Category Archives: Opinion & Editorials

Thoughts on Memorial Day 2021

Every Memorial Day we pause to remember those who served and those who died in the wars that involved our country.  Not all wars are included.  For example, we make no mention of the so-called Indian Wars that did not end until 1924.  Perhaps the latter are omitted because even the most nationalistic American tends to look back at them with shame.   

We are right to remember those who served, whether as volunteers or draftees.  Most, even those who could not understand why they were fighting, did so as a matter of duty to one’s country, and for many, it was more then that.  They believed, or were able to convince themselves, that they were fighting to defend their country and the noble ideals for which it stood, even if they were among those groups of citizens who were denied the ideals for which they fought.  Despite 200 plus years of history “We the people” remains a promise, a goal, a work in progress towards which we continue to strive. 

We see evidence of the cost the veterans paid in the many monuments that are often neglected except on Memorial Day or July 4, and we see it in the physical scars that some veterans bear for the remainder of their lives.  Often overlooked are the psychological scars that haunt many veterans with memories of war that cannot be exorcised by pills, liquor, or counseling.  The pain suffered often extends to those loved ones who live with the physical and psychologically wounded, or with memories of loved ones who lost their lives in past and present wars. 

During the fall of 1993 I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.  It was very late during the night, and yet there were still people visiting the memorial.  Some were very emotional.  Perhaps they were looking for the name of a son, husband, or father who died while serving his country.  The average age of those who served in the Vietnam War was 22.  The youngest to die in combat was only 15.  His name was Dan Bullock.

Dan Bullock was an African American who dreamed of one day becoming a pilot, police officer, or U.S. Marine.  At age 14, he altered the date on his birth certificate to say he was born on December 21, 1949 rather than 1953, and joined the Marine Corps on September 18, 1968.  He arrived in Vietnam on May 18,1969 and was killed in action just 20 days later on June 7. 

It took a lot of courage for a young man–dare I say boy—of only 14 to volunteer for military service during wartime.  He had to have been physically strong for his age and a strong spirited individual to have survived Marine boot camp.  I cannot help but wonder what he might he have become had he not joined, or having joined, survived the war?

Memorial Day should be a day of mourning not a day of celebration.  Cancel the parades, picnics, sporting events, and trips to the beach or the mountains.  Cancel all the Memorial Day sales and close all the stores and even the restaurants.  There is nothing to celebrate.  We celebrate positive events—births, weddings, graduations, promotions, anniversaries, etc. etc.  War is insane!  War represents the worst in human nature.  Although it has been with us since the beginning of human history, and will no doubt be with us to the end of history, any rational human being would agree that war has no victors.

A friend of mine posted on social media the official statistics on how many Americans died in our nation’s past wars.  As one might expect, World War II had the highest number of deaths, 291,557.  More then 7,000 have died in combat since 2001.  But as I mentioned above, the number of deaths is only a small part of the cost a people pay for participating in wars. 

Instead of listening to the national anthem and watching heroic war movies, listen instead to antiwar songs and read the memoirs and poetry of those who know the true meaning of war.  I have been told, and I believe it true, that those who abhor war most are those who have experienced it. 

I did not serve in the military during the Vietnam War.  I tried very hard not to be a participant.  As a historian by profession, I have studied the history of wars throughout the millennia of human history.  What have I learned?  I am not sure I can answer that question.  I remain puzzled.  I read once that Leon Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in attempt to understand why so many men would march halfway around the world to kill a bunch of people they did not know or have any reason to fight.  Did he find an answer?  I do not know.  Tolstoy was a pacifist, but pacifism is not a rational answer, unless of course, everyone was to become pacifists.   And how likely do you think that will occur, given the historical record of human folly?

So, I sit here on this Memorial Day with no desire to join the celebrations or go out shopping in order to show my patriotic support for the American economy.  In the past two years I lost a very good friend and a brother-in-law, both of whom I would like to have known much better.  Both of them served as officers in the Vietnam War.  One was a Marine captain; the other a captain in the Army.  Both lived the remainder of their lives with the after effects of the war.  The one was wounded 5 times and carried pieces of shrapnel around in his body.  The other could never forget those under his command who died, nor come to terms with the feeling that the United States abandoned the Montagnards whom they recruited to fight the Viet Cong. 

One thing I do conclude, sitting here thinking about this Memorial Day, is that the line from the Roman poet Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” * often quoted to glorify war, is a lie, a very BIG LIE.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and live under the mercy.

*”It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.”

Must We Bear a Burden of Guilt for the Sins of Our Fathers?

Suppose for a moment that your mother dropped you off at an orphanage when you were just an infant.  Although she could not, or would not, care for you, she did remain a part of your life.  She would occasionally pick you up and take you to visit your grandmother.  Those were good times, for you adored your grandmother.  She was always happy to see you, and you were able to experience from her some of the love you were missing in your relationship with your mother. 

Suppose further that when you were seven years old, your mother agreed to allow your then foster parents to adopt you, after which the visits with your mother and grandmother ceased.  Your new home was a loving one.  You gained a mother and a father and two brothers who welcomed you as a full member of the family.  You call your adopted parents “Mama” and “Papa,” and your brothers speak of you as their “sister,” never as their “adopted sister.”  The manner in which you are welcomed into your new family is all the more remarkable since you are a mixed-race child in a German family.  Your mother was German; your father was Nigerian. 

