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Memory Lane: Remembering my ancestors

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I remember meeting Grandma and Grandpa Heimoff for the first time. I must have been three years old and was lying on the little sofa that faced our old Admiral television set in the room we called “the foyer” of our four-room apartment at 760 Grand Concourse in The Bronx.

Of course, I must have met them both earlier than that, since they were my paternal grandparents and lived in the same building! But I have this memory of them knocking on our door and my mother letting them in and saying, “Steve, these are your grandparents.”

We were very close. My grandmother, Rose, used to rub my back when I lay in my crib as a little baby and she would sing lullabies to me in her native Russian. She was the only adult in my childhood who gave me nothing but love, who never got angry with me or scolded me or made me feel guilty. Grandpa Max was far less demonstrative than his wife; he died when I was only seven, so my memories of him are scant, although I do distinctly recall us walking, on a fine Spring morning, to the kosher slaughterhouse, on the other side of the railroad tracks, where he picked out a live chicken for Grandma to make into soup. She always made her chicken soup, including the matzoh balls, from scratch, and she once told me the secret of great broth was to include the chicken’s feet. I never tried that.

As I said, Max died when I was still a little boy. He’d been sick for a few weeks. I would go visit him in 2-P and read the Daily News to him. Finally, he went to the hospital (I think it was Columbia-Presbyterian, on the East Side, where his son, my Uncle Lennie, was an attending physician). My parents and I went to visit him but for some reason, the nurses wouldn’t let me into his room, so I had to wait in the hallway. A few days later, my sister (six years older than I) and I were having breakfast, getting ready for school, when my mother suddenly stood silently beside the kitchen table and then she said, “Kids, I have some bad news.” She told us Grandpa had died overnight. My first reaction—I was only six or seven—was to burst into laughter. I thought my mother’s dramatic seriousness was hysterical. Of course, I did not then have the concept of “death,” or of loss or bereavement. But then, quickly, I noticed that my sister was crying, and I thought to myself, “Oh, I guess laughter isn’t such a good idea.” So I too cried.

Grandma and Grandpa were very old-fashioned. Their English never was very good; they were far more comfortable speaking Yiddish. They’d both been born in Odessa, in southern Ukraine, which in the late 1880s was part of the Russian Empire. Grandma had apparently been a midwife. We never knew quite what Grandpa’s occupation had been, even after he’d lived in New York for decades. He would go off every morning impeccably clad in a three-piece gray pinstriped suit, with vest, derby, walking stick and gold pocket fob. Where did he go? A cousin once told me she had heard that he never did have a proper job and went off every morning pretending that he was off to work because he was embarrassed to be unemployed. But I cannot confirm this. One thing that startles me to this day is how little we kids knew about our grandparents. We asked them nothing about Russia, or why they had come to America in 1913. Of course, that was the height of Russian-Jewish emigration to America, but as to the particulars of Rose and Max Heimoff, it remains a mystery. Today, grandkids would be peppering their grandparents with questions, doing 23andMe and compiling genealogical charts.

“Heimoff” was not their real Russian name. It was given to them at Ellis Island, somewhat in the same manner as young Vito Andolini was mistakenly given the surname “Corleone” in “The Godfather Part 2.” Rose and Max lived in apartment 2-P at 760 Grand Concourse. My family lived in 6-M. In 2-O were Uncle Lennie and his family; next door to us, in 6-L, were Uncle Teddy, Aunt Ruth (Lennie’s and my father’s older sister) and their kids. On the third floor, on the other side of the building, lived Grandma’s younger sister, Raye, while on the first floor, in 1-M, my Tante Frieda lived. She was Grandma’s Aunt and was the oldest person I ever knew when I was a kid. We thought she was easily 100 years old, although she must have been in her 80s. Tante Frieda lived alone, in an antique-filled apartment with doilies and antimacassars on the chairs. A large woman with an ample breast, she always dressed in black, with a black hat, veil and stickpin. She was very kind and funny and I still see her twinkling blue eyes. I used to enjoy stopping by and eating her cookies.

