Saturday, July 14, 2018

Among the hills, amidst the critics

When summer meets the rolling, unglaciated hills of Wisconsin, the heat and humidity inextricably rise in the land Frank Lloyd Wright called home. The songbirds sing out and the mosquitoes buzz in their mad bloodthirsty dash at twilight and dawn in Spring Green for as certain as the season is the promise of hundreds of anxious patrons looking forward to the outdoor spectacle of theatre at American Players Theatre (APT).

With such an appropriate acronym, APT continues to mount stellar productions in two theaters - one, a 1,089-seat outdoor amphitheater and the other, an intimate indoor arena of more than 200 seats. With an annual budget of more than $6 million and a dedicated core staff, the company's repertory of as many as nine plays attracts more than 100,000 people to this quaint and sleepy town from June through November.



In recent years, the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), the professional organization of theatre reviewers, writers and journalists, has held its annual conference in cities like San Francisco, Philadelphia and New Orleans. This summer, however, they have taken to the Wisconsin woods to partner with APT so that its membership could take advantage of five of its offerings: Shakespeare's As You Like It, Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, Athol Fugard's Blood Knot, George Fuquhar's The Recruiting Officer and Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday.

In addition to the lifeblood of theatre offerings, APT has brought dozens of its own staff and nearby theatre critics, artistic directors, theatre podcasters and designers to inform and inspire ATCA attendees. Among the topics covered were sessions on copyright law, racial equity, period comedy productions and what is happening in the heartland of theatre in America's dairyland.

The beautiful setting of The House on the Rock Resort replete with a Bobby Jones-designed golf course has served as the nexus for ATCA's members to engage in heated debates about the future of the organization and its direction. Members are passionate about the organization, but in these perilous times when traditional journalism has given way to modern means of expression on the Internet and through social media, there are questions that must be posed and the very nature of theatre criticism examined.




Saturday, June 9, 2018

That last unthinkable act

We lost two very industrious, highly visible celebrities this past week; two souls who were successful in so many ways.

Spade (via Wikimedia)
Even I knew the value of a Kate Spade handbag. In the world of fashion, her name was one that had secured a place reserved for only the best. Yet, despite the outward appearance of a woman who had made it and who could rest on her laurels for decades, there was something gnawing at her. Family members must have known she was depressed, but no one suspected the depth of her feeling of hopelessness. No one knew she would seek relief from her tortured existence through that last unthinkable act.

And now she is gone.

As for Anthony Bourdain, a man who loved and embraced food and cuisine with a passion that took him to the far reaches of the globe and back, there is disbelief.

Bourdain (Photo by Jessie Wightkin)
How could a man with so much to live for, who gave so many others pleasure from the verve with which he approached the simple act of eating, cast it all aside? Bourdain's job was almost too perfect. He was paid by CNN to travel to the backwater eddies of the planet as well as the most opulent of gustatory galleries to revel in dining and to share his experiences with a starving world of vicarious TV viewers


He was charming and endearing, but he was also demanding. He expected no less than the best that life had to offer and the matter of fact way he shared his experiences, eating his way across the globe established a place for him that few in his industry achieved. But, as he admitted in his book, "Kitchen Confidential," he did have his inner demons, having successfully fought drug addiction and coming back stronger, emerging as an industry leader. He was a champion for the food scene in New Orleans and we loved him for that, too. Despite his success, he was still intensely troubled and filled with such despair that he, too, thought the unthinkable.

And now he is gone.

Williams (Photo via Wikimedia)
When comedian Robin Williams committed suicide in 2014, he did so by hanging as did Spade and Bourdain. Perhaps the most creative comic mind of his generation, Williams brought mirth and laughter to audiences and to his peers for decades. He could bring joy to a small child or happiness to a nonagenarian with his over-the-top frenetic gyrations on stage and delighted millions with his on-screen performances. He created Mork and Mrs. Doubtfire and showed us what a grown-up Peter Pan might look like, imbuing all of his characters with a humanity that made us love him. Yet, despite an Academy Award and fame that brought him financial well-being, he, too, suffered from depression and could only reach for a rope to bring an end to his tortured existence.