Your parents are not wealthy, but neither are they poor. You are able to attend good schools and travel abroad.  As an adult, you are able to live for a time in Paris and Israel.  You earn a degree in Middle Eastern and African studies from Tel Aviv University.  Eventually you marry a German and have two children.  Then, one day while visiting the central library in Hamburg, you happen “by chance” to pick a book off a shelf that smashes into your world like a bolt of lightning, forcing you to confront the question, “Who am I?”  The book is the story of your mother, Monika Göth, daughter of Amon Göth and his mistress, Ruth Irene Kalder.  Suddenly, you must face the fact that you are the grandchild of one of the most notorious mass murderers of the Holocaust. 

The above is in brief the story of Jennifer Teege as she relates it in her autobiography, My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past (New York: The Experiment, 2015).  Jennifer Teege was 38 years old in 2002, when she happened upon the book, I Have to Love My Father, Don’t I? by her biological mother, Monica Göth.  It is Monica’s account of her life’s struggle with the knowledge that she was the daughter of Amon Göth, the commandant of Płaszów concentration camp near Kraków, Poland, who was convicted of war crimes in 1946 and executed by hanging.

Amon Göth was not just a SS officer carrying out orders given to him as the commandant of a concentration camp.  He enjoyed inflicting fear, pain, and death on those who were his victims.  He would stand on the balcony of his villa overlooking the camp and randomly shot prisoners with a rifle.  He had two dogs, Rolf, a Great Dane, and Ralf, an Alsatian mix, that he trained to attack and tear apart prisoners on his command.  He would ride about the camp on his white horse and, if he saw a prisoner working too slow or pausing to rest, he simply shot him or her, adult or child.  “When you saw Göth, you saw death,” a survivor of Płaszów later recalled.   Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig, a survivor who suffered daily abuse as a maid in Göth’s villa, describes the terror that Amon Göth’s mere presence inspired: “As a survivor I can tell you that we are all traumatized people. Never would I, never, believe that any human being would be capable of such horror, of such atrocities. When we saw him from a distance, everybody was hiding, in latrines, wherever they could hide. I can’t tell you how people feared him.”

As a retired history professor with a special interest in twentieth-century European history, and in German history in particular, I found Ms. Teege’s book informative and very interesting.  I have often wondered how the children of high-ranking Nazi officials dealt with the burden of their parentage.  How would such a person answer when asked, “What did your father/mother do for a living?”  “Who were your parents/grandparents?”  These survivors, sometimes called “Hitler’s children,” confronted their family’s history in various ways. 

Not all of them survived the fall of Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich.”  The six children of Magda and Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s closest confidents and Reich Minister of Propaganda, died in the Berlin bunker, poisoned by their mother.  Magda could not bear the thought of her children having to live in a world without Hitler.  She had another child by her first marriage, Harald Quandt, who survived the war.  He was a successful industrialist in the postwar era, and died in a private airplane crash in 1967.

Some of the children of high-ranking Nazi officials, like Edda Goering (b. 1938), Wolf Rudiger Hess (1937-2001), and Gudrun Himmler (1929-2018), refused to ever accept the fact that their fathers could have been guilty of the crimes of which they were accused.  Gudrun Himmler, daughter of the Heinrich Himmler, leader of the infamous SS and chief architect of the Holocaust, spent her life defending her father and channeling aid to former SS and Gestapo members through an agency known as Stille Hilfe (Silent Help).  Among those she helped were Klaus Barbie (1913-1991),”the Butcher of Lyon,” Martin Sommer (1915-1988), the “Hangman of Buchenwald,” and Anton Malloth (1912-2002),  convicted in 2001 of beating at least 100 prisoners to death in Theresienstadt.

Hitler, himself, did not have any children.  The claim made by a Frenchman, Jean-Marie Loret (1918-1985), that he was Hitler’s illegitimate son, conceived during World War I while Hitler was serving on the Western Front, did not survive DNA tests.  Hitler’s sister, Paula (1896-1960), did not have any children.  As of December 5, 2018, there were five surviving descendants of Hitler’s half-sister Angela (1883-1949) and half-brother Alois (1882-1956).  They agreed among themselves not to have any children, thus assuring that the Hitler bloodline will end with them. 

Bettina Goering is the great-nice of Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s earliest followers.  Hermann Goering was one of the highest decorated heroes of World War I.  He took over command of Manfred von Richthofen’s squadron, the “Flying Circus” (Jagdgeschwader 1) following the Red Barron’s death in aerial combat.  Goering’s popularity as a war hero enabled Hitler to win the support of many upper-class patriots who otherwise would have ignored “corporal” Hitler.  Goering served as commander of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and after 1941 was Hitler’s designated successor.   

Speaking of how she remembers her father, Bettina Goering says, “When I see Hermann as a family person, I think he’s really nice, and charming, and incredibly caretaking, and it’s hard for me to see flaws. But then you see what he does in politics and how he killed people, including his so-called friends.”  She has lived with the fear that some of what made her father a war criminal, though he was never the level of monster as others mentioned above and below, may reside in her DNA.  She and her brother both underwent sterilization so as to bring an end to the Goering bloodline. 