Grandma died while I was an undergraduate. The last time I saw here was in her apartment. She was losing her mind, but the family, under Uncle Lennie’s guidance, allowed her to stay there on her own since so many other family members lived in the building. I had come down from university, in Massachusetts. When Grandma let me in, the apartment was dark and silent. She sat in a chair, and I sat in a chair, and we said nothing for a long time. Nor did we need to. I felt that we had a full communication in the darkness and silence and nothing needed to be said in words. Shortly after that, Grandma died. I mourn her to this day for the simple, kind woman she was.


The Chauvin verdict: a postmortem

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Like most of the world, I was so pleased when the jury found Derrick Chauvin guilty of all charges. I can’t say I was surprised, though. The prosecution offered one of the most compelling cases we’ve ever seen. The evidence was overwhelming; Chauvin really had no defense, and his lawyer seemed to sleepwalk through the trial, especially in his closing argument which was a disaster. When the verdict came in so quickly, I knew that it could only be guilty.

I was in downtown Oakland, on my walk, when word came in that the verdict would be announced shortly. In fast order, police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters began gathering, blocking off streets. Had the verdict come in the other way, downtown would have been a war zone last night. Mercifully, that didn’t happen.

It was great seeing the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Minneapolis media event following the verdict. He’s always been one of my heroes. I voted for him in the 1984 California presidential primary, and was thrilled by a campaign speech he gave at San Francisco State University. At the media event, everybody was praising Rev. Al Sharpton, justifiably so, but I was watching Rev. Jackson there in the background, looking old and emotional. I was wishing someone would give him his propers; and then they did. Rev. Al called him his mentor and invited him to speak. What a historic figure Jesse Jackson has been.

And how wonderful it was to see and hear President Biden afterward giving his speech. Had trump still been president, God forbid, does anyone think he would have spoken out? He would have been out on the golf course, or tweeting about Hunter Biden. He wouldn’t have given a damn.

What a long, awful year it’s been. The pandemic was bad enough, the Jan. 6 trump insurrection was horrible, and on top of all that, we had the George Floyd protests. I was happy to hear many of the speakers at the Minneapolis event, including members of George Floyd’s family, thank the protesters around America for keeping the case on the front burner, but I wished that somebody would have denounced the violence that all too often accompanied the protests and, in my opinion, compromised them.

As my readers know, I’m a supporter of the police. I think that all too often, irrational people hate on cops, who after all have a very hard job and are out there risking their lives to protect the rest of us. It baffles and saddens me when I see the graffiti in Oakland about “all cops are bastards” or “kill the police.” At the same time, I, like other Americans, am still learning that some cops are bastards while others, like Derrick Chauvin, are murderers. I fully recognize that police reform must be accomplished. I don’t understand all the details of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has passed the House of Representatives and is now before the U.S. Senate. It seems similar to California Senate Bill 2, which I blogged about last week and said I support. We do have to weed out these bad eggs, whether they’re police recruits or veteran cops.

But I must say I wish that the people so upset about police brutality toward Black people would express equal outrage at the Black-on-Black violence that is tearing the Black community apart. I was listening to NPR this morning and heard a woman, Melina Abdullah (identified as a co-founder of Black Lives Matter L.A.) say, with respect to the Chauvin conviction, she is “fighting…to keep my children safe” from rogue cops. But who is the greater threat to her children–cops, or the gangs that are shooting up cities across America? Even Atlanta’s Black mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, said that Black people “are doing each other more harm than any officer on this [police] force.”

That is the existential issue confronting the Black community, not bad cops. It would be nice to hear, say, Joy Reid, on MSNBC, denounce Black-on-Black violence with as much fervor as she denounces cops. In my city of Oakland, more Black men will die this year alone as a result of gang violence, than have been killed by cops in Oakland’s entire history. That seems to me to be a horror and a tragedy worth protesting in the streets.


Can we talk about reparations?

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The formal definition of reparations is “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” Perhaps the most famous historical example of reparations were those levied upon defeated Germany after World War I. In today’s U.S., the issue of reparations has arisen in conjunction with proposals to pay Black Americans in order to compensate them for the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow.

