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.


 


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Word of Thanks to My Online Friends

As many of you know, I teach courses in Communication, and one thing I've always found fascinating about the study of language is how words can change meaning over the years. For example, back in the late 1800s, a baseball fan was called a "crank," and you referred to your favorite team as your "pets."  A psychiatrist was called an "alienist" and an eye doctor was an "oculist."

And then there's the word "friend."  When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, this word referred to someone you knew, a person in your life with whom you enjoyed spending time-- maybe going to movies, or seeing a ballgame, or just talking on the phone.  But then, as time passed, along came the internet and social media, and the word took on a different meaning.  Now, we all have friends we've never met-- on Facebook, I've got more than 4700 friends, in fact.  No, I'm not really that popular:  the majority are Rush fans, and some others know me from my radio career. But in Facebook terminology, they're all my friends.

I was reading an article a few weeks ago that questioned whether online friends are really friends at all, since, in many cases, we don't know them, other than as folks who respond to our online posts. It's a valid point:  online friends are very different from people I can go have an ice cream with-- many are scattered all over the world, and I sometimes wonder whether they'd even like me if we met in person.  But if a friend is someone who will be there for you and share a part of your life, then I believe the word "friend" really does apply to the folks I know on social media.

In December of 2014, I had surgery for cancer, and although I'm generally a private person about my personal life, I needed to talk about it with others who had been through it. So I posted about it on my Facebook page.  And I found that many, many people could relate to what I was going through. I received a lot of online support and encouragement, which augmented the love I received from my husband, my colleagues, and other people who knew me personally. 

And several weeks ago, that support was there again, when I told some folks on Twitter that the autistic guy for whom I've advocated since 1984 was gravely ill and needed to undergo several surgeries. I asked for prayers for his health, but what I also got was a lot of personal messages, and a number of folks who reached out to let me know they were there if I wanted to talk.  It's been a scary couple of weeks, but he is finally getting better. I am so grateful to everyone who kept him in their thoughts.

I guess the word "friend" really has changed, because even though I've never met most of the people who sent their love and encouragement, the support was as real as if they were sitting in my living room.  I understand that the internet and social media have their dark side, and I'm not trying to minimize that. But I also can't ignore the fact that sometimes, the online world can be a source of comfort and compassion. And so, I want to send my love to my online friends-- whether I know you personally or not, the friendship you have given me makes a difference. And I thank you for it.   

Monday, April 15, 2019

A Lesson in Political Communication, Ilhan Omar Edition

The other night, I got a link to a post from a conservative Israeli blogger about how "American Jews are furious with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for downplaying the importance of 9/11." Needless to say, I was puzzled. I'm an American, I'm Jewish, but I'm not furious, and I didn't recall the congresswoman downplaying anything about 9/11.  And then, I saw a similar post on a conservative website, with a demand that the representative apologize. This was followed by various angry tweets from other conservatives. Then a couple of Fox News commentators accused her of not really being American, and of not loving her adopted country. And it culminated in an ugly and manipulative front page of a conservative New York newspaper, and an equally ugly and manipulative tweet from Pres. Trump, tying Rep. Omar to 9/11 and implying that because she's a Muslim, she's sympathetic to those who attacked us.         
 
Before going any further, let me say that I don't always agree with Rep. Omar, especially when it comes to her views about Israel. Let me also say I'm not shocked that she holds some anti-Israel views-- after all, she grew up in a Muslim country, and that's undoubtedly what she was taught.  And no, contrary to what my conservative friends insist, opposing the current Israeli government does not mean she hates the Jews. A lot of American Jews find the current Israeli government way too conservative, myself among them; but are we all Anti-Semites? I think not. One other thing:  I can agree that several of the statements she has made since being elected to congress indicate she still doesn't recognize historically anti-Jewish stereotypes; that too is not surprising, given that she didn't come here till the early 1990s and probably didn't study much Jewish history. 

But downplaying the importance of 9/11? Expressing sympathy for those who attacked us? I'm a professor of media studies (including political communication), and when I heard the couple of short quotes that allegedly showed her hatred for America, I needed to hear the entire context of what she said.  I  know enough about how political outrage is generated, and I become suspicious when I see what looks like a coordinated strategy to make people furious; both political parties have their own provocateurs who are experts at doing it, using a process called framing.  It's all about what you include, and what you intentionally exclude.  So...you rip a quote out of context, create a false narrative to go along with the misleading quote, post it on social media sites your followers use, and assume you'll get away with the deception because partisans want to believe the worst about "the other side."  You can easily get like-minded people angry at what the person allegedly said, plus it's also a great tactic for raising money. "Can you believe what [so-and-so] just did? Make a donation right now and help me fight against [that horrible person]!!!"   

