Current Affairs

Are men mature enough to handle presidential debates?

Almost all of the news comments on the Democrats’ debates held this past week mentioned that for the first time women were a prominent part of the lineup. Ever since Samuel Johnson made his famous quip about women preaching in public, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all” women have had to prove themselves worthy of speaking out in public settings.

After all, it was more than a century after the establishment of the United States that a woman was first elected to Congress. That was Jeannette Rankin, who was elected from Montana in 1913. Rankin had become a public figure by her work in the women’s suffrage movement. Before running for Congress, she had been the first woman to speak before the Montana state legislature. There she urged that women should be allowed to vote. She succeeded in getting the vote for Montana women and moved on to fight for a national vote on suffrage.

Jeannette Rankin

Women had been fighting for the right to vote since 1848 and it was through the struggle to win that right that many women became accustomed to speaking in public and making their voices heard. They had many years of struggle, because it wasn’t until 1920 that the Women’s Suffrage amendment was finally ratified.

Women have served in Congress now for more than 100 years, but their move into power positions has been very slow. It’s hard to believe that in 1984, it was considered daring for the Democrats to nominate Geraldine Ferraro as their vice-presidential candidate. She was the first woman to appear in national debates before the election and her appearance was a welcome change for many voters, although of course, her team did not win the presidency.

Last week’s debates, however, showed a distinct change in the power structure of the debates. Many of the male candidates thought their best way to win attention (and potentially votes) was to interrupt as often as possible and take over the argument. But on Thursday night they were put in their place by Kamela Harris who had one of the most-quoted lines of the debate, “The American people don’t want to watch a food fight. They want us to put food on the table.” And a few minutes later she made a stinging attack on Joe Biden—no one interrupted her then.

And Harris wasn’t the only woman who raised the level of the debates. Elizabeth Warren, during the first debate, stuck to her points and talked substance instead of yelling and interrupting. And we can’t forget Amy Klobucher who quietly mentioned that the three women on the debate stage had far longer records than the men in fighting for reproductive rights for all women.

There is no question that women today are ready to speak out about national policies. Perhaps the more relevant question today is: are men ready to engage with them on a level that will benefit all of us?

Women–Doing Not Saying

 In her speech to the Harvard University graduating class this week, Angela Merkel urged a cautious optimism: “I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is,” she said. “This experience, dear graduates, is the first thought I wish to share with you: Anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change.”

She went on to list some of the problems the youthful graduates might want to change: “Protectionism and trade conflicts jeopardize free international trade and thus the very foundations of our prosperity,” she said. “Wars and terrorism lead to displacement and forced migration. Climate change poses a threat to our planet’s natural resources.”

Angela Markel’s common sense optimism, as well as her acknowledgement of the difficulties facing the world today grow out of her life experience. Born in 1954, she was raised in East Germany during the difficult years when the Soviets controlled that nation. In university she studied science and did not engage in public life. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany that she was drawn to political life. Few people would have predicted she would become a leader. But, improbable or not, this quiet woman made her way past the bombastic male leaders of the party and eventually emerged as the leader.

Since becoming Chancellor of Germany in 2005, Merkel has been acknowledged as the leader of the European Union. She weathered the immigration crisis of 2015, encouraging Europeans to accept the humanitarian necessity of helping Syrian refugees to find a place in European society.

Now Europe is facing continuing turmoil as one country after another reveals a strain of populism that rejects immigrants and wants to turn the clock back. Merkel has said that she will leave politics in 2021 and allow someone else to negotiate the future. But her contribution to building a united Europe will not be forgotten. As historians look back on the first decades of the 21st century, I am certain she will be recognized as the outstanding political leader of our times.

Angela Merkel is not the only woman leader who is leaving the limelight. Theresa May, Prime Minister of Great Britain, is also stepping down. May took on the onerous task of working out a Brexit plan to move Britain out of the European Union. After the referendum in which voters chose by a narrow margin to leave, several of the noisy male supporters of the move stepped back and chose not to handle the mess they had created.

Theresa May

Theresa May was the only political leader willing to take on the hard work of actually coming up with a plan. She came up with a number of plans, but, unsurprisingly, someone found fault with each one. The fact that she did not succeed in finding a magic formula that would suit everyone was almost inevitable.

When Theresa May stepped down, the media talked about her a failure. Perhaps they should wait to see whether any of her critics comes up with a foolproof plan that will be accepted by all sides. No one has shown any sign of doing that yet. I can’t wait to see whether any of the guys who have been jeering from the sidelines will step up and hit a home run now that they are on their own.

It is time for us to honor the courageous women who have not just talked but have taken on some of the world’s most serious problems. As Margaret Thatcher once said: If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.

