yellow after several hours. Pedestrians moved through dark street with careful steps and headlights and streetlights were on for most of the day. Normal daylight did not arrive until late in the afternoon. 

Although during the week after September 9 the darkness let up, air continued to be smokey and unhealthy. Gradually as winds came in from the Pacific, smoke drifted to the Eastern states. It was a grim reminder of how weather affects everyone and how much a change in the weather can change our lives. At least now scientists and others are beginning to understand the causes and results of climate change. The tragedy is that some people refuse to acknowledge that information and prefer to drag us back into ignorance. 

Throughout history, some of the most dramatic changes have been brought by events most people knew nothing about. In 1815 a volcanic eruption brought changes to climate around the world—and the most frightening part of the events was that no one knew what had caused them. 

For three years weather was disrupted throughout the world—China had floods, Europe had freezing temperatures in June and July, and in America crops the New England States were hit by heavy frosts and snow during May and June. All of these disruptions were caused by a huge volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on an island which is now part of Indonesia. The explosion sent streams of ash into the air where it lingered and caused temperatures to drop around the globe. Europe suffered crop losses that caused overwhelming damage in Ireland, Wales, and Germany. Prices rose sharply leaving hungry peasants suffering. Demonstrations at grain markets and bakeries, followed by riots, arson, and looting, took place in many European cities. It was the worst famine of the 19th century. 

Observers were baffled by what could have caused the extreme changes in weather, and political leaders struggled to explain events. Some people blamed it on sunspots. Many others turned to religion for an explanation. In upstate New York, Joseph Smith announced he had discovered new revelations from God that led eventually to Smith’s founding of the Mormon church. No satisfactory explanation was found for the dramatic climate changes of 1815 to 1817. The volcanic ash gradually disappeared, floating to the earth in small droplets. Temperatures returned to a more normal pattern.  

For the complete story of the upheavals caused by the Tambora eruption, you can read The Year without Summer; 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History  by Klingaman, William K. and Klingaman, Nicolas P.  It is not a book that is easy to forget. 

More than two centuries have passed since Tambora caused these dramatic changes in climate. But once again we are in the midst of climate changes that are affecting the lives of many people around the world. Temperatures are rising throughout the world making many areas of the world unlivable. But now scientists have collected enough data to know what we should be doing. It is time for all of us to acknowledge the danger and to work toward solutions instead of ignoring the challenge. The Union of Concerned Scientists has some important suggestions for all of us.