Sunday, September 25, 2016

Running for Office and Surviving the Gender Wars

The other day, I read a wonderful article in the Washington Post, about how female debaters are often held to different standards from male debaters.  The article is here:

Written by Anna Waters, a junior at Northwestern University, it describes in great detail how female debaters, even at the high school and college level, find their performance judged more on their physical appearance and their personality than their male opponents are.  Since "power" and "authority" in our culture have long been gendered male, a woman who tries to sound powerful or authoritative is often harshly criticized, whereas a man who exhibits those qualities is praised.  You've heard the memes-- he's assertive; she's aggressive.  He's determined; she's stubborn.  He's decisive; she's bossy.  And let's not forget ambition-- a man is complimented for being ambitious, whereas a woman who displays ambition is compared to Lady Macbeth.

So, can a woman be "presidential"? After Hillary Clinton participated in a recent event called the "Commander in Chief Forum," Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus commented that she seemed angry and didn't smile enough.  One wonders why any candidate would be expected to be cheerful when discussing matters of war and peace, but evidently Mr. Priebus believes a woman candidate needs to first and foremost make sure she doesn't lose her feminine charm and likeability.

But sad to say, his attitude is still too common-- there have been a number of studies in the business world that have found significant gender disparities:  for example, when male managers speak in a way that sounds angry or critical, there's a tendency to either accept it or to rationalize it ("That's just how he is; but he's a really good boss once you get to know him"); but when a woman manager speaks that way, there is a far more negative response, and in some cases, it fuels the perception that she is not an effective manager because she doesn't have good people-skills.  This can even lead to a pay gap:  women who sound harsh are paid less than men who sound exactly the same way.

Don't get me wrong.  Compared to how things were when I was growing up, a time when companies could come right out and say "we don't hire women," and when even the most qualified women were denied equal access to the best-paying jobs, we have made amazing progress.  But as I have noted in other blog posts, some things have not changed much at all, including public reaction to strong female politicians.  This is not partisan, by the way. Both Republican and Democratic women have been asked questions male politicians would never be asked, including questions about who takes care of their children and what their husband thinks of their political career.  And as for First Ladies, woe to the woman who had a career before entering the White House:  she is still expected to give it up and spend her time hosting lavish parties (at which time she will be criticized for being ostentatious) or promoting a charitable cause (and if she uses late-night talk shows or social media to promote it, she will be accused of trying to be too much of a celebrity).  We still seem to expect First Ladies to "know their place," even if they had high-powered and successful professional lives before.

I don't know whether Hillary Clinton will be able to win a debate with a master showman and entertainer like Donald Trump.  I'd like to believe she can, because she knows a lot about policy and has very detailed plans.  But based on previous coverage of her, I expect critics to find her "shrill" and to criticize her "lack of warmth."  I've never met her so I have no idea whether she is or is not a warm person, but I do know that ever since women entered politics after they got the vote, female candidates have had to walk a fine line between sounding certain but not dogmatic; being prepared but not sounding like a school-teacher giving a lecture; and being forceful without seeming angry.  I hope Hillary can keep her balance, but it won't be easy.  It would be nice to say that we've moved beyond gendered assumptions about female candidates, but unfortunately, evidence suggests we haven't.  So, it will be interesting to see what Hillary's strategy is for winning the debates-- knowing before she goes in that historically, the rules have favored a male style of debating.  My hope is that that these upcoming debates won't be about "manliness" versus "warmth."  In 2016, we shouldn't still be judging based on 1950s assumptions-- and yet, I fear that we will.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Liberals and Conservatives-- What Do These Words Even Mean?

The Fall semester is about to begin and I'll be teaching my course in Political Communication; it's a non-partisan exploration of the tactics and techniques politicians (especially presidents) and their campaigns have used to get their message across, then and now.  I mentioned this to a couple of my Republican friends on social media, and one immediately tweeted, "And I suppose you'll teach it from the liberal perspective."  I assured him that the course thoroughly addresses political figures from all parties, but he did not seem convinced, even when I offered to show him the syllabus and let him see for himself.     

