Thursday, August 15, 2019

In Search of Second Chances

When I was a kid (I think I was about four years old), my mother took me to a toy store, and I saw something I wanted. For whatever reason, we didn't buy anything that day, but I saw a little toy car and I put it in my pocket. I'm not sure whether I fully understood that this was stealing-- I knew my mother didn't pay for it, but as I said, I was four, and I'm not sure I thought about it.

When we got home, my mother noticed I was playing with the car and she asked where I had gotten it. When she found out I had just put it in my pocket, she was not happy with me, and as I recall, she made me go back to the store, return the car, and apologize to the manager. She also gave me a lecture about how taking stuff without paying for it, even stuff you really wanted, was wrong.  But here's what else I remember: everyone forgave me, and I got a second chance. Even as a little kid, that meant a lot to me. 

What made me think of second chances was a tweet I saw from a Philadelphia Eagles football fan, wishing the Eagles would sign former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been out of work for a while but would like to play football again.  Evidently, the Eagles' current quarterback situation isn't so good, and this fan thought he would be a welcome addition to the team.

If you follow football, or even if you don't, you may have heard of Mr. Kaepernick. He used to play for the San Francisco 49ers, and had some success, even leading his team to a Super Bowl. But then, in 2016, he began protesting what he saw as systemic racism and police brutality in America; and to make his point, he refused to stand during the National Anthem, taking a knee instead.  This gesture was controversial: some fans dislike it whenever athletes speak up about current issues, and they booed him. On the other hand, there were a few fans who understood what he was trying to do, and they praised him.  But his anthem protest quickly became the subject of heated discussions on talk shows. 

Unfortunately, one person who really disliked what he was doing was President Trump, who basically claimed that Mr. Kaepernick did not love his country, accusing him of having no respect for our flag or our troops (this was untrue, and ignored Mr. Kaepernick's actual reason for the protest, but many of the president's supporters came to believe that this football player was simply unpatriotic).  Mr. Trump's disapproval contributed to Mr. Kaepernick losing his job, and to this day, no team will hire him.    

I am in no way equating Mr. Kaepernick's protest against racism with what happened to me as a little kid. In fact, I'm not even criticizing him for refusing to salute the flag: I'll leave that for others to debate (by the way, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that people cannot be forced to salute the flag). And I do understand that sports are a business, and team owners have every right to expect their players to behave in a certain way. I'm just saying that forgiveness is a wonderful virtue.

But sometimes in our culture, we apply forgiveness selectively, and I guess that is what really bothers me.  Right now, the National Football League has several players who were credibly accused of beating their wife or girlfriend. Yet these players were given a second chance. There are also some players who had drug problems. They too were given a second chance.  Yet, Colin Kaepernick, by all accounts an ethical person whose "sin" was his determination to protest racism, remains unable to find a team to hire him.

I've been told he's just not that good a quarterback. (Some football analysts disagree.) I've been told if he were rehired, the president would be furious. (The president shouldn't be the one who hires football players-- that should be up to the individual teams.) And I've been told that fans are still angry with him (I don't know if that's true; and I also have seen some fans voice their support for him). But the fact remains: he wants to play, and by many accounts, there are teams that could use his services. However you feel about what he did, why is he the only one to be denied what everyone else seems to be given--why will no NFL team give him that second chance?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

What Would Jesus (or Moses) Do?

Back in the 1990s, when I was an instructor at Emerson College in Boston, they needed someone to be the Jewish chaplain; our previous Jewish chaplain was ill, as I recall, and a replacement hadn't yet been named. I was asked to fill in for a semester, because (a) I was Jewish, (b) I had taught comparative religions for years, and was familiar with Scripture, and (c) I had a background in counseling. I was also fairly well known to the students, most of whom seemed to like me.  And that's how I became Emerson's Jewish chaplain, joining the school's Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains (there may have been chaplains for other faiths, but I don't recall).

It was an interesting semester. I listened to students with various problems; I read Bible verses with them (if they wanted me to); and above all, I tried to be a source of comfort and encouragement to them during difficult times. But there was something else I recall about the experience-- not one of the students who came to see me was Jewish. In fact, they were all Catholic.

Fortunately, I knew something about the Catholic religion:  my dearest friend for nearly four decades was a nun.  I tried to imagine what she would say to the students, if she were sitting with them; and in the end, I hope they felt I was a good listener, who offered them compassion and good advice. Whether they were in my religious tradition or not, they were human beings seeking comfort-- and I tried my best to provide it.