And then he was gone.

But in the end, it was not just him.

Lederman (Photo by Alan Smason)
In the week that followed Robin Williams' demise, suicide ideation shot up a whopping 75%. One of those who took his life was my friend, supporter and one of the most beloved of my high school classmates, Louis Lederman. Not many people were more animated than "Louie," the son of Holocaust survivors. How could anyone whose family had endured the horrors of the Nazi era and had clung tenaciously to stay alive simply give up everything? It was as if the Nazis had won. A talented traditional jazz drummer, he organized the Bone Tone band that marched in Mardi Gras parades and was the onetime Boss of the Phunny Phorty Phellows. There were few like Louie.

And then he was gone.

Suicide rates have risen by 30% in the last two decades and health authorities are buckling down, expecting another wave of attempts in these next few days. It is important that we look to signs that might portend one of our loved ones is suffering from the same kind of misguided thinking. The world will not be better served through these cruel and cowardly acts. Cruel because their deaths hurt those they leave behind and cowardly because, rather than confront life, they give in to a solution that fixes nothing and oftentimes makes matters worse.

Please keep an eye out for your loved ones this week. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255. Get help to those that need it.


Friday, May 25, 2018

The Iron Lady of New Orleans

When news reached me of the death of Jackie Pressner Gothard on Monday morning, May 21, the very first thing that went through my mind was that it must have been a trick or some sort of fantastic jest to test me. There was no warning. No bulletin rang out in advance preparing me for her sudden disappearance. She was a pillar of the New Orleans community one moment - a woman of indomitable will and gracious Southern charm - and then she was a memory.

But what a memory she leaves behind.

Jackie Gothard at the re-burial of seven Torah scrolls in 2011. 
Jackie Gothard was the consummate cheerleader, the never-say-die, larger-than-life character who, quite literally, saved my synagogue and embodied renewed hope for Jewish New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Jackie was the spirit of the new Congregation Beth Israel, erected phoenix-like on the ashes of more than 100 years of Orthodox Judaism in New Orleans.

It was her life's mission to never let anyone forget the history of Beth Israel or its tragic demise beneath the murky floodwaters from the breached 17th Street Canal following the landfall of the monster storm. She made the decision to bring the lifeless synagogue back from the dead, even while she was an evacuee in Houston and the news out of New Orleans was nothing less than bleak.
That was Jackie. She was always organizing and planning. She made certain that there was only one High Holiday period that the members of the synagogue under whose shadow she had grown up near the heavily Jewish corridor along Dryades Street, would be without a building in which they could assemble, pray and, let us not forget, eat.

Jackie employed her son Eddie, himself a former Beth Israel president, to get on the phone with the Orthodox Union, the United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America) and anybody else who would listen. Beth Israel was coming back, she would tell them. Orthodox services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were planned and executed at a Houston hotel and many bewildered and depressed former New Orleans residents gathered to daven and begin to consider that a move back to the city and Modern Orthodoxy might again be possible.

When the floodwaters had receded and residents were allowed back into the city, Jackie beat a path to the once magnificent structure on Canal Boulevard the synagogue had called home since 1970. She gasped in between tears as she beheld with her own eyes what 10-12 feet of toxic waste laden and sewage-filled floodwaters had done to the exterior and interior of her shul. The Torah scrolls had been rescued famously by an Israeli search and rescue team from ZAKA, a group initially charged with rescue or recovery of bodies. The scrolls had been largely destroyed and were rendered invalid. In some cases, the parchment had been eaten away by whatever microbes and chemicals were in that water. Jackie contacted Becky Hegglund (see page 32, Best of the CCJN SOURCE 5776), a former receptionist who hadn't worked at the synagogue for several years, as soon as she returned home. The synagogue was in ruins, but the Torah scrolls needed to be buried in a reverent fashion, according to Jewish law. Jackie didn't know who else to call. Like so many others who had been charged with a task by Jackie, Becky - a non-Jew - agreed. Jackie gave her the contact number for ZAKA's Rabbi Issac Leider and she arranged to pick up the seven Torah scrolls, dig a four-foot by six-foot plot by herself and deposit them in a makeshift grave. 

