Sunday, January 27, 2008

Obama for President

Photograph and text ©2008

When the Democratic race for a presidential nominee began, I doubted Hillary Clinton's sincerity, and was unsure about Barack Obama. If my feelings did not change I thought I would write in Al Gore’s name in November. But a photograph in Saturday’s New York Times and the desperation envinced by Billary (credit to Frank Rich of the Sunday NY Times for this descriptive word) in South Carolina has helped make me a supporter of Barak Obama.

The photograph in the Times was of Hillary Clinton giving a speech, and sitting on the stage behind were Rep. Charles Rangel (D- Harlem) and David Dinkins, former mayor of New York. Both are black and being as highly placed in New York politics as they are, it would be political suicide for them not to actively support Hillary’s candidacy. But my immediate impression seeing the three of them together was of age. This might sound strange coming from someone who just turned 69, but it was not the number of years that disturbed me. It was the visceral recognition that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy represents the same ol’ Democratic Party I’ve been disgusted with for years. I looked at her, Rangel, and Dinkins, and I didn’t see new ideas, new energy, or, most important, vision. Looking at them I did not feel inspired or hopeful. Looking at them I got depressed. Looking at them I was certain that the surest way to insure that another Republican becomes president is for the Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton.

From the beginning of the primary season I have thought that Hillary Clinton was making a mistake in having her husband be an active part of her campaign. I would have respected her if she had told Bill to stay home, that she would win or lose on her own. Increasingly, however, she has become dependent on her husband’s charisma and oratory, which certainly does not make her seem like the strong and independent woman she claims she is. Her increasing reliance on her husband raises the very real question of just who would be president if she were to win the nomination and the election. This would not be a question in the minds of many people if Bill Clinton had not become so central to her campaign, if Bill Clinton didn’t say “we” more often than he says “Hillary”. Do we really want Bill Clinton back in the White House? While I thought Clinton was a fairly good president, I do not think he was so good that a return to a Clinton presidency is warranted, and that is what we will get if Hillary becomes president because her political thinking does not differ from Bill's.

During the campaign in the South Carolina primary it was disconcerting to see the former president acting like a rabid dog. Perhaps he took too seriously Toni Morrison’s proclaiming him the first “black President”. Maybe he thought he really was black, and therefore, could attack Obama personally without black people being offended. I think he knows otherwise now.

Finally, and most important, Billary does not understand that people are sick and tired of hearing candidates talk about their “plans”. Both Al Gore and John Kerry made the mistake of saying, ad nauseum, “I have a plan.” Insurance companies have plans. What the Republicans have understood and the Democrats haven’t is that people want a leader who has a vision which he or she is passionate about. People want a leader who will inspire them, who will make them want to aspire to the best in themselves, not the meanest. Barack Obama understands this.

Billary harps on the fact that Hillary has experience and Obama doesn’t. One of the virtues of youth is that it does not have experience, that it does not have a good sense of what is and is not possible. Thus, youth will be audacious; youth will try to accomplish things that have no chance of success and succeed. Youth will dream, while experience will look at those dreams and say, “Yes, but….” The simple fact is that people with experience in government have put America where it is today -- a nation crumbling from the greed of banks, a nation suffering from a megalomania that believes every nation in the world should be democratic and Christian, a nation at war internally because it has become the norm to demonize those who do not hold politically conservative and Christian values.

Writing on the op-ed page of Sunday's NY Times, Caroline Kennedy, JFK's daughter, endorsed Barack Obama and wrote, “I want a president who understands that his responsibility is to articulate a vision and encourage others to achieve it; who holds himself, and those around him, to the highest ethical standards; who appeals to the hopes of those who still believe in the American Dream, and those around the world who still believe in the American ideal; and who can lift our spirits, and make us believe again that our country needs every one of us to get involved.”

Barak Obama appears to be that person. However, even if it turns out that he isn’t, I know already that Billary is not, and if they become the Democratic nominee, come November I’ll be writing in Al Gore’s name.


