Bethe Dufresne

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

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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.

A View from the Edge

A little more than a year ago, in November 2011, Catholic and Muslim leaders from around the world convened in Jordan for the second forum hosted by A Common Word, an organization created in 2007 to promote interfaith engagement by highlighting similarities in the teachings of Christianity and Islam. While the inaugural forum had been held at the Vatican in 2008, this time the group met along the Jordan River, near the site of Jesus’ baptism.

French Lessons

On screen and in print, Paris is much in vogue these days. Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s ode to the City of Light in the 1920s, is an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, and David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris spent months on bestseller lists. If we’re lucky, McCullough’s hefty history spanning the 1830s through the 1890s will become a television miniseries, narrated of course by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author himself.

And the Winner Is...

Only a reporter could have written The Submission, an acutely topical and realistic novel about the rancorous debate unleashed when a Muslim wins a competition to design a memorial to those killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks. This is a story that reads as if a New York City newspaper’s star reporter miraculously got intimate access to every major player and every major development in the most heated controversy of the day, plus the time to digest and organize it all before sitting down to write.

Gullible Travels

In the lobby of Nairobi’s Boulevard Hotel you’ll see signs promoting all manner of tourist sites, from a Maasai crafts market to animal parks to the Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) museum. For now, at least, you’re unlikely to see any signs promoting tours of Nairobi’s infamous Kibera slum, the largest slum in East Africa. But that doesn’t mean such tours are difficult to find.