Saturday, April 18, 2015
Would it be unfair to leave you only with this rather shabby and dimly lit bedroom, with its particle board interior? Frankly, my gut tells me you could crack it from that alone. But I don't want to be too maddening—the goal of this contest is to challenge, not infuriate. So I'm going to include another picture from today's mystery location, as a clue. Where is this place? And why is it on fire?
Friday, April 17, 2015
I try not to burden myself with guidelines when writing this column.
But I do have one rule: Try not to advocate the impossible. Thus no modest proposals, no utopian dreams. Live in the world of the practical.
Wasn't always so. In the past, I've pushed quixotic quests, such as getting rid of the paper dollar, lulled into a false sense of possibility because less hidebound nations are capable of it. Great Britain has no paper pound, Canada no paper dollar, for instance. Saves them billions.
But we can't. Americans think of themselves as dynamic and fearless — and maybe we were, once. But now we're skittish and change averse.
That said, I see the appeal of impossible quests, such as the effort to boot Indian-slayer Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replace him with a woman.
It's an odd piece of tokenism. Just as being on a U.S. postage stamp has lost its cachet — I could create legal U.S. postal stamps honoring my dog — so currency is about to be mooted by cash cards.
But it's still significant enough for advocates to create a website and get a bill introduced into the Senate this week by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) forming an advisory committee, as only the Treasury Department could actually make such a change.
Before we visit the website, let's ask: What woman should have the honor of debuting on U.S. currency? (A real woman, I mean, discounting all those allegorical figures of liberty and electricity and such.)
A tough question. She'd be going head to head with Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Grant (the latter two don't really belong; maybe Jackson should stay and one of them go).
Four candidates? Off the top of my head, I'd go with Emily Dickinson, Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart and Jane Addams. It isn't a diverse list — no women of color — but it's my list, and I didn't want to pander.
Not a concern for those advocating the change. Go to their website, womenon20s.org, and you're introduced to their four finalists: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Wilma Mankiller.
Heartbreaking. While energetic and independent in her own right, Eleanor Roosevelt's claim to fame is she married a man who became president. Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks — if you're looking for a black woman, they're two. But compare either, historically, to, say, Martin Luther King and I don't think I'd be alone in preferring they choose King and shelve the whole honor-a-woman idea.
Wilma Mankiller? And she is? "First elected chief of a Native Nation." Died in 2010. An utterly unknown woman whose name expresses the fears of half of America when contemplating feminism. That's a good idea.
Those four were voted in, supposedly, from an list of 15. Looking at that list, Rachel Carson popped out. She'd be the best call, part of a top-to-bottom currency redo focusing on the environment. (See how these impossible quests draw you in?) Or Susan B. Anthony, though she's already been on the dollar coin, and what a failure that was. Margaret Sanger? Really? The birth-control advocate? A person responsible for far more deaths, at least in the conservative view, than Andrew Jackson ever caused. Yeah, that'll go over well. We'll end up with a third of the country refusing to touch a $20 bill. I'm surprised they didn't include Emma Goldman and Madalyn Murray O'Hair (notorious red radical and fierce atheist, respectively, if those names don't ring a bell).
Looking over their list of candidates, I caught myself thinking, "Women really haven't had much impact on U.S. history, have they?" Which can't be the intention. Women have had an impact, of course, but if we're honoring the gender, we should go back to allegory: suffragettes, pioneers, textile workers, mothers. It's so strange to push Wilma Mankiller and ignore their contributions. Then again, the whole effort is going to amount to nothing, so no need to get too worked up over which specific woman won't be honored on the twenty.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
You don't get a job without someone on the inside.
In most cases, that is. You need someone both rooting for you, encouraging you, and also boosting you among the harried, hostile mucky-mucks you are trying to impress.
At the Sun-Times, for me, that someone was Wilma Wall. A tall, calm, editorial assistant in the features department, she took my phone calls, helped me strategize, soothed my disappointments. Not that, in my early 20s, I was anything special. But Wilma was nice to everyone, and I fell into that broad category. The features editors at the time—Carol Stoner, Susan Axelrod, and Scott Powers—were a fortress of shrugging indifference, and I can't say I remember them with a half teaspoon of affection, collectively. Wilma Wall, however, was my ladder over the rampart.
She made me think I could actually get a job at the paper, and after two years of freelancing and constant, gerbil-on-a-wheel effort, along with a helpful union complaint filed against me claiming that I wrote so much I constituted a non-union scab, they did grudgingly hire me, 28 years ago.
