Category Archives: Friends / Family

East West Street and MAGA

I recently finished Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” which tells the interwoven stories of the author’s own family origins in Lviv with the lives of the two central legal scholars behind the theories of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. Besides being an excellent read and reminder of the horrors in the not so distant past of European and Western culture, this story made me reflect on how MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) relates to America’s past and present, and how I now as a father relate to the Holocaust.

How Great Were We?

When we think about America at its greatest (what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation”), we think about Americans (including my grandmother’s two brothers, who were the children of immigrants) putting their lives  and resources at risk to save Europe and its minority populations from the Nazi Germany. Any time a European criticizes the U.S. or our policies, we Americans proudly remind them of the beaches of Normandy and our conviction that they owe us eternally for having acted as their savior. Furthermore, our self-image has always been fortified by the contrast between our young men fighting to save the world and the demonic, goose-stepping Nazis.

I certainly won’t deny the bravery of my ancestors and fellow countrymen and women both fighting abroad and working for the war effort at home to make the world a better place. But when we talk about the superiority of American values over say those of the Nazis – now rightly synonymous with evil – I am often reminded of what Jesse Owens had said when asked about Hitler refusing to shake his hand at the 1935 Olympics: that the U.S. president wouldn’t invite him to the White House either. Or that black soldiers returning home from the war in Europe, instead of being treated as heroes were once again assaulted by the Jim Crow South and a G.I. Bill that that  discriminated against them.

What I hadn’t realized (and it shouldn’t be a surprise) was that the U.S. team at the Nuremberg trials was staunchly opposed to prosecuting the Nazi defendants for the crime of genocide for fear that it could open the door to Americans, especially in the South, being tried for their abuse of black and Native Americans. In other words, as heroic as Americans may have been in “saving” other minority groups from tyranny abroad, our government wanted to protect its ability, under International Law, to mistreat and abuse its own citizens and minorities with impunity.

Our greatness was still tainted by our greatest shortcomings.

MAGA and Repeating History

The Nazis did not suddenly come into power one day and on the next day put all of the Jews in concentration camps where they were murdered in mass two days later. No, it was a long, slow process of instilling racist and nativist fear, followed by a series of laws that restricted movement (including entry), employment and association, attire, segregation, all leading to the ghettos, concentration camps and murder. While today in America there has been an increase in open association with white supremacist groups and an increase in open anti-Islamic discourse in private and political life, I don’t believe that the U.S. is on the path to becoming a Nazi state. Yet the similarity with the early days of the anti-Semitic propaganda is uncanny. Ultimately, a large enough chunk of German society bought into the narrative that Jews were dangerous, destructive and incompatible with German values to accept the anti-Semitic laws and then actively participate in or turn a blind eye to one of the most the disturbing massacres in modern human history.

So how easily are we today convinced that Muslims and/or Islam is the problem? How many times have we heard that we should “bomb” or “carpet bomb” an entire region or country? How many times have we heard that their culture is incompatible with our culture? And how many times have politicians and political pundits whether on TV, in print or on the internet advocated for travel bans, bans on immigrants, their attire, language, or religious practices, regardless of the fact that all of these measures violate what we celebrate as our Western values? Glenn Greenwald here gives the perfect example of how everyone was all Je Suis Charlie when Charlie was anti-Muslim but not so much when they were making fun of Texans.

So to make a long story short, the Nazis were not built in a day. Their movement started out with the same type of narrative that we are hearing today from the MAGA folks, one that popular culture has arguably already bought into. And as much as we hail the superiority of the West, the 20th Century’s greatest crimes were perpetrated in the West by a Christian people under the veil of protecting Western values.

As a Father

I have always been very conscious of the Holocaust, not in terms of a mere historical fact that you read in a text book or watch countless movies about, but as a real, concrete horror story that had an ongoing effect on the lives of people around me. As a child visiting my grandparents in the Bronx, I remember being introduced to a woman on the elevator and my grandmother asking her to show me the concentration camp tattoo on her arm. My grandmother wanted me to know what people had gone through. Then a large percentage of the kids that I grew up with had parents who were first generation Jewish Americans whose families had fled from Europe. While no one ever discussed what had happened to their family members who did not make it to America as refugees, the Holocaust was a living, breathing and evident part of their personal experience.

But now as an adult, as a husband and father of three small children, when I read East West Street or think about anything related to the horrors and desperation of trying to protect one’s family (be it from the Holocaust, Slavery, Jim Crow, or a flood in Houston or Bangladesh), I am left speechless, with nothing else to say . . .

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Three Years

August 20th was the third year anniversary of Chantal Cavé’s passing. I just looked at my calendar and saw that I had totally forgotten the day.

I have not forgotten Chantal or her loved ones who miss her dearly.

