The American Divide by Kenneth Weene

The American Divide by Kenneth Weene

The American DivideEarly in my life, my father decided—correctly—that while I was quite intelligent I had some serious perceptual motor limitations. To put it quite simply, I was pretty much uncoordinated. The only question was which was worse, my fine motor skills or my larger muscle coordination. Over time the answer became clear: both.

To address that deficit, Dad bought me a special present for my seventh birthday. What made it special was the cost, far more than he usually spent. It was a Gilbert Erector Set—the fancy one complete with electric motor. His plan was that by building things with me he would get me interested in fine motor activates and that in turn would lead to improvement. Great plan except for fate; fate determined that I got chicken pox just before my birthday. Now, in most homes that would not have been a problem. Since Dad had already had Chicken Pox, there was no reason he and I couldn’t have sat on the floor and built bridges, houses, and especially those wonderful looking grain elevators that decorated the cover of the instruction manual.

However. reason had little to do with our lives, not when my mother was concerned. She decreed that I couldn’t sit on the floor to play until I was completely cured. A draft would assuredly do me in.

So, the alluring red metal box sat unopened for a few days, on each of which my older brother whined that it was unfair that he couldn’t play with this great new toy just because I was sick. In the end, his whining won my mother over and he—not I—got to open the shiny box, unwrap its treasures, and try—Dad happily participating—his hand at building things.

The drawbridge was not the first project, but it was the one I remember. They had finished building it a couple of days before I was pronounced well enough to play. It sat in a corner of the room where my brother could raise and lower the deck to allow imaginary boats to pass beneath or toy cars to pass over the river below. I, of course, wanted to take apart that bridge and build something of my own. It took two more days before I was finally granted permission to disassemble my brother’s bridge. No, he was not about to help.

By that point, Dad had tired of playing with this new toy. He no longer had interest in helping me. I struggled with a couple of simple projects—none anywhere near what my brother had accomplished—and put the Erector Set away. My occupational therapy having accomplished only frustration and a feeling that my brother was the favored child.

To be honest, I have no belief whatsoever that if I had played with that Erector Set, if our father had spent time with me screwing those little girders and plates together, that my perceptual motor skills would have improved. To this day, it feels somewhat miraculous when I accomplish any manual task.

In Boy Scouts, tying knots was a naught. At camp making lanyards from “gimp,” that plastic lacing so popular in those days, resulted in mess. In Junior High School, shop classes were a frustration and source of fear for my teachers; in metal shop I was given a minimum passing grade for staying seated on a stool.

“Kenneth, just don’t touch anything,” was a constant instruction in my life.

On the other hand, I was book smart. I read, read and read more. Also, I loved to discuss ideas. Abstractions lured me the way that balls and, yes, Erector Sets lured other boys. Academic teachers loved me even as shop and gym teachers echoed that mantra, “Kenneth, just don’t touch anything.”

It wasn’t a big problem in those days to be book smart, no stigma attached. Most people earned their livings doing hands-on work. Relatively few people went to college so the possibility that I would end up working with my brain didn’t upset anyone, especially not my Junior High classmates who relished those shop classes. While most of them spent print shop—yes, we were supposed to learn how to set type—happily learning a trade that might end working in the printing plants of publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers, I spent those class hours thinking about the novels I might someday write.

To be fair, I would have to hunt and peck them on a typewriter because nobody could read my scrawl: just another side of that psychomotor nightmare.

Of course, all this happened before what has been called the Third Industrial Revolution, the one driven my micro-electronics. During those earlier times, hands-on was the sine qua non of every product. Machines could not work on their own. Then came transistors and beyond that integrated chips. Just to add an icing on this new industrial cake lasers added even more precision to machine functions. Those talented hands were no longer so necessary. Even in more back-breaking work like mining and agriculture, mechanization was reducing the number of hands required.

If machines were taking on more of the skill in work, lower paid workers overseas could do the jobs at reduced cost even if shipping was required. And, yes, those same circuits made shipping cheaper as well.

Yet another factor diminishing the demand for skilled labor was market saturation. If the roadbuilding splurge of the Eisenhower years led to more automobile demand and sales, soon there were more cars on the road than we needed. And, with those integrated circuits and computerized quality control cars were being driven longer. Air conditioners were soon in every home; which meant that the demand for new equipment dropped. Worse for the skilled workers in America was that the new computerized equipment, cars for example, required less skill in making repairs. Circuit boards were snapped in and out. The fabulous American knack for tinkering was no longer needed be it in the garage or for appliance repairs. Who now, for instance, repairs televisions? Radios? And the list goes on.

Sadly, workers like those kids I went to Junior High with, the ones who excelled in metal shop, print shop, electric shop, and less so but even wood shop, are now less valued. In fact, such skills have become so less valued that those shop classes have been replaced. Another class I was forced to take—and in which I did spectacularly badly—was mechanical drawing. Making blueprints was considered an important, even crucial skill. Today computer programs quickly turn out blueprints that a skilled person would take weeks to draw.

While this computerized degradation of skilled labor was going on, other groups were demanding entry into the workforce. Women, Blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants were all looking for their places at the economic table. White men whose families had for generations earned their way with their hands and backs found themselves being displaced—not gradually but seemingly overnight. Threatened and in fact losing ground, it is no wonder that they were and are still angry.

On the other side, people like me, the ones who went the academic route, have for the most part been at least able to tread water. Perhaps, at some point doctors, teachers, lawyers, engineers, scientists, and even clergy may be replaced by computers. But, that hasn’t happened yet. Still, it might and even some of us live with that threat hanging over us.