What brought the memory of my semester as a chaplain back to me was a tweet I saw several days ago, from an Evangelical Christian commentator named Erick Erickson. He took Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to task-- but not for any of his policies (which wouldn't have bothered me-- people can disagree on politics and still respect each other).  However, Mr. Erickson decided to criticize Mayor Pete for being the wrong denomination of Christian: "Just a reminder that Pete Buttigieg is an Episcopalian, so his understanding of Christianity isn't very deep or serious." 

I'm not an Episcopalian, but I was deeply and seriously offended.  Perhaps Mr. Erickson was sleeping the day his church had the Bible study on the dangers of being judgmental. Perhaps he forgot that the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, says all of us are imperfect and all of us have disappointed God on numerous occasions, and that God alone is the Judge.  But he had to let everyone know that his interpretation of religion was superior and everyone else's is just plain wrong.

I thought back to the students who came to see me when I was the chaplain-- some told me about problems related to drugs, or cheating on an exam, or some other negative behavior.  They were ashamed. They felt they couldn't tell others what they had done. So they told me. And should I have chastised these students and let them know that they had violated Scripture?  Would it have helped the situation if I were just one more person expressing my disappointment in them? Somehow, I think not. And while I didn't praise what they had done, I also didn't pass judgment-- I mainly tried to understand, and get them to look at how they could make amends.

I guess that's why I was bothered by Mr. Erickson's tweet:  it reminded me that we are living in a time when too many people want to let us know that they are so much holier than we are.  And yet, if Jesus or Moses or some other great spiritual leader were to come back to earth, I wonder how they would feel about all these folks who think it's their duty to let us know we've failed their purity test.  I know it's human nature to see the other person's flaws (and not look at our own); but I think we'd have a better world if we could all learn to be more forgiving and less judgmental...

Monday, July 15, 2019

Burning Down the House

I've never met Ayanna Pressley, but I did write an encyclopedia entry about her for the African-American National Biography.  She's the U.S. Representative from the 7th Congressional District in Massachusetts, and the first black woman my state has ever sent to congress.  Prior to winning in 2018, she was a member of the Boston City Council, and the first black woman elected to serve there as well.  She was born in Cincinnati and raised in Chicago. She moved to Boston to attend college, but when her mom (who had raised her) became ill, she left school to help support her. Ms. Pressley became interested in politics; she worked for Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, and then for Senator John Kerry.  Eventually, she ran for office herself... and won. And later, she ran for congress, and won that election too.

I've heard her speak many times, and I can honestly say I've never known her to be anti-American. I've never known her to be anti-Jewish or anti-Israel either.  I've never known her to be anything close to a Communist, and I would not associate her policy positions with Socialism.  Yet, President Trump accused her of all of this.  He also said if she doesn't like this country, she can go back to where she came from-- in Ms. Pressley's case, that would be Boston, and before that, Chicago. (Her mother and father were also from Cincinnati, and then Chicago.)

Needless to say, I found the president's remarks outrageous. Yes, I know-- they were mainly directed at three congresswomen he especially loves to hate: Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  But here again, I have a problem with Mr. Trump's assertion that they all "hate America" and are "probably Communists."  I grew up in the McCarthy era, and a lot of innocent people lost their jobs after being smeared by the senator, who often used accusations of disloyalty whenever someone was not as conservative as he felt they should be.

I rarely agree with Ms. Omar, and at times I don't agree with Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. But like their colleague and friend Ms. Pressley, they were all elected, and they have every right to speak their mind.  Just because they disagree with the president, or dislike his policies, doesn't make them anti-American.  I have very bad memories of 2003-2004, when former Vice President Dick Cheney would accuse anyone who opposed the war in Iraq of being disloyal and hating America.  (Those of us who opposed the Iraq War loved America, but we vehemently opposed going to war against a country that hadn't attacked us.)  And yet, here we go again in 2019-- if you disagree with the president, he (and his friends at Fox News) will claim you hate this country.

I'd like to tell you it doesn't matter what the president says, but sadly, it does. He has a megaphone. He can spread fake quotes to millions (no, Ms. Omar never said she's "proud of Al-Qaeda"); he can persuade his supporters that he is "fighting back"-- standing up to these four "disgraceful" women, who are being disrespectful to him.  He can encourage haters to hate, and praise them if they hate the same folks that he does.  And he can insist that anyone who complains about his policies or disagrees with the way he acts can "go back to where they came from." 

I understand that Mr. Trump's supporters elected him to destroy the status quo and upend the customs and conventions of politics. They seem to believe that courtesy and civility are no longer necessary; they seem to delight in his rudeness, and they applaud him even when his comments are dangerously bigoted. But in wanting the house to be burnt down, I dread to think what comes next. If it's okay to be openly bigoted, if our president (whose rhetoric sets the tone for how we communicate) thinks it's acceptable to tell four congresswomen that people like them aren't welcome in America, where do we go from that? 