When my mother first visited my new place of employment, to be proudly shown around the bustling newsroom on the fourth floor of 401 North Wabash, I of course introduced her to my champion, Wilma Wall.
"We did it!" she cried, leaping up and hugging my mother, who never forgot the moment. Nor did I, which made me sad Thursday to see Maureen O'Donnell's fine obit of Wilma, and sadder still to see that she was living right in Northbrook all this time. I wish I had known. I'd have visited her, and thanked her, yet again, for all her kindness to me.
|The Bramsons, my grandfather's family, killed in Poland.|
Since it touches upon the idea of luck, I should mention the sheer coincidence that brought it about. In 1978, the fall of my freshman year at Northwestern, I took Introduction to European Fiction with Erich Heller, perhaps the preeminent scholar of German literature in the United States. Students knew that Heller's brother Paul had been Edward R. Murrow's guide for his famous broadcast when Buchenwald was liberated. That's how Prof. Heller found out his brother had survived the war. He never spoke of these things, of course. But we all somehow knew.
Cut to 1995. I'm at UIC Hospital, as a reporter, covering a press conference about a breakthrough in treating sickle cell anemia. The doctors are introduced, and one of them is named Paul Heller. I remember thinking that "Paul Heller" might be a common European name, like "Bill Smith" here. It might not be THAT Paul Heller. But he said a few words, in a heavy Czech accent. I went up afterward and surprised him by saying, "You're Erich Heller's brother, aren't you? You were in Buchenwald. You spoke with Edward R. Murrow." That meeting led to this story, which was frustrating in a way. Sitting in his living room, I kept trying to get at how a man survives six years in a concentration camp. He kept saying, "I was lucky." I finally realized that, whatever the full truth is, he wasn't going to tell me. So I went with lucky.
Dr. Paul Heller is a lucky man. Sitting in the living room of his pleasant Evanston home, he recognizes that only good fortune could have gotten him through nearly six years in Nazi concentration camps, placing him—sick but alive—in Buchenwald the day it was liberated 50 years ago, on April 11, 1945.
"Of course, I am lucky," says Heller, 80. "I was very lucky. Each day could have ended differently than it did."
Not all the luck was good. Heller was a young doctor in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia - he received his degree just before the Germans closed down the school - with an exit visa from the Gestapo and a plane reservation to London when the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939.
He was arrested the same day, he believes, because of a political group he belonged to as a student.
"I wasn't arrested as a Jew," he recalls. "I was arrested as an anti-Nazi."
He was taken to Buchenwald, where he spent the next four years working in a quarry, carrying large stones in work that "seemed without purpose except to torture us."
Again, fate came to Heller's aid.
"I tolerated all this torturous life because I was young and relatively strong," Heller writes in an account of his life he prepared for his grandchildren.
"But I also was lucky that I had some help. I became a friend of a German political prisoner, Max Girnd . . . he supplied me with half a loaf of bread almost every week."
In the spring of 1943, he was transferred to the death camp at Auschwitz. Again, fate intervened.
"I was transferred to Auschwitz to be executed and they made me a doctor," says Heller, who was put to work as a physician at the mining camp at Jaworzno.
His written account of life in a concentration camp has a measured, almost sedate tone to it. A bout of torture becomes a "cruel interlude." A group of dying prisoners are "the most horrible sight." He retains that calm view—there is no anger or bitterness in him— which he feels was a defense mechanism.
"This was a way of survival," he says. "I didn't look at it as a reality. There was something terribly unreal about the whole thing. I would come home from working in the stone quarry and think, `It really isn't true, what I went through today.' "
As the war neared its end, the Germans, desperate to cover their crimes, kept trying to transfer prisoners away from the advancing enemy. Heller survived a murderous forced march from Auschwitz to another camp, Gross-Rosen. Then, severely ill from the march, Heller had the ironic good fortune to find himself shipped back to Buchenwald again.
"I was saved in the camp hospital because I knew the people there," he says.
Heller was still in the hospital on April 11, 1945, when Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army liberated the camp. One more stroke of luck was about to help reunite him with his surviving brother and, eventually, bring him to the United States. A day or two after liberation, the former inmates had taken over the S.S. Hospital. Heller was using its fluoroscope to screen for tuberculosis when a tall, handsome man in an American uniform - whom Heller assumed was some sort of official—stopped in and asked to be shown around Buchenwald.
