Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Nina Ahmad, Brittany Alston, Michael Coard, and Congressman Dwight Evans discuss reparations

This article appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local ”

Philadelphia NOW, Pennsylvania NOW and the Philadelphia Commission for Women sponsored a well-attended Dec. 6 virtual Town Hall on HB 40, which would establish a U.S. congressional commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for African-Americans.

Reparations are sometime seen as a political impossibility, but as Philadelphia NOW President Vanessa Fields stated in her opening remarks, echoing Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” The program began with a brief statement by incoming national NOW president Christian Nunes, who confirmed NOW’s commitment to racial equity. Nunes is the 2nd Black president in NOW’s 54-year history.

Former Philadelphia NOW President Nina Ahmad stated that no other group had endured the brutal treatment and history of unrelenting discrimination experienced by African-Americans. She focused on the experience of slavery for African-American women and argued that the sexual violence and horror of having their children torn away must be part of the discussion about reparations.

Attorney and racial justice activist Michael Coard noted that HR 40 calls for a study and asked: “How can any reasonable person oppose that?” The bill does not call for any specific form of reparations, which might take many forms, including direct payments to individuals, investments in black communities, new zoning practices, educational scholarships, and business loans.

Coard also noted that the debate about reparations recently moved to state capitols. PA Representative Chris Rabb introduced legislation that would award reparations to African American residents of Pennsylvania. Rabb’s bill would include tax and other benefits to eligible residents, not cash disbursements. To qualify, residents would have to provide government documentation verifying their ethnicity as Black/African-American.

Brittany Alston, a Research Director for the Action Center on Race and the Economy, focused on the impact of slavery and racial discrimination on the accumulation of wealth across the generations. She argued for investment in supportive systems, and divestment from institutions harming Black people.

Congressman Dwight Evans noted that in recent years there has been some progress towards passage of HB 40, which was first introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1989; Conyers introduced it every year until he resigned in 2017. The bill is currently sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and has 173 co-sponsors to date, four of whom are come from Pennsylvania: Brendan Boyle, Madeleine Dean, Dwight Evans and Mary Gay Scanlon. Evans noted that this year the House Judiciary Committee, for the first time, held a public hearing on reparations for slavery. He noted that also for the first time all the 2020 Democratic candidates for president pledged to sign HB 40 if the bill was passed by Congress. Evans saw some possibility that HB 40 would come up for a vote within the next two years. The prospect for passage has dimmed as the Democrats have lost seats in the House, and control of the Senate is uncertain. But the momentum is there.

Nina Ahmad noted that NOW, with its network of state and local affiliates, is well-positioned to organize its members to lobby their congresspersons to vote for passage of the bill. For more information about the struggle for reparations and the prospects for moving forward, please see further reading and resources, here. A petition in support of H.R.40 is located here.

“By passing H.B. 40, Congress can start a movement toward the national reckoning we need to bridge racial divides,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, the current sponsor of HB 4. “Reparations are ultimately about respect and reconciliation — and the hope that one day, all Americans can walk together toward a more just future.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Why I plan to vote ‘No’ on Ballot Question No.2

This article appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local and The Philadelphia Citizen

Ballot question 2 proposes that “the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to create the Office of the Victim Advocate to advocate for crime victims and to work with victim-services providers to coordinate, plan, train, educate, and investigate issues relating to crime victims.”

When I first heard about this ballot question, I thought it seemed like a good idea. It was supported by the Mayor, the District Attorney and passed by City Council. The 9th ward committee people voted unanimously for a yes vote.

However, I did have reservations about duplication of services. Many nonprofits and governmental agencies already offer victim services, including the District Attorney’s victim and witness advocacy unit. I wondered if this new office might be just another layer of bureaucracy that the politically well connected could use to provide jobs for their supporters.

Then I received a statement from Reclaim Philadelphia, which made me seriously question my earlier lukewarm support:

From what we’ve witnessed at the state-level, the Office of the Victim Advocate (OVA) has failed to deliver policies that help Black and Brown communities heal from the trauma of gun violence, incarceration, and poverty; instead, it has argued in favor of harsher sentencing laws and against bills that grant parole eligibility to people sentenced to life in prison. Government-sponsored and -funded victim services were started in the 1970-80s as criminal justice turned increasingly toward punishment and vengeance, and since that time they've played a fundamental role in sustaining mass incarceration.”

Furthermore, the office comes with an unspecified cost which raises the question: Is this the best way to direct resources to reform our criminal justice system and end the brutal system of mass incarceration?

But there are deeper questions than the allocation of resources. Criminal acts are committed against the entire community, not just the individual victim. Should victims who are sometimes motivated by an understandable desire for revenge have the opportunity to prevent a prisoner’s parole?

I usually don’t spend so much time mulling over the implications of a ballot question, but this time my husband and I had a long conversation about it as we sat at our kitchen table filling out our ballots. He noted that variations on this debate have been going on for thousands of years. Greek playwright Aeschylus explored the contrast between revenge and justice, in the Oresteia written in 458 BC. The plot consists of one horrific murder after another. The Furies hunt down Orestes for murdering his mother because she had murdered his father for his role in killing their daughter. The cycle of violence is finally broken when Orestes turns to the goddess Athena for help and she responds by setting up a trial with a group of twelve Athenian citizens as jurors. The trial results in a tie, with Athena casting the tie-breaking vote and determining that Orestes will not be killed, thus ending the cycle of violent revenge.