Some of the children and grandchildren of prominent Nazis discovered only later in life that their infamous forbearer was a war criminal, having been told as children that he died during the war, often as a hero.  Some, like Jennifer Teege’s mother, Monica Göth, have personal memories of their parent or grandparent.  That was true of Brigitte Höss, daughter of Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz.

Höss was born in 1900, the son of a former army officer who wanted his son to become a priest.  When World War I broke out, Höss was allowed to join his father’s old 21st Regiment of Dragoons.  At 15 years of age, he served in the Middle East with Germany’s ally the Ottoman Turks.  During his service in the Middle East, he witnessed the Armenian Genocide.  Around one million Armenians were killed by the Turks in what today would be referred to as “ethnic cleansing.”  He served with distinction, having been wounded three times and received several decorations for bravery, including the Iron Crescent and the Iron Cross first and second class.  After the war’s end, he joined the Nazi Party in 1922, and in 1934 the SS Death’s Head Unit.  He served in both Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps before becoming Commandant of Auschwitz concentration and death camp in 1940.

As Commandant of Auschwitz, Höss oversaw the mass killing of between 2 and 3 million Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russian prisoners of war and various other individuals.  After experimenting with various methods, Höss introduced the use of Zyklon B gas.  At his Nuremburg trial he boasted that as many as 2,000 prisoners could be disposed of in half an hour.  He was transferred to Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1943 after revelation of an affair with an inmate.  He returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee the murder of 430,000 Hungarian Jews over a 56-day period.  When the war ended in 1945, Höss tried to evade arrest, hoping to escape to South America.  He failed.  When charged at his trial with the murder of three and one half million prisoners, he replied:   “No. Only two and one-half million—the rest died from disease and starvation.”

Inge-Brigitte Höss was the third of five children born to Rudolf and Hedwig Hensel Höss.  Brigitte moved to Spain during the 1950’s, where she worked as a model.  She met an American engineer working in Spain.  They married in 1961.  They eventually settled down in Georgetown, located in northwest Washington, D.C.  She was employed by an exclusive fashion salon in D.C., owned by a Jewish couple who fled Germany in 1938 after the Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass) attack on Jews throughout Germany.  The salon owners never revealed to anyone that their employee, whom they so liked, was the daughter of Rudolf Höss.  They chose to see her as a human being, not as the daughter of the commandant of Auschwitz.  Reflecting on his parents’ relationship with Brigitte, their son later commented, “I am proud to be their son.”

Should these so-called “Hitler’s children” feel a burden of guilt for the crimes of their parents or grandparents?  After all, they were only children.  Like all of us who are unrelated to anyone guilty of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, they try to understand how someone can be a loving parent or grandparent, and at the same time be a mass murderer.  After having breakfast with his family, a husband/father kisses his wife and children before leaving for a day’s labor of participating in the murder of men, women, and children.  After returning home and enjoying the evening meal, he plays with his children before seeing them off to bed, wishing them “good night” and “sweet dreams.”  Perhaps he even stands by as they say their good night prayers.  Later in life, how do those children, how do we, understand that?  How do we get our minds around that reality?  The theories offered by social scientists are of little or no help.  It is a part of that perennial human problem of the existence of evil that haunts humanity. 

I have spoken above about those whose father or grandfather was a Nazi war criminal.  But is it any different, should it be any different, for the children whose fathers firebombed German or Japanese cities, incinerating tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, or dropped napalm bombs on Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War? 

I do not have any relatives who were or are guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity.  My father worked in a defense plant during World War II.  One of my uncles served as an army cook, hardly a post that lent itself to the commission of war crimes.  My maternal grandparents immigrated to America from Germany at the end of the 19th century.  Had they remained in Germany, I too might very well be struggling with the fallout from a parent’s role during the World War II. 

We all struggle with a feeling of guilt for crimes committed in the recent or distant past by individuals who chose to participate in evil acts.  We struggle with the question of whether we ought to feel a responsibility to try and atone for the evil committed by past generations of the community of which we are members.  Should American citizens today of European descent feel guilt for the enslavement of people from Africa by European Americans during past centuries of our nation’s history?  If so, what about the genocide of Native Americans or the exploitation of immigrants during the early days of the Industrial Revolution in America?  Those who committed those crimes against their fellow human beings in the past are no longer here to atone for their actions. 

The United States of America that came into being following a successful revolution against British rule built an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and eventually beyond.  It did so by conquests that decimated all who stood in its way.  The war with Mexico (1846-1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898) are acknowledged by historians to have been wars of aggression, wars of conquest.  Treatment of Asian immigrants mirrored the treatment of African Americans living under Jim Crow.  The history of the United States is written in part in blood and tears, driven forward by greed and racist theories supported by Social Darwinist theories. 

As we struggle with sins committed by our ancestors, should we feel that in some way we must share their guilt as if we, ourselves, committed the sins?  Americans today are coming to grips with a host of institutionalized injustices that are rooted in our nation’s history, but still very much a part of who we are as a society.  We may not be personally responsible for those injustices.  We may not have made the choices that created them, but we must choose to remove them.  We are not “Hitler’s children,” but we are all children of Adam and Eve.  Like Jennifer Teege, we must educate ourselves about the burden of responsibility, if not guilt, that we carry as individuals who are part of a community.  We must live with the consequences that resulted from choices our forefathers made, and we must choose to correct the injustices that still exist in our society, injustices which we inherited from our ancestors. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Making of the Jazz Age

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a key figure in the history of the Roaring Twenties. It was Fitzgerald, or “Scott,” as he was known to by his friends, who coined the term “Jazz Age” to describe the period. His best known novel, The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925, is a must read for anyone interested in America during the 1920s.

