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Remembering My Lai

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With the U.S. government attempting to put a better spin on the Vietnam War, it’s more important than ever to remember what really happened.

I remember the reactions of ordinary Americans, like my parents, when news of the My Lai massacre started reaching the public. They simply didn’t believe it; American soldiers, the good guys, their sons and brothers and husbands, fighting the dirty Commies, would never do such things.

I thought it was true as soon as I heard about it. It didn’t shock me or even surprise me. All these years later, I have no idea why I had such a clear idea of what war is, of what it does to people. Maybe it was that I had always read so much about so many things. Maybe I simply had a more unblinkered view of human behavior than many people, even those much older than I was. I don’t know.

Most humans, once you convince them someone is the enemy, seem to lose any ability to see that someone as a fellow human, with their own family, friends, home, hopes, desires, fears, needs. And some humans want power, or land, or oil, whatever, so much that they convince themselves that someone is the enemy, in order to justify doing anything they need to do (and even things they need not do) to get what they want. Then they convince others to follow them. Or force others to follow them.

Humans and groups of humans

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Those who know me, or who have read much of what I write, know that I don’t “believe.” I distrust the word, because so often once someone says, “I believe,” there is no room for new, and especially contradictory, information. My viewpoint is “This is what I think, based on information, observation, and experience up to now, and subject to change at any time with new information, observation, or experience.” Unwieldy, I know, but there you have it.

But there are things I am pretty close to “believing,” and this is one: humans are humans, subject to their human nature, in every time and every place and under all conditions. Further, humans are each unique. Therefore, in any situation with a sufficient number of humans, there will be those who do good and those who do evil, those who love and those who hate, those who judge by reason and those who judge by emotion, those who lead and those who follow and those who stay out if it, and so on. Take a small enough group, and one can generalize about certain things–particularly regarding the factors that bind them as a group. But as soon as the group is just a little larger, even those things are no longer true of all the members.

To generalize about men or women, about blacks or whites, about Asians or Latinos, about Christians or Muslims, about conservatives or liberals, is meaningless, yet very dangerous. When we do so, we deceive ourselves into believing that we know what we do not know, and from there we judge what we cannot fairly judge. We deceive ourselves into believing that those categories of humans are somehow fundamentally different from each other.

We can and should judge what humans do, but we cannot judge what they are. We can say that members of a group with this characteristic in common have done this thing, individually or in concert, but we cannot say that every human who has that characteristic has done, or would do, this thing.

I would be surprised to learn that there has ever been any human group of any significant size that has not regularly done, individually or in concert, horrible things–to their neighbors, to women, to children, to elders, to those among them who are “different” in some way–being gay, or suspected of witchcraft, or having a disability of some kind, or so many more “differences.” And further, those horrible things have been supported, approved, or at the very least not opposed, by the group as a whole. Perhaps–probably–not by every single member, but by enough members that one might reasonably say “the group.”

Yes, we should condemn the horrible things that groups do, just as we should condemn the horrible things that individuals do. But it is the worst kind of hubris to think that those horrible things make “them” somehow fundamentally different from “us.” Because the next step from there is to believe that what “we” do is automatically right, that we cannot possibly do evil–even when we are doing, or have done, the exact same action as “they” are doing.

Music and Me

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I started listening to popular music when my mother played the radio or we watched “Your Hit Parade” on my grandmother’s TV in the early 1950s. I remember “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window,” “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” “I Went to Your Wedding,” “Mona Lisa,” “Mule Train,” and one of my mother’s favorites, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by Nat King Cole.

But in 1956, when I was 9, along came a popular song that spoke to me. It was “The Wayward Wind.” I always loved the wind–I still do today. By then we lived next to the railroad tracks: “I guess the sound of the outward bound / Made me a slave to my wandering ways.” I never took up those wandering ways, but the idea, the draw, the urge has never left me.

