Friday, December 22, 2017

Remembering Uncle Norman

Uncle Norman and 16 year-old me, arguing on Xmas.
Many people have an Uncle Norman. He's the guy at the family gathering who shouts and sputters about right-wing politics. My Uncle Norman stuttered. He was alt-right half a century before the term was invented. He made family gatherings interesting, if verbal warfare is something you enjoy. He was my mother's brother. My father called him "Stormin' Norman."

He lived in Akron Ohio which was only about 30 miles away. Even so, we only got together once a year on December 25th.  My family was small and everyone was there. My father's mother Josie and Norman's parents, Ruth and Al. We celebrated in a secular, Jewish fashion which involves and lot of drinking, eating, yelling and animated talking.

Norman and I argued about politics: the Vietnam War, protests, feminism, the police and their powers, self-expression, women's fashion, you name it, we fought about it. At that time the big issue was the war in Vietnam which he considered a fight for freedom. He loved the police and would dwell on how powerless I would be as a young woman to defend myself against rape without them. In the Roy Cohn tradition, he loved capitalism and hated commies. I honed my debate skills in these sessions.

I wasn't totally out to myself as lesbian in those years, but I knew I was desperately different than my friends. When Norman would tell me that I would change after I got married, I responded that marriage wasn't in the cards for me. He said that I'd change my mind. When I replied that he never married and that I was like him, he turned red, stuttered and changed the subject. Same gender marriage was so far off the map in the sixties, no-one even speculated about that.

I have reason to believe that Norman never had an intimate sexual relationship. Of course, I don't know this for sure but I know that he never talked of female friends or acquaintances. He was socially unskilled. He worked as an engineer. I think he was part of a bowling league. When my father and mother first met, my father paid a prostitute to try to seduce him. She was unsuccessful. I'm almost positive he was gay and I'm also sure that it was something he never acted upon. Although he didn't believe in religion, he scorned gay people. It was not a group in which he desired to participate.

He was fully Jewish in a racial sense, and deeply ashamed of it as well. He was the only Jew I've ever heard state, seriously, that Hitler had a point. It astonished me the way he took self-hatred to new levels.

Stormin' Norman died September 22, 2017. I only know that because I got a legal, registered letter in the mail that I had to sign for. It said that if Norman had died without a will (intestate) my sister and I would be the ones to inherit his estate, but since that's not the case they legally had to let me know that we are not in his will in case we want to pursue legal action. The will becomes a public document in a few weeks. The lawyer says it will be online. It will be interesting to see if he died with money and what people or groups he left it to. It wouldn't surprise me if it has gone to organizations like the NRA or groups fighting to turn back same-sex marriage.

Oddly enough, now that he is no longer in this world, I miss him. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

When Cultures Collide

I ran into an ex best-friend today at N. Waterfront Park in Berkeley. It was an unavoidable meeting, both of us walking different directions on the same, rather obscure, path. I know it was unavoidable because, in the past ten years that we haven’t spoken, if I saw her from a distance, I would find another route to avoid her. This time she came upon me fast. Worse yet, my partner, who is still Facebook friends with her, said hello. So we all said hello and briefly compared notes on retirement and moved on. No big deal. But it was painful nonetheless because of the cloud under which we parted ways, the one that ended our friendship of thirty-three years.

We first met in a CR group at the Women’s Center on Brady Street in around 1976. I was an emotional wreck just surviving after the untimely death of my mother in 1973 and the suicide of my grandmother that followed the same year. I was alone caring for my sister in a strange city. Cathy wanted to be friends and I needed friends desperately. Although her class background was similar to mine (lower middle class) she was very different. Her ethnic background was WASP and very self-contained. Especially so because her mother had acute mental illness. She didn’t want to talk much about deep stuff and neither did I so we were a perfect match.

We talked feminist politics which evolved into leftist politics. I was careful with her as though I was walking on eggs. Instinctively knew that my unleashed, assertive, blatantly Jewish-style of interacting would scare her. So I kept it at bay. This took the form of censoring and toning down my feelings and impressions. I don’t have to be tacky and uncouth just because my family was, I told myself. Cathy was smart and loving when she decided to be but her rules were strict and inflexible. She would counsel me on dating situations telling me when to call a potential date, how many times to try, when to send a card and what consists of an appropriate gift. These rules of etiquette were helpful for me because they were so completely absent in my coming of age experience.