Even when I was young, some Black scholars and politicians were talking about reparations, but the idea went nowhere until recently, what with Black Lives Matter and related incidents. The matter really picked up steam on April 13, when the House Judiciary Committee approved, on a 25-17 partisan vote, legislation to create “a commission to examine slavery…in the United States from 1619 to the present” and to “recommend ways to educate Americans about its findings and appropriate remedies, including how the government would offer a formal apology and what form of compensation should be awarded.” The bill now goes to the full House of Representatives, where it may well pass, although its chances of surviving the U.S. Senate, I think, are slim. Either way, the issue of reparations is going to be front-and-center in American politics and in the news for some time to come.

A strong majority of Americans opposes paying reparations to Black people, with 63% saying the government should not. If you break those figures down, you arrive at some of the bedrock fissures in American life today. More than 80% of Black people themselves favor reparations, while three-quarters of White people oppose it. A slight majority of Latinx Americans are opposed, while opposition among Republicans is predictably the highest of all: 93% are against reparations. Significantly, so are 67% of independents.

When I think about reparations, it’s in intellectual terms. I ask what their justification is, since no living Black American has ever been a slave, and no living White American has ever been a slaveholder. This raises the question of whether or not there should be a statute of limitations on such things. As a Jew, I could, I suppose, make the argument that Egypt owes reparations to all living Jews for having enslaved our ancestors 3,500 years ago. Such a suggestion would be widely ridiculed. But U.S. slavery ended only 156 years ago, in 1865. Perhaps that is within the statute of limitations?

Then there are the questions of what form reparations would take, and who would get them, and how. I always imagined that reparations would mean sending Black people a check, the way the government sent most of us stimulus checks during the pandemic. A friend of mine, a Black activist here in Oakland, has a different idea. He proposes a 30-year tax holiday for Black Americans: no state or federal income taxes, and no tuition for higher education. I have a problem with that. Oprah Winfrey, Steph Curry and Kanye West are super-wealthy Blacks. Do they really need to be exempt from taxes? Besides, how would you determine who’s “Black”? If I claim I’m one-eighth Black on my mother’s side, will the government then have to give me a DNA test? Do we really want government to literally get into our bodies?

A further concern about reparations is that such a law would have to guarantee some form of measurement to see if it was really working. For instance, in my friend’s 30-year tax scheme, perhaps a commission could examine its effects every, say, three years, to see if the expenditure was worth continuing. And it’s not apparent that investing all that money into the Black community would necessarily have the desired effect. The Cato Institute estimates that since Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 declaration of a “war on poverty” that chiefly targeted Black Americans, this country has spent more than $23 trillion (with a “t”) on efforts to fight poverty. No one would doubt that because of that, and other factors, a thriving Black middle class now exists. But Black people still experience poverty at a rate nearly three times that of White people, which suggests that monetary spending by government can be only part of the solution. What the other parts are, is something we can have a conversation about, but conversations limited to the issue of reparations are unable to consider these other factors.

A final concern of mine about reparations is the resentment it would provoke among the 63% of all Americans opposed to them. One of the causes of World War II, the most destructive event in human history, was the resentment felt by the German people at the reparations imposed upon them by the Versailles Treaty (as well as other aspects of the Treaty they felt were unjust). Regardless of whether the German people were right or wrong to feel such resentment, they did; and the result was the war, with the accompanying deaths of 75 million people and the virtual destruction of Europe. That was a high price to pay, even if you agree that Germany did start World War I and was morally and legally obligated to pay reparations. With our own country standing on the brink of who knows what—red states vs. blue states, brother against brother, everyone armed to the teeth—can the U.S. really withstand the imposition of reparations when so many people are so passionately opposed?

Still, I do support the House Judiciary Committee’s recommendation to create a commission to study slavery and its impact. Such commissions can only do good: we had one after JFK’s assassination and again after Sept. 11, and they contributed to the historical understanding in invaluable ways (which is why I also support a commission to examine the Jan. 6, 2021 Insurrection, something Republicans oppose because their leader instigated it). It would be a good thing to remind Americans that slavery did exist, that it took a horrible toll, that in fact America’s founding rested upon slavery: the Constitution’s infamous “Three-fifths compromise” declared that only 60% of slaves could be counted in apportioning the House of Representatives. It would also be a good thing to explain Jim Crow to the American people, who possess an innate sense of fairness, when they’re given the opportunity to think about such things.

