BORN A CRIME – TREVOR NOAH

I don’t review a lot of books anymore, but this one got to me. There are lots of books written by people — including me — who had a hard time growing up. Abusive parents, poverty, oppression. War. There is a lot of awful stuff children endure.

Trevor Noah endured all of it. Name something bad that a kid can experience and it probably happened to him. Born under apartheid, his existence was illegal. His birth was, as the title of his book suggests, a crime.

born-a-crime-coverAs the child of a white father and a black mother under South Africa during apartheid, if he had been noticed by the authorities, they would have taken him from his family and put him … somewhere. So merely surviving until the end of apartheid was no mean feat. Add to that extreme poverty, violence and life under the most oppressive, racist regime you can imagine. Actually, you may not be able to imagine it. I knew it was bad, but South Africa refined oppression into an art form.

One of the other noteworthy things about this book was that I learned great deal about things I thought I already knew. I don’t know if Noah intended it as a cautionary tale, but it is. Chilling.

I didn’t read the book. I listened to the audiobook because Noah reads it himself. He has a beautiful, melodic voice and a lovely cadence. It was a treat for my ears and my brain.

You might think with all of this terrible stuff — and some of it is really horrific — that this would be an angry, possibly embittered man. But he isn’t.

He’s funny when humor is possible. Even when he’s serious, there is grace and wit —  plus a sweetness and generosity of spirit that’s rather uplifting. I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a book. It’s not a word I use lightly. Trevor Noah is a rare person, able to appreciate the good stuff in his life and not obsess over the considerable amount of injustice he has experienced.

I’m not a big fan of celebrity memoirs or autobiographies, but this is exceptional. If you have the patience, listen to it as an audiobook. Otherwise, consider reading it. He’s a smart guy, a good writer, and an astute observer of humanity, government, politics, and relationships. Insightful, witty, and entertaining, I highly recommend it.

Amazon has all the various formats and probably so do other online booksellers and maybe your local bookstore, too — if you are lucky enough to have one.

IS POLITICAL CORRECTNESS STIFLING YOU?

If you think being “politically correct” is ruining your ability to communicate, you’ve got other unaddressed issues … like …. maybe you’re a bigot. If you can’t express yourself without insulting individuals or groups, your problem isn’t political correctness. It goes a lot deeper than that.


Political Correctness is the avoidance of forms of expression or action that exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”

Simply put, it means treading carefully, gently — and preferably not at all — on other people’s sensibilities and sensitivities. It’s the “golden rule,” sometimes called the ethic of reciprocity: Don’t do something to anyone else that which you wouldn’t want done to youIt’s a fundamental principle of human interaction, the bottom line of being a decent person.

I’m for political correctness. Especially with Orange Head running for president. “Being P.C.” means controlling your mouth. It means not spewing insults at minorities, ethnic, or religious groups, disabled people, disenfranchised, or downtrodden people, or anyone who just happens to be different from you.

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Bigotry isn’t okay — whether it’s put straight out there, or presented thinly disguised as humor. We all used to know this. We were taught — most of us — to be polite and careful about not hurting other people’s feelings. We were brought up to not insult others. Not by accident and definitely not on purpose. We all should know this without being reminded … but with You-Know-Who setting a really horrible example, a lot of people are getting a very warped idea of what’s okay. Trump not only doesn’t care who or what he offends, he goes out of his way to make people feel bad. To shame and humiliate people, with a strong emphasis on women. To make those who are already suffering feel worse. He’s a demagogue, a schoolyard bully writ larger and uglier than ever.

What a guy. Just what we need to lead this great land.

So, for the socially challenged, the simple rule is: “IF YOU THINK IT’S OFFENSIVE, DON’T SAY IT.” As a rule, this works better than any amount of sensitivity training. Especially since so many people seem to have no sensitivity to train.

Offensive is what it seems to be, even when whoever said it insists he or she “didn’t mean it”

“Hey, folks, I was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?” It’s the classic bully’s line. Of course he meant it. Bullies always mean it, but being a bully, he or she counts on you to avoid a confrontation.

It’s time to confront the bullies. Time to tell them they aren’t funny and we aren’t laughing. Bigotry, racism, and cruelty are not funny. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about civility. Kindness. Good manners. Decency. Fairness.

Standing up for what’s right even when it’s inconvenient.

It’s what has really made America great.

THE POWER OF WORDS by ELLIN CURLEY

I just read several articles about the recent outpouring of anti-Semitic vitriol on Twitter from Trump supporters and white “nationalists.”

