A Reckoning

October 27, 2021 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The following is a slightly revised version of a review that appeared in the October issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, pp. 1-3.

Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, by Kerri Arsenault. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2020. 314 pp. $27.99.

Over the past summer, the climate action group of my women’s community, the Grail, has been reading Kerri Arsenault’s Mill Town. I’m sure my Grail sisters in the group have their own takes on the book, but I thought I would share mine with you today.

Arsenault’s book is a memoir/study of the dire health impacts on the people of Rumford, a town in west-central Maine, by a paper mill that employed a majority of them over decades, including Arsenault’s own father. She lays out her narrative through interviews with people in an around Rumford, as well as research into those who had been addressing the question for many years.

Among these was “Doc Martin,” a local MD who had long reported on the high levels of colon and prostate cancer in the area, linking it to the high amounts of dioxin, a toxic chemical compound produced in the chlorine bleaching of paper pulp. (Dioxin was also released by the burning of Agent Orange in Vietnam.). Martin’s attempts to raise the alarm were fruitless, and powerful people at all levels retaliated against him, ending his career. And then he himself died of cancer.

Arsenault also documents the history of many of the mill workers as “Acadians,” people expelled from Canada after the French and Indian War in 1755, and the various attempts at ethnic cleansing applied to them as “foreigners” over the years. Yet they were considered outstanding mill employees because of their hard work She links this earlier persecution of the Acadians to the social and environmental catastrophes in Rumford in recent years.

Another important part of the book is Arsenault’s analysis of why the community in and around Rumford chose to continue to work at the mill in the face of the exploding death rates: they needed the work in order to survive. One popular saying was that what you saw coming out of the smokestacks at the mill was money.

But another reason for locals being unaware of the truth was that the owners and the government, at all levels, covered up the mill’s harmful health impacts. Arsenault reports that the mill owners intentionally hired only older men to work in the bleaching room, the most toxic part of the mill, because they didn’t want to cover the health care costs for younger men. Older men retired and died; case closed. Yet their families never acknowledged the risks of working there. And the EPA permanently “postponed” its report on the connection between dioxins and cancer. 

Interestingly enough, during the 9/11 twentieth anniversary commemorations, a PBS documentary called “9/11’s Unsettled Dust” showed all the ways that New York, city, and state, as well as the Federal government, intentionally covered up the presence of massive amounts of dioxins, asbestos, and other toxins in the air around Ground Zero. Christine Todd Whitman, director of Nixon’s EPA, claimed multiple times that the air there was clean, despite irrefutable evidence that it wasn’t. Apparently, the authorities didn’t want such information to slow down the clean-up of lower Manhattan and, in particular, the reopening of Wall Street. People fought for two decades to get the government to cover responders’ health care and recompense the families of those who later died.

Throughout Mill Town, Arsenault weaves the story of her family’s involvement with the plant and her own father’s death from cancer as well as her failed attempts to find a clear linkage between his death and the toxins. She also draws a fascinating line between earlier exploitation by the mill owners and Nestlé’s recent attempts to exploit local water resources for bottled water. 

Reviewers have criticized Mill Town for Arsenault’s tendency to include so many sources and to keep stating how hard it is to draw absolute conclusions from all the material she uncovers in her research. One reviewer said that because of this, Arsenault isn’t a very good journalist. But she isn’t a journalist. Her graduate degree is in creative writing. Maybe splendidly written narratives also have something to contribute to the conversation about environmental destruction?

Besides my interest in good writing, I was drawn to Mill Town for another reason. In recent years I have done a fair amount of teaching, writing, and protesting about “environmental justice”—that is, opposing environmental racism. 

But I wonder sometimes about environmental classism. Which was clearly what was going on in Rumford. I was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, now considered one of the Ground Zeroes of environmental racism. Some of my earliest memories, as a child, however, are of driving past the Sun Oil refineries around Chester when it was still majority white, on the way to visit relatives in Chester, and in South Philadelphia, where there were many refineries as well.

In recent years, many members on my mother’s side of the family—myself included–have contracted serious abdominal cancers. Most of them died. in recent years we have learned that the cancers were a result of a genetic defect, Lynch Family Syndrome. There’s no reason to think that there’s any connection between this genetic defect and all that smoke constantly pouring out of the oil refineries, right? Just like the people in Rumford had no reason to see a connection between the dioxin pouring out of the mill, and the responders after 9/11 had no reason to the think the dioxins in the air there had any connection to their later COPD and cancers?

