Thursday, March 16, 2017

Cruelty as Public Policy

Whenever a Republican becomes president and has to propose a budget, I fully expect he will want to allocate more money for defense (whether we need it or not); and I fully expect he will want to defund both Planned Parenthood and PBS/NPR.  I will talk about why doing that is a really bad idea; but first, let me discuss one of the most cruel and callous assertions I've ever heard from any politician.

I was driving home from a meeting at work, and listening to the daily press briefing that Sean Spicer holds; the topic was President Trump's new budget proposal.  A reporter questioned whether it's a good thing to be cutting funding for grants that support early childhood education (including making sure that poor kids get something to eat, rather than trying to learn while they are hungry) and Meals on Wheels (which brings much-needed food to the elderly and shut-ins).  Spicer had turned the questions about the budget over to Mr. Trump's Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and he basically said there was no good reason to waste taxpayer money on such things.  When pressed further, he said that there is no evidence such programs produce results, and the administration just wants to fund programs that produce results.

Needless to say, I was not amused.  In fact, first I was stunned, and then I was outraged.  Please tell me:  what is a better result than making sure children and the elderly aren't going hungry?   And doesn't the Preamble to the Constitution speak about promoting the general welfare?  I can't think of a better way for the government to help its citizens than by funding programs that prevent hunger (evidently not producing enough results to be continued); or programs that provide legal aid for the poor-- which are often utilized by victims of domestic violence (also cut in Mr. Trump's proposed budget); or programs that fund Pell Grants, so that poor and lower-class students can attend college (also scheduled to be cut); or how about eliminating aid to libraries and museums (yup, on the chopping block too).  There are even cuts to programs that address public health emergencies-- in fact, there's a 20% decrease in the National Institute of Health's budget (and a $54 billion increase in defense spending).  Those are priorities that truly make no sense to me-- finding a cure for Zika or a more effective treatment for breast cancer is less important than building up the military? Really?     

Okay fine, I know what some of my conservative friends will say-- it's not the government's job to do that; let private charities take care of it.  But charities alone cannot handle all of the people who are in need.  As Mr. Trump acknowledges, the economy is great in some parts of the country, but in others, it is struggling, and his budget severely hurts the very people who voted for him.  I understand wanting to cut back on wasteful spending; but I see NO evidence that programs dedicated to feeding the elderly or helping the poor to attend college are examples of waste.  Rather, if we are to "promote the general welfare," giving tax breaks to the upper 1% while making the poor go without seems unnecessarily cruel.

And then there's PBS and NPR.  Yes, I know many of my conservative friends insist these networks are (gasp) liberal, but the 40-45% of listeners and viewers who identify as Republicans yet are loyal fans of both PBS and NPR would disagree.  Audience surveys repeatedly show that those who choose PBS and NPR come from both political parties, as well as many Independents.  They all agree that these two networks have thorough and factual news coverage as well as some wonderful programs for folks of all ages. (Defunding Big Bird? How rude!) 

As for Planned Parenthood, I understand that for some religious conservatives, any organization that performs abortions is morally objectionable (even though only 3% of what Planned Parenthood does is related to abortion).  But most of what Planned Parenthood provides relates to contraception, as well as prevention of sexually-transmitted diseases.  And no, contrary to a common conservative discourse, you can't just replace Planned Parenthood with some other clinic; many states are finding that few clinics are equipped to offer the care that Planned Parenthood provides.  In fact, many rural areas have few if any women's health clinics, and even in bigger cities, the expertise of Planned Parenthood means women who go there for contraception or advice about family planning will find highly trained people who genuinely understand women's health.  My question to those wanting to shut down Planned Parenthood and leave millions of poor and rural women with nothing is this: won't denying women access to contraception cause more, rather than fewer, abortions?

And here we are, ready to enact policies that are merciless, policies that will hurt the most vulnerable citizens.  I must admit I am puzzled by what has happened to the Republican party:  when I was growing up, Republicans were fiscally conservative, but they weren't overtly cruel.  A party that defends denying meals to the elderly, or says that feeding hungry school children "doesn't work" has truly lost its way.  I hope there are some Republicans with courage who will speak out against a budget that may make the military happy, but will be a disaster for nearly everyone else.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Problem With Labeling-- or What Humpty Dumpty Said

One of my favorite quotes about communication comes from Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass."  Humpty Dumpty is debating with Alice, and he says to her scornfully:  "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean-- neither more nor less."  Alice is not convinced; she replies, "The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things."  But Humpty Dumpty responds, "The question is which is to be master-- that's all."

