Because Internet?

August 23, 2020 at 11:12 am | Posted in class,, Internet,, Writing, | 3 Comments

I think back, occasionally, to an experience I had a few years ago. I was teaching a January interim course on environmental racism at New York Theological Seminary, the Black Hispanic and Asian interdenominational seminary up near Columbia where I have an appointment.  I have been teaching in majority Black seminaries since the late 1990s.

It has long been my practice, when teaching a seminary course, to have the students write a two-page paper to the assigned readings, a practice I learned from my own dissertation advisor, Laura Levitt. When I read the papers, I correct them for spelling, grammar and punctuation, as well as content. I deduct half a letter grade for every five errors, but if the student rewrites the paper, I restore the grade. Students at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, in Berkeley, where I taught for ten years, were fascinated, and in many cases, deeply grateful for the corrections. One of them asked me once whether, if she made the corrections I had indicated, that would make the paper better. I said I certainly hoped so. In some cases, no one had ever had a paper marked for them before.

Three students from Union Theological Seminary, across the way from NYTS, had cross-registered for the environmental racism course. After the second class, when I had returned the papers, they came up and asked me how I justified the corrections I had made. “The Chicago Manual of Style,” I responded. They subsequently dropped out of the course.

I assumed at the time that their offense at my corrections had something to do with class, though a friend who taught at Union at the time said they would never have had a paper marked in such a way; Union professors occasionally wrote a comment at the end of a paper, and the grade, but nothing else. Union is an Ivy-League seminary, with tuition something like four times as high as the tuition at NYTS. The three students themselves were all Black, but I still figured they wondered how this woman from the inferior seminary across the street had dared correct them. I myself had enrolled in the M.Div program at NYTS in the 1980s after taking a few courses at Union because my working-class self was seriously put off by the economic privilege of many of the students at Union. It was also the case that the NYTS courses were offered at night, and I had to work in the daytime to support myself.

In recent months, I have begun to think that their objections might have arisen from something besides class, however. I began thinking about this after I read the Times review of Gretchen McCulloch’s book Because Internet, on the impact of the Internet on writing.  I, for example, require that quotations of more than forty words be indented separate from the other writing but not have quotation marks around them, which is standard literary practice. But I now see indented paragraphs with quotation marks around them in many of the publications I read on-line, even fairly high-class ones. One publication, I forget which one, puts a quotation mark at the beginning of indented paragraphs but not at the end. And the New York Times book review puts book titles in quotation marks, not in italics; the latter was once accepted editorial practice, but clearly, no more.

The Times reviewer indicates that McCulloch thinks that formal language—academic papers, one would think—will retain explicit rules, but I am more skeptical. The seminary attempts to remedy the current chaos with its own style guide which every student receives when they enroll, but good luck with enforcing what the guide says. Kind of like wearing face masks. Who are you to tell me how to punctuate my paper?




Pandemic Ramblings III

August 10, 2020 at 9:54 am | Posted in Climate Change, Covid-19,, Environment, Health | Leave a comment

A year and a half ago, back when people used to fly on airplanes, I went out to Claremont , California, to visit a bunch of Grail elders at a retirement community there, Pilgrim Place. During my daily walk around town, I noticed something that interested me: in front of a number of the beautiful and pricey homes were signs that read “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome Here.” And in front of those homes, or in their driveways, were multiple SUVS, vans and small trucks. I guess the residents didn’t entirely grasp why a good number of immigrants were coming north from Latin and Central America: droughts and famine caused in large part by green-house gas emissions.        And now, as I walk past the elegant Victorian-style mansions north and south of our apartment building here in west Flatbush, what do I see? “Black Lives Matter”  signs on their lawns and SUVs and trucks parked out front and in the driveways. I guess the residents don’t grasp that there are a number of reasons why people of color “can’t breathe,” not just cops with knees on their necks. Of course, lest you think anything is simple, the owners of some—a few—of these mansion and SUVs are themselves people of color. Their breathing must be pretty good.

And speaking of those mansions—I often wonder, as I walk past them, who is going to do all the landscaping and painting and repair and reconstruction of them if Trump and cronies manage to keep all immigrants out. I never hear a word of English from the current bunch of workers. Maybe all the recent college graduates who can’t find jobs would like to come out here to south-central Brooklynns to mow the lawns and repair the gutters?

And speaking of SUVs: when I was walking just north of the Parade Grounds where the soccer ball had smacked me, the day after Hurricane Isaias blew threw here, I passed a part of a huge tree that had broken off and fallen down. It didn’t hit the SUV, but it hit a big light pole, and that hit the rear-end of the SUV and smashed it. Nature’s revenge.

