All posts by Chuck Fager

Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal”: A Theological Review

Plunging into Michael Cohen’s book, “Disloyal,” I’m more intrigued by the account of his self-seduction than any of his politically-charged disclosures, at least so far. Besides, the really smarmy stuff will be scrapped over & gnawed on by all the big media dogs.

Instead, I was more struck by passages like this:

To an outsider, my attraction to Trump—or as I described it, my “obsession”—seemed to have its roots in money and power and my lust to possess these attributes, if even only by proxy. What other explanation was there for my starstruck, moth-to-the-flame compulsion to insinuate myself with a man so transparently problematic in myriad ways? Continue reading Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal”: A Theological Review

Is Trump’s Fundraising Machine Suddenly Running Dry?

First, I have to admit that I do 90%-plus of my “reporting” on the 2020 campaign from a broken-down recliner in the living room.
I read several online papers, listen to some news shows, and field an endless stream of political fundraising texts & emails from all over.

Many days I put in several hours at it; one could easily spend every waking moment. (Do nightmares count?)

And I read books like this one, just started.

It isn’t much fun; I’m not by nature a political junkie. It’s more like an ultra-slow motion train wreck that’s hard to look away from; and I’m riding the train.

Yet obscure as my observation post is, maybe it occasionally  reveals some clues of its own.

Here’s one, I think. It emerged from among the dozens of texts that came from Trump: Continue reading Is Trump’s Fundraising Machine Suddenly Running Dry?

Religion? Inner Peace? Quakerism? There’s Apps or pills for all of it

Just kidding about the Quakerism App.

Or am I?

I’m holding on for some “Way Will Open” gummy bears, and an autumn seasoned with SPICE Testimony Lattes, in five (or is it six?)  flavors. I’m sure they’ll all be here soon.

But when will they have a potion for Zoom Burnout & a Remote Committee Meeting Hangover Remedy?

Probably won’t  be long.

And one more nagging question, for the elders among us: what does it mean when pandemic religion (excuse me, spirituality) starts mimicking Doonesbury strips from 40+ years ago?

What follows is not satire. Or not meant to be. Continue reading Religion? Inner Peace? Quakerism? There’s Apps or pills for all of it

Karmic Collision IV: Like a (Kidney) Stone

< one >

Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

Sometime around the late 1980s, I started having two recurring nightmares:

One, I’m maybe at home, or out somewhere, when the sky darkens and a dull roar starts up. It’s a tornado, bearing down on right where I am. I look for shelter, and either there isn’t any, or it’s not enough, and the tornado gets bigger and louder and then its roaring over me;  I  wake up trembling a with night sweats. Or

Two, I wake up, or at least I think I do, but when I try to move, I can’t. I’m paralyzed, and can’t speak either. Much later I read somewhere that this is a twilight, in-between state, no big deal, which goes away quickly. But I didn’t know that then; I would lie there in growing panic until, miraculously, a hand or a foot responds with a wiggle and then I was okay. But I still worried about if, next time, it could be permanent.

Let’s  review: from the outside, in those years I was earning more money than ever; I had job security, good health insurance, and a burgeoning retirement savings plan. Continue reading Karmic Collision IV: Like a (Kidney) Stone

Karmic Collision III: Living My Double Life

Post Office work is more than drudgery. It’s honest, productive work, an integral part of what keeps our society going.

I kept reminding myself of that. But I often wondered: do many children in the United States daydream about growing up and getting a job as a mail handler?

Richard Wright, author of “Native Son” and other works.

I doubt it. Maybe a few want to be letter carriers. Or even postal clerks, like an admired parent or role model.

Mailhandlers are semiskilled laborers. Google was unable to find me any history of the job, or craft in postal lingo.

But it looks like it was an example of “occupational segregation,” which was long rampant in the post office, like everywhere else in the U.S. Mail handlers filled a space between carriers on the outside, and clerks on the inside, lower in status than either.

On Google, the mailhandler’s “Functional Purpose” reads “Responsible for loading, unloading, and moving mail by the bulk. Duties may include long periods of standing, walking, pushing, and reaching. Candidates may also handle mail containers weighing up to 70 pounds.”

