Sunday, November 11, 2018

Vote on Fair Work Week Bill is scheduled for Nov. 29

Although eliminating poverty would mean a considerable investment of resources on the federal level, Helen Gym’s Fair Work Week bill demonstrates that there is action we can take on the local level which can make a difference in the lives of low-income workers and move the needle on poverty. From my article which appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, a standing-room crowd came out to support the Fair Work Week bill sponsored by Councilperson Helen Gym. The proposed legislation would impact the working conditions of the 130,000 employees in Philadelphia’s retail, food service and hospitality industries.

Currently, according to the California Institute for Research and Employment, 62 percent receive their schedules with less than two weeks’ notice and 53 percent have worked “clopenings,” consecutive closing and opening shifts with little time in between to commute, eat and sleep.

After three hours of testimony, much of it from service sector employees and their advocates about the devastating impact of unpredictable schedules on families, the Committee on Law and Government voted 6 to 2 in favor of moving the bill out of the committee to the full Council, with Councilmembers David Oh and Brian O’Neill voting no.

The bill as amended mandates that companies with more than 250 employees and more than 30 locations give workers their schedules with 10 days’ notice and requires compensation when work hours are changed without the mandatory 10 days notice. (The number of days of notice will rise to 14 starting in January 2020.) The legislation also requires employers to give work to currently employed part-time workers before hiring new employees.

The large turnout for the Oct. 30 hearing on the Fair Work Week bill suggests widespread support by community organizations, including Northwest Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Networks, and especially by women’s organizations who see the Fair Work Week bill as very much a woman’s issue.

The Philaddelphia Commission for Women has made support for the Fair Work week legislation one of its priorities for the upcoming year. The Philadelphia chapters of the National Organization for Women and the Coalition of Labor Union Women spoke in favor of the bill.

Nina Ahmad, former President of Philadelphia NOW and a current member of the National Board of NOW , noted that women increasingly make up the majority of low-wage workers. Women are still the primary caregivers for young children, responsible for making arrangements for childcare and medical care. Ahmad described the difficulties in arranging childcare faced by workers with unpredictable schedules:

With unpredictable weekly schedules, childcare becomes an ad hoc situation, cobbled together at the last minute. Since many centers require caregivers to pay a weekly or monthly fee, regardless of how often the child attends, holding a spot in a childcare center is often infeasible for workers who do not know when, or even if, they will work that week.

Further, workers with unstable schedules may not qualify for childcare subsidies due to fluctuations in income and work hours. To qualify in Pennsylvania, parents must work 20 or more hours a week, or work 10 hours and go to school or train for 10 hours a week. Relying on family, friends and neighbors to provide childcare – as most workers in low-wage jobs must do – is complicated by the fact that their childcare providers may also be balancing an unpredictable part-time work schedule at their own jobs.

Vanessa Fields, co-chair of the Policy and Advocacy for the Philadelphia Commission for Women and a member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, emphasized the Fair Work Week bill’s support for women struggling to escape poverty. With greater control over their working hours, they might obtain a GED, a college degree or other training that would enable them to obtain a better paying job.

Objections to the bill came from Councilman Allan Domb, who expressed concerns about whether the legislation would make Philadelphia businesses less competitive with the surrounding suburbs. Representatives from the hospitality industry argued that the hotel industry was especially vulnerable, given the unpredictable nature of hotel reservations.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass raised concerns about whether the city had the resources to enforce the bill. Deputy Mayor for Labor Richard Lazer replied that Mayor Kenney supported the goals of the bill and believed resources could be made available to ensure successful implementation. He also stated that the Mayor would like to see some unspecified amendments to the bill.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown expressed concern about the bill’s impact on existing collective bargaining agreements. However, Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, and other representatives of organized labor who spoke in favor of the bill, did not share Reynolds-Brown’s concerns. Since many low wage workers are not represented by unions, until these workers become organized, legislation will be the route to improving working conditions for most low wage service sector employees.

There are apparently now 10 councilpersons who have expressed support for the bill, one more than the nine necessary for passage. In addition to Helen Gym, there are seven co-sponsors: Jannie Blackwell, William Greenlee, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Mark Squilla.

In an interview on Oct. 31, Councilman Derek Green indicated his support.

“As vice-chair of the Law and Government Committee, I applaud Councilwoman Helen Gym for initiating this legislation to address poverty by giving employees a fair schedule and the opportunity to increase working hours,” he said. “I had some concerns about the unintended consequences of the bill and now think the amendments passed on Oct. 30 address those concerns and provide a balance between flexibility for employers and fairness for employees.”

He noted that he and Councilwoman Cindy Bass both voted to move the legislation out of committee with a favorable recommendation.

A vote on the bill is scheduled for Nov. 29 to decide whether Philadelphia will join the other states and municipalities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Oregon in passing a Fair Work Week bill.

Karen Bojar is a resident of Mt. Airy and a long-time Democratic Committee person. She is currently Vice-Chair of the Philadelphia Commission for Women.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Every feminist who travels to Milan should visit the Milan Women's Library!

We just returned from a trip to Italy and one of the highlights was a visit to the legendary Libreria delle donne di Milano, the Milan Women's Library,which has existed since 1975. Now located on via Pietro Calvi 29, the non-profit Women's Library is both a bookstore with an impressive stock of feminist books, and a meeting place which hosts meetings, political discussions, and film screenings.

Feminist bookstores have all but disappeared in the United States, but somehow Milanese feminists have managed to keep the Women's Library going on volunteer labor alone. In addition to the well-stocked bookstore/library, there are spacious, inviting meeting rooms.

I was impressed both with the Milan Women's Library and with the women I met there. They graciously gave me a tour of the library and meeting rooms as well as a copy of the September 2018 issue of their periodical, SottoSopra. I now have an incentive to work on improving my woefully inadequate reading knowledge of Italian.

The website describes the Women's Library as a “feminist enterprise that does not claim parity, but, on the contrary, says that the difference of women is there and we cherish it, we cultivate it…” The feminists who run the Milan Women's Library remain true to what is usually referred to as ”difference feminism", which emphasizes women's difference from men and which has characterized much of Italian feminist thought.

I bought a copy of Milan Women's Bookstore Collective publication, Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice (Theories of Representation and Difference) for 15 euros. When doing background reading for In Search of Elena Ferrrante, I read everything I could get my hands on about Italian feminist thought that had been translated into English. I came across this title but the price was crazy, not unusual for out of print academic books.

I’m very happy to finally have an affordable English language copy and will soon post a review.

Every feminist who travels to Milan should visit the Milan Women's Library!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What I learned talking with Ferrante fans at Big Blue Marble Bookstore

Recently, at my favorite bookstore, Big Blue Marble, I spoke to a lively group of readers about my book, In Search of Elena Ferrante.

Any novel is in some sense a Rorschach test—we read fiction through the lens of our own experiences and values. This is especially the case with Ferrante whose readers respond to her work on a deeply personal level. As Joanna Biggs put it in her review in the London Review of Books:

Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people—mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? Or—a question not happily answered—were you Lila?... The usual distance between fiction and life collapses when you read Ferrante.

The group at the bookstore was all female (which is often the case in gatherings devoted to Ferrante) and mostly older women. One reasons these books resonate with older readers like me is our identification with the narrator’s struggle to make sense of her life, the challenge of integrating her present-day self with the overall trajectory of her life. Certainly part of the reason the Neapolitan novels resonated with me was that the historical period they cover follows the trajectory of my life. Like Elena and Lila, I was born in 1944, and although there were of course differences between my life and theirs, there were also some striking similarities, among them the dramatic changes in the status of women and the heady excitement of the 1960s and 1970s, when all established institutions were challenged.