Jackie Gothard at the reburial of religous artifacts.
Upon her return home, Jackie renewed her conversations with Reform Congregation Gates of Prayer's (senior) Rabbi Robert Loewy. Out of a gesture of kindness and charity, he offered Jackie and those Orthodox community members an opportunity to re-establish the congregation in the back chapel, a room that by divine coincidence had an aron hakodesh (holy ark) for prayer services. Beth Israel began to meet there and went on to establish a unique partnership with the Reform temple, eventually purchasing land from them and building a new structure there.

Over the course of the several months and years of recovery, Jackie was at the helm of leadership, retrieving religious articles from the old synagogue and overseeing the burial of thousands of prayerbooks, hundreds of prayer shawls and several dozen phylacteries. One of the items she was most proud of saving was the synagogue's giant Chanukiah - the special brass menorah used during the celebration of Chanukah. That menorah was scrubbed and polished to a new luster by Jackie and others who would see it used in a synagogue again. Not only was it used again at Beth Israel, but it was prominently displayed in 2011 at the official White House Chanukah ceremony at which President Barack Obama lit the Chanukah candles. 

The young rabbi who carried that menorah to the White House was none other than Rabbi Uri Topolosky, a visionary figure who, along with his wife Dahlia, were charmed by Jackie on a tour of the old synagogue and decided almost immediately to move to the Crescent City and its tiny Jewish minority from their heavily-Jewish neighborhood in Riverdale, New York. It was Rav Uri, who along with Jackie, became the public face of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Even while the property was for sale, she constantly gave tours of the old synagogue to groups that wanted to see what destruction the structure had suffered. 

Jackie told the story of her family's kosher delicatessen and other businesses run by Jewish merchants along Dryades Street that became known as "the second Canal Street." Two Orthodox congregations had sprung up there - Beth Israel and Congregation Anshe Sfard - and only a few blocks away was the original location of Temple Sinai, the first synagogue formed under the branch of Reform Judaism.

She never tired of answering questions to the many different groups who inquired as to what Jewish communal life was like in the old days and what was in store for the congregation.
Jackie and others who followed her, including another woman president - Roselle Middleberg Ungar - saw to it that Beth Israel was restored with a magnificent new building that was dedicated on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall seven years later. Over the last five years, Jackie continued to be a mainstay at the synagogue, celebrating her 60th wedding anniversary only a few months ago with close relative and the third woman president, Lee Kansas, looking on proudly. On many a Thursday, she helped others organize and prepare the meal that would be served after Shabbat services on Saturday. 

A tireless force of nature, she never seemed to slow down, bragging on the accomplishments of her grown professional children, her grandchildren and even her great-grandson. That's why her sudden passing is so hard to believe.

On a personal note, I was defeated in 2003 for my run for Congregation Beth Israel president. At the time, I took my defeat hard. There had never been a woman elected before to that office and there were even questions as to whether an Orthodox congregation could have a woman as president. Those doubts were soon erased as Jackie enjoyed the high of celebrating the synagogue's 100th anniversary in 2004 to be followed by that difficult period of recovery from the hurricane.

At the time, I had no way of knowing how lucky I was to have lost. There is little doubt in my mind that I would have been thoroughly unprepared for the many challenges Jackie met and defeated with ease. While I may have lost, Beth Israel, the New Orleans Jewish community and, dare I say, the city of New Orleans all won. It was all because of Jackie and her fierce determination to bring Beth Israel back.

There was no one like Jackie Gothard and there probably never will be.

Todah rabah (thank you very much), Jackie. Todah rabah.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Getting rid of the question mark in social media life

By now, we've all heard of the Facebook scandal in which Cambridge Analytica allegedly mined the social media accounts and profiles intent on influencing the 2016 election for the Republican party. As a result, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and public face, testified to Congress on the extent of what his company had permitted to happen by opening up their Facebook interface application to developers.