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Thunder in the Mountains and the Fourth of July

Last night on the eve of the Fourth of July, I finished Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein. I read his previous book The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America two years ago.

Sharfstein and I went to secondary school together. Not only was Sharfstein the smartest kid in class (he tutored my older, honor roll sister in calculus when she was a senior and he was a sophomore), Sharfstein was also one of the nicest kids around. Back in those days, I spent most of my time playing soccer (and probably listening to Reggae), not doing schoolwork. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to share two courses and interests with Dan: AP Spanish and Creative Writing. What impressed me even back then was that Dan seemed to be motivated by intellectual curiosity and not just getting the answers right. So when I read The Invisible Line twenty-five years after last seeing Dan, I was not surprised how thoughtful he was in choosing his topic or the efforts he put into his research. But when it came to Thunder in the Mountains, I was struck — almost offended even — by what an amazing narrator and storyteller Dan had become. I mean, it is one thing to be the smartest kid in class. It’s quite another to have real talent. And Bravo, Dan! You’ve got both, plus the discipline to put a book like this together. I am beyond impressed.

This morning when reading Eugene Robison in the Washington Post about the Fourth of July:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act cracking down on criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.

Yet they laid out a set of principles, later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.

Thunder in the Mountains immediately came to mind as the epitome of this narrative. That constant American struggle to overcome the conflict between our most celebrated and emblematic values and our immediate economic, political and tribal interests is perfect for the Fourth of July. That is Oliver Otis Howard’s story. Howard goes from fighting for the most basic rights of life, liberty and property for certain people to fighting to deny others those same rights.

The story goes something like this. After the Civil War, Howard (for whom the university is named) became the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and the face of Reconstruction, convinced that the freed slaves could participate fully in American political life. That didn’t end well.

The notion that equality would follow from emancipation—the great hope of Reconstruction— had been destroyed the moment the federal troops left the South in the mid-1870s. Through murder, fraud, beatings, and threats, white southerners, often acting in military-style terror campaigns, stripped blacks of their voting rights and trapped many in sharecropping contracts with no escape from lives of drudgery, debt, and want. Even in the North, the promise of equality had given way to a consensus steeped in white supremacy and the need for racial separation.

And just as Reconstruction failed, Howard’s reputation took a major hit. In his efforts to rebrand himself, Howard found himself in Oregon commanding the U.S. military’s campaign to expel the Nez Perce people from their land. Howard was led by his Christian conviction that the only salvation for the Nez Perce was for them to abandon their homeland and become Christian farmers on a reservation of the U.S. government’s choice.

That Americans prided themselves on religious freedom while using religion as a sword should not be shocking to anyone. Christianity became a major political force both in its benevolent and extremist manifestations. While the staunchest white abolitionists where devout Christians, Southerners were convinced that Christianity sanctioned chattel slavery and dictated Jim Crow which lasted until 1970. And the main philosophical justification for the new Americans to strip the native populations of their lands was that doing so was destined by God.

But Thunder in the Mountains is also the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Joseph spent his lifetime both before and after the war trying to convince U.S. officials and anyone who would listen that his people deserved the same rights as White Americans, in particular the right not to be deprived of property without due process. Joseph made a lasting impact on almost every U.S. official he met, but his cause and his arguments were ultimately rejected at every turn.

This story is of two tragedies. It is the tragedy of Howard: of how the ideals of equality were first destroyed by the terrorism of others and then by his own extremist views and need for political redemption. Then it is the tragedy of Chief Joseph whose only dream was to remain on his homeland where his father was buried, and whose weapon was to appeal to Americans’ sense of justice. He never regained his land.

* * *

The beauty of the American story is that when we tell it, we can measure ourselves against that original July 4th declaration and hope at least that we are moving in the right direction.

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The End of Innocence

My six year son is having regular, recurring nightmares. Even before he falls asleep, he tells me that he is scared because he doesn’t want to have “bad dreams”. Normally when I ask, he says he doesn’t remember them, but yesterday morning he snuggled next to me on the sofa and said, “Daddy, I know what my bad dreams are about. War.”

It all started last month when his class began studying Picasso’s Guernica. He was fascinated about the painting, especially because his book on Picasso said the painting was bigger than a soccer goal (and my son is obsessed with soccer). But one night before going to bed, he asked me why planes were bombing the town of Guernica and what happened to the people when they were bombed, especially the kids his age. I did my best to say that the war happened a long time ago.

He then said, “Daddy, what was World War II?” which he only knew about because according to his book it is when Picasso lived in Paris. I told him that it was a war that happened mainly in Europe a long time ago. When he asked if Grandpa was alive then, I explained that his great grandmother (who is still alive today) had two brothers who fought in the war and that one of them was awarded the special Purple Heart medal.