Thousands of years later, revenge is still a major theme in literature and in life. My guess is if anyone harmed my husband or my son, I would want to lock him up and throw away the key. The desire for revenge is something we all can understand, but do we want our judicial system influenced by it? Yes, victims deserve services and support, but I question how much input victims should have in influencing judicial outcomes. Absent safeguards against that, I decided to cast a no vote.

Ballot measures almost always pass, and I expect this one will as well. But my hope is that the organized opposition of groups like Reclaim will have an impact on the mission and operations of the Office of the Victim Advocate if the measure passes.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults--A Disappointment

I fell in love with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and read all four volumes, as well as the earlier novellas, at least three times each. The latest book, The Lying Life of Adults, just doesn’t measure up to the earlier works.

In The Lying Life of Adults there is the familiar Neapolitan setting and the signature Ferrante themes: fractured family ties; the pain of marital infidelity; the psychological costs of upward mobility; the complicated interplay of standard Italian and Neapolitan dialect; the experience of life in a female body; and the torments of adolescent sexuality. One of the pleasures of the novel is encountering Ferrante themes in new guises. However, while in the Neapolitan novels the narrative complexity and dazzling prose saved it from falling into melodrama, The Lying Life of Adults too often descends into soap opera.

It appears most Ferrante fans do not share my assessment of her new novel. From reviews I have read, my response is an outlier. Much more common is Dayna Tortoricia’s rave review in the New York Times which begins with “What a relief it is when an author who has written a masterpiece returns to prove the gift intact.”

I have yet to encounter a seriously negative review, although many generally positive reviews contain caveats about Ferrante’s control of her narrative. From Parul Sehgal’s New York Times review “But it’s also a more vulnerable performance [than her earlier works], less tightly woven and deliberately plotted, even turning uncharacteristically jagged at points as it explores some of the writer’s touchiest preoccupations.”

Judith Thurman in her New Yorker review comes closest in my mind to acknowledging the real weaknesses of The Lying Life of Adults: “Had this been a young writer’s coming-of-age story, one could praise its abundant flashes of brilliance and forgive its excesses. Coming from a master, its puerility is a mystery.” Thurman thinks the novel “has passages of electric dialogue and acute perception. But its crude hinting and telegraphing suggest an author who distrusts her reader’s discernment, and they made me wonder if Ferrante hadn’t drafted the story as a much younger writer, still honing her craft.”

The Lying Life of Adults lacks both the frequently incandescent prose and the fully developed characters of the Neapolitan novels. One of the great strengths of the Neapolitan novels was the creation of complicated characters with conflicting motives and values; to me, these bundles of contradictions were indeed real people. Giovanna, the teenage narrator of The Lying Life of Adults, will not stay with me as a real human being like Elena and Lila in the Neapolitan novels. I will not re-read The Lying Life of Adults over and over again to try to unlock the secrets of the novel. Once was enough.

More like the compressed time frame of the novellas than the sixty-year time span of the Neapolitan novels, The Lying Life of Adults covers four years in the life of the adolescent narrator Giovanna who, unlike Elena and Lila, leads a comfortable middle class life. Elena Greco is the classic striver focused on moving up in the world and escaping the poverty and violence of working class Naples; Giovanna’s family has already made that journey into the educated middle class.

Giovanna over hears her father, upset that she has gotten bad grades in school, remark “she’s getting the face of Vittoria,” his much despised sister. Obsessed with meeting her aunt, Giovanna descends into the lower depths of Naples to meet Vittoria and explore the world her father was desperate to leave behind. As Giovanna is dealing with the turbulence of adolescence, she learns of her father’s infidelity and struggles to cope with her parents’ divorce.

Fifteen year old Giovanna falls madly in love with her friend’s fiancé Roberto, a twenty five year old professor, who is in some ways reminiscent of the Neapolitan novels’ Nino Sarratore—a handsome, intense intellectual, a son of working class Naples who had climbed the class ladder and never looked behind. Unlike Nino, Roberto is deeply religious (albeit in an unconventional way) and retains an attachment for the working class world of his childhood.

Ferrante in the Neapolitan novels brilliantly described the frustrations of adolescent sexuality in the sexually repressed Italian working class culture of the 1950s; in The Lying Life of Adults she describes how those tensions play out in the sexually liberated world of the 1990s educated upper middle class. The novel ends with Giovanna’s sexual initiation with a man she dislikes, a scene reminiscent of Elena’s turning to the much despised Donato Sarratore to lose the burden of her virginity. Ferrante is known for her scenes of bad sex, and The Lying Life of Adults ends with a long drawn-out, clumsily written scene of truly bad sex. It lacks the emotional complexity, irony and occasional sparks of comedy that characterize such scenes in the Neapolitan novels.

An ironic perspective is for the most part missing in The Lying Life of Adults. For example, in the Neapolitan novels, the narrator, the mature Elena, describes her younger self’s comic misunderstanding of what she believed were Nino Sarratore’s overtures to her. Blinded by her own desire for Nino, at first Elena could not see what was unfolding before her eyes. The narrator’s ironic tone is one of the ways Ferrante from time to time reminds the reader that these are the recollections of an older woman viewing her younger self from the vantage point of maturity.