The sense of threat and anger fuels politics. When people are comfortable, they don’t bother with voting. Satisfied people simply go on from day to day, at least that’s true of the average satisfied person. But, the times are a-changing and people are no longer contented. Especially those people with that long tradition of hands-on working.

It is those people who have formed the swing vote that threw the last presidential election to Donald Trump. They are not “deplorable” nor inherently hateful, anti-feminist, or racist. They are threatened and angry because their world is getting smaller. They want that sense of satisfaction back. That sense that their lives will be good and their children’s lives even better.

Traditionally, the Democratic Party has tried to speak for those people. It has been the party of Social Security, minimum wage, and unionization. However, it has failed to address this new sense of threat. To a small degree Bernie Sanders tried. He spoke for free college for everyone, which sounds like it should help. However, there are many working people who have a sense that they and their kids don’t belong in college. When Donald Trump speaks of community colleges as a place for vocational training, he is coming closer to the comfort zone of many workers than talking about their kids taking more math, science, English, or especially foreign languages.

Quite simply, the Democratic Party has become the party of the intelligentsia, people like myself with our college degrees and graduate educations. It is not by chance that Bill Clinton presented himself and his wife as two brilliant minds for the price of one or that Barack Obama and his wife had such outstanding educations. The Democratic Party has become a party of thinking and theorizing.

The problem is that for those threatened and angry hands-on workers—yes especially white but those of other hues as well—intellectual arguments are just more proof that they are under attack. To add fuel to that flame, we have the Core Curriculum, a well-thought-out approach to better educating the young to work with computers and in the modern age but a clear threat to those who managed to survive school through rote learning and good shop grades. Another symbol for such people is the disappearance of cursive writing. While that may be a relief to the fine-motor-challenged like myself, it is just another way of telling those workers that their hard-won skills no longer matter.

Clearly, 2016 was the moment when political leaders could address the chasm between intellect and hands, between theory and praxis. I don’t know if Donald Trump understood what he was doing or simply stumbled into it, but he keyed in on just that issue. He positioned himself—no matter how illogically it may be—as the hands-on working stiff whose life was under siege. To her clear discredit, Hillary Clinton never saw the issue that was dividing the country. Since she had taken considerable time off to ready her presidential campaign, her failure to come up with positions that addressed the concerns of that significant portion of America, the part that had so strongly supported her husband, really speaks to her inadequacy as a candidate.

So, where can the Democrats go now? Better yet, where might a new political party go? The best answer may well lie in history. But, it is a side of history that most Americans don’t know and that many big businesses don’t want us to consider. Much of the growth of the American economy has not been a function of private investment. No, that is a myth. The government—often state as well as federal—has been the force—often indirectly but also directly—that has driven our growth and the development of new jobs and opportunities. I’ve already mentioned the road building of the Eisenhower years. However, everywhere we look there is the hand of government. Even the growth of semiconductors and integrated circuits would never have taken off were there not both pressure and investment from the military. Of course, perhaps the best example was in the nineteenth century when federal lands were used to finance and give purpose to the railroads.

The problem with the American economic system is that we have come to regard corporations as gods. We have this fantasy that they create jobs and new ideas. We want to believe that the pursuit of profits will always determine good decision-making. When there is a clear market, corporations do an excellent job. Why wouldn’t they? Years ago, when studying economics, I read about how in Russia the state-run businesses couldn’t make intelligent decisions. My favorite example was the production of only one size bra. Obviously, a private corporation would have been making a better decision as it tried to increase sales and profits rather than presumably limiting costs.

But, when it comes to seeing the future, existing corporations often are too busy playing it safe. Even when they do research and development, say in the drug industry, they are more concerned that every new product ends up making money than taking real development risks.

Looking to the future should be the goal of government. Of course, if there is too much link between existing corporations and government—certainly the case today—that function is compromised. Maintenance of the status quo becomes the goal. That is what has happened in America. As a result, instead of new growth in hands-on employment in manufacturing equipment for renewable energy and faster transport systems in America, those areas are being developed in other countries. There is no development of new techniques in damming, something that will be essential as sea levels rise. Nor have we been investing in new localized and indoors methods of agriculture as have the Dutch and other European nations.

Instead of calling for a new wave of American driven technology and resulting manufacture, the intellectual politicians of the left have focused on a more just society, one in which everyone receives at least minimal levels of freedom and purchasing power. Quite simply, justice—while one of the highest goals for any society—can only be pursued in a state in which people do not feel threatened. When humans feel under siege they are less willing to worry that the other person be treated fairly and more concerned that they not lose ground themselves.

Whilst I may not be able to do much with my hands or back, I do know that my fellow Americans who can deserve the opportunities and recognition that they desire just as much as those of us who hold PhDs and other degrees do. For now, that is the divide that must be addressed

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Spinoza and Me by Kenneth Weene

Spinoza and Me by Kenneth Weene

It was Tuesday afternoons, two-fifteen almost every Tuesday for the school year – for my seventh-grade school year. They would leave – dismissed early from school to attend religious instruction. Most, the vast majority of my classmates would leave to learn about God, to learn about faith, to learn about dogma. Almost universally they were Catholics. The city in which I grew up was almost entirely Catholic – half of Irish background and half of Italian ­– but all Catholic and all scheduled for confirmation.

​Off our classmates would go in mass exodus, and we – a small number – would huddle in our respective homerooms while being watched – as questionable minorities must be.

