Bethe Dufresne

Bethe Dufresne, a frequent contributor, is a freelance writer living in Old Mystic, Connecticut.

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#portesoeuvertes or #portesfermees?

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.

What a Great Country!

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.

Jon Stewart's lessons for journalism

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.

Last Word: Two Confederate Flags

Most Americans cheered last month when the most conspicuous symbol of the Confederacy, its battle flag, was removed from South Carolina’s capitol grounds. But the flag remains with us, as does the debate over its significance. Nowhere is it more tenacious than in the province of the dead.

Where were you when the flag came down?

"You should remember where you were when this happened," said CNN's Don Lemon this morning as he awaited the lowering of the Confederate battle flag at the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina.   I was alone in my kitchen, fixated on a small television screen, wishing mightily that I could be there on the grounds, standing and cheering with the thousands, black and white, joined together to witness the lowering of a symbol of racism and divisiveness. If there were any dissenters in the crowd, they were drowned out.   After the flag was respectfully folded, the crowd gave a boisterous rendition of the pop song refrain "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye." It wasn't "Amazing Grace" or "We Shall Overcome," and I was a bit let down by the musical choice. But the removal of the flag to a military museum was a moving and historic moment.   Will it be a transformational one? For that, we'll have to work hard and see.   Two weeks before a white racist murdered nine black parishioners at Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I was in South Carolina in part to research my deep family roots in the state. Some roots I want to hang onto, and some I'd like to sever. But they are all mine, and I must live with them.

Brian Williams returns

Although a big part of me wanted former NBC news anchor Brian Williams to be fired after he embellished and even downright fabricated stories about his reporting in the field, I can accept his just announced return to a new and different job at MSNBC.
Lester Holt has held the NBC anchor chair since Williams was suspended without pay for six months, and it would have been unforgivable on two counts—at least among journalists—to give Williams his old job back.

One, Holt has done a fine job. He's more Walter Cronkite, while Williams is more Johnny Carson. Two, even though Williams lied mostly on talk shows, not from the anchor chair, he shouldn't get to lead a news organization. Not even if viewers—and therefore advertisers—don't care. Surely corporate news executives retain, or feel compelled to exhibit, at least that much decency.

But given that Williams has apologized and been humiliated for his sins, I don't think it's necessary that he be drummed entirely and permanently out of the news business. I must say, however, that during my years in the business I've seen non-celebrity journalists drummed out for less.

Islam and the death penalty

As the penalty phase begins Tuesday for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who cast himself as an avenger of crimes against Muslims, it might be interesting to consider what Islamic law says about capital punishment.

Like U.S. federal law, under which Tsarnaev was convicted, Islamic law permits capital punishment for severe crimes such as murder or treason. Where Islam differs markedly is that victims, including relatives of the dead, may actually be allowed to decide whether the convicted person receives life or death.

Although U.S. law allows victim impact statements to be considered in sentencing, victims don't get to argue in court for or against the death penalty. Of course a number have already expressed their opinions elsewhere.

Most compellingly, Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son was murdered and 7-year-old daughter lost a leg, told the Boston Globe that they favor life without parole, as long as Tsarnaev waives any right to appeal. But the court alone will decide Tsarnaev's fate, and I'm grateful for that.

Estate tax unpopular not just with rich

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on repealing the federal estate tax, and while more Republicans favor this repeal than Democrats, I can’t be equally sure the rich favor it more than the poor. The reason is a conversation I had as a reporter in the mid-1990s with the late George McGovern, who lost the presidency so soundly in 1972.

I was interviewing McGovern about his book chronicling his daughter’s tragic death, not about taxes. But when I mentioned that I had cast my first presidential vote for him, we talked a while about national debates that never go away.

Although “income inequality” wasn’t a term then in use, the issue has always been with us. One way to lessen income inequality is the estate tax, designed to ensure that vast fortunes don’t stay wholly within certain families, thereby building up the wealth gap for generations to come.

McGovern specifically brought the estate tax up, not me. During his presidential campaign he had advocated raising the tax, he said, and one of his biggest surprises was the vigorous resistance he encountered among the poor and middle class, people who would likely never have to pay it.

Whether they had money or not, McGovern said, they thought someday they might. And if that day ever came, they wanted their heirs to hold onto every bit of it.

A journalist's sacred duty

When I first heard that NBC's Brian Williams had embellished his Iraq war reminiscences, falsely claiming that a chopper he was in had been hit by rocket fire, I thought instantly of Mike Valentine, a Vietnam War veteran diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Mike was the subject of a profile I wrote for a daily newspaper in 1999 to mark Veteran's Day, and because he was brutally frank about his disillusionment with that war, it was more of a downer than most. I worked hard to do him justice, and expected he would be pleased with the result.

Instead, Mike was furious, because I had gotten one detail wrong about his war service. It was a minor error, in my view, and in no way embellished his combat role. But Mike feared that someone who was there would read the story and think he had lied. That, to him, would be unbearable. "You don't understand," he kept saying to me, how crucial it is to get everything exactly right about combat, regardless of how insignificant it might seem. Trust is everything for soldiers, he said, even long after the war is over.

A Sermon in Stone

One afternoon last summer, Lawrence Hoy and Robert Rambusch toured New York City’s Church of the Holy Family, nodding appreciatively at each other’s observations as they walked. The fifty-eight-year-old Hoy, a well-known liturgical designer and president of Renovata Studios, hadn’t seen Rambusch, his ninety-year-old mentor, in some time.