Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Muse of Lady Liberty Part II

Statue of Freedom at the top of the Capitol Dome
In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
—Aeschylus
[Quoted by Bobby Kennedy speaking about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.]

Part I of this News from the Muse began with the joy and terror of January 6, 2021— a day which gave us news of the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both from Georgia, turning that state a glorious blue, a day which shocked us with horrendous scenes of the violent insurrection against the Capitol, incited by a berserker outgoing president.

The Muse then led us back into American history, remembering the assassinations of so many of our leaders, JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and finally Bobby Kennedy, in the 1960s. I turned to my husband, Dan Safran, who was a ‘60’s activist, to help me understand what happened to Lady Liberty in that fraught decade. What will we need to remember in order to revive Her?

The Education of a ‘60s Activist
But history will judge you, and as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, in the extent to which you have used your gifts and talents to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow men. In your hands lies the future of your world and the fulfillment of the best qualities of your own spirit.
—Bobby Kennedy
Hannah and baby Dan

Though I’ve been married to Dan for over four decades and heard many of his stories about being an activist in the ’60s, I couldn’t articulate what had led him to this path. So, I asked him. He credits his mother’s activism with sparking his own. When he was a child his mother, Hannah, taught elementary school in Harlem. She knew what Black people were suffering and supported their issues. His father, Saul, was an immigrant from Poland who had come to America to escape anti-Semitism. His stories attuned Dan to the immigrant experience.

Saul and Hannah, Florence, Italy 1931

But what really raised his consciousness was the racially integrated progressive camp his parents sent him to when he was 13. Before then he had had little exposure to people from other cultures. He loved that camp, attended it for three summers. It was a work camp—they built a recreation hall. He says he learned about social consciousness from the kids at camp.

Dan (the tall one) at Camp Wyandot

As I listened to Dan speak of how he became an activist, I realized what a fateful collision of energies—the Spirit of the Times, Dan’s personality, and Lady Luck created the stepping-stones of his path, leading him into the major issues of that time. Anyone who knows Dan knows how good he is at making connections with people, at networking, and at being open to learning from any situation he is in. He said: “In 1960, when the sit-ins began, it raised my consciousness, crystallized my energy. The protests were being done by college students. I was one—at Queens College in New York. I participated in boycotting Woolworth’s.”
 
Dan at 21

At the University of Pennsylvania Dan became active in the NAACP and continued boycotting Woolworth’s. He said: “In the meantime the War in Vietnam was beginning to cook. I became aware of Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence and how their convictions and courage inspired thousands to resist oppression. As I read more about non-violence, it became a powerful belief system for me. As a Jew with a cousin who fought and was wounded in World War II, I was conflicted about the war and the obligation to fight, albeit violently to save oppressed people. However, because of my growing belief in non–violence, I decided I wouldn’t join the military. I was called to a pre–induction physical and refused to step forward when I was asked to.”

That turned out to be smart. An ACLU staff attorney told Dan that not stepping forward meant he was still a civilian and the military couldn’t force him to do anything. However, as a result of his resistance, Dan was “invited” to speak to Army Intelligence. He went three times, was asked all the usual questions: No, he didn’t belong to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. No, he wasn’t against the United States; he just didn’t agree with all its policies. Yes, he had refused to sign a loyalty oath; he considered it a violation of his Civil Rights. Dan made a connection with a Sergeant who, while fingerprinting him, said that if asked, he too would refuse to sign a loyalty oath.

Dan learned he was simultaneously being investigated by the FBI. They said they had reason to believe he was a communist. (Remember, this is just a few years after the House Un-American Activities Committee had ruined the lives and careers of many progressive Americans by accusing them of being communists.) But Dan was consulting with the ACLU, which told him that the FBI had no business investigating him just because they had a suspicion.

During this time, it became clear to Dan that he wanted to work in the field of Race Relations. How could one earn a living by doing this sort of thing? He arranged to meet with leaders of the organizations he knew were doing this kind of work: the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, the Urban League, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and asked them what they looked for in the people they hired. He learned that a Master’s Degree in Social Work with a focus on community organizing was a good ticket. When he and his first wife, Barbara, went to Bryn Mawr Social Work School, Barbara chose the clinical track and Dan chose community organization. His informational interviews turned out to be spot on. His first job out of Social Work school was with the American Friends Service Committee in Washington DC, organizing fair housing groups.

Dan and Lisa, age 2

Dan told me: “That was the best job I ever had. I worked with Jim Harvey, an African American Baptist and a military veteran. We appreciated each other as we worked to prevent discrimination. We were dealing with a vast system: if a Black family purchased a home in a previously white neighborhood, Real Estate companies would frighten the current homeowners, saying that they had better sell quickly because their home values would plummet. Our job was to work with communities to adopt a more welcoming attitude in order to prevent this kind of block busting from going on.

