Saturday, September 16, 2017

To a Young Person on September 11th

A friend of mine has a daughter in ninth grade. She was troubled that her school didn't do more in remembrance of September 11th. Reading it, I was heartbroken because in her writing I felt her passion and pain. I tried to put myself in her shoes, and I could only begin to imagine how confusing it must be. 

I started writing the following piece in the hope that my perspective could bring her clarity. As I wrote, I realized there are probably many young people who feel the way she does, and I want the opportunity to share it with them as well.

I'm named after a man who died of gangrene three days after taking a Vichy French bullet during the Battle of St. Cloud in North Africa on November 10, 1942. I'm telling you this so you understand that I've spent a good deal of my 47 years on earth considering how best to honor the fallen.

I saw the towers fall from up close. In 2007 I wrote about my memories of that day. It's important that I share those memories so you understand how that tragedy affected me, and how deeply I care about honoring the victims.

Since that day, I've watched my country's response with horror.

We went to war with a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack, and even the most conservative estimates put the death toll from that war at well over one hundred thousand civilian noncombatants. For every one of the September 11th victims, at least forty other people—people who had nothing to do with them—are now dead.

Three years ago people took images from September 11th and twisted them to justify torture. I never thought I'd see Americans do anything that evil, but Americans did that. I watched them do it. They did it with gladness in their hearts, and the most sickening part was that they seemed to think themselves patriots. It was one of the most obscene displays I've witnessed in my life. I'd like to share with you my response to that desecration.

And now people evoke those same images to provoke fear and hate. You weren't alive, or aware, for a lot of what I've just recounted, but you're old enough to have processed that. You've only seen the tip of it, but for sixteen years people have used the September 11th victims as kindling. And the fires they built desecrate the very memories that those so-called patriots purport to honor.

Now you may say that I should honor the victims in my own way regardless of what other people do, and I wouldn't disagree with that in principle. But on a practical level, I can't control what other people do with those painful memories. Can you blame me for not wanting to conjure images I've seen so many abuse?

And yet. If I remain silent, all you'll hear is the narrative put forth by those who aren't. Here are a few snippets from the replies to your Dad's post about your writing.

Very nice to see some of our younger generation respect and care for that day......wish there was more like her.....very well done......and speaking as a fireman....all my brothers and sisters that lost their lives in those towers would thank you as well....!!!!! Thank You for caring..!!! 
Way to go.... for doing exactly what you're suggesting the school do.... more. For going out of your way to voice what those who died can't, for not drifting through life with a shrug, for not being afraid of offending someone... 
...that was awesome. You so inspiring. Why have Americans forgot one of our worst times in our history.

The guy who mentioned his brothers and sisters that lost their lives? I've seen him use images of that day to vilify Muslims.

The bit about "not drifting through life with a shrug, for not being afraid of offending someone"? I'm not drifting through life with a shrug, and I'm bloody well not afraid of offending someone. I'm scared out of my mind at the thought of those horrific memories being used to murder even more innocent people.

"Why have Americans forgot"? I will never forget.

I ain't quiet about it because I've forgotten. I'm quiet because I remember too well.

I can't speak for the teachers and administrators at your school. Maybe there are those who are afraid of offending someone. Maybe there are those who would rather let the memories fade than deal with the pain. But it wouldn't surprise me if there were a lot of folks who feel the way I do.

Memories of September 11th

Up until September 11th, I worked in One Liberty Plaza, aka the NASDAQ building, right across the street from the south tower. I was running late that day; I was on the subway from Brooklyn when the planes hit. All anyone on the subway knew was that there were "smoke conditions" at Cortlandt Street, the stop right under the towers, and so everyone got off at Rector, just a few blocks south of there. As I walked up the stairs to the street at about 9:05, my first thought was "Why is there a ticker-tape parade?". I walked half a block east and saw the source of the papers looming so surreally in the sky over the dark spires of Trinity Church.

I somehow managed to get a cell connection through to my sister. I called Grace from a payphone. Then I walked over to One Liberty just to see if I should be at work. I can't express the unreality of the day any better than that: the towers were burning, and I was worried about getting in trouble for not being at my desk.

The guard at One Liberty said "No, go home." I walked around One Liberty to the north, and then to the west, crossing the street so that I was within a hundred feet of the south tower. This was probably a half hour before it fell. I asked a cop if there was anything I could do, and he said "No, get back." I wonder what happened to him.

I walked a few blocks northeast. People were standing around in the streets, staring up at the burning towers. At one point a stampede very nearly happened over by Broad and Fulton when someone got the idea that one of the towers was falling. I remember staring at the towers and saying to myself "I don't think they're going to fall, but still... I think I'd better get the fuck out of Dodge." So, not wanting to mess with the trains, I began my customary walk north, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and to my apartment in Park Slope. The masses of people swarming over the empty roadway and milling over the bridge made me think of the exodus from Sodom, and as I looked back I thought about being turned into a pillar of salt.