But his comment got me thinking about what the "liberal perspective," or for that matter, the "conservative perspective" means in today's political discourse. If I mention some positive contributions that liberal politicians have made to this country, am I just another shill for liberalism?  I think not, especially since my course also discusses the positive contributions that conservative politicians have made.  Believe it or don't, I really try to be historically accurate and fair to the facts. But that's not easy in our current polarized communication environment:  unfortunately, some people are quick to throw the words "liberal" and "conservative" around as insults, especially on Facebook and Twitter: "Libtard," "Cuckservative," "DemocRAT," "Re-THUG-lican," and other taunts reminiscent of the schoolyard are seen all-too-often in memes and social media posts. (For the record, I really dislike these particular taunts, and I wish people wouldn't use them.)  But when it comes to defining these two polarizing words, I keep thinking of that line from the movie The Princess Bride, the one where Inigo Montoya says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

Politicians on the right love to state that they are "the one true conservative," and they love to paint their opponent as "liberal," which is evidently the worst thing a Republican can be.  But there were many times in history when Republicans held positions that are today commonly associated with liberals. In fact, some political commentators have noted that Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon would be drummed out of today's Republican party for their moderate stances on certain issues.  Mr. Eisenhower famously warned against the "military-industrial complex"-- a position held by moderates and liberals today, in contrast to how most Republicans want to see even more money given to the Pentagon.  President Eisenhower also believed that government could solve problems, as exemplified by his advocacy for the building of the interstate highway system; today's Republicans frequently assert that government IS the problem and they refuse to support projects to improve our crumbling roads and bridges.  As for Mr. Nixon, with all his faults, he did expand Social Security, so that more people would be eligible, another position that would be considered liberal today; and he created the Environmental Protection Agency, something that today's Republicans would like to dismantle or curtail.  Yet in their day, both President Nixon and President Eisenhower were considered quite conservative.

So, what then is a "conservative" in 2016?  Historically, the dictionary has defined it as someone who "holds to traditional attitudes and values," or someone who is "cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion."  The problem, of course, is that traditions and attitudes can change, whether we want them to or not.  Today, women and African-Americans have secured the right to vote; but they didn't have it in previous generations, and sad to say, members of both parties at one time or other have tried to restrict voting rights.  Today, there are many men and women who have been divorced; in previous generations, this was considered a deal-breaker for someone wanting to run for president, but today, there are candidates who have not only been divorced once but several times.  Politicians are accused of "flip-flopping" when they change their views, but the truth is, most of us do change periodically; adapting to new circumstances is a necessary part of being successful.  So, is a conservative someone who wishes life could magically revert to what it was like in the 1950s? That seems like an oversimplification, although some conservatives do seem to long for the "good old days."  (I'm not sure what liberals long for-- perhaps a political revolution, like what Bernie Sanders proposed?)   

As with every ideology, there are nuances and shades of gray-- not every conservative thinks exactly alike, in other words.  Consider the issue of birth control:  for many years, conservative Christians (mainly Catholics, but some Protestants too) were successful in their fight against access to contraception, even for married couples.  Until the 1965 (!) Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision, purchasing or dispensing contraceptive devices was a criminal offense in certain states.  But these days, most Christians I know, as well as a majority who identify as conservatives, are fine about the use of birth control.  This includes more than 80% of American Catholics-- even though their church opposes the use of contraceptives, surveys repeatedly show that Catholics tend to ignore that teaching.   Unfortunately, some online memes try to assert that Margaret Sanger, who championed greater access to birth control, was actually a racist, a member of the KKK, and someone who wanted to limit the number of black births. As with all too many internet memes, these claims are false, but many conservatives treat them as factual, even as they also support family planning.  (Politifact addressed what Sanger actually believed here: )

As for "liberals" (also sometimes called "progressives"), dictionaries say such a person is "open to new behavior or opinions," someone who is "willing to discard traditional values."  But I am not sure it's that simple. Most liberals I know don't just wake up one day and "discard" anything.  They gradually move away from views they once held, because they acquire new information that encourages them to change. I'm a good example of that:  I used to oppose gay marriage; and to be fair, so did most heterosexuals from all sides of the political spectrum.  I came to believe civil unions were a good compromise, but as time passed, I learned more from my gay friends and colleagues about how various discriminatory policies affected their lives; and I came to believe that marriage equality was something worth supporting.  Public opinion surveys show that my position on the issue is now the majority view.  It's interesting to note that as recently as 2004, only 29% of Americans supported gay marriage, whereas by 2015, 60% of Americans expressed support.

If we look at our history, most Republicans in the 20th century were not aligned with views we would call "liberal"-- for example, Republicans were known for their total support of big business, and of championing policies helpful to corporations.  Their conservative factions tended to be socially conservative-- believing America was supposed to be a Christian nation, or demanding that the words "under God" be inserted into the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance.  But in fairness, many Democrats back then did not always champion "liberal" views either, and they too had conservative factions.  It was conservative southern Democrats (so-called "Dixiecrats") who vehemently opposed integration and stood firm on segregationist policies; these Democrats may have been liberal on a few other issues, but in the early-to-mid 1900s, their attitude on race was one that we can today find in many Republicans.  (And yes, I have seen the memes online that claim it was Republicans who were the true supporters of civil rights... but that's not entirely accurate; many northern Democrats were too, and even some from the south... including a Texan named President Lyndon Johnson.  It was also not true that every Republican agreed with Abraham Lincoln's efforts to end slavery, nor that every Republican treated the newly-freed blacks fairly.  There were heroes and villains in both parties.) 