“Our approach was to go to social action committees of churches and synagogues and find out who was interested in holding neighborhood meetings. Our operating strategy was to ‘Change the Climate of Opinion.’ It was fear and hostility—what we now call ‘othering’ —that caused the problems. Jim and I basically facilitated and listened. We were good organizers because we didn’t preach. People would say a few things about their fears. There was always this moment when someone in the group would say: ‘I’m not moving. If someone sells their house to a Negro family that’s fine. If they can afford to live here, they’ll be good neighbors.’ That changed the climate. Every so often someone would spit out a bunch of racist stuff. That also changed the climate of opinion in our favor, because no one wanted to be identified with that kind of bullshit, particularly because the meeting was sponsored by a faith–based institution with good human values.”

Dan and Jim created a safe container for people to express their fears. They facilitated and listened respectfully and in so doing changed the climate of opinion because of their accepting attitude. A Jungian might call that an alchemical transformation.

When the Anti–Poverty Program began Dan got a position as a community organizer for the Southeast Neighborhood House. Lady Luck was smiling on him, because the trainer for the program was Amy Horton, wife of Miles Horton of the Highlander Folk School, famous for teaching activists non-violence and community development. What Dan learned from her about role playing and empowering people by respecting their skills is alive in him to this day. The policy of the Anti–Poverty Program was that their grantees be run by the people who were affected—“Maximum feasible participation of the people to be served.” 

I love a story Dan tells about a training he did to support citizen participation for people on Neighborhood Advisory Committees. Dan said, “I was learning a lot on the fly. I provided information. They raised questions. I used the experiences they actually had in their Advisory Committee meetings in the workshop. It was very practical. I used role playing. I asked them to come up with a problem. The group said there weren’t enough neighborhood workers. Possible solution—get more. Course of Action—go to the of Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) national headquarters and demand more. They decided to do it. I didn’t think this was a good idea because our finding came from a local community action agency via the regional OEO headquarters where allocation decisions were made. But their logic was to go to the top. They wanted me to lead them. I said I wouldn’t lead them. I would attend.

“We went into high gear role playing. I played Sargent Shriver (then the head of OEO) for three nights. They learned a lot about power. I would divide them against each other. Or I would talk and talk and fill the time— thank them for coming and escort them out of the room. They learned they needed to have a spokesperson—they could always caucus. A 25 year–old single mom with four kids—ages 3 to 9—was chosen by the group. I role played with her, frustrated her by doing the bureaucratic dance. Finally, she banged her hands on the table and said, ‘My kids are hungry!’ This stopped me in my tracks. I said, ‘Winner! That’s it!’

“The group followed up on their decision to go to the national OEO headquarters. They brought some of their kids. They went up to the 8th floor of the OEO building on L St., got out of the elevator, stood in the lobby. The staff, who had become part of the bureaucracy, were thrilled to see real people. They told us Sargent Shriver was in Europe. Members of the group asked:
‘Who’s in charge?
‘The Deputy Director.’
 ‘We’ll see him.’
‘He’s busy now.’
‘We’ll wait.’
The staff brought the group into a conference room, offered pizza and Cokes, were very solicitous. I never forgot that. It made a tremendous impression on me to realize bureaucracies are not made up of people who see everything the same way. This led me to a whole different organizational tactic I learned to use to help oppressed groups see that the ‘wall’ of power was made of bricks, which they could take apart.


“So, the Deputy Director comes in. He opens a huge ledger book and when he starts explaining the allocation system, the group’s spokesperson listens and then says,
‘My kids are hungry! We don’t have time for this. We need action now.’ 
‘Well, what do you want?’
‘We need 300 neighborhood workers.’
“Meanwhile the press came and observed. The group decided they weren’t leaving until they got what they came for. That wasn’t part of the training. The result was that OEO gave them a commitment for 25 additional neighborhood workers for the whole city. Southeast Neighborhood House would get an additional 5. This was very successful, got lots of media attention. And I got into a lot of trouble with the Southeast Neighborhood House Director, who was upset because I hadn’t alerted him. He was blindsided, though he supported the action. The people were very empowered. The training worked.”

Dan recalled something he read years later in Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed —you’re not really teaching if you’re not learning. It has to be dialogical. Dan and the group had presumed that the staff of OEO would be hostile. They weren’t. Quite the opposite: “Don’t treat power as monolithic. It’s not. Your job is to find the loose brick. Find ways of extracting it and the thing will collapse.”

