Perez–Lost at Christmas

The first gospel begins with a genealogy, which concludes, “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportations to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” Fourteen seems to be a key, but its significance is not stated, and it is not self-evident at least to this reader. I am surprised, however, that with its repetition it has not become part of the iconography of the nativity story. Perhaps the Christmas table should have fourteen candles or a basket of fourteen pomegranates, but I am not aware of any such tradition.

I am aware of only a few of the names in the genealogy. Most ring no bells, but the unknown ones such as Amminadab, Uzziah, and Zerubbabel at least seem Hebrew. One of Jesus’s progenitors, however, seems out of place–Perez. I think of that as Spanish or as the fictional detective on the island of Shetland, not as a Biblical name. But there it is in the genealogy—“Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Herzon. . . .” (Tamar is the first woman mentioned in the ancestry list. Only a few other women are mentioned. Jewishness may pass through the mothers, but mostly mothers are overlooked in this genealogy, at least until we get to Mary—“Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” Although the Bible says that Joseph did not take part in the conception of Jesus, the genealogy is his. We are told nothing about Mary’s lineage, which strikes me as strange.)

The mention of Perez in The Gospel According to Matthew is anodyne, but his birth chronicled in Genesis is hardly a routine story. Judah sees the Canaanite Shua, whom he marries. My Bible states that Judah “went in to her, and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er.” Apparently Judah penetrated his love-at-first-sight some more and the sons Onan and Shelah were born. Judah marries Er to Tamar. However, Er is a bad boy for he “was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him.” This thirty-eighth chapter of the first biblical book only leaves it to our imaginative speculations as to how Er erred and to the method of the slaying, but we do know that Er is dead.

Judah then turns to his second born and using that only slightly euphemistic language tells Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” Onan, however, is displeased that any resulting children will not be considered his and interrupts his duty: “so when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother.” (Other Bible translations state that this happened repeatedly.) He should have thought twice and lingered more: “And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also.” (I understand from this story how onanism became a word for coitus interruptus, but I don’t understand how it became a synonym for masturbation.)

Of course, there was still the third son, but Shelah was understandably not too eager to do his duty as a brother-in-law “for he feared that he would die, like his brothers.” Shelah was apparently young, however, and Judah said to Tamar she should live with him “till Shelah my son grows up.”

Tamar, not surprisingly, is frustrated. When Judah, after becoming a widower, goes off to shear sheep, she dresses as a prostitute and intercepts him. Judah does not recognize her and assumes “her to be a harlot.” Apparently thinking that this is his lucky day, he said “Come, let me come in to you.” He offers a baby goat in payment, but she exacts some of Judah’s personal possessions instead. He enters her and gets her pregnant. Let’s pause here. Two of Judah’s sons have been struck down by the Lord for their transgressions, but not Judah. Apparently, perhaps because his wife was dead, his employing an apparent prostitute did not anger Yahweh. I guess Tamar got the heavenly pass because the Lord did not pay attention to women or she only wanted a baby and acted to keep it all in the family.

When it is clear that she is pregnant, Tamar produces Judah’s personal artifacts, and he realizes that he is the father. A form of happiness, or acceptance, results. Judah says, “‘She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my Shelah.’ And he did not lie with her again.” And the result is the birth of Zerah and his twin Perez, the ancestor of Jesus.

In reading this story the other day, I wondered at what age it is appropriate for children to read this semi-explicit sexual story. If you can’t say gay, can you talk about semen on the ground and “let me come in to you”? How would you answer questions from an inquisitive third grader about Judah and Tamar. Perhaps the Bible should be banned from at least grade schools.

This is not the only dicey sex that lurks in the genealogy, which also delicately states, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. . . .” Uriah’s wife, of course, was the beautiful Bathsheba spied by the peeping Dave. David could not keep his desire in check and impregnates her while she is still married. David, as military commander, sinfully makes sure that Uriah is killed in battle. The supposedly pro-life Lord punishes David by having this first issue with Bathsheba die in early infancy. Later David and Bathsheba produce Sol. (I discuss David, Bathsheba, and Uriah in my post of June 11, 2018. Search for Bathsheba.)

