Thursday, December 24, 2020

Noticing New York 2020 Seasonal Reflection

Today is Christmas Eve.

I have a long-standing tradition of, every year, on Christmas Eve, publishing a Noticing New York seasonal reflection for the holidays.  This year I hardly feel up to it.  There is Covid, of course. Whatever Covid actually means, we have had about nine months of it in New York City.

Over the year, I've written a bit about the Covid-19 coronavirus, mostly at National Notice, another associated blog where I write about national issues, politics and economic issues.  There I have written about the mysteriousness of what we don't know about Covid.  I have written about how wackily inadequate our healthcare system is to deal properly with the virus, because insurance companies seek and succeed in profiting in the most unexpected ways from a bad system.  I have written about how we are losing valuable personal contact and we are losing the value of our faces and facial expressions as a communication device in our Covid shutdown world.   I have written about all the weird and hard to square advice and information we've gotten about necessary Covid precautions, a really good example being what we've been told about Covid, and dogs, cats, hamsters, minks, ferrets, and sometimes children.  I've written about how, despite all its ridiculously impressive graphs of the virus, the New York Times has undependably contradicted its own reported facts about Covid.  

And from the very start, I noted how Covid was pushing us, ever more so, out of the physical realm and into the digital realm, which is very susceptible to the control of others.  It affects such basic rights as free speech and the right of assembly.  You won't find my National Notice articles easily, because now Google, in all its monopolistic wisdom, seems to be suppressing National Notice with its algorithms.

Meanwhile, over at Citizens Defending Libraries where we write about the selling off of libraries, the elimination of physical books and librarians from this public commons, along with the accompanying exploits of privatizing public assets while also privatizing and controlling information, I wrote about how Covid was being used as an excuse to financially starve and set up state and local governments for a round of austerity.  That round of austerity will, I predict, be used as an excuse for more privatizing sell-offs.  Did I mention in  that writing what is being done to the Post Office?-- Will Amazon take over its functions?  Yes, I did.  And describing how these privatized priorities unfold, I also, at Citizens Defending Libraries, reported about how, when construction was supposed to halt in New York because of Covid, the luxury tower replacing Brooklyn's second biggest library continued to build based on the cheeky pretext they should be allowed to because the luxury building could be considered urgent "affordable housing."   

That much said, backing up further, the really big part of the Covid picture that's not getting much coverage at all is how this virus is being used as an excuse and an occasion for a huge upward transfer of more wealth to the already most wealthy.  We can expect the wealth thus transferred to be spent on about the only thing it can go to: more privatization of public assets and more acquisition of all the things the rest of us now own and share. .  .

The best example of this face of Covid as we close the year 2020 is, once again, a familiar personality, Stephen A. Schwarzman.  Mr. Schwarzman is the New York Public Library trustee who has been a central specter in the selling off of New York City Libraries and, going along with that, the privatization of the library culture.   Mr. Schwarzman is a fellow who thinks that the poor should be taxed more and that the wealthiest like him should be taxed at a lower rate than everybody else.  He boasts of his friendship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (remember the dismemberment killing of Jamal Khashoggi?).  And somehow we name our 42nd Street Central Reference Library after him?   Somehow we think he should be an NYPL trustee?

Mr. Schwarzman was one of the central profiteers from the 2008 economic downturn when an almost unimaginable number of homes were foreclosed upon and became the property of companies like those of Mr. Schwarzman's.  That was 2008.  2020?: Mr. Schwarzman is very much his same old self, back in the news making money from the Covid crisis, again buying up foreclosed homes.  Schwarzman is saying his firm was “a huge winner” from the 2008 financial crisis and now he thinks “something similar is going to happen,” as he boasts to his investors about “huge increases in rents” and his firm pursues evictions during the pandemic.

Mr. Schwarzman would be good company amongst the pre-reform Ebeneezer Scrooge, the pre-reform Grinch and the sour old bad banker, Mr. Henry Potter, from  "It's A Wonderful Life," all of them subjects of our prior Seasonal Reflections.

All that said, and as much as 2020 has been a year of fervid Covid preoccupation and distraction, I think the best and bigger seasonal reflection to return to is a republication of my last year's letter requesting a sermon from our minister about peace.  We could use such communications in all our houses of worship, and innumerable other places as well.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the simple, but eloquent anti-war 1950 anti-war song “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” by Ed McCurdy.  I mention it and quote from it at the end of my open letter to our Unitarian Universalist minister requesting a sermon about peace.  Like my letter, it too is a prayer for peace.

To me its amazing that with powerful songs like this with us around since 1950 and songs like John Lennon and Yoko Ono's“Imagine” added to it (1971), every year at Christmas, when we revere peace, we still have war.  If anything, it gets worse.

The seasonal tradition is to revere peace and still have lots of war.

My letter of last December is absolutely as relevant this year as last.  That's because this seasonal tradition never get old.

 But, as I supply this letter for you to read again this year, I invite you to think about one more thing. . .  And that's how being on a constant war footing with supposed "enemies" and the need to keep secrets and lie to the public that goes along with it, leads to other things.  It leads to other things like the Stephen Schwarzman's of the world having full license to unleash so much Scroogey Grinchiness on the world fully expecting to impoverish the rest of us.