In 1965, Dan began working as a consultant to Head Start. This took him to the South, where he had many complex and interesting experiences. One, in Alberta, Alabama particularly stands out for him. He told me: “An African American Church had written to OEO, saying: ‘We’re not getting help from the local politicians, they are not involving us.’ The Church wanted early childhood education that would serve their kids. I met with a community group at the church and spent two days helping them do their proposal for Head Start. It was the kind of South that I had always heard about. Abject discrimination. Refusal to cooperate by a white power structure that was accustomed to ruling over Black community members, completely discounting Black people and their needs. It was exciting to me to realize we had the Federal Government responding to an appeal from a community group. That’s the way it should be. I loved telling my mother: ‘Guess who’s paying me to do this work? The Federal Government!’ The people in Alberta, Alabama got their Head Start program.
 
Head Start Flag

“I really enjoyed doing consulting work. I developed an expertise in Parent Involvement, one of Head Start’s key components. I loved helping parents become more astute and engaged. And of course, I was identified with them because I had a toddler at home. Often, I’d be there to hear a parenting talk and realized I knew nothing about all of this—for instance, developmental stages. I was being empowered.”
 
Bobby Kennedy with Black leaders

Bobby Kennedy for President
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppressions and resistance.
—Bobby Kennedy
In March 1968 President Johnson announced he would not run for President for a second time. This was a complicated moment. Johnson was reviled by many on the left, including Dan and me, for continuing the horrendous slaughter that was the Vietnam War. But it was Johnson who was making real change happen in domestic politics. It was he who won passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the legislation that created Medicare and Medicaid. We all owe him such a debt of gratitude. It was also Johnson who pushed through the many aspects of The War on Poverty. This did so much to open the doors for Lady Liberty’s arrival among poor, Black and brown people, giving them a voice in the institutions set up to help them and hired Dan and many others to do their remarkable community organizing work. Johnson was a tragic figure. To this day, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for some of the most progressive legislation in Dan and my lifetimes. In 1966 Bobbie Kennedy had warned him against continuing the bombing campaign, declaring that we were "on a road from which there is no turning back, a road that leads to catastrophe…” It certainly led to a catastrophe for Johnson and the Great Society he envisioned.

Images of the Viet Nam War

     


By 1968 Dan had become well known as an activist and community organizer in Washington D.C. He was recruited to run on the slate of delegates to the Democratic Convention by a group which opposed Vice President Hubert Humphries’ nomination to become President. Humphrey, also a tragic figure, was rumored to oppose continuing the Viet Nam war but, as Vice President, he continued to support Lyndon Johnson’s policies. The delegation supporting Bobby Kennedy won in the primary and Dan was elected as an alternate delegate. He was part of a diverse delegation, ethnically and by age and gender. It was exciting. And then on June 4th everything fell apart when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated right after winning the California primary. Dan told me: “The Washington DC delegation wasn’t sure what to do. Gene McCarthy, who was also running, asked to meet with us. It was a very disappointing meeting. One young man, in his 20s, had expressed his concern that there were insufficient recreational activities in his part of Washington and kids couldn’t play at night—no lights. He got a very unempathic response from McCarthy: ‘Well that’s a local issue.’ It was such a shut–down that everybody—even those who had supported McCarthy initially—came away knowing they were not going to support him. We ended up supporting one of the members of our delegation—an African American Minister named Channing Phillips—knowing that he didn’t have a chance. This was July. The convention was in late August.

“On the night before the convention began, I was in Chicago, taking a walk with one of the other delegates, an African American psychologist, named Roy, who did training for the police. As we were walking through the streets, we came upon police lined up near buildings, beating their batons. Roy turned to me and said ‘Dan, I’m scared.’ I said ‘Roy, what do you mean?’ He said ‘They’re very high strung. They’re almost looking for trouble.’ That, of course is exactly what happened. The police rioted.
  
  

Images of the 1968 Democratic Convention

“I attended the convention. There was one defeat after another. The anti-war platform was defeated. On the night Humphrey was to be nominated I and many others walked out of the convention. We decided to join the protestors outside. We were very aware of what was happening in the streets. Dick Gregory invited all of us to come to his house for chitlins. Hundreds of people. A whole bunch of us wearing our suits and our convention badges started walking to Dick Gregory’s house and were blocked by the police. We decided this was the time for civil disobedience. We thought, OK they can arrest us. But they refused to arrest us. Clearly, they were blocking us from the Black neighborhoods of Chicago. They didn’t want to have other people join us. We went back to the main street and joined the marchers. Because we were delegates we were at the front, thinking this would be some kind of protection for people. The whole street was filled from curb to curb with marchers. Up ahead were a whole line of police cars and trucks, some with barbed wire grills, blocking the way.

