Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.
By this author
It's a tall order, changing the world, especially when the subject is race. But it didn’t surprise me that Bryan Stevenson had ideas - four of them, in fact - worth listening to when I heard him speak earlier this year.
Stevenson is executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and author of Just Mercy, an engrossing and deeply disturbing memoir about his baptism as a young lawyer into the fight against class- and race-based malpractice in our criminal justice system.
CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently recommended the book, sending me back to notes I made during Stevenson's April speech at Connecticut College.
Just Mercy was a "One Book, One Region" selection for my area, meaning individuals and organizations were encouraged to read and discuss it. If any book deserves to be a "One Book, One Nation" selection, this is it.
I had already read Mercy, attracted in part by its links to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson didn't intend to make that link, but one of the case histories he lays out is that of Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman in Monroe, Alabama. Monroe, you may recall, was Lee's home and the model for the town in Mockingbird.
McMillian's case doesn't precisely mirror that of Mockingbird's fictional Tom Robinson, but how he was convicted and sentenced to death is equally egregious.
"Hello," a stranger shouted as I walked by the little town green at the end of my street. "Can I meet your dog?"
This green is where the World War II War Memorial stands, a stone slab inscribed with last names still recognizable at the Post Office around the corner. We'll gather there with our neighbors Monday morning, as we do every year, to hear a rough rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by a local Fife and Drum Corps. A few of us will sing, and one of us will give a speech.
The stranger was a fit young man in military fatigues, and as he came nearer with his long, confident stride I thought he might notice the memorial. But he had eyes only for my German Shepherd dog. He was already beside us before I could finish saying, "Sure, you can meet her. She's very friendly."
"What's her name?" he asked, crouching down and in one seamless move running his hands along the dog's ribs. "Darcy," I said. "She's 12 years old, but you'd never know it. She used to be a seeing-eye dog, but she was retired early after a few years on the job. My husband and I got her six years ago."
Darcy greets everyone with gusto, but something clicked with this stranger that I'd never seen before. Instinctively, I dropped the leash, and within seconds my dog was at his command, circling him where he stood, sitting at a flick of his hand. "Wow," I said. "She really responds to you."
"I had a German Shepherd dog," he said. "His name was Cisco, and we were partners when I was in Iraq. He was an amazing dog. Nothing spooked him, and he was always with me, always ready to work."
About a decade ago, I happened to be sitting at the table with a Navy veteran of World War II when the conversation turned to Japan. He was a retired physician, the father of a friend of mine, and if I remember correctly we were discussing an upcoming trip to Japan by someone in his family.
He had never been to Japan, he said, but if the U.S. hadn't dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would have. His Navy unit was among those poised to invade the Japanese mainland, a battle anticipated to be an epic bloodbath. He likely would have been killed, he added matter-of-factly, after which a somber pause settled over the table.
No one from his family took up the topic, and it wasn't my place to do so. But I think of him every time the subject of Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes up, as it has with news that President Obama will visit Hiroshima when he is in Japan later this month, the first sitting U.S. president to do so.
The White House has made it clear that Obama won't apologize for the use of nuclear weapons, the only time they have been used in warfare, nor have the Japanese asked him to. No apology, in my view, is necessary.
What IS necessary, and too often neglected, is to focus on the fearsome power of these weapons and how essential it is to the future of all nations, peoples and the earth itself that they never be used again. Obama's pilgrimage to Hiroshima is a perfect opportunity, and I applaud him for taking it.
If any news story merits wide distribution, it's the one headlined "Muslim Leaders Wage Theological Battle, Stoking ISIS's Anger" published May 8 in the New York Times. Alas, it didn't make the Times's online "trending" list, and seems to have quickly disappeared from view.
Written by Laurie Goodstein, the article focuses on Western imams and scholars whose vigorous repudiation of ISIS has put them on the terror army's hit list. All of us, inside and outside the media, should amplify these Muslim voices, which merit at least as much coverage as those hijacking their religion.
A journalist myself, I understand why the atrocities of ISIS grab more attention than the good deeds of millions of Muslims peacefully practicing their religion. But if we are at war with ISIS, as generally agreed, then surely we ought to appreciate hearing from some of its most effective opponents.
Although the push to put a woman's face on our paper currency hasn't exactly been a big concern of mine, I was truly gratified by today's news that Harriet Tubman, the legendary abolitionist, will replace President Andrew Jackson, the genocidal racist, on the front of our country's 20-dollar bill.
There were other good candidates to replace either Jackson on the 20-dollar or Hamilton on the 10, the 5- and 1-dollar bills being sacrosanct. But surely none could have been better suited for the honor than Tubman.
She was born into slavery in Maryland, escaped to the North, and then repeatedly risked her life to free other slaves via the perilous Underground Railroad. She was an ardent supporter of suffrage for blacks and for women. To top it all off, she even served as a Union spy during the Civil War.
