Saturday, November 30, 2019

What We Leave Behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 15, 2019

Reporting the News in a Post-Truth World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Team (and the Song) We Needed

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Is This Any Way to Choose a President?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 30, 2019

Politics and the Ten Days of Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Remembering Dora and Anna

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Free to Be You and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 15, 2019

In Search of Second Chances

When I was a kid (I think I was about four years old), my mother took me to a toy store, and I saw something I wanted. For whatever reason, we didn't buy anything that day, but I saw a little toy car and I put it in my pocket. I'm not sure whether I fully understood that this was stealing-- I knew my mother didn't pay for it, but as I said, I was four, and I'm not sure I thought about it.

When we got home, my mother noticed I was playing with the car and she asked where I had gotten it. When she found out I had just put it in my pocket, she was not happy with me, and as I recall, she made me go back to the store, return the car, and apologize to the manager. She also gave me a lecture about how taking stuff without paying for it, even stuff you really wanted, was wrong.  But here's what else I remember: everyone forgave me, and I got a second chance. Even as a little kid, that meant a lot to me. 

What made me think of second chances was a tweet I saw from a Philadelphia Eagles football fan, wishing the Eagles would sign former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been out of work for a while but would like to play football again.  Evidently, the Eagles' current quarterback situation isn't so good, and this fan thought he would be a welcome addition to the team.

If you follow football, or even if you don't, you may have heard of Mr. Kaepernick. He used to play for the San Francisco 49ers, and had some success, even leading his team to a Super Bowl. But then, in 2016, he began protesting what he saw as systemic racism and police brutality in America; and to make his point, he refused to stand during the National Anthem, taking a knee instead.  This gesture was controversial: some fans dislike it whenever athletes speak up about current issues, and they booed him. On the other hand, there were a few fans who understood what he was trying to do, and they praised him.  But his anthem protest quickly became the subject of heated discussions on talk shows. 

Unfortunately, one person who really disliked what he was doing was President Trump, who basically claimed that Mr. Kaepernick did not love his country, accusing him of having no respect for our flag or our troops (this was untrue, and ignored Mr. Kaepernick's actual reason for the protest, but many of the president's supporters came to believe that this football player was simply unpatriotic).  Mr. Trump's disapproval contributed to Mr. Kaepernick losing his job, and to this day, no team will hire him.    

I am in no way equating Mr. Kaepernick's protest against racism with what happened to me as a little kid. In fact, I'm not even criticizing him for refusing to salute the flag: I'll leave that for others to debate (by the way, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that people cannot be forced to salute the flag). And I do understand that sports are a business, and team owners have every right to expect their players to behave in a certain way. I'm just saying that forgiveness is a wonderful virtue.

But sometimes in our culture, we apply forgiveness selectively, and I guess that is what really bothers me.  Right now, the National Football League has several players who were credibly accused of beating their wife or girlfriend. Yet these players were given a second chance. There are also some players who had drug problems. They too were given a second chance.  Yet, Colin Kaepernick, by all accounts an ethical person whose "sin" was his determination to protest racism, remains unable to find a team to hire him.

I've been told he's just not that good a quarterback. (Some football analysts disagree.) I've been told if he were rehired, the president would be furious. (The president shouldn't be the one who hires football players-- that should be up to the individual teams.) And I've been told that fans are still angry with him (I don't know if that's true; and I also have seen some fans voice their support for him). But the fact remains: he wants to play, and by many accounts, there are teams that could use his services. However you feel about what he did, why is he the only one to be denied what everyone else seems to be given--why will no NFL team give him that second chance?

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

What Would Jesus (or Moses) Do?

Back in the 1990s, when I was an instructor at Emerson College in Boston, they needed someone to be the Jewish chaplain; our previous Jewish chaplain was ill, as I recall, and a replacement hadn't yet been named. I was asked to fill in for a semester, because (a) I was Jewish, (b) I had taught comparative religions for years, and was familiar with Scripture, and (c) I had a background in counseling. I was also fairly well known to the students, most of whom seemed to like me.  And that's how I became Emerson's Jewish chaplain, joining the school's Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, and Hindu chaplains (there may have been chaplains for other faiths, but I don't recall).