My point is that life is rarely simple, and when it comes to politics, it's rarely binary, except on the internet, where efforts persist to demonstrate that "my side" is good and "your side" is evil.  I'd be interested to hear from both liberals and conservatives about what beliefs you hold and how you would like to see those beliefs enacted in our politics. For too long, we've used words to demonize each other, but I'd like to see if in fact there are some areas of interest we share, and I wonder if we can come up with new and more accurate definitions of "liberal" and "conservative," definitions more suitable for a new generation of voters.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Radio: Still a Magical Medium (Some Thoughts on National Radio Day)

The other night, I attended an anniversary party-- hundreds of enthusiastic fans, along with local sports celebrities and sportswriters, gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of "Toucher and Rich," a popular morning show on Boston sports-talk radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub. As a former deejay, I know how difficult it is to get and maintain that kind of popularity, and in our modern world, where people have so many media choices, it's nice to see that radio still has plenty of supporters. 

A few days earlier, with far less fanfare, another happy event occurred-- former Boston top-40 legend Arnie Ginsburg turned 90 years old.  Arnie is retired and lives up in Maine, and I do hope someone threw a party for him; he was among the most popular disc jockeys during the era when AM radio was still king; you may have heard him reenact his "Night Train" radio show on the "Cruisin'" series of recordings-- he represented what top-40 sounded like in 1961, and you can read the liner notes from that CD here: 

And then there was the recent news story about a young man named Adnan Syed: convicted in 2000 of murdering his ex-girlfriend, his case became the topic of Serial, a highly-acclaimed podcast produced by Chicago's public radio station WBEZ in 2014. Syed has long claimed he was innocent, and thanks in large part to evidence presented during the podcast, a judge has now agreed that Syed deserves a new trial.

Once upon a time, radio was unique. It was powerful. It was dominant.  When it came onto the scene in mid-1920, it quickly began to make a difference in how people lived.  Radio was the first mass medium to bring the audience to an event in real time, as it was happening. Radio transcended race (anyone who had access to a receiver could listen, and no matter what color you were, if you had talent, you had a chance to become a radio star); it also transcended social class (people who lived on the farm or in poor parts of town had the same opportunity to hear the biggest names and most popular shows as people who were rich and powerful).

And while radio was initially a source for music, it also became a source for news:  back in early February 1922, then-President Warren G. Harding installed what was undoubtedly the first radio set in the White House (he was a big fan of the new mass medium), and reporters covered it like a news story.  By 1924, political candidates realized they could not ignore radio if they wanted to run a successful campaign:  increasingly, politicians (from local mayors to presidential candidates) took to the airwaves to reach out to voters; and while today we take this for granted, in the 1920s-1930s, it was something quite new.  To this day, students learn about how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt became a "radio president," using his Fireside Chats to speak to, and comfort, the nation during the Great Depression.

Radio created national hits and it created national stars-- both performers and announcers.  It helped blind people to gain access to everything from baseball games to music concerts; it helped homemakers to learn new techniques for cooking great meals; and it helped the elderly to continue to hear religious services.  There were even educational programs, providing college-level courses to anyone who wanted to listen and learn.  In that golden age, there were amazing radio dramas and comedies, as well as cleverly produced programs for kids.  Radio's ability to entertain provided a very effective escape from the Depression, as well as source of encouragement during World War II; and the gradual rise of news networks enhanced the public's ability to stay informed. 

When TV came along, the common wisdom was that radio was finished-- but that proved to be untrue. Radio reinvented itself, and thanks in large part to the rise of rock-and-roll, top-40 radio ruled.  Many of us Baby Boomers grew up idolizing our favorite deejays and dreaming of being on the air at our favorite station someday.  And when FM radio finally took hold and weakened the influence of AM top-40, many Boomers migrated to FM, where we could hear album-rock, and later other new formats like urban/dance or modern country.

These days, radio is no longer unique, and it is no longer dominant.  Few young people listen to it passionately (or even listen to it at all), the way we Boomers did-- in fact, when I ask the students at the university where I teach, only a handful have a favorite station or can name a deejay they like.  In our internet and social media world, most of them get their music from Spotify or Pandora or YouTube, rather than waiting for their favorite on-air personality to introduce them to new music.

