Playground rhymes for our troubled times

Do you remember that little song from the playground game, “Ring around the Rosie” from your childhood?

Ring around the rosie,

A pocket full of posies.

Ashes, ashes:

We all fall down!

Now, I wonder if you learned– even as a child, like I did–that this nonsensical-sounding ditty dated back to the bubonic plague decimating Europe’s population in the Middle Ages.

It turns out, the Black Death explanation is apocryphal and didn’t appear until the mid-20th century. Even so, the notion of kids taking notice when the world seems on its way to Hell with an oversized hand basket strikes me as accurate.

I haven’t got a COVID-19 rhyme composed for you today, though I’m now tempted to try my hand at one.Map of Mariupol, Ukraine generated by cell phone GPS app

I did, however, have a politically motivated stab at nasty name-calling in verse! come together in my mind over the past few days. While imperfect–and my apologies to the masterful teacher Michael Clay Thompson, whose MCT Langugage Arts curriculum I used with my home educated child in very recent years, so that I now have the vocabulary to describe how weak my doggerel truly is in form and meter–my not-quite-best self still prompts me to post it here.

I’d also like to ask if others can do better. Please, post your own rhyme in the comments, or tweet away!

I feel as if every child in the free world should have such poems on their lips these days. With luck, the wind will carry them across borders to those less fortunate youngsters growing up under dictators.

The literal future of human freedom lay presently with democratic nations around the world who must confront the warmongering by Russia’s “elected” leader and would-be-czar.

Upon seeing the news report of the bombed maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, on March 9th, 2022, I brought these words together.

Printed text of verse in historical typewriter font: Pathetic Putin, killer of babies. Can’t defeat soldiers so he bombs ladies

I debated posting something so mean-spirited. It goes against the very nature of this blog. Really Wonderful Things tries hard to be a bringer of light, and a force for good, human and wildly imperfect as its author is.

“Pathetic Putin…

What is Really Wonderful, however, is my right to comment on politics and politicians. God bless America, and hurrah for my freedom of speech! We are not perfect, yet I don’t hesitate to write these words or share them with the world. I am safe, though I express a controversial opinion, and in strident tones.

…killer of babies…

A miracle, frankly, if you know much of history.

How grateful I am that this is so… for me. How deeply I wish everyone shared in this good fortune.

…can’t defeat soldiers…

What I hope to accomplish by encouraging innocents to chant insults aimed at distant autocrats is the absolute, utter celebration of democracy and representation for the common individual.

…so he bombs pregnant ladies!”

Every school kid should know that such a system exists, God-willing, right on his or her doorstep. Every free person alive should be teaching those children the rights and responsibilities of an empowered electorate.

We the people of free nations owe every other human being, potential and living, our efforts toward sharing our ultimate luxury.

The people of Ukraine have made clear their disinterest in being re-shackled to their former Soviet masters. The bravery of those defending their homes should serve as a stern reminder for all who hear the news.

Representation is an inalienable right, but it is ultimately a privilege that must be constantly protected from jealous usurpers. The world will never lack for tyrants, in temperament if not in fact.

I stand with Ukraine.

Happy Hanukkah 5782

Almost another full year of pandemic permutations, and the Gregorian calendar is wrapping up 2021. The Hebrew year 5782, however, is just entering its prime as we celebrate Hanukkah. Tonight, Sunday, December 5th, is the last night of this Jewish holiday.

What I love most about Hanukkah is its focus on the universal human need for light to triumph over darkness. On this, the eighth and final night of the Festival of Lights, my sputtering candles serve as a visual metaphor for a dream many of us share: may this be the final stand of COVID-19, too!Candles in Hanukkah menorah burning out

I hope that Omicron is a pathetic, last gasp of the no-longer-so-novel coronavirus; I pray for a future where we can resume our holidays, rituals, and everyday celebrations in each other’s company without fear.

I am personally blessed to be both vaccinated (Moderna) and boosted (Pfizer), and to have the freedom and means to travel this holiday season. My father, who got his first knee replacement last summer, was able to schedule his second side for the week after Thanksgiving. While elective surgeries like my father’s have been canceled in my home state*, hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, where he lives, remain open to patients like him.

Hanukkah is notable for its emphasis upon pirsumei nissa, or “publicizing the miracle.” This isn’t just a minority group’s attempt to hold a holiday up against the majority culture’s big day. Rather, the miracle of a single vial of oil burning far beyond its expected daily duration for an entire week instead (necessary to create new ritual fuel) was deemed worthy of public emphasis by Jewish sages in antiquity.

This year, as my youngest child embarks upon education in a new environment—but, again, a Christian one—I can’t help but draw his attention to the history of gambling over dreidels for this holiday. It matters, a lot, why Jews emphasize this particular act.