Time may not heal all wounds but it does diminish them. That’s what happened to me as the years passed. Partly it was because I was meeting other lesbians of my own ethnicity who I related really well with. They were proud of their backgrounds and didn’t hold themselves back. As I grew freer, more secure in myself, I began naturally reverting to the style of interaction in which I was raised. It’s more of an organically grown conversation where one thing reminds you of another so you move on to the similar thing and the other person responds with more information about their experience and it builds organically from there. It involves both speaking and listening. Just trying it out made me feel better immediately. For Cathy that was not the case. She felt unheard, not listened to. Cathy believed that every addition I made to the subject was a subtraction from her perspective. She insisted that heavy exploration of a personal subject must consist of one person holding forth while the other is absolutely silent. Of course I hoped that, after all those years, we could work it out, that she’d realize it was just a difference in cultural styles not in emotional worthiness.

Later, I would post articles on my Facebook page about Jewish conversational styles and how the dynamics of social interaction are culturally determined. But later was too late for Cathy and I. We made many attempts at compromise and a number of aborted attempts at connecting. It would work for a while and then I would slip back to my natural state. She blamed it all on me and I took on that mantle too. After all, wasn’t I the one who changed? The blunt truth was that she liked the person I’d pretended to be quite a bit more than the one I actually was. And I could not settle for anything less than my genuine self.

The last time we spoke was at her place, the very same house I had convinced her to buy with a lawsuit settlement so many years earlier. Before leaving I said, “Well, this is it. I guess that unless one of us is dying of cancer or something, we won’t see each other again.” She said nothing. We haven’t seen or spoken a word until today when I was filled with that same old feeling of loss and sadness; a coming to terms with the fact that not all conflicts are reconcilable.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Fascism: A Cancer That Can Metastasize

The far right wing, emboldened by our incompetent, narcissistic, morally impaired president, is now crawling out of the cyber-shadows and appearing on our streets. It’s an appalling, but not totally unexpected sight. Their handiwork of hate crimes has been increasingly visible everywhere for some time now. And yes, like a cancer, they have always been among us, in remission, so to speak. 

On the radio today, Marxist economist Richard Wolff explained how after every economic downturn, fascism with its bigotry, scapegoating and authoritarianism rears its ugly head. The examples he cited were after the stock market crash and depression Spain fell to Franco, Italy to Mussolini and Germany to Hitler. The United States was in peril as well. Ku Klux Klan activity, race riots and lynchings proliferated in the late 1920s when Klan membership exceeded four million. American Neo-nazi groups extolled by prominent people such as Norman Rockwell, Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh openly marched in the streets.

In 1933 when Roosevelt was elected, poverty was rampant and the rich were making money hand over fist. But in the thirties labor unions and communist and socialist organizations were a force to be reckoned with. His three terms, 1933-1945 encompassed the turbulent war years. He instituted a plethora of anti-poverty programs such as the New Deal, Social Security and Unemployment Insurance. He did this not because of altruism and concern, but under intense pressure from labor unions and leftist parties who were not only threatening revolution, but had the numbers, motivation and organizational capabilities to lead one. He taxed the rich to pay for his programs and, in the United States, the working and middle classes prospered in spite of the lingering effects of economic collapse.

Sound familiar? Except that now, no-one in the administration is looking out for the 99 percent. So as housing prices skyrocket and the stock market rises astronomically, the American worker’s salary flat lines. Everyone goes looking for someone to blame. Identity politics run wild without a class analysis in sight. And, the cancer of fascism embodied in the Neo-Nazis the Ku Klux Klan and other “Traditional Family” groups is unchecked and growing exponentially. Can it metastasize here? If we don’t excise it immediately, it can. That why when folks say we should ignore the combative right wing, they are mistaken. Ignoring cancer doesn’t make it go away. I was glad that so many people in Berkeley agreed with me on this and showed up to protest. Don’t let fear immobilize you. This is not Germany in 1933. We can win this fight. We have to. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Ethnicity that Dare Not Speak Its Name

The speed with which anti-Semitic attacks memes, tropes and philosophies have become common place occurrences is truly astonishing. As a proud, secular, leftist, lesbian Jew, I have been around long enough to know and expect anti-Semitism from the right. Growing up in Ohio of the nineteen fifties, outside of my community, I heard the word “Jew” most often used as a verb. But even though, I was perpetually warned by my family that, one day, this prejudice would resurface with a vengeance. I never truly believed it, until now.