I have read The Great Gatsby several times and seen both the 1972 film version starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and the 2013 film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  The former is a classic that never disappoints, no matter how often viewed.  The latter is a paltry attempt to update a classic.  One would think that after many attempts Hollywood would learn that a remake seldom meets, much less exceeds the standard set by the original.

I am reading a number of books on the Roaring Twenties in preparation for an upper level American history class I will teach during the spring semester.  In order to get a “feel” for the era, I spent hours watching videos and listening to music from the twenties available on YouTube.  I decided to read some of the classic literature of the period, including a 1951 reprint of the original 1920 edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.

This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald’s first novel.  It is a coming-of-age story based on his early life.  He began writing it in 1917 shortly after accepting a commission as a second lieutenant in the army.  Joining the army was a ruse to divert attention from the fact that he was flunking out of Princeton University.  The finished manuscript, four chapters in length and titled “The Romantic Egotist,” was rejected by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1918, but with the suggestion that he rewrite and resubmit it.

Scott undertook a frantic rewriting of “The Romantic Egotist” in 1919.  He was in love with a beautiful Southern belle, Zelda Sayre, member of a prominent Montgomery, Alabama family with deep roots in the Old South.  He was sure he would soon be a rich and famous author; he only had to convince her.    Only then could he win the hand of the fair Zelda.  She was not the sort of girl likely to marry a man with great dreams only.

On September 3, Scott fired off the typed manuscript to Max Perkins at Scribner’s and returned to his mundane job roofing freight cars at Northern Pacific Railroad.  This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920.  The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out in just three days.  Eleven additional printings followed during 1920 and 1921 for a total of just under 50,000 copies.  It was a phenomenal success.

Scott telegraphed Zelda to join him in New York.  On April 3, 1920, barely a week after the publication of This Side of Paradise, Scott and Zelda were married in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, following which they set up housekeeping in an apartment on West 59th Street.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald became the poster couple of the 1920s. The romantic image we have of the Roaring Twenties as an era when life was one never-ending party, a dizzying swirl of jazz, flappers, bootleg booze, and gangsters is a creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his fiction and the lifestyle he and Zelda lived, he created and gave life to the theme of a “Lost Generation” searching hopelessly for meaning in an existential world created by the horrors of the Great War.

The post-World War I era was a period of spiritual emptiness.  Western Civilization was in its “golden age” during the decade and a half before an assassin’s bullet struck down the heir to the Austrian throne on June 28, 1914 in the picturesque Serbian town of Sarajevo.  In the four years that followed, the glamorous fairytale world portrayed in the popular BBC television soap opera, Downton Abbey, was shattered by images of a troglodyte world of muddy, rat and lice infested trenches filled with frightened and hopeless young men waiting for the command to “go over the top” into the face of rapid-firing machine guns and near certain death.

Those who survived the “war to end all wars” could not forget the stench of rotting bodies scattered about “no man’s land,” some hanging silently on rolls of barbed wire, a smorgasbord for overweight rats.  They couldn’t rationalize it.  They couldn’t believe, as did many, that it was possible to go “back to normalcy,” that is, “Ye Good ol’ Days.”  They knew that what was lost could never be restored.  Unlike Scarlett O’Hara in that closing scene from the movie, Gone with the Wind, they knew there was no going back to Tara Plantation.   They sensed that at least for them, there was no future.

In their novels and poems T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, and later Ernest Hemingway portrayed a postwar world that was a material and spiritual “waste land.”  Fitzgerald not only depicted it in his short stories and novels, especially This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, he and Zelda lived it in full public view, like stars in a reality television show.  “Sometimes,” Scott once commented, “I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.”

Can one find anywhere in the literature of the 1920s a better description of the lost generation than these closing lines from This Side of Paradise?

Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light – and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into the dirty grey turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all God’s dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…”

Amory, sorry for them, was still not sorry for himself – art, politics, religion, whatever his medium should be, he knew he was safe now, free from all hysteria – he could accept what was acceptable, roam, grow, rebel, sleep deep through many nights…

There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth – yet the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams.  But—oh, Rosalind!  Roaslind! . . .

“It’s all a poor substitute at best,” he said sadly.

And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed…

“He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
“’I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.’”

The ordinary American knew nothing of the new world inhabited by the so-called Lost Generation.  They did not read the literary works of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Eliot, Hemingway, and a host of others that are covered in American literature classes today.  Their names and the titles of their novels are known to a select group of educated person today, either because they have seen a movie based upon one of the novels, or, perhaps much less likely, actually read one or more.

A cursory glance at the lists of bestselling novels in the United States during each year of the 1920s reveals that not one of the authors commonly included in a list of the lost generation is included.  That’s right, not even F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The popular authors of the twenties included Gene Stratton-Porter, Harold Bell Wright, and especially Zane Grey.

Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise sold approximately fifty thousand copies in 1920, while Harold Bell Wright’s The Re-Creation of Brian Kent, also published in 1920, sold close to a million copies.  Wright was the first American author to sell a million copies of a single novel, and the first to become a millionaire from writing fiction.  Five of his novels each had sales equal to one percent of America’s population at the time.

To illustrate further how different were the reading habits of the literate masses during the 1920s from those who read the works of the lost generation writers, I need only mention that the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs sold more copies than those of Stratton-Porter, Wright, and Grey combined.  Burroughs’ Tarzan adventures and other bestselling fiction were not considered serious enough to be included in the Publishers Weekly’s list of bestselling novels.

Was the decade of the 1920s really what is portrayed in the fiction written by Fitzgerald and his compatriots, or is the “jazz age” merely a bit of a self-appointed intellectual elite’s nostalgia for a mythical past no more connected to reality than the antebellum South found in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind?

Odd, isn’t it?

Finding God in a Broken World

Whenever I hear of cruelty to women, children, or even animals, I immediately react with feelings of rage. Let me avenge these wrongs. Let me decide the fate of those who commit such atrocities. I will surely fit the punishment to the crime.

After I calm down and remind myself that in doing so I would become like those monsters I want to make suffer, a different emotion takes over. Although I was never the victim of abuse, I feel that I can identify with the victims of abuse. I can feel the pain, the fear, the despair that they, the victims, must experience. I want to cry, but most of all I ask God why he allows such evil. He is sovereign, is he not?

Theologians, preachers, and a wide variety of self-appointed spokespersons for God are quick to provide an answer. More often than not they expose their ignorance. Better to remain silent than address issues about which one is not qualified to speak. Reading a few books, especially the syrupy inspirational goo that clutters the shelves of Christian bookstores, testimonies by those who suddenly “found Jesus” and no longer need bother themselves with the challenge of living in the real world, will not do. One must get up close and experience the true banality of evil.

Holly Burkhalter is one who has earned the right to ask the really tough questions of God. She spent many years as a human rights advocate. She has seen firsthand just how depraved human beings can be towards the most vulnerable. She has seen the horrors of children of preschool age held in bondage to pimps who rent them out to adults willing to pay for the opportunity to sexually abuse them.

Ms. Burkhalter has intimate knowledge of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Many of the victims took refuge in churches only to discover that the churches were slaughter houses. The Rwandan church leaders refused to condemn the genocide, even when it took place in the churches. The whole of Christendom remained largely silent. American Christians turned their faces away and ignored the cries of those they called “brothers and sisters in Christ.”

The Rwandan genocide was the result of human choices. Likewise is the inhuman treatment of the children enslaved in the brothels that cater to well-to-do tourists from Europe and America the result of human choices. The perpetrators of such crimes are entrepreneurs providing services that others demand and are willing to pay for.

None of us, you and I, would ever participate in such criminal activity. After all, are we not Christians living in a Christian nation founded on Christian principles by our Christian Founding Fathers? We go to “big box” retail outlets in order to fill our closets with cheap clothing we do not need, while plugging our ears to the cries and shielding our eyes from the tears of the children who work long hours under harsh conditions for pitifully small wages to produce our plenty.

Not only non-believers, as was Holly Burkhalter for much of her life, ask, “Where is God?” Many Christians also ask that question, again and again and again, as did the Old Testament prophets. There isn’t an answer. Of course, there are attempts at formulating an answer by theologians who labor long hours over biblical passages in a variety of languages, ancient and modern. But their answers fall short no matter how learned and logical they sound. Some find that no matter how hard they try, they cannot go on without some answer as to why God, the great I AM who spoke to Moses from a burning bush, sovereign over all that exists, does not intervene and deliver the justice he promises.

Ms. Burkhalter writes of Kevin Carter, a photographer who won the Pulitzer Prize for his picture of a starving Sudanese toddler lying in the dirt while a vulture waited patiently nearby. Two months later, Kevin Carter took his own life. In an attempt to explain why, he wrote, “I am depressed. . .I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain. . .of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.”

What Burkhalter discovered, was that the awesome question of why cannot be answered. It is a mystery. But what we do know is that only the God revealed in the Bible and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ can provide an answer for the existence of evil. No other religious or secular philosophy can do so. Why God does not do what we would do, and what we would have him do, is a question we cannot answer. We do know God is sovereign over all, and that justice will prevail, as he has promised. No injustice will go unanswered. No tear is shed that is not seen, or will not be wiped away.

In the end, “after forty-plus years of skepticism, cynicism, and doubt,” Holly Burkhalter came to the conclusion that God exists. “I know it,” she writes, “because, oddly, I see signs everywhere, including in the very places that previously seemed to be proof of the Lord’s absence, or worse, the Creator’s neglect of a battered, hungry, suffering creation.”

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures,  and always live under the mercy.

 

The Day Camelot Died

John F. Kennedy motorcade, Dallas, Texas, Nov....

John F. Kennedy motorcade, Dallas, Texas, Nov. 22, 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“What happened fifty years ago on November 22?”

I put the question to one of my history survey classes.  Forty-two students, mostly sophomores, sat in front of me, staring into empty space.  Perhaps I asked the wrong question?  Maybe I should ask who won the Super Bowl fifty years ago.  No doubt then their zombie-like faces would suddenly come to life.  A lively discussion would ensue, as different answers came from all across the lecture hall.

