*Featured Image: “The Human Rights Activist, 1912-2017” by Julio Justo
I’m Caucasian, not white – none of us are – but pinkish-beige. I was born in Denver, Colorado, but since human births are purely chance events, I could’ve just as easily come into the world as a darkly pigmented infant in a small African village.
Since Mother Nature indiscriminately distributes minerals, oil, and drinkable water, geography is destiny just as much as random birth is. Therefore, white privilege is randomly granted, and we, who have it, are morally obligated to support policies that give dignity to the rest of the human race. This is why I believe in Social Democracy, why I am living as an ex-pat American in Denmark.
A welfare state is an “us” culture instead of one that emphasizes “me.” Since profit is the result of labor, fairness is when the workers who produced it get their fair share. An “us” society practices income redistribution to its citizens through tax “refunds” such as “free” medical care, “free” education and, tax-supported professional childcare.
Danish society recognizes human potential by creating conditions necessary to develop it. Universal childcare is one of the conditions that allow primary caregivers to work outside the home while acknowledging that well-brought-up children are assets to all.
These are my values. Liberal. Progressive. They exasperate Conservatives who believe in hierarchy and natural order, who say that fairness and equality are unnatural. Human nature is fundamentally sinful, Conservatives say, needing hierarchy to keep order through traditions and authority. There is no role for Government other than maintaining peace and providing national security through a strong military. Since citizens have the right to make and keep as much money as they legally can, Conservatives pass laws to give themselves tax advantages and then appoint judges to uphold them, regardless of the public benefits they would otherwise receive (e.g., better roads, safer bridges, a healthier and better-educated population overall), which would, in turn, lower the collective tax burden while creating a higher quality of living for everyone, themselves included. Conservatives believe that America is rightfully “me” centered.
I was born into a Conservative Republican family and raised by racially prejudiced people who hated Liberals. How did I make the sharp Left turn that took me from “me” to “us?” It started with a simple conversation.
I was ten years old in 1953 when the American Government executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for being Soviet spies. I went to school the next day, but nobody was there. The teachers sat in empty classrooms smoking cigarettes and commenting about “the Commie Jews” who got what they deserved. Then they told me to go home.
I remember walking and wondering about these Rosenberg people. What had they done? What exactly was a Commie? Why had I been the only child in school? I guessed it had something to do with being Jewish, but I wasn’t sure. Everybody I knew was Jewish except for my mother and her family. We lived in the West Hollywood “ghetto” of Los Angeles, where Jewish holocaust survivors had planted themselves along the Fairfax Avenue corridor. Their children were my best friends.
Suddenly, I heard someone call my name. “Suz! Wait up! Can I talk to you?”
It was Mr. O’Brien, a teacher at my school. Why was he following me? “Tell me. Was it strange to be the only one at school today?”
“Do you know why? Do you know who the Rosenbergs were?”
“What did they do?”
“They put America’s national security at risk by giving military secrets to the Russians.” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Are you worried about your friends? The ones who stayed home from school today?”
I shrugged. “What do they have to do with the Rosenbergs?”
“It means your friends’ parents think the Rosenbergs were innocent and that they were victims of anti-Jewish prejudice. They’re protesting their execution by staying home from work and keeping their children out of school.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know if the Rosenbergs gave information to the Soviets, but I do think their trial was unfair. Too rushed. Insufficient evidence.”
“Will anything happen to my friends?”
“Not now. Later in life, some of them will probably be victims of prejudice.”
“Why? That’s so unfair!”
“Life isn’t always fair. But you can be fair. You’ll meet people in your life who won’t like Jews just because they’re Jewish, and you can tell them that you went to school with Jewish children … that they were your best friends … that you know Jews are good human beings with humanitarian values.”
What values? Humanitarian? I could barely pronounce the word. I stopped walking. I didn’t want this conversation to end, but Mr. O’Brien turned and waved. “See you tomorrow! Come talk to me anytime you want.”