The study of semantics-- how the meaning of words is created and how word meanings can change over time-- has always fascinated me; if you've ever read Shakespeare, there are so many words that meant something quite different in his day compared to what they mean now.  And as anyone who speaks English knows, there are many words with multiple meanings, many words with regional meanings, and slang words are changing all the time.  But when we look at political communication, we often see a different phenomenon:  words being intentionally misused, in order to create a negative meaning when the word is applied to "them," or a positive meaning when it's applied to "us."  Consider the word "feminism."  I was disappointed, but not surprised when President Trump's adviser Kellyanne Conway said recently, "It’s difficult for me to call myself a feminist in a classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male, and it certainly is very pro-abortion, and I’m neither anti-male or pro-abortion... so, there’s an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices. … I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances.”

I've heard those assertions before, often (but not always) from my conservative friends -- "I'm not a feminist because feminists hate men," or "feminists are professional victims," or "feminists are pro-abortion," or "feminists just want to blame men for everything."  Needless to say, none of those assertions are true.  For example, I know many women, myself among them, who have numerous male friends and colleagues; and our conversations about the so-called gender wars tend to focus on equal pay, or the lack of affordable daycare, or equal opportunity, not about how men are the enemy. (And by the way, feel free to ask my husband if I hate men-- our 30th wedding anniversary is coming up very soon.)  And as for abortion, I don't know anyone who is "pro-abortion"-- that's not what "pro-choice" means.  We can respect those who sincerely oppose abortion (and yes, even some feminists feel that terminating a pregnancy is against their religion).  But the majority of us strongly believe it's the woman's decision, and the government, the clergy, and various advocacy groups should not be telling her what to do with her own body.  And yet, no matter how we try to explain what feminism really says about various issues, it's the Kellyanne Conway definition that's widely believed on the right, where "feminists" are regularly mocked as immoral, man-hating shrews by conservative bloggers and conservative talk shows hosts. 

Or consider the word "liberal"-- the philosophy of liberalism, according to the dictionary, refers to believing in progress, believing that human beings are basically good, and that each individual should have autonomy.  It also entails taking a stand to protect political and civil liberties; and liberalism is a philosophy that considers government as one vehicle for improving people's lives and addressing issues like racial and social inequality.  You can agree or disagree with that philosophy, or debate the role of government in solving problems; but there's nothing inherently evil about believing in liberalism-- except on most conservative talk shows, where "liberal" is a synonym for someone who is un-American and/or un-patriotic; someone who is probably an atheist; a person who "hates freedom" and who believes in a Nanny State; and worst of all, someone who insists on political correctness, and criticizes anyone who dares to speak in ways that liberals consider offensive.  Again, much of this is false or exaggerated; but for conservatives, it's the absolute truth.  Many liberals have gotten so tired of having the word "liberal" vilified and misrepresented that they often refer to themselves as "progressives." But it doesn't matter:  by any name, conservatives continue to stereotype and criticize what liberals believe.

On the other hand, let's be fair:  for liberals, the word "conservative" is just as problematic, and it's subject to just as many negative stereotypes.  After all, liberals know that the folks on the right are rigid, judgmental, and moralistic; most are religious fanatics who want to impose their beliefs on everyone.  Liberals also know that conservatives only care about big business and have no compassion for the poor.  It doesn't matter if the dictionary says "conservative" refers to someone who respects and wants to conserve the country's best traditions and values; for many liberals, a conservative is someone stuck in the past, who wants to restore some mythical "good old days," and turn back the clock on the gains that women, minorities, and other marginalized groups have made.