​The remainder of the school day was designated a period for “guidance and moral education.” We were given neither guidance nor moral education. Instead, we huddled in our minority and did homework. My homeroom teacher taught English so we did English homework. Next door was a social studies teacher. His minority worked on geography and memorized facts about our city, Somerville, our county, Middlesex, and our commonwealth, Massachusetts. On the other side of our room was a math teacher; there fractions and equations held sway. Therein lay one of the basic moral lessons of my youth – free will may exist, but free choice does not.

So we, in our suspicious minority status, sat quietly and tried to appear compliant – to appear as a well-disciplined and obedient unity. There was only one problem: we were not a unity. For within our small number there was yet another division, another even smaller minority, a minority of one, of me, a Jew. The Catholics were gone; the Protestants ­– undifferentiated from the vantage point of the Vatican – had become the majority. I, I alone, was left – left to be different. “Hebe,” “Kike,” “Shylock”: I heard all those epithets and more while growing up; but the worst was “Jewww” pronounced with hash J and drawn-out W – pejorative in its correctness. Make no doubt about it; I was the hated “Jewww,” the killer of Christ, wearer of devils’ horns, killer of Christian children and consumer of their blood – ah, blood-libeled matzoth.

​It was not easy being a Jew in that classroom, in that school, in that city. There had been a time when the numbers had been different. If Jews had never been the majority, they had once been a serious minority, but that had changed. Most had moved away – across Boston to Brookline and Newton – on the other end of the transit system. Only the temple remained to let the world know that they, a number of them – us, had once lived there. It was a solid building of granite and cement, a building as substantial as one of the many churches that serviced the rest of the community.

But, inside, within the people, within what survived of the congregation, little substance remained. Commitment had gone with the members – gone to those newer and wealthier communities. A few stragglers, a few professional men whose careers required them to stay, a few old people with neither the means nor the will to move: this was the congregation. And, it was led by a rabbi whose lack of standing was consistent with the temple’s ever diminishing stature.

​Leo Shubow had nothing to recommend him. He wasn’t particularly learned, he lacked charisma, he spoke poorly, and, just to make things worse, he sprayed spittle with every sibilant. There were those who opined that Rabbi Shubow would not even had merited our small congregation were it not for his brother, a well-known and highly respected rabbi who not only led but also dominated one of the most important temples in all of Greater Boston. This successful rabbi had demanded a congregation for his inadequate sibling; presumably, it had been decided that he could do the least harm in our already failed flock.

​My father, one of those professional men who felt that they needed to stay in Somerville, insisted my brother and I attend some religious education. For their part neither of our parents ever went to the temple except for those rare but socially mandatory bar mitzvahs and weddings. Very few adults did go to temple. At most services the required minyan was a last-minute miracle.

​It was probably just as well that almost no adults attended services; Rabbi Shubow had only two topics on which he could comfortably sermonize:

​The first was the need to support the just-born nation of Israel. He would particularly exhort us to give coins to plant trees there. Presumably he thought it would be too political to ask us to help buy weapons for the fledgling Israeli army. Nevertheless, underlying our understanding of the importance of those trees was our dread of the incomprehensible hatred that had become the irresistible tide of the holocaust. Even in our small community, each of us in some way was connected to the dead of Europe and to the precious saved – that minority who had survived the camps – and to those among them who were trying to make a new home – a refuge – for themselves in Eretz Israel.

​His second topic had nothing discernable to do with Israel or Judaism. He was passionate about the threat of icebergs in the North Atlantic. I never learned if he had lost somebody to an iceberg-related sinking or had simply been traumatized as a very small boy by the end of the Titanic. Whatever the reason, he would speak at length – poorly, but at length – about the need for a better warning system to protect sailors.

​His preoccupation seemed somewhat silly to those of us who bothered to think about those icebergs. The world was still reeling from the war. Oceans of blood had been spilled. Even if one were to think of death in the North Atlantic, it made more sense to focus on the torpedoes of the Nazis than on the icebergs breaking away from Greenland and Iceland.

​I would probably have no adult thought of Leo Shubow were it not for a book that he suggested I read. That year – that year of confirmations – I read the book he had suggested. It wasn’t a very sophisticated book, but it did raise an interesting question. Could one be a bad Jew and still be a great Jew? Felix Mendelssohn, the great composer, was one example. Shabbetai Zvi, the false messiah, was another. But, the most important example was Baruch de Spinoza.

​That book didn’t teach me much about Spinoza – the brilliant Sephardic Jew who had been expected to become an important rabbi but who, instead, was perceived by his community as doubting the very existence of God. Still trying to come to grips with the Inquisition that had driven them from Spain and that had killed so many of their fellow religionists, the Sephardic community in Holland was deeply religious, strongly observant, and extremely intellectual. Spinoza’s perceived apostasy was an outrage.

​Ostracized and (very unusually for a Jew) excommunicated, he had made his living as a grinder of lenses, some of the best lenses available in Holland. He had also written brilliantly in his attempts to understand whatever he could of the essential nature of the world and to define mankind’s ethical obligations. Although he had remained outside the Jewish fold, Spinoza had become the spiritual father of the modern age. His simple abode was to become a place of pilgrimage for modern thinkers – perhaps most notably Einstein, who stopped there during his flight from Europe to America – his escape from the Nazis.

