“Food Is A Basic Statement of Humanity.”

(This New York Times Op-Ed by Jose Andres, the founder of World Central Kitchen, published on April 3, 2024, may well be the most important and powerful collection of words published thus far this year. It is urgent that Andres’ message be distributed—and immediate global humanitarian action taken—worldwide. It is a matter of life, or mass death by starvation in Gaza.)

By Jose Andres, Founder of World Central Kitchen:

Published in the New York Times, April 3, 2024,

“LET PEOPLE EAT.”

In the worst conditions you can imagine — after hurricanes, earthquakes, bombs and gunfire — the best of humanity shows up. Not once or twice but always.

The seven people killed on a World Central Kitchen mission in Gaza on Monday were the best of humanity. They are not faceless or nameless. They are not generic aid workers or collateral damage in war.

Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, John Chapman, Jacob Flickinger, Zomi Frankcom, James Henderson, James Kirby and Damian Sobol risked everything for the most fundamentally human activity: to share our food with others.

These are people I served alongside in Ukraine, Turkey, Morocco, the Bahamas, Indonesia, Mexico, Gaza and Israel. They were far more than heroes.

Their work was based on the simple belief that food is a universal human right. It is not conditional on being good or bad, rich or poor, left or right. We do not ask what religion you belong to. We just ask how many meals you need.

From Day 1, we have fed Israelis as well as Palestinians. Across Israel, we have served more than 1.75 million hot meals. We have fed families displaced by Hezbollah rockets in the north. We have fed grieving families from the south. We delivered meals to the hospitals where hostages were reunited with their families. We have called consistently, repeatedly and passionately for the release of all the hostages.

All the while, we have communicated extensively with Israeli military and civilian officials. At the same time, we have worked closely with community leaders in Gaza, as well as Arab nations in the region. There is no way to bring a ship full of food to Gaza without doing so.

That’s how we served more than 43 million meals in Gaza, preparing hot food in 68 community kitchens where Palestinians are feeding Palestinians.

We know Israelis. Israelis, in their heart of hearts, know that food is not a weapon of war.

Israel is better than the way this war is being waged. It is better than blocking food and medicine to civilians. It is better than killing aid workers who had coordinated their movements with the Israel Defense Forces.

The Israeli government needs to open more land routes for food and medicine today. It needs to stop killing civilians and aid workers today. It needs to start the long journey to peace today.

In the worst conditions, after the worst terrorist attack in its history, it’s time for the best of Israel to show up. You cannot save the hostages by bombing every building in Gaza. You cannot win this war by starving an entire population.

We welcome the government’s promise of an investigation into how and why members of our World Central Kitchen family were killed. That investigation needs to start at the top, not just the bottom.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said of the Israeli killings of our team, “It happens in war.” It was a direct attack on clearly marked vehicles whose movements were known by the Israel Defense Forces.

It was also the direct result of a policy that squeezed humanitarian aid to desperate levels. Our team was en route from a delivery of almost 400 tons of aid by sea — our second shipment, funded by the United Arab Emirates, supported by Cyprus and with clearance from the Israel Defense Forces.

The team members put their lives at risk precisely because this food aid is so rare and desperately needed. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification global initiative, half the population of Gaza — 1.1. million people — faces the imminent risk of famine. The team would not have made the journey if there were enough food, traveling by truck across land, to feed the people of Gaza.

The peoples of the Mediterranean and Middle East, regardless of ethnicity and religion, share a culture that values food as a powerful statement of humanity and hospitality — of our shared hope for a better tomorrow.

There’s a reason, at this special time of year, Christians make Easter eggs, Muslims eat an egg at iftar dinners and an egg sits on the Seder plate. This symbol of life and hope reborn in spring extends across religions and cultures.

I have been a stranger at Seder dinners. I have heard the ancient Passover stories about being a stranger in the land of Egypt, the commandment to remember — with a feast before you — that the children of Israel were once slaves.

It is not a sign of weakness to feed strangers; it is a sign of strength. The people of Israel need to remember, at this darkest hour, what strength truly looks like.

Moaning Ronna & the Half-News Network.

(Moaning Myrtle image from wizardingworld.com)

Moaning Ronna McDaniel, flushed down the toilet pipes at 30 Rock, lasted half as long as a “paid” NBC political commentator than Anthony Scaramucci did as White House Communications Director under Donald Trump. 

When it comes to hiring decisions, and trying to use them to buy unbridled access, bigger audiences and more moolah, neither NBC, nor DJT ever learn. They consistently make terrible decisions because they have terrible reasons for their colossal screw-ups.   

What got lost in the uproar over Moaning Ronna at NBC, was that we’ve seen this same old re-run before and before and before, at the corporate media House that “Truth” never even attempted to build.  It’s all part of the same, endless, cynical sideshow of selling the news as entertainment, and entertainment as, well, excrement.

Precisely twenty years after a couple of egomanical media moguls named Jeff Zucker and Mark Burnett transformed the serial failure, fraud, philanderer, and mobster-wannabe–Donald J. Trump—into their imaginary model of a  “successful businessman,” launching Trump’s deranged political career, their old network was nostalgic for that familiar feeling of conspicuous corporate failure.