©1971 Walt Kelly
Although Zuckerberg has defended his company's actions and now claims to have placed barriers on many of the designs by which profiles were earmarked and data collected on them, the fact is we are our own worst enemies. To quote Walt Kelly's Pogo comical spin on Oliver Perry's terse report: "We have met the enemy and he is us!"

How many times have we been unwittingly tricked into "sharing" a seemingly innocent-looking quiz that boosts our self-esteem when we more than meet its challenge? "Only four percent will be able to name all 50 state capitals," its banner trumpets. "Can you name these Broadway musicals by these simple descriptions?" We've seen them. Taken them. And just as easily shared them on Facebook.

It's then that a small box will appear advising you that if you share this superb score that the application will be able to access your Facebook friends and gain access to information on your profile. So who could it harm, you reason? After all, don't you want everyone to know that you know that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota and not Pierre?

So, you hit that button and now your friends have been exposed to another dreaded social media disease. That's right. You've just infected your friends and family, who will be targeted for their data too. Nice going.

Every time we share a news story, we are tracked. The New York Times does it. The Washington Post does it. Even liberal thinking Rolling Stone Magazine. They all do it. There is information they embed into those links that allow them to mine your habits, likes and dislikes. So what to do?

Here is a simple way to prevent them from easily tracking your information. It's as easy as asking a question. Or more to the point. It's as easy as knowing a question mark. (What follows is the technical information. If you just want to know the reveal, skip ahead to *.)

All of these articles use basic hypertext markup language or what is commonly known as HTML. It's the language of the Internet and it's not going to go away anytime soon. The Internet defaults to headers that begin with "http://..." or, in those cases where additional security is implemented, "https://..." All browsers from Chrome to Firefox to EDGE know how to interpret these headers and convert the words into numbers and distill them into the binary language of computers, a series of zeroes and ones.

Uniform resource locators are known to computer users as URLs. They are used to find files on your local computers or by browsers to use the Internet to access files on faraway servers that know how to answer your requests. On a local computer the URL might look like this: 

C:\Users\Alan\Documents\Love.docx. 

The URL knows it needs to access the C: drive and that the large folder of Users must first be accessed. Within Users is the Alan profile and the file in question is kept under the Documents folder. The slashes used between each segment allow the computer to refine its search.

On the Internet, though, backslashes are used to help browsers refine their searches. Take a look at this made up URL:

http://www.notreal.com/tenyearsisadecade.html?seehowtheytracku

The first part of the URL lets the browser know it is using hypertext markup language rather than, say, a file sharing protocol like FTP (those start with "ftp://..."). The World Wide Web nomenclature is extraneous these days. Browsers are smart enough to know how to get to a website by the use of its FQDN or fully qualified domain name without the "www" portion. FQDNs are broken down into two parts - the hostname and the domain name.

Domain name servers or DNS information is not unlike a phone book. Rather than go into how it works, let's just state that top level domains (TLD) like .edu, .com or .net identify large groups of servers that constantly share and update information between each other. All universities use the TLD of .edu, for example. So, a computer from tulane.edu easily knows how to reach a server at yale.edu and vice versa. The TLD might be considered a surname. All the other information before it could be considered a first or middle name to identify it further.

*If you've kept up with me so far, it's now time for the big reveal. In the example above, the first part of the URL has all of the information needed to share that article on Facebook:

http://www.notreal.com/tenyearsisadecade.html

Beginning with the "?," all of the other information is used for tracking and is superfluous. I have been sharing articles on Facebook for years by copying the link UP TO the ? and leaving off that trail of tracking code. Perhaps you might consider doing this. 

Also, if you enjoy taking quizzes, let people know your score without sharing it through the application. It's as easy as taking a screenshot and sharing that. (Just don't click that "Share your results" button.)

