2022-04-11 Education in a Time of Pandemic IV

Interlude 2: There Is a Better Way

‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living’ (Finnish saying)

We’ll see in the final part of our series how the K-12 public education in the U.S. – sometimes referred to as “America’s Best Idea” – is being undermined by a well-organized and well-funded campaign ongoing for more than a generation, one which has taken advantage of the pandemic to step up its efforts, particularly in statehouses across the country.

But before we descend that divisive and costly path, let’s consider a country that has got public education right: Finland.  

What makes this small Nordic country’s system so successful? A number of factors:

  • No private schools (well, there’s one: the Finnish International School in Helsinki, which is for the children of foreign residents such as diplomats)
  • Equality (key goal from birth)
  • Emphasis on the individual child from a very young age (early intervention)
  • Well-defined and comprehensive youth policies extending beyond schools
  • Highly-qualified teachers (teaching is on a par with medicine and law as one of the “most desirable” professions; only 1 in 10 applicants is accepted; all teachers hold master’s degrees paid for by the state, and special education teachers have additional training – in other words, teaching is a high-prestige, high-qualifications profession which guarantees (a) continual demand for teaching positions by candidates AND (b) longevity among those selected
  • No state testing; students take only one national exam at the end of their secondary schooling (and they don’t assign PISA* results any significance)
  • Students are in school fewer hours, which allows more time for extracurriculars  (in Finland, this means means many outdoor nature-related activities like skiing, hiking, biking, sauna use)
  • Minimal or no homework
  • Major emphasis on play; in fact, the early years mostly consist of play –socialization, with Finnish children not beginning school proper until age 7 (Note: The Finns recognize “play” as a human right as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Article 31)
  • Emphasis on special needs children, with the goal of mainstreaming all children when possible.

The world has noticed what Finland’s been doing over the past half-century – the restructuring of the country’s education system was a long-term goal, and introduced gradually with the input of stakeholders. Interestingly, Finland looked initially to what other countries were doing (primarily, the U.S.). They adopted and adapted (and continue to adapt) what they consider best practices to their own education system. It’s a system based on involvement of all stakeholders (education authorities [all of whom are educators themselves], municipalities and teachers in the first instance, followed by business leaders, non-governmental associations, researchers, and parents). In short, “This consensus-based policymaking process has guaranteed sustainability of reforms and maintained the focus on a singular, shared vision of ongoing reforms. There have been over 20 different ministers of education and government coalitions since the 1970s in Finland, but the main principles of education policy have changed little.”

Teachers aren’t evaluated or assessed, and neither are schools. It’s a given that every school, every teacher, does the very best they can for their students. A single teacher may have the same class for as many as five years, giving them the chance to know each student (around 20 per class, with one teacher’s assistant for every 6-7 students) really well. The goal is to help each individual to reach their full potential, not some abstract test score or metric. The Finns don’t pay much attention to metrics, either; rather, they employ the human factor – teachers figure they understand their students better than any metric can convey.  “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect” (Timo Heikkinen, 24-year veteran teacher and principal from Helsinki). One important consequence of this focus on the individual child: the Finns have the smallest difference in the world between their strongest and weakest students.

Also of note: “Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.” (Outcomes and costs remind us of national health systems vs. the private U.S. health system).

Teaching and learning take place within a broader environment of “caring for the child.” Finland has generous parental leave, subsidized daycare, free preschool, and a subsidy for each child until they turn 17. No student goes hungry or has its medical needs unattended: “Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Stu­dent health care is free.” And municipalities help out too, providing extra funds to cover the costs of special needs teachers for, e.g. a school’s immigrant children still not conversant in Finnish (the system provides all children a full Finish-language education in addition to two foreign languages, begun at ages 8-9: Swedish and a second language, with English being the most popular).

For five years in a row, Finland has been named the “happiest country in the world” (runners-up: Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland) and its education system is listed among the main reasons. Here are some others:

  • A national sense of fortitude (Finnish sisu), partly born from living in an inhospitable climate, and partly due to a harsh history of conflict with its nearest neighbors, Sweden and Russia.
  • The “freedom to roam”: 75% of Finland’s land expanse is forest (highest percentage in the world), and the country enjoys low levels of air and water pollution. All Finns have the right to circulate freely in nature – along rivers, on lakes, in forests.
  • A strong sense of community fostered not least by the national custom of the sauna – there are 2.4 million saunas for a population of 5.5 million. Finns come together in saunas stripped of the outer trappings of wealth and status – which is both a strong equalizer and a means of encouraging comfort with their own – and others’ – bodies.
  • Sustainable, thoughtful consumption. Finns aren’t fans of the throwaway society; what they do possess is solid and built to last (often, for a lifetime). They are avid recyclers as well, so less “stuff” gets tossed; rather, it’s reused – again and again. And they’re borrowers, too: the public library system in Finland loans out 68 million books a year.  
  • Child welfare. Finns believe in giving everyone an equal start in life – witness, for example, the famed “baby boxes” distributed since 1938 to all new parents upon a child’s birth. And there’s affordable daycare and free elementary, secondary, and university education.
  • A sense of humility. Finns tend to accept their lot (both individual and collective) in life, and therefore to consider themselves happier than those who are endlessly striving.
  • Finns embrace the darkness and the light – whether weather extremes, the hot steam in the sauna versus the freezing cold outside, 200 days of darkness versus the Northern Lights, or hardship itself, which is viewed not as a setback but as an opportunity for growth. “[T]he self-image of Finns is that we are a relatively melancholic nation, who like to listen to sad tangos or angry heavy metal instead of happy songs. I think this acceptance of negative emotions as part of life might actually have a positive effect on the happiness of Finns” (well-being researcher Dr. Frank Martela).  

To sum up, here’s what Finland has going for it:  A highly egalitarian society (not so homogeneous anymore, however; Finland now has a significant refugee population); a focus on the welfare of all its inhabitants from birth; a national ethos of moderation in consumption; care and respect for the natural environment (which is, after all, the nurturer of us all); strong social welfare programs that alleviate poverty, strengthen the middle class (Finland has no homelessness, almost no poverty [Gini coefficient of 27.3]), and a high level of trust in government at all levels – for example, the national education system is completely devolved; local councils have full responsibility for schools, and there is no oversight by the national government.

And finally: Finland, although an EU member country, is also neutral (since 1995), which means that a higher percentage of its GDP can be devoted to life-enhancing as opposed to life-destroying investment. That matters too.

*PISA = Programme for International Student Assessment, administered every three years to around 500,000 15-year-olds throughout the world. It was most recently administered in 2021.

Further Reading

Finnish Lessons”: Interview with Pasi Sahlberg

 (beginning at 20:46)

Finland’s Educational Success Is No Miracle

Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?”

Why Finland Has the Best Education System in the World

What Makes Finland the Happiest Country in the World for the Fourth Consecutive Year?”

7 Lessons Learned from the Happiest Country in the World

2022-04-06 Interlude

The Story of Buzz and Janie and Danny

It has been clear for some time that completing our series of planned posts on “Education in a Time of Pandemic” has become difficult, painful even. The final planned post, on the many well-funded efforts to privatize American public education by stealth, will have to wait for a bit as we go on holiday from the darkness enveloping our world to seek out the light.

We woke up this morning determined to find a more uplifting topic to use as a launching-pad. It took several hours, but we found one, on a site we visit occasionally when we’ve a mind to read in-depth, reflective writing on a wide variety of subjects. Appropriately enough, the site is called “longreads.” The piece we chose, “Raphael Couldn’t Have Painted Something More Beautiful,” was published in an online magazine called The Atavist, which we weren’t familiar with – one of the pleasures of longreads is that its selections come from all sorts of out-of-the-way sources.

The story is set in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and concerns only three people – Buzz Alexander and Janie Paul (Buzz was a Professor of English Literature at the University of Michigan; Janie, an artist who taught color theory at the University’s School of Art & Design) and a man named Danny Valentine, and of how Buzz and Janie first saved Danny’s life (literally and metaphorically), and of how Danny subsequently saved theirs.

Here’s what happened: Buzz and Janie met at an artists’ residency in 1992 (“Like Buzz, Janie believed in art as politics, art as liberation, art as a means of building bridges. By the end of the canoe trip, they were friends. By the end of the residency, they were in love”) ; Buzz spent his 1993 sabbatical year in NYC with Janie, and when the year was over, she managed to land a job in Ann Arbor and moved there.

Before meeting Janie, Buzz had become involved in art outreach for prisoners (Michigan’s prison population had gone from under 10,000 to over 30,000 in the 20 years he’d been living in Ann Arbor). Once Janie became his life partner, that outreach expanded, and grew to include the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), a University of Michigan program “dedicated to promoting the arts behind bars.” ([Both Janie and Buzz] “thought academia was too conservative, a stodgy bubble where people indulged in niche pursuits. They preferred to invest their energy in civic engagement, and especially in making art more accessible.”)

One of the program’s features became a yearly exhibition of artwork by prisoners, hosted by one of the University’s art galleries. Works were for sale, with proceeds to go to the artists themselves. In order to gather ideas about possible artist-exhibitors, Buzz wrote to a number of the prisons PCAP was already working with. This was in 1995. And here’s where Danny enters their lives.

The director of a prison in Jackson proposed a man who, in his words, “could do anything.” He could sculpt, he could model, he could paint, he could draw – an all-round master of every technique available to him. And so, Buzz wrote a letter to prisoner number 156689. His name was Danny Valentine.

Danny’s story was light-years apart from those of Buzz (Harvard, Cambridge, Harvard, Michigan) and Janie (Hunter College, NYU, Michigan). He’d grown up as the second of five children in a blue-collar family in Ann Arbor. There was a fair amount of violence in the family; Danny had found solace by teaching himself to draw at the age of six.

He first ran away from home when he was 12; his father called the police, and thus began Danny’s long carceral career – he was in and out of jails and prisons until, as so often happens with young men who’ve had an early acquaintance with the injustice system, he was accused of rape (he claimed he was innocent) and sentenced to 20-30 years in prison.

During his first years in prison – not long before his path crosses that of Buzz and Janie – he married his girlfriend, Diane, who served as his lifeline for a short period. But she moved to another town, began seeing someone else, and served him with divorce papers not long after. He signed them. Here’s Danny in the fall of 1995:

Danny was just shy of 35. He had served four years of his sentence and didn’t think he could last even one more day. He planned to kill himself one evening at chow time, and he had two backup plans in case jumping from the rafters of his cell block’s atrium didn’t work: a noose and a fatal shot of heroin.

The way Danny would later tell it, as he was contemplating the last hours of his life, a guard tossed a letter through the bars of his cell. He told himself he had no interest in what it said—anything that threatened to get between him and his impending oblivion felt meaningless. He tried to ignore the envelope on his bunk, but some force compelled him to open it.

Inside, printed on University of Michigan letterhead was an invitation. Danny would read it countless times in the coming hours and days and years. Dear Daniel Valentine, he remembers it saying. I am Buzz Alexander, professor of English literature at the University of Michigan. My colleague Janie Paul and I are organizing our first annual show of art by Michigan prisoners next spring. I have heard you are a terrific artist and would like to know if you would be represented in our exhibition.

Danny decided to keep on living, and participated in PCAP art exhibitions for 20 years.

The first PCAP exhibition Danny took part in (with two works) was in spring 1996; he didn’t meet Buzz and Janie, however, until 2004, eight years after he’d begun exhibiting with the program.

Janie on that first meeting:

I remember looking into his face and grabbing his hands between my hands. I could feel his presence as I had felt his presence in his drawings. The intensity of the work comes partly from the content, which is often about loving relationships between mother and child, man and woman, but also from the intensity of the labor that goes into the drawing.

Danny’s memory of that same moment:

I felt the same kindred connection as when I opened that letter from Buzz the first time. I felt like I had met the other half.

Danny was up for parole in 2011, and Buzz and Janie wrote a letter in support of his release. But his request was rejected, and he vowed never to apply again – he’d serve out his full term.

