My introduction to Iran

November 10, 2017

With Iran in the news I’ve been remembering my own introduction to the country. Our group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Iran in winter, after the semester had begun where we were supposed to teach. We were taken to the home of Prime Minister Hoveyda and stood there not knowing what to do or say. As it happened, I was standing next to the Prime Minister. Looking down, I realized we were standing on a magnificent Persian carpet.

We have a friend here who admired the carpet of another Iranian who instantly responded it was his. Sure enough, when our friend Bob got home, there was the carpet, rolled up and leaning against a corner. Bob was beside himself, not knowing what to do. But his friend showed up a few days later and admired the carpet. It’s yours, Bob quickly responded and the carpet was returned to its proper home. But I didn’t know that in the Prime Minister’s house and barely understood their system of etiquette.

I’ve since learned that it’s risky to make small talk with someone much higher on the social ladder – in any country. But I didn’t know that yet.

So I admired the Prime Minister’s carpet. Understanding American culture much better than I knew Iranian culture, Prime Minister Hoveyda dropped to the floor, motioning me to join him. He then turned over a corner of the carpet and gave me my first lesson in distinguishing the quality of Persian carpets, turning what could have been my intense embarrassment into a warm introduction to Iran.

Our next stop was Shiraz, near the ancient capital of Persepolis, in the desert over four hundred miles south as the crow flies or something like nine hours by car or bus. We went to what was then named Pahlavi University, designed to be an American style institution. All but one of us had graduate degrees so that we could teach there. The students were required to speak English and spoke it reasonably well.

But this country hadn’t told Iranian authorities who was in our group, or what we were qualified to teach. University officials had asked for natural scientists and one art historian, understanding that art historians were broadly trained and could be versatile. We had an art historian and people in the natural sciences. But we had an equal number of people in social science, economics, history, law and politics. The Peace Corps, and the late President Kennedy, wanted to get Americans over as soon as possible. So who was available determined who we sent. That was a problem, however, so Peace Corps and diplomatic personnel neglected to convey the information.

Therefore we were taken to the Provost’s office. He assembled the heads of each of the departments at the University. After he explained the situation, he asked department chairs which of us they could use. Since their semester had begun, we would be underemployed for a while, but our hosts were gracious in helping us get our feet on the ground. By the end of the semester we enjoyed many friendships among faculty and students. Our welcome was warm even if a bit chaotic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 7, 2017.

 

 

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Dealing with Hate

October 24, 2017

Dealing with Hate

Steve Gottlieb

 

Group epithets darken our world. It is particularly dangerous because the president encourages it. Trying to revive the language and practice of hate is shameful regardless of whom it comes from. How can we deal with it?

 

Somehow I grew up curious and sought out people who seemed different. I deliberately left New York City for college and law school to mix with people from other places. Students here come from distant parts of the country for the same reason. We discover our new companions have no horns and deal decently with us, although there are always exceptions.

 

I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for it but brotherhood makes sense. And it’s a survival strategy. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler, spent seven years in Nazi concentration camps. He wrote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

His words urge us to stick together as a survival tactic – we can be selfish and altruistic at the same time and should be because brotherhood is valuable to us all.

Most of us learned not to generalize – branding people en masse makes little sense and lots of damage. Our language is full of ethnic slurs like welching on deals, Indian-givers, patty-wagons, not to mention all the ethnic slurs which most of us now regard as unmentionable but to which all our ancestors were subject. In other words, it’s too easy to break down into mutual distrust.

I’ve broken bread, worked and played with people around this country and across the globe, as an attorney, a Peace Corps Volunteer, tourist and student. It’s an education. Decent, caring people come in all colors, speak all languages, and worship in all kinds of places. That was as true in Iran as it was at college – I was a religious minority in both places but gained by both experiences as I learned to understand the needs, fears, desires and beliefs of others.

Unfortunately it’s too easy to fear what one hasn’t explored. We usually notice what goes wrong first, while what goes right seems too ordinary to notice. But that leaves lots of dangerous misimpressions. I grew up in an era when violence spewed out of white ghettos, from gangs in Black jackets but white skin. Should I fear every white American or every cleric because some went wrong? I’ve known a large number of wonderful African-Americans as well as people of other faiths and nationalities – some as clients, friends, colleagues and I’ve worked for several. The goodness of different peoples obviously doesn’t prove that none ever make mistakes but equally the mistakes of some don’t imply the absence of other wonderful people.