Here is my 2019 December letter praying for a sermon on peace, praying, if you will, for peace.

Best and blessings to you all this season.

December 19, 2019

Re:  An Open Letter Requesting A Sermon About Peace

Dear Reverend Ana,

Last spring my wife Carolyn and I invested heavily in our congregation’s fund raising lottery trying to win the prize of choosing a topic for a sermon you would give.  We didn’t win.  Had we won, we would have challenged you with what you might not have found an easy subject, speaking about Julian Assange, American war crimes, and the U.S. pursuit of empire.  Our choice of subject would not have been be to vex you with its difficulty, but to ask you to speak to what could be such a simple concept: Peace.  If, these days, conversations about peace are avoided as difficult, what better than address that difficulty in a sermon?

Giving it some consideration, I think that making a worthy case for a sermon topic is a good a way to gain the prize of having you speak on a topic we care about, as good a way as investing in fund raising lottery tickets.  Therefore I will try.

Is peace a spiritual thing?  Is talk about our common humanity, our common bonds, and about surmounting the blindness that fractures our relationships a proper thing to address in religious terms?  I acknowledge I’m being obvious here.  What I just referred to is supposed to be basic and elemental to the great faiths.

I grew up in the Vietnam War era and I remember churches and church people taking the lead in saying that the wars we waged in Indochina were wrong.  These days we, as country, are more military extended than ever.  My oldest daughter is now about to be twenty-nine years old.  We had already started bombing Iraq when she was born in January.  The war in Iraq is just one of the perpetual wars that has continued essentially for the entirety of her life.  All of our wars are long now.  As formally measured by some, the War in Afghanistan, with its later beginning, has surpassed the Vietnam War as our country’s longest war.

These days the United States has been bombing nine countries, ten if you include, as we should, all of the U.S. participation in the bombing of Yemen, the other nine countries being: Mali, Niger, Somalia, Libya, and then, in the Middle East, it’s Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. We have 800 military bases in other countries.  With practically no comment or attention from us, President Obama opened new military bases across Africa.

A peace symbol hangs prominently in our Unitarian Universalist congregation’s sanctuary where our sermons are given.  We begin every Sunday service singing the words: “let peace, good will on earth be sung through every land, by every tongue.”  Christmas comes every year, and every year we evoke and extol, as is customary in the Christian tradition, the image of Jesus as the “Prince of Peace.”  In our congregation’s Weaving Social Justice Committee we have discussed the prospect of rededicating the side chapel within the sanctuary that is known as the “Peace Chapel” to that cause.  In our list of candidate films for the social justice film series we are working on we have films about the injustice of war. . .

 . . . But, by and large, we hardly ever actually say anything about peace or the need to end the  perpetual wars for which our country is now responsible.  Has there been any sermon in our sanctuary on the subject of peace?  I can’t recall one.

I was not at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in June this summer, but I talked with people who went, and I looked over the multi-day program.  I was told and I saw that there were no sessions on the subject of peace.  Nor was anything said about the antithesis thereof, war, although we are deeply embroiled in wars to the point that they are inescapably always in the background our daily American lives.
Our congregation through its leaders including members of the social justice committee is now reaching out to other congregations in our city and to their social justice actors to coordinate collective activism on the issues important to all of us.  The importance of peace activism has not been mentioned in those discussions no matter that it is integrally related to virtually every other issue that is being discussed of common interest.  Has the subject of peace somehow been tagged as off-limits?  Is peace now too controversial to be discussed by and among religious communities?

Other social issues have attracted the attention of organizing Unitarians and have been the subject of multiple sermons. I understand and support that and among them are issues like the climate change chaos catastrophe emergency.  The climate emergency is an existential threat to all of humanity.  When the Democratic National Committee ordered that there be no debate focused on the single issue of climate change– the DNC actually forbade Democrats from participating in any such debate organized by anyone else– the case was made that the existential issue of climate is so fundamental that it is intertwines with and underlies virtually every other issue that’s important.  There are other issues like that; issues that are inextricably related to society’s other major issues.       

Our American wars together with the rest of our military interventions that stoke conflict in other countries are far too often wars which are very much about the extraction of oil and fossil fuels.  Moreover, overall our wars help keep in place the systems that continue to vandalize our planet, exterminating its ecosystems.  Further, the US military is one of the largest polluters in history, “the single-largest producer of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the world,” and that the Pentagon is responsible for between “77% and 80% of all US government energy consumption” since 2001.  The US military is consuming more liquid fuels and emitting more climate-changing gases than most medium-sized countries, polluting more than 140 countries. Obscuring the reporting on this, the United States, which exempts its military from environmental laws, insisted on exemptions from reporting of the military emissions of all countries from climate agreements. The U.S., has itself escaped such reporting by exiting the Paris Climate Accord.

