Head or Heart?

There’s been a lot of talk lately in this political season about poetry and prose. Specifically, references have been made to the late Mario Cuomo’s statement that “You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.” Cuomo knew of what he spoke; a renowned orator, Cuomo also served New York from 1975 to 1994 as secretary of state, lieutenant governor and governor.

It is safe to say there has been very little if any poetry heard in the Republican or Democratic campaigns for the presidency now under way. Certainly, we haven’t heard any from the Republicans, and what has been referred to as poetry on the Democratic side has been ascribed to the campaign of the senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. In her quest to become president, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is said to be campaigning the way she would govern – in prose. This has not been meant so much as a put-down of Clinton as it is a warning against Sanders.

What passes for a Democratic establishment has determined it would be a dangerous dalliance to even flirt with the idea of voting for Sanders, a political independent and self-described socialist whose nomination would guarantee a Republican victory in November. The movers and shakers of the party are convinced the only way to avoid defeat in the fall is to avoid idealism now. We have been here before.

Eight years ago in Iowa, where caucus-goers will be voting this evening, people put aside pragmatism and chose a black candidate to be their party’s standard-bearer. This seeming miracle, occurring in one of the whitest states in the country, took place at a time when even most black Americans did not believe such a thing was possible. That miracle led to three more: that black candidate’s winning the nomination, and his election and re-election to the White House. Either our belief in miracles increased, or we re-evaluated the meaning of the word.

Two words being used at times in place of prose and poetry are head and heart, and it has been suggested Clinton appeals to Democratic voters’ common sense while Sanders enlivens one’s sense of what is possible. It is believed candidate Obama did what Sanders is now doing, but Sanders is no Obama. Obama is what he always has been, a middle-of-the-road Democratic politician, but many saw him as a blank screen onto which they projected all sorts of hopes beyond what he offered. This is one source of the disappointment some now feel about his presidency. Sanders, also, is what he always has been: a political independent (who only became a Democrat last year) and a progressive decidedly to the left of Obama – and Clinton. There is no doubt that for many voters his proposed policies are like poetry for the heart. What to do?

If left up to the editorial board of the local paper here, voters would deafen their ears to the Sanders siren song. In a series of editorials last week, The Washington Post declared Sanders’ message of economic justice is “facile” rather than “bold” and that “ Sen. Sanders is not a brave truth-teller. He’s just telling progressives what they want to hear.” Others have suggested that what Sanders advocates is unattainable. Really?

Sanders has been pointing out that – given our history (the New Deal; the Marshall Plan; the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts; Apollo 11; Medicare; the Affordable Care Act) – there is something un-American about saying we can’t do what needs to be done. What he has been saying over the course of his campaign brings to mind the words of another. Consider:

     “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.”

     “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

     “There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether [she or] he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer…. There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family.”

     “I must honestly say to you that I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. You see, it may well be that our whole world is in need at this time for the new organization, the International Organization for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.”

     “May I say to you that I still believe that mankind will rise to the occasion in spite of the darkness of the hour, in spite of the difficulties of the moment, in spite of these days of emotional tension when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail. I still have faith in the future…”

You may recognize these as the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoken and written at various times in various places. Let’s not forget his last public act before his assassination was supporting striking workers, and that he did so while planning to occupy Washington alongside poor Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. That was then. Were he here today, would he find enough difference between Clinton and Sanders to choose one over the other? Would he suspect (as many do) that Clinton is politically astute enough to not say publicly that she and Sanders are on the same page? Would he see a bet on Sanders as placing the balance of the Supreme Court in Republican hands? What about you – head or heart, prose or poetry?

, too

Those who declared “Black lives matter,” might have avoided some of the reactionary foolishness that followed if they had ended that sentence with “too.” Forget it should not be necessary, that it should be obvious the word is implied. Some don’t understand the intended implication and are put off by imagined ones; those are the innocently ignorant. There are also the willfully ignorant who do understand but use the absence of the word as a means to feign offense. So, those who clearly see a society in need of being reminded that all lives matter – including black ones – are now being told they are myopic.

