Worth Reading

I submitted this short note to my State Senator. Feel free to copy and send to yours.

This email is in regard to the library controversy. As an educator the notion of deciding what is acceptable portends bad things to follow. Using one incident of a child’s book isn’t a full picture. Not one of us read the same thing, and that is true for children. I shudder to contemplate legal censorship as a slippery slope to authoritarianism. I know the far right is attempting to control our community, and that should be enough of a red flag to stop this bill in its tracks. Our libraries are one of the last institutions that bind us together as Americans and Idahoans. To speak plainly the bill is just a bad idea and isn’t workable. If the titles under scrutiny become public, those books sell like hotcakes. It has been since the days of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or currently The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexi.

As stated by Isaac Asimov “Any book worth banning is a book worth reading.”

Sincerely,

Gail Chumbley

Catch Up

A radical change in imperial policy between Great Britain and her American Colonies marked the beginning of the Revolutionary Era.

Well before the American Revolution an amiable, and profitable arrangement existed between the Colonials and Parliament. This mutually profitable connection quickly terminated after the French and Indian War, 1754-1763. That conflict, though a victory for the British, had cost the Royal Treasury plenty, and the Crown abandoned friendly relations by coercing Americans to share in settling that war debt .

Parliament began by imposing a number of taxes, all designed to force Americans to pay up. The Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Townshend Duties, among other measures, had been designed to force Americans to cover the royal debt. Once proud to be British, Colonials were shocked to realize the Crown viewed them as a source of revenue, and nothing more.

Colonials had a long running smuggling network, importing cheaper commodities from the French islands, thus evading British tariffs. Those caught and arrested found fast acquittal by colonial juries of their peers, as locals were also customers of the accused. In Boston, tensions soon turned to bloodshed, followed later with tea spilled into the Harbor. The Crown, not amused, soon forbade traditional trials, and transported accused Americans to military courts, in particular to Nova Scotia. Next, British Red Coats were deployed to the New England colonies to impose martial law, and Parliament decreed American’s had to house and feed their own oppressors.  

These matters were met with vehement dissent, Colonials protesting they had no representative in Parliament, and would not tolerate taxation without their consent. “No Taxation Without Representation” and “Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God,” rang throughout Colonial America.

Tensions ripened, finally coming to a bloody confrontation in April of 1775, and the rest we mostly remember from school. 

Tasked with scribing a Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson vented American grievances through his quill. Working alone, Jefferson defended the violent actions carried out by Americans, and took pains to explain the radicalism. . . . “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” And for six years the Continental Army persevered.

In 1787, the subsequent creation and ratification of the U.S. Constitution set an enduring national blueprint of settled law. The Framers designed a government derived from the people, meaning we all are equal, and guaranteed representation in shaping law.

That brings this story to today. 

The election of a president from an opposing party is not a radical, nor sudden change of policy. Rather, this cyclic American ritual is as normal as the singing the Star Spangled Banner before a game. American voters have chosen our leaders in this manner since George Washington’s name first appeared on the ballot. 

To all of you who attacked our Capitol, it’s well past time for you to catch up. Put away those symbols of rebellion; of coiled snakes, hangmen gallows, and Viking horns. The Revolution ended two and a half centuries ago. The story of America is well underway.

In point of fact, those January 6th insurrectionists themselves attempted a radical change in American tradition. In pursuit of violence and chaos, these terrorists attempted a savage disruption of our deepest democratic traditions. Now that is unAmerican. In point of fact, we all have political representatives, and a right to a jury of our peers, and nary a soldier is found lounging on the couch.

Grow up and stand down.  

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.”

Chumbley has also penned two plays, “Clay” exploring the life of Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an examination of American slavery and racism.

chumbleg.blog

A Different Code

“He has created a false public sentiment, by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.”Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Declaration of Sentiments 1848.

Nurse Margaret Sanger related an experience that inspired her career in family planning. Called to a dilapidated tenement building, Sanger found a pre-teen immigrant girl writhing in the throes of childbirth.

Attempting to assist the child, Sanger soon recognized the girl was slipping away, bleeding out on a filthy mattress. Indifferent, the girl’s family crowded nearby in a small parlor seemingly resigned to the life and death drama in the next room. 

Soon the bloody battle ceased, as both girl and infant were no more.

A mother herself, Sanger built her life’s work in promoting a woman’s right to choose if, or when to bear a child. 