Then when I was 12 I discovered American Bandstand on TV and KFWB Channel 98 on the radio, and I found my generation’s music. Here’s a list from that year, 1959; I remember almost every one of these, and can still recite at least a line or two from most of them: http://www.musicoutfitters.com/topsongs/1959.htm

For my 13th birthday, in 1960, I got a transistor radio! And all kinds of music started to speak to me: fast songs, slow songs, instrumentals, pop music, folk music (and later protest songs), country, western … I liked some of just about everything.

A year later I started high school and joined the band. I had a terrible sense of rhythm, so of course I became a percussionist. (I learned much later that I have a pretty good ear and probably could have done fairly well on an instrument that actually produced notes.) For four years of high school and a year and a half of college, the band was my social group, both in and out of school. Every boy I dated was in the band, at my school or another, till I met my first husband when I was 19.

I wonder how my life would have gone differently had I joined the glee club instead of the band. A couple of my friends who were in the glee club urged me to do so. But when I was in grade school, someone told me that I couldn’t sing well–and I believed it. However, it wasn’t true. And in my junior and senior high school years, I sang alto in the church choir.

I have realized in the course of my advanced years that there are at least two areas that had I really gotten into them, would have taken over my life: music and sailing. Either one of those probably would have been my life, given a chance.

When Does Life Begin?

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When does life begin? It sounds like a simple question, doesn’t it? Certainly it is a question to which one could give at least one’s personal opinion.

Not so fast. At least when asked in regard to abortion issues, “When does life begin?” is a smokescreen, a red herring, a trick question. It’s a “gotcha” waiting to happen.

Even scientists do not fully agree on what constitutes “life.” But by most definitions I can find, a single sperm cell or a single ovum, qualifies, as do most other single cells in the human body. Is that what the questioner means? Probably not.

Rephrase it perhaps, to “When does human life begin?” Not very helpful, as too general. OK, then, how about “When does a discrete human life begin?” Better.

Let’s posit that a discrete human life begins when sperm and ovum join. But wait! What if that entity later splits into two, producing identical twins? Did two discrete human lives begin when a single sperm and ovum joined? Did that single entity possess two lives? Or is one the original life, and the other just a copy? If so, which is which?

But that doesn’t really matter for abortion discussions, because it still isn’t the question that is actually being asked. That question is “When does a human life begin that is entitled not to be ended by another’s deliberate action?”* And that is the question on which people differ. Some say when the sperm and ovum unite, some say when the embryo is implanted, some say when life outside the womb is technically possible, some say at birth. Some say only when the life is wanted by the woman incubating it. Some at the radical ends argue either for the life-sacredness of the individual sperm and ovum or for the “right to life” not beginning until some period of time after birth.

It is a question that has occupied years of thought on the part of philosophers, theologians, and legal scholars. It is a question on which not all of them have decided on an answer, and of those who have, their answers do not agree. Small wonder, then, if the occasional person not able to devote their life to the question has not decided on an answer.

And then: it is a question regarding which some people are willing to impose their answer on everyone, and others are not.

*The obvious corollary is “When does a human life cease being entitled not to be ended by another’s deliberate action?” but this essay is not about war, self-defense, removing life support, capital punishment, etc.

Identity

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I admit that I often find it hard to understand the Identity thing. Intellectually, I understand why Identity is empowering when one is in an oppressed group, but beyond that, I don’t quite “get” it. I am a gestalt of all my aspects. Just to name a few aspects, I am a biological woman with some stereotypical male psychological characteristics, I am a white person in a multiracial family, I am Irish and German by birth but have a strong cultural component of Mexican American, I am a Roman Catholic in the sense of having been raised in that religion and culture but am a nontheist, I am a mother who has never been pregnant. I am spouse, sister, aunt, niece, cousin, American, person of high IQ, collector of __ (many things), Iowan (born), Californian (raised), Minnesotan (now), unfaithful Democrat, liberal…  I was born and grew up in the working class, but am now solidly middle class, maybe even upper middle class. I am a professional editor of scholarly books who has no college degree. I am who I am, in my entirety.