The Chicago Dyke March organizers, after turning away three marchers holding rainbow flags with six-pointed stars on them, have repeatedly stated that now that “Anti-Zionist” Jews are welcome at their events while “Zionist” Jews are not. July 13, 2017 the Chicago Dyke March Committee re-tweeted David Duke, former grand earthworm of the KKK. They stated, "Zio tears replenish my electrolytes." I can't believe that the dyke community, my community could stoop to this level of name calling using Neo-Nazi slurs! On July 9th in Berkeley at a meeting:“United Against Hate – A forum on how to combat the increase in racist violence,” I and about 250 others listened as speakers addressed various issues as well as the need to fight the rise in white supremacist violence. Most speakers were inclusive, trying to build a diverse, left-wing coalition. One speaker was confusing however, using the words, Zionist and White Supremacist together and somewhat interchangeably, without really defining either.

In other instances regarding racial, ethnic, religious and national groups, individuals are separated from their current, former or ancestral governments in a way which American Jews are not. It would be considered prejudiced and misinformed to blame Chinese-Americans for imperialism in Tibet or Turkish-Americans for Erdogan’s encroaching authoritarianism. What makes it okay to conflate Jewish Americans with Israel? Why should Jews have to face extra political scrutiny that NO OTHER group faces?

Jews are in a uniquely vulnerable position, targeted by foes on both the right and left. Like individuals of any group, there is no universal agreement on politics or strategy. What does it mean, concretely, to divide Jews into good ones and bad ones in a time of increasing anti-Semitism? Say, for example, if a Jewish home is targeted with some form of anti-Semitic harassment or violence, must we must first ask whether anyone in the home is “Zionist” before defending them?

Stereotypically Jews are seen as enemies from both sides. Depicted as the ultimate capitalists, bankers, Hollywood moguls, intellectual elites and privileged rich. And conversely Jews are seen as the embodiment of Bolsheviks, race-mixers, trade unionists and the muck-rakers? In a scary time, full of hatred, Jews walk a line between mine fields. 

The best way to undermine “Zionist” cries for a Jewish state, is to fight like hell to make the USA a safe haven for Jews as well as other minorities. Just as we are trying to defeat all the other isms that are coming to prominence in the time of upheaval. As we battle racism in all its insidious forms, can’t we as leftists just say we are opposed to antisemitism too without qualifying it? If some Jews get thrown under the bus, that bus is going to mow down a lot of other folks too. History has taught us that what Ben Franklin said is true: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Beyond the Battles of Berkeley

In the midst of melee, meaning gets lost...
Brawling with the so-called "alt-right" has become fashionable in Berkeley. My city has become a magnet destination for white nationalist Trumpers itching to fight and anti-fascist demonstrators rising to the bait to take them on. We all wind up with a testosterone-infused mess that has nothing to do with actual issues. The powers that be even cancelled the Saturday farmers market to indulge this rumble. With Ann Coulter supposed to arrive for her cancelled speech this week, this pattern shows no sign of letting up any time soon.

Yes, the "alt-right," white nationalists are disgusting. As a woman, a queer and a Jew I haven't the slightest doubt as to which side I'm on. I have every intention of showing up for meaningful protest, just not a remake of the Sharks meet the Jets, (remember West Side Story?).

As a young dyke I was involved in groups such as Lesbian Schoolworkers, (who fought against the Brigg's initiative) and Lesbians Against Police Violence among others. We studied racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other isms. We also talked about socio-economic class and read Lenin and Marx, learned about dialectical materialism, which I never got quite right. Our anti-capitalist veiwpoint was based in a class analysis alongside identity discrimination. Perhaps if the leftist groups today had taken socio-economic class seriously in the first place, we wouldn't be stuck with this regime we have now.

