This Is Why We Celebrate Pride Month In June

I have strongly supported the Pride Flag flying above the Wisconsin Capitol and efforts made through our schools to allow gay and lesbian students to know they are not alone in their walk to adulthood.  What we do in large urban areas does resonate in the rural and quiet communities dotted across the state. Such actions continue to matter as the perpetually angry segment of the conservative base has ratcheted up their rhetoric and awful behavior against the gay and trans community.  The most public display of their juvenile outrage occurred against Target, where store merchandise for transgender shoppers was littered about, and then like a cat who brings a dead mouse to the front door for praise, they took to social media to show off their talent at mayhem. Needless to say, the gay and trans community has every reason to hoist a flag this month, take to the streets in parades, and speak to the truth that our nation again needs to hear.

This spring, I have been reading about the life and times of the first national security advisor to counsel a president.  Ike’s Mystery Man by Peter Shinkle deals with Robert Cutler, a multi-faceted, learned, articulate, and determined man who saw a need for reorganizing how a president amassed information concerning international affairs so as to better shape policy.  Oh, yes, he was also gay. And living a secret life that President Dwight Eisenhower and the madness of the McCarthy era could never come to learn about. We come to discover in the pages Cutler was a banker, a poet, a cross-dresser who loved the female roles in amateur theatrical productions, and a very closeted gay man at the center of a gay White House love triangle. Cutler becomes deeply infatuated with Tilghman “Skip” Koons, a man described as highly intelligent and a gorgeous 27-year-old Russian speaker who Cutler recruited for the National Security Council staff.

President Eisenhower and Robert Cutler

When reading and learning about history it is vital to step into the shoes and time when the events occur.  While that has always been my firm belief, I readily admit to shaking the book and wondering how Cutler did not rebel in some way to underscore the madness of a policy that excluded gay people from federal employment.  In fact, Cutler worked doggedly to place into effect a President Truman-era order that, due to time constraints in the waning days of Harry’s term, would not be implemented until 1953. The absurdity of the mindset that gay people were a threat to national security and that ‘normal people did not associate with them’ is one of the chapters of our collective past that we need to recall as we speak out as to why we celebrate Pride Month. 

Long-time readers of this blog might recall my writing about the example of bipartisanship being employed by Senator Arthur Vandenberg when Harry Truman becomes president following the death of President Roosevelt. Vandenberg, a staunch Republican wrote to Truman saying “Good luck and God bless you. Let me help you whenever I can. America marches on.”  The two men, both vocal and determined from opposite ends of the political spectrum, bonded and shaped the international policy of the nation following World War II. We know that gay people are in every family, and that was the case with the Vandenbergs, as Shinkle writes with an example of the destructive nature of homophobia.

Arthur Vandenberg Jr.

The high cost to the lives of many gay men due to Executive Order 10450, which Cutler aided in implementing, is clear to see from the data presented in the book.

Being closeted and not able to live authentically has no place in our society, and we must not allow the loudest ones on the far right to do more than shout about their bigotry and hatred. The desire by some conservatives to now open old wounds and inflict outdated and repressive ideas upon society must be utterly rejected. The reason I write that line is due to the way Cutler was forced to live if he wanted to shape policy and use his abundant skills for the nation. It hurts to learn in the book that Cutler presented Skip with a 163,000-word journal about their relationship. Their families and friends and all of Washington should have been able to participate in the joy of that relationship and friendship as it was taking place.

We celebrate Pride Month with full recognition from whence we came. The struggles and fights that had to be waged so we can live our lives authentically are what we recall this month. At the same moment, we know that never again will we take a step backward. So, lift the Pride Flag, and as it is hoisted high recall those who never had the chance to do so. That, sadly, is very much a part of the story, too.

Doty Land Podcast: Author Rita Atkinson “Of The Embers”, Historical Mystery Set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Rita Atkinson, a Tri-County Schools graduate had her first book published by Fulton Books. Of The Embers is a historical mystery. She sat down with me for an episode of my Doty Land podcast to talk about the 1883 blaze at the Newhall House in Milwaukee which killed 100 people. 

The interesting people who had lodged at the hotel the night of the blaze, including Tom Thumb, an actor, politicians along with two chambermaids from central Wisconsin are part of a story about the intersections of life at the time of a tragic fire.  What brought those to the Newhall House that night? What caused the fire? How did those who survived do it, and how were they affected by their experiences that night? The book focuses on a handful of those who were at the Newhall that night through their lives before the fire, their activities the night of the fire, and in the years following the fire.  Host Gregory Humphrey has produced a professional podcast about an amazing book.

A professionally produced podcast with an author many will come to enjoy in the pages of her novel, “Of The Embers”.