It was Edward R. Murrow, during the McCarthy era, who said we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.  He then said, in words that could also relate to Mr. Trump, that Senator McCarthy was trying to make us afraid, so that we would be distrustful of each other and easier for him to  manipulate. Murrow said, "He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it – and rather successfully."  He then quoted Shakespeare, noting that "Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."  And that is my question: will we continue to accept and normalize the kind of America Mr. Trump has given us?  Will we sit passively (or send an outraged tweet) as our great republic continues to break into hateful factions and Mr. Trump continues to exploit them? Only you know the answer. So... now what?
  

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Virtue of Altruism... or How a Simple Act of Kindness Helped Rush to Get Discovered

For the past several days, I was in Toronto attending a conference about the impact of the media on our lives-- a topic I'll blog about in the near future.  And in addition to attending panels and giving a talk, I also made some time to see a few folks who are very important to me, and to catch up with what they've been doing.

Toronto has long been a home away from home for me-- while my career in broadcasting and print has mainly been in the United States, I've made many friends in Toronto radio and TV over the years; in fact, my interactions with Toronto's music industry began way back in 1968-1970, when I was a music director in college radio. That's when I first encountered record promoters from Canadian labels, and they were always happy to find someone at an American radio station who would play some of their artists.

I spent about 13 years of my radio career as a music director, and it was a job I loved.  I was able to hear the new songs first, and I had the freedom to give unknown artists much-needed airplay.  In that era before music downloads or YouTube or social media, listeners relied on their favorite FM album-rock radio station to introduce them to new bands, and to play the best songs from bands they already liked.  Somehow, along the way, I got a reputation for playing Canadian bands, and promoters would make sure I had copies of any new groups that showed promise.

Among the folks with whom I became friendly was a guy named Bob Roper. He had previously worked for Capitol Records of Canada, but in 1974, he was working for A&M of Canada. If you are a fan of the rock band Rush, you know he was the one who sent me their debut album, when I was music directing at WMMS-FM in Cleveland. But what I always found so unusual about that gesture was this:  Roper was sending me an album (a vinyl album back then) by a band who had not been signed to A&M of Canada; their homegrown first album was on Moon Records.

Normally, record promoters only sent me a record that was "theirs"-- in other words, an artist who was signed to their label. The hope was that airplay in the States might lead to success (and a record deal with a US label), which would, in turn, create greater demand in Canada. (Back then, Canadian bands were often frustrated by the fact that in order to become popular, they had to first have a hit in the US, at which time, Canadian radio stations would embrace their music.) But Rush couldn't get much airplay in Toronto (or anywhere else in Canada). They diligently played area clubs, but beyond getting a local following, nothing else happened; nor did any major label sign them to a contract.

And then, Bob Roper, who was familiar with the band and believed they had some talent, sent me a copy of their album.  He didn't have to.  He wasn't going to benefit in any way from doing so.  It was just a good deed, by a good person trying to help three young musicians to get some exposure in the States. And when I opened the envelope and played "Working Man" for the first time, I immediately understood why Roper thought these guys had potential.

If you are a fan, you know the rest of the story.  But what matters to me is the friendship that he and I still share-- a friendship that has endured for more than four decades.  Bob Roper and I had breakfast yesterday, just before I left for the airport to return to Boston. It was wonderful to see him. We talked about how the music industry has changed; we talked about what each of us has been up to since the last time we saw each other.  And we both acknowledged that our love of Rush, and our belief that these guys deserved a chance, resulted in so much more than either of us could ever have expected.

And if there's a lesson to be learned it's that sometimes, doing a good deed can have long-lasting results. I championed the band and encouraged other radio stations to play them. I (courteously) contacted critics and reviewers who were negative about Rush, and let them know I thought they were wrong. And along with other fans, I fought to help Rush to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and ultimately to (finally) get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But none of it would ever have happened if a certain Canadian record promoter hadn't decided to do a simple act of kindness and make sure Rush's album ended up on my desk. And as a result of what Bob Roper did back in mid-May 1974, so many people's lives were changed for the better, including mine.    
 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

If At First You Don't Succeed...