It is not clear, but these staggering figures about fossil fuel use probably don’t include the fossil fuel consumption related to the initial manufacture of weapons.  Consider also that replacement, or nonreplacement, of what is bombed, burned and incinerated also must entail substantial additional environmental costs.
It is not just greenhouse gas emission pollution that the military produces: In 2010, a major story that went largely unreported was that the U.S. Department of Defense, as the largest polluter in the world, was producing more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined, and that just some of the pollutants with which it was contaminating the environment were depleted uranium, petroleum, oil, pesticides, defoliant agents such as Agent Orange, and lead, along with vast amounts of radiation. Following our bombings, birth defects reported in Iraq are soaring. A World Health Organization survey tells us that in Fallujah half of all babies were born with a birth defect between 2007 and 2010 with 45 per cent of all pregnancies ending in miscarriage in the two years after 2004.

Another thing we face that has been deadening to the human spirit has been the increasing “othering” of people who we are made to think are different from us.  Frequently now that’s immigrants from other countries who are black or brown.  Often that “othering,” as with Muslims, is stoked in ways that may cause us to support or tolerate wars in which those others suffer most and towards whom hostilities are often officially directed.  We may also forget how our wars and military activity push the flow of populations forcing people to migrate across boarders, as, for instance, with those leaving Honduras after our country helped bring about the military coup that replaced the government there.

Also basic and underlying so many of our problems are racial, income and wealth inequality with concomitant inequality in power and influence. These are things that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who practiced ministry through activism and activism through ministry, labored to eliminate.  Not long before he was assassinated, King also began to speak out against the Vietnam war saying the great challenge facing mankind is to get rid of war.  Before he did so, he carefully weighed cautions urged on him that as a civil rights leader he shouldn’t do so, that it would undermine support for his civil rights work, split his coalition, and that these issues should not be joined together.  But King concluded that the issues were tied together and decided that he would address them on that basis.

When King expressed his opposition to the war in his very famous “Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence,” delivered in this city’s Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967, one year to the day before his assassination, he said he was “increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”  He spoke of the disproportionate toll that waging war exacted on the poor and spoke of the poisoning of America’s soul. . . So it is today.

War is profitable business.  It busies packs of lobbyists who know a great deal more about often secret budgets than we, as the public, will ever learn.  But that profit drains the resources of our society enfeebling our ability to accomplish so much else.  The Pentagon and military budget is about 57% of the nation’s discretionary budget.  If all of the unknowable black box spending that goes into the Military-Industrial-Surveillance Complex were included, that percentage could well bump up higher.  We spend more on military spending than the next ten countries combined (or seven, depending on the year and who calculates), and we spend much more than all the rest of the countries in the world left over after that.  Of course, much of that spending by other countries is on arms we supply making the world dangerous.

We may not fully know about or have a complete accounting of all the dollars we spend in these areas, but, in May of 2011 after the U.S. announced that it had killed Osama Bin Laden, the National Priorities Project calculated that, as of that time, “in all, the U.S. government has spent more than $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security since the 9/11 attacks.”  Point of reference: a “trillion” is one million millions.

Just the increase in the military spending in the last two years since Trump came in is as much as Russia spends on its entire military budget ($66 billion).  Similarly just that increase is greater than the entire military budgets of Britain ($55 billion) or France ($51 billion). 

Our fixated disposition to keep spending more is entrenched: Even Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts who promotes herself as a left wing progressive, voted in 2017 to increase the defense budget by $80 billion, surpassing the $54 billion increase requested by President Trump.  60% Of House Democrats voted for a defense budget far bigger than Trump requested.

Perhaps most disquieting and insidiously corrupting to our morality and our souls are the pretexts we adopt to justify going to war and to abide its horrors, particularly when we leave those pretexts dishonestly unexamined.  The public flailed and many among us continue in their confusion, unable to sort out that Iraq did not attack the United States or have weapons of mass destruction before the second war that we unilaterally and "preemptively" launched to invade that country.  Before our first Gulf War attack on that country there were no slaughtered `incubator babies’: That was just a brazen, cynically staged public relations scam.  Similarly, how few of us know and recognize that Afghanistan did not attack the United States on 9/11– We precipitously invaded that country because the government there was at that time asking that procedures be followed and proof furnished before it would assist in finding and turning Osama Bin Laden over to the United States.

The foreign country that was most involved in 9/11, and from where almost all of the men identified as the alleged 9/11 hijackers came, is Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia is the country to which we are selling massive amounts of weapons (making it that world’s third biggest military spender) and it is the country with which we are deeply involved perpetrating war crimes against Yemen.

In the Vietnam War, our second longest war, it was the Gulf of Tonkin incident that, not being what it seemed nor reported to be, was the pretext for war.

Perhaps hardest and most challenging to our susceptibilities as caring people striving to be spiritual and attentive to justice are the pretextual manipulations to which we are subject in regard to what Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman spotlighted as the selective distinguishing between “worthy” versus “unworthy” victims.  “Worthy” victims are those who, whatever their number, deserve our outrage and are a basis for calls for the international community to mobilize toward war.  “Unworthy victims” are those who can die en mass without attention or recognition like the tens of thousands of Yemeni children who have died for lack of food, water and medicine because of Saudi Arabia’s blockade assisted by the U.S..  Often, as with Palestinians removed from their homelands, these victims are blamed for their own victimhood.