While Jesus, according to the Bible, results from a Virgin Birth, his genealogy also contains harlotry, seduction, onanism, voyeurism, and murder. I don’t think that Matthew presented the genealogy for this purpose, but while the miracle of his birth may indicate a divinity, he is also linked to very human ancestors. Perhaps true believers should remember both at Christmas.


She was carrying into a neighborhood Italian restaurant a stack of boxes. One was labeled “Cannoli Cream.” It had never occurred to me that somewhere I could buy just the filling.

I have read that in high society in antebellum New York flowers were never placed in a dining room because their perfume interfered with the food’s enjoyment.

The headline referred to “corporate profiteers.” While not always redundant, isn’t that always the goal?

In 2017-18, political action committees supporting business interests outspent PACs aligned with labor sixteen to one.

The promo on the public address system at a college basketball game was for a bus company. It told me that it had diverse vehicles that could fit any need and had “professional drivers.” Until then it had never occurred to me that some company’s buses were driven by amateur, unpaid people.

The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round. By definition, can’t all wheels spin?

Until I heard that a hockey player was suspended for it, I had never heard of slew footing. Slew footing, however, must be the greatest name ever for a sports infraction. Surely baseball’s balk, basketball’s charge, soccer’s offside, and football’s pass interference don’t measure up. (But false start has some potential on the colorful front.) I am not a great hockey fan and don’t believe that I have ever seen it, but I gather slew footing is dangerous. When I first heard of slew footing, I did not know that it was a hockey term and assumed that it was something that happened at a dance in a Harlan County holler.

“Too many people seem to think life is a spectator sport.” Katherine Hepburn.

If you restrict your watching, as I do, to every four years, soccer can almost seem exciting.

The label on the inexpensive hairspray read: “This Product Has Not Been Tested on Animals.” That begged several questions. If it had been tested, for what? If it had been tested, how? I assumed no label ever says, “This Product Has Not Been Tested.”

I identify: The struggling writer told his significant other, “Don’t worry. My work will be remembered long after Shakespeare, Milton, and Dickens are forgotten.” “Yes, indeed,” the SO replied, “and not a day before.”

So far I have not undertaken the catalog of my actions that I keep promising to take to satisfy my curiosity. This is about those 50/50 actions of daily life, such as when, without looking first at what is the proper way to do it, I push/pull a door or insert a USB cord into an adapter or insert a polarized plug into an asymmetric outlet. I feel as if my initial attempt is wrong more than half the time. Could that be true? If so, why?

DSK–Polish Christmas Edition

A patron at the local biergarten said that he was from Poland and asked where Aga was. The bartender replied that Aga had left DSK months ago, and he did not know where she had gone. The patron no doubt was interested in Aga because she, too, had been born in Poland. Aga, who worked at DSK when I first started going to the biergarten, struck me as different from the other servers who were not born in the United States. She seemed a bit older, her accent thicker, her English less good, her education less extensive than the others. She struck me as less ambitious than her colleagues; she did not seem to have another career in mind as other servers did. Although I talked with her frequently, I don’t remember much from our conversations except for one in December.

She told me her son was getting excited about Christmas, but it quickly became apparent that the mother, too, was looking forward to the holiday. She told me that she was going to have a traditional Polish Christmas with her boyfriend. I had met him only once. Big and burly, clichés of Middle European thugs came to mind. But then I found he had the gentlest handshake, a twinkle in his smile, and a soft, soft voice. Aga said he doted on her son, and another staff member later told me that he was a Polish bear—a Polish teddy bear.

I realized that I knew nothing about the traditional Polish Christmas celebration. I was a bit surprised because I believe that if you live in New York for a while, you begin to take on new ethnic colorations. Thus, in some sense all true New Yorkers are a bit Jewish. You absorb some of the religious practices, Yiddish phrases, the rhythm of speech, the humor, the foods of Jewish people. And, similarly, a true New Yorker is at least part Irish, part Chinese, part Italian and has absorbed, aware of it or not, some southern gospel background.