I was sitting in my office earlier this evening, staring at my computer, and feeling really frustrated.  No, it wasn't because I had to write a blog post-- I usually enjoy doing that.  Here's the problem:  when I'm not teaching, I'm a free-lance writer, which I also usually enjoy doing... except, for the past few days, I've been working on an article that I cannot seem to finish.  I haven't been able to find all the information I need; some of what I did find was contradictory; I can't seem to write a good concluding paragraph; and to be honest, I don't even like my introduction (I've rewritten it numerous times)... I finally just had to step away.  So, I drank some hot chocolate, watched some TV, answered some emails, and now I'm getting ready to start writing again.

Perhaps you've had a similar experience-- a project you thought would be easy to complete, but it ended up taking longer than you expected.  Some of my students tell me this is what writing a term paper feels like for them, and believe me, I can empathize. More often than not, it's fun to do research and write articles; I like the opportunity to learn something new, and to share that knowledge with others.  But every now and then, I seem to get stuck on one article, and I have to decide to power through it, even when getting it done seems impossible.  

I suppose the reason I'm telling you this is because of what I've learned from these experiences. For far too long, I was a perfectionist, and if the article I was writing didn't meet the impossible standards I set for myself, I didn't want to submit it at all (or when I did submit it, I fully expected to be told it was awful). I spent a lot of time being critical of myself, convinced that I was the worst writer in the history of humanity. And when my editors told me I had done a good job, I didn't believe it-- I thought they were just being kind.

Over the years, I've written six books (and a few chapters for other people's books), as well as many articles. I've also written some encyclopedia entries on a variety of subjects. The fact that my work has appeared in lots of places ought to be an indication that I'm not such a bad writer after all, but for a long time, I couldn't give myself any credit. It took me a while to get to a place where I wasn't my own worst critic. And once I got there, I was finally able to be proud of my work-- whether I thought it was perfect or not.  

And if I can offer any advice, it's this:  it doesn't make you a better writer (or teacher or artist or anything else) if you're spending your time dwelling on all the flaws you think you have. It doesn't help you to be more effective if you're constantly second-guessing yourself.  Most of us really do learn through trial and error; and while there's nothing wrong with having high standards, setting unrealistic expectations rarely leads to success.  What I also figured out is the one thing we could all use more of is patience-- so, if something doesn't work out immediately, instead of being angry with yourself, it may just be time to step away and regroup, and come back to it later.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I have an article I intend to finish! 

Friday, May 31, 2019

In Search of Someone to Blame

I have a friend who sincerely believes our current problems all began when the Supreme Court got rid of mandatory school prayer back in 1962.  That's not how I remember it: my recollection is that despite the prayers, some kids still got into trouble. Agreed, it was a more formal culture, so being rude to a teacher or getting in a fight during recess had consequences.  But the fact that people began the school day with a Bible reading didn't guarantee that kids would turn out to be saintly.  In fact, as I recall, there were plenty of so-called "juvenile delinquents," and plenty of "experts" trying to figure out how supposedly good kids went astray.

The most common explanations back then were either bad parenting or falling in with bad company. Parents who didn't set the proper example were supposedly to blame for having bad kids. And kids who hung around with troublemakers tended to become troublemakers themselves.  And if the parents had done all the right things but their kid still turned out wrong? Well, then, it must be too much television. Or too much radio.  Or too much rock and roll music.There just had to be a simple answer. There just had to be one cause, and finding it seemed to make people feel better.

When I was in college in the 60s, I noticed the same reactions whenever serious crimes were committed:  he (it was usually a he) must have had bad parents. He must have grown up in a godless home. He must have hung around with bad people. He must have been influenced by the media. And when all the other explanations didn't work, there were always stereotypes that could be applied to certain folks:  "Well, what you can you expect from someone who was raised in that neighborhood?" Or, "That's so typical of those people." Again, the need to find a simple answer, even if the problem was complex.

Fast forward to 2019.  Yesterday, a lone gunman murdered twelve people in the place where he worked in Virginia. He was described by police as "disgruntled."  I've sometimes felt disgruntled, but it never led to me to believe that shooting my co-workers would make me feel any better. When I was growing up, people were disgruntled too, but it seems everyone is angrier now than they were back then.  However, in the 60s, when people got angry, there were fewer ways they could take it out on a large group of people. Guns weren't as widely available, and there were no social media platforms yet.

But this isn't a blog post about guns (although it certainly could be, on any given day); nor is it about the impact of social media on our culture (I've blogged about that before).  It would be easy to say "it's all because of guns," or "it's all because of social media."  Agreed, both can be factors, but they don't explain why so many people seem to feel so aggrieved so much of the time; or why they automatically want to blame someone whenever there's a problem.  Instead of trying to seek out solutions, I keep seeing people seek out some person or group they can point the finger at and say, "This is all your fault."