I am Jewish. My parents were both born in the U.S., but my grandparents were born in Russia or the Ukraine. I grew up on stories from my maternal grandmother about living in a Shtetl, where murderous, anti-Semitic rampages by the Cossacks were commonplace. Jews were not allowed to socialize freely with the gentile population, let alone intermarry. My great-grandfather was a respected Rabbi and one of the rare Jews who was allowed to do business with the Gentiles in the big town of Minsk.

racist-signs-and-protestersIn addition to these stories, I heard a lot about the plight of the Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe as the Nazis came to power. As a child, I used to think about what I would take with me if that ‘knock on the door’ came one night to take me away from my home and my life. I often wondered if I would be the kind of person in a Concentration Camp who shared my bread and tried to help others, or if I would do whatever I had to do to protect myself.

Today, I am terrified when I read some of the anti-Semitic stereotypes and accusations that are used online. They sound just like the propaganda used against Jews, not just in the 30’s and 40’s but all the way back to the Middle Ages in Europe. Romans probably also used similar rhetoric against Jews even before they started hating Christians as well.

Overt and virulent antisemitism has been relatively dormant in America for decades. Jews seemed to have assimilated into the mainstream to the point of almost becoming invisible. Or so I thought. Antisemitism has clearly not been socially acceptable for a while. So it wasn’t expressed openly very often, and I didn’t have to think about it or experience it directly.

I always knew it was still ‘out there,’ but I assumed it was less prevalent, less vicious and irrelevant. Now, I have to face the facts. Large segments of America’s population still hold to the same hatred and stereotypes which have plagued Jews for centuries. Americans are more tolerant and enlightened overall today, but apparently, some things won’t die out.

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An anti-Jewish sign posted on a street in Bavaria reads “Jews are not wanted here.” Germany, 1937. – US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Julien Bryan

For now, it’s ‘just words’. My family is testament to the fact that words morph into accepted — even prevailing — attitudes, then actions. Finally into social norms and policies. I don’t think we are poised to become a fascist state. I don’t believe anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican or anti-Semitic language and behavior will be tolerated by most Americans. I certainly want and need to believe that.

Nonetheless, it’s still uncomfortable for me. Having to deal with the hatred I know is there for me because of my lineage or the religion I don’t even practice is disturbing on so many levels. It was better when the haters had to hide under a rocks and were afraid to come out in the open. That’s where they belong. Under rocks.

I hope we can send them back to a place where they are afraid of us instead of us having to fear them.

DAMNING WITH FAINT PRAISE AND FLATTERY FLYING

In the final few moments of the “debate” (and I use the term with more than one grain of salt), the “contestants,” excuse me, I meant “candidates” were asked if there was anything at all that they liked or admired about their opponents.

Clinton said, “Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald.” You could call it flattery. I’m less impressed with the Trump kids than she is. But she’s a politician and has to be politic and polite.

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Trump accepted Clinton’s words as “a nice compliment,” and added, “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter.” Really? Wow. Praise indeed.

It was the “high point” of the event, the high ground of a depressing hour of television. I hope this is as low as our political process can go. I think we’ve hit bedrock. After this, we’d have to dig and go underground.

In the spirit of this appalling year and proving (again) that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose“(the more things change, the more they stay the same),  here’s a clip with Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. It’s called “Racist Court.” It’s at least 30 years old and still both relevant — and funny. Why aren’t I laughing?


FLATTERY | THE DAILY PROMPT

JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN, DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD

Colin Kaepernick has been all over the news. He’s the 49ers quarterback who refused to stand for the national anthem as a protest against racism in the United States.

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There definitely is far too much racism in the United States. Too many police incidents. I’m totally on board with Mr. Kaepernick’s right to express his opinion on the matter in any legal, non-violent way.

Our Constitution’s first amendment paints the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of the press with a broad brush. What it fails to point out (though it is implicit) is that everyone shares this freedom — on all sides of an issue.

So if other people hate how you express your opinion, they have the right to burn your jersey, refuse to go to games in which you are playing … and for that matter, dismiss you from your job.

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Freedom cuts all ways. That’s how it’s supposed to work. Mr. Kaepernick is absolutely free to express his point of view. So can everyone else.

Do I agree with one side or the other? I agree with both sides.

More to the point, Mr. Kaepernick should have thought longer and harder about how he would take his stand. Offending many people is not always a good way to make your point, no matter how valid your point may be. He should have considered the potential impact on his fans — and ultimately, on his career. Especially in view of the fact that he’s not playing well.

In sports, you can get away with murder if you’re playing well. If you’re not …

If your team is less than thrilled with your on-field performance, getting involved in a major controversy might tip them in the direction of not renewing your contract. That’s the painful reality. I’m sure he never thought expressing his legal, constitutionally guaranteed opinion would raise such a negative ruckus — or end up with him facing unemployment.

You could classify this incident as a cautionary tale.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Legal isn’t the same as well thought out. Was he justified in protesting racism in America? Sure. But maybe this wasn’t the best way to go about it.