After a moment of silence, not at all surprising, someone said, “World War I ended.”  Another brave soul on the other side of the hall countered with, “Pearl Harbor!”  Before another example of historical revisionism could be heard, a student who was pecking away at the screen on his cellphone looked up and shouted, “President Kennedy died!”

I was not surprised by the response to my question.  The appalling lack of knowledge about our nation’s history, any sense of historical time, not to mention a profound ignorance of geography, is not surprising to those of us who choose to teach college and university students.  I am no longer surprised to discover that many of my students can only read at an elementary level.  Nor am I surprised to learn that some are unable to read or write, at all.

I do not remember where I was, or what I was doing, when I first heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.  I was a freshman in college.  Classes were canceled.  Many of us gathered in the library to hear a young history professor give an impromptu eulogy.  By the time he finished, he was almost in tears.  We were all silent, aware that we would never forget what happened on that day in Dallas.

John F. Kennedy’s assassination marked the end of idealism and hope of a better future for many of us who wanted to believe that human beings were by nature good and reasonable.  That day darkness descended on Camelot.  Before the decade ended, both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. would also be assassinated.

John F. Kennedy was not the only public figure to die on November 22, 1963.  Both C. S. Lewis, the lord of Narnia, and Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, died that day, their deaths overshadowed by President Kennedy’s.

The number one hit song on November 22, 1963, was “I’m Leaving It All Up to You,” written by Robert Dale Houston and recorded by Dale and Grace.  Houston was standing along the parade route and waved to the President just moments before the fatal shots were fired.

At least ten songs were subsequently written and recorded memorializing JFK’s death, among them Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and Phil Ochs’ “Crucifixion.”

J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth by Victor Lasky was at the top The New York Times Best Seller List for non-fiction.  It was a scathing critic of J.F.K. and the whole Camelot myth.  The book was quickly pulled, only to reappear three years later more damning than at first.

I don’t remember where I was, or what I was doing, when I first heard that President Kennedy was dead.  I do remember, however, that I was on Interstate 79 passing through Wheeling, West Virginia, when I heard over the car radio that Elvis Presley had just been rushed to a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.  Funny what one remembers, isn’t it?

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always live under the mercy.

For Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-EC_egRR1M

For Phil Ochs’s “Crucifixion”:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UtNDTEqp_k

Historian’s Almanac for August 6, 2013

 On this day in 1926, the first feature-length motion picture with sound, Don Juan, starring the immortal John Barrymore was being shown at Warner Theatre (a.k.a. Piccadilly Theatre) in New York.  A ticket cost $10.00, that’s approximately $130.00 in today’s dollars, to see the nearly three-hour-long spectacular.  The first motion picture with sound was actually shown at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

 It’s the birthday of Andy Warhol (1928-1987) known as the “Prince of Pop.”  Warhol was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century.  In 1961 a friend suggested that he paint something like a soup can.  He did. In 1962 Warhol had his first art exhibit in a gallery in Los Angeles.  He displayed 32 paintings of Campbell soup cans, one for each type of soup.  Warhol sold the entire set to an art dealer for $1000.  The dealer later sold the 32 small canvases for $15 million.  A signed, numbered, and authenticated print of a Campbell Soup can be purchased for around $1,200.  “An artist,” said Warhol, “is somebody who produces things people don’t need.”

 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law, thus turning the once solid Democratic South over to the Republican Party.

In 1945, the United States carried out what many consider to have been the greatest war crime of the Second World War.  A B-29 bomber named the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.  The debate over the motive for dropping the bomb, and a second one on Nagasaki just three days later, will never end.  The horror of it is vividly portrayed in John Hersey’s novel Hiroshima and in the graphic novel Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, a survivor.

Finally, while thinking about the anniversary of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, I was reminded of a USA program to explode an atomic bomb on the moon.  After the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957, American military leaders became fearful that the Russians might do to us what we did to the Japanese.  The result was a project called “A Study of Lunar Research Flights,” nicknamed “Project 119.”  It was intended to impress the Soviet leaders with America’s military might.  Physicist Leonard Reiffel was placed in charge of the project.  He was assisted by a graduate astronomy student by the name of Carl Sagan.  The event was to take place in 1959, but was abandoned, when someone suggested that it might possibly harm people on earth, other than the Japanese or Russians, we might assume.

Until next time, be good, do good, and always live under the mercy.

Someday I Want to Write a Novel

Someday I would like to write a book, a real book, the kind that people purchase to read while sitting in an airport waiting for their flight, or while seated in their favorite chair with a cup of Jo on the end table and a noble beast asleep on the rug.  I mean a novel, the sort of book that reviewers after reading it refer to the one who wrote it as an “author.”

I am frightened by the thought of attempting to write fiction.  Writing ordinary prose such as you are reading is something anyone can learn to do.  It is all about technic, whereas fiction requires talent.

Not long ago, I joined a local group of individuals interested in writing.  They call themselves the “Clinton Ink Slingers.”  The purpose of the group is to encourage each other by gently critiquing each other’s writing.  Shortly after joining the group, I tried my hand at writing a short story.  I even took a chance and posted it on my blog.  A few individuals read it and complimented me on it, but they were mostly friends, relatives, and members of the Clinton Ink Slingers. 