At that time, NBC’s management transformed Trump into a global celebrity, forking over some $216 million to him for 14 seasons of “The Apprentice.” And, it was NBC Entertainment “reporter,” Billy Bush to whom Trumped bragged about, on tape, of “grabbing them by the pussy.”  So easy. So entertaining. Such garbage.

This time, it was NBC Universal’s News Group Chairman Cesar Conde’s turn, a former White House Fellow in the Republican Administration of George W. Bush, who was was forced to fire Ronna right away, when a bi-partisan line-up of some of the Network’s biggest on-air talents went public with their Ronna-rage. 

In an email to all NBC staff reported on by Reuters and in The  Signorile Report,  Conde  announced the he was getting rid of Ronna, but that he was “committed to the principle that we must have diverse viewpoints on our programs… we will redouble our efforts to seek voices that represent different parts of the political spectrum.” 

Not even Duolingo could speak out of as many sides of its mouth as Conde, who, as the first Latino to lead a major American news organization, launched the “50 Percent Challenge,” to promote newsroom diversity.   During Ronna’s run at the RNC, the Republican Party, led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, made ending all DEI programs—Diversity, Equity & Inclusion—in both the public and private sectors, their culture-war target.  Had Conde suddenly forgotten his life-long commitment to promoting diversity, in order to give airtime to a political operative who devoted her last four years to ending it?

What precisely was Conde aiming for with “diverse viewpoints” or “different parts of the political spectrum?”   Didn’t this sound a lot like Trump’s “fine people on both sides,” after Charlottesville, especially since Ronna had merely winked at Trump’s most racist comments, like his use of the term “vermin” and “animals” to describe new immigrants?  Since Ronna regularly regurgitated Trump’s oft-repeated lies of “caravans” of immigrants storming our Southern border?  Was Conde looking to add a prominent enabler of a racist, recidivist liar, of a convicted fraud and sex abuser, to the NBC/MSNBC “political spectrum?”  

Or, possibly far worse, as Michelangelo Signorile wrote in The Signorile Report:

“What Conde’s really talking about is seeking Trump-supporting pundits—MAGA. But that’s simply not compatible with the mission of journalism, which is to represent the truth. And it’s certainly not compatible with defending democracy. You can’t have election deniers and people who supported—much less engaged in—a coup against this country as paid contributors”

Those were the very same arguments eloquently made by an array of NBC on-air talent from Chuck Todd to Rachel Maddow, and from two of MSNBC’s more well-known Republican “news” people, former GOP Congressman Chuck Scarborough, and Conde’s own colleague from the Bush Administration, Nicole Wallace.  Wallace, it should be noted, as Director of Communications, was neck deep in the Bush re-election campaign of 2004, when Karl Rove was the “architect” of a vile nationwide campaign of hate against the LGBTQ community. 

And, ironically, MSNBC—whose President Rashida Jones was silent when Conde, her boss, was rushing Ronna to the Green Room–had just recently given another former National Republican Party Chair, Michael Steele, a show of his own on weekend mornings, pairing him up with former Democratic political operative Symone Sanders-Townshend.  Outside of Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, where were the journalists here?  Is Journalism even a profession anymore, or just a procession of recycled politicians and political hacks?

In the aftermath of several years of network sanitized hate speech; a violent attempt to overthrow the U.S. government; concrete evidence that the new political party of  Trump, Manafort, Stone, and Ronna McDaniel collaborated with the Russians against American national security interests; specific steps taken in several States to violate State Election laws, and undermine people’s faith in American democracy, where was any sense of news judgment or respect for the First Amendment coming from anyone in a decision making capacity at NBC?   Did the last 8 years not happen, as the Trump gang wants us to believe? Was Rudy right?  Is “truth” really not truth?

This was not the same old GOP (it was never benign) that Conde had cut his teeth on, nor the Republican Party of Nicole Wallace, Michael Steele, or any other person on NBC’s payroll.  This entity, had descended into a criminal cult, built on fear-mongering, kleptocracy, personal threats, and sometimes physical violence, against local election and law enforcement officials, with no respect for the Rule of Law or any other American institutions of government.   This was Donald Trump’s party, and Ronna McDaniel was simply permitted to cheerlead, and put up the decorations for it.  How could anyone in the news businesses, especially the head of NBC’s News Division, not see this? And if he couldn’t, how could the public possibly be expected to?

Sure, after Rachel Maddow excoriated NBC Management, and built a meticulous case of how Ronna’s GOP handed Trump the high-powered vehicle of a major political institution to deliver Fascism to America, she patted the NBC decision-makers on their backs, when they had the “courage” to reverse themselves.

Et tu, Rachel? Did you really come to praise this Cesar and not bury him? Why are you letting these decision-making douche-bags off the hook so easily? 

They failed, big time, yet again, without seeking out any input from the working journalists who have covered Donald Trump and the GOP for the past 8 years.  Many of those legitimate journalists, like Katy Tur, even wrote books about how Trump and his many enablers and blind followers have put our democracy at grave risk. 

