Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Have We Stopped Welcoming the Stranger?

Back in 1649, long before there was a United States, and long before our Founding Fathers created the Bill of Rights, a merchant from Holland arrived in colonial Boston, bringing supplies to Edward Gibbons, the leader of Boston's militia.  The merchant's name was Solomon Franco, and he was Jewish.  There was no Jewish community in Boston at that time; and in fact, the dominant Puritans who founded the city were not eager to accept anyone who dissented from their version of Christianity-- even some Puritans, including Roger Williams, were accused of having the wrong beliefs, and invited to leave Massachusetts.  Needless to say, Solomon Franco did not receive a warm welcome, plus he was involved in a pay dispute with Edward Gibbons.  In the end, Franco was not only denied the money he was owed, but he was told to leave Boston.

Fast forward to 1908.  My maternal grandfather arrived in the USA, one of a large number of European immigrants, many of whom were escaping dire poverty, or religious persecution (or both). My grandfather was leaving a country where Jews had little future-- forbidden to enter many professions, subjected to constant threats of persecution and even violence; he believed America was a land of opportunity, and while he didn't know a lot about the US Constitution, he had heard that people of all religions were welcome.  Over the years, he made a life for himself, married, had kids, and while he never got rich, he also never encountered the kind of brutality and discrimination he had endured in the Old Country.

What got me thinking about all of this was a newspaper article in the Boston Globe about how a mosque in neighboring Providence RI had received a threatening (and anonymous) letter, saying that Muslims were not welcome in America and that Donald Trump was going to rid the country of them.  It turned out a number of mosques in other cities had received similar letters, as well as phone messages warning them they'd better leave now.  Although I am not a Muslim, when I read the story, it made me sad.  I don't for one minute think that Donald Trump personally ordered his followers to contact mosques and make threats; and yet some of his most ardent supporters clearly got the idea that it was time to let Muslims know they don't belong here.

But the truth is, they do.  So do Jews, and Buddhists, and Hindus, and Sikhs, and Christians (and non-believers too).  America was designed to be a melting pot, a country that welcomed immigrants from many places.  We may not always see eye to eye, we may not always share the same views or celebrate the same holidays.  But at its best, America is a country where we can all have the opportunity to create a better life, the way my grandfather (and many other people's immigrant relatives) did.  And yes, I understand that some immigrants come here and for whatever reason, they  don't make the adjustment, or they break our laws, or they get into trouble.  But studies repeatedly show these folks are the exceptions.  Contrary to myth, contrary to political rhetoric, the vast majority of immigrants, including Muslims, are happy to be here.  They come to seek the same new life that immigrants from other religions have also sought. They learn English, they find work, they send their kids to school, and they appreciate the freedoms guaranteed to them in the First Amendment. 

Both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Greek Scriptures (New Testament) are very clear about the commandment to welcome the stranger-- in fact, some verses command us not just to welcome, but to love the stranger.  And yet, I know all too many people who have no love whatsoever for those who look or believe or act differently.  I know all too many people who claim to be religious but have no problem ignoring those verses about love and kindness.  The people sending the hate mail and making the angry phone calls to mosques may be proud of themselves; they may think they're doing God's work, or they may think they're being patriotic.  But they're wrong.

Perhaps they should consider an interesting exchange of letters that occurred between Moses Seixas and George Washington back in 1790:  Seixas was the leader of the synagogue in Newport RI, and he wrote a letter to President Washington, praising America for having "a Government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance."  In his response, George Washington not only agreed, but he reassured Seixas that the small Jewish community of that city should never be afraid; nor should anyone of any religious background, because the government will protect its citizens, and guarantee them freedom of worship.  This should be as true today as it was in 1790; and it is something all of us, and especially our political leaders, should never forget. Whether the stranger is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or something else, he or she deserves a chance to live in peace, and no-one should make them feel afraid.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Our Own Kind of Walls: Some Thoughts About the Election

Yesterday, I was on Twitter having what I thought was a courteous conversation with a conservative from a red state. We were exchanging our perspectives about Hillary Clinton, and while we didn't agree on much, it was nice to hear how people from other parts of the country feel.  But based on what I was reading from her, she believed some widely-disseminated conservative talking points that were not factual; so I tried my best to both refute those talking points and still respect her opinion.