I have written books, all of them history books.  Most are read by students forced to slug through them by a frustrated and disillusioned professor ever on the quest for the perfect text dumbed down enough to hold, however briefly, the limited attention span of today’s “young scholars.”  My use of “young scholars” is a humble attempt at sarcasm.  I do not think there is a textbook on the market with enough bells and whistles to draw the average student away from his or her iPhone for more than a fleeting moment.

What started me thinking about writing and my dream of one day writing a novel are several things.  The first was a visit to the grave of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, in a small church cemetery in Rockville, Maryland.  One of the priests at the parish church assumed I was just another of many pilgrims who stop by from time to time.  One such pilgrim who preceded me left an empty wine bottle, two mini whisky bottles, also empty, a single red rose, and a hand written letter to Scott and Zelda.

A second stimulus came in the form of an advance readers’ edition of a new novel by Therese Anne Fowler titled Z:  A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD.  It will be on-sale in April.  Although fiction, it is well-researched and very interesting.  Anyone who has seen and enjoyed Woody Allen’s recent movie, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011), will enjoy reading Z.  Ms. Fowler does an admiral job of communicating to her reader what it must have been like to be among that group of American expatriates known as the “Lost Generation.”

Finally, it was 87 years ago that the Book-of-the-Month Club was born.  Its first selection was LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  It is an early feminist novel about a woman who sells her soul to the devil, and in return becomes a witch.  The novel is still in print.  There is even a Sylvia Townsend Society which seeks to keep interest in the too often neglected author.

The Book-of-the-Month Club was the creation of Harry Scherman, Max Sackheim, and Robert Haas.  At a time when books were sold through bookstores in urban areas, Scherman looked for a way to sell books to people in rural areas.  Scherman was a member of a group of bohemian intellectuals living in Greenwich Village during and after World War I.  They had in common a love for fine literature and the desire to find a means of marketing books to the literate masses beyond the big cities. 

The first Book-of-the-Month Club selection, LOLLY WILLOWES, was mailed to 4,750 members in April, 1926.  Membership rose to 46,539 by the end of the year, and stood at just under 100,000 in 1928.  Record numbers continued over the decades.  In 1946, the club mailed its 100 millionth book. More than 22 million books were shipped to over 3 million members in 1993, alone.

A book’s success was virtually guaranteed if selected by the club’s editorial board.   The board’s original function was to “select the best new books each month.”  Sales were important, but for many decades the editorial board selected books that were likely to endure as “literature” rather than be remembered, if remembered at all, as “best sellers.”  During the board’s first sixty years the Book-of-the-Month Club offered books by 25 authors who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and 79 who won the Pulitzer Prize.   

A case in point is J. D. Salinger’s novel THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (1951).  At one point in the story, Holden Caulfield makes a disparaging remark about “guys who belong to the goddam Book-of-the-Month Club.”  Salinger had no idea at the time that that “goddam Book-of-the-Month Club” would help establish THE CATCHER IN THE RYE as one of the all-time great American novels.  After having sold more than 65 million copies, it remains on the shelf of any respectable bookstore or library.

I do not expect to ever win a Pulitzer Prize or become a Nobel laureate, but I do continue to dream of writing a novel.  Two members of our little group of Ink Slingers recently signed contracts with “real” book publishers.  Dreams do come true, but not if one merely sits dreaming.  Persistent hard work is necessary.  I think I will write a short story beginning with the line:  “It was a dark and stormy night.”  

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures, and always walk under the mercy.

Birthday of the “God is Dead” Philosopher

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the late 1880s the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche announced that God was dead.  He did not mean that God actually died, for he did not believe that there ever was a God to die.  It was the ancient myth of God, that is, the idea of God that died.  Advances in science and philosophy rendered it no longer possible for people to believe in a Creator-God, or so Nietzsche reasoned.

Nietzsche realized that if people no longer believed in the existence of a God who created all that exist, then they would face a seemingly unsolvable problem–why does anything exists?  Nothing would make sense.  Every individual would have to face the question of ultimate meaning without any hope of finding an answer.  To avoid despair and insanity, one would have to find meaning in the creation of a new “god-myth.”

Nietzsche believed that there were some who would courageously face the existential question of ultimate meaning.  They were the ones he called übermench, or supermen.  They would create the new myth by which individuals could escape the crisis of meaning resulting from the “death of God.”

Already before the Great War of 1914-1918 the intellectual elite were losing faith in human beings as rational creatures.  The war merely acted as a catalyst.  What before the war was a generation who believed in progress and the potential of basically good human beings to build a better future became after the war the so-called “lost generation.”

The supermen appeared in the person of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Lenin, and Joseph Stalin, not to mention the many lessor myth spinners.  Each fashioned an ideology that provided a reason to live for those who struggled to find meaning for their continued existance in the wake of the Great War.  One could find meaning and purpose by, e.g., becoming a born again socialist man or women.  Becoming a follower of one of the totalitarian ideologies was much more than merely giving intellectual assent to a political cause or philosophy.  It meant becoming a convert.

Today, October 15, is the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Most people today do not have any idea who he was, or why it is important to know who he was.

If I could ask him a question just one question today, it would be simply this: Do you still think that God is dead?

A Song Brings Back Memories

I was riding to work this morning with the radio tuned to a SiriusXM™ station, when Olivia Newton-John began singing “I Honestly Love You.”  I turned to the love of my life, a.k.a. my wife, and said, “Every time I hear that song, I think of that little dinner in downtown Milan, Tennessee.”