​Spinoza ground lenses, at that time one of the purest mathematical activities. Using mathematical formulae, light could be forced into orderly behavior. Einstein went beyond that; he applied mathematics to the understanding of light and to the fundamental physical nature of the world. Shubow was not so brilliant. He could only worry about seeing the physical dangers in the natural world, but he, like Spinoza and Einstein, understood that the physical world could be known – that the dangers inherent in it could be understood and perhaps overcome.

​Precision of mathematical and scientific thinking could give mankind control over nature. It was not necessary to invoke God, nor was it meaningful to think of God as intervening in that nature – given by Him or perhaps more properly synonymous with Him. To appreciate that order, to truly appreciate it, was to love God, to be – in Spinoza’s phrase – intoxicated with God.

​But, mankind is often more intoxicated with itself than with God. It is our nature that we see threat in the mirror of existence and turn on our fellow humans over and over again. Human nature is not so predictable nor so beautiful. It turns us against minorities and thereby against ourselves. We may call it prejudice and hatred, for my part I call it Evil.

​The Inquisition was rooted in Evil as was the Holocaust. There was Evil in that classroom, too. Sitting there on those Tuesday afternoons so acutely aware of being a minority within a minority I was at once both a victim of that Evil and a participant in it.

​Rabbi Shubow had lived with enough Evil to appreciate the goal of goodness – to understand nature and use that knowledge to save man. Now I am older. I have lived with enough Evil to wonder if man is worth saving. And I have lived with enough of mankind to wonder if mankind can save itself. Perhaps it is enough to appreciate human nature, to study the psychological world, and to accept that our species may well reach its own self-doomed end.

​There is creation, there is nature, and there is man. For all these there is order, that most divine of all possibilities. Order exists. I revel in that fact and I am too intoxicated with God to think of praying for heavenly intervention.

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Joshua – How One Boy Changed my Thinking by Kenneth Weene

Joshua – How One Boy Changed my Thinking by Kenneth Weene

Summer of 1968, just before I went back to graduate school, I did fieldwork for the “Canadian Association of Retarded Citizens.” Our team was doing a cost-benefit analysis of services for children who had been diagnosed as “retarded—a diagnostic term that is no longer accepted, but which was then used.  One of the facilities at which we did observations was a unique hospital operated by the Province of New Brunswick. It was dedicated to serving developmentally handicapped children: a mixture of many diagnostic categories. Given our specific charter, we knew exactly which kids we would want to study, only those with a primary diagnosis of retardation, and arrived prepared to make our requirements clear to the staff.

What a lovely staff they were. Not only dedicated to the children in their care and close-knit as a group but also warm beyond belief. We were welcomed to their facility and given every assistance…except for their one request. “Certainly, you can observe just the retarded children,” we were told individually. “However, we do want you to appreciate the full range of what we do here. So, would you spend some time with—” And each of us was given the name of a youngster who didn’t meet our research parameters. The boy with whom I would be spending time was Joshua.

“He isn’t retarded,” I was assured by the physician who was in charge of the eleven-year-old’s care; “but at this point he is functioning at the level of an infant.”

I was shown to a room, where Joshua lay. The room smelled slightly of elimination, but not badly. His diapers were clean. His body had been bathed.

Slight and of average height, Joshua’s light brown hair had been carefully combede. His eyes were also brown, but they somehow lacked a sense of life—a dullness as if covered by cataracts. He didn’t move except for occasional episodes of seizures, during which I saw visions of a cold hell as his pupils— contracting and dilating randomly—darted aimlessly. Joshua could not eat unless carefully fed with especial precaution to help him swallow when necessary. Given the level of the boy’s function in contrast to the cleanliness and decoration of Joshua’s room, it was clear the staff expended a great deal of energy caring for him.

I sat next to Joshua’s bed, talking to him—as I had been instructed—as if he were a normal child. It was perhaps forty-five minutes, but it felt more like hours. Talking, pausing, no response, talking more. I rambled on about sports, weather, television, movies, and about my own life.

I knew each member of the team was similarly engaged, also dealing with an experience which seemed so futile and yet incredibly important. The staff members, who from time to time stopped in to see how I was doing and to say something to this inert child, made me aware of that importance.

Finally, the doctor came back to get me and to explain Joshua’s condition. The boy suffered from a genetic disorder which produced inevitable deterioration and death. “It’s genetic, like Tay-Sachs Disease,” he said; “except it’s much worse because the onset is later, which means the kids get to have some quality of life before… Then, they lose it all.”

His eyes misted over and it took a few moments for this dedicated professional to regain his composure. Then he shared some of Joshua’s life since he had come to this facility.

A loving parent fondly remembers the landmarks of their child’s development: first words, first steps, toilet training, first day of school, first sleep over, and on the list goes. This doctor had what might be called a reverse list. “When Joshua first came, he was a pretty normal kid. Most parents would have been pleased with him. But, his folks had already seen what was happening. They had been told the diagnosis. With great sadness, they were staring at the abyss of an hereditary horror.

“‘Our son used to be the star of his baseball team,’ his father told us. ‘Now he can’t even catch a ball,’” the doctor related.

“‘School’s worse,’ his mother insisted. She told us about an A-student slipping into minimal work and less comprehension.” He shook his head as he continued. “The worst thing, and they both agreed on this, was Joshua knew it was happening. They would find him crying. And, he would ask them what was wrong, what he had done wrong. God, it must have been awful.”

Taking out a folder, to which he never actually gave any notice, the doctor went on to talk about the first night Joshua had wet the bed and how he had sat in a corner on the floor and sobbed when the nurse came into his room. About when he soiled himself. When the boy stopped talking. Stopped swallowing.