“This was a very peaceful march. We were all committed to non-violence. The word went out: ‘Let’s just sit.’ So, everybody sat. I was in the front row with maybe 80 other people. The vehicles started approaching us. It was nighttime. We could see them because the TV camera lights were behind them. I remember thinking, ‘they won’t run over us.’ All of a sudden, the police were shooting tear gas at us. A young man, sitting a bit to the right of me was hit by a tear gas canister. Earlier, some young people—I think they were medical volunteers—had been giving out information about what to do in case of tear gas. I thought, ‘That’s nice of them, but it’s not going to happen.’ When I saw that young man hit, I was so angry, I almost lost it. We started running. I tried to pick up cobblestones from the streets but fortunately I couldn’t dislodge them. One of the medical volunteer kids came by with a washcloth and it worked—the tear gas was terrible. None of our delegation badges had any value when the police rioted. I had to get myself together internally. I hadn’t felt that kind of violent anger in a long time, not since I first began to study conscientious objection.

“We were near the Hilton. I walked into the bar. It was like a scene in a movie. People on the inside had no idea of the action on the outside. I felt somewhat safe because I had a suit on and a badge. In a movie the outside would have crashed in through a window. But that didn’t happen, not until the police began storming into the hotel, right past the bar. I learned later that they had gone up to the McCarthy headquarters where they said people were throwing things out the window at them. They came down with people they’d arrested.”

I asked him how that experience had shaped him. Dan said, “It rededicated me to non-violence. I had taken a vow to be non-violent. That’s not natural for people. Violence comes naturally. One has to be aware of that and contradict it. It reaffirmed the corruption of Mayor Daly. He was not going to allow demonstrations to happen in his city. They were suppressed. I saw no violence on the part of demonstrators. We were very disciplined, almost jovial though we got very serious when we saw the police cars. So that also affirmed my belief in non-violence because I don’t think violence is going to work against a lot of guns.”
 
National Guard and protesters

The Funeral Train
There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
Bobby Kennedy
Response to RFK’s funeral train

I am haunted by the images of the train that carried Bobby Kennedy’s dead body through America, from California to Washington D.C., haunted by all the people who gathered by the tracks, poor white people, poor Black people, people who looked middle class, waving, waving, in a kind of trance of disbelief. I hold in mind a particularly eloquent wave from a Black woman wearing a headscarf. The wave said not only goodbye to Bobby, goodbye to all he understood about what my people suffer, it said goodbye to the Civil Rights movement, goodbye to the Anti–Poverty Program, goodbye to the Federal Government’s taking an interest in the lives and needs of its ordinary citizens. What I saw on those thousands of faces that lined the tracks was mourning for the loss of hope in America. There is something soulful and substantial about mourning. You confront the reality of what you have lost. You know what it meant to you. And you weep, as John Lewis wept as he spoke of his friend Bobby’s death in the documentary film, Bobby Kennedy for President, as he told us that he had dedicated himself to Bobby’s unfinished work.

Images of John Lewis

Toward the end of his life, Bobby Kennedy became a man of such deep feeling, such courageous understanding, that the people lining the tracks knew they had lost someone of great value, not to mention all the other losses of that decade. Maybe they could feel the crush of history that would blockade and undermine so much of the progress we had begun to make. Richard Nixon was about to be elected President.

In our own time, we seem to have forgotten how to mourn, and as a result we find it difficult to hope. We get stuck in anger, in outrage, in denial, in doomscrolling. Maddening and destructive as the Berserker King of Bedlam has been, his years in power have revealed the ugly underbelly of America. I hope the Biden Harris administration will bring a moral compass back to America and empower the Federal Government to work for the good of its citizens. But there is something even harder that needs to happen. We need to engage in a process of reckoning with our history and the evil that has been committed in our name. Only then will we get our train back on its tracks.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

Inauguration Day January 20, 2021
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer in our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
—Bobby Kennedy
None of the outcomes we feared, happened. None of our terrors came true. No one was assassinated. No horde of insurrectionists overran the ceremonies, the gathered former presidents and their wives, the Senators and Congress people from both sides of the aisle, the big empty space left by the outgoing #45 who refused to participate in the peaceful transfer of power. The National Guard was out in force, with weapons. The ritual was elegantly planned and beautifully performed. Michelle and Kamala and Jill looked splendid in their richly colored coats—burgundy, purple, turquoise. It was a feast for the eyes —a solace for our aching hearts and bruised souls.

Kamala, Jill and Michelle at Inauguration

Dan and I watched in joy as, on a cold winter day in Washington D.C., Kamala removed her mask, revealing her glorious bronze skin, straightened herself up to her full height, and took the Oath of Office administered by Sonia Sotomayor, our only Latinx Supreme Court Justice. We watched as Kamala was embraced by her Jewish husband, about to become the nation’s first second gentleman. We saw Joe Biden looking healthy and strong at seventy-eight years of age, with his beautiful wife, Dr. Jill Biden. She looked as though she was carrying the worry and overwhelm of the last two weeks. She held the giant family bible as Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of Office to Joe. It was not yet noon in D.C., the magic hour when power would pass from the Orange Fury who had shadowed our world and made us fear for our futures for so many years, to the light filled face of the kind and determined man before us, giving his inaugural address. The soul of Bobby Kennedy was gladdened by Joe Biden’s words:
A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.

