The audience that laughed and cried with Shirley Temple as she starred in movies like Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, and Heidi during the 1930s and 1940s has pretty much disappeared. Some of us still remember the TV shows she hosted during the 1950s and 60s, but her movies and the songs she made famous like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” seem relics from a forgotten past. Nonetheless her name and image are still remembered as an indelible part of America’s past.
Like many other people, I had a vague idea that Shirley Temple had maintained a long career after her retirement from films. Recently, however, I had a vivid reminder of Shirley Temple’s career when I read Norman Eisen’s book The Last Palace (2018). The palace of the title is a magnificent home designed and built in Prague during the 1920s by Otto Petschek, a Jewish entrepreneur whose fortune was made through coal mining. The Petschek family was driven from the country when Hitler came to power and Czechoslovakia fell to the Nazis.
Eisen has built his book around telling the story of the palace and its occupants throughout the century. Each chapter tells an intriguing story but the one that surprised me the most was that of Shirley Temple Black, who was ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the late 1980s. She had first visited Prague and the palace in 1968, after she had retired from the movies. The purpose of her visit was to encourage the country to join the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. She succeeded in her mission, but was unexpectedly caught up in a coup. On the morning that she had planned to leave the city and return home, she looked out of her hotel window and saw tanks crowded with Soviet troops rolling down the streets. Suddenly all of her plans were cancelled. Tanks have a way of doing that.
Reading this chapter of the book reminded me vividly of my trip to a library conference in Moscow in 1991. I dug out the old journal I had kept during that trip to find my description of how the sudden eruption of the August coup had seemed to me and my colleagues.
Last night was scary. After we went to bed at 11:00, we heard tanks rumbling through the streets. They really make a racket ‑‑a loud roar that sounds almost like a low‑flying aircraft. Then we heard gunfire, first pistols then machine gun fire. Not much of it, but enough to make us listen. We kept peering out the window and trying to see what was going on. We could see the tanks, but could not see where the shooting was. There were lights all over the city. In the hotel across the street we could see people silhouetted in windows. I began to realize how people must feel in Beirut where no one knows what is happening.
The noises stopped at about 1:30 and we finally got some sleep. This morning at breakfast rumors were flying. Some people can see down the street to the Yeltsin office building. Some said that there were crowds out on Kalinnen Prospekt yelling “Yeltsin” “Yeltsin” and that the tanks turned back when they came upon the crowd. There is some hope that the fact that the tanks refused to fire means that the junta is going under. Some reports on the radio say that two junta members are “ill”. CNN doesn’t go on the air until 9:00, so there has been no outside news.
The memory of those tanks and the insecurity of not knowing what was going on and not being able to get in touch with people back home is still clear in my mind, Eventually the coup failed, Moscow was safe and soon we were able to return home and go on with our lives.
Shirley Temple’s coup adventure lasted longer than mine and had a far different ending. After days of confusion and conflicting news, many foreigners were finally able to leave Prague and Shirley played an heroic real life part in the drama. With the help of people from the U.S. State Department, she led a caravan of autos to the German border where they were able to escape from the Soviet’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. The events had a great impact on her and she spent most of the rest of her life in public service, working as White House Chief of Protocol, and eventually becoming an ambassador to Ghana and then to Czechoslovakia in 1989. She returned to Prague and lived in the palace, which is now the American embassy. As ambassador, she was able to welcome a more liberal government as it took power. She demonstrated both good judgment and star power in encouraging the Velvet Revolution that brought democracy to Czechoslovakia.
Eisen has chosen well in focusing on one building that saw the unfolding of so many historical trends during the 20th century. It is a welcome reminder of how history unfolds and how events in other countries impact American life. I strongly urge you to read it. Not only will you learn a lot of history, but you will also enjoy suspenseful stories about some amazing people.
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 Utopia? 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
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.
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.
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.
Break, 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
These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me—
Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee—. Emily Dickinson
Two or three years ago the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of the most popular European leaders of the 21st century. She appeared unbeatable as her party swept to an overwhelming victory in 2013. Her success seemed an anomaly in the male-dominated German politics of recent years. Journalists wondered how a plain-spoken middle aged woman whose nickname was “Mutti” (Mommy) could wield such power amid the turbulent struggles of the European Union in difficult economic times.