DOOMED? PROVE ME WRONG!

My mother was deeply cynical. She considered herself an atheist, but I think it was more that she felt God had done such a crappy job, he didn’t deserve worship.

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I knew a lot of the experiences that had made her the way she was. The Great Depression. Two world wars, Korea, and Vietnam. She believe people were mostly stupid, racist, and cruel. That all government was oppressive by its nature.

Although not a conspiracy nut, she was pretty sure someone was out to get us. Probably a hangover from the Hitler era followed by HUAC witch hunts of the 1950s — shameful periods of history we are apparently determined to repeat.

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I’m pretty happy in my personal life, but the body politic is appalling. Sickening. I find myself watching CNN with my jaw hanging open. I would never have believed our electorate could be so stupid, ignorant, mean-spirited, bigoted, and bent on self-destruction as they obviously are. If we used the same amount of energy we use for hating each other into improving society, we could fix everything that’s wrong with the world — fast.

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It’s depressing. I don’t see a positive outcome. I think we are doomed. As a species, we probably deserve it, but personally, I resent it because I’ve done my best. There ought to be a payoff for doing the right thing, don’t you think?

Some of my friends are more optimistic, but I think i’s because they don’t want to believe what’s happening. In a world where Donald Trump is the leading candidate in the party of Abraham Lincoln, what light could be at the end of the tunnel? Bets on the headlights of an oncoming train.

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I really don’t care what Democrat you vote for. Just please, vote for one. I’ve never been sure about God, but I look around, I believe in the Devil. His paw prints are all over this world — and I’m pretty sure he’s running the Republican Party.

By the way … I’d be very pleased to be proved wrong.

FINALLY UNDERSTANDING MOM

I don’t remember how many times my mother told me this story, or how many times I have told it to you. It bears retelling.

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My mother, like many young women of her generation, had wanted to attend high school. And college. But the family was poor, and there were many mouths to feed. In the end, she had to quit school after seventh grade to take a job. She worked as bookkeeper. At 14, my mother was respectable. Also naïve and innocent.

The first place she worked was a music publishing house on the Lower East Side where she had grown up. She was there for seven or eight years and finally decided to get a better job.

Immigrant children had trouble breaking into the workforce. Of course, my mother had the additional burden of being female at a time when women were not considered equal. There was no “political correctness” to protect them.

My mother was blond and green-eyed. At 5 foot 7 inches, she was tall for her generation. Her English was better than most of the family since she had been born “on this side” of the Atlantic and had all her schooling in New York.

She was ushered into a room to be interviewed for the job she wanted. A few questions were asked. A form was handed to her and she filled it out. When she came to the box that asked her religion, she wrote Jewish. The interviewer looked at the application, said: “Jewish, eh?”

He tore the application to pieces and threw it in the trash in front of my mother. She said that from that day forward, she wrote Protestant so no one would ever do that to her again.

Finally, I made a leap of understanding. I connected this anecdote to an aspect of my mother I never “got.”


Mom1973PaintMy mother wanted me to get a nose job. When I turned 16, she wanted me to have plastic surgery to “fix” my nose.

“It’s not broken,” I pointed out.

“But don’t you want it to look ‘normal’?” she asked.

“It’s looks fine to me,” I said. I was puzzled. My sister took her up on the offer. I continued to say “no thanks” and my nose is the original model with which I was born.

Since the last time I told this story, I realized my mother wasn’t hinting I wasn’t pretty. She was asking me if I wanted to not look Jewish. Remarkably, this thought never crossed my mind. Until a few weeks ago.

I know many children of Holocaust victims refused to circumcise their sons because that’s how the Nazis identified little Jewish boys. I know non-white mothers frequently sent their light-skinned children north hoping they could “pass” for white. But never, until recently, did it occur to me my mother was trying to help me “pass” for non-Jewish.

I never considered the possibility I was turned down for a job because I was, in the immortal words of Mel Brooks, “too Jewish.” I always assumed it was me. I failed to measure up. I was too brash. My skills were insufficient.

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I told Garry about my revelation. It was quite an epiphany, especially at my advanced age. I needed to share. It left me wondering how much I’d missed.

I told him I’d finally realized my mother’s persistent suggestion to “get my nose fixed” was an attempt to help me fit in, to not look so obviously Jewish. I had never considered anyone might not like me for other than personal reasons. I said I thought perhaps I’d been a little slow on the uptake on this one.

Garry said, “And when did you finally realize this?”

“Yesterday,” I said.

“Yesterday?” he repeated. Garry looked dumbfounded.

“Yesterday,” I assured him.

He was quiet and thoughtful. “Well,” he said. “You’re 68? That is slow. You really didn’t know?”

I shook my head. I really didn’t know. Apparently everyone else got it. Except me.