The Lying Life of Adults also lacks the Neapolitan novels’ skillful use of recurrent motifs, which serve to bind together the narrative strands of the novels, such as Elena and Lila’s dolls and Elena’s silver bracelet. The bracelet has become bound up with Elena’s emerging sexuality and the potentially dangerous attention it attracts. Like the dolls, the bracelet reappears at key points in the narrative, accumulating further associations and serving as a symbol of the bonds between women, of the experiences women share. With such recurrent motifs, Ferrante weaves the intricate tapestry of the Neapolitan novels. In The Lying Life of Adults, the bracelet reappears and is used in a similar way to tie together narrative strands, but here the symbolism becomes heavy-handed rather than suggestive.

Unlike the Neapolitan novels, there is little sense of the wider world in which these events occurred. The Lying Life of Adults does have a strong sense of place; we know we are in the geographic space of Naples. However, although the novel is generally thought to take place in the 1990s, we know little of the political events then roiling Italian society. Giovanna’s father refers to “disastrous times” but there is no explanation as to what this means. In the Neapolitan novels Ferrante has skillfully inter-woven the history of the corruption scandals of the early 1990s with the lives of her principal characters, such as Nino Sarratore, who was among the many politicians caught up in the Tangentopoli scandal (sometimes translated as Bribesville), which erupted in Milan in 1992.

If she had wanted to make the connection, Ferrante could have easily linked the lies of her characters in The Lying Life of Adults with the lying politicians desperately trying to cover up unbridled corruption. However, Ferrante in her latest novel is focused on personal relationships/family dynamics and shows little interest in integrating the personal lives of her characters with a fully realized social world. The approach is reminiscent of Ferrante’s novellas, which focus on private life and depict a female character at a crisis point—in this case Giovanna navigating the turbulence of adolescence while her parents’ marriage disintegrates.

In The Lying Life of Adults we have Ferrante’s themes without Ferrante’s astonishing talent. How do we account for this? Judith Thurman has suggested Ferrante had “drafted the story as a much younger writer, still honing her craft.” There may be another explanation. In 2016, journalist Claudio Gatti identified the pseudonymous author as Rome-based translator Anita Raja and speculated that her husband novelist Domenico Starnone might be her collaborator. In Italian literary circles Raja and Starnone had long been identified as the likely authors. To my knowledge there are four separate teams of linguists whose text analysis software concluded that there was a “high probability” that Starnone was the principal author. There will no doubt be linguistic analyses of The Lying Life of Adults; my guess is that Starnone will not be identified as the principal author and this may account for the relative weakness of Ferrante’s latest novel.

When writing In Search of Elena Ferrante ​, I turned to Starnone’s novels for further clues as to his contribution to Ferrante’s novels. In the three of his novels that have been translated into English, (First Execution, Ties, and Trick), I found thematic, structural, and linguistic similarities to Ferrante’s work. First Execution, like the Neapolitan novels, explores the ethical implications of political violence. Ties is strikingly similar to Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment; both novels begin with a man abandoning his wife and children for a much younger woman, leaving his wife distraught, angry and unwilling to accept her husband’s betrayal.

Daniele Mallarico, the narrator of Trick, like Elena Greco of the Neapolitan novels, 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 struggling to deal with the difficulties of a large family living in a relatively small space. 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.

These similarities between Starnone’s works and those attributed to Ferrante strengthened the case for his co-authorship. However, I believed that if I could read those of Starnone’s novels that had not been translated into English, I might have an even stronger case. In a recent Atlantic article, Rachel Donadio, who has read Starnone’s works in Italian, provided further evidence for Starnone’s involvement in the works attributed to Ferrante. She analyzed his 2011 novel Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía, published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Donadio describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator, Aristide Gambía, decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.”6 Both in Autobiografia Erotica as in his novels Trick and Ties, Starnone leaves many clues about his relationship to the fictional Elena Ferrante. It certainly seems like he wants to be found out.

If, as I now believe is most likely, Raja and Starnone are the co-authors of Ferrante’s novels, we have one author who shares the working class Neapolitan background of Ferrante (and her narrator Elena Greco), but not her gender, and the other co-author who shares the gender of Ferrante, but not her working class background. Gatti’s revelations have challenged the belief that there are aspects of the female experience that can only be fully understood and described by a woman writer, and have also challenged the widely held assumption that great literature must be the work of one mind, one visionary genius.

There are allusions to both gender bending and collaborative authorship throughout Ferrante’s work, almost as if she is providing clues to the authorship of her novels. Lila and Elena dream of writing a novel together and Elena credits Lila as the inspiration for much of her writing. What Elena refers to as the “play of shared creation” is a major theme of the Neapolitan novels. In Frantumaglia, Ferrante tells the story of Ariadne, suffering because she believes her lover Theseus has abandoned her on the island of Amathus. In order to console her, the women of Amathus write love letters to her, pretending the letters are from Theseus. Ferrante focused on “the women’s effort to enter the head, the words of a man” and “the women’s collaboration—a true harmonious group project—to feign a man’s psychic and lexical makeup.”

In her many interviews, Ferrante returns again and again to the idea of collaborative authorship and the belief that “a good writer—male or female—can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.” However, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, many of Ferrante’s devoted readers insist that her powerful account of female experience must be solely the work of a woman.

