Sunday, July 15, 2018

Moving Beyond the Stereotypes

When I was in high school, we studied some of Shakespeare's plays. The one that had the greatest impact on me (and not in a good way) was "The Merchant of Venice." Some of you may remember it. The central character, and villain, is the moneylender, Shylock the Jew.  And while there are a couple of verses where Shakespeare does try to humanize him, the vast majority of the play depicts him as exactly what people in Shakespeare's day thought all Jews were-- greedy, dishonest, obsessed with petty rules, and incapable of compassion. Given that England had long ago banned the Jews from living there unless they converted to Christianity, it's likely that Shakespeare and his audience had never met an actual Jew. But everyone certainly knew the myths about the Jews, and Shylock exemplified every single one.   

As much as I liked several of Shakespeare's other plays ("King Lear" was, and still is, my favorite), the blatantly anti-Jewish stereotypes in "The Merchant of Venice" really bothered me. But what upset me even more was that I was the only one who was bothered. My teacher and everyone else in the class were Christians, and they did not see a problem with the text at all. (Back then, many of those stereotypes were still commonly accepted in the popular culture.)  Thus, when I tried to explain my reaction to the depiction of Shylock, I'm not sure anyone understood why I was upset.

Yes, undoubtedly there have been greedy moneylenders in history, and I cannot deny that some may have been Jewish.  But many others were not: moneylenders have existed in every culture, and no one religion or ethnic group holds a monopoly on this occupation (or on being greedy). What bothered me in high school, and what still bothers me even now, is when someone has behaved in an offensive manner, certain people will immediately claim that ALL members of that group behave that way.  And when you try to defend your particular group, those people will believe the stereotype and say you are just the exception.    

It's easy to generalize about an entire group; it's harder to get to know them as individuals. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen enough:  surveys show that too many of us mainly hang around with people who look like us, believe like us, and even vote like us. No wonder myths and stereotypes persist.  I wish more of us could step back from our preconceived notions, stop misrepresenting each other's views, and make a genuine effort to understand how others see the world. That's probably why I remember that high school incident, and the feeling of not being understood, whenever I'm on social media and someone sends around a meme or a cherry-picked quote intended to show what [pick one] all immigrants, or all African-Americans, or all Muslims, or all Jews are really like.

I see similar generalizations in our politics too: I cannot tell you how many Democrats are firmly convinced that ALL Trump supporters are racists and bigots; and there are just as many Republicans who sincerely believe that ALL Democrats are judgmental hypocrites.  I often get Tweets accusing me of being a "typical liberal" (whatever that means), and I am sure my Republican friends get Tweets accusing them of being "typical conservatives."  And this is where we seem to be-- stuck in our stereotypes, unable (or unwilling) to move beyond them.  I used to be a deejay (and as a professor, I still make my living from talking), yet from what I've seen, I truly believe we could all benefit from listening more and talking less.

Fortunately, I know some people who do listen, who are both inclusive and tolerant.  But I know even more who are quick to dismiss (or mock) anyone whose reaction is different from theirs.  Social media has definitely made it easier to do that, and some of the political rhetoric we hear isn't helping. But if we're living in a culture of stereotype and blame, why be satisfied with it? Shouldn't we want things to change? I may seem naive to suggest this, but I believe we can (and should) improve how we communicate.  It starts with being willing to listen rather than argue.  Given our different backgrounds, I don't expect us to agree on everything; but at least we can try to respect each other, can't we?  So, I invite you to reach out to someone who can offer you an entirely different perspective. It may not be what you're accustomed to, but you may find yourself learning something new.  And if more of us take the time to do that, perhaps society will become a little less polarized than it currently is.       

Saturday, June 30, 2018

What You Need to Know About "Fake News"

I generally try to be courteous when I blog, but I have to admit I'm really fed up with the ongoing verbal attacks on the media. I've mentioned my dismay about it on Twitter & Facebook, but some folks told me angrily that the media deserve it because "they lie all the time." That's an opinion I find puzzling. I know many honest and honorable reporters who don't lie at all, yet they are receiving not just hate mail but death threats on a regular basis.  We all know what happened in Annapolis the other day, and while I am not blaming any one person, we do have a polarized culture, and it has become very worrisome to many of us. But despite the obstacles, my journalist friends continue to tirelessly do their jobs.  I say they deserve our thanks, rather than our scorn.    

Among the most common accusations thrown at journalists is that they constantly spread "fake news."  Studies show that large numbers of Republicans are firmly convinced of this, and I'm aware that nothing I say in this blog will change anyone's mind. But I'd like to put this belief in context, if possible.  While today, it has taken on a partisan slant, the idea that you can't trust the press is actually quite old. In fact, we can find critics complaining about "fake news" more than 120 years ago.  Consider Frederick Burr Opper, an American cartoonist whose work has long since been forgotten by most of us. But in March 1894, he used a cartoon to comment on the rise of sensationalism and exaggeration in the journalism of his time, and to remark on what he saw as a disturbing trend-- and he referred to this trend as "fake news."  Yes, that was a thing even in the 1890s, a decade when certain publishers were using their newspapers to intentionally mislead the public, creating outrage in order to sell newspapers, or trying to affect government policies.  (You can read more about that period of time here:  https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/yellow-journalism-the-fake-news-of-the-19th-century/)

More recently, there was a resurgence of the term "fake news" during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, during both Republican and Democratic presidencies, media critics were using the term "fake news" when discussing misleading reports broadcast on programs that were supposedly fact-based.  For example, TV Guide, not known as a political publication, featured a cover story about this in 1992-- author David Lieberman used the term to refer to stories that purported to be "news," but were actually cleverly-produced and corporate-funded publicity features-- created to promote a product or to sway public opinion on a hot-button issue.

