Sane and Intelligent

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April 13, 2021- I watched a small segment of a newsreel from the World War II era, which included a Disney cartoon, promoting payment of taxes as an act of patriotism-one of many ways in which the average citizen of that time could support the war effort, through personal sacrifice. Along with dehumanizing the opposing forces of the Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan), the appeal to acceptance of taxation, recycling, conservation and not spending on oneself was made so that the bulk of the nation’s resources would go towards support for the Armed Forces.

Defeating the most formidable opponents the forces of democracy had yet known required a fair amount of such sacrifice-and the burden was shared by Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several smaller nations. The Soviet Union was our ally, but its citizens were already living under onerous conditions-and knew little of personal freedom. Stalin’s sole recognition of individual dignity came in his decrees that men and women were equal under the law and that every child was entitled to a free education.

We, on the other hand, found some of our freedoms temporarily curtailed-as a means to focus the nation’s energy on defeat of the totalitarian enemy. That presented a conundrum to some people. As the bulk of the opposition to this temporary halt of free expression came from people who were not altogether opposed to the Fascist cause, it gained little traction. Besides, President Truman restored civil liberties, once the war was over.

Baha’u’llah teaches that the practice of a sane and intelligent patriotism is essential, for avoiding the evils of excessive centralization. This makes such a practice all the more vital, for the time, in the distant future, when a system of international governance becomes established. The Baha’i view of such a system is that it is built from the ground up-and thus, the more basic units of social structure: Family, community, city/town, county, state/province/prefecture, nation never lose their legitimate powers. The governance of the planet as a whole depends on the strength of the layers of society on which it is built.

There will always be times when temporary sacrifice is needed, in order to defeat a common threat. Certainly, the current fight against Coronavirusdisease2019 is such a time. That we are learning to make these sacrifices, and are making slow headway in overcoming this threat to public health, is a good lesson in learning what is sane and intelligent, in terms of patriotism.

The Wealth of Characters

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, March 27, 2021- As long as I have been an educator, the antics of Beatrice (Beezus) and Ramona Quimby have been a staple of my after lunch read-alouds, to children from 6 to 10 years of age. “Lonesome Dove” was both a favoured read and good television viewing, in the mid- to -late 1980s.

Beverly Cleary and Larry Mc Murtry, two beloved American writers, died a day apart, each leaving a legacy of work that will sound like clarions, for generations yet unborn. Mrs. Cleary’s work was drawn from her own childhood experiences, in the Portland of the 1920s and 30s, a time of rambunctious personal freedom, followed by harrowing economic ills-all playing out in an undercurrent of Victorian attitudes towards children, which would fuel young Beverly’s rebellious anger. An only child, she determined that her characters would have at least one sibling and a number of both friendly and adversarial contemporaries. Henry Huggins, his dog Ribsy, his friends Robert, Murph and Beatrice (Beezus), all characters from the 1950s, are sensible, but get into their share of mischief. Beatrice’s younger sister, Ramona, tops them all in the mischief department, constantly getting into tiffs with “That Grace”, her schoolyard rival.

There was, likewise, all manner of mischief to be had in the world of Lonesome Dove, which was the Texas-Mexico border of the 1870s to 90s. There were cattle drives, going from Texas to Montana, thus giving us a picture, through Larry Mc Murtry’s eyes, of the Great Plains in both tradition and transition. Mc Murtry, in reviewing the public response to his opus, referred to the Old West as “the phantom leg of the American psyche”. The Eighties were a time when many people were still mourning the passing of John Wayne, and with him, the Old West of mythology. Indeed, the original game plan of Larry McMurtry was to cast John Wayne in the role that eventually went to Robert Duvall. John Ford, with whom “The Duke” is closely associated in the Western movie genre, opposed the project, which languished for twelve years, making it to the small screen in 1989.

The characters remain memorable: Duvall’s Gus McRae; Tommy Lee Jones’ Woodrow Call; Danny Glover’s Joshua Deets; Diane Lane’s Lorena Wood; Robert Urich’s Jake Spoon and, in the sequel, Frederic Forrest’s Blue Duck. There is a coming of age element, with Rick Schroeder as Newt Dobbs. The series did not, as is America’s wont, portray the Old West as it really was, brutal to the core-and in an equal opportunity way, to people of all ethnicities. It is said that Larry McMurtry got deeper into that aspect, in his screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain”, which I have never seen.

