Saturday, November 30, 2019

What We Leave Behind

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood-- Dorchester, MA, back when it was predominantly Jewish. There was also another ethnic neighborhood in Dorchester too, and it was mostly Irish. In the Jewish part, there were a number of synagogues, Kosher butchers, and Kosher delicatessens. In the Irish part, there were a number of churches, stores that sold ethnic foods popular with the Irish clientele, and some taverns. There was no rule that Jews couldn't go to the Irish part of town, nor was there one that forbade the Irish residents from visiting their Jewish friends. But as I recall, the folks from each neighborhood didn't do that; they hung around mainly with "their own."

These days, Dorchester still has ethnic enclaves-- there are always new groups of immigrants: there's a Vietnamese area, a Haitian area, and the next generation of Irish residents, among others. The Jews, for the most part, moved to the suburbs-- some moved to Jewish neighborhoods in Brookline or Newton (if they could afford it); others, who were working class, left for whatever neighborhoods had affordable rents. My family bought a house in Roslindale, another neighborhood of Boston, when I was eight. As I recall, nearly everyone there was Catholic, with a few folks who were Greek Orthodox. Suddenly, I went from living among many Jewish families to being the only Jew in town. It was quite a culture shock and it took some time to adjust.

Years later, out of curiosity, I went back to visit the area where I spent the first eight years of my life, and I found that not much remained of the old Jewish neighborhood-- the house I lived in burned down a few years ago, and nobody rebuilt it. The buildings that once housed synagogues are now home to churches. The former Kosher butchers and delis now have entirely different names and entirely different customers. None of this surprised me: I'm well aware that times change, neighborhoods change, and demographics change. Today, it's almost like the Jews were never there.

What brought all this to mind was an article I was reading in the Boston Globe about the gradual demise of Boston's Chinatown. Working class Chinese people are being forced out by rising rents; buildings are being bought up by developers who are putting in expensive apartments ($6,000 a month for some); quaint local Chinese restaurants are being replaced by much fancier (and pricier) ones that are aimed at tourists and upper-class foodies. As the article points out, this long-time ethnic neighborhood will soon become Chinatown in name only, as the local Chinese population will no longer be able to afford to live there.

There are many Chinese people who already left. Like other upwardly-mobile immigrants in previous generations, they wanted to live in the suburbs, to have better schools for their kids to attend. But there are others who can't afford to leave, or whose English skills are weak.  They worry about where they will go when Chinatown is no more. It's a dilemma that people in many cities are facing. Working class ethnic neighborhoods are gradually being bought up, and residents are facing an uncertain future. I frequently hear about how our economy is booming, but there remain large segments of the population who are barely getting by, and outrageous rents are a large part of the problem.  

I admit I'm of two minds about ethnic neighborhoods-- on the one hand, there's a certain security and comfort in seeing folks who are familiar, who share the same culture and customs; it's also nice to hear one's ancestral language (the folk songs especially). On the other hand, at some point, it's important to get out into the wider world and be exposed to different cultures and customs; and speaking good English is essential for success in most occupations. Yet there's still a part of me that misses the old neighborhood. But beyond the nostalgia, I recognize that people do move on, and it's probably a good thing. However, I still wish there were a way to preserve the best of what used to be there, rather than just bulldozing it, or turning it into condos for rich people.  There's a lot we can learn from the folks who came before us. For that reason, it saddens me each time a neighborhood's history gets erased...often in the name of "progress."       

Friday, November 15, 2019

Reporting the News in a Post-Truth World

Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward is coming to Boston in a couple of days to do several speaking engagements, and I'll have a chance to meet him. You may remember his name-- he and his then-colleague Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal, back in 1972; and their investigative reporting eventually led to the resignation of President Nixon.

I can't predict what he'll talk about, but I'm sure the current state of journalism will be one of the topics.  Things are certainly different from when he was reporting about politics in the early 1970s. It was the era before the internet; there wasn't even any cable news yet. Most of us got our information from newspapers and magazines, and by watching the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC, or CBS.