Additional layers of pretext pile up when we encounter journalists and whistleblowers willing to be the messengers of war crimes.  We punish those messengers while, concurrently, there is no consequence for those who perpetrate the war crimes.  Often the perpetrators are promoted to higher office. That includes those who illegally torture others to coerce useless, undependable, and likely false “confessions.”  Thus we punish and torture Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning for exemplifying what Daniel Ellsberg called “civil courage.” Thus we vindictively send CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou to prison for disclosing his agency’s torture program.

Wikileaks, Julian Assange’s organization has published much that is embarrassing to the United States and those in power, much of it is particularly embarrassing to the U.S. military.  Wikileaks has never published anything that was untrue, but the truth of what it has published is disruptive to the official narratives of the war establishment. That establishment has been seeking vengeance against and to neutralize Assange since events in 2010 when in April Wikileaks published documenting gunsight video footage, under the title of “Collateral Murder,” of a US drone strike on civilians in Bagdad provided by Chelsea Manning.  The New York Times and Washington Post did not respond to Manning’s attempts to publish that same footage through them or other evidence of U.S. war crime in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anyone who wants proof of the pretextual nature of the United States’ persecution of Julian Assange and of the ghastly and sometimes illegal, abuse of inordinate power against Assange should watch or listen to Chris Hedges June 8, 1019 “On Contact” interview with UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer (“On Contact: Julian Assange w/UN Special Rapporteur on Torture”- Chris Hedges is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church).  The attacks against Assange began with a highly orchestrated campaign of character assassination.  They have progressed to things far worse.  Both Assange and Manning (who was pardoned from a 35-year sentence after seven years of confinement that included the torture of Manning) are now being held in prison, no end in sight, for no crimes of which they have been convicted.  I think we have to agree with the criticism of this as psychological torture.  The continued torture of Manning is an effort to get at Assange even if that were to involve forcing Manning to lie.

The United States wants Assange extradited to the Unites States to be tried for the crime of practicing journalism that was unflattering to the United States government. Somehow we have the highhandedness to conceptualize this journalism to be treason although Assange is a foreign national. Assange faces no other charges. Under the laws pursuant to which the U.S. would try him, Assange, like the exiled Edward Snowden, would not be permitted to introduce any evidence or argument that disclosing illegal U.S. activity or war crimes benefits the public.  It’s said that the United States wants nothing more than a show trial and I think that must be considered obvious.

When Assange sensed in 2012 that trumped up charges in Sweden would be used as a subterfuge to transfer him to United States custody for such a show trial he obtained political asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. For this, a British judge sentenced Assange and had him serve 50 weeks in a high security prison for “bail jumping”; that’s just fourteen days short of the maximum possible sentence, although the obviously trumped up charges for which Assange had posted bail were withdrawn, negating the original bail terms as a result.  A normal, typical sentence for bail jumping would have entailed only a fine, in a grave case, a much shorter prison sentence.

Britain was able to send police officers into enter the Ecuadoran Embassy to arrest Assange for “bail jumping” and then later hold him, without other charge for pending extradition to the United States, because of a change in the Ecuadoran government that was evidently CIA assisted, and as the United States was dangling financial aid for that country.  Assange’s eviction from the embassy, along with his being simultaneously stripped of Ecuadoran citizenship, was done without due process.
The persecution of Assange casts a long shadow to intimidate other journalists, whistleblowers and activists as they themselves are being intimidated about disrupting the preferred narrative concerning America’s militarily asserted empire.  Other providers of news simply lay low not reporting things.  As neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post reported it, you may not have heard about the recent scary SWAT style arrest of journalist Max Blumenthal by Washington D. C. police hours after he reported about the United States government funding of the Venezuela Juan Guaidó coup team.  Blumenthal was shackled and held incommunicado for an extended period. Not long after that the D.C. police went out to similarly arrest activist and journalist Medea Benjamin when she publicized the U.S. backing of coups in Venezuela and Bolivia.

With silenced journalists, will we, based on unchallenged pretexts, send our military into to change the government of Venezuela as there is talk of doing?  In Bolivia the coup we sponsored has been successful without that.  Meanwhile, there is talk of pretexts for military actions against Iran, Russia, North Korea.

Journalists who still show courage, are subject to exile, sometimes self exile, from their journalistic homes, to alternative media outlets, where, like Assange, they are likely to be less heard and will be more vulnerable. Journalist Tareq Haddad just announced that he resigned from Newsweek because that publication has been suppressing a story of his.  His story was about the whistleblower revelations of buried evidence that the supposed 2018 Duoma chemical attacks by Syrian president Assad on his own people was fairly obviously a concocted fabrication when it was used as a justification for the U.S. to bomb Syria.  Remember our bombings of Syria?  The was another in 2017. It was for such bombings of Syria the press declared that Trump was finally `presidential,' and, as the cruise Tomahawk missiles launched, MSNBC’s Brian Williams spoke of being “guided by the beauty of our weapons” using the word “beautiful” three times in 30 seconds.

The strenuous suppression of these voices like Assange's that would disrupt official narratives shows how the conduct of war has a tight moral link to the choices we make to speak out against war and against the suppression of the voices that oppose war.  In his sermon against war at Riverside Church that day one year to the day before he was killed, Reverend Martin Luther Kings Jr. said that, “men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war.”