Was such a space filled originally by Black workers, who were excluded from other crafts? The fact that I can’t find an answer to that query suggests it was.

But the post office was also an early target of organized efforts to win more and better-paying jobs for Black Americans. And the relatively higher pay and job security attracted many who were blatantly overqualified. Continue reading Karmic Collision III: Living My Double Life

Karmic Collision-II: Lab Rats and the Road Not Taken

[Note: This is the second part of a Dog Days series on how early civil rights work and later years in the Postal Service came together for me. The first installment is here.]

<one>

A mailhandler watching the stream go by.

For a mail handler, the mail stream is much more like a moving body of water. A lot of it came flowing past us, on conveyor belts. I spent many hours leaning over these conveyor belts, heaving bundles, bags and parcels in one direction or another, usually into big canvas hampers marked with zip codes.

This might sound like the sorting I did at Fairfax Station on Route #77 – but here we come to a key bit of postal wonkery and hierarchy: sorting meant throwing individual pieces of mail into address slots arranged in a delivery route or “scheme.” But tossing a bundle from a conveyor into a hamper marked Zip 22039 (Fairfax Station) was distribution or mail “handling”.

Sorting was clerk or carrier work and was paid more, in part because clerks and carriers had to memorize various long and intricate address schemes. Mail handlers didn’t memorize schemes, just recognized the zip codes they were part of.

I was quite content to be part of this lower order. I also soon noticed that many more mail handlers were black, which was also fine by me. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that mail handlers were originally a segregated lower level craft.

<two>

How did this come about? Who knew?

I did know the post office was older than the republic; which meant it had evolved through a century of slavery, another century-plus of Jim Crow, had been subject to winds of change, and by 1986 was more multiracial than many other American institutions, at least on the surface.

That was enough for the moment. We weren’t grad students studying postal history, anthropology or sociology; we were workers riding the daily six-million piece stream, helping pour it in at one end, and aim it out the other.

Much of the time the conveyor mail stream was hypnotically dull. But often enough, intriguing flotsam and jetsam drifted by. It was variegated enough that I soon felt that, although physically walled off from the outside world, much of the rest of America came coursing past me day by day: the mail stream was part of America’s bloodstream.

You’re gonna do what? To US??

For instance, I soon felt as if I had seen every kind of catalog American business put out; and new ones kept popping up. One, that only turned up once, stopped me cold: from Massachusetts, it had a phone number in large bold print on the cover:

1-800-LAB-RATS.

I couldn’t resist: turning away, out of sight of any nearby supervisor, I flipped a few pages. The number spoke truth: the company bred and sold rats, mice, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and other small animals, and shipped them in large quantities for laboratory use. They were packaged to order, in different colors and sizes, with carefully-guarded pedigrees to assure uniformity for experimentation.

Then there was the CIA, whose headquarters at Langley was only six miles away (almost next door to Langley Hill Friends Meeting, where I was a member). It openly sent bundles of thick bulletin-type documents in clear plastic wrapping.

I covertly eyeballed a few through the wrappers. The Agency then operated its own Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS): somewhere it had linguists trained in as many as 80 foreign languages, reading foreign papers, listening to radios and watching TV. These expert readers produced summaries, which were printed and sent out.

A U-cart.

By the way, this is no exposé: none of that stuff was secret. You or I could subscribe to, say, the Lithuanian bulletin, and it would be sent openly, like all the issues that came past me.

One other, of many anomalies: we had what were called U-carts, midsize and wheeled, with canvas baskets for bundles and parcels. On a featureless, not terribly busy day, I was tasked with unloading several, and dumping the contents in other sacks.

In one cart I found thick printed documents, something between phone books and very high-end catalogs. I glanced at one, and then looked again: it was the Alumni Directory of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I thumbed a few pages: it was arranged chronologically by class, with brief sketches about each of the grads.

As with the lab rats catalog, I couldn’t resist. But this called for extra precautions. I trundled the U-cart down the wide aisle between other sorting centers and various machines, looking for a spot that was momentarily deserted. Finding one, I leaned away from the aisle, where supervisors might appear, and opened the book–

— But first, some explanation.

