Category Archives: Current Affairs

Finding the Past in the Land of the Future

What does Anne of Green Gables have in common with The Parable Series by Octavia Butler or The Hunger Games or my own Charlotte Edgerton mystery story A Death in Cover of A Death in UtopiaUtopia? Recently I discovered that they all have enough in common to share a space on the Internet in Utopian studies.

Five hundred years ago, Thomas More coined the term Utopia and used it to describe a fictional community that many readers saw as far better than the actual communities in which they lived. Ever since then, it seems, people have been searching for the ideal Utopia where healthy, happy people could live and flourish without the need for violence, war, and greed.

During the early 19th century, in both America and Europe, the search for the ideal community continued and led to the establishment of several Utopian societies including Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the Oneida colony in New York. At a time of crisis when the country was changing, many people were discontented with the ways things were going. Fulfilling lives seemed to be disappearing as the industrial society replaced the old rural, farming life Americans had been accustomed to. Isolated groups of people trying to forge a new society did not, however, find great success in changing the world. As years went by, the Utopian or “intentional” communities have mostly faded away, but perhaps technology has found a new way to bring together the dreamers, past and present, who hope for a better world.

Even Ronald Reagan, the idol of conservatives across the country believed that

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan

 

technology would solve the world’s problems.  As reported in The Guardian (June 14, 1989) he announced “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” It never quite worked that way though; Goliath has not quite disappeared in the almost 30 years since Reagan predicted its demise, but our world has certainly been changed by technology.

The Internet has made it possible for writers, readers and dreamers across the world to share ideas about how people have tried to change society in the past and what could happen in the future. This summer a conference, Solidarity and Utopia 2017 in Gdansk, Poland, brought together scholars from many different countries and disciplines to discuss the ways Utopian ideas have affected the world. There was a great deal to be learned.

I had never known that Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables became an important document in Poland during World War II. Polish soldiers were issued copies of a Montgomery novel to take to the front; later, it became part of a thriving black market trade for the Polish resistance.

As for my own heroine, Charlotte Edgerton, here is what one scholar discussed about her appearance in A Death in Utopia.

Intentional Community under the Magnifying Glass: Brook Farm in A Death in Utopia by Adele Fasick Elżbieta Perkowska–Gawlik (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin) A Death in Utopia of 2014 by Adele M. Fasick is the first book in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series. The eponymous utopia stands for The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, a famous intentional community set up by George and Sophia Ripley in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. But for economic solidarity and the solidarity of ideas, Brook Farm would have never come into existence. However, “all the grand plans for reforming the world” (Fasick 3) were very soon confronted by the practicalities of farming, in which most of the members lacked experience. Since the novel covers the span of time from September to November 1842, i.e. the second year of Ripley’s experiment, the spirits of many members appear to be high yet the looming financial crisis casts a shadow over the future of the whole enterprise. To make matters worse a Unitarian minister visiting the community is found dead on the premises of Brook Farm. Charlotte, one of the Brook Farmers, resolves to protect the good name of the community and find the culprit. In my presentation I will argue that Fasick’s idea of inscribing the fictional investigation of an amateur detective into the life of Brook Farm has proved to be successful as far as “magnifying” the issue of solidarity is concerned. However, Charlotte’s amateurish attempts to solve the criminal conundrum reveal more of the ideals and daily routines of the intentional community than of the tragic circumstances concerning the crime, a facet most probably intended by the author who has already explored the history of Brook Farm on a scholarly basis.

We may not have reached a Utopian society, but the possibilities are still worth discussion. And being able to talk about them on a worldwide network is the kind of Utopian dream that Thomas More and the Brook Farmers would have loved to celebrate.

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Our Unknown Neighbors to the South

As hurricane Irma inches its way to Florida, it’s hard to stop looking at TV pictures of the trail of broken buildings, flooded landscapes and unhappy, bewildered people it has left Caribbean Islandsbehind. For several long days now the storm has been punishing the small island that dot the Atlantic between Florida and South America, islands that most Americans know almost nothing about. Still suffering the effects of centuries of colonial rule by European governments, most of those islands will find it much harder to rebuild homes and lives after the hurricane has passed than Florida and other Southern states will.

In honor of the inhabitants of some of those Caribbean Islands, I am repeating a blog post that I wrote several years ago in honor of one of the heroines of the Islands.

