Sunday, June 19, 2016

Bentonville, Arkansas, Crystal Bridges Museum, and the Impact of Walmart


On a recent weekend, we took the 3.5 hour drive down to Bentonville, AR, in the very northwest corner of that state, with the main goal of seeing the highly-regarded Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. That it is in Bentonville, the home of WalMart, where Sam Walton’s original “Walton’s 5 and 10” sits on the town square, now a museum itself, is not a coincidence of course. WalMart and the Walton family paid for the construction of the museum and endowed it to purchase its stellar collection. The gorgeous building, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, opened in November 2011. It is worth going to the website to see much better photos of the building than I could take, with its lagoons in the woodland setting. In addition to the art, the grounds contain the recently relocated (from NJ) and rebuilt Bachman-Wilson house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a prime example of Wright’s Usonian houses – smaller, cheaper, more affordable to the US everyman.
 
The museum’s collection may not be MOMA or that of the Art Institute of Chicago or the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but it is pretty impressive. Beginning in the 18th century, it has iconic and chronologically organized[i] representations of pieces by most major American artists. The building i s stunning, as is the setting. The museum is free, but of course we had to stay somewhere, and chose the (definitely not cheap) 21c Hotel and Museum (lots of art there too), located one block off the town square and a less-than-half-mile walk, along a beautiful woodland path which itself is dotted with sculptures, and is part of the Crystal Bridges trail system, a hiking and biking network that goes both a little north and south for over 30 miles to Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas. We were only on the part between town and the museum, but walked it a number of times, both to get to the museum and also just because it is a beautiful walk.

But as stellar as the museum was, the town itself (at least downtown, on a summer weekend) was absolutely cool also. When we arrived on Friday evening, the town square was busy with bluegrass groups and lots of people (and workmen laying sod). Saturday morning was a market, both farmers market and crafts fair, busy and active and very hip. The square is surrounded by restaurants, virtually all independent and (very proudly) locally-sourced, with boards identifying the origin of their foods. The Hive, the restaurant in the 21c hotel, is nationally very highly rated, with dishes that have been repeated finalists for the southern region James Beard Award. We ate two dinners, two lunches, and two breakfasts, all at different places, and didn’t come close to exhausting the options. Sunday breakfast, before we hit the road and ran into an enormous summer storm just north of town (that’s another story) was from one of the many food trucks located in the downtown; this one, Crepes Paulette we had previously avoided because of the huge lines, but were told by one of the staff as she closed up the night before that they had just started opening at 9am – it had previously been 11, so a lot of people didn’t know yet, and if we were there then we would have a shorter wait. We did and the crepes were great! The whole feel of the town (again, at least downtown and on a summer weekend) was of a very cool college town minus the heavy dose of post-adolescents.  The town is pretty ethnically diverse with a large number of Latinos from Mexico and Central America and South Asians.

So how does Bentonville do this? Well, it is in a beautiful part of the Ozarks of NW Arkansas, with (as mentioned) the University just 32 miles south in Fayetteville, and the arty town of Eureka Springs in the mountains an hour to the East. But, of course, it is also the home of WalMart, the world’s largest retailer and a huge employer. Not only did this result in the Crystal Bridges Museum, but it, along with two other major employers, Tyson Chicken (accounting for the Latino workers) and JB Hunt trucking, has led to a real tax base, allowing this small town to provide public works. One example is the beautiful Lawrence children's sprinkler park just north of the hotel, through which (to the accompaniment of a din of joyful screams) we walked to the trailhead to Crystal Bridges; we are told it is flooded to make an ice rink in the winter. Real estate seems to have really taken off just in the last 3-4 years, possibly in part due to the museum; we saw a lovely frame house on the main street, and Zillow said it was about 2500 sf and $525,000 – and that it last sold in 2012 for $150,000! That would be a lot of home improvement, and clearly mostly due to a bump in the market, especially downtown.