Added to this is the the false narrative that the movement is misguided because of its focus on black lives taken by police officers instead of those taken by black civilians. It is a storyline coming not only from those one might expect, but also from those one might not.

An example close to home demonstrates the expected. When the jurors in the trial of a Baltimore officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray deadlocked two weeks ago, and there was some fear of a replay of the rioting that took place at the time of Gray’s death, the Republican governor of Maryland took to the airways to say “You know, I’ve expressed my concern that we have a lot of people out there expressing their concern and their frustration over the tragic death of Freddie gray. But, you know, where is the uproar from the community? Where are the people protesting the 330 people that have been murdered.”

What was not expected were friends and family members expressing sentiments similar to those of the governor. One asked “Who are they trying to convince,” suggesting the police and elected officials are the wrong targets of the protesters, that the correct marks are the black youths who prey on the communities in which they live; at the very least (the thinking goes), police and politicians should not be the sole or primary targets of protesters.

Of course, this line of reasoning presupposes a fallacy, as if it is logical to suppose an act has not been performed if it has not been directly observed. When confronted by Governor Larry Hogan’s evident ignorance of or blindness to facts, Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott tweeted a photo of some of that city’s black citizens marching with signs all reading “We must stop killing each other.” Councilman Scott added “People in Baltimore work everyday to deal with violence here.” There have been similar demonstrations and efforts in communities across the country, many of which predate Hogan’s tenure and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The danger of Governor Hogan’s statement is not only the false narrative it advances, it is also the false equivalency it promotes, the idea there should be equal concern about police violence and criminal violence. Any doubt about the faultiness of such an assumption may be dispelled by considering a simple question: Should people hired and sworn to serve and protect the public be held to the same standards as gang members and thugs? Rational thinkers will not find it difficult to answer “No.” They also will understand the meaning of leverage. They know Johnny down the block with the gun may not feel answerable to them or to placard-carrying protesters. Johnny may not even feel answerable to a parent or guardian who’s done everything possible, as evidenced by the successes of Johnny’s older sister and younger brother reared in the same household with the same values. When counseling, mentoring, positive role- modeling, love and all else fails, and Johnny becomes a demonstrable danger to his community, his community should be able to turn for help to those charged with providing it.

This includes the police – who are answerable to you. Your vote elected the mayor who appointed your police commissioner. Your tax dollars pay all their salaries. Most importantly, as noted earlier, they have sworn oaths to uphold the law and the public’s safety. Too many have rendered those oaths meaningless. When a police force has so damaged its relationship with the community it is supposed to serve, it is not unthinkable that a surfeit of murders will occur or that most will remain unsolved. When added to this volatility are the ongoing crimes (including torture, rape and murder) committed by police against the citizenry, it is no wonder frustrated people of goodwill will march through their streets to police stations and city halls, to shopping malls and busy highways to shine a spotlight on what should be visible without one. They want others to be as clear-eyed as they, others who do not or pretend not to see that black lives matter, too.

Half of what you see, none of what you hear

One Sunday morning, only a couple of weeks after finishing high school, I was awakened and told there was something in the newspaper I needed to see. Still half asleep, I stumbled downstairs to the dinning room and was handed a copy of The Washington Post. Perplexed, I thumbed through the pages wondering why I couldn’t just be told what it was (and why it couldn’t have waited until later). Finally, after the page on which there had been a piece written by the then-governor of California (a former Hollywood B-List actor by the name of Ronald Reagan), I saw what it was intended I should see. Covering nearly the entire page was a story I had written. To say I was stunned would be to understate the case.