Identity is a slippery concept. Everyone has more than one identity. Though most people have their identities more or less integrated, there are usually primary identities and secondary identities, and maybe far more levels than that. Asked, “What are you?” a person usually picks one or two; asked “How do you describe yourself?” a person makes a list, and some items are mentioned immediately.

Think of this situation: A sharply dressed busy white woman executive is on her way to a meeting and pauses at a street corner for directions. She sees these people: a black man dressed in expensive business clothes, a young tattooed Asian woman in punk dress, and a white man in a ball cap and jersey. Imagine that all make similar eye contact with her and have similarly receptive body language. Whom does she ask for directions? If her primary identity is class, she may ask the black executive; if it’s gender, she may ask the Asian punker; if it’s race, she may ask the white sports fan. If you put three different white female executives in that situation, you may well get three different identity-responses.

Members of an organization, attendees at a conference, and people in other life activities, including activists for causes, are not random groups. They are self-selected groups. They have CHOSEN an organization, a conference, an activity based on their own particular identities. Since a person has time/energy/money/”spoons” for only so many organizations and activities, a person generally chooses those that most closely match or support his/her identities. A white person of German heritage who sees herself as a supporter of racial justice may join the NAACP, while another may choose to join the German Club. A Latino counterculture artist may join an artists’ co-op, while another may work for La Raz. An accountant whose career is a perfect fit for her isn’t likely to go to seminars on opening your own franchise restaurant, but another who doesn’t see himself staying in an office forever may pay to go to the seminar. And those for whom one aspect of their identity is completely self-defining or who feel that it has completely defined them for others are likely to see the whole world through that lens.

For some women, being a woman is the central fact of their lives. They identify solely with women, they pick only women as mentors and role models, they join support groups with other women, they read books about “women’s issues,” they major in women’s studies in college, they become psychologists who see exclusively women or directors of shelters for battered women or authors of books on women’s issues or teachers of women’s studies. But that isn’t the way it is for all women–certainly not for me. Some are spending so much time and energy being doctors, wives, teachers, parents, partners, school volunteers, whatever, that they don’t get around to their identities as women, because that’s not a primary identity.

If someone doesn’t immerse him/herself in one particular identity, it doesn’t have to mean that he/she is denying that identity or rejecting that identity. It can mean simply that he/she has other identities that are primary. And I think that no one else has the right to decide for another what her/his hierarchy of identity should be.

Veterans Day

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“I am tired and sick of War. Its Glory is all moonshine. It is only those who
have never fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded
who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is Hell!”
— William T. Sherman

Are there things worth dying for? Are there things worth killing for? I think there are, but I’m not comfortable (oh, weak word! but I don’t think there is one in English for what I mean) with anyone making the decision for another about what those things are. Especially, I am not comfortable with leaders making that decision for their people, and most especially, not for the ones who will have to do the killing and the dying.

Are there things worth dying for? Are there things worth killing for? Those two are so intertwined. Chicken and egg? But I think it starts with killing. War always starts with someone deciding that something is worth killing for. Even suicide bombers do it primarily to kill, not to die; they accept–perhaps welcome–the dying only because they believe the killing will guarantee them paradise, or a hero’s reputation.

Yet no one ever calls someone a hero for saying, “I will kill for my country”; “I will kill for the cause.” Heroes say, “I will die for my country”; I will die for my cause.” But war isn’t about dying, it’s about killing.

Maybe if we were more honest about that, there would be a bit less of it. Maybe.

Many of my family  have served in the military. The farthest back that I know of is John Main, my great-grandfather, who was a Union soldier. At least three great-uncles served in WWI. Two of my uncles died in WWII: Gerald Kennedy, shot down over Europe, and Cecil Kennedy, shot down over the Pacific. My father, Charles, between them in age, was 4F because of his childhood rheumatic fever; he tried to enlist in every branch, including the Coast Guard. A younger brother, Laurence, served in the military and came home safely. One of my mother’s brothers, Donald Main, also served.