“The hardest time for us on staff was when the parents stopped visiting. Joshua had been here about a year. At first, they visited every week. Then every two weeks. Then… Finally, they came one last time. They really didn’t want to see him. ‘He won’t recognize us,’ they said; they hoped. But the charge nurse insisted. She practically dragged them. They were wrong. He did. The three of them sitting in the dayroom crying.” The doctor wiped his own eyes with the sleeve of his white coat. “And the rest of us crying, too.

“They told him they’d be back soon, but we all knew they were lying. When we got back to my office, they said they couldn’t—not anymore. That was almost a year ago. Who knows if he’d remember them now? Who knows what he remembers? Or knows?!”

Suddenly, the doctor slammed his hand down on the desk. Pencils, papers, photographs: everything jumped. “It’s so damned unfair,” he yelled. “He was a good kid. He didn’t deserve this. Nobody should have to suffer this way.”

Our research team stayed at the facility for almost a week before moving on to our next destination, Prince Edward Island.

Nobody told me I had to do so, but I found time to go back to Joshua’s room, to sit with the boy who was there but no longer present. Talking, pausing, no response, talking some more. Each visit I shared more about myself, what I hoped for in my life, what I feared.

I have no idea how long Joshua lingered in a state of limbo. I hope it wasn’t too much longer.

For years, I spoke to no one about Joshua. I couldn’t imagine what I would say.

When a few years later Roe v. Wade brought the subject of abortion into great public debate, I realized my views had changed. While I had been in favor of a woman’s right to choose, something was now different. It wasn’t the autistic or intellectually disabled children I saw that summer who changed my life. It was Joshua. Maybe somebody could make a case that his existence brought out something better in others. Certainly, he touched me.

But, how could anyone justify what Joshua went through? Although it was never a question for us, I knew then that were my wife and I to be pregnant, I would want to know what lay ahead for our potential child. I would demand genetic screening to discover hereditary disorders. If our fetus faced a fate like Joshua’s, I would want to terminate the pregnancy. I do not believe children should suffer so, that they should suffer such a sense of personal loss of self. I do not believe they should have to question what they have done wrong to deserve such a hell nor have to deal with parents walking away—albeit not in anger or desire but being unable themselves to deal with the pain.

In the memory of Joshua’s dead eyes, I see a reality that demands my acceptance, a realization that children have a right to death. Sometimes we forget how important it is that we, each and every one of us but especially the helpless and weak, have the option of the pain’s end, the option of avoiding the intolerable.

I cannot say abortion is a good thing. I know of no one who says it is. I cannot say a life is unimportant. I can, however, say, that suffering is a bad thing. I can say dooming a child to such pain as Joshua suffered is evil. I can say that offering abortion as an alternative in such cases is important.

Yet, who is to decide what suffering is too much? Who is to decide which child should face which slings and arrows and which should be spared a life that looms so painfully ahead? Perhaps, since death is inevitable for us all, none of us should see the moment of birth. As Otto Rank suggested, we are all only trying to return to the womb anyway.

Certainly, there is a slippery slope before us. While we typically start with an assumption that a mother has her child’s best interests at heart, those who would proscribe abortion make no such assumption. They think they have a much greater concern for children. While this seldom includes caring about the child after birth, a case could be made for their position, especially if one believes that a child has a soul and somehow every soul must see the light of day if only for a moment.

I make no such assumptions, not about who has the best interest at heart or about the existence of a soul. I start only with Joshua and knowing that while pain and death are the natural ends of human existence, they are not the natural end of childhood. Who among us would say Joshua’s suffering is acceptable?

The only reasonable position I can find for myself is that abortion should be considered a rational alternative to a life of pain and suffering. What constitutes sufficient pain and suffering to terminate a pregnancy? I would only ask that the mother seeking to end a pregnancy have thought through her decision having been provided all the relevant information and choices.

I never met Joshua’s parents. I cannot speak for his mother. What would she have decided if she had known he would—after a few years of being her delight—reach such a horrible end? Would she have spared him?

Would you?

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Dark Shadows on the Silver Screen by Kenneth Weene

Dark Shadows on the Silver Screen by Kenneth Weene

Just over a century after the release of D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker’s film of the same name came to the silver screen. While the Griffith film justified the Ku Klux Klan and portrayed white racism as the salvation of America, the Parker film traces the life of Nat Turner and the slave revolt which he led in pre-Civil War Virginia. From totally opposing perspectives, both films spoke to the fear and anger that has poisoned American race relations since before the Revolution.

It should certainly not surprise us that films speak to our national consciousness and help us define who we are and what we believe. If there is one art form that is quintessentially American, it is movies, and what greater purpose has art than to explore the human condition.

While the two “Birth of a Nation” films explore the darkest sides of American race relations, three other films released at the end of 2016 try to raise an entirely different set of issues.

“Fences,” based on the August Wilson stage play, presents a Black America that is separate and if not equal one that has its own unique culture. The protagonist Troy Maxson is a Black man who is painfully aware of the limitations that have been placed on his life because of his race. Fearful of what the world will do to them, he tries to protect his sons by forcing them to see the world through his own bitter eyes. Set in the 1950’s, “Fences” references both the fact that Black Americans were fenced in by segregation and prejudice and the career of Jackie Robinson, whose success as a baseball player gave hope for an avenue towards equality.

