What If Women Ran The World

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

 

If you click on this link, you will be taken to Simone’s blog post that appeared on the site called Medium.com

It’s a terrific post and received thousands of appreciations on the site. At the end you find over 100 comments from readers.

It was a fun experience going out into the wider world.  And Medium.com is a terrifically interesting site.

 

Simone is working on new posts even as you read this and you will hear more from her soon.

 

The Editor

 

 

Oh! Those French “Premieres Dames”

Danielle Mitterand with President Francois Mitterand

 

Just like their American counterparts, French First Ladies have no real existence. They have no official function and no defined role. They just “come with” and “go with” the President they happen to have married. People mostly see them stepping out of a plane with their spouses looking decorative and smiling bravely. They are then whisked away into some kind of limbo and are not seen again until the next ceremonial moment.

 

Martha Washington

In the USA, the expression First Lady came into common use in the late 1800’s, but an early description of Martha Washington described her as “The first lady of the nation.”

Like their American counterparts, the French Premieres Dames are expected to find a worthy cause to sponsor, often of a charitable or humanitarian nature and without the slightest hint of controversy.

Sometimes First Ladies have modest roles in local politics but they always have to be careful not to outshine the charismatic men who are their spouses.

 

French President Georges Pompidou and his wife Claude sitting on an ornate couch together in the Elysee Palace, Paris, June 21st 1969. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

George Pompidou’s wife, Claude, presided over the Foundation to Protect Modern Art. Danielle Mitterand was president of France Liberte Foundation which advocates for clean water as a human right.

Bernadette and Jacques Chirac

 

Bernadette Chirac is also fighting for feminist issues, especially in underdeveloped countries. She is concerned with girls’ education, forced marriages, sexual harassment, and rape.

 

Yvonne and Charles de Gaulle 1941

Yvonne de Gaulle, wife of French President Charles de Gaulle, started the tradition of a self-effacing President’s wife. She had to. She barely existed, dwarfed by her husband’s gigantic personality and 6-1/2 foot height.

In an interesting twist, Francois Hollande has the distinction of coming to the Presidency with one female companion and leaving it with another.

Francois Hollande with Valérie Trierweiler. They were together until 2014.

 

At this year’s G-7 held in Biarritz in August Benadette Macron organized spouses’ activities and the usual photo opportunities.

Bernadette and Emmanuel Macron

 

At that event, Melania Trump, resplendent in her long white dress, paraded her lavish wardrobe and promoted Gucci, Calvin Klein and other apparel firms. It looks like a President’s wife (whether in France or in the USA) has to content herself with modest occupations and a small role in history.*

*One notable exception is Eleanor Roosevelt who I blogged about previously. Here is a link to that posting.

Simone’s Eleanor Roosevelt Blog Post

Death and Life of The Arab Spring..

It has now been nearly a decade since a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire in a protest against police brutality and corruption. Thus began, “The Arab Spring” protests driven by millions of people who wanted participation in the governance of their countries.

But when it was over the foundations and pillars on which freedom is built were not there.

Egypt is again a repressive police state. In Yemen, the President fell but instead of reforms, there came Civil War, cholera and famine. Here, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being played out causing much suffering and death.

Even more stable states such as Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco are grappling with the fallout of discontent and unrest.

Tunisia emerged as the only “success story.”  In 2013 it adopted a secular constitution. There were 26 candidates for President, and a runoff election narrowed it to 2. But before the runoff one of these candidates, Nabib Karaoui (who got the highest percentage of the votes in the general election) was jailed on charges of corruption and money laundering. Usually leaders have to be in office a while to achieve this distinction.

Voting In Tunisia

 

Democracy in Tunisia may be delivering what seems like a meager result, but the simple fact that ordinary citizens are participating and expressing their choices is rare enough in the Middle East to be worth mentioning.

The flame needs to be nourished and in time it may catch on and maybe even spread. President Obama had expressed interest in the outcome but of course our current President is viewing it with complete indifference.

Last week in Egypt, thousands of people in Cairo and Alexandria continued protests which began in September demanding that President Abdel Fatah al Sisi beremoved from power. They are being met by severe reprisals, imprisonments  and  other punitive measures prompting Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to label Egypt a repressive regime. But none of this is deterring the peoples’ determination to oppose the government.

The flame of the Tunisian Spring is still flickering feebly. It must  not be allowed to die out.

 

 

Bonjour! Revolution? Our French Origin Story

 

France’s role in American life predates the birth of the United States. Our founding Fathers were greatly influenced by French Philosophers of the Enlightenment- Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau.