As I understand it, during Syrian-Greek rule of the Holy Land (c. 200 BCE), it was illegal for our people to study Torah. The punishment for a Jewish religious education was death. A form of hiding in plain sight was developed; if enemy soldiers approached, students would pull out their spinning tops (dreidels) and pretend they were just playing.

There is so much that I admire in my youngest’s Catholic education. A recent letter from his principal included the following statement that resonates powerfully with me:

You were created by the God of love

in God’s image and according to God’s likeness,

to be a unique expression of that love.

It is through you

that God desires to manifest Love

to the peoples of the world in these times,

and to offer them the freedom

of the children of God.

According to our school, this statement is one of the fundamental principles of the Xaverian Brothers.

For all the ways I identify with these notions, I also found myself admonishing my child to remember his own unique heritage in recent weeks.

We are blessed to live in a society where we may elect to join any school, but we mustn’t forget the lessons of our forebears. A Jewish child should know where he came from; he must recognize that there are people living in America today who wouldn’t acknowledge him as either fully human, equal, or a true patriot. It’s unfortunate, but plain fact.

I feel myself to be an American before any other categorization, yet I don’t have the luxury of assuming that all my compatriots would agree with that assessment. It’s a tragedy that I have to emphasize the same to my children; it would be negligent to fail to alert them to this truth as I understand it.

The scent of spent beeswax tapers lingers in my nostrils as I waver between gratitude for my abundance of blessings and acceptance of the ridiculous prejudices that seem to motivate vast swathes of the public today.

I’ll take my luck and be thankful. I have the light from my menorah piercing the darkness, my father’s great good fortune to have gotten the health care he needs, and the secure knowledge of the love of friends and family who surround me.

As we near the darkest days of December, 2021, my wish is for the blessing of illumination to all who seek light. Best wishes for warmth, safety, health, and goodness to everyone reading this.

L’ chaim! To life! And to everything good, holy, and beneficent as we huddle against the darkness.

*Due to a combination of COVID cases and staff shortages

Anglo-Saxon ideals aren’t the primary basis of U.S. government

As if her anti-Semitic claim that PG&E and Jewish bankers started California’s 2018 wildfires with space lasers wasn’t proof enough—whether due to mental illness or plain simple-mindedness—that Georgia’s elected Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is unfit for office, her latest antics show that she lacks even basic education on the history of the government of the United States of America.

Together with Paul Gosar, R-AZ, the befuddled Congresswoman Greene was reported to be forming an “America First Caucus” to  promote nativist policies. Reps. Barry Moore, R-AL, Louie Gohmert, R-TX, and moral powerhouse Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-FL all publicly lent support to this morass of historical confusion.

In a quick search on the day this news broke, I failed to find the complete seven page document referenced, so I can speak only to public claims reported in several major American newspapers. Ms. Greene, it should be noted, backpedaled furiously after this news spread, joining colleagues in statements suggesting they hadn’t even read the mission statement in question before endorsing it.

I wonder how these lazy politicians justify cashing their paychecks? This isn’t a difference of opinion, but a dereliction of duty and evidence of a near total lack of qualification for their sworn duty to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.Reproduction of the oath of office by which new United States congresspeople are sworn in

Teaching U.S. history to my own home educated teen in recent years, I was reminded that our Founding Fathers were influenced by Native American forms of government when crafting the U.S. Constitution. Here’s an entire article on the subject from The History Channel’s website. The Founders obviously didn’t seek to duplicate any indigenous government, but remarks by Benjamin Franklin* amongst others prove they were aware of, and even relatively positively disposed toward, adopting the best notions they knew of—from any source—to form their “more perfect union.”

According to the Boston Globe, “the [“America First Caucus”] document describes the United States as a place with ‘uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.’”

High school aged children are aware of the Iroquois Confederacy’s influence on the work of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Does the America First Caucus reject those former leaders as patriotic Americans, too? Is Trump the only man any of them will stand behind?USA flag - 1

I’m concerned by this new Caucus’ interest in Anglo-Saxon values in particular. The term Anglo-Saxon is out of date if meant as a reference to the British people, and the simple fact of the American Revolutionary War strongly implies to those of us with critical thinking skills that the Founding Fathers were not interested in maintaining an English form of government where colonies were taxed by the Crown without political representation.

Does the America First Caucus seek to emulate those tumultuous years in Britain between the end of Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror (a.k.a., William the Bastard)? Per the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

“[T]he various peoples commonly grouped together as Anglo-Saxons were not politically unified until the 9th century, and their reign over England was interrupted by 26 years of Danish rule that began in 1016 with the accession of Canute.”

Here’s a BBC overview explaining Anglo-Saxon Government written for children. Very little of it reminds me of American government with the exception of trials being conducted with community representation.

Speaking only for myself—but probably reflecting the will of most emotionally stable Americans—I would prefer not to live through centuries of incessant warring by disparate groups. I’m not really keen to be ruled over by Denmark, either, though I’d take orders from the current Danish government before submitting to the purported leadership of a reality-averse reactionary like Representative Greene.