I rushed home to find a dictionary. I assumed “humanitarian” was related to “human,” but I wasn’t sure how to spell such a long word. Then I found it. “Humanitarianism: supporting human dignity by improving the welfare of all people, saving lives, and relieving suffering.” I liked that. I wanted to be a humanitarian. I wanted to be kind to people and make their lives better. Eventually, I would learn that humanitarian policies are often called “progressive” and that people in America who supported progressive ideas are called liberals.
I kept thinking of Mr. O’Brien and our conversation. I knew that I couldn’t talk about the Rosenbergs with my mother or anyone else in my family. I came from Lower Class Caucasian Southerners, AKA “white trash” who’d voted for Eisenhower. Jews and the Irish were “dirty liberals” who’d voted for FDR, the Communist Democrat.
I grew up during the Eisenhower Era. As a teenager, I began to see how uneducated my family was, and it embarrassed me. My best friends, still Jewish, came from aspirational families that expected them to go to college. If I went to college, too, I’d be the first of my relatives to go beyond high school. I wanted this. I wanted to separate myself from my illiterate family. Just before my eighteenth birthday, my family confronted me.
“So ya gonna go to college?” my uncle asked. “Yer gonna sit around all day and read books? Yer not gittin’ a job and earnin’ a livin’ like the rest of us?”
“I want to learn things,” I said. “When I get my bachelor’s degree, then I’ll get a job.”
“Education will make you an atheist,” my grandmother added. “Highfalutin’ folks don’t believe in God.”
This is what confused me. My family cared more about religious dogma than people. Southern Baptist zealots believed that rewards would come in heaven, not in life on earth. Humanitarian activism was sinful, counter to Holy Scripture. When I joined the Civil Rights Movement, they effectively disowned me. While participating in a sit-in on Hollywood Blvd, a police dog once bit me in the leg. His teeth didn’t penetrate my jeans but telling the story about it infuriated my family.
“Why is ya sittin’ down wid dem niggahs?” My uncle bellowed. “Don’t ya know God made ’em dark-skinned as a punishment?”
I trained to be a Freedom Rider but never told my mother. These brave people were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated South to challenge the non-enforcement of Supreme Court decisions. I don’t know how, but the family heard about my plans.
“Now you’ve gone too far, missy!” my grandfather screamed. “You know nothin’ about the South! You jest like them two Jewish boys from New York! They went to Mississippi, where they dint belong and stuck their noses into business that wont theirs and got what was comin’ to ’em!” I stared at him, speechless, until he slapped me.
I was twenty-two when Northerners Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were lynched in Mississippi. Along with Southerner Jim Chaney, they were murdered for registering African Americans to vote. By traveling deep into the South, they were challenging the legitimacy of traditional authority. It wasn’t a coincidence the Northerners were Jewish. I recognized right away that this was an expression of Tikkun Olam. As a goyishe liberal, I shared with Jews a knee-jerk sympathy for dissenters, sharing their willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to the powerless. I never went on that freedom ride. I lacked the courage. Nevertheless, history demonstrated that the young men did not die in vain. Outrage over Goodman’s, Schwerner’s, and Chaney’s murders helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Compassion and empathy. This is what was missing in my family. I learned about both from the Goldsteins, the Rosenthals, and the Klappermans. Some of them were Holocaust survivors, and they used their own suffering to develop compassion for others. They engaged me in discussions that gave me an emotional vocabulary for injustice. I learned about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inherent decency, an American aristocrat whose New Deal legislation was both humanitarian and politically expedient. They taught me about the intrinsic dignity of physical labor and how unions protect workers from exploitation through collective bargaining. They introduced me to Pete Seeger and songs about worker solidarity. I learned about irresponsible corporations and special interest lobbyists who rig the economic and political systems in their favor.
They introduced me to Paul Robeson. They described the Jazz Age in Harlem and how Jews and African Americans found common ground in that popular culture. They told me about Louis Armstrong and how he got his name “Satchmo.”