It was an interesting semester. I listened to students with various problems; I read Bible verses with them (if they wanted me to); and above all, I tried to be a source of comfort and encouragement to them during difficult times. But there was something else I recall about the experience-- not one of the students who came to see me was Jewish. In fact, they were all Catholic.

Fortunately, I knew something about the Catholic religion:  my dearest friend for nearly four decades was a nun.  I tried to imagine what she would say to the students, if she were sitting with them; and in the end, I hope they felt I was a good listener, who offered them compassion and good advice. Whether they were in my religious tradition or not, they were human beings seeking comfort-- and I tried my best to provide it.

What brought the memory of my semester as a chaplain back to me was a tweet I saw several days ago, from an Evangelical Christian commentator named Erick Erickson. He took Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to task-- but not for any of his policies (which wouldn't have bothered me-- people can disagree on politics and still respect each other).  However, Mr. Erickson decided to criticize Mayor Pete for being the wrong denomination of Christian: "Just a reminder that Pete Buttigieg is an Episcopalian, so his understanding of Christianity isn't very deep or serious." 

I'm not an Episcopalian, but I was deeply and seriously offended.  Perhaps Mr. Erickson was sleeping the day his church had the Bible study on the dangers of being judgmental. Perhaps he forgot that the Bible, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, says all of us are imperfect and all of us have disappointed God on numerous occasions, and that God alone is the Judge.  But he had to let everyone know that his interpretation of religion was superior and everyone else's is just plain wrong.

I thought back to the students who came to see me when I was the chaplain-- some told me about problems related to drugs, or cheating on an exam, or some other negative behavior.  They were ashamed. They felt they couldn't tell others what they had done. So they told me. And should I have chastised these students and let them know that they had violated Scripture?  Would it have helped the situation if I were just one more person expressing my disappointment in them? Somehow, I think not. And while I didn't praise what they had done, I also didn't pass judgment-- I mainly tried to understand, and get them to look at how they could make amends.

I guess that's why I was bothered by Mr. Erickson's tweet:  it reminded me that we are living in a time when too many people want to let us know that they are so much holier than we are.  And yet, if Jesus or Moses or some other great spiritual leader were to come back to earth, I wonder how they would feel about all these folks who think it's their duty to let us know we've failed their purity test.  I know it's human nature to see the other person's flaws (and not look at our own); but I think we'd have a better world if we could all learn to be more forgiving and less judgmental...

Monday, July 15, 2019

Burning Down the House

I've never met Ayanna Pressley, but I did write an encyclopedia entry about her for the African-American National Biography.  She's the U.S. Representative from the 7th Congressional District in Massachusetts, and the first black woman my state has ever sent to congress.  Prior to winning in 2018, she was a member of the Boston City Council, and the first black woman elected to serve there as well.  She was born in Cincinnati and raised in Chicago. She moved to Boston to attend college, but when her mom (who had raised her) became ill, she left school to help support her. Ms. Pressley became interested in politics; she worked for Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, and then for Senator John Kerry.  Eventually, she ran for office herself... and won. And later, she ran for congress, and won that election too.

I've heard her speak many times, and I can honestly say I've never known her to be anti-American. I've never known her to be anti-Jewish or anti-Israel either.  I've never known her to be anything close to a Communist, and I would not associate her policy positions with Socialism.  Yet, President Trump accused her of all of this.  He also said if she doesn't like this country, she can go back to where she came from-- in Ms. Pressley's case, that would be Boston, and before that, Chicago. (Her mother and father were also from Cincinnati, and then Chicago.)

Needless to say, I found the president's remarks outrageous. Yes, I know-- they were mainly directed at three congresswomen he especially loves to hate: Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  But here again, I have a problem with Mr. Trump's assertion that they all "hate America" and are "probably Communists."  I grew up in the McCarthy era, and a lot of innocent people lost their jobs after being smeared by the senator, who often used accusations of disloyalty whenever someone was not as conservative as he felt they should be.

I rarely agree with Ms. Omar, and at times I don't agree with Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. But like their colleague and friend Ms. Pressley, they were all elected, and they have every right to speak their mind.  Just because they disagree with the president, or dislike his policies, doesn't make them anti-American.  I have very bad memories of 2003-2004, when former Vice President Dick Cheney would accuse anyone who opposed the war in Iraq of being disloyal and hating America.  (Those of us who opposed the Iraq War loved America, but we vehemently opposed going to war against a country that hadn't attacked us.)  And yet, here we go again in 2019-- if you disagree with the president, he (and his friends at Fox News) will claim you hate this country.