We Must Not Lose Our History

Like many other people around the world, I spent quite a bit of time this week watching news pictures of the fire that struck Notre Dame Cathedral. For almost everyone who has visited Paris, and millions who have never been there, Notre Dame is immediately recognizable.

Notre Dame Cathedral 2019

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Notre Dame several times. My first visit was during the 1950s when I went on a student trip to Europe. We Americans were overwhelmed by the beauty and history of Paris. Buildings, streets, the whole city seemed so old and yet still alive and important. It was a revelation. This was only a few years after the end of World War II, when Notre Dame became the centerpiece for the liberation of Paris and the end of the war. We could still remember the newsreel pictures of American troops being welcomed by tearfully joyous French civilians.

Notre Dame 1944

Every time I went back to Paris and visited Notre Dame, the church was more crowded with tourists than the time before. Memories of the war became one small part of the centuries of history enshrined in the church. Looking at the overwhelming light and beauty of the rose window, it was easy to understand how it must have brightened the lives of people, both Parisians and others throughout the centuries. The events that window cast light on—the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots and the coronation of Napoleon—linger on in memories in the building alongside the memories of nameless soldiers coming back from wars, families bringing babies for Baptism, and refugees trying to build new lives in a strange city.

But more important, the cathedral has welcomed thousands of visitors over the years and given them a glimpse of a past that still lives and influences us. The sculptures, the stained glass, the votive candles flickering along the side altars. Every visit reminds us of the people who visited the cathedral and were awed by the experience just as we are. The past comes alive in places where so many people have experienced some of life’s major events. William Faulkner once wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We recognize the reality of the past—our past and the past of humanity—when we visit places so rich in history. Notre Dame Cathedral is an important part of the heritage of all humankind and we cannot afford to lose it.

It is not only the heritage of our own societies that enrich us. Visiting heritage sites around the world binds us together in our common human history. When I visited Angkor Wat in 1999,  I was overwhelmed by the evidence of a past world I had never known about.  I recently reread the journal I kept during that visit.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Today we went to a temple complex that is being overgrown by the jungle. The banyan trees in particular send their roots into the crevices in the stones and force the stones apart. Many parts of the temple have fallen to the ground. The stone faces of the Buddha statues peer from the tops of devastated towers. A group of soldiers who were guarding the site were cooking a frog over a tiny fire. They had killed the frog that morning and it is considered wrong to kill a creature and not make use of it–lack of respect.

On our way back to the hotel we drove around the Angkor Wat complex and began to get a better sense of the whole place, although my knowledge is still sketchy. I have an impressionistic feeling about the glories of the crumbling ruins, the huge, smiling Buddha faces, the graceful figures of the dancing girls, and the parades of war elephants and troops. The surroundings haven’t changed much over the centuries, it seems, and that adds to the sense of their antiquity. It’s like walking into a preserved world of the past. We walked through what seemed like acres of temple property, along stone paths and up crooked stone steps around the walls of the complex, which are carved with scenes of Cambodian life from the thirteenth century. Banyan trees push up through the stones.

Both Notre Dame Cathedral and Angkor Wat are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They remind us all of a past that will never be completely recovered but will continue to resonate with generations of people to come. They commemorate the universal experiences of life and death, birth and burial. In recognizing them we acknowledge the common life of all humans and the events we all share. We must not lose these reminders of the past. They are worth rebuilding, no matter how long that takes,  because they enrich all of us.

Who’s Feeding the Immigrants?

We have all become accustomed to seeing pictures on our screens of the crowds of asylum seekers on America’s Southern border. We tend to focus on the woebegone faces of women and children who stare at the cameras and into our hearts. It’s easy to forget that this isn’t the first time the country has been coping with crowds of people trying to find safety within our borders. A hundred years ago we were facing a rush of people entering at several ports, the largest one was New York where Ellis Island was the entry point for immigrants. And somehow all of them were processed, fed, and sent on their way. The government contracted out restaurant services to people who found profit in the lucrative business. Here is a 1913 report.