King also said that, when assuming the task of such opposition, it was difficult to break free of the “conformist thought” of the surrounding world.  Indeed, with the complicity of a much more conglomerately owned corporate media than in King’s time, it seems as if there is a secularly consecrated catechism of what we know we as Americans are not supposed to say, what we must veer away from and avoid.  We subscribe with almost religious ferocity to the belief that American exceptionalism justifies all our actions in the world.  It feels, as if in our bones, that we know that to violate this proposition and say something else would create a rumbling disturbance in the force (you know, “Star Wars”).  Or is our silence, merely something less profound than that, just the equivalent of what we think would be an exceptionally super-rude topic to bring up at a family Thanksgiving or holiday diner?
Dr. King correctly foresaw that there would be significant prices he would have to pay for speaking out against our country’s war.  He concluded that he had to do so, that he had to `break the silence,’ despite the prices he knew he would have to pay. He felt that doing so was the only thing he could do and remain true to himself and his causes.

Ana, I have no doubt that there would be prices you would have to pay if you spoke out for peace; if you spoke out against war.  I also acknowledge that there are prices our congregation could face.  Relatively recently the FBI has raided the homes of public nonviolent peace activists who have long, distinguished careers in public service.  (And the FBI has also been investigating nonviolent climate activists and Black Lives Matters activists.)  But I urge you to deliver a sermon about peace because it would be the right thing to do.  Perhaps it could go along with a rededication of our sanctuary’s Peace Chapel. And, perhaps,  if you would give a sermon like Dr. King gave against our wars, it might do more than just be a good thing in its own right: It might serve as a model for the ministers of other congregations who would follow suit.

Maybe, as in Martin Luther King Jr.’s day, there can again be a time when people see the call for peace as a spiritual issue and our church’s, temples and congregations again take a lead role in calling for peace and an end to our wars.

Have I made the subject of peace sound as if it is complicated?  If so, I am sorry.  That can be a problem in itself.  At bottom, shouldn’t this all be so simple?  Peace, supporting peace, speaking out for peace. .  Something very simple.
            Last night I had the strangest dream
            I never dreamed before.
            I dreamed the world had all agreed
            To put an end to war.*

* From “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” by Ed McCurdy- 1950,
 a precursor of sorts to “Imagine” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono- 1971


Michael D. D. White

* * *

Here are links to the prior Noticing New York ventures into seasonal reflection where you can read, including in 2019 when I wrote my open letter asking fro a sermon about peace where I wrote a little more about Unitarians, Rod Serling, and their relationship to peace and Christmas:

•    Thursday, December 24, 2009, A Christmas Eve Story of Alternative Realities: The Fight Not To Go To Pottersville (Or Ratnerville),

•    Friday, December 24, 2010, Revisiting a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville,

•    Saturday, December 24, 2011, Traditional Christmas Eve Revisit of a Classic Seasonal Tale: Ratnerville, the Real Life Incarnation of the Abhorred Pottersville,

•    Monday, December 24, 2012, While I Tell of Yuletide Treasure,

•    Tuesday, December 24, 2013, A Seasonal Reflection: Assessing Aspirations Toward Alternate Realities- 'Tis A Tale of Two Alternate Cities?.,

Wednesday, December 24, 2014, Seasonal Reflections: No Matter How Fortunate or Not, We Are All Equal, Sharing a Common Journey

•    Thursday, December 24, 2015, Seasonal Reflection: Mayor de Blasio, His Heart Squeezed Grinch-Small, Starts Gifting Stolen Libraries To Developers For The Holidays
•    Saturday, December 24, 2016, Noticing New York's Annual Seasonal Reflection
•    Sunday, December 24, 2017, This Year’s Seasonal Reflection: Yes We Are Now Living In Ratnerville, Locally and Nationally, And Yet We Hope And Work Towards Something Different
 •    Monday, December 24, 2018, This Year’s Annual Seasonal Reflection: It Rhymes (But Not With "Reason" or "Season")

 •    Tuesday, December 24, 2019 An Open Letter To Reverend Ana Levy-Lyons of The First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Brooklyn Requesting A Sermon About Peace

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson, Now Poised To Additionally Become Head of Brooklyn Historical Society, Says “Following The Money [The Othmer Funds] Convinced Us History Is Too Precious To Be In The Hands Of Those Not Writing It.”

Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson is poised to take on new responsibilities holding her position as BPL head.  It will occur with a merger that will make the Brooklyn Historical Society in Brooklyn Heights a junior subcomponent of the Brooklyn Public Library, which will now assume the role of the “parent institute” of the Historical Society.  This combination was announced by the BPL’s press release, February 27, 2020.

As the plans are solidifying, Ms. Johnson sat down in an interview to describe how the merger plan had come about, and why these plans will be good the BPL’s overall plans and partnership expansions and why it will be good for the history that people will remember.  “Our eye first landed on the Brooklyn Historical Society as an institution that we should attend more to when we were making plans for the consolidating shrinkage plans involving the shrink-and-sink sale of the Brooklyn Heights Library across the street and a few yards down” said Ms. Johnson.  The Brooklyn Heights Library was being replaced by a luxury tower as a result of the real estate deal that Ms. Johnson steered through the BPL.  It was once Brooklyn’s second biggest library, the Business, Career and Education Library and a federal depository library to boot.