As for Sanger, she found herself under arrest in 1916 for advocating sex education and birth control through the mail. The charge sheet read that her actions were indecent. Despite that legal setback, a determined Sanger founded Planned Parenthood later that same year.

June 24th, 2022 the Supreme Court ruled women no longer have physical autonomy. The government claims an overriding interest in American women’s reproduction. Plainly females are once again set aside as second-class citizens, leaving men free of any culpability for their actions. For one moment think if men were required a reversible vasectomy at age 16. No male would tolerate such a law, and this is the same invasion of privacy women are forced to obey.

Justice Alito, in his majority opinion, stressed moral judgement over legal arguments when the issue is reproduction. 

In fact, in overturning Roe, women are stripped of the most consequential of life decisions, reinforcing Mrs Stanton’s phrase in 1848, that “a different code” is still alive and well. Women cannot be trusted with their own bodies.

That Planned Parenthood offers so many other services is not the point. That neonatal disorders portend a fatal, and agonizing death for newborns isn’t the point, either.

One of the most precious American underpinnings is the right to privacy. And remember that Prohibition, too, attempted to police private practices. That fiasco resulted in an uptick of violent crime, and corruption because like it or not, people drink. The same is true of abortion. The procedure has not been halted in the country, but made more risky.

The Supreme Court has not ended abortion in America. 

This isn’t over.

*Justice Thomas indicates he would go after birth control next. Does he realize he opens a pandora’s box that could threaten overturning Loving V. Virginia

The Long Haul

After the 1929 Market Crash, the world collapsed into nearly feudal isolation, and international trade quickly dried up. Like the rest of the world America focused inward, disillusioned by U.S. participation in WWI. Across the Pacific, the Japanese Empire, too, promoted a sphere of influence, sold to Asians under the moniker of a “Co-prosperity Sphere.” China, a vulnerable prize lay across the Sea of Japan, awaiting the wrath of Japanese aggression for land and resources.

Great Britain, too, struggled with a malaise of its own, as did the French–both nations saddled with debts extended by American banks during the war. Next to the new Soviet Union, Germany, struggled most of all, buried in war reparations the allies demanded from the vanquished.

As the financial fallout worldwide grew wildly unstable, regimes hunkered down and waited for better times.

The solution in that movement-elevate anti-democratic despots to power.

The Italians were the first, having produced a Fascist strongman, Benito Mussolini. He suppressed political diversity, harnessed economic efficiency, and soon, like the Japanese, pursued colonial inroads into Libya, and later the conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini envisioned a return to the glory days of Rome.

Germany, soon flirted with fascism, as well. In a reaction to impossible debts, and of national pride, Adolf Hitler, a feckless dreamer, stood on beer hall tables, and passionately spoke of national betrayal, and the victimization of Germany. “Mein Kampf” the product of an earlier prison sentence, circled around much the same, blaming Bolsheviks, Capitalists, and Jews for the hated Armistice of 1918.

However, America, unlike the rest of the world, clung with all their might to the national system of Constitutional norms. At the same time Germany elected a Hitler in 1932, the U.S. found their champion in Franklin Roosevelt. 

A popular Roosevelt Coalition steered those hard years holding the United States together. That’s not to say there weren’t kooks, to borrow Lindsay Graham’s phrase, but Americans faced the long haul together, knowing better days had to be ahead..

As FDR did not cause the Depression, Joe Biden did not precipitate the inept handling of Covid-19. Moreover, Biden’s policies did not cause Putin to invade the Ukraine, nor trigger the inflation rate, as financial matters are linear, impervious to election cycles. This new administration is not responsible for China’s economic reach, Britain’s Brexit debacle, Russia’s saber rattling, or global warming, let alone shortages of baby formula. 

The utter incompetence of that last blowhard made the real mess. This moment, like FDR’s, will take more time to sort out and stabilize. 

So, here is the question. Can Americans again remain bound to the framework of our Republic? Will today’s misinformed kooks forsake our financial, social, and political traditions and turn to petty retribution and tyranny?

Will we, as a nation, exchange our democracy for a strong man who insists he has all the answers?

That is the question of this historic moment. 