I'd like to tell you it doesn't matter what the president says, but sadly, it does. He has a megaphone. He can spread fake quotes to millions (no, Ms. Omar never said she's "proud of Al-Qaeda"); he can persuade his supporters that he is "fighting back"-- standing up to these four "disgraceful" women, who are being disrespectful to him.  He can encourage haters to hate, and praise them if they hate the same folks that he does.  And he can insist that anyone who complains about his policies or disagrees with the way he acts can "go back to where they came from." 

I understand that Mr. Trump's supporters elected him to destroy the status quo and upend the customs and conventions of politics. They seem to believe that courtesy and civility are no longer necessary; they seem to delight in his rudeness, and they applaud him even when his comments are dangerously bigoted. But in wanting the house to be burnt down, I dread to think what comes next. If it's okay to be openly bigoted, if our president (whose rhetoric sets the tone for how we communicate) thinks it's acceptable to tell four congresswomen that people like them aren't welcome in America, where do we go from that? 

It was Edward R. Murrow, during the McCarthy era, who said we must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.  He then said, in words that could also relate to Mr. Trump, that Senator McCarthy was trying to make us afraid, so that we would be distrustful of each other and easier for him to  manipulate. Murrow said, "He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it – and rather successfully."  He then quoted Shakespeare, noting that "Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."  And that is my question: will we continue to accept and normalize the kind of America Mr. Trump has given us?  Will we sit passively (or send an outraged tweet) as our great republic continues to break into hateful factions and Mr. Trump continues to exploit them? Only you know the answer. So... now what?
  

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Virtue of Altruism... or How a Simple Act of Kindness Helped Rush to Get Discovered

For the past several days, I was in Toronto attending a conference about the impact of the media on our lives-- a topic I'll blog about in the near future.  And in addition to attending panels and giving a talk, I also made some time to see a few folks who are very important to me, and to catch up with what they've been doing.

Toronto has long been a home away from home for me-- while my career in broadcasting and print has mainly been in the United States, I've made many friends in Toronto radio and TV over the years; in fact, my interactions with Toronto's music industry began way back in 1968-1970, when I was a music director in college radio. That's when I first encountered record promoters from Canadian labels, and they were always happy to find someone at an American radio station who would play some of their artists.

I spent about 13 years of my radio career as a music director, and it was a job I loved.  I was able to hear the new songs first, and I had the freedom to give unknown artists much-needed airplay.  In that era before music downloads or YouTube or social media, listeners relied on their favorite FM album-rock radio station to introduce them to new bands, and to play the best songs from bands they already liked.  Somehow, along the way, I got a reputation for playing Canadian bands, and promoters would make sure I had copies of any new groups that showed promise.

Among the folks with whom I became friendly was a guy named Bob Roper. He had previously worked for Capitol Records of Canada, but in 1974, he was working for A&M of Canada. If you are a fan of the rock band Rush, you know he was the one who sent me their debut album, when I was music directing at WMMS-FM in Cleveland. But what I always found so unusual about that gesture was this:  Roper was sending me an album (a vinyl album back then) by a band who had not been signed to A&M of Canada; their homegrown first album was on Moon Records.

Normally, record promoters only sent me a record that was "theirs"-- in other words, an artist who was signed to their label. The hope was that airplay in the States might lead to success (and a record deal with a US label), which would, in turn, create greater demand in Canada. (Back then, Canadian bands were often frustrated by the fact that in order to become popular, they had to first have a hit in the US, at which time, Canadian radio stations would embrace their music.) But Rush couldn't get much airplay in Toronto (or anywhere else in Canada). They diligently played area clubs, but beyond getting a local following, nothing else happened; nor did any major label sign them to a contract.

And then, Bob Roper, who was familiar with the band and believed they had some talent, sent me a copy of their album.  He didn't have to.  He wasn't going to benefit in any way from doing so.  It was just a good deed, by a good person trying to help three young musicians to get some exposure in the States. And when I opened the envelope and played "Working Man" for the first time, I immediately understood why Roper thought these guys had potential.

