The Rorschach by Kenneth Weene

The Rorschach by Kenneth Weene

 This subject is a thirteen-year-old male,” Professor Hogan, which is not his real name, announced as he passed the test protocols around the seminar table. Having just completed my first year of graduate courses in Psychology, I had wangled my way into the professor’s seminar for advanced students.

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 a 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 an 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.

Black Lives and my White Privilege: Lessons from Childhood by Kenneth Weene

Black Lives and my White Privilege: Lessons from Childhood by Kenneth Weene

had never experienced love before, not like this at any rate. In Latin class of all places. Declining a simple adjective, good: “Bonus, bona, bon…er. Excuse me, Miss Gibson, but I can’t—”

Wise and experienced, our heavy-set, gray-haired teacher waved me to sit. “Yes, can somebody continue for Kenneth.”

A few hands went up. I prayed that Miss Gibson wouldn’t pick her. “No, please not her.” More fervent, more sincere than any moment of Hebrew ecstasy I had seen our Rabbi and cantor muster in synagogue.

That wisest of teachers had taken in not only my protuberant tumescent predicament but also the line of my sight—no not sight, for I was blinded by desire—the line of my adoration.

“Peter, thank you.”

I sat in rapture for the remainder of the class. Each movement, no matter how small, of her perfect head, each gesture of her graceful hands, each hunch of her so well-shaped shoulders and the sudden immediacy of yearning readied itself to ejaculate a spasm of want. Yep, it was true love.

Thankfully, Marylyn, the double-y’ed and budding A-cup of my yearnings, was oblivious. A row to my right and three seats forward, she had not turned around. Such was the decorum of classrooms in those distant days. Or, at least it was my hope and my wish that she didn’t know the nature of my feelings.

But, those feelings were there. Boy were they there. That they were normal was something I had no way of knowing. In our home, we talked about suitability of dates, but never, ever about sex or lust. There was a list of “approved” girls from the community. Given the size of our community, particularly the Jewish contingent—oh, yes, any girl would have to be Jewish even if our family’s most basic act of worship was not in shul but in the eating of bagels and lox—it was not surprising that the list had one name on it.

Janice was a nice enough girl. She danced about as well or badly as I; we shared the same ballroom dance class, the goal of which was preparation for the bar mitzvahs to come that year. Beyond the rumba and the fox trot, there was neither attraction or mutual interest.

But, Marylyn was different. Wow different. Oy vey different.

 Too bad for me. It could not be. Not then; not in a million years. Marylyn was the only “negro” girl in our school; in fact, she was the only negro in my world, period. I use the word negro because that was the word we used in those days. We used it to describe something that we did not understand and should not want to know. The word carried all the freight of a taboo and all the guilt of knowing that somehow the Yankees, of which we Bostonians were the heirs, had failed, that the Civil War had never brought a true peace.

 Certainly, Marylyn allowed me no peace—not in school, not when I was supposed to be doing homework or chores, not in the hours when I might ride my bicycle or play with friends, and most especially not at night. Awake, the nights were filled with visions and fantasies. When sleep came, wet dreams tormented me, and, of course, left their morning residual of embarrassment.  In those days, love outside the prescribed bounds was not an option. For months I fantasized and I pined, but I limited myself to the acceptable fumbling words that passed muster both with the external guardians of morality and the rigid sentinel in my own head. We said hello and talked about homework and teachers. I asked if she liked home economics and she inquired after my shop classes. In physical education we were once in the same square for dancing and I actually held her hand and swung her around.

 No sweet words, no kisses, no caresses.

 With time my infatuation diminished. My declensions and conjugations improved. There would be no one else for me—except dance partners—not for years; and that is a different story.

 Three years after my Latin engorgement, I was travelling north from Florida, back to Massachusetts from our winter vacation. There were five of us, of whom I was the youngest. We were driving along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Harvey, the person who was driving, loved nature and had spearheaded a trip to the Everglades when we were in Miami. Now he had veered off the main route and taken us on another adventure. Those wind-blown islands of the Carolinas were his idea of heaven. For the rest of us, it seemed like the middle of nowhere. Especially that morning, when we had driven miles without breakfast.

 “There’s bound to be a town with a restaurant,” Harvey assured us. But there had not been and young men need their breakfasts.