Gail Chumbley is an author and history educator.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Riverside, 1973

Before the 1974 Expo in my hometown of Spokane, Washington, the city’s downtown area was divided by social class. Riverside Avenue ran east to west, crossed by an arterial called Division, that ran north to south. That intersection literally cut the area in half. West of Division the downtown looked like the shopping scene in “A Christmas Story.” Magical tableaus filled each department store window, creating an elegant still-life to allure shoppers. To the east of Division sat run down bars, a rescue mission, and adult-only theaters dotting the grim sidewalks of despair. Consumerism connected both worlds.

In my senior year of high school, I worked at an ice cream shop situated smack dab on the dividing line. Attempting to capture the “good old days” ragtime music looped endlessly in the shop, and we all wore white dresses, and plastic skimmer hats. The clientele largely represented the reality of Riverside. Affluent shoppers, and business owners rolled in for lunch during the day, and the dispossessed wandered in at night.

The lunch rush is where the shop made money, and all waitresses were on the floor. Each day I left my high school around 11:00am arriving about 30 minutes before the onslaught. By noon we rushed table to table, chatting with the regulars, and earning pretty healthy tips.

Weekends were different, unpredictable, and the Saturday night shift catered to a different world. After dark, homeless men asked for water, while others scrounged up change to buy a cup of soup. Heartbreaking.

A late spring night in particular, stands out in my memory.  Warm, with a light breeze, the shop felt like summer, leaving me restless, and anxious for graduation. The glass door facing Riverside opened, and a clutch of young women poured in, chatting and giggling like school girls. Sex workers all.

Preparing for their night, these girls crowded around the ice cream freezer, more like teenagers than high risk ladies of the night. The group was close, sharing a camaraderie that spoke of strong ties. 

In the middle of the party towered a long, bronze, African-American woman. God, she was gorgeous, honestly runway material. Fascinated I watched her among her peers, laughing with the rest, while she gracefully perused the glass covered ice cream selections. 

Honestly, this beauty could out Grace Jones, Grace Jones. 

The starkness of her night’s work vaguely crossed my mind, but I was in the moment. Oblivious, unapologetic, she and her friends had no shit’s to give.

Weeks later I graduated, and at the end of summer headed off to college. The memory of that  lithe beauty and her friends faded. The following summer, when I returned to Spokane, the face of downtown had been completely transformed. The railroad tracks, the bums, the skin flicks, and the girls had all vanished. The exciting facelift for Expo ‘74 displaced the rundown skid row of my childhood.

It’s now that I’m retired that that ice creamery, and the beautiful girl again live in my memory. I know now that I had choices, I had support, and a college education. But those residents of east Riverside, those belles of the street? It is impossible to know how life played out for them. Surely these people of the night were displaced, migrating where rail tracks, and sex workers could ply their trade, out of site, and away from the gentry. 

I hope life turned out better than it probably did for these marginalized folk. But that warm spring night still holds a magical quality; one of beauty and of bleakness. A grim reality of a life I never lead.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight. She has authored two plays, “Clay,” about the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” a narrative of slavery in America.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Jenkins Hill

For teachers who are poor, but like to travel, nothing is better than hosting student tours. Truth is these trips are a lot of fun. Really. The kids make it fun. I led a number of tours over the years and still carry wonderful memories of the historic sites, our numerous guides, the bus drivers, my students, and the bustling itineraries that delivered us everywhere.

Out of the classroom, and away from home, students encountered much of what we had covered in history class, up close. On one stop at the US Capitol a guide opened a small door off a corridor revealing a narrow, circular stairway. Bygone soot and some damage remained down that steep passage, evidence of the War of 1812, when invading Brits set fire to the building. Our docent elaborated. A redcoat on horseback had urged his horse up those cramped stairs, only to be shot by American defenders waiting at the top. That anecdote caused a bit of a stir, as we all absorbed the horror.

Peeking into the Old Senate chamber, (much smaller than today’s grand affair) prompted another story of another clash, from another era. In this original legislative hall Massachusetts Senator, Charles Sumner had suffered a severe beating at the hands of a furious South Carolina Congressman. At issue, the fiery debate over the spread of slavery.

Bus drivers sometimes got into act, and added a few gems of their own. Before leaving the Capitol, he grabbed the microphone and shared a story.

George Washington had been inaugurated as America’s first president in New York City. But a site for a permanent national capitol had been selected. And it was President Washington, himself who laid the first cornerstone for the structure on a rise called Jenkins Hill. Why, the driver asked, did Washington turn the first spade, and set that brick of sandstone? Of course we all thought the honor went to Washington as the President. Wrong.

The President had been asked to set the stone, because he was a stone mason.