The story had been written some months earlier as an assignment for my  English class. Not having started it until the evening after it had been due, I already had resigned myself to losing points for turning it in late. I sat at the dinning room table that evening writing as if possessed, and what was supposed to be a four-page paper ended as eighteen. Months later, there it was in the newspaper. Now, here’s the thing about that: no one had asked my permission or had ever said a word to me about having it appear anywhere outside of English class. Had anyone done so, maybe it would have been made clear that not one word of the story was true. Oh, the things I wrote about what was happening in the city at the time were quite true, but the “people” I “interviewed” on the mean streets of this city and the things they said were figments of my imagination. I had not ventured out onto any streets.

The editor’s note accompanying the story came with no disclaimer, so readers had no reason to disbelieve it, and they did believe. My first inkling of this was when an older cousin – worried that I might be sued if I hadn’t gotten people to sign disclaimers – asked “It’s not real, is it?” The question came as a surprise, as it never had once occurred to me that anyone would believe the story was anything other than fiction. That people thought it was true was beyond doubt when later that summer the daughter of a Post editor said to me in all sincerity “You must have been so brave!” (Yes. My befuddled silence was a lie of omission, but what teenage boy has the presence of mind to confess when confronted with compliments from a beautiful girl?)

You’ve read me long enough to know that present-day events are what lead me to things past. Some may find it naive or just downright stupid, but most of us still have the expectation that what we read in a reputable newspaper or magazine and what we see and hear on network news is true. We tend to feel this way despite the stories of former journalists like Janet Cooke at The Washington Post, Stephen Glass at The New Republic, Jayson Blair at The New York Times or the next to-be-named fabricator. What we read and hear, however, depends on what reporters are told by their sources, and a less than tenacious reporter might place undeserving trust in an untrustworthy source.

In recent days, that very situation has been vividly displayed. What people in Chicago had believed was true about the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald more than a year ago has been proven to be demonstrably false. What police told journalists was taken by most of them at face value, and those reporters passed it on to readers, viewers and listeners. Were it not for the Doubting Thomases among those journalists, or simply those who believe in double checking everything, Chicagoans and the rest of us would be none the wiser. What remains to be seen is will any wisdom be retained. Will reporters continue to give police the benefit of the doubt, or will they and their readers begin to dig deeper?

Here in Washington in 2007, we were subjected to a similar scenario. Two off-duty police officers, in the private vehicle of one, drove through a local neighborhood looking for one officer’s stolen minibike. They claimed they spotted it being driven, gave chase and were shot at by the driver. According to them, one officer returned fire. The result was a 14-year-old boy, DeOnte Rawlings, being shot dead in the back of the head. Both officers left the scene, one going home and the other to his mother’s house. No gun was ever found, and the minibike was found a few days later in Maryland. Among the differences between here and the Chicago shooting is the fact that the officer here was black and had grown up in the same neighborhood and gone to the same high school as the boy he killed. Also, the city settled financially with the family after the investigation was completed, a seven month probe by the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI which found the shooting was justified.

That finding, reported in the local newspapers, was the same as saying the dead boy was guilty. The grand jury testimony in the case was sealed, so reporters wrote what they were told. Working with juvenile offenders at the time and having sat through some of their trials, it was evident to me that – had DeOnte been tried in Court – there was not a judge on the juvenile bench who would have reached a finding of guilt. To the Post‘s credit, it ran my letter to its editor stating as much, offering its readers a perspective missing from its reporting.

The proverb referenced in the title has been kept alive for us through the ages in the writings of Benjamin Franklin and Edgar Allan Poe, and in that famous song by Motown writers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It should continue to serve as a reminder, that and what the Gershwin brothers said when they wrote “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

“…earth’s sweet flowing breast;”

I need your help. No, I am not stranded in some far-off place where I have lost my wallet and cell phone. It is much more serious than that. If you believe there is something special about us as a species, something that sets ours above all others, I need you to help me see what it is.