This was not true, however, at least for me, with Poles who, after all, do not have as large a footprint in the City as other groups. I asked her about the Polish Christmas celebration. She told me that in the Polish countryside, hay was spread under the dining table to symbolize the manger Jesus was laid in, but Aga and her boyfriend were not doing that. They were, however, going to have the Christmas Eve feast of many dishes that started with eating something akin to a communion wafer. She said that carp was often served. I asked if this was similar to the traditional Italian Christmas Eve feast of the seven fishes—a misnomer because while all the courses are seafood, all are not fish. Italian food and clams always go together, as they do when honoring the birth of Jesus. Aga said that the Polish celebration was not the same. They did have carp and maybe some other fish, but all the courses, while meatless, were not seafood. Poles gotta have borscht, and they do when honoring the birth of Jesus. And they do not restrict themselves to a paltry seven courses; they have twelve. After the feast, presents are opened, and, traditionally, people go off to bed early to be ready for early morning mass. She told me that the dinner on Christmas was not meatless, but it was not as important as the meal the evening before.

I asked how long it took her to make the twelve courses. She laughed and said that she didn’t. Delis in the central part of Brooklyn where she lived sold many of the Christmas dishes that would be served. I got the name of the place she went, but like many other things, I have forgotten it. But the evening sounded incredible to me and made our family’s traditional Christmas Eve celebration seem a bit scanty.

Brittney Is Free But Not Others

          Brittney Griner’s imprisonment had me thinking about the tenuous place women athletes have in America. The median salary in the NBA is about $4 million with the average about double that amount. The top stars make $10 million, $20 million, $30 million or more.

Griner is also a star basketball player, but she is not paid like the men. The WNBA has salary caps that limit the top pay in the league to about $225,000. (The average salary is about half that sum.)

          Players can make five or ten times their WNBA salary playing abroad in the WNBA offseason, most notably in Russia, but also in Turkey and China. And thus Griner was going to Russia to play another season of basketball in a foreign country, something that the NBA stars don’t do.

          She was arrested, of course, for violating Russian drug laws. Most of us Americans saw a legal proceeding that we assumed did not have independent judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers, but had personnel who acted at the direction of other state authorities. For what seemed like a de minimis offense, Griner got what seemed like an overly harsh sentence to be served under harsh conditions that evoked Stalinist and Cold War images. (She would be incarcerated in a “penal colony.”) I was like others in believing Griner’s arrest, guilty plea, and sentence were politically motivated and that she was some sort of a pawn in a Russian plot.

          I was happy, then, that she was freed. However, America being what it is today, partisanship reared its head, and many told us that the deal to bring her home was awful. I, however, was having other thoughts. As an American, I felt vaguely superior in contemplating yet another modern-day Russian horror. But then I paused and reflected about our own justice system. On a per capita basis this country imprisons its population at about twice the rate Russia does. We incarcerate more per capita than any other country. It would be good if coming out of the Brittney Griner saga we thought more about that.

First Sentences

“The navy-gray paint of the trawler was faded and chipped, spattered with the excrement of gulls that jostled and shrieked overhead when the catch was good.” Kirk Wallace Johnson, The Fisherman and the Dragon: Fear Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast.

“The Pacific is the loneliest of oceans, and travelers across that rolling desert begin to feel that their ship is lost in an eternity of sky and water.” Earl Derr Biggers, The Black Camel.

“It was midmorning on Saturday, September 16, 1922, a warm but partly cloudy end-of-summer day, described in local forecasts as ‘unsettled,’ when Pearl Bahmer and Ray Schneider found the bodies.” Joe Pompeo, The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder that Hooked America on True Crime.

“It was the sort of sound you hear in the distance and mistake for something else: a dirty steam barge puffing along the River Spree; the shunting of a slow locomotive under the great glass roof of the Anhalter Station; the hot, impatient breath of some enormous dragon, as if one of the stone dinosaurs in Berlin’s zoo had come to life and was now lumbering up Wilhelmstrasse.” Philip Kerr, If the Dead Rise Not.

“The review, titled ‘A Scandal!’ fit right in on” Jeff Kosseff, The United States of Anonymous: How the First Amendment Shaped Online Speech.

“When you entered the executive offices of Mercury Pictures International, you would first see a scale model of the studio itself.” Anthony Marra, Mercury Pictures Presents.

 “Every Friday in the late afternoon, as the sun gives way to dusk, a series of loud sirens pierce the air of a densely packed village located in a suburban town in the Catskill Mountains fifty miles north and slightly west of New York City.” Nomi M. Stolzenberg and David N. Myers, American Shtetl: The Making of Kiryas Joel, A Hasidic Village in Upstate New York.

