Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Random Acts of Kindness, Neil Diamond Edition

It was a Thursday night in mid-October 1971, as I recall. And while I may be wrong about the date, I still remember the exciting opportunity I had: I was about to interview Neil Diamond.  A friend of mine, who was a top-40 deejay, was the host of a history of rock and roll called "Retro Rock," on ABC Radio's American Contemporary Radio Network, and he needed some quotes for a feature we were going to do about Neil's music. Thanks to my friend, I had become a writer and researcher for "Retro Rock." And while ABC radio wouldn't let me on the air (girls were still a rarity on top-40 radio), it was fun to hear what I wrote getting put to good use. 

Back then, Neil Diamond was not known for mellow pop music; he did some really good top-40 rock songs and he had a number of hits. I loved some of those songs, especially "Solitary Man" and "Kentucky Woman."  I also liked some of his more introspective songs like "Brooklyn Roads" and "Shilo." And now, I was going backstage to meet him.

I'll admit it:  I was really, really nervous. I mean, I had spent three years in college radio, but I didn't meet any famous people. Neil Diamond was larger than life to me. I didn't want to make a fool of myself, especially when my friend had worked so hard to help me get an interview.  I wanted to make a good impression, and I wanted to get the information for the episode of "Retro Rock."

I don't recall much about the interview itself; I must have gotten the right quotes, because the episode about Neil's work did get on the air. But something else happened. We were talking, and he asked me about myself-- and for some reason, I told him. I said it was a very frustrating time for me, career-wise. While being an anonymous writer was okay, what I really wanted to do was be on the air; but because I was female, nobody would give me a chance.  And other than my friend, few people in radio took me seriously.  It was probably unprofessional for me to talk about myself. But it was a moment, and I felt like he genuinely wanted to know, so I told him.

What happened next was a surprise. He gave me a hug and said something encouraging, telling me not to give up.  And he signed the tour book I brought with me, with a very heart-felt autograph next to the lyrics of "I Am... I Said."  He wrote: "She was... she said. And no-one heard at all... except me."

Years later, I still have that tour book. I doubt Neil Diamond remembers that evening, and unless he reads my blog (which I also doubt), he has no way of knowing that although it took another couple of years, I finally did get on the air and I ended up having the career I always wanted-- including meeting a large number of famous (and nearly famous) people, discovering a certain Canadian rock band, and doing all kinds of interviews with all kinds of entertainers.

I tell you this story because I remember Neil Diamond's kindness even though it was nearly fifty years ago. There's a message here, and it's worth keeping in mind:  sometimes, when you least expect it, someone will reach out and say what you need to hear; or someone will show you compassion where there hadn't been much before.  It may not be somebody famous, but that's not the point. These random acts of kindness can make a difference. In fact, maybe you'll be that someone. Maybe you'll be the one to reach out and encourage a person who needs a kind word.  And when it seems like nobody cares, maybe you'll be the one to let someone know that's not true, the way a famous singer did when he reached out to a young and inexperienced writer one evening in 1971.    

     

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Who Are the "Best and the Brightest"?

Most of you never met my maternal grandfather. His Yiddish name was Shmu'el Feivel (which became Samuel Philip) and according to his immigration documents, he arrived in the United States from Lithuania in 1910.  Back then, European Jews were being persecuted or treated harshly, and their economic opportunities were limited. And so, like many immigrants from many countries, he decided to seek a better life in America.

My grandfather was a tailor. He came here speaking perhaps two words of English, and while he was a quick learner, till the day he died, he spoke it with a heavy accent. He never got rich, he never became famous, but he adapted well to his new country; he got married, had three kids (one of whom was my mother), and was probably pleased that in America, he was no longer treated like he had been in the old country.

But I wonder if he would even be admitted today, given our president saying we need to move to a "merit-based" system of immigration.  Did my grandfather have sufficient merit?  After all, he was not very educated, didn't speak English, and had very little money. Further, he did not know any people in the US who could vouch for the fact that he would work hard and cause no problem to anyone.  He believed, as many immigrants did back then, that America was a nation of immigrants, and he believed that if given a chance, he could make a good life here, for himself and the family he hoped to have.