Who’d a thought!

On the bus we loudly debriefed, the chatter sounding much like gossiping about Justin Bieber, or the Kardashians. The narrative may have been a century or two old, but still very much alive–resurrected by students in the Twenty-first Century.

There are many such stories of American school kids touching our collective past, and many adults who made that happen. Somehow we all came away better people. Perhaps we’re all reminded we are part of a much bigger picture, and we all fit somewhere within the frame.

On January 6, 2021, Americans across the nation watched domestic terrorists violated the inner sanctum of democracy. I wondered what thoughts crossed the minds of those same former students to witness this tarnishing of democratic majesty.

Not everyone can afford to send their kids on trips like these. I couldn’t. But understand this, every public school in the country teaches American History. The public must understand this story tells of a unique nation, and democracy grows fragile when the ignorance rules the times.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley has written two historic plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears.”

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Bloodsport

An allegory is a story with a hidden meaning.

Way back when, during my high school years, our English class read “Lord of the Flies.” And though too young to grasp the power of the story then, it’s bothered me plenty in the last five years.

Permit me a refresher on the story. During World War Two a group of English school boys are evacuated from England by air, and the plane crashes. The pilot is killed, leaving only the boys alive. Finding themselves on a deserted island, the kids try to organize into a functioning unit.

The wheels come off almost as once, as two groups emerge. One faction agrees to cooperate, while the other descends into depravity.  Those favoring cooperation seek (through logic and science) a way to be rescued. Those choosing muscle undermine that effort, reveling in bloodsport, killing wild pigs, and intimidating weaker boys. 

The novel reads as an allegory of disintegrating humanity, pitting good order against savagery. Though published in 1954, William Golding’s book has taken on a prophetic urgency made evident by the lawlessness before and after the 2020 election.

In a haunting parallel to the breakdown of order on the island, Trump’s mob attacking the Capitol came as an inevitable outcome of law breaking. Riffing irrational diatribes, this flawed man chose to incite violence to maintain power. That his misinformed followers eagerly climbed on the bandwagon proves how fragile democracy can be when infected by evil. The physical fury of that day seemed an aphrodisiac for his private thugs as they stormed America’s Alter of Reason. 

And it’s no wonder the mob chose to vandalize our sanctuary of law. This guy disdains justice,  indifferent to the sacrifices made by generations before to preserve it.

Good government rests on an educated, committed electorate. Mindless violence is the tool of the lazy and weak. Blind fury only destroys, and in truth that savagery lives in all of us. It is up to each one of us to make that choice, to awaken the “better angels of our nature” for the good of us all. It is well past time for America’s trial by the mob to end.

Unlike the school boys in “Lord” no one is coming to our rescue. And that reality leaves no alternative but to discipline ourselves to preserve the gift of democracy.

Handed down from our elders, the work in that domed building is the last line of a free people.

Gail Chumbley is the author of “River of January,” and “River of January : Figure Eight,” a two-part memoir. Both titles are available on Kindle. Gail has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears,” exploring antebellum America.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Insulting The Past

The first time a parent challenged my teaching in history class, took place my first year. The topic concerned the creation of the Constitution, and the era of the Early Republic. I introduced the three branches, and separation of powers, census, representation, and that type of basic information. Definitely the bare bones of Civics.

During that lesson I explained how Electors were determined, and role the Electoral College played in choosing the president. End of lesson. The following day the topic moved to ratification and the addition of the Bill of Rights. From out of nowhere a hand shot up, and an upset student blurted, “My dad says you’re a liar!”

Yep, a liar. 

That was my baptism into the sliding scale of historic facts, and that initial chill of suppression stopped me in my tracks. Following that episode, censorship never strayed far from my thoughts. It was the beginning of a caution that lasted the whole of my career.

Fast forward 30 years in history education, when a similar event repeated.

The topic this time concerned the Reagan Revolution, and the events surrounding those years. 

Students learned about the Evil Empire, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall,” Perestroika, Glasnost, Reaganomics, Laffer Curve, Trickle Down, etc . . .

Foreign policy topics covered Central America and the Middle East, particularly Nicaragua and Iran. Reagan officials were selling weapons to America’s enemy Iran, using the funds to put down a Marxist insurgency in Nicaragua. A privatized foreign policy if you will.

The calls came the following day. “How could I teach such nonsense in a public school! My student came home and shared her notes, textbook and graphs. This is not right, Ronald Reagan is the beloved champion of conservatism!”

