Weekly Update, Number 5

I have now worked for forty days straight. According to NaNoWriMo, I average close to 3 hours a day. Mostly, it is exhausting and anxiety provoking. I feel like a hamster on a wheel. Wake up – work. Next day – wake up, work. Endless. The good news is that I finished editing another chapter. Four down, six to go.

I have plans to fly to Florida next week. Because of the pending governmental shutdown, everything is up in the air (no pun intended). I don’t enjoy flying in the best of circumstances. Thinking about doing it when there will either be pissed off traffic controllers who aren’t getting paid or less of them is terrifying. I hate the Republicans.

July 4th 2023

I know I wrote in my last post that I was taking a break and that I would resume regular posting on July 21. Life and shit happens so here I am. In honor of July 4, I am posting something from 2008 when I, the country, and the world were so hopeful because Barack Obama had been elected.

Today it is hard to recapture that feeling since the Republicans and the Supreme Court are determined to return our country to a mythical past where Barack Obama could never had become President, women have no rights and the only people who count are white Christian men.

Another reason I decided to post today is I read about Childe Hassam in an email about art I received. Some of Hassam’s most famous pictures are of flags and this post has one. The promise of America is always present. We need to fight to retain and expand it. Happy July 4th.

November 23, 2008

Patriotism

This is a copy of a letter I wrote to the Amherst Bulletin. I loved the way the flags looked that day and it reminded me of a Childe Hassam painting. Hassam was one of my mothers’ favorite painters. I think it is very unfortunate that patriotism has become the province of the right. People of all political persuasions can be patriotic.

Nov. 10, 2008

Childe Hassam, Allies Day, May 17

To The Editor,

I know that the flying of the American flag in downtown Amherst has been a controversial subject; I confess that I have not paid that much attention to the issue. Today, Monday November 10th, I drove into town and was struck by the beauty of all the flags flying to commemorate Veterans Day on November 11th. The sight filled me with pride and love for my country which has just achieved the amazing feat of electing Barack Hussein Obama president. Our country is an ongoing endeavor but on November 4 we progressed further than I would ever have thought possible. Let us hope, pray, and work for such progress to continue throughout the – hopefully – eight years of the Obama administration.

Sincerely,

Amy Mittelman

 

 

14th Amendment

Yesterday Congress passed a debt limit increase good for two years,  averting debt defaul.  During the endless discussion of the potential economic cliff we could fall off, many commentators brought up the 14th Amendment as a potential solution to Republican intransigence.

The discussion focused on the first sentence of the fourth section of the Amendment. “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties for service in suppressing insurrection or rebellion shall not be questioned.” People take that line to mean that paying our debts is part of the Constitution, cannot be questioned or debated and therefore, the debt limit is irrelevant.

No one discussed the part that talks about insurrection or rebellion. The rest of the section goes on to say, “But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.”

This context for the debt provision of the 14th Amendment has not been discussed in the debate over the debt limit. To finance the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the federal government incurred a tremendous amount of debt. During the war they attempted to finance it by raising taxes on a myriad of items including liquor and tobacco. They also instituted an income tax. Most of these temporary taxes were rescinded following the War but liquor and tobacco excise taxes remained.

Adding to the debt for fighting and winning the war were the pensions due to the soldiers who had helped secure the Union victory. The 14th Amendment wanted to make clear that the Federal government was not going to pay pensions for any Confederate rebels. Congress was also determined not to pay any of the debt the Confederate States of America had incurred. The part of the amendment which stresses that the debt must be paid and not questioned is in there because Northern Republicans were afraid that Southerners, once readmitted, would balk at paying for their defeat.

Northerners wanted to make sure the former Confederates were once again committed to the federal government and its ongoing existence. This is relevant to the current debate over the debt limit because the ultra conservate Republicans don’t want to protect the federal government; they want to destroy it. Many of them participated in the January 6th insurrection. Although President Biden took the 14th Amendment off the table for the current crisis, it should be made clear to the Republican insurrectionists that they cannot question the functioning of the Federal government and continue to be part of it.

 

Fear

I read an  guest essay – what used to be known as an op-ed – in the New York Times about gun safety education. The author, Harel Shapira, makes the point that the class teaches people to be vulnerable, instructing them in how to shoot someone they fear.