But there is, of course, a price to pay for the vibrancy and beauty of the town, for the restaurants, and farmer’s markets, and sprinkler park, and it is more than the rise in housing prices. It is a price paid by other small towns across the Midwest and South and across the country, whose downtowns are not vibrant but are ghost towns, whose town squares are surrounded by consignment stores selling second-hand goods (maybe an occasional actual “antique”) to each other and to those visitors who come through. In these towns, often the only restaurants are fast-food franchises, not locally sourced upscale eateries, and the only place to shop is – the Walmart, usually located outside of town, never downtown. We have been to many, many towns, in Kansas and Missouri and Oklahoma and Texas and other states in this situation. A few, with extra resources such as a college (e.g., Winfield, KS) have some activity downtown, or have been the focus of rebuilding after destruction (e.g., Greensburg, KS after the tornado leveled it) with walkable streets, stores and a high school that you don’t need a car to drive to. But these are the exceptions; driving to Bentonville we passed many troubled Missouri towns. Most of our small towns are not far from drying up and blowing away, and if they survive, there will be no “there” there, just the Walmart on the edge of town.

Bentonville is a very cool place, a great destination, both for the amazing museum and its other infrastructure. It would probably be a great place to live. But it is not happening in most places. There have always been more and less prosperous towns, but in the case of Bentonville compared to other regional town, the role of Walmart as the benefactor of one and cause of killing the economy of others, is particularly stark.
















[i] Unlike some smaller-city museums where the art seems to be organized by donor, and is jarring and disjointed in trying to understand a period.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Caucusing for Bernie in Kansas

On Saturday March 5 I went to a nearby high school in Kansas City, KS, where I live, to the Democratic Caucus so I could caucus for Bernie Sanders. I had never been to a caucus before; in 2008, intending to caucus for Barack Obama, I came late and couldn’t get near the school. This year one had to register between 1 and 3, and we got there early; the lines were long and there were still people in line at 3 (they got in; we waited). I’m not quite sure why the process takes so long; part of it is needing to ensure voters are registered Democrats (or, also time-consuming, register them on-site); some may be poor organization.


Wyandotte County, where KC, KS is, is one of the few Democratic counties in Kansas, and I was not too surprised at the large turnout, which in fact set a record for this particular caucus with over 1,0000 people, beating 2008. The fact that there were more Sanders than Clinton supporters was obvious early; as we searched for seats, we found ourselves in the Clinton section because, well, that’s where the chairs were – we, of course, moved. They tried putting us in groups of 10, lining us up in chairs, but as the crowds swelled they eventually had to move us up to the gym, with the two groups facing each other like fans of opposing basketball teams. There were a lot more Bernie supporters.
It took a long time, but finally the count was in and Bernie won 782-231. Then we could elect 12 representatives to join the other caucus reps in our KS Third Congressional District (143 in all) on April 2. Bernie won the state by 2:1 and will get 23 of Kansas’ 33 delegates. He also won Democratic caucuses in nearby Nebraska, as well as Oklahoma and Colorado. So he is popular among Democrats here in this deep red state.

But I get the sense that he is maybe not so popular among the Democratic establishment. As I said, this is a Democratic county, and several elected state representatives and a state senator were there; all but the senator, who ran the show, were caucusing for Clinton. Each side got one speaker, and the Clinton speaker indicated that she had been a Democrat for 45 years, and that now was Hillary’s “time”. There was a sense that these “new” people who were here, caucusing for Sanders, were perhaps interlopers, not true Democrats, not paid their dues.

And probably that is true. The cool thing about the caucus is that, even though it takes hours, compared to very little time to vote in a primary, you get to actually see all the people and interact with a lot of them. My group of 10 had a couple of retired people, 5 or 6 young people, some working and some students, and a couple of middle-aged people. Virtually all the young people were on the Sanders side. While there was a much higher proportion of African-Americans on Clinton’s side, there were many on Sanders’; they were a smaller percent, but maybe as many. There were also older people, retired people, working people, and a lot of people who had not been previously invested in the political process. So, maybe they had not paid their dues, maybe they had not earned their “chops” with the Democratic party. So what? They were Americans, and they were here now, and they were newly invested in caring who was the next president. That is 100% good. It could help the Democrats win. Even if the person they elect is not the one chosen by those who have been long-term Democrats.

There is a good chance that Clinton will win the nomination, and I will vote for her against whichever of the right wingers, mostly proto-fascists, wins the Republican nomination. I think lots of people will. But I fear that a lot of the folks who turned out for Bernie will not bother to vote. Is it a victory for the Democratic establishment if they get “their” candidate nominated but lose the general election? It is, as President Obama demonstrated twice in winning the presidency (and yes, Republicans trying to block him appointing someone to the Supreme Court, the American people HAVE spoken!) about bringing new people into the political process. This is the goal, both for the Democrats and for democracy.