Finally, we reached a hard-luck town of grayed buildings that tilted from the endless ocean winds. The existence of even a hole-in-the-wall eatery seemed unlikely. Nobody in that hard luck hamlet could possibly afford the luxury of restaurant meals. We grumbled and our stomachs rumbled with matching discontent.

 We were, however, wrong. There it was. As ramshackle and wind-tilted as the other buildings in town. Just another cottage like all the others, but this one put to a different purpose.  A small wooden sign in the front window was the only announcement of that purpose. One of the guys had spotted it and called out, “Hey, look at that.”

 We climbed the rotting steps and gingerly found nervous footing on the porch that wrapped around three sides of the small building. Al touched one of the rocking chairs that lined the porch and set it in motion. The creaking of the chair could have been a ghost piercing the silence of the vail between worlds.

 Harvey knocked on the screen door before opening it. Then again on the glass-paned door. We stood in the doorway and called, “Hello.”

 A woman of certain years dressed in clean but worn clothes came from the kitchen. “Cans I help you, boys?” she drawled.

 “We were wondering about breakfast,” Harvey said.

 “Well, ya-all sits yourselves down and we’ll see ‘bout feedin’ you.”

 “What do you have?” Larry, my older brother, asked.

 “Well, I’se reckon I can make some eggs and some pancakes. Got some bacon and sausage. Coffee course. Some juice. Toast. I’ll come up with sompen.”

 Before we could order, she disappeared. In a few minutes she brought coffeecake, orange juice, and coffee. The cake was sweet, buttery, topped with raspberry and sugar, and gone in a wink.

 I said something about the menu and the prices to Harvey. In those days I was frugal unless my dad was there to pay the bill, and he was back in Florida, enjoying the rest of his sabbatical year.   Harvey shrugged. “I guess she’s got a standard price.”

The woman marched back and forth with platters of fried eggs over easy. Breakfast meats. Pancakes that needed butter and syrup to keep them from floating off the plate. Toasted, fresh-baked white bread. More of that delicious coffeecake. “I was gonna make me a batch of donuts, but I had ta hunt up them eggs.” She gestured towards one side of the building. From the window I could see her coop.

The tastes, the smells, even the touch of that breakfast was heaven put on a plate and served to five young men who had hoped for far less. 

“What a shame,” Al observed; “this place should be full and we’re the only ones in here. How can she survive on occasional tourists?”

“Well, in season it’s probably busier,” Harvey replied.

 I wondered just how long and busy the tourist season could be perched there at the end of the world.

 We settled the bill. A dollar fifty each. Ridiculously cheap.

 We scraped back our chairs, left a couple of bucks extra on the checkered oilcloth covered table, and headed for the door. As we opened the screen door, we saw that every one of those rocking chairs was now occupied. There were more people sitting on the porch railing, even a couple on the rotting steps.

 “You gentlemen have a good breakfast?” a man asked. His broad smile revealed gaps were teeth ought to have been. His shirt had been patched and patched again. His shoes were scuffed from years of work and his overalls bore stains and other areas that had been bleached of color. Nobody—man or woman—on that porch looked like they had two dollars to rub together.   The other thing they all had in common was their complexions, all as dark and as worn as a stand of trees, as black as the woman who had prepared our feast.

 As we drove out of town, we talked about what had happened. “Were they waiting for us to leave?” Steve mused.

 The thought hadn’t occurred to me. Now that it did, it disturbed me terribly. It was their town, their restaurant, their breakfasts, but they hadn’t come in and taken their places—not until the white men had left.

In recent weeks there has a national discussion—or perhaps it is more a national argument—about ideas like “white privilege” and “black lives matter.” In my head, I often reduce those terms to these two formative experiences from my adolescence: my love for Marylyn and my discomfort in displacing—however unintentionally—those people waiting for their breakfasts.

 Both those terms are about separating people. They are both about saying to that twelve-year-old seventh grader, you cannot desire a girl who is different from you. They are both about saying to those hungry people—the black and the white—you cannot share from the same rich platter that is America.

 I do not believe in separating people. I don’t think that Marylyn and I would have spent our lives together. Heck, I don’t even know if she liked me. But, with her permission, I do wish I had had the chance to kiss her. I wish I had had the chance to hold her hand and walk to Woolworths for a soda, to go to the movies on a Saturday morning and scream at the bad guys and monsters and cheer the good and the heroes.