The Global Green New Deal

April 26, 2021 at 9:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Book Review

Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political l Economy of Saving the Planet. By Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin. Verso. 2020. 157 pp.

In recent months, we have heard frequently about the Green New Deal. But what is it?

If you want to find out, I can think of no better resource than Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin’s new book, Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal.(GGND)

Chomsky, as you probably know, is a linguist, historian, philosopher and activist who is frequently designated the nation’s “foremost public intellectual.” Pollin is a distinguished economist with a special interest in the environmental crisis.

One of the things that makes GGND a go-to resource is that it’s laid out in such an orderly fashion and is so accessible, an accessibility underpinned by the book’s question and answer format. And the same question is sometimes asked of both experts, resulting in somewhat different but overlapping  angles on the issues addressed.

The first chapter, “The Nature of Climate Change,” reminded me of the basic proposal structure I learned years ago: always start with the problem statement. And I love that Chomsky begins with what I have long considered his fundamental doctrine, that the two greatest problems facing humanity are climate change and nuclear war.

Chomsky illustrates this “doctrine” by starting his discussion of climate change with the bombing of Hiroshima and the ongoing nuclear buildup since then. Then we learn that the years immediately after the introduction of the “technological madness “ of nuclear weapons also saw the beginning of the massive rise in fossil-fuel emissions. Because of the skyrocketing of these emissions since 1945, the time available to avoid “tipping points,” that is “moments at which effects of global warming will become irreversible,” may have shrunk to zero and is at best thirty years. Chomsky and Pollin then detail the causes of these skyrocketing emissions, from industrial agriculture to deforestation to air pollution to the neoliberal capitalist enforcement of the privatization of everything.

The second chapter of GGND lays out the relationship between capitalism and the climate crisis, beginning with the Republican Congress ‘s blockage of the COP21 climate change treaty in 2015 and every other aspect of Obama’s climate change agenda, under the massive influence of the highly class-conscious corporate world, especially the fossil fuel magnate Koch brothers.

And a major part of the problem is that a huge segment of the electorate goes along with this rejection of climate remedies because the government has, for decades, paid little attention to their desperation, driving miners and unemployed factory workers out into the streets. Most people forget that even Republican presidents once spoke out against Texas oil millionaires and established federal environmental agencies. Then in the 1980s,  federally subsidized corporations like Exxon Mobil, with no oversight from the government, took extensive measures to deny climate change, no matter the accompanying likelihood of the destruction of the planet. The only solution, Chomsky and Pollin argue, is a shift to local, green-energy worker-owned and managed enterprises, including manufacturing. 

Chapter three, the longest and most challenging, explores the elements of the “Global Green New Deal” essential to saving the planet. The goal of the GGND, we learn, is to achieve the 45% decrease in global net carbon emissions by 2030 and reach zero net carbon emissions by 2050, which was mandated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018. And to accomplish this in a way that “also expands decent job opportunities and raises mass living standards for working  people around the world.” In order to do this, nations must shift 2.5% of the global GDP to massively expanding energy efficiency standards in buildings, autos, public transport and manufacturing as well as shifting to clean renewable energy sources. 

The authors stress that these changes will completely pay for themselves over time. They likewise emphasize that the only way such a program can succeed is if there is a total commitment to what they call a “just transition,” that is, that the employment level and living standards of those currently involved in the fossil-fuel-driven industries are maintained and even improved in the new green economy. The authors also totally reject the notion that nuclear power can play any part in a GGND because of the dangers of radioactive wastes, spent nuclear fuels, the theft of nuclear technology for weapons building, and nuclear meltdown. 

Also rejected are carbon capture and sequestration—pumping CO2 into the ground–and massive aerosol injections; widespread reforestation is cheaper and less dangerous. The notion of “degrowth” advocated by some environmentalists is likewise rejected because we have to grow a clean energy infrastructure even as we degrow the fossil fuel economy. 

Finally, in chapter four, “Political Mobilization for Saving the Planet,” the authors highlight the impressive people’s movements of recent years, like the 2019 global Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion, and the imposition of serious green targets in many countries and some US states. These all point the way toward possible change. 