In the early 2000s, President Bush became a frequent user of these features, known in the industry as VNRs ("Video News Releases"), when he was promoting the War in Iraq. But he wasn't the only one. Many TV stations and newspapers also made use of VNRs, citing them in their coverage as if these features were neutral and factual, when they were really one-sided advocacy pieces. The failure to identify some spokespeople as paid industry advocates, and to differentiate their advocacy from objective reporting became an ongoing problem, one we still have today.

So, since we live in a time when the term "fake news" gets thrown around a lot, let me be very clear about what it is, and what it isn't. First, here's what "fake news" is: An intentional effort to mislead the public, either by making up quotes, distorting/misrepresenting what someone said, or inventing events that never really happened.  Fake news is often inflammatory, because it is intended to stir up partisan outrage. And if it isn't making up quotes entirely, it often rips them from their actual context and then uses them to make a partisan point, relying on the fact that most people do not check the entire quote to see what the person really said, or what they really meant.  Fake news also relies on cherry-picking facts-- making a one-off incident seem like it happens all the time, or making a fringe figure into someone who represent all members of that party or that group.

As for what "fake news" is not-- it's not news that President Trump (or any politician from either party) doesn't like. It's not an unintended or accidental mistake that a reporter corrects and apologizes for. It's not news that doesn't agree with your views. And it's not "anything that's on [pick the channel you personally distrust]."  A word here also needs to be said about the difference between reporters and commentators: reporters are the ones who are trained to be objective and fair to the facts, and they tend to leave their personal views out of the story.  A commentator is hired to be one-sided and to express his or her opinions on that topic or that issue, whether those opinions are based on facts or not. Many people confuse the two groups: Fox News has reporters (generally fact-based) and so do CNN and MSNBC.  But they also have commentators (sometimes fact-free, and very passionate about their personal views on the subject).

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: in a democracy, we need good reporters to hold the powerful accountable, and to keep us informed about news we might not otherwise get. I understand why partisan politicians want you to distrust the press: if you can be persuaded to ask no questions and to believe ONLY your favorite politician (or rely ONLY on partisan media sources), it's easier to get your support for certain policies, and it's easier for that political party to remain in power.  But while encouraging distrust of journalists is great for politicians, it's really bad for the country as a whole.  So, rather than demonizing reporters, respect what they are trying to do; and let them seek out the facts, whether the facts are popular or not.  It's not easy to be a journalist, especially in our angry and polarized world. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1787, "...were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."  I couldn't agree more.       


Friday, June 15, 2018

What Does It Mean to be "Too Old"?

I just read an article in the Boston Globe, and it really resonated with me. No, it wasn't about politics or rock & roll or the media (the three subjects I most frequently read, and blog, about).  The article was about what it's like to be considered "too old," in a society that worships youth, one that seems very conflicted about where Baby Boomers should belong.

Since I'm 71, I know from first-hand experience about the double messages that folks in their 60s and 70s receive.  On the one hand, we're told it's never too late to take a course or support a cause. There are many politicians (including our current president and a number of members of congress) in our age group; there are also some popular 1960s and 1970s rock stars who still make new albums or even go out on tour.  A number of popular actors and actresses are in that older demographic too.  Jokes that mock older Americans for being senile or clueless are no longer staples of TV comedies, the way they used to be. And the word "elderly" has been replaced by a kinder euphemism, "senior citizen."

But on the other hand, we are constantly bombarded with images of attractive and photogenic young fashion models, product representatives, athletes, entertainers, and couples. Commercials aimed at the younger demographic are about life's many choices: new cars, new homes, new relationships, the newest devices. Contrast that with commercials aimed at the older consumer: most of them treat being older as a problem to be endured, or to be addressed with pharmaceuticals (or with products like Depends). 

In the Boston Globe article, there's a 65 year old guy who hasn't been able to find full-time work since the recession of 2008-2009 cost him and so many others their jobs in the telecom industry. So, he works part-time at a coffee shop, much to his frustration. He feels like he still has a lot to give, and he keeps going out on interviews; but wherever he goes, the reaction is the same: the folks doing the interviewing are often much younger than he is, and they seem to feel he is too old to fit in with their company's corporate culture.  (You can read the article here: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/06/14/help-wanted-but-not-from-older-workers-many-struggle-find-jobs-employers-post-openings/CIQgOC1AYXqlGIFtZWkcHN/story.html?)

As I said, I'm 71.  Fortunately, I don't look it.  And while I am not a technological wizard, I am fairly well acquainted with the newest products; I'm on social media regularly, and I'd like to believe I'm still capable of learning something new-- after all, I got my PhD when I was 64.  But the guy quoted in the Globe story could easily have been me.  I spent more than three decades in broadcasting, and when media consolidation occurred in the early 1990s, thousands of us, myself among them, lost jobs that we dearly loved.  In my case, I had planned ahead: I was already doing some part-time college teaching, and when radio was no longer available to me, I reinvented myself as a college professor.