If you are a fan, you know the rest of the story.  But what matters to me is the friendship that he and I still share-- a friendship that has endured for more than four decades.  Bob Roper and I had breakfast yesterday, just before I left for the airport to return to Boston. It was wonderful to see him. We talked about how the music industry has changed; we talked about what each of us has been up to since the last time we saw each other.  And we both acknowledged that our love of Rush, and our belief that these guys deserved a chance, resulted in so much more than either of us could ever have expected.

And if there's a lesson to be learned it's that sometimes, doing a good deed can have long-lasting results. I championed the band and encouraged other radio stations to play them. I (courteously) contacted critics and reviewers who were negative about Rush, and let them know I thought they were wrong. And along with other fans, I fought to help Rush to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and ultimately to (finally) get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But none of it would ever have happened if a certain Canadian record promoter hadn't decided to do a simple act of kindness and make sure Rush's album ended up on my desk. And as a result of what Bob Roper did back in mid-May 1974, so many people's lives were changed for the better, including mine.    
 

Saturday, June 15, 2019

If At First You Don't Succeed...

I was sitting in my office earlier this evening, staring at my computer, and feeling really frustrated.  No, it wasn't because I had to write a blog post-- I usually enjoy doing that.  Here's the problem:  when I'm not teaching, I'm a free-lance writer, which I also usually enjoy doing... except, for the past few days, I've been working on an article that I cannot seem to finish.  I haven't been able to find all the information I need; some of what I did find was contradictory; I can't seem to write a good concluding paragraph; and to be honest, I don't even like my introduction (I've rewritten it numerous times)... I finally just had to step away.  So, I drank some hot chocolate, watched some TV, answered some emails, and now I'm getting ready to start writing again.

Perhaps you've had a similar experience-- a project you thought would be easy to complete, but it ended up taking longer than you expected.  Some of my students tell me this is what writing a term paper feels like for them, and believe me, I can empathize. More often than not, it's fun to do research and write articles; I like the opportunity to learn something new, and to share that knowledge with others.  But every now and then, I seem to get stuck on one article, and I have to decide to power through it, even when getting it done seems impossible.  

I suppose the reason I'm telling you this is because of what I've learned from these experiences. For far too long, I was a perfectionist, and if the article I was writing didn't meet the impossible standards I set for myself, I didn't want to submit it at all (or when I did submit it, I fully expected to be told it was awful). I spent a lot of time being critical of myself, convinced that I was the worst writer in the history of humanity. And when my editors told me I had done a good job, I didn't believe it-- I thought they were just being kind.

Over the years, I've written six books (and a few chapters for other people's books), as well as many articles. I've also written some encyclopedia entries on a variety of subjects. The fact that my work has appeared in lots of places ought to be an indication that I'm not such a bad writer after all, but for a long time, I couldn't give myself any credit. It took me a while to get to a place where I wasn't my own worst critic. And once I got there, I was finally able to be proud of my work-- whether I thought it was perfect or not.  

And if I can offer any advice, it's this:  it doesn't make you a better writer (or teacher or artist or anything else) if you're spending your time dwelling on all the flaws you think you have. It doesn't help you to be more effective if you're constantly second-guessing yourself.  Most of us really do learn through trial and error; and while there's nothing wrong with having high standards, setting unrealistic expectations rarely leads to success.  What I also figured out is the one thing we could all use more of is patience-- so, if something doesn't work out immediately, instead of being angry with yourself, it may just be time to step away and regroup, and come back to it later.  And now, if you'll excuse me, I have an article I intend to finish! 

Friday, May 31, 2019

In Search of Someone to Blame

I have a friend who sincerely believes our current problems all began when the Supreme Court got rid of mandatory school prayer back in 1962.  That's not how I remember it: my recollection is that despite the prayers, some kids still got into trouble. Agreed, it was a more formal culture, so being rude to a teacher or getting in a fight during recess had consequences.  But the fact that people began the school day with a Bible reading didn't guarantee that kids would turn out to be saintly.  In fact, as I recall, there were plenty of so-called "juvenile delinquents," and plenty of "experts" trying to figure out how supposedly good kids went astray.