But reparations? At this point, it’s going to take a lot more ‘splainin’ to get me to agree.


California Senate Bill 2: police reforms

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(I wrote this analysis for two reasons: First, the bill is very important in that it would create a new statewide agency, with unprecedented new powers, to oversee all uniformed peace officers in the State, and secondly because several organizations I’m working with asked me to. All interpretations are my own, and I apologize if I got anything wrong.)

This Bill is sponsored by Senate Democrats.

Its primary external sponsors are:

Alliance for Boys and Men of Color

ACLU of California

Anti-Police Terror Project

Black Lives Matter Los Angeles California

Families United 4 Justice

Communities United for Restorative Youth

Justice PolicyLink

STOP Coalition

UDW (United Domestic Workers Union)/AFSCME Local 3930

Youth Justice Coalition

In addition, dozens of other nonprofits and organizations are listed as “Supporters.”

Status: Introduced on Dec. 7, 2020. The next hearing is before the Senate Public Safety Committee on April 27, 2021.

In a nutshell, Law enforcement officers convicted of serious crimes or fired for misconduct could be stripped of their badges under new policing reforms. The Bill would end longstanding police immunity provisions that shield cops from lawsuits. It also would considerably tighten or reform the hiring process to weed out bad actors.

The general purpose is to strengthen the process of revoking police officer certificates (i.e., of firing cops) for misconduct. It establishes minimum standards for training of peace officers and applies to all California cities, counties and districts (e.g. East Bay Regional Park District).

The bill establishes a statewide Commission to set standards and conduct investigations. It would have the power “to secure the cooperation of every department, agency, or instrumentality in the state government,” which would make it a formidable agency indeed. The deadline for establishing the Commission and constituting its Board is Jan. 1, 2023. It would meet in public at least four times a year, although its work would be ongoing and perpetual.

The Board would consist of nine individuals:

• One current or former peace officer, with Command experience, appointed by the Governor.

• One current or former peace officer, with Management experience, appointed by the Governor.

• Two members of the public, both with experience in non-profits or academia in issues of police misconduct, one appointed by the Governor and the other by the Speaker of the Assembly.

• Two members of the public, both with experience in community organizing in issues of police misconduct, one appointed by the Governor and the other by the Senate Rules Committee.

• Two members of the public “who have been subject to wrongful use of force…or who are surviving family members of a person killed by wrongful use of force…”. Both shall be appointed by the Governor.

• One attorney, appointed by the Governor, “with substantial professional experience involving oversight of peace officers.”

Membership is for three years.

The Bill would restrict persons from serving as peace officers who have been convicted of “bribery, perjury or falsification of records,” or individuals who have been disqualified as a peace officer elsewhere, or have been convicted of “a felony” (presumably any felony), or who were discharged from the military for a felony. (The language here is a little vague.) The Bill contains numerous specific instances of other persons who are not eligible to become peace officers even if they have never been convicted of a felony, e.g. someone found not guilty by reason of insanity, or who is addicted to narcotics. The sole exception to this would occur “in time of disaster,” when local agencies would be allowed to (temporarily?) hire felons.

The Commission can investigate the “fitness” of officer candidates, and establish a “certificate” or “proof of eligibility,” to issue or deny certification.

The Commission also can impose new requirements on local hiring agencies.

The Bill has a “civil rights” component, namely, to secure citizens’ Constitutional rights from a peace officer who “interferes by threat, intimidation, or coercion with the exercise of those rights. This interference need not be intentional [italics mine]. The interference may arise through “indifference” or “reckless disregard” of the person’s rights.

Violations result in a civil penalty of $25,000 by the Attorney-General.

In addition, citizens may sue the officer for “injunctive relief,” in “a civil action for damages” in Superior Court. The Court may also award the plaintiff “reasonable attorney’s fees.” In certain cases, the violator may be “imprisoned.”

“Speech alone is not sufficient to support an action, unless the speech threatens violence.” BUT “if the person or persons against whom the threat is directed reasonably fears that, because of the speech, violence can be committed against them,” then said speech is prosecutable.