Symbols are not solutions to centuries of discrimination, even if it's an African-American or female president. But the symbolism of having an African-American woman as the face of a popular measure of our paper currency still merits a cheer. And of all the male candidates for retirement, Jackson had my vote.
Like many Americans, I've long desired to visit Cuba, and for every American to be free to go there - in that order.
Sure, I want freedom for the Cuban people as well as safe, cheap and open travel lanes between Miami and Havana. Like countless others, I just want to get there beforehand. Hence I greeted today's news that the Obama administration is lifting restrictions on individual travel to Cuba with a discomfiting mix of joy and trepidation.
For years I've been telling my husband, "Time is running out." Lately my entreaties grew even more urgent, and so we signed up for an InsightCuba "people-to-people" tour. Come mid-June, at considerable expense, we are scheduled to spend a week touring Havana and the rugged Vinales region.
Friends who traveled to Cuba last year reported two things were ubiquitous: music and poverty. For good and ill, that won't change inside of three months, nor will the meticulously preserved 1950s American cars and elegant Colonial architecture disappear from sight. If anything, the cars and buildings will be better preserved than ever, to cash in when the floodgates open.
But every day, as a little more of America moves in, we fear that a little more of Cuba will be lost. Not to mention, we wonder if the steep price we are paying to be escorted around the country will wind up foolishly spent, when we could henceforth presumably do much the same thing on our own.
This past summer, like countless other Americans who regard To Kill a Mockingbird with familial devotion, I began reading Go Set a Watchman—the newly recovered novel Harper Lee wrote before
Shortly after word spread of the carnage in Paris, a column by an American expat living in that city appeared on the International New York Times website. Pamela Druckerman typically writes about cultural issues, such as how French parents raise independent and interesting children largely by ignoring them.
I've long been a fan of Druckerman's witty and insightful commentary. But her column this time was somber, as she described the real-time reaction at a dinner party where she was a guest Friday night.
One paragraph, in particular, troubled me: "French people are tweeting #portesouvertes, to help people stranded on the streets. We all agree that this sounds nuts: Who would open their doors right now? The news says the gunmen are still on the loose. Police are warning people not to go outside."
I'm not about to criticize anyone's desire to "shelter in locked place" under those terrifying circumstances, nor do I imagine that Druckerman and friends ignored strangers pleading for help outside their door. But when innocents are being targeted, it seems to me that #portesouvertes is exactly the right response for anyone with the means to provide sanctuary.
In another dark time, many Europeans closed their doors to Jewish neighbors fleeing Nazi persecution. But some opened up, at risk to their own lives, and these are the heroes we rightfully honor today.
Interestingly, in a prior column (headlined "Paradise Lost") Druckerman had expressed disappointment that her beloved France hasn't done enough to accept and integrate Syrian refugees, many of whom are confined by circumstance in virtual ghettos that are ideal breeding grounds for ISIS recruits.
Globally we are in a time, and at a place, where it's morally imperative to open our doors, windows, hearts and homes to refugees fleeing some of the most barbaric villains in human history. Yet here in America we have craven Republican politicians, including presidential candidates, governors, and the Speaker of the House, campaigning to slam our doors shut. #portesfermees.
Speaker Paul Ryan says he only wants a temporary halt to admitting refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern battlegrounds, while we figure out how to keep out every last bad guy. But he knows perfectly well we'll never figure that out. Meanwhile, countless innocent refugees suffer and die.
The jailing of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis over her refusal to follow the law and issue same-sex marriage licenses, and the furor it has caused, is being called many things. Some call it martyrdom for religious liberty, and some a hate crime against gays. Others say it's a tempest in a teapot.
I see the whole affair as an affirmation of the First Amendment's guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
First we have the Supreme Court ruling that gays have an equal right to marry, this despite the fact that a significant minority of Americans have contrary religious beliefs. Score a victory for no national religion.
Next we have Ms. Davis, who believes God forbids gays to marry. Because issuing marriage licenses to gays offends her religious beliefs, she doesn't have to do it. Accommodations have been made; deputy clerks can do it instead. Score a victory for religious freedom.
What a great country! Ms. Davis can even keep her job, which technically requires issuing marriage licenses to anyone legally entitled to marry.
Alas, Ms. Davis has refused to promise she won't interfere with deputy clerks who follow the law, instead choosing to go to jail. While she takes full advantage of one clause of the First Amendment, she would abolish another.
Years ago I interviewed a portrait artist whose portfolio included some distinctly unappealing clients. When I asked if clients had ever expressed buyer's remorse over his honest portrayals, he said most people—at least those seeking a public profile—like what they see in the mirror.
On another level, most people seeking a public profile like what they hear when they speak. During my years as a daily newspaper reporter, whenever I quoted someone making what I considered a bigoted or ignorant remark I braced myself for accusations of misrepresentation. But that almost never came.
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