As a professor of communication and media studies, and a former broadcaster, I genuinely don't understand why "feminist" or "liberal" or "conservative" should be used as insults.  Who benefits from spreading myths about every person whose philosophy is different from our own?  And how does this make our polarized country any less divided?  But defining a word or phrase a certain way and then using it to demonize is all too common.  I saw this with some of my students who (quietly) voted for Donald Trump-- the story that many on the left believed was that all Trump voters were bigots and haters-- and yes, some probably were.  But others were not; they genuinely saw him as someone who could create jobs and improve the economy.  Meanwhile, the students who voted for Mr. Trump didn't want to tell anyone, because they didn't want people to assume they must be racist or sexist or anti-immigrant.

In a culture with so many misunderstandings about "the other," that's one reason I've continued to blog:  I want to keep creating a conversation about my perspective on the issues of the day, and I want to give others who believe differently a chance to talk with an actual person rather than holding on to some abstract stereotype.  I don't expect to change any hearts and minds, but I do hope I can give people something to think about, and maybe even make a new friend or two.  So, here I am, your basic center-left liberal, and a proud feminist too; someone who is eager to transcend the stereotypes and myths, eager to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me, and eager to use words in an honest and respectful way... neither more nor less.  Believing as I do that communication is the most powerful thing we've got, a chance to keep the conversation going is a chance I feel I ought to take.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Things I Notice Now: Some Thoughts on Turning 70

I was born on a Friday morning, Valentine's Day (February 14), 1947.  Obviously, I don't remember any of it, but from what I've been told, there was nothing unusual about my arrival into the world.  Nor was there anything unusual about the news on the day I was born:  a look at the front page of the Boston Globe shows stories about the beauty pageant winner at the Dartmouth Winter Carnival; there were financial problems at the Boston Elevated (the city's public transportation system); President Truman's mother was recovering from a hip fracture; and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was accusing the Soviet Union of failing to pay its war debts to the United States.  I was the first child of Beatrice and Samuel Halper-- my father, like many of his era, had fought in World War II and when he came home, he and my mother were eager to start a family.  I was thus part of the Baby Boom generation.

To say the least, it's been interesting living through these past six decades. Much has been written about all of the social change that occurred during that time, but suffice it to say that growing up in the 50s, I never expected I'd have the life I ended up having.  In fact, I was frequently told I'd never have much of a life at all; people I knew said that I couldn't be successful because I was too different, not feminine, ugly, strange.  I didn't like the things girls were supposed to like.  I was told my chances of ever getting married were slim.  (Note to those who told me that:  my husband and I will celebrate our 30th anniversary in mid-March.) 

I don't know why I was so different, and I am sure my parents worried about me:  I remember them trying to get me to conform to the norms of the 50s, but more often than not, I just couldn't do it.  Being traditional never came easy to me.  On the other hand, we all develop survival skills, so I learned at a young age that if I could make people laugh or entertain them in some way, perhaps they wouldn't mock me as much.  It's a strategy I used with varying degrees of success over the years.  Perhaps that's what drew me to radio:  when I was on the air, I could entertain people, but they wouldn't ever see me, so they could imagine I was attractive or sexy or whatever.  And I hoped that if my listeners ever met me in person, they wouldn't be disappointed.  I'm sure some of them were-- I'm much more confident when I'm performing for an audience than when I'm socializing. (That's still true for me even today. I can give a talk to several hundred people and not be nervous at all, but invite me to a party and I'm the person in the corner who barely says a word to anyone.)

But if you had asked me in the 1950s, I would never have expected I'd have the career I wanted, or meet some of the famous people I met, or discover a certain Canadian rock band, or get a PhD at age 64, or live to see new technologies that enabled me to be in contact with people all over the world instantaneously.  On the other hand, I never expected to endure antisemitism or sexual harassment; I never thought I'd see the number of newspapers in Boston shrink till only two were left (growing up, my parents were avid newspaper readers, and they taught me to do the same... one of my earliest memories, in fact, is my father coming home from work, sitting in his favorite chair and reading the evening paper); and I never thought I'd lose my mother to cancer when she was only 71...

And here I am, turning 70.  I had cancer two years ago, and although I've had other health issues too, thus far, all indications are that the cancer hasn't recurred.  Perhaps I'll be lucky and live a few more years.  There's so much I want to do, so much I want to accomplish, and it's hard for me to picture myself slowing down.  I worry about remaining relevant in a changing world-- I mean, when I was growing up, a person who was 70 was considered "old."  But I don't want to be thought of in that way. Yes, I've certainly aged and I can't deny that. But we Baby Boomers have redefined (and resisted) what it means to be old, and I hope I'll continue to be out there participating in this great adventure we call living.