I guess I didn't do a good job of either, because when I went on Twitter today to resume our discussion, I found she had blocked me.  I admit to being disappointed, but not surprised. I've found over the past few months that when it comes to politics, many people on Twitter prefer to only speak to those who agree with them.  I'm sure I'm guilty of this too, although I do try to be polite with anyone I talk to on social media.  But I've repeatedly found that especially when I'm talking to Trump supporters, as soon as I disagree-- even politely-- it quickly leads to my being called insulting names.  (I am not for a minute suggesting that Hillary or Bernie supporters didn't also seem insulting or condescending sometimes; I know it's difficult to speak about emotional issues without one side or the other feeling offended.  And that has happened a lot over the past few months.)

I will leave it to the pundits to discuss why Hillary lost and Trump won.  Meanwhile, reactions to Mr. Trump's election are as polarized as the country is.  Here in the blue states, many of us remain stunned that voters wanted someone with Donald Trump's many flaws and failings to be the president:  as we see it, his wrong-doings over the years (his bigotry, his crudeness, his unwillingness to tell the truth about how little he actually gave to charity, his refusal to pay taxes or release his tax returns, his bullying tactics, etc. etc.) have far exceeded anything Hillary was ever accused of.

But in the world of conservatives-- those who will talk to me, and those who won't, Hillary (no matter what she says or does) is diabolical and dishonest; while Trump (no matter what he says or does) is regarded with awe and admiration.  Millions of red-state voters see Hillary as untrustworthy, while seeing Trump as their champion:  she represents the status quo, while he represents change-- tough talk, positive action, and a new kind of politics that will get things done.  In the blue states, we believe he is a con artist and an egotist, who promises magic to desperate people. In the red states, they believe he is someone they can count on, someone who hears them, who understands them, who will make their lives better.

A long time ago, in 2004, a young and idealistic Barack Obama (then a senator from Illinois) gave a now-famous convention speech in which he said there are not two Americas-- there are not red states and blue states; there are just the United States.  I used to believe he was right, but now I am not so sure.  As Mr. Obama saw first-hand, during the entire eight years of his presidency, Republicans obstructed whatever policy goals he put forward, even those that were previously championed by Republicans.  As we in the blue states see it, President Obama tried his best to reach out to the other side, but they only wanted to deny him even the smallest of victories; and as a result, he was unable to move the country forward the way he wanted to.  In the red states, Republicans are praised for obstructing him-- red state voters believed Republicans in congress should be commended for stopping this president's outrageous policies and saving the country from disaster.  And ironically, the same voters who claimed they wanted change and that's why they voted for Donald Trump also returned nearly all of their senators and representatives to congress.  If the so-called swamp is going to be drained, it will be the same veteran politicians participating in the attempt, including some who have served in congress for many years and know how to protect their own jobs.

Forgive me for being skeptical, but I don't think there will be the kind of change Mr. Trump promised. He has already surrounded himself with lobbyists and veteran political figures, and the policies they want are the same conservative policies past Republican presidents tried to implement-- some to please the pro-business community (big tax cuts for the wealthy), and some to please the Religious Right (defunding Planned Parenthood, trying to overturn Roe v. Wade or stopping gay marriage).  Meanwhile, one thing won't change at any time soon:  red state and blue state voters will continue to talk past each other, talk about each other, and think badly of each other.  Truth be told, Mr. Trump doesn't need to build a wall.  With so much anger, frustration, and discord on both sides, I fear we've walled ourselves off from each other already. And the election of Mr. Trump will only make the distance between us even worse.




Saturday, October 15, 2016

Why Women (Including Me) Don't Always Come Forward

I wasn't going to spend an entire blog post on my personal life-- I mean, who would be interested in that?  I'm not a celebrity (I'm mainly well-known by Rush fans, and a few folks in broadcasting), and besides, I've never used blogging as a way to settle scores or get back and those I believe to have wronged me.