Teachers Should Not Be Constrained, Classrooms Should Be Able To Dialogue About Abraham Lincoln And Joshua Speed Relationship

Upon finishing Courting Mr. Lincoln my first thought was how great writers seemingly allow words to flow effortlessly.  The amazing work by Louis Bayard combined historical facts with an author’s elaboration using dialogue and moods to convey larger topics for exploration. The second thought I had was this book, so beautifully written and constructed, sadly will not be found in school libraries where book banning runs wild.

Central to the story as Mary Todd enters the world of Springfield in 1839 and meets Abraham Lincoln, is the tight friendship and deeply personal relationship between Joshua Speed and Lincoln. Lincoln shared a bed with Speed for four years over a general store that the latter owned.  While the sharing of such close quarters by men was not uncommon at the time, it is the narrower story of bonds and shared closeness between the two that has placed the question of what their actual relationship was into the minds of historians and writers for many decades.   

Historians have tried to grapple with understanding Lincoln in more books written about him than any other president. The books range from his efforts being portrayed as highly patriotic and grounded in the words of the Founding Fathers to the wildly outlandish that try to paint him as a dictator. Over 15,000 titles have been published, all in an effort to better define and dissect what many consider (including myself) the most important leader this nation had in the White House. Bayard stepped into this arena and added context to the possible (and a growing number of researchers think probable) homosexual relationship between Lincoln and Speed.  Though we will never know with absolute proof through evidence that a relationship occurred, this discussion allows students insight into social structures that mandated secrecy at the time over such relationships.  Students are left to beg the question that if Lincoln had committed himself to Speed, and given the mores of the era meaning he would not have been elected president, what might have happened with the Union and the issue of slavery?  Contrasting that to 2020 when Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay married man, sought his party’s nomination is exactly the role of a history student studying the patterns and forces that shape(d) our nation.

Given how the rhetoric in our nation about teaching Black history or gay history or tackling anything that might make certain parents upset in some regions of the nation, the idea of broaching the topic of Lincoln with a homosexual side to his life surely seems an uphill trek. If merely suspecting Lincoln to have a male love interest riles feathers, pray tell, how does that same school teach Oscar Wilde in literature class?!

My deep respect for Lincoln started in my school years when learning his determination to show the world that the United States’ brave attempt at democracy must not fail, as it would then allow despots to think people could not rule themselves successfully. My high school library had a copy of Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln. (I recall the larger book’s wonderful black and white drawings depicting places and people as the story unwinds.)  It was there that I first read any hint and in only a few sparse words, of Lincoln’s potentially gay feelings. Sandburg had studied the letters and wrote of Lincoln and Speed having “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets”. 

I had questions so I turned to, Marge Glad, my history teacher, a woman who so positively impacted my life I went back as a young adult to thank her for what she did in her classroom.  There was no internet to search (as this was 1977) or a huge collection of other books in a rural community so I sought a teacher for a further explanation.  She told me that lavender was a way (especially in Britain) for how gay people would be referred to so as not to seem ‘vulgar’ in society when speaking of the topic.  I recall she used the word pregnancy as another example of what was not used in ‘polite company’ in times past. I never once considered such a discussion with a teacher to be out-of-bounds or anything other than just another day at school. It was rather just another educational experience.

The points I made are two-fold in this post.  First, a school library should have books that promote learning and bring forth ideas that foster more research along with discussions. Banning books is meant to constrain or undermine learning, which is simply unacceptable.  Secondly, teachers must have the ability to educate and speak openly and factually about a wide array of topics with their students. Schools must be a place where ideas are able to be explored and questioned. In so doing a new generation of minds with broadened perspectives will become the sturdy adults this nation requires.

Most Dangerous Political Assassination In American History

This is an outstanding interview of Dark Horse by Kenneth Ackerman, a book I read many years ago, which then prompted me to locate both the site of President James Garfield’s shooting in D.C. and also the location of the jail that housed the killer, Charles Guiteau, when James and I visited our nation’s capital. (The latter being rather close to our Airbnb.) Today, as the snow started to fall (yikes!) I curled up to hear this author and lawyer–I mention the latter as his diction and crisp refined presentation make this hour thoroughly enjoyable. He ventures forth about the workings of national political conventions in 1880, the workings of the Senate, and how political opponents caught a former senator in the naked embrace of his lover. And, of course, if you know this story of how the doctors in their naivete killed Garfield, further insight into that part of this dreadful chapter in our national story, too. Give this video three minutes and you will be hooked…and then read the book—one I have given as gifts over the years to both book lovers and history buffs.