More significant than arguments, we need to condemn, resist and speak out. Hatred reveals the hater’s weakness. Our joint condemnations reveal how hatred destroys those who do the hating, costs them respect and other social and economic rewards. We must stand together.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 24, 2017.


Brotherhood

April 25, 2017

In the height of the Civil Rights Movement we used “brotherhood” to express our quest for more than tolerance, but for closeness as one human family. I’ve never found a gender-neutral term for that feeling, so I continue to use it but in a gender-neutral way – we are all family, cousins, a part of one community. As John Donne famously wrote in 1624, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Given the waves of hate crimes since the election, I’ve been thinking about brotherhood. This country is built on brotherhood, on sloughing off the ethnic, religious and physical prejudices our ancestors all brought from their old countries. By now those prejudices seem irrelevant. Many of us intermarried and were welcomed in new families. A friend told me that Bahai do it intentionally to bring people into the faith, though he was truly smitten and has a loving marriage. Most of us just happen to fall in love and old prejudices seem quaint and silly.

But brotherhood matters. Many of us watched the shredding of Yugoslavia. An exchange student from Belgrade was living with us, beside herself with grief and anger at the destruction of her country. Some had predicted Yugoslavia would explode once Marshal Tito died. But many intermarried, traveled among Yugoslavia’s regions, and young people, like our visitor, thought of themselves as Yugoslavs. But it came apart, viciously, in a blood bath of what was called “ethnic cleansing.”

Americans like to think America is and will always be ingenious, hardworking, neighborly and welcoming; that’s us – we’re the best. But many of us understand that virtues have to be nurtured, not assumed.

Early in the last century, President Teddy Roosevelt predicted “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” The draft brought people together who had lived geographically, religiously, ethnically or racially segregated lives. As men returned from war, they introduced each other to sisters and friends, integrating families and communities. But the political strains of war in Vietnam ended the draft. Ben Downing recently urged national service on this station but we have nothing that compares with the reach and impact of the draft.

Racial segregation was made much worse by federal officials who required banks to redline cities and suburbs against loans to African-Americans no matter how strong their financial status. That left segregated school districts. Many of us still try to make our schools “great agents of democratization.” But racially homogenous student bodies make integration difficult or meaningless, and courts have made it worse.

Sports and entertainment still reflect integration. I once told Jackie Robinson’s widow how much it meant to grow up rooting for her husband. Black faces have been on national television as long as I can remember. My mother screamed with joy when William Warfield came out on stage and announced he would sing Old Man River. And I’ll never forget the sound of Marion Anderson’s voice when I heard her live. I’ve only caught glimpses of Oprah Winfrey but bless her influence. Familiarity, like minority newscasters and public officials, helps to diffuse prejudice and fear.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League rely on litigation to put racist groups out of business and catalogue hate groups, warning us about their activities and sharing strategies to extend the warm pull of brotherhood.

Other groups try to bring people together, to meet and appreciate each other, like the Interfaith Alliance, individual churches, temples and Muslim Community Centers, who invite people to meetings and festivals. We’ve often broken bread in the Muslim community.

But nothing matches what the draft and schools once did for so many of us. We need better ways to advance peace, justice and brotherhood.

— Most of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 25, 2017.


On Egos in Skin, Muscles and Race

December 31, 2016

Years ago, when I was working out in a gym, a younger woman was obviously putting more weight on the equipment and doing more and faster reps than I was. I did not know this woman and there was no conversation between us. But as she passed me, she commented that it was OK because I would be stronger on the upper body exercises. When people catch me off guard with a comment like that, I often say nothing, and I don’t think I responded. But I have often wanted to say to her that I don’t keep my ego in my muscles.

Some do of course, people who can do all sorts of things that I can’t, great athletes but also people who move furniture and other heavy work and they have every right to put their egos in their muscles.

But why would anyone put their egos in the color of their skin? I hope everyone has other things to be proud of. That leads me to feeling mostly pity for the people who base their lives on racism, as if their own race is special, not just as good, but superior. That is as shallow as the cosmetics that people apply to their skin.

