Fransic P. DeStefano

Fransic P. DeStefano

Tuesday, 19 May 2020 13:36

"The Lives of Others"

“The Lives of Others”

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano is a long-time subscriber to the St. Croix Review. He holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.

The Socialist ideas of Senator Bernie Sanders have been tested in many laboratories of human experience over the past one hundred years. We have the example of Socialism in Russia that began with the Communist revolution in 1917. We have the example of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany that led to World War II and the Holocaust. We have the example of Maoism in China during the great purge that murdered over 20 million people. We have the example of the various Socialist “republics” set up in Eastern Europe after World War II. Practically on our doorstep is the example of Cuba, a model for Sanders, under the dictatorial regime of the Castro brothers.

All of these Socialist experiments began with high-sounding ideals and slogans but all degenerated into police states ruled by a small minority of party bigwigs and their bureaucratic servants. I was reminded of this the other day while re-viewing a truly fine 2006 German film,The Lives of Others.

Before the collapse of the Berlin wall, East Germany’s population was closely monitored by the State Secret Police or Stasi.  Only a few citizens above suspicion were permitted to lead private lives. The film revolves around a loyal and favored East German playwright and his beautiful actress girlfriend. When a corrupt government official falls for the actress, an ambitious Stasi policeman is ordered to bug the writer’s apartment to gain incriminating evidence against the rival. It is a good story, extremely well told, and it won an Oscar for best foreign film.

The story plays out against the background of Socialism in the German Democratic Republic or GDR with its ruthless and inhumane interrogation tactics, and its constant spying on and surveillance of an incredible number of ordinary people considered to be potential enemies of the Socialist republic. Its depiction of interrogation techniques is especially chilling.

However, the film makes it clear that it was not just the secret police and their tactics that were at fault. The whole system was corrupt. Socialist idealism easily gave way to corruption and cronyism. Party bosses ruled with an iron hand. They ruled by fear. They struck fear into their immediate underlings, who in turn struck fear into their own subordinates. There was no real equality. The workers’ paradise had turned into hell. The film claims that the suicide rate in the GDR was so high, that the government, which counted everything else, just stopped publishing suicide statistics.

Although we have so far been spared a Socialist revolution in the U.S.A., many aspects of Socialism have crept in by the back door. I live next to Bridgeport, the most populous city in Connecticut. For years, Bridgeport has been a one-party city. It’s Democratic Party leaders not only control municipal government, but also usually manage to bring out enough votes to play a key role in state elections.

A few years ago these politicians managed to bring back into office a former mayor who had spent time in prison for corruption during his first administration. Almost immediately he cleaned house ostensibly to balance the budget but also to get rid of political enemies and find jobs for his own supporters.

From Connecticut to California politicians and so-called public service unions rack up budget-busting benefits and pensions that are out of the reach of the people they are supposed to serve. I call this back door Socialism, where all are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Young millennials may choose to ignore the sordid history of old Socialist regimes or the cronyism of local politics, but they might consider their own personal experience with contemporary Socialism. Most recent college graduates do not realize that they experienced Socialism while in college. I am not talking about the professors who are overwhelmingly left wing.

My grandchildren tell me that the things they hated most while in college were the dorms and the cafeteria food. They couldn't wait to get out of the dorms and away from the cafeteria. Like most of us, they wanted to live with their friends off campus and eat the kind of food they liked. They certainly did not want administrators telling them where and how to live or what was good for them to eat.

Senator Sanders may claim that there are more benevolent versions of Socialism than the ones he has praised in the past. He claims that he is a “Democratic Socialist.” But in his incessant attacks on corporations that employ most American workers and provide them with benefits unheard of in all of human history, he sounds as rabid as the revolutionaries of old. We just have to look at the problems in blue states like California and Illinois to make us think that democratic or back door Socialism only works for a privileged few.     *

Wednesday, 18 December 2019 10:17

"Fences"

“Fences”

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano is a long-time subscriber to the St. Croix Review. He holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.

 

“Fences” stars Denzell Washington who also directed this film adaptation of the stage play of the same name by August Wilson. Actually, “Fences” is one of a series of ten stage plays by Wilson about life in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Wilson wrote the screenplay for this film and received a nomination for best screenplay despite having died in 2005.

Denzell Washington does a great job as the lead character Troy, a garbage man for the city of Pittsburgh, who has never gotten over the fact that he was born too early to break the Major League Baseball color barrier. He is angry and bitter despite the devotion of his loving wife, played beautifully by Viola Davis.

Troy also has two grown sons neither of whom is he able to appreciate or even understand. The eldest son, the product of his first marriage, is a musician whom the father will never go to hear. The other son is a seventeen-year-old high school football standout who is being recruited to play in college, an idea totally opposed by his father. Troy has toiled for years to support his wife and children, as well as a brother who was mentally damaged by a head wound while serving in WW II. Troy is a man who understands his responsibilities despite the fact that he ran away from home in Alabama at the age of 14 after a brutal beating by his own father.

Denzell Washington did not win the Academy Award for Best Actor but his performance was good enough to win. Viola Davis should have won the award for Best Actress but apparently she and her advisors decided to seek only the nomination for Best Supporting Actress, which she did win. The film was nominated for best picture but did not win, even though I believe it will be an American classic.

Watching the story play out on the screen I could not help but think that the situation of Troy in Pittsburg was not much different from my own father’s in New York City’s borough of Queens back in 1956. Like Troy, my father had somehow managed to buy a home in a poor to lower middle-class neighborhood. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment with one tiny bathroom. There was a kitchen with an old table where we had our meals. There was no dining room. It makes me laugh today when I watch home shows on TV where the young people insist on granite or better countertops. We had no counters at all.

My father was born about the same time as Troy to parents who had migrated to New York City from impoverished, rural Italy. He was of that second generation that had one foot in the old world and one in the new. In a sense, Troy’s situation was similar. He was an immigrant to industrial Pittsburgh from rural Alabama. After running away from home, Troy turned to robbery to survive but wound up in prison where he learned to play baseball.

But August Wilson’s Troy is a man who was never able to fulfill his baseball dream. He is a strong, talented man but still winds up in Pittsburgh working on a garbage truck. My father was a mechanical genius who could fix practically anything but never even got through grade school. He was working in his father’s store when he got married, but went to work in a defense plant when WWII broke out.

There were so many things about Troy that reminded me of my father. He was outgoing and sociable. He had many friends with whom he talked, drank, and played cards. They all liked him. My mother died when I was just 11 and though my father would never forget her he soon found another woman in much the same way as Troy did.

I was 17 in 1956, he same age as Troy’s younger son. I was not an athlete but I was an outstanding student. In both cases our teachers were expecting and urging us to go to college, something our fathers did not value or understand. Troy’s son became a Marine but I went to Fordham University, the same school that Denzell Washington attended.

August Wilson’s film is about the black experience in America, but Wilson also claimed that he wrote to show whites that blacks experienced many of the same things as they did. He wrote,

“I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans. . . . For instance, in ‘Fences’ they see a garbage man, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. But looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same things — love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”

He certainly succeeded in “Fences.”     *

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