“Loving” is based not on a play or story but real lives. Richard and Mildred Loving were a working-class couple who loved one another. Because he was White and she Black, the state of Virginia forbad their marriage. Going out of state to marry, they returned to Virginia and found themselves jailed and only released if they promised to leave the state. Featured in a Life Magazine story which I remember reading, the Lovings eventually won not only the right to have their marriage recognized in the home state but also the legal end of miscegenation laws in America. Loving v. Virginia was decided by the Supreme Court Dec 12, 1967. The movie asks a simple but poignant question: are Blacks less human than Whites; are we not all more nearly human than otherwise?

During the years between 1958, when the Lovings married, and 1967 another story was also playing out in Virginia. NASA was established in 1958 with the goal of taking America into space. “Hidden Figures” focuses on three Black women who worked at NASA’s Virginia facilities. Dorothy Vaughan eventually became NASA’s first Black-American supervisor. Mary Jackson became an aeronautical engineer. And, mathematics whiz Katherine Johnson played a pivotal role in figuring out how to bring the astronauts home. These three women entered NASA when it was a segregated and misogynistic organization and managed to find the recognition they deserved. This multiple-biopic subconsciously takes us back to Jackie Robinson as it challenges us to judge people not on race but on competence. Should the best mathematician, engineer, or supervisor not get the job regardless of the color of their skin. The message is clear: we are all the same under our skins. Or, to use one of the most self-conscious lines of the script, “At NASA we all pee the same color.” Presumably, that is the color of rocket fuel.

Why this sudden spurt of films about the Black experience in the fifties and sixties? It would be easy to point out the diversity has become an issue in Hollywood and particularly when it comes to awards. That may be one part of the answer.

Another, and in my opinion a more important answer is represented by that centennial of the release of that abhorrent film “The Birth of a Nation.” The release of that film in 1915 began a portrayal of Black America that has often been offensive and assuredly requires redress. As distasteful as the representations of Blacks has overall been in film, that issue pales in comparison to the actuality of Black life. And, on the other side, as horrific as slavery, segregation, and bigotry have been, there has been real movement towards civil rights. Without doubt, the possibilities for Black Americans are far greater and better today than they were at the beginning of the fifties and sixties.

The question that these three films asks is what has made things better. During those years, powerful voices were raised, marches held, and riots occurred. Were those the catalyst for change, or did change come because White America came to see Blacks, like all of us, were more nearly human than otherwise? These new films would have us ignore the marchers, the rioters, and the conflicts. They would have us learn a new mythology of American race relations, one in which aspirations change the world and the system can be altered from within.

These three movies are trying to rewrite the history of race in America. They are trying to say, “Let us forget about racism and segregation. Let us forget about the struggle that brought Civil Rights. Let us instead recognize that the right prevails, that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,’ and that the basic American character is one of decency.”

Is this revision realistic? Can we rewrite American history and bury slavery, segregation, the Klan, and discrimination? The rage of both “Birth of a Nation” films is seared into the soul of America. It cannot be so easily papered over. Elimination of America’s racial divide will require not simply the creation of a new set of “happier” myths but real reconciliation.

The great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung spoke of the shadow, that part of each person that they cannot accept in themselves. It is the part of the person that they keep hidden. Reconciliation cannot take place until those shadowy parts on all sides are exposed in the light of recognition. As much as I enjoyed the three films, “Fences,” “Loving,” and “Hidden Figures,” I see them not as sanguine harbingers of a just and equal society but as signs that once again America will try to bury that which is dark in our history. If the “American Dilemma” is to be resolved, it cannot be by the application of whitewash but only by the piercing sting of real discussion.

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“Oy Vey Iz Mir” by Kenneth Weene

“Oy Vey Iz Mir” by Kenneth Weene

After finishing college, I spent some time in grad school in New York City. Caught in a depressed mood swing, I didn’t want to live in a dorm or share an apartment with other people, so I found a place I could afford at the edge of Harlem. The building in which I lived was rent-controlled and filled with elderly Jewish tenants. Downstairs we had a neighborhood newspaper and candy store much like the one my maternal grandfather had owned when I was little. Dave, the owner, was as weary and worn as my Pa had been, but at least he could walk without a cane and discuss the happenings of the day; he read every one of New York’s dailies.

What Dave couldn’t do was sell me a paper or an egg cream without a commentary on how the neighborhood had gone downhill since he had moved in and bought his business fifty-some years earlier; and that plaint always followed by an appropriate groan of “Oy vey iz mir”.

Across the street, 163rd to be exact, was another little store, this a bodega in which all business—except mine—seemed to be conducted in Spanish. They, too, sold newspapers, ones I couldn’t read beyond the frequent references to Puerto Rico in the headlines. The bodega sold the little cigars I preferred to the Parliaments I got at Dave’s. They also sold bright pink, green, and other vibrantly colored sweets and sodas with contents I had never actually tried so I knew I wouldn’t like.

Swirling around the Jewish and Puerto Rican center of my tiny world was a sea of Blacks. Of course, back then they were called Negros. Mostly, they ignored me and I them except for one time—late at night—when a teen decided to rob me.

“Hand over your money,” he demanded, his hand thrust deep in his pocket.

I complied and handed him the five bucks and thirty-two cents I had in my pocket.

“Al of it!”

“That’s it,” I answered. “If I had money, do you think I’d live in this part of town? What I don’t understand is why you’re robbing people who live around here. Why don’t you go where people actually have money to steal?”

