Tennessee Memory Lane: Remembering Governor Ray Blanton

Image: Front page of the Nashville Tennessean after Gov. Ray Blanton was convicted of selling alcohol licenses. Headline is “Blanton Guilty.” (from the Nashville Post)

I should mention up front, there’s no real Jewish content to this post, I’m just taking a trip down memory lane. However, I think you may find it interesting in light of recent events.

The President’s pardon of Dinesh D’Souza, convicted of campaign finance fraud, and his talk about pardoning Rod Blagojevich have sent me down memory lane.

In 1975, when I was still a Tennessean, we elected a scalawag named Leonard Ray Blanton to be Governor of Tennessee. He had already served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1967-1973, so it isn’t like we didn’t know what we were getting. He was famous for his poor attendance record in the Congress and his pursuit of pork barrel projects for his part of the state. (I must admit, the 7th congressional district had the nicest road surfaces of any rural counties in Tennessee.) He was also known for having come up as a politician through the Crump Machine out of Memphis.

In other words, anyone who thought Leonard “Ray” Blanton was an innocent was not paying attention.

Well, he got elected governor because in those days, we’d only elected one Republican governor in the previous 50 years. That was a nice dentist named Winfield Dunn, and everyone was so shocked at having a Republican governor that between four years of Dr. Dunn and the Watergate scandal, it just seemed safer to go back to what we were used to. (I say “we” although I voted for his opponent, Lamar Alexander, today a Senator from Tennessee. My politics have changed since I was in my 20’s, but I think Senator Alexander is a sight better a human being than Gov. Blanton ever was, despite his mistaken opinion on many matters.) Anyway…

Governor Blanton ran as a populist, putting together a coalition of assorted folks who believed that Republicans were practically the devil because they’d brought in Reconstruction 100 years before. (I wish I could say I was making that part up.) He talked a lot about morals and about honesty and Christianity, so of course he was going to be a good governor, right?

Once he was elected, however, he became known for heavy drinking and womanizing publicly, for vulgar language and high-handed ways. He gave himself a five-figure raise. The papers reported on his expensive junkets around the world to attract business to Tennessee and on the entourage of his friends who went with him. There were rumors about much worse, stuff like selling pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down in his Capitol offices. The state of Tennessee even paid his bar bills and those of his cronies, until the newspapers shamed him into paying us back. Meanwhile the legislature changed the law, so that he could be the first governor in Tennessee history eligible to serve a second term.

By 1977 it was beginning to smell pretty bad. He fired a single mother named Marie Fajardo Ragghianti, who his administration had hired to be Chair of the Pardons and Paroles board, an improbable hire given her youth and inexperience. She refused to release a shady bunch of characters he pardoned because she suspected they had paid bribes to someone for their pardons. It was a very bad business, but there was no proof Gov. Blanton was involved. For a while, Ms. Ragghianti was out of a job, her name was mud, and after she went to the FBI, she was threatened by thugs who felt she was not sufficiently respectful of the governor. If you want the details of that story, you can watch the movie Marie

By the next election, in 1979, everyone smelled the horse manure, so we elected Lamar Alexander governor over Blanton. However, Gov. Blanton wasn’t done with us. The Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court got a phone call from the Lieutenant Governor and the State House Speaker that Gov. Blanton was staying up late signing pardons willy-nilly. His plan was to turn loose every white murderer or rapist in the state prison system as a big “so there” to the people of Tennessee for not re-electing him.

They got Mr. Alexander up and swore him in real quick, three days early and in the middle of the night, so that Gov. Blanton couldn’t sign any more pardons. Lieutenant Governor John Wilder called it “impeachment, Tennessee style.”

Ray Hill of the Knoxville Focus would later write:

Despite his populist rhetoric and talk of honesty and political morals, Ray Blanton would preside over perhaps the most corrupt regime in Tennessee history. (Knoxville Focus, 1/22/17.)

The cooperation of politicians from both sides of the aisle put an end to Gov. Blanton’s shenanigans. They put love of the State of Tennessee ahead of their own agendas. I’m proud of them to this very day. After Lamar Alexander’s dramatic midnight swearing-in, law enforcement in the state and at the FBI went to work and eventually Blanton was indicted and convicted on charges he was convicted of charges of extortion and conspiracy for selling a liquor license, and he spent 22 months in prison. Two of his cronies were convicted of selling the pardons, but he was never officially charged with it. Governor Ray Blanton died in 1996, still insisting that he’d “never taken a dishonest dollar” in his life, and I’m sure somebody still believed him.