Merkel grew up in East Germany when it was a Communist country. Although a bright student, she was not a natural leader. In university she studied science and became a physicist 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, and few people would have predicted that 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.
But then came the refugee crisis. When thousands of Syrian refugees tried to make their way to safety in Europe, Merkel announced that Germany would accept them. She called on other European countries to do the same. Some were welcomed, and many Germans appeared at first to be willing to make sacrifices to find housing and food for refugees. Then the inevitable bitter violence broke out. Demonstrators were soon calling for an end to refugees and a retreat to a “Germany for the Germans” mentality. Merkel’s CDU party suffered severe electoral losses. Undoubtedly the influx of refugees caused some voters to turn to severe anti-immigrant policies.
But the verdict is still out on what Angela Merkel will do—whether she will stand for Chancellor again or not. She seems to be sticking to her guns and insisting that the decision to accept refugees is the only morally defensible policy. Many idealists and religious people would agree with her. The refugees are still fleeing unbearable conditions in many countries. Despite a backlash; despite the fears; it was a proud day for Angela Merkel when she decided that Germany would be a moral leader in that path. Let’s hope that by working with other countries, and international organizations, she will be able to make it work. The quiet woman from Germany has been a strong leader—a strong “Mutti” insisting that the world should honor its deepest ideals. Good luck to her!
Perhaps the week that the Republican candidates held their final debate of the year was not the best week to reread Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but quite by accident that is what I did for my reading group. Vonnegut’s book was beloved by young people during the 1960s when the
Vietnam War made pacifists of so many of us. In 1945, during World War II, Vonnegut, a young American soldier, was a prisoner of war in Dresden and was a witness to the destruction of the city by British and American bombers. The carpet bombing of Dresden killed about 25,000 people and destroyed one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. As Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim would say in the most famous phrase of the book “So it goes!”
Seventy years have passed since then, but the destruction of cities and the indiscriminate killing of people continues. As the Republican candidates made clear on Tuesday night, they believe the answer to the unease felt by many Americans now is to send bombers over to the Middle East to bomb and bomb and bomb until the unease passes—if it ever does. Ted Cruz even talked about “carpet bombing” although he didn’t make clear just which cities would be carpet bombed or how many thousands of people would be slaughtered before he and his supporters would feel safe.
The fear and hatred exhibited in the debate were in sharp contrast to the calm patience with which President Obama is going about the job of
defeating extremists and establishing peace in the Middle East. That, of course, is the real solution to most of the terrorist threats in this country. It takes a strong leader to ignore the chattering of politicians and to stay focused on the important work of government in preserving peace and freedom. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in this poem (more familiar to our grandparents than to most of us) being a leader calls for good sense, patience, and courage:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…
So during this holiday season let’s wish good cheer to President Obama for all of his patient, well-considered work on defeating terror and maintaining peace, and to Secretary of State John Kerry whose diplomacy will keep America strong and safe without shedding the blood of innocent civilians.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
How difficult it seems to be for Europeans and Americans to visit Africa without being unwanted outsiders. And how easy it is to see why that Africans would feel that way. During the nineteenth century, Europeans visited Africa as explorers and were astonished by what they saw. Mary Kingsley, an intrepid Englishwoman, was one of the first women who traveled extensively in Africa. She started out in the 1890s and wrote popular books about what she observed in a
continent that few Europeans had ever visited. Most of the people she had known in England assumed it was strange, uncivilized and riddled with irrational traditions and superstition. Kingsley recognized better than many explorers and missionaries that African culture, which seemed so strange to Europeans, had developed because it worked for the local people. She understood, for example, why many Africans clung to polygamy. She pointed out that polygamy made sense because “it is totally impossible for one woman to do the whole work of a house — look after the children, prepare and cook the food, prepare the rubber, carry the same to the markets, fetch the daily supply of water from the stream, cultivate the plantation, &c, &c.” (Travels in West Africa, 211).