Not everyone at the bookstore was a Ferrante fan. One member of the audience, a good friend of mine whose personal and literary judgment I respect, thought Ferrante had not really probed the inner life of her characters. She’s not alone here. As I read reviews of the Neapolitan novels, I sometimes thought the reviewer had read a different series of novels from the ones I had. For me, Elena and Lila are as complicated and as fully alive as any fictional characters I have ever encountered.

Interestingly the people in the group who expressed opinions about the authorship of the novels all said it really didn’t matter if the books were written by a man or by a woman. The were in agreement with Ferrante’s comment in one of her many interviews, that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.”

Rather than being disappointed by the fact that Ferrante’s novels were not solely the work of a female writer, they seemed intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore gender roles. Ferrante’s publishers may fear that if a male author is acknowledged as the co-author of Ferrante’s books, many of Ferrante’s readers will be disappointed, may even feel deceived, and book sales will plummet. From my conversations with Ferrante fans, I doubt that is the case.

Queer theory and intersectional feminism have emphasized the fluidity of gender and undermined the notion of a stable female identity. My guess is that many readers will (in some cases reluctantly) have moved beyond the idea that there is an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The trailer of HBO's adaptation of My Brilliant Friend is available

The trailer of HBO's My Brilliant Friend is available
as are reviews of first two episodes which premiered at the 2018 Venice Film Festival. Also Ferrante addicts can read numerous interviews with director Saverio Costanzo who confirmed Ferrante’s involvement in the film adaptation:

We have been mailing to each other,” Costanzo told journalists during HBO’s Television Critics Association press session in Beverly Hills on Wednesday. “I don’t know who she is and I don’t want to know … she is, in my opinion, a very good scriptwriter … I’ve been mailing to the publisher. The publisher would send it to her and then back to me.

The description of Ferrante as “a very good scriptwriter” is further evidence of the involvement of Domenico Starnone, an accomplished screenwriter, in the creation of the works attributed to Ferrante. In my recent book In Search of Elena Ferrante I argue that Anita Raja and her husband Domenico Starnone are the authors of the works attributed to Ferrante, with Starnone the principal author of the novels and Raja the principal author of the letters and interviews collected in Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey.

In addition to confirming Ferrante’s involvement in the screenplay, Costanzo also notes Ferrante’s insistence that the film be in Italian, including much in Neapolitan dialect:

Because Ferrante wrote her novels in Italian, Costanzo said it would have been “impossible” to do the series in English. He added that HBO was firmly committed to maintaining the books’ Neapolitan dialect with English subtitles because “the dialect is part of the dramaturgy.

The dialogue in Neapolitan dialect will also be subtitled in Italy as the dialect is not generally understood outside Naples.

Critics have generally praised the authenticity of the sets. Vogue’s Jason Horowitz notes that that Italian producers “spared no expense in painstakingly constructing this enormous, 20,000-square-meter set in Caserta” a town near Naples:

Walking around, I am transported by weathered political posters and death notices. The convincingly aged walls of apartment buildings have working windows and internal staircases to reach the balconies where extras in expertly researched costumes pass the day.”I visit the costume department, just off set, where ten tailors and designers provide 1,500 Italian period pieces to the stars and extras. Racks of vintage drivers’ jackets, bras and stockings, Borsalino hats and suspenders, loose-fitting blazers and floor-sweeping skirts crowd the rooms. Fabric is soaked, burned, and otherwise distressed to make the clothes appear lived-in and humble.

The generally positive reviews of the first two hours of HBO's My Brilliant Friend also praise the performances of the two non-professional actors who play Elena and Lila as young girls.. From Daniel Fineberg in The Hollywood Reporter:
This limited sampling points to a handsome, largely dedicated Ferrante adaptation that, at least in this early going, is marked by spectacular casting of its inexperienced leads…My Brilliant Friend is blissfully neither based in a gauzy nostalgia nor mired in an affected documentary-style misery porn. It simply and cleanly embraces the details of everyday life, occasionally dirty or impoverished or ominous, spiked with moments of memory-infused whimsy. ..The series' first two hours mark an extraordinarily promising beginning.

From Daniel D'addario’s review in Variety:

And while achieving the internality of the book is too high an order for this series, its ability to conjure up the world of children confused at the happenings around them is its own achievement. “My Brilliant Friend” is an impressive effort, a translation of novel to screen that preserves certain of its literary qualities while transmuting others into moving and effective TV.

Adaptations of beloved books usually result in mixed reviews and My Brilliant Friend is no exception. From Emily Yoshida’s review in Vulture:
To say the advance press screening was a muted affair would be generous: I witnessed more walkouts throughout the two hours than I did during Luca Guadagnino’s bloody, polarizing Suspiria.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how director Saverio Costanzo’s adaptation fails …But I could sense the strain of putting the weight of the drama on two first-time child actors, Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti, who certainly look their parts but don’t quite have the unguardedness suggested by Ferrante’s deeply relatable account of their childhood.

Yoshida also complains that Costanzo’s direction is “ponderous and slow,” with a “mechanical quality” to these early episodes. She speculates that HBO may have “a huge, expensive, foreign-language dud on their hands.”

In an article lamenting the lack of women filmmakers at the Venice festival, Yoshida returns to her reservations about My Brilliant Friend:
Saverio Costanzo’s overly mannered, tastefully sepia-toned adaptation has all the events of the first section of Ferrante’s first book, but the cloud of something else–ness is missing…everything is in place, but it feels hollow.

The “something else–ness’ may refer to Ferrante’s emotionally charged language exploring the characters’ innermost thoughts. We share the most intimate thoughts of the great fictional characters, knowing them in a way we can never know our family, friends and colleagues whose innermost thoughts we are doubtless fortunate not to know. Film may have replaced the novel as the principal story-telling medium of our age, but great novels like Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet remind us of what only literature can do.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

I’m both looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend and feeling some trepidation.

Elisa Del Genio, left, and Ludovica Nasti, photographed on set outside Naples, as Lenù and Lila, the young pair at the center of My Brilliant Friend, appearing on HBO in November. Photographed by Paolo Pellegrin for Magnum Photos, Vogue, September 2018

I’m both looking forward to the upcoming HBO adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend and feeling some trepidation. Previous adaptations of the Neapolitan novels —a radio play and a stage play—have received mixed reviews. In 2016 BBC Radio 4 aired an adaptation of the Neapolitan novels by prize-winning playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. I managed to hear some of it when it was available on demand from BBC radio. As someone who has never listened to audio books, I was not the right candidate for a radio dramatization; I want to consume books the old-fashioned way. Also, I found the English accents disconcerting and agreed with Kate Chisholm’s review in The Spectator: “To me the background music was wrong in flavour, the child actors too English and stilted, the voices of Lena and Lila as grown-ups not distinctive enough. I wanted to be taken to the baking hot streets of Naples, but found myself rooted in London.”

However, Alex O’Connell, writing for The Times, had a different assessment: “Yet once you tune in to the accents ... the story possesses you. The precise dialogue, artful reduction and accomplished performances made me, a Ferrante addict, want to listen on and read the novels all over again.” O’Connell asked Wertenbaker why she had the characters speak in Manchester accents: “I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast—that would be like setting it in Florence or Milan. Liverpool was right, but too distinctive an accent and place. We wouldn’t have dreamt of them speaking with Italian accents.” So they settled on “around Manchester.” (The HBO series will not have the problem of inappropriate English accents. The characters will speak Neapolitan dialect and both English and Italian versions will be subtitled.)

The London stage production of the Neapolitan novels appears to have generated as much controversy as the BBC radio program. The commission for the first stage adaptation of the Neapolitan novels was not awarded to a major theatre, as might have been expected, but to the Rose Theatre. According to April De Angelis, the playwright who adapted the novels for the stage, the Rose Theatre in Kingston came to the project early, approaching Ferrante’s publishers before “Ferrante Fever” became an international phenomenon: “When pitching, I just said things that I thought were true, like it had to be an ensemble, that it had so many wonderful opportunities for community scenes.... I thought that the neighbourhood is just so exciting on stage—you can bring the courtyard to life. And then there was this relationship between two women so the history of post-war Italy and the history of feminism and of class is all put through this complicated, truthful relationship between two women. That’s really unusual ... it’s still not the norm to have one woman at the centre of a play, but to have two.”