Getting my PhD was not easy; it took me nine years (I was teaching full-time as an adjunct professor, and then I drove 100 miles out to the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, where I took the courses I needed, a couple at a time).  But I had the advantage of having been a broadcaster, as well as publishing several books and many articles. There were a few universities that looked beyond my chronological age and focused on my credentials and my skill-set.  And while I do not make the kind of money I used to make, I am happy to have a regular source of income, and to get paid for teaching about something I enjoy-- media history and media analysis.

But if I had not been able to translate my expertise into a new profession, I too might be working part-time at a coffee shop.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course; but the guy in the article has years of tech experience, and nobody will give him a chance to use it, or let him prove that he is up-to-date on today's technology. This seems like a waste of talent, and there are so many other people in his situation. While politicians love to brag about a good economy, the truth is that some folks are always left behind. In this case, many of the people left out are Baby Boomers, people in their 60s and 70s who still want to be employed, still want to make a difference, and are finding nothing but obstacles.

I understand that sometimes, it's necessary for older workers to step aside and give younger workers a chance to shine.  But what about the older workers who love to work and genuinely feel they have something to offer? Should they be arbitrarily pushed aside? And what about the older workers who have financial problems and still need a regular paycheck? There are more of them than you might think.  As for me, I'm glad that I can still bring in a paycheck; and at this point, I cannot imagine retiring.  But I also understand that not everyone shares my desire to keep working. Conversely, I empathize with those who just want a chance, and nobody believes they should have one because they are perceived as "too old."          

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Everybody Loses When Vulgarity Wins

Over the past couple of days, social media has been a microcosm of everything that's wrong with our current society.  First, there was the vile tweet by comedian and actress Roseanne Barr, in which she compared a black woman (Valerie Jarrett) to an ape; there was also an equally vile tweet in which she claimed philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish, was actually a Nazi collaborator during World War II (he was not, by the way).  This was followed the next day by social media outrage over TV comedian and political commentator Samantha Bee, who, in the midst of criticizing Ivanka Trump, called her the C word.

Most (but not all) of the people who were upset with Samantha Bee were conservatives who were furious at her attack on Ivanka, and who saw an opportunity for "whataboutism"-- yes, Roseanne was crude, but what about Samantha Bee?  Roseanne's TV show got canceled because of her racist tweet, but what about Samantha Bee (or Bill Maher, for that matter); why are they still on the air, given all the vile remarks they make about the president and his family?  

Meanwhile, Roseanne semi-apologized for her attack on Valerie Jarrett, blaming Ambien for her tweet (an excuse the company that makes Ambien found less than convincing); but she didn't apologize for her numerous other bigoted or factually-challenged tweets, including the one with the anti-Semitic attack on George Soros (you may not agree with his politics; but no, he never helped the Nazis, as any reputable fact-checking site can show you).  

Before I get accused of partisanship, let me say that Samantha Bee was wrong to use the C word (a word I've never used in my entire life); I'm glad she apologized-- she could just as easily have made her point without using a word that even many feminists find problematic.  But as I see it, her crude insult was nowhere nearly as bad as when Roseanne slandered an entire race by comparing them to apes (something, it should be noted, that various bigots liked to do when talking about Barack and Michelle Obama).

But the real issue isn't which celebrity's remarks were worse. The real issue is that we have increasingly become a culture that accepts hateful and vulgar comments, and in some cases, even approves of them.  Yes, there is a brief burst of outraged Tweets from partisans; but then, it's on to the next series of outrages.  And whether it's on social media or in the White House, making this kind of remark no longer comes with any political cost; and it no longer seems to come with any social cost either.  Not that long ago, neither Republicans nor Democrats would use curse words on TV or make crude remarks at public rallies; it would have lost them public support.  And while there have been "shock jocks" on radio and TV since the 1980s, even they had lines they would not cross, for fear of being fined or getting fired.

Yet here we are with a president whose base applauds him for using vulgar and hateful rhetoric; even his evangelical Christian supporters won't rebuke him, because they like his stance on appointing conservative judges, or they hope he'll defund Planned Parenthood. And here we are with a culture that gets outraged only if someone from "the other side" says something vulgar, yet they remain silent when someone  from "their side" makes even the most bigoted remarks.    

Back in 2004, when Judith Martin was "Miss Manners" at the Washington Post, she wrote a good definition of vulgarity.  She said it was "one of those lapses of manners that does not arise from accident or ignorance. Whether it is showing off or showing too much, it is done to provoke others to envy or disgust."  But it's what she said next that still resonates with me: "So, while allowing [vulgarity] to become commonplace helps dull the reaction, it forces down the standards with which everyone else has to live."

And that is where we seem to be: unable to see what we are losing as a result of this coarsening of our culture; and unwilling to stop being partisan long enough to say "No" to the degradation of our public discourse.  It's easy to blame Roseanne Barr, or Samantha Bee, or Donald Trump-- but a lot of factors have gotten us to this point. And having gotten here, I wonder if there's a way to turn things around-- or will this slide into even more hate and vulgarity continue?  