During my morning walk, I often think about my cataracts, especially after Hurricane Isaias, with all the branches down on the sidewalks. I can barely see them, so I have to be very careful. Occasionally I see someone walking toward me with what I think is an ice cream cone up near their face; turns out to be a cell phone! Or somebody walking with what I take to be a child, except it’s actually a dog. My cataract surgeries at the end of March and the beginning of April were cancelled at the last minute, with the end of elective surgeries. I try not to complain, with all so many people dying of covid-19. Now the surgeries are back on. I made my first of nine trips up to Weill Cornell Ophthalmology the other day, including covid-19 tests three days before each surgery. Fingers crossed. I really need to be able to see punctuation again!

Today on my walk, I passed a guy sitting on the step in front of an apartment building wearing a black tee shirt that read “No Lives Matter.” Wonder what that means? Maybe he’s a climate activist.

With that, I leave you. I have a book review to write.


A Previous ‘demic: Polio

August 9, 2020 at 4:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When I go on my daily walk up to Prospect Park, I pass a number of mansions where people, of late, have been putting many books out on the steps or the sidewalk. Lockdown culling, I guess.. On a recent walk I picked up a copy of historian David Oshinsky’s 2005 study,  Polio: An American Story: The Crusade that Mobilized the Nation against the 20th Century’s Most Feared Disease.   It won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for history.

I found it hard to imagine a book more relevant to the current crisis. Also,  I have always been fascinated , or more to the point, horrified by polio: around 1950, when we were both about three years old, a close cousin  developed polio, and I didn’t. I have never forgotten that near miss, especially as I walk vigorously around Brooklyn.

The first thing that struck me as I read Polio was what Oshinsky argues was a major cause of the disease, in contrast something I read recently about mortality rates in Ireland, between 1870 and 1950, as detailed in a book that my Irish book group read recently–that the Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Dublin during that period had much lower death rates because they had higher levels of hygiene than the for the most part poor residents of Dublin. But the polio epidemic, at least for a long time, according to Oshinsky, happened among upper middle class and upper class families precisely because they had much higher levels of hygiene than the lower classes and had thus wiped out their own immunity. Wash your hands–sometimes!

Also striking were the details about the distribution of the Salk vaccine after it had been developed and approved. Mayor Wagner of New York and other leaders were “shocked to learned” that the Eisenhower administration had made no plans for the distribution of the vaccine, believing that the drug companies “could best handle it on their own.”(218) Neither the president nor his advisors believed that national distribution of the vaccine was a “legitimate government action”: it risked provoking outcries against “socialized medicine.” Also, such a federal distribution program would set a “undesirable precedent.”  Even the American Medical Association objected to injections being given by anyone but MDs in their offices. Eventually, the epidemic shifted to poorer families because they couldn’t afford the three shots of the vaccine that the more prosperous were able to pay for. And the cost of the covid-19 vaccine is…

Oshinsky also suggests, in a sort of testimony to those who think that the current pandemic is a hoax, that the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis–the March of-Dimes foundation–had overplayed the extent of the polio epidemic in the interest of raising larger and larger amounts of money, albeit money they spent to fight polio. And in a similar sort of nod to vaccine skeptics, Oshinsky reports that after a long war between Jonas Salk, the inventor of the first polio vaccine, and Albert Sabin, the inventor of a subsequent live-virus vaccine, the country switched, in the early 1960s, from the Salk to the Sabin vaccine, a vaccine that had been first tested on mentally ill incarcerated adults.  But in 1996 it switched back becauseit was being shown that Sabin vaccine itself caused some cases of polio.

And with that, I leave you to ponder our current ‘demic.





Hiroshima at 75

August 6, 2020 at 9:29 am | Posted in nuclear war | 3 Comments

Back in the day, Eleanor Walker, my mentor in the Grail movement, was given to saying that she didn’t read her books; she “felt warmly toward them.”

One of my books that I have felt warmly toward over the years but never read is John Hersey’s Hiroshima.  With the 75th anniversary of that bombing today, on August 6, I decided that it was time to read it.

When I began to read, I realized that I also hadn’t actually read the subtitle:  The Story of Six Human Beings who Survived the Explosion of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima.  For the book is, indeed, a masterful interweaving of the stories of six individuals who lived through the bombing—what they experienced before, during, and soon after the blast. At first I feared that the book might be too much of a happy story, since it focused on survivors, but I soon gave up on that: the book details what the survivors suffered as well as what those around them suffered and in many cases died from. But the only way Hersey could collect their stories was if they had, indeed, survived.

Another thing I totally overlooked was that the book was published in 1946—a year after the bombing—and had previously been published in The New Yorker. How on earth did Hersey ever gather the detail he weaves into these stories in such a short period of time? It did not surprise me to learn, however, that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction two years before Hiroshima, so extraordinarily well-told are those stories.

The six “individuals” whose stories Hersey interweaves are Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk at the East Asia Tin Works; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, the head of his own private hospital; Mrs. Hatsoyu Nakamura, a widow with two children; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German Jesuit: Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the large, modern Red Cross Hospital, and the Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church.  All six were in different locations somewhat removed the center of city when the bomb exploded at 8:15 in the morning, which is part of the reason that they survived.