The politicians from the legislature talked about how hard it is being a Democrat in that body, and how terribly reactionary the atmosphere in Topeka has become. They want us to elect more Democrats to the legislature. They also talked about how important it would be to not only elect a Democratic president, but to replace many of the Republicans in the House and Senate. And, yet, what are they doing in Kansas? In 2010, the blue-dog Democratic congressman from the 3rd district retired, and a 34-year old Republican legislator was elected to the seat. In 2012, when he was completing his first term, the Democrats ran NO ONE against him! This year, there is someone, a legislator told me at the caucus, actually two people, one someone no one has ever heard of and the other someone whose name he couldn’t even remember. Is this the way the Kansas Democratic Party will take back what should be a winnable seat? Why are none of these relatively well-known legislative leaders running? Gave up already?

Of course, Kansas is a red state, and will go Republican in November. Our reprehensible Electoral College system means all of its votes will go to the Republican, whatever happens in the popular vote. This means that even if there is a huge increase in the percent of Kansans voting Democratic in November compared to 2012 (and there will be, because of the immense unpopularity of Governor Brownback and his minions, whose policies have bankrupted the state), it will have no greater impact than it did in 2012.

Indeed, most of the states where there have been caucuses or primaries have been solid red; Clinton’s big victory in South Carolina will avail the Democrats nothing in November. Only a few blue states (MN, MA, VT) and swing states (VA, CO, NH, NV) have voted so far. In this sense, it is irrelevant whether Clinton or Sanders win the red states, except to the extent that who is the eventual nominee may impact how many new, young, voters turn out in the general election in OH, PA, VA, FL, NC, CO and possibly NH and NV where the election will be decided.

It is pretty clear that there will be many more if Bernie is the candidate, and none of them will be dissuaded by Republicans calling him a Jewish Socialist. On the other hand, Clinton may bring out a larger African-American turnout in these swing states. But this has to be the question now: how can we vitalize both the Democratic Party and democracy?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Snow, the dogs and memories

Well, it’s the first snow of the season, at least for me and the dogs. Kansas City had some snow over the holidays when were out of town (Pat is again out of town, missing this); we saw the remains of it on the north sides of buildings and walls. But this is fresh snow to wake up to; not too much, only an inch or two, but enough to carpet all the streets and sidewalks and bushes and grass, and to make it necessary to put on boots for our walk (for me, not the dogs). Also warm clothes, because it is also about 8 degrees, which we consider chilly in these parts. Temperatures have been up and down, a combination of climate change and the fact that KC sits smack in the middle of several weather systems; last weekend it was even colder (4 with a wind chill of -13 on Sunday) but it was dry; by Thursday we had a sunny 62! Last night we were outside on a clear 30 degree night, and I told Becky on the phone how that was quite pleasant – didn’t really even need gloves. Not this morning, though.

The snow was pretty virginal, and so Fry, Maggie and I were the first ones to walk in it out of our building and down the street, although a couple of folks had cleaned paths from their front yards to the curb. Almost no one shovels their sidewalks, but a couple of people with snowblowers like to get them out. The real problem walking dogs in snow is when there is a lot of it, and most people haven’t cleared their sidewalks so you walk in the street, but the plows have piled the snow up by the curbs making it difficult to get out of the way if cars come careening toward you, which happens too often. But not a problem today.

It was also Maggie’s first snow-walk with us, although at 5 years old I’m sure she has seen it; we just adopted her after Thanksgiving, to try to fill some of the hole left by Yonkel’s passing last spring. At first, and indeed second, glance she looks a lot like Fry, but in reality she is much stockier and stronger, a combination of golden Lab and Rhodesian Ridgeback, to Fry’s golden retriever and beagle. She has no ridge on her back, but is a fast powerful runner like that breed. She also pulls a lot walking, but the Halti collar helps. On the other hand, while she has been known to bolt from the car and run like a crazy dog for laps around the park, she is too bulky to get under the fences in the backyard, and is not driven by Fry’s beagle-like commitment to trying, so I can let her out to run in the yard, while keeping Fry on the retractable leash.