IMPORTANT: “State immunity provisions” that previously protected peace officers from being sued for doing their jobs “shall not apply” (i.e., shall no longer apply) to peace officers.

PERSONNEL RECORDS

The Bill would allow certain personnel records of peace officers or applicants to be “made available for public inspection” that had previously been confidential, e.g. gun discharges, actions that caused bodily injury or death, and certain sexual assault practices. This latter (sexual assault) is broadened in definition, to include “the propositioning for or commission of any sexual act while on duty is considered a sexual assault.” (My hunch is that the Celeste Guap case lies behind this.) These records are defined in a very broad manner.

USE OF FORCE

The Bill gives cops something they wanted: “disclosure [of the records, including video] may be delayed for up to 60 days from the date the use of force occurred or until the district attorney determines whether to file criminal charges related to the use of force, whichever occurs sooner.” Even beyond 60 days, the records may be withheld from public consumption if release would interfere with an active investigation of use-of-force. The regulations concerning release of records in use-of-force instances are actually quite complex and seem to provide fertile ground for legal battles. The Bill seems unable to deal with the political fallout following use-of-force allegations, when activists, plaintiff’s attorneys, victims’ families and the media will demand immediate release of records, especially body cam videos, while defense attorneys will argue for delay.

THE OPPOSITION TO SB2:

Mainly police officer and sheriff organizations, including:

Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs

Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriff’s

California Association of Highway Patrolmen

California Coalition of School Safety Professionals

California Fraternal Order of Police

California Police Chiefs Association

and dozens of other police organizations.

Their main concerns: “Removing government immunity would create lingering doubt in officers’ minds during chaotic situations, knowing potential missteps could result in civil lawsuits.” i.e., if a cop is worried about being fired and sued, he might be less diligent in getting involved in a chaotic situation, such as chasing a fleeing suspect. Cops worry about the “speech” component (cf. above), in which a victim’s fear of the consequences of a cop’s speech can make that speech “prosecutable.” (i.e., anyone can be afraid that anything a cop says is hostile and threatening, and can therefore sue.) Cops also are concerned with the “non-intentionality” clause of the civil rights provision: you can violate someone’s civil rights even if you didn’t intend to. Cops and police unions finally are concerned with the composition of the Commission’s Board, feeling that it could be stacked with anti-police sentiment.

MY OWN FEELING:

The Bill contains nothing particularly odious, from the point of view of a cop supporter. It’s understandable that police unions would be against it, because they’re always opposed to more regulation of cops. But in the final analysis, and from a reasonable point of view, most of SB2’s recommendations make sense, or are at the very least tolerable. Besides, “reform” is in the air. The Bill is going to pass the Legislature, and Gov. Newsom has made public remarks supporting it. There’s little point in fighting the inevitable.


Steven Kent has 3 new Cabernet Francs

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For a long time, I’ve had nothing but praise for the wines of Steven Kent, the Livermore Valley winemaker. A few years ago, I gave two of his Cabernet Sauvignons perfect scores of 100 points, a major rarity for this stingy reviewer. I’ve always thought of Steven as a Cabernet Sauvignon specialist, and he is; but lo and behold, here he is with three Cabernet Francs, under the L’Autre Cote brand, which is part of his Lineage Collection.

Now, you might think it’s easy for a Cab Sauv winemaker to transition to Cab Franc, since they’re both Bordeaux varieties (Cab Franc is actually a co-parent of Cab Sauvignon, along with Sauvignon Blanc). But they’re very different, they like different soil and climate conditions, and Cabernet Franc has not proven itself entirely comfortable on its own anywhere in California, although there are good examples from the Sierra Foothills, and Lang & Reed, in Napa Valley, does a consistently good job.

To judge from these bottlings, I’d say Steven has really put himself onto the Cab Franc map in California, although admittedly, it’s not a very crowded map. All three wines are delicious, although the two single-vineyard ones are better. My one gripe, if you can call it that, is that the wines seem fairly limited in terms of food compatibility, because they’re so full-bodied and rich. Grilled steak certainly comes to mind. Roast chicken would be good, too, maybe even duck, but Cab Franc wouldn’t be my first choice for either.