“They had been married for thirty-one years, and the following spring, full of resolve and a measure of hope, he would marry again.” Scott Turow, The Burden of Proof.

“Amidst the leafy quietude of East Thirty-Fifth Street in Marine Park, far from the hipsters or the merchants of twee, there is a spectacle as unique and unlikely as a Hollywood stage set.” Thomas J. Campanella, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City.

“It was either Thomas Jefferson—or maybe it was John Wayne—who once said, ‘Your foot will never get well as long as there is a horse standing on it.’” Erma Bombeck, The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.

“Lanah didn’t understand their language, but when the foreign men started tossing out catcalls, their meaning struck home.” John Wood Sweet, The Sewing Girl’s Tale: A Story of Crime and Consequences in Revolutionary America.

Replace Them

I first became aware of the “great replacement theory” (or sometimes the white replacement theory) from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017. If you remember, some of those “good” people chanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us.” In October of 2018, the shooter who killed eleven congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue indicated that his belief in the great replacement theory precipitated his actions. The terrorist who killed twenty-three people at an El Paso Walmart in August of 2019 left a manifesto with references to the theory. The killer of ten at a Buffalo Tops supermarket in May of 2022 was a believer in the great replacement theory.

But not just those who pull the triggers promote the theory. The smirker Tucker Carlson had shows with the great replacement theory as its centerpiece, and that woman later at night on Fox who always looks as if she is about to insist that she is not really lost had monologs supporting the theory. And elected representatives have also voiced tenets of the theory.

The basic idea of the great replacement theory is that the government and the “elites” are seeking to undermine or replace the political, cultural, and economic power of “traditional” white Americans by immigration policies that welcome nonwhite immigrants. Often the assumption is that powerful Jewish people are behind this conspiracy, and the theory has been associated with antisemitism as well as white supremacy.

Many see the Frenchman Renaud Camus as the father of this movement. In his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, he contended that with the coming of Muslim immigrants to France from Africa and the Mideast, white Europeans “are being reverse colonized by Black and Brown immigrants, who are flooding the Continent in what amounts to an extinction-level event.” (I am guessing that Camus is not a French football fan. France’s national team has many players—perhaps half—with dark skins. Its star is Kylian Mbappé who was born in Paris, but his father came from Cameroon and his mother is of Algerian origin.)

I doubted whether any of the great replacement proponents at Charlottesville had read, or even heard of Renaud Camus, and I was at least slightly amused that these American “patriots” were unaware that they were following a foreign polemicist — a Frenchie no less — in their promotion of America First. However, I modified my views after reading The Fisherman and the Dragon: Fear, Greed, and a Fight for Justice on the Gulf Coast by Kirk Wallace Johnson.

The book chronicles the “shrimp wars” along Galveston Bay around 1979. Vietnamese people who had fled their country after the Vietnam War settled on the Texas gulf and trawled for shrimp. For a host of reasons, shrimping there was in decline, and many of the white shrimpers resisted, often violently, this competition. The Ku Klux Klan was soon involved. It is a disheartening story in many ways, but I learned that the KKK and its supporters believed, or at least they said they believed, that the government was settling the Vietnamese refugees in this part of Texas with the intended goal of “replacing” the whites. Apparently, the American great replacement theory predates that Frenchified stuff. Can we take pride in that?

KKK leader Louis Ray Beam, Jr., is a major figure in The Fisherman and the Dragon. He is also at the center of a book I read a couple years ago, Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Belew convincingly contends that the modern paramilitary right wing was spawned by the Vietnam War. Many returning Vietnam veterans felt betrayed by their government and that war’s outcome. They began to militantly reject and question the federal government and advocated force to right the perceived governmental wrongs.

Johnson’s book supports Belew’s thesis. Many of those who used violence and threats against the Vietnamese shrimpers were Vietnam vets, including Beam, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a helicopter door-gunner. Belew’s work highlights not just this unintended consequence of one of our wars; it also highlights our failure to comprehensively analyze our wars’ aftermaths. Instead, we cling to myths about them.