Thus, as we bid farewell to two authors who were memorable characters, in and of themselves, let us bear in mind just how close their concocted people are to some of us, or to all of us. That, the mirror, is the true value of fiction, across genres.

The Bridge Lady

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March 14, 2021- Throughout history, change for the better has been orchestrated by both people adopting a progressive stance and by those taking a prudent, conservative view, whilst remaining open to new ways of doing things.

Annie Dodge was born in 1910, to a traditional Navajo family. Her father, Chee Dodge, was the last man to hold the position of Chief of the Navajo Tribe. He became the first Chairman of the Navajo Tribe-first of the Navajo Business Council (1922-28) and later, of the Navajo Tribal Council (1942-46). Chee was a shrewd businessman, amassing a fair amount of wealth, whilst maintaining a strong sense of Navajo tradition. As such, he lived in a hogan-based camp and had three wives, the third of whom was Annie’s mother, Mary Begaye.

Annie, and her five siblings were raised in the traditional Dineh manner-learning to herd sheep, practice Dineh medicine and honour their maternal and paternal clan structures. At the same time, Chee saw to it that all of his children learned the ways of the wider world. Annie took a conservative view of politics, becoming a lifelong member of the Republican Party. The event that shaped the course of her life, however, was the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19. Because of her having suffered a mild case of the disease, from which she developed immunity, Annie became interested in Public Health. She earned a doctorate in that discipline, and worked diligently to improve the lives of the Dineh people, over a span of fifty years. She served three terms on the Navajo Tribal Council, at one point running against, and defeating, George Wauneka, the man she married.

George and Annie remained a strong couple, regardless. Annie always regarded the men around her as her partners, never as her overlords. The strong Dineh matrilineal system helped in that regard, as did her parents’ commitment to their daughter’s education and well-being-and Mary’s fierce independence from her husband.

Annie’s greatest legacy was the improvement in the overall public health of the Navajo Nation. She broadcast a weekly radio program, in the Navajo language, carefully explaining modern medical practices and techniques to her fellow Dineh. She pushed for better well-woman and well-baby practices, regular ear and eye examinations; a strong campaign against tuberculosis and alcoholism; for vaccinations against polio, chicken pox, smallpox and measles/mumps/rubella, as well as improvements in sanitation and housing.

Annie continued her father’s work of bridging the gap between traditional Navajo life and the wider American society. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Lyndon Johnson, in December, 1963, becoming the first Native American to receive this honour. In 1984, the Navajo Tribal Council designated Dr. Annie Dodge Wauneka “The Legendary Mother of the Navajo Nation”. Upon her death, in 1997, she was enshrined in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, in Seneca Falls, NY.

Annie Dodge Wauneka’s life work is a shining example that one can hold traditional, conservative views and make a strong contribution to the improvement of the surrounding community. The key is always keeping an open mind and heart.

Confirmation Bias

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March 13, 2021- During the McCarthy Hearings, in the 1950s, there was enormous pressure put on both investigators and witnesses to take any smidgen of evidence of Communist sympathy, on the part of suspects, and blow it up at least ten fold. Senator Joseph McCarthy had everything riding on conflating social Liberalism with Stalinism.

The term confirmation bias is used to describe a situation in which evidence that leads to a desired outcome is placed prominently in the investigator’s or prosecutor’s case file, while exculpatory evidence is filtered out and other evidence, contributing to a reasonable doubt, is overlooked. McCarthy and his associates reveled in confirmation bias, until it led them over the cliff of disrepute.

These days, I see confirmation bias used, with abandon, by several groups. Those on the Left go back in history, being willing to erase historical accounts which show any degree of complexity in the leaders of various historical periods. Those on the Right, conversely, reject any criticism of the same historical figures. The recent controversy over Theodore Seuss Geisel is certainly the latest such case, of both sides ignoring or discounting the very features of Dr. Seuss’s personality, which the man himself spent countless hours working to refine, to bring up to date with the times. A careful study of his work’s progress shows a fundamentally decent man moving on, from caricatures that clearly show a prejudiced bent to depictions of people that more accurately reflected changes in public opinion. Neither the Right, with its insistence that NOTHING he wrote was wrong, nor the Left, some of whom want a wholesale destruction of his catalog, are showing any degree of academic rigour in their posturing.