 Now, all of a sudden, NBC’s executives have “courage”, because they made a decision which was catastrophic for the network, the news organization, and honest journalism—if it even still exists— and then, when things got too hot, and the cost to the company becomes far too great, you’re giving them “courage” badges for cleaning up the mess they created?   Really?  Am I hearing you right, Rachel?

What ever happened to accountability?  To consequences?  To process?  Aren’t leaders of such pillars of democracy supposed to take these things into consideration before they make such disasterous decisions?  Isn’t that what responsible leadership does?

 Is it enough for Jeff Zucker and Mark Burnett to apologize to everyone in the U.S. and the free world now, 20 years too late, for fueling Trump’s rise to power for their own fun, profit and self-aggrandizement?  Is it enough to say, “sorry, we screwed democracy and human rights for entertainment and profit, but we just couldn’t resist?” 

If you believe Cesar Conde’s carefully crafted mea culpa is enough to earn him a “profile in courage” award, then we are in far, far deeper danger than any boiler-plate political opinion or MAGA cheer from Moaning Ronna would have wrought.

Two Rabbis & A Senator Cry Out for Peace and Humanity.

The night before Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer—the highest ranking Jewish elected leader in American history—took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to give an historic speech on US/Israeli relations, a Rabbi in Santa Rosa, California, delivered a similar, searing, and deeply personal message.

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Like Schumer, the Rabbi, George Gittleman of Congregation Shomrei Torah, spent many months since October 7, agonizing over, writing, rewriting and crafting his message.  The subject was too important—and a lifetime of feelings far too powerful– not to get it exactly correct.

Like Schumer, Gittleman is a life-long supporter of Israel, spending years studying there, and many more years guest lecturing and visiting.

And, like Schumer, our Rabbi walked us through the historical context behind the creation of Israel, the millennia long presence of both Palestinians and Jews in the region, and the facts of the present Israel/Hamas war. 

While Schumer, and his love for Judaism were growing in Brooklyn, N.Y, where he was born, Bar Mitzvahed, studied Torah and became a public official, Rabbi Gittleman was studying for the Rabbinate in Jerusalem during the First Intifada, and recoiling in horror as terrorists blew themselves up—and many innocent Israelis–on crowded buses.

Schumer and Gittleman have solid bonafides for their passion for a humane, loving Judaism, and a fundamental commitment to Israel’s existence.

Gittleman, the son of a prominent Rabbi from Louisville, Kentucky, came later in life to his rabbinical studies, and has, since his ordination by the Reform Seminary of Hebrew Union College in 1996, pursued a progressive, humanitarian approach to his faith. He has headed the egalitarian, Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah, Santa Rosa, for the past 28 years.

Schumer, whose ancestors came from Western Ukraine, is also a member of a Reform Synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, despite his long time support of the increasingly nationalistic AIPAC:  the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which, in recent years, has spent millions of dollars opposing many of Schumer’s fellow Democrats in Congress, who have been critical of the extreme right-wing Netanyahu government.

 In fact, Schumer—who opposed the Obama/Biden Administration’s US/Iran Nuclear Agreement– was one of the leading members of the US Senate who invited Netanyahu to speak before Congress in 2015, and express his opposition to that agreement, making him the first Prime Minister of Israel to thrust himself directly into American politics. Schumer was up for re-election the following year, and New York’s large Jewish constituency was important in any statewide election.

While Senator Schumer’s strong record of support for Israel was both personal and pragmatic, Rabbi Gittleman’s was profoundly personal, without any consideration of politics.  

In his decades as a spiritual & community leader in Northern California, one of the most naturally beautiful regions of the US, Gittleman carved out a compassionate career as a leading advocate for the environment, for human and civil rights, and “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world.)  In 2010, he wrote an important article for the Reform Jewish Quarterly about using Maimonides’ teachings as “an environmental ethic for our time,” elevating the protection of our natural world to a moral issue.

It then came as no surprise to many of Gittleman’s congregants, that “Rabbi George,” as he prefers to be called, would feel compelled to speak about the war raging in Gaza, between Israel and Hamas, the slaughter of some 1,200 Israelis at the hands of Hamas and the taking of hostages; the deaths of more than 30,000 non-Hamas Palestinians (mostly women and children), and the catastrophic humanitarian crisis and mass starvation in Gaza.  Those of us who admire the man, appreciate his ability to sense what’s causing his “Temple family” great emotional stress, and express it sensitively and without bias.

Speaking less than 24 hours before Schumer on opposite coasts, Gittleman gently discussed  “asymmetrical war” (no uniforms, no clear battlefields) and the greater moral burden it placed on individual front-line soldiers to make the “right” decisions.   He cited the Code of Ethics for the IDF, formulated by, among others. Dr. Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Law and Ethics, at NYU, and of Jewish Thought and Philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

The Code of Ethics, required as part of basic training for IDF soldiers, consists of four essential principles:

·      NECESSITY:  “to apply force only for the sake of the mission,” (which differentiates soldiers from thugs who rape and randomly destroy);

·      DISTINCTION:  “aim your fire at those who pose a threat, NOT at combatants indiscriminately (and NOT at non-combatants at all, even if they are standing on the sidelines cheering on your enemy);

·      RESPONSIBILITY:  “since you know there will be collateral harm of civilians, you have to do whatever you can to MINIMIZE the expected collateral harm.”