"It was a sheer accident," Heller remembers. "He was approaching the camp and stopped at the first big building."
Heller showed the man—who turned out to be broadcaster Edward R. Murrow—around the camp, to the crematorium, the piles of shoes, of glasses, the mounds of human hair. Murrow, dazed, tried to count the bodies, "stacked up like cordwood," but gave up.
Murrow was not only struck by the scenes of horror, but by the former station of the emaciated men who came up to greet him. He used their names—Peter Zenkl, the former mayor of Prague, Professor Charles Richet of the Sorbonne, even a man from Joliet, Walter Roeder—in his famous broadcast of April 15, one of the first reports to bring the true nightmare of the concentration camps home to a wide audience.
"I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words," Murrow said, toward the end of the broadcast. "If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald - I'm not in the least sorry."
Murrow also mentioned the name of his guide, Dr. Paul Heller. The broadcast was heard by Heller's brother, Erich, the noted literary scholar, and a reunion was arranged through CBS. Heller spent a year in London, then with Murrow's help, came to the United States. The two remained in contact through the years, until Murrow's death.
Heller went on to a distinguished career in medicine. He still teaches and does research at the University of Illinois-Chicago Hospital. Now remarried after his first wife passed away, he has two grown children and three grandchildren. He declined the chance to go back to Buchenwald. "I've seen it enough," he says.
Heller says his ordeal in Buchenwald changed him as a person and colored the rest of his life.
"This experience was so strong it overshadowed everything," he says. "Continuous and always. Even now, 50 years after liberation, it is still there and every day I remember."
--Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 10, 1995
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Wednesday is Tax Day, the dread April 15, when income taxes are due to the United States government, at least for now. American colonists cried "No taxation without representation," which, as befits the streamlining of modern life, has become simply "No taxation.'
Twenty years ago, the idea that American citizens should not pay taxes was limited to the lunatic fringe, who would pick over the Revenue Act of 1913 and write elaborate, self published manifestos explaining why federal income taxes were a Wilsonian conspiracy against the Constitution and natural law. Now mainstream Republican candidates chant it as a mantra.
Look at the first three Republicans to charge out of the gate in the 2016 presidential race.
"We need to abolish the IRS" Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a conservative conference last month—though not, to my surprise, because taxes won't be collected, but rather because a flat rate will be charged so taxpayers will merely write their salary on a postcard, multiply it by a universal figure and be done.
Internal Revenue Service commissioner John Koskinen, living in the reality-based world, immediately pointed out that even if Americans had a flat tax, and filed their returns on Ted Cruz's postcard, there would still need to be an IRS collecting the money and confirming the cards.
"Someone has to follow through on all of that," said the killjoy.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also talks wistfully about eliminating the IRS, and has a number for his flat tax—17 percent—which, like all flat tax plans, is a half-clever way of saying, "Tax breaks for everybody!" (If the figure sounds familiar, Steve Forbes ran on a 17 percent flat tax in 2o00. Historical note: he lost).
Marco Rubio doesn't want to cut taxes for everyone, just the middle class and the rich, which is code for everyone since poor people don't pay much income tax.
The Tax Policy Center estimates Rubio's plan would cost the government $2.4 trillion over 10 years.
Which is the entire point. The bedrock of the Republican party is the notion that government is bad, by definition. Since cutting specific functions—health care for vets, say, or milk for poor children—draws howls of protest and can raise a tingle even in anthracite Republican hearts, the focus is shifted to impersonal dollars. Cut taxes, ignore what those taxes go to. Starve the body and the head dies.
If you try to get at why government is bad, they'll say it's corrupt, or incompetent, or domineering, or illegal, or all four. My theory is that they despise the people government serves most—especially the poor, minorities—and since publicly despising them has gone out of fashion, they attack the government as a surrogate. I can't prove this, but then they can't prove that trickle down economics works, and that never stops them form insisting that giving money to the rich somehow profits the poor.
Speaking of facts-- for those eccentrics who, like me, still find facts meaningful -- is that our taxes are low however you compare them.They're low internationally: our federal taxes top out at 39 percent. In Great Britain it's 45 percent, in Australia, 50 percent. (Comparisons are difficult, with each country having a complicated web and local and national taxes, but that suggests issues are nuanced and complex, and why should I be the only one pushing that crazy idea).