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania appears to be cut from the same flawed cloth. On April 27th, The Boston Globe reported that he said the following though the emphasis is mine at a Young America’s Foundation event:

“We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans but, candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum

Without a doubt, the forebears of most current American citizens arrived in the New World and did not find the trappings of European society to which they would have naturally deferred. The fact that those men could not, due to religious and cultural bigotry, recognize the humanity of those they encountered—let alone their technical and cultural achievements—was their own failing, not that of the indigenous peoples they subsequently massacred.

Modern scholarship now points toward the birth of human civilization in the central Andes (i.e., in the Americas) being of equal moment to the traditional European scholars’ foci of technological and social evolution: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China’s Yellow River basin.

Being too shortsighted to notice the contributions of indigenous Americans is evidence of a lack of mental power—or intellectual rigor—on the part of the observer, not evidence of shortcomings on the part of the targeted society. Conservative culture warriors would do well to make a more careful study of the history they claim to venerate before blundering so ineptly into statements of rank ignorance.

I recognize the many contributions of Western Civilization to the formation of the United States of America. Disregarding great work—whether philosophy, art, or technical innovation—is folly, but so is ignoring the hybrid vigor of multiculturalism that led to the success that still brings scores of refugees from around the world here today in hopes of earning their own piece of our prosperity.

When I was a child, the “melting pot” analogy was falling out of favor due to a greater emphasis on appreciating diverse cultures over demands for cultural hegemony. I still recall a teacher offering the “tossed salad” metaphor to take its place. I reject that notion, too.

Tossed salad sees disparate ingredients jumbled together with no interaction between them until they’re masticated by an outside force. Shared governance and geography might be the salad dressing, then, but greens, carrots, and tomatoes have little influence over each other. They just happen to share a bowl. Separate but equal as policy failed America during that experiment in our past.

Thermal Cooker with stew-filled primary pot insertedHere’s my offering: America is more akin to a pot of stew than a melting pot or a tossed salad.

Every one of us goes into the pot—simmering required, it must be said, perhaps making my metaphor even more apt. Time and cohabitation rub our edges off, softening us from strict segregation and stark differences. Some chunks blur into pleasant similarity; others maintain more distinction, lending texture and complexity to the totality. The mass blends into richness and depth, and the whole ends up much greater than the sum of its parts.

There would be no gravy without every contribution; there could be no stew without admixture and synthesis.

When I consider the meaning of a term like America First, my mind goes to first principles. Our founders spelled out their impetus in splitting from the British Empire in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Its 56 signatories did not specify that only American men, men of European descent, or Christian men exclusively were who counted; all men, they declared, are created equal, endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights for which patriots went to war, fought, and died. That foundational document should guide any America First Caucus crafted by people informed by the history of the United States.

Rep. Gaetz is currently under investigation for paying to have sex with underage girls, underscoring the lie that the Republican Party as a group in any way deserves its claim to the title of a “Moral” Majority.

* Letter From Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, 20 March 1751:

“It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.”

We supplemented our studies with the fairly light, quite mainstream Great Courses High School Level Early American History videos. One doesn’t need to delve into the works of Howard Zinn or any left-leaning sources to discover the framers’ interest in our nation’s indigenous peoples’ best practices, which they then combined with European ideas from philosophers such as Locke and Montesquieu to craft the foundations of our own democratic republic.

Seeking only perfect role models means failing to learn from history

Like many others—including the city’s mayor—I find the choice by the San Francisco Board of Education to spend its time focused on name changes for 1/3 of its public schools in the midst of a pandemic quite shocking. It strikes me as a misuse of resources when the children the Board is commissioned to serve are struggling to learn remotely with no* firm re-opening plans in place.

Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10Contrary to the far right, white supremacist commentators who unilaterally dismiss that Board of Education’s actions as essentially foolish, I’d like to make clear that I support discussion of social justice issues in this context. The feelings of enrolled students about the namesake of their institution deserve to be recognized, though, crucially in my opinion, not catered to by default, and never without extensive study and careful reflection when a preponderance of reasonable people hold differing opinions.

Talking about thorny questions is helpful, even vital to each pupil’s education. Confronting difficult episodes in our shared history enables us to be better as a nation and to become better individual human beings. I disagree with some of the ultimate decisions made by the San Francisco Board of Education about striking particular names from schools, but it’s not because I am unaware of mistakes made by leaders in earlier eras.

By my reckoning, the great hubristic error shown by that Board is the futile quest to pretend any perfect role model exists, unblemished enough to “deserve” to have a school named for him or her.back side of Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona, Spain

No man or woman can be held up as a paragon of all virtues for all times. All of us fail; the very best of us will lead a life full of foibles. Some of us succeed handsomely in our own time, but later run afoul of changing notions of decency in another era.