<four>

A B-36 nuclear bomber. My father commanded one of these in the 1950s.

My father was a career Air Force officer, mostly a pilot.  He started in World War Two, and retired in the early 1960s. I grew up on and around various Air Force bases, in what expanded  into a large Catholic family. Nobody recruited me, but I long assumed that I would follow my father into the Air Force.

In 1955, when I turned 13, the Air Force Academy opened, to much publicity. To me, it was the military equivalent of an Ivy League school, and I resolved to go there.

Not my alma mater.

And I almost did.

Why I didn’t is another story (and it’s in my book, Eating Dr. King’s Dinner.) But I was still on that path enough that I joined Air Force ROTC in college, at Colorado State University. That program would have pinned a lieutenant’s bars on my shoulders, and likely shipped me off to pilot’s school, after graduation with my Class of 1964.

But I didn’t do that either: I didn’t finish ROTC, go to pilot’s school, or graduate in 1964 (I did complete my degree, after a couple very busy and distracting activist years.)

If I had gone to the Academy, I would have finished pilot’s school just in time to be assigned to combat in the Vietnam War. Instead, I ended up an antiwar peacenik, a conscientious objector, and a Quaker.

But that again is another story. Instead here I was, almost 25 years later, suddenly able to look down that road not traveled.

How many of us get a chance to do that?

<five>

I quickly paged to the Class of 1964. Of course I didn’t know anybody, but I was interested in their thumbnails anyway: most were retired, and now into second careers; real estate seemed to recur. A few were still in, as generals, near the top of their heap but not quite there. Several others were dead: killed in Vietnam, or in training crashes.

The deaths did not surprise me; the Air Force is a war machine. Nor did the real estate; war machines don’t teach much imagination. What was most impressive was my lack of envy. I didn’t hate ROTC, but had felt no regrets when I quit. And none slipped out of the pages I turned at this other end of the passage.

My old mailhandlers apron. It once bore the union logo, but I wore it out, and kept the apron as a memento.

I did miss one thing, though, not mentioned in the sketches: each of my surviving generational peers was getting a generous monthly pension check, while I stood here, in a tattered mail handler’s apron, grimy work gloves shoved in the pocket while holding the book in genuinely calloused laborer’s hands.

Yes, I envied them those checks; but that was all. I pushed the U-cart back to the conveyor belt, and dropped the book in its proper mailbag.

The retired  could do something they wanted to do; I knew what I wanted to do, yet had to punch the clock and pursue it on the side. A job was better than no job; but I often felt hemmed in, and stifled.

Still, that was the Post Office way: in Merrifield it sometimes seemed that all of us in the laboring crafts led double lives. This ambivalence moved a writer in Ebony magazine to note a saying that while such jobs were stable and paid comparatively well, “the post office has often been called ‘the graveyard of Negro talent.’”

Yet another historian argued that “when unionized blue and white-collar employment was becoming a stepping stone to a middle-class lifestyle, autoworkers and meat-packers, nurses and postal workers, displaced the ‘talented tenth’ as agents of Black community advancement.”

And now it’s time for an apology: In Part One I promised to tell about the double life here. Except I ran out of time and space. But fear not: more on my ambivalence and double life in the next part.

 

Ongoing: The Everyday Work of Facing a Racist History

In my experience, the work of overcoming racism and its sordid history has many aspects, and can be pursued in many ways. Some are loud and disruptive. Others are calmly persuasive. Different strokes for different folks.

Here I want to pay tribute to a current worker, a friend of mine, and fellow  Quaker, Ron Osborne. On August 17, he appeared at the meeting of the Alamance County board of Commissioners, to do one small piece of this work, namely moving the tall Confederate monument from its longtime site in front of the old county courthouse in downtown Graham, the county seat.

Outside the building there were some noisy protesters, who could be heard in the background. Ron spoke quietly but clearly,  The Commission sets aside up to 30 minutes for general public comments, in 3-minute segments. Ron made his three minutes count.

The Commission at this point has taken no steps toward moving the monument. But this work continues.