We are at the cusp of a public arena, in which stridency commands absolute fealty and careful discernment, in the course of assessing the march of history, is deemed a feckless approach. I will, however, maintain the latter course of action.

No one, save the Messengers of God, walks on water. No one, conversely, deserves to have even the smallest amount of merit discounted. Most of us are very much in the middle.

Sarah’s Solution

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March 11, 2021- In 1984, whilst in Guyana, I ran out of shampoo and went to the open air market in the small town of Bath. There, I purchased some Palmolive Shampoo, that had been made in Brazil. The product was much stronger than shampoos made in the United States, by the same company. My scalp was mildly burned.

This happened to me one time. I threw the shampoo in the trash, when I got back to the U.S. Until the 1910s, African-Americans had no recourse to hair care products that met their needs. The experience I had, once, was the lot of Black men, women and children-until Sarah Breedlove began her line of hair care and beauty products, marketed under the brand name Madam C.J. Walker’s . That name was taken, in honour of Sarah’s third husband, Charles Joseph Walker. It was the custom of many married women in that time to refer to themselves by their husband’s full name. Sarah divorced Charles in 1912, but kept his name until her death, in 1919. (Charles would outlive her by seven years.)

Sarah developed her line of Afrocentric beauty products, after suffering for several years with the use of products that led to severe dandruff and eczema-and eventually to hair loss. Experimenting, from the base line of products sold by one Annie Malone, Madam C.J. Walker became America’s first self-made female millionaire and brought attention to the skin and hair care needs of African-American women- bringing a host of products that moved beyond the folk remedies that had sustained people, both during and after the days of enslavement.

From this first line of such products, and from competitors such as Annie Malone and later, Sarah Spencer Washington, came a bona fide effort to teach African-American women the essentials of proper hair and skin care. This effort expanded, in the mid-Twentieth Century, to those Caribbean and Central American nations with significant Black communities. It has now gone worldwide.

Sarah Breedlove/Madam C.J. Walker brought grace and elegance to the lives of countless women whose needs had heretofore been ignored. She deserves a place of honour in this Women’s History Month.

The Gullah Land

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February 28, 2021-

One of my favourite areas of the South is coastal Georgia and South Carolina-particularly the Sea Islands. This is largely due to the presence, both physically and spiritually of the Gullah-the descendants of enslaved people, who largely kept their ancestral African culture and language.

While much of the Sea Islands region has been taken over by large hospitality and golfing interests, the flavour of the area has largely been impacted by Gullah cultural features. The Low Country Boil, a popular meal of seafood, greens and fresh corn, is a gift of the enslaved. So, too, are the products brought from Africa, by those carried here against their will. Africans brought rice, okra, coffee, cotton, indigo, and cassava to the Americas, as well as net fishing and even the use of poison to trap large numbers of fish. This last has, thankfully, been shown to be of no benefit to human health-and was abandoned in the Southeast, a long time ago.

The enslaved people showed their captors the techniques of rice, cotton and coffee cultivation. Africans, then as now, knew nothing other than sharing-and at least initially, showing love even in the face of harshness and brutality. Besides, they needed elements of their homeland, in order to maintain sanity, and a sense of purpose. A good source for understanding the complexity of Gullah culture and language is William S. Pollitzer’s “The Gullah People and Their African Heritage”, University of Georgia Press, Athens (GA), 1999, which I have just finished reading. Dr. Pollitzer grew up in the Sea Islands region and was immersed in Gullah culture.

Here is a more audiovisual description of Gullah life, from a story teller on Edisto Island: Theresa Jenkins Hilliard. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0DGijYiGQU

The Middle Passage of Robert Hayden

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February 26, 2021-

In drawing to a close Black History Month, it is critical to remember that no people’s story is ever confined to a month, or even a year. The endurance of the history of any given segment of a society,of any part of humanity, is ever worth drawing to ourselves. In a few days, I will look at the Gullah people, of the Sea Islands along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina-arguably the most enduring African-American group, managing to maintain key aspects of their culture, even whilst living among well-heeled vacationers who have been drawn to the Sea Islands, over the past 50 years.