My great uncles were first generation Italian Americans, who like many first generation immigrants were the first to be drafted and sent to war. I didn’t get into details, but here is an extract from a short piece about the one who was wounded (not the one in the photo):

In 1942, as a very young man, Ralph was drafted into the U.S. Army 441st Auto-motored Weapons Co. His first time out of the Metro New York area was for Basic Training at Camp Stewart, Georgia. From Georgia, his world travels began in earnest with his unit being deployed to Africa. Ralph and his army unit then became part of the Allied Forces that invaded southern Italy in 1943. Ralph became a member of the four-man team half-track crew, which housed a twin 50 caliber machine gun. Ralph’s unit then moved from Sicily to Anzio, where they joined Patton’s 5th Army.

As the 5th Army proceeded next to Rome, Ralph was very seriously wounded and left on the battlefield for dead. By some stroke of very good fortune, Ralph’s cousin happened upon him and carried him to the medic station. From there, he was taken to a hospital in Naples for the start of his treatment. Ralph Perrotta was awarded a Purple Heart, during his stay at the Naples hospital. He was enrolled in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in recognition of exceptional sacrifice in defense of the U.S.

My son then wanted me to confirm that the war was a long time ago and that there were no longer wars or bombings. I told him honestly, yet gently that there are still some wars in the world, in particular one in Syria. He then asked if in Syria they bombed at night time and where the kids would go during the bombing.

I lied and said that the children were safe and that Syria was far away. But Syria is not far away, the kids are not safe, no one is safe, and no one can say that wars like the brutal civil war in Spain or the world war shortly thereafter won’t threaten my children in their lifetime. Certainly I cannot imagine what it was like for my uncles to be sent off to Italy to fight in a war, ironically they didn’t believe in (at the time many Americans, especially anti-communists like my great-grandfather, were very much against U.S. intervention in Europe).

Maybe it’s the man we now have in the White House, his utter disregard for the world order and all décor, the fact that on the other side of the Mediterranean, a horrendous war continues and that when a fire spreads, there is likely nowhere to hide – but I feel like I am losing the fatherly innocence that the world will be safe for my children. If my child is terrified by the 80 year old painting of a war, I cannot begin to imagine the life of a Syrian child or parent today.

* * *

A few weeks later, my sister and niece came to visit us in Madrid, and my son was very excited to go the Reina Sofa Museum with them to see the Guernica. “Daddy, it’s bigger than a soccer goal!” But when we were just turning the corner into the large room that holds the painting, my son began to cry and say that he was too scared to see it. After fifteen minutes of back and forth, I finally convinced him to take a look. He loved the painting, especially its size. It’s funny because I never thought much of the Guernica, but it is a real testament to Picasso’s art that 80 years later, his painting – which was intended to depict the horrors of war – can have such a profound impact on a child.

About the same time, Audi premiered its Super Bowl commercial about how girls face greater challenges than boys. I have two boys and a newborn baby girl. Until that commercial – even though I considered myself very conscious of the disparate treatment of women in society, I had never given a thought to the fact that the little girl before me would face a different reality to that of my sons. Who said art no longer has an impact?

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If You Vote for Trump, You Are No Longer Friend or Family

oh-canada

Looks like we‘ll need a Plan B if Trump is elected.

Canada may be the closest place in North America that Mr. Trump will allow my family. And I say this as a person who had to degrade himself by pretending to be Canadian just to get some in Europe during the Bush years.

In all seriousness, family and friends, please do not vote for Donald Trump. I understand and get that you may dislike, detest even, Hilary Clinton. I am certainly no fan of hers.

BUT PLEASE DO NOT VOTE TRUMP.

Think about it: besides Mr. Trump running a campaign centered fully on hate, fear and division, he has also pledged that if he becomes the next President of the United States of America, he will prohibit my wife and children from entering our country. That means that if you vote for Mr. Trump, you are saying that is is perfectly alright to:

  • prohibit my family from entering the U.S., and
  • never see any of us again.

I say “never see us again” because if you vote for him and I find out, you are not welcome in my home. I will take your vote for Trump as a personal rejection of me and my family.

If you don’t like Hilary, either vote for a third party candidate or just vote down ballot. If you are a Republican or a Conservative Christian, you know quite well that Trump is neither. He is a dishonest cheat in absolutely everything he says or does. As USA Today recently wrote in its unprecedented editorial against Mr. Trump,

He is erratic. Trump has been on so many sides of so many issues that attempting to assess his policy positions is like shooting at a moving target. A list prepared by NBC details 124 shifts by Trump on 20 major issues since shortly before he entered the race . . .

He is ill-equipped to be Commander-in-Chief. . . .