But over the past week, as I watched the ongoing debate about whether Donald Trump did in fact sexually assault women, and as I listened to him, and his supporters, claiming that he was the victim of an orchestrated smear campaign, some memories I hadn't thought about in a while came back-- memories I generally do not discuss, but which now seem worth talking about, even though it's been a long time since they happened.

And that's part of the story. You see, I totally understand why some women don't come forward immediately after they've been sexually assaulted, or fondled, or harassed.  I understand because I lived it.  I saw what happened when I did come forward, and I saw what happened when I kept silent.  In both cases, it was a no-win situation for me, and I am certain other women know what I am saying.

It was in the early 1970s when I first encountered sexual harassment.  I never expected to-- I am well aware that I'm not what the culture would consider "beautiful" nor was I built like the stereotypical Playboy Bunny.  But as I found out, being assaulted is not about how one looks or how one dresses-- it's about powerful men who believe they can do whatever they want, without repercussions.  I was a first year teacher at what would today be called a middle-school, and one afternoon, after classes, I was in the supply closet looking for something for my classroom (I don't recall what), when the principal came in.  I greeted him courteously (he was my boss, after all), but then, I heard the door of the closet close. I still remember the sound of the lock, and I also recall being puzzled... and then feeling afraid.  The principal moved closer to me. He told me something along the lines of he found me attractive, and then he grabbed me and rubbed his body against mine.  I remember that I froze. I did not move. I did not respond. Inside, I was terrified, but I showed him no emotion.  Nothing. And I told him to open the door and let me go.  He did, but he told me not to say anything; he said no-one would believe me anyway.

He was right.  I told my parents (who did believe me, but could do little to help); and then I decided to go to the school committee to ask for a transfer. They held a hearing and during that very humiliating proceeding, I was the one put on trial-- I was asked what I had been wearing, and I was asked why I wanted to try to ruin the reputation of such a fine man and such a well-respected principal.  In the end, it was my union (where the guy in charge also didn't seem to believe me, but he at least defended my right to a transfer) that facilitated my going to another school.  I was advised never to mention it again, and I didn't.  I ended up teaching at a high school where I was treated well, but when I had the chance to leave the Boston Public Schools and go into radio full-time, I did.

Some things never change, however.  My radio journey led me to Cleveland in late 1973, and several years later, to New York.  It was in New York, when I was between jobs, that I heard of an opening at a record company; I had just worked for one, and while radio was my first choice, working in records was fine with me. The executive doing the interview told me he lived on a house-boat, and that's where the interview would  be conducted.  I wasn't particularly shocked by that-- I've been interviewed in hotels, at restaurants, and even once during a hockey game.  Also, as a woman in a predominantly male industry, I didn't want to seem overly suspicious or give the impression that I expected special treatment.

The conversation went well, and I thought I was making a good impression, or at least I hoped I was (I needed the job!).  I don't recall everything that happened during the evening, but I do recall him suddenly moving closer to me and saying something about wanting to know if we were "compatible."  I tried to make a joke, to defuse the situation, but he grabbed my hand and I think you can guess where he placed it. I tried to pull away, and he became more insistent. I do not remember how I was able to persuade him to let me go, but suffice it to say he got angry, made some rude remark, called me a word that rhymes with "witch," and let me leave.  I didn't get the job, nor did I ever see him again, although I read about him in the music industry trade publications now and then. I am sure that, if questioned, he would have said I came on to him-- which I did not-- or he would have denied anything unusual had occurred.  And for him, probably this was nothing unusual. For me, even four decades later, I can still recall what he did.