I find that disappointing.  While it's nice to download a song, I still like that human interaction. At its best, radio can still be a friend, a companion, a source of information and entertainment.  And yes, at its worst, it can be a lot of noise-- with deejays who talk too much, the same few songs over and over, too many commercials, or formats like political talk that focus on everything that's wrong and provide endless examples of anger and outrage.  It's a far cry from when radio used to be live and local and reach out to the community; a time when it tried to provide a balance of opinions, and stations of all formats focused on making their listeners feel they were part of a welcoming community of fans.

And yet, despite endless predictions of its demise, radio lives.  Today, on National Radio Day, I want to salute the stations which remain live and local, the ones that remain active in their community. I salute the stations that work tirelessly for charitable causes, and I especially salute every deejay who  makes time to talk to the listeners in a way that makes them feel appreciated.  Whether your station plays the hits or talks sports or reports the news, radio still matters.  It can still unite people and make them feel more connected; those radio voices can still reach out and make people feel a little less lonely.  I found this to be true when I was a deejay in the 1970s and 1980s, and it's still true today.

While I no longer broadcast full-time (and I miss it every day), I am sometimes a guest on talk shows, on stations like WBZ Radio in Boston (a station whose night-time signal reaches more than 30 states and parts of Canada).  It's still amazing to be part of a conversation with callers from so many distant locations; these are people I might never have the chance to talk to, if it weren't for radio.  And while I understand that most of today's young people don't have radio dreams the way I did, that doesn't mean radio has stopped being important, and that doesn't mean radio is no longer relevant.  When done right, radio can have a positive impact on a community; it can introduce new music, or new ideas; it can help solve problems, or just provide some harmless escape for a while.  And for some of us, with fond memories of meeting our favorite deejay, winning a contest on our favorite station, or attending a great station event (remember record hops?), radio is a part of who we are.  So, on National Radio Day, here's my wish:  long may radio survive and long may it continue to thrive.  To me, radio is still a magical medium, and it's one that changed my life for the better.    

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Show Must Go On

Sometimes, I feel as if life has turned into a giant reality TV show.  Of course, this feeling is not new-- way back in the early 1600s, a character in Shakespeare's play "As You Like It" mused that "All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players." (Rush fans know these lines too, since they are quoted in the song "Limelight.")   

As many of you know, I used to be an English teacher, and to this day, I still love books.  And while buying online is convenient, I also still enjoy wandering through a local bookstore and seeing what I can find to read.  Because I love words and appreciate good writing, I sometimes quote from great great works of literature, past and present, since they often express exactly what I'm feeling far more succinctly than I can.

One of my favorite quotes comes from chapter 6 of Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass." Alice is talking to Humpty Dumpty, and this is the dialogue: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Becoming the master of words-- changing their meaning to suit your particular perspective and then persuading others to use those words your way-- is a technique we often see in politics, where words that were once neutral are given a partisan connotation (and yes, both sides do it).  Consider the word "liberal," which to my friends on the right is the ultimate insult, a synonym for everything that's wrong in America (according to them, fact-checkers are liberal, the media-- except for Fox News-- are liberal, anyone who is pro-choice is liberal, etc).  Conversely, consider the word "conservative," which my friends on the left associate with bigotry, closed-mindedness, indifference to the poor, adulation for the rich, and the worship of the past.  And of course, each side has its own provocateurs telling them that their interpretation is correct, so why even bother talking to the other side, given how wrong and deluded "those people" are?

There are also times when the meaning of a word is altered in order to make a rhetorical point... and the point is not a good one. Consider the NBC sports analyst who decided to weigh in on the family of gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles, offering the comment that her grandfather and step-grandmother-- who adopted her as a kid-- are not her "real" parents.  Needless to say, Ms. Biles (along with many of us on social media) was not amused. I mean, Ron and Nellie Biles took her in and it was they who raised her.  So, how are they not her "real" parents?  Maybe they didn't give birth to her, but so what?  They're her parents. End of story.  (The commentator later apologized, as he should have.)

Or how about Donald Trump's bizarre assertion that Barack Obama (or as he cleverly put it in some versions of his claim, Barack HUSSEIN Obama) "founded" ISIS.  Okay fine, we can debate whether the president's policies in that region of the world are working.  But it's revisionist history to ignore the fact that the invasion of Iraq occurred under President George W. Bush, and that what became ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh) emerged as a result of the mismanagement of that invasion after Saddam was deposed.  Barack Obama was not the president in 2001-2006, nor did he have any authority in the matter (and he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq).  But focusing on the name President Obama inherited from his biological father-- a man he barely knew, and only saw once after Barack Senior abandoned him and his mom when young Barack was two years old-- is a way to remind anti-Obama partisans that the president is "foreign," and might be a secret Muslim.  (Poll after poll shows that among Republicans, disappointingly large percentages still believe President Obama was not born in the United States and is not really a Christian.)  But even if you dislike him, it's quite inaccurate to say Mr. Obama founded a terrorist group.

