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.     

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...