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The death of Eric Garner and the death of morality.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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The saddest thing about Eric Garner’s death is that it will be history in a year. We live in a nation where the death of one man no longer diminishes us all but becomes part of a parade of events on our televisions. We barely have time to digest one beheading, one horrifying accident, one murder before we move on. No one speaks of Caley Anthony now that her bio-mother has gone underground and she no longer drives media revenue through the coverage of a murder trial. At best, no one really spoke about her while her mother was on trial. Casey was the star and the center of our attention.

What Eric Garner’s death means to me is a bit more personal. Until thirteen years ago I lived in New York City, the last nineteen years in Manhattan. I was still there for the death of Amadou Diallo and several others. I had the vain hope that the people in my city had learned lesson from that painful, horrific crimes, but it seems that isn’t true. I see now that, for many of us, life has little value and it’s more an issue of whether you are seen as a winner or a loser in our country. Winners demonstrate their superior position when they can come out on top at the expense of losers. For those of us in the middle, it seem out of the realm of possibility for us to change things. And so we become apathetic.

What can be said about the pointless death of Eric Garner that will move us and unseat us from our apathy? For many people, all they will see of the man is the few seconds of sound byte file film that has been shown a hundred times on television; that is the only substance he’ll ever have. For those few seconds while we see the original story and coverage of the protests over his killer’s acquittal, we give a moment’s thought to a large, somewhat flamboyant man who was selling untaxed cigarettes on the streets of his own neighborhood. We will know that he couldn’t breathe because he told his attackers so in his own words on national television.

And there it will end for most us; finding the truth is not a popular pastime in America. We have too much to do to allow us the luxury of fixing what’s broken in our country. And, of course, there will be some other horror to take the place of this one.

Years ago there lived a man named Hillel. He lived during the time that Jesus walked the earth. Another great Rabbi, Hillel has left his mark upon history. His sayings have come down to us through the ages. Phrases like, “If not now, when?” appear over and over again in television and film, despite their two thousand year old lifespan. One of Hillel’s most famous quotes in wrapped in a story that goes like this:

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, another learned Rabbi, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary–go and learn it!”

For hundreds of years there has been much argument of the meaning of the phrase “the rest is commentary”. It seems to imply that the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament from the Christian viewpoint, is simply a meaningless restatement of Hillel’s basic concept: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Though hundreds of scholars have expressed their opinion on this, I have always taken it mean that without moral grounding and fairness, all your actions in God’s name lack the true meaning of the God’s word. The old and new testament alike teach us that God’s vision of life on earth includes treating everyone as members of your own family; this has always been the highest of religious goals. This concept has been restated over and over again in our scripture.

How can we understand this in the case of Eric Garner? I am embarrassed to admit that I did not feel the full horror of what had happened until I had a chance to think about it. In my case, I had to strip off the New York politics that surrounded this. And then I had to see it from Eric Garner’s point of view which is what I should have done in the first place. We see so much violence on T.V. that we ignore its meaning and what a horror it actually is. We are numb because we hear too many horrible things in the span of an hour in the media. How can we resolve all of them in our minds?

So I tried to not think like a modern man in the heyday of the television generation. As I sifted through what Garner’s death really meant to me, I realized what it was that ate at me about this incident, what I should have felt immediately if I was in tune with God’s word. I put myself in Garner’s place.

If I was Eric Garner on that day, I wouldn’t have thought about the city I was in. I wouldn’t have thought about my race, police brutality or anything else. All I would have felt was the sudden and terrifying realization that I couldn’t breathe and that my faint pleas would go unheard while the breath was pushed out of my body. I would have known that I was being killed by people who could stop my death if only they had taken a second to ignore their lust for control and listen. I would have known that there was no mercy in the people that had me pinned to the ground. And then I would have known fear as I felt the life leaving me forever. I would have been afraid, dying as we all do, alone.

If we are truly all brothers beneath the skin, this is place where we are joined together. Alone, naked before God and afraid. This is the way we enter the world and this is the way we leave it.  Looking at it that way, I don’t have any problem calling this a disgusting travesty of justice. I have already heard the arguments: Garner was big, Garner was involved in low level crime, and Garner was threatening and loud. He could have done some serious damage. Obviously that last part is not true. I have Asthma. There is a limit to what kind of physical activity you can engage in. A healthy person wouldn’t have come close to dying under the same circumstances.

Are there any arguments to justify what happened in Staten Island that day? Would any of us felt any different in those few moments if we were in Eric Garner’s place. And what’s to say that, short of making profound changes in our laws and our society, we never will find ourselves in his place.