Of course what really matters is the power of the text, not the gender of the author or authors. I had hoped for another extraordinary book from the author[s] writing under the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante, but The Lying Life of Adults lacks the narrative skills and the compelling prose of Ferrante’s earlier works. It is the first Ferrante book I will not re-read.

Monday, September 14, 2020

John Kromer’s Philadelphia Battlefields: A must read for anyone interested in Philadelphia politics

Published in the Chestnut Hill local

“Philadelphia Battlefields: Disruptive Campaigns and Upset Elections in a Changing City” by West Mt. Airy author John Kromer is a must read for anyone interested in Philadelphia politics. Its detailed observations and thoughtful analysis are likely to be of interest to political scientists and historians, and with its clear, jargon-free prose “Philadelphia Battlefields” is accessible to the general reader.

Kromer draws on his extensive experience as city housing director from 1992 to 2001 and as a veteran of numerous political campaigns, including his own run for Sheriff in 2011. He describes his book as primarily a study of what he calls “insurgent” campaigns—“how ambitious individuals succeeded in long odds elections by employing creative campaign strategies…and by understanding the political opportunities available in the social and economic environments in which their campaigns were taking place.”

The book is also the story of the decline of the Philadelphia Democratic Party machine, which has fragmented into competing factions, thus providing opportunities for insurgent campaigns. The party has become increasingly less able to deliver for endorsed candidates in primary elections or to get out the vote in general elections. Kromer complicates this story, noting upsets and internecine battles during periods when the party was supposedly at its strongest, and arguing that even in its weakened condition the party continues to have influence in low-profile races.

“Philadelphia Battlefields” begins with an in-depth analysis of Rebecca Rhynhart’s upset victory in the 2017 city controller race. Her opponent was a two-term incumbent with the solid support of the Democratic Party establishment, yet Rhynhart won decisively. Kromer raises the possibility that her victory was “the first solid evidence that the Democratic Party’s dominant role in Philadelphia politics was finally coming to an end.”

Kromer then turns to the history of the 20th century Democratic Party in Philadelphia, which he argues began with the 1951 election of Joseph Clark as Mayor and Richardson Dilworth as District Attorney, bringing to an end almost a century of Republican Party rule and ushering in an era of municipal reform. However, as Kromer demonstrates, the reforms were undermined by the continuation of one-party rule, with the Democratic machine replacing the Republican machine.

Unlike the municipal reform movement, which did not significantly change the distribution of wealth and power in the city, the Black Political Forum led by Hardy Williams, Wilson Goode and John White Sr. brought about real social change, building a movement for Black political empowerment independent of the Democratic Party. Kromer analyzes the early career of Chaka Fattah, whom he characterizes as a “political entrepreneur” who “developed a creative and effective approach to building power as Philadelphia changed.” In 1982 Fattah built a political campaign for a state house seat drawing on the resources of organizations based in the Black community, and defeated party-endorsed incumbent, Nicholas Pucciarelli. Kromer considers other insurgent candidates (Tom Foglietta, Ed Rendell, Maria Quinines Sanchez) who defeated party- endorsed candidates; all in different ways took advantage of the erosion of the power of the Democratic Party machine.

In addition to analyzing the strategies of successful insurgent candidates, Kromer also profiles several of the civic organizations providing support for their campaigns and educating voters about candidates’ stands on issues. Kromer credits Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) with training nearly 600 volunteers who became the driving force behind the 1951 election of reformers Dilworth and Clark, and for spearheading the Rizzo recall movement in the 1970s.

In his analysis of 21st century politics, Kromer focuses on three organizations: POWER, which provides political education for low-income communities; 3.0, an organization of centrist and liberal Democrats; and Reclaim, a socialist organization that grew out of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. Both Reclaim and 3.0 provided training and support for a new generation of political activists; despite their differences, both groups are committed to transparency and democracy in the ward system, and both were heavily involved in recruiting candidates for the 2018 committeeperson elections.

Kromer analyzes the impact of Reclaim on the second ward, which has become a model of ward transparency and democracy with its carefully drawn bylaws and endorsement procedures. Reclaim member Nikhil Saval was elected ward leader in 2018 and then, in a remarkable upset, Saval defeated a three-term incumbent to win a seat in the PA Senate. “Philadelphia Battlefields” went to press before the victories of Saval and fellow Reclaim member Rick Krajewski, who defeated a 23-year incumbent to win a PA house seat. The victories of Saval and Krajewski differed from the upset victories of most other candidates profiled in the book in that they saw themselves as part of a social movement that had grown out of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Many young progressives running for office have serious criticisms of the Democratic Party for its lack of transparency/democracy. Kromer poses the question: Is the system the problem? Or is it the people running it? He notes the structure has potential for genuine representative democracy and that most committeepeople “are highly reflective of the community they represent.”

However, Kromer acknowledges that most wards are not democratically run “open wards”; committeepeople do not have the right to vote on endorsements or on ward policies and procedures and there exist no internal party rules protecting the rights of committee people. In this sense, the system is the problem. He notes that it is far easier for resource-rich wards such as the second to operate an open ward than it is for low-income wards. The second ward can afford to forfeit city committee’s financial support in order to endorse its own slate of candidates and can raise its own funds for Election Day materials. This is much more challenging for low-income, low-turnout wards.