In response to an interviewer’s question as to how the nearly 1,600 pages of the Neapolitan Quartet into could be compressed into just four acts over two evenings, the director of the Rose Theatre production, Melly Still, acknowledged the impossibility of doing so: “There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.” She thinks a television series could manage to convey the scope of the novel, but “theatre has a different role, somehow distilling the experience of reading. Of course you end up losing some of the characters who you’ve grown to know and love ... you exist in a distilled Ferrante world.” Even with the greater opportunities afforded by a television series, there will be scenes omitted and minor characters eliminated.

Audiences and reviewers are so often disappointed with adaptations of literary works. They bring their expectations based on their conception of the book, and mixed reviews are inevitable. The Daily Mail’s Patrick Marmion described the Rose Theatre production as a “wild goose chase in which the adapter, April De Angelis, demonstrates a tin ear for dialogue” and deplored the “cartoon characters and leaden dialogue.”35 Gary Naylor’s lukewarm review in Broadway World questions whether a theatrical adaptation of the Neapolitan novels is possible: “By covering the 66 years time span of the four novels in one theatrical gulp, too many complexities are lost in the need to compress the narrative.” The Guardian’s Susannah Clapp had a very different response: “Against the odds, adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still have pulled off their dramatization in My Brilliant Friend. There are absences and some awkwardness, but the essence of the books—intensity—wins through.” The responses to the television series may be even more divided than those to the radio program and to the stage production, as the audience will no doubt be much larger and will probably include many who have not read the novels. The television series will in all likelihood increase sales of the novels; “Ferrante Fever” shows no signs of abating.

Friday, August 31, 2018

In the Age of Trump, there are still some decent Republicans.

Ninth Ward Republican committeeperson Jane Toczek

In the Age of Trump and the complicit, cowardly Republican establishment, it’s important to remember that there are still some decent Republicans. From my article on Northwest Philly Republicans in the Chestnut Hill Local:

The Republican Party in Philadelphia has been on a downward trajectory. In the past, we had successful moderate or liberal Republicans—e.g., Arlen Specter, Thatcher Longstreth, Sam Katz, and former State Senator Phil Price. Many longtime Democrats voted for these candidates. In recent years, however, the number of moderate Republicans has dwindled, as has the number of Democrats willing to split their ticket and vote for a Republican in a general election.

Ninth Ward Republican Party ward leader Christopher Lins and Ninth Ward Republican committeeperson Jane Toczek acknowledge the challenges. Chestnut Hill resident Christopher Lins, the Director for Attorney Recruitment at JURISolutions, has been active in the Republican Party since 2008. He was appointed ward leader in 2014 and elected ward leader in 2018.

Mt. Airy resident Jane Toczek, a long-time employee of Chestnut Hill’s Philadelphia Print Shop and long-time board member of Stagecrafters, has served as committeeperson since 1996. She has a long family history with the Republican Party. Her parents met at meetings of the Young Republicans, and her father, Charles Mebus, served as a Republican state representative in Montgomery County from 1965 to 1979. Despite her living in the Ninth Ward’s overwhelmingly Democratic 1st division, Toczek’s Republican affiliation has not been a problem. “My neighbors know I’m a Republican, but not a Trump supporter,” she said.

According to Toczek, “there were a lot of moderate Republicans” when she was growing up. She is clearly not happy about the transformation of her party. Lins noted that there are still some moderate Republicans around, such as City Commissioner Al Schmidt and Beth Grossman, a candidate for District Attorney in 2017 whom Lins considered significantly better qualified than winner Larry Krasner.

Both Lins and Toczek think it’s important to have a Republican Party in Philadelphia as a check against corruption. Although no Republican with the exception of Schmidt has won city-wide office in recent years, the City Charter provides the Republican and other minority parties the opportunity to fill that watchdog function.

Seven City Councilpersons-at-large are elected. The Charter requires that two of these seven must be the two most successful candidates representing non-majority parties. The five Democratic candidates who win the primary election for at-large seats are all but guaranteed victory in the general election. Lins encourages Democrats to cast two of their five votes for council-at-large seats for the two best-qualified Republicans.

Both Lins and Toczek acknowledge that the national Republican Party has failed to reach out to the racial minorities who, collectively, will at some point become the new majority. Toczek noted, however, that here have been African-American members of the Republican Ninth Ward Executive Committee, and that her first partner as committeeperson was an African-American, the late John Myles. According to Lins, the majority of the ward leaders in Northwest Philadelphia are African-American. He thinks that “inaccurate perceptions have prevented people of color from realizing how welcoming the local Republican Party is.”

Lins further notes that both parties have failed to engage voters and that in the last presidential election, Republican turnout was 57%, with Democratic turnout only slightly better. Given the highly educated, informed voters in the Ninth Ward, he thinks that Ninth Ward turnout should be significantly higher.

Lins and Toczek see the major divide between the Republican and Democratic parties as over the role of government. They would like to see a greater role for private non-profit agencies in addressing social welfare issues. Of course, the resources the non-profit sector can marshal are insignificant compared to the resources of the United States government. Lins contends: “No responsible Republican is calling for the dismantling of government.” He would like to see a civil conversation about how best to utilize government resources, but is pessimistic about that occurring in today’s toxic political culture.

On the local level, however, cooperation does occur. Lins described how he and Ninth Ward Democratic leader Chris Rabb have co-operated in running elections in the 9th ward:

“It’s not partisan. It’s just helping your neighbor,” he said.

Chris Rabb has a similar philosophy about bi-partisan cooperation on the local level.

“My philosophy leading a ward in a very blue area of the city has more to do with civic engagement than partisan persuasion. That lends itself to a high level of cooperation, collaboration and civility.”

The increasing tendency of voters to register as independents suggests there is trouble ahead for the major parties. Responding to a question about whether the Republican Party will survive the Trump administration, or even whether the two-party system will survive, Lins was of the opinion that the two-party system will endure, as all our laws and institutions have been set up to support it. However, he speculated that the current configuration of Democratic and Republican parties may not last—they might be replaced by two very different parties. The dissatisfaction of a younger generation of progressives with the Democratic Party, as well as the dissatisfaction of socially liberal but economically conservative voters with the Republican Party, may be harbingers of future political realignment.

Both Lins and Toczek see a dysfunctional political system in which, as Toczek put it, “compromise is a dirty word,” and incivility reigns. According to Lins, “no healthy political system could have elected Trump”; however, he sees the political dysfunction as preceding Trump and resulting from a weakening trust in institutions.

However, despite their dissatisfaction with the national picture, they both see the Ninth Ward Republican Party as on the right track and believe it operates according to principles of democracy and transparency.

But the reputation of the national party is a heavy burden for local Republican activists. Will the party Jane Toczek grew up with ever return? Perhaps not before there’s a change at the top.

To quote former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner: “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump Party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for one more week!

Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting by Charles Sheeler

Before we retired, my husband Rick and I could never get it together to attend an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until the very last day. We were contending with huge crowds of procrastinators and we vowed that when we retired, we would make sure this didn’t happen. Unfortunately, we didn’t kick the bad habit in retirement, but we are improving and managed to get to Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 a week before closing—something of a record for us.