Ron Osborne, at the podium, speaking to the Alamance County Commission, August 17, 2020.

Ronald Osborne: I have lived in North Carolina all my life and in Alamance County for over 35 years.

My family first settled in North Carolina in the 1660s. Part of my property has been continuously owned by my family since the 1750s. My direct ancestor was a neighbor and acquaintance of the Regulator Herman Husband. Their names even appear together on some deeds. Another ancestor made muskets used at [the 1781 Revolutionary War Battle of] Guilford Courthouse [in Greensboro].

Confederate monument, Graham, Alamance County, NC

My grandfather’s grandfather fought for the Confederacy, was captured at the Battle of Chancellorsville and wounded at Spotsylvania. My grandmother’s great grandfather fought at the Battles of New Bern and Kinston.

My wife’s grandmother’s great uncle was killed at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg. Our ancestors were also involved in other battles, including Gettysburg.

I share these scraps of family background to convey to you that I have a deep appreciation and awareness of History. My sons and I are Civil War reenactors, and I’m familiar with the inscription on the Court Square monument which appears to pay homage to those, like my ancestors, who served in the Confederacy.

A yard sign that has appeared in several places in Alamance County.

I must tell you that the simple presence of this statue in the courthouse square, a place which should promote and guarantee justice for all, which should be a place which represents all citizens equally, is as much a divisive symbol of the injustices inflicted on many of our citizens, as it is a reminder of any gallantry and sacrifices of my, and perhaps your, ancestors.

History tells us that those who dedicated this monument were the very citizens who lynched Officer Wyatt Outlaw in the same square. They enshrined this statue not just as a memorial, but as a veiled threat, set in stone, to all people of color to know and keep their places as second-class citizens.

You, our elected leaders have been confronted with a choice: Do you accept as your legacy the defense of a symbol of our checkered history, where both you and our county are known for refusing to acknowledge our known shortcomings of the past? Or do you embrace this opportunity to seek our community’s redemption, to improve our reputation, improve our economy, and demonstrate that we are a county welcoming and fair to all?

Move the statue away from our house that aspires to Justice. Demonstrate that “blue lives as well as black lives matter by memorializing the travesty our community visited upon Officer Wyatt Outlaw and other citizens of color. Be known through posterity as the leaders who embraced an opportunity for positive change. For if you don’t, future leaders surely will, robbing you of this momentous honor that could have been yours.

Seen not far from downtown Graham.

Karmic Collision – I: The Post Office, Voting Rights & Me. Dog Days Reading.

<one>

The time I spent in the civil rights struggle for Black voting rights in 1965 was a very important part of my life.

And the time I spent working for the Postal Service (USPS), beginning twenty years later in 1985, was important too.

But the two experiences were very different, so different I couldn’t imagine they would ever intersect.

Why should they? One was a social movement, shaking things up, demanding change for justice and facing violent, even murderous opposition. The other was the nation’s oldest public utility, which when working well was a nearly invisible pillar of American normality, stability and placid routine.

But now, in late summer 2020, they’ve abruptly come together; collided, really. Saving our voting rights today, this year, means saving the USPS. Who would have thought?

This is a confluence that’s not easy to sort out. I invite you to come along as I try to process it. I hope doing so can be a small diversion in these Dog Days, but will also encourage you to join the rising movement to defend the postal service, and our voting rights, by whatever sort of ”good trouble” you are able to make.

First, some background. Continue reading Karmic Collision – I: The Post Office, Voting Rights & Me. Dog Days Reading.

SAYMA: The Gravy Train Is Lurching toward a Stop

If I believed I was a prophet, I’d say that after three years of agony, a breakthrough in SAYMA’s logjam/paralysis is in sight.

It will soon be a month since the summer representative meeting of Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Association, or SAYMA. Held by Zoom on July 20, its major business item was the first reading of SAYMA’s delayed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.  Our account of it is here.

On that budget, the key item was a proposed $2500 for the Uplifting Racial Justice Committee (URJ), headed by Sharon Smith. The Committee had taken $16000 from SAYMA last year. It had demanded $20,000 from this new budget, and a pledge of $10,000 more annually in perpetuity.