Then in 2013, Danny was released without prior notification (perhaps the prison needed to free up beds). He’d served 23 years – by that time, he was in his early fifties. He was taken by his brother to a halfway house, where he’d have six months to get his life together. With an inheritance from his father, he bought a Dodge Caravan – if he became homeless, he’d be able to live in his car. He’d never had a bank account, never used a cell phone, and his prospects for regular employment as a registered sex offender were slim to nil.  He ended up moving to northern Michigan, a long drive from Ann Arbor and Buzz and Janie’s beautiful, book- and art-filled home, where they’d hosted him for a blueberry pancake breakfast following his release.  

After he left the halfway house, Danny moved in with his ex-wife and her boyfriend; eventually, she found him a trailer home located in the Upper Peninsula (six+ hours from Ann Arbor); the owner said he could live there rent-free if he fixed it up. He was alone, without friends, without colleagues, and had once again begun contemplating suicide.

On Christmas Eve 2016, Danny got a call from Janie – they’d stayed in touch since his release, and he would occasionally drove down to Ann Arbor to visit them – asking him to come and stay with them. Buzz had been diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) in 2014, and Janie was desperate; she could no longer care for him on her own.

Danny arrived at their home on Christmas Day 2016 after a 12-hour drive in a driving snowstorm, and not long after this he determined that he would stay “until the end.”

Caring for those in the latter stages of dementia is exhausting and psychically stressful – Danny had had no previous experience with caregiving, but he became Buzz’s full-time caregiver in the final years of his life. The title of the essay is taken from this brief anecdote, relayed by Gillian Eaton, Buzz and Janie’s best friend:  

Eaton recalled coming into the house once to find Danny hunched over Buzz’s feet, clipping his toenails. “Raphael couldn’t have painted something more beautiful,” she said.

As the disease progressed, Buzz lost more and more cognitive and motor functions, along with the ability to express his thoughts in words, an academic and intellectual’s  foremost connection with reality. Danny seemed to sense, intuitively, what Buzz needed on any given day, and he devised ingenious methods of adjusting to his declining skills – for example, when he lost the ability to use eating utensils, Danny devised an entire menu made up of finger foods.

Dementia is both terrifying and puzzling as cognitive functions drop away in no particular order for any given individual – there’s no cure for FTD, it’s fatal, but there is oddness about its progression:

There were days when Danny took Buzz on long drives. They loved these outings. Their first stop was McDonald’s. “We’d order chocolate milkshakes, and he’d suck his right down and reach over and grab mine,” Danny said. Buzz still had his sense of direction, and he’d point Danny here or there, to a house where he once lived or the place on campus where his office used to be. One time, Danny recalled, “he started crying a little bit. He pointed, he tried to tell me something, and it sounded like speaking in tongues.”

“Yeah, Buzz, I know,” Danny said. “You worked there for 47 years.”

Buzz just shook his head

In early September 2019, Buzz stopped eating and drinking – he could no longer swallow. A hospice nurse was called in, but Janie and Danny were always near him as well. Buzz passed away on September 19, twelve days after he’d stopped eating.

Now, Danny and Janie are together – theirs is not a conventional story, or even a romance, but perhaps it is something more precious, more profound. Their relationship seems to us to be a real-life example of a form of love we touched on in our Valentine’s Day post:

“Even now, with Buzz no longer here, Danny and I still feel like there’s this circle of love,” Janie explained. “I want to maintain my connection to Buzz through Danny and me taking care of each other.” Danny described himself and Janie as “bound by memories of Buzz.” He’d taken to wearing a bracelet and a watch of Buzz’s. He often cried when he talked about his friend, about what three years of being by his side as he died had meant. “I wish him back every day,” Danny said.

Danny and Janie, Janie and Danny—now they were a pair, a package deal, born of necessity and intimacy. “They filled each other’s loneliness in a way I don’t think anyone else could,” Eaton said. “They needed each other to look after Buzz, but now they need each other to look after each other.

This exceptional piece, by Kelly Loudenberg, opens with a quotation from 1 Cor. 4-8:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

The Greek word, of course, is agape / αγάπη.

The Michigan Daily published a long appreciation of Buzz Alexander following his death which includes reminiscences by friends and former students who’d taken his classes and become involved with the PCAP. One of the testimonials:

Sara Falls, a high school English teacher in California, took Alexander’s “What is Literature?” and “Theater and Social Change” classes at the University, the latter involving improvisational theater in prisons. Alexander’s readings and discussions on prison justice got her thinking more deeply about how the education system can create a pipeline to prison, eventually compelling her to become a teacher herself. 

“He started to get me to think about what it means to be a teacher,” Falls said. “This is my 20th year teaching, and I don’t think I’d be a teacher if it wasn’t for him. It’s my life’s work, and I feel deeply called to it, because it’s about finding the power in young people and helping them to use their voices and helping them feel powerful in themselves to make change.”

Can there be a more eloquent description of the mission of a teacher? We think not.

2021-04-05 The Pandemic and the Commons

The Social Discourse Commons

In an increasingly class-stratified and politically-polarized society, whose values reign supreme? And where do those who disagree with those values go to dispute them?

The values of traditional liberalism, including among others the freedom to live as, where, and with/among whom we choose; the expectation of fairness in the dispensation of social goods and social sanctions, and a basic tolerance of those whose beliefs differ from our own are being sorely tested both by the isolation imposed on us during the year-long pandemic series of lockdowns and by our self-selected presence/absence on what was once touted as a substitute for the “commons,” the Internet (the “digital commons”).

In real life (“IRL”), how many of us are in a position to live anywhere we choose, with whomever we choose, and in any way we choose? How many of us genuinely believe that jobs are awarded (sic) to those best qualified and most “deserving” (and “deserving” in what sense, exactly?) of them? And how tolerant are we IRL of those with whom we disagree – often, sharply – on fundamental issues involving our shared polity?

As we continue to endure masking, social distancing, the ins and outs of (sometimes inequitable) vaccination, openings and shutdowns of both businesses and public services, many of us – those of us not providing essential pandemic services – continue to seek human interaction and discourse through online means, whether Skype, or Zoom, or FaceTime, or FB Messenger. I have initiated regular meet-ups (some complete with each of us consuming their own glass of wine and slices of cheese, or sushi or dessert, separately but together) with old friends, and it’s been a real boon to my morale. With old friends, we can laugh and joke, discuss current events, share our latest COVID-19 complaints, even proceed to engage in more substantive discussion as I do with one bi-weekly meet-up, where we have an assigned topic-of-the-evening and where there’s homework involved in preparation. Initiating such meet-ups was the most positive thing I’ve done during the pandemic in support of my personal mental well-being.

Make no mistake, however, about such get-togethers: they’re a good thing, but they’re not the real thing. And I assume that holds true for most of us – what we most miss is actual human contact. An education podcast we follow, HaveYouHeard, recently asked a previous guest to recruit her students and ask them what they felt they’d lost over the past year. In stark contrast to what administrators and Department of Education officials are bemoaning (“Learning Loss”), what the students feel they’ve lost is almost exclusively related to the social nature of school. Student after student said, first off, that they missed their friends; that they missed their teacher’s physical presence; that they missed their team sports, their drama club’s activities, even the sense of hanging out – or, to put it another way, of not being alone.

Not that school is perfect, far from it. Concerned teachers who’ve been paying attention the past year are entreating administrators to take heed of the lessons learned from remote teaching. For one thing (and this has long been known), school starts too early for children and adolescents – if school bells rang at 8.30 or 9.00 each morning, there would be many fewer students asleep during the first and second periods. For another, children get hungry at odd – and different – hours during the day; why not allow them to snack as needed? And it turns out that some children are doing better with remote learning than expected from their classroom past histories because, well, thirty other students in any given class is too much stimulation – it’s distracted them from learning, rather than helped them learn. We need – we must, both for the sake of public and mental health – reduce class sizes by at least one-third.

The overall message is that what our leaders are trying to force students and teachers back to – what they call “normal” – is not all great. Many things will never be truly “normal” again, and rather than bemoaning this, we should seek to implement what we’ve learned from a year of far-from-normal. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that students go to school to learn, yes, but they love school because it offers them a social commons, a place to engage with their peers, a place where they can learn to be. One student noted that a year of non-engagement meant that they had “lost my sense of self.” Truly we learn to define ourselves through the eyes of others, no matter how young we are.

Human beings, it need scarcely be repeated, are highly social animals. We spend our lives once we emerge from infancy and dependency on the primary caretaker with others – our peers, be they as young as 2 or as old as 92. We play together, we explore together, we collaborate, we learn – I mean, part of the thrill of being a 3rd-grader was when the whole class understood a new concept in concert – we were all excited, each of us an individual with greater or lesser intrinsic abilities but in that moment learning as one, together – the sum of us all was greater than our individual selves.

The same holds true for most adults. Millions of members of our Professional Managerial Class (the “PMC”) have worked remotely throughout the pandemic. Some fared well, others poorly. Those who fared well tended to be in stable relationships where they were isolated, yes, but not entirely alone; those who fared poorly were either entirely alone, lacking family or friends with whom to create a pandemic “bubble,” or in failing/failed relationships which provoked much unhappiness and provided little comfort. Understandably, the latter are hankering to return to “the office,” to a social world which provides interest, stimulation, distraction, and at least some solace from troubles at home.

In the absence of real-life social interaction, both children and adults have resorted to a simulacrum of fractured, interrupted relations: online communities. Here, however, we have duplicated and unfortunately exacerbated a significant pre-pandemic social issue, i.e. a tendency to gravitate towards forums/spaces where we feel most “comfortable.” Liberals subscribe to liberal online publications/news feeds and survey liberal websites; ditto for conservatives, of course, and for progressives and far-right conservatives – the overlap between progressive/liberal sites/sources and between conservative/far-right sites/sources has gotten smaller, not larger, throughout the last year. How many of us spend significant time checking out what the other side is making of current affairs, what they’re focusing on, what they feel is most important today, this week, this month, this past year?

And what does this narrowing of focus signify for our return to the physical commons, once we return to work and gyms and clubs and church groups and school board meetings and restaurants and cultural events and … well, wherever we choose to go once we’re able, once COVID-19 has been tamed by natural means or once we reach herd immunity through mass vaccination programs?  

Are we returning in the belief that the game’s not rigged against us (i.e. with the expectation that the dispensation of society’s goods / sanctions will be reasonably fair), or that it’s even more rigged than before? Are we returning with more tolerance for the Other – be that the irritating person whose desk is next to ours at the office, the show-off at the gym who worked out for two hours daily over the past year, or the shrill mother complaining because “some” students can no longer “keep up” with the curriculum, and that’s harming her child?

When the pandemic struck the West last March and it became clear that students – and millions of adults – weren’t going to be able to return to school/the office anytime soon (the West’s generalized failure to respond in a timely/appropriate/decisive manner to COVID-19 should by now be obvious), we believed that the most appropriate response-in-lieu-of-any-effective-response should have been for those in charge of education to hit the “pause” button.

That, of course, didn’t happen, but the decision by newly-inducted Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that the yearly “Big Test” would be administered as planned this spring is pointless and in some sense cruel. Who believes that children who have lost loved ones (nearly 600,000 deaths now), whose parents have been largely absent because they – in contrast to PMC parents – were deemed “essential workers” (essential, but not really deserving of recognition by enhanced pay and benefits), will do as well as the children whose parents hired tutors, or formed “learning pods,” or rushed to exclusive summer enclaves to enroll their offspring in private schools that remained more-or-less open? The Department and its collaborators in the high-stakes, for-profit testing industry claim that the tests are necessary so that students’ “learning loss” can be assessed and remedial programs designed (in many cases by these same for-profit companies or their offshoots) so students can “catch up.” Does anyone doubt what the test will demonstrate, viz. that students in our poorest districts, whether urban or rural, whose parents didn’t have the luxury of staying home and supervising their remote learning experience, whose access to remote learning may well have been negatively impacted by inadequate or non-existent broadband connections, will not do well on the standardized tests? And for that matter, what does “well” even mean in such unprecedented circumstances?