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tryin' to Live My Life Without You

When I was growing up, I wasn't very popular.  As I recall, I was the only girl in the senior class at my high school who was not asked to the Senior Prom. I had no boyfriend, but truth be told, I didn't have many friends of either gender. It was not a very tolerant era, and since I was SO different from what a girl of that time was supposed to be, it meant that I spent a lot of time by myself. I had a crush on a guy who lived a couple of streets away from me, but he didn't know (or care) that I existed; and not knowing any other guys I could ask to be my date, I stayed home.  Looking back on it now, I probably didn't miss much, plus I saved a lot of money by not having to buy a fancy dress. But at the time, I felt like an outsider.  Only my love of rock and roll, and my favorite deejays, helped get me through it.

In college, I found my home at WNEU, the campus radio station; but being a few years ahead of the curve meant I was not welcome yet-- the station did not want (or allow) female deejays. It took me till my senior year to finally get on the air, and to be a radio station music director for the first time. I loved being a deejay (playing people's favorite songs and cheering them up the way the deejays had cheered me up a few years earlier). But I found that I loved music directing almost as much-- I had the opportunity to listen to all the new songs, and help to decide what the station would play.

Through music directing, I came in contact with record company promoters, and made some friends that I still have to this day. This was also the first time I encountered promoters from Canada; they sent me what were then called "imports," in case we wanted to play them.  And throughout my radio career, no matter where I worked, I continued to be a music director, and I continued to maintain a good relationship with a number of Canadian record promoters, who introduced me to a lot of interesting new music.  Most of it never became popular in the States, but every now and then, a band broke through, and I was gratified to know I had helped to make that happen.

In addition to feeling a sense of pride in helping to "get the ball rolling" for Rush back in 1974, one of the added bonuses for me was all the new friends I met as a result.  First and foremost, I became friends with the guys in the band (and even when they became famous, they never forgot what I did for them early in their career).  I also became friends with their management.  But then came lots of live concert performances, and I began to meet the fans. No matter what city I was in (and I saw Rush play in so many places), the fans always welcomed me.  We all shared something in common: we loved a band that the critics generally hated; and we recognized how talented these three guys were when the critics did not. 

For more than four decades, I knew that wherever Rush was playing, I would not only be welcomed by the band if I wanted to go backstage, but I would also be welcomed by the fans who came to see them. The fans seemed to recognize me:  they would wave, or call my name, or hug me, or in the internet era, they would "friend" me on Facebook.  Sometimes, at an event or at a concert, I would see someone with a sign that said "Thank you, Donna Halper." It meant a lot to me.

Sometimes, fans would ask me to speak at a Rush-themed convention, or teach a class about Rush's music; or they wanted to take a "selfie" with me if they saw me somewhere.  I'd like to believe that some of these folks might have wanted to be friends with me with or without Rush; but there's no denying that our devotion to Rush is what brought us together and kept us in contact with each other over the years.

And then it all changed.  After R40, Neil decided to retire; Alex and Geddy, loyal to the end, were not about to create a new version of Rush without him.  These days, while we still have some wonderful Rush tribute bands, what we don't have are live concerts from Rush. I miss those concerts.  But I also miss the friendship I shared with the guys, and with the fans. There was a certain camaraderie, a certain warmth, a certain unspoken bond whenever the fans got together for a show. Of course, we were all different: we had different politics, different religious beliefs, different favorite songs. But we could put our differences aside and enjoy being part of the extended Rush family. It was an experience I've never had with any other band (or with any other group of fans).  And nearly three years later, it's something I continue to miss.
   




Sunday, April 29, 2018

It's Hard Out There for a Chaplain

When I heard the news that the Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Father Patrick Conroy, had been asked to resign by the Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, several questions occurred to me almost immediately.  The first was, "In a country with separation of church and state and no establishment of religion, why do we even have a House or Senate chaplain?" But the other was, "I never heard one bad thing about Father Conroy. So, why did Mr. Ryan force him out?"

As I understand it, chaplains are supposed to be non-partisan and non-controversial.  The job itself has a long history-- the first House chaplain was the Reverend William Linn, back in 1789; similarly, the Senate also chose its first chaplain in 1789, electing Right Reverend Samuel Provost to the position. The main duties of congressional chaplains are to offer the opening prayer at the beginning of each session, to greet religious leaders who may come to Washington DC, and to provide pastoral counseling to the members of congress, when needed.

House Chaplain Father Conroy, a Jesuit priest (and the first Jesuit to occupy the role of House Chaplain), had served since 2011, and by all accounts, the announcement of his departure was a surprise, as was the fact that he was leaving at the request of Speaker Ryan.  Details about why remain difficult to obtain, but some sources are reporting certain conservative Republican members of the House felt he was too friendly with Democrats, although no evidence for that assertion was offered. One representative, an Evangelical Christian, also made a comment that implied he wanted a minister rather than a priest to be chaplain; he said it was important for the next chaplain to have a family (something priests are not permitted to do). 

Other Republicans seem to have objected to a prayer Father Conroy offered when the tax cuts were being debated this past November:  he prayed that there would not be "winners and losers," but rather, that both the rich and the poor would equally benefit from the new tax law.  After he gave that prayer, he was admonished by Speaker Ryan, and accused of being too political. (After reading that, I had another question: "Aren't chaplains supposed to cite Scripture? If I remember my Bible, compassion for the poor is mentioned often in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But I guess it shouldn't be mentioned in Congress.) Unfortunately for Father Conroy, many of his defenders were Democratic members; few if any Republicans spoke up on his behalf.  I don't know if that's because he wasn't a good chaplain, or if the Republican members didn't want to contradict Speaker Ryan's decision.