My friend Barry, the inveterate outdoorsman, says (probably quoting someone else) that there is no such thing as “too cold”, just “insufficient gear”. Maybe, but sufficient gear can be bulky and restrict movements a bit. Not quite like the little brother in “Christmas Story” or those depicted in cartoons who are so bundled up they cannot move, or wearing what the now-disgraced Bill Cosby called “idiot mittens”, connected by an elastic band that ran from one to another across your shoulders under your coat (so called because ostensibly if someone pulled one, the other smacked you in your face; I saw but never actually wore these!). But enough so you don’t move as easily, and frankly taking the gloves off to pick up after the dog can not only be cold, but occasionally messy.

This is, of course, why one of the woolen gloves I usually wear is sitting on a towel on the window sill drying slowly, after being washed out. I hope it dries before it freezes. Obviously, the best way to dry it is on the radiator, but
this requires having radiators, and only one house that I have lived in since being an adult had them, and it is not this one. Putting it on top of a forced-air vent would work if they were on the floor, but in this place they are all in the ceiling. From a physics point of view that makes sense for the AC (cold air descends) but less for heat. Having them on the floor can be inconvenient, as small things roll into them, I remember from the house where I had them, especially when there are small children, but there are also compensating advantages. I have very “warm” memories of finding my son Matt downstairs on cold Chicago morning, in his pajamas sitting on such a vent! (Somewhere there is a picture of this, but I can’t find it, so I’ll just use one of the two boys crawling around on the floor there.)

So there it is; we’re back in the house, it’s sunny outside, the dogs are basking in it on the couch, I have brushed the snow off the cars (nice part about very cold; easy to brush off),  I’ll eat breakfast, and maybe soon we’ll have a fire.


Ah. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Scandinavia II: Norway and Sweden

Oslo was great; not to denigrate Copenhagen, or Stockholm, but we liked it a lot. The Cathedral (a block from our hotel) is beautiful but small enough to be taken in and appreciated, kind of a shorthand for the whole city. There was an impressive exhibit of quilt patches about “the enemy” inspired by the mass murder in 2011, where a right-wing gunman in a police uniform killed 69 people (and injured 110) in a youth camp on an island. The theme of the quilts was that we lose our ability to effectively address hate when we objectify the “enemy” as other, something we could never be, something non-human; rather the enemy, or potential enemy, is in all of us as humans and we need to realize that and address hate.  

We walked a lot. The Cathedral is a few blocks from the Central Station on the pedestrian street Karl Johans Gate. At the other end is the Radhus (City Hall), where they present the Nobel Peace Prize (the very impressive Nobel Peace Center is across the square), is very beautiful. The huge room where the Prize is presented has a wall covered with murals, depicting primarily the Nazi occupation during the war, but also workers struggles for food (and being beaten). It is also decorated outside with reliefs (woodcuts, I think, but like frescos) of Norse myths (descriptive plaques conveniently in both Norwegian and English).

The Nobel Peace Center is extremely interesting, and moving. The first floor is dedicated to the 2014 co-recipients, Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education". Malala, of course, was the Pakistani girl shot in the head by extremists for the “crime” of going to school as a female, who has bravely recovered and waged a speaking campaign for children, girls, education, and peace. Kailash, less known, is a life-long campaigner against child labor and the exploitation of children, in his native India and around the world. The other floor is dedicated to past recipients of the prize, all impressive. Several have been organizations; for example, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2013 and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1985.

Probably the most impressive single site was the Vigelund Sculptures in Frogner Park. Vigelund spent over 20 years creating them, supported by the city of Oslo. The emblematic one is the “crying baby” (Vigelund reportedly got his model to act this way by giving him, then taking away, chocolate). But there are much more impressive sculptures, showing the stages of life, and love, and the world. The people of Oslo are said to revere it, and in fact the park is unfenced, unguarded, and “un-grafittied”; the only mark of human use we saw was that the baby’s hand is polished from all the people who hold it while their photos are taken! We took the train at 6:30 on a rainy evening and walked a half mile in the rain to get to them, thinking we were crazy but it was our last evening in Oslo. It was totally worth it. Incredible!

