Tag Archives: Washington DC

Witching Well

Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.

In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?

Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.

Love Thy Enemy

The line for the train snakes through Union Station before 6:00 a.m. Many of us, maybe all of us, were at the Women’s March on Washington. Listening to strangers speak to one another, it’s clear that this was the largest “love in” in history. Trump supporters say it was about hate—we know they rely on “alternative facts” now. Nearly every speaker at the rally emphasized love. The government gives us Orwellian doublespeak. 1984 must become required reading once again. We can’t let the fascists control the narrative. Those who control the narrative sway the crowds. The Women’s March on Washington was not hateful. This was a peaceful gathering in the name of love. I write fiction as well as non. (My fiction has even fewer readers than this blog.) The point is, I know about controlling narratives. If you let a government with a documented history of distorting the truth (at just one day old) control the narrative, friends, we are lost.

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The March was the beginning. I saw children just old enough to march. Children so young they had to march in strollers. I saw grandmothers in wheelchairs. I saw mothers and daughters. Sons, brothers, fathers. Not one unkind word among people standing shoulder-to-shoulder for over four hours. No room to sit down. Bathrooms inaccessible. We were united. We are united. This government has already shown that it will offer post-truth rather than facts whenever possible. Do not let them control the narrative! They will be trying to silence our voices. They will, like all fascists, try to make lies our national narrative. George Washington, they will tell us, voted for Donald Trump. And those who find blindly will believe it. Those who don’t read history will have no way to assess this. They will follow any narrative with a combed-over talking head. Question everything. Question what I write. Check it out. I believe in facts.

We are embarking on a dangerous journey. These waters, however, are not uncharted. The Bismarck steamed this way. Marches have been documented around the world. Millions of eyes are watching. They are part of the narrative. Write the story. Talk to others about this. Incessantly. The truth is not arbitrary. There are groups near you that you can join. Resist. Peacefully protest. Write the narrative. Share the narrative. If we need to March every weekend, we will. If we need to take turns, so be it. This is our story. Unlike the blatant post-truth we’re already being fed, our story is non-fiction. Read it and tell everyone else to read it too. This is what democracy looks like.

On the Ground

Washington, DC has always struck me as an artificial city. The neoclassical architecture is just a bit pompous and rolling into town on a train is kind of like stepping onto a movie set. Or, I’m told, into Los Vegas. Regulations about the heights of buildings make it unlike other large communities, and the Washington Monument has taken on a new phallic significance as of this weekend. I don’t come here seeking salvation. Indeed, I only came to register my dissatisfaction. I’m not alone. “Pussy hats” outnumber red caps by a long shot. It’s time to stand up and be counted. Stepping out of Union Station the first thing we saw was a Black Lives Matter protest. It’s peaceful, but forceful. Those selling Trump merchandise look like it’s a slow day. The inauguration is less than three hours from now.

Washington has some personal resonance with me. My grandmother—herself a second generation American—was born here. She wouldn’t have shared my political views, I’m pretty sure, but I believe in fair treatment for all. Even those who haven’t asked for it. The last time I was here it was for a conference. The atmosphere was more congenial then, but I’m liking the number of protesters I’m seeing here today. Woman carrying signs, wearing pink hats, talking to people they don’t even know. We’re all in this together and it sure feels better to know you’re not alone. We come upon a protest march. Police are herding the crowd away with an impressive array of black. A small crowd gathers to watch. I hear what sound like explosions. Welcome to the land of the need, the home of the rave. I’m not here to make trouble. The electoral college started it.

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What you saw on the news last night isn’t what was taking place here on the ground. The protests here in DC have been going on all day. Even as I was getting ready for bed protesters had blocked the street on the way to Trump’s oversized balls even as the television anchors were spreading a narrative of glitz and glam, ignoring the tempest just outside. Determined to normalize Trump as if the elections of incompetents were everyday business is these states, the smiling anchors didn’t comment on the completely empty stands of the inaugural parade that were so painfully obvious. I’ve never seen so much riot gear in my life. This, they tell me, is democracy. I’m here to march peacefully, in solidarity. Marches in 60 countries and seven continents—the first ever Presidential protest in Antarctica has been announced. To see you only have to open your eyes. I’m in DC and I’m glad to be in the company of others who haven’t yet given up on our country.

