Wednesday, May 30, 2012

by Edith Chevat
(Sedna, May 2012)

This is a novel, I have to be reminded, and a good one. There is such a feeling of authenticity, of honesty, in Esther’s telling of her life’s story. Absent highlights of extraordinary adventure or achievement, the experiences she recounts are fascinating, and so is Esther.

For thirty years, Esther has been under FBI surveillance. The book is punctuated throughout with copies of highly redacted FBI reports garnered through the Freedom of Information Act. It all began when she went to the historic Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill in 1949, made infamous by vigilante mobs that violently attacked and injured hundreds as they were leaving the concert. Throughout the decades of FBI interest in her, suspicion is focused on one main observation: Esther, who is white, “lives in a mixed neighborhood. She has several Negro friends who come to the house. Subject seems unusually friendly to Negroes.”

Esther has a social conscience that is inescapable in everything she does or doesn't do. It permeates her view of friends, how she tries to bring up her children, her marriage and eventual divorce. It's present in the way she sees herself as a secular Jew. It's as much a part of the "personal" as of the causes that move her, primarily the civil rights and peace movements. Yet it doesn't keep her from being honest with herself and with others, seeing her own ambivalence and confusion on many problems. This is noteworthy in her attitudes and relationships involving race, where honesty and self-understanding are not common.  

A strong conscience is not completely a blessing. We see that in the way she sometimes pushes her priorities on her reluctant children, and in judgmental attitudes toward the foibles of friends. Still Esther is remarkable in her adaptability to changing circumstances, unexpected change in her children and family as well as in the whole wide world. There is little if any bitterness, a lot of insight, and the courage to keep growing.

Chevat's writing is best in the latter half of the book. Highlighted at the end of most chapters are capsule stories in italics of heroic women, often not well known, who capture Esther's imagination. The selections are inspired and are integral to a full appreciation of the book.

Esther's attraction to Jewish roots and experience, especially heightened by the horrors of the holocaust and the heroism of the Warsaw ghetto, is an evolving part of her story. For the deep love of a son, Esther adjusts to his conversion to an ultra-orthodox Jewish religious sect, but she has a visceral aversion to the ritual separation and humiliation of women.   

The first part of the book may seem somewhat strange to many readers. They may wonder, "What was that all about?" when Esther and her husband hosted a "safe house" in the early 1950s, the time of McCarthyism. With literally millions of Americans deemed subversive, liberals and leftists alike, some feared that fascism and war were imminent. In such times, there are individuals and families who seek refuge, and dissident groups who seek to preserve their organizations by hiding those who may be targeted for arrest. People going in and out of "safe houses" were trying to carry on the same activities for civil rights and world peace that they were engaged in before they felt forced temporarily to go "underground."

As an organizer for the Labor Youth League, I personally experienced something similar at that time, including months of difficult separation from wife and children. But Esther's experience was different and worse than mine. She chafed, with very good reason, at being used essentially as a housekeeper, excluded from consultation and consideration. Bringing up very young children in such circumstances was painfully complicated, afraid that they might say or do something to attract unwanted attention to the "safe house."

Esther's Book is a good read, an intriguing novel. Beyond that, it tells a story that is more than a memory of times gone by. Today, in an age where surveillance has outstripped the imagination of Orwell's 1984, it's worth gaining perspective. Amazing as it may seem, preoccupation with race and color has always been cardinal for the "security" establishment —  from the Dixiecrats and Joe McCarthy, to the FBI spying on Martin Luther King and civil rights activists, to the timeless and current stop-and-search police practices against Black and Brown.

I must confess a warm feeling of kinship with Esther. Her first FBI entry was Peekskill. The first entry on my FBI file was a sentence from a letter sent to me while I was in the Army in 1943, in which a friend bemoans the fact that the Armed Forces are still segregated.

Borrowing a page (173) from Esther's Book:  "How many people were there in the world who shared the same history? No matter how far apart they were, they'd always be tied.... because of their past, their old dreams, who they were."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Basic Human Rights — Are They Sustainable?

The powers that be, masters of high finance and the politicians beholden to them, have had no effective response to the devastating economic crisis. But they do have an ideological response, in fact an all-around offensive using the very crisis they created to promote hostility to any idea of social responsibility for the general welfare. They reject established government programs to meet human needs as "unsustainable".

This is the "Shock Doctrine" at work, the phenomenon described in Naomi Klein's so-named book, where the turmoil of natural or human-made catastrophes is exploited as an opportunity to advance the interests of a selfish elite.

There is a glossary of terms that go with the ideology of  "unsustainability". “Entitlement”, given a derogatory connotation, is the label pinned on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Universal health care is “socialism”, the hallmark of a “welfare state”.  These are times that require “austerity”; we have to “live within our means”. Nothing is exempt from the chopping block — not education, not public assistance to the disabled, aged, jobless or homeless.  We simply can’t afford it. It’s unsustainable.

This ideology moves beyond Wall Street and the GOP, swallowed in part by advocates of the elusive “rational center”.  “Centrist” pundits bemoan the lack of political courage to achieve a “bipartisan grand bargain” and “structural reform” that would drastically curb “entitlements”. 

The question society cannot evade is: what is sustainable and what is not? The champions of austerity obviously find grotesque income inequality sustainable; so, too, record corporate profits in the midst of economic crisis; also, enormous military expenditures and human sacrifice in war. 

What they deem unsustainable are basic human rights, defined most clearly in FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” address at the end of World War II. These rights, only partially implemented through persistent struggle, include: the right of every person to a decent livelihood, health care, and education, as well as “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment” (FDR). 

There is no justification for the USA, the wealthiest country in the world, to lag behind in access to health care, to fall precipitously in educational opportunity, to accept governmental paralysis in the face of devastating unemployment, homelessness and poverty. No justification — but there is a fundamental explanation. As the Occupy movement has forced to public attention, most of the country’s wealth is sucked up at the very top, at the disposal of financial and corporate oligarchies whose nature is to strive for profits and power regardless of the public interest and the country’s welfare. That wealth buys lobbyists and super-pacs; it dominates and corrupts the political process.

While super wealth rests a heavy hand on both major parties, the GOP has finally become exactly what the most reactionary multi-billionaires like the Koch brothers have ordered and paid for. Having bank-rolled the Tea Party uprising, they now have a party completely beholden to Wall Street, the National Rifle Association, the war hawks and all the social bigots united in uncontrollable racist hatred for Barak Obama — no room anymore for Dick Lugar or Olympia Snowe; no room for compromise in Congress or the Supreme Court. To win the election, they will present Mitt Romney as a traditional conservative like George H. W. Bush, and hope that people will forget the tragi-comic primary debates. But Romney as president would be as “independent” of the Koch brothers and their GOP as Boehner is of the T Party’s bloc in the House.

Whatever the difficulties now or to come, austerity for the many and obscene wealth for the few is the road to hell. FDR could have been imagining today when he said in his “Bill of Rights” speech: “Indeed, if such reaction should develop—if history were to repeat itself and we were to return to the socalled 'normalcy' of the 1920's—then it is certain that even though we shall have conquered our enemies on the battlefields abroad, we shall have yielded to the spirit of Fascism here at home.”

Preserving hard-won commitments to basic economic human rights depends on whether millions of Americans fight through the thickest of ideological-propaganda fogs. Human rights, civil and economic, are sustainable if, as a society, we get our priorities right.