New York City, 1966

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Books I Loved in 2007 - 2

Photographic art & text © 2008 by Julius Lester

Stephen Clarke, Talk to the Snail: Ten Commandments for Understanding the French

I am a Francophile. I have been since one of my professors in college introduced me to translations of Andre Gide, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Although I majored in English and American lit, I can't think of very many works in English that speak to me the way French literature, painting, sculpture, music, and, well, almost anything French. I went to Paris for the first time in 1967 and, even though the extent of my French was "Bon jour" and "Un cafe au lait, s'il vous plait," I felt like I had come home.

I love the French because of the ways in which they have their priorities straight. For example, it is against French law for a store owner to hold a sale because it puts his competitors at an unfair advantage. Instead, there is a period of a week or so each year in which stores are permitted to have sales. By limiting sales to a specific time of year, the French preserve the small, neighborhood stores that give France so much of its unique character. The French place a higher value on community than profit.

I have been studying French for two years now. At my age, (69 in a week and two days), my goal is to acquire a reading knowledge of the language which I am slowly doing. I read a lot of books about France (in English), and one of the funniest and most insightful writers on the complex enigma of France and the French is Stephen Clarke.

He is an Englishman who has lived and worked in France for many years. His first book, A Year in the Merde, was quite funny. His second, In the Merde for Love was quite tedious in its focus on his French girl friend and their dysfunctional relationship.

In this one, however, he returns to form as he explains how to survive the French. I gave a copy to a friend of mine living in France and she found it quite helpful.

“Life is not work. Working too much sends you insane.” Charles de Gaulle, p. 29

“The funniest example of strategic secrecy is a French itemized phone bill, which never gives the complete numbers called. It gives the first six digits, but not the rest, so that jealous spouses cannot call numbers they don’t recognize and get through to a lover.” p. 136

“[The French] have a law – non-assistance à personne en danger – that makes it illegal not to help someone who is being mugged or crying for help through the door of their apartment, at least by phoning for assistance. It is illegal to evict a rent-defaulting tenant in winter, or to cut off their electricity. It is almost impossible to write your children out of your will.” p. 157.

One of my favorite quotes about the French is not in Clarke's book, but it's worth passing on. It is attributed to Charles de Gaulle.

"One can't impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kinds of

How can you not love a country as small as France that has so many cheeses, not to mention wines! Vive le France!


"Horse in Snow"

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Books I Loved in 2007 - 1

Photograph and text © 2008 by Julius Lester

CORRECTION: Those of you who watched the first installment on PBS Wednesday night of “The Jewish Americans” already know that I erred in my last blog on when the shows will air. They are being broadcast on successive Wednesdays. I think I will appear on the last segment, which will be broadcast on January 23.


In my blog of August 3, 2007, I mentioned that my decision to retire from teaching at the University of Massachusetts at the end of 2003 came with an epiphany that I wanted the time to read all the books I compulsively buy. My desire was to read at least a book of week. So far, so good. In 2004, I read 58 books; 2005, 64; 2006, 57; and 2007, 53.

Reading as much as I have since the beginning of 2004, I find myself thinking a lot about the experience of reading. The pleasures are many – the encounter with someone else’s mind, the joy some writers bring to language, the pleasure a book gives by taking me into a time and/or place I could not go/have never been, the pleasure of being led to experience times and places that never were nor will be.

But only a few books become a part of me. These are the books I keep, because the sight of them resting on a book shelf brings back the experience I had reading them. These are the books that help me learn something about myself and my journey through time and space. As I approach my 69th birthday I am still learning who I am and who I can become. The words of others give me words that confirm something still inchoate within me, give me words that confirm something I know, give me words that describe a path I want to walk.

In the next few blogs I will be sharing the books that meant the most to me last year, and some of the passages I underlined.

In the blogs of August 3, 6, and 8, I mentioned books I’d read and liked between January-June of 2007. Those books were The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, and French Lessons: A Memoir by Alice Kaplan. In the blogs of August 14, 16, and 23, I mentioned mystery writers I liked – Michael Connolley, Archer Mayor, and Barbara Hambly. The books I’ll be talking about now were read from July to December.

Kuperman’s Fire by John Clayton.