Thousands of the 13,000-odd school districts across the country are already engaged in planning for remedial summer sessions (hoping against hope the pandemic will retreat in the next eight weeks, as if they’ve learned absolutely nothing from its course to date), but students don’t want to go back to school this summer. They want to go back to each other – to re-connect, to re-socialize, to re-discover their lost sense of self. There will be plenty of time to get back to school work and formal learning once social bonds are re-established. And the learning that takes place will be all the more effective once communal ties are re-established.  

Adults should heed what students claim they need, given that our needs are not all that different from theirs. When the pandemic passes – or when, as seems more probable, it retreats to a level deemed “acceptable” to the powers that be – we should re-connect with one another in person for any number of reasons every chance we get, even if masking and some degree of social distancing continue to be de rigueur.

Why? Because American adults’ social discourse commons, like our children’s, has been damaged in the pandemic. Already fractured and split into sharply-divided camps before the pandemic, some writers are now questioning whether our commons is already beyond rescue. These pessimists believe that the latest iteration of the liberal class (the PMC, the “Mandarins”, the “credentialed classes” – pick your pejorative) and the now-vast socio-economic divide are so great that there are almost no occasions for the working class – 70%-75% of the population – to interact with the top 25%-30% except in relations of dependency. The well-off, well-educated, and well-paid live apart and play apart; their code of behavior (based on purported “values”) is different, and not insignificantly, their children often exist separate from everyone else’s, whether in elite private schools or elite public ones protected from the poor (and their parents) by income segregation, which has now become a useful stand-in for racial segregation.

Where is the social commons? Well, it’s everywhere in the real world, but the locus where it’s critical we all return with a renewed commitment to tolerance – not performative tolerance, but actual, demonstrated tolerance – is the public commons, that raucous, contentious place where issues large and small deserve to be discussed, openly and respectfully but honestly, even perhaps in loud tones, over the months and years to come. There’s going to be plenty of contention, because we’re discussing issues critical to our survival, but it’s vital that everybody show up for the discussion. This means direct involvement in the life of the polis – politics – and breaking through the barriers now protecting and segregating decision-takers from those who have to live with their decisions.

How did we all learn to participate in this commons? Where do we all come together as children, to make friends and enemies (to embrace the former and tolerate the latter), to share in the joy of discovery, creativity, friendship, companionship – togetherness – to collaborate, succeed and sometimes, fail? Where’s that place where for 12 years American children come together to learn, including learning how to become full-fledged members of the social discourse commons?

Yep – public school, the training-ground par excellence for a well- and variously- informed, rational, tolerant citizenry, the bedrock prerequisite for the continued existence of an open and lively public discourse commons.

The success of the adult commons depends directly on its predecessor, and that’s one reason the stark income disparities that increasingly characterize the U.S. don’t bode well for the future. If our children don’t play together, learn together, and collaborate/compete together when they’re very young, the chances they’ll be able to do so as 30- or 40-year-olds become significantly impaired. When rich and poor children study and learn and play – and quarrel, yes, that’s part of life – with one another from the age of five, by the time they’re 25 they understand one another far better than if they’d never come in contact. They speak one another’s language – and as any good rhetorician knows, if you don’t speak the other’s language there’s no hope of ever finding common ground.

Public school is the most egalitarian social institution societies have hit upon to induct their members into what it means to be full and equal participants in the social commons. Public schools remain the sole effective preparation we know of for active, life-long membership in the body politic by the majority of citizens/residents. And said schools should be integrated and reflect both the racial and socio-economic demographics of their locale, with every school appropriately funded by its district, state, and the federal government to ensure that the poorest student in any school is deprived of no opportunity offered.  

Here’s how an education blogger we admire but have not had occasion to cite put it:

“Early in the 20th century, public schools had been established serving every community from coast to coast. The results from this vast American public education experiment shine like a lighthouse beacon on the path of Democracy and social happiness. A nation that entered the century as a 2nd rate power ended the century as the undisputed world leader in literacy, economy, military power, industrial might, cultural influence and more.

“Today, unbelievably, more and more forces are agitating to undo public education and even American Democracy itself.”

When we emerge from our pandemic silos, we must rejoin the social discourse commons to preserve both that commons itself, which makes liberal democracy possible, and its foundational institution: public schools.  

2021-03-01 Social Lenses: “Room 2806” (Part II)

“Les affaires interdits”

For the background to the following discussion, please see our previous post (“Room 2806” Part I). Below I try to isolate and classify the factors which led to the Manhattan Prosecutor’s abandonment of all charges against Strauss-Kahn, and some possible approaches to dealing with perpetrators in future.

Factors involved:

Money: Strauss-Kahn was the son of a lawyer and a journalist (the circles within which he has basically remained, both socially and matrimonially). Born in a Parisian suburb, the family moved to Morocco when he was two (1951), and thence to Monaco (1960), where his father worked as a lawyer. He moved back to France when he began university. The family was well-off, but didn’t have the funds to promote him in accordance with his boundless ambition. This only became possible upon his third marriage to Anne Sinclair. Sinclair, the daughter of French Jews who had married before fleeing France shortly before World War II, is the maternal granddaughter of one of Europe’s most successful 20th-century art dealers, Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso (and was a close personal friend; the two families summered together following their return to France), Léger, Braque, and Matisse among others. His agreement to sell these artists’ works came with the stipulation that he himself would have first rights to purchase, and he thus amassed a collection of art of almost-incalculable value. Rosenberg, sensing that war was imminent, managed to get some (though not all) of his collection out of the country, shipping part of it to his London branch and another part to the U.S. (under guise of the 1939 World’s Fair). Sinclair became her grandfather’s sole heir following the death of her mother Madeline, and her net worth is estimated at around $200 million. That’s serious money, and it bought Strauss-Kahn both the political career he longed for as well as protection and – ultimately – a form of immunity from his dark proclivities, which may have become more pronounced during his years as Director of the IMF when he was “economic czar of the world.”

Power: The information about “Money” above wasn’t in the documentary, but I became curious when at the bail hearing, DSK’s lawyer noted his total assets at around $2 million before adding, almost as an afterthought, that his wife had “substantially more,” which sounded like Brafman was trying to avoid naming amounts. Serious money is a correlate of serious power – whether it is direct as in DSK’s case (the Public Information officer of the NYPD notes that at the time of his arrest, Strauss-Kahn was the “8th or 9th most powerful man in the world”) or indirect, as is the case with America’s billionaire class, many of whom prefer donating to policy think tanks and political campaigns over actually running for office, although there is increasingly some cross-over. West Virginia’s richest man, Jim Judges, is Governor; the Governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, has an estimated net worth of nearly $4 billion. And of course there is the recent example of the U.S. President.

Power can buy politicians and policies favoring the moneyed class(es) – most of Trump’s policy initiatives, implemented through Executive Orders, are of this type (rollbacks of policies which opened up federal lands to exploitation by the extractive industries, relaxation of environmental regulations favoring the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries). Trump’s sole legislative triumph was a tax measure that massively favored the rich.

Power combined with money can buy exemptions from Justice. The documentary features several former colleagues and friends (and even DSK’s second wife, Brigitte Guillemette) claiming that their colleague/friend/spouse would never have engaged in the sexual behavior of which he stood accused. But did any of them actually believe that? DSK had long been known to them; was it the case that they could acknowledge he was a “conventional” French womanizer, given to serial liaisons, but not that he was what he emerges as in the Sofitel case, the Banon case and perhaps most tellingly, the Carlton hotel case? There seems to be a line between affairs with members of one’s own social class – even extending to much younger members – and the type of sex DSK preferred with women who did not belong to his social class.

Class: Strauss-Kahn’s case reminded us of that of Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier (?). While the full case against Epstein was never presented – he committed suicide in his jail cell a little over a month following arrest in July 2019 – an extensive investigation published in the Miami Herald in late 2018 by Julie Brown and Emily Michot exposed many of the details of how his “operation” functioned, with a focus on the early 21st century (2001-2005). While in contrast to DSK, Epstein had never sought political office, his myriad connections with the American (and Anglophone) super-rich and powerful (“princes and premiers”) and his own wealth (estimated at $500 million, although it has proven hard to track down given that much of it was concealed in off-shore accounts) ensured that when he was convicted in Florida in 2008, it was on much-reduced charges (one count of procurement of a minor), and he served only 13 months in the “Stockade,” during which time he was allowed to leave the jail 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, to work at the foundation he created shortly before conviction (and which was dissolved upon his release).

Also in contrast to Strauss-Kahn, Epstein was both client and ultimate procurer (with Ghislaine Maxwell acting as recruiter/groomer) for others (Strauss-Kahn was “only” a client; others did the procuring); also, Epstein specialized in underage girls, while DSK’s preference appears to have been for young adult women.

But both men sought victims from the underclass, those without money, power, or connections. And both either transported or had transported victims from one jurisdiction and/or country to another (this explains the FBI’s involvement in Epstein’s case) – in American legal parlance, this is trafficking (the French legislation and terminology is different; although DSK was “only” a client [prostitution is legal in France], he was accused of pimping [procurement], which would be more properly applied in the U.S. to Epstein).

Thus both men sexually exploited and abused women who could not fight back – in Strauss-Kahn’s case, Diallo, a refugee from the former French Guinea; of the women interviewed in the documentary concerning the Carlton affair, one was an immigrant from Morocco, where DSK spent part of his childhood, and where he and Sinclair owned a home. These women were referred to in code as “equipment,” as “dossiers,” even as “meat” (though DSK vehemently denied he had himself employed the latter term). The men DSK used to obtain women – low-level political allies, businessmen anticipating some sort of a return on the favor – were almost certainly given specific instructions. Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, his “madam,” searched out schoolgirls in lower-class neighborhoods, or working at exclusive establishments in humble positions (the case of Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who was working at Mar-a-Lago when Maxwell spotted her). Once a girl had been recruited, she was asked to “recommend” friends.

While class played a decisive role in the selection of victims, it appears to have been more subtle – or blatant, depending on one’s point of view – in both cases. The French have a long and troubled history of colonialism, and their immigrant class from the former colonies remains even now a permanent underclass.** Strauss-Kahn spent his early years in Francophone Africa (Morocco) and would have adopted the French attitude towards women from North Africa. Epstein, a Palm Beach transplant, would have known where to recruit just the type of girl he and his clients sought: white, often from broken homes, perhaps abused, needy but not absolutely indigent (he wouldn’t have recruited girls from Kissimmee, for example), girls whom his clients would have appreciated, girls who wouldn’t have looked out of place in photographs taken at one or another of Epstein’s residences (cf., for example, photos of Prince Andrew and one of the girls Epstein trafficked to London, Virginia Roberts Guiffre; another of Epstein’s clients was apparently the billionaire hedge fund manager Glenn Dubin, who in 1994 married Eva Andersson, Epstein’s own girlfriend for 11 years).

Law Enforcement: The documentary includes commentary by a number of the men involved in the Sofitel Hotel “incident,” including Paul Browne, NYPD Public Information Deputy Commissioner, Michael Osgood, then Deputy Chief Commissioner in charge of the NYPD Special Victims Unit, as well as the hotel’s Head of Security, John Sheehan. All three – in addition to Diallo’s own attorneys, Douglas Wigdor and Kenneth P. Thompson (who in 2104 became the Brooklyn DA; he passed away in 2016) – believed Diallo’s description of what happened in Room 2806, and none showed any second thoughts about her credibility (the men all spoke for purposes of the documentary, so the footage is new).

The problems in these cases do not seem to be with those who undertake the preliminary investigation; rather, the problems start at the top of the gravy chain of law enforcement and filter down to prosecution (or non-prosecution, as often happens), sentencing (light to non-existent), and various plea agreements. In Epstein’s case, the order to go easy on him apparently came down from the “top,” wherever that was. The federal prosecutor of Miami-Dade County at the time, Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump; he was forced to resign when Epstein was arrested in July 2019), arranged for a federal non-prosecution agreement. Acosta maintained he was given no choice about making the deal. And it was structured as a closed agreement, meaning that neither Epstein’s victims nor the judge in his case even knew its contents – which suggests what, exactly?