A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.
And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat….

In another January in Washington, on New Year’s Day 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

When he put pen to paper, the President Lincoln said, “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.”

My whole soul is in it.

Today, on this January day, my whole soul is in this….

      Abraham Lincoln

Fifty-two and a half years after our hopes for America were dashed by assassins, by the kind of people Bobby described when he said:
There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks.  They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of the comfortable past, which never existed.
For a moment I could see the souls of Bobby Kennedy and Joe Biden taking the arc of history in hand and curving it toward justice. Sadly, that moment is long gone. The Impeachment Hearings impressed me deeply because of the valiant truth telling work done by the Democratic Managers. But the narrative shown of the events of Jan 6th staggers my imagination. I found myself in a daze of disbelief about what happened, similar to what Dan felt in the Chicago Police Riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Though I do take heart that seven Republican Senators voted to impeach, the curtain has been raised on the crazed power of the far right, of the believers in hateful conspiracies, and their enablers in our government. How do we climb out of this morass?

My hope is that activists like Dan was in his generation—like Stacy Abrams and the many young people who worked with her in Georgia, and all those who worked for Truth, Justice and Lady Liberty in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin, will continue to do the slow good work of community organizing, of empowering and raising consciousness, all over this land.  That is how we earn the future described by our beautiful young Inaugural poet, may she revive our hope in Lady Liberty, may she be an inspiration to us all:
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman


Friday, January 22, 2021

The Muse of Lady Liberty: Part I

Plato noted a particular risk for tyrants: that they would be surrounded in the end by yes-men and enablers. Aristotle worried that, in a democracy, a wealthy and talented demagogue could all too easily master the minds of the populace. Aware of these risks and others, the framers of the Constitution instituted a system of checks and balances. The point was not simply to ensure that no one branch of government dominated the others but also to anchor in institutions different points of view.
 Timothy Snyder “The American Abyss”
     New York Times Magazine Jan 17, 2021
Statue of Freedom at the top
of the Capitol Dome

Seize the Moment
But the spirits of those who die before their time will live, for the sake of our present incompleteness, in dark hordes in the rafters of our houses and besiege our ears with urgent laments, until we grant them redemption…
            —C.G. Jung The Red Book p. 297
We are in a major moment in American History. We have seen an Insurrection Breach the Capitol and had to realize how fragile our democracy is. Lady Liberty lay bleeding in the halls of Congress. But then, just two weeks later, She picked Herself up, got Herself all decked out in as a Native American Warrior Woman, and presided over a peaceful—if armed to the teeth—Inauguration Day at the very place—the scene of the crime—where she had been rampaged.

We who have survived the last four Years of Outrage, the Year of the Pandemic, of Economic Collapse, and the final insult—the Insurrectionary Breach of our Capitol—have been taken on a terrifying but illuminating tour of the Great American Shadow. In this underworld, where all that has been denied, not taught in our schools, forgotten, lied about in our history—the genocide of our indigenous population, slavery, Jim Crow, voter suppression, the theft of wealth from those who built our country, our Capitol, our White House, shows up in the cultural unconscious as furious, grieving shades, who haunt us, possess us, take on demonic forms.

The Statue of Armed Freedom, a manifestation of Lady Liberty, which graces the top of the Capitol Dome, holds some of the shadow truths we like to forget. She was created just before the Civil War, when the Capitol Dome was being rebuilt. Her creation was facilitated by a brilliant slave, Philip Reid, “who came with the idea of using a pulley to move the statue, was then paid $1.25 a day by the federal government to ‘keep up fires under the moulds,’ according to the architects records.” His owner pocketed the money. But when the final cast of the Statue was raised in 1863, Reid was a free man. It took until 2014 for his contribution to be recognized in a ceremony on the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

When you look at this statue, you’ll notice that Freedom wears feathers in her hair, and a beautiful blanket wrapped around her, Indian style. Wikipedia comments that many who see her assume she is a Native American. Was the designer, Thomas Crawford, haunted by the spirits of the indigenous dead, who died before their time?

Statue of Freedom

With Lady Liberty, we find ourselves blinking in the light of a cold winter Inauguration Day—peaceful—though filled with armed soldiers. We are disoriented, relieved, joyous but still afraid. Will we return to our denial, our lies to ourselves, our unwillingness to do the hard work of Truth and Reconciliation? Will the demons return to do more damage? Or will we seize the moment, as our new President urges, to make America live up to her promise and bring Lady Liberty’s gifts to all our people?

In this blog, which I’ve been fussing with for months, I’m seeking the roots of the Great American Trouble with Truth, as experienced in my life and in that of my husband, Dan Safran. I’m covering a lot of ground, so this will come in several installments.