I admit I find this situation mystifying.  When I was an instructor at Emerson College in Boston, there was an opening for a Jewish chaplain, and I ended up in that position (the previous chaplain had retired, if my memory serves, and while there was a search for a replacement, I had the opportunity to step in for one semester).  Interestingly, while students did come to me for spiritual guidance that semester, not one of them was Jewish.  I counseled Protestant and Catholic students, using my background in counseling and my knowledge of Scripture, but mainly being someone who was willing to listen.   I hope I did okay; I certainly tried my best.  Nobody complained that I was Jewish: I was available, I was glad to help, and that seemed to be enough.

And yet, here we are in today's highly polarized world, where everyone is taking sides on something that used to be totally lacking in drama.  Republicans seem to want a pro-Republican chaplain (or at least one who doesn't speak up about poverty); Evangelicals want a minister (preferably from their denomination); Democrats want the current chaplain to stay on; and Father Conroy just wants an explanation about what he did that was so wrong.

Whether we ought to have a congressional chaplain at all can certainly be debated. But I do think there is value in someone who has stood for ethics and compassion, and who has gently tried to remind the members (many of whom are quite wealthy) that the poor are always with us.  Father Conroy seems like a man who did his job with dignity and set a good example. I'm still not sure why doing that resulted in his being fired. It's one of many things in congress that make no sense. 

   

Saturday, April 14, 2018

My Love-Hate Relationship with Social Media

As some of you already know, in November of 2014, I was diagnosed with cancer.  It wasn't entirely a surprise; most of the women on my late mother's side of the family have gotten the same diagnosis at one time or other.  But it was still upsetting, and I wanted to tell someone.  Of course, I told my husband, and I told my sister. But the reason many of you already know I had cancer is because I went on Facebook and Twitter and wrote something about it.  (I got hundreds of encouraging comments, and lots of stories from people who were cancer survivors.  It really did help to lift my spirits.)

I admit that talking about my health on social media was not the sort of thing I was raised to do, which may explain why a part of me was conflicted about doing it. I still remember when I was growing up, and there were rules about keeping certain things private.  Of course, it was a time before social media and the internet had been invented; but even if they had been, I'm not sure I would have used them to tell people I'd never met that I had cancer.  Back then, health was supposed to be personal.  You could acknowledge that you had a cold (although people could probably figure it out as soon as they heard you coughing and sneezing); but you would not have discussed having cancer unless you were with people you knew very well-- and even then, you might downplay it, so as not to worry anyone.  

Fast forward to today.  Recent surveys say more than 70% of Americans regularly use social media.  As I've noted before, that can be a good thing: we can now easily keep in touch with friends and relatives, and we can get instant updates about causes we believe in.  But among the downsides: on too many social media pages, people are over-sharing constantly.  Okay fine, I understand wanting to get some comfort during difficult times, but it really seems nothing is private anymore. I've seen people discussing everything from coping with menstrual cramps to seeking marital advice.  None of this is scandalous, and I do hope the folks who were in need of assistance found it.  I'm just saying there are some things I would never tell complete strangers on a public forum.

I don't think I'm the only person who struggles with how much information is too much.  Perhaps it was okay for me to tell the folks who follow me (some of whom I know personally, but most I do not) about my cancer diagnosis.  However, I don't know if it would be a good idea for someone who is a lot younger to post about having cancer:  potential employers now read our social media posts, and rightly or wrongly, they might feel hesitant to hire you if you seem like you're not very healthy.  Agreed, there is no shame in having cancer (I'm into my third year of being cancer-free, and thank God for that); but my concern is that some folks are giving away too much of their personal life, and that may not be such a good idea.

Even after all this time, I'm of two minds about social media:  there's a part of me that has grown accustomed to it, and I enjoy the opportunity to reach out to others and share my views.  But there's another part that is more cautious, reminding me that speaking my mind can have consequences.  For example, whenever I post something about politics, I know that many commenters will be courteous; but more often than not, I will also encounter the haters and the trolls.  In fact, there are times I feel that being on social media brings more aggravation than it's worth. But then I think about the people who have been kind to me, and the causes I've been able to learn about; and over all, I believe there's more good online than bad.  And so, I continue to write, hoping that I am not one more person who over-shares, and hoping that most of my readers find my posts worthwhile.  

Friday, March 30, 2018

My Passover (and Easter) Message for 2018

I was talking to someone who reached out to me on social media (he had read something I wrote, and he didn't agree with it); we were having a courteous exchange of views, but then, he told me that if he couldn't change my mind, there was no reason for us to keep talking.  I never heard from him again.

I can understand that attitude: it's so much easier to only talk with people who agree with you, who tell you that you're right and the folks on the other side of the issue are clueless and misguided. And I also understand that relationships dominated by argument and disagreement don't tend to last.  But here's the problem:  if we only spend our time with those who share the same beliefs as us, and if we only think of people on the other side as potential converts to our point of view, we miss out on seeing each other as human beings.  It becomes all too easy to reduce "them" to a stereotype, to criticize, to demonize, to reject people who might turn out to be worth knowing.