 And, I wish those hardworking folks had felt comfortable eating beside us. Maybe they would have talked with us and shared their knowledge of that glorious uninhabitable environment in which they lived. I think Harvey might have learned something about nature from them, maybe about how nature isn’t something to be studied but something to be lived.

 So when people ask me my thoughts on “Black Lives Matter” and “White Privilege”, I want to tell them not that “All Lives Matter,” which they do, but that in the end it is only when we can let go of political slogans and delight in the kaleidoscope of humanity, only when we can all take part in life’s gifts from making of love to sharing a platter of the fluffiest pancakes that will ever be set before us that we will have even an inkling of the possibilities that are us.


Before I Write Your Memoir by Kenneth Weene

Before I Write Your Memoir by Kenneth Weene

Personally, I’ve never wanted to write a memoir. I’ve never thought my life complex or meaningful enough to warrant one. My preference has always been to stand back and observe while others took action and risk, which is not to say that I have no great moments of revelation to be shared. There have been a few, but not a coherent set that would make a memoir—not a full foundation on which to base a tale.

That said, I’ve noticed that most memoirs rest on the shaky foundation of post-traumatic stress. Often they are piacular, meant to make atonement for the guilt that accompanies the memory of those traumatic events. That guilt may be for harm done to others, for almost doing harm, for not doing right, or simply for ones own unacceptable actions. Whatever the nature of the remorse, it eats at the writer’s innards and demands expiation.

Of course, who among us is not haunted by at least one traumatic event from the past? Who among us does not remember at least one reason to feel guilt? I certainly have had my moments, but they don’t suffice for a memoir because they are not the thread that binds the meaning of my life.

To be effective, a memoir must go beyond the event and provide a grain, a consistent integrating pattern for the writer’s life. Horrible as it may have been, that one anxiety attack, that one experience of rape, that one moment of confronted rage: these are not sufficient for a memoir. A good memoir vibrates with continuity and repetition; it has a quality of pentimento in which the same themes and even events keep returning to the narrative flow—each time with deepened understanding. The therapeutic journal your shrink has suggested you keep, the one in which you write over and over about that traumatic event, that is not a memoir. It may be helpful to you, but it isn’t for publication.

Sadly, the availability of self-publishing has debased memoir more than any other form of writing. It is too easy to conflate one’s therapist’s interest with a waiting audience.

Even when you are cured, when you leave that last therapeutic appointment, your experience is not sufficient if there is nor a clear repetition, a growing crescendo of experience.

But experience—even repetitive experience—without growth is not the stuff that makes a memoir work. Unhappily, there are many women—and men—who have been sexually abused. Starting in childhood and continuing into adulthood, they have suffered at the hands of others who have cared for nothing but their own gratification. A number of these people have decided that their stories are important. And they are, only not to the world. When faced with another version of that all-to-frequent gothic tale, I want to know how did the woman grow, how did she come out the better person. “I’ve learned to let go and go on with my life,” “I’ve accepted my savior and am healed,” or similar one-liner solutions to the devastation of such a life do not make a memoir. The cessation of your personal suffering does not mean that you are offering the world a lesson that deserves $14.99 on Amazon.

No, the lessons you offer must be part of a larger fabric of your story. You are weaving a tale. Just as weaving cloth, you need a warp and woof, so in weaving your tale the repetitive trauma must crisscross the growing awareness of who you are and who you are becoming to give a whole cloth.

Which brings us to yet a third essential element in memoir. If we go into a store to buy cloth or clothing, our eyes are drawn to patterns more than to the simple one color fabrics. That piece of cloth has to evoke something in us. To be stirred by a memoir, the reader must find something in its fabric that is personally arousing. That doesn’t mean it has to be something the reader has personally experienced, quite the contrary. I can read a well written memoir by a rape survivor and become very involved. I care about the person and am furious at the perpetrator. More importantly, I suffer with the author through their personal journey to wholeness and redemption. The key is that I can relate to the person, not identify with the experience. Indeed, I would be less interested in a story that I could find in my own life. I want a story that will take me to new places and ideas. Relatability is not being like me but in sharing our common humanity. For you to share that with me means that you have come across as real, as authentic.