And once again, a quote comes to mind-- Inigo from the movie The Princess Bride, saying "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Far too often, words get thrown around that do not mean what the speaker is implying.  Like, what does it mean to be "patriotic"?  During the Olympics, one of the Americans who won a medal did not place her hand on her heart during the playing of the National Anthem.  I've talked about this before:  placing the hand on the heart has long been a custom associated with saluting the flag.  When we pledge allegiance, we place our hand on our heart, to show love of country, as I was taught in elementary school.  But it was only after 9/11 that other symbols began to proliferate-- like expecting politicians to wear a flag pin on their lapel (and then criticizing them if they didn't), or expecting everyone to place their hand on their heart during the National Anthem.  I fail to see how wearing a pin or placing your hand on your heart during a song tells me anything about your patriotism.  Mostly it tells me you have agreed to conform to some new custom, rather than risking getting mocked by people who ought to mind their own business.

Meanwhile, we have candidates who live for the applause, and a media that loves to hone in on one gaffe or one time the candidate said something outrageous (intentionally or not), and then replay it over and over and over, to the exclusion of anything else that's going on.  It's a world where critics on social media seem eager to catch someone doing something wrong, giving them permission to send out rude or sarcastic comments about it.  And it's a world where rumor, innuendo, myth, conspiracy theory, and total fabrication can be believed by millions of people because they read it online or someone famous said it.  And, sadly, it's a world where demonizing the other side is more important than doing or saying the courteous thing-- witness the Egyptian judo competitor who lost an Olympic match to his Israeli opponent yesterday. Respect for the sport dictates that once your match is over, you shake hands, but the Egyptian refused to shake the Israeli's hand.  I am not sure what such rudeness proves, but there are all too many times where this sort of attitude can be seen:  in political campaigns, at awards ceremonies, and of course, on the playground, where at least you might expect it.

So, here we are, in our reality show life, where everything seems to be about the performance; where the focus of the media is on who is getting praised versus who is getting blamed, and where all too often, confrontation is preferable to conversation, even if that means manipulating words to make your rhetorical point and get the attention you seek.  This week, my conservative friends are furious that the mainstream media aren't covering some internet gossip about Malia Obama, who was allegedly caught smoking marijuana and (gasp) twerking.  My liberal friends are equally upset that information about Donald Trump's taxes and when his third wife actually got her green card hasn't been made public.  And even if both sides got what they wanted, soon there's be some other pseudo-controversy for each side to get upset about.  So much to criticize, so little time, and the show must go on.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

RNC versus DNC: Two Very Different Visions of America

The past two weeks have been kind of surreal: I watched four nights of the Republican convention and then four nights of the Democratic convention, and somehow I survived.  But I must admit I'm still recovering from what I saw and heard.  It's not that watching political conventions is something new for me-- I've seen my share of them over the years.  But these two conventions were surprisingly compelling (and sometimes concerning).  And now, even after both events have concluded, many of us are still trying to sort out what happened.

I've watched enough political conventions to understand that Republican and Democratic conventions showcase two entirely different perspectives on the issues.  It just seemed that this year's RNC and DNC showcased two entirely different universes. It's not that one was good and one was bad-- although both had moments of drama, moments of tension, moments of anger, and yes, moments of boredom; and both conventions had speakers who were inspirational, as well as speakers who put the audience to sleep.  But what struck me when I watched was that one convention was the polar opposite of the other in terms of its tone, and its vision of America.

At the Republican convention, I saw speakers who were furious, who vehemently blamed Hillary Clinton (and Barack Obama) for everything wrong in the world.  According to various speakers, there was no terrorism (and certainly no ISIS) before the two of them came along; crime rates were low; people had good jobs; and everyone felt secure.  But now, because of them, life in America has become nightmarish.  Donald Trump in his keynote speech said that illegal immigrants with criminal records are running rampant, there are riots in the streets, racial tensions are worse than ever, the Second Amendment is about to be eliminated... and only he can make us feel safe again by restoring order to a chaotic America and a dangerous world.  

And then there was the Democratic convention. Yes, many Bernie Sanders supporters were also furious, especially after the conveniently leaked emails that showed what many of us knew all along:  the establishment of the Democratic Party was not neutral about who should be nominated.  Party leaders supported Mrs. Clinton; they did not see Bernie as electable, nor did they see him as someone with any loyalty to the Democratic Party.  But the fact remains that Mrs. Clinton did get more votes during the primaries, and while Senator Sanders was a gentleman (and a pragmatist) about the fact that he did not get the nomination, some of his supporters decided it was okay to disrupt the convention.  They were incredibly rude, interrupting speakers (including widely-respected civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis) every time Hillary's name was said, and even booing Bernie himself when he asked them to accept Hillary as the nominee and focus their energy on defeating Donald Trump.