He thought about that and handed back my four singles, three quarters, four dimes, three nickels, and two pennies. “I guess you need this more than me.”

I handed a buck back to him. “You’ll need subway fare.”

He shoved the bill into his pocket and slouched towards the subway entrance on the corner.

I never saw him again. I wonder if he took my advice.

Jewish, Puerto Rican, or Black, we all shopped at the one grocery store, Sloan’s on Saint Nicholas Ave. It was the only grocery in the neighborhood and the prices seemed reasonable. That was they seemed reasonable until I wanted a piece of meat.

I didn’t do a lot of cooking. Breakfast was dry cereal and coffee. Most days I ate my other meals in the school cafeteria—tasteless but cheap—or in one of the less expensive restaurants I could find along Broadway. Sometimes—to be honest many times—I got fried chicken from this great little storefront on 125th; mine was usually the only white face in the place, but who cared? If I did “cook” a meal, it usually meant hotdogs or warmed canned stew. Once in a while Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup heated with canned tuna and dumped over a piece of toast.

I don’t know why I suddenly wanted steak: just a whim or perhaps my body communicating some subconscious nutritional need. Whatever the reason, I took the coffin-sized elevator down to the entryway, pulled my winter jacket tight against the cold that found its way off the Hudson, waved to Dave as I rounded the corner, and continued half a block to Sloan’s.

The meat department was along the back wall, right side. Packages labeled “steak” filled a small segment of the display case. I picked through.

Why are they green?

I took a pack: “Rump Steak, 1 pound”, brought it to the butcher’s window, and turned my question into words.

“That means it’s ready for cooking,” the “butcher” assured me. “We age our steak here. This color means it’s properly aged.”

I didn’t believe him, but I bought that pound of meat anyway. My curiosity aroused, I was going to do some comparison shopping.

Hopping on the subway, I headed to the Westside, to the world of brownstone buildings and upper-middle incomes. Finding a Sloan’s was easy. I took my brown paper bag with its “rump steak” contents—label removed—to the meat department, found another pound package of rump steak—which was 15 cents a pound more than I had paid on Amsterdam Ave—went to the butcher’s window and asked. “I have this pound of steak I bought someplace else; but when I was on my way home, I realized I needed another pound. I don’t want this girl who’s coming over to think I’m cheap. Anyway, I came in to buy another pound, but there’s something wrong with your meat.”

“There’s nothing wrong with our meat,” the butcher informed me. “We carry the best meat you can get.”

“Oh, but the butcher in the other place said meat should look like this. That it should be properly aged.” I pulled the package of “aged” steak from the bag. “Yours is a different color.”

“Where did you buy this crap?” the butcher demanded. “First, it’s going rotten. I wouldn’t feed it to my dog. And…” He took a careful look, “This ain’t steak. Too veiny and tough. If it were fresh, you might use it for stew. My advice, throw it and buy two new steaks.” He turned away and then threw in an afterthought. “And, hey, kid, not rump. Get yourself a sirloin.”

I thanked him, but I didn’t buy any meat. Instead, I went to a Gristedes and bought myself half a pound of chopped meat. Salisbury would have to do since I’d exhausted my pocketbook.

Back on 163rd St, I stopped at Dave’s to pick up a paper and a candy bar. Munching my Milky Way, I shared the day’s experience.

“That’s why I hate them,” Dave said. “Those coloreds move in and everything goes to shit.”

Something had surely gone to shit, but it wasn’t the Blacks or the Hispanics or the Jews who had caused it. In those days, before sell-by dates and in parts of the city where the less affluent lived, taking advantage of people who had less by selling them food that was on the edge of turning was common practice. No point in pointing that out to Dave.

“You don’t have to tell me,” the corner store owner continued. “I live here. I shop here. I’m getting screwed, too. What can you do? If I could find somebody to sell this place to, I’d get the hell out; but who wants to buy up here? What another Rican without any money? “Oy vey iz mir!”

I didn’t shop at Sloan’s anymore—not for canned goods and certainly not for “properly aged” steak. I went farther downtown and paid the extra that really wasn’t extra at all. But there was one thing I couldn’t figure out. Dave seemed like a smart enough guy. He read the papers and kept abreast of things. Still, he didn’t get it: The bad guys were the greedy management at Sloan’s who were cheating all of us. Not the customers—Black, white, Hispanic—whose poverty and lack of information kept them only a lucky hairsbreadth away from food poisoning.

“Oy vey iz mir indeed.

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The Rorschach by Kenneth Weene

The Rorschach by Kenneth Weene

I knew that Jerry had spent a lot of his capital on getting me permission to audit that seminar, and he didn’t even know why it was so important to me. I hadn’t told him about that psychological years earlier. In the throes of anxiety and hysteria, I had sought help. Early in the process had come a full psych workup that included those inkblots.

My responses still bothered me. I wanted to know what they had meant. I wanted to know how to read my own psychological x-ray.

It was the sixth of our once a week meetings. Each session had been the same. The professor had identified a “subject” by age and sex and nothing more, passed around the protocols and asked the class to discuss their findings.

The first go around the table would be scoring the protocols. That itself was an arcane process. Then would come the inevitable question, “So what is the subject’s diagnosis?” That would lead to another round of responses.

Only then could there be discussion of the subject’s psyche, of the conflicts and thoughts that the students might impute to them. As various suggestions were made, the world-renowned scholar would shake his head and explain once again that the Rorschach was not some kind of magic tool. “If you want to know the hidden parts of a person, you might as well use Tarot Cards,” he told us more than once. “Just stick with the scoring system and you can get an accurate diagnosis.”