Thomas Jefferson loved everything French; Benjamin Franklin loved quite a few French women and spent many years in France. These founding Americans absorbed the concepts of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and played them back as they created our country.

The French, in their turn used our Declaration of Independence  as a model for drafting their “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.”

During our revolution, The Marquis de Lafayette arrived in America bringing many ships loaded with arms and supplies and enthusiastically joined George Washington’s troops to fight for the Revolution. His participation was crucial in winning the war.

Welcoming parade, in New York, for Lafayette.

 

In 1831, French thinker and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the length and breadth of America analyzing and appreciating its special character. He reported on the considerable success and growth of our recently born country, particularly the way the standard of living was improving for all American citizens and advised Europe to look at what we were doing here.

Alexis de Tocqueville

 

More currently, French President Emmanuel Macron sings the Marseillaise with his right hand clasped on his heart a la Trump. Macron also adopted the American gesture of raising both hands in the air as a victory sign.Macron worked in an American investment bank for years and speaks American fluently. In another change,  France’s “First Ladies” were previously  invisible, but Brigitte Macron has stepped onto the stage and acquired an official status .

 

 

Brigitte-Macron

 

Before Macron, French President Francois Hollande adopted  our concept of televised presidential debates inspired by the Kennedy/Nixon debates.

Going back further we come to Nicolas Sarkozy, also an Americaphile who loved popular music, Elvis Presley, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. He was even dubbed “Sarko L’Americain.”

It wasn’t always so. France’s President Charles De Gaulle had disdain for everything American and once proclaimed “Long live Chicago” while he was in San Francisco.

And of course America’s latest President is a French admirer….when it comes to military parades.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ukraine: Comedy By Election, Meddling By You-Know-Who

Ukarine. (note Crimea is not shown within its borders.)

 

I first wrote about Ukraine in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution, a response to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the establishment of two pro-separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk. Since then the pot of revolt has been boiling furiously while still being, somehow, contained.

Now Ukraine has elected a new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. This fellow is a television actor who once played the role of a school teacher who was unexpectedly elected president. It was a comedy of course, but now it is really happening. Zelensky, is 41 and was put forward by a political party which is called “Servant of the People”.

 

Volodymyr Zelensky

This unconventional new President has no program or agenda except for the usual “end of corruption” mantra. Since this party now also controls the legislature, he was able to dissolve Parliament.

The Pro Russian party only collected only 13% of the vote and this strengthens the hand of the new president.

That’s a good thing. Ukraine’s economy is bad. The country is suffering from a brain drain as its citizens run for the exits. Those who remain must continue to fight and deal with the Russian meddling. (where else is that a problem Senator McConnell?)

Our President’s good friend Vladimir Putin still considers Ukraine a part of Russia. President Zelensky supports Ukraine’s membership in NATO, another sore point for Putin.

But as we now know better than ever, Russia does not give up and continues to meddle and will always be an existential threat to Ukraine.

 

The Secret Life of Trees

From my window I see a very tall tree with contorted branches. It looks the same throughout the year so there is really nothing to “observe” about it except for the visiting crows and sparrows who perch on it on their way somewhere else. I have found out that it is a twisted oak tree. People have told me that it spoils my view of the San Francisco Bay but I think it is part of that view.

A tree is the oldest living organism. California has the world’s oldest living tree. Here’s a picture of Methusela, a Birstlecone Pine which is 4851 years old.

Until 2013, it was the oldest, but now another Bristlecone has been found in the same area. That one is now 5068. It probably doesn’t worry much about birthdays.

Also in California, the Wawona tunnel tree was a giant Sequoia that stood in Mariposa Grove of the Yosemite national Park in California until 1969. A tunnel was cut into it as a tourist attraction. It was 2,300 years old. Now it is a habitat for insects and small animals.  General Sherman, the biggest tree in the world is in the same area.

Trees take care of each other, even across species. Forest ecologist Suzanne Sinard explains the concept of a “mother tree” who acts as a hub and takes on the care and protection of the tree community and looks out for younger trees. For instance, birch trees receive extra care from Douglas firs when they lose their leaves.

In The Hidden Life of a Tree, Peter Wohlleben describes how trees fight for nutrients, water and sunlight. The winners live long enough to reproduce, but they also form friendships, and larger trees supply younger ones with nutrients like sugar. Using a complex network of chemical signals trees communicate by emitting sounds and distress signals inaudible to humans. They talk to each other through their roots and form alliances with other trees and with some animals as well.

Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory describes people who come together to fight the destruction of trees. This is a truly marvelous read.

All trees use the “fungal web” as an underground connection, a reciprocal exchange to provide nutrients and improve health and resilience in a symbiotic relationship with fungi. Even though we, humans, cannot really “talk” to trees we can see to their welfare and provide them with all the care they need.

Kipling, British Empire, Superstition

The task of making a huge, alien land a friendly and cozy one was never easy. Colonialism mistakenly assumes that a conquered territory has no civilization of its own and has to have one imposed on it. In this scenario, the governing and the governed actors each play their assigned roles in a well-oiled machine. However, situations evolve and conflict arises.

When I was in grade school in Beirut we had a teacher who regularly read us stories from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. Through these wonderful stories, I met Mowgli, the naked feral child who lives with a wolf pack.

Rudyard Kipling was born and lived in India which was the setting for his novels As a child I, of course, never picked up on his paternalistic and essentially racist view of that extraordinary country. The wisdom of those days was that “the white man knows best.”

 

Indian women in colorful saris walking up the stairs at Ranthambore Fort, Rajasthan, India

 

Some considered Kipling to be second-rate as a novelist. George Orwell wrote that “five generations of enlightened people” despised Kipling as “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” Oscar Wilde said his writing showed “superb flashes of vulgarity.”

 

England’s role and rule in India was always a murky, ambitious and ambivalent one. It started in the 18th century with the East India Trading Co and gradually extended into wars of conquest through which vast territories were acquired until India became “The Jewel in the Crown” of the largest empire in the world. From 1858 until 1947, the British Raj (or rule) controlled most of the sub-continent.

And then, change happened. Less-educated British people arrived and clashed with highly-educated Indians who had been brilliantly schooled by the British. This contrast is depicted in E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India where characters no longer know what their assigned roles are and totally misunderstand and misjudge each other.

In such a climate it is not hard to conjure up aggression. The British in their snobbishness rapidly retreated to their exclusive and segregated country clubs and Indian doctors and other intellectuals were left in a sort of no man’s land, estranged from their own countrymen.

Crowd of pilgrims at ghats on River Ganges

 

Today, Indian local customs and values culminate in the cult of the ancient river Ganges which is considered sacred and personified by the goddess Ganga. This is where people come to wash off their sins and be purified in a frenzy of devotion. They do this in water that has been highly contaminated by humans and animals washing, bathing and eliminating as well as toxic waste and untreated sewage. Still, they come.

India is no longer occupied by conquerors, but it is weighed down by ancient superstitions and apathy in the face of outdated beliefs and customs.

Nursery Rhymes and Crimes

Have parents really been listening to the nursery rhymes they read to their children at bedtime? Do they truly want them to hear that after Jack and Jill climbed up the famous hill, that Jack sustained a head injury while Jill was left careening down the hill behind him?

Things going downhill for Jack and Jill.

How about the maid in the garden minding her own business and hanging the clothes to dry when a blackbird snaps off her nose? And what about those poor people who are walking on London Bridge when it falls down?

 

Bad Day At London Bridge

 

And what would they make of the spousal abuse when Peter the Pumpkin Eater imprisons his wife in a pumpkin shell? Consider also the me-too implications of Georgie Porgy who kisses the girls and makes them cry. And can we talk about religious vengeance when Goosey Gander throws an old man down the stairs for not saying his prayers.

 

The goose is loose.

And we’re happily relaxing with Rockabye Baby until the disastrous breaking of a tree limb sends baby and cradle crashing to earth. How can anyone go to sleep peacefully knowing that disaster awaits?

How about the overcrowded conditions and corporal punishment visited on the children of the “old” (ageist) woman who lived in a shoe? She apparently had more kids than she could handle and I would not want to be one of them.

 

Not a happy place for the kids.

 

The Mother Goose rhymes were first published in 1697. Was the world more cruel then? Were people more used to violence, trickery and mayhem? Isn’t it scary and sinister when London Bridge falls down? These questions are whirling in my brain.

Could it be that from the safety and warmth of your own bed you can comfortably contemplate the misfortunes of others and rejoice that they are not happening to you? Maybe it is like sitting by the fireplace watching a raging storm from the window and feeling dry and contented.

Which brings me to the ultimate mystery writer, Agatha Christie. She saw these contradictions and used them in her tales of crime, murder and horror.