A dogwood tree sets me on this quest. A still and silent beauty, it stands just outside the kitchen window, now — all of a sudden, it seems — a deep, dark yet vivid red where green had just been. How are we the masters of this? We and it share the same seven characteristeristics common to most life. We share some DNA. It and I sometimes even share the task of feeding Ogden, a squirrel who is content to munch on what the tree provides when I am not at the ready with the raw almonds he prefers. What I don’t have in common with the tree (or any other living thing) is this: I never will stop people in their tracks and cause them to have to catch their breath because of any beauty beheld.

And, oh, what it will do next. In a few months, it will stand starkly bare but still beautiful in the gray, winter’s light, and will cause me to worry that a particular limb might succumb with the arrival of a wet, heavy snow. Soon enough, once again, I will look up and be startled by the appearance of pale green of buds, I will stare as if spellbound at a profusion of pink blossoms.

So, without having concluded there is an answer, without having established a belief in the validity of the question, I ask “What sets us apart?” Is it our ability to conceptualize, to conceive of such an idea as beauty and to recognize it in the world? I often have wondered if this might be it, but I am not prepared to deny a dolphin’s ability to think. As for an appreciation of beauty, how am I to look at the nests of bowerbirds and believe only base instinct causes them to create such works of art?

Some spiritual traditions take for granted there is no difference between you and an amoeba. Others, such as the Judeo-Christian tradition, places us way above single-celled life, just below God but in His image — as distinct from the rest of Creation. I was reminded of this today in a column discussing a book by historian Timothy Snyder, who writes that Adolf Hitler considered the idea that humans “were above other animals, and had the capacity to decide their future for themselves” to be a poisonous one propogated by Jews. It was at odds with his belief that “the law of the jungle was the only law.” One need not agree with the Führer‘s hateful rhetoric, or believe in a kill-or-be-killed state of existence, to question the belief in human superiority. Hitler believed one’s race was paramount, not one’s humanity.

Some of you have deeply-held beliefs on the subject. Others have interesting and provocative theories. Help a brother out; share your thoughts on what makes us greater than — or the same as — the rest of Creation. My interest is genuine. In the meantime, I will look out of the kitchen window at the red-for-now beauty, remember poet Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s much maligned and parodied work, and think “What the poet wrote a hundred years ago is true. I will never see a poem as lovely as you.”


Once, while wandering the ancient streets of Avignon during that town’s annual arts festival, I happened upon a performance in the courtyard of a medieval building, a building that baffled me. It was called the Palais des Papes, the Pope’s Palace. “What,” I thought, “a papal palace? In France? How did that happen? What was that all about?”

The answers were my introduction to events I never had heard of prior to that July afternoon. It was then and there that I learned about the Frenchman who was elected pope but declined to move to Rome, about the six Frenchmen who succeeded him as pope, and about the last of this first group, Gregory XI, who eventually made the move. His relocation, however, was only a temporary end of popes in Avignon. Following his death, a Neapolitan was elected, a man whose suspicious nature and violent outbursts of temper so alienated the cardinals that they elected a rival pope, leading to what became known as the Western Schism and to a line of popes later deemed antipopes. Historians note that all this drama six hundred years ago was based on political rather than on any theological differences.

Not being Roman Catholic, I’ve never been invested in the belief of papal infallibility. Had I been, history certainly would have disabused me of such a notion – including the recent history of a pope’s visit to Washington. What fault could I possibly find in such an eminence as Francis I? One stands out – his continuation of a status quo that diminishes women. I understand theologians can find Biblical objections to the rights of women, but where are any moral objections to be found? I don’t expect a pope to change Church doctrine, but a pope who believes in the Big Bang and evolution, who talks about not judging gays, who says women who’ve had abortions and people who’ve had divorces should be forgiven, and who says annulments should be expedited is surely a pope capable of publicly contemplating the Church’s age-old discrimination against women. Was it not possible for him to openly discuss the equality of women without explicitly calling for an end to the ban on women serving as priests? Surely just talking about such things would not result in rebellion or, worst, a poisoned chalice. Yet, he did not, does not, do so. How much of the world’s progress is retarded when one of the most admired and influential figures on the planet chooses to ignore and dismiss a matter of such magnitude? Does talking about the life’s work of Dorothy Day or telling a gathering of nuns he loves them compensate for this lack?