Beyond the debate over what to do about "the border," and how undocumented immigrants should be treated, there is another story that is getting far less coverage. Mr. Trump wants to restrict legal immigration. He wants to change the policy so that America will only admit the "best and the brightest." The policy he has proposed would cut legal immigration nearly in half, something we have not seen in decades. Currently, the number of immigrants being given visas has dropped by about 12% during his first two years in office; but he wants it to drop even more. He has stated that his ultimate goal is to “curb the flow of low-skilled workers into the United States.”

By those standards, I would not be writing this blog post today, since my grandfather, a "low-skilled worker," would not have been allowed to move here, and my mother would never have been born here either. I find it troubling that the country that once gave unskilled workers from other countries a chance to contribute to the US economy (which, by the way, is still desperate for immigrant labor: many industries are eager to hire them) now suddenly says only geniuses with PhDs need apply.

I hope the president will rethink his position. Today's low-skilled worker may have a family that includes high-achieving kids; or that worker may get the chance to go to school and acquire the skills he or she did not have before.  It's hard to predict how things will turn out, of course. But this much I know: the vast majority of the folks who have come here have been an asset, not a liability. It would be a shame if people who are seeking a better life, like my grandfather did, will now be told they should not seek it here. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Moving Beyond the Stereotypes

When I was in high school, we studied some of Shakespeare's plays. The one that had the greatest impact on me (and not in a good way) was "The Merchant of Venice." Some of you may remember it. The central character, and villain, is the moneylender, Shylock the Jew.  And while there are a couple of verses where Shakespeare does try to humanize him, the vast majority of the play depicts him as exactly what people in Shakespeare's day thought all Jews were-- greedy, dishonest, obsessed with petty rules, and incapable of compassion. Given that England had long ago banned the Jews from living there unless they converted to Christianity, it's likely that Shakespeare and his audience had never met an actual Jew. But everyone certainly knew the myths about the Jews, and Shylock exemplified every single one.   

As much as I liked several of Shakespeare's other plays ("King Lear" was, and still is, my favorite), the blatantly anti-Jewish stereotypes in "The Merchant of Venice" really bothered me. But what upset me even more was that I was the only one who was bothered. My teacher and everyone else in the class were Christians, and they did not see a problem with the text at all. (Back then, many of those stereotypes were still commonly accepted in the popular culture.)  Thus, when I tried to explain my reaction to the depiction of Shylock, I'm not sure anyone understood why I was upset.

Yes, undoubtedly there have been greedy moneylenders in history, and I cannot deny that some may have been Jewish.  But many others were not: moneylenders have existed in every culture, and no one religion or ethnic group holds a monopoly on this occupation (or on being greedy). What bothered me in high school, and what still bothers me even now, is when someone has behaved in an offensive manner, certain people will immediately claim that ALL members of that group behave that way.  And when you try to defend your particular group, those people will believe the stereotype and say you are just the exception.    

It's easy to generalize about an entire group; it's harder to get to know them as individuals. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen enough:  surveys show that too many of us mainly hang around with people who look like us, believe like us, and even vote like us. No wonder myths and stereotypes persist.  I wish more of us could step back from our preconceived notions, stop misrepresenting each other's views, and make a genuine effort to understand how others see the world. That's probably why I remember that high school incident, and the feeling of not being understood, whenever I'm on social media and someone sends around a meme or a cherry-picked quote intended to show what [pick one] all immigrants, or all African-Americans, or all Muslims, or all Jews are really like.

I see similar generalizations in our politics too: I cannot tell you how many Democrats are firmly convinced that ALL Trump supporters are racists and bigots; and there are just as many Republicans who sincerely believe that ALL Democrats are judgmental hypocrites.  I often get Tweets accusing me of being a "typical liberal" (whatever that means), and I am sure my Republican friends get Tweets accusing them of being "typical conservatives."  And this is where we seem to be-- stuck in our stereotypes, unable (or unwilling) to move beyond them.  I used to be a deejay (and as a professor, I still make my living from talking), yet from what I've seen, I truly believe we could all benefit from listening more and talking less.