My brother, Dennis Kennedy, 1948-96, was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He came home physically, but left a bit of his soul, I think. It wasn’t Vietnam alone that led him to the alcoholism that killed him, but it was one factor. Others died in Vietnam: Tommy Orr, year behind me in school; our fathers were friends. One of the Murphy boys, who were a bit older than me. My cousin’s husband, Jim Sampers. A classmate or two. And so many of the young men in my class were drafted during those years, some going to Vietnam.

I believe, as much as I believe anything, that war is almost never the right course–not absolutely never, but almost never. But with humans being what they are and the world what it is, I do think the U.S. needs a military force. So I thank those who do that job, and I support their being taken care of both during and after their service, including their families’ being supported well while they serve. I’d like to see each person in the U.S. who does not serve in the military be required to pay, once during their lives, a special tax surcharge (based on income, most certainly including all sources of income) that would be used exclusively to fund veterans’ benefits.

And if we ever again have a draft, I want it to be absolutely universal, but not entirely military, with people assigned to whatever tasks the country needs done that they are capable of doing. I want no deferments or exemptions on any basis other than a disability so great that the person cannot perform any useful function. There is always work to be done; maybe if we paid more attention to the work that isn’t war, there would be less war. Maybe.

That Catcalling Video

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You’ve seen it, right? A woman walked around New York secretly recording the things that men said to her on the street,

I would have said I can remember only two times in my life, from my fairly slim and attractive teenage years till my fat sixties, that I have experienced anything like I thought people were talking about. Once I was wolf-whistled at from a passing car when I was 14, and to be honest I liked it because at that time I had little confidence in my attractiveness. The other time I was 30ish, wearing a purple suit, and a guy walking by said something to the effect of “I sure do like a woman in purple.” I don’t remember if I gave any reaction, but I was neither frightened nor offended, and both of us walked on.

It’s possible that there were times when I was simply oblivious. City streets seem noisy to me, and I tend to be more visually than audially (is that a word?) aware of my surroundings. But there have been many times when a man has said, “Good morning” or “Hi there” or “Beautiful day,” etc., and I smiled and nodded or returned the greeting and we both walked on. Until reading some of the conversation about this video, I never thought of any of that as harassment. For myself, I still don’t and never will. I do, however, now realize that some women do so think of it.

I am a person who talks to strangers. Sometimes they talk to me, too–in lines, on elevators, etc. In fact, now that I am a fat old gray-haired broad, both men in my general age group and young men speak to me in a friendly way quite often. I’m comfortable with that. I do, however, now realize that some women aren’t.

Recently I told a small group of friends a story. When I was in my early twenties, in about 1970, reasonably attractive, I lived between Watts and LAX. I worked a few blocks away, in the direction of the airport, and walked to and from my job. Most of the walk was through a neighborhood of older, small, at-the-time inexpensive homes, and then I walked on two sides of a vacant block. Usually I saw no one, either on the sidewalk or in a yard. I never felt in any way unsafe.

One day an older–possibly in his forties–black man stepped up beside me. (At this distance, I don’t remember whether he came out of a house or what.) He started walked along with me and spoke to me, some polite greeting. I returned the greeting, and he began chatting with me. At some point he said goodbye and turned a different way from me.

After that, he showed up periodically, repeating the same behavior, as did I. I thought it was unusual, but I never felt in any way uncomfortable–he gave me no reason to.

When I look back on it, I still have no idea what was going on. It WAS unusual–this was 1970, I was a young white woman, he was a middle-aged black man, and from our conversations it was clear that we had little life experience in common. It seems to me that he was taking a bit of a chance–no, 1970 LA wasn’t 1955 Mississippi, but even so. We were only five years past the Watts riots. It wouldn’t be impossible that a white woman in the situation, a couple miles from Watts, would start running and screaming.
Now I wonder if maybe the neighborhood wasn’t as safe as I thought it was, and he was sending a message to others that I was to be left alone–that he was my “guardian,” so to speak. (Protecting the oblivious white girl.) Or maybe the first day was pure chance, and when I didn’t run screaming he decided to make a boring walk more interesting by talking with someone. I don’t know. I will never know. But like other experiences in my life, it shaped the way I deal with the world.

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Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

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