There is no way to load within a WordPress post a Booknotes video (that I am aware of and if you know how that can be achieved please alert me) but I did clip a one-minute segment that underscores why this assassination was so remarkable, as it was unlike any other in American history. If you want to hear why this is so, please click here.

Attacking Books And Libraries Continues, 100-Year-Old Woman Fights Back Against Censorship

Grace Linn shared this amazing quilt and spoke out against book banning at school board meeting in FL.

If you were caught up last week in either watching basketball games or the first of several indictments to be handed down against Donald Trump, you might have missed a truly absurd and tin-eared move by Republicans in Missouri.  The House of Representatives in the Show Me State voted for an operating budget with a $0 line for public libraries.  Those who follow such sandbox play will know the vote was preceded by their House Budget Chairman Cody Smith proposing a $4.5 million cut to public libraries’ state aid.  ‘Who needs books, with highfalutin ideas, and edumacation? As long as you can tree a coon and get a child bride there is no need for all that book-learnin’.

Now, I know a number of people in Missouri, some are family, and others are friends and acquaintances.  The ones I know are simply embarrassed that conservatives are acting in such a disrespectful manner toward public learning institutions.  Republicans are all in a snit over the state being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. The lawsuit was filed, and justly so, on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association in an effort to overturn a state law passed in 2022 that bans sexually explicit material from schools. Since it was first enacted in August, librarians and other educators have faced misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine for giving students access to books the state has deemed sexually explicit.  Missouri teachers have to put up with the threat of Bubbas arming themselves before coming to school, and now also face being threatened with a crime for fulfilling the role of an educator! 

“The house budget committee’s choice to retaliate against two private, volunteer-led organizations by punishing the patrons of Missouri’s public libraries is abhorrent,” Tom Bastian, deputy director for communications for ACLU-MO said in a statement about the lunacy of the House vote last week. “If the members of the committee are concerned about preserving taxpayer funds, they should stop enacting laws they know do not meet constitutional muster, not burden local governments in a misguided effort to silence organizations who object to the legislature’s overreach”.

Conservatives have always feared books and higher learning as it opens the world to younger generations who will then foster the changes that society requires for growth and modernity.  These simpletons, however, are not retreating from censoring, but instead doubling down.  We read last week the American Library Association released data showing that in 2022, the number of book challenges issued nearly doubled from the previous year, and 32% of all book challenges included multiple titles. We just know that those who challenge books on a whim would not be found with multiple titles on their nightstand, and if we could wander through their homes no bookshelves would be filled with tomes. We know the ones who lodge complaints are homophobic and racist, as the evidence for that conclusion can be found in the data.  In 2021 a record 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship, a 38% increase from the 1,858 unique titles targeted for censorship in 2021. Of those titles, the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.

It would seem there is no uplifting news when it comes to censoring books, but as with many posts I try to find a reason for hope. My ray of sunshine comes from Martin County, Florida.  (Yes, Florida!..with a Hat Tip to a CP reader, Dan.)

The Florida book ban controversy sparked a heated and hours-long discussion at Tuesday night’s Martin County School Board meeting.

Former educators, students and parents spoke in favor of and in opposition to the ban.

One individual in particular brought with her 100 years of experience.

“I care about this community and our country,” Grace Linn, a Martin County resident, said.

To show her opposition to the book ban, she made a quilt and brought it with her to the Martin County School Board meeting.

Linn said on it are books that have been either targeted or banned.

“When I showed this to adult women, they’ll say, ‘Oh, no they didn’t do that to The Color Purple.'”

Linn’s wisdom dates past some history books.

“I was born the year after women got the right to vote,” Linn said. “My first husband was killed in action in World War II. He died for freedom. Freedom is so important.”

But because she won’t be around forever, she said she’s making it her mission to ensure lessons learned in the past won’t be forgotten.

“One of the freedoms that the Nazis crushed was the freedom to read the books that they banned,” Linn said. “History will repeat itself if you don’t know history. History needs to be told, and everyone needs to know what went on in the past.”

Her fear is that, as books are taken off the shelves, the life lessons they possess are taken along with them.

Oh, Grace, if only you could testify to a House committee in Missouri! Some rubes there sure need to learn those lessons you imparted in your discussion at your local school board meeting.

Higher Education Without College Library Is Dreadfully Wrong Move

If you were confronted with a budget shortfall, would it seem logical to cut funding to the foundation of whatever program or institution was in the red? Perhaps it is due to it being Monday morning or that outside my window the snow seems determined to linger on the Adirondack chairs but the illogical and upsetting news story from Vermont just catches me as folly.  To be honest, it could be Friday and balmy and the following news would still be pure folly.