Something comparable occurred with the Strauss-Kahn case, overseen by Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan DA. After the decision not to prosecute DSK, Vance gave a rare press conference at which he responded to questions. His answers were pure garden-variety non-answers: “not enough evidence”, and “well, we know something happened in that room, but we’ll never know exactly what because there were no witnesses.”

Remedies?

It’s easy to say “go after trafficking” or “prosecute sexual assault crimes” or “go after offenders no matter how rich, powerful, and well-connected they are.” The problem is, how do you make that happen?

  • You could change the laws to protect victims at trial, for one thing – make it illegal to try to discredit victims on the basis of their personal lives before the specific incident for which the perpetrator is being tried, the standard and nearly-infallible technique employed by the defense in rape and sexual assault cases (It even has a name: “Blame the victim”). But this is a hard sell; it would inevitably have both ramifications for how the perpetrator’s background is presented as well as how other major crimes cases are prosecuted.
  • You could abolish cash bail, like Illinois has just done. If a similar law had been on the books in New York ten years ago, the judge who released DSK on $1 million bail plus a $5 million bond would have had less leeway about releasing him to house arrest. Unfortunately, this probably wouldn’t have made a difference in this particular instance, given that the Manhattan prosecutors and Vance appear to have been unwilling to prosecute at all.
  • You could go after trafficking and procurement (“pimping”) more vigorously – not that this isn’t being done, but police departments’ special victims units are often understaffed and underfunded. A lot of lip service is paid to the need to prosecute perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, but police departments and prosecutors know these cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute and even more difficult to win convictions on – they hate them, in short. And victims know this, too: less than a quarter of sexual assaults are ever reported; fewer than 1% of cases lead to a conviction, and sexual assault perpetrators who are actually tried are far less likely than all other major crimes perpetrators to go to prison. And we must remember that most cases don’t involve men as wealthy, powerful, or well-connected as Strauss-Kahn and Epstein. [Note: For a very interesting initiative involving technology and international trafficking, see TraffikAnalysisHub.]
  • You could try to change social mores to make sexual violence and exploitation absolutely and unconditionally unacceptable, no matter who the perpetrator is. The #MeToo movement (founded 2006), which gained momentum with the cases of Bill Cosby (2018) and Harvey Weinstein (2018), is directly engaged in this effort. Perpetrators of sexual assault have been revealed in the entertainment industry, premier-level sports (cf. particularly U.S. elite gymnastics), the broadcast and print media, and politics. This movement is taking hold abroad as well – Greece became embroiled in its first international-level #MeToo case with the November 2020 revelations by Olympic sailor Sofia Bekatorou about being raped at age 22 (in 1998) by a high official in the Hellenic Sailing Federation, Aristeides Adamopoulos (who is a well-connected political player in Athenian circles). Recent revelations have rapidly spread to the Greek theater world, including the recent arrest on rape charges of the Director of the National Theatre Dimitris Lignadis, whose preference ran to underage boys, some of whom appear to have been refugee boys especially “recruited” for him.

Since 2018, there have been notable prosecutions in the U.S. like those of Weinstein (several of whose victims were represented by Douglas Wigdor, one of Nafissatou Diallo’s lawyers), Cosby, and Larry Nassar (a former Michigan State gymnastics coach associated with Nassar, John Geddert, recently committed suicide after being charged with trafficking and sexual assault).

But Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s victims have not been vindicated, and neither have Jeffrey Epstein’s (despite the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell in July 2020). We’ll never know whether Epstein would have been tried and sentenced to the full extent of the law. Both he and DSK were “punished” in a sense – DSK after the Carlton case picked up steam and it became impossible for the French power elite to deny that he was, to put it bluntly, a sexual predator, while Epstein became a social pariah after his conviction in Miami in 2008.

But was this the best we could do? It would appear that there’s some point at which money, power, connections and influence overwhelm Justice herself. She may wear a blindfold in popular lore, but she’s not blind to money and power.

If we want to change that, we need to change nearly everything about how 21st-century society functions.

**Update: While re-editing this post, we discovered a recent interview podcast featuring the French journalist Rokhaya Diallo, published by The Intercept on 26 February (interviewer: Vanessa A. Bee). Diallo identifies the cognitive dissonance at the heart of French secularism (since 1905), referred to in French as laïcité. France declares itself “universalist” as opposed to “multicultural,” but of course the default identity is always “white, Christian and most likely, Catholic.” The whole interview is worth reading (or listening to), because it addresses the complexity of France’s colonialist past (particularly in the Maghreb, French North Africa), the ghettoization of Muslims in the banlieus, and how laïcité prevents the French elite from engaging in the sort of collective self-reflection required for them to confront – and repent of – their brutal history as colonialists. Note: the journalist, Rokhaya Diallo (who also is a regular contributor to the Washington Post; for a recent contribution, see here), identifies as French, Muslim, and Black – I looked up her surname, and sure enough, it is unique to French Guinea and the Fula; thus her ancestors immigrated to France from the same county as Nafissatou Diallo.

2021-03-01 Social Lenses: “Room 2806” (Part I)

Les affaires interdits

For those not familiar with this blog, when it was originally planned in early 2017 (we’re approaching our fourth anniversary of going live, but were already doing dry runs by early March) it had foreseen a regular feature called “Social Lenses.” This was created to allow occasional comment on wider social issues generated by (good, preferably excellent) films or television series. Examples of early forays into this somewhat idiosyncratic genre are here (“Spotlight”), here (“The Florida Project”), and here (“Big Little Lies”).

The feature never really took off, partly because I haven’t seen that many great films since starting the blog (more reading and writing, less viewing), and partly because I haven’t felt especially moved to comment by those films I have seen in the past four years.

But I’ve just completed viewing the four-part series “Room 2806, The Accusation” (Netflix, released December 2020) as a homework assignment for a Zoom meetup every two weeks with a group of friends. It’s one of the best regular get-togethers I participate in, partly due to the conviviality of the group itself and partly due to the fact that we’ve begun identifying “discussion topics” and the latter have led to thought-provoking and lively discussion. The first of these was “The 1619 Project”; the second was “AOC,” and the third is this documentary series.

The tightly-orchestrated, sophisticated (“slick” has too negative a connotation; rather, “Room 2806” is well thought-out and executed, making use of numerous devices repeatedly throughout the 180 minutes of running time), and informative documentary details the events surrounding the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on May 14, 2011 at the Sofitel Hotel in Midtown Manhattan (located at 45 W. 44th St., in the heart of the Theater District).

For those of you who don’t recall the details (and who does? It’s been nearly a decade), Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was then in his fourth year as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, headquartered in Washington, D.C. He’d come to the position following a distinguished and ever-upward trajectory in French politics, advancing from Minister of Industries (1991-1993) to Minister of the Economy, Finance, and Industry (1994-1999). It was generally believed in French Socialist circles that he would be the country’s next President, given the declining popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy (President 2007-2012).

He was in NYC on May 14, and had planned to depart for France and a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel the day the “incident” occurred. On the morning of the 14th, the housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo entered Strauss-Kahn’s room (2806, the Presidential Suite on the 28th floor – $3,000 per night, but DSK had been given a “free” upgrade and was paying the standard room rate of $525). Nine minutes later, Diallo departed the room and went in search of her supervisor. Camera footage from the employees’ work area where she was taken by hotel security after reporting what had happened to her supervisor shows her pacing restlessly, aimlessly. After about an hour (so, around 1:30 that day), hotel security persuaded her to call the police, who arrived almost immediately (the 911 call is included; Strauss-Kahn was not mentioned by name. Rather, he was referred to as one of the “big guests” and the caller refuses to give the name when explicitly asked.

In the meantime, DSK had made a hasty departure from the hotel – so hasty, in fact, that he had forgotten his cell phone – and headed for the Air France lounge at JFK Airport. The fact he’d left his phone behind led to his apprehension – he called Reception to ask about it and police, who had raced to JFK, managed to stop him before his flight’s departure.

The footage most of us remember from those days is replayed – he was arrested, taken to PSA (=Police Service Area) 5 in Harlem (123rd St.), and compelled to do the so-called “perp walk” (something European journalists found inexplicable and outrageous, insulting for a man of his stature). On May 18 he was indicted on seven charges (four felonies, three misdemeanors), including attempted rape, and remanded to Rikers Island, where he remained four days. On June 6 he was arraigned – he pleaded not guilty – and released to house arrest following payment of $1 million cash bail plus a $5 million bond. He spent the next couple months in a Tribecca townhouse which his wife Anne Sinclair rented for $50,000 a month; Sinclair also spent $200,000 a month for security guards, which the judge had required as a condition of granting bail.

Meanwhile, the NYPD SVU had ensured that Diallo was taken to a hospital, that a rape kit was administered, that samples from her clothing (semen was found on her shirt) and photos were taken as evidence (she had bruising on her neck and arms).

Once the Manhattan Prosecutor’s Office took over the investigation, Diallo was grilled over the course of days, in what can only be interpreted in retrospect as an effort not to help her case (which is the Prosecutor’s purported mission as representing “the People”), but to break her. And this they did, despite the fact that the Sex Crimes NYPD officer (Michael Osgood) who initially questioned her at the hotel was convinced her story was credible, especially when considered in light of forensic evidence found in the room’s hallway (semen discovered). Osgood, who speaks on more than one occasion in the documentary, was experienced with sexual assault victims, in contrast to the former NYPD Police Sergeant called in as an investigator for the prosecution, who was conversant with major crimes cases but had no experience with sexual assault cases.

As news began to leak that the victim’s credibility was “collapsing” under questioning by the NYPD – they determined she had lied to the grand jury and on numerous occasions to NYPD regarding the incident on May 14 – Strauss-Kahn was released from house arrest on July 1. The motion to dismiss all charges was granted on August 23 (footage of the dismissal is included). DSK and Anne Sinclair returned to Paris within 10 days, and in September he gave his first interview on French television, stating categorically that sex (in the hallway, with his semen on Diallo’s shirt) was consensual, and that Diallo had lied (implication: to extort a rich client, even though she had no idea who he was). He noted that he had no intention of paying her anything in the civil suit that followed, a suit which was settled out of court in late 2012. He did pay her damages rumored to have been in the amount of $1.5 million, of which $.5 million went in fees to her lawyers.

Nafissatou Diallo was born and grew up in Conakry Guinea, a former French colony that gained its independence in 1958. The official language of the country continues to be French, but around 24 different languages and dialects spoken. During the period when she was being incessantly interrogated by the Prosecutor’s Office, Diallo had at one point requested a Fulani interpreter. She had arrived in the U.S. as an asylum seeker in 2003; it was revealed that she had lied about having been gang-raped on the advice of a lawyer (not always the most scrupulous law-abiding citizens), although there was no reference to the rape in her asylum application. Contemporary sources indicate that she lost pretty much all credibility in prosecutors’ eyes, to the point where they didn’t think they could win the case.

On September 3, 2011 DSK and his wife (who had flown over from Paris early on to support her husband, to whom she remained loyal for another year or so) departed New York, and we were unable to find any indication that he has returned to the U.S. since then.

DSK is a free man but he is not an untainted one. Initially he maintained that what happened in Room 2806 was a set-up by political rivals in Paris who wanted to destroy his candidacy in the upcoming elections. While he later retracted this accusation, he continued to claim that his enemies were “in contact” with the hotel and ensured that the encounter was reported to the police. There is no evidence presented in the documentary that this was so.

Over the course of the summer, as Diallo’s credibility was being eroded (the New York Post played a significant supporting role in the smear campaign), accusations against Diallo went so far as to imply she was a prostitute, and that there was some sort of organized prostitution ring being run out of NYC’s toniest hotels. The NYHTC – her union – responded forcefully to these accusations (there’s a revealing interview with Peter Ward, President of the Hotel Trades Council), even arranging for a busload of hotel attendants (sometimes referred to in the press as “housemaids”) to be present at the court when DSK appeared on June 6.