The Gullah are, of course, one group of descendants of the enslaved people brought from Africa, most via the route known as The Middle Passage. The late, great former United StatesPoet Laureate Robert Hayden (1913-1980), first African-American to hold this honour, and a member of the Baha’i Faith, depicted the experience of those brought along this treacherous route on the Amistad, a Portuguese-owned slave ship,which had been the scene of a slave rebellion led by Sengbe Pieh, also knoiwn as Cinque. The rebels eventually won their freedom, courtesy of a vigourous defense before the US Supreme Court, by John Quincy Adams and 34 of them returned to Africa, with help from American Abolitionists.

Let Robert Hayden tell their story, in his own voice. Let us always remember that all human beings are created equal, in the sight of God.

Loyalty and Ego

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February 25, 2021– I spent parts of the past couple of days watching a series that dealt with issue sof loyalty, betrayal and role switching. The show, called “Luna Nera”, is an Italian SyFy drama, set in the 17th Century. It is rather Byzantine, in its plot sequences, being all over the place.

It outwardly features conflicts between the mainstream Catholic Church, of the post-Inquisition era, and a small group of Wiccans. There is plenty of virtue and vice, loyalty and betrayal, transparency and deception on both sides, sometimes with all of it coming from the same characters. In other words, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the villains.

Life can be like that, especially if those of a certain mindset see only themselves, and those who agree with them, as good and all others as bad-even making the distinction, as a priest in the show did, between those who say what’s evil is virtue and what’s virtue is evil. Thus, their basis for determining virtue wells up from each one’s ego. That, and the inability to forgive slights, leads to even more pain and suffering, for all concerned.

The parallels between the main characters in the series, and the present American sociopolitical climate are so telling, that Luna Nera could be just as easily set in Washington and Mar-a-Lago, as in the north of Italy. The Bishop/Warlock is a wirepuller of the first order and the Wiccan/Demoness has an ego that spills over into even the acts of decency that she tries to pull off. There is a pure Saviour character, who has to disguise herself, for most of the series. The rest of the cast could pass for the “Sheeples”, who makie decisions based on whatever they are told by whoever is in charge at the moment.

It still strikes me that independent thinking depends upon not being willing to have one’s ego stroked-but maybe that’s MY ego talking.

A Few More Random Thoughts

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February 24, 2021- Today was a day for accompanying a friend around Lynx Lake, which both of us found enjoyable. The lake’s water table is down, as we might expect-given our long dry spell of last year, but the water birds are already coming back- noisy ducks and showy cormorants.

I picked up two of Isabel Wilkerson’s books: “The Warmth of Other Suns”, about the African-American migration out of the South, starting in the 1930s and “Caste”, about the role of that system in the stratifcation of American society-and the true connection between that stratification and Nazism. These ought to be very insightful. I don’t see an immediate tie between “Trumpsim”, which is largely personality-based and Fascism, which has systemic goals-but there are people who subscribe to both-just as there are doctrinaire people, who also are personality-driven, on the other end of the political spectrum.

I have meditated on the mercurial nature of several people in my circle, at present. Having gotten past feeling a personal affront, when those who have been uniformly pleasant over the past several months, suddenly turn icy, I can sense that the sameness of the pandemic-driven regimen is getting to too many people, just a tad too soon. I can also sense that we are getting a handle on the disease- the “variants” aside.

Finally, just an observation: Those who act out of fear are less the problem than those who stoke that fear-and privately mimic their followers. Yes, there are people egging the masses on, who take Lenin’s view of “useful idiots.” They are the true problematics.

The Heirs of Railroad Passengers

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February 18, 2021- It is commonly known that many people who successfully escaped enslavement, from the 19th Century South, made their way to Canada, via the Underground Railroad. The majority of these folks settled in three Canadian provinces: Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. The last was chosen because of its relative proximity to Maine, one of two northern termini of the clandestine route.

Although life for people of African descent in Canada was not perfect, and remains problematic in many respects, slavery had by and large been abandoned as a social construct, by the 1820s. There was no economic impetus to the system, in a country with mostly small holders as farmers.

Afro-Canadians kept many aspects of their culture, both that preserved by genetic memory of Africa and more recent cultural elements which evolved in the American South. Later migrants from the Caribbean region have also influenced this enduring cultural scene.

Here is a sharing of African-Canadian musical heritage, from someone who moved from Toronto to Nova Scotia, finding welcome among the longtime Black residents of that Atlantic province.