When good people are willing to stand up and be good people, when we are willing to put the common good ahead of our own pride and self-interest, good things can happen. If on the other hand, previously decent people can’t see past their ideologies and their greed, then evil will prevail.

That’s all I’ve got to say.

 

 

 

 

 

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“You’re a Bad Jew!”

Image: Eleven angry, screaming faces. (Photo from Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Reading the comments sections of Jewish online publications, I cringe. There are people who seem to entertain themselves by logging on and writing comments about what a “bad Jew” the writer is for having such-and-such an opinion, or what “bad Jews” other people are. They write as the arbiters of everything Jewish, in a tone that implies vast Jewish learning, with content that reveals only vast ignorance.

I imagine someone who wants to learn about Judaism reading this stuff, and I shudder. What are they to learn? The misinformation this supposed expert just spouted? That Jews speak hatefully to and about one another? That somewhere there is a “Jew-Hell” that “bad Jews” go to?

(Aside: No, there is no Jewish hell, except for the ones we make here in this life.)

Sometimes these bumptious blowhards seem to say that only the most traditional practice is valid. Sometimes they seem to be saying that their Judaism is the only real Judaism. Other disagreeable dogmatists seem to think that any traditional belief or practice is terrible, or they take delight in detecting any scrap of what might be an inconsistency in someone else’s practice. And all of them are cruel, using belittling language to make their point: “Not only are you a bad Jew, going to Jew-Hell, but you are unintelligent and ugly, too!”

Do you honestly think anyone was ever persuaded by hateful words?

Words have power. We learn that in Genesis 1:3:

.וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר

And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.

Words create worlds. It is up to us to decide what kind of world we want, and to create it with our words. Cruel words produce a cruel world. Is that really what we want?

My Policy Regarding Messianism

Image: Shabbatai Tzvi, a 17th century self-proclaimed messiah. Public Domain.

Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai used to say: “If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you ‘The Messiah is coming!’ first plant the sapling and then go to greet him.” – Avot de Rabbi Natan, 31b

Lately I’ve noticed an uptick in comments reflecting a “Messianic Jewish” point of view. It’s time for a policy statement about that, so here goes.

Rabbinic Judaism came into being in the first and second centuries when the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem closed the period of Biblical Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism subscribes to the notion that we have both a Written Torah (the five books of Moses) and an Oral Torah (the interpretation of those books passed down by a group of people known to us as the rabbis.)

There is a huge range of belief among Rabbinic Jews. We are more focused on actions than on belief, on keeping mitzvot (commandments) than on a particular orthodoxy (with a small-o.) We do not have creeds.

We do not have a messiah. Those of us who expect one (and not all of us do) are waiting for a political or military leader. We are not waiting for or interested in a savior to save us from our sins. This has been a matter of some distress to Christians, who historically want us to accept the person they believe to be a messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, but early on separated itself from us partly over doctrinal issues and partly over the fact that in the Roman world after the year 135 it was not healthy to be mistaken for a Jew. We Jews were rebels, we were trouble, and the Roman establishment did everything it could to put us out of business. Small wonder that the Christians of the time, who were interested in converting Romans to their faith, took care to differentiate themselves from Rabbis (aka Pharisees) in the Gospels, which were all written after at least one revolt against Rome.

Jews have suffered for centuries for our unwillingness to accept the Christian messiah. Those centuries of suffering  – of murders, of robbery, of stolen children, of persecution, of genocide – inform a certain testiness when someone comes along cheerfully talking about “being both,” or of conversion to Christianity under cover of a Hebracized name for Jesus.

By the way, Jesus isn’t the only candidate for messiah in Jewish history. By some counts as many as 24 individuals have been proposed as messiahs for the Jews. Some disappear into history, taking a few followers with them; others have been major disasters. The fellow pictured at the top of this post, Shabbetai Tzvi, was one of those who did terrible damage to the Jewish People.

So-called Messianic Judaism is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon. I do not teach Messianic Judaism. To my mind, it smacks of cultural appropriation – the adoption of the elements of a minority culture (Judaism) by members of the dominant culture (Christianity.) From where I sit, if someone thinks Jesus is their messiah, fine – but then they’re Christian, not Jewish. A person who worships Jesus as God may have Jewish ancestry, but their acceptance of that doctrine makes them no longer Jewish, no matter which of their ancestors were Jews.