Today Strauss-Kahn’s political ambitions have collapsed (when he counter-sued Diallo in the civil case she filed against him, his claim was that she had destroyed his career at the IMF and materially impacted his other “professional opportunities,” viz. the presidency). But he is by no means without resources. While his wife did eventually divorce him (they separated in 2012 and the divorce was finalized in 2013), his estimated net worth today is $25 million – quite a jump from the amount noted in the bail hearing a decade ago ($2 million). At his trial in Lille in early 2015, Strauss-Kahn stated that his 2014 earnings for “international business consulting” were 2.4 million pounds ($3.8 million), which would accord well with his net worth today. He has since 2011 continued working as an “international business consultant” for some of America’s favorite countries, including Russia (where he sits on the Board of Directors of the Russian Regional Development Bank), Serbia, Ukraine and briefly, South Sudan.

The political response in France – disbelief, shock, denial – among Strauss-Kahn’s friends and political allies (both Jack Lang and Élisabeth Guigou speak with admiration in the documentary), many of whom he had known since the 1980s, was profound. Friends and colleagues all admitted that he was a compulsive “womanizer” (“un grand séducteur” – somehow, it sounds less slimy and more worldly in French), but no one among his immediate circle could (would?) admit that he engaged in aggressive, violent behavior in the course of his many, many, many liaisons. Anne Sinclair (his third wife, to whom he was married for more than 20 years), a distinguished and successful journalist in her own right, claimed she had no idea of what her husband was (really) like – she seems to have been peripherally aware that he was a womanizer (there’s an implication that she was even a bit proud of his attractiveness to other women), but put up blinders to his other side.

The long and sordid history of that other side began to emerge after DSK’s return to Paris. This side of his personality, while it could not have been unknown (he had accomplices in Europe and Washington), appears not to have been broached in the way that his more “acceptable” seductions of women who moved roughly in his and Ms. Sinclair’s social circles or in those just beneath them were. It’s possible this side was never known to his social equals – it certainly wasn’t acknowledged. It’s also possible that some of his friends and associates did know, but that they maintained a code of silence: “we don’t talk about such matters in polite society.”

The documentary details some of these cases of aggressive sexual encounters, and there are interviews with one complainant, Tristiane Banon, who as a 23-year-old aspiring journalist went in 2002 to interview DSK in an unfurnished house where, she claims, he basically did to her what he did to Diallo ten years later. Banon, who speaks extensively in the documentary, is the daughter of a former political colleague of Strauss-Kahn, Anne Mansouret – who, it turned out, had had an affair with Strauss-Kahn herself unbeknownst to her daughter. Banon revealed what Strauss-Kahn had done to her in 2007 – saying that their encounter turned violent and that she had used the word “rape.” The footage is incorporated in the documentary and it’s shocking – not just for what Banon, who looks even younger than she was at the time, said, but for how she said it and how the other “guests” responded.

In 2015, a far more complex and insidious case, the so-called “Carlton Affair” (named after a luxury hotel in Lille where Strauss-Kahn had never  stayed, but where some of the prostitutes he used worked; his name came up in the investigation and thus he became a subject of interest and, eventually, defendant) was tried in Lille with a group of 13 other men who had regularly organized orgies in Paris, Washington, and Brussels (and elsewhere? Madrid is mentioned in one source we read) between 2009 and 2011 (the final “party,” with prostitutes flown to the U.S. by two businessmen in northern France was apparently held just before Strauss-Kahn was arrested in NYC). One of the prostitutes involved in a party in Paris in 2010, Mouna Rabou, speaks at length in the final episode; her testimony is illuminating and heart-breaking. 

At the trial held in February 2015, Strauss-Kahn was eventually acquitted (verdict received in June), because it proved impossible to tie him to direct payments to the prostitutes engaged by political cronies and underlings in the various cities where he attended such evenings. He claimed he had no idea the women were prostitutes; rather, they were just “swingers” out to have a good time with a powerful man. But he also (this isn’t in the documentary) “self-assuredly explained his appetite for group sex and how his sexual style was ‘rougher than the average man’.”

So much for the “facts of the case.” In Part II, we consider the forces at play that led to the case against Strauss-Kahn being dropped.

2021-02-25 Oh, Peoria

Peoria Disappoints Once Again

It having proved not possible to send a long-form email attachment* to the progressive mayoral candidate in our hometown of Peoria, Illinois, who came in fourth out of five candidates (9%) in the city’s local primary on Tuesday, we’re publishing our letter to her, composed over the past few days and very slightly revised for the blog.

(*I did send her a couple links, however, via her campaign “Contact” form.)

Background: For our own piece on this unprecedented candidate and her campaign, see here; for her campaign Facebook page, see here; for her campaign website, see here; for a long-form interview with a political reporter for the Peoria Journal Star and a local radio figure (90.7 FM), see here.

Our letter:

Dear Ms. St. Louis,

We’ve never met, but I followed your campaign for Mayor with great interest, and wanted to write to tell you how saddened I was by your loss on Tuesday.

Your analysis of what ails Peoria was spot-on throughout your campaign, and your four-pronged platform (economic development / participatory democracy / rethinking the justice system / community support & investment) was a strong one. The fact that you were endorsed by several progressive organizations was impressive and well-deserved.

I watched your Facebook concession remarks, and was interested to learn that you plan to speak with numerous Black leaders in the city over the coming days. I suspect you know what they’re going to tell you, and I also suspect what happened – I had a look at the Peoria Board of Elections results, and it was pretty obvious.

Here’s my working hypothesis: Without wanting to put it too bluntly, it’s seemed to me for a long time that Peoria’s Black population trends conservative, and thus a number of the community’s leaders probably united behind Dr. Ali, whom they saw as their “safe” candidate. She may even win in April – she’d be a “safe” Black Mayor, but hardly a progressive one. If anyone doubts this, we have a homegrown Exhibit A in this category in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

As you noted, it looks like voters were frightened at the prospect of a Mayor like you – which is pretty ironic, because what Peorians should fear is the status quo, which has been stifling and depopulating the city for decades.

I don’t know what you will decide to do next, but I’ve been thinking about my hometown a lot over the past several years, and below are a few thoughts:

  • Low primary turnouts (on Tuesday, 15% – just under 12,000 people) mean that only a small percentage of registered voters is “awarding” both Mayoral and City Council seats (and others). What can be done? Local elections are far more important than most voters think they are.

I know you’re a master of organizing, and I think it’s vital to keep Peorians informed about the City Council’s activities on an ongoing basis. What about organizing “standing watch” committees in each of the five Council districts? Some members could prepare for upcoming meetings by studying the agenda and getting questions ready in advance; others could do “live reporting” as the meetings are broadcast, while others could study the minutes and match them with agenda items. And then, get the word out to everyone – not just on social media, at which you’re terrific, but through flyers or perhaps even a weekly printed newsletter (“Council Business” / “Council Matters”).

This, so everyone, not just the media-savvy, can learn more – a lot more – about what their Council is doing. When information is easily available in lots of places and mediums, and people see that what the Council does is directly relevant to our daily lives, interest tends to tick up. It’s a long process, but it could work.

  • If you can find volunteers for more in-depth work (why not reach out to Bradley University and see if you could find faculty / student volunteers and partners?), you could ask groups to carry out deep dives into some of the persistent problems facing the city. For example, one group could analyze and comment on the budget (which deserves serious, ongoing attention throughout each fiscal year); another could research the history of the Pere Marquette debacle (for the record, let’s say; unfortunately, it’s indicative); another could do the same on the history of the city’s bailouts of the Civic Center (they just asked the State of Illinois for $25 million, so that debacle is very much still with us).

There are many other recent and upcoming issues. For example, I recently saw that they’re talking about a $10 million-dollar parking lot: Does Peoria really need another parking lot? The location and description fit the bill of a “peak gentrification” project – really, building a $10 million parking lot in the middle of a health and human services crisis? Whose idea was this?

  • Do people know that the city is trying to sell off McKinley and Harrison schools on eBay? Does everybody understand that both schools – however old and in need of remediation (or demolition; it’s not clear to me what their actual state is) – are public assets which belong to us all? Who had the bright idea to auction both schools off for a song ($89,000 / $99,000)?  Inquiring minds would like to know.

What about investing that $10 million parking-lot money for the “Warehouse District” in these two schools, partnering with construction firms that specialize in rehabbing old public structures, applying for both federal and state “green – clean energy funding,” and then ensuring that Peoria’s own residents in the construction trades are hired to work on these projects and learn about green / sustainable construction methods and techniques in the process? One of the schools could be converted to affordable housing, and the other, into a community center … there are so many possibilities. Demolition of public institutional real estate stock should be seen as a last – and desperate – resort.

Note: I see they’re hedging their bets and also asking the State of Illinois to pay $4 million to demolish both schools, which the City Manager appears to be pushing for very hard. However, the chances of the state coming through with funding for demolition are slim to nil in this second pandemic year.

  • Once you have a trained construction workforce, Peoria could compete to become a regional center for sustainable development projects, including the retrofitting of our oldest housing stock (there will be federal funding for such projects once Pres. Biden’s equivalent to the Green New Deal – “Build Back Better” or whatever it’s ultimately called – passes Congress). The city could eventually host a large number of small and medium-sized businesses geared towards producing green building materials and implementing the retrofitting of the country’s housing stock. Nearly all of that stock will have to be retrofitted in light of climate change; why not start with the houses in zip code 61605? And note, this is a vision our Governor and his Clean Energy and Jobs policy experts would favor. After all, what’s the point of Peoria’s GA Rep* becoming Speaker pro temp if we can’t lobby in Springfield for ideas that make good business, environmental, and racial equity sense?  

(*Jehan Gordon-Booth, IL-92, recently promoted to Speaker pro temp in the Illinois House under new Speaker Chris Welch)

  • When the city issues RFPs for procurement purposes to vendors, is it following the State of Illinois’ regulations regarding female and minority-owned businesses/vendors? Yes, this law applies to state contracts – and there have been problems with initial implementation – but it should be applied by municipalities as part of standard good governance practices. No contracts to friends or friends of friends, and no no-bid contract should ever go unnoticed and unremarked.
  • What’s up with all those vacant properties in Peoria’s poorest zip codes? Is there a central database of registered land bank properties (There is, apparently, but I can’t find out much about it online)? Is there a public database (complete with specs and maps) that those keen on land use and rehabilitation could study and employ for proposals to the city? And shouldn’t Southside residents have easy access to land bank properties’ identity – especially when they’re concentrated in their neighborhoods?

You ran a strong grassroots and media campaign, and the fact that you didn’t come in first or second in the primary wasn’t due to any failing on your part – you and Andres Diaz came in fourth and fifth, which is just one more indication of how conservative those who actually vote in local elections are. Andres was a sincere and hard-working candidate – my favorite discussion was the long-form interviews you both had with Chris Kaergard and Marc Supreme in early February; when you were given the time to develop your platform fully, it made sense and the four “planks” cohered well with each other.

I hope you will maintain and strengthen your ties with the progressive groups which endorsed you during the campaign, and that you’ll be able to build a bigger and broader grassroots network over the next few years. Peoria may not be ready for a candidate as forward-looking as you, but that doesn’t mean Peoria doesn’t need progressive candidates like you.

Finally, with respect to the election in early April, I see neither you nor Andres have any plans to endorse either of the two finalists – that’s wise, actually. Neither finalist speaks to your own values or those of your supporters; in fact, one of the two appears to be a committed fiscal conservative. This may play well with voters, but it’s a disastrous approach during an economic crisis.  

In short: You didn’t disappoint Peoria, Ms. St. Louis; Peoria disappointed us all, and we’re going to pay a steep price for it over the next four years.

2021-02-20 He Had a Plan

The Slow Wheels of Justice

The story:

The Washington Post yesterday featured a “Lifestyle” (really, “Lifestyle”?) story about the release from prison of Joe Ligon, who was the U.S.’s longest-serving lifer – a total of 68 years in a half-dozen or so Pennsylvania prisons, several of which he outlived.

One night in 1953, Ligon and a group of four other boys in his South Philadelphia neighborhood drank a couple of bottles of wine (Ligon claimed it was the first time he’d had alcohol), and then proceeded to go on a rampage. Eight men were robbed and stabbed, and two of them died. Ligon himself stabbed one man who survived. At the time, he was 15 years old.