Ms. Johnson said that when the BPL was selling that library it needed a small temporary library to replace it for a time until a planned reduced size library could be built under the luxury tower that was planned.  “We considered putting the small temporary library in the Brooklyn Historical Society,” said Ms. Johnson, “we actually talked to them about that.”  Johnson pointed out that the Brooklyn Historical Society is a library itself, which she said might have allowed them to argue the temporary arrangement involved a bigger aggregate book count.  Johnson pointed out that consolidating shrinkages like what the BPL was doing with the real estate deal sale of the Brooklyn Heights library, with its theoretically sending books and functions to the Grand Army Plaza BPL library, didn’t have to involve just an institutional consolidation of BPL or NYC libraries, like with the New York Public Library’s proposed Central Library Plan.

“These consolidating shrinkages can also be inter-institutional,” said Ms. Johnson.  “That’s what we would have had if we had used Brooklyn Historical Society space for the interim library, and it is the kind of thing we are doing where we are moving the Brower Park Library into the Prospect Heights Children’s Museum to reduce the museum’s previously expanded space,” said Ms. Johnson.

Ms. Johnson, smiled, very pleased with herself, as she then got to the subject of the Othmer money, funds left to Brooklyn institutions by a quiet unassuming Brooklyn couple nobody knew had become superwealthy after they invested with their friend Warren Buffett.  Said Ms. Johnson:
We were talking to the Historical Society about these possibilities back when we were making plans in 2013.  Given the timing, we were almost forced to notice then, due to certain commonalities, something else we needed to think about.  The Historical Society was one of the institutions that was among those Brooklyn institutions famously benefitting, receiving millions of dollars, from the surprise bequests of Donald and Mildred Othmer.  2013 was also the mayoral election year when another such institution benefitting from such Othmer bequests was being shutdown: Long Island College Hospital.  With gifts during their lives and then thereafter from the wills of the two Othmers, Long Island Collage Hospital received a phenomenal endowment from the Othmers, more than $135 million.

It would have been impossible to reach that money and make better use of it- so the hospital could be turned into real estate transactions- were it not for that fact that Long Island College Hospital was convinced to merge with a series of other health institutions, first with Continuum Health Partners and then with SUNY Downstate Medical Center.  It involved intricate dealings, but this allowed the endowment funds to be posted as security, something the New York State Attorney General’s office was convinced to pre-approve, (as if they didn’t see what was coming), and
Voilà . . .   
“Real estate deals and no money sitting around going to waste in troublesome ways that might pull towards different priorities!” emphasized David Woloch a Brooklyn Public Library executive vice president and spokesperson who had joined Ms. Johnson to help her with her interview.  “Activists were actually helping to make sure that we didn’t let the connection go unnoticed,” said Mr. Woloch, “because the activists were pointing out the similarity of how libraries and hospitals were both public assets similarly up for sale.”

Ms. Johnson said that money that came into various Brooklyn institutions from the Othmers pre-9/11, in the later 1990s was almost totally unforeseen.  “It came out of nowhere,” said Ms. Johnson, “it was something of a `money bomb.’”   “And when a bomb hits your house throwing things into disarray,” said Ms. Johnson, “you want to do some cleaning up and vacuuming.”  The good thing though said Ms. Johnson is that, while the money came in unexpectedly, it has been a useful tool, a tracer, to spotlight institutions that might need “independence adjustments.”  “That’s certainly true with Historical Society,” which deals with “history,” which is “precious.”
Johnson mentioned that when David C. Chang, Polytechnic's president, learned that his engineering school was going to receive more than $175 million- nearly $200 million- from the Othmers he said: “We start from being one of the have-nots and go to being one of the very well-endowed schools.”  The blare of that unusual Brooklyn brightness has since been somewhat adjusted via Polytechnic's subsequent merger celebrated in 2014 with Manhattan-based NYU.

Ms. Johnson also described how things were faring at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, another institution given money from the $750 million estate of a Brooklyn Heights Othmer couple.  And she explained that people should watch for new connections between the BPL and the garden.

Ms. Johnson that, despite the infusion of the Othmer funds, the Botanic Garden’s basic trajectory, including shorter hours, higher user fees and its increasingly privatized closures for fashionable weddings (the BPL also advertises its spaces for fashionable weddings).  She noted that the Botantic Garden had been able to sell off its science research building that was on its outside perimeter.  At the same time, Ms. Johnson said that it is important that the Botantic Garden board has behaved in an amendable and basically welcoming way to the towers and proposed development that, with zoning change reversal, will be set up along its borders blocking sunlight.

Ms. Johnson noted that the BPL will be implementing a plan that gets “gets Oohs and Ahs” connecting the BPL’s Grand Army Plaza central library to the shadier and more pleasant Botantic Garden space.  The GAP library “will connect with Mount Prospect Park to create a Central Brooklyn green campus that includes the library, park and Botanical Gardens.”  Mount Prospect Park is a public park (with the second highest promontory in Brooklyn) which sits between the library and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  BPL's plan involves altering space within the library “dramatically opening up the exterior of the library” to facilitate a new restaurant space within the library building that would unfold to include outdoor café space in the park. 