Attempted Insurrection Breaches the Capitol: January 6th 2021
All Lost Causes find their lifeblood in lies, big and small, lies born of beliefs in search of a history that can be forged into a story and mobilize masses of people to act politically, violently and in the name of ideology.
            —David W. Blight “Will the Myth of Trumpism Endure?”
                New York Times Sunday Review 1/10/21
Recent American history has been a runaway train, driven faster and faster by a Berserker Conductor until it flew off the rails and threw us passengers into violently splintered versions of reality. We who sit in the progressive cars of the train were flung out of our familiar compartments into an unknown landscape, one in which we seesawed from euphoria to outrage and terror, from Georgia giving us two democratic senators—the first black man—Raphael Warnock— and the first Jewish man—Jon Ossoff—elected from that state—to the carnage at the Capitol. Now the Democrats control the Senate by the slimmest of margins—requiring the vote of our first African American, first Asian American, first female Vice President—to break a tie. This gives us a bit of leverage and hope that the Biden–Harris administration will be able to deal with the overwhelming issues that the outgoing administration has neglected or abused—the pandemic, economic inequality, millions of citizens out of work, the Racial Justice Movement and Climate Change. We weren’t given long to take pleasure in that hard won victory, to praise the activism of Stacy Abrams and her dedicated volunteers who brought out the vote, or to relish the realization that Mitch McConnell will no longer be able to block us at every pass.

Georgia’s Lady Liberty
Photo by Jim Bowen

Notice, this Lady Liberty is wearing a “Liberty Cap,” following the Roman tradition of wearing such a cap to indicate being a freed slave.

Our Berserker Conductor—He Who Would “Repeal Reality”—to borrow Nancy Pelosi’s phrase—purveyor of the Big Lie that it was he who won the election—invited and incited his followers to join the insurrection that took over the Capitol. This horde of militias and Trumpists came straight out of America’s worst nightmares—they bore arms, waved Confederate flags, dressed as eagles, clowns, wore face paint and horns, wore “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies and tee shirts that read “Six Million Jews Were Not Enough.” They chanted “Stop the Steal!” and “1776!”

Capitol Riot

Wait. What? Let’s step out of the chaos for a moment to reflect. What possessed the Trumpist insurrectionists to chant the year of the American Revolution? Our country’s mythic heroes are the rebels who stood up to that Tyrant, King George of Britain, and, in 1776, penned a litany of accusations we call the Declaration of Independence against the King’s “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States” which is read religiously every July 4th on NPR. Our American rebels created a democracy in a world full of monarchies. How did this horde of wannabe revolutionaries get the story turned inside out—rebelling against democracy to support a would-be Tyrant? Were they fueled by the misinformation perpetrated by a lying leader and by social media set up to cultivate echo chambers of opinion without regard to the Truth? Or were they put into trance by a Cult Leader, following him into a conspiracy laced splinter faction of lost souls in which his enemies are the Devil’s Spawn, the rapists of Lady Liberty, and he is the only one who can save them?


Back at the Capitol, the would be King had promised he’d lead his followers in person, but true to form, could only be found on Twitter until Twitter cancelled him. His mob of Proud Boys and other White Supremacists, folks who buy into his Big Lies, had set up a noose to make their point very clear. They breached the barricades, climbed over walls, used bicycle racks to break glass and bust through doors, attacked Capitol Police with American flagpoles, fire extinguishers and bear mace, threatened news reporters, Senators, Congress People and their staff members. They planted a sign reading “Pelosi is Satan” in a conspicuous spot. The Senate had to make an archetypal descent into the underworld of the building, where they were held in a secure area.

The mob

Members of the House sheltered in place, cowering under their seats as the mob tried to break into their chamber. They pushed heavy chests against the doors to keep the horde from storming in. They put on gas masks to protect themselves from tear gas the police had deployed in the Rotunda. They were finally evacuated just before the mob entered the chamber and they too made their descent into a secure underworld where 200 members were piled into a small room. This outrage was not only the result of our Berserker King rousing his followers to an insurrection against the country he was supposedly leading and defending, but of a large group of Republican Senators and Congress People poised to throw out the legal and valid election results of millions of voters, simply because they didn’t like the outcome. Their accusations of voter fraud had been adjudicated in the courts and been thrown out over and over again as having no merit.


You wonder why I keep using the word Berserker? Berserkers were ancient Viking warriors, who wore bear skins, or nothing at all, drove themselves into a rages to prepare for battle. It seems the most appropriate words for what we’ve experienced with our 45th President and his followers.