The way-back justice machine:

At the one-day trial in 1953, Ligon and his co-defendants were referred to as “colored.” At school, his special-education classes were designated for the “orthogenically backward.” He was incarcerated in a facility named the Pennsylvania Institution for Defective Delinquents, the inmates classified by the courts “as mentally defective with criminal tendencies.”

And consider that:

Ligon, 83, has never had his own place, paid a bill, cast a ballot, earned the minimum wage, lived with a partner, fathered children.”

Ligon is the last of the five to leave prison – one died there, the other three were released earlier.

Today there remain around 2000+ incarcerated JLWOP’s – Juveniles for Life without Possibility of Parole – and nearly one-quarter of them are imprisoned in Pennsylvania; of that group (525), 60% were from Philadelphia, the U.S.’s poorest major city. And of that group, the overwhelming majority are Black.

Today, Ligon would have received 5-10 years for what would be classified as robbery and assault by a minor. A series of SCOTUS decisions between 2005 and 2016 have gradually moved the needle on sentencing of minors – whose brains (particularly, the “control and oversight” parts of the brain in the front hemisphere) are not fully developed – and life sentences for children can now be interpreted legally as violations of the 8th Amendment (on “cruel and unusual punishment”).

In 2016, SCOTUS ruled that all JLWOP prisoners had to be given new sentences; Ligon, however, balked at the idea of “release on parole,” and insisted on serving his full term despite the prodding of his attorney of 15 years, public defender Bradley Bridges, and even the judge at a status hearing the following spring (“I don’t want you to die in jail”).  In November 2020, a judge decreed he be released – without parole – within 90 days. Ligon “won” in the sense that he is now entirely free of “the long tail” of the law.

But Ligon remained in prison as the world and jurisprudence moved on. Keeping him incarcerated didn’t come cheap to his home state; it’s estimated that it cost Pennsylvania around $3 million extra to keep him incarcerated, not counting the 37 treatments he received for prostate cancer.

Most of Ligon’s relatives have now died – his father and his brother, both murdered in South Philadelphia, his mother, his siblings apart from one ailing sister in New Jersey. But he will remain in close contact with her and with her daughter Valerie, who supported him while he was in prison.

In order to ease re-entry of someone who’d never done any of the things we take for granted as part of the 21st century (remember: he missed out on half the 20th), ten agencies coordinated services to ensure Ligon had housing, medical insurance (Medicare), identification (a Pennsylvania ID, we presume, and a Medicare card) and more. He now has a wallet – probably his first, but he will need to become familiar with handling money and a debit card.

Ligon’s supporters (“Team Joe”), in addition to his sister, niece, and attorney, include other family members as well as John Pace, a former lifer himself who knew Ligon for two decades in Graterford prison (note: Graterford was one of the prisons Ligon survived; it was closed in 2018).

His new home in West Philadelphia – he asked not to return to South Philadelphia – is in a row house owned by a couple who work with an agency that cares for the elderly. It is clean and tidy (Ligon worked as a prison custodian; clean and tidy is his thing), and has a television with a subscription to a sports channel. He has a cell phone – with unlimited minutes – and asked Bridge to get him an alarm clock, given that he hasn’t awakened on his own in 68 years. On his second day of freedom, Ligon went shopping for new clothes – pants, underwear, a down jacket. He wants to look sharp: “There are going to be a lot of ladies who are going to like me. I like good clothes that fit me. I like to smell good. I’m going to make it my business to do that. I’m going to respect women.”

Ligon’s dreams may seem like little to many: when the weather warms up, he wants to go for walks in parks and eat at good restaurants sporting actual menus; he’ll watch Philly teams on his new television, and he’s planning to work – probably as a cleaner for one of the offices of those who helped with his release. He loves his new home: (it’s) “beautiful. It’s clean. I walked in, I could smell the freshness.”

Commentary:

We cover “Justice/Injustice” at Deedspeakout, and since we hadn’t featured an (In)justice story for some time, this piece seemed like a good fit. And it has the characteristics we favor in highlighting published pieces: it’s long-form and well-researched (the writer, Karen Heller, has known Ligon since 2010, when she first interviewed him), with enough of the “big-picture” framing to craft our own post: background on JLWOP, Pennsylvania prisons, his attorney (few but telling details, of which the most salient to us was this throwaway clause: “Bridge, who has made the release of juvenile lifers a mission”).

But as we read and re-read the piece, a few details started to stand out, the chief one being the writer’s care to explain all the ways in which Ligon is functionally illiterate:

  • He left prison with 14 cardboard boxes, half of them stuffed with legal papers. They are among his dearest worldly possessions, the paper trail of his protracted confinement, though he can barely read.
  • School was never a vital part of his life. He rarely went to class in Troy, Ala., where he picked cotton and tobacco, preferring to spend time with his parents as a self-professed mama’s boy. When he was 13, the family moved north to South Philadelphia. His father found work as a mechanic, his mother as a nurse’s aide. He floundered in school. In prison, he did not take classes to advance his rudimentary reading or writing. He asked fellow inmates to type or write letters for him and to read the ones he received. [Emphasis added]

Compare these details to Heller’s short exegesis on John Pace, another juvenile lifer who, in contrast to Ligon, earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University and works for the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP).

And then there’s this passage, in which Heller recounts all the things that Ligon has never done: (He) has never had his own place, paid a bill, cast a ballot, earned the minimum wage, lived with a partner, fathered children.

Heller took it as a given that if Ligon had remained a free man, he would naturally have earned the minimum wage.

We highlight these because, during our first reading of the piece, our thinking proceeded along what we assume were identical lines to Heller’s: we read an incarceration story and automatically want to remake the prisoner in our own image. We recall the Ken Burns Netflix documentary “College behind Bars” on the Bard Prison Initiative, and reporter, author, and Presbyterian minister Chris Lynn Hedges, who teaches at a maximum security prison in New Jersey. “If only he’d gotten his GED, if only he’d gotten a junior college degree, if only if only” … one can almost hear Heller thinking aloud, because her thoughts were our thoughts – until we took the time to think just a little harder.

For two generations now, Americans – this writer included – have sworn by the mantra “Go to college if you want to enjoy the good life/to rise in the social hierarchy/ to make more money.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that this mantra doesn’t hold true anymore (if it ever did), we probably have enough college graduates today (35%) and we definitely have enough college grads and postgraduates so deeply immured in student debt (total: nearly $2 trillion) that they will never emerge from debt peonage, let alone jump an income quintile.

Ligon didn’t care about schooling and learning; rather, he loves a life of neatness, tidiness, cleanliness and order. These are not small things; on the contrary, they are very valuable things. He has been supported for years by people who care deeply about the injustice he was dealt by the Pennsylvania system. Thanks partly to them – but above all, to Ligon’s own indomitable will to be free one day, which kept him going for nearly 7 decades in prison – he still has the courage to live, work, go for walks in the park, and enjoy a restaurant meal with his niece or others. And – for this author, perhaps most beautiful and reaffirming of all, he wants to be with women – to dress well for them, to look good for them, to smell good for them, to respect them.

Ligon is free and he is not alone in this world. His life is precious, and now belongs to him and is his to do with as he will. That’s what freedom means.

“Check your privilege” demands that we remember – and respect – that.

2020-12-29 Why the U.S. Can’t Have Nice Things

Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have Universal Childcare?

The answer to this question is comparable to that to other, related questions such as “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have Universal Health Care?” or “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have Universal Broadband?” or “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have Free University Education?”

It’s because they have rarely if ever (in the case of broadband, basically never) been a policy priority for our political masters in Congress and the White House.

One of the pleasures of blogging on a range of issues is that one learns new things about American history and policy decisions on a regular basis.

Did you know that for a few brief years – 1943-1947 – the U.S. did offer something resembling universal child care? In 1942, Congress passed the Lanham Act, which provided for a wide variety of measures to help local communities ramp up their industrial production in World War II. The Act provided water infrastructure, housing support and schooling, including, remarkably enough child care for those too young to go to school. The rationale was simple: American men were at war, and American women were being hired into war production jobs. Mothers of young children needed child care during their factory shifts.

These childcare centers, of which there were 635 (any community was eligible for federal support if it could demonstrate that its men were at war and its women were working; eventually every state except New Mexico took advantage of the program, which had a budget of about $1 billion), while they reached only a fraction of all American under-5’s, offered an American model of daycare that proved both popular and successful, despite its short life.

Care was almost free – it averaged $50-$60 a month (in 2020 $$), which covered about 50% of the cost; the other 50% was dispersed to states and localities by the federal government. States were obliged to operate programs to federal standards and specifications.

Teachers were trained professionals and university educated; the maximum class size was 10; facilities were clean, there was an onsite nurse and doctor who checked each child before the day started. Meals were provided; grocery shopping was done for mothers, ready for pick-up when they came for their toddlers at the end of the working day. And hot meals were also packed for Mothers to take home with them.

Some of these centers were integrated; others were segregated (about one-third in each category of the total of 635). Black women were hired on an equal footing with white colleagues.

But this enormously popular program was discontinued after the War’s end in 1946; vigorous lobbying and demonstrations succeeded in keeping it alive only until 1947. The argument at the time was “Well, women will be returning home now, and taking care of their pre-school age children by themselves. We don’t need childcare for the under-5’s.”

Of course, the program’s discontinuation helped make that a partly self-fulfilling prophecy in the 1950s and 60s. But in fact many women needed to continue working, or wanted to continue because they had liked working outside the home, not to mention the financial independence and autonomy such work provided.

Today we’re living with the consequences of the political decision to end pre-K childcare, and the pandemic has brought into much sharper focus how difficult it is for working- and middle-class parents to afford, in many instances even secure, childcare for their youngest offspring. It’s not unusual for a couple with two toddlers to pay $30,000 a year in daycare costs, depending on where one lives. And it’s common for daycare costs at a privately-run facility to total between $1200 and $1500 monthly. Even a middle-class couple earning a combined $100,000 a year is obliged to dedicate at least 20% of their joint income to childcare – and that’s a best-case scenario that assumes both partners have stable jobs and live in a city with a relatively low cost of living. If you’re a single head of household with young children, full-time childcare is likelier to run about 40% of your earnings – if you can find it at all.

Childcare for 2- and 3-year-olds is also a very uneven patchwork – mostly private, some of it operated by churches or religious foundations, some by national “chains” of toddler care, and some by individuals working in their homes. States have nominal responsibility for establishing standards and licensing, but as in many other sectors which should be treated as public goods and federally regulated, states have a very uneven track record in providing care for the littles. A 2018 survey of childcare centers nationwide awarded not a single “A”; there was one “B” awarded to the Department of Defense (we note this is a federal program). Ten states including New York received a “C”; twenty-one, a “D,” and nineteen received an “F.”

President-elect Biden presented a form of quasi-universal pre-K (ages 3-5) part of his campaign platform, but in fact his proposal is neither universal nor free – it’s means-tested, accompanied by tax credits ($8,000 for 1 child, $16,000 for two+). It’s unlikely to pass, but even on the off-chance it does, such a program will help middle-class parents somewhat, but it won’t help those most in need of pre-K childcare: the working poor, including service workers and front-line healthcare workers – and, not surprisingly, the women who work as daycare providers, who average $11 per hour and cannot themselves provide the daycare they’re providing others’ children for their own.

By far the most comprehensive and humane – we’re speaking here, after all, of tiny human beings, who are by all definitions the future of humanity – platform put forward by any Presidential candidate in 2020 was that of Bernie Sanders. It was comprehensive; it was free; it was universal; it was federally-funded and would have been required to meet federal standards, even if administered by states/ localities. And it was detailed, right down to the requirements for staff and how to acquire that qualified, professional staff (minimum: a degree in early childhood education or child development).

Let’s look now at some of the realities that work against the U.S. ever achieving what other developed democracies have long provided to parents and their youngest offspring.