Nonetheless, and interestingly enough, Chomsky and Pollin employ their extraordinary analytic skills to raise serious questions about activist tactics that are based more in abstract theories than in analyzing local contexts. Weekday demonstrations that shut down public transportation for example, alienate  working people. Indeed, the authors argue that aiming for the establishment of a completely socialist society is not a viable tactic because of the short time remaining before irreversible climate disaster. Ultimately, Chomsky and Pollin return to their conviction that the critical factor in climate stabilization around the world is the GGND’s commitment to “expanding decent work opportunities, raising mass living standards, and fighting poverty in all regions of the world.” 

May we come together to achieve such a world.

(This review appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax Christi Metro New York. https://nypaxchristi.org/kerux-2/ ).

White Feminism

March 7, 2021 at 6:08 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The following is a review that appeared in the March issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the US, part of the International Grail Movement.

White Feminism: From the Suffragettes to Influencers and Who They Leave Behind. By Koa Beck. 240 pp. Atria Books/Simon and Schuster. 2021. Hardback. $27. 

It’s hard to imagine a more timely publication, just after Black History Month and during ongoing protests against racism, than Koa Beck’s White Feminism. Beck is a woman of color, a lesbian,  a widely published journalist, former editor of Jezebel and Vogue magazines, and a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

I anticipated that Beck would situate the history of feminism in the racist positions held by early suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and indeed she does. But she goes on to lay out in detail the exclusion of women of color during many subsequent stages of the women’s rights movement after Stanton and Anthony. When the much-adulated Quaker suffragette Alice Paul organized the 1913 Washington Woman Suffrage Procession, for example, she excluded any mention of the “negro question” from publicity, for fear of alienating Southern suffragettes. Then, when Black women’s groups showed up, she ordered them to the back of the march. And indeed, after the Nineteenth Amendment passed, women of color were excluded from voting under Jim Crow. And throughout the rest of Paul’s career, working for the Equal Rights Amendment,  she tried to exclude all reference to race and class, for fear it would dilute the strength of the gender equality message.

From Paul, the author continues the history white feminism by detailing how Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women, beginning in the 1960s, focused on women working outside the home, with no recognition at all of women in poverty and how their domestic service enabled such women to get professional  jobs. From there, Beck launches into an analysis of how feminism became branded and the Sheryl Sandberg “Lean-in” feminism—white women in corporate leadership—became the central focus of feminism. 

But White Feminism is by no means only a history how white feminism excluded women of color and poor women from the movement. It is also a sort of memoir of Beck’s own experience as a journalist, how she, and the subjects she kept proposing to write about, were so often rendered invisible by the very often white editors of the women’s publications for which she worked. And those kept out included not only women of color, but also poor women, transgender persons, immigrants—the most excluded. I personally learned a lot, In particular, from Beck’s discussion of discrimination against non-cis-gendered people. I had thought that cis-gender actually meant heterosexual, when, in fact,  gay cis-gender men sometimes worked to exclude transgender women from recognition.

The book really does a fine job of showing the primary reason for the exclusion of so many “others” from white feminism, beyond a commitment to white superiority: the turn to individualism, feminism as a self-empowerment strategy. And in the third section of the book, Beck lays out a number of ways to return to the solidarity, the collectivism of the pre-feminist women’s labor movements and Black struggles.

I have one concern about the book, however: the use of the term “white feminism.” Now let me acknowledge that in my experience, publishers often mandate a book’s title , explaining that something like “White Feminism” is much more likely to sell than a more complex, accurate title. But what Beck is critiquing is much more an ideology than a racial group. And in some ways, “white feminism” is at least as much the “neo-liberal feminism,” the massive turn from post-war economics that Nancy Fraser identifies with the end of second wave  feminism during the Reagan/May era, than with whiteness per se.

And Beck acknowledges this in a number of places. The title of Part II is “White Feminism™”— “white feminism” as a brand. And she regularly claims that a change in ideology, not just is personal behavior, is what’s called for. She likewise refers on a number of occasions to “white feminists and those who aspire to whiteness,” which is not exactly a racial category. And one of the most striking illustrations of her critique of “feminist” CEOs—“Girl Bosses”—is the story of Miki Agrawal, the half-Japanese, half sub-continental Indian woman founder of Thinx underwear, who worked forcefully for the commodification of feminism.

But in many other places, Beck refers to white feminists without any quotation marks. I guess all us white feminist are commodified, buying expensive memberships in exclusive women’s clubs and wearing high-end “Feminist” t-shirts. Then again, maybe a little more nuance in Beck’s analysis might advance the collective action against racism, sexual oppression, and poverty that White Feminism is calling for.