NOTE: The two single-vineyard wines, Sachau and Ghielmetti, are sold as a 2-pack for $196.

L’Autre Cote 2018 Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley): $35. There’s noticeable heat from alcohol in this wine, which officially clocks in at 14.8%. But the flavors are delicious: sour red cherry, with a hint of sweet green pea and the smoky complexities of oak barrel aging. The tannins—Steven Kent is a tannin master—are rich and furry but easy to negotiate, while a fine bite of acidity provides additional structure. This is a lovely wine of real elegance and complexity, and if Steven had brought it in at, say, 14.2%, it would be stunning. As it is, the heat is a distraction; the wine is just a little too light to handle it. Score: 88 points.

L’Autre Cote 2017 Sachau Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $98. The aroma on this single-vineyard, 100% Cab Franc grabbed me right away. There are the berry-cherry fruits you expect in a Bordeaux-style California red wine, but also tantalizing suggestions of dried herbs and flowers, a gamy leatheriness, and something I can’t put my finger on. Eucalyptus? These very complex aromas are repeated when you taste the wine, which is where the fruit really explodes in a burst of intensity, leading to a long, spicy finish. The feeling is ethereal, like tasting the wind, sun, soil, warm days and cool nights, and even the flora surrounding the vineyard. That makes it, I suppose, a true vin de terroir. This is a sumptuous, luscious, serious wine experience, utterly different from the Cabernet Sauvignon for which Steven Kent is known. The alcohol, which clocks in at 15.1%, does not dominate the wine, but lends it a pleasing warmth. What a wine to drink with a great steak! Score: 94 points.

L’Autre Cote 2017 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $98. The 64-acre vineyard ranges between 500 and 1,000 feet in elevation, and should be thought of as one of the grands crus of Livermore Valley. The well-drained soils, and Livermore’s warm days and cool nights, produce wines of great concentration and finesse. Ghielmetti is planted to all five classic Bordeaux varieties; this particular wine comes from a 3-acre block of Cab Franc that the winemaker says is cooler than Sachau Vineyard and hence is harvested a week later. As good as the Sachau is, the Ghielmetti is better. The structure strikes me as especially fine, with a burst of acidity and refined tannins providing the framework for the cherry, boysenberry and cola flavors that are lifted by just the right amount of oak. There’s lushness here, even decadence, yet the finish is thoroughly dry. What impresses me is how the wine maintains a Bordeaux-like fullness, and yet is so ethereal and precocious. Steven Kent believes the wine will develop over the next 10-15 years. Maybe so, but if I had a case in my cellar, I’d drink it over the next six. Score: 95 points.


Why did we go to war in Afghanistan?

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Well do I remember the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I had just woken up when the phone rang. It was Marilyn. “Are you watching T.V.?”, she asked. I turned on the tube and for the next 24 hours was glued to it.

And was furious. I was then keeping a daily diary of political events; this was before I had the outlet of my blog. Reading it today, I can hardly believe my outrage. “WE MUST BOMB AFGHANISTAN NOW!” I wrote. It became clear within hours of the attacks that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were responsible. The American people were obviously united as they had seldom been before, and united for one thing: to go to war, in order to extract revenge.

Three days after the attacks, President George Bush asked the Congress for approval “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against any “nations, organizations or persons” involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. This was a pretty broad request, and I remember comparisons being made to Lyndon Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August, 1964, which effectively gave him the power to go to war in Vietnam without the express approval of Congress.

Now, even in September, 2001, it was understood by almost everyone that the Vietnam War had been a hideous miscalculation by the U.S., and that giving a president a blank check to go to war was risky. However, the anger caused by Sept. 11 erased any hesitancy among most Americans. In the Congress, Bush’s “Authorization for Use of United States Armed Forces” passed unanimously, except for a single vote against: Barbara Lee, who was then, and remains, my Congressional representative.

I was so mad at Rep. Lee I dashed off a fax (!!) to her office. I don’t remember what I wrote, but it was pretty fiery. And so began America’s war in Afghanistan, which is now, at twenty years of age, our nation’s longest-ever war.

But the war is about to end. President Biden just announced he will pull all remaining U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, at the latest. This is after 2,400 American troops have died there, and $2 trillion of the nation’s treasure has been expended there. (Ironically, that is the same amount that Biden has requested for his American Rescue Plan.)