·      PROPORTIONALITY:  “Is the expected collateral harm proportionate to the military achievement?”  (To illustrate this principle, Dr. Halbertal uses the example of a lone sniper on the rooftop of a building housing some 30 civilian non-combatants. To destroy the sniper with a missile or bomb that destroys the entire building and the 30 innocent civilians inside, IS NOT PROPORTIONAL, by any measure of ethics or law.)

The “Proportionality” principle of the IDF Code of Ethics was so pertinent to the present situation in Gaza, where tens of thousands of non-combatant women and children have been killed in hospitals, schools and their homes, it took my breath away when the Rabbi spelled it out.   It became clear that while the IDF did attempt to minimize “collateral harm” in its battles with Hamas in 2014, there was little attempt to do that today, with 30,000 Palestinians dead.   

Particularly, as Dr. Halbertal said to the Jewish Theological Seminary in his presentation, “for every combatant (Hamas fighter) there are 60 non-combatants.”  With such a staggering ratio, “proportionality” as a key principle of the IDF Code of Ethics, appears to have been abandoned in this war.

The following morning, on the floor of the United States Senate, Chuck Schumer’s speech headed in the same direction, as Rabbi Gittleman’s:

SCHUMER:

 “ I am anguished that the Israeli war campaign has killed so many innocent Palestinians. I know that my fellow Jewish Americans feel this same anguish when they see the images of dead and starving children and destroyed homes.

Gaza is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe — entire families wiped out, whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble, mass displacement, children suffering.

We should not let the complexities of this conflict stop us from stating the plain truth: Palestinian civilians do not deserve to suffer for the sins of Hamas, and Israel has a moral obligation to do better. The United States has an obligation to do better.

I believe the United States must provide robust humanitarian aid to Gaza, and pressure the Israelis to let more of it get through to the people who need it”.

Senator Schumer then went on to call Netanyahu an “obstacle to peace,” urging Israelis to demand a new election, and specifically criticized ultra-Far Right Ministers Bezalel Smotrich (Finance) and Ben-Gvir, previously rejected by the Israeli military for his extremist activities, who now, astonishingly, heads Israeli National Security.

Apparently, according to a New York Times story of March 19, 2024, entitled “Part of my Core:  How Schumer Decided to Speak Out Against Netanyahu,” Schumer too, was influenced by what his Rabbi was saying.

Rabbi Rachel Timoner, who has spoken eloquently like Rabbi Gittleman, about the excruciating moral questions raised by this war in Gaza, told Schumer that the Far Right Extremists in Netanyahu’s government were :  “endangering all of us because their agenda is about dehumanizing Palestinians, and it’s undermining Israel’s democracy and dearest values.”

Timoner told the New York Times, that she and Senator Schumer:

 “share the belief that Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas but talked about the desperate need to bring the hostages home and end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza through an agreement…  even if we would only care about Israel’s safety and security, this war was actually harming Israel on the world stage and its relationship with the United States.”

Rabbi Timoner went on to tell The Times, what she thought of Schumer’s speech:

 “This was him trying to discern the moral path and trying to step up in a way he knew was risky for him, to do something that he felt deeply was right.”

Rabbis Gittleman and Timoner, from communities as diverse as Brooklyn, N.Y, and Santa Rosa, CA, have given us clear, unencumbered moral and ethical lenses from which to view this War in Gaza.

The next time Netanyahu or a spokesperson for his government, or AIPAC, or a one-sided publication or media outlet, or someone in your own congregation, or family, says that a majority of American Jews support Israel’s War against Hamas, ask them if they know about the IDF’s Code of Ethics, and the principles of Necessity, Distinction, Responsibility and Proportionality.

 Ask if they think Israel’s response to the brutal massacre of 1,200 innocent Israelis, violent rapes, and the taking of hostages has been proportionate to the collateral “human” harm done to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian non-combatants, and a population of 1.5 million people, mostly children, on the brink of mass starvation.

Then, continue to work for peace, our common humanity, and to repair a badly damaged world.  That is our collective responsibility.

Greenberg, Orban & Putin: Trump’s GOP?

(In an illustration from the Financial Times of London, Vladimir Putin congratulates Viktor Orban of Hungary on a job well done.)

Did Vikkktor Orban come with gold?

Would Putin’s bagman be so bold?

The same day he arrives from Hungary,

Trump’s bonded debt is suddenly fungery…

Orban the mule for Putin’s rubles?

None of these thugs have ANY scruples.

What’s billions of dollars to hijack democracy?

It won’t be missed in their kleptocracies.

They bought him once in 0’ sixteen,

Then bribed his cultists in between.

Now bleeding bucks and out of dough,

Trump’s still for sale, with Mar-A-Lago.

Kite the payoffs through shells,

Chubb Insurance? Gee, thanks!