The principal called me in and wanted to know what caused the dust-up. Flustered, I didn’t know where to start. Quickly I explained the general outline of the unit, and, well, he didn’t have the time to listen to the details. And he shouldn’t have. He hired me to do that job.

The episode sort of blew over, though that parent did call me at home a number of times over that summer. Weird behavior for sure, like the dad couldn’t let it go. 

For me the matter became philosophical; either educators prepare kids for the path, or parents attempt to manipulate that path for their kids.

Touchy parents revising America’s story to force their current politics on schools does nothing less than highjack education. Talented people leave the classroom endangering the US’s most essential institution. Worse, the exertions and sacrifice of those who came before, are papered over to suit today’s furor.

America’s lifeblood is our shared story, it’s what defines us as a distinct people. We must understand those central principles from our past to move forward as a nation.

To those students whose parents challenged the historic record, it’s unfortunate they cannot let go, just a little and trust public education. This is our kids birthright.

And know this-I wasn’t lying.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle. Chumbley has also written two stage plays, “Clay,” regarding the life of Senator Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” an exploration into American slavery.

The Spirit of the Age

We’re that little guy

In the post-Civil War era. John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and others rose to wield unparalleled financial power. Emerging industries in oil, steel, and mining had grown into monolithic trusts, using innovative banking practices that fed an explosion of wealth. Titled “The Gilded Age,” these and other industrial giants earned another moniker “Robber Barons,” for not only the fortunes they built, but the ruthless practices that bred those millions.

The American public both admired and loathed these magnates. Critics argued the nature of such concentrated treasure was damaging to the lower rungs of American society. In pushback, journalists and economists lay bare the cruel tactics these industrialists utilized. Notable critics included Ida Tarbell, who investigated Rockefeller’s shady dealings in creating Standard Oil, Upton Sinclair did much the same through his novel, “The Jungle,” leaving readers both outraged and nauseous. And social reformer, essayist, Henry George, argued Carnegie had in no way improved the quality of American life, despite Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts. 

President Theodore Roosevelt found no friendship on either side. “Muckrakers,” he called these journalists, while still pursuing legal action against the excesses of what he termed the “wealthy criminal class.” 

In response, Andrew Carnegie published a work titled, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Centered upon the principles of 18th Century economist, Adam Smith, Carnegie argued that his success was no more than God’s will, and a gift to mankind. To Carnegie’s way of thinking, the Almighty himself, had conferred upon each certain gifts, and Mr Carnegie’s talent lay in getting rich. Left unmentioned were the unmet talents of those condemned to labor in the fiery pits of Carnegie Steel, and other factories. 

Confident in his beliefs, the tycoon believed he stood in God’s favor. And Americans swallowed the Gospel of Wealth, hook, line, and sinker, rendering reforms nearly impossible. 

After World War One America went on an unfettered spending spree. Throughout the Twenties President Coolidge rejected T. Roosevelt’s moral crusade, holding firm that “The Business of America is Business.” Then in October, 1929, at the beginning of Herbert Hoover’s administration the bottom fell out of the New York Stock Market. 

And somehow the rich no longer seemed quite as godly.

The 1932 Presidential Election issued a mandate for a “New Deal.” Desperate Americans were struggling, going hungry, losing their homes, writing the Franklin Roosevelt administration pleading for a hand up. And FDR acted quickly. Harnessing the power of the Federal Government, the President championed deficit spending, stimulating buying power to the underclasses. No longer would Americans tolerate the unregulated thievery of the past. By the 1960’s Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” extended aid even further, so regular people could tap into the financial support to get ahead. 

By 1980 the pendulum had swung to the right once again, regulation falling into disfavor. Laissez faire policies returned under Ronald Reagan. In turn, deficits blossomed, and the market crashed again in 1987 under the weight of the DotCom boom, and savings and loan scandals. Under GW Bush a scarier crash occurred in 2008, following the fallout of the mortgage market. 

American laws, passed in the heart of crises, need to be remembered and embraced, not discarded during better times.

Much like America during and after World War Two, private, public, and global financial institutions cooperated for just and equitable progress. Enlightened self-interest with carefully crafted guardrails enhance prosperity, and promotes financial stability.

Those lessons in economic policy made the 20th Century, America’s Century. This isn’t a lesson we have to relearn, the path has been paved.