Philadelphia’s political system is changing — generationally and demographically. Progressives seeking to reform the ward system have much to learn from Kromer’s thoughtful analysis of the city’s political history and current political landscape.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Open Wards movement formalizes into city-wide organization

Posted on August 13, 2020 in Chestnut Hill Local By Karen Bojar

In the 2018 committee person elections, a group of newly elected committee people brought their commitment to transparency and democracy to wards across the city. They have now joined together to form a new organization, Open Wards Philly (OWP), described on the group’s website (openwardsphilly.com) as “an effort by both newly elected and veteran committee people, and some of the ward leaders they helped elect, to create a better ward system across Philadelphia.”

The new group was officially launched in July 2020, with a website, an elected steering committee, and bylaws designed to ensure that Open Wards Philly will model the values of democracy and transparency its members want to see in the ward system. Membership is open to any registered voter in the City of Philadelphia who shares Open Wards Philly’s Statement of principles:

These principles are agreed upon in an effort to create a more open, accessible, and democratic political system.
These principles support the agency of committee people, who are the direct representatives of their constituents.
These principles affirm the right of committee people to act in good faith, free from retaliation and the threat of retribution.

The group is non-partisan. However, for all practical purposes Philadelphia is a one-party town, with Democrats greatly outnumbering Republicans and members of minority parties; as a consequence, the overwhelming majority of Open Wards Philly members are Democrats. In the recently held elections for Open Wards Philly’s nine-member steering committee, the group elected six Democratic committeeperson and one Republican committeeperson from wards around the city, as well as one member who is not a committeeperson. The bylaws allow for participation of a limited number of steering committee members who are not elected committeepeople. There is currently one open seat.

Two of these newly elected steering committee members, Michael Swayze and Heather Pierce, are from Mt. Airy’s 22nd ward. “The election of new Committeepeople in 2018 made me realize the keen interest many of us have in the democratic, small “d,” process,” Swayze said. “It is my hope that together we can work to rejuvenate the ward and election process in Philadelphia.” As Cynthia Albrecht, Democratic Committeeperson in the 22nd ward, succinctly put it: “We’re trying to institute ‘good government’ for wards.” Philadelphia’s ward system is on the cusp of change, and Open Wards Philly clearly has a role to play in making the ward system more “small d democratic.”

Prior to 2018, in only five wards did committee people have the right to vote on endorsements, rather than unquestionably accepting endorsements handed down by the ward leader. The number of open wards is slowly expanding; also, in some wards, where the new committee people were too few in number to elect a ward leader committed to running an open ward, they formed an open ward caucus. Such a caucus formed in Mt. Airy’s 22nd Ward. When committee people are again elected in 2022, Open Wards Philly hopes to encourage more people committed to democracy and transparency in the ward system to run for committeeperson and thus expand the number of open wards. Change is coming. The Philadelphia Democratic Party has fragmented into groups of competing factions, and is currently staffed by ward leaders and committee people largely in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. The current configuration cannot last much longer. Open Wards Philly intends to play a role in bringing about much needed change.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Garden Therapy

My wildly overgrown garden

My garden has always been a source of solace, but never more so than this year as I was recovering from major surgery. My week in the hospital was hell and my recovery much slower than I would like. But fortunately I have my wonderful husband and son and the garden.

When I returned home from the hospital the first thing I did was go into my back garden. It was awash in purple alliums and had never looked so beautiful.

Yes it looked wild and neglected, but the flowers were beautiful and the fragrance of Ms. Kim Korean Lilac was intoxicating.

I always felt that the succession of bloom passed too quickly and that I never had the time I needed to really appreciate each flower. I assumed that if I was retired I would be able to savor each moment. However, although I was doing nothing but sitting in the garden, I still felt like it was going much too quickly. The allium was followed by the rush of the Siberian iris, the peonies, the roses, the clematis, the foxglove. Siberian Iris

Violet Shimmer Clematis

David Austin Rose, "Graham Thomas"

Late May and early June is the truly magical time in the garden and I so wish I could replay those weeks.

It’s been hard to resist the urge to work in the garden and possibly jeopardize my recovery. Fortunately when my husband and son see me overdoing what started as some minor weed-pulling, they warn me that if I keep doing this I’ll wind up back in the hospital. That thought is enough to make me sit down.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Voting by mail proves to be a challenge for local voters

Voting by mail proves to be a challenge for local voters
Posted on June 3, 2020 in Chestnut Hill Local

According to the PA Democratic Party, 1.26 million Democrats applied for a mail-in ballot; however, only some 520,000 Republicans did so. The dramatically lower numbers for Republicans probably reflect the mixed messages they have been getting, with the Republican National Committee in April urging Republicans to vote by mail, and Trump continuing to rail against mail-in voting.

Despite the efforts of the PA Democratic Party, for many voters the process has not gone smoothly. I am one of those voters who struggled to get a mail-in ballot. I applied online on May 6. I received an application number and thought everything was okay. I didn’t think about the election for the next few weeks as I became ill and had to undergo major surgery. Political junkie that I am, one of the first things I did when discharged from the hospital was to check on the status of my ballot application. I received the following message: “We are unable to match your information with our records.”