During the half time of a recent college basketball game, the Wounded Warriors organization honored a brace of veterans from each of the competing schools. The men and women had all been deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq. I joined the others in Barclay Center in clapping for them. Our country had said volunteers were needed, and they had responded. For that they should be honored. But the announcer also said that they had fought for our freedom. I did not applaud that line. I don’t feel freer because we invaded Iraq. Instead, there is a good chance that the world was made more unsafe by our actions, but we don’t carefully analyze the consequences of our military actions. Most appallingly, we seldom consider the thousands upon thousands of civilian deaths or the million or more refugees caused by our recent wars.

We do hear a bit about personal consequences for veterans of our most recent wars—PTSD, out-of-proportion opioid use and deaths, increased suicides, increased domestic violence, shorter life expectancies, employment problems. But when we have Wounded Warrior ceremonies or the like, we seldom mention these consequences.

Our wars have had a huge effect on our national debt and budgets. When it is said that this country cannot afford to do something—better healthcare or broadband or whatever, how often is it pointed out that perhaps if we had not fought our last war, it might be different?

Belew’s book, however, presents an especially timely issue. Consider that disillusionment from Vietnam led to distrust by veterans of the government and the rise of right-wing paramilitary groups. Veterans of our Afghanistan War also feel an alienation from the ending of that conflict. What consequences will flow from that?

Let’s not just mouth platitudes that our wars protect our freedoms. Let’s have an honest accounting of all the consequences of our wars. We should have in our collective consciousness and in our discussions all those results whenever our leaders again consider engaging in armed hostilities.

Marra, the Movies, American History, and Irony (concluded)

          Anthony Marra’s Mercury Pictures Presents is a story of Hollywood—land of illusion and fantasy—interwoven with stories of pre-war and wartime Italy where illusions and fantasies were cruelly squelched. In it Marra exposes myriad ironies about our racial and other policies. It called to mind another book I recently read, East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” by Philippe Sands. One of the topics of this book—part memoir, part history—was whether the international tribunals in Nuremberg after World War II should prosecute Nazis for “crimes against humanity,” that is, the killing of individuals on a large scale, or, as some contended, for the newly coined “genocide,” that is, the extermination of racial and other minorities in order to destroy those races and minorities. (After the war the U.N. said genocide is a crime and that genocide denied the “right of existence of entire human groups.”)

          American prosecutors at Nuremberg, led by Robert Jackson on leave from his position as Justice of the Supreme Court, avoided the use of the term “genocide.” Sands speculates, “Maybe it was the southern senators who got to Jackson and his team, fearful about the implications that the charge of genocide might have in local politics, with the American Indians and the blacks.”

America oppressed Blacks, but it was not genocide. Even though there were many racial killings, the goal was not to wipe out a people; it was to subjugate them so that they could be exploited by other groups. We might label our slavery and Jim Crow laws and practices as crimes against humanity, but whatever we call them, they were certainly criminal.

          American Indians, on the other hand, were decimated as a result of European immigration. To a large extent, this was a byproduct of the diseases the English and others brought, but there were also conscious attempts to rid the land of the Native Americans, especially as the “new” Americans pushed westward. Some of our Indian wars and other policies look like what we think of as genocide. However, Rafael Lemkin who coined the term defined “genocide” as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” Even some of the “kindly” efforts towards the Indians by the United States meet this broader definition of genocide. Consider Richard Henry Pratt.

Pratt was a soldier who fought for the North in the Civil War and then served in the West pursuing, fighting, and negotiating with Indians. He was the primary force behind the famous Carlisle Indian school, whose philosophy influenced many other Indian schools established by the federal government. Pratt believed that Indians were deserving of a place in American society and that racial differences were not innate but the product of environmental factors. He believed that Indians could–and should–integrate into mainstream white society, but here was the catch: He thought this was possible only if the Indians abandoned their tribal communities and culture.

          Pratt’s theories required a school away from the native lands. The Carlisle Barracks were an old twenty-seven-acre army installation, but they had been damaged in the Civil War and then abandoned. Pratt talked the Army into allowing him to set up the school in the sixteen buildings that needed renovations. Almost immediately, Pratt constructed a seven-foot fence around the property as both a screen against sightseers—the townsfolk were curious about the young Indians—and to control the students.

          The school separated both boy and girl students from their language. They were only to speak English. Uttering a native language was punished, and students from the same tribes were scattered among separate dormitories.

          The students were also separated from their names, partly because the white teachers could not pronounce Indian names, but also to remove another aspect of their Indianness. As Sally Jenkins put it in The Real All Americans: The Team that Changed a Game, a People, a Nation (2007), when they had new, Americanized names, another “piece of their Indian selves had been taken away.”