After the Civil War, Thaddeus Stevens told the House of Representatives that he hoped people would be judged only by their character and ability. By that standard of course, whites, or Caucasians, are all over the map, from killers and thieves to statesmen and scientists. The same is true for other so-called races. If that leaves people feeling like the ground has been knocked from under them, they need to hike onto firm ground, but it isn’t going to be the color of their skin. The people who kept repeating that President Obama couldn’t figure anything out only revealed their own inferiority complex, a struggle they tried to hide by claiming to belong to a supposedly superior white race, and by their inability to see the qualities of an African-American man.

The great Dodger shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, made a very revealing comment when he pointed out that what had really upset some ballplayers when Jackie Robinson broke in to the majors was not the color of his skin; it was his education – Robinson had been a four-letter man at UCLA and came to the Dodgers as a well-educated African-American at a time when most ballplayers had little education. The antagonism of some ballplayers was jealousy concealed as racism.

By the same token, I think what bothered many about President Obama was not just his race, but his accomplishments – an ivy-league education capped by the top position on the Harvard Law Review, a job with a corporate law firm followed by a career in public service. These are accomplishments most of us could envy. But most of us are happy to admire the man without demeaning his obvious accomplishments because somehow his skin color diminishes us. Truly I think racism both masks and reveals the inferiority of the racist. They need to get over it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 27, 2016.


Melting Pot – Good for Thanksgiving; Good for America

November 22, 2016

I walked by a lovely cathedral in Milwaukee and then another of the same faith one block  away. Then I noticed someone I knew and asked her what gives. She pointed out that the two cathedrals were built by people divided by their ethnic groups. How far have we traveled! These days we happily rub shoulders with people from all different backgrounds.

The melting pot started with the beginnings of our country. The Frenchman Hector St. John de Crevecouer wrote in 1782 that immigrants wanted to become Americanized and “melted” into Americans. In a 1909 novel, Israel Zangwill wrote “Into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.” And indeed the melting pot is how we created America and Americans. We are all products of that pot. It was the melting pot that made this a great country, rising above the petty jealousies and foolish fights of the Old World.

We invented the public school as the common school where we all went, mixed, learned and made friends. We work together, laugh together and we’ve made America great together. We’ve made America great together because all our ancestors have contributed to the extent of their skills, character and sometimes their genius. We’ve benefitted from everyone.

And we’re safer because of it.

At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Americans focused on Americanizing the hordes of immigrants arriving on our shores. What did they do? They used the common public schools. And the corporations and the military played a part. They had soldiers and workers who didn’t speak the same language, share the same customs or celebrate the same holidays. Greeks celebrated Christmas but they did it weeks later which created problems for the factories. Business and the military created Americanization classes and some held a ceremony with a huge pot – the immigrants walked in on one side. On the other, out came the Americans!

The military tried separate units by language but by World War I they put people together in the same tents. Soldiers coming home from the two world wars fixed each other up with their sisters and cousins. Suddenly the melting pot went national.

Many of us fought for integrated schools because we know it makes America stronger, makes our kids stronger and safer. We still fight for integrated schools and communities. But we have just lived through a campaign about divisions, denigrating people for where they came from and how they pray. We have spent eight years watching the most vicious refusal to cooperate with one of the most decent men to occupy the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. because he had an African father.

With Thanksgiving in a couple of days it’s worth stopping to remember that the melting pot is well worth a celebration, well worth giving thanks for, for ourselves and for our country. And it’s worth stirring too.

 — This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 22, 2016.


Cultural Revolution and Human Understanding

November 1, 2016

I encountered two images last night worth talking about.

Our daughter called us after leaving a Hillary rally and she commented that Democratic rallies are love fests where everyone feels welcome. Yes, that’s a large part of my own positive reaction to Hillary. People reflect the candidates – warmth at Hillary rallies, anger at Trump’s.

And in an article on an on-line forum, Neil Siegel wrote “The consequentialist concern that traditionalists will be branded as bigots is sufficiently serious for Justice Alito that it counts as a reason for the Court to reject” constitutional claims.