Like today, Americans were very polarized. But the Fairness Doctrine was still around, and commentary was not usually a part of any newscasts; nor were one-sided attacks allowed.  There were some radio talk shows that expressed views from one side or the other, but both sides had to be given a chance to be heard. And on TV, popular programs like the Tonight Show tried to avoid partisanship entirely, and focus on making the audience laugh-- whatever their political views.

President Nixon distrusted and disliked the press, and so did Vice President Spiro Agnew. Both were harsh critics of the media of their day, and both accused reporters of bias (like many presidents, before and since, Mr. Nixon believed the press was against him; and Mr. Agnew claimed the press was out of step with the views of most Americans, a claim other politicians have also made).

Meanwhile, hardworking investigative journalists kept trying to do their jobs, in print or on radio or on TV. And Bob Woodward was part of that group of reporters whose goal was to find the truth and let the public know.  I doubt he imagined back in 1972 that one day, the Fairness Doctrine would be gone, leading to many Republicans watching (and trusting) only one channel, and reading only publications that reinforced their views; and the same would be true for many Democrats, such that both groups were living in entirely different realities when it came to politics.

These days, it seems many people prefer commentary to news; they say they want "unbiased news," but surveys show many of them really want reporting that favors their particular candidate or supports their particular side.  In fact, the highest-rated folks on cable news are the commentators, many of whom distort or exaggerate the facts to serve a partisan goal.

I wonder if Woodward and Bernstein (or someone like them) could bring down a corrupt president today. I fear that large numbers of people would simply ignore their reporting, tune out their stories, and seek out media outlets that said their work was "fake news." I believe we need good reporting now more than ever. Yet it really seems that many people don't care about facts; they'd much rather have partisan opinions. I'll be interested in how Mr. Woodward sees it. I'll let you know what he says.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Team (and the Song) We Needed

On any day in Washington DC, you can find politicians from both sides of the aisle criticizing their political opponents. It's almost like a ritual: members express their outrage on camera, and then their supporters get on social media to reinforce their side's talking points and criticize the other side some more. At times, all the bickering can become exhausting, and everyone can use a break. Fortunately, for the past few weeks, both Republicans and Democrats in the Nation's Capitol found one thing they could agree on: cheering for the Washington Nationals baseball team. The Nationals had surprised everyone by getting into the playoffs and then going to the World Series. And now, they were on the verge of winning it all-- an outcome just about nobody had predicted earlier in the season. And some people believed it all had to do with "Baby Shark."

For a while now, some baseball players have had a song they use when they come up to bat. And if a player is in a hitting slump, he might change the song. That was the situation for Washington Nationals player Gerardo Parra back in June.  Inspired by his two-year old daughter, he began to utilize the popular (and to some adults, very annoying) children's song she loved, "Baby Shark," whenever he walked to the plate.  Ballplayers are often superstitious, and when Parra began to get some hits, he kept "Baby Shark" as his song.  The fans at Nationals Park approved-- in fact, it didn't take long before they were loudly and enthusiastically singing along, as "Baby Shark" became the unofficial theme song of the Nationals, complete with hand gestures mimicking a shark.

Parra also instituted the custom of players doing a sort of happy dance in the dugout. And throughout much of the season, the Nationals were giving their fans a lot to be happy about. It had been many, many years since DC had seen a championship baseball team-- they last won a World Series back in 1924, with a different team-- the Washington Senators.  On paper, this team (a descendant of the old Montreal Expos), didn't stand much of a chance against their World Series opponent, the Houston Astros. While the Nationals won 93 games this year, the Astros led the major leagues with 107 wins. They were confident-- they had won a World Series in 2017, and they had a number of well-known players. In short, few pundits gave the Nationals much of a chance.