U.S. taxes are also low historically—our top federal income tax rate is 39 percent. In the 1950s, was a jaw-dropping 91 percent. Rich folk still worked (nobody actually paid that much—again with the nuance— with deductions, the top effective tax rate was 70 percent. The economy boomed).
Taxation is one of the most common features of human organization, along with baking bread. And there is astounding consistency. Today the top 10 percent of U.S. wage earners pay an average of 19.2 percent in federal taxes. That's almost exactly the rate paid in ancient Egypt. "Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day that Pharaoh should have the fifth part" it says in Genesis.
To be fair, I should mention the tax position of Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton, who entered the race earlier this week. She feels the wealthy aren't taxed enough,aren't paying their fair share in society. Talk about crazy...
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Abraham Lincoln went from a log cabin to the White House, he freed the slaves and won the Civil War, while writing the most stirring sentences ever spoken by an American politician.
But if Lincoln is even more than that, our greatest president, who comes as near to an American saint as anyone in our history, then the moment of his beatification came 150 years ago this evening, April 14, 1865, when a fanatical Southern sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth, outraged at the thought that blacks would become American citizens, snuck up behind Lincoln in his unguarded box at Ford's Theater and put a bullet behind his ear.
The tragedy was amplified by occurring precisely at the moment of national joy, at least in the North, as the Civil war had ended a scant week before.
Lincoln's death left the nation awash in grief, which has a tendency to skew our perceptions of history. Eyes filled with tears no longer see clearly. The love and respect lavished on Lincoln after his assassination had the tendency to portray him as a serious saint—I've already written about how that fallacy is embraced by right wing talk show hosts. It also leaves the impression that he was always revered, and that too is a fantasy, and a harmful one.
There are thousands of books about Lincoln, exploring every aspect of his life. One of my favorites is Dear Mr. Lincoln: Letters to the President edited by Harold Holzer (Assison-Wesley Publishing: 1993). These letters and notes, some of them very brief, bring Lincoln's era alive, in all its crazed passion. Like online comments today, they are a quick, sobering glance under the rock of American life.
"Equal rights & Justice to all white men in the United States forever," urges John McMahon of Hambrook, Penn. on Aug. 5, 1864. "White men is in class number one & black men in class number two & must be governed by white men forever."
Lincoln's correspondents complain about politics, try to wheedle job appointments, gush with praise when successful, spew bitterly when not.
"My Dear Sir," writes Jesse. K. Dubois, "I am sorely disappointed in all my expectations from Washington. I made only two or three requests of you. One for the Northern Superintendancy of Indian Affairs for my friend J.P. Luce. My heart was set on this application for him..."
Nothing is more contemporary than scorn, and Americans lined up to denounce Lincoln ("You are destroying the country") and the men he surrounded himself with.
"For God's sake let a plain man say a few plan words to you," begins John P. Cranford, a New Yorker. "It is commonly reported and believed that Mr. Seward is drunk daily; and it is universally believed that [Secretary of War Simon] Cameron is a thief —All men believe you, upright—but know you lack experience and fear you lack nerve."
Well, maybe not "all men."
"Sir Mr Abe Lincoln if you don't Resign we are going to put a spider in your dumpling and play the Devil with you," writes one A.G. Frick in February, 1861, in a letter discovered in the Chicago Historical Society files, "you god or mighty god dam sundide of a bith go to hell and buss my Ass suck my prick and call my Bolics your uncle Dick god dam a fool and goddam Abe Linoln who would like you goddam you excuse me for using such hard words with you but you need it for you are nothing but a goddam Black nigger."
It seems the wildest anachronism that someone wrote to Abraham Lincoln and told him to suck his dick—yet why do I feel that type of person isn't safely consigned to history? Lincoln's spirit might be gone, wiped from the body politic, impossible. But his enemies remain, strong and vocal and all too common. Malice like that never dies.
That said, let's not give them the final word.
Some of the letters are positive, such as Edward Everett's graceful note penned the day after they share a podium dedicating the Union cemetery on the Gettsyburg battlefield.
"Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts offered by you, with such eloquent simplicity & appropriateness, at the consecration of the cemetery," the former governor of Massachusetts writes. "I should be glad, if I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes."
Lincoln replies with delightful tact: "You could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one."
He was thinking of the public when he wrote that. Perhaps that is the most amazing thing about Lincoln. Facing what he did, a nation divided, at war, vicious enemies, within and without, one of whom would kill him, 150 years ago today, that he managed to remain the man he was. Another reason to revere him.