For two days I tried to get through to the phone numbers the Election Board had designated for questions about mail-in ballots. No one picked up the phone. When I finally got through to someone in City Commissioner Lisa Deeley’s office, I learned that my application had been rejected because there was a discrepancy between my name on my driver’s license (Mary Karen) and my name on the voter registration rolls (M. Karen). I further learned that the election Board is not notifying voters if their applications have been rejected. I thought I had this issue resolved and was told by Garrett Dietz, Supervisor of Elections that my application had been approved and my ballot had been mailed on May 22. As of this writing (May 31), my ballot has not been received.

Applying early has not ensured delivery of mail-in ballots. Chestnut Hill committeeperson, Lydia Allen-Berry reported that her “daughter applied for a ballot on March 25th, received confirmation online that her ballot was mailed on May 4th, and she still hasn’t received it. So she’s coming home from DC to vote. Hopefully, she can vote with a provisional ballot.”

My. Airy resident and candidate for Auditor General Nina Ahmad is advocating extending the deadline for the ballots to be received. According to Ahmad: “In order for no one to be disenfranchised, Governor Wolf and the Postmaster General must commit to deliver the ballots to the Board of Elections in all 67 counties and if needed extend the deadline for the ballots to be received. Additionally, there needs to be a much wider communication plan so all voters who will be voting in person know the location of their new polling places and a commitment for every provisional ballot to be counted.”

The process of voting by mail is especially challenging for elderly voters. West Philadelphia committeeperson and Chair of the Philadelphia Commission for Women Vanessa Fields reported that she has given about 200 paper applications to seniors in her division. Fields noted: “I’ve found out that many elders have arthritis in their hands and impaired vision and cannot see the return address on the application. Therefore, I’m providing them with a stamped, addressed envelope to mail off the application. However, I’m concerned about their ability to follow the directions with completing the ballots once receiving them in the mail. The directions can be a little tricky. Once filling out the ballot, you have to put it in a secure envelope and then the mailing envelope. I have a video demonstrating how to complete the ballot, but many seniors don’t have an internet connection.”

Mt. Airy Resident and 9th ward committeeperson Lisa Holgash reported similar experiences: “I set up house visits with two people in my division who needed assistance because they did not have access to the internet. I have another person in my division who was sent 5 ballot applications but no return envelope.” Holgash further noted that the “technological divide in the City has been exacerbated by COVID-19.”

Vanessa Fields and Lisa Holgash are exceptionally dedicated committeepeople, but there are not enough committeepeople like them to fill the need for assistance.

I expected some glitches, given that this was the first time mail-in ballots were used on this scale, but never expected anything like this. The good news is that we have five months to fix these problems before the general election in November. There are a few remedies that everyone I spoke to agrees on:

1) Ballots should be returned postmarked by a specific date, not returned before a specific date. An individual voter is in control of when her ballot is postmarked, but when she drops off her ballot at a post office she has no control over, how long it will take for her ballot to be received.

2) All voters whose applications for a mail-in ballot were not accepted should be notified immediately that their application was rejected.

3) The time frame between the final date to apply for a mail-in ballot (May 26) and the date by when it must be received (June 2) is much too tight. Currently there are four lawsuits, one in Montgomery and one in Bucks County asking local courts to extend mail ballot deadlines in their counties and two lawsuits before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to give voters statewide an extra week to return ballots. As of this writing, there have been no court rulings. (Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf extended the deadline for ballot reception to June 9 in Philadelphia, Montgomery and four other counties.)

Voters who have experienced or witnessed barriers to participation should report them to citizen watchdog organizations such as the Committee of Seventy. We must address these issues before the critically important November election.

Karen Bojar is an author and former Democratic committee person. She lives in Mt. Airy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

There are advantages to a cold spring!

Crabapple and lilac blooming together

There are advantages to this cold spring. Flowering shrubs which usually do not survive temperatures in mid to high 60s are still flowering in our current 50s to low 60s range. In past springs, my fragile crabapple bloomed in mid April and was soon zapped by a day in the mid to late 60s. For the first time in my memory, my crabapple and my lilac are blooming at the same time.

Also my redbud and carlesi viburnum are joining my crabapple, dogwoods, lilac and crabapple for a spectacular display—compensation for a cool spring.
Incredibly fragrant carlesi viburnum

My redbud blossoms are lasting longer than usual

My tulips have had a long run.

Working in the garden in temperatures in late 50s and low 60s is less fun than in high 60s and low 70s, but there are advantages to a cool spring.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

International Women's Day, March 8 2020

My article on International Women's Day which appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local.

International Women’s Day, which arose in response to a strike of women workers in 1909, is celebrated around the globe on March 8, both as a tribute to women’s achievements and as a call to action in the ongoing struggle for gender equality.

On Sunday, International Women’s Strike in Philadelphia hosted various events incuding a march and rally in Center City, organized by a coalition of largely socialist feminist groups while more locally, Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG) in Mt. Airy marked the occasion with a day of feminist art and achievements.

Arleen Olshan, the founder of MAAG, first organized an International Women’s Day march and rally in Center City in 2008 and 2009, in collaboration with Sha’ifa Malik, Soda Nobuhle, and Sherrie Cohen. Olshan then held the celebration in Mt. Airy when she opened MAAG as a non-profit arts hub and these celebrations continued until 2016 when MAAG was forced to find a new location. It now has a permanent space at 7054 Germantown Ave., where Sunday’s all-day celebration was held, featuring an exhibit of women artists, poetry readings, music by local artists and a round-table discussion with local artists and politicians.