Over twenty years ago, Michael Moore in his documentary, Bowling for Columbine, made a similar point about how advertisers and other societal forces work to make the American people afraid. Fear can operate on many distinct levels. One can be afraid to undertake a particular task. I fear one foot skating, especially skating on my left foot and raising my right.

Fear can also work on a societal level to separate groups because one fears the other. Many white people have an innate fear or at least a deep suspicion of people of color. This has led to many unfortunate events including most recently when an elderly man shot a black teenager who was lost and knocked on the elderly white man’s front door.

Once you add guns to America’s toxic fear, based on white supremacy, you have a lot of trouble which leads to a lot of sorrow and death. Harel Shapira sums up his essay, saying:

 “The N.R.A. says that “an armed society is a polite society.” But learning to carry a gun isn’t teaching Americans to have good manners. It’s training them to be suspicious and atomized, learning to protect themselves, no matter how great the risk to others. It’s training them to not be citizens.”

Hopefully, the current slew of mass shootings has convinced enough of the American population that guns are a public health emergency, and we need something to change. People who support sensible gun reform need to vote from that position and turn out of office pro-gun politicians.

Harm Reduction

During President Biden’s State of the Union this past February, he endorsed harm reduction as one strategy to reduce the epidemic of drug overdoses. What harm reduction means on the ground can vary from state to state, city to city. The goal of harm reduction is to provide drug users with tools, enabling them to use drugs safely. Harm reduction doesn’t seek, in the short run, to end drug use. Rather these programs work to reduce deaths due to overdoses.

Harm reduction which can include needle exchange, fentanyl strip testing, and the use of the overdose reversal drug, naloxone[1], can be controversial. Critics often see these programs as encouraging drug use. Many conservatives feel abstinence, just saying no, is a better approach. In general, the country’s drug control policy for many years has focused on military style interdiction and punitive measures for drug addicts.

A critical component of any harm reduction program is needle exchange. The CDC states that new users of needle exchange services are “five times as likely to enter drug treatment as those who don’t use the programs.”[2] Needle exchange also reduces infections including HIV and hepatitis.

Despite the science behind harm reduction programs, the country remains ambivalent about it. Many states prevent the use of fentanyl test strips, another critical part of most programs. The laws consider the strips to be drug paraphernalia. According to the New York Times, “While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages the use of syringe exchange programs, … federal funds typically cannot be used to purchase syringes for drug use.”[3]

Because of this ambivalence, most harm reduction programs run on a shoestring budget and face legal peril every day. There needs to be concerted advocacy for harm reduction funding and a push to make needle exchange fully legal. These actions would save lives.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/stopoverdose/naloxone/index.html#:~:text=Naloxone%20quickly%20reverses%20an%20overdose,opioids%20like%20fentanyl%20are%20involved.

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/ssp/syringe-services-programs-faq.html#:~:text=Some%20states%20have%20passed%20laws,the%20state%20and%20local%20levels.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/10/us/politics/harm-reduction-overdoses-iowa.html

 

Lucy Stone

I recently read a book,  Leaving Coy’s Hill: A Novel by Katherine Sherbrooke which is a fictionalized  account of Lucy Stone’s life. Lucy Stone was an abolitionist and suffragette who also promoted marriage equality. She was the first woman in Massachusetts to obtain a college degree. She attended Oberlin, graduating in 1847.

She eventually married but kept her birth or “maiden name”. Today about twenty-five percent of women keep their own names. Since the 1970s, women, whether married or no,t have the option of calling themselves Ms. This was not available to Lucy Stone.

I liked the book, but I had some issues with it. I think there are inherent problems with writing fiction about a real person. If the author fictionalizes or imagines thoughts and feelings of the subject, the reader wonders how they could know.

Since Lucy Stone was an amazing person that many people know nothing about, my concern is that the novel’s version of her life may be the only information the reader receives. They may think it is all true when it is not.

Following the Civil War, the suffragist movement split, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony advocating for the vote for everyone; leading them to oppose the 15th amendment which gave black men the vote. Lucy Stone took the opposite position supporting giving the franchise to black men; thus delaying the same opportunity for all women.

Leaving Coy’s Hill presents this controversy and division from Lucy’s point of view. With historical hindsight, we can see that there wasn’t a good choice. Given Sherbrooke’s approach, Susan B. Anthony becomes the villain of the story which may surprise people.