How do I know that I am meeting the real you? How do I know that you are authentic? First, I look for a sense of humor and a realization of the irony that is in your life—as it is in every life. Is it not ironic, for instance, that the child of an alcoholic marries somebody who is marijuana dependent? Isn’t it part of the paradox of life that we all move not from the pot into the fire but from one pot to another? How about the man driven by his desire to succeed in business who is fleeced by the sharper predator? If the memoirist can’t see the irony and laughability of their life, how can they possibly be in touch with its meaning?

If I can relate to you, if I believe in you, then I want to read your story. But there has to be a story for me to read. That is the fourth key element in a successful memoir. Memoirs are not autobiographies; they are not a history of the writer’s experiences. They are stories that are being shared. They take the reader on a journey. That the road is personal and based on true events rather than being made up by the novelist’s mind does not make the storytelling less important.

Think about good fiction. No matter how much it focuses on the experience of a central character, there has to be a world in which that character’s life is set. Events cannot come out of the blue as if the world is at the mercy of whimsy. Motivation and complexity of character, appropriate richness of detail, and a narrative voice that fits with the content are some of the requisites for writing a good story. They are just as necessary for a memoir.

Recently, my abstract thoughts about writing memoir have been challenged by the experience of working with a man who asked me to help him write his story. From South Sudan, Deng Atum left his home at age eight and has not been back since. His journey has taken him on torturous routes replete with starvation and death. He has survived refugee camps. Eventually, he was sent by a charitable organization to the United States, where he has lived for many years. The events of his life are overwhelming and horrific. Clearly the stuff of memoir; but are they? Taking those events and shaping them into his story has been a consuming task for the past few months and we are far from finished.

With each chapter, I go back over the list of ingredients that I have laid out above: Trauma, check; growth, check; humanity and humor, check; and story telling, check. If they are all there, the memoir writer is ready to go on to the next chapter; each building on the ones before, a carefully crafted tale that will in the end intrigue, entertain, and enlighten. At least that’s the goal.


The Right to Heaven-Reflections on the History of Rights in America by Kenneth Weene

The Right to Heaven-Reflections on the History of Rights in America by Kenneth Weene

My maternal grandfather came to this country to seek his fortune and just as importantly to escape the Tsar’s army. His objection to service was not cowardice or conscientious objection; he just didn’t want to fight for a system that gave him no rights. “If I was nothing to him then why should the Tsar be something to me?” he explained as we walked from the apartment he and my grandmother shared to the small tobacco store which provided their living.

Years later Pa and I stood on another sidewalk. We were waiting for the parade. Ike was campaigning for the presidency and his motorcade was coming down Broadway—right in front of us!

Pa was ecstatic. To him Eisenhower was the greatest of heroes: Partly because my uncle, Pa’s only son, had survived his service in Europe and Pa, an atheist thankful for what he considered a miracle, attributed his son’s survival to Ike. Partly because as a Jew Pa saw the general as the savior of European Jewry, a strange stretch given the numbers dead and the number of camps liberated by Soviet soldiers. And partly, as was true for most Americans, because that decent man from Kansas had led us to victory against the Nazis.

“Always remember, Kenneth,” Pa’s voice deepened and cracked with age and tears, “it is a wonderful thing to be an American.” 

He stiffened as Ike’s car passed, and I tried to stand at attention—the way our gym teacher always insisted.

When Ike had passed, Pa continued. “This is the only country in the world where people have rights.”

Even as a boy I knew he was exaggerating. I also knew that Pa believed what he was saying.

“Rights”: what a grand sounding word, but what does it mean?

Growing up just outside of Boston, I was immersed in American history, especially from the Revolution. Down the road were Lexington and Concord, Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill. This was where it had all begun. I dreamed of visiting Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the National Archive in Washington, DC. In the Archive I would see it, the real document, the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these Truths to be self evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” What a grandiloquent declaration. What a powerful foundation for any country.

When the Declaration of Independence was discussed in social studies classes, it was likened to the Magna Carta, another declaration of rights. Of course, that earlier document set forth rights not for the common man but for the nobility and spoke less of natural than riparian and hunting rights. The great work of 1776 admitted that all men were created equal and that we all have natural rights.  It was the inherent state of humans to have those rights.