That was his approach: People were subjects; what they shared was reduced to scores; and the goal was a diagnosis. I soon realized that the goal of the course was to disabuse us of any notion of the unconscious or of psychodynamics. This was, after all, a behaviorist program with little room for Freud or his ilk.

Even as I had listened to what Dr. Hogan had to say, I wanted to argue with him. I knew that he was, for all his fame, missing something. Perhaps it was lucky for me that as an auditor I was not asked to take part in the discussions. While other students were called on in turn, I was restricted to jotting down my thoughts and waiting to be called on. That call seldom came.

We went over the young teen’s protocol. “Okay, what is your diagnosis?” the teacher asked.  Nobody had a clear idea, but that didn’t stop them from throwing their diagnostic hunches onto the table. “Depression.” “Schizoid personality.” “Simple Schizophrenia.” “Conduct Disorder.”  Oh, they made a lovely list.

I had written myself a note. “I don’t know what the diag. is, but this kid is in trouble. He’s going to end badly. Maybe suicide, but  more likely an accident. He’s looking to take risks, trying to prove that he can handle things on his own.”

Paul, one of the other students who was finishing his doctoral dissertation, looked at my note, shook his head, and whispered, “And you got all that from this kid’s Rorschach?”

“Yes,” I whispered back. “I’d love to know about what happened to him.”

Ignoring us, Dr. Hogan announced, “You’re all wrong. This is a normal kid. His family lived next door to me when I was in Boston, and they let me use him as a subject in my research. I gave you this protocol so you’d understand that while the Rorschach is interesting and certainly has allowed me to do some research, it really doesn’t tell us much about the subjects we test.”

“What happened to him?” I asked. The look the professor gave me made me sorry for my temerity, but I had to know. Dr. Hogan had been in Boston many years earlier; now he was teaching here in the Midwest. Did he know what had happened to his neighbor?

Dr. Hogan probably would have ignored me, but Paul was intrigued by my question—or perhaps it was by my diagnostic note—and he added his voice to mine. “I’m just wondering if we can extrapolate backward and get some idea how some of these percepts might have predicted his future,” Paul said. “I know we might do as well with Tarot Cards, but it seems like—”

“Actually, it’s a sad story,” our mentor began. “Butch died. He was murdered when he was eighteen. It was a terrible thing. He and a friend had hitchhiked across the country. When they got to Oklahoma…” He took a deep breath. “They found his body tied to a stake in the middle of a field. He had been burned to death.”

A collective gasp circled the room. Paul bent close to my ear and whispered, “How did you know?” I didn’t answer him. I was busy thinking about Butch. I never told Dr. Hogan or anybody else in that room, but I had also known the boy. He had been a camper at the summer camp that my parents operated in Maine. It had to be the same kid, because how many kids could there have been from greater Boston who had been murdered that way?

I didn’t have much to do with Butch that summer in Maine. As a junior counselor, I had campers to look after, and Butch was older than my group. There was, however, one day on which he and I had interacted. It was the last day of the camp season. Most of the kids had boarded the busses that would take them back to the big cities from which they came. A few were picked up by their parents, typically because they would be going on a short family holiday before school began.

Butch was supposed to be picked up that morning. When lunchtime came, he was still waiting. A call was made. “Oh, we forgot,” was Butch’s mother’s response. “I’ll call my husband; we should be there in three or four hours.”

Butch took the news in stride. “You’ll have to amuse yourself,” the head counselor told him. “Okay.” Off Butch went to do just that.

In mid-afternoon, I was at the waterfront helping to haul in the docks and store them for the winter. Butch had found a piece of plywood and was using it as a very tippy raft which he polled about near the shoreline. I took a few minutes to ask how he was doing.

“I’m playing Tom Sawyer,” he answered. “The trick is to keep from falling off.”

“It must be a pain having to wait this way.” I said.

“Nah, it’s okay.”

I expressed surprise that his folks had forgotten to come that morning. No other kid had ever been forgotten that way. Of course, I didn’t say that to Butch.

My folks know I can handle myself,” he told me. “They’ll show up. They always do. It’s no big deal.”

I understood two things. The first was that it was a big deal. Being forgotten by one’s parents is a very big deal. The second was that in Butch’s family talking about his parents’ foibles and failures was verboten. The rule was, “Keep a stiff upper lip and amuse yourself.”

At the time I didn’t really understand the mental health implications of that day. I, like Dr. Hogan, saw Butch as resilient and healthy. I even envied him a bit; after all, he could deal with adversity so much better than most people.

Years later a new concept had entered by understanding of human behavior. Repression is usually talked about as some kind of mysterious process in which unacceptable thoughts are put away, pushed into an unconscious realm. From a psychodynamic point of view, repression is the center of neurosis.

Of course, for Freudians and the like, that repressed material is about strange ideas like wanting to kill your father and marry your mother. But Butch had taught me something years earlier about repression. Repression is what we are not allowed to talk about. We bury that material because we are told to.

In Butch’s case what was to be buried was his need to be noticed and remembered and his anger and disappointment when he was not. Years later, he would still be playing on a very tippy raft. The trick would be staying afloat in the face of danger. That would justify the pain. That would make it clear that he was what he was supposed to be, resilient and healthy.

​We never mentioned Butch again, and I never ever talked about my own responses to the Rorschach. Let’s just say that repression is often an important part of appearing mentally healthy and of success in graduate school.

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