As if finding the right reason for the problem makes it go away... which it never does.  Yet just like back in the 50s and 60s, many "experts" are offering the same old answers; except now they can tweet them out instead of just talking with a few like-minded friends.  Some people insist we need a return to traditional religion; or they say there's a lack of good parenting; or we need more armed guards in schools and public buildings; or there's just too many immigrants; or there are too many kids playing violent video games; or there are too few kids who have good manners (I admit I'm guilty of complaining about that one myself).

Some people say our problems are political:  When Barack Obama was president, Republicans said everything bad was his fault. Now that Donald Trump is president, Democrats say our problems are all because of him.  Social media has exacerbated the tendency to finger-point and then go on to the next thing, having done nothing to fix (or even address) the problem other than complain.  As recently as yesterday, I wondered on Twitter why "send death threats" seems to be the default position for all too many people, when confronted with an idea or a policy or a person they dislike.

I wish there were one simple answer to every problem we face, but there rarely is.  Meanwhile, I find that writing these blog posts can be a great catharsis. I know I don't have millions of readers, but that's okay.  When I blog, it forces me to sit and think carefully about what I want to say, rather than just blurting out on social media whatever emotion comes to mind.  I'm told that blogging is becoming passé, but I still enjoy doing it. In fact, in these angry times, I'd rather see people doing more blogging and less blaming... it might be one small step towards having a more thoughtful society. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

In a Country Where They Turned Back Time

There are a few things I miss about growing up in the 50s and early 60s. For one, it was a more polite culture:  people said 'please' and 'thank you,' and cursing in public would have been out of the question.  AM radio was still king, and it still played the hits; it seemed like every kid I knew had a transistor radio. Late at night, when I was supposed to be asleep, I'd be in bed listening to distant stations (sometimes music, sometimes a baseball game).  Things seemed simpler back then: kids played outside after school, and parents didn't worry.  There were some amazing TV shows, and families watched them together. Going to the movies was still affordable, and movies didn't have graphic violence or bad language.   

But there are also plenty of things I don't miss about that era.  For one, girls didn't have many career options. As most of you know, from the time I was a kid, I wanted to be in radio, but I was told girls couldn't do that. I also wanted to be a sportswriter, but I was told girls couldn't do that either. (And don't even ask how people reacted when I said I didn't want to marry young and have kids...) 

Some people were much more open about their prejudices back then.  For example, I was told not to act "too Jewish," whatever that meant, and I was constantly reminded that we lived in a majority-Christian country. Ethnic jokes (and ethnic stereotypes) were common, and employers could come right out and say they didn't hire any Jews or blacks or women or whoever else.  And of course, if you were a member of a minority group, you were expected to know your place and not challenge the status quo.

In many states, even married couples had trouble getting birth control (some states required a doctor's prescription, as I recall).  Living together before marriage was considered shameful, and if a girl got pregnant without being married, she was the one who was blamed, because the common wisdom said men couldn't control themselves-- it was up to the girl to make sure her boyfriend behaved. And if you were gay, you were considered a deviant; few people thought you deserved any rights at all.

What brought all this to mind was what happened in Alabama on Wednesday-- that state's ultra-conservative legislature passed an anti-abortion bill that is so punitive and restrictive (not even an exception for rape or incest, doctors could be sent to prison for performing the procedure, etc) it reminded me of the 1950s. In fact, all across the country, conservative legislatures are trying to make it not only more difficult to terminate a pregnancy; they're also trying to make it more difficult to get birth control. I have to keep reminding myself it's 2019.

I'm also seeing a resurgence of other things I thought were relics of a bygone era: all over the country (and in Europe too), there has been a rise in antisemitism. Some people think it's okay to express their prejudices openly again, and it seems bigotry and xenophobia are back in fashion. It also seems some folks want a return to traditional gender roles, as well as a return to treating gay people, immigrants, and certain ethnic groups with contempt. And no offense to Christian conservatives, but some of them seem to believe they now have a right to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of society-- just like they did when I was growing up.

It has me very concerned. Having lived through it already, I'm not eager to live through it a second time.  But that's where some folks seem to want us to go-- back to the worst of the 1950s-- old gender roles, old prejudices, old hierarchies, old norms, a world where a powerful majority rules and those who disagree are just expected to be silent.  I understand that abortion or birth control or gender roles or religion can be contentious subjects, and we may not always agree. But what worries me is seeing the erosion of the separation of church and state. What worries me is seeing politicians and members of the clergy deciding which rights I can have. And what worries me the most is the number of people who think the answer to our problems is to recreate their ideal version of the past, rather than grappling with how to create a better future for us all.