And let's be honest-- we've all done it.  Many of us, myself included, can quote Scripture (or philosophy) about the importance of love and kindness; and yes in our lives, we do try to be loving and kind.  But there are also times when we can be judgmental, when we can gossip, or spread rumors, or be harsh when we should have been compassionate.  There are times when we don't see the other as a person, created in the image of God.  For example, I have seen otherwise nice kids bully someone from a different culture or mock someone with a disability; and I've seen their parents tell jokes about people who are different, or say nothing when a racist or sexist or homophobic slur is used.

If you're Jewish, tonight (and for the next week) it's Passover, and at the ritual meal-- the seder-- we are commanded to welcome the stranger, and to remember that we too were once strangers in a strange land.  That is why every year, I've invited people of many religions and cultures to my seder-- not to try to convert them, but rather, to let them know that they are welcome. In fact, they make my holiday even more special by being there to share it. 

And if you're Christian, you know that Jesus often spoke of the need to care about the people who were marginalized, the people society tended to treat with scorn.  It seems to me that if you are serious about your religion, it can't just be something you think about on a religious holiday.  It ought to be something that guides your life and impacts how you treat others.

Perhaps I sound naive.  Perhaps you'll laugh at what I'm saying.  But the way I see it, since we are all inhabiting the same world, I believe that finding positive experiences we can share (even with those who are different from us) can lead to greater understanding.  I'm perfectly okay with the fact that not everyone thinks like I do.  But as long as they respect my views, and as long as they want to share some portion of my life, I want to welcome them.  May your holidays be happy, may you be a source of peace, tolerance, and love, and may you join with me in welcoming the stranger-- at Passover, at Easter, and at other times as well.         

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Preserving our Memories in the Digital Age

I'm holding a rare artifact right now-- it's a fan letter, written in longhand, from late December 1935. It was sent by a man from Newburyport MA to his favorite radio announcer, Howell Cullinan of WEEI in Boston. You've probably never heard of Howell, but he was someone people in the audience thought of as a friend, and they loved to listen to his program.  In addition to being a news reporter and announcer, he was also a story-teller, a raconteur, and a world-traveler; he even wrote two books about his adventures, and about his experiences in early broadcasting.

At a flea market a few months ago, I found some letters sent to him in the early to mid-1930s, and I must admit I was excited to read them; they helped me to understand how important he was to his listeners.  But I may be among the last people to read and appreciate these kinds of artifacts, since they were composed in cursive.  Fewer and fewer schools are teaching kids to write in long-hand these days. In fact, in a growing number of elementary schools, I'm told that students only learn to print; the focus is now on learning to type (since keyboard skills are necessary for online communication).

I understand. Really I do.  Times change. We're living in the digital age, and handwriting doesn't matter as much as it used to.  And yet... as a media historian, I believe we're losing something that is still important. Several weeks ago, in the Boston Globe, there was a wonderful essay about the importance of letters and notes.  The author brought up an issue I've thought about a lot:  "For historians, handwritten letters are a gold mine. So what happens when they disappear?"  (You can read the entire essay here, and it's definitely worth thinking about.  https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2018/02/25/you-got-mail-for-now/gqCidhkYwEDMSSkNJVb2WP/story.html )
 
Losing tangible aspects of our past is no trivial matter. I've written six books, as many of you know, and I couldn't have done my research without having access to handwritten notes, diary entries, postcards and letters, which were in the possession of some of the people I was researching. Being able to read them took me back to that exact time and place, and made me feel as if I were there; it made me feel closer to the folks whose lives I was studying.  Reading a 1935 fan letter, written by an actual listener, it was as if he were speaking to me in the present, talking to me about why Howell Cullinan was his favorite radio announcer.

Okay fine, I can read digitized and transcribed copies of some of these materials, but contrary to what my students believe, there is so much that is not online, so much that isn't digitized yet-- and in the case of materials from folks who weren't especially famous, so much that may never be digitized.  And while today's emails, tweets, and text messages are quick and convenient, they're also ephemeral-- they can be deleted in an instant.  There's also something impersonal about them, even when you dress them up with an emoji or add a meme.

Call me old-school, but I like to work with original handwritten documents when I can; and I like going to library archives and seeing actual historical items first-hand.  I feel the same way about viewing old photographs, old books, and old magazines-- yes, the online versions are a wonderful convenience for researchers, and I am grateful for access to them; but to hold an old publication, to look at the item itself, brings up a sense of amazement, a feeling of gratitude that somehow this part of our history has survived. (And I am sure the librarians and archivists who are reading this know exactly what I'm talking about.)

The other day, unexpectedly, I found some old photos of my mother and father from back when they were dating. Yes, I digitized several of the photos so that my friends on social media could enjoy seeing what my parents looked like in the late 1930s/early 1940s.  But holding the actual photographs was very emotional for me.  And whether it's old letters or old photos, preserving these memories, and respecting them, is worth the effort.

I'm not asking everyone to be hoarders or pack rats.  I'm simply saying that we've become a throwaway culture, where all that matters is the newest technology, and stuff that's considered "old" (or old-fashioned, like handwriting) is disposable. Maybe one day, after I'm no longer here, someone will find the fan letters I saved from my radio career, most written in cursive; and perhaps they will be curious about who I was, or why I kept them, or what these items meant.  And I wonder if there will be anyone who can explain.   