And it truly has been an adventure:  I mean, you are talking to someone who lived through all kinds of political turmoil over the decades, from the Cold War, to Vietnam, to Watergate; from Kennedy's assassination to Nixon's near-impeachment; from war protests to peace marches; from the era of segregation to the election of the first black president; from a time when women politicians were rarely taken seriously to a time when women politicians can be found serving as governors, senators, and attorneys general.  And as I think about my 70th birthday, I find myself with very few regrets. Yes, there are things I could have done better, and things I said that came out wrong... but that's all part of being human.  I did the best I could with the cards I was dealt, and I hope that in my years on this earth, I've made a positive impact.

I don't know how many more years I'll have, but I know how I want to live them:  doing my part to honor the values my parents taught me; trying to live an ethical life; and when I get discouraged or frustrated, remembering that there are folks whose situations are a lot worse than mine.  Growing up in the 1950s, I genuinely did not know what was ahead for me, but few people predicted I'd accomplish very much.  I hope I proved them wrong, and I hope I ended up with more friends than enemies.  I hope some people are glad they met me. (And those that aren't, I hope they won't trash me on social media-- after all, it's my birthday!)   And I'm proud that despite the various obstacles and the ups and downs I encountered over the years, I never gave up, I never gave in (though at times I wanted to), and I kept on trying to move forward.  And as I look back on my life thus far, it may seem like a cliché for me to say this, but it happens to be true:  I have a lot to be grateful for.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What I Learned During Eleven Days in January 2017

To say the least, it's been an exciting (some would say bizarre) eleven days since Donald Trump took office.  We've seen him engage in Twitter fights over the size of his inauguration crowd (he said the "dishonest media" downplayed it, and his press secretary claimed it was the biggest crowd in recorded history, or something like that).  The new president also repeated his assertion that millions of illegal immigrants voted, and stole the popular vote from him (no evidence of it, and governors from both red and blue states have denied that such a thing occurred).

We've seen a number of billionaire nominees for cabinet positions, many of whom are not qualified for the post they've been offered... but all of whom will probably get confirmed anyway (extreme wealth has its privileges).  We've also seen a sudden and highly disruptive ban-- and yes, it is a ban-- on immigrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries (while others, including several countries involved in 9/11, didn't get on the list... some of the new president's critics believe that's because he does business in those countries, a fact his press secretary denied); as a result of the new Executive Order, legal immigrants with green cards found themselves detained for hours, or told to go back to their countries, and an Iraqi interpreter who had helped the US and was given a visa in appreciation was not only detained but handcuffed like a criminal... yet Mr. Trump told the media that everything was fine and the order was implemented very smoothly; he also claimed that former President Obama had issued a similar order (when in fact what Mr. Obama had done was quite different). 

And speaking of the media, we've had one of his inner circle, Steve Bannon, basically tell the assembled members of the press that they had humiliated themselves as a result of how inaccurately they reported the election, and it was time for them to shut up and spend their time listening; and another of his inner circle, Kellyanne Conway, suggested that journalists who were critical of Mr. Trump deserved to be fired.  Mr. Trump too continued to insist wherever he spoke that he had been treated badly by the "dishonest media."  And yet, repeatedly, the new president sought out media attention and seemed upset when he didn't receive enough of it (or when it wasn't the approving and adulatory kind he wanted).  

There was a massive (and peaceful) Women's March to express opposition to Mr. Trump and his policies-- large crowds gathered in city after city.  But Mr. Trump said the crowds were small (they were not).   His surrogates then claimed the March for Life, annually held by abortion opponents, would have far larger crowds (it did not); and that the mainstream media would ignore the march (not true-- it received considerable coverage from all the networks & print publications).  Mr. Trump's sudden Executive Order to ban Muslim immigrants (and favor Christian immigrants) was met by large and vocal crowds who opposed the new policy and who questioned its legality; it was also met by a number of volunteer lawyers who tried to help the detainees, especially the green card holders.  Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union received $24.1 million in online donations-- five times the amount the organization receives in a typical year.  And while liberal and center-left publications wrote about families unnecessarily and arbitrarily denied entry even after being vetted for several years, the conservative media continued to promote stories about problems caused by immigrants, such as emphasizing how many crimes they commit.  Various conservative publications insisted the Muslim ban is necessary to keep us safe, and denied that there was any problem with the Executive Order.