In Ten Little Indians, the characters are marooned and die one by one each day. (This also appeared under the title And Then There Were None.) We are wondering who is doing this to them. In One Two, Buckle My Shoe, she has the shoe buckle become an important clue. She also used Hickory, Dickory, Dock as a book title.

And of course in her books, the seemingly innocent ones often turn out to be the criminals.

For me, tales of wickedness are more fun to read than the lives of Saints. There is just not much to say about Goody Two Shoes or Pollyanna’s good deeds. Excessive virtue does not a good story make.

 

Editor’s Note:  We hope you’ll make a comment or ask a question. These comments make Simone happy and she responds to all of them. Thank you. 

Catmania

 

When I lived in Beirut in the 1930’s, I used to feed a stray cat who hung around outside our house. I would lower a container of leftovers to him from a kitchen window.

People’s relationship with cats goes back to antiquity. Cat images are found on walls of ancient caves as well as in stone carvings. In ancient Egypt and ancient Greece there was a cat goddess named Bastet and killing a cat carried an automatic death sentence. Cats helped control snakes, scorpions and other pests. By saving crops from mice and rats, cats protected humans from starvation and death.

There are many beliefs about cats. They always land on their feet; they have nine lives. I recently learned that the superstition about a black cat crossing your path was because some believed such a cat was actually a witch.
But in Slavic folklore seeing a cat brings good luck because it drives away evil. Cats are considered “clean” in the Islamic world and permitted to live indoors with their owners.

Of course cats don’t consider themselves “owned” and prefer to think that associating with humans was their idea. Cats often think they have a better idea. For example, they won’t tolerate being washed, but very effectively lick themselves clean.

The place where cats lead the best lives is in Istanbul. They roam freely everywhere. It is said that there are 30,000 0f them being taken care of by people but not adopted. They are allowed to keep their independence and live as they please, wherever they prefer. They are protected but not imprisoned.

Cat at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Writers are often depicted with their pet cats nearby, on chairs, bookshelves, or laptops. In return the cats get to figure in their writings, often as the main character as in T.S Eliot’s Old Possums’ book of Practical Cats featuring Macavity the monster of depravity, the Napoleon of Crime, who is also known as the Hidden Paw and is wide awake even as he is half asleep.

And let us not ignore Puss ‘n’ Boots and Dr.Seuss’s red and white cat who always wears a top hat. The Seuss books were conceived to make it easy for children to learn to read because they are written in verse and are simple to memorize. And finally I mention the mysterious Cheshire cat who lives with Alice in Wonderland and can appear and disappear at will.

I have read that cats only meow to humans because they have better ways to communicate with other felines (rubbing, tail flicking, growling).

Dogs are more devoted and obedient than cats but also more needy.

Famously cats are not amenable to herding.

I say hurray for Felis Catus. (or was that Felix?)

 

Editor’s note: We are breaking with past practice by providing a cat video below.

 

The Dramatic Presence of the Cathedrals

While we are still feeling the sadness of the Notre Dame fire, let me mention a few things about Cathedrals in general.

A definitional element of every Cathedral is that it is the site of the Bishop’s residence from which he spreads the word of God as revealed by the Pope from his throne. Thus ex cathedra means “from the teacher’s chair” with complete authority. Such decisions are supposed to be infallible and unquestionably true.

The Reims Cathedral

The Rheims cathedral is the very epitome of what a Gothic Cathedral should look like. It was the site for the coronation of many French kings. During the Hundred Years War between France and England, when England occupied much of France’s territory, Joan of Arc presided over the coronation of Charles VII in Rheims.

From history to art. In 1892-1893 Claude Monet rented a flat across from the Rouen Cathedral and created a series of paintings trying to capture its many moods throughout the day. From the crystal clear morning light to the descending darkness, he created over 30 canvases.

 

Rouen Cathedral in 12 different lights.

In Britain young Turner painted some sweeping views of cathedrals including his series on Salisbury cathedral. John Constable was also moved by Salisbury and created a memorable painting of it.

Many other historical figures, artists, painters and sculptors were deeply affected by Cathedrals. In Germany in 1770 a young Goethe was overwhelmed by the beauty of the cathedral of Strasbourg. He climbed its tower many times in order to challenge and ultimately overcome his vertigo.

The 466 foot tower of the Cathedral at Strasbourg.

These great Cathedrals are as rich a repository of art as any museum. They offer us remarkable collections of sculpture, frescoes and stained glass masterpieces. We will continue to cherish these iconic structures as they continue to speak to us.