There was plenty of murmured unease and even opposition to this demand, and in fact to the activity of URJ and the consistently antagonistic and disruptive behavior of Smith. At least two SAYMA meetings had already sent in minutes opposing any future funding for it, and many individuals had quietly expressed similar sentiments.

Meanwhile, Smith had a claque of supporters who continually repeated her claim that any and all questioning and opposition to her “anti-racist ministry” was “white supremacy/Quaker racism” and nothing else.

Any experienced Quaker Clerk in such a situation would see that there was no unity on this budget item in the body, which means the body doesn’t approve it. It seems clear that SAYMA’s officers do see that, but most have been so fearful of open conflict and/or intimidated by Smith’s cries of “racism” and violent tantrums that they have ducked and dodged every occasion to make an actual stand. Continue reading SAYMA: The Gravy Train Is Lurching toward a Stop

Breaking: Friends Central School, Fired teachers, Settle lawsuit.

This just in: a lawsuit filed against Friends Central School (FCS) in Philadelphia in 2017 by two teachers who were fired after a Palestinian speaker they invited in February 2017 was disinvited by school officials. The order of settlement is below. (More text follows.)

The speaker, Sa’ed Atshan, teaches at Swarthmore College. FCS Students protested, walked out, were ignored. The Philadelphia Daily News slammed the administration action:

Philadelphia Daily News: Friends’ Central lacks integrity in shunning controversial speaker

“ANOTHER WEEK, another hit delivered to free speech, this one coming from an unexpected source – a Quaker school.

Ariel Eure, former teacher at Friends community School.
Leila Helwa, former teacher, Friends Central School.

Last week, the head of Friends’ Central School, a Quaker private school in Wynnewood, uninvited a Palestinian who had been asked to speak by a student club. Students protested that decision, in part by walking out of an all-school gathering. This week, head of school Craig N. Sellers suspended two faculty advisers to the student group, saying – in effect – that they were inside agitators who had whipped up the student protest.

Or, as Sellers put it in a statement, the teachers disregarded “our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity.”

We see it differently. In our view, it was Sellers who disrupted the peace of the Friends’ Central community. And you can hardly call the muzzling of an invited speaker an example of integrity.”

Sa’ed Atshan, Swarthmore College Peace & Conflict Studies Assistant Professor.

The ex-teachers filed a lawsuit on May 7, 2017, charging discrimination and defamation. The school’s lawyers sneered at the lawsuit in their initial filing, insisting there was nothing to it. But the judge jolted them in August 2019 by denying their dismissal motion.

Mark Schwartz, plaintiffs’ attorney.

The teachers’ attorney, Mark Schwartz, filed for many documents to begin discovery. At some point, the school chose to negotiate, and the settlement was entered earlier this month, more than three years after it was filed.

The terms of the settlement were not announced. Schwartz’s full statement in response to my query was: “NDA.” That is, “nondisclosure agreement.” I speculate that it was a generous amount of money, enough to move the plaintiffs to agree to keep quiet about it.

In the world of employment lawsuits, such settlements are generally counted as a qualified success: at least the plaintiffs have something for their trouble, and interrupted or terminated career.


For the record: Here is a list of the blog posts on the Friends Central School lawsuit:

A Letter to Students at Friends Central School: Resist! 02/14/2017

Breaking: Friends Central School Officials Issue New Statement; Backpedaling? – 02/14/2017

Philly Paper Slams Friends Central School: “Lacks Integrity” 02/15/2017

Friends Central School Free Speech Case: Negotiations On? 02/21/2017

Update: Friends Central School Fires Teachers Who Invited Palestinian Speaker; Invites Him Back – 05/12/2017

The Talk They Did NOT Hear at Friends Central School . . . 05/29/2018

Dandruff on the Boss’s shoulder: Friends Central School Strikes Back   – 07/06/2018

Friends Central School Lawsuit: The Fired Teachers Begin to Make Their Case, 8/7/2018

Friends Central School Discrimination Lawsuit: Fired Teachers Win the First Round – 8/7/2019