So, here's what I've learned:  Mr. Trump sincerely believes he can run the White House like he (fictionally) ran The Apprentice; he has an autocratic style, admires other autocratic leaders, and has no interest in building any bridges or doing any outreach to those who didn't vote for him.  He also seems to believe there are no norms any more-- he can disregard longstanding customs and precedents, and be as vengeful or petty or unkind as he wishes, whenever he wishes, to whomever he wishes.  Just about no Republican right now wants to stand up to him-- perhaps because the party has a series of policies it hopes to implement and he is the vehicle by which these things will get done, or perhaps because they fear getting on the wrong side of him and being subjected to his wrath, or perhaps they will do anything to remain in power, even if it means ignoring their constitutional duties. And based on what I am reading in the conservative press and on social media, his supporters are delighted by what he has done, and they see no problem with how he has acted thus far. 

But many of the rest of us disagree.  And while I was pleased to see so much energy and so many protests, I had to wonder:  how many of the folks who are now so actively dissenting stayed at home on election day because either Bernie wasn't on the ballot or they believed Hillary Clinton would be no better than Donald Trump.  I wonder if they still feel the same way now, eleven days after Mr. Trump took office.  I also wonder what the next eleven days will bring, and whether any of it will be good for our democracy.  Somehow, I fear the answer is "no."  Somehow, I fear that the partisan divide will only widen, and the anger will only increase.  Mr. Trump seems determined to crush anyone who doesn't agree with him or didn't vote for him; in his administration, compassion seems to be in short supply.  I am normally a positive person, and yes, I've lived through worse than this (I survived the Nixon administration, for example). But while I want to remain positive, I'm finding few reasons to feel optimistic at this point.  Tell me:  am I wrong?  

Friday, January 20, 2017

Nobody Told Me There'd Be Days Like These

I was reading the morning newspaper today, and noticed an article about eager Trump supporters heading for the inauguration.  Okay fine, there were eager Obama supporters heading for his inauguration in 2009 and 2013; so the fact that Mr. Trump has eager fans is no great surprise-- all politicians have their loyal followers.  But what caught my attention is that one of the Trump supporters was someone I had encountered online, who liked to send me at times-gloating, at times profane, at times-angry messages.  I was the enemy, of course, because I was from "the other side"-- I was among the millions of Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump.  This offended the aforementioned person greatly.  One of this person's last messages to me was that I'd better "get on board the Trump train or it will run you over."  No offense, but that sounded rather threatening.  But then, so did much of Mr. Trump's campaign rhetoric and many of his tweets.

In Trump world, either you're with him 100% (meaning you believe everything he says, even when it's demonstrably false) or you deserve to be verbally attacked and then shunned.  And like Mr. Trump, that is how all too many of his fans react. If you try to fact-check some outrageous and false claim he made, you are told that "fact-checkers are liberal" or that you're just a tool of the "lying media," or worst of all, you must be a "libtard."  If you know me, you know I try my very best to be courteous on social media, even when I am disagreeing with someone; but I really dislike being called names, and much of the time, I find there's no interest in having a dialogue-- their side is right, everyone else is wrong, end of story.

Something tells me it's going to be a very long four years, assuming Mr. Trump lasts his full term without being impeached.  He claims to support only the American worker, yet he packs his cabinet with billionaires and right-wing ideologues who have never shown one ounce of interest in workers' rights.  He perpetually said Hillary Clinton belonged in jail for her alleged corruption and her ties to Wall Street, yet he refuses to release his taxes, refuses to address his many conflicts of interest, seems to be more concerned about enriching himself and his "brand" than anything else, and, of course, he has hired a multitude of current and former Wall Street insiders to help him run his government.  To those of us on the left, the hypocrisy is stunning.  Yet he claims he is "draining the swamp."  Sorry, but it does not look that way.