A grandson of slaves, Louis Armstrong, was born in a poor neighborhood of New Orleans in 1901. Spending much of his boyhood in the care of his grandmother, he also found a second home among the Karnofskys, a local Lithuanian-Jewish family that hired him to do odd jobs for their peddling business. He would later write that the Karnofskys’ kindness changed his life, not the least of which was encouraging his musical talent and giving him money to buy his first horn. As an adopted son, they gave him food and a safe place to sleep. Mrs. Karnovsky sang him a Russian Lullaby at bedtime that he would eventually sing with her in Yiddish. Later, as a professional musician and composer, he used this and other Jewish melodies in compositions, such as St. James Infirmary and Go Down Moses. In memory of this family and until the end of his life, he wore a Star of David. His Jewish family’s nickname for him “Satchmo,” means “big cheeks” in Yiddish. Those cheeks made him the best trumpet player in jazz history.
In 1960, I defied my family and went to college, choosing Santa Barbara, a small campus in the U.C. system. There I met a class of people I’d never encountered before: wealthy White Anglo-Saxon Protestants who didn’t have the grades to get into Harvard, Yale or Stanford.
They hated me. I was poor and not in a sorority. I “liked Jews,” labor unions.
I had “Negro” friends. I supported “the Catholic Presidential candidate,” John F. Kennedy. After one year, I transferred to UCLA and then to UC Berkeley, where I took a post graduate degree in American history. I was desperate to understand Americans like my family.
I studied the labor movement, immigration, and the impact of urbanization. I read Max Weber and learned how the WASP version of capitalism is linked to Calvinism, how the belief in predestination fueled colonialism and exploitation of “the other.”
Another significant influence in my education was Leon Litwack, a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of American history whose scholarship focused on slavery and the Reconstruction Era. Unquestionably, the most dynamic teacher I ever had, Litwack showed me how the federal government’s pervasive support for slavery led to the shameful treatment of free African Americans. His passionate lectures about racism and injustice have stayed with me throughout my life. And, no surprise, his parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia.
Until I heard Martin Luther King talk about the arc of the moral universe, I thought compassion and empathy were exclusively Jewish concepts. My thinking is less simplistic today. For one, there are progressive Christians. Secondly, not all Jews are compassionate. Just like all people, some are criminals. Some are sexual predators, even while they’re executive producers at Hollywood production houses making good movies. These bad actors have always been around, thankfully, never in my life.
Likewise, I know that Israeli foreign policy doesn’t reflect the humanitarian values I associate with Jewish culture. I lived in Israel for a year and met many members of Shalom Achshav, the peace movement. Ashamed of their nation’s treatment of Palestinians, these activists believe “those who’ve been brutalized must not brutalize others.”
I eventually discovered compassionate, progressive Christians like Catholic Dorothy Day and Protestant John Shelby Spong, but until then, all my role models were Jewish.
I.F. Stone made me want to be a journalist. Noam Chomsky taught me about power. Betty Freidan opened my eyes to Second Wave Feminism. Paradoxically, these Jewish intellectuals prepared me for the ideas of N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872), a Lutheran priest and Danish politician, famous for teaching Danes that they should work to form a society “hvor få har for meget og færre for lidt.” An interpretive translation: form a society “where most people have enough, and only a few have too much.” Reading Grundtvig was a revelation: a Christian promoting social equality.
Improbably, I learned about Grundtvig while living on an Israeli kibbutz. Non-Jewish Americans didn’t go to Israel in 1962, but it was a popular destination for many Europeans. The Danes I met there told me about their welfare state. “Our taxes pay for everybody’s education.” Why? “Because educated and well-trained citizens benefit the whole society.” In Denmark, access to health care was a right, not a privilege. “Modern medicine is expensive. Why should it be a commodity that only the wealthy can afford?”
