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.    

Watching History in Action–Moscow 1991

In August 1991, almost thirty years ago, Moscow seemed ready for a quiet month, but unexpected changes were brewing. Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, was vacationing at his summer home unaware that others were plotting his downfall. As was later reported in the New York Times, on August 17, half a dozen conservative communist Russian officials gathered at a steam bath to plot the overthrow the Soviet government. Four of the group would fly to Gorbachev’s estate and give him an ultimatum to resign, while others would assume control of the White House—the center of government. Over glasses of vodka and Scotch, they laid their plans.

On the day that these conspirers met, another group of people were assembling in Moscow—hundreds of librarians were arriving in the city to attend a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Most of them were from Europe and the Americas, while some came from India, Africa, and Asia. Their goal was to encourage the development of libraries and the exchange of information between the people and governments of the world. Many of the participants were keenly aware of the differences in information policy between the countries of Eastern Europe and those of the West, but probably none of them had expected such a dramatic display of the struggle for freedom as they encountered in Moscow that summer.

I was lucky enough to be participant in that IFLA conference and to become a witness to the way many ordinary Russians experienced the events of the abortive coup. As a reminder of what life was like during that handful of August days in Russia, I have posted the journal that I kept as a record of that eventful week. It is available on this site.

The years that have gone by since 1991 have not been good ones for the Russians. The joy that ordinary people felt during the heady days when it seemed as though democracy was triumphing has faded away. The story of how freedom was gradually lost in Russia is masterfully told in Masha Gessen’s 2017 book: The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. I highly recommend it.

Surviving the Virus

The coronavirus pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives.  We work at home and count on digital connections with relatives and friends. It is scary not to be able to walk to a coffee shop and mingle comfortably with strangers or friends. And it is disturbing to go to a grocery store only to find shelves empty of our favorite comfort foods.  

But if we tear ourselves away from the endless flow of news, we can find a few unexpected pleasures.  Rather than paying attention to current news, it is better by far to stick to the books that take us away from our immediate surroundings. My library, the San Francisco Public Library, has closed all branches, but it has a large collection of ebooks and audiobooks that can be downloaded directly to our living rooms. Every day I can download several mysteries and browse through them at my leisure to decide whether to spend the evening with Maisie Dobbs or V.I. Warshawski or any of my other favorite detectives. It’s not the same as browsing along the shelves in the library, but it gives me almost the same thrill of discovering new adventures and new characters to take my mind off viruses and politics. And one bonus of borrowing digital books from the library is there is no need to return them. Each one magically disappears from my Kindle when my borrowing time is over. 

Of course, you don’t have to confine your reading to mystery stories. You can organize an impromptu reading group and discuss books with friends.  I’ve heard of people who have decided to read and discuss War and Peace during breaks from their work at home. That sounds a bit over-ambitious to me. I’d prefer to read and talk about a shorter classic. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s A Room of Her Own or Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome would work. I’m sure every public library in the country has copies of those. And they offer lots of ideas to talk about with friends. 

This digital life offers surprises that turn old pleasures into new ones. For years I’ve gone to concerts, sometimes in great concert halls, sometimes in university auditoriums, but I have always had a seat far in the back of the hall or in the balcony. Now I’ve discovered the special joy of watching a concert streamed online. Amazon Prime, of all places, offers a variety of choices from Bach to Mozart and dozens of other composers. The music is the same as in a concert hall, but the extraordinary photography makes an amazing difference to me. I can watch a close-up of elderly hands hovering over the piano keys or see the glances between two musicians as they coordinate their entrance into a piece. Watching them gives me a new appreciation of what it must feel like to be part of a musical group, something I have never been privileged to experience before. 

During this mandatory shelter-in-place life we are allowed to go outdoors for a walk in the fresh air. I am lucky to live only a few blocks from the beach and have always enjoyed watching the ocean as it moves relentlessly along the shore. No matter what comes along in life, the repetitive motion of the tides reassures us that nothing lasts forever. As the tide ebbs out, leaving stretches of beach marked only by seaweed, plastic bottles, and perhaps a few quivering jellyfish, we can be sure that in six hours and thirteen minutes the high tide will be back.  The world goes on and so will we.   

Ocean beach

…Sliding into the Twenties

As 2019 fades away into the past, surely the best news about what has been accomplished this year is the story of Greta Thunberg and her crusade to make people aware of the climate crisis. Thunberg sailed across the North Atlantic to speak to world leaders about those changes and how they will affect young people. Government leaders listened politely, young people mounted parades and protests, but almost no government or individual did anything to confront the crisis. Young people heard her voice, but the older people who control the world seem to be deaf to it.

Greta Thunberg

If world leaders could not hear the protests of young people, they might at least look across the world to see some of the reasons for the protests. Australia has been suffering from massive wildfires and days of record-breaking high temperatures. Antarctica is losing ice at triple the rate of only five years ago. Whether it is heat or cold that you worry about, both are growing more extreme. The thousands of people who have been displaced by changes in the climate will swell to millions. And those people will keep moving as their homelands become unlivable.

Wildfires in Australia 2019

Meanwhile, two yellow-haired men, one in Britain and one in America swell up and bellow at the world to stop turning and retreat backward. Denying climate change and the global changes it will bring, they long to return to a patchwork of tiny national states huddled behind flimsy walls. Like King Canute ordering the ocean to stop its incoming tides, the forces of change won’t listen or care. Bob Dylan was right when he told us half a century ago, “the times, they are a-changing”.

But there are still signs of hope in the world. We still have young people like Greta Thunberg and her followers. And we still have the voices of writers who remind us of our shared humanity. Two books that I’ve read in the last month are especially hopeful. One is Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey, and the other is Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena. Both of them are meditative works that tell of journeys—the kind of journeys that writers and artists have been taking for centuries. Where would we be without individuals who can share their thoughts with us?  

In Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith tells us about a trip across the country from California to New York and back again. She travels through dreams and reality, as she thinks about friends who are dying and people both living and dead who are still part of her life.

A Month in Siena also tells of a journey. Hisham Matar goes to Siena to look at paintings and at the city. His trip comes after other trips he has made to his native Libya attempting to discover what happened to his father, a political activist who disappeared into prison years ago. Both the centuries-old paintings he absorbs and the people he meets in the city make it possible for him to connect with the world he lives in and shares with us.

Both Smith and Matar give us a humane view of how people can meet one another and share feelings and ideas. Perhaps the best news we can find as 2019 ends and the new decade begins, is that books and art survive. Perhaps they will help us all to confront the inevitable changes coming as the century grows older.