Use unscrupulous U.S. businessmen

To cover your flanks.

Trump’s tiny hands in their pockets,

Since his are so empty.

Why aren’t DOJ, SEC,

Acting pre-emptly?

He’ll blow apart NATO

Surrender Ukraine,

If Putin and lackeys

Make money rain.

They’ll pay his fines,

Wipe out his debt;

Control of U.S. secrets,

The least they would get.

On Tucker, On Bannon,

On Miller, On Putin,

Who needs insurrection,

When its easier lootin’?

(NOTE TO READERS: I started drafting this poem on the day after Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, and bagman for Putin, arrived in Mar-A-Lago to visit Donald Trump—at virtually the same time President Biden was beginning his State of the Union address, calling for the urgent defense of democracy. Within 24-hours of Orban’s arrival in Florida, Trump announced that he had miraculously found the $91 million he needed to come up with as a surety bond in the E. Jean Carroll defamation & sexual assault verdict against him.

I thought it was fishy that the money didn’t flow until Orban hit Mar-A-Lago. Turns out, Viktor Orban might not be Putin’s only bag man, delivering money with strings to a flat-broke Donald Trump. Independent journalist and fellow Substack writer Seth Abramson has followed the money in series of astonishing exposes, which traces it through several sources with Russian financial connections.

Among those sources are Evan Greenberg’s Chubb Insurance Company, which guaranteed the first $91 million Trump bond. Greenberg, who held an advisory post in the Trump Administration, is the son of Maurice Greenberg, the longtime boss of AIG, who also ran a Russian investment vehicle known as Starr International, according to Abramson. In fact, Abramson identifies Maurice Greenberg, now 98 years old, as “ a Vladimir Putin business associate, who is also associated with Russian spies, other Kremlin agents, and the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign.” (See link to Abramson’s article below.)

However, Abramson, whose 3-part series is a scathing indictment of the major American businessmen being used by Putin to leverage Trump, wasn’t the only one to smell something rotten. On Friday, March 8, The New Republic ran a story headlined: “What Idiot Backed Trump’s Bond in E. Jean Carroll Trial? This One.” The focus of the story was on Chubb Insurance CEO Evan Greenberg. The New Republic story went on to report:

“ Court records filed Friday (March 8, 2024) show that the bond was guaranteed by the Chubb Corporation, an insurance group. In 2018, Trump appointed Chubb’s CEO Evan Greenberg to a White House advisory committee for trade policy and negotiations.”

Yes, Trump never stops grifting off of whomever he can get to grift for him. Beyond the Greenbergs, the Chubb Corporation and their national and international insurance dealings, lurks a few urgent questions which may affect U.S. National Security, the security of NATO and the free world:

  • How deeply is Putin behind all of this?
  • What has Trump promised to the Russians in exchange for paying his bonds?
  • Shouldn’t the DOJ, the SEC, the NSA, the CIA and perhaps the U.S. Senate launch investigations into whether the payment of this bond money by third parties, foreign nationals, or, potentially, laundered sources amount to bribery, and violations of national security?
  • And, almost as if on cue, Orban told the BBC on March 11, 2024, after leaving Mar-A-Lago, that Trump told him that if he is elected President in November, “Ukraine would not get another cent from the United States.”
  • Isn’t that precisely the outcome Putin wants?

Following Our Friend: BD Wong & the Golden Thread.

(From left to right: the author; the artist/activist BD Wong; the anchorman, Dan Rather, educating the world about HIV/AIDS.)

“Swifties” have nothing on me, except, perhaps, more disposable income, and a die-hard’s determination to stand in line for hours to get tickets, or at the barricades of sold out concerts. The question is, whether they’ll still love her tomorrow, and whether her work and life will open their eyes to the “Golden Thread.”

Before the talented Taylor Swift was performing, and packing stadiums and arenas worldwide, BD Wong was there. And, so was I.

Before the members of the “slay” (my 15-year old granddaughter’s word) all girl group Boy Genius were born — and, winning Grammy Awards — BD Wong was there. So were we.

No, BD didn’t pack stadiums, nor win Grammies, but in his breathtaking, gender-bending Broadway debut in M. Butterfly, he won every award in the Broadway universe, including the Tony Award. And, the highly acclaimed bright, new Broadway star, born in San Francisco of Chinese ancestry, was six years younger than the 34-year old Taylor Swift when he arrived, as the talk of the town.

His role as the remarkable Chinese cross-dressing spy/opera singer Song Liling, starring opposite John Lithgow, may not have earned him a billion dollars, but the accolades for this astonishing young actor poured in from around the world, paying priceless dividends for Wong and his adoring throng, as well as for other Asian-American actors, for decades to come.

Years later (2015–2019), in the wildly popular USA Network series Mr. Robot, BD Wong –channeling a little of Song Liling — played the role of a transgender Chinese government official, White Rose, whom GQ’s Caity Weaver described as: “ a hacker and a politician who schemes in Mandarin and lies in English.”