Watch Out for “Fallout”!

December 31, 2020 at 4:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

(The following is a review that appears in the Winter 2021:125 edition of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax
Christi Metro New York.)

Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.  By Lesley M.M Blume.185 pp. Simon and Schuster. 2020. $27.00.

Just before the seventy-fifty anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, I took my copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima down from the bookshelf where it had been for years and read it. As an old friend was given to saying, I mostly don’t read my books; I feel warmly toward them.

But with Hiroshima, I decided it was time. And when I read it, I was blown away, primarily by Hersey’s brilliant interweaving of the personal, devastating stories of five Hiroshima residents who underwent the catastrophe. 

So when I heard Lesley Blume being interviewed on “Fresh Air” about her new book, Fallout, which documents how John Hersey uncovered the details of the effects of the US bombing of Hiroshima and the massive cover-up of that bombing, I had to go out and buy a copy. 

Blume is a journalist and an award-winning non-fiction writer. She begins Fallout by laying out the details of the bombing of Hiroshima and the media’s early coverage of the news, as well as how the government convinced the public that the bomb was a conventional weapon and downplayed the effects of radiation. She then follows Hersey’s journey to Hiroshima in May 1946, almost a year after the bombing. 

Blume also details the significant challenges that faced Hersey and the New Yorker editor, Wallace Shawn, regarding the publication of Hiroshima, navigating, as they had to, the rabbit warrens of federal approval. But when they did master those challenges, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the publication of Hiroshima, first in one entire issue of the New Yorker the following December, and subsequently in the millions of copies sold in English and many other languages.

Hersey played a major role in helping to prevent nuclear war since the end of World War II, and his book has inspired generations of activists. This is so, in large part, because he told the overlapping stories of the effects of the bombing on the lives of five actual human beings, “victims whose eyeballs had melted and run down their cheeks, others whose skin hung from their bodies or slipped off their hands like gloves,” He enabled them “to speak for themselves,” as Nick Turse notes in his detailed “Tom Dispatch” review of the Blume volume. (https://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176753/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_one_hundred_second

The story Blume tells of Hersey’s writing and publishing Hiroshima is itself a galvanizing read. Yet her emphasis on the government cover-up of the dire effects of nuclear war is now more important than ever, because we are in a new—or perhaps an ongoing—era of such obfuscation. You are perhaps unaware, for example, because almost everyone is, that the threat of nuclear war, and the massive build-up of nuclear weapons after the previous limited downsizing of our nuclear arsenal, was hardly mentioned in the recent presidential campaigns or their news coverage. 

Yet Donald Trump and his administration were hell-bent on pulling the US out of various nuclear treaties that had modestly lessened the nuclear threat for some years, while the military budget has expanded steadily since well before that administration.  A billion dollars went into research last year on something called “hypersonic weapons systems.” (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/national-pride-stake-russia-china-united-states-race-build-hypersonic-weapons) They are named that because they travel so much faster than the speed of sound that they can “dodge defenses and keep an adversary guessing about the target.” This at a time when the federal government failed to support states, local governments, and struggling families during the pandemic.

Is it any wonder that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists puts the Doomsday Clock at one hundred seconds to midnight, closer than it has ever been since they started using the clock in 1947?

I imagine that a lot of us are working hard on very important issues like the effects of the pandemic, ending wars, and Black Lives Matter.  But we also need to start organizing and working relentlessly to change the behavior of the US government on nuclear weapons.  The survival of humanity depends on it.


** https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/01/national-pride-stake-russia-china-united-states-race-build-hypersonic-weapons

My Catholic Line-in-the-Sand

November 17, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments
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As many of you know, I am a lifelong Catholic. A number of my great-grandparents were Irish immigrants. I did fourteen and a half years in Catholic schools and colleges. I have been a registered member of a Catholic parish for virtually all my life, with a few possible exceptions, as when I was living on communal farms in the 1970s.

But I recently cancelled my membership at the ostensibly liberal Jesuit Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan. I never plan to join another parish or, God help me, give another penny to the institutional church, except to the nuns, who are barely part of the “institution.”