Reading Leaving Coy’s Hill made me think about winners and losers in history and who becomes the face of a political or social movement for subsequent generations. Stanton and Anthony won the suffragism history war while Lucy Stone lost. The women I write about in Dames, Dishes, and Degrees are the losers in a historical narrative that places second wave feminism front and center.

 

Happy International Women’s Day

I know today is not my regular day to post but I did want to observe International Women’s Day. I would encourage everyone, as part of their celebration of the day, to begin reading Invisible Women, the book I posted about last week.

Another good thing to consider on this day is our own responsibility in dismantling white supremacy and patriarchy. Towards that end, I am linking to today’s post from the Anti-racism Daily which I started reading after George Floyd’s murder. I highly recommend the newsletter.

For a variety of reasons, I will not post again until March  31st. I hope everyone has a great rest of March. Once again Happy International Women’s Day.

The Impending Crisis

Today’s post  was going to be about my plans for 2023, however, the ongoing debacle that is the Speaker of the House election caused me to go in a different direction.

As many of you know, I have a PhD in American history from Columbia University. The first step in that process was obtaining a master’s degree. To achieve that I had to take courses and write a master’s essay. My master’s essay was entitled “A Perceptual study of the Ante-bellum Yeomanry 1820 to 1860.”

I looked at non slaveholding whites in the southern states, analyzing travel narratives and political documents. One of the books I explored was The Impending  Crisis by Hinton R. Helper, published in 1857. The book played a significant role in one of the country’s earlier protracted Speaker contests.

Here is an excerpt from my 1978 master’s essay:

On December 5, 1859, the first session of the thirty-sixth Congress convened in Washington. Three days earlier John Brown had been executed and the atmosphere was extremely tense. A major problem facing the Congress was the lack of a party majority in the House of Representatives. There were 101 Democrats, 109 Republicans and twenty-seven Know Nothings – all but four from the South. There were also a few independents. Many congressmen were armed, and John Branch of North Carolina challenged Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania to a duel.

The tension and potential for violence focused around the selection of a speaker of the house. This position had particular significance since many politicians believe the 1860 presidential election would be decided by the House of Representatives. The speaker, who had wide appointive powers, would obviously play a vital role in such an event. At the end of the first ballot, John Sherman, Republican from Ohio, and Thomas S. Borock, Democrat of Virginia, emerged as the two major candidates. John B Clark of Missouri then introduced a resolution declaring:

“… the doctrines and sentiments of a certain book called “The Impending Crisis of the South – How to Meet It”, purporting to have been written by one Hinton R. Helper, are insurrectionary and hostile to the domestic peace and tranquility of the country, and that no member of this House who has endorsed and recommended it, or the compendium from it is fit to be speaker of this House.”

This resolution served as the basis of a two month debate of the sectional controversy which had confronted the nation for many years.[1]

Because John’s Sherman was an endorser of the compendium, Clark’s resolution was directed against him. Republican responses ranged from complete denouncement of The Impending Crisis to a denial of knowledge of the “true” nature of the book. Since the compendium had been modified, others admitted signing without having ever read the work.

Sherman’s explanation of his position contained several of these arguments, but none were particularly successful in breaking the deadlock. On February 1, 1860, two months into the term, Sherman reluctantly withdrew his candidacy. After forty-four ballots, William Pennington of New Jersey, a member of the People’s Party, was elected.[2]

The speakership contest greatly increased The Impending Crisis’s popularity, but the conflict is important historically for its prefiguring of the succession crisis of 1860-1861. Both the rhetoric and actions of the Southern Democratic congressman tell us much about their fears, concerns, and ideological justifications which are crystallized significantly since 1850 and would ultimately propel the nation towards civil war. …

The level of violence in the Congress rose dramatically and the tenseness of the atmosphere was increased by the fact that some southerners “favored disruption over the issue of John Sherman’s election to the speakership, as the spark which would set off the explosion they desired.” Most southerners did not consider secession as a viable option at this time, but the conflict increased the probability of disunion if a Republican became president.[3]

Hinton Rowan Helper c.1860 Engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie.

[1] Congressional Globe, 36 Cong., 1st Sess. Washington, 1860, 1-3.