Of course, as sometimes happens in sports, things didn't turn out the way everyone expected. The Nationals may have been the underdogs, but they never gave up and they never gave in, and they took the series to game seven, before defeating the Astros in Houston (in a unique series where, for the first time, neither team won a home game). Meanwhile, in rainy Washington DC, fans were sitting in Nationals Park, watching on the big screen, and singing "Baby Shark," as they celebrated the unthinkable: the Nationals were World Series champions.

Today, politicians were back to their usual partisan arguments, and the House took a vote on an impeachment inquiry. But all over the city, Democrats and Republicans paused to smile and exchange congratulations about their amazing baseball team. Many people were planning to attend the parade on Saturday, and in that brief time, politics and partisanship would cease to matter. And for a little while, the love of baseball and the joy of having a winning team would unite the city, and fans would be singing "Baby Shark" and doing a happy dance.  And political debates would take a back seat to pride in how the Nationals showed all the doubters that even in these contentious times, miracles can... and do... happen.     
   

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Is This Any Way to Choose a President?

I'm teaching a very important course this semester, and the timing couldn't be better. It's called Political Communication, and since we are currently in the midst of choosing the Democratic nominee for president, there's a lot for us to analyze.  During the semester, we examine what each political party is doing to get their candidates elected.  We study how campaigning is done, how politicians get their messages out to the public, which strategies are effective, and which ones aren't.  We also look at some past campaigns, to compare them to what goes on today.  (Did you know that George Washington didn't campaign at all the first time he was elected president? Imagine all the money he saved!)

On Tuesday night, I watched portions of the Democratic candidates debate. There were twelve people on the stage (way too many candidates for a real debate), and three moderators questioning them. For about three hours, each of the candidates tried very hard to distinguish themselves-- to say something clever or something memorable, in addition to getting their talking points out there.  I thought some of the candidates stood out more than others did; but the entire event felt really superficial to me. Nobody was able to explore the issues in depth. They were all performing for the cameras, hoping the viewers would find them both likeable and informative.

And there were so many issues that didn't get discussed at all; but even if they had, I'm not sure all twelve candidates would have had enough time to tell us much.  I wondered what Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas would have thought about candidates only getting about 75 seconds to answer a question: in their famous debate, each man was expected to speak for at least sixty minutes, with the other person being given ninety minutes to respond. Okay fine, there was no television or radio or internet in 1858, so the public didn't expect short sound-bites, and they were fine about long answers.  In fact, they expected a thorough articulation of each candidate's policies. I don't see how 12 candidates can thoroughly articulate much of anything; and even when the candidates are winnowed down to just a few,  I wonder if that quotable (or tweet-able) moment, the one that can go viral on social media, will take precedence over giving in-depth answers. 

Perhaps I'm imagining it, but our politics seems to be lacking in substance. In fact, it seems more like a Reality TV show, or perhaps Professional Wrestling.  The president says something outrageous. The media report it. The commentators on each side react to it. The various candidates who want to replace him express their disapproval of what he said.  And on we go, till the next outrageous assertion, and the cycle repeats itself.  Meanwhile, the partisans on each side retreat to their respective corners, watching or listening to their favorite media outlets, as their favorite politicians repeat the standard insults against folks on the other side. (It's possible to spend one's entire life safe in a bubble, only exposed to views that agree with yours, or reinforce what you already believe.)

More than any time I can remember, our Political Communication is dominated by insults, name-calling, and exaggerated claims, all intended to stir up outrage. No wonder nothing is getting done.  This president prefers to go on TV or social media and mock the folks on the other side, rather than seeking common ground with them. And his opponents are torn between coming back with insults of their own or ignoring what he said (and possibly appearing weak).  And here we are, stuck in a made-for-TV election process. I wonder what the viewers thought of the debate. I wonder which candidate impressed them. But above all, I wonder if there is any one candidate who can help create a country that is less angry and less partisan. Let me know what you think. 

Monday, September 30, 2019

Politics and the Ten Days of Repentance

Since it's Jewish New Year, and the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, I'd like to talk about politics. No, I don't mean the usual arguments between Democrats and Republicans; I want to talk about the way politicians communicate.  As many of you know, I teach courses in communication, and there's something I've noticed about the majority of politicians, no matter which party they are from: when something goes right, they immediately take credit for it, but when something goes wrong, it's never their fault.