          The males were separated from their hair and that, too, separated them from their heritage. Jenkins reports that braids were a symbol of maturity for Lakotas, who only cut their hair when in deep mourning.

          And they were separated from their traditional clothing, often colorful and distinctive. Instead, they all had to dress in drab uniforms, and the students became “an indistinguishable gray mass with no discernible outward differences.”

          The very nature of the school itself, however, separated the students from a fundamental aspect of their heritage. Indian tribes had varied cultural differences, Jacqueline Fear-Segal reports in White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation (2007), but in no Indian community was education a discrete endeavor conducted in a separate institution or by “teachers.” Education was woven into everyday patterns of living and took place informally in daily interactions.

          Although the students were separated from the reservations where their families lived, whites had a similar goal in both places. Out west, the shared lands were broken up into parcels of private ownership, and at Carlisle the Indians were pushed to enter a wage economy. Jenkins notes that the U.S. government did not believe in sharing or communalism; it believed in private property. An Indian needed to be taught out West and at Carlisle “so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours.’”

The school took an undeniable personal toll on students: it erased their personal histories, sundered families, and obliterated their languages, faiths, and traditions. The goal was not to kill a people, but even so, the goal was to wipe out the Native Americans and replace them with something else.

          America has done many good things. It has done many bad things, too, and sometimes even when it has had good intentions, it has ended up doing bad things. Our history is complicated.

Marra, the Movies, American History, and Irony (continued)

          Perhaps the biggest irony for America in World War II is that this country fought against the self-proclaimed master race with a segregated army drawn from a society that oppressively discriminated. In Anthony Marra’s novel Mercury Pictures Presents we meet a patriotic Black man who has enlisted. He protests when he can’t get served a hamburger in a Utah café. To get the American citizen to leave, the counterman pulls a shotgun, which he inadvertently discharges, killing a German POW who was being served. The Black is convicted of manslaughter because of his “provocation,” and a lengthy sentence is imposed. I don’t know if Marra based this on a real incident, but events equally as bizarre were a common occurrence in this land of equality.

          Ironically, our racial definitions were harsher than Germany’s. Most places in America that legally segregated used the “one drop” rule. If any ancestor of a person was Black, then that person was Black. One drop of Jewishness was not sufficient for the Nazis. A Jew was someone who had three or four Jewish grandparents, not simply one drop of Jewish blood. A person with one or two Jewish grandparents was classified as Mischling, think mulatto. Of course, the Mischlinge, while not fully Jewish, were still oppressed in fascist Germany, and that led, at least as depicted in Philip Kerr’s prizewinning If the Dead Rise Not, part of his Bernhard Gunther series, to a black-market activity. In the novel, Gunther finds a forger to alter the birth records and other documents of his one Jewish grandparent who places the altered papers in official files. Thus, Gunther retroactively “Aryanizes” his nana.

          We may know that legal segregation in American states required a definition of Black. However, few remember today that federal law also required a definition of “white.” Our first naturalization law passed in the 1790s stated that only free, white people could be naturalized, and this legal restriction was carried forward into the twentieth century. Of course, the Fourteenth Amendment passed after the Civil War said that anyone born in the United States was a citizen. Many freed from slavery could not prove their place of birth, and in1870 a law was passed allowing Blacks to be naturalized. Otherwise, only whites could be naturalized, but “white” was not defined, which led to a series of bizarre federal cases. They culminated in United States v. Bhagat Singit Thind, decided by the Supreme Court in 1923. Thind was an Indian Sikh who had come to the United States in 1913 for graduate studies. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a sergeant in the First World War, and in 1919 petitioned for citizenship. He said he was white, in fact Aryan, because his caste of Indians and Europeans shared a common descent from Proto-Indian Europeans. The Court rejected his naturalization petition and reiterated what it had said earlier, that “white” as used in the statute did not have a scientific meaning but was “synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only as that word is popularly understood.” Southeast Asian Indians did not fall into this category. Other court decisions held that while Syrians and Armenians were white and could become U.S. citizens, those who were not white included the Chinese; half-white/half Native Americans; Hawaiians; Burmese; Japanese; Native Americans; half white/half Asians; Filipinos; three quarters Filipino/one quarter whites; Afghanis; and Arabians.