And no, I’m not interested in a debate about this.

From now on, I’m simply going to delete “messianic” comments in this blog. Those who want that material have many websites upon which to find it. I can’t stop them from using materials on my site but I can prevent them from proselytizing at people who come here to learn about Judaism.  That same policy also goes for Christians who proselytize.

So that’s the policy. Don’t bother posting that stuff, because I’m going to delete it.

 

The Rabbi’s Hobby

Image: A Zenith console radio, much like the one my parents had when I was small. (photo via Collectors Weekly)

Radio is magic. Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved playing with the radio. I was born a night owl; when the family was all asleep, I’d creep into the den at home, where the big console radio stood, and I’d turn it on and watch the glow of the vacuum tubes. (Yes, I’m that old.) I’d turn the volume down and start at the bottom of the AM dial. I’d watch a little dial that showed signal strength, and when it twitched upwards, I’d turn the volume up ever so slowly until I could hear. Then I’d listen for the station identification, and if it was one I hadn’t heard before, I’d write it in a little notebook. I sat on a hilltop in rural Tennessee, but I could hear Cincinnati, Memphis, New York, Atlanta, and occasionally even Havana.

It was years before I learned the science behind “skip” – the property of radio waves and the atmosphere that made faraway stations come through late at night – but for a little girl who longed for the big wide world, it was glorious. New York stations brought me Nichols and May. WLOK in Memphis was my first exposure to African American music and culture. “Radio Rebelde, Cuba” was unmistakable, as was the voice of Castro giving speeches – I couldn’t understand the language, but I had seen enough clips of Castro on “Huntley-Brinkley” (NBC evening news) to recognize his voice. I felt very wicked, listening to Communist radio in the 1960’s!

pipe-3031175_640
Vacuum tube radios glowed.

All these voices floated in from the dark, and I listened to them in the ghostly glow of the radio tubes. I mourned when my parents got rid of that old radio, replacing it with a modern pink plastic clock-radio in the kitchen. It was useless for magical travel, and worse yet, it didn’t glow.

ic-R75
The IC-R75 radio on which the kids and I listened to history in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

When my own children were in grammar school, I bought a shortwave radio so that we could listen to stations all over the world. We strung an antenna along the roofline facing towards the Pacific, and the magic began to flow out of the radio again. The boys and I listened to the end of the Cold War, to cricket games announced in Pidgin from the Solomon Islands, to the drama in Tiananmen Square, and all sorts of other stuff. For a while, I wrote reception reports for Radio Deutsche Welle. the German shortwave network.

When I began to prepare for rabbinical school, and got very serious about Hebrew, I had to give up most other hobbies to make the time. I sold the big radio and most of the rest of my equipment in 2001. I figured I’d never have the time again, and that was true until life settled down a bit after school.

I finally got an Amateur Radio license in 2010. I had internalized a lot of “little girls don’t” lessons as a child, and always assumed that “ham radio” was for boys, not for me. I decided to ditch that thinking and get my license, which was easier to do than I had feared. It was gratifying to knock down my internal barrier, but for a long time, I didn’t do much with the ticket.

Recently my son Aaron got his license, and we’ve begun playing with the radio as a family again. I find that thinking about the physics of radio is another gateway to Rabbi Heschel’s radical amazement. Aaron and I are training to join the team of amateur radio volunteers who swing into action in a big emergency, assisting with communications when the phones are down. It combines wonder and service in equal parts: what a wonderful way to live Torah!

Ruth Adar, K6RAV

 

 

I Don’t Care Why Anymore.

Image: Law enforcement responds to a shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Spring, TX. (KSAT, via Associated Press)

It’s become a routine: first, a bare notice on the AP wires that “a shooting” has happened, more to come. Then the “more” comes: details about where it happened, a growing roster of dead, stories about the first responders, then, to fill the 24 hour news cycle, endless speculation about “the shooter” who is almost always dead, almost always male, almost always white.

Was he mentally ill? What was he angry about? Was he a terrorist? Was he something else? What was his motive?

Meanwhile, somewhere, emergency rooms are filling up with people screaming in pain, bodies blown to bits, lives shredded like so much confetti.