But after that first night, after speeches from both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, there seemed to be a shift.  Some Bernie supporters remained furious throughout the convention, but they seemed to be a minority of the attendees.  Nearly everyone else was caught up in the historic nature of nominating the first woman presidential candidate of a major party.  Over the next several nights, there were amazing speeches by Michelle Obama (hers was so uplifting that even Donald Trump and his endless tweets could find no fault with it); Barack Obama and Joe Biden were also effective in making their case for why Mrs. Clinton was the right choice. And when Hillary gave her acceptance speech, she did not talk about a dystopian and hopeless America:  she talked with pride about the goodness of America, about how "we," the American people, can work together to improve our democracy, and how great America would continue to be.  She even quoted Ronald Reagan, much to the appreciation of some of the Republicans who were watching.  (Some Republican critics noted that she wasn't wearing a flag pin, as if somehow that was a sin; but the entire convention hall was filled with flags both small and large, and with red-white-and-blue balloons.)  If the stereotype of Democrats is that they do not embrace patriotic symbols, they certainly embraced them enthusiastically throughout the convention.

There were two deeply emotional moments for me-- at the Republican convention, one of the mothers who lost her son during the attack on Benghazi angrily denounced Hillary and said she held Mrs. Clinton personally to blame.  And at the Democratic convention, a Muslim-American man whose soldier son had died fighting in Iraq lashed out at Donald Trump for his proposed Muslim ban and for questioning the loyalty of American Muslims.  The man's wife stood next to him but did not speak-- not because (as Trump later suggested-- erroneously) Muslim women aren't allowed to speak in public, but because she is still unable to speak about her son without crying.  

At the Republican convention, even a preacher giving the benediction felt the need to be partisan, saying Mrs. Clinton and Democrats were "the enemy," and calling upon God to bring about their defeat.  One speaker repeated the myth, widely believed by many Republicans, that President Obama is a secret Muslim; another suggested Hillary Clinton is a servant of Lucifer.  But in fairness, some of the Democratic speakers had equally harsh assessments of Donald Trump and of what he has done to the Republican party (and what damage he could do to America if elected).

The Democrats had more appearances by celebrities, and a number of big-name Democrats (along with a few Republicans) gave testimonials about why they thought Hillary would make a fine commander-in-chief.  Many women, especially those who had waited for so many years to see a women get the nomination (including one who was 102 years old), beamed with pride when Mrs. Clinton took the stage.  Yes, there were those who didn't agree with her on every issue, but seeing her accept the nomination was very moving for a lot of the delegates in the hall.  The Republicans had few big names-- in fact, even major members of their own party stayed away.  But the lack of star power wasn't a problem, nor did it seem to upset the attendees-- for them, Donald Trump was the biggest star of all, and they had a wonderful time being there to show their support for him.

And now, the campaign for president begins in earnest.  The next 100 days will show us which vision of America will prevail, and which of these two very polarizing candidates-- who have records of accomplishment as well as record low approval ratings-- will persuade the majority of Americans. Mr. Trump said the Democratic convention was too optimistic and failed to address the real issues; Mrs. Clinton said the Republicans offered only fear, bigotry, and a dangerous claim that we need an autocratic leader to solve our problems.  Mr. Trump said Mrs. Clinton is too corrupt to lead.  Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Trump is too thin-skinned, and incapable of providing steady and calm leadership during a crisis.  I'm not looking forward to 100 more days of name-calling, but as I sit here writing this, I sincerely wonder how the voters are feeling now that they have seen two such different visions of what America needs...

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Telling the Truth About White Privilege

It was 2012, and I was doing some volunteer work as a Big Sister.  My Little Sister was a truly adorable African-American ten year old. She was somewhat shy, very polite, and really appreciative of anyplace I took her.  One afternoon, I took her to a shopping mall so we could find a birthday gift for her mom.  She asked me if she could first look at the DVDs (I took her to a lot of movies, and she was eager to see if any of them were out on DVD yet), and I said that would be fine. I told her I needed to go over to the pharmacy department to get something for my allergies, and I said I'd meet her where the DVDs were.  But as soon as she walked away from me, I noticed something interesting:  a store security person began to follow her.  I found this puzzling, since the kid was not doing anything out-of-the-ordinary.  There were other kids (all of whom were white) looking at various things in the store, but the store detective was focused on my Little Sister.  I quickly headed in her direction and asked the security guy if there was a problem; I also told him she was with me, which for some reason, seemed to reassure him.  I, on the other hand, found the entire experience really troubling.  It certainly seemed like the store security person had made the assumption that a black kid looking at DVDs must be a potential shoplifter, whereas white kids doing the exact same thing did not cause any suspicion. 