The perspective of class has been lost completely, except perhaps in the dogmatic, highly regulated, left. In single issue groups, oppression is attributed to one factor whether it is race, gender presentation, ethnicity or immigration status. Perhaps, if we had organizations united around the genuine and multiple sins of capitalism. We could reach a place of unity.  Instead, groups focusing on separate issues are formed and led by the most bourgeois, entitled members of each identity.

The separation of urban and rural people is one of the main reasons for our situation today. Rural folks would have to accept the fact that we live in a heterogeneous, pluralistic society. The straight, white, Christian male is no longer the prototype American and hasn't been for quite a while. The nineteen fifties hold no magic for anyone outside of this limited narrative. And, as for our side, the side of history, punching a Nazi may be good for morale in the moment but it does not a movement make. Fighting is just another toxic ideology. It will take a purposeful, reasoned movement with a multi-issue program to initiate real change.

Lets create a more comprehensive analysis of what has gone wrong in our country, so we can figure out how to change it. We can start by integrating class analysis with identity politics and promote an understanding of a wide array peoples' situations in the under class that includes, but it not limited to, our understanding of all the isms that are dividing people today and placing Berkeley in the cross-hairs of civil war.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Jewish Anti-Semitism?

So the kid who made the bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers is himself Jewish. That is a surprise but not a completely unprecedented one. American history is full of anecdotes about Jews who started Neo-Nazi groups. One of the most famous is the saga of Dan Burros who was a prominent member of the American Nazi Party. He committed suicide in 1965 after someone discovered and leaked the truth about his heritage.

Here is an article from Southern Poverty Law Center, "Exploring What is Behind the Rare Phenomenon of Jewish Anti-Semites." that tackles this occurrence. Ralphael Ezekial author of "The racist mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen puts it this way: "If you live next door to a cement factory, then inevitably cement dust gets into your body," says Ezekiel, who in recent years has worked as a senior research scientist and visiting scholar at the Harvard School of Public Health. "And the same goes for anti-Semitism and other prejudices. Everyone who grows up in a culture gets impacted by those beliefs that are deeply held, including the members of endangered groups."

This seems like a no-brainer. We all were raised on this planet. The myriad of prejudices and assumptions we learn growing up become part of our zeitgeist, our milieu, our environment. And just because you happen to possess one of the derogatorily-framed identities, does not imply that you are free of prejudicial notions concerning your own people. It does mean that you must do the work to unlearn what you have been taught, in much the same way you do for other groups. 

A story that became family lore in my Ohio, Jewish household during the fifties went as follows. My father was crossing a street in Cleveland when the driver of the waiting car yelled, "Move it, you dirty Jew," or something to that effect. My father who was a track star and an ice hockey player with anger management issues proceeded to pull the man out of his car and pound the shit out of him. The guy, screaming and putting his hand over his face yelled, "Stop, stop, I'm Jewish too!" Which, actually turned out to be true.

What advice did I take away from this poignant, unusual tale? I guess mostly that life is complicated and things are not always what they seem!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Old Lesbian in a New Age.

Old Woman in Marble
I consider myself old. Not elderly, aged or older. Old. No euphemisms. In my retirement support group, the women, who are 55 years old and up, do not like to hear me say that word about myself. To them, a sixty-five year old is just a junior senior. Maybe it's because my mother died at 48 and my grandmother at around 67 (she wasn't sure of her birth year) so I didn't see many female family members grow really old.

What does it mean to be old? In this culture, it's pretty grim. I notice that I have become invisible to many folks. My lesbian identity, even relative butchness has been lost to generic old lady-ness which I don't want any part of. I've become a piece that no longer fits, even in the world of outcasts. I can't be a grandmother because I was never a mother. When younger people compare some trait of mine to an incidental fact about their mom or grandma, I know the what is happening. The word is prejudice. It means the categorical stereotyping of a singular, unique individual.

Having said that, generational differences do exist because of the circumstances and climate in which we were raised. I think of this as "frame of reference." The loss of commonality between folks of different eras is massive, just like it was between the baby boom generation and those who came of age during World War II. The issues and crises we experience shape who we are and the way we perceive the world. Before the internet, before answering machines, there were only three channels on television. We had phone trees to get in touch with others for political activism and you just keep calling I reached someone. Communication was a challenge.