Fifteen years later, with the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the notion of individual rights was expanded and clarified. To so enshrine the rights of individuals was a heady event. That this was done while the world reeled from the chaos of the French Revolution made it a courageous one as well. 

The rights added to the Constitution were not defined in the positive if general manner of the Declaration of Independence but in a more specific and real way. The rights found in the Bill of Rights are not freedoms to pursue vague goal such as obtaining property or pursuing happiness; they are freedoms from government intrusion, what I call permissive rights. The individual is to have freedom from the tyranny of government. For example, troops cannot be quartered in a person’s home; a right so basic to the framers’ thinking that it has its own amendment, the third. Nor can the government establish a religion; so people were free to worship or not as they saw fit, the first amendment.

By enumerating rights in this way, the Constitution was not promising life or happiness. It was merely promising liberty, liberty from government intrusion.

Of course, that promise was not universal. Sexual behavior was still under government sway. Certainly there was no right to love. Also, personal aspirations and wellbeing were none of the government’s concern; there was no right to education, healthcare, a job, or a home. In the new “democratic” model of society, the power of the lord and master was gone but so was his obligation to look after his tenants, serfs, or servants. The individual was on his own.

Even the Civil War, which was clearly about the right to freedom, was not fought to further the individual’s aspirations beyond enumerated rights and the right to vote. In the end, the Union did not give the emancipated slaves forty acres or a mule, only the chance to fend for themselves in a hostile and repressive land.

For the first half of American history, government had no obligation to help people, only to not stand in their way.

Then something changed. Today we talk about the right to education, the right to a social safety net, the right to healthcare, the right to sexual identity, and even the rights to housing and nutrition. As a liberal, I support the expansion of rights and the movement towards what I call aspirational rights. I cheered when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pointed out to Ronald Reagan that for whatever rights we Americans might enjoy the citizens of the USSR had others, for example the right to a job and a place to live.  In recent years I have cheered again as government-supported healthcare and gay marriage have become parts of the fabric or our society.

Of course, the use of government to support personal aspirations had been there, if unspoken, from the very beginning. The original European settlement of the North American Colonies had not been for the wellbeing of the individual settlers, many of who would have been imprisoned or executed if they had stayed in England, but for the enrichment of companies such as the London Company and individual grantees such as George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore. The wealth to be found in this “new land” was not for the settlers but for the mother country. The economic system under which this was to happen was called mercantilism.

One of the underlying goals of the American Revolution was an unarticulated aspirational right, the right to settle land and to have ones own freehold. That this right could only be exercised at the expense of the indigenous peoples was not a consideration to the settlers; it had, however, been a concern to the British government, which had restricted settlement of the lands west of the Allegheny Mountains. The first and only major act of the Confederation of States which was created during the Revolution and which continued until 1789 was opening that area to settlers. Support of settlers’ taking land particularly at the expense of original populations continued at least until April 22, 1889, when the Oklahoma Land Rush was staged.

Even though the government has from the Revolution onward supported the aspiration of land and resource ownership, this was always couched in terms of a “manifest destiny,” the settlement of “empty lands”, and of course the “taming of savages”.

For all my support of the rising tide of aspirational rights, I cannot help but wonder exactly when the American psyche took that turn, when we moved from expecting government to get out of our lives and started wanting it to help us live them. Was it during the Great Depression and the New Deal when FDR introduced the TVA and the right of every household to have electricity or when he introduced Social Security and the right of everyone to have a safe retirement? Perhaps it was after World War II, when our veterans received a GI bill that gave them a much-deserved leg up. Certainly such an emphasis on aspirational rights was well established by the Lyndon Johnson administration and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the War on Poverty. The fight for aspirational rights continues to this day, for example with the passage of the Affordable Health Care Law (Obamacare), the battle over gay marriage, and the ongoing issues of sexual equality in the military and prevention of sexual abuse, especially on campuses.

Even as American politics wrestled with aspirational rights, another notion of rights came to our consciousness. I call this new concept of rights a belief in impositional rights, by which I mean the right to impose one’s views on others. Of course, there is always potential conflict between one person’s rights and values and another’s. For example, my right to buy in every store or ride on any seat in a bus may conflict with the storekeeper’s right to serve only those he likes or the bus company to run their own business. In the conflict between rights—one which has consistently resulted in greater individual liberty for the general all of the people at the expense of those who would control their own individual property, business, and dealings—there is always the question of who is imposing on whom.

