Monday, July 14, 2008

Reading News, Reading History: A Healthy Distrust

One of the most delightful discoveries of my youth was the fact that my parents and grandparents had seen some of the history that was being taught in school. I asked my mother about the depression and my grandparents about Hitler. Most valuable is the sense of how the decisions of the talking heads impact the lives of common people. Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem that best expresses my focus on the nameless individuals carried in the tides of history.


Who built Thebes of the 7 gates ?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock ?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times ?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live ?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them ?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph ?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants ?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors ?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill ?

So many reports.

So many questions.

Every taxi ride, every conversation with a stranger is an opportunity to step out of my world. There are times to challenge and debate. And there are times to be silent Like sifting through mud for gold nuggets, I have learned to look for irreplaceable bits of knowledge from people I meet in passing. In a real sense books are my friends and people are my libraries.

Following are some moments with live people that round out what I have read in books.

A doctor from Rwanda told me about his perspective on the genocide of 1994. He was a Tutsi, a member minority that lost close to a million souls at the hands of the Hutu majority. He lost a lot of his family that was not able to flee. He told me how he saw the collaboration of the Hutu Christian clergy in the genocide.

"Tutsis believed in one G-d before the missionaries came" he told me. "Egyptians came and gave us a two letter name of G-d." The Hutus believe in witchcraft. I can't believe in Christianity after what I saw. I'm trying to return to the beliefs that my ancestors had before the missionaries came."

A Georgian Jew shocked me by speaking fondly of Stalin. Apparently, Stalin made an exception in his virulent Jew hatred for Jews from his native Georgia. I later read that this was not unusual.

My uncle was born in Croatia. He went to a school where the principal was Serbian. If he heard a boy speaking in Croatian instead of the official Serbian favoured by the school, he would force the offending boy's mouth open and spit in it.

My grandfather was paid daily during the hyperinflation that racked Germany in the early 1920's. He and my grandmother would rush to spend his check before the stores closed. The German Mark was losing value by the hour, and the next day the money would be worth a fraction of what it was worth the previous day.

My uncle had a job in a mine when he was twelve that included retrieving body parts from the scene of underground mine explosions.

My grandfather worked in a mill. The factory assigned a poll watcher to make sure that the workers voted Republican. One of his nephews started a Democratic political club to fight the Republican monopoly in the town. Even though I generally vote Republican, I understand why my mother's family looks askance at that.

Martin Luther King was a registered Republican. Aside from gratitude to "The Party of Lincoln", Republican judges were instrumental in dismantling Jim Crow.

My grandfather bribed a friend in the Hungarian foreign ministry to get a passport with which to escape from Germany. He considered the bribery to be an ethical lapse.

I am getting old enough that some of my memories are actually entertaining to my children.

Remember when we needed five minutes to warm up the television before the show started? What about rotary dial phones?

Does anyone remember the scene in "All in the Family" that shocked the nation? The soundtrack actually included the sound of a flushing toilet.(!) I still wince when I hear young people say that a song "sucks". In my day we would have been sent home from school for using that word.

I remember like it was yesterday the sadness in our house when the Supreme Court banned prayer in the public schools. I was already in a Catholic school, but my sister's teacher in public school made a sad announcement to the class that there would be no prayer at the beginning of the day. I vaguely remember looking at a copy of LIFE magazine with an article featuring Madalyn Murray, whose image was defaced beyond recognition by the time we got through it. My favourite place to jump off into the blogosphere is J Blog Central .

It is an eclectic mix from the entire spectrum of Jewish religious and political opinion. Aside from original articles, the bloggers who do reprints and links from elsewhere really broaden my horizons. Doc's Talk, Monkey In The Middle , Eye On The World, Tundra Tabloids and Fresno Zionism are among the places I first heard from on J Blog Central. Looking through their articles is like sitting with my father and looking through his well chosen reading material.

I like to keep my eyes open even to those factual fragments that seem to contradict my world view. My brother used to keep a bucket full of model car parts, which he would assemble into some of the most insane looking custom cars imaginable. That is what I like to do with my politics.

On a much lighter note, I am presenting below one of my favourite videos from the Prelinger Archives. It is from the year 1927, and it instructs the public in the use of the rotary dial phone. It is a vivid reminder of the technical progress of modern civilisation. It also has some classic animation. I hope you all enjoy it.

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