“All in all,” said Ms. Johnson, “I think the infusions of the Othmer money to the institutions in Brooklyn have met the kind of response they deserve.”  Ms. Johnson acknowledged that not absolutely everyone agreed.  It’s known that Dr. Donald Othmer himself drafted much of the meticulous detail for the bequests in his own will and that of his wife Mildred’s.  Warren Buffett, the friend who handled their investments and made them wealthy told the Wall Street Journal, speaking about what happened with the depletion of the Othmers’ Long Island College Hospital endowment, that if the Othmer’s were alive, “I would think...they would feel betrayed.”
Johnson doesn’t see it that way:
We have something called the cy-près doctrine.  It’s a legal concept.  The concept basically recognizes how inappropriate, essentially impossible it is for dead people to rule from the grave.  The dead don’t know what is going to be what after they die.  Lots of things are going to be unexpected and unforeseen.  The cy-près doctrine dictates that instead of doing what dead people wanted, you should do what you know dead people would have wanted if they had known better.  For instance, do you think the library systems could ever be doing everything they are doing in terms of turning libraries into real estate deals, providing a venue for society weddings, exiling books, and cutting back to much shorter hours, if they had to do exactly what dead people who made the donations to set up the libraries wanted?
Johnson said this was an especially important concept when it came to how precious the possession of history is.  History, she maintains, is too far too precious not to be kept in the hands of those who are supposed to write it.  Ms. Johnson said that was why it was so important for the BPL and the Historical Society to combine into a single unit for historical record custody.  “The history of the last several decades is one that I am proud to be a part of,” said Ms. Johnson, “The overarching truth to that history is that it has been a history of the victories of privatization– I’ll remind you that it’s axiomatic that history is supposed to be written by the winners.”  Ms. Johnson said that as Churchill knew history is to be written by those that command the reins of power.  As Churchill is famously quoted: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

Ms. Johnson said that it was relatively easy for the board of the BPL and the board of the Historical Society to reach agreement about the merger.  “We’re mostly all the same kind of people,” said Ms. Johnson, maybe there is one person on the BHS board who cares about the previous old fusty ideas that people used to promote about what history is, but basically, Ms. Johnson said the BHS board, like the BPL board, is a complement of the kind of people who know what needs to be written and preserved in terms of history: corporate lawyers (good at things like white collar defense for those charged with accounting fraud), mega-bankers and some real estate people.  “Nevertheless,” said Ms. Johnson, “we can improve through the merger and have better control; our BPL board composition is more refined and fine-tuned in terms of what it needs to be in ensuring everything reflects the private partnership goals and this to be respected.”

Ms. Johnson offered an example of what it means to be keeping things on track or not in terms of history that needs to be written.  Recently, Brooklyn For Peace donated its archives to the Historical Society,  over 25 linear feet of organizational records, event ephemera and recordings, and subject files dating back to 1983.  “This is the kind of history people want to write?” scoffed Johnson, Brooklyn For Peace has been around since 1983/1984— If history is supposed to be written by winners, how does that work?  We have more wars now than ever.  These people are real losers!  These space usurping records are prime candidates for culling.”
Similarly in the vein of what makes good historical fodder Ms. Johnson spoke of killing two Othmer birds with one stone: the BHS might also remove records that showed that there were once plans that the 500 beds of LICH were to have been used as a designated isolation hospital in the event of a pandemic.
Ms. Johnson said she could anticipate acquisition of the Historical Society would be a boon for all sorts of goals important to her.  She said the beautiful landmark building the BHS was in would be another great place for wedding and society events without her people eager to mingle at such events needing to Uber any further than Brooklyn Heights.  People would not have to go to Grand Army Plaza.  She noted that the New Times had already let the news out that the plan would start “with the eternal New York City preoccupation” of managing all the real estate dollars that could be involved.  Ms. Johnson noted how, in connection with the revealed merger, the BPL has pronounced itself to be “on a space grab,” but that the BPL had not yet decided to characterize this as actual space growth or part of its demonstration of its flexibility exercises allowing it to jettison space.  Mr. Woloch opined that the BPL could always go back and forth on these characterizations; that there was no need lock itself in respecting these things.  He noted that the BHS space might, for certain purposes and at certain times, be nominally cited as an ancillary part of the library space to be tucked nearby David Kramer’s luxury build replacing the Business, Career and Education library.

As Brownstoner notes, important to the “timeline for the merger,” will be necessary that the BPL and BHS are currently having discussions “with the City of New York regarding funding necessary for combining the institutions.”  This is obviously important with respect to Othmer endowment funds has BHS converts into joining the city’s family of libraries and its tradition of creatively underfunding them.