If you don't know how to take a screenshot, the ways are varied, but simple enough. On a Windows computer, just click the PrtScn button and paste it into a program like Word (or for those older computers Paint). On a Mac computer, use the Command-Shift-3 keys and it will copy to your Desktop. On an iPhone 8 or earlier, briefly click the top right button (used to power on the device) and the Home button at the bottom. Androids take screenshots by holding the volume down and power buttons at once.

By sharing the screenshot, you can get your score out to your friends and family and they can marvel at what a whiz you are and how nice you are not to share their personal data and profile with these unseen entities who want to sell your likes, dislikes, political leanings, sexual preferences, etc. to other companies for their profit.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Dead


The latest news of the shootings in the First Baptist Church in Shurland Springs, Texas is just numbing. It has gotten to the point now where this ongoing cycle of gun violence has made me stop watching the news. That is not good for someone who considers himself a journalist.

I simply can't take another death count or see the images of innocent people - too many of them young with so much promise and expectation -  wiped out by bullets from a crazed shooter.

This comes on the heels of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history at the Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas on October 1 where 59 died and hundreds were injured and last year's horrific anti-gay slaughter at the Pulse Night Club in Orlando where 48 were slain. Lest we not forget there was also the terrorism-inspired tragedy in San Bernadino in early December of 2015 where another 14 died. We have seen a sizable uptick in numbers of people killed in mass shootings.

But while these numbers capture the headlines and keep news anchors busy for a time, the truth is the most damning statistics show that we are a nation at arms with itself. More people die each year by gun deaths than do in automobile accidents. If we were to count up all of those who have died by gun violence in the last 50 years, the number of dead outnumber all of those who died on every field of battle in our nation's history since Revolutionary times.

Read that again. Since 1968, guns have removed more American citizens than those who fought for freedom from the British, contested the Kaiser in the Great War, opposed the Nazis and facists in World War II, confronted communism in Southeast Asia and battled our brothers during the Civil War.

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control issued in November of 2017, 12 out of every 100,000 Americans will die as a victim of gun violence. That figure shows a rise for the second consecutive year, whereas previous years had registered as static. Approximately half of them will die from self-inflicted wounds. Regardless of who pulls the trigger, though, these Americans are dead as a result of access to firearms and I am now of the opinion, just as the CDC has also begun to indicate, that we are in the middle of an epidemic that must be stemmed.

I love my country. I consider myself a patriotic American who appreciates the liberties we cherish. But no other civilized country in the world has numbers of those felled by gunfire as we do. It is an ignoble record we break year after year without any hint that we may be receding from our relentless onslaught against one another.

In Israel thousands of young men and women patrol the streets with Uzi machine guns and assault rifles. There are an awful lot of guns roaming around among soldiers due to security concerns, but Israel's gun laws are among the most strict in the world. Unless authorities perceive a need for someone to protect valuables or explosives or to use a weapon as a means for hunting, they are not allowed to own a firearm. Residents of the West Bank are granted an exception too, but again only  due to security issues.

The United States would like to call itself "the Leader of the Free World," but as far as gun laws go, it is in reality "The Land of the Free and the Home of the Dead."

Two summers ago and last summer, angry crowds rose up to affirm that Black Lives Matter. While I do not mitigate the threat to African-Americans from law enforcement officers or for those that support the police with their support of the Blue Lives Matter cause, I must insist that we examine the problem as systemic and not aimed at just one segment of our population. When a bullet hits skin and pierces a body, it sheds red blood. The color we all need to see is red. All Lives Matter.

I am a strong supporter of the Constitution and I believe that we should all have a right to bear arms in defense of our loved ones or those dependent on us. But we cannot forget that the Constitution was written in 1789, a time when a flintlock was standard issue.  A typical weapon could be loaded and discharged within a minute before firing. There is no way the Founding Fathers could have foreseen an assault rifle with automatic fire capability that could have wiped out all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in one strike. And as to handguns, there is little reason to justify stocks with 12 or 15 chambers for bullets unless the intent is to kill a maximum number of human lives. 

Other than for military personnel in a period of war or preparation for the same can I ever see the need for an assault rifle. Just because one can afford to purchase an assault rifle should not given him access to owning one. I might have the funds to purchase a tank. It doesn't mean that I should own one. Obviously, we have limitations on what we deem as proper and normal.