Berserker

On that wild train ride some of the outgoing President’s most loyal supporters were suddenly thrown to the other side. Vice President Pence refused to join those who were objecting to the certification. He insisted that his role was to do the bidding of the American people. And Senator McConnell said that hijacking the voting process would “send Democracy into a death spiral.” It was too little too late. On the Day of the Attempted Insurrection American Democracy was a train wreck—lying in pieces all over the land. Since then I’ve been working on this blog to try to get my bearings. The news keeps shifting, changing. Where are we? Where are we headed? That day looks worse and worse as more details are gathered. For example, it seems that some Republicans gave insurrectionists a reconnaissance tour of the building the night before the coup attempt, and that other Republicans refused to wear masks in the tight quarters where members of the House had to huddle and to share the air. Several who were there have since tested positive for Covid.

In hindsight it seems a miracle that no one from the press or from Congress was seriously hurt. However, many were badly traumatized. As the call to impeach the Inciter–in–Chief, again, was addressed in the House a week after the Coup attempt, the word was that many Republican members of Congress were afraid to take a stand against the would–be Tyrant, not only for political reasons—they were afraid for their physical safety and that of their families. Lady Liberty lies bleeding in the Temple of Democracy.

Noose

How in the world was this violent breach allowed to happen? Nobody has been allowed into the Capitol since the beginning of the pandemic. These confederate flag waving terrorists were not wearing masks. Yet doors were opened for them. Some Capitol policemen took selfies with them. The murderous mob, shouting “Hang Pence!” and “Where’s Nancy?” was actively hunting down our Vice President and the Speaker of our House. They rifled through Nancy Pelosi’s papers, put their feet on her desk. They defecated in the hallways. Their purpose was to desecrate the People’s House. Quick thinking by the Secret Service and Capitol police saved our elected representatives from being slaughtered. Most of the line of presidential succession was in that building—they got Pence, Harris, Pelosi and Hoyer to safety, protected the Senate and the House. There was hand–to–hand combat with vengeful invaders. One brave Capitol policeman, Eugene Goodman, a Black man and a Veteran, led the mob away from its prey by risking being its prey. They chased him upstairs, downstairs and through hallways as he craftily steered them away from the Senate Chamber, where members were still being evacuated, and showed them the exit.

We all saw this train wreck coming. The Inciter–in–Chief had been tweeting for weeks that Jan. 6th would be “wild” in Washington. Why wasn’t there more protection and defense for our lawmakers and journalists? Any peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration would not gotten anywhere near the Capitol. I shudder to think what would have happened to them. And those Proud Boys, tough guys, who desecrated the Senate chambers and sat in Nancy Pelosi’s office chair, were sent off with a kiss and a declaration of love from our White Supremacist–in–Chief, who told them it was “time to go home.”

The contrast!

Thankfully, no groups from the left came out to counter the insurrectionaries. But all of America was glued to phones and computers, watching in horror and dismay, as the Great American train crashed into our Democratic ideals, and is lying in pieces all over our land. How did we get here? Who allowed a Berserker King of Bedlam to drive our train?

Bobby Kennedy for President
This is America. This has always been America. If this were not America, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s time we face this ugly truth; let it sink into the marrow of our bones, let it move us to action.
            —Roxane Gay New York Times Sunday Review Jan. 10, 2021
Who allowed a Berserker King of Bedlam to drive our train? I have been pondering that question since the 2016 election. It was brought into focus after the 2020 election, when my husband, Dan Safran, and I watched a remarkable documentary, made in 2018— Bobby Kennedy for President—which took us both back to our youth. Dan and I are both war babies—he was born in 1939; I was born in 1943. Radio newscasts about the war are the background noise of our earliest memories and terrors. We were Jewish babies, breathing in our parents’ anxiety and horror as the realities of what was happening to European Jewry began to be understood. 

Now our grandchildren are young adults. Many of them have had their lives stalled by the pandemic, by the train wreck of American leadership which has failed to provide a coherent plan to protect all of us from the virus. Our grandchildren’s college years or career development have been rudely interrupted. Our hearts break for them. As we watched footage from 1962—Jack Kennedy and his brother Bobby stood facing each other as the horrifying reality of the Cuban Missile Crisis sank in— it was as though a portal had opened for both of us, into our young adult selves.

RFK and JFK facing each other
during Cuban Missile Crisis

At that moment in time, we were both early in our first marriages. I was pregnant, and terrified that the world would end before my child could be born. Dan and his new wife Barbara, were at Bryn Mawr College, studying Social Work. Dan was President of the Student Body of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Earlier, in college, he had helped organize Students for a Sane Nuclear Policy. He had protested nuclear testing. He remembers a gathering of his fellow Bryn Mawr students, including Barbara, all in a state of terror, as they contemplated the unthinkable possibility of nuclear war. For thirteen days the world held its breath as Soviet nuclear missiles intruded into our hemisphere. Cuba had suffered an attempted invasion by the United States—the Bay of Pigs debacle. They asked the Soviets to protect them with missiles. Two nuclear nations faced each other. How could this issue be resolved without risking the end of the world? Bobby, who was good at diplomacy, came up with the trade off—the Russians remove the missiles, in exchange, we won’t invade Cuba. Dan and I realized that our souls had been badly bruised during those thirteen days, when we were so young, so frightened that we would never get to live out our destinies as the fate of humanity hung by a thread.