[2] Ibid., 147-148, 546, 548.

[3] Ollinger Crenshaw, “The Speakership Contest of 1859-1860, John Sherman’s Election A Cause of Disruption, “ Mississippi Valley Historical Review, XXIX, o. 3 (December 1942), 336.

© Amy Mittelman 2023. Do not reproduce without the author’s permission.

Happy Holidays

Everything I know about Christmas is complicated because I’m Jewish; an outsider looking in. It seems to me that every year America starts celebrating Christmas earlier and earlier. The Hallmark Channels which I frequently watch when I am trying to fall asleep, started its round of formulaic Christmas movies in October, blowing right past Halloween and Thanksgiving and not stopping to celebrate either.

In October 1996, I started working at Wing  Memorial Hospital. Simultaneously with my hiring,  the PA system began blaring Christmas music which lasted well into January. There was also a huge Christmas tree in the cafeteria. Wing Memorial Hospital is in Palmer, a semi-rural Western Massachusetts community. Many of the people who worked at the hospital were from Palmer or the surrounding towns. Several had never been to either New York or Boston.

Yesterday, because I didn’t want to watch a Christmas movie, I chose a Law and Order episode from 2009. The plot revolved around the  murder of an evangelical Christian who was planning for the end of times as described in the Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible. One of the characters’ organizations moved Jews from  Russia, transporting them to Israel. Evangelicals believe that one of the preconditions for the second coming of Christ is that there will be an ingathering of people in the Holy Land. Getting Jews there is an important part  of the evangelical project.

The Law and Order episode reminded me of something that happened while I worked at Wing. One of the nurses, Julie, was an evangelical Christian who believed in the prophecies and stories contained in the Book of Revelations. She lived in terror of having her computer password be 666, which is “the number of the beast.” One day she was expounding on her understanding of the end times,  claiming that everyone would have to accept Christ, or they would die.

I asked her what would happen to the Jews. She replied that they would face the same fate as all other non-believers, despite needing Jews to bring Christ back to Earth. After this conversation, Julie was apparently curious why I or anyone else would care about the Jews in the first place and inquired if I was Jewish. I replied yes. Someone else then  asked me if I was really Jewish  because Lori, another nurse, was married to a Jew. I replied,  “I’m Jewish, my husband’s Jewish , my children are Jewish, my parents were Jewish.” That ended the conversation.

When I started working at Wing, I didn’t  make a conscious decision to hide my Jewishness, but I didn’t advertise it either. Following the conversation, I was now outed as a Jew. With nothing to lose, I asked the dietitian who was responsible for holiday decorations, if it would be possible to have a menorah. She had an enthusiastic response and proceeded to decorate the cafeteria with  Jewish ritual objects as well as the Christmas tree.

Once the menorah was up, I got an e-mail from one of the respiratory therapists. Mike, another Jew, told me that he had worked for the hospital for many years and had always felt like an outsider until that year when I convinced them to put up the menorah.

As 2022 ends, we are living in a moment in which anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic hate crimes have exponentially increased. Much of the media has been obsessed with Kanye West and his antisemitic rantings but there are more disturbing things that have gotten less attention. An article on AlterNet cites a “recently published survey showing that one in four hiring managers exhibited antisemitism.” Because American society considers Ashkenazi Jews white, antisemitism often flies under the radar. In 2016, Donald Trump brought it above ground, where it now remains.

ATF Appointment

This past July, Steven Dettelbach became the first permanent director that the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and explosives has had in seven years. Dettlebach was not President Biden’s first choice, but he turned out to be the nominee who the Senate was willing to confirm. You can read about that here.

The ATF has always been a federal agency under attack from the NRA and the gun lobby. President Obama also had trouble staffing the Bureau. You can read my blog post about that, from 2013, here.

Dettelbach’s appointment pleased gun control and safety advocates who also had a victory with modest gun legislation passing this past summer. President Biden’s agenda for the ATF under Dettelbach includes cracking down on ghost guns and better oversight of federally licensed gun dealers.

This past week news broke that indicates Biden and his new director are making a difference. The revocation of guns has occurred at the highest rate since 2006. You can read more about the ATF’s work here. Hopefully, both the appointment of Dettelbach and President Biden’s commitment to meaningful gun control will lead to a reduction in gun deaths and mass killings.