The news reporters count the tally: how many dead? How does this compare to other shootings? Was this “the biggest” in some way?

And I cannot help but think of the next “shooter,” collecting his guns and ammo, making his plans. We know that at least some of those men followed the news about other shootings.

And through it all, I want to cry, fling a shoe at my radio, and wail, “I DON’T CARE WHY HE DID IT.”

We have taken a national health crisis and made it into a drama. People (usually white males) murder (mostly by shooting) lots and lots and lots of people, and we debate when it is OK to talk about solutions, when it is OK to talk politics, and on and on about motive.

His motive was that he wanted to hurt people. The means was easy: it was probably a gun, which is easy to get and easy to use. The method: find a place where people are gathered, squeeze the trigger and let fly.

There is no mystery about the shooter, only sick fascination.

The real mystery is why we sit like looky-loos passing an accident, hanging onto the news for gruesome details, watching the commercials so we can get to the next segment, the next expert, the next scrap of information that doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

We perseverate over his motive, we perseverate over his story, and meanwhile there are people in hospitals with lives ruined, limbs mangled, futures lost. I don’t care why he did it. I refuse to care about him. I care about the people who are hurt.

I don’t have any solution to this. More control of who gets a gun? We seem to lack the will for that.

The only word I have that makes any sense to me: Idolatry. We have chosen, as a nation, to enshrine a certain kind of device and make unfettered possession of it more important, more precious, than human life.

I am sick at heart, and I have no more words.

 

For my follow-up to this post, read Our Orgy of Anger.

“Never Again!”: Do We Mean It?

Image: Rohingya people at a clinic operated by the European Commission’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO). Health clinics operated by the Myanmar government are closed to them. Photo: © EC/ECHO/Mathias Eick., Myanmar/Burma, September 2013.

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. – Elie Wiesel

Bosnia.

Rwanda.

Cambodia.

The Nazi Holocaust.

The Rape of Nanking.

Ukrainian Holodomor (Forced Famine).

Armenia.

Native Americans.

Each of the names above should give every decent person the shivers. Each is an example of genocide. If any of them aren’t familiar to you, click the link to learn.

Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the U.N. General Assembly on 9 December 1948 defines genocide as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. 

One other thing that all genocides seem to have in common is that there are always some people who deny that it is happening or justify it with lies. Later on, they insist that it never happened, no matter how much evidence there is that it did indeed happen.

Right now most of the world seems to be in denial about yet another genocide, one taking place this very moment.

The United Nations human rights chief today lashed out at the treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar which has led to more than 300,000 people fleeing to Bangladesh in the past three weeks, as security forces and local militia reportedly burn villages and shoot civilians.

“The situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” Zeid Ra‘ad al-Hussein told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, noting that the current situation cannot yet be fully assessed since Myanmar has refused access to human rights investigators. – UN News Centre, 11 Sept 2017

The Rohingya people of Myanmar have had a precarious existence for a long time. They were explicitly excluded from citizenship in Myanmar under the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law. Since then they have been officially stateless. The government of Myanmar justifies this distinction with a claim that they are recent arrivals, illegal aliens. However, according to Human Rights Watch, the 1982 laws “effectively deny to the Rohingya the possibility of acquiring a nationality. Despite being able to trace Rohingya history to the 8th century, Burmese law does not recognize the ethnic minority as one of the national races”.

For more in-depth information about the Rohingya people, see this article in the Lancet.

The international press has focused on the facts that most Rohingya are of the Muslim faith, and that some Rohingya people have fought back against their oppressors. As has happened in the past to other ethnic groups (Jews and African Americans, for instance) any effort to defend themselves is taken as evidence that they are bad people. If they don’t defend themselves, it’s seen as a sign of weakness and inferiority. This is right out of the genocide playbook.

Racism underlies Burmese attitudes about the Rohingya:

Ye Myint Aung, the Burmese envoy in Hong Kong, hoped to dissuade others from feeling sympathy for the Rohingya. His method for doing this was by revealing his shocking racism. The Rohingya, he said, “are as ugly as ogres” and do not share the “fair and soft” skin of other Burmese ethnic groups.

Therefore, the Burmese consul general concluded, “Rohingya are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group,” using the other name for Burma while trotting out his government’s long-standing contention that the Rohingya are interlopers in Burma and don’t deserve citizenship rights.