Leaders of Vermont’s public colleges are taking an extraordinary step to save money: getting rid of most of the books in the campus libraries.

Reducing the number of librarians who manage the 300,000 books across four campuses could save the system $500,000 annually, the university system’s leaders say, as part of their effort to close a $25 million structural budget deficit.

The fact that public colleges nationwide are seeking ways to cut corners and still create serious-minded graduates is not news. Rather it was the short-sighted and stunning response to a budget shortfall in such a ludicrous fashion that caught my attention, and more so since this highly troubling move comes from an educated and supposedly reasoned administrator.  

The Boston Globe, which reported the news that landed in my email, surely was not intending for the heavy hand of irony to land so loudly.  But there it was in print from Parwinder Grewal, president of three public colleges that will soon be called Vermont State University.  He argued that getting rid of books in the libraries will be a boon for students on campus as “the planned $500,000 library renovation will replace stacks with study space.”

So, in the midst of a budget deficit that ‘requires’ the removal of the majority of library books, there is now money for a half-million dollar remake so students can study in a place absent of books? 

“This university will look so different and [will be] so relevant to the current needs of the state,” Grewal said.  With only 12% of the books remaining in the stacks, it will absolutely look different, there is no doubt.

Some students and faculty expressed concern that an online library would limit access to books and knowledge in a rural state like Vermont, where many residents still lack Internet service. Others mourned the loss of physical books and worried about how students and faculty will access texts that are not available online. A spokesperson for the state colleges said they are working to provide students with Internet access at home.

“Vermont is not a good place to be a guinea pig for this,” said Charlotte Gerstein, a librarian at Castleton. “There’s not broadband throughout [the state].” And, she added, “a lot of our students with learning disabilities have told us that they need to read in print.”

I guess, perhaps, when many Americans can discount the importance of cursive writing, something this blog bemoans, and others able to remove books from a college library and frame the matter as ‘good for students’ it should not surprise the rest in the nation why educational outcomes are often noted in need of being remedied.

Let me offer an example as to why this story is of concern. Over the decades, I have been drawn to the letters between John and Abigail Adams as they give huge insight into the thinking of the often-dour John, and his marvelously opinionated (for her era) better half, Abigail.  The reason I use them in this post is that any student desiring to grasp an understanding of the past needs to read cursive writing, and then find such books on the shelves of our higher learning institutions. Trust me, the long detailed letters between these two underscore the politics and love shared at the distance they endured for so many years all for the sake of democracy. The wonderful flow of the pen and the glory of putting thoughts to paper is the type of written account that college libraries should have available for students.  The intimacy and poignancy of the letters are still breathtaking. The skill of the pen and the fluid nature of their conversations allows college students to be most aware of the powerful minds and intellects that allowed this nation to be created.  There is no doubt that without a willful woman named Abigail, there could not have been the self-assured and forward-thinking John.  The two were a team. They should be known by these letters.

Such books should always be among those found in college libraries. It would be a real loss if they are not found in the stacks at Vermont colleges.

“Once Upon A Country” A Palestinian Perspective Worthy Of Your Time

My latest non-fiction book which I started this week is one that dives into a region of the world that has held my attention since I was a teenager. After learning of the news from Plains, Georgia about President Jimmy Carter starting hospice and given the powerful role he played with the Camp David Peace Accords, places Sari Nusseibeh’s Once Upon A Country into a fitting time frame.  A bittersweet one, for sure. 

A few weeks ago, I read Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright.  As I concluded that stupendous narrative which placed so many interesting and compelling spokes into the larger wheel of the drama that was the brainchild of Carter, I was mindful of needing to read Nusseibeh’s story that has been heralded as a necessity if wishing to feel and better understand the plight of Palestinians. 

I recall watching the historic journey of Egyptian President Sadat to Israel and listening to his speech in the Knesset and months later staying home to watch the handshake and signing of the famed peace accords at the White House.  All the drama that played out between leaders with deep political uncertainties in their own countries and much deeper historical animosities made what occurred at Camp David worthy of more understanding on my part. Even decades later.

I have always found most troubling the lack of awareness from the public about what happened to entire Palestinian villages and farms, and families in 1947 and 1948.  Between the United Nations voting and the time for the British mandate to end, we read the words of the author’s father, a judge and highly educated man, who wrote a 60,000-word personal account in 1949. Of those expelled, he writes the lost villages “mean more than red dots on the map. They mean the warm hearths and proud homes of an old established community.  The hearth has turned to ashes and homes ground to dust and the life once throbbed within them throbs no more.” The entire story is compelling and grounded with the candor of history and facts to guide his readers onward.