The most common explanations back then were either bad parenting or falling in with bad company. Parents who didn't set the proper example were supposedly to blame for having bad kids. And kids who hung around with troublemakers tended to become troublemakers themselves.  And if the parents had done all the right things but their kid still turned out wrong? Well, then, it must be too much television. Or too much radio.  Or too much rock and roll music.There just had to be a simple answer. There just had to be one cause, and finding it seemed to make people feel better.

When I was in college in the 60s, I noticed the same reactions whenever serious crimes were committed:  he (it was usually a he) must have had bad parents. He must have grown up in a godless home. He must have hung around with bad people. He must have been influenced by the media. And when all the other explanations didn't work, there were always stereotypes that could be applied to certain folks:  "Well, what you can you expect from someone who was raised in that neighborhood?" Or, "That's so typical of those people." Again, the need to find a simple answer, even if the problem was complex.

Fast forward to 2019.  Yesterday, a lone gunman murdered twelve people in the place where he worked in Virginia. He was described by police as "disgruntled."  I've sometimes felt disgruntled, but it never led to me to believe that shooting my co-workers would make me feel any better. When I was growing up, people were disgruntled too, but it seems everyone is angrier now than they were back then.  However, in the 60s, when people got angry, there were fewer ways they could take it out on a large group of people. Guns weren't as widely available, and there were no social media platforms yet.

But this isn't a blog post about guns (although it certainly could be, on any given day); nor is it about the impact of social media on our culture (I've blogged about that before).  It would be easy to say "it's all because of guns," or "it's all because of social media."  Agreed, both can be factors, but they don't explain why so many people seem to feel so aggrieved so much of the time; or why they automatically want to blame someone whenever there's a problem.  Instead of trying to seek out solutions, I keep seeing people seek out some person or group they can point the finger at and say, "This is all your fault."

As if finding the right reason for the problem makes it go away... which it never does.  Yet just like back in the 50s and 60s, many "experts" are offering the same old answers; except now they can tweet them out instead of just talking with a few like-minded friends.  Some people insist we need a return to traditional religion; or they say there's a lack of good parenting; or we need more armed guards in schools and public buildings; or there's just too many immigrants; or there are too many kids playing violent video games; or there are too few kids who have good manners (I admit I'm guilty of complaining about that one myself).

Some people say our problems are political:  When Barack Obama was president, Republicans said everything bad was his fault. Now that Donald Trump is president, Democrats say our problems are all because of him.  Social media has exacerbated the tendency to finger-point and then go on to the next thing, having done nothing to fix (or even address) the problem other than complain.  As recently as yesterday, I wondered on Twitter why "send death threats" seems to be the default position for all too many people, when confronted with an idea or a policy or a person they dislike.

I wish there were one simple answer to every problem we face, but there rarely is.  Meanwhile, I find that writing these blog posts can be a great catharsis. I know I don't have millions of readers, but that's okay.  When I blog, it forces me to sit and think carefully about what I want to say, rather than just blurting out on social media whatever emotion comes to mind.  I'm told that blogging is becoming passé, but I still enjoy doing it. In fact, in these angry times, I'd rather see people doing more blogging and less blaming... it might be one small step towards having a more thoughtful society. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

In a Country Where They Turned Back Time

There are a few things I miss about growing up in the 50s and early 60s. For one, it was a more polite culture:  people said 'please' and 'thank you,' and cursing in public would have been out of the question.  AM radio was still king, and it still played the hits; it seemed like every kid I knew had a transistor radio. Late at night, when I was supposed to be asleep, I'd be in bed listening to distant stations (sometimes music, sometimes a baseball game).  Things seemed simpler back then: kids played outside after school, and parents didn't worry.  There were some amazing TV shows, and families watched them together. Going to the movies was still affordable, and movies didn't have graphic violence or bad language.   

But there are also plenty of things I don't miss about that era.  For one, girls didn't have many career options. As most of you know, from the time I was a kid, I wanted to be in radio, but I was told girls couldn't do that. I also wanted to be a sportswriter, but I was told girls couldn't do that either. (And don't even ask how people reacted when I said I didn't want to marry young and have kids...) 