Immigrant family at Ellis Island

“The contractors who feed the immigrants on Ellis Island in New York harbor run the largest restaurant in the world. Eight cents a meal is the regular price there; 8 cents for breakfast, 8 for luncheon, and 8 for dinner. American plan. The detained immigrants are entitled to three meals a day, and 40 nationalities pass through the portals of the land over which Miss Liberty stands in her green gown smiling down on all alike. One week last summer brought 30,000 immigrants to the Island–Dutch, Slav, Croation [sic], Pole Magyar, Greek, Russian, Italian–all with a liking for different cooking. It was the biggest reception of newcomers Miss Liberty has had in any week since 1907. Each one is taken into account in the enormous kitchens where more meals are prepared in a day than anywhere else in the country. ..A thousand at one meal is not unusual; 5,000 meals a day are only an incident of the rush season. The contract calls for 1,000,000 meals a year, and the price for supplying them is $80,000. At 8 cents apiece the profit for the contractors is less than a cent each–a matter of mills. Just how many depends somewhat on the prices asked by farmers–on the general supply and demand.”
—“Serve 8-Cent Meals: Ellis Island Contractors Run Largest Restaurant in the World,” from Leslie’s Magazine, Washington Post, October 28, 1913 (p. 6)

During the 19th century, and especially in the years after the Civil War, thousands of immigrants poured into cities and towns. These newcomers joined the thousands of farmers and other rural people who moved into cities. All of them added to the changes in America’s food habits. Housewives had to make do with store bought food instead of family-grown animals and plants. And soon teachers, news reporters and middle-class people in general were deploring the bad habits of working people in the cities when it came to food.  

Over the years, a number of reformers have tried to help Americans learn how to cook healthier, inexpensive food to feed their families. Back in 1883, when America was suffering through one of its worst depressions and many people were unemployed, a woman named Juliet Corson decided she could help people eat right by teaching them how and what to cook. Born in 1841, Juliet leaned to cope with poverty when her stepmother kicked her out of the house and told her to earn her own living. Juliet became a librarian at the Working Woman’s Library and discovered how difficult it was to feed a family on small wages. She started giving cooking lessons to women and then to children in New York City and soon began writing books about cooking and household management.

Her most successful book was called, believe it or not—Fifteen-Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families—and she gave away an edition of 50,000 copies. It was even reprinted in a daily newspaper. The menus she included were wholesome with easily available ingredients. The book suggested meals such as rice and milk for breakfast and corned beef and cabbage for dinner. It included tips for choosing meat and vegetables at the market. Many readers were delighted with the ideas and thanked Corson profusely, but, as always, not everyone was pleased. Some union leaders objected to the book’s distribution on the grounds that if the bosses thought workers could feed their families so cheaply, there was no need to raise wages. It seems as though you can’t win when you give advice about what people should eat.

Food may seem a steady, solid part of our lives, but it has been constantly changing and is still changing as Americans come from more varied backgrounds and cultures. I found much of the information I include here on a fascinating website about food history called Food Timeline. It includes articles and references to the food used by native Americans,  how food has been served and eaten through the centuries, and how it was distributed in various specific places like Ellis Island and on military bases.

Dancing away from the daily news

In recent weeks I often feel as though I am drowning in news from all sources—breathless voices from radio, TV and newspapers both print and online insist on telling me the latest tweet or thoughtless comment about what is going on. In self-defense I’ve resolved not to pay attention to any news that pops up after the PBS Newshour ends in the evening . Everything else can wait for morning.

Mariinsky Theatre

This resolution leaves me more time to watch some of the riches I can stream on my TV, watching performances that I never had a chance to see in person. My favorites are ballets, pure art without the intervention of words or arguments. It is a tremendous relief to switch on Amazon Prime and watch dances that were performed at the Mariinsky theater and other famous locations. It is another world right in my own living room.

Fanny Elssler

All of this reminds me of how long it took for ballet to make its way to America and what it meant when it finally arrived. And one of my favorite American heroes, Margaret Fuller, played a part in welcoming the European art. There is a well-known story that when Margaret and her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson went to see Fanny Elssler, one of the first ballerinas to tour the country, Emerson turned to Margaret and said: “This is not dancing, it is poetry ; ” to which she replied, ” No, Waldo, it is religion!”

Those comments make a good story, but unfortunately they are most likely untrue. Charles Capper, Fuller’s most respected biographer, tell us that Fuller and Emerson did not attend a ballet performance together, so the story must be regarded as just casual gossip. What it does reveal, however, is that the leading American writers and intellectuals were fascinated when they had a chance to view ballet. And who was the woman who introduced this art? Fanny Elssler, an Austrian dancer who came to America in 1840 and traveled across the country giving performances for a year and a half.

Fanny had been born into a musical family in Austria. Her father was a copyist and valet to Hayden and two of her brothers were musicians. Her sister Therese was also trained as a dancer and the two young girls frequently performed together. Therese grew to a height considered to be abnormal in those days—5 feet, 6 inches—so she could dance male parts when accompanying Fanny.

As frequently happened, the attractive young dancers attracted powerful older men as supporters and lovers. Fanny eventually had two children, a boy and a girl, who were boarded with friendly families until they were old enough to join their mother. I have to wonder sometimes what staid Americans like Emerson and his circle would have thought if they had known one of their admired artists had unacknowledged children. And I sometimes wonder what female artists would have done in that long-ago time before the Me-too movement had started if they had had the freedom to reject the attentions of wealthy patrons who assumed all female dancers would welcome their attentions.