Of course, they're not the only ones: you may have heard that old saying (often credited to the Roman historian Tacitus), "Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan."  Just once, I'd like to hear a politician (whether the president or a member of congress or even a mayor or governor) admit that they were the one who messed up, and not try to offer the typically vague comment, "mistakes were made" (but, by whom? evidently not by them).

We see that behavior in kids all the time-- those of you who have children, or are elementary school teachers, have undoubtedly witnessed it: a kid gets in trouble, and invariably either makes excuses or tries to blame it on someone else.  But adults are supposed to be more mature, which is why it really irritates me when our political leaders just can't bring themselves to say they made a mistake.

And what does any of this have to do with the Ten Days of Repentance? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Admitting you were wrong is the first step towards making amends for what you did.  In order to repent, you first have to acknowledge that you were at fault, and then express your sincere regret. And it's not just some mechanical "sorry"-- it's being willing to take responsibility, and apologizing to the people your behavior may have hurt.

But while it's easy for me to criticize politicians, I could actually be talking about any of us, myself included. I'd be lying if I said I am always willing to admit when I'm wrong. I'd be lying if I said I've never made excuses or tried to place the blame on others, instead of acknowledging my own part. And like some of the politicians I know, I too find it difficult to apologize. So, while I can easily recognize behaviors I don't like when someone else is doing them, the Ten Days of Repentance are about looking honestly at ourselves, thinking about the mistakes each of us has made, and sincerely promising to do better.

In other words, just like I'd be pleased to see political figures be more honest, I need to apply that standard to myself.  So, if in the past year, I have (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt someone or been snarky (a big fault of mine) or judgmental or unkind, I will try to learn from it, and I will try to do better in the new year. Perhaps a blog post seems like a strange place to talk about repentance; but if I can start a conversation, if I can make others think about the amends they need to make, and if I can talk honestly about my own mistakes, maybe something positive will happen. You don't need to be Jewish to observe the Ten Days of Repentance: you just need to be willing to repent.    


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Remembering Dora and Anna

I never met either of my grandmothers, although I heard a lot about both of them when I was growing up. My maternal grandmother (Dora) died in 1939, and my paternal grandmother (Anna) died in 1940.  In both cases, they died from diseases that today are quite treatable, but which, back then, meant you died young. Dora was only 44; Anna was 55.

In the Jewish religious calendar, the month before the New Year (which usually comes in September) is called Elul, and it is customary for Jews to visit the graves of their departed relatives at some time during that month, to remember them and symbolically thank them for their contribution to our lives. And so, I drove out to the cemeteries where each of them is buried, to pay my respects to them, and to also visit the graves of my parents and several other relatives. I said a prayer for them all, and I left a stone on each grave-- another custom, to let other visitors know someone had been there, and to show that the departed person has been remembered. Flowers might fade, but stones endure. I noticed when I went to my parents' graves, that many other people had been there too. That made me feel good: my parents were loved, and although three decades have passed, they are still remembered. 

Since I never met either Dora or Anna, I have no first-hand recollection of them, but they lived on in my father and my mother, both of whom told me stories about them. I got the impression that despite living in poverty (both women were raising their families during the Great Depression), both of my grandmothers were generous and compassionate.  And even when they were in failing health, they tried their best to reassure and mentor their children. I'm not trying to present them as if they were saints-- I'm sure they had their bad days, like anyone else; and at times, they probably got discouraged or overwhelmed with all the challenges they endured.  But based on how my mother and father turned out, my grandmothers set a commendable example, and I've always wished I could have thanked them.

As a media historian, my life's work is about making sure the people we listened to on radio and watched on TV and read in the newspaper, the folks who entertained us and informed us, are remembered even after they are gone. I especially enjoy finding out about people who were important in their day, and telling their stories to today's audiences. That's why I write entries for the African-American National Biography, and that's why during Women's History Month, I tweet out some brief profiles of unique and groundbreaking women in many walks of life, because I believe these stories deserve to be told. There are so many men and women from the past who should be remembered, people we can learn from. I try my best to speak on their behalf.