Another place we really learned a lot was the Resistance Museum, housed in the old Akerhus Fortress. While, as I have described in “Denmark and the Jews”, Denmark was at “peace” with Germany from 1940 to October 1943, Norway was invaded in 1940. When the government considered signing a peace treaty with Germany, the king, Haakon VII (younger brother of Christian X of Denmark), while recognizing the right of elected officials to do so (when he was named the first king of Norway in over 500 years in 1905 on its separation from Sweden, he agreed only to do so if the populace accepted the monarchy; it did) said he would abdicate if it did so. His moral sway was high, and Norway remained officially at war with Germany, and the king eventually made it to London where he broadcast throughout the war as the pro-Nazi Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with “traitor” took power. Of the 2,000 Jews in Norway, mostly in Oslo, many did escape to Sweden, often by the heroism of regular Norwegians; one was 12 year-old Leif Gusd, who we met 73 years later at the Jewish Museum of Oslo where he works. Out of Oslo to a small town near Sweden, taken by two farm boys across a lake in rowboats to Sweden in the dead of night as they stayed in the dark while German lights raked most of the lake, he and his mother and sister were very fortunate.

We took a train from the beautiful modern Central Station in Oslo (Sentrum with an “s” in Norwegian) to the Central Station in Stockholm (Centrum with a “C” in Swedish), and it was night and day. OK, day and night: We left Oslo at 11:20am and arrived in Stockholm at 4:30pm in rush hour, so undoubtedly this was part of the sense of moving from peacefulness to bustle (plus the station is not so new). But we learned there was more to it; Stockholm is twice the size, and generally busy and bustling, more reminiscent of New York or Chicago or London. People are dressed up, and hurrying, and staring at their cell phones, and walking into you, and there is lots of noise (frankly, in Copenhagen and even Oslo there was lots of construction; I guess you can only do it in the summer!).

Stockholm is very beautiful; the old city on the island of Gamla Stan has enough charm and alleys and churches for anyone, as well as the Royal Palace (where we watched the changing of the guard). There are several harbors (like Copenhagen), and impressive public buildings (the National Museum, Opera, hotels, etc.) and super neighborhoods to walk around, from the grandeur of 





the Strandvagen to the narrow alleys of the old city. The City Hall there, Stadhus, is also bigger than Oslo’s but there are no external murals, and we didn’t get inside. It is huge, with lots of gilt. It is the site where all the other Nobel Prizes are awarded (in Nobel’s time Sweden and Norway were, as noted above, one kingdom, but why he chose the Peace Prize to be awarded by a Norwegian committee is open to speculation), and stands, as most important buildings in Stockholm, overlooking the water. As in the other countries, public art is prominent, from the tiny child in the garden of the Finnish church to a sculpture of a wolf in a shawl (red riding hood’s?) to famous people.



We realized later, reviewing the new sequel, that most of the sites in Stieg Larson’s “Girl with the dragon tattoo” series were in Sodermalm, a part of town we didn’t get to; had we known, maybe we would have sought them out. We went to a four-different-styles-of-guitar-playing-together concert at the “German Church” in Gamla Stan, and a great market across from another church in Ostermalm. We also took a 2-hour-each-way boat trip through the Stockholm archipelago (30,000 islands! Take that, St. Lawrence River!) to the beautiful island of Sandhamn. Different from Aero, but great to walk around in the woods.



So all of the Scandinavian countries we visited were beautiful and interesting. We spent the most time in, and saw the most, of Denmark; we saw a bit more of Sweden than of Norway because of the train ride and the trip to Sandhamn. In Norway we did not see any of the magnificent fjords or glaciers (another trip!). But we had a great time, saw a lot of fascinating and beautiful things, and learned a lot of history. We would, and will, do it again. Hopefully we can be assured of the same wonderful weather (our Swedish friend said it got cold again the day after we left!), and people.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Scandinavia is different...

Scandinavia is different. Some of that difference is stuff you knew about. There are a lot of tall, blond, blue-eyed people. There is a lot of water. They have social welfare states where no one (more or less) is hungry, or homeless; where there is free public education, and free public health care, and the elderly are provided for in the appropriate setting (home, assisted living, nursing home) for their needs. The people are nice, and they are prosperous. There actually is some social cohesion. It is cold, I am told, in the winter, but we were there in August, and it was nice – warm and sunny but not hot (we were told it was cold and rainy in June and July). When we were there, of course, we learned more – some of it necessarily anecdotal, based upon the people we talked to, some of it related to the individual places we were and the things that we saw.