I told my boyfriend at the time, but I decided to say nothing to anyone else.  The radio business and the music industry were very much a "good old boys" club back then, and if I had spoken out, even if anyone did believe me, I never would have been hired by anyone ever again.  Ultimately, I was able to find another job back in radio, go on and have a successful career, and even spend nearly thirty years as a consultant.  On two occasions during my consulting career, I encountered behavior similar to that record company executive-- clients who, after a nice dinner, expected that they could put their hands on me or who saw nothing wrong with trying to grope me (one even thought it was amusing).  Both men were very famous in the broadcasting industry.  And once again, I felt it best to keep silent, since a woman who complains is seen as a whiner, and the men in the industry tend to circle the wagons and defend each other. I knew that speaking out would blackball me from the industry I loved. So I chose to just keep it to myself.  It was a terrible choice to have to make, but women in mostly-male professions make such decisions often. And yes, it still goes on even today.

Please don't get me wrong.  Most of the men I met during my long career in broadcasting were wonderful. Most treated me as a fellow professional, which is all I ever asked them to do. But my point is that on a few very traumatic occasions, I was the victim of men who believed it was perfectly fine for them to put their hands on me, and that if I objected, I was the one at fault.  I don't know if the accusations against Donald Trump (or for that matter, Bill Clinton) are all true, but based on my experiences, I know first-hand that for many powerful men, they believe they have the right to treat a woman any way they want.  And sad to say, society still has a tendency to cast suspicion on the woman, rather than saying in no uncertain terms that there is NO excuse for touching a woman without her consent.

I totally understand why Trump's accusers said nothing; I too said nothing when it happened to me... and besides, on the one time when I did speak up, I was vilified and subjected to shame and humiliation.  As a second-wave feminist, I am pleased at how far society has come on many issues affecting women.  But when it comes to matters of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching, we still seem stuck in the dark ages, back in an era when women were supposed to just grin and bear it, and accept whatever the man wanted to do; he was the man and we were supposed to cheerfully submit-- or suffer the consequences.  I know first-hand about those consequences.  I also know this story isn't partisan-- powerful men (whether they are Republicans or Democrats,  or even men who claim to be religious) can all be part of the problem.  And rather than blaming their accusers, I can only hope these men will decide to become part of the solution.  But in a culture that still defends boorish behavior, I don't know if they ever will.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Power of Forgiveness... in Politics and in Daily Life

It's nearly the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, a time in the Jewish religion that begins with the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and ends with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  During those ten days, we are asked to seek forgiveness from those we wronged in the past year.  We are supposed to apologize for what we said or did that might have hurt others, and to take responsibility for it.  Even if the other person doesn't accept our apology, we still are commanded to make the effort, since if we want God to forgive us on Yom Kippur, we have to first forgive others. (That's why you don't wish people a "Happy" Yom Kippur-- it's a time for serious reflection, a time to ask God to give us another year, and a chance to make things right.)

Of course, forgiving others is often easier said than done.  I had a very contentious relationship with my father (of blessed memory), and I admit it took me many years to get to a place where I could forgive some of the harsh words he said to me.  I've also had a difficult time forgiving some of the men I worked with during my years in radio, men who thought it was perfectly acceptable for them to sexually harass or make crude remarks to their female employees-- just because they could.  Trust me, such things are not funny, they're not something women enjoy, and those of us who have gone through such experiences don't forget them easily.  But during the Ten Days of Repentance, there's an opportunity to let all the anger go, and to forgive the people who wronged us.  Forgetting, however, is another matter entirely.

We live in a culture where blaming and shaming are staples of social media conversation, and where snark and insult can be heard even in presidential debates.  (I dread to think what some folks have said about me; in some cases I know, but in others, it's probably better that I don't.)  And yet, during the Ten Days of Repentance, we are asked to put aside the tendency to focus on other people's faults and concentrate on our own.  We're not supposed to hide behind the so-called non-apology apology, the one where the candidate says something outrageous and then follows up with "I apologize if anyone was offended." (In other words, whatever the person said, crude or demeaning though it may have been, it's YOUR fault if you were offended, not theirs for saying it.)  Rather, we are asked to make a sincere effort to acknowledge our faults, to tell the truth about them, and to avoid making excuses.  It's not about whether anyone was offended; it's about whether you should have said it in the first place.