On the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian overpass, there are two large rectangular areas where the walking area flares out around each caisson. I stood in the "lee" of the pedestrian flow at the southwestern edge of the western caisson and, about a minute after hearing someone nearby say ", they'd never fall.." watched the first tower fall. An inarticulate sound of abnegation and a tingling wave of horror swept through the crowd, and Manhattan disappeared in a cloud of dust. I turned dumbly, sickly, and started walking the rest of the way home.

I'm thankful for that voice that told me to get out of Dodge. I'm thankful to those people who ran toward, ran up, when all common sense screamed down and away. And here I sit, in my cubicle in Manhattan. And it still doesn't feel real. Part of me saw a little box with consummately filmic flames coming out of it fall down. Part of me knew I was seeing lots of people die. The parallax is still vertiginous.

-Hugh Yeman, September 11, 2007

Saturday, August 19, 2017

We Must Be Clear

Lotta talk recently about statues going down.

That reaction you just had to that first sentence? I know how you feel. I know it sounds silly, but regardless of where you stand on this, I know how you feel.

I don't expect you to believe me. Not unless I give you something first. Probably not even then. But here goes.

During the last few days, some of you have recast the talking point from the Trump speech: "What about Washington and Jefferson? They owned slaves. Do we take down their statues too? Where does it end?" Here's what goes through my head.

What a load of horseshit. You're talking to me about history? I revere history. The last fucking thing in the world you wanna come at me with is history, because you will lose. So take your absurd slippery slope argument, stick it up your ass, and walk away before you embarrass yourself even more than you already have.

That's self-righteousness, and I'm not proud of it. I'm admitting it so you see that I'm aware of my baser motivations, and strive not to act on them. But that's only the first reason why I've been working so hard not to condemn those who disagree with the removal of Confederate statues.

The second reason is that I know well that feeling of violation that comes when someone tries to erase history. I felt it when I heard that Disney has never released a home video version of "Song of the South". I felt it when I found out just how hilariously wrong history remembers the Spanish Armada. I felt it when I learned why we remember a skewed version of the Battle of Trenton. I feel it every time I see the chasm between the story and the event.

But the third reason... that's the thorniest one of all. And it's northern liberals like me who most need to look it square in the eye.

When I was a kid, I had teachers tell me the Civil War wasn't about slavery; it was about state's rights. We liberals love to point out that dastardly retcon. But we don't tend to talk about the other one: the lie that the south was for slavery, and the north against it.

I seem to recall one or two teachers telling me that plenty of northerners were pro-slavery, and plenty more didn't care, and I give them a lot of credit for that. But it didn't take. I would never have known the depth of my misapprehension if I hadn't studied my genealogy.

After I discovered that my great-great-grandfather was an assistant surgeon in the Civil War, I found some newspaper articles from around that time that contextualized his enlistment. Boy did they contextualize it. I went down a rabbit hole that led to an uncomfortable clarity. Many northerners were against abolition, for reasons ranging from a belief that "the negro" was better off as a slave, to a conviction that peace was worth more than emancipation, to simply not caring at all.

So while the Civil War was about slavery, support for slavery did not divide along clean geographic lines. That's where I see my liberal peers falter. Too often I see them pointing triumphant fingers at the false dichotomies of north and south, city and country, intellectual and redneck. It does not work like that, and it never did.

This, more than anything else, is why I feel we leap too easily to gleeful support for toppling statues of Confederate generals. Some of my friends denounce them as traitors, and they're not wrong. And. Had they been born in another state, most generals would have fought for the other side. Vicissitudes of birth and geography cloud the question of heroism and villainy.

And yet, with all that said—despite my revulsion at historical revisionism and my understanding of the moral pitfalls and logical fallacies—I still land solidly on the side of taking those statues down. Hell, the simple fact that they attract Nazi vermin would be enough for me to support those who want them gone. But that ain't it by a long shot.

I support taking those statues down because there is no such thing as pure history. That chasm between the event and the story I mentioned? It's never not there.

It's not about the history. It's about the historiography.

History is alive, mercurial, shifting from moment to moment. We are always crafting our narrative, always looking back to find new context, new interpretations, new sources of inspiration. We always have, always will, recast the previous generation's vision. We always have, always will, take down statues.

So, even if we didn't take into account the violent agenda that was operating when most of those statues were erected, we would have the moral authority to take them down. Without self-righteousness, without undue rancor, we select from our past those facets on which we want to reflect. We get to choose, with wisdom and perspective, that which best illuminates our shared history.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Cultural Impact of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre

On the February 14th episode of the Unpopular Opinion podcast (Pretty Scary - "Mrs. Doody"), Caitlin from "White Wine True Crime" said the following about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Here's what I find most fascinating about this: how unremarkable it is. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is exactly what you think of when you think of the mob: a bunch of guys with suits outside getting shot with Tommy-guns. I'm just fascinated why this is the story that persists through time. It has so many cliche elements to it, I don't know if that's why, or if it started all these cliche elements. Why is this case the one we always hear about? If there's anybody out there who has a love of organized crime history, I'd be interested in hearing what it is about this case...