Mary SeacoleMary Seacole was born in Jamaica in 1805 in the prosperous and attractive city of Kingston, the base of British operations in the West Indies. White British upper-class people controlled the island, while most Jamaicans of African descent were slaves. Mary’s mother was apparently of mixed-blood and was free, as were many children whose fathers were white. Mary herself writes in her autobiography “I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family;”

Mary’s mother was a boarding house keeper and a healer. That may seem an odd combination to us today, but it made sense because British officers and officials, who often found it difficult to cope with Jamaica’s climate and tropical diseases, could use both services. Mary learned traditional healing methods, using plants and other common substances. While she was a teenager, Mary spent a year in London, which she apparently enjoyed despite the presence of “street-boys to poke fun at me and my companion’s complexion.” Travel was her favorite occupation and she managed to return to London as a merchant selling West Indian preserves and pickles. For most of the rest of her life, Mary Seacole combined business and healing as her twin sources of income.

After an adventurous few years in Jamaica and Panama and a short marriage to a rather frail man who died while still young, Mary was established as a prosperous “doctoress” and merchant. She visited the United States, but found the prejudice against people of color too extreme for her. She preferred England where she was accepted more neutrally, even if sometimes slighted and patronized, but for the most part she remained in the West Indies and Central America where her color was not an issue.

When the Crimean War started in 1854, Mary determined that she would go to the war zone to help the troops. She heard of Florence Nightingale’s plan to take a group of nurses there and applied to be one of them, but was not accepted. Never one to give up a good idea, she raised enough money herself to pay for the expenses of the trip and set out. She found facilities in the camps and hospitals deplorable, just as Florence

Florence Nightingale

Nurse during Crimean War

Nightingale did. Florence worked with the Army and the government using the rules and regulations to get her way. It was a long, difficult road, but one that Florence, well-disciplined and familiar with upper-class life, was prepared to take. Mary chose a different route. Scornful of protocol, she opened a facility called the British Hotel where she offered food as well as giving medical treatment to soldiers. Because she had no access to government money or very much in the way of charitable giving, she charged for services, but she devoted everything she could to serving the troops.

Florence Nightingale was rather scornful of Mary Seacole and probably distressed by her flamboyant dress and habits. Nonetheless Mary became a heroine to the troops and a friend of many people in high places, including relatives of Queen Victoria. When the war was over she returned to England to high praise and much publicity. She received a commendation from the queen and when she published her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, it sold well. The book is still worth reading and is available in several editions, including a free ebook version, on Amazon.com. There is also a fascinating biography Mary Seacole: The Charismatic Black Nurse Who Became a Heroine of the Crimea by Jane Robinson. It is not easy to find in the U.S., but well worth searching for. And perhaps when we send aid to help the victims of natural disasters, we should remember our neighbors to the South whose small islands and brave people are so often forgotten.

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Cutting the endless chatter

This has been quite a week, starting with the magnificent display of a solar eclipse that was seen across much of the country. Even those of us who were unable to see the show in the sky, it was breathtaking to view it on the various screen that surround us these days.

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Solar Eclipse Aug. 2017

Unfortunately the week spiraled downward from there. Our President decided to send more troops to Afghanistan to pursue an endless war that has been unwinnable for sixteen years and will continue to be unwinnable for the foreseeable future. As the President said in answer to a question about why his strategy would win when so many others have failed, his reply was couched in terms of how many terrorists would be killed. But that has never worked and is unlikely to work now.

Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war”. The world has had a chance to see the truth of that statement over and over again during the last half century, most recently in the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians have been struggling and fighting ever since the creation of Israel and no one has won. Many people have lost—lost their lives, their families, their freedoms—but there are no winners. There are no winners in Syria or Central Africa. Wars keep exploding and then sputtering out in temporary truces and ceasefires, but no one ever wins.

And things kept getting worse. The same American hatemongers who brought violence and death to Charlottesville started planning demonstrations in other cities for the coming weekend. A huge storm swooped down on the Texas coast and under cover of the attention being paid to that, the President announced that he was pardoning a convicted violator of our constitution, Joe Arpaio, who had not even been sentenced yet. Mr. Trump also announced, for no apparent reason, that he doesn’t want any transgender people allowed to join the armed forces. Hatred and fear is being spewed out by our leaders with the result that our society becomes more toxic and unlivable every day.

