Jan. 2, 2014


by William Meredith

For Vanessa Meredith and Samuel Wolf Gezari

What it must be like to be an angel
or a squirrel, we can imagine sooner.

The last time we go to bed good,
they are there, lying about darkness.

They dandle us once too often,
these friends who become our enemies.

Suddenly one day, their juniors
are as old as we yearn to be.

They get wrinkles where it is better
smooth, odd coughs, and smells.

It is grotesque how they go on
loving us, we go on loving them.

The effrontery, barely imaginable,
of having caused us. And of how.

Their lives: surely
we can do better than that.

This goes on for a long time. Everything
they do is wrong, and the worst thing,

they all do it, is to die,
taking with them the last explanation,

how we came out of the wet sea
or wherever they got us from,

taking the last link
of that chain with them.

Father, mother, we cry, wrinkling,
to our uncomprehending children and grandchildren.

"Parents" by William Meredith, from Effort at Speech: New and Selected Poems. © Triquarterly, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Antarctic explorer and author Apsley Cherry-Garrard (books by this author), born in Bedford, England (1886). He's the author of the Antarctic travelogue The Worst Journey in the World (1922). His book is about a search for the eggs of the emperor penguin in 1912. He and his two companions traveled in near total darkness and temperatures that reached negative 77.5 degrees Fahrenheit. He wrote, "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised."

It's the birthday of playwright Christopher Durang (books by this author), born in Montclair, New Jersey (1949). He was raised Roman Catholic, went to a high school where he was taught by monks, and thought he might become a monk himself. Instead, he became a playwright, and when he was 28 years old, he had his first big success with the play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979). He went on to write Beyond Therapy (1981), Baby with the Bathwater (1983), and recently, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2012), which won the 2013 Tony Award for best play.

It's the birthday of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (books by this author), born in Petrovichi, Russia (1920). His family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old, and his parents opened a candy shop in Brooklyn. He spent most of his time working in the family store, and he was fascinated by the shop's newspaper stand, which sold the latest issues of popular magazines. When his father finally relented and let him read pulp fiction, Asimov started reading science fiction obsessively.

He started writing science fiction as well. He published his first story when he was 18, and published 30 more stories in the next three years. At age 21, he wrote his most famous story after a conversation with his friend and editor John Campbell. Campbell had been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature, which includes the passage, "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which has been shown!" Asimov went home and wrote the story "Nightfall" (1941), about a planet with six suns that has a sunset once every 2,049 years. It's been widely anthologized and many people still consider it the best science fiction short story ever written.

It was on this date in 1920 that the second Palmer Raid took place. About six months earlier, left-wing radicals had begun a coordinated series of attacks on government officials in eight American cities. The country was still recovering from World War I and the flu pandemic, and was shaken by the recent Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. People were on edge and suspicious of the waves of German and Irish immigrants coming ashore. Fed up with what they saw as the government's inaction in recent months toward political unrest, the public demanded that Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer do something about these recent bombing attacks. Palmer was planning to run for president in 1920, and he seized this opportunity to raise his profile.

Claiming that there was nothing short of a Bolshevik conspiracy to overthrow the United States government; he wrote: "Every scrap of radical literature demands the overthrow of our existing government. All of it demands obedience to the instincts of [...] the lower appetites, material and moral." Palmer set up a committee to investigate the bombings, and put a young ambitious lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover in charge.

The Justice Department began making arrests of suspected radicals and foreigners in the fall, prosecuting them under the Sedition Act. The first Palmer Raid took place on November 7, 1919, the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Agents of the Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI) carried out raids against the Union of Russian Workers in 12 cities across the country. Several people were badly beaten, both during the raids and later while being interrogated. In December, many of those arrested were put on a ship — which the press named the "Red Ark" or the "Soviet Ark" — and deported to Russia, without trial. All told, hundreds of foreign radicals were deported, regardless of whether they condoned violence or just exercised their right to free speech.

Palmer and Hoover were emboldened by these victories, and they began planning to round up great hordes of radicals and trade unionists. Hoover petitioned the Department of Labor to relax the requirement that the accused be informed of their right to legal counsel. Labor agreed that the Justice Department could arrest first and build a case later.

And so on this date in 1920, in 33 cities across the United States, federal agents rounded up thousands of suspected dissidents, often on little or no legal grounds. Many of them were held for months with no charges brought against them.

During the January raid and several smaller raids that followed, more than 3,000 people were arrested. They were held in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and Hoover later admitted to "clear cases of brutality." Though the government initially claimed to have seized several bombs in the campaign, in actuality they only confiscated four pistols. While most of the press coverage was favorable, a U.S. Attorney in Pennsylvania named Francis Fisher Kane resigned in protest over the illegality of the campaign. His letter of resignation to President Wilson read, in part: "It seems to me that the policy of raids against large numbers of individuals is generally unwise and very apt to result in injustice. People not really guilty are likely to be arrested and railroaded through their hearings [...] We appear to be attempting to repress a political party [...] By such methods we drive underground and make dangerous what was not dangerous before."

Not long after the raids, personnel changes at the Department of Labor meant that Palmer and Hoover found much less support for their tactics. Thousands of warrants were declared illegal, and by June, a Massachusetts district court judge ordered the release of several detained prisoners, saying, "A mob is a mob, whether made up of government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes."

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