Here’s a big-picture summary of how the day care centers funded by the Lanham Act were created and then got shot down:

In order to help manage this huge influx of women in the workplace, Congress rapidly passed a funding stream to create public day cares that were accessible to anyone. There was a small fee associated with them, but they weren’t need-based. The military wanted bombers, not to pay social workers to monitor people with case files. Though these day cares were thrown together very quickly, they still worked. People used them and gave them positive survey results. Despite this, the day cares were always under threat. Men in Congress didn’t want them to exist. The social-worker community didn’t want them, because they wanted case files and they wanted the program to only benefit people who they think are poor. Conservatives didn’t want them, because they think they undermine the family. The Catholic Church, which was very influential in a lot of social organizations, didn’t want them.”

Our explanation:

First, there is sexism. The U.S. Congress is still largely controlled by wealthy white males (and a small number of powerful, wealthy white females, whose allegiances are financial/economic) who couldn’t change a diaper if their lives depended on it. This matters: in countries where legislative and administrative authority is more evenly apportioned between men and women, policies like universal daycare have a better chance of success.

Another sexist argument favored by conservatives is that children “belong with their mothers” during the first four-five years of life. Unfortunately, that isn’t borne out by the history of the human race. There’s a lot of truth in the old adage “it takes a village to raise a child,” and a two-parent nuclear household with a stay-at-home mother and an infant-toddler or two is not a good recipe for child-raising success. From very early on in their little lives, babies – even those who are breastfed – need tons of stimulation, social interaction, playing (well, in the beginning, simulated play). To demand that even the most patient, devoted, and enterprising mother provide what was historically provided by older siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, and grandparents (who often performed support work in the household) is, frankly, ahistorical thinking. One person cannot fully socialize a baby – and if you don’t understand that, you’ve never raised one, nor have you paid any attention to recent publications about how young children will be affected by the isolation imposed on them by the pandemic. Isolate a baby for four-five years with its mother for 20 hours a day and you’re going to end up with a problematic toddler and a very unhappy –and probably, depressed – mother. Human beings are by nature social animals almost from birth – and socialization requires actual people – of all ages – to socialize with.

[On a personal note, unlike one of my favorite bloggers (Erik Loomis, a labor and environmental historian at the Univ. of Rhode Island), I had children (two) while a full-time working professional. In Greece, infant and childcare for working mothers is largely left to grandparents, but my own parents were in the U.S., and my husband’s parents, while they helped some, weren’t available for full-time childcare. I hired nannies, both immigrants from the Bloc countries (Czechoslovakia, Armenia), who served as surrogate mothers for several years (three in my son’s case, seven in my daughter’s). Both were university graduates (one an accountant, the other a professional pianist) and both were mothers themselves. They received approximately 40% of my own earnings to provide love, companionship, and enhanced mothering to both children. I knew it wasn’t possible for me to provide all that my children needed on my own, even with my spouse’s contribution – he was absent for several days each week when they were growing up. This was only possible because I was earning enough to pay them good wages, and because my husband and I prioritized our children above consumer goods. But this wasn’t a substitute for high-quality, universal, free childcare – it was an improvised solution (mostly, its success was a matter of serendipity) by one mother. I would never advocate for such a solution on a universal scale.]

The reasoning provided by conservatives as an argument against universal pre-K (we’d lobby for the French system, which accommodates infants as young as 3 months – 3 years old into its crèches) is historically and anthropologically wrong, and it’s been debunked again and again, both by scholars and by actual human experience.

Next, combine sexism with classism. The educated, upper-middle classes (forget the top 3-5%; they’ve long since solved the problem with private nursemaids and nannies) can afford to pay $25,000 or $35,000 a year for decent (not excellent, just decent) private daycare. There may be a bit of strain on the budgets of those earning less than $250,000 for a few years, but it won’t break them – they’ll just bend a bit. The attitude/mindset of this socioeconomic class is “If others can’t afford good childcare, they shouldn’t have children in the first place.”

And here we come up against racism, where the implicit belief by both conservatives and well-off “progressives” (rarely expressed explicitly today, but still the subtext) is that the poor don’t deserve to reproduce, and if they are so foolish as to do so, then they should be made to pay for the “mistake” of having children while poor.

Those hurt most by the U.S. failure to honor its obligation to the youngest among us – and yes, it is an obligation – are poor women of color. These women – the women who clean our homes, care for our aged parents and spouses, work as nurses’ assistants and school cafeteria workers and crossing guards and yes, childcare workers – when will Americans honor them in deed rather than merely in word? Consider what the U.S. would be like if it instituted both a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all AND had free universal childcare. That would be a country whose future might be worth following.

Finally, there’s the undeniable fact that babies and toddlers don’t vote. We don’t mean this facetiously; it’s just one of the realities of our legislative system, which is controlled by the wealthiest 1% of adult male donors. They have no interest whatsoever in footing the bill (Sanders’ platform provided $150 billion over a decade – so, $15 billion a year, and indicated that the funding would come from higher taxes on the wealthiest 1-3%) for universal childcare for “those people’s children”. And the strongest advocates for such a program – poor working women, desperate middle-class women (many of whom have been forced to quit their jobs or go on a reduced schedule for the purely practical reason that their husbands earned more than they did in the pre-pandemic era), and downward-mobile middle class members of both sexes – none of these groups exercises any substantial influence over Congress.

And yet, and yet: in 1942, Congress passed the Lanham Act because the country was going to war – it was all adult hands on deck then, regardless of sex/gender. When Congress felt the need to act, it did so with remarkable alacrity.

The thing is, although most Americans don’t understand or acknowledge it, we are at war again now, a war against time to transform our economy and our whole way of life to ensure we don’t lose the Mother of us all –  Mother Earth. It’s all hands on deck once more, and in this race against time, our most vulnerable population – those who carry within them our future – must be well and truly cared for, nurtured, socialized, and inducted into the wondrous complexity of human life.

Further reading:

Revive Universal Child Care as Progressive Policy” (blog post by Professor Erik Loomis; it’s worth reading the comments, which run the gamut of responses we note above and provide an idea of the costs of pre-K childcare today)

Free Child Care and Pre-K for All” (Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform proposal)

The U.S. Can Provide Universal Childcare – It’s Done So in the Past” (summary of the mechanics and results of the 1942 Lanham Act, followed by where the U.S. is today)

Life Beyond Markets, with Mike Konczal” (interview transcript with the author of Freedom from the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself from the Grip of the Invisible Hand [Jan. 2021, The New Press])

2020-12-23 Christmases Past

Christmases in Days of Yore

The Chicago news station WBEZ has a short but sweet reminiscence of the city’s great department store Marshall Field’s, focused on the Christmas season: the store’s Christmas windows, visits to Santa (every department store had a “live” Santa during the weeks leading up to Christmas; you sat on his lap, mumbled your Christmas list, a photographer snapped a picture, and voila!, your family had a record of your growth over the course of several of your early years), and above all, the store’s 7th-floor restaurant, the Walnut Room, which sported a splendid view of the enormous Christmas tree, which stretched up nearly to the floor itself.

The story of Marshall Field’s in days of yore is recalled by a woman named Carolyn Cross, whose family had enjoyed a popular Chicago tradition since the early 20th century, when her great-grandparents arrived in the city from Lithuania. Her great-grandmother had taken her grandmother, her grandmother her mother, and her mother took Carolyn and her brother for a festive lunch in the famed restaurant when the tree was on display.

The whole concept of department stores – glorified general stores initially, where you could buy just about anything in the way of clothing, accessories, and housewares in a single multi-story building which itself was part of the store’s allure – began to take shape in the latter part of 19th century, when dozens of such stores began operation across the U.S. (and across the Atlantic Ocean, of course – think “Selfridges”). In the Midwest, Marshall Field’s won out over its competitors, dominating the Midwestern department store scene until its ultimate acquisition by Macy’s, which continues in operation today at the famous downtown location, 111 N. State Street.

My hometown of Peoria lies about 160 miles southwest of Chicago. This doesn’t sound like a great distance today, but when I was a very young girl it seemed like another world. And my Mother, like Carolyn Cross’s, actually took me to Chicago each Christmas season for several years – from about the age of six until I was ten – so that I could witness the glories of the Big City and the Walnut Room.

How did this happen? Well, my Mother had worked for nearly 15 years at Peoria’s equivalent of Marshall Field’s, the formal name of which was Block & Kuhl’s – more familiarly known as “The Big White Store,” located downtown at 124 SW Adams Street on the corner of Adams and Fulton Street. She’d started as a cosmetics salesgirl (the “Revlon Girl”), served at holiday times as a “personal shopper,” and eventually been named manager of the store’s 20-chair beauty salon, located on the third floor. Mother knew department stores – Block & Kuhl’s was very nice indeed (my first books came from their children’s section – Mother had a friend in that department who made recommendations) – but she and her fellow-employees knew that in the Midwest, there was only one department store that garnered national fame, and that store was Marshall Field’s.

So for about five years, she and I would take the train – the Rock Island Rocket was still in operation then – up to Union Station and walk, rather dazedly, to our ultimate destination – the store and its Walnut Room, where we’d have lunch and admire (perhaps in my case, “gawk at”) the tree.

In order to get in a few hours of shopping – mostly, window-shopping – before we had to catch the return train home in the late afternoon, we had to get up at dawn, dress hurriedly (but nicely – I wore my “church clothes”) so my Father could drive us to the station, which was on the riverfront about five miles from where we lived. We normally made the jaunt in late November (right after Thanksgiving) or the first Saturday in December – as I write, I recall how cold those days could be, and there was at least one year when it was snowing and sleeting when we arrived in Chicago.

The ride up was thrilling – my first train ride came when I was about six, headed for Chicago and Marshall Field’s. We traveled coach but made our way to the dining car for breakfast. Is there anything more delightful than speeding through the bleak Illinois prairie at 7 am on a cold fall day, warm as toast in the Rock Island Rocket dining car? I know that’s how I first fell in love with train travel – a love which persists today, and which I’ve indulged a fair amount by opting for five-hour train rides from Thessaloniki to Athens (Stathmos Larissis) rather than a tedious, 30-minute flight.

Once we arrived at Union Station, all I remember is the frantic pace – those Chicagoans! They rushed, scampered and shoved! – and the screeching and whistling of trains, trains everywhere, heading everywhere, arriving from everywhere – dreams of travel, eventually fulfilled by traveling 6,000 miles from Illinois and making my home in a very, very foreign land, a “permanent traveler,” if you will.

Neither Mother nor I had a very sound sense of direction, so she normally had to ask directions several times after we emerged from the station. Looking at a map today, it seems we made quite a hike of it – but we took advantage of the long walk by doing plenty of window shopping. One year, we actually stopped along the way to enter a children’s coat shop (how exotic was that? An entire shop devoted solely to coats for little girls and boys). And that’s where I received one of the gifts I’ll never forget: a beautiful 7-year-old’s coat, with fitted waist and flaring skirt, double-breasted to protect small chests from the biting winds of winter and surmounted by a grey mink collar. What was Mother thinking? I could only wear it to church on Sundays, and I grew out of it in a year. All that remains today is the memory of that coat, its beautiful color (somewhere between mulberry and cranberry), the fine weave of its wool, and how it seemed to me the epitome of elegance. Oh, except for the collar – I kept it, still wear it on sweaters. It was the first piece of fine clothing I ever owned.

Once we arrived at the department store itself, we would take a quick look at its legendary Christmas windows. But I don’t believe that we lingered – usually we were pretty cold by that time, and besides, Block & Kuhl’s and Bergner’s (its slightly less upscale across-the-street neighbor and rival in Peoria) both had lovely Christmas windows. We were anxious to get inside, warm up, and start purveying the merchandise.  

I don’t remember Mother doing much actual shopping at Marshall Field’s, though I’m sure she picked up small presents for her own Mother, my Dad (ties, shirts, socks – Mother may have splurged for the trip, but her gift-buying was strictly in the Midwestern practical vein), and her sister. We spent a fair amount of time in “Women’s Accessories” – Mother adored gloves and hats and scarves, and I have a suspicion that a nice hat or two may have been purchased, along with winter gloves and scarves – sometimes in matching sets. As she was well aware, Block & Kuhl’s had lots and lots of these; we weren’t in Chicago for the stuff, we were there for the experience.