Fortunately, I know some people who do listen, who are both inclusive and tolerant.  But I know even more who are quick to dismiss (or mock) anyone whose reaction is different from theirs.  Social media has definitely made it easier to do that, and some of the political rhetoric we hear isn't helping. But if we're living in a culture of stereotype and blame, why be satisfied with it? Shouldn't we want things to change? I may seem naive to suggest this, but I believe we can (and should) improve how we communicate.  It starts with being willing to listen rather than argue.  Given our different backgrounds, I don't expect us to agree on everything; but at least we can try to respect each other, can't we?  So, I invite you to reach out to someone who can offer you an entirely different perspective. It may not be what you're accustomed to, but you may find yourself learning something new.  And if more of us take the time to do that, perhaps society will become a little less polarized than it currently is.       

Saturday, June 30, 2018

What You Need to Know About "Fake News"

I generally try to be courteous when I blog, but I have to admit I'm really fed up with the ongoing verbal attacks on the media. I've mentioned my dismay about it on Twitter & Facebook, but some folks told me angrily that the media deserve it because "they lie all the time." That's an opinion I find puzzling. I know many honest and honorable reporters who don't lie at all, yet they are receiving not just hate mail but death threats on a regular basis.  We all know what happened in Annapolis the other day, and while I am not blaming any one person, we do have a polarized culture, and it has become very worrisome to many of us. But despite the obstacles, my journalist friends continue to tirelessly do their jobs.  I say they deserve our thanks, rather than our scorn.    

Among the most common accusations thrown at journalists is that they constantly spread "fake news."  Studies show that large numbers of Republicans are firmly convinced of this, and I'm aware that nothing I say in this blog will change anyone's mind. But I'd like to put this belief in context, if possible.  While today, it has taken on a partisan slant, the idea that you can't trust the press is actually quite old. In fact, we can find critics complaining about "fake news" more than 120 years ago.  Consider Frederick Burr Opper, an American cartoonist whose work has long since been forgotten by most of us. But in March 1894, he used a cartoon to comment on the rise of sensationalism and exaggeration in the journalism of his time, and to remark on what he saw as a disturbing trend-- and he referred to this trend as "fake news."  Yes, that was a thing even in the 1890s, a decade when certain publishers were using their newspapers to intentionally mislead the public, creating outrage in order to sell newspapers, or trying to affect government policies.  (You can read more about that period of time here:  https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/yellow-journalism-the-fake-news-of-the-19th-century/)

More recently, there was a resurgence of the term "fake news" during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, during both Republican and Democratic presidencies, media critics were using the term "fake news" when discussing misleading reports broadcast on programs that were supposedly fact-based.  For example, TV Guide, not known as a political publication, featured a cover story about this in 1992-- author David Lieberman used the term to refer to stories that purported to be "news," but were actually cleverly-produced and corporate-funded publicity features-- created to promote a product or to sway public opinion on a hot-button issue.

In the early 2000s, President Bush became a frequent user of these features, known in the industry as VNRs ("Video News Releases"), when he was promoting the War in Iraq. But he wasn't the only one. Many TV stations and newspapers also made use of VNRs, citing them in their coverage as if these features were neutral and factual, when they were really one-sided advocacy pieces. The failure to identify some spokespeople as paid industry advocates, and to differentiate their advocacy from objective reporting became an ongoing problem, one we still have today.

So, since we live in a time when the term "fake news" gets thrown around a lot, let me be very clear about what it is, and what it isn't. First, here's what "fake news" is: An intentional effort to mislead the public, either by making up quotes, distorting/misrepresenting what someone said, or inventing events that never really happened.  Fake news is often inflammatory, because it is intended to stir up partisan outrage. And if it isn't making up quotes entirely, it often rips them from their actual context and then uses them to make a partisan point, relying on the fact that most people do not check the entire quote to see what the person really said, or what they really meant.  Fake news also relies on cherry-picking facts-- making a one-off incident seem like it happens all the time, or making a fringe figure into someone who represent all members of that party or that group.