The Center City rally, in addition to the feminist groups, was also hosted by multi-issue socialist groups and progressive organizations focused on single issues such as immigrants’ rights. The event drew a much younger group than those at the MAAG celebration, which included many veterans of second-wave feminism.

To my surprise, the crowd in Center City was half male, with young men holding up signs with feminist slogans such as “La revolucion sera feminista o no sera” (The revolution will be feminist or it will not happen). Increasing numbers of men now see gender equality in their interest, as this was also the case in Mt. Airy. Michael Huff, who attended the MAAG event, said he was there as an ally of women in their fight for equality, but also saw gender equality as in his interest as well.

“If my wife is making 70% of what a man would earn, that hurts my family,” Huff said. “I also want my wife and my daughter to have the same opportunities as men have.”

Economic justice was a major theme of the women activists who spoke at the rally. Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, who was also on the panel at the MAAG event, stressed the importance of a living wage for all workers, noting that women are oppressed as workers and also as women. Marty Harrison, a nurse at Temple University Hospital and a union member, spoke from her perspective as a healthcare worker about the urgent need for Medicare for All, and called for “a feminism that is socialist and a socialism that is feminist.”

The women and men then marched through Center City, concluding with a dramatic call for an end to violence against women. In the middle of a street intersection outside the Unitarian Church, Refuse Fascism performed “The Rapist is You,” a Chilean protest chant and dance has been performed all over the globe to protest gender based violence.

Sherrie Cohen, whose activist history spans second-wave feminism through the radical movements of the 21st century, applauded the sense of urgency and commitment to action of the march sponsored by the socialist feminist coalition.

“It is time that International Women’s Day return to its radical roots and call us to action in mass protest,” said Cohen.

The list of sponsors for the Center City event suggests a return to feminism’s “radical roots.” Many groups sometimes referred to as mainstream feminist organizations (Philadelphia NOW, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Women Against Abuse, Women’s Medical Fund, Women’s Way) and usually found on lists of sponsors of feminist events, were not part of the coalition sponsoring this International Women’s Day event. Instead, sponsors included groups such as Philly SocFem, Global Women’s Strike, Philly Socialists, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Philadelphia Socialist Alternative, Temple Young Democratic Socialists of America, Refuse Fascism, Reclaim Philadelphia and Abolish ICE PHL.

I have long thought that 21st century feminists were not organization builders like second-wave feminists; however, I may have been looking in the wrong places. True, young feminists for the most part have not been forming explicitly feminist organizations. However, young feminists are playing a leadership role in multi-issue progressive organizations, such as Black Lives Matter and Sunrise, and bringing a feminist perspective to these organizations; much feminist organizing now occurs within multi-issue rather than explicitly feminist organizations. In the complex and shifting landscape of 21st century feminism, this may be the new face of feminism.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Greek Diaries: Part III, Mystras

For me, Greek history and culture had always meant the classical period. I knew little about Byzantine Greece and was barely aware it existed. To my surprise, two of our most memorable experiences were visits to monuments of Byzantine culture.

My husband Rick, unknown to me before this trip, is something of an expert on Byzantine culture. Just as he did with the Parthenon, despite his severe arthritis, he managed to scale the heights of the remains of the medieval Byzantine city of Mystras. A fortified city on top of a steep hill, Mystras was a major center of Byzantine culture until the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Greece in the 15th century. It is amazingly well-preserved.

The steep steps Rick somehow managed to climb:

The incredibly beautiful hills surrounding Mystras:

The drive from Athens to Mystras is about three hours and we hired a driver from a company I highly recommend My Day Trip driving service.

However, there is a Byzantine monastery one hour's drive and therefore an easy day trip from Athens--Ossios Loukos. It doesn’t have scenery quite as spectacular as Mystras, but Ossios Loukos is much better preserved than the buildings in the Mystras complex.

If we ever get to Greece again, I would love to visit the clifftop monasteries of Meteora in central Greece:

It probably won't happen, but one can dream.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My Take on the Women's March published in the Chestnut Hill Local

When I boarded the Chestnut Hill East train on January 18 to attend the annual Women‘s March I noted there were plenty of empty seats, unlike the 2017 and 2018 marches, when the train was standing room only. The 2017 march, an outpouring of protest against the 2016 election of Donald Trump, began as a Facebook post that went viral, demonstrating the power of social media to quickly mobilize millions of people for a common cause. Approximately four million people took to the streets in the U.S., inspiring sister marches around the globe.

Tensions soon emerged within the original Women‘s March planning group. Given that the 2017 march was hastily put together by a small group of women – who for the most part had never worked together – some tension was no doubt inevitable.

Long smoldering conflicts in the newly incorporated Women’s March Inc. broke out into the open in February 2018, when two of the four co-chairs were prominent attendees at Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s Saviours’ Day event. Many supporters of the Women’s March saw the relationship with a notorious misogynist, homophobe and anti-Semite as a disqualifier for leadership of a movement committed to gender justice and the elimination of all forms of bigotry and discrimination.