But lately there has been a real change. There are those who claim the right to impose their values at the expense of the inherent and permissive rights of others. Typically this claim of impositional rights is based on a religiously based values system. “My Bible trumps your humanistic values,” might be the battle cry of those who tout their impositional rights to limit contraception, abortion, marriage, education, …

When did the notion of rights turn from extending personal freedom to such imposition of values? I would suggest a most unlikely moment: the Eisenhower administration.  The Cold War was in full swing, but what exactly was the great difference between the two competing giants, the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.? Certainly there was an enormous difference between the economic systems, but could the average person relate to that difference? The typical thinking ran, “Big deal, so the Russians have a different system, but our economy is great and we have jobs, growth, our kids are happy, and life is good. What more can Americans want? Besides which, the Russians live lousy lives.”

Focusing American opinion on opposition to the Russians rather than coexistence was an important and immediate goal for Washington. How to get Americans to care?

“Religious freedom” became the rallying cry of the Eisenhower propagandists. Religious liberty was an easy way to differentiate our system from that of the “Godless Communists.” But the religious freedom that these propagandists were touting was not the permissive right enshrined in the first amendment and fought for so assiduously by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The right Americans have to not be forced to pray was not differentiable from the Communist position that people should give up on prayer and religion as a false and misleading belief system.  It was the right to pray that mattered.

If the Communists said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” then capitalism must say, “Faith is the cornerstone of prosperity.” The propagandists’ position was, “it is our right to pray that is important, so pray we must.” Suddenly, God became our national treasure. “In God we trust” became our motto and appeared on our money. “One nation under God” became part of our pledge of allegiance. Implicit was the question: “If you aren’t religious, can you be a true American?”

Even as the ACLU fought to maintain our right to be agnostic, atheist, or something else, the Eisenhower administration was pursuing a redefinition of the first amendment freedom that changed the practice of religion into an impositional right. That change may seem small and it is certainly subtle, but it was significant because for the first time the conservative religious forces within the American system were recognizing something which they had never before acknowledged, that the goal of government could be pushed beyond supporting the right of the individual to religious freedom towards a national pursuit of faith.

It is only during the Eisenhower administration that a permissive right, to believe whatever one wished without government intrusion, was turned into an impositional right, to require belief in God because that belief was the foundation stone of America. This right to impose belief allowed the political right to redefine the public space from a religious perspective. Combating “Godless Communism” with a state of faith meant building a nation on Biblical principles and ideas.

It was by coincidence that I was at a brunch with Dwight David Eisenhower the morning Jack Kennedy was assassinated. It was at an International Student Association. As Ike spoke in his trademark convoluted sentences, I tried to understand what he was saying at a personal level. He spoke of the need to aspire, to make our lives count, to make our countries better. He mentioned how important it was for government to make our aspirations achievable; how it had been the goal of the war, as it was the goal of NATO, and how it had been the purpose of his administration to provide a framework for personal freedom and achievement.

At the time it seemed only platitudes, but today I realize that he was articulating a new philosophy of government based on aspirational rights. What he didn’t realize was the paradox of his own administration, that it had provided the groundwork for a new and different notion of American rights, one that involved not personal liberty but the imposition of values.

When he spoke that morning, Ike made it clear that it isn’t enough for government to stand back and let individuals achieve, it is a proper role of government to support its citizens as they reach for a higher and better life. Today we must restate those foundational natural rights: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and aspiration to accomplishment. More importantly, we must no longer think of government as providing a laissez faire environment but we must demand that government give each and every citizen the support necessary to reach for the heavens.

Sadly, that morning Ike failed to articulate that it isn’t the role of government to tell us what the heavens we seek represent.

What Does The Fourteenth Amendment Anchor by Kenneth Weene

What Does The Fourteenth Amendment Anchor by Kenneth Weene

There is a growing movement to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. That movement is being spearheaded by the far right and candidates like Donald Trump and Scott Walker. Their expressed reason: children of undocumented aliens born in this country are automatically citizens. “Anchor babies” is one term used for these kids, because they now afford an anchor for their parents and siblings, a reason to allow them to stay in the US.