As for what "fake news" is not-- it's not news that President Trump (or any politician from either party) doesn't like. It's not an unintended or accidental mistake that a reporter corrects and apologizes for. It's not news that doesn't agree with your views. And it's not "anything that's on [pick the channel you personally distrust]."  A word here also needs to be said about the difference between reporters and commentators: reporters are the ones who are trained to be objective and fair to the facts, and they tend to leave their personal views out of the story.  A commentator is hired to be one-sided and to express his or her opinions on that topic or that issue, whether those opinions are based on facts or not. Many people confuse the two groups: Fox News has reporters (generally fact-based) and so do CNN and MSNBC.  But they also have commentators (sometimes fact-free, and very passionate about their personal views on the subject).

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: in a democracy, we need good reporters to hold the powerful accountable, and to keep us informed about news we might not otherwise get. I understand why partisan politicians want you to distrust the press: if you can be persuaded to ask no questions and to believe ONLY your favorite politician (or rely ONLY on partisan media sources), it's easier to get your support for certain policies, and it's easier for that political party to remain in power.  But while encouraging distrust of journalists is great for politicians, it's really bad for the country as a whole.  So, rather than demonizing reporters, respect what they are trying to do; and let them seek out the facts, whether the facts are popular or not.  It's not easy to be a journalist, especially in our angry and polarized world. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1787, "...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."  I couldn't agree more.       


Friday, June 15, 2018

What Does It Mean to be "Too Old"?

I just read an article in the Boston Globe, and it really resonated with me. No, it wasn't about politics or rock & roll or the media (the three subjects I most frequently read, and blog, about).  The article was about what it's like to be considered "too old," in a society that worships youth, one that seems very conflicted about where Baby Boomers should belong.

Since I'm 71, I know from first-hand experience about the double messages that folks in their 60s and 70s receive.  On the one hand, we're told it's never too late to take a course or support a cause. There are many politicians (including our current president and a number of members of congress) in our age group; there are also some popular 1960s and 1970s rock stars who still make new albums or even go out on tour.  A number of popular actors and actresses are in that older demographic too.  Jokes that mock older Americans for being senile or clueless are no longer staples of TV comedies, the way they used to be. And the word "elderly" has been replaced by a kinder euphemism, "senior citizen."

But on the other hand, we are constantly bombarded with images of attractive and photogenic young fashion models, product representatives, athletes, entertainers, and couples. Commercials aimed at the younger demographic are about life's many choices: new cars, new homes, new relationships, the newest devices. Contrast that with commercials aimed at the older consumer: most of them treat being older as a problem to be endured, or to be addressed with pharmaceuticals (or with products like Depends). 

In the Boston Globe article, there's a 65 year old guy who hasn't been able to find full-time work since the recession of 2008-2009 cost him and so many others their jobs in the telecom industry. So, he works part-time at a coffee shop, much to his frustration. He feels like he still has a lot to give, and he keeps going out on interviews; but wherever he goes, the reaction is the same: the folks doing the interviewing are often much younger than he is, and they seem to feel he is too old to fit in with their company's corporate culture.  (You can read the article here: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/06/14/help-wanted-but-not-from-older-workers-many-struggle-find-jobs-employers-post-openings/CIQgOC1AYXqlGIFtZWkcHN/story.html?)

As I said, I'm 71.  Fortunately, I don't look it.  And while I am not a technological wizard, I am fairly well acquainted with the newest products; I'm on social media regularly, and I'd like to believe I'm still capable of learning something new-- after all, I got my PhD when I was 64.  But the guy quoted in the Globe story could easily have been me.  I spent more than three decades in broadcasting, and when media consolidation occurred in the early 1990s, thousands of us, myself among them, lost jobs that we dearly loved.  In my case, I had planned ahead: I was already doing some part-time college teaching, and when radio was no longer available to me, I reinvented myself as a college professor.

Getting my PhD was not easy; it took me nine years (I was teaching full-time as an adjunct professor, and then I drove 100 miles out to the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, where I took the courses I needed, a couple at a time).  But I had the advantage of having been a broadcaster, as well as publishing several books and many articles. There were a few universities that looked beyond my chronological age and focused on my credentials and my skill-set.  And while I do not make the kind of money I used to make, I am happy to have a regular source of income, and to get paid for teaching about something I enjoy-- media history and media analysis.