Gun violence can be dealt with by legislation and enforcement. There is the argument that criminals don't follow the law and that is true. But so many people get access to guns that shouldn't, some of whom are mentally unstable, especially through gun shows and mail order firms that something must be  done to clamp down these sales. 

Above all else, there needs to be a new dialogue in each and every household.  All weapons need to be properly locked away and kept out of the reach of those who are too young or too vulnerable to access them. Unless a gun or rifle is needed for protection of the home, professional law enforcement should be called upon to deal with those that threaten life and loss of property. 

I watched in horror 22 years ago when Columbine High School was the scene of devastation. Since then we've seen death and destruction at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and even on Mother's Day four years ago in New Orleans when 19 people were shot during a second line parade. Of all those that were shot, Deb Cotton was the worst victim because she had dared to point a camera at one of the shooters. Years later, after many successful surgeries, Deb confronted her attacker and not only forgave him, but advocated for the possibility of an early release from his sentence of life without benefit of parole. Deb knew the path she strode was unusual, but despite what gun violence had done to her, she continued to seek justice in an unjust world. In early May of this year, Deb lost her fight to survive, a victim of a hail of bullets fired 1,450 days earlier.

We shall see victims perish as a result of injuries suffered in Las Vegas and, sadly, in Florida and Texas and these, too, shall go unreported. But what also will go unreported is the anguish and misery of those whose loved ones are taken so soon and the difficulties spent during a lifetime asking the unrequited question "why?"

I am just sick of it. I can only hope that the tide of popular opinion will rise up in opposition to this epidemic. We need to address this immediately before the next tragedy occurs. Quite possibly, the life you save may be mine or those I love. Please stop. Do something now. Repeat....


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Make America grate again?

Hate groups from neo-Nazis to KKK members. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The hate coming out of Charlottesville is regrettable. But the levels of incitement and violence have proven to be far more concerning from the voices of the alt-right, fascists, neo-Nazis and KKK members than that which has come from the protestors on the left, who are far more reactionary than incendiary.

Perhaps more telling was that one misguided alt-right member was compelled by rhetoric or demagoguery into the criminal act of murder. He drove his muscle car into a crowd of helpless protestors to prove a simple point. It’s a point many of us learned during the era of lynchings that took place between the Civil War and the Civil Rights era. It’s the same point that was evident during the rise of the Nazi Party on the streets of Germany when hooligans and street toughs beat, maimed and killed those that got in their way.

With might there is right. Or, perhaps, with might there is alt-right.

It is true that many of these white supremacists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and xenophobes are holdovers from the philosophy of Tea Party politics. Rightly or wrongly, they were credited with helping to secure the election of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th President.

Many of their numbers were emboldened when Steve Bannon was selected to be the President’s chief strategist and policy adviser. When Bannon was editor at Breitbart, that website catered to the alt-right blogosphere and advocated for their peculiar brand of politics.

Despite denials from many quarters of the White House that they did not support these purveyors of hate, there had been little in the form of specific pushback from President Trump. Even when the events of confrontation at Charlottesville turned ugly and then deadly, the rhetoric from the President reflected that the violence came from “many sides.” He neglected to honor the memory of the young woman whose life had been senselessly taken away. After both his daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, and his vice-president Mike Pence, a fundamentalist Christian, came out publicly to deplore the actions of the white nationalists and anti-Semites, Trump was mute. He appeared in no hurry to call out the KKK and the neo-Nazis specifically.

Then, after two days, he apparently changed his mind this afternoon. “Racism is evil and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and other hate groups who are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” the President said.

Finally, after two days, the moral compass of the Chief Executive has risen to where he can now condemn those whose philosophies we fought both a Civil War and a Second World War to defeat.

Thank you, Mr. President. I could not have expected this ineffectual moral leadership, especially coming from a man some have labeled a firebrand. You told us you would make America great again. Instead your lack of words and moral leadership grates on the sensibilities of all forward-thinking Americans who had expected more from you. You are, after all, the President of all Americans, not alt-Americans.