Yet, unlike the calculating character he played in David Henry Hwang’s revolutionary M. Butterfly, some 30 years earlier, Wong actually likes his fans, and makes them (us) feel like part of his extended family. Memorably, Song (not Wong) told us how he/she felt about “loyal fans”:

“I love them for being my fans. I hate the smell they leave behind. I too, can distance myself from my people. ‘Art for the masses’ is a shitty excuse to keep artists poor.”

And, unlike his character of Song Liling, who knitted an intricate web of deceit over 20 years to ensnare a French diplomat in a Chinese Spy ring — flipping the entire premise and script of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly — BD Wong’s artistry and insightfulness about all of the characters he would come to play on Broadway, on Television and in the movie — is informed by an honesty, humanity and a gift of being able to touch audiences deeply. That’s how those gifts affected me, and connected me to BD on so many levels, well before we became friends.

Ironically, the themes of sexism, racism and colonialism, which M. Butterfly brilliantly unveiled, reared their ugly heads in the real world, after M. Butterfly’s 2-year, 777 performance run was concluded. Those realities transformed BD Wong from a young actor revealing these harsh truths on stage, to an accidental activist, who would open multiple doors of opportunities for Asian actors, and many, many others from underrepresented communities.

An equivalent action for Taylor Swift today, would be for the superstar to use her vast resources to confront the chilling crusade of Christian Nationalists aimed at crushing anyone who is different, especially if they are LGBTQ, female, or free from their Taliban-like tentacles. There is no media-acceptable middle ground.

In 1990, both Wong and David Henry Hwang, led an organized protest to Broadway’s Actors Equity Association, when the London production of Miss Saigon, announced it was coming to Broadway. In London, the white, Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce, played the lead role of Engineer, an “Euroasian” pimp, for which he wore a prosthetic device to make him “look” part Vietnamese.

Wong and Hwang — fresh off their enormous success with M.Butterfly — made it clear that Pryce’s portrayal (they had seen the play in London) was demeaning to Asians, and that the entire tone of the play was racist and sexist. It was an updated version of Madame Butterfly, with a helicopter, instead of a boat, reeking of racism, misogyny, and imperialism — precisely the central themes eloquently exposed in M. Butterfly.

Initially, Actor’s Equity sided with Wong and Hwang, urging the play’s producers to “break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.” However, in one of the earliest nationwide backlashes against diversity, equity and inclusion — foreshadowing the twisted victimization of people of privilege in 2024 — editorials in the LA Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal all supported Pryce. Miss Saigon opened in NYC in the spring of 1991, with Pryce in the lead role. When producer Cameron Mackintosh threatened to close down the already pre-sold out show if he couldn’t have his Pryce, the actor’s union relented.

I was working with Governor Mario M. Cuomo at Two World Trade Center in lower Manhattan at that time, and found BD’s courageous campaign for greater diversity, representation and inclusion — especially by a new, young actor with a lot to lose — to be on the front-lines of what we were confronting in the early, nearly-frozen MAGA embryos of the Reagan/Bush years.

Almost daily, especially during most of 1991 when Mario Cuomo was everyone’s favorite presidential candidate who never ran, we were battling to defend difference itself, and against anti-Italian stereotypes in government and the arts. Roger Stone, scumbag supreme, and still a fetid, festering infection on the American body-politic, told the great New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, “ I saw a poll from Texas a week ago, where three people asked if Cuomo was an American name.” Italian-Americans, like Blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and the LGBTQ community, were considered the “others.”

It didn’t help that Gambino Family Crime Boss John Gotti was on trial for murder the same year the national political boomlet for Cuomo hit its’ peak. Gotti became a daily tabloid darling, with publications like New York Newsday glamorizing the gangster garb Gotti graced the courtroom with each day. Gotti fit what the media imagined Americans wanted to believe about Italians.

What compounded my urgency to smash the stigma against us, was that my own brother served prison time as a bag man for Gotti, while I was quietly serving the public with Cuomo. I was obsessed with showing that only a tiny fraction of Italian-Americans were mobsters.

I detected that same obsession in BD’s fight against ethnic and racial stigma aimed at Asian Americans. His fearless example, and Cuomo’s, inspired me to work even harder against ethnic or sexual “othering” and discrimination. In a few short years, BD Wong took the celebrity he earned from his extraordinary work in M. Butterfly, and used it to pry open a tightly closed casting club, and let his people in.

Despite my work with Mario Cuomo, it took me another 25 years to make my case, culminating in my 2017 book Tightrope: Balancing A Life Between Mario Cuomo and My Brother. (Heliotrope Books, NY). If only I was as graceful, elegant, articulate and effective as BD was in letting loose his primal scream.

Without much fanfare, BD demonstrated that just by persisting, by not backing down, nor accepting second-rate material, or selling himself short to meet someone else’s perceptions, he would overcome. He did it, initially, in opening doors for Asian-American actors — and later for the LGBTQ community — by simply showing how good he was, and what the world was missing by not tapping into such a pool of outstanding talent. More importantly, once he opened the door for others, he held it open, and he was comfortable in continuing to use his celebrity and his prodigious skills to advocate on his communities’ behalf.