In looking back at all this from the comfort of my desk on a lovely Spring morning in Oakland, I find my thoughts conflicted. Was the war “worth it”? What does “worth it” mean? Did America have an alternative to war? What would have happened if we had done nothing—had, in other words, allowed Al Qaeda to get off scot-free? The questions pile up, and have no easy answers.

As antipathetic to war as Americans are traditionally supposed to be, this country has certainly waged its fair share of them. We know about the more famous ones: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars 1 and 2, the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But a quick trip to Wikipedia shows no fewer than ninety-three wars that have involved the U.S. since the Revolution. That is hardly the record of a war-hating country. As an amateur historian, I’ve wrestled with this conflict for much of my adult thinking life, and I’ve come to think of it this way: the U.S. does have an aversion to war. But we are a Great Power, and, like it or not, Great Powers, to paraphrase Voltaire, have great responsibilities. It is true that a strong isolationist streak has always run through America’s bloodstream, which is why, even as Hitler’s Nazis assumed greater and greater power in the 1930s, our own isolationists of both parties were determined to steer clear of what George Washington, in his Farewell Address, called “permanent alliance[s] with any portion of the foreign world.”

But Washington made that remark when the U.S. was still an infant nation, its treasury weakened by the recent war, and its destiny obviously in the direction of the western frontier, not across the oceans. In my reading of history, by the time Theodore Roosevelt was president, America’s vital interests lay in every corner of the globe, and sometimes it was necessary to protect those interests by force of arms.

It’s interesting to me that many of the people who are most opposed to foreign wars are usually liberals, who evince no such antipathy to violence when it comes to street demonstrations in our cities. Be that as it may, I wonder what this country would do in the event of another massive attack upon our soil. Would Democrats and Republicans come together? Would the extremes of both parties—let’s call them rightwing insurrectionists and Antifa—cooperate? This is all speculation, leading nowhere, but I do sense a new period of isolationism in our country. Exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan, people want to get out, to spend the money here, to cease supporting authoritarian theocracies. Trump and Biden have that in common: let’s not forget it was Trump who made an issue of avoiding foreign wars and getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Biden is simply continuing in that direction.

These things are cyclical, I suppose. Maybe a period of isolationism would be good for us. That doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world, as Trump increasingly tried to do. We can rejoin the Paris Accords and the World Health Organization, we can reinvigorate NATO, we can re-engage with Iran and Russia, but at the same time, we can recognize that our most vital needs lay, not overseas, but here. This is why the American Rescue Plan is so timely. The Roman Empire increasingly let things at home fall to pieces while it bankrupted itself protecting its distant borders; Rome finally collapsed in the 4th century of the Common Era, in yet another war (this time against Germanic tribes) it could not possibly win.

The comparison game between the American Empire and the Roman Empire has encouraged many historians to write endless pages of books, but to understand how an Empire actually survives over centuries and millennia, we don’t have to look very far. China has been more or less united and strong for more than 3,000 years; and today, China stands on the threshold of the greatest strength in its long history. What has China done, and what is China doing, to achieve that? Clearly the first thing that comes to mind is that China has never bothered with democracy. Too messy for the refined Mandarin tastes of its Emperors.

We’re seeing a kind of anti-democracy movement all over the world, from Russia and Brazil to Poland, Myanmar, the Philippines and large parts of Africa. As the U.S. devolves (is there a better word?) into the chaos of political fighting approaching civil war levels, as U.S. cities deteriorate under the crushing burdens of homelessness, crime and the pandemic, as more and more Americans of both sides feel completely disenfranchised, as Congressional approval ratings approach 15-year lows, and, as we’ve seen for the last four years, as a depraved American president could virtually destroy our country single-handedly, we Americans are entitled to wonder if this “democracy” thing is really all it’s cracked up to be. Still, while I wrestle with these thoughts, one remark of Winston Churchill’s keeps haunting me: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I know of no refutation to this insight, which means that, as futile and ugly as things seem to be right now, we have no choice but to continue our historic democracy, stumbling, getting up, and trying again and again to make it better.