Sari does not allow for the misjudgments and harsh behavior from either side of the ancient hatred to have free rein.  There is no latitude given for the misdeeds and empty leadership that too often has been the source for even more glaring and consequential examples of hate and bloodshed.   

History oozes from the pages and for one such as myself, this is why lights in our home are on into the morning hours. Here is the story of a man who descended from one of the tribal leaders who accompanied Muhammad on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the seventh century as he heads to Medina. This is the family with the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The richness of the ages rolls along as Nusseibeh stresses the complexities of the people, history, religion, and social tensions that create a backstory to the headlines.  Sadly, it is only the headlines that most people today care about or know about.  Not enough newspaper readers or viewers of BBC news.

This is why the book, Once Upon A Country is so needed and, in light of recent events most relevant. For those who know, as I do, that a two-state solution is a requirement for the region, the book offers more history than hope, given the nature of conservative Israeli leaders.  I trust that those who read this post will find the book at their local bookstore or on Amazon, as I did. It will add many perspectives, as most who pick up the read already will likely have a good foundation of the region’s background. It will make Zionists squirm, but thoughtful people (like many who reside in Israel and know the trajectory of their regional affairs and governing policies are flawed morally and fiscally) will find this book time well spent.

Conservatives Come After Black Athlete Books In School Libraries

When discussing public schools and education in our country, nothing other than child safety and better pay for teachers rises higher than my interest in stopping the banning of books from classrooms and libraries. The fever about this issue seems to ebb and flow, depending on the need for book banners to deflect from some other embarrassing issue in their partisan tent, or to create a culture war atmosphere designed to roil the base. Since book banning has always been scorned and ridiculed throughout history, it does beg the question as to why conservatives seem so hell-bent on picking up the torch.

I read what can only be called an alarming story about the 20th largest school district in the nation, that being Duval County Florida.  It was there that three children’s books that narrate the lives of Black sports personalities—heroes, in fact for many–were pulled from the school library shelves.  We know the books tell the stories of these men who fought through racism to reach great heights in their profession. 

The books are:

The entire school system should not be made to suffer the loss of these books because some white parents cannot accept how racism absolutely did pervade almost every aspect of our society. That these three sports figures did find ways to be resolute and determined to rise and stand atop their peers should be applauded.  If it makes some students recalibrate their thinking about history and racism and come to realize their parents might be the ones who need some books to read, all the better.

This absurdity is the result of Potomac Fever that has made Governor Ron DeSantis forget the needs of his constituents as he covets the votes of the harshest conservative elements in early primary states. Creating a battle over censorship of books about racism and LGBTQ issues will only warm him to right-wing activists heading into 2024.  With Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Law” and the flawed history instruction about racism there is no doubt as to the reasons people around the country must be engaged so to stop this activity locally.  (Wherever one might live.)

During the 2022 midterm elections, I became aware of (yet another needlessly contentious) school board election about books and racism. I repeat, in 2022. At the heart of the matter were two books at the Greenville High School in Michigan that some parents found to be ‘beyond the pale’. They were Looking for Alaska and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, books that one might not read in Sunday school, but knowing schools are an arena of education for broadening minds and knowledge allows these critically acclaimed books to be totally appropriate.

Looking for Alaska, published in 2005 by author John Green, is an award-winning young adult novel that focuses on themes of meaning, grief, hope, and youth-adult relationships. Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is a New York Times bestselling book published in 2012 by author Jesse Andrews, and is described as being about an awkward teen, his friend, and a girl with terminal cancer.  Both books remain on the shelves and that decision then pitted book banners against actual educators in the November election. This blogger was heartened to learn after the balloting that the educators prevailed.

When I write about doggedly fighting at the local level to stop the book banners perhaps no more incentive as to why pushing back against the madness is doable than what occurred in Boise, Idaho. High school student Shiva Rajbhandari was elected to the school board and defeated an incumbent who steadfastly refused to reject an endorsement from a local right-wing extremist group that pushed to censor local libraries. Most times all that is required to stop a book banner is for one person to stand up and clearly state what needs to be heard about the freedom to read a book of one’s choice.

For several years, I worked with the local literacy council.  My student for most of that time was a wonderful woman from Iran who wanted to read with more comprehension and be able to talk about the headlines of the day. I grew up in a home where books were emphasized at every turn and given as gifts at the holidays.  My Dad was from the depression era and only attended school through the 8th grade, but every Friday night drove me to the small local public library for books to last a week.  He knew the power of a book.  We all must feel the same as he did when raising me.

As book-banning stories percolate around the nation, but mostly in red states, I was struck by an antidote to the madness which landed in my email recently.  It makes for a perfect ending to this post.