But if I had not been able to translate my expertise into a new profession, I too might be working part-time at a coffee shop.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course; but the guy in the article has years of tech experience, and nobody will give him a chance to use it, or let him prove that he is up-to-date on today's technology. This seems like a waste of talent, and there are so many other people in his situation. While politicians love to brag about a good economy, the truth is that some folks are always left behind. In this case, many of the people left out are Baby Boomers, people in their 60s and 70s who still want to be employed, still want to make a difference, and are finding nothing but obstacles.

I understand that sometimes, it's necessary for older workers to step aside and give younger workers a chance to shine.  But what about the older workers who love to work and genuinely feel they have something to offer? Should they be arbitrarily pushed aside? And what about the older workers who have financial problems and still need a regular paycheck? There are more of them than you might think.  As for me, I'm glad that I can still bring in a paycheck; and at this point, I cannot imagine retiring.  But I also understand that not everyone shares my desire to keep working. Conversely, I empathize with those who just want a chance, and nobody believes they should have one because they are perceived as "too old."          

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Everybody Loses When Vulgarity Wins

Over the past couple of days, social media has been a microcosm of everything that's wrong with our current society.  First, there was the vile tweet by comedian and actress Roseanne Barr, in which she compared a black woman (Valerie Jarrett) to an ape; there was also an equally vile tweet in which she claimed philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish, was actually a Nazi collaborator during World War II (he was not, by the way).  This was followed the next day by social media outrage over TV comedian and political commentator Samantha Bee, who, in the midst of criticizing Ivanka Trump, called her the C word.

Most (but not all) of the people who were upset with Samantha Bee were conservatives who were furious at her attack on Ivanka, and who saw an opportunity for "whataboutism"-- yes, Roseanne was crude, but what about Samantha Bee?  Roseanne's TV show got canceled because of her racist tweet, but what about Samantha Bee (or Bill Maher, for that matter); why are they still on the air, given all the vile remarks they make about the president and his family?  

Meanwhile, Roseanne semi-apologized for her attack on Valerie Jarrett, blaming Ambien for her tweet (an excuse the company that makes Ambien found less than convincing); but she didn't apologize for her numerous other bigoted or factually-challenged tweets, including the one with the anti-Semitic attack on George Soros (you may not agree with his politics; but no, he never helped the Nazis, as any reputable fact-checking site can show you).  

Before I get accused of partisanship, let me say that Samantha Bee was wrong to use the C word (a word I've never used in my entire life); I'm glad she apologized-- she could just as easily have made her point without using a word that even many feminists find problematic.  But as I see it, her crude insult was nowhere nearly as bad as when Roseanne slandered an entire race by comparing them to apes (something, it should be noted, that various bigots liked to do when talking about Barack and Michelle Obama).

But the real issue isn't which celebrity's remarks were worse. The real issue is that we have increasingly become a culture that accepts hateful and vulgar comments, and in some cases, even approves of them.  Yes, there is a brief burst of outraged Tweets from partisans; but then, it's on to the next series of outrages.  And whether it's on social media or in the White House, making this kind of remark no longer comes with any political cost; and it no longer seems to come with any social cost either.  Not that long ago, neither Republicans nor Democrats would use curse words on TV or make crude remarks at public rallies; it would have lost them public support.  And while there have been "shock jocks" on radio and TV since the 1980s, even they had lines they would not cross, for fear of being fined or getting fired.

Yet here we are with a president whose base applauds him for using vulgar and hateful rhetoric; even his evangelical Christian supporters won't rebuke him, because they like his stance on appointing conservative judges, or they hope he'll defund Planned Parenthood. And here we are with a culture that gets outraged only if someone from "the other side" says something vulgar, yet they remain silent when someone  from "their side" makes even the most bigoted remarks.    

Back in 2004, when Judith Martin was "Miss Manners" at the Washington Post, she wrote a good definition of vulgarity.  She said it was "one of those lapses of manners that does not arise from accident or ignorance. Whether it is showing off or showing too much, it is done to provoke others to envy or disgust."  But it's what she said next that still resonates with me: "So, while allowing [vulgarity] to become commonplace helps dull the reaction, it forces down the standards with which everyone else has to live."