He did this in the many television and movie roles for which he became known, dating from in the 1990’s on through the present day, including: Father of the Bride (1991, 1995); Jurassic Park (and all its’ progeny) 1993–2022; Mulan I & II (1998 & 2004); Law & Order, SVU (Dr. George Huang), 2001–2015, Oz (Father Ray Mukada), 1997–2003; Mr. Robot, 2015–2019; and, presently as Wally, in Awkwifina Is Nora From Queens, 2020-present.)

BD’s Broadway roles were as diverse and demanding as those he nailed in front of the camera, and the mastery and craftsmanship he showed on stage, shaped every production, and political action, in which he was involved. Anything involving BD Wong was elevated to a new level of professionalism and quality, and was something I had to experience. In his years of performing, the only one of his stage productions I missed was his portrayal of Lucy’s battered younger brother Linus, in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown (1999).

Over the next two decades, BD Wong’s live stage performances around the country enriched my life in Pacific Overtures (at the old Studio 54 Stage in NYC), 2004; Herringbone, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (Massachusetts), June, 2007; The Orphan of Zhao (SF’s American Conservatory Theatre, ACT) 2014; The Great Leap (SF’s ACT), 2019; and Big Data (SF’s ACT), 2024. Each performance was magical.

Astonishingly, while Wong was immersed in his work on stage and screen, his circle of activism was expanding to include advocacy for not just the Asian-American and LGBTQ communities, but also for people living with HIV/AIDS. It was through that work that we became not just fellow activists, but friends.

I was running a national HIV/AIDS Advocacy organization of the Cable Television industry named Cable Positive, which produced 30-second Public Service Announcements (PSA’s) and documentaries, educating millions of Americans about HIV/AIDS. One such set of PSA’s produced by Kismet Film’s Greg Pace, and directed by the actor Liev Schreiber, was entitled “Join the Fight,” with the goal of reducing anti-LGBTQ, anti-HIV/AIDS stigma and discrimination across the country.

BD Wong didn’t hesitate for one moment to, once again, use his growing celebrity to spread the message of inclusivity, understanding and compassion — not an easy task in communities of color and Asian American/Pacific Islander communities, where LGBTQ individuals were often ostracized, and people with HIV/AIDS treated like lepers. Donating their own celebrity to deliver such powerful, pro-bono messages, along with Wong, were actors Jose Llana, Wilson Cruz, Rosie Perez, Gloria Reuben, Judith Licht, Wilmer Verderama, Hill Harper, and others, giving greater credibility and attention to an urgent, life-saving cause.

Wong was a persuasive spokesperson in our “fight,” with television industry insiders, and the viewing public, and his strong support and willingness to speak out never wavered. It was a profound commitment BD — being both Asian American and Gay — never forgot, and I could not let that go unnoticed, traveling across the country to support him in his live stage performances. I felt a little like Linus Van Pelt (Peanuts) when asked about his favorite teacher, “ I never said I worship her, I just said I’m very fond of the ground on which she walks.”

When my partner, Carol Villano, and I traveled to Williamstown, Mass., to see BD in his mesmerizing performance in the one-man musical Herringbone — where he played 11 roles — he gave us a big, family-style welcome when we met him, his mother Roberta (now, 94) and his then 7-year old son, Jackson, at a local ice-cream store.

Each time we saw him in person over the past 10 years during his trilogy of performances at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (2014, The Orphan of Zhao; 2019, The Great Leap; and just this week, 2024, in Big Data) he welcomed us like members of his family, which lives in San Francisco. For Big Data, a fascinating story of the seductive power of social media, with BD playing the ubiquitous “M”, or media, we sat right in front of his first-cousin.

I remarked to her how the 1500 seat theatre, where BD always longed to play as a student attending San Francisco’s Lincoln High School, was pretty full for a Sunday matinee.

“That’s because most of us are family and friends,” his cousin joked.

While most of Sunday’s big crowd wasn’t, many of us were, either by birth, geography, or by virtue of sharing some of life’s battles for justice along the way. That day, BD was having a special reception in ACT’s downstairs lounge for some of his former classmates from Giannini Middle School, just down the block from his mother’s house where he grew up, in the Sunset District of SF.

We were welcomed into the reception, the way we always were — with a hug — and I took a few group photos of the Giannini classmates and families as they posed on a stairway with a brass handrail, because I’d do just about anything for BD Wong in gratitude for the all the joy, enlightenment and support he’s given us.

I looked at this happy crowd of the kids BD grew up with, and remembered the “Golden Thread, “ that he wrote so beautifully about in the story of the birth of his two sons, Boaz Dov Wong, who lived for 90 minutes, gifting life to Jackson Foo Wong, his twin brother.

As the father of one son, I rode up and down the roller-coaster of emotions shared by BD in his 2003 book, Following Foo: (the electronic adventures of the Chestnut Man, Harper Collins, NY.)but one passage in particular stuck with me for years. It comes at the very end of the book in it’s “Upilogue,” a fantasy taking place sometime in the “Spring, 2025”, which is, amazingly, almost upon us.