Around noon we’d start making our way up to the 7th floor (long waits for the elevator, which I also found a very exciting contraption) and the Walnut Room. As I look back now, that was absolutely the worst hour to get seated – and if you wanted a seat near the railing that ran around the floor so that you could enjoy an unimpeded view of the tree, well, forget it. But we did manage it at least once – call it serendipity, given the mad rush by harried customers and their children at that hour. Our lunches were not extravagant – soups and sandwiches, or chicken pot pie or some such. But just being there, absorbing the atmosphere, looking around, eavesdropping on the ladies sitting near us to hear about their shopping adventures and holiday plans – oh, I dreamed of being a girl from the Windy City!

After lunch, we completed our shopping and browsing – sometimes we made it to the Toy Department, just to look, especially at the costume dolls. And sometimes we made it to the Women’s Department, where Mother cast a keen eye upon dresses and sweaters and coats. But her actual shopping for these items was done in Peoria at the after-Christmas sales; money didn’t grow on trees, after all, and Mother knew how to dress to the nines on a very slim budget.

Making our way back to the station was never as much fun as the morning trek – after 8 hours on the go, we were tired and ended up cold, very cold by the time we reached the station, located our track and climbed aboard the Rocket for the 2+ hour return trip to Peoria. We didn’t talk much on the way home, and there wasn’t much to see – just the occasional distant lights of a small town or village with their twinkling lights amid the pitch dark night.

Exhausted, we reached home, had a light meal, and headed for bed. But I’d stay awake for an hour or two, re-tracing our route through the store, the wondrous sights I’d seen (but not touched), and the magnificent Christmas Tree.

Marshall Field’s was eventually acquired by the May Company, and has operated as a Macy’s Department Store since 2006. Block & Kuhl’s was purchased by Carson Pirie Scott & Co. (“Carson’s”) in 1961, but was sold to the Bon-Ton holding company in 2006 – the mergers and acquisitions of the great U.S. department stores form a separate chapter of their own in American retail history. The grand Peoria building on Adams Street had by this time closed as the city’s downtown faltered and then failed, giving way to suburban, “mall” shopping. Block & Kuhl’s rival, the P.A. Bergner Company (which was founded in Peoria), closed permanently in 2018 at its Peoria location in a 1950s mall, Sheridan Village. Last year the old store – which had served as the mall’s anchor since 1958 – was demolished, leaving a gaping hole in the center of the mall, many of whose smaller stores now remain empty for long periods. Today, Sheridan Village’s “anchor” is a grocery store.

The mall structure had been deemed impractical to renovate/remodel – the rumor at the time was that it was riddled with asbestos and it would have cost millions to strip down to studs and two-by-fours. Who knows if this was the case – in any event, it was the end of an era for Peoria as this old-style department store literally bit the dust.

That Bergner’s was where most of my school clothes had been purchased (at the after-Christmas and Fourth of July sales, naturally); it was where I bought my clothes whenever I went home for a visit over the course of more than 35 years; when I had children, I’d buy their clothes there whenever I was back; it was where we purchased our daughter’s college wardrobe when she started university; it was where I purchased the gifts I gave my parents in their final years – shirts, socks, and ties for my Dad, following in Mother’s footsteps, and blouses, slacks, and sweaters for Mother.

When Mother passed away, she was buried in a pair of black slacks from Bergner’s that she’d scarcely worn (only at holidays and for celebrations), and a satin blouse, also from Bergner’s – that blouse! She’d sent it to me as a Christmas present many years previously; one year I’d brought it home with me, and she admired it so much I gave it back to her. She had worn it for her 100th birthday party – a lovely day-reception for many of her nieces and nephews.

By the time the pandemic is over, retail, one of the largest employers in the country for more than a century, will have become history. Jeff Bezos – who got his start selling books online, if you can remember as far back as 1994 – and Amazon.com will account for the majority of retail sales in the country – in the entire West, for that matter. The rise of Amazon as the major retail outlet has now cast, and will continue to cast, a deathly pall over brick-and-mortar retail.

What will become of the millions upon millions of square feet of retail real estate? Who will purchase it? What use will they put it to? And what will become of retail shop owners and salespersons (nearly 10 million people in 2018)? These are vexing questions for which urban development experts are struggling to find viable solutions. But that’s a tale for another day.

In any case, Block & Kuhl’s, which in 1961 became Carson Pirie Scott & Co. (until 1975), eventually because a Chase Bank (until 2015). It’s currently being refurbished – returned to the structural and decorative glory of its heydey – to serve as the administrative headquarters of the Third Order of Saint Francis, a Franciscan nursing order of nuns, which today owns and operates one of Illinois’ largest healthcare providers

2020-12-20 Small Miracles

Small Miracles

We commonly refer to the “Christmas Miracle” in reference to Christ’s being “born of the Virgin Mary” and the Star of Bethlehem which guided the Three Wise Men more than two millennia ago. Christ’s coming is of course seen by devout Christians as the Miracle of Miracles – and Christ performed numerous miracles in the course of his brief life which have come to be seen as the models for the miracles performed by those later canonized as saints.

But many of us have heard of, or even experienced, small miracles in our own lives.

As we begin the final countdown to a Christmas like no other, one where we will celebrate for the most part alone or in small pandemic bubbles, I was recalled of two cases of humble miracles, one recent, and one which occurred some years ago. The former involved a close friend who recently passed; the other involved the death of a close friend’s oldest son.

Just over two weeks ago, I lost a close friend, someone I’d known for 37 years. For the past 20 of those years, we lived only about 2 minutes’ distant from him and his wife, and my family had the happiness of hosting them on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter each year.  

The day after he passed, his wife told me she’d chanced upon his 2020 agenda, where he kept meticulous records of their appointments, lessons, and day-to-day finances. This had continued until 2 weeks before his death. The final entry was noted on the day his pension came through, a pension for which he’d been waiting many years. She then told me that he’d placed a bookmark – a beautiful bookmark she’d once given him as a present – at another date. It was the day on which he suffered the crisis which led to his passing a few days afterward, and he never regained consciousness.

Do we “know” when we’re fated to die? At my Father’s 100th birthday party, I was seated next to his 99-year-old sister and remarked how we’d all be together the following year to celebrate her own centennial. “I won’t be there,” she noted in the laconic style for which all the siblings in my Dad’s family were known. She passed a few days after her 100th birthday.

In June 2015, when the presidential campaign was starting to acquire momentum and a New York City real estate developer named Donald Trump was preparing to declare, I asked my Dad how he would feel about a Trump candidacy. He shrugged and said, “Doesn’t matter, I won’t be here.” He passed in March 2016.

The following story actually happened to me several years ago, during a brief period when my husband and I, as well as our daughter and myself, were in the U.S. to attend our son’s graduation from law school. I note that this was the first time we’d all been in the U.S. at the same time since 1989-1990.

I had initially visited my parents, and then flown out to Baltimore, where our daughter was working. We planned to take the Bolt bus north to NYC the day before the graduation ceremony, which was scheduled for late on a Friday morning. While in Baltimore, I had arranged to meet up with an old friend (actually, our backyard next-door neighbor from 1989-1990); she was to drive up from Virginia, and we were to do a day trip through wine country. But a couple days before our excursion, she called to tell me she was worried about her 27-year-old son – he’d disappeared a couple days previous, leaving his keys, his billfold, and his phone behind in his D.C. apartment. We agreed to stay in touch about the evolving situation – by this time, there was a missing person’s report out on him. Meanwhile, my daughter and I left the next day for NYC, where we met my husband at the Midtown hotel where I stayed whenever passing through New York.

Graduation Day dawned cold, windy, and rainy – it was a miserable day, and all of us were under-dressed. We arrived late for the ceremony itself, which was held at Lincoln Center – a venue I knew, I’d been to performances there, and I had thought “No problem, it’s enormous.” We ended up in the last row of the balcony, and we weren’t able to sit together.

Following the awarding of the degrees, pandemonium ensued – we finally made it down to the foyer, where graduates, their parents, and their siblings were taking pictures (we didn’t manage to get any), turning in caps and gowns, and generally milling around in the messy, awkward fashion of 2,500 people in search of a single graduate – their own. At some point, we – myself, my husband, our daughter and our son’s significant other – split up to search for him, and we ended up losing each other – when we were finally reunited after about a half-hour (maybe more), all of us were unhappy, upset, tired, hungry – and cold. It was one of the most chaotic half-hours I’d ever experienced.

After a weekend with our son and friends, my daughter, my husband and I took the bus to Baltimore the following Monday. I flew back to Illinois a couple days later, while my husband stayed on for a week in Baltimore with our daughter. I spoke with my friend throughout the month, but she had nothing more to report about her son’s whereabouts; this felt ominous. The last week in June, I called her and she told me that he had been found – he had committed suicide in NYC the Monday after our son’s graduation, but it had taken 17 days to identify his remains (NYC/DC police seemed not to be in frequent communication regarding missing persons back then).

My friend’s son had been my son’s constant companion and playmate in 1989-1990. Despite their difference in age (our son was about two-and-a-half years older), they’d been together daily for more than 9 months. They’d played together, eaten together, watched television together, and entertained our daughter (a tiny infant at the time) together. He was my son’s first “best” friend. As his mother was telling me what had happened, she mentioned something I’d forgotten: the first time her son (age 5 at the time) had “run away from home,” he’d run away to our house, where he’d parked himself until his frantic Mother came over to retrieve him.

That got me thinking: her son had known where we’d be that weekend, his Mother and I were in contact with each other, and our daughter had lived with them for several months before she started her job in Baltimore. When he decided to leave, had he instinctively – not consciously – headed for NYC, where the family he’d once run away to had reunited? And during that chaotic half-hour at Lincoln Center when we were all lost, had he passed by? I’ll never know – no one will – but he died in Midtown not far from where we were staying.

I returned to Greece, from which I attended my first funeral by Skype. It was a beautiful ceremony – he was a gifted, well-read and well-traveled, politically-engaged young man with many friends from his childhood, undergrad and graduate school, and from among colleagues. The ceremony was held at a church in the town where we’d all lived in the late eighties and early nineties – College Park, Maryland – and there were people at the ceremony whom both his mother and I had known; she’d remained friends with them, but I’d lost touch.

A couple days later, still deeply shaken, I headed for a café I’d been patronizing for a couple years to do some reading – this was mid-July, approximately. I sat down on the semi-enclosed veranda on a two-seat sofa, and the waitress appeared with my cold coffee – they knew me, I didn’t even have to order – and set it on the glass-topped wooden coffee table. I reached toward the coffee to pick up the glass, and there on the front edge of the table were incised the words “Hi there” along with the young man’s name. Both were in English, not Greek. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t an illusion, and recall how I kept touching the letters, which were etched in the wood, probably with a penknife or some similar instrument.

I remember having an imagined dialogue with the boy – whom I’d last seen when he was five-and-a-half – the only word that came to mind was “Why?” And I heard the response: “Because I had to.” Then I asked, “What shall I tell your Mother?” “Tell her I love her.”

I departed the café, still very doubtful about the reality of what had transpired, vowing to return the following day with a camera, to record if nothing else the lettering on the table. I felt that if I could just get an image, that would signify it was real, at least in some sense.

But the café had closed overnight – from one afternoon to the next, without notice, without warning. Were the words etched into the table intended for me, its final occupant? Again, I’ll never know.

I’d never thought much about the café’s name – it was just the neighborhood place I went every day or so to read, reflect, and edit texts – I called those hours “study hall” and they were sacred, and productive. Normally I remained oblivious to my surroundings.

The café’s name was “Blessing.” And its logo was a winged angel. I got photos of those.

I told a few people about my experience – my family, first, and then, my friend who recently passed – I was wont to tell him everything, discuss everything with him, share all my thoughts about politics and policies, as well as the news of daily doings in our family. He was skeptical – and so, upon reflection, was I.

But I wonder what he’d say about the fact that the date marked in his agenda was his final day of conscious life? And that his final notation was on the day his pension – which would make life easier for the wife he loved so much – came through?

Love works in mysterious ways – sometimes, perhaps, in miraculous ones.