          Although non-whites, except for Blacks, could not be naturalized, for our first century, they could immigrate to this country. Immigration was unrestricted until the racially- and class-based Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted in 1882, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country. Of course, many Chinese laborers had entered before that to work during the California gold rush and later to construct railroads. Those who had been in America before 1882 were in the country legally and could remain but had their own confino. If they left the country to see family in China or for any other reason, they could not return. The exceptions, however, were the small number of Chinese Americans who had been born in this country. In 1898, the Supreme Court interpreting the birthright citizenship provision of the Fourteenth Amendment held that Wong Kim Ark was an American citizen because he was born in the United States, and thus, he could not be denied re-entry into the country under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

          Few Chinese had been born in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. While male Chinese laborers had come to the United States before the Exclusion Act, few Chinese women had, and a Chinese person claiming birthright citizenship was treated with grave suspicion by the immigration services. The presumption was against citizenship, and since record-keeping of births had often been spotty, proving an American birth was often difficult. That was the premise of a pretty good play I saw recently at Manhattan’s Atlantic Theater, The Far Country by Lloyd Suh and directed by Eric Ting. The play opens with a funny, frightening, disturbing interrogation of a Chinese man claiming birthright citizenship by federal authorities with the added twist that it is 1909 in San Francisco and the 1906 earthquake had destroyed almost all government and personal documents.

          Perhaps because of lessons learned from fighting Hitler or, again, possibly because of how well our communist enemies exploited our racial laws for propaganda, our racial restrictions on naturalization changed after World War II.

(concluded December 2)

Marra, the Movies, American History, and Irony

The history of the United States is filled with contradictions and ironies. I am reminded of them often. The latest reminder comes from a novel, Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra, also author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Mercury Pictures, a minor Hollywood film studio, is struggling to survive in the summer 1941. Art Feldman, its head, is making a movie about the propaganda successes of fascism, but censors want to gut the work because the film, still in the days of America First isolationism, is encouraging the country to get involved in the European war. Riots ensue when it is shown on December 6, but, of course, the picture is a hit the next day. Not much subaudition is necessary to grasp the irony–seeing the need to thwart Hitler was deemed un-American before the Pearl Harbor bombs, and Marra reminds us that the epithet “a premature antifascist” would be uttered without apparent irony for decades after the war’s conclusion. (And, of course, the term antifascist has not disappeared as an epithet.)

          Mercury Pictures also presents a sample of the fraught world of Chinese Americans during that time. Henry Lu, a native Los Angeleno, is an actor who can only get movie work playing Japanese villains, and, even though Japan had brutally invaded China in the 1930s, Lu, like others of Chinese descent in America, was in constant danger from “real” Americans who might mistake him for a Japanese national once we entered the war. (I remember a newsreel I saw as a kid that was shot shortly after Pearl Harbor. An Asian man had pinned to his shirt a sign that said, “I am Chinese and a loyal American.” It made me feel sad and reminded me of a different newsreel from Germany where people stood being mocked and abused with placards hanging from their necks reading, “I am a dirty Jew.”)

          Marra does mention the irony of the United States rounding up citizens to put them in places that had more than a whiff of concentration camps, and that many other Americans benefited from the internments by taking the well-tended farms and other lands of the Japanese Americans. But long before the removals of the Japanese Americans, many American states made no distinction between the Chinese and Japanese in forbidding Asian non-citizens from owning land. While many may know that the Supreme Court upheld the internment of Japanese Americans, two decades before Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld Washington state’s Alien Land Law, which prohibited Asians from owning property. Only after World War II, perhaps as a result of fighting the Nazis but perhaps also because our Cold War enemy struck propaganda gold in pointing out our racial hypocrisies, did property restrictions start to fade, although I have read that the Washington Alien Land Law was in effect until 1966.

          Mercury Pictures Presents shows America getting into its own propaganda business after it entered the war, but at least at the beginning, the war mongers had their standards and proclaimed that only real combat footage would be used. They quickly learned that the results often seemed to lack verisimilitude and soon began to weave together combat films with reenactments to produce a result that seemed real for the audiences. And, of course, the flag raising at Iwo Jima came to mind.