Here’s a timeline of the events that led up to my decision:

In truth, I was already pretty freaked by Cardinal Dolan inviting Trump, even if he also included Hilary Clinton, to speak at the Al Smith Dinner in 2016. Then there was his phone call last April with 600 Catholics, many of them bishops and the heads of Catholic institutions, adulating Trump . I was so scandalized by that that his inviting Trump but not Joe Biden to speak at the 2020 Al Smith dinner a few weeks before the election didn’t surprise me at all. (And just so you know, Dolan is the head of the archdiocese in which Xavier is located, though I used to commute in from the diocese of Brooklyn.)

I had already been deeply disturbed by the number of Catholics, particularly white Catholics, who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Though the total percentages are disputed, white Catholics seem to have voted for him by more than half in 2016, as did a great many of them in 2020. My father, the shift worker, must be spinning in his grave, having told us as kids that if we ever voted Republican (or crossed a picket line) we would go to hell.

Another thing that’s been driving me nuts is the “spiritual communion” prayer offered at Xavier and, I assume, at a lot of other Catholic churches since the onset of the pandemic and the closing of churches. Just what everyone needs, isn’t it, is to hear that their communion at Zoom Masses isn’t real? As if Vatican II didn’t teach us that the Word of God is also the Body of Christ? One of the comforts of this period of Zoom liturgies was when the celebrant at a lay-led Eucharist inviting us all to bring our own cup of wine and piece of bread to the celebration with us. How’s that for ordaining everybody?

But the two things that really pushed me over the line—this may surprise you—happened at the Xavier Zoom Mass on August 9. That day was the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. Now the Jesuit Pope, Francis, has stated unambiguously that nuclear weapons are immoral. And thanks to Trump’s recklessness, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has positioned the Doomsday Clock, the indicator of the imminence of nuclear war, at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s every been since they began counting in 1947,. But the Jesuit priest who celebrated the 11:30 Mass that day, including a carefully prepared reflection on the scripture readings, never mentioned the Nagasaki bombing. This though the founder of the Catholic community in Nagasaki was Francis Xavier, the saint after whom the parish is named. And the bomb was dropped several thousand feet from the Catholic cathedral in Nagasaki, just as the community was gathered for the Sunday morning Mass.

I emailed the priest a few days later to express my distress over this omission. He is by no means young; perhaps he was unaware of the anniversary? He never responded to my email.

I thought about all of this for quite a while before terminating my membership, but finally decided I had no choice. I by no means intend to stop being a Catholic. There are several small Catholic Eucharistic communities, led by womanpriests or laypeople, that I join on Sunday mornings. And as my husband, the Baptist minister, is given to saying, I will be a Catholic till the day I die, no matter what institutional failure I am currently enraged by: after all, when I fall down and skin my knee, I say “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

But I have decided that I am finished with the institutional church, especially here in the US, where most of the bishops ignore what even the Pope is saying. I feel a bit sad, but enough is enough.


November 15, 2020 at 6:33 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Well, I wrote to you a while ago about the health problems I had been dealing with. I am now excited to report that I can see light at the end of the tunnel, figuratively and almost literally.

I am still tired from the pneumonia I contracted in September, but I have recovered from the pneumonia itself. So I was able to have my second cataract surgery last week, on November 9. The check-up the next day showed that the surgery had gone very well. I am about to end my week of pasting a plastic eye patch over my right eye before bed every night. And I am a week into the multiple eye drops that my long-suffering husband has been putting into that eye four times a day, a process that ends in three more weeks.

I am also going in in three weeks to get a prescription for new eyeglasses, which will move my distance and reading vision to 20/20. But my current distance vision is already vastly better than it had been for several cataract-impeded years. And I got a pair of reading glasses for the shirt-term at the local Duane Reade on Wednesday for twelve dollars.

I must admit, walking around without glasses has been a strange experience for me. I have been wearing glasses since I was eleven years old, that is to say, for sixty-two years. I keep pushing my glasses up my nose even though I am not wearing any. And I have discovered that at my age, wearing glasses makes me look less old than not wearing them, because they cover up the black circles under my eyes. So I really can’t wait for that new prescription.

I am also wildly excited to report that I am going out to Woodside to get my hair cut on Wednesday–and I am going by myself! Now that I can see again, my esteemed companion has agreed to my going out on my own. He was going everywhere with me, or driving me there, between my first cataract surgery and the second, because I really couldn’t see straight, and he didn’t want me falling down and breaking something!