One thing is that there are difference among the 3 countries we visited, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They all have a lot of water and they all have a lot of tall blond people and their languages all sound (to the American ear) a lot the same and they all, as far as I can tell, speak English, which is good since I understand virtually none of what they say in their languages, except “tak” (or “takk” in Norwegian), which means thank you. Even in the few cases where I can understand a written word, I can't the spoken; on the way from Copenhagen, to Odense, the conductor asked if we were headed to "OON-seh". “No,” I said, “O-dense”. “OON-seh,” he replied. We spent the most time in Denmark, and went to the most different places. The first couple of days, in the beautiful city of Copenhagen, might have been more fun minus the jet lag, but we got to visit (on the first afternoon!) the Jewish Museum (I’ve written earlier about “Denmark and the Jews”, August 23, 2015) and took a canal boat tour around to get our bearings. Tivoli Gardens was a great disappointment; right by the train station it is not the lovely garden I envisioned, but a rather small amusement park. The next day museums were open and we saw the Glyphotekhet art museum (funded by the owner of Carlsberg) and walked the Stroget and saw the university and a few lovely churches. And walked in Christenhavn, and in the neighborhood of Christiana, with hippies and open drug dealing. There are signs indicating no photography, apparently somewhat enforced (a guy came up and asked me if I’d taken a picture of the area, which I denied; “we’re drug dealers here, man”), and also a bit ridiculous since if the police had any interest in identifying or arresting them, they could just go there, not try to find a tourist’s photographs!


We went to Odense (OON-seh!) for a conference for Pat and an incredibly gracious day of presentations for me from the researchers at the Research Unit on General Practice at University of Southern Denmark, coordinated by director Jens Sondergaard. My own private conference; I learned an incredible amount of information about both how practice exists in Denmark and about cutting-edge primary care research applicable most places. Although Hans Christian Andersen wrote most of his stories while living in Copenhagen, and there is an avenue named for him there, he was from Odense, and there are dozens of statues of him, and when we were there it was the week for his festival, with actors all over and lots of performances. Unfortunately, while I loved the Danny Kaye film, especially his singing and his renditions of “Thumbelina”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, and others, Andersen’s actual stories are grim, scary, and depressing (I remember having nightmares from “The Snow Queen”, but even “The Little Mermaid” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” are horrifying.) It is incredible to think of reading these stories to, or having them read by, children. They make the Brothers Grimm seem cheerful and upbeat. Stick with the English A.A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame, J. M. Barrie, or the Swedish Astrid Lindgren, or the Englishman-born-to-Norwegian parents, Roald Dahl. But Odense is quite lovely, and the City Museum great.

We spent much of a day in Svendborg, on the southern end of the island of Funen (located between the island of Zeeland on which Copenhagen is situated and the mainland, Jutland), where Odense is the largest city, hosted by Allan and Elisabeth Pelch, and then took the ferry to the island of Aero. Thanks to Rick Steves for recommending this; it was an incredible place to spend two nights and a day, kind of the best of Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard with a whole lot fewer people and a whole lot older houses. Incredible to bike around the island, and to spend time in the main town, Aeroskobing. Then, with trains, planes, and automobiles (OK, no planes or automobiles, but two ferries and two trains and a bus) we went from Aeroskobing through Svendborg and Odense and Copenhagen to Oslo, Norway, the last part on a 16-hour ferry. Since you have to get there somehow, and have to stay in a hotel every night, this was a great deal; super smorgasbord buffets, and wonderful views coming in through the Oslo fjord.

[more later]

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Denmark and the Jews

On a recent trip to Denmark, I visited the Jewish Museum, located in the former Royal Boat House in Copenhagen. It is small but architecturally significant, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, and presents a picture of Jewish Life in Denmark, including during World War II. In 1940, the German Nazi army invaded Denmark, and King Christian X signed a peace treaty, which left great autonomy for the Danish government, and included protection for Danish Jews from deportation to concentration camps. In August 1943, with concern about resistance in Denmark, the Nazis pushed the Danish government, which resigned; the Nazis then decided to move forward with solving the “Jewish Question”. Their plans leaked by a German official to the Danish parliament, thousands of Danes worked on transporting almost all of Denmark’s nearly 8,000 Jews across the Oresund to Sweden, a neutral country which accepted them. There is a popular story that, when the Danish Jews were told to put on yellow stars, King Christian appeared in public with one himself.  According the US Holocaust Museum, that story is fictional, and in fact Jews in Denmark were never forced to wear yellow stars. However, they also note that

“In the end, the Germans arrested and deported 476 Jews to Theresienstadt, a ghetto and concentration camp in German-occupied Bohemia (now a part of the Czech Republic), where 52 of them died. Even then, the Danish people sent parcels of food and provisions to their Jewish countrymen. The intense public focus generated by constant demands from the Danish Red Cross to visit the Danish Jews in Theresienstadt may well have prevented the Germans from deporting them to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center.”