Let’s just call it what it is. A man was killed for being loud and selling individual untaxed cigarettes and because he happened to encounter police that were amped up and willing to disregard the rules they were supposed to follow. That it happened in my home and nothing was done to make it right, disgusts me. Rather naïve, I agree; I come from New York and the saying about not being able to fight city hall is more than a saying. Despite his size and his bluster, Eric Garner was vulnerable, because he was black and because of his position on the New York food chain. Time is money in New York and money talks; the momentum that is New York could only proceed and brush this man under the rug.

Why is it so easy for us to be apathetic? The answer to that question lies beneath the rubble of hundreds of years of history, conquest, and Darwinian politics.  I only know that this entire incident shows me we have drifted far away from our humanity and our connection to God. That a senseless death can become lost in the shuffle of politics and agenda demonstrates that a part of us has died along with Eric Garner.

Eric Garner has taught us the same lesson that Hillel taught to that gentile so many years ago. We’ve been taught that lesson daily since the days that he lived. We hear it in our houses of worship and in our scripture, regardless of our faith. We learn it and re-learn it on the news and in our media. And it never takes root.

All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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New York City, land of Understanding and Friendship.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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Got your attention with that one. If I ever saw a title like that, I would laugh long and loud. Ironically, being born and raised in New York City, it took me moving away to another state for me to understand some very critical things about New York and what place it occupies in world culture.

There is no mistaking that, on a superficial level, New York is an impatient place. No one stops to smell the roses and no one tolerates certain kinds of behavior. Forcing someone to wait  is not polite; it’s a scourge. Attracting negative attention to yourself is a sign of mental instability. Things that would be totally acceptable anywhere else, like be friendly to a stranger, is a sign of “oddity” in New York.

Here is the incident that put it in perspective for me. Years ago, I was leaving the subway, walking in  the usual sardine line, up the stairs from to the platform to a gated exit leading directly to the street. For those not familiar with the city, all that is expected of you is that you climb the stairs and then simply push the gate and you are out. The polite thing to do is to get up the stairs quickly and push through the door so the other sardines can exit with the least fuss and, more importantly, the least amount of time. Simple.

On this particular day everything was going as expected. I hit the top of the stairs and the woman in front of me committed an act  more rude than forgetting the hold the door for someone. She simply stopped and left the rest of us as a roiling mass behind her. In the split second allowed for a pause in the rhythm of New York, my anger grew. Before I knew what I was saying I was hissing, “Lady. What’s the problem”.

It was only after I got to turn around and watch as she scuttled off in panic that I realize she must have been near well over seventy and somewhat confused. Yes, even New Yorkers can feel like buttheads.

So where does the understanding come in?

Once, a number of years after leaving the City, I went to a restaurant. Our waiter was another New Yorker, living in Tennesee with the rest of us expatriates. I had had a certain idea rolling around in the back of my head for years and I posed a question to our waiter, a nice Italian boy from Hoboken, a bedroom community just over the river from Manhattan in New Jersey. I asked him if he thought that people were able to form relationships across ethnic and religious lines more easily in New York. I asked him if he thought that tolerance was part of the fabric of New York itself.

With the  perspective of a decade, I realize that tolerance is a weak word, something that had become part of the basic structure of our politically correct society but really didn’t have any meaning. Tolerance, to me is the weak first step toward the high  minded religious and political philosopy we are taught in our places of worship and our schools. Tolerances suggests the framework, the bare outlines, of what we should be as people and as citizens of the world. When our waiter answered me, he told me that he had been in love with a Jewish girl and his precious and beloved Noni (Grandmother) was horrified by the relationship. This Noni, like most grandmothers, held a place in his life and his heart. He had just told us that he hoped to open a restaurant where he could serve food he  had had for years in his Noni’s kitchen. He was sad and a bit devastated that he had to speak of her as a villain in his failed relationship with his Jewish ex-girlfriend.

I had to smile even though it was an unpleasant story. When I was a teenager and for years after, the most common mixed marriage in New York was between Jews and Italians. In those days a mixed marriage was still crossing a line. But even then, the pressure of living as a sardine in New York pushed people so close together, so often and with such consistency, that people of “other” ethnicities ceased to be “others”. And that’s where New York leaves the weak tea of tolerance in the dust.