But when I watched her entire speech, it was pretty clear that she was not downplaying 9/11. When she said "somebody did something," she was expressing it in an awkward way, but the context of her remarks was obvious:  no matter what terrible thing happens, if the somebody who did it is a Muslim, many Americans immediately suspect ALL Muslims; and after 9/11, there was so much anger and distrust that American Muslims were in danger of losing their civil liberties.  She was also right about the tendency to stereotype Muslims as terrorists:  if a white male commits an act of terror, few of us blame ALL white males. But when those terrorists, most of whom came from Saudi Arabia, attacked America on 9/11, many people called for a crackdown on ALL Muslims. To President Bush's credit, he insisted he was not at war with Islam nor with American Muslims.  But unfortunately, political discourse has deteriorated since then, and accusing or blaming ALL Muslims has become a normal part of conservative commentary.

And that's my lesson in political communication:  sad to say, there are folks on social media who intentionally create narratives that are designed to manipulate you and make you angry.  Next time you see one, I hope you'll resist the temptation to "forward this to everyone you know." And in this case, it's especially urgent for everyone to stop and think.  Whether you like Ilhan Omar or whether you don't, it's wrong for her to be receiving a growing number of death threats, and it's doubly wrong for her to be blamed for something she never really said.  Meanwhile, it's just another day in our outrage culture; and as long as there's an audience for it, and as long as folks can get more "likes" on social media or bigger ratings on cable TV, it will probably continue...despite the potentially dangerous consequences this kind of discourse can bring.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

What Joe Biden Still Doesn't Understand

I've never met Joe Biden, but he seems like a good guy.  I know some folks who have worked with him over the years, and they tell me he's very generous.  He has been a good senator, who tried to serve the people of his state; and he was a loyal vice president during the Obama years, the same way that Mike Pence is loyal to President Trump.  (Vice presidents are supposed to be loyal. They're supposed to defend their boss.  Joe Biden understood that role, as Mike Pence understands it now.)  It's also well-known that Joe Biden is a family man, and he's very down-to-earth.  And whether you agree with his politics or not, most of his congressional colleagues (on both sides of the aisle) will say he genuinely wants to do the right thing for the country.

But that doesn't mean he should run for president. Agreed, he probably will.  Any day now, I fully expect him to enter what is already a very crowded presidential race.  He's tried before, and there's no reason to think he won't try again.  But as much as he seems to be a basically decent guy, I sincerely wish he wouldn't run, because in my view, he's not the right person for the job.

There are a number of reasons why I say that.  But one of them is personal:  I don't think his attitudes about women have modernized.  I remember watching with horror during the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings at how the all-white, all-male judiciary committee badgered and insulted Anita Hill. They treated her like she was on trial, like they thought her claims of sexual harassment were utterly outrageous.  As someone who has endured sexual harassment (bordering on sexual assault), I strongly identified with Ms. Hill, and I was appalled by how the men on the committee, led by Mr. Biden, showed her such disrespect. I too was disrespected and disbelieved when I reported what happened to me. I too was subjected to a committee with men who blamed me, or implied I must have done something to "lead him on" (I assure you I did not).  Whether you believed her or whether you believed Mr. Thomas, the way the men on that committee patronized her brought back a lot of memories.

I could let it go and forgive Mr. Biden, since it happened years ago.  People change.  Times change. And yet, when asked about it recently, his response was puzzling.  He said that he wished he could have "come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us."  He agreed that the tone of the questioning of Ms. Hill was angry and hostile, and he said he regretted it. He also repeated that he wished he could have done something.  Umm, he was the Chairman of the Committee. He was in charge of the hearing.  He wasn't some bystander. But even now, he talks about it as if there was absolutely nothing he could have done. 

There are many people in their mid-70s who understand that we are currently in the midst of some generational shifts.  There are things you could say back in the 1950s and 1960s that are probably not appropriate today.  I'm not referring to so-called "political correctness"; I'm referring to actual changes in attitudes.  For example, back when I was growing up, many people thought it was okay to make gay jokes or black jokes or Jewish jokes openly, or even to use slurs about those and other groups.  I don't know a lot of folks today who think it's okay to do that.  Or, I've written about the fact that guys used to think it was funny to grope a woman at work-- if she complained, she was told she wasn't a "good sport."  I doubt that kind of behavior would be okay in most workplaces today.