Today, I got an anonymous letter in the mail.  It seemed to be from a Trump supporter, someone who saw a recently published letter to the editor of my local newspaper, that I wrote in defense of Hillary Clinton.  (Note to Trump fans:  I was a Bernie supporter, but I still felt Hillary was subjected to some very unfair treatment by Republicans, and especially by Trump fans.)  The person, who didn't have the courage to sign his or her name, sent me my letter, cut out from the newspaper, with a note saying basically that Hillary doesn't deserve my defense of her, and that she belongs in jail.   I guess when you're a Trump fan, your enemies remain your enemies forever.  Sad.

It all just reminded me how I am going to miss Barack Obama.  I didn't always agree with him, but he was a gentleman, he was eloquent, and in a crisis, he was the adult in the room.  I cannot picture him sending out angry and vengeful tweets at 2 AM.  I cannot picture him petulantly attacking someone he perceived had wronged him.  Did the campaign rhetoric sometimes get heated?  Of course, on both sides.  But in his role as president, Mr. Obama was someone you could count on to be rational and logical.  He was also someone who never lost his optimism no matter how many times he was subjected to rudeness or obstruction from Republicans. 

I am also going to miss Michelle Obama.  It makes me furious when I read the tweets from Trump fans about how now, finally, we have an elegant and classy first lady in Melania Trump.  Excuse me, but Michelle Obama was absolutely elegant and classy.  She was also a role model for young women, especially young women of color-- yes, the custom for First Ladies is that they must give up any professional life they had before (a retro expectation that it's time we changed), but she handled the duties of First Lady with dignity and good humor.  She embraced pet causes like fighting against childhood obesity, and she also embraced popular culture, whether it was going on talk shows, or doing karaoke, or even dancing.  She was beautifully dressed, as we expect First Ladies to be, but she was also a passionate and eloquent speaker, and someone worthy of admiration.

The racist remarks made about both Barack and Michelle are shameful. Disagreement with a president's policies is to be expected, but some of the criticism was nothing more than crude racism.  I hope the current administration will not empower such attitudes, but I fear it will.  I fear Mr. Trump will continue to say outrageous things (as he even did in his jaw-dropping inaugural address), and more than his rhetoric, I fear that he will continue to do only what benefits himself, while he takes credit for the positive achievements of others before him (including Mr. Obama).  And above all, I fear that we will remain a nation divided, where those who truly do need help don't get it, and those who already have more than they should (including the billionaires in his cabinet) will just get even more.

If you are a Trump fan, I know you are happy right now, and that's understandable-- when our favorite candidate wins, we tend to rejoice.  But I beg my friends who supported this man to think about the rest of us. We are not losers.  We are not the enemy. We are not libtards.  We are Americans too, and we are worried about what lies ahead.  We don't want to get on board the Trump train (many of us still see him as the ultimate con man), but we don't want to be run over either.  I can't predict what lies ahead, but if the rhetoric up to this point is any indication, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.  

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Life is a Series of Hellos and Goodbyes": Some Thoughts at the End of 2016

A note to those who have kindly read my blog this year:  if you were expecting some political commentary, I'm saving that for the new year.  Today, my thoughts are with those we lost in 2016, some far too young, some unexpectedly, some after a long and successful life. I am told that while this year's number of celebrity deaths seems unusually large, it's really not, and other years have had more.  But it feels like almost every day, someone famous or beloved left us.  As a former disc jockey, I was especially sorry that we lost David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Prince, Paul Kantner, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Maurice White, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, and George Michael.  As a former journalist, I will miss Morley Safer, John McLaughlin, and Gwen Ifill. This was also the year we lost Gene Wilder, Fyvush Finkel, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Shimon Peres, and Elie Wisel. There were so many others... political figures, celebrities, authors, movie and TV directors ... I could fill a page with all of the names.  My point is that there are no guarantees in life, and you never know how long you have before your number gets called.       