99% of Denmark’s Jews thus survived, unmatched anywhere else in Europe. In the US Holocaust Museum, there are panels and panels of lists of people known to have saved the life of at least one Jew during the Holocaust. There are several panels of people from Italy, and from France, and many, many from the Netherlands many of whose people were heroic in the effort (including the ultimately unsuccessful effort to hide Anne Frank and her family). But as I kept looking for Denmark when I visited there, looking for a long list, I kept missing it. Then I found it. Very short. One entry only: “The Danish People”.

This still brings tears to my eyes; I can barely say it without sobbing, but here in Denmark it is more real. And I ask the question: Why? Why here? Well, there are many reasons. Sweden was one; it was a short distance away across a strait so narrow that it is now crossed by a bridge, and was willing to accept the Jews. Indeed, in answering my question, a Danish friend says “well, it was Sweden”. Undoubtedly, this is a big part of the truth. But it was not the Swedes who took thousands of Jews across the Oresund in fishing boats in the dead of night (the fishing boat has become a symbol of this effort; several Holocaust museums have acquired them, in Jersusalem and in Houston , and this one pictured in DC),  it was Danes.  Why them, so much more than the French, or Italians, or Poles, or Belgians or even the Dutch? Danish people say that it is just the way that Danes are; that the Jews were seen as Danes, as their countrymen, and that there is great social cohesion here; they point to the current social welfare state, the high taxes that ensure that the basic social needs of all Danish people are met, as evidenced of the national character. Undoubtedly, this too is part of the truth. In addition, there were not so many Jews in Denmark, so the Germans were less fixated on them, and it also seems to be the case that the fact that the Danes (and Swedes) were Nordic, blond, blue-eyed Aryans that Hitler admired made him deal less harshly with these countries.

There were Danish Nazis; we have seen their armbands in the city museum of Odense. But, still, it is a remarkable thing. And I don’t really know why; why the Nazi sympathizers were never as able to gain clout in Denmark as in other countries, including England and the US. There was no Quisling government as in Norway. I don’t know how it would have been if there had been 10 or 100 times more Jews, if they had been more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. I don’t know what the French would have done if there had been a Sweden available. But I have a hard time believing that the people of any other country would have matched what was done by the Danes.

And I am grateful, and in awe.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

ISIS, Bank of America, Freedom and Idolatry

On the same day, August 15, 2015, on the New York Times Op-Ed page, Roger Cohen writes about the reasons that young Muslims from Western European countries might leave to join the Islamic State in Syria (“Why ISIS trumps freedom”), and Joe Nocera writes about how the “Bank of America stiffs shareholders”. What could be farther apart? A discussion about how disaffected, marginalized young people in the West find meaning for their lives in a structured, rigid, ideologically/religiously driven movement, and a discussion about how the board of directors of a huge bank (“too big to fail”) reverses a shareholder-led post-recession decision to separate the roles of the CEO and Board Chair? Well, there are similarities.

Cohen talks about “freedom from freedom”, from making hard choices, from taking responsibility for one’s own decisions. “Zealotry of any kind,” he writes, “subsumes the difficulty of individual choices into the exalted collective submission of dedication to a cause. Your mission is set. It is presented as a great one with great rewards. Goodbye, tough calls. Goodbye, loneliness.” You no longer have to decide what to do with your life. You no longer have to decide anything. You are told what to do and you do it uncompromisingly and uncomplainingly. Even though that includes sanctioned (nay, required!) murder (we’re not talking war here; we’re talking torture and beheading) and rape (see “ISIS enshrines a theology of rape” in the Times, August 13, 2015). Cohen discusses how this is built on not just a rejection of modern ideas like freedom – marry who we want, have sex with whom we want, pursue careers we want, believe what we want – but an overt hostility to them, a yearning for what people imagine things were like in the past (minus no Internet). He also notes that this rejection of modernism does not include rejection of the Internet, which ISIS uses freely and effectively. I add that it also effectively uses the ages-old technique of encouraging young soldiers to rape “the other” – turned into a religious duty! – thereby creating an outlet for young people (men) who have been forbidden to have sex or marry. Rape, slavery, and dehumanization of the other are timeless techniques used to create loyalty and commitment. Oh, yes, and they are horrific.