I won’t be posting here again until after Labor Day. I think I’ll spend some time watching the ocean and trying to disconnect from the news and the poisonous atmosphere of some of our commentary. I’ll concentrate on the sounds of the sea and the seagulls crying over the eroding beach.

ocean beachBreak, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
 

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High Hopes and Endless Patience

This past week for me has been a kaleidoscope of experiences and feelings—decades of American life encapsulated in a few hectic days. It started out with a visit to the Summer

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Summer of Love exhibit-DeYoung Museum, San Francisco

of Love exhibit at the DeYoung Museum. Along with crowds of other people I walked through galleries of colorful dresses and posters while listening to music of the 1960s. Is it really 50 years since those dresses were worn and those songs were sung?

Colorful lights played upon the audience, many of whom, leaning on canes and wearing hats and shirts that surely had been in their closets for close to 50 years were reliving the excitement of those days. The world looked bright, people were coming together and celebrating brotherhood and love (sisterhood was not a big topic back then). It’s hard to look at some of the optimistic slogans on display and wonder what has become of all that hope and peace.

The next few days of this week were taken up with high drama over North Korea. Instead of the summer of love, I was swept back into the feelings of five years earlier when the Cuban Missile crisis scared us all. I remember the panic among the nursery school mothers as we watched our children building block towers and wondered whether their lives and ours would be cut short because of a quarrel between Washington and Moscow. Some of my friends went to Washington and demonstrated for President Kennedy to negotiate a settlement with the Russians or turn the whole problem over to the United Nations. Fortunately for us, Kennedy did not follow the advice of the generals. He sensibly believed that U.S. allies would think Americans were “trigger happy cowboys” who would lose Berlin if they could not settle the Cuban missile crisis without war.

The Cuban Missile crisis was finally resolved, we all survived, although it took many years for the true story of that event to be told. Just last year the National Geographic printed a story of the level-headed Russian submarine captain who saved the world from nuclear destruction.

Will the world always have to rely on a handful of people to save us from the hysteria and emotional reactions of leaders and followers alike? As this week drew to a close and we still worry about North Korea, we have been confronted by another disaster in

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Charlottesville, Virginia. The evil forces of racism and hatred that have bedeviled this country from its beginning have not disappeared. After all of the years of progress—all the hopes and plans of generations—we are thrown back into a world where mobs scream hatred and attack innocent people.

Will America always vacillate between high ideals and rabid know-nothing hooliganism? Will there never be a time when rational people of goodwill can finally prevail? It is hard to be patient at a time like this, but that is all we have to offer–patience and determination to make our country and the world a little better year by weary year.

 

 

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Silence and its opposite–Britain 2017

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Gladstone Library

A week ago I spent several days in a most unusual place—a residential library in a small village in Wales. More than a century ago, as a tribute to one of the longest-serving Prime Ministers in England, the library was built to serve the public and allow ordinary citizens to have access to a valuable collection of books in an atmosphere that encourages private study and thought.

The Gladstone Library is a remarkable place, hidden away in a small village and apparently unknown even to many local residents. There are no television sets provided in the library or the residential area and very few radios, although Internet access is available everywhere. The Gladstone Library is open free of charge to anyone who wants to use its facilities. Rooms and meals are provided at a reasonable cost. Small conferences are often held there to allow scholars to get together and exchange ideas as well as sharing research papers, which are often later published.

Although Gladstone himself was not a prolific author, unlike his lifelong rival Benjamin Disraeli, his spirit of gentle liberalism pervades the dark Victorian-style rooms and silent library. I spent hours sitting in a comfortable chair in a dark-green Victorian style drawing room, watching the rain come down on the trees outside the long windows (it is Wales, after all) and doing revisions on my latest novel. I’ve never found a more

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The Gladstone Room

congenial place to work. No sounds of traffic, no fire sirens, no talkative pedestrians passed by. Everyone inside the building seemed to conspire to keep their voices low and to allow the privacy that encourages productivity. No need for the ubiquitous headphones of startups in Silicon Valley as people try to work in open offices.

From the Gladstone Library I took the train down to London where the next several days were spent in the raucous atmosphere of what must be one of the noisiest cities in Europe. Construction work throbs a constant hammering sound all day long, ambulances and police emergency cars with sirens wailing careen through the chaotic traffic, and the hum of human voices in a dozen languages throbs through the streets.

London is an exciting city with a vibrant entertainment industry and thousands of tourists eager to visit the historic sites and great museums of the city. You can walk

 

Westminster Abbeythough one square and find a dozen ideas for stories or photos or music—whatever form your creativity takes. But I wonder how many of the great ideas that are born in vibrant cities like London ever come to fruition.

Perhaps we ought to build little oases of quiet within all of the great, exciting cities of the world. The ebb and flow of quiet and excitement are both important. As our world grows every noisier with more and more stimulation to every sense, we may need to increase our allotment of space and time to quiet pursuits in quiet places.