Rick and I tend to approach paintings differently; he’s a formalist and likes to analyze a painting’s composition; he always points out formal features I haven’t noticed or fully appreciated. I tend to approach art as a form of story telling and Modern Times tells a compelling story. The museum catalogue describes the Modern Times exhibit as a portrait oif a changing society:

Bright lights, big country
From jazz and the jitterbug to assembly lines and skylines: the early twentieth century was a time of great social, artistic, and technological change. Artists responded with a revolutionary language of shapes and colors. See how Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Jacob Lawrence, and others challenged convention and forged bold new styles to fit the times

Work, technology, the economy, architecture, world affairs, leisure activities—all were transformed in the first half of the twentieth century. Artists of the Modern movement looked at the changing world around them and tried to capture the newness of these experiences through both the style and the subjects of their work.

Yet despite my tendency to view art as a kind of story telling, the paintings I loved the most in this exhibit were comnpelling visual images such as Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting by Charles Sheeler and Birch and Pine Tree No. 1 by Georgia O'Keeffe:

Another favorite, a compelling image that told a powerful story, is The Libraries Are Appreciated by Jacob Lawrence, part of his Harlem series, No. 28 now exhibited at The Harlem Branch Library of the New York Public Library.

The libraries were especially appreciated by African-Americans who had migrated from the South where libraries either did not exist or were segregated. As someone whose life would have been very different if not for the Philadelphia Free Library where I spent my childhood, this photo really resonated with me. In retirement I have once again become a heavy user of the Free Library.

African-American artists are well-represented in the exhibit. In addition to Jacob Lawrence, there are paintings by Horace Pippin, Claude Clark and Beaufort Delaney, including Delaney's iconic portrait of James Baldwin.

This exhibit is not to be missed!

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Interview about In Search of Elena Ferrante posted in Chestnut Hill Local

"Mt. Airy author’s new book is about anonymous sensation"
Posted on August 2, 2018 by Len Lear in Chestnut Hill Local

It is entirely possible that you have never heard of Elena Ferrante, but millions of fans cannot get enough of her. Ferrante is the most important literary sensation to have emerged from Italy in decades. Her quartet of Neapolitan novels has sold more than 5.5 million copies worldwide. The author has always maintained that the name Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, and there has been intense speculation in the literary world as to the author’s real identity and even whether or not it is really a woman.

(An Italian journalist named Claudio Gatti who investigated the issue thoroughly claimed that Ferrante was really a native of Naples named Anita Raja, but he also wrote that Raja may have collaborated with her husband, Domenico Starnone, also a novelist. Several linguists who have used software to compare his writing to Ferrante’s believe he may even be the primary author of the Neapolitan Quartet.)

The New York Times has written that enthusiasm for the novels is so intense that it is being described in “epidemiological terms, making the phenomenon sound almost like an infectious disease.” And Ferrante fever is likely to heat up even more in the coming months since an Italian/American television adaptation of her first book, “My Brilliant Friend,” is under way. The ultimate aim is to adapt all four Neapolitan novels over 32 episodes. The HBO series is scheduled for sometime this fall, but no specific date has been set.

Ferrante’s most passionate Philadelphia admirer has to be Mt. Airy author Karen Bojar, whose book, “In Search of Elena Ferrante,” was released by McFarland Publishers on July 3. “I wrote this book,” Bojar told us in an interview last week, “to help me unlock the secrets of Elena Ferrante’s power, to better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and that of millions of readers worldwide.

“When I searched for material about Ferrante, I found countless reviews, essays and blog posts but only two full-length studies. I searched without success for a comprehensive study of Ferrante that would explore the complicated interweaving of thematic strands, including analysis of the political dimension, an aspect of Ferrante’s work largely ignored by reviewers. Finally, I decided to try to write the book I wanted to read.”

“Also, changing gender roles is perhaps the great story of our time. Although many readers have seen the Neapolitan Quartet as a searing portrait of man’s inhumanity towards women, I argue that Ferrante’s portrayal of gender roles is far more nuanced, with some of her male characters taking tentative steps towards gender equality.”

Regarding the controversial issue of Ferrante’s real identity, Bojar insisted, “We now know that Ferrante is herself a character, a literary device to conceal the identity of the probable authors Raja and Starnone. Ferrante in numerous interviews explained her desire for anonymity, initially describing her desire for anonymity in personal terms … insisting that a literary work should stand on its own without biographical information or commentary from an author.”

Bojar, who is currently in the process of revising her 2013 book, “Feminism in Philadelphia,” which focused on activism and advocacy (the new book is tentatively titled “Building the Feminist Movement, Building Feminist Institutions: Feminist Activism across the Generations”), loves “big books with a large cast of characters and a vividly drawn social world. I guess my all time favorite is Garcia Marquez’ ‘Hundred Years of Solitude.’ And I love the 19th century English novels I read as a teenager, especially Dickens and the Bronte’s. I really need to read ‘Jane Eyre’ one more time before I check out.”

A professor emerita of English and Women’s Studies at the Community College of Philadelphia, where she founded the women’s studies/gender studies program, Bojar says that “Ferrante shares Tolstoy’s ability to convey characters experiencing contradictory emotions as well as characters like Elena Greco who can present one face to the world, the impression of a ‘good girl’ while seething with resentment and jealousy on the inside.”

A former longtime committeeperson in the 9th Ward Democratic Committee’s 2nd Division, Bojar is also the author of “Green Shoots of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Party.” In the course of writing the Ferrante book, she “realized how much I love literature and literary analysis. I have been writing mostly about social movements and political activism, but at some point I hope to again write about literary works I love.”

One remarkable effect of Ferrante’s novels is that they have significantly increased tourism to Naples. Bojar and her husband visited Naples in March, 1999, as part of a sabbatical year trip to Italy and fell in love with the city. “My love for Ferrante’s books was the impetus for a return trip to Naples,” she said. “We returned in November, 2016, and loved it. And yes, Neapolitan pizza lives up to its reputation.”

Will devoted readers of the Ferrante novels feel differently if it is ever determined definitively that the primary author was a man? “In my recent re-reading of the Neapolitan novels,” Bojar replied, “I forgot all about Anita Raja, Domenico Starnone and Claudio Gatti and became once again totally immersed in the world of (characters) Lila and Elena. This is what counts.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The good news and the bad news about ward leaders choosing the nominee in HD 175

When there is an unexpected vacancy due to an elected official’s resignation before the end of her term, political parties choose the replacement candidate if the general election will be held within a short period of time, or if the time frame is longer, political parties choose the nominee for a “special election." The recent resignation of Rep. Michael O’Brien created just such a vacancy.

First the bad news: In HD 175 we just had another undemocratic nominating process with ward leaders making the decision. The good news is that for the first time in my experience there was a serious protest led by newly elected committeepeople and covered by major news outlets. The old guard may have won this won this battle, but change is coming.

In choosing replacement candidates for unanticipated vacancies, the Democratic Party and Republican Party—not the voters—choose the candidate to run under the Democratic Party and the Republican Party banners. If another Democrat or Republican wants to run, that person must run as an Independent or as the nominee of a minority party.

Given Philly’s 7 to 1 Democratic voter registration edge and poor track record in electing independents for local offices, the endorsed Democrat is almost certain to win and has the advantage of running in the next primary as the incumbent Democrat. Over the years, special elections have been the path to electoral office for many Philadelphia politicians, a vehicle for well-connected political insiders, some of whom would not have been elected if not for this inside track.

From a list of winners of Special Elections for State and Congressional seats compiled by Democratic Party activist Joe Driscoll:

1992 2nd Congressional District Lucien Blackwell
1993 200th Legislative District Leanna Washington
1993 2nd Senatorial District William Stinson
1994 198th Legislative District Rosita Youngblood
1995 201st Legislative District John Myers
1996 3rd Senatorial District Shirley Kitchen
1998 1st Congressional District Bob Brady
1999 191st Legislative District Ronald Waters
2005 4th Senatorial District Leanna Washington
2006 174th Legislative District John Sabatina Jr.
2011 185th Legislative District Maria Donatucci
2012 186th Legislative District Harold James
2012 197th Legislative District Gary Williams
2015 170th Legislative District Martina White
2015 5th Senatorial District John Sabatina Jr.