Maybe that's why I've been thinking about my maternal grandmother the past few days.  She certainly wasn't famous, but she was definitely beloved.  Her name was Dora, and I never met her-- she died many years before I was born, as did my paternal grandmother.  But according to family lore, Grandma Dora was a truly saintly human being, compassionate and patient even in the face of major problems-- it's no exaggeration that she dealt with some difficult times, including living through the Great Depression and enduring ongoing and severe illnesses.  I am told she handled even the most challenging situations with dignity and grace.  I wish I had met her; and every year, just before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), I visit her grave and pay my respects.  I often wonder how different my life might have been if my grandmothers were a part of it:  I hear so many stories about grandmothers as nurturing and supportive figures in their grandchildren's lives, but I have no experience of that, so I can't say if it's true or not.  Anyway, when I recently had my two-year anniversary check up (I had surgery for uterine cancer in mid-December 2014) and I got the good news that there has been no recurrence, I thought of my Grandma Dora, who died too young of the very same cancer that I had-- in my case, I was treated successfully for it, while in her case, no successful treatments had been developed yet.

I wonder what my grandmother would think about the world we live in today.  Hers was a simpler  time (no internet, no social media, not even television), a time when authority was respected and good manners were considered essential.  People joined volunteer organizations, kids played outside, and most people knew their neighbors.  Of course, it was not an idyllic era-- America was still segregated, anti-Jewish and anti-black sentiments were publicly expressed, and millions were struggling through the Depression years and then getting ready to go off to war.  But compared to our often-chaotic, contentious, intense, and rude culture, I somehow think my grandmother would prefer her own, even with its problems.  Of course, none of us have a time machine and we can't go back to some idealized era.  And if we did go back, we might be disappointed, since our memory years later may not be an accurate reflection of how things were when we lived them.  Still, if I could bring back something from the past, it might be courtesy or politeness.

But that said, 2016 was a strange year, and for many of us, a sad one.  Some of us lost colleagues or friends or relatives.  And if I may make one political comment, a lot of us are feeling a deep sense of sadness about the recent election.  My right-wing friends may be rejoicing, but not everyone shares their view.  Conservatives were outraged when Michelle Obama, during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, said she understood what it felt like to have no hope, but I totally understood what she meant.  For her, and for me, and for many of my friends from the progressive side, seeing Hillary lose the election was bitterly disappointing, and it filled us with a sense of not just hopelessness, but also fear over what this new president might to do erase the gains women and minorities had made during this past eight years.  Having lived to see a black president, many of us were eager to have a woman president; and now, that dream is once again on hold for who knows how long.  So yes, for many of us, 2016 was a sad year.  But more thoughts about politics will surely follow in 2017.

For now, whether it was a happy year for you, or a sad one, or a little of both, 2016 is about to come to a close.  In February, I will be 70-- which is amazing to think about, given that my grandmother died at age 44.  And if I have any advice, it would be to live each day with a sense of purpose; even if you temporarily feel hopeless or discouraged, those feelings don't have to last.  So, do a mitzvah (a good deed, a positive action) whenever you can; and don't waste the opportunities you have been given.  After all, there's no guarantee of tomorrow.  But we can still make a difference, even in some small way, with the time we have today.  Happy 2017: may the new year bring you many reasons to be grateful, and many occasions to celebrate.

Friday, December 16, 2016

The War on Hanukkah and the War on Respect

I wanted to say a few words about the War on Hanukkah, and yes that really is a thing.  Yesterday, I went to Dana-Farber, a Boston-area hospital with expertise in the treatment of cancer, for my bi-annual check-up (as many of you know, I had cancer surgery in mid-December 2014; and I am pleased and grateful that my doctor says there has been no recurrence).  It was there that I saw my first Hanukkah decorations of the season:  a beautiful silver menorah at the reception desk on the 10th floor.  And while I was gratified to see an acknowledgement that Hanukkah exists, I was also frustrated that I have seen NO Hanukkah decorations in any of the many department stores where I've shopped recently.  Nothing.  Lots of Christmas decorations, lots of Christmas music (which seems to start earlier and earlier each year), but no recognition that other people have holidays at this time of year too.