But I'm not sure Joe Biden understands that times, and attitudes, have changed.  He seems like someone stuck back in the 1960s or 1970s.  (I often feel that way about a number of older politicians, including President Trump. The expressions they use, the way they speak, reminds me of stuff I used to hear when I was in college.  Maybe people over 65 can relate to it, but I'm not sure young adults still do.)  And no, I'm not trying to be ageist; after all, I'm 72 and periodically I admit I too express myself in ways that reflect the times in which I grew up, rather than the current cultural environment.

I'm not saying Joe Biden is too old to run. I'm simply saying I haven't seen any evidence that he could inspire younger voters, or make them feel he understands the issues that matter to them.  There are some candidates who seem totally able to reach out to audiences of any age. And there are some who just seem like they're out of touch.  Mr. Biden seems like the latter to me, and that's why I'm hoping he won't run. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

"Big Money Got a Mean Streak, Big Money Got No Soul"

If you've ever read my blog (and I hope you have), you know that ethics are a big concern of mine. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe honesty is still an important value. I respect anyone who tries to do the right thing, not because they're afraid they'll get caught if they do something wrong, but because they genuinely prefer living an honorable life.  Sad to say, these past few days were a reminder that we're living in a time when some people don't seem to feel that way.

Consider the scandal about those super-wealthy parents who made sure their kids got into college by deception:  handing out bribes to coaches to give their kids athletic scholarships for sports their kids didn't even play; hiring professionals to take their kids' entrance exams; or paying people to change their kids' wrong answers...and making massive donations to the schools their kids were applying to. As these parents saw it, their kids were entitled to get into the elite colleges of their choice (although whether the kids actually chose these schools is unclear-- one kid, who has a career as a "social media influencer," promoting her own line of cosmetics, told her followers she had no interest in studying and mainly wanted to go there to party). The parents who paid millions to make sure their kids got accepted evidently gave little thought to making their kids earn their way. The goal was to get them admitted, by any means necessary, even if it meant a more deserving (and less affluent) student lost out.

Or consider Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for Donald Trump.  For many years, Manafort was a well-known lobbyist, whose clients tended to be brutal dictators and authoritarian regimes.  He was well-paid for his efforts, and lived an extravagant lifestyle.  He also did what he could to avoid paying taxes and to hide his assets.  He was ultimately arrested by the FBI, tried and convicted-- in one trial, for tax fraud, lying about having foreign bank accounts, and bank fraud; and in a second trial, for conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering.  Both judges noted that he showed little remorse.  And although he apologized for his actions, he mainly seemed sorry he had been caught (and that now he would have to spend some time in prison).

What irritated me about the first story was I recall my own experience as a working-class kid trying to get accepted to college. My parents weren't wealthy, and they didn't know any influential people who might get me into an elite university. But then, I didn't expect that.  My parents told me to study hard & get good grades; I then took my own SATs (I did okay, but not well enough to get a scholarship).  Fortunately, I got accepted to the one school my parents could afford; and during the years I attended, I also worked several part-time jobs to help with tuition.  I knew many other kids just like me who did the same thing. What I learned from that experience was if you want to get something, you need to do your part. It won't just be handed to you. Frankly, I think that's a valuable lesson, no matter what social class you come from.

Several things irritated me about the second story, and none of them are political. They have to do with ethics. For one thing, Manafort was willing to lobby on behalf of some of the world's worst dictators; he took money from governments that did horrendous things to their citizens, yet he seemed fine about it as long as he could buy more mansions or cars or expensive clothes. I like to make money as much as anyone does, but I'm not sure I'd work for an autocratic regime or a brutal dictator.  Similarly, I hate paying taxes, but it frustrates me whenever I read about some super-wealthy person or corporation that doesn't pay anything. It doesn't prove they're clever-- it proves they don't want to pay their fair share, which hurts the rest of us.

Those of you who are Rush fans know I quoted some of their lyrics in the title of this post. Of course, money itself is neither good nor bad. It can help people, or hurt people. But I've also quoted St. Paul before, and it's time to do it again-- he was right when he said the love of money is the root of all evil. For too many people, they seem to love money (and power) more than they love ethics. Unfortunately, the love of money can bring out the worst in people. And in a media culture that glorifies the lifestyles of the rich and famous, it's easy for some folks to get the impression that money is all that matters... even when the love of it can have disastrous results.