Lest you think I am reading too much into one incident,  I can assure you these sorts of things happen far too often, and not just to adorable ten year olds. They happen to black people of all ages, and from all walks of life-- members of the clergy, lawyers, business executives, and athletes.  And they've been happening for years.  One event I still remember occurred in 1990, when Boston Celtics first-round draft choice Dee Brown was house-hunting with his fiancĂ©e in a wealthy (and mostly white) suburb.  The couple had found what they thought was the perfect home, and were about to get into their rental car when something went terribly wrong:  they were surrounded by seven police officers, five of whom were armed. Brown and his girlfriend were told to get on the ground. They had no idea why.  As it turned out, the manager of a nearby bank had recently been robbed, and he called the police, saying he thought he saw the robber getting into a car.  What he saw, of course, was one of the few black faces in that town. There was NO resemblance between the bank robber and Dee Brown, nor was Mr. Brown armed or threatening.  Yet he was confronted by officers with guns, and told to lie face down on the sidewalk like a criminal while police checked his ID.  They ultimately concluded it was a case of mistaken identity (all black people look alike?), but needless to say, this was not the welcome to greater Boston that Dee Brown had expected.     

I know there are some people who will insist that the police and mall security have every right to be suspicious when they see black people, especially black young men.  Recently, I've also seen an increase in Facebook and Twitter memes about how blacks are inherently violent, often quoting exaggerated statistics about black criminality, and expressing the need for a return to law and order  (for whatever it's worth, these memes are usually sent to me by Donald Trump supporters).  I've also heard various pundits on conservative media outlets asserting that the reason black young men get into trouble is they refuse to "comply" when police give them an order.  Unfortunately, compliance is not the only problem.  In all too many cases, it appears that prejudiced assumptions play a role.  For example, there are numerous studies showing that blacks and whites are treated very differently by law enforcement, and the same is true when it comes to the criminal justice system-- if a black defendant and a white defendant are convicted of the same crime, the black defendant tends to receive a substantially longer sentence (sometimes as much as 20% longer).  More about some of these studies can be found online at 

And it's not just black defendants who endure unequal treatment-- how about black three year olds?  Over the past several years, a number of news articles have noted that black children in preschool are being suspended for a wide range of offenses, from wetting their pants to refusing to put on their shoes-- misbehavior that white children are not being suspended for.  Studies have also found that black boys are far more likely to be expelled from preschool for behaviors that, while annoying, are certainly not unusual in young children... and once again, behaviors that do not cause white children to be expelled.  Agreed, kids who don't behave can be frustrating, and teachers have every right to apply appropriate punishment.  But I find it troubling that some preschools are giving up on black kids at the age of three, whereas white kids are given far more chances to learn to behave.  

As a media historian, I can tell you that much of this is not new.  There have been stereotypes about minorities for centuries, often articulated by supposedly educated white "authorities," including professors, doctors, and preachers.  These stereotypes have been both useful and necessary to the majority culture, because if a certain group (in this case, African-Americans) is labeled as inherently dishonest, if their kids can't behave properly by age three, if they refuse to comply with authority in the right way, well then, who came blame society for discriminating against them?  The concept of "white privilege" is often misunderstood because it seems to say that white people have it easy-- they're privileged.  But that's not what it means. It means that there are negative assumptions that most white people never encounter... and all too many black people face on a regular basis.  Few people assume the average white guy is a criminal when they see him walking down the street. A number of my white friends have had broken tail-lights on their car but none of them have been pulled over and subsequently shot by police.   Few people assume that the average white person in a store is a thief.  And even fewer people assume that a three year old white kid is hopeless and needs to be expelled from preschool.