Believe me, I understand that Hanukkah didn't used to be such a big deal as it is now.  Historically, it hasn't been a major holiday for Jews the way Passover and Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) are. In fact, Hanukkah isn't even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.  But we do know it had become sufficiently popular that the Jews of Jesus' time, including him, observed it (the New Testament gospel of John mentions this).  And especially after the Holocaust, as Jews sought to reaffirm their identity in countries like the US that were overwhelmingly Christian, Hanukkah began to take on new significance.  Jewish parents, my own included, had long struggled with the popularity and prevalence of Christmas-- it seemed to be everywhere, and Jewish kids felt totally ignored.

Of course, we could join the majority and celebrate the Christian holiday, but many Jewish families saw that as both inappropriate and ironic-- after all, the Hanukkah story is about NOT imitating the majority. It's about the Maccabees, a courageous group of Jews living in ancient Greece (circa 167 BCE) who refused to assimilate, refused to worship the Greek gods, and refused to give up their beliefs even in the face of a majority who demanded that they do so.  And whether or not the story is historically accurate in every detail, its emphasis on Jewish pride, and on kindling the menorah to symbolically bring the light of hope and faith into a world of darkness and intolerance resonated then as it does even today.  Perhaps because it normally comes in December, and perhaps because it includes the custom of giving gifts to children (small gifts, for eight days), Hanukkah has acquired a reputation as the "Jewish Christmas," even though its theology is not in any way related to what Christians believe.  [For an excellent historical explanation of the rise in importance that Hanukkah plays in American society, this 2000 article from American Heritage magazine will fill you in:   
http://www.americanheritage.com/content/merry-chanukah?page=show]

But for reasons I've never understood, American businesses generally tend to ignore the existence of Hanukkah.  Perhaps it's because Hanukkah comes at a different time each year, and it's too difficult for merchants to keep track of it.  Or perhaps it's too much bother to get a menorah or find some Hanukkah decorations.  We all know that Christmas paraphernalia is easy to find and it's everywhere; Hanukkah stuff is evidently too difficult to locate, except in certain Jewish neighborhoods.  But that's not the issue.  For me, the issue is whether our culture respects all faiths, or whether those in the majority believe only theirs are worthy of display.  Frankly, I'd rather that merchants would take note of Passover, a much more central holiday in Jewish life, or make some time to note the Jewish New Year.  I also wish our culture acknowledged the major holidays of other minority faiths-- whether it's Buddha's Birthday or Ramadan or Diwali or others.  We all live here, and we should all be made to feel welcome.  Yes, I know that some of my conservative friends believe America is a "Christian nation" (it's not, and our Founding Fathers, all of whom were various kinds of Christians, never said it should be).  But the truth is we are a nation with freedom of worship, and a nation that should not impose just one tradition on everybody.   

And yet, we do.  When I ask about Hanukkah decorations in stores, the reaction tends to be anywhere from annoyance to indifference.  But I am not asking anyone to share my beliefs.  I am simply asking for an acknowledgement that I have holidays too.  I don't want to take away yours.  But I also don't want to see mine marginalized.  In the age of Donald Trump, marginalizing "the other" seems to be in season:  the president-elect has just announced his desire to appoint as Ambassador to Israel someone who is so ultra-conservative that he has accused liberal Jews (those of us who believe in a two-state solution and who support both the security of Israel and the human rights of the Palestinians) of being similar to Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.  And I also notice that these days, my annual request for a recognition of Hanukkah (and other Jewish holidays) is often met online with scorn, and even some Antisemitic comments.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that at this time of year, while we do agree that the Christmas trees and holiday lights are pretty, many of us also feel sorry for our Christian friends and neighbors-- your holiday has turned into a giant testimony to the power of consumerism, where Jesus is absent, and love is measured by how many dollars you spend.  My dearest friend for 40 years was a nun.  She said that as a Christian, the biggest gift of all should be the gift of salvation through Jesus.  Yet all she heard was people lamenting how much shopping they had to do.  Obviously, as  Jew, I did not share her theology; but I totally shared her dismay that Jesus had become an afterthought in a society where spending money and buying expensive presents was the dominant activity of the season.  And as for me, I will light my menorah and pray for a society where the light of love and tolerance conquers the darkness of anger and prejudice.  And whatever you celebrate, whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah or Festivus (let the airing of grievances begin!), I wish you health, happiness, and joy in this season of celebration.