Somewhere back in the mists of time committeepeople had a say in selecting the endorsed candidate. In other words, hundreds of committeepeople rather than a handful of ward leaders chose the nominee. At some point, the joint ward meeting of committeepeople then required by the party rules was no longer held, and the decision was made solely by the ward leaders. However despite this change in practice, until 2014 the party rules still stipulated that committeepeople were to choose the candidate to fill a vacancy.

In 2014 the party rules were revised but the procedures for changing the rules as stipulated by the party bylaws were apparently not followed. According to the party bylaws, all committeepeople should have received a notice advising them of the date when proposed bylaw changes would be discussed and voted on. None of the ward leaders I interviewed for my book Green Shoots of Democracy recall receiving such notices nor recall any such meeting held. They recall no discussion of the rationale for the changes in the rules and no opportunity for ward leaders and committeepersons to raise objections.

Furthermore Jim Saksa reported in Citypaper that although the amended rules were time-stamped March 31, 2014, they weren’t placed on file with the Board of Elections, as required, until Oct. 22, 2014. Instead, they were in City Commissioner Chair Anthony Clark’s office in City Hall. This certainly raises questions. Why would Party Chair Brady revise the rules and then bury them for over half a year in Anthony Clark’s office? Was he concerned that questions would be raised about the failure to follow the proper process for amending the rules?

Since these changes were apparently made without following proper procedures for amending the bylaws, arguably the July 23 meeting at which ward leaders selected the candidate should be invalidated and the pre-2014 rules followed. Is there a basis for a lawsuit here?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Are progressives winning the battle for the soul of the Democratic Party?

My article on the direction of the Democratic Party which appeared in the July 12 Chestnut Hill Local:

Not so long ago many progressives had little interest in working within what they saw as a hopelessly compromised, ineffective Democratic Party. Now, thanks to Trump’s victory, progressive organizations are increasingly turning to electoral politics and trying to build a base within the Democratic Party

Progressive groups have contributed to some surprising recent victories – such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win in NYC. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) provided the ground troops for her defeat of a long-term incumbent thought to have been invincible.

Closer to home, Elizabeth Fiedler’s knock-out victory in South Philadelphia owed much to the efforts of Reclaim Philadelphia, an organization formed by veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Members of progressive groups are increasingly bringing their energy and values to the Philadelphia Democratic Party – most dramatically in Reclaim’s takeover of the 1st and 2nd Wards in South Philadelphia.

This trend towards closer connections between progressive organizations and the Democratic Party can also be seen in Northwest Philadelphia. Mindy Brown was one of the founders of Indivisible NW Philly (INWP), formed after the November 2106 election to organize resistance to the Trump presidency. Brown did not see much activity on the part of the local Democratic Party to combat the Trump agenda, so when Steve Masters, the committeeperson in her division and fellow INWP member, asked her if she would like to fill a vacant committeeperson seat, Brown decided to pitch in.

In her committeeperson role, Brown has been knocking on doors, “getting a conversation going and hearing from voters about what matters to them.” She has gotten people in her division involved in INWP’s “Red to Blue” group and in Turn PA Blue.

“Some of these folks have become super-volunteers,” Brown said, “supporting candidates at the local level, canvassing out in DelCo, showing up for post-carding events at the High Point Cafe, and generally doing the work that needs to be done. It’s pretty inspiring.”

Neighborhood Networks steering committee member Margaret Lenzi also believes that to achieve progressive goals in Philadelphia “we need a Democratic Party that is up to the task – that will get the vote out and elect good Democrats up and down the ballot.”

To that end, Neighborhood Networks along with other progressive organizations recruited progressive activists to revitalize the party from within by running for committeeperson positions. According to Lenzi, NN has long advocated both an inside and outside strategy for changing the direction of the Democratic Party.

“Now we’re gratified to see the inside strategy gain steam as the wave of new activists, especially people of color and women, have stepped forward to grasp the reins of power,” she said.

The involvement of progressive activists within the Democratic Party has not always been welcomed by traditional party activists, who fear that an increasingly left-of-center party will not be in a position to win general elections. However, progressives argue that the energy they bring and the policy positions they advocate are essential to revitalize the party. Some see themselves as the left-wing equivalent of the Tea Party, determined to push the Democratic Party to the left as the Tea Party yanked the Republican Party further to the right.

This tension between centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party is playing out both nationally and locally in a context where the major political parties have the allegiance of a declining share of voters, as growing numbers of voters register as independents.

The diminished clout of the two major parties is part of a broader trend as Thomas Friedman pointed out in a recent New York Times column: “The big mainstream political parties across the industrialized world are all blowing up at once. It’s quite extraordinary.”

The Nov. 18 election should give us a better idea of the relative strength of the major parties and the extent to which progressives have indeed established a base within the Democratic Party.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

I have finally finished my book In Search of Elena Ferrante

I have finally finished my book In Search of Elena Ferrante; final proofs and index have been sent to McFarland Press. I greatly enjoyed doing the research and writing the book—the proofreading and indexing, not so much.

When you sign a contract with a traditional publisher, you relinquish control of the title, the cover and the price. I’m happy with the cover photo and the title, but I sure wish the price were lower. I intend to ask my friends to a request that their library order my book, now available for pre-order on Amazon, rather than ask them to buy a copy. They should spend their money on Ferrante’s novels rather than my book.

I wrote this book to help me unlock the secrets of Elena Ferrante’s power, to better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and that of millions of readers worldwide. I was introduced to Ferrante by James Woods’ January 2013 New Yorker article, which made a compelling case for Ferrante. I was not disappointed. Since then I’ve read all her books at least three times.

When I searched for material about Ferrante, I found countless reviews, essays, and blog posts but only two full-length studies. I searched without success for a comprehensive study of Ferrante that would explore the complicated interweaving of thematic strands, including analysis of the political dimension, an aspect of Ferrante’s work largely ignored by reviewers. Finally, I decided to try to write the book I wanted to read.

In Search of Elena Ferrante explores the international reaction to Ferrante, dubbed “Ferrante Fever,” the controversy surrounding Ferrante’s decision to write under a pseudonym, and the special challenges posed by a work in translation. I draw on the many insights Ann Goldstein has provided into the process of translating Ferrante’s work, along with her sense of the themes and preoccupations of the elusive author. Furthermore, Ferrante, in numerous interviews conducted solely through letters and email, has provided a running commentary on her work. I cannot recall another instance when readers have had the benefit of both the author’s and translator’s insights into the creative process.

Reviewers have generally ignored the political dimension of the Neapolitan novels and have focused primarily on Ferrante’s exploration of personal relationships, in particular female friendship. However, the Neapolitan Quartet is very much a political text. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is deeply political in that the characters’ personal histories are interwoven with the larger social drama although there is no easily extractable political philosophy. Ferrante has intertwined the political and personal strands so effectively that the political debate never feels intrusive, with the characters’ political beliefs emerging organically from their circumstances and personalities.

Although many readers have seen the Neapolitan Quartet as a searing portrait of man’s inhumanity towards women, I argue that Ferrante’s portrayal of gender roles is far more nuanced, with some of her male characters taking tentative steps towards gender equality. Ferrante portrays both her male and female characters as prisoners of gender, their lives constrained by the expectations of a deeply sexist society. Ferrante portrays a world in which gender roles are changing, with at least some of her male characters a part of that change.

I explore the responses to Ferrante’s decision to remain anonymous and the passionate insistence of her devoted fans that the author must be a woman. Then along came journalist Claudio Gatti’s well-documented claim that Ferrante was Anita Raja who, unlike Ferrante, did not grow up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood but rather left Naples at the age of three and lived in middle class comfort in Rome. Presumably, Raja had ready access to the educational opportunities that Ferrante’s characters struggled to obtain. Most of Ferrante’s readers appeared not to be disturbed by this discrepancy and tended to view the falsely claimed Neapolitan background of Ferrante as a literary device.