Some people were much more open about their prejudices back then.  For example, I was told not to act "too Jewish," whatever that meant, and I was constantly reminded that we lived in a majority-Christian country. Ethnic jokes (and ethnic stereotypes) were common, and employers could come right out and say they didn't hire any Jews or blacks or women or whoever else.  And of course, if you were a member of a minority group, you were expected to know your place and not challenge the status quo.

In many states, even married couples had trouble getting birth control (some states required a doctor's prescription, as I recall).  Living together before marriage was considered shameful, and if a girl got pregnant without being married, she was the one who was blamed, because the common wisdom said men couldn't control themselves-- it was up to the girl to make sure her boyfriend behaved. And if you were gay, you were considered a deviant; few people thought you deserved any rights at all.

What brought all this to mind was what happened in Alabama on Wednesday-- that state's ultra-conservative legislature passed an anti-abortion bill that is so punitive and restrictive (not even an exception for rape or incest, doctors could be sent to prison for performing the procedure, etc) it reminded me of the 1950s. In fact, all across the country, conservative legislatures are trying to make it not only more difficult to terminate a pregnancy; they're also trying to make it more difficult to get birth control. I have to keep reminding myself it's 2019.

I'm also seeing a resurgence of other things I thought were relics of a bygone era: all over the country (and in Europe too), there has been a rise in antisemitism. Some people think it's okay to express their prejudices openly again, and it seems bigotry and xenophobia are back in fashion. It also seems some folks want a return to traditional gender roles, as well as a return to treating gay people, immigrants, and certain ethnic groups with contempt. And no offense to Christian conservatives, but some of them seem to believe they now have a right to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of society-- just like they did when I was growing up.

It has me very concerned. Having lived through it already, I'm not eager to live through it a second time.  But that's where some folks seem to want us to go-- back to the worst of the 1950s-- old gender roles, old prejudices, old hierarchies, old norms, a world where a powerful majority rules and those who disagree are just expected to be silent.  I understand that abortion or birth control or gender roles or religion can be contentious subjects, and we may not always agree. But what worries me is seeing the erosion of the separation of church and state. What worries me is seeing politicians and members of the clergy deciding which rights I can have. And what worries me the most is the number of people who think the answer to our problems is to recreate their ideal version of the past, rather than grappling with how to create a better future for us all.


 


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A Word of Thanks to My Online Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 15, 2019

A Lesson in Political Communication, Ilhan Omar Edition

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 31, 2019

What Joe Biden Still Doesn't Understand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Things I Don't Understand (Bryce Harper Edition)

I was sitting at my desk, working on some research for an article I'm writing, and something occurred to me:  I'm in the wrong line of work. If only I were a professional athlete, instead of a professor, then I might really be making the big bucks. It was announced earlier today that the Philadelphia Phillies are about to pay free-agent outfielder Bryce Harper $330 million for a thirteen year contract.  And last week, another outfielder, Manny Machado, signed with the San Diego Padres and got a contract that pays him $300 million for ten years. And it's not just major league baseball:  over in the National Basketball Association, the highest paid player is Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, whose $36 million annual salary may not sound like much, but it's part of a $201 million, five year contract. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I don't begrudge top athletes a huge payday-- although as a fan, it frustrates me that the price of tickets continues to climb. At Fenway Park in Boston, for example, the cheapest seats (way out in the bleachers) can cost about $30 (not including parking or food); grandstand seats are about $60; and box seats can be as much as $90, depending on who's playing. (Many other parks are just as expensive.) In other words, if parents want to take their kids to see a major league game, it can end up costing nearly $300... not something the average working person can afford.  And here's how things have changed: when I was fifteen years old, back in 1962, my father took me to a major league game and he paid about $2.25 each for grandstand seats. Those were the days.

But this is what absolutely mystifies me:  why do we pay professional athletes so much, and teachers and professors so little by comparison?  Yes, I know there are so-called "celebrity professors" who make huge salaries, but they are the exception.  Salaries for college instructors are often so low that they have to cobble together assignments at three or four schools, just to make ends meet.  As for elementary, middle-school, and high school teachers, their salaries in some cities are as little as $40,000 a year.  And as I've mentioned on more than one occasion, many teachers have to pay for school supplies out of their own pocket. And let's not even get into how little we pay the folks who teach for Head Start, or work in daycare centers. (By the way, teachers at Charter Schools aren't exactly getting rich either.)