This was like catnip for me, because it's exactly the sort of question I love exploring by digging up old newspaper articles. In my genealogy work, I've discovered that the modern sense of an event may bear little resemblance to how people of the time saw it. The choices that newspaper publishers made speaks to the sort of content that they thought would sell papers, so poring over contemporary articles has provided me with insights into late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture that I never could have gotten otherwise.

So I went to and searched for articles from 1929 that contained the words "2122 North Clark Street". I cropped the images and put the "clippings" in an album linked below. Below that is a stream of phrases that leaped out at me as I read through the articles. I stopped after six, because the content started to repeat itself. Those repeating patterns reveal the particular images and stories that news writers of 1929 thought would grab readers' attention.

The most obvious thread was brutality; words like "slaughter" abound. But look a little deeper. It's not just brutality that characterized these stories, but automated brutality. Now consider the year: 1929. World War I, famous for traumatizing the world with the advent of mechanized warfare, was just ten years in the past. To those readers, the thought of lining people up and executing them as dispassionately as one would cows in a slaughterhouse was still a shockingly new horror. Sitting here in 2017, having steeped in such images since childhood, it's difficult if not impossible for me to imagine how disturbing this was.

Further exploring the theme of dehumanizing mechanized murder, we see an obsession with cars. Again, think about the year. The 1920s were the first time in history when a working class person could afford a car, and that transformed the way people lived and worked. It must have been fascinating for consumers, who had only just begun to benefit from this innovation, to see it used for crime.

Note that, although the seven men seem to have been herded into a back room and executed, some articles claim that they were killed by bullets sprayed from machine guns mounted on cars. At least one article contains both contradictory versions! This error is understandable when you consider the following.

Today's slayings, was something new in Chicago gang warfare. Before the gangsters took their victims for a "ride", luring them into automobiles and killing them, or else swept past in automobiles and raked their victims with gunfire.
Never before, however, has one gang invaded the stronghold of another, rounded up the victims and calmly shot them to death. The slayers escaped today in approved gangster fashion, dashing away in waiting motor cars.

So this story was a twist on what readers were used to. It took the fresh concept of a drive-by shooting and incorporated other captivating story elements never before associated with gang warfare: the planning, the "siege" by an enemy disguised as police, and the herding of an enemy into a well-lit, impersonal, mechanized killing floor. Oh, and it also included a juicy story about a possible connection between the crime and the election of an alderman. Nothing like collusion between the mob and the Chicago machine to spice up a story.

Chicago's latest, and bloodiest of all, gang killings
72 previous gang killings in the last four years without a conviction--many without an arrest
lined up their victims against a brick wall
two dressed as policemen
four theories: two involving liquor, politics and the cleaning and dyeing business

line victims up against wall and shoot them down
bodies are riddled with bullets from shotguns and machine guns
pose as policemen
invade headquarters of rival gang and commit murder wholesale
summarily executed
cold blood

posing as policemen
invade the stronghold
mow them down with automatic pistols and machine guns
wholesale execution is carried out with the precision of an army firing squad
posing as policemen
lined up seven helpless, unarmed victims with their faces to a white brick wall
mowed them down with automatic pistols and machine guns
wholesale execution
precision of an army firing squad
it was an innovation in Chicago gang history
They rushed into the garage with drawn pistols and machine guns, infoming the seven men they were police officers. Some of them flashed stars and others wore parts of police uniforms. Without ado they herded the victims to a courtyard in the rear.
Overhead gleamed a powerful electric light to make the work of the firing squad easier
The victims, killed by their merciless executioners without having a chance at escape sprawled grotesquely on the floor
wholesale killing
brutally annihilated
wholesale slaughter, unlike any killings ever before attempted in the gang war of annihilation
wholesale raids
active alliance between crime and politics
Alderman Titus Haffa
aldermanic elections, a laundry labor controversy and a Detroit rum running syndicate

brutally shot
victims of a band of men who invaded their north side headquarters
intruders posed as policemen
men lined up against wall and shot down with shot and machine guns
lined up against a wall and summarily executed
shot them down in cold blood
heaped bodies
displaying stars
herded their victims
Today's slayings, was something new in Chicago gang warfare. Before the gangsters took their victims for a "ride", luring them into automobiles and killing them, or else swept past in automobiles and raked their victims wtih gunfire.
Never before, however, has one gang invaded the stronghold of another, rounded up the victims and calmly shot them to death. The slayers escaped today in approved gangster fashion, dashing away in waiting motor cars.

lined up against wall and shot
lined up against a wall and summarily executed
posing as police
shot them down in cold blood
heaped bodies
displaying stars
lining them up against a wall with hands over their heads
mowed down by machine gun fire from two automobiles
The guns were mounted on the sides of the two cars

fell like ten-pins