For most of us, myself included, cemeteries can evoke feelings of sorrow and loneliness, especially if the loss of a loved one is recent. But when I stand in these sacred places, where generations of my relatives are buried, I find that cemeteries can also evoke emotions like reverence and gratitude.  So, in this month of Elul, I am grateful for my Grandma Dora and my Grandma Anna, and I'd like to think that if they had known me, they'd be pleased that I want to tell their story.  And whether you are Jewish or not, I think it's a worthwhile custom to say thank you to the people from our past, to remember who they were and how they lived. After all, they helped to get us here. The least we can do is make sure they aren't forgotten.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Free to Be You and Me

If you're a fan of Rush, there's a song of theirs from 1975 called "I Think I'm Going Bald." I've heard various versions of what it means, but back when it was written, I recall Geddy Lee telling me it was inspired by a period in his life when he was worrying so much that his hair began to fall out.  I admit the song has never been a favorite of mine, but I could definitely relate to the lyrics (and the experience).  

When I was in college, I contracted a severe case of mononucleosis; okay fine, lots of students (especially those working too many jobs and not getting enough sleep) have gotten mono, but even back then, my immune system wasn't working right, and I was sick for about five months. During that time, all my hair fell out. All of it. It was a terrifying experience.  When I returned to school, I wore a wig, as well as a bandana. Fortunately, it was the sixties, and people probably thought it was a fashion choice: I'd always liked colors, so I matched the bandana to whatever I was wearing. But I was always worried that someone would find out the truth, and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. 

Eventually, to my great relief, my hair all grew back. But by the time it did, I was accustomed to covering my head, something Orthodox Jews do out of respect for the One who is above us. I wasn't Orthodox, but I found the custom deeply meaningful, a way to show gratitude for being alive.  I cover my head to this day. And because I do, it has made me more aware of the many other cultures where women (and men) cover their head-- not because they are oppressed, but because their religion asks them to humble themselves before their deity.   

What brought this to mind was an article I recently read in the Boston Globe about a Muslim-American girl who has been repeatedly mocked and bullied for wearing a hijab. And from what I can see, her high school did absolutely nothing to help-- in fact, some people blamed her for bringing it on herself by being too different.

I find this an appalling attitude, but it seems to be common-- and it isn't entirely new. When I was in high school, I was one of only four Jews in that school, and believe me, some of the stuff that was said to me was quite unpleasant (including by a few teachers who were not very fond of Jews). Evidently this was considered a normal part of high school life: lots of kids who were different got bullied, and we were all supposed to "toughen up" and learn to live with it.

So we did. But it wasn't easy, and it had some lasting effects.  I can only imagine what must be like for younger kids-- not just kids who cover their heads, but kids who have learning differences, kids who are in wheel chairs, or kids who look or act different from everyone else.  Thanks to a culture where rudeness is much more open and where adults don't always set a good example, today's kids are often left to deal with bullying on their own, with very little support.

It shouldn't be like that. I'm not expecting school administrators to step in every time somebody gets called a rude name, but it's important for everyone to feel their school is a safe and welcoming place. Little kids will often imitate what they see around them; so it's all the more important for teachers and principals to model kindness, and to teach students from a very young age that insulting those who are different is NOT a good thing to do.  Students also need to learn about the customs of other cultures, and they need to be allowed to ask questions-- which will help them to understand why some of their classmates dress or pray differently from them.

I wish someone had done that for me when I was in school. But nobody did. So I spend my life trying to do it for today's students, no matter what age they are. And if you are a teacher (or a professor), in this new school year, I hope you will join with me in creating a welcoming classroom, where no matter how different a student might look or speak or believe, that difference is not seen as something shameful, but rather, just part of who that person is, and something other students need to respect.