Please don't misunderstand me:  I am not saying that all white people are racists, nor am I denying that some black people do in fact commit violent crimes (as do some white people).  But my study of history tells me that certain racist beliefs are woven into the fabric of our culture.  Many of us who are white don't want to believe that; but rather than denying the existence of racist stereotypes and myths, it might be useful to begin telling the truth about them.  No, we do not live in a post-racial society.  No, racism is not a thing of the past.  And while we have absolutely made progress, there is much more we can and should be doing to make sure that everyone, no matter their race, receives an equal opportunity.  If you haven't seen it already, I strongly recommend watching an excellent 2013 documentary called "White Like Me: Race, Racism and White Privilege in America."  You may not agree with it, but I promise it will make you think: And during these difficult times, when accusatory rhetoric (from people on both sides of the racial divide) is far too prevalent, I hope there are still enough of us who want to move beyond blame and continue these difficult conversations.  Communication is the most powerful thing we have.  But we need to use it wisely, and use it well, so that the end result will be greater understanding, rather than just the same old myths and the same old memes.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Few Thoughts at the End of June

One of the most challenging aspects of recovering from surgery is being stuck at home for days, even weeks, with lots of time on your hands. And while having nothing to do (and all day to do it in) can be nice for a little while, it can quickly get really, really boring-- especially when you're still in pain and the only break from sitting around is going to doctors or going to physical therapy.  I've tried to use all of this free time productively.  I've done a lot of reading, engaged in some conversations on social media, Skyped with a couple of my students, but I have to confess that I miss being at work. I feel like there's an entire world of activity going on out there, and I'm not a part of it.

On the other hand, it's not difficult to keep up with the latest news, and there's been plenty to talk about-- or in the Twitter & Facebook world, plenty to argue about. A lot of the conversation is remarkably similar to how it's been for months:  Donald Trump is (pick one) a racist and a bigot, the only person who can rescue our economy, the man who knows how to keep us safe, or the guy who wants to start World War Three.  Hillary Clinton is (pick one) somewhere between Lady Macbeth and Satan, an inspiration and the most qualified to be president, someone who knows how to lead during a time of crisis, or someone who never tells the truth.  And President Obama is (pick one) the worst president in the history of humanity, the man who overcame the mess Bush left us with, a secret Muslim, or someone who seldom gets enough credit for his many accomplishments. 

One thing I'm noticing from the messages sent by my conservative friends (and yes, I really do have some) is their strong belief that things are going downhill and our country is in dire straits. Many tell me with certainty that only Donald Trump can turn things around, and they trust him to both keep us safe and fix what's wrong with our country.  As I've stated previously, I continue to be mystified by why anyone would trust Mr. Trump, a man with a long history of making claims that are demonstrably false.  And yet, no matter how many times his claims are refuted or debunked, the response from his supporters is that the media are against him, that fact-checkers are biased, and that anyone who disagrees with him must be a "liberal" (or perhaps a commie or, worse yet, a terrorist sympathizer).

Similarly, every time there's a terrorist attack (even if, as in Turkey, many of the victims were Muslims; or even if the attack occurred in a country where the terrorists were not Muslim at all), I still see the memes about how every terrorist is a Muslim; or lately, I see the return of the memes with the fake quotes claiming President Obama supports radical Islam (a claim Osama Bin Laden would have found puzzling), or that Obama promised to "stand with the Muslims" (he never said or wrote that; but as president, I would hope he would stand with all Americans who want a peaceful and safe country, whatever their religion).  And then, there's the return of the double standard-- when President Bush said that our enemy is NOT Islam and that most Muslims are peaceful, few conservatives were outraged.  But when President Obama says the same exact thing, suddenly it's disgraceful, and talk show hosts cannot express enough contempt. (And please don't tell me Obama "bowed to the Saudi king"-- something that President Bush also did, but again, when Bush did it, there was far less anger from conservatives.)

Some of you may disagree with me, but I do not believe America is going downhill, nor do I believe (as some Republican candidates want me to) that America is no longer great.  In fact, I don't even believe America is in grave danger and only a strongman who talks tough can save us (President Bush talked tough, and yet we still had 9/11, and yes, there were embassies that were attacked under his watch too).  That said, of course there are problems that need to be resolved: for example, the economic recovery has been both slow and uneven, and there really is a lot of evidence that only the top 1% have prospered (including Mr. Trump).

But over all, as the grandchild of immigrants, I sincerely believe that America is a pretty great place to live; and for all of its faults, I can't imagine living anywhere else. So, as we approach the 4th of July (Independence Day, plus it's my husband's 70th birthday), I would hope the fear-mongering and the anti-immigrant rhetoric could stop for a while.  I wrote about this a few weeks ago, and it's still on my mind, especially each time I hear more angry political rhetoric about blaming "them" for our problems.  But finding the right group to hate (or ban) has never worked long-term; it's a temporary way for some folks to feel better, even though in the end, it solves nothing.

I keep thinking about how our Founders didn't agree on everything, and in fact, history tells us they had some intense debates.  Yet they were still able to collaborate when it mattered most, and as a result, we have our country and our constitution.  As I see it, that's an example of true patriotism:  working together for the greater goal, being willing to commit to making America even better than it already is.  Here's hoping we can rediscover that spirit of collaboration-- if it was good enough for our Founders, should we settle for anything less?