The greater the risks taken in life, the more likely we are to make at least one real doozy of an error. People who devote lives to public service will fail with an audience, by definition. Should we teach our children to avoid any action to circumvent the possibility of failure? Do we want tomorrow’s adults to be more afraid of being judged by history than they are of taking part in—and becoming leaders of—public life?

Speaking for myself: no, I would not choose to teach that lesson to my kids or anyone else’s. I think the San Francisco Board of Education is doing a grave disservice to the children it serves by wielding nuanced history as a blunt instrument. Ironically, time is unlikely to be kind to its members. If they are remembered at all, it may well be for presumption and self-righteousness.

There is evidence that children allowed to fail, shown how to learn from their mistakes, then given opportunities to try again to find success grow into healthier, more productive adults. Given the 100% probability that a human being will screw up, a focus on incremental improvement seems like the wisest approach to raising and teaching young ones.

Christen your institutions with improper nouns defining high ideals if you still demand perfection: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, perhaps? Freedom? Justice? Unity? My personal favorite is Integrity.

Statue of LibertyIrreproachable individuals don’t exist, San Francisco Board of Education, but I’m curious to see who you believe holds up better to scrutiny than yesterday’s heroes with their feet of clay.

The social justice warriors on San Francisco’s Board of Education might not like being compared to fascists, but, to me, the parallels are obvious. People in power are attempting to strong-arm the world into abiding by their own narrow standards, ignoring complex reality in favor of pat party lines and simplifications that cast “the other” as willfully evil. Without a doubt, extremist elements on the left are also prone to seeking economic and social regimentation with forcible suppression of opposition.

Our young people didn’t invent cancel culture. Students of history will recognize the eradication of the names of pharaohs such as Akhenaten and Hatshepsut as a similar insult to non-conformists. The term damnatio memoriae may be modern**, but the concept is not.

Let’s teach our children to honor what’s good in our history while recognizing errors for what they were: human failings. Then, we learn what we can from those past mistakes, incorporating their lessons into our own pursuit of a better future. Isn’t that the ultimate point of public education?

* As of January 29, 2021, as I write these words, only one school’s re-opening plan has reached the Site Assesment stage and zero (0) applications to re-open have been accepted.

Presenting a role model as too perfect actually prevents teens from seeing a path to similar success for him- or herself. According to the linked study, kids benefit more from learning about Thomas Edison who worked very hard to achieve success (in spite of his reputation as a real jerk) vs. Albert Einstein whom most regard as a born genius with preternatural intellectual abilities.

On a television show I watched recently, the teens attended a school called Excellence. That’s a fine paradigm for which to aim.

Too bad one of the hyper-pressured teen characters felt compelled to abuse drugs to keep up and cope with the stress, and an otherwise ethical teacher on the show guides a young child toward cheating on high stakes exams to chase the academy’s pursuit of excellence in its reputation over the needs of that pupil.

** 17th century

Where is the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Where do you, personally, draw the line between infrastructure and socialism?

Merriam Webster dictionary definition of infrasctructure, the system of public works of a country, etc.I ask this sincerely, with no desire to engage in polarized internet snipe-fests, but in the spirit of attentiveness to what government services various individuals might deem “necessary” and which are “overreach.”

Even more interesting than the what, is the why.

Only deep ignorance of history allows one to pretend there’s anything universal about this question. Our republican forebears in Rome—whose architecture we aped in the United States capitol in part due to the Founding Fathers’ lionization of that civilization—prioritized very different governmental interventions than we do today.

Proving myself, as always, a true dilettante and no real scholar, I’ll begin by pointing to a series of mystery novelsthat I read years ago. They turned me on to a startling fact: the ancient Romans had no police force.

police car parked at justice centerRome, civilization par excellence, did not feel that it owed average citizens the protection of civil police. The military kept order to an extent that suited the needs of the state, but there was no one to call when your silver was stolen. It wasn’t until the great republic became an empire that Augustus formed the Praetorian Guard in 27 BCE… to protect himself.

And all this in spite of the fact that the Ancient Greek city of Athens had seen the nascent formation of a police force (c. 400 BCE) to keep order and arrest and manage prisoners using publicly owned Scythian slaves. Investigating and detecting crime, in the ancient world, was the responsibility of individual free citizens.

So, is a police force a basic piece of infrastructure, a right that should be available to all, or is investigation and detection by paid government agents an imposition against individual freedoms as the Romans seemed to believe?

In spite of our turbulent times and the fraught political environment, I’ll admit it: I think this is a fascinating question. In a democracy, it is, in fact, the duty of every citizen to ponder these essential assumptions.

Do modern American people on the right and on the left really have such different ideas about what a government ought to do, or are our differences more about degree and descriptive nomenclature?

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