In his piece, Cohen refers to a book whose French hero, disaffected from modernism, converts to Islam and submits to the higher power (but does not, as far as we know, rape and murder). He also discusses, in less detail, how this has been a drumbeat by far-right (is the implication that ISIS murderers and rapists are of the left??) nativist and religious movements in Europe – rejection of “non-moral” modernism and freedom. It is, clearly, also seen in those movements in the US, and in the cults of submission to the guru/leader that are common, and occasionally burst into mass murders such as those led by Charles Manson in LA or mass suicide such as that led by Jim Jones in Jamestown. Cohen is usually an apologist for the Israeli government, and his criticisms of ISIS can certainly be seen in that light, but he is making very good points here.

OK, so there are similarities between ISIS and nativist movements and right-wing religious forces and cults. But what about the Bank of America? How does that relate to this? Nocera’s article discusses how, after 2009, a shareholder-led movement forced the (unwilling) BOA Board of Directors to separate the roles of CEO and Board Chair, based upon the principle that the Board has governance responsibilities, and is supposed to be the guardian watchdog over the actions of the management; this is impossible if the Board Chair and the chief manager are the same person. But, with less publicity, the BOA Board has recently amended its bylaws to allow current CEO Brian Moynihan to be Board Chair. “What the bank’s board did last October,” Nocera writes, “is not the biggest scandal ever; I know that. Instead, it’s the kind of small, corrosive scandal that too often marks the behavior of the modern company board.”

More to the point, he notes the criticism of a bank analyst who is the “most vocal critic of the board’s move” who was ”especially scornful of a Securities and Exchange Commission filing the bank made late last month in support of the board’s move. It touted Moynihan’s ‘unparalleled depth of understanding,’ and as proof, pointed to the $11.7 billion Bank of America earned ‘in the three quarters ending June 30, 2015.’ (There was no mention of the $4 billion accounting error.) ‘The gushing is like a teen magazine.’”

This is how we treat our heroes, our gurus; it is not irrational but it is dangerous. Idolizing a pop star is silly, but idolizing a CEO is virtually always wrong. It exempts them from criticism and leads to dictatorial power and guarantees disaster because no one person surrounded by “yes men” is going to always be right, or make the right decision. Why should it be surprising that there are similarities here to extreme religious movements, since making money is the true religion in our country, at least among its leaders. Right-wing politicians use issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and racism to appeal to the masses of voters in a way as cynical as ISIS, but their actual policies benefit banks and financiers and the management of huge corporations. We would, I suppose, like to think that the managers of these corporations are rational, market driven, and not corrupted by greed, but the evidence, from the market collapse of 2009 to bailout of too-big-to-fail shows this is not so. Paul Krugman writes in the Times of the arrogance and failure to manipulate the markets of the leaders of China (“Bungling Beijing’s stock markets”, August 14, 2015), but we see the same failings in Western corporate titans like Moynihan. We pay them incredible sums because “they” earned $11.7 billion in earnings (which may be in part from their management but certainly has other causes, not least the taxpayer bailout) while ignoring the $4 billion loss (hey, not their fault!).

Cohen’s article on ISIS and anti-freedom includes in its link to nativism a comparison to Russian premier Vladimir Putin, “another foe of the West,” who “attacks its culture from a similar standpoint: as irreligious, decadent and relativist, and intent on globalizing these ‘subversive’ values, often under the cover of democracy promotion, freedom and human rights.” Cohen is correct in noting that Putin, like ISIS, attacks “the West”, but as Nocera’s piece makes clear, the West is not free of these issues. The real problems are not those of too much freedom; they are the problems of too much corporate power and racism.


The cult of personality leading to blind obedience is always wrong, whether Hitler or Stalin or Putin or Mao or Moynihan or Charlie Manson or Jim Jones. But even when there is not a single dominating personality, as in ISIS or China’s leadership, blind obedience is still wrong. Freedom may be hard, and racism and prejudice and an economy that makes billionaires of a few and unemployed and hopeless of many in the West may make it seem harder, but it is also our hope, and is at the center of what we must pursue.