In a helpful synchronicity, we heard Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC, commenting on the Day of the Attempted Coup. It was fourteen days before the Inauguration of Biden and Harris. O’Donnell noted that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are old enough to remember those 13 days in 1962. They don’t want to relive that terror, and that is why they were pushing for an early departure for the outgoing Berserker. This helped me realize the obvious— our whole generation was shaped by the events of the 1960s, which were both an inspiration and a train wreck for America.

One year later President Kennedy was assassinated—a terrible crime that has never been solved. Two years after that Malcolm X was assassinated. Fifty-five years after his murder his case has been reopened by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office—there are ongoing questions about who murdered him. Three years after Malcolm’s murder Martin Luther King was assassinated. The F.B.I. fingered James Earl Ray, a career criminal and supporter of segregationist George Wallace. Ray has said he was not guilty. The family of Martin Luther King believes to this day that Ray was framed. There is evidence, they say of a conspiracy including the Mafia and the government. Two months after that it was Bobby Kennedy’s turn to be assassinated. Again, the accused gunman, Sirhan Sirhan, a slight Palestinian with no history of criminal behavior, has always claimed his innocence; there are many theories of who might really be responsible.

John F. Kennedy


Malcolm X

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy

We on the progressive side of the political world are suspicious of contemporary conspiracy theories. They are mostly Big Lies, devoid of any factual truth. But what if there were actual conspiracies in the ‘60s to assassinate all the potent leaders of those days? What if we have lived with Big Lies all our adult lives, most of us in denial of the terrible truth—we have never come to grips with how those murders happened, we have never had a Truth and Reconciliation process to make sense of our history.

Watching Bobby Kennedy for President, I was suddenly overcome with a wave of grief for our generation—how traumatized we’d all been by the assassinations of our leaders—those who carried our hopes and dreams that we could work through America’s great and terrible evil—the crimes of four hundred years of slavery, and the genocide perpetrated against our indigenous population. America’s efforts at Reconstruction in the late nineteenth century were derailed by White Supremacists who took away the voting rights of African American men, stole their promised forty acres and a mule, stole their rights and their power in their personal and political lives. The civil war had been fought to right the wrongs of slavery. But new forms of slavery emerged—Jim Crow, segregation, voter suppression, redlining, block busting, mass incarceration—all manipulated by white supremacist policies pretending to be normal politics. In 1962, Jack Kennedy and his brother Bobby sent federal marshals and U.S. Army troops to protect James Meredith, an African American who had enrolled in the University of Mississippi.

James Meredith at Old Miss

There was enormous resistance to desegregation, though the Supreme Court had made school desegregation the law of the land in 1954. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy all challenged the web of lies and racist ideas which were running the country; they dared to shine a light into what kept us in the dark about our own shadow. No wonder all those issues they spoke of so eloquently, the issues that Bobby came to understand so profoundly as he ran for president in 1968—starving children in Kentucky and Mississippi, inequality, segregation, poll taxes, lynchings—the entitlement claimed by rich white men over men of color and men who were poor—fell into an abyss of history.

RFK during his 1968 presidential run

Bobby allowed himself to change, to become a different man, as the terrible unfolding of his life ground him down he opened his heart to grief and to the terrible truths about America. His friend John Lewis was with him in Indianapolis on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby was slated to speak to a mostly black crowd. Lewis told him he had to tell the people what happened. Here is a small part of what Bobby said, just two months before his own assassination
I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.

In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

For those of you who are black--considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible--you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love. For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times…

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
RFK speaking to the crowd
in Indianapolis

We in the field of psychology understand that if you can’t confront your past, what has shaped you, what has traumatized you, if you allow family secrets to fester in the dark, if you live in denial and complacency, the demons will out. They’ll get you in the end. You’ll find yourself reenacting the horrors that were done to you. At the level of the culture those nasty shadows will grab the steering wheel and drive the country’s train like a Berserker Conductor and send us all off our rails.

How do we take up the truth again, deal with the history we’ve denied and revised? The light we can see now comes from Georgia, where Stacy Abrams and her group of activists and organizers just won us three important elections—one, in November 2020, for President Biden, the others, in January 2021 for Senator Warnock and Senator Ossoff? How do we keep that flame burning? That is when it occurred to me that I should talk to my favorite ‘60s activist, sitting on the couch beside me, Dan Safran, about the history he experienced.

RFK shot (June 4, 1968)



To Be Continued.