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The climate, it’s a changing…

It has taken me two days to absorb the information that President Trump has decided the United States will drop out of the Paris Climate Accord, which was signed with such cheering only last year. I have to wonder how much the President looks around the world that both he and I live in.

The first time I really noticed how a changing climate can affect people’s lives is when I visited Mali in 2003. We flew to the small airport in Timbuktu passing over miles of empty sandscapes. Timbuktu looked like no place else I had ever seen–the buildings are

Timbuktu

Timbuktu 2003

made of mud or stucco, and the roads and open spaces are covered with sand. It’s impossible to tell whether the roads are paved or not. They curve around the city and our drivers zoomed around buildings, donkeys, children, men in long robes and women in subdued colors walking along the streets. Everything tastes slightly of sand; even the bread had a grittiness from the fine sand that blew into the dough as it was being prepared. Our guide told us that people who live in the city often lost their teeth early because the sand in their food slowly grinds down the enamel.

The following year, I went to Argentina and saw the glaciers of Patagonia. Many of them are now sliding inexorably into the sea. The loud crack of huge chunks of ice breaking off and being swallowed up by the ocean punctuated our trip. Now, more than ten years

Blue glacier

later, the ice is breaking off even faster. Huge cracks are appearing in the glaciers of Antarctica. How can anyone believe that climate is not changing?

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for many years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known.

Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil. He did not know that in the years that followed his visit, mankind would change the landscape and the climate even more by all the carbon emissions from the cars, airplanes, and factories that people have introduced all over the world.

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt planted new ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. In a recent book, Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and how long it takes to persuade people to accept new knowledge and to change their ideas.

The recent five-year drought in California has brought home to me the conviction that we should all think about what we can do to prevent climate change from destroying our fragile planet. Droughts cause deserts to be formed and to expand. A warming ocean creeps up our shores and makes larger and larger areas unlivable. Violent storms eat away at cliffs destroying homes  and exposing communities to danger. The cliffs in the picture below are in Pacifica, California.

No matter what our leaders may tell us, all of us as citizens must look for ourselves and decide what we can do as individuals and communities to keep our planet safe for the future.Pacifica_2016

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Abortion through the years

Yesterday I joined a crowd of other people headed to the Berkeley Rep theater to see the play Roe, an account of the forty-year-old Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, which made abortion legal in the United States. Written by Lisa Loomer and performed by a group of

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gifted actors, the play makes the twists and turns of an old legal drama completely absorbing.

The drama focuses on the effects of the trial and its aftermath on the two central figures—Norma McCorvey the plaintiff, and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who took her case to court. Most of us in the audience already knew the story—how Norma wanted an abortion to end her third pregnancy, and how Sarah wanted a case that would force changes in the restrictive Texas abortion law. Perhaps we didn’t all remember that Norma never did get that abortion because the case dragged on so long. The baby was born and given up for adoption before the court reached a decision. Sarah, however, did set in motion the legal changes that would change the landscape of women’s rights in America.

Over the centuries from the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome and India up until the present, women have tried to control their own fertility. Without effective contraception,

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Aphrodite freed from her chains

abortion often offered the only release from an endless series of pregnancies and births for married women, many of them from families that were ill-equipped to support another child. And most women who sought abortions were married. Even today, when contraception is much more available, cheap and foolproof, the majority of women who seek abortions, according to figures from the Guttmacher Institute,  are married women who already have at least one child.

Those of us who lived through the 1970s and were aware of the Roe v Wade case assumed that it would put an end to all the arguments and restrictions on abortion. Most countries in the developed world have accepted the fact that many women will want to abort a pregnancy that occurs at a time when they cannot bear and take care of another child. People who are strongly opposed to abortion usually claim that a “soul” enters a fetus’s cells sometime soon after conception. They therefore claim that the fetus is a person whose life must be preserved. Many other people dispute this claim. For centuries people believed that a human being becomes human when it is born and most people believe that now.

The dispute about when human life begins cannot be solved by science because it is a religious argument. Why is it that the United States is one of the very few countries where large numbers of people insist that their religious views become the law of the land? Perhaps if more people could see the play Roe they might develop a greater understanding of the arguments on both sides of the question. And perhaps more people would be content to let women control their own bodies. Medical science has given women the means to have safe and effective abortions; the decision about whether or not to have one should be left in the hands of the individual, not determined by the votes of outsiders.

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