These conversations made a big impression on me. I’d grown up poverty level poor when my family’s medical issues absorbed 100% of our resources, and my mother often had to choose between medicine and groceries. In the 80’s, I lived through the San Francisco AIDS epidemic and saw many young men without medical insurance needlessly die. My “Jewish soul” longed to live in a society with policies that reduced economic and social inequalities, and I finally got my wish when the Danish national media college invited me to teach. I left my job at KPIX-TV in San Francisco and went to Aarhus. Thirty years later, I’m still there. No longer just a liberal, I’m now a staunch European Social Democrat.
As I write, the whole world is experiencing a pandemic. Unlike many in the older generations, American millennials and the younger ones of Gen Z understand that Covid19 has its roots in the world’s current economic model, i.e., the pursuit of infinite growth. They get it. The world has a finite supply of resources, and it’s a choice between civilization or endless growth. We can’t have both. Financial greed is killing our planet while viral diseases are killing us. These millennials belong to a new generation of leaders that will transform America, giving the nation and the world sustainable policies for the twenty-first century. A majority of them already support The Green New Deal.
Leaning Left, 2:1, millennials want America to be an “us” society. They call it socialism, but this is incorrect. They don’t want state ownership and control of production under a totalitarian government. They want Social Democracy, a government system that has similar values to socialism, but within a capitalist framework. They want a welfare state: income redistribution to its citizens through tax “refunds” such as “free” medical care, “free” education, and tax subsidized professional childcare. Bernie Sanders admires Denmark, but if the Scandinavian version is not adaptable, they’ll find alternatives. The first hurdle, the one nobody talks about, is the electoral system.
Denmark, with only 5.8 million people, has ten political parties. In this way all opinions have a platform and ruling Governments must form coalitions. America needs the same system. This would allow for proportional representation of (a) Democratic moderates and (b) Democratic progressives, (c) Republican small “D” democrats and (d) Republican post-truth neofascist authoritarians. Think how different the dynamic would be if traditional Republicans could separate themselves from Trump.
Moderate Democrats include Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg. Liberal progressives, promoting social democracy (I refuse to call them socialists), include Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Elizabeth Warren. I regret that the moderates are shaming the progressives, claiming that the Left is ruining the Democratic brand with their unrealistic radical demands on health care and climate change. With equal legitimacy under a multi-party system, progressives would no longer be spoilers.
I wanted Bernie to be America’s first Jewish POTUS, but Americans over the age of 35 weren’t ready for his “un-Christian socialism.” (Code for anti-Semitism?) Maybe America’s first Jewish President will be Adam Schiff. It’s more likely to be a millennial, perhaps 33-year-old, Jon Ossoff from Georgia, recently elected to the U.S. Senate.
I trust American Jewish leadership. Although Jews are only 2% of the US population, they are 7% of Congress. In the Senate, all 8 are Democrats. In the House, 26 out of 28 are Democrats. Not all Jews in the US Congress are progressive, but they will come.
Not all Jews are woke, but many are. They not only embrace Black Lives Matter, they recognize how this cultural phenomenon in America, now global in scope, is historically late by 155 years. They understand that Trump’s white supremacy and GOP voter suppression are responses to extinction anxiety as white dominance declines. By 2045, whites in the USA will be less than 50% as people-of-color continue to move into positions of leadership. Kamala Harris, Rev. Raphael Warnock and AOC are only the first. “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born,” wrote Gramsci.
All this is liberal analysis from the Left side of the political spectrum. I am, indeed, the only one in my family who resonates with these ideas.
Many of them still wear the remnants of “white trash” culture, getting their pro-Trump news from Sean Hannity on Fox, supporting white supremacy. They think I’m crazy. I’ve been brainwashed by living in a “socialist” society. They don’t like me very much, and I’m not welcome at Thanksgiving.
But I like who I am, the person I became. When Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was inaugurated as President of the United States, I thought of Mr. O’Brien, another Irish American. I’ll be forever grateful to this compassionate teacher who followed me home from school that day in 1953. When he taught me about Jewish humanitarianism, he changed my life.