A year after the bombing, Hersey tells us, Miss Sasaki was a cripple, having suffered extreme damage to her legs when the Tin Works collapsed; Dr. Fujii’s hospital, which had taken him decades to build, had collapsed into a river and he had nothing to rebuild it with; the widow Nakamura and her children were destitute; Rev. Tanimoto’s church had been destroyed and “had no prospects of rebuilding”; Father Kleinsorge, who had labored ferociously to help others after the bombing, was back in the hospital with radiation sickness; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of doing the work he once could do. “The lives of these six people, who were among the luckiest in Hiroshima, would never be the same” (114).

A number of details have stayed with me from reading Hiroshima. One is of a survivor passing by a victim whose face had fallen off and another seeing someone with fluid from their melted eyes running down their cheeks; that the radiation sickness caused three stages of suffering and sometimes death for victims, but that the bombing also caused a wide range of weeds and plants to spring up. I guess radiation isn’t all bad!

It also struck me, though it did not particularly surprise me, that the details of the bomb’s heinous effects were repressed by the US, who had occupied Japan immediately after the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, but that Japanese scientists circulated the information widely. Also striking was that the Methodist minister, Rev. Tanimoto, who worked like a crazy person reaching out to suffering survivors despite his own radiation sickness, had access to many fewer resources than the German Jesuits in Hiroshima, who had been able to rebuild their chapel and provide food to survivors fairly soon after the bombing.

Finally almost inconceivable to me was Hersey’s reporting that many survivors of the bombing did not complain about their suffering; they believed they experienced it out of loyalty to their country and the emperor. Similarly, I could hardly believe that a good number of them remained indifferent throughout their lives about the ethics of the bombing. It was just the kind of thing countries did in order to win, they believed. Others, however, hated the US ever after, as well they might have.

It can be tempting to read Hiroshima as a well-written story of something that happened three-quarters of a century ago to people on the other side of the world. But to do so would be a serious error, since various experts like William Perry are warning us that a new nuclear arms race is now underway, with the psychotic in the White House legally empowered to push the nuclear button without consulting anyone. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now puts the hand of the Doomsday Clock at a hundred seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been. If we don’t want to pass people on the street whose faces have fallen off or enable the melting of other people’s eyes—or our own—we have to remember Hiroshima, protest nuclear funding, and most important of all, vote in November.

This article may appear in the August 2020 issue of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the US.




Pandemic Ramblings II

August 3, 2020 at 11:33 am | Posted in Catholicism, Covid-19,, Trump | 1 Comment

When I went out on my morning walk the other day, I was thinking about the question of who wears masks and who doesn’t. Some speculate that women wear them more than men. I guess that’s true, though I also see couples where the man is wearing a mask and the woman isn’t. And there are really a lot of men pushing kids in carriages, or with babies strapped to their chests, wearing masks. But I suspect that the current intense heat and humidity are more important than gender differences. After I have walked for twenty minutes,  my black cotton mask is seriously wet. Not a great encouragement for any of us.

i have long believed that if everybody in the US just lived in the west end of Flatbush, out here in Brooklyn, they would stop hating the “other,” because there are just so many different kinds of others here. I regularly pass people speaking a foreign language—often a language I  can’t identify (Russian, Ukrainian? Chinese, Korean? Creole?). Sometimes I don’t hear a living soul speaking English during my entire walk. Another thing that often strikes me is how people—women, often—wearing strict religious clothing like Muslim women in veils and orthodox Jewish women in wigs—have cell phones shoved up against their faces. I wonder what they’re reading or watching? Finally, it cracks me up how people from every possible ethnic/racial/religious background seem to have their teenager children–especially teenage girls—giving them trouble, arguing, scowling, dressing distinctly differently from their parents. We all have a lot more in common than we think.

This morning while I was walking I was mulling over a series of articles about how the “devoutly Catholic” William Barr is less the head of the US Justice Department than he is DT’s “defender in chief,” in part because of his commitment to absolute presidential power. What the articles got me wondering about is how the US Catholic bishops have over the years refused communion to Catholic politicians who would not oppose the legal right to abortion, even if they personally would not have an abortion but have not said a word about Barr defending someone who brags about grabbing women by their crotches and has been accused of sexual misconduct numerous times. And then there’s Barr leading the Justice Department when it reinstated the death penalty after Pope Francis defined the death penalty as “inadmissible” in the Catholic catechism. I guess unborn fetuses and the right to fire gay employees are the only things that really matter.

Finally, the other day after my walk, I heard Amy Goodman do the second of several interviews with Noam Chomsky on “Democracy Now.” What struck me about the interview was Chomsky’s comment on all the articles and reports claiming that Trump’s behaviors are fascist. Fascists, Chomsky pointed out, were intelligent and extremely well organized—that’s how they almost conquered the world. Trump et al, on the other hand, don’t have the faintest idea what they are doing—they’re just destroying essential parts of the social infrastructure because they can and to please their corporate supporters.

Well, I guess I’ll ramble home now. Talk to you again soon.


Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.