It’s not about it being too little too late. It’s more to the point that it should be “Not on My Watch” and “Never Again.”

Meanwhile, more alt-right protests are scheduled for this weekend. Will we Americans see more of this new Donald Trump or will his rhetoric slide back to what we saw on Saturday, just after attacks?
Even The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication, was compelled to comment: “Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.”


That is one statement on which both the Nazis and I can agree.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Of mayors, monuments and miscreants


The dust has settled and only the rhetoric remains as the last of the four statues decried as public nuisances first by Mayor Mitch Landrieu and later in a 2015 city ordinance - that of Robert E. Lee - finally came down last weekend. We've had a lot of painful memories stirred up by the controversy as the flames of racism were fanned by radicals on both sides.

The deed is done. The monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, which was essentially an attempt to overthrow both the yoke of Reconstruction and the gubernatorial election of 1874 by the Crescent City White League, was probably the most egregious of the statues. A plaque added in 1932 during the Depression had attempted to rewrite the history of that bloody battle quelled by federal troops, fallaciously indicating that it had established white supremacy in the state. Enlightened and embarrassed city officials in the post Civil Rights Era in 1973 added yet another plaque on the side of the monument, noting that while the history of the battle was important, the previous sentiments were not in line with modern revisionist and inclusive thinking. The statue was used as a rallying point for David Duke and others for decades and had been taken down during street work in 1989. Its placement on the federally protected National Register forced city officials to restore the monument, but had it relocated to a less visible area in the French Quarter.

The statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, was also allowed to be erected at a time when blacks enjoyed little political voice. Davis never sought reconciliation and was an apologist for the Confederacy, contributing to the philosophy of the "Lost Cause," wherein the secession from the Union was justified as reactionary to Northern aggression and the Old South with its plantation economy built on slavery was romanticized as an idyllic way of life.

The last two statues depicted two larger than life figures - Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P. G. T. Beauregard. Again, the lack of political pushback from former slaves and their descendants and others who might have pointed out that celebrating military figures who lost a war might not be practical or in the best of taste. Beauregard and Lee, however, did advocate for reconciliation between the states. Beauregard in particular pushed for integration and full rights for the emancipated population. His equestrian statue might have survived scrutiny had he not been shown in full military regalia.

In the weeks leading up to the removal of the four monuments, dozens of outsiders - many of which were hate groups and white supremacists - descended upon the city, unfurling Confederate and other splinter group flags. New Orleanians who had lived with the monuments, oftentimes oblivious to what they represented to the black populace, were sometimes offended more by the methods of removal and the attempt to rewrite history. They found themselves in the unenviable position of being on the same side as members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Sons of the Confederacy.

The organized forces known as Take 'em Down, who agreed with the mayor and the City Council that the four objects needed to be removed, were as vitriolic as the other side. They had flags and banners on their side too as they marched through the city or confronted each other as vigilant New Orleans Police Department officers separated and watched the two factions. Take 'em Down has indicated that it wants to continue to advocate for changing the names of streets bearing Confederate personages or former slaveowners and take down other iconic statues such as that of Andrew Jackson at Jackson Square in the Vieux Carré. Understandably, there is major pushback there for those that still consider Jackson "the hero of the Battle of New Orleans."

It is sad that the polarization of the city these days has sprung up over monuments of bronze, brick and mortar. The city of New Orleans has largely enjoyed a different kind of culture than that found in other areas of the South. Mardi Gras has always been a unique celebration that has unified the city and from its earliest days Creole culture has embraced many non-Caucasian ethnicities. What endures more than statues and obelisks is the humanity of its people and their capacity to love one another.

Now that this bitter chapter has ended, we should all hope that this is the beginning of a positive era of better relations and that we should all mind our own fences. As a city, New Orleans will be celebrating its tricentennial next year. We need to hold high the official flag of New Orleans and proudly declare that we will chart our own destiny, not let outsiders decide for us what we want and try not to erase history, but learn from it.