So, it should be better now that it's easier, right? That sounds logical but something personal has fallen between the cracks. Staring at screens and talking to robots all day is quite alienating. Younger people have nothing with which to compare it. As far as what to watch or listen to or do there are so many choices that there is little common culture. A time of shared media is hard to fathom today. We were familiar with the same actors, singers, comedians, even the ones we hated. And yes, many folks were not represented at all. Queer, straight, black, female we all made due with one size fits all and it fit none of the folks I felt connected with.

Now, there is so much choice and variety as to what we read, watch, incorporate into our lives. Of course it's better but, for old codgers, it's overwhelming. I don't watch Saturday Night Live anymore, partially because I don't want to stay up that late, but also because I don't know most of the references to "famous" people. There are a couple generations of actors and singers I've never heard of. And frankly, since my Random Access Memory is pretty full and can't be upgraded, I don't really care.

When I was young, I thought the main issues with aging involved had to do with wrinkles and flab. I didn't seriously consider health the main area where loss happens. That view seems so short-sighted. Personally, four people I've known through various stages of my life have died in the last six months. Now with the internet and Facebook the upside is that I have contact with more people. The downside is that I now experience more sickness and death.

I feel very conscious of impermanence now. I am literally on deadline. Suddenly, I am confronted with a massive amount of work that still needs doing. At least, as a worse case scenario, I can rest assured I will not die young. I look forward to working with folks of all ages and hope that they are ready and willing to see beyond stereotypes and platitudes to work with me. So let's get going. Take my word for it, life is a lot shorter than you think.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Trolling From the Left

Intimidation and name calling online on social media sites and platforms has become commonplace. In virtual as opposed to actual, contact you don't need to know anything about them in order to insult them. The fact is, the less you know about your adversary, the better.

Unfortunately, it is not only the extreme right that is willing to perceive huge swaths of the population as the enemy.  It seems like the us and them mentality fuels many folks on all sides of the proverbial aisle. This kind of thinking will divide our movement before it even has a chance to get off the ground.

I recently joined a group that has a presence both online and in the real world. Their stated goal is to fight fascism. Because I am not on Twitter, I have always felt immune to any form of trolling. My Facebook friends are great and while we sometimes have intense political discussions, we talk about opinions and don't stoop to personal attacks and name callinig. Because of that basic philosophy, I made the faulty assumption that this online group would adhere to the same guidelines, even though their number of members far exceeded my number of Facebook friends. And the more folks in a group, the higher the likelihood of trollers.

The first thing I posted was well-received, at first, anyway. It had a great historical photo of lesbians and was titled, "Lesbian spaces are still needed, no matter what the queer movement says," by Susan Cox. I linked to it so you can decide for yourself if t's offensive. It certainly was not my intention to offend. Au contraire, ma chere, I thought it was an valuable post for an ostensibly queer group.

I didn't overthink it or realize that the very idea of lesbian space is a controversial one. The first responses were positive. Then someone decided that the article was biased against transgender women and things devolved from there. Read the article yourself and decide if you think it's negative. I didn't see it. I re-read it. I still didn't see it. People began taking sides. Dissension was turning to anger. Young people referred to lesbian places, for example the Lex, that I'd never even heard of. I said I was just comparing it to the seventies and places that existed when I came out. It was now clear that I'm old. Condescension increased but I was still not completely discouraged.

But when people started calling me and others fascists and throwing about the term TERF, I withdrew from the discussion. I'd heard of surf n turf at restaurants, but I didn't even know what a TERF was. I assumed it had something to do with my age. But it didn't. It stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist and is commonly used to attack lesbians who consider themselves a distinct group separated from the queer alphabet melange. Articles are proliferating because famous disappearing L from the title of  Bonnie Morris' new book about lesbian erasure. 

Whatever your individual opinions are on this, or other issues, trolling attacks are never appropriate. They are designed to silence individuals and groups who are perceived to embody the other side of the us vs them paradigm. This kind of attack is the same pile of crap whether perpetrated by the right or left. Trolling is not a political discussion. It is just hateful name-calling. The organized right wing will surely defeat us if we are abusing each other before Trump's presidency has begun. It's a self-defeating tactic that is destructive to our entire movement.