Imagine if our politicians could for ten days put aside their tendency to make themselves look good by making their opponents look bad.  Imagine if our colleagues at work could for ten days put aside the tendency to gossip or say nasty things behind the backs of people they dislike.  Wouldn't it be nice to spend a few days treating each other with courtesy and respect, even if we may disagree with each other's views?  Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't obsess over every perceived slight, or dwell on every fault others have (while making excuses for their own)?  Wouldn't it be refreshing if people who claim to live by the Good Book actually followed its teachings, especially about showing kindness to others, and forgiving those who don't  live up to our standards?  Yes, I know, it's not very likely that any of this will happen in my lifetime.  But it's still something worth aspiring to.

And on the Day of Atonement, Jewish people world-wide will fast and pray that God will forgive us for disappointing Him or falling short of what He asked us to do in the past year.  But whether you are Jewish or not, it's worth taking what my friends in AA and Al-Anon call a "fearless moral inventory":  over the past year, have we been too self-righteous, too certain that only we are right and everyone else is wrong?  Have we been too ready to criticize and too slow to forgive?  Have we brought out the best in those around us or have we been so focused on winning that we were willing to tear others down as long as we came out on top?

So, as the Ten Days of Repentance draw to a close, I can only hope those who know me or those who have read my words this past year will forgive me for anything rude or discourteous I may have said.  And whether you are Jewish or not, I wish you and yours a year of peace, health, compassion, and kindness.  In a time where anger and resentment seem so prevalent, each of us can and should do our part to create a more courteous world, and now is as good a time as any to begin. Happy New Year and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Running for Office and Surviving the Gender Wars

The other day, I read a wonderful article in the Washington Post, about how female debaters are often held to different standards from male debaters.  The article is here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/23/how-could-sexism-hurt-clinton-in-the-debates-these-female-high-school-debaters-know/?hpid=hp_no-name_opinion-card-f%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.1cf6b04d1616.

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

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

But sad to say, his attitude is still too common-- there have been a number of studies in the business world that have found significant gender disparities:  for example, when male managers speak in a way that sounds angry or critical, there's a tendency to either accept it or to rationalize it ("That's just how he is; but he's a really good boss once you get to know him"); but when a woman manager speaks that way, there is a far more negative response, and in some cases, it fuels the perception that she is not an effective manager because she doesn't have good people-skills.  This can even lead to a pay gap:  women who sound harsh are paid less than men who sound exactly the same way. http://time.com/money/3986479/angry-women-lose-15k-perceived-worth/

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

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

Monday, September 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

As with every ideology, there are nuances and shades of gray-- not every conservative thinks exactly alike, in other words.  Consider the issue of birth control:  for many years, conservative Christians (mainly Catholics, but some Protestants too) were successful in their fight against access to contraception, even for married couples.  Until the 1965 (!) Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision, purchasing or dispensing contraceptive devices was a criminal offense in certain states.  But these days, most Christians I know, as well as a majority who identify as conservatives, are fine about the use of birth control.  This includes more than 80% of American Catholics-- even though their church opposes the use of contraceptives, surveys repeatedly show that Catholics tend to ignore that teaching.   Unfortunately, some online memes try to assert that Margaret Sanger, who championed greater access to birth control, was actually a racist, a member of the KKK, and someone who wanted to limit the number of black births. As with all too many internet memes, these claims are false, but many conservatives treat them as factual, even as they also support family planning.  (Politifact addressed what Sanger actually believed here: http://www.politifact.com/new-hampshire/statements/2015/oct/05/ben-carson/did-margaret-sanger-believe-african-americans-shou/ )

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

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

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

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

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

A few days earlier, with far less fanfare, another happy event occurred-- former Boston top-40 legend Arnie Ginsburg turned 90 years old.  Arnie is retired and lives up in Maine, and I do hope someone threw a party for him; he was among the most popular disc jockeys during the era when AM radio was still king; you may have heard him reenact his "Night Train" radio show on the "Cruisin'" series of recordings-- he represented what top-40 sounded like in 1961, and you can read the liner notes from that CD here:  http://www.reelradio.com/rj/cruisin/cruisin61.html 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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