But that did not happen. The dancers kept on dancing until they retired, as Fanny Elssler did in 1845, leaving behind a number of American and European fans who continued to support ballet as well as the other arts. During the late 19th century Americans, who had learned of many of these arts through performers who visited from Europe, developed their own artists and the inspiration began to flow in a two-way direction between this country and the rest of the world. Now, thanks to technology, we can watch performances from all over the world whenever we need a break from the endless chatter of today’s life. I highly recommend it.

Mariinsky ballet

Congresswomen’s Profiles in Courage

As the new members of Congress were sworn into office this week, much attention was paid to the fact that more women than ever before are now serving in Congress. The youngest member, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, otherwise known as AOC, was probably the most talked about, especially after a video of her dancing while she was an undergraduate was posted online. Although the video was apparently posted to make her seem frivolous, most viewers seemed to find it charming.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

When Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, described herself as a socialist, conservatives again started attacking her. And when she suggested that a marginal tax rate of 70% might be appropriate for very high incomes, some commentators were outraged even though the rate she suggested is no higher than the one the U.S. tax code imposed during and after World War II.

The people who write political commentary seem to have very short memories. The fact is that American Congresswomen have often favored more radical solutions than their male colleagues supported. And they have stood by their positions even when put under severe pressure.  

When Jeannette Rankin took her seat in 1917, she made almost as much of a splash as this year’s women did. As the first woman ever elected to Congress, she joined with more than 50 other members who voted against President Wilson’s request to enter World War I, even though the measure passed with an overwhelming majority.

Jeannette Rankin

After the war was over, President Wilson declared that it had been fought to make the world safe for democracy. But Rankin turned his words against him when she fought hard for a national measure to give women throughout the country the right to vote. “How shall we explain to them [American women] the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” she asked. Women finally got the vote in 1920

Rankin left Congress but continued to be an activist for many years. In 1940 she was re-elected to a House seat and arrived there in time to be confronted with the Pearl Harbor attack. This time there were fewer members of Congress who opposed President Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against Japan. When she voted against the motion she was hissed and she was never again elected to public office.

Some Americans, however, recognized Rankin’s courage. Wikipedia describes the reaction of the noted editor William Allen White:

 Probably a hundred men in Congress would have liked to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it. The Gazette entirely disagrees with the wisdom of her position. But Lord, it was a brave thing! And its bravery someway discounted its folly. When, in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based upon moral indignation is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did, but for the way she did it.

In recent years other Congresswomen have demonstrated rare courage in standing up for their beliefs. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., Congresswoman Barbara Lee was the only representative to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force—the act that gives the president sweeping powers to attack any country at any time if he or she believes it threatens the safety of the United States or supports terrorism. That act passed 420-1 with Lee the only representative who voted against it. In the years since 2001, many people have come to believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and much of the Middle East that were justified under this act have done irreparable damage to America, but at the time, Barbara Lee was the only Congressperson who recognized the danger.

Barbara Lee

Anyone who has forgotten the tangled emotions and arguments that followed 9/11 (and that includes most of us) should read the article in the Atlantic that tells the story of both the attacks and support Barbara Lee received following her vote. But, through the years, Lee has held firmly to her beliefs and is still serving in Congress representing her district in Oakland, California.   

It is easy to see that the women now entering Congress are following the footsteps of some determined and courageous women. Let’s hope they can live up to the courage of their past leaders.  

Why Are Humans Such Slow Learners?

Here in California, the prospect of Thanksgiving has been tarnished by the series of disasters that have hit the state. Wildfires are raging in both Northern and Southern  parts of the state. And the effects of the fires are felt widely. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the smell of smoke hovers over us and this week the sky has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue, schools are closed, people wear masks and still they cough.

The wildfires are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still elect politicians who refuse to recognize what’s going on. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?  And why do voters, even in a year of Democratic triumphs like these midterms, continue to vote against measures that might help? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly tells us how difficult it has been to confront the realities of climate change.

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for 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, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, 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

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. 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 learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world. 

Scientists have known for many years that people are changing the world and that much of that change makes the world smaller and less livable. Our demand for fossil fuels have fostered changes in the climate that threaten us all. For a while there was hope that America would act to lower our carbon impact, but instead we are turning away from all the facts that scientists have been explaining to us for centuries. For a recent update on how the world is going, you can read Bill McKibbon’s article in the current New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps if enough people read that article, Americans will come together and push their politicians into action. Then by next Thanksgiving we might truly have something to be thankful for.

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