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Mystery from My Past

There's something I've never been able to figure out:  how did my last name get to be Halper?  I understand that it's a common last name for Jews with European ancestry (also seen as Halpern, Helpern, Helperin, Helprin, Halpert, or even Alpert); but where did the name itself come from?  Well, according to some reference books, "Halper" is a name that goes back more than four hundred years-- it originated in Germany, and came from a town named Heilbronn.

Except... I can find no evidence anyone on my father's side (the Halpers) lived in Germany nor even paid that country a visit.  My father's relatives are all from Russia, in the area that is today Belarus.  And the only place we know my paternal grandfather ever traveled was to what was then called Palestine (today Israel).  He emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1906, and his immigration records do not indicate a name change.

If you have ancestors who came here in that massive wave of European immigration during the 1890s-1920s, you may have heard stories about names being changed at Ellis Island.  I certainly heard those stories as a kid; and I was told that's what happened with some of my relatives-- for example, at some point, Beresofsky became Bear, and Drazznin became Dresner.  Perhaps something similar happened to your relatives too, as a longer or difficult to pronounce ethnic name got shortened or Americanized.  But I cannot find out more about the Halper side of the family-- the documents don't show any other name, nor even any other spelling of it.      

Since nearly all of my older relatives are now deceased, there is no-one who might be able to offer a theory.  But I wondered if new technology might provide some additional information.  So, I sent away for my DNA report from Ancestry.com:  on TV, there are these great commercials where someone suddenly discovers they're related to George Washington (rather unlikely in my case) or they find they have Norwegian relatives they knew nothing about (also unlikely for me).  I figured my DNA would show that my maternal ancestors were from Lithuania (or possibly Poland) and my paternal ancestors were from Russia.  And sure enough, there were no exciting discoveries.

On the other hand, I found two distant cousins I never knew I had-- both on my mother's side of the family.  We've been in communication, and there are a few questions about my mother's relatives we are trying to answer.  But how I came to be a Halper is still a mystery.  And unless one of the readers of my blog is an expert at genealogy, it's a question that may remain unanswered.  As someone who does research for a living, I much prefer questions that do have an answer.  But for now, this one gets filed under "not enough information," a mystery that may not ever be solved.    

Friday, February 16, 2018

Wanting Assault Weapons Banned Isn't a "Gun Grab"

After seventeen innocent people, most of them high school students, were murdered in yet another mass shooting, I went on Twitter to remark about two verifiable facts:  most of our mass shootings have involved so-called "assault weapons," with high-capacity magazines; and when the Assault Weapons Ban was in place, there were fewer crimes involving these weapons.  Agreed, people who wanted to commit murder were able to get other weapons; but weapons like the AR-15, and high-capacity magazines, which could kill large numbers of people quickly, were no longer easy to get. And many studies showed the ban did make a difference, although of course, it was not a panacea.

So, I suggested it was time to restore the Assault Weapons Ban that Republicans allowed to lapse.  (In fairness, this isn't entirely partisan: some Democrats, and many Republicans, have taken campaign donations from the National Rifle Association.  But there was a Republican president and a Republican-led congress that allowed the ban to expire.)  I did NOT say I wanted to revoke the Second Amendment, nor did I say I wanted the government to take away all guns.  But of course, that was the predictable response:  you liberals want to ban all weapons.  Not true. It is worth noting that many liberals and progressives appreciate the Second Amendment; I have friends who enjoy sport-shooting, for example.

But what most liberals and progressives do not support is Second Amendment absolutism:  that's the belief of some conservatives that, according to their interpretation of the Second Amendment, they have the right to carry any gun anywhere at any time.  I don't want to argue about the intent of the Second Amendment--there are varying interpretations, and that's a good debate for another day, preferably not while we're still thinking about the kids who were murdered by an angry and emotionally disturbed nineteen-year-old who had no problem buying an assault weapon and lots of ammunition.

Truth be told, Congress has passed laws placing restrictions on just about every right in the Bill of Rights. No right is absolute, in other words.  We live in a society where our behaviors affect other people.  I may have freedom of speech, but I cannot slander someone; there's freedom of the press, but it does not protect unscrupulous people who use their position to libel someone they don't like.  And while congress shall make no law about an establishment of religion, there have been rulings about prayer in the public schools.

So, I fail to see what the issue is with keeping assault weapons out of the hands of average folks-- to me, the only people who need such weapons are in law enforcement or in the military.  There are plenty of weapons folks who want to hunt or sport-shoot can use, and plenty of choices for those who want to protect themselves. But we seem to be living in a culture where certain people (often egged on by the National Rifle Association, which has a vested interest in selling more guns) think all that matters is their rights.

Meanwhile, grieving parents are asking, "What about my rights? Don't I have a right to send my kids to school and know they'll be safe?"  Again, the predictable reply from some conservatives on social media is "We need more guns! Let's have armed guards in every school!"  But this school did have an armed guard. Unfortunately, Florida is a state where it's really easy to get an assault rifle. We currently have a congress that is big on offering "thought and prayers" and small on taking on the NRA.  So... I ask you:  which right is more important-- the right to own weapons meant for war, or the right to protect our kids?  Which right matters more-- the right to buy any gun at any time, or the right to raise our kids in a less violent society?  I'll be interested to hear what you have to say, because this should not be a liberal versus conservative issue.  And yet, these days, it seems that everything is...