Many Ferrante fans expressed relief that at least Gatti identified a woman as the author; however, Gatti left open the possibility of collaboration with Raja’s husband, Domenico Starnone . When I first read about the identification of Starnone as the probable author (or co-author), I dismissed it out of hand. I had made up my mind that it was impossible that a man could have written any part of this deeply felt account of female experience; there were just too many intimate details of life in a female body. I am no longer convinced this is the case and can no longer discount the mounting evidence pointing to Starnone’s authorship, including as of this writing four separate teams of linguists whose text analysis software has pointed to Starnone as the principal author, as well as echoes of Ferrante’s work in Starnone’s recently published novels

Certainly many of Ferrante’s fans would be deeply disappointed to learn that the books were not solely the work of a woman, but there are surely others intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore issues of gender. The whole experience has challenged some of my assumptions about literature—principally that there is such a thing as an authentic female voice that can be recognized as such. As Ferrante herself has said in her collection of interviews and letters, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey, “A good writer, male or female can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.” So does all this matter?

I question whether we will read the novels differently if we know that the author is not a woman drawing on her own experience of class and gender discrimination. In my recent re-reading of the Neapolitan novels, I forgot all about Anita Raja, Domenico Starnone and Claudio Gatti and became once again totally immersed in the world of Lila and Elena. This is what counts.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What I learned at the Block Island Historical Museum

Block Island Historical Museum

I never thought Rick and I would turn into the kind of people who would return to the same vacation spot every year, but we have fallen in love with Block Island. This year’s house was in remote location on Mohegan Bluffs accessible only by extremely narrow dirt roads. It was worth the struggle with the dirt roads for the ocean views.

This year we did something we’ve been planning to do for many years, but never got around to. We took advantage of our one rainy day to visit Block Island Historical museum.It is definitely worth a visit for a fascinating glimpse into island life back in the 17thc.

In 1662, natives on the island numbered somewhere from 1,200 to 1,500. By 1774, that number had been reduced to fifty-one. When I asked what had happened to the dwindling native population, I was told they merged with the native African population. When I asked if the Africans were enslaved, the answer was a reluctant yes. So even idyllic Block Island shares the country’s ugly history of of slavery and the reluctance to acknowledge it. There is not a word about enslaved persons at Block Island Historical Museum.

I also learned that Block Island’s harbor was not a natural harbor but was built by the federal government. The harbor had a major economic impact leading to the growth of large hotels and the expansion of the tourist industry—-an example of government expenditures leading to economic development. My guess is that there are many projects around the country that have made a major impact on the local economy and are now just thought of as having always been there, with the government’s role completely forgotten.

We’re happy we finally got around to visiting Block Island Historical museum!

Monday, May 28, 2018

I am very happy to be a retired committeeperson!

Although I enjoyed my 32 years as a committeeperson, I am very happy to be a retired committeeperson. I hope to continue some involvement in the ward as an Associate Committeeperson, helping out on Election Day and with distribution of flyers as needed. I’m still intensely interested in politics, and want to be in involved in the ward at some level, but at this stage in my life I don’t think I can handle that long day at the polls; also walking around the neighborhood delivering all those election flyers is getting really difficult.

I strongly believe that if someone is not willing or able to get out there and knock on doors and talk to their neighbors about what’s at stake in each election, that person should not be a committeeperson. It was becoming clear to me that I no longer had the energy for going door to door and after 32 years I had think I have earned a rest. I look forward to helping out on election day but I need to ratchet down the level of responsibility. And fortunately there is a very smart, energetic young woman in my division who ran for committeeperson.

At this stage in my life, I would much rather read and write about politics than do door-to-door organizing organizing. See my analysis of the May 15 primary results in the Chestnut Hill Local.

I think probably the most useful thing I have done in local politics was my documentation and analysis of the efforts of progressives to reform the local political system in Green Shoots of Democracy. I’m frequently asked if I will do a sequel; my answer has been that I sure hope someone continues this story with an in-depth analysis of the efforts of progressives in 2018, but that it won’t be me.

The 2018 campaign to reinvigorate the Philadelphia Democratic Party has been very much the work of millennials. That’s where the energy is and I do not have enough connections and knowledge of the work of young activists. Philly has many talented young political writers; I sure hope one of them is interested in documenting/ analyzing progressive organizing in 2018 committeeperson and ward leader races.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Domenico Starnone's Trick

Domenico Starnone has joined the list of writers whose books I pre-order and read as soon as they are available. His latest, Trick, translated by and with an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri did not speak to me as powerfully as its predecessor, Ties, also translated and with an introduction by Lahiri. But I expect more of its power will emerge upon re-reading—that was certainly the case with Ties and with First Execution, the first of Starnone’s books translated into English.

Only three of Starnone’s 14 novels have been translated into English. If his role in the books attributed to Elena Ferrante is ever acknowledged, we might have the opportunity to read more of his work in translation. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, a fictional character created to camouflage the identity of its probable co-authors, Starnone and his wife, Anita Raja. (To date, four teams of experts using text analysis software have identified Starnone as the principal author of the Neapolitan novels.)

Although the plot of Trick is very different from that of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, there are thematic similarities. The central relationship in the Neapolitan novels is the complicated friendship between two young girls growing up in a Neapolitan working class neighborhood in the 1950s. One escapes Naples; the other doesn’t. In Trick, like the Neapolitan novels, Naples itself becomes a character, although unlike the Neapolitan novels which depict both the beauty and the misery of Naples, Trick focuses on the misery. The central relationship in Trick is between Daniele Mallarico, an elderly artist struggling with the frailties of old age and disappointments of a declining career, and his precocious four year old grandson.Like Lila and Elena of the Neapolitan novels, Mallarico, generally referred to as Grandpa, grew up in 1950s working class Naples.

Like Elena, Mallarico longed to escape Naples and his difficult family; like Elena, through education and talent he managed to do so. Several of the details of working class life recalled by Mallarico in Trick are reminiscent of descriptions of Elena’s family dealing with the difficulties of a large family living in a relatively small space: Elena describes the daily ritual of dismantling the dining room furniture, making up the beds at night and unmaking them in the morning, so the dining room could double as a bedroom. Similarly, Mallarico describes himself and his brother making their “beds in the evenings, in the living room, putting an end to my mother’s elegant aspirations."

Elena at times speculates on what she might have become if she hadn’t had the strength to leave Naples, and what the far more talented Lila might have become if her family, like Elena’s, had allowed her to continue her education. Similarly, the elderly artist in Trick becomes obsessed with the roads not taken.

Starnone’s novels are characterized by narrative complexity and intertextual drama; in Trick there are running allusions to the Henry James novella The Jolly Corner, which Mallarico has been called upon to illustrate. In the James story, the protagonist Brydon Spencer, who has been living for years in Europe, returns to the New York City house in which he has grown up. Like Starnone’s aging artist who has also returned to his childhood home, Brydon is obsessed with the road not taken and searches for the ghosts of possible alternative selves.

Lahiri thinks that a knowledge of James’ story enriches the experience of reading Trick and on her recommendation I re-read The Jolly Corner. James is every bit as wordy and repetitious as I recalled and I have no desire to read James again, but The Jolly Corner does add a dimension to Trick, suggesting the universality of the experience of mulling over never to be realized possibilities as one moves into one’s later years.

Faced with physical frailty and declining career prospects, Mallarico is unnerved by the talent and physical vitality of his grandson Mario. Their relationship becomes a dangerous contest of wills, culminating in Mario’s telling his grandfather he intends to play a “trick” on him. He locks the door to the balcony and exposes his grandfather to the wind and the rain—echoes of King Lear, intentional or not.