– from Why Does this Buddhist-majority Nation Hate these Muslims so much? – Washington Post, 2/15/2015

So what can we do, as a people who have vowed that this will “never again” happen to a group of people? Nicole Sganga wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times that covers the best options very well. I urge you to read the article and see what possibilities on that menu are open to you.

For those who worry about the fact that they are Muslim, let me suggest that the surest way to radicalize people is to give them no good options. These people have lived peacefully in Myanmar/Burma for centuries, and the surrounding states don’t want them. Nobody wants them. Compare that to the situation of the Jews in the 1930’s; it is no different.

Some may say that there is enough to worry about here in the United States. There is another assault underway on the availability of healthcare (at this writing, on Sept 18, 2017.) Many of us know and care about people who are threatened by the change in U.S. immigration policy. (At least one of my students is a DREAMer, and I am terribly worried for her – you may also know someone in that category and not be aware of it.) For Jews, there are ongoing worries about Israel.

But this is genocide. This is a deliberate effort to eradicate an entire ethnic group, and to drive any remaining remnant from the place that has been their home for centuries. For any of us who have said “Never again!” this is a situation we cannot ignore.

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This article was amended to add the genocide against Native Americans, thanks to a reader who pointed out my oversight.

Let’s Spend Our Words Wisely

Image: A distracted man. Artwork by (johnhain/pixabay.)

Today a truck bombing ended and altered lives forever in Kabul, Afghanistan:

In one moment, more than 80 lives ended, hundreds of people were wounded and many more were traumatized, in the heart of a city defined by constant checkpoints and the densest concentration of Afghan and international forces. – NYT, May 31, 2017

The Washington Post reports that Jared Kushner built a luxury skyscraper in Manhattan using funds meant for projects in poor, job-starved areas.

The same paper reports that Trump is rolling back more Obama Administration moves, this time to return D.C. area compounds to the Russians.

58,000 people are homeless in L.A. County alone. That’s a 23% jump from last year, according to the L.A.Times.

For the second time this week, a noose was left in a Smithsonian museum – this time at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

What are we talking about on Twitter today?

The Twitterers who call themselves #TheResistance are spending a lot of hot air – or hot Tweets – on #covfefe (a typo in a Trump early morning tweet) and on a very bad joke (or tasteless political commentary?) by comedian Kathy Griffin. I’m not going to dignify either with a link. Use Google if you really don’t know what I’m talking about.

I know: it’s a relief to laugh. It’s particularly satisfying to make fun of someone we see as a bully. But when that relief crowds out everything else it has gone too far. When relief sinks to the level of the behavior it protests, what is it?

Earlier this month I posted an article about Humor and Jewish Survival, writing about the use of humor to preserve Jewish sanity through centuries of oppression. Today has set me to thinking about the dark side of humor, “humor” as bullying behavior.

Yes, bullying behavior.

Cruelty is shameful — unless the cruel man can represent it as a … joke. – C.S. Lewis,  The Screwtape Letters, 1947

We have seen this behavior from the President and his supporters, whether it is talk about what should happen to Secretary Clinton or what should have happened to the Obamas. When they are called on the most outrageous stuff, a spokesperson often resorts to talk about “jokes.”

 

Meanwhile, the world is watching. It watches not just the President and his people, but also the American people. If we are caught up in a narcissistic pursuit of the best bon mot about the President’s typo, we are not expressing sympathy for Kabul, outrage about Kushner and the #TrumpRussia scandal that continues to unfold. We are not expressing concern for the 58,000 homeless of Los Angeles. We are leaving clear evidence that we don’t care about the racism on full display in the Smithsonian.

It certainly looks like we are more concerned with getting laughs on Twitter, or scoring points on the opposition, than with the pursuit of justice or the expression of concern for our fellow human beings. If that is truly the case, then we have sunk to the level of Trump and his ilk.

I know those are harsh words, but we can do better than this. We must do better than this. For some alternative ideas for Twitter and social media use:

  • Spread a news story from a credible journalistic source.
  • Support a candidate who plans to run for the House in 2018 – they’re already out there.
  • Spread news of good citizens doing good things. (Portland, anyone?)
  • Express concern for someone different from myself.
  • Publicise the names of victims of violence.
  • Express support for a journalist doing their job.
  • Tweet some Torah.

Words create worlds. We must ask ourselves daily: What am I creating today?