That was her cue to turn to me with a smile on her face and love in her eyes and say something like, “Me too.  It was wonderful.”  Then she would reach over, take my hand, and give it a little squeeze.

Instead of the expected response, she said, “Oh, that’s such a sad song.”

I was shocked.  My balloon burst.  I blurted out, “Sad?  How can you say that?”

Was it possible that she had forgotten?

“Remember?  It was thirty-two years ago in a small dinner in downtown Milan, Tennessee.  I played it on the jukebox for you.  The man at the counter was complimenting the cook on his scrambled eggs and brains.  Don’t you remember?”

Perhaps it was the tone in my voice, or the shocked, pleading look on my face, or maybe she really did remember.  Whatever the case, she smiled and said, “Of course dear, I remember.”

It was one of those unforgettable moments in a couples’ life together.  We had just come from making arrangements for our wedding at a little church just outside of Milan.

It was close to noon, so we decided to stop for a bite to eat.   The little old dinner downtown seemed somehow more romantic than one of those burger joints.

The setting was perfect, a quiet booth in the corner, a romantic song playing on the jukebox, the air was filled with magic.  As Perry Como would say, “Time cannot erase the memory of these magic moments.”

The love of my life is one of those unique people who remembers everything and forgets nothing.  I learned long ago that I must be very careful of what I say.  Always compliment; never criticize.

My love needs only a musical note, at most two, and she will begin singing the song.  Whether an old hit from years long gone, or a children’s song she learned to sing in elementary school, the lyrics are all stored somewhere in herbrain between files labeled “Novels and Short Stories” and “Movies.”

Don’t ever even consider playing a game of trivia with her.  You will surely be embarrassed.

I remember the time a group of seminary students challenged her to a game of Bible trivia.  When they began, the seminarians all had the sort of smile on their faces that only a Calvinist would understand.  When the game was over, her opponents were no longer smiling.  It never occurred to them that a mere young lady raised a Southern Baptist could humble them so.  They left with their heads bent low and their shoulders sagging.  I thought I heard one mumble something about switching to a MBA program.

Of course this is all in jest, most of it, that is.

On a more serious note, today is the seventy-sixth birthday of Charlie Hardin Holley, better known as Buddy Holly.  For those who are not old enough to remember, he was one of the singer-songwriters who helped birth Rock n’ Roll during the mid-fifties.  “That’ll Be the Day” (1955) and “Peggy Sue” (1957) are perhaps his two best known recordings.

The Buddy Holly Story (album)

The Buddy Holly Story (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buddy Holly died tragically along with two other raising rock n’ roll stars, Richie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson,  on February 2, 1959,  when their small airplane crashed shortly after taking off from Mason City, Iowa.  In 1971, Don McLean wrote and recorded “American Pie,” commemorating their death as “The Day the Music Died.”

I close with an apology.  It has been more than a month since my last posting.  Other writing commitments got in the way, leaving me with little time and even less inspiration.  My goal is to do better in the future.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation and always live under the mercy

The Greek Election: Eve of Destruction or Dawn of Correction?

 

There is an election taking place in Greece today that could have serious consequences for us folks in the USA.  I imagine that few Americans are even aware that it is taking place, especially those who will be impacted the most by the outcome.

The Greeks are making a choice between two major parties with two different plans for getting Greece out of the economic mess they find themselves in.  The Syriza party led by Alexis Tsipras promises to cancel the austerity plan imposed by the European Union.  A victory for Syriza is likely to lead to Greece leaving the Eurozone and replacing the Euro with a return to the Drachma.  The New Democracy party led by Antonis Samara promises to adhere to the austerity plan.

A possible victory for Syriza has the financial markets around the world in near panic mode.   Why?  We live in a global economy.  No longer can we afford to ignore the economic problems elsewhere in the world.  The butterfly flaps its wings in some far off corner of the world, and within no time dangerous winds are blowing in America.

I am not a fan of either the European Union or the Euro.  Frankly, I liked the old Europe where each nationality remembered their heritage and the barbarian hordes were kept beyond the gates of Vienna.  But those days are long gone, and no amount of nostalgia will bring them back.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that as the world grows increasingly more “flat,” as Thomas L. Friedman puts it, the better it is to think of the whole and not the individual parts.

That said, I return to the significance of the Greek election.  If the leftist Syriza wins, those many Americans glued to their televisions watching an athletic event, may not be able to pay for their cable or satellite connection.  Those who will suffer the most are the hard working people wh0 don’t know where to look for Greece on a world map or a globe.

I’m not sure that things will be that much better if the conservative New Democracy wins.  Conservatives abroad and at home seem not to have learned anything from the Great Depression.  A return to Adam Smith and Herbert Hoover will only make things worse.  It was the economic philosophy John Maynard Keynes and the decisive action of Franklin D. Roosevelt that brought an end to the Great Depression.  Would it work again?  I don’t know, but I do know that the economic turmoil of the 1930s ended with a big bang.  Let’s hope that the world economic crisis of today doesn’t end the same way. 

The election in Greece is important for all of us.  As I write this, exit polls are forecasting a slim victory for the New Democracy party will win.  Is that good for the Greeks?  For us?