          Through the character of Maria Lagana, Marra presents another irony of American history. Lagana was born in Rome where her father was a leftist lawyer opposing the emerging fascist government. He is convicted of subversive crimes and sentenced to confino. He is sent to a remote town where he is not imprisoned behind bars but is confined to a small geographic space. He can move around this limited area, but he cannot leave it, much like a dog in a yard with an invisible fence. While he is confined, Maria and her mother escape from Italy and settle in Los Angeles where Maria eventually becomes an important figure in Mercury Pictures. Although by the time America enters the war Maria has spent most of her life in California and is a loyal American, she is classified as an enemy alien. I had not known that one of the consequences of such a designation was that Maria could not travel beyond five miles from her residence. She, who had fled Mussolini, was confined just as her father was for opposing Mussolini.

          While Lagana may have been a fictional character, she represents a major irony of the Hollywood studios of the era. While the films they produced helped define America and Americanism to America and the world, many of the major studio figures were refugees from the tyrannies of Europe who would become “enemy aliens” when we entered the war. One of them in the novel was a Berlin-born woman who built miniatures for the movies. She is sent to the Utah desert to help with a project I had not heard of before but was real. [While often I do not know whether to trust the history depicted in a work of historical fiction, I trust Marra in Mercury Pictures Presents. Besides the usual acknowledgements, Marra also presents a bibliography of three or four dozen history books, as well as other material, he used to form his narrative.] On the Dugway Proving Grounds, the Army built a simulation of a Berlin neighborhood as accurately as it could in order to test out the best way to start a firestorm in the German city. According to us, we were fighting a moral war against evil, but we sometimes used morally questionable methods to fight the war, and that included firebombing civilians. The proposed bombing of Berlin had additional ironies; the plan was to decimate a working-class neighborhood because the buildings were closer together there than in middle- and upper-class sections of the city even though the targeted neighborhood had been one of leftists who had opposed the rise of Hitler. I don’t think we ever did firebomb the Prussian capital, but we did firebomb Dresden, as Kurt Vonnegut described in Slaughterhouse Five. And before the atomic bombs, we had firebombed Tokyo, with its highly flammable structures, killing an estimated 100,000 civilians. (Malcom Gladwell in The Bomber Mafia presents some of the World War II debates about the morality of different bombing strategies.)

(continued November 30)

The Unifying Turkey

Jokes are made about the difficult family interactions on Thanksgiving. The stock character is the uncle with politically incorrect views. I am sure that many versions of this person exist, but I have also known many people with crazy leftist conspiratorial views. Don’t uncles with such baseless opinions also go to Thanksgiving dinners? 

However, even though there may be arguments over the table, Thanksgiving is truly one of our most unifying days. Not everyone likes it, but almost every American, no matter their politics, their religion, their ethnic origins, or their age, eats, or in some way deals, with turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. Over 45 million turkeys are consumed then, which must mean that the majority of the country has the bird. Some French cook said something about you are what you eat. You are an American when you eat turkey on Thanksgiving.

Of course, not everyone does. It may surprise you, but sometimes vegans or vegetarians are regarded as Americans, and they still celebrate the holiday. Asked what they eat, they might reply, “Instead of turkey, I am making a mushroom Wellington.” Small families might find that a turkey is too large and say that instead of turkey they will have a roast duck or a roast chicken. I have known some people who say that they can’t abide turkey and say that they will have salmon or roast pork instead of turkey. (The two examples that come readily to mind, however, were a Mexican American who planned to return to his birthplace after saving some money and a single man born in Germany.) The point is that even the minority who don’t eat turkey say what they will eat instead of turkey. Just as others deal with turkey by considering wet brining, dry brining, no brining, frozen, heritage, low heat, high heat, dark meat, white meat, wings, and drumsticks, the minority who do not eat it, deal with turkey on Thanksgiving. Can you give any other explanation for a tofu turkey?

We should give thanks for the unifying turkey, just as we should give thanks for anything that helps unify America. After all, Thanksgiving should not only be a day of feasting but also a time for giving thanks. After the onslaught of Covid, we give thanks for what the Puritans gave thanks for: that they (with the help of the original Americans) survived. In addition, I am going to give thanks that America has mostly, or at least partially, survived the Puritans.

I expect to be recovering on Friday and will take time off. The blog will be back next Monday.