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

My birthday is coming up:  on Valentine's Day, I'll be 71.  Most of the time, I don't think much about my chronological age-- I know I don't look like I'm in my 70s, but even if I did, I see no reason to lie about how old I am, or try to hide it. However, this birthday has a special significance for me; and although I'm looking forward to a birthday dinner, along with cake and ice cream, there's something that keeps bothering me, no matter how I try to ignore it.

In September 1989, my mother (of blessed memory) lost her battle with cancer, at the age of 71. Truth be told, not many women on my mother's side of the family have escaped getting cancer-- as many of you know, I got my cancer diagnosis in late 2014 and had surgery in mid-December of that year. Thus far, three years later, I am still cancer-free, and I feel grateful that the doctors found it in time.  But that doesn't stop me from worrying about what could still happen, especially now that I'm approaching my 71st birthday.

I know it's not rational to worry-- I'm a former counselor, and I've been a motivational speaker for years, so I know all the right things to say when it's someone else who's worried. But I'm not as good at encouraging myself.  Believe me, I understand that worrying doesn't solve anything. And I really do try to think positive; I try to treat each day like a gift, and use it productively.  I've got all kinds of coping strategies when I find myself feeling afraid-- I have a busy schedule (I work full-time, plus I also do volunteer tutoring and mentoring); I have hobbies that I enjoy; and I have a husband who is not only my best friend but who also bakes amazing apple pies. It ain't such a bad life.

And yet... as I enter my 71st year, I can't help thinking about my mother.  I remember how vibrant and active and dynamic she was (her birthday was in February, like mine); and then, almost out of nowhere, she was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer; and not very long after that, she was gone.  I don't mean to be morbid or depressing.  It's just that it was all so unexpected, and even the best doctors could do nothing for her. My situation, on the other hand, has a much more hopeful prognosis (and thus far, a much better outcome). Despite a few relatively minor health problems, I'm doing okay, and I've got no logical reason to be concerned.  And yet... sometimes I am.    

People often tell me I seem like such a strong person; I'm known for being there when folks are counting on me.  But I'm ashamed to admit that when it comes to being a cancer survivor, I'm neither strong nor courageous. In fact, I worry more often than I should. Yes, I've learned how to hide it, and I never let it stop me.  But the fear of a recurrence is still a part of my life, even though I wish it weren't.  Since I don't have the ability to predict the future, maybe my 71st year on this planet will come and go uneventfully.  I certainly hope it does. But I'll probably still worry sometimes, even though I know that's no way to get ready for my birthday! 

Monday, January 15, 2018

Setting the Right Example

On Martin Luther King Day, President Trump played golf. It's something he often does; by some accounts, he's already been on a golf course about sixty times since becoming president, far more times than President Obama was in his first year.  Of course, Republicans were outraged every time Mr. Obama played golf, yet strangely silent when Mr. Trump does the same thing. But that's to be expected:  each side loves to complain about the other, whether it's something relatively minor like supposedly playing golf too much, or something more substantial like a serious policy disagreement.

But my problem wasn't that Mr. Trump played golf again; it was that he ignored an opportunity. For the past several decades (since 1994), at the request of Dr. King's family, presidents and others have spent some time performing volunteer work, helping in their community. It was a non-partisan activity:  Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all did it.  Yet Mr. Trump chose not to.

No, I don't plan to spend yet another blog post expressing my dismay about what this president said or tweeted recently. I'm simply going to suggest that Mr. Trump seems unwilling (or uninterested) when it comes to performing acts of public service.  I find that disappointing.  Part of being president is the ceremonial aspect, the role model aspect.  But what he seems to be modeling is being self-centered. He evidently didn't feel it was important enough, or he didn't feel it was necessary, so he didn't do it. He played golf instead.

The problem is that Mr. Trump's behavior affects others, and people (especially kids) may imitate how he acts.  I worry about his young son, for example. What is Barron learning from watching his dad act in such an egotistical way? What lessons is he drawing from his father's vulgarities, his pettiness, his grudge-holding, and yes, his unwillingness to be charitable? Barron may be the beneficiary of wealth and privilege, but money is no substitute for having a father who sets a good example.

Like him or hate him, Barack Obama taught his children to be compassionate and to treat others with courtesy.  Are his kids perfect? Of course not, and neither were any of us at that age. But he and Michelle insisted upon performing community service and their kids were expected to participate.  The same was true for George and Laura Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, all of whom raised their children to think about others.  Perhaps you too do volunteer work; and perhaps, like me, you were apprenticed into volunteering by your parents. (We didn't have much money, but we could always help a worthy cause by giving our time. It's a valuable lesson for any kid to learn.) 

Whether or not you agree there should even be a King holiday (President Reagan did not, although eventually he accepted it), the fact remains that it's a great opportunity to reach out to those in need; in fact, almost any day is a good day to do that.  So, in the new year, my hope is that the president will take his obligation more seriously and make time to help those who are less fortunate-- it will not only benefit the country, but it will teach his young son a valuable lesson: money and power may come and go, but in the end, people will judge us by how we treat others.