Starnone’s novels, with their literary allusions and avoidance of straightforward narration, are often described as metafiction. I’ve wondered if Starnone decided to write or co-write the Neapolitan novels in order to try his hand at the old-fashioned straightforward narration he has generally avoided. However, on rereading, the Neapolitan novels reveal themselves as far more complicated than the old-fashioned Bildungsroman they are generally thought to be.

Trick concludes with an appendix complete with sketches. I haven’t quite figured out the purpose of the appendix beyond shifting the perspective from “grandpa” (Daniele chafes at the name grandpa) to the artist Daniele Mallarico. However, upon re-reading, the relationship between the main text and the ”appendix” might become clearer. Starnone (like Ferrante) is one of those novelists you have to re-read.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Is this the beginning of the end?

James Comey's most devastating comment came at the end of his interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulis. Comey dismissed claims made by some that Trump is medically unfit to hold office.
"But not in the way ... I often hear people talk about it. I don't buy this stuff about him being mentally incompetent or early stages of dementia. He strikes me as a person of above average intelligence who's tracking conversations and knows what's going on," Comey said. "I don't think he's medically unfit to be president. I think he's morally unfit to be president."

"A person who sees moral equivalence in Charlottesville, who talks about and treats women like they're pieces of meat, who lies constantly about matters big and small and insists the American people believe it, that person's not fit to be president of the United States, on moral grounds.

"Our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president," he said.

Will Comey’s indictment of the moral failings of the Trump presidency, along with Michael Wolf's scathing portrait of the incompetence of the Trump administration in Fire and Fury:Inside the Trump White House,mobilize those trying to bury their heads in the sand, hoping this nightmare will just go away. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright asked “Will We Stop Trump Before It’s Too Late?” A question on the minds of so many of us.

Comey told Stephanopoulos that he didn’t think impeachment was the answer—-that the American people had to vote Trump out of office. But that can’t happen until November 2020; there’s too much at stake to wait two and a half years. We need to vote in a Democratic House of Representatives, which can initiate articles of impeachment. Granted, at this point it’s unlikely that 2/3 of the Senate would vote to convict, but we do not know what the Mueller investigation and the investigation of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s files will uncover. Impeachment and conviction are not impossible.

The stakes are high. Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their new book How Democracies Die propose a four-part test for identifying authoritarian leaders: "rejecting democratic institutions, denying the legitimacy of political opponents, tolerating or encouraging violence and curtailing civil liberties." They note: “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century...Donald Trump met all of them.”

This is becoming seriously scary.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Bob Brady's recent Inquirer article,“What is a committee person?” ignores the lack of democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party

Bob Brady in his recent article “What is a committee person?” describes committeepeople as “grassroots boots on the ground of the political parties” and “the backbone of our democratic process.”

Unfortunately, many of the people he describes as the backbone of our democracy do not have right to participate in the democratic process by voting on Democratic Party endorsements. In only a handful of wards do committeepeople consistently vote on endorsements; in most wards the decisions are made by the ward leader.

In theory all the ward leaders then come together to vote on candidate endorsements and the majority vote of ward leaders determines the Philadelphia Democratic Party (known as City Committee) endorsements. In practice a small group of party leaders makes the decisions and ward leaders are expected to fall in line.

One of the ward leaders I interviewed for my book Green Shoots
 of Democracy within the Philadelphia Democratic Partynoted that the 69 ward leaders are not all equally empowered to make endorsement decisions and that in fact “there are only a few ward leaders who are involved in making decisions for the Democratic Party. We were all invited to come to that meeting to fill [a seat for a 2014 special election for council at-large] but that decision had already been made.”

Individual ward leaders, however, do not necessarily back the candidate endorsed by City Committee and elections have become something of a free for all with ward leaders sometimes making their own financially advantageous deals with candidates in return for a slot on the ward’s sample ballot.

Not only does Brady fail to acknowledge the undemocratic nature of the Philadelphia Democratic Party, he mischaracterizes the job of committeeperson as a “365-day-a-year, 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week responsibility.” This is absurd.

As one of the progressive ward leaders I interviewed noted: “There are a lot different ways wards do things and how much activity there is, from knocking on doors to no activity at all until Election Day and that’s the way most of the city operates—-no action whatsoever until Election Day.”

No on expects a committeeperson to be on duty 365 days a year. But the job does involve intensive activity in the period immediately before the primary and general election, contacting voters, informing them of what’s at stake in each election, and making recommendations regarding candidates and ballot questions. And in the progressive wards where committeepeople vote on endorsements, the duties also involve attendance at ward meetings to interview candidates and vote on endorsements.

If all committeepeople performed these basic political duties, we no doubt would have higher turnout and a better informed electorate. And if all committeepeople voted on endorsements, we would in all probability have better candidates on the Democratic Party ballot. If endorsement decisions are made by a democratic vote rather than by the ward leader, there is a check on ward leaders’ cutting people from the ballot and selling slots on the ward ballot to the highest bidder.

I am hopeful that many of the new committeepeople we will elect in 2018 will demand that the Democratic Party operate according to democratic principles. Some wards generally considered closed wards are already beginning to adopt some of the features of open, democratic wards. Change is coming.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Pennsylvania NOW has a dynamic new team of officers!

At the March 24 Pennsylvania NOW conference: Our new President of Pennsylvania NOW, Samantha Pearson; past President of Philadelphia NOW and Candidate for Lt. Governor, Nina Ahmad;our new Treasurer of Pennsylvania NOW, Karen Shore Barnosky; our new Secretary of Pennsylvania NOW,Jenne Ayers.

See Pennsylvania NOW for photos and bios of all new officers. From the the candidate bios posted on the Pennsylvania NOW website

Samantha Pearson for President
Samantha Pearson is an innovative outreach and engagement professional with a range of experience in government affairs, policy research and development, constituent outreach, event and program planning, and public relations. In her current position as Project Manager for At-Large City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, Samantha plans and executes Council Office events and programming for citywide outreach initiatives and legislation in addition to creating and managing design collateral to educate and provide resources to citizens across the City. A strong women’s rights activist, Samantha is serving her second term as Board Secretary for the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She also dedicates her time to Vision2020 as Strategic Partnerships Chair for the 100th nationwide anniversary celebration of women’s suffrage. Incredibly proud of the women behind #MeToo, Samantha is a founding member of the US Clear Lines Festival on Sexual Assault and Consent. A firm believer in mentoring the next generation of women leaders, Samantha is also a Girl Scout Troop Leader to a group of ambitious and inspiring Brownies in the Frankford area. In years past, Samantha has also served on the board of Young Involved Philadelphia with a focus on GOTV and voter education efforts as well as tutored young teens through Mighty Writers. She also received the Moxie Women Next Generation of Leadership award in 2016.

Krishna Rami for Vice-President
Krishna Rami works as the Special Aide to the Chief of Staff in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office where she supports the management of the Mayor’s overall priorities and agenda for the Administration. She previously worked as an Analyst in the Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement where she helped build relationships to create an infrastructure of trust between community and government and create equitable spaces for people of all backgrounds. Krishna serves as the Executive Vice President of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women which tackles racial, economic, and social justice issues. She also empowers and mentors girls as a Girl Scout Co-Leader in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. Krishna is originally from Chicago, but made Philadelphia her new home after graduating from Drexel University with a Bachelor’s degree in International Justice and Human Rights. During that time, she spent eight months in Senegal where she conducted research focusing on girls’ access to education and completed internships for local organizations working with survivors of domestic violence.

Jenne Ayers for Secretary
Jenne Ayers is an associate at Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr law firm. In 2014 at 26 she ran unsuccessfully for Philadelphia City Council. Ayers is the daughter of former Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers. She previously worked on Joe Khans campaign for Philadelphia district attorney and as a Michigan voter protection director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. She graduated from Masterman High School in Philadelphia and Harvard University and has a law degree from Yale Law School. She is the current President of Philadelphia NOW, and a nominee to the Philadelphia School Board.