John Clayton is a friend, a colleague from the University of Massachusetts. John is also active in Jewish life in this area. The novel is part mystery, part exploration of a marriage, part exploration of Jewish life in America today.

It is a wonderful book. I reached a point where I couldn’t put it down. The writing is really, really good, as are the characterizations, plot, insights into marriage and family life, and being Jewish. As I wrote in my Commonplace Book, “It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time.”

“…so much unsaid between him and Deborah, his daily anger – anger he’s known and not known, not known how thick until, at this moment, it comes to him in its temporary dissolution. For months, now, or for years, each of them too busy to take in the other’s burdens, they’ve been keeping score of injuries. Who’s at fault? Who has disregarded the other’s schedule more? Each of them is accumulating grievances in a secret account; enough and they can be ‘fed up’ and walk out. Or perhaps not walk out; but give up on the marriage. Nourished by these grievances, they speak continually in ironies. (I notice, my dear, you’re rubbing salt into the cuts you’ve given me, but don’t think I’ll give you the satisfaction of complaining; it’s what I expect from you).” p. 37 [Italics in original]

Since almost anything one underlines in a book is autobiographical, this passage was an accurate description of the dynamics that developed over time in my previous marriages. How is that two people marry each other because of a very real love and yet, that love does not seem sufficient to help them past “accumulating grievances in a secret account”? I’ve concluded that liking the person you marry and being liked by that person is, perhaps, more important than love. It seems odd to say, but you can love someone but not like them. In the novel the couple’s marriage survives, in part because they like as well as love each other.

“Deborah feels the gnaw in the pit of her stomach that comes with walking into the unknown world not dressed in a story.” p. 181

Sometimes when I am out doing errands I look at people and try to imagine them getting dressed that morning. What made them decide to put on that particular dress, skirt, blouse, suit, pair of pants, shirt, tie, etc.? Each of us is a story. Our decisions about what to wear dictate what story we are telling that day. During the 32 years I taught at the University of Massachusetts, there came a time (my 50th birthday) when I no longer felt comfortable with students addressing me by my first name. So I began coming to classes dressed in a three-piece suit and tie. Doing so changed the dynamic of their relationship to me. I was no longer their “friend”. I was their professor, and they addressed me as “Professor Lester.” And I became a better teacher.

What story will you be tomorrow?


San Francisco, 1966

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Hilary & Barack

Text and photograph © 2008 by Julius Lester

For those of you who don’t know me personally and have never seen or heard me, PBS is going to be showing a film this coming week called “The Jewish Americans”. The film will run on three nights starting Wednesday, January 9th to Friday, January 11th. I was interviewed for the film and would guess the segment I’m on will run either Thursday or Friday night. I have no idea how the interview with me was edited, so I may be on for thirty seconds, which has happened. But I wanted to let people know so that those who wish to can put a face and voice to the words here.

I am hoping for the defeat of Hilary Clinton in this week’s New Hampshire primary. Although she has been in public life for some years now, I still have no sense of who she is or what she believes. I think she has made a serious mistake by not campaigning by herself. She has made it impossible for us not to think of her as little more than Bill Clinton’s wife. The American people have barely survived the dynasty of Bush’s, father and son. I wonder if we are not wary of creating another political dynasty.

While I am no fan of Hilary's, I have not been that taken with Barack Obama. It is not because he lacks experience. As I wrote her previously, when you think about how inept the people with experience have been, his lack of such is a virtue. But there's something about him I don't trust.

That feeling has not disappeared, but I am impressed by the number of younger people and independent votes who responded to him in Iowa. The fact that he is exciting young people with a vision of how we can live together is significant because so many of the young have been alienated from politics and rightly cynical about the possibility of change.

I have not decided if I will vote for him, if he becomes the Democratic Party nominee. I have been thinking that I will write in the name of Al Gore. We shall see.

The subtext to Obama’s candidacy is can a black man be elected president of the United States? I fear that we will never know because he will be assassinated if it appears he has a good chance of occupying the White House.

And if he is assassinated, may God have mercy on us all.


One of a series I call "Zen Snow".