Also, the day before Thanksgiving, I am getting a crown put in to replace one of the two eye teeth that broke during my recent ride through hell. The other one I will get done, but not until well into the new year. I have had enough medical procedures to last me quite a while.

Thanks to all of you who responded to the earlier post about my health, “Humbled.” It meant a lot. And I promise that soon, I am going to write about something besides my health troubles, God willing.

Meantime, stay well!


September 26, 2020 at 4:54 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Over the summer, I had gotten back to blogging. But then, after August 23, I stopped again.

I’m writing this post to explain what happened.

Towards the middle of August, there was a small event that may have been a warning: eating supper one night, my top left eye tooth broke and popped out. My dentist had been mulling over whether to do a root canal on it when his office shut down for the pandemic. I guess that problem is solved.

Then, on August 31, I had the first of two cataract surgeries, both of which I had been greatly anticipating, since the pandemic had forced my earlier appointments to be cancelled back in March. Not being able to read street signs, house numbers, etc., is pretty annoying.

The surgery went fine, but afterwards I began feeling sicker and sicker, with symptoms the details of which I’ll spare you. On September 6 we went to an urgent cares place and I was diagnosed with pneumonia. For the next ten days or so, I felt pretty bad, but the antibiotics seem to have done their job. Most of the symptoms are now gone, except for feeling really tired and a little stupid which apparently can follow pneumonia for quite a while..

The other after-effect is that my primary care physician more or less ordered me to postpone my second cataract surgery until November to avoid a reccurrence of the pneumonia. Apparently pneumonia sometimes follows anesthesia. If you have ever had cataract surgeries, though, you may recall that between the two surgeries, the vision in one eye is seriously different from the vision in the other. My husband is now walking everywhere with me for fear I’ll fall down and break a bone.

With more than 200,000 people dead from the corona virus, I really can’t complain about all this. No ventilator, even. But it was a pretty humbling experience I am almost never sick. One of my doctors is given to telling me I’m an “extremely healthy seventy-three year old.” So I’ve been pretty puzzled by the whole experience. Maybe I am actually going to get old someday, and need to be helped when I walk, or to feel so tired I can’t just sit down and write like a wild woman. What a thought!

As for now, though, I’ll be back to you soon.

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.





Fatal Diagnosis

July 22, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

I was really excited when I learned last Friday that our local bookstore, Greenlight, up on
Flatbush Avenue, was reopening. So I decided to walk up and pay a visit.

I never imagined that I would buy a book with a picture of Donald Trump on the cover, but when I got to the bookstore, I decided in a flash to buy a copy of Mary Trump’s new book Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man  (Simon and Schuster). Besides wanting to support Greenlight, I wanted to help run the sales up to two million, from the one million that had sold on the first day of publication.

And then, I never imagined that I would read a book about the Trump family, but when I got home I sat down and did exactly that. This post is a not a review of the book: there are plenty of good reviews out there, like the one that appeared recently in The Guardianas well as a number of interviews with the author. But I am going to share a few of my thoughts with you about the book.

The first thing that grabbed my attention is that the author’s name, Mary L. Trump, has “Ph.D.” after it on the cover. This is, in my experience, fairly unusual. Very, very many authors, particularly those of works of non-fiction, have Ph.D.’s but don’t get that advertisedon the cover. My speculation about why the publisher did such a thing is that they wanted people to know that the author, despite her last name, is not an idiot. (Mary Trump’s Ph.D. is in clinical psychology, the perfect preparation for her analysis of her family).

The second thing I want to share with you is that Too Much and Never Enough is actually a well-written, thoughtful book. Definitely not a John Bolton (or an anticipated) Michael Cohen exposé.  Dr. Trump does a fine job of laying out the history and psychological dynamics of  the Trump family as the context for the president’s ongoing pathological behavior. Basically, Fred Trump Sr.’s treatment of all five of his children was so violent and cruelly unempathic that it guaranteed that one of them, Donald, would turn out exactly like him.