When I speak to friends and family from New York there is no discussions of having a ‘friend” who is Irish or Italian.  In the old days it was common for people to say, “I have lots of black friends” as though that meant something. There are discussions, instead, of the time they went this wake, that bar mitzvah, that church wedding. Their contact with the ethnic groups in New York is not simply a strange trip into another culture, but part of a consistent fabric of contact with New Yorkers that make up a unique culture.

Where I live now, hundreds of miles away from my home, there is a group of New Yorkers who get together once a month. We don’t all love each other but we share something and, just for a few hours we feel like we are with family. The owner of the deli where we meet is the child of middle eastern immigrants. His wife is descended from Irish immigrants. They come from Long Island, a suburb of New York where I spent much of my misspent youth. The best part of the year for our New York meetup is when the owner makes corned beef and cabbage for Saint Patrick’s day. No, not for his Irish wife, but for the New Yorkers who are all just as excited by Saint Patrick’s day as any New Yorker of Irish descent.

In my generation and in generations that followed the lines between ethnic groups began to blur. If you are a third or fourth generation Irish New York immigrant, having a Jewish friend stirs the same level of excitement as changing your brand of shampoo. It is hardly an issue.

How can I explain this? We learn to identify with the world around us as children; that becomes our culture and sets the tone for our lives. Growing up with “others” in school, having to have the same experiences with teachers and other students makes you the same. As with someone from a small town who learns to see his friends and neighbors as “his people”, New Yorkers learn to see the children of a large list of immigrants as “his people”. My culture was built out of my desire, as a child to go down the street for a slice of Sicilian pizza or some of the Chinese food from our neighbors next door. Those were my neighbors, friends and “my people”. As any teenage male does, I lusted for girls who happened to be around me for years in school. Whether they were Italian, British Protestant, Puerto Rican, black or Armenian, a crush was as crush. It was not something that needed to be analyzed in terms of ethnic and national boundaries.

This is not to say that New York is “better” than other places in the United States; there are a long laundry list of greivances that any New Yorker has against the city. The phrase “we are all brothers under the skin” tells the story, but not quite. I prefer “we are all in the same sinking ship”. For me and my fellow New Yorkers, all of our parents and grandparents pulled themselves up from nothing and the journey wasn’t always pleasant. All of us fought their way through school, hating the school system and wondering what we would do with our lives. All of us looked to the same set of Universities and considered working toward the same careers.

My point is that, like children growing up in a town of five hundred people, we in New York learned to bond with those around us. In this case “those around us” were descended from a hundred cultures, cultures that we began to accept as part of our own. In this era, full of conflict and hatred, there is something to be gained by knowing that your little piece of turf isn’t all there is and there is nothing disturbing or frightening by looking beyond its borders.  It is, after all, how we are taught to treat our fellow man.

Regards to all my friends back home. Someday I will go back and drink with the million “Irish for a day” New Yorkers. Italians, Germans, Estonians, Dominicans, Haitians, all celebrate on Saint Patrick’s day, the biggest ethnic holiday in the New York Year. It’s a day where everyone must wear green or they can be pinched. Not being Irish is not even remotely an excuse.

Thanks for listening.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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A brilliant new Novel: View from the Sixth Floor. Come meet the author.

Imagine fifty years of history has been turned on its ear. What if what we knew about the Kennedy assasination  was a lie. “View from the Sixth Floor” is an excellently crafted alternative history where the truth about the assination is yet to come out. A thriller laced with romance, this is an excellent read.

Come meet the author, Elizabeth Horton-Newton for a book signing at 801 Inskip Drive in Knoxville Tennesee on November 21. Elizabeth will describe her theory on the assasination.

Learn more about the most important event in the last century and get a signed copy of this engrossing book.

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Long live her Porcine Majesty: An American’s praise of Peppa Pig