I identify with our daughter’s reaction. But Siegel’s comment makes clear one of the reasons my former student, now vice president of a major news organization, wrote me that he understands the feelings of many good people who have been drawn to Trump’s banner. Part of that is the economic struggle of America’s working class, a subject I’ve repeatedly tried to address. But part is the culture war which I’d like to address today.

It’s often hard to win without gloating. And conservatives have been no better at it than liberals. But it’s important. That’s not to say the victories we liberals are fighting for are for sale. We want to welcome, protect, show warmth and respect toward all kinds of people who were once despised. We’ve shared many victories with our African-American friends without managing to get them the fair shake in this life that they deserve. But that circle of friendship needs to reach all those who are struggling in this challenging world.

Living as a minority of one in a distinct community reveals the warmth, welcome and dignity of sharing each other’s lives. Born in a predominantly Jewish part of Brooklyn, if I can be permitted to address it from my personal experience, I spent summers in Christian Chautauqua and felt the love and welcome. Born a few years before the best universities in the country decided to drop their quotas, I took my high school college advisor’s suggestion to apply to Princeton and was surprised when I went for an interview by their encouragement to come. By the time I applied to law school, the welcome this Brooklyn kid got was less surprising. When I left Yale, I enjoyed another welcome by the legal staff of the NAACP and then in the Peace Corps by the people I came to know in Iran. I discovered a long time ago that the fears of others’ reactions were my fears. I went south to meet my future wife’s Baptist family and got one of the most important welcomes of my life. I hope they felt the same from me.

So opening up to others now comes easily to me. But I too understand the depth of the cultural revolution. I hope we can extend that welcome so that everyone can enjoy the camaraderie and mutual respect that comes from really opening up. When Hillary says she wants to be the president for all the people, she strikes the right note. But I hope that the people who will vote against her will prove able to see her care and concern better than people were able to appreciate those qualities in Barack Obama.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Nov. 1, 2016.


Hilary

September 27, 2016

I’ve been traveling and so I’m playing catch up. But I was shocked at the reactions I heard to Hilary’s illness. I expected people to do what we do when most people get sick – wish her well and hope she can get over it quickly. What I heard was just grousing that she said she was fine.

What do you and I do when people ask how we are? “Fine how about you?” “Good, I’m fine too.” Got a cold? “Nah, I’m fine. How about you?” In America we’re taught to be tough and not complain. In fact, if I ask my students how they are, their most common answer is “Can’t complain.” I often joke back, asking what they’re doing in law school if they can’t complain. I once passed one of my best college profs and with the usual pleasantries, I asked him how he was. Prof. Babbitt leaned in toward me, with a smile on his face, and burst out “Terrible!” Then he straightened up laughing and walked on, leaving this college kid totally nonplussed. But I got the message. We’re taught to be strong; that’s the way Americans handle illness. And we admire that in others.

But people didn’t give Hilary the benefit of adhering to our standards of behavior. The woman tried to tough it out like we’re all taught to do but the press crucified her for it. Thank heavens I’m not running for president; I don’t need that nonsense. You’d of thought people would have the grace to wish her well instead of crucifying her for trying to put a strong face on an illness.

I hate to tell you folks but anyone can get sick, including presidents and candidates, whether they try to tough it out or play bluster about their health. We can argue ‘til kingdom come about what Hilary should have done. But what she did do was to behave the way we are all taught to do. How bad is that? As for me, I wish her well.

I also wish that people would give her the credit she deserves. She’s pretty obviously a very intelligent person, and had the benefit of a terrific education. She could have earned a mint as a lawyer. But she left her practice and devoted herself to public service. I respect her for that.

She was our senator here in New York and what I kept hearing was that she won a great deal of respect all over the state and in Congress because people quickly saw that she worked hard at the job, worked on the needs of the whole state, studied the problems, and worked with everyone she could to solve problems. She was our senator and she took that seriously. I respect her for that.

She’s also been criticized for the way she handled some of her husband’s mistakes. But we are all taught to forgive. Hilary did, and she was crucified for it. We used to be taught that marriage is permanent, for all time. Hilary stuck by her husband and got crucified for it.

It seems that there is no code of behavior that is good enough for Hilary. But I respect her as a person who is doing her best to work for me and for you. She ought to get a lot of credit for that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Sept. 27, 2016.


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