Dissatisfaction with the co-chairs’ leadership led to calls for them to resign. Since the Women’s March Inc. was not a membership organization with a mechanism for holding leaders accountable, calls for resignation went unheeded. Given the internal turmoil, it was no surprise that the 2019 March attracted far fewer participants than previous years, and saw a dramatic drop in the number of sponsors, as well as competing marches in several major cities.

The conflicts on the national level played out in Philadelphia with two competing marches held at the same time: Philly Women Rally, which was unaffiliated with national Women’s March Inc., and Women’s March Pennsylvania, which was connected to the national group.

Feminist organizations grappled with the issue of which march to recommend to their members; the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) voted to support the march hosted by Philly Women Rally while the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) left the choice up to individual members.

In response to accusations of anti-Semitism, Women’s March national leadership added references to Jewish women to the 2019 unity principles and expanded their board to include three Jewish women – changes viewed by their critics as too little, too late. In response to the criticism, Women’s March Inc. replaced three of the co-chairs who had been accused of anti-Semitism and financial mismanagement, and appointed a diverse group of 17 new board members.

Despite these changes, some anti-Semitism apparently persisted. The Florida Sun Sentinel reported that one of new board members, Zahra Billoo, had a history of inflammatory statements about Israel, calling herself a “proud anti-Zionist” who does not believe Israel has a right to exist. Two days after her appointment, the Women’s March board removed her, stating that some of her public statements were incompatible with the values and mission of the organization.

The controversy underscores the difficulty of uniting all women under the banner of gender equality. Although the 20th century second-wave feminist movement achieved a unified front by sometimes suppressing or ignoring differences, the Women’s March board is committed to inter-sectional feminism and to addressing differences among women.

They have certainly fallen short in their attempts to do so, in part because the differences about what counts as a feminist issue run deep. The new board has replaced the expansive agenda of the 2019 March, which included controversial positions supporting Palestinian rights and the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, with what it sees as a more unifying agenda centered around three themes: reproductive rights, climate change and immigration.

The relatively small number of women who braved the cold and snow to attend the 2020 women Women’s March Philly were generally not focused on the controversies on the national level. Several expressed relief that these conflicts appear to have been resolved and that there were no competing marches this year. The 2019 demographics were similar to those of past marches—multi-generational but predominantly white and middle class, with fewer pink pussy hats than I recall from previous marches.

Most of the attendees I spoke to were veterans of past marches and emphasized that participation in the annual march meant a great deal to them personally.

“I decided it was important to be present and I was happy I went,” West Mt. Airy resident Marilyn Monaco said. “I felt energized by the experience, and although it was vastly different from other marches in the number of participants, I still felt the experience was necessary.”

“It was wonderful to see women of all colors and ages come together to protest all the issues our country is facing,” said East Mt. Airy resident Nan Myers.

“It is so important not to give up and to keep showing up to events like this,” said Nancy Weissman of East Mt. Airy. “I am also impressed by how many folks from the Mt Airy and Chestnut Hill areas show up every year. Rain or snow, we are there in force.”

Pennsylvania NOW president Samantha Pierson also valued participation in the March, but noted attendance has significantly decreased since 2017.

“I think the drop in turnout is due to the fact that there has not been enough of a transformative social change or result. And that’s why, while I still show up to the march, I spend the majority of my free time volunteering to make certain more women and progressives get elected to office in PA.”

Although there is considerable disagreement about what the Women’s March has accomplished, most participants see the uptick in voter participation and record numbers of women running for office in 2018 and 2019 as evidence of its impact. Many signs emphasized the “March to the Polls” and were clearly focused on November 3, 2020.

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Greek Diaries: Part II, Hydra and Delphi

The harbor at Hydra

After the trauma of the stolen wallet and the herculean struggle to get my credit card unblocked, Rick and I decided to spend the next day chilling on one of the nearby islands. Everyone we spoke to recommended Hydra, famous for banning all cars and buses from the island. Unfortunately, there is no way of getting round. However, we were so exhausted from the previous day’s horrors that just wandering around the picturesque harbor and drinking Campari at one of the inviting cafes was enough.

I enjoyed Hydra but was disappointed that the ferries to the islands which I expected to be like the Block Island ferries, where you could sit on the deck and enjoy the view, were hydrofoils which kept passengers jammed inside with just a glimpse of the Aegean though the dirty windows. It was more like economy class on a plane than the open air ferry ride I had expected.

The next day we decided to make up for lost time and traveled to Delphi which was high on my list. Visiting Greek archaeological sites is for the physically fit. Although the Parthenon had inspired Rick, despite his arthritic knee, to heroically climb to the top of the Acropolis, Delphi did not exert the same kind of attraction. He found a shady spot on a bench under a tree and insisted I go explore the site. The Temple of Apollo was worth the climb but it just wasn’t much fun without Rick and there were steep climbs that were challenging for me, so I decided I had seen enough of the archaeological site. The Temple of Apollo

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the excellent museum which housed cultural treasures that had been recovered from the archaeological site.The road to the Museum at Delphi

The most impressive exhibit, was the Sphinx, an enormous statue which once crowned an ionic column and capital.The Sphinx in the Museum at Delphi.
The beauty of the Greek countryside around Delphi was itself worth the trip. We so wished we had traveled to Greece when we were younger and could drive all over this amazing country. At this point in our lives we are forced to hire drivers, but there is an upside. Rick didn’t have to pay attention to the road, and could really enjoy the astonishingly beautiful scenery.