And Donald did. Fred Sr., when talking about his accomplishments, would repeatedly say that everything was “great,” “fantastic,” and “perfect.” He bullied his oldest son, Fred Jr., for being weak and not domineering enough, modeling for Freddy’s younger brother Donald what he’d better do if he didn’t want the same treatment. One of the most devastating sections of the book is Dr. Trump’s narration of how the entire rest of the family abandoned Freddy–her father–when he was taken to the hospital and died of a heart attack . No one went with him in the ambulance. Donald went out to dinner. He is brother died alone

Mary Trump concludes her fatal (for us) diagnosis of her pathological  president-uncle with several devastating observations:

The simple fact is that Donald is fundamentally incapable of acknowledging the suffering of others. ‘Everything is transactional for this poor broken human being.’…I can only imagine the envy with which Donald watched Derek Chauvin’s casual cruelty and monstrous indifference as he murdered George Floyd…I can only imagine that Donald wishes it had been his knee on Floyd’s neck…But he can never escape from the fact that he is and always will be a terrified little boy.

Donald’s monstrosity is the manifestation of the very weakness within him that he’s been running from his entire life. For him, there has never been any option but to be positive, to project strengthen matter how illusory, because doing anything else carries a death sentence; my father’s short life is evidence of that. The country is now suffering from the same toxic positivity that my grandfather (Fred.Sr.) deployed specifically to drown out his ailing wife, torment his dying son, and damage past healing the psyche of his favorite child, Donald J. Trump.

In conclusion, if there’s any take-away from Mary Trump’s well-written, terrifying book, it’s that we have to get out and vote in November, and get everyone we know to vote as well. Joe Biden isn’t perfect, but compared to Donald Trump, he’s absolutely enough.



Climate Justice

December 8, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment


Mary Robinson. Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future. (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018). 147 pp. $26 hardback; $16 eBook.


In his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis clearly links the damage we are doing to the earth with harm to the poor, especially those in the Global South. In her new book, Climate Justice, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN Special Envoy for Climate Change, takes that message a galvanizing step forward, telling the stories of some of those global poor and how they are fighting back. These stories draw in the reader in just the way our times demand. Indeed, for Robinson, story-telling is a climate-action strategy.

Robinson begins her book-long network of stories with the birth of her grandson, Rory, in 2003, and her deep concern about the hazards he would likely face by the time he turns fifty: nine billion people battling for food, water and living space.

She goes on to tell eleven other stories, bringing to life some of the world’s most devastating problems. First we meet Constance Okollett, a small-scale farmer from Uganda whose village had been devastated by drought, flash flooding, and extreme variations of the seasons, an embodiment of scientific warnings that Africa will suffer the worst consequences of global warming.

Another absorbing story is that of Sharon Hanshaw, an African American hair-dresser from Mississippi whose experience of Hurricane Katrina led her to organize Coastal Women for Change, a climate justice group to confront the racially-linked federal failures to respond adequately to the hurricane. Then there is Australian Natalie Isaacs who was forced by outbreaks of bush-fires near her home to rethink her leadership of a cosmetics company based in the use of plastic containers and to found an on-line organization, 1 Million Women, that helps women around the world monitor and reduce their carbon emissions.

Stories of eight other grassroots leaders, from Alaska, to New Brunswick, Canada, to Vietnam to the Pacific island nation of Kitibati, are threaded throughout Climate Justice. And all but two of Robinson’s stories are about women grassroots climate change leaders, because “It is women who bear the brunt of climate change.” Another great strength of the book is its emphasis on the pivotal role played by indigenous communities in the struggle for climate justice.

Given the dire report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last October, that our planetary debt is going to come due far sooner than previously predicted unless we massively reduce our greenhouse emissions, it’s not easy to feel hopeful. And although her book was published before the IPCC report, Robinson doesn’t pull her punches about many aspects of the current situation, for example, that a billion acres of tropical forests have been razed since 1975 for timber, mining, and development, when such razing releases six times as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as fossil fuel emissions. Robinson also notes the enormous harm done to the environment by military violence, for example, the four thousand square miles of forests destroyed by defoliants used by the US military during the Vietnam War. Conflict between nations over the climate refugee crisis is another serious concern.

Yet for all the sobering information it coveys about the impacts of climate change, the primary effect of Creation Justice, as its subtitle suggests, is to inspire hope. And even for a cynic like me, who does not share Robinson’s optimism that markets will cushion the essential replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy, her absorbing narrative of grassroots, for the most part women, activists leading the climate liberation front around the world gives me great hope. I suspect it will do so for you as well.


Versions of this review appear  in December 2018 issues of The Irish Edition ((Philadelphia), Gumbo, the monthly publication of the U.S. Grail, and in Kerux, the quarterly publication of Pax Christi New York Metro.

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