The abuse of birth-citizenship is a real concern. While I personally have met and liked a few of those “anchor babies” and their families, I, too, support the view that they should not have automatic American citizenship. It seems to me that this is rewarding their parents for breaking our laws.

While some, perhaps many, of those parents came her legally and then, having found a home but not a permanent legal status, opted to stay when their visas ran out, their happiness here cannot be our major concern as a nation. As for those who deliberately entered the United States without proper documents in order to have a child, what they have done is clearly wrong.

BUT! Is this a reason for repealing the Fourteenth Amendment? Indeed is it even the reason at all behind the thinking of the far right?

First, let’s consider the reason for the first article of the Fourteenth Amendment, the one guaranteeing a birthright of citizenship: SLAVERY. The Civil War had just ended. The Blacks were free, but were they citizens? Did they have the rights of citizens? Did the men who had fought for the Confederacy have those rights? These were the questions being addressed. Clearly, the Amendment had a built in shelf life. The freed slaves (and free Blacks) and the Confederates would die and the issue would end.

So the Amendment is just an historical anachronism, right?!  No reason for its preservation, right?!  Just an anachronism that is giving undocumented aliens an advantage, right?!

No. This Amendment is central to the core of the attack on us all and on our civil rights from the political right. It is central to that attack because it guarantees and supports those rights.

First, the Fourteenth Amendment validates the public debt. This was necessary after the Civil War in order guarantee payment of the U.S. government’s debts while repudiating those of the Confederacy. This would comprise all debt of the government including not only bonds but also federal and military pensions, and very probably Social Security, and Medicare. In effect, take away the Fourteenth and you and I have no expectation that the government will honor its obligations to us. The government can then pick and choose which debts to pay. So China might come ahead of Social Security, which by the way is the holder of the largest stake in government bonds. To put it simply this is a part of the attempt to privatize Social Security and to force all retirement funds into the private equity markets.

Next, the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the due process of the law in every state. Of course, that guarantee is there at a federal level earlier in the Constitution, but the core of the Fourteenth protects you and me from the states—might I add especially those states which might want to display racial and ethnic preferences.

One of those rights is the right to vote. It is the Fourteenth Amendment that guarantees our right to vote. While it was originally a male-only right and all those other issues; the core issue in the right to vote was, at the time of the Amendment, the right of freed men (and already free Blacks) to vote. That was the absolute central issue behind which the two sides lined up in Congress over this Amendment. Today the right to vote is still an absolute core issue in many states. Whether we are talking the Black vote or the Latino, nothing is as terrifying to the far right as the reality that the white majority in this country will soon be a plurality and that at some point the plurality may well be Hispanic with Whites the second largest group. While not all Whites are terrified of this — indeed many don’t even want to consider such divisions as relevant — that racist fear is a powerful preoccupation among a large number of people.

So, without the Fourteenth, the state governments at the “right” end of the spectrum can begin disenfranchising those whom they consider different and the federal government will have lost its ability to make sure that individual liberties are not attacked under cover of legislation. For example, there would be no federal pressure on places like Ferguson to stop the oppression by way of fines that was going on. To put it quite simply, the Fourteenth Amendment is the linchpin that holds the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s together.

Of course, such federal guarantees do not stop with the right to vote. Worker protection such as minimum wages, the right to an attorney, work place conditions, the list goes on and on. In effect, without the Fourteenth Amendment we would return to the states’ rights, nullification of federal law position for which the South was the philosophical justification of secession. 

The Fourteenth Amendment contained the historical terms of surrender for the Confederacy. Each Confederate state when rejoining the union and accepting the constitution was accepting that federal government now had the right to determine what was due process in each state.

Are you willing to give up these Fourteenth Amendment guarantees  in order “to protect our boarders”? I certainly am not. Especially not when a simple fix is available, one that would have no such consequences. Were the right wing seriously interested in anchor babies rather than the destruction of the Fourteenth Amendment, all they would need change is the addition of one word, “lawfully”, to the Amendment so that it read “All persons lawfully born or naturalized…”  But none of them are proposing that simple change. Not one state legislature from the right has taken that initiative. Not one bombastic candidate has proposed it.

If they were honestly concerned about illegal immigration, then I suggest that they would be demanding that simple starting point rather than the repeal of an Amendment that protects us all.