Religions, including Christianity, are not the source of gender discrimination; cultures are. Religions, however, often are conduits of culture-based discrimination, making it possible that a 239-year-old country such as ours has been allowing women to vote for only the past 95 years.

Noticeably absent (or, maybe, not widely reported) during the pope’s visit was any large-scale effort by women’s groups to address the issue of women in the priesthood. It’s not as if American Catholics don’t have an opinion on the subject; for the past several years, the number of those who favor the ordination of women has hovered around 60 per cent, yet they appear content to tolerate the present situation rather than emboldened to demand change. I imagine their faith confers a patience that eludes me, a knowledge that reminds them that religions have rules and change sometimes is slow. They know there was a time when Catholic women couldn’t participate in mass, sing in choirs or even touch the cloth on a church altar.

A friend, an agnostic who describes herself as a “recovering” Catholic, has great admiration for Francis. She – among other astute women I’ve heard talk about this pope – did not seem to have a problem with his not having waded into the thicket of gender equality. When asked why, she explained she believes his beliefs still may be evolving, and that he may yet surprise us on the subject. Perhaps, but mightn’t a bit of direct action speed the process?

A pundit, speaking on a news program recently, noted it was men who voted to give women the franchise in this country. It was pointed out that those men, most likely, had wives and daughters to prod them, relationships missing from the lives of the men who make up the College of Cardinals. It is doubtful those cardinals or their leader will welcome women into the ranks of ordained clergy anytime soon without being made to do so by the laity.

The first pope of whom I became aware was John XXIII. His has been a hard act to follow. Francis may yet rise to that stature, but he may need help. He is, after all (as he would acknowledge), a man as fallible as any other.

Darker than

     Those who know the music of the late, great Curtis Mayfield know that one of the songs on his seminal, eponymous debut album was We People Who Are Darker Than Blue (released forty-five years ago this month). Given how black people sometimes treat each other based on skin tone, and given Mayfield’s own complexion, I always thought that song carried an extra dose of pathos. He, however, made it clear he meant to include more than those as dark as he. I’m talking ’bout brown and yellow, too, he sang. Those words are being borne out in places and in ways he never had in mind.

     On the continent where 18th century German scholars created the concept of whiteness with their invention of racial science, people are once again being dismissed for falling short of an arbitrary standard. In Hungary – a country once occupied by the German Nazis, followed by the Soviet communists and now under the leadership of right-wing nationalists – people are being singled out based on skin color. Inundated by tens of thousands of desperate men, women and children fleeing fighting in Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Libya, the Hungarians have blocked the refugees’ progress toward Northern and Western Europe with razor-wire fences, police lines and discerning eyes. The latter involves police at the Budapest train station allowing white and lighter-skinned people to pass through but stopping and demanding papers from virtually all darker-skinned people. (The Washington Post). The question this raises is what matters most, status or color? The Syrian refugee I saw interviewed in a CBS news segment, describing his lack of food and sleep, was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. What reason would Hungarian police have to stop him based on the criteria already set?

     This tactic echoes one being employed closer to home. In the Dominican Republic, where black people have managed to convince themselves they aren’t black, the government has passed anti-immigrant laws aimed not only at Haitians, but even Dominicans of Haitian descent. Demanding that such people provide papers proving their right to remain in the country, the government decided that one way to deal with those who could not obtain the necessary documentation was to expel the ones who were deemed dark-skinned or African in appearance.