And that is where we seem to be: unable to see what we are losing as a result of this coarsening of our culture; and unwilling to stop being partisan long enough to say "No" to the degradation of our public discourse.  It's easy to blame Roseanne Barr, or Samantha Bee, or Donald Trump-- but a lot of factors have gotten us to this point. And having gotten here, I wonder if there's a way to turn things around-- or will this slide into even more hate and vulgarity continue?  

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tryin' to Live My Life Without You

When I was growing up, I wasn't very popular.  As I recall, I was the only girl in the senior class at my high school who was not asked to the Senior Prom. I had no boyfriend, but truth be told, I didn't have many friends of either gender. It was not a very tolerant era, and since I was SO different from what a girl of that time was supposed to be, it meant that I spent a lot of time by myself. I had a crush on a guy who lived a couple of streets away from me, but he didn't know (or care) that I existed; and not knowing any other guys I could ask to be my date, I stayed home.  Looking back on it now, I probably didn't miss much, plus I saved a lot of money by not having to buy a fancy dress. But at the time, I felt like an outsider.  Only my love of rock and roll, and my favorite deejays, helped get me through it.

In college, I found my home at WNEU, the campus radio station; but being a few years ahead of the curve meant I was not welcome yet-- the station did not want (or allow) female deejays. It took me till my senior year to finally get on the air, and to be a radio station music director for the first time. I loved being a deejay (playing people's favorite songs and cheering them up the way the deejays had cheered me up a few years earlier). But I found that I loved music directing almost as much-- I had the opportunity to listen to all the new songs, and help to decide what the station would play.

Through music directing, I came in contact with record company promoters, and made some friends that I still have to this day. This was also the first time I encountered promoters from Canada; they sent me what were then called "imports," in case we wanted to play them.  And throughout my radio career, no matter where I worked, I continued to be a music director, and I continued to maintain a good relationship with a number of Canadian record promoters, who introduced me to a lot of interesting new music.  Most of it never became popular in the States, but every now and then, a band broke through, and I was gratified to know I had helped to make that happen.

In addition to feeling a sense of pride in helping to "get the ball rolling" for Rush back in 1974, one of the added bonuses for me was all the new friends I met as a result.  First and foremost, I became friends with the guys in the band (and even when they became famous, they never forgot what I did for them early in their career).  I also became friends with their management.  But then came lots of live concert performances, and I began to meet the fans. No matter what city I was in (and I saw Rush play in so many places), the fans always welcomed me.  We all shared something in common: we loved a band that the critics generally hated; and we recognized how talented these three guys were when the critics did not. 

For more than four decades, I knew that wherever Rush was playing, I would not only be welcomed by the band if I wanted to go backstage, but I would also be welcomed by the fans who came to see them. The fans seemed to recognize me:  they would wave, or call my name, or hug me, or in the internet era, they would "friend" me on Facebook.  Sometimes, at an event or at a concert, I would see someone with a sign that said "Thank you, Donna Halper." It meant a lot to me.

Sometimes, fans would ask me to speak at a Rush-themed convention, or teach a class about Rush's music; or they wanted to take a "selfie" with me if they saw me somewhere.  I'd like to believe that some of these folks might have wanted to be friends with me with or without Rush; but there's no denying that our devotion to Rush is what brought us together and kept us in contact with each other over the years.

And then it all changed.  After R40, Neil decided to retire; Alex and Geddy, loyal to the end, were not about to create a new version of Rush without him.  These days, while we still have some wonderful Rush tribute bands, what we don't have are live concerts from Rush. I miss those concerts.  But I also miss the friendship I shared with the guys, and with the fans. There was a certain camaraderie, a certain warmth, a certain unspoken bond whenever the fans got together for a show. Of course, we were all different: we had different politics, different religious beliefs, different favorite songs. But we could put our differences aside and enjoy being part of the extended Rush family. It was an experience I've never had with any other band (or with any other group of fans).  And nearly three years later, it's something I continue to miss.