Ms. Johnson said that there would be no “sweeping changes,” respecting the BHS mission, but that she was particularly eager to take on and engage in a “rebranding” for the BHS with a new “less  fusty-sounding” name to proclaim the BPL’s ambition for everyone to understand that the institution would be democratically opened up.  “It used to be even more fusty-sounding,” said Ms. Johnson, “The Long Island Historical Society.” Ms. Johnson said, “when we took the Business and Career Library out of Brooklyn’s downtown, we updated the name; we now call it a `center,’ the `Business Career Center’; we dropped the fusty-sounding `L-word.”  Johnson said “center” sounded modern and distinguished it from the “Commons,” the “Leon Levy Information Commons” that it is above and from which it will be otherwise indistinguishable.

Johnson said the “rebranding” should also make use of some more of the naming rights that the private partnership building the BPL has been engaged with allows, like the BPL’s partnering with the Nets and the Barclays Center celebrated at its last gala in May 2019 where the Nets and Barclay’s center were honored.  “If we put the name `Barclays’ on the landmark Brooklyn Heights building that rules out calling it another ‘center’; you can’t have two ‘Barclays Centers,’ in Brooklyn” said Johnson, “but we might call it something like the ‘Barclays Historical Information Outlet,’ then it would be distinguished and not fusty-sounding at all.”

Ms. Johnson said that she wanted to point out the overall pattern of convergences that she said the merger of the BHS into the BPL was just a one incidental part of: Libraries are also being subjected to consolidating shrinkages while the library is also essentially merging with private sector interests though its private-public partnerships.  She described the converging as going in the direction of a “supremacy singularity.”  Ms. Johnson proudly pointed out to how this convergence even extended to her own personal life and how she was now living in her own personal partnership with Forest City Ratner’s Bruce Ratner, a personal partnership that paralleled the BPL Barclays/Nets partnership.

Ms. Johnson opined that Bruce Ratner was a great man who had contributed mightily to the history of Brooklyn.  She said that people had actually called the struggle that Bruce Ratner’s won to bring Atlantic Yards and the Barclays Center to Brooklyn the second “Battle For Brooklyn.”  Ms. Johnson said there was too much Brooklyn history that the Brooklyn Historical Society had not covered adequately.  She said that this would start to be remedied in a year’s time when the merged BHS would mount a major exhibition of the writings that Churchill created about what a great man he was.  “It is time that people realized Churchill’s intimate connections with Brooklyn,” said Ms. Johnson.  His mother, Jennie Jerome, was an American, a Brooklynite born in 1854 just blocks away from the landmark BHS building, 197 Amity Street, in 1854.  She said the exhibit would be in two parts, the second part drawing parallels between Churchill as a great wartime leader and Bruce Ratner fighting to bring the future to Brooklyn. 

Ms. Johnson said that the exhibit was slated to open in a year, on the first of April 2021, which was why it was being announced today, April 1st 2020.
PS: The shrunk-and-sunk library space that will be in the David Kramer’s luxury building at the sight of the former Business, Career and Education Library is next to and part of the same zoning lot, real estate development parcel as Forest City Ratner’s One Pierrepont Plaza. The underground BPL library parts can connect to the underground Ratner building parts.  The BHS has its own underground parts that are just a few feet away underground from the Ratner building.  The Ratner organization has been excellently adept at acquiring, through political machinations, private ownership of public streets adjacent to its properties.  The Ratner organization is now looking at doing that for the street between it and the BHS building.  If it succeeds (and it may join the buildings with an underground tunnel), it would put the air and development rights to the BHS building in play as part of the Ratner development and zoning parcel.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Michael Bloomberg’s Wealth? As It Allows Non-Democrat Bloomberg To Buy The “Democratic” Party, And That Wealth Buys A Lack of Scrutiny, It Is Time To Look Again At Its Suspect Origins

Overlaid charts from Noticing New York 2014 article, reshaped to show how Bloomberg's increasing annual wealth at the time makes the increasing annual average wealth of the rest of the "Forbes 400" look virtually flat by comparison- Anything suspect about this?  Read the 2014 article.
 While Michael Bloomberg was New York city mayor, Noticing New York had cause to cover him extensively, including how he used money to control and censor information about himself.

As Bloomberg’s wealth is now being used to buy the “Democratic” party from its corporatist leaders, thus only reiterating how those leaders are actually non-Democrat Duopolists, it is time to go back and look at the suspect origins of the money flows Michael Bloomberg controls.  Now, as when Bloomberg was mayor, that money is being used to buy a lack of scrutiny and a lot of false myth making about Bloomberg. .  So that’s another reason to go back and look at how money flowed into Bloomberg’s hands after he announced his intent to hold political office.

I will be writing a lot more about this soon in Noticing New York to bring things up to date, but for the meantime it is important to know where Noticing New York’s articles left off, with this last article in 2014 about Bloomberg’s wealth increases.
One Last Check As Mayor Leaves Office- Bloomberg’s Increasing Annual Wealth: 1996 to 2013, Plus Updates On His Annual “Charitable” Giving,  January 18, 2014.
When Bloomberg first announced his interest in running in this race for the Democratic nomination, I tweeted in October:
Emoluments Clause violations Round 2: Michael Bloomberg, who threatens to step in to replace departing Biden, did with his terminals what Trump does with his hotels, amassing inexplicable wealth as NYC mayor.