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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Sounds pretty hoaky, doesn’t it? But I love Peppa Pig. I don’t love it because of what it does for my granddaughter because I’m not sure what the she gains by watching Peppa and, at the age of four, she’s not talking.
I love Peppa Pig
There are many reasons. First there is the unavoidable thrill of seeing families that are better and more healthy and nurturing than most I’ve seen. As you get older you start to realize that the truism that there are no normal families is not a truism. It is close to a truth. Living in a coherent community with parents who are always there to guide through difficult situations or to enhance learning opportunities is an amazing thing to watch, even when it involves cartoon animals.
There is also the human element, increasingly absent in American cartoons. I have seen Team Umizumi and marvel at their high tech, incremental teaching of shapes and math. I can’t dismiss the amazing hack of childhood learning that Milli, Geo and Bot manage to achieve over and over again. However, while the tiny trio can find pieces of a skateboard scattered through Umi city, I don’t think that pattern power could do much to help when Peppa and best friend, Suzie sheep, have a major falling out. Mighty math powers don’t make it when Peppa and her friend, dressed as various nations for special school day can’t find a way to get along.
There is nothing wrong with technical learning. Sesame Street in our own country pioneered the practice and passed the level of being iconic years ago. Yet even Sesame Street has a face and a personality. Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, all of them are as much a part of our American family as Mickey Mouse.
Paw Patrol comes closer to a presenting a family environment and a sense of community. But it also depends heavily on what I feel is the downfall of American cartoons: the tendency toward Glitz. For those a little too young to know the word, Glitz is sort of the bling of a media presentation, using slick animation technicques and breezy, empty dialogue reminiscent of “The right stugff”. There is very little humanity in repeated spiffy mottos like “Chase is on the case”.
I can see the value of a show like Paw Patrol even as I criticize it. The message is clearly that persistence and focus, and the desire to help others, can win the day. No limits. This has become a mantra in our country and, while it’s a valueable lesion, it ignores the complexities of facing the real issues in our personal lives.
Peppa and her friends are members of families, the crucibles that form the human mind. In terms of the complexity of family life and its constant challenges, this is where the rubber meets the road. Peppa, her brother George, and her parents deal with the same issues all families deal with. And, like most families, they are contentious, often become snarky with each other. Peppa is not at all hesitant to express her disgust over George’s obsession with dinosaurs and she expresses it often. Yet somehow, her parents seem to guide her and brother in the right direction, not letting a possible conflict become part of the fabric of their family. All in all Peppa and company are a class act. There are yelling matches between Peppa and her best friend, Susie Sheep. In the end it is Daddy Pig, my personal favorite, who lets the air out of the bag by telling a rather brassy Peppa and and argumentative Suzie that they need to realize that they are the same in their willfulness and that is why they are best friends.
There are many moments like this on Peppa pig. The characters are often pompous, overly proud and occasionally condescending. But when it hits the fan (yes I am American) they are together. This mirrors the truth of growing up in a family and a community.
If you have children, watch Peppa pig. Even if you don’t have children, if you are student of the human heart, watch Peppa Pig. It is the best “hack” of humanity I’ve ever seen in the media. It teaches you that working together as a family is possible and, in my opinion, it also teaches you that maintaining your bond with others is more important than becoming a real estate mogul in a big city.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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School shootings: An issue of responsibility

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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A school shooting, again. How can this be happening so often when, even twenty years ago, it was unthinkable? Something has changed drastically.

If trends are significant we can expect a school shooting every year or two. At Newtown, there was an effort made to find out why the shooting occurred, as though that might help us prevent another. I remember wondering what “conclusion” they would come to as to the cause of the tragedy, something that would be demanded by parents and the public. As I remember, there was a lot of speculation but nothing even close to definite.
We shouldn’t be surprised. These incidents are random and statistically rare, though horrific and newsworthy. What a psychotic does is not necessarily based on any kind of meaning that you or I can fathom. The reason that this teenage boy killed one person and injured at least four others was very clear to him but may never be to us. So what is the cause?

When the Newtown shooting occurred there was no end to “experts”, giving their spin on the reality of what paranoid schizophrenics do or don’t do. I remember that most of these experts gave similar opinions, usually veering into arguments about gun control and the effects of its absence.
Yet there was one expert who didn’t seem to belong. He was an intellectual, a doctor and a wise man. He spoke, not with the certainty of true believer, but with the pain of someone who understood the complexity of the human mind, and sees no easy solution. He was psychologist who had the nerve or bravery to state that the cause of these incidents was not the absence of effective gun control but the unexplainable and uncontrollable scourge of mental illness. It was almost painful to watch; this man seemed to know that he was a voice in the wilderness and no one would hear him.

His contention was that the only effective way of preventing these incidents was a more intense application of psychological evaluation of perspective offenders. To understand this we have to examine the profile of these perpetrators. Each of them is male, each shows signs of mental instability and most are less than 30. Though guns may be the easiest and most flamboyant way of committing mass murder, the true common element here is mental illness. Ferreting out this type of mental illness is the best and most consistent way of finding people with the potential for being a school shooter.