He traffics in prejudice. . . .

His business career is checkered. . . . A series of investigative articles published by the USA TODAY Network found that Trump has been involved in thousands of lawsuits over the past three decades, including at least 60 that involved small businesses and contract employees who said they were stiffed. So much for being a champion of the little guy. . .

He isn’t leveling with the American people. . . .

He speaks recklessly. . . .

He’s a serial liar. . . .

For the life of me, I don’t see anything concrete that Trump stands for other than racism, xenophobia and insult. If you vote for him, that is what you stand for.

Finally, I am a U.S. citizen as are my children, and what possible argument can there be for denying my family from entering my home country and the place where my parents and siblings live? Because my wife and children are Muslim?

2-brothers

As far as I know, no one in my wife’s family has ever advocated for or supported:

  • Capital punishment
  • Bombing, invading or occupying another country, preemptively or otherwise
  • Carpet bombing
  • Killing human shields
  • Killing the (innocent) family members of terrorists
  • Torture or enhanced interrogation
  • Humiliating women or your political adversaries.

Meanwhile, Trump (and arguably Hilary even) have supported all of these.

So you have a choice this election. Do you ever want to see me again? Because if you vote Trump, you are rejecting me and my family. That is clear. It is not a joke. It is not funny.

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Photographs and Memories (dedicated to Chantal Cavé)

Shadowlands

There must be something endearing about the fact that when I was thirteen years old, my then girlfriend and I used to listen to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” – a song that was not contemporary at that time – conscious that due to our age, our puppy-love would not last forever. Yet it was Croce’s “Photographs and Memories” that I had found more haunting at that time. It’s funny that as a thirteen year old boy – the extent of whose “bedroom talks” consisted of talking on the phone until late into the night – I was impressed at how such a short and simple song lyrically, could so adeptly transmit the tragedy inherent in love and memory.

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you

Memories that come at night
Take me to another time
Back to a happier day
When I called you mine

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then

Summer skies and lullabies
Nights we couldn’t say good-bye
And of all of the things that we knew
Not a dream survived

Photographs and memories
All the love you gave to me
Somehow it just can’t be true
That’s all I’ve left of you

But we sure had a good time
When we started way back when
Morning walks and bedroom talks
Oh how I loved you then

Fast forward almost 30 years, and one day in the summer of 2014 when trying to come up with a new song to sing goodnight to my first born son, “Photographs and Memories” and its lyrics came back to me almost instantly. And for some strange reason – maybe the mention of “Christmas” – my son loved the song.

Sadly, rediscovering that song coincided with my brother’s fiancée, Chantal Cavé, being admitted into the hospital and then a few weeks later passing away, two years ago today.  Those nights when Chantal was in the hospital on the other side of the Atlantic with my brother at her side, I would sing that song to my son, and I did everything in my power not to break out in tears.

As I have written before, I did not know Chantal well. I met her once but knew about the year she and my brother had spent together and that it would define him forever. The most I could do was write a short poem about that year.

Now two years later, my son still asks me every few nights for “Photographs and Memories” and each time I sing it, I think about how few photographs and memories are left from when I was thirteen, about the people we love and cherish, and about the huge hole I feel in my heart for my brother and Chantal’s family that can never be filled with photographs and memories alone. But sometimes photographs and memories are all we’ve got.

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#ParisILoveYou

ParisIloveYou

Paris holds a special place in my heart. It was in Paris that I met my wife and in Paris that we were married on a sunny day beneath the red, white and blue French flag.

For three years I commuted between Madrid and Paris to be with the woman I love, and during 2010 while my wife was pregnant with our first son, I made 27 trips alone to the city to be with her. And we still travel frequently to Paris to visit friends and family.

The three cities I feel closest to are Washington, DC (my home town), Madrid (where I have called home for the past 15 years) and Paris. All three have suffered terrorist attacks since 2001. After the attack on the Pentagon in DC in 2001, my immediate sense was of doom, anticipating that my country would take drastic measures and that the world would forever be changed for the worse. I was in Madrid on the morning of March 11, 2004 during the Atocha train bombings and was (and continue to be) amazed by how the Spanish reacted calmly, without panic and without the thirst for revenge. Now today after the Paris attacks, I am left with only profound sadness. There are some many things I love about Paris, about France and its multiculturalism (which I generally see succeeding in ways it doesn’t always do in America), and my heart breaks.

No one has the right to take the lives of others, and certainly no murderous, sociopath terrorist has the right to speak on behalf of anyone other than himself or to invoke the name of a god he certainly does not share with a billion other people around the globe or with my children who are citizens of the great nation of France.

Thankfully our family and friends in Paris were unharmed, yet we know others – including friends of our friends — were not so fortunate.

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