Kingsley was sympathetic, but she always viewed Africans from the outside, more as a curiosity to be observed than as people to be known. We can excuse her for being so provincial in her point of view, but surely in the more than a century since her books were published, we have learned better. Unfortunately many modern travellers act very much as Kingsley did. A modern tourist descending from a cruise ship or a tour bus will often stare at African women pounding grain while carrying a baby tied to their body with a cloth sling. Most tourists snap picture after picture to post on their Facebook page. But watching tourists snap pictures of people working and going about their ordinary lives is a chilling experience. Should people ever be reduced to objects of curiosity? Haven’t we moved beyond that in the many years we have been traveling around the globe and intermingling with other cultures?
European colonists moved to Africa in large numbers during the 19th century, especially the more temperate areas of Southern Africa such as Rhodesia and South Africa. There grew acclimated to the climate and learned to love the continent. Surely the barriers between the races should have broken down over all that time. Yet recently reading a book written more than 100 years after Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, I was struck by how little some things had changed in relations between the races. Alexandra Fuller’s memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, is a fascinating account of growing up in a white family in Rhodesia as it achieved freedom and became Zimbabwe during the turbulent years of the late 20th century. I was surprised when I came upon this passage:
And this is how I am almost fourteen years old before I am formally invited into the home of a black African to share food. This is not the same as coming uninvited into Africans’ homes, which I have done many times. As a much younger child, I would often eat with my exasperated nannies at the compound (permanently hungry and always demanding), and I had sometimes gone into the labourers’ huts with my mother if she was attending someone too sick to come to the house for treatment. (pp. 235-236)
Surely after having spent almost all of her life among black Africans, it is surprising to realize the distance between this girl
and the people who lived around her. Naturally a child takes on the attitudes and habits of her parents and mirrors the ways in which they interact with others, but it is sad to see how vast the gulf between black and white Africans even those who have lived as neighbors for years and sometimes generations. Western colonists in all countries seem to have lived in their own small, narrow world side-by-side with, but never truly integrated into the lives around them. And the saddest part of all is that we are still doing it.
Western diplomats, tourists, aid workers and troops travel around the world living sometimes for years in the midst of societies they seldom understand or value. Life in a gated and fortified community can seem much like life in an American suburb, completely remote from the “locals” who we are trying to influence. Americans are famous for not bothering to learn the language of the countries in which they spend time, even long periods of time. Sarah Chayes in her recent book Thieves of State tells us how a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to listen to local citizens in Afghanistan has led to mistakes and problems that might have been avoided.
How long will it take for us to learn that a global world requires listening and interacting, not just traveling and imposing our ideas wherever we go?
It seems that America will celebrate Veteran’s Day this year by sending more troops to Iraq, thus continuing the endless cycle of war and regret. Every year we celebrate the service given by our veterans but we have never reached the point where we stop creating veterans who have to serve yet again. Back in the long-ago twentieth century, it seemed that every man was a veteran—fathers, uncles, cousins—there was a brotherhood of veterans (some women too, but very few in those faraway days). Each of them celebrated their own war, which at last was going to end all wars. But they never did.
Now there is a small band of men and women who are sent back again and again to fight the same war—two, three or even more tours of service on the bleak sands of Iraq. Only a small percentage of the population suffer the losses of war; only a few families welcome back veterans who are suffering in body and mind. Have we forgotten how terrible it is to live with the scars of war for years and decades?
The quotation “Scars on my heart” is from a poem written by Vera Brittain for her brother in 1916. Ironically the poem was written four days before her brother was killed in action on June 15, 1918, almost a century ago
Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,
Received when in that grand and tragic ‘show’
You played your part
Two years ago.
Women’s role in wars has often been to suffer as war widows or bereaved mothers. After the American Civil War, women lined up to receive the pensions their husbands had won for them by being killed in battle. After every war the scars are left not only on the bodies of the men who fought, but on the minds and hearts of the women who live with their suffering or with their deaths. And yet it seems we cannot stop.
Every year we create more veterans, not only Americans, but the people around the world who fight against us. Thousands of women in Iraq and Afghanistan have been widowed and bereaved by the loss of sons and brothers. Their scars will never heal.
War solves nothing, as Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote. And yet on Election Day we heedlessly vote for people who have told us they want to send more troops overseas. They want America to be strong, which often means being ready to fight at any time. Creating more veterans, more hatred, and more suffering will never build a better world. It’s about time we demanded that our leaders think more and fight less. They can make peace work if they stop listening to bullies and start paying attention to what most Americans really want for themselves and their families.