After Occupy’s demise, the Left apparently has learned nothing

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Like you, I’ve been watching the demonstrations over the past year, following the death of George Floyd. But unlike you, perhaps, I experience a bit of post-traumatic stress syndrome, for I have my own, unpleasant experience.

It was ten years ago, in October, 2011. Occupy Oakland was then at its height: a people-powered movement that sought to regain political and economic power from “the 1%” and transfer it to the 99% of us who were tired of seeing America’s wealth siphoned off to billionaires, with the connivance of a corrupt Congress.

I immediately sympathized with Occupy. Ground Zero for them at that time was Frank Ogawa Plaza, the large public square outside City Hall, which is just a 15-minute walk from my home. There, Occupiers were living in hundreds of tents that had been hastily set up on the grass. Food venues, Porta-Potties and clothing donations made their lives easier. It was a peaceful, beautiful, mellow scene. People would meditate together.

Large crowds marched peacefully in downtown Oakland.

Michael Moore visited one day, to lend his support.

The signs were fun and touching; I liked this one especially.

But then came the night of October 25, 2011, when my perception of Occupy Oakland changed radically. This was the now-infamous night when the young Iraq-war veteran Scott Olsen was hit in the head by a projectile fired by an Oakland Police Department officer. Olsen was critically injured but survived; the city later paid him a settlement of $4.5 million.

I was in the crowd of several thousand that night, in the front ranks, perhaps 100 feet from Olsen. The crowd was moving closer to City Hall. There were police everywhere.

Through a loudspeaker, one of them repeatedly warned the crowd to back up and disperse, or else, he said, the police might be compelled to use force. I remember being a little frightened—not much, but telling myself to keep my wits about me. The warning was repeated at least five times. That’s when a little voice told me to remove myself from the front ranks. And then all hell broke loose.

Olsen had been hit, although I doubt that one person in 100 in the crowd knew that. All that we knew was things had turned south and it was time to scatter. The immense crowd ran in all directions. I found myself in a group of about 100, running northeast, away from downtown. We got to around 17th Street when things finally calmed down and I stopped running to get my bearings. There were many people wearing black face masks—they were called the Black Bloc. Next to me, I noticed a young kid with a mask, dressed all in black. He reached inside his pants and pulled out a crowbar and then he started smashing everything in sight: store windows, car windows, mirrors on parking garage ramps.

I was aghast. I’d had no reason at all to think that anyone in the Occupy movement was at all violent, so the kid’s actions came as a complete shock. I approached him and asked him why he was vandalizing “our town, Oakland.” His answer was to punch me in the chest.

In the following days, Occupy Oakland held mass open-air meetings to discuss their policy and practices. I’ll say this for them: they really tried to be a democratic (small “d”) group. The topic of the vandalism and associated arson and looting arose. I made my way to the microphone and said that Occupy needed to purge itself of its violent fringe if it wanted to keep the support of moderates, without whom there can be no meaningful change in America. But other speakers demanded that Occupy allow “a variety of means,” by which they meant: If some of us choose violence, we must not oppose it.

That’s when my attitude toward Occupy shifted. In recent years, after Occupy died (the victim of a self-inflicted suicide for precisely the reason I warned them about) and was replaced by BLM and other movements, my conviction has only strengthened. Peaceful protest is a wonderful, beautiful thing. But when things turn violent, the vast majority of Americans, who would otherwise love to support these movements, turns against them. Nobody wants to see their hometown burned, ravaged and pillaged, in the name of “justice.”

As I watch events unfold in Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis, these memories return to me with pain. I loved Occupy. I believed in it and in its transformative possibilities. For the first time since the 1960s, I felt part of a genuine, national movement for progress and fairness for all. When the violence broke out, and Occupy refused to repudiate it, they lost me. How many Americans are similarly being lost by the violence of the past few years in Portland, Milwaukee, Seattle and so many other cities? For that matter, it’s my firm conviction that Democrats lost so many Congressional seats last November precisely because of the violence and the disastrous “defund the police” slogan invented by what I can only describe as cop haters.

I truly hope and pray we can form another movement for civil rights and equity that will resist violence in all its ugly forms. But somehow, I doubt it.


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