     It is ironic that a proximity to whiteness has attained such importance. In her book The History of White People, renowned Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter writes that the ancient Greeks noted their northern neighbors (whom they considered to be barbarians) had lighter skin than the Greeks thought normal. That was then. The new norm means people reaching Greece today from the Middle East and North Africa face additional hardships based solely on not being white enough.

     Perhaps some of those refugees from places like Iraq, when reflecting upon the life they left behind, might gain an appreciation for the difficulties of some of their former compatriots still at home. I have in mind the more than half-a-million, marginalized black Iraqis who trace their ancestry to slaves who arrived beginning in the 6th century and continuing until the 20th. One such Iraqi was a man named Jalal Dhiyab Thijeel, described in a New York Times article as tall, funny and handsome. Taking inspiration from the opening of Iraqi society after the 2003 American invasion and, later, by the election of Barack Obama, Jalal began to push for anti-discrimination laws in Iraq. His efforts resulted in his assassination in 2013.

     Today, people who are much lighter than blue nevertheless sit in makeshift camps in Hungary. A line from a song unknown to them would offer some insight, if they could only hear it. If your mind could really see, you’d know you’re colored the same as me.

What a Coincidence

By its very nature, this city must double as a hometown and a tourist town. Over the years, it has attracted many types of visitors. Occasionally, this has included some of what might be called visitors of the close-encounter kind. Although the ideal times to see the sites of this city are Spring and Autumn, these particular tourists seem to favor visiting during the sweltering heat of the month that just passed.

I had been on this planet just six months when others reportedly came here in a manner quite unlike you and I. They, apparently, arrived in vehicles of much greater speed and maneuverability than the F-94 jets sent to identify them. This was after they suddenly appeared on the radar screens at Washington National Airport and at Andrews and Bolling Air Force bases as unidentified flying objects. It was after the pilot of a nearby commercial flight reported watching six bright lights streaking across the sky, “like falling stars without tails.” A headline on the front page of The Washington Post read: “ ‘Saucer’ Outran Jet, Pilot Says; Air Force Puts Lid on Inquiry.”

This was July 26, 1952. Given Washington’s weather, our “visitors” may have been nothing more than that – weather. That is the official Air Force explanation. Those blips on the radar screens, those speedy lights in the sky, they were the results of temperature inversions.

A temperature inversion is when a layer of cold air is trapped under a layer of warm air – commonly occurring in extremely hot weather – causing radar beams to bounce down and make objects on the ground appear to be thousands of feet in the air. This same strange “weather” had happened just the week before, with experienced pilots chasing what they described as lights that were speeding, hovering, changing directions, vanishing at the approach of fighter-jets, and reappearing when the jets left. All of this happened while experienced air traffic controllers watched it play out on their radar scopes. We are to pay no attention to their reports, only to what their superiors say.

That line of reasoning is a persistent one. How else to view its resurrection fifty years later – to the day? Yes, on July 26, 2002 area radar detected an unidentified aircraft with which controllers were unable to establish contact. As reported by Steve Vogel in The Washington Post the next day “…NORAD was notified. When the F-16s carrying air-to-air missiles were launched from Andrews, the unidentified aircraft’s track faded from the radar.” This was reported by a military official speaking on condition of anonymity. The official line of the DC Air National Guard says the launch of the F-16s was “routine”. An area resident who told Vogel he went out to see why military jets were flying low over his home in the middle of the night was convinced what he saw was not routine. “It was this object, this light-blue object traveling at a phenomenal rate of speed,” he said. “This Air Force jet was behind it, chasing it, but the object was just leaving him in the dust.” I recounted all of this in a conversation with a friend a few evenings ago. Much to my surprise, I learned his wife thought it was not routine when she observed the object from their kitchen window.

John Kelly, writing in the Post in July, 2012 about the 1952 incident, sides with those who say it was just the weather, concluding “that asking whether there were any alien spacecraft over Washington in 1952 is like asking whether there were any witches in Salem, Mass., in 1692.” I admit his logic escapes me. Maybe it’s because of my tinfoil hat.