The futuristic and fun final scene occurs on the set of “The Okra O’Donahue Show,” where a now grown Jackson Foo Wong, who turns 25 years old in 2025, is being interviewed by the ever-omniscient “Okra.”

Musing on the events of his life to this point, Jackson quotes his Dad, a lover of words and subways:

Dad says a funny thing always happens when you are waiting for the subway. In some stations, about a minute before the train comes, before it actually turns into the station, there’s often a kind of a reflection of the headlights as it bounces off the curve of one of the rails of the track.

“You always see it very gradually way before you see the headlights, or the train, or hear it, or feel it rumbling. And that reflection looks like a fine golden thread, glowing brighter and brighter in the tunnel, and no matter how long you’ve been waiting for the train, when you see the golden thread, you always know that the train is coming, and that everything’s gonna be okay.”

I looked at the warmth and love flowing between BD and his friends and family in Fred’s downstairs lounge at the American Conservatory Theatre on dreary Geary Street in struggling San Francisco, and I could swear I could see that “golden thread” lighting up the brass railing on the stairway leading up toward the street behind them.

And I knew, once again, that everything’s gonna be okay.

#

(Link to BD Wong’s 30-second pro-bono Public Service Announcement on HIV/AIDS:

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A Good Man, Who Liked His Beer.

(Al Villano, my father, on October 1, 1989, his 50th Wedding Anniversary. March 1, marked the anniversary of his birth in another century, and another world. As I get older, I am reminded that he only lived three years past my present age, but he is still with me.)

My father and I stopped at the newspaper kiosk at the Babylon train station’s lower level on the morning of Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral in June, 1968, and picked up a copy of the New York Daily News for him, and the New York Times for me.

We boarded his regular early morning train that was already waiting at the station. Both newspapers predicted huge crowds of mourners would jam Manhattan that day. I pored over every word of every story I could read about RFK’s death, devouring each detail in the Times and leaning over my father’s arm to look at the pictures in the Daily News and read the giant headlines, until he flipped the paper over to the sports section to check what the horseracing handle was from the day before. The last three digits of that total would tell him if he “hit” the number with his bookie.

The contrast of our lives struck me. My father was doing the same thing he had done for 15 years of life on Long Island, catching a pre-dawn train, looking at the horseracing results in the same section of the same newspaper each day, hoping that maybe, this time, this day “our ship would come in,” as he chanted each time he looked.

Each day he got up before everyone else, went to the same job, taking care of tempermental steam boilers that belched hot water and hot air through the pipes running like elevated roadways in the basement of the office building where he worked in Manhattan. On hot days, like that one, he made sure the massive air conditioners continued working in “The Building.” His work was to keep thousands of people safe and comfortable, yet he barely made enough money to support our family, and only because he worked on Saturdays, too, earning overtime pay.

I watched the train conductor punch my ticket and thought of how my father must have watched countless conductors perform the same ritual, ticket after ticket, trip after trip, until he no longer knew it was happening.

I sat and stared out the train window and watched Woodside whiz by, hearing my mother’s refrain repeating itself to the cadence of the train car’s wheels whispering over the tracks: “We live in hopes and die in despair; live in hopes, die in despair; live in hopes, live in hopes…” I looked over at my father, asleep, the Daily News folded in his lap.

No, I insisted to myself, I am the third son of a third son, and I must live a life like no one in my family has ever dreamed; my father told me so. I would learn about the mysterious “they” that my family fussed about whenever something happened out of their control, which was frequently. What I had to guard against, was becoming one of “them,” an unspoken fear between my family and me. We knew I would be different, but how different? Would I become unrecognizable to my mother and father? Go on, take, take, take; but don’t take too much…don’t change too much.

I looked at my father again, always meticulously dressed, his dapper grey fedora resting gently on his head. I could not imagine him going to a politician’s funeral, to pay his respects to one of “them. To Al Villano, it was all distant, part of another “woild,” as he would say. He had all he could do to survive and feed his family in his world.

“Will you have to give la busta?,” he kidded me, when I first told him I was going to RFK’s funeral, referring to the Italian custom of putting a little money in an envelope and giving it to the family of the deceased to help pay funeral expenses. His humor got me to smile.

“I don’t think the Kennedys need it, Dad, “ I said, winking back at him.

We got off the train at Grand Central Station, having changed at Jamaica for the Hunter’s Point train which came into Manhattan just across the street from 100 East 42nd St, the building where he labored.

“Be careful and watch your wallet, Rock,” he said to me, using the nickname for me which I loved, conveying his unspoken love, and belief that I was solid, loyal, and always there for him.

We waved to each other, and I watched as he headed down to the basement of “The Building” where he’d carefully take off his fedora hat, each day, and put on his brown maintenance man’s uniform as soon as he got there.

He wore his working man’s uniform all day, the way the wealthy lawyers and accountants on the floors above wore their designer label suits and ties, while he made certain they were comfortable, even if he was not.

At the end of a long day, and each day was long, my father would take off his work uniform, put back on his suit and carefully brushed fedora, and catch the next Long Island Railroad train back out to either Deer Park or Babylon, where he’d sleep most of the way home, perhaps dreaming that his ship was finally coming in.