And that was the last time I heard this issue of mental illness mentioned in a way that was definite and causal. While I’ve heard it mentioned again, it’s never been discussed as part of a possible solution. There are reasons for that. Firstly, there is the disturbing scenario of what would amount to “reporting” people who show signs of mental instability and a possible tendency toward violence and anger. Like any other legal measure to limit someone’s freedom, detaining someone reported as having a potential for violent behavior creates the real possibility that anyone we find strange or distasteful could be arrested and held in custody. In essence anyone who has any type of obvious mental illness could be victimized and lose his freedom, even if they have no propensity for violence. This is a real danger and not something that most people would want to support.

The second reason is more of an opinion than anything else; my opinion. But this is a blog so here goes: As I see it, we have become dependent in our government to handle issues that we should become involved in. Unfortuntely,It is simpler for our government to satisfy the public by doing nothing and allowing people to focus on popular causes such as gun control. And it easier for us to leave it to the government to solve our problems. The result is that the issue gets thrown back and forth in a barrage of arguments, legal gambits, and debates, and never gets solved. This can be seen in the fact that the gun control movement has fizzled and is no longer repetitively presented on the news, as it was just after the Newtown incident. I would like to see statistics on gun crime to see if any of the measures taken right after Newtown to control guns made any difference. Oddly this is not a subject that is discussed in the press.

If that wise psychologist is right then our duty is to study the possibility of examining people who have shown a demonstrable tendency toward hostile and violent behavior. And if our psychologist is right then you can be sure our government knows this.

So let’s get back to the dangers. How can we institute a system where people who are reported as being potentially dangerous without having that system becoming corrupt and abusive. I have another opinion and since you are reading this you’ll get to hear it as well. The answer is: we start. There are hundreds, thousands of critical challenging issues that plague us. Child abuse, domestic abuse, unemployment, etc. We all know about unemployment. But do you know that four women die a day in our country at the hands of abusers who are known to them and often known to law enforcement.

The main difficulty in preventing many of these crimes is that it involves the government; a known risk-averse entity: detaining or maintaining surveillance on a known domestic abuser is illegal except when a crime is explicitly committed. This is often true when there is a clear pattern of violence and threat, The fact is that the laws aren’t there to protect women from being killed. Legislators are just beginning to open their eyes to the problem; a few are creating laws that defend women and their children.
And so, as horrible as it sounds, the death of women is an acceptable bit of collateral damage that is built into our justice system. That is how bad it is in the U.S. But let’s return to school shootings. Let’s say we develop a system where people are allowed to report behavior that suggest possible violence. Of course there will be a lot of false reporting based on motivations that will range from insanity on the part of the reporter to out and out lying. This IS a danger. The government and law enforcement will be no more interested in putting their hands in that legal light socket than they are interested in creating a system of preventative surveillance that will protect domestic abuse victims.

How do we face this? It will involve developing a pilot program that attempts to mitigate the inevitable dangers found in preventing random violent behavior. Here, again, is my opinion:
1. Once a “suspect” is established to be potentially violent, we appoint an experienced lawyer, on the municipal dime, to defend this person. In this case, the person reported would have someone actively trying to prove that there is no danger and that no action needs to be taken.

2. In this plan, there would also be an investigator who would be responsible for interviewing possible witnesses and finding corroborating reports of the suspect’s disturbing behavior. Of course they may find out that there is no real indication that the suspect has shown any violent behavior which would add a level of protection to a suspect. If there is enough indication that there is imminent danger, a full psychological examination would be the next step. Finally I suggest a hearing where the evidence from both sides is examined; a judge would preside over this hearing. It would be the judge’s responsibility to decide if the suspect requires surveillance, including an ankle bracelet, periodic searches of his or her home and regular psychological evaluations for an indefinite period.

Outrageous? Certainly. We don’t do things like that. It costs far too much and we don’t spend that kind of money even if it’s proven that hundreds of people die a year, as with domestic abuse. This type of process is a gray area and would take years to set up. And we don’t know if it would work. So we don’t do anything.
This is not an excellent plan; I am not in law enforcement and I’m sure there are major flaws with this idea. However, I feel that it is our, the citizens, responsibility to push for major changes in the way we handle possible offenders and leaving to the solution to the polarizing debate over gun control is not the answer.
Let’s be honest: someone can get a gun online or through a private sale. If someone can’t get a gun they will resort to explosives, poison, knives or one of many other numerous weapons. The point for a perpetrator is not use guns, but to kill. Someone bent on killing will find a way.

Of course I can go on forever. The point is we need to take responsibility and persuade our legislators to pass laws that have a chance of stopping this. Otherwise it will go on and the victims will be the price of our waiting.

Neil Newton: Author of the The Railroad on Amazon

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