Sense of Place

Visiting the Holocaust Museum was one of the most wrenching activities of my life. I was in Washington DC for a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature when my friend Jeff came across the Atlantic to attend. He wanted to see the Museum and I reluctantly agreed to accompany him. About half-way through I found a secluded bench, sat, and wept. I simply couldn’t take the weight of the sadness and cruelty this represented. I have trouble telling another person “no,” let alone striking, or harming them. How could millions of people simply be discounted? Murdered for being born who they were? Could there be anything more inhumane? A quote from the recently departed Elie Wiesel hung on the wall behind my bench. “Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.” My wife asked if I would be okay. “I don’t know,” I said.

I have to admit to being a Pokémon illiterate. I don’t know who or what Pokémon is. I do know it/he represents a game universe that originated in Japan. The last “game” I ever played was Myst. Before that it was Pong. I suspect that growing up without computers made real games seem, well, real. I don’t have time for computer games and I wouldn’t know an X-Box if if fell on my head. I don’t even know if they still exist. You’d have to be dead, however, not to know that Pokémon Go is all that anyone cares about any more. An app that lets you “find” Pokémon in various places, adults and kids alike are blindly walking out in front of cars to get her/it. One of the undying lessons of my childhood was, “if the ball rolls out into the street, don’t run after it!” Natural selection at work.

So what do Pokémon and the Holocaust Museum have to do with each other? Nothing at all. Or thus it should be. A story in the Washington Post shares the plea of the museum for people to stop seeking Pokémon there. One of the sites programmed for the whimsical creatures is more sacred than a church, synagogue, or mosque. Genocide is not a game. Headlines boldly proclaim that Pokémon Go is great for businesses. The Holocaust Museum is not about business. It is a mass grave on a scale that the human mind simply can’t conceive. A place to remind us where hatred and fascism lead. As difficult as it may be, we need to visit that terrifying place and we need to remember that it began as distrust of those who are different.

Photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: AgnosticPreachersKid, Wikimedia Commons

Lobby Hobby

I can recall a time when hobbies seemed less than threatening. Indeed, the idea was to relax, not to lobby. My hobbies—collecting just about anything you could get without money—didn’t involve going to a store. Stamps (because everybody used them back then), coins (ditto), fossils from the local river bank, bottle caps that we collected while Mom was doing the wash at the laundromat, all kinds of handouts from society’s detritus made for many hours’ entertainment. I also collected Bibles. That was when I was old enough to earn some money and spend it on books. And I read those Bibles until I’d run out of versions, then I’d start over again. Now my hobby has come back to haunt me.

According to the New York Times, the Hobby Lobby family is planning to build a Bible Museum in Washington, DC, prompting fears of evangelization. Right there in the nation’s capital, not far from the Mall, a museum showing the importance of the Bible would indeed send a message. But is it really a threat? We live under the judicial decisions of a Supreme Court weighted towards the literal already. It might not hurt to have a museum dedicated to finding out what’s going through our justices’ minds. Clearly it’s not women’s rights. If we wander those proposed halls, we might see that museums are indeed dedicated to outdated stuff that has some importance. Rare are the contemporary museums that show right where we are at the moment. Rarer still, those that show the future that remains undecided. In many senses, Washington is already a museum.

The secular world seems to fear the Bible. It is, however, not going to go away. Although I left literalism decades ago, I’m still pleasantly surprised how much the Bible has to offer by way of insight into human nature and contemplation. You might even find some workable ethics if you can get away from the non-issues of birth control, stem cells, or same-sex marriage. The Bible doesn’t need to be a threatening book. In the wrong hands, it may at times seem like The Book of Eli had its eyes right on the target, but those who would use the Bible to harm others are those who read without understanding the words. No, I don’t think the Green family’s plans for such a museum are innocent. Neither can I believe that hobbies are a $3 billion industry. Reading books and picking up other people’s cast-offs may be the only hobbies you need.

Engraven images?

Engraven images?