Karen Barnosky for Treasurer
Karen Shore Barnosky is Institutional Giving Coordinator at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she works to gather support for the school from corporations, foundations, and government agencies. Previously, Karen worked as Development Associate for the Peggy Browning Fund and as a graduate intern with the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra. Karen received her BA Fine Arts, cum laude, from Mount St. Mary’s University and her MS Arts Administration from Drexel University. In addition to serving as VP for Membership in the Philadelphia Chapter of NOW, she worked as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and actively volunteers for the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

It’s a new day for Pennsylvania NOW!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Why is Elena Ferrante writing a column for The Guardian?

Why is Elena Ferrante writing a column for The Guardian? “Elena Ferrante” is, of course, a pseudonym or as she is sometimes called, “a fictional character,” camouflage for the author (or authors) of the novels attributed to Ferrante.

If these personal columns by “a fictional character” were powerfully written, I could see a justification for their existence, but this is generally not case. Some of the reflections are similar to those of Ferrante’s characters, but these jottings are not embedded in a compelling story; instead they stand by themselves. They are often written in a pedestrian style, very different from the emotionally charged prose of Ferrante’s novels.

From the Guardian column on motherhood with its generally monotonous sentence structure:
The first time I got pregnant, it was difficult to accept. Pregnancy was an anxious mental struggle. I felt it as the breakdown of an equilibrium already precarious in itself, as a revelation of the animal nature behind the fragile mask of the human. For nine months I was on a seesaw of joy and horror. The birth was terrible, it was wonderful. Taking care of a newborn, by myself, without help, without money, exhausted me; I hardly slept. I wanted to write and there was never time. Or if there was some, I would concentrate for a few minutes and then fall asleep fretfully. Until slowly everything began to seem to me marvellous. Today I think that nothing is comparable to the joy, the pleasure, of bringing another living creature into the world.

Compare this excerpt from Ferrante’s Guardian column with the descriptions of pregnancy in her novels, such as Elena Greco’s powerful description of giving birth in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay:

For Elena, problems began after her relatively easy first pregnancy. “ I had atrocious labor pains, but they didn’t last long. When the baby emerged and I saw her black-haired, a violet organism that, full of energy writhed and wailed, I felt a physical pleasure so piercing that I still know no other pleasure that compares to it. [But soon after] the state of well-being ended suddenly…the baby became troublesome (TWL, 237-38).

Or Leda's description of the birth of her first daughter in The Lost Daughter:
"the most intense pleasure of my life…But then came [her second daughter] Marta. She attacked my body, forcing it to turn on itself, out of control. She immediately manifested herself, not as Marta but as a piece of living iron in my stomach. My body became a bloody liquid; suspended in it was a mushy sediment in which grew a violent polyp so far from anything human that it reduced me, even though it fed and grew, to a rotting matter without life” (LD, 110).

Or Lila's description of her pregnancy with her second child in The Story of the Lost Child:
"Your own body [is] angry with you and in fact rebels against you until it achieves the most terrible pain imaginable. For hours [Lila] had felt in her belly sharp cold flames, an unbearable flow of pain that hit her brutally in the pit of her stomach and then returned, penetrating her kidneys” (SLC, 216).

Not only are ideas about motherhood in Ferrante’s novels more complicated than those in the Guardian column, but the emotionally charged prose of the novels is very different from that of the columns. I cannot help but wonder if the person who wrote the columns is the same person (or persons) who wrote the novels.

The only justification I can think of for publicizing the reflections of the fictional character Ferrante is that her publishers want to make sure they keep Ferrante Fever burning in anticipation of the upcoming HBO series based on Ferrante’s novels. There are signs that Ferrante Fever may be waning and the columns may be an attempt to counter that, but I question whether many readers of these columns will be motivated to read Ferrante's extraordinary novels.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

I had not expected this: Only 5 more Democrats filed for committeeperson in 2018 than filed in 2014!

Center: Steve Paul, Chair Democratize Philly

I had not expected this. In my book Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party, I predicted that the green shoots of democracy which emerged in the 2014 committeeperson elections would take root in Philadelphia neighborhoods and result in a revitalized ward system in 2018.

On January 15, 2018 a group of progressive organizations announced the formation of Democratize Philly, a coalition initiated by ADA to recruit and support progressive candidates to run for Committeeperson. In January and February organizations such as Caucus of Working Educators, Neighborhood Networks, Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Moving Philly Forward, Philadelphia Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Philly for Change, Reclaim Philadelphia and 3.0 ran workshops on how to run for committeeperson.

The level of activity and degree of enthusiasm appeared to be much greater in 2018 than was the case in 2014, suggesting that discontent with the undemocratic Democratic Party may be finally reaching a tipping point.

However, the numbers suggest otherwise. Dave Davies reported that 3,267 Democrats filed to run for committeeperson, only five more than in 2014. And only 513 Republicans filed for committeeperson, down from 788 four years ago.

Davies turned to Jen Devor, who ran committeeperson trainings for an explanation of these disappointing numbers. Devor suggested that perhaps fewer incumbents were running and so the mix contained a larger proportion of newcomers. She suggested that longtime committeepeople might not be running because "it’s a more competitive race this time around.“ Maybe. But there are other reasons long time committeepeople might be retiring. I am stepping down after 32 years as a committeeperson in the 9th ward because I think old folks should not be hanging onto these positions for 30, 40 years but should make room for a younger generation to fill these slots. I know others in in my age cohort who are retiring for this reason. I am happy to report that an energetic young woman will be running for the slot I’ve held for decades.

We won’t know until we learn the number of incumbents who chose not to run(for whatever reason), just how disappointing the 2018 numbers are. We also need to know where the newcomers are concentrated. According to Davies' report, City Commissioner Al Schmidt said that the neighborhoods with the highest number of candidates appeared to be in the Northeast and South Philadelphia where there are contests for ward leader.

Are they candidates who are running simply to support a particular candidate for ward leader, which is likely to be the case in the Northeast? Or are they candidates with a vision of how the ward system should operate or a political philosophy they would like to advance—-as is more likely to be the case in South Philly? The numbers are not what I had hoped to see; however, there may be a significantly higher number of people with a deeper commitment to political change than we had in 2014.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Soon there will be daffodils!

Winter gets harder and harder. Each year I am more and more impatient for spring. The snowdrops were late this year but now they are in abundance

Species crocus are everywhere:

And witch hazel is in bloom. It's on its way out but still wonderfully fragrant.

It never really feels like spring has arrived until the daffodils bloom; unfortunately it looks like I’m going to have to wait a week or so for the first daffodils to emerge.

Soon I will be out there working in my garden. Cicero said it all: "If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

So impressed by the number of organizations running workshops encouraging their members to run for committeeperson!

A Philadelphia/NOW/ Philadelphia CLUWworkshop on running for committeeperson at Big Blue Marble bookstore on February 10

I have been so impressed by the number of organizations out there running workshops encouraging their members to run for committeeperson-- Philadelphia Chapters of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Philadelphia Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Neighborhood Networks, Philly for Change, Reclaim Philadelphia, the Caucus of Working Educators, Moving Philly Forward, 3.0 among others.

The level of activity and degree of enthusiasm is much greater than was the case in 2014, documented in my book Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party. And the activity in 2014 was much greater than in previous election cycles.

Discontent with the undemocratic party Democratic Party may be finally reaching a tipping point. Growing numbers of political activists and concerned citizens realize that our one-party town can no longer afford an undemocratic Democratic Party. The closed, top-down party structure, currently disintegrating into competing factions, is not working. 2018 provides an opportunity for real political change, with engaged committeepersons a powerful force, educating voters about candidates and about the democratic process. Something is happening out there!