And yet, as a culture, we claim that children matter. We insist we want the best for our kids.  We say we want them to have good teachers and go to successful schools.  And we expect that the teachers will work long hours and produce students who get good test scores. (By the way, test scores are not the only way to measure whether kids are learning, but that's a topic for another day.) So, how do teachers feel when professional teams come up with the money to pay a star athlete millions of dollars, but most school districts are constantly expecting teachers to do more with less? What message does it send when we value star athletes so much more than we value the folks whose job it is to educate our children?  I'm happy for Bryce Harper, and other talented professional ballplayers. But I truly don't understand why we wouldn't want to spend $330 million fixing up old public school buildings, buying new books and supplies, and upgrading teacher pay.  I'm sure someone has a good explanation for such skewed priorities. I'd be eager to hear it.       

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Importance of This Moment

As some of you know, my birthday was on Valentine's Day. My husband took me out to a well-known French restaurant, where we had a wonderful meal. And in the midst of enjoying a dinner that was fit for a gourmet, I couldn't help but notice something:  people were busy talking to each other.  I saw nobody on their phone, nobody texting, and nobody live-tweeting about their food.

I have to admit it made me smile, because it's something I don't see very often.  Whether it's a rock concert, or a nice dinner, or a movie, it seems some people can't leave their devices alone. They can't just enjoy what they're doing, and be happy with the moment they're in.  There's selfies to take and instant messages to send and emails to answer... and it absolutely has to be done NOW. And don't get me started about folks who feel they must respond to every text, even if they're driving. Never a good idea.

I understand wanting to share an experience with friends. If I see a great concert, of course I want to let people know. But I want them to know later-- after I get home. I mean, why spend your time texting instead of relaxing and immersing yourself in the event? I've been to see some amazing bands, and instead of enjoying the show, some folks seemed like they were preoccupied with posting comments on social media. I know because I saw their comments later on. (But I must admit, given the price of tickets these days, not watching a show you've paid for really makes no sense to me.)

Before I became a professor, I was in broadcasting and journalism.  I often had high-stress jobs, plus I always liked to get a lot done.  But even back then, I realized there were times when it was good to take a break.  As a radio consultant, I visited many different states; and my clients often wanted to show me the sights their city was famous for. I learned there was a time for business meetings, but there was also a time to enjoy a national park or a local museum or a popular place to eat. And while it might have been nice to take a photo with my smartphone, I'm glad I wasn't texting my way through each experience. Sometimes, rather than preserving an event, the device can distract from it.

And that brings me back to my birthday dinner. I rarely eat out at fancy places-- I'm more of a casual kind of person, and my tastes are pretty simple. But every now and then, it's nice to do something different, something special. However, for me, the experience itself was enough, and I had no desire to interrupt the mood by texting or tweeting about it. Agreed, I'm not a famous person, so perhaps few people care where I ate or who I saw. But my point is sometimes, the best thing to do is to enjoy the moment; allow yourself to experience it, and be grateful you're there.  That's what I did on my birthday, and I was glad to see I wasn't the only one.      

Thursday, January 31, 2019

So Much to Do, and So Little Time

I was lying in bed reading last night, and an article in the Washington Post caught my eye-- it was about how most Americans these days are sleep-deprived.  There are many reasons the article gave, and I thought of a few others.  For adults, we are often expected to take work home with us: there are projects we need to finish, or preparations we need to make before a morning meeting or a class.  There are emails and messages we feel we have to answer; social media posts to catch up on; and for many of us, commutes are getting longer and we have to get up earlier to make sure we're at work on time.  For students, there is homework to do or reports to write (the assignments they've often left till the last minute); and let's be honest-- even if parents try to prevent it, many kids stay up too late chatting online with friends or playing video games. And a word should also be said about those of us with health issues-- sometimes, we're in a lot of pain, and that too can keep us from falling asleep.

And one other factor the Washington Post article didn't mention: many people are having trouble sleeping due to worry or insecurity.  During the recent government shutdown, many politicians (especially those who are wealthy) seemed surprised that large numbers of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. No, most of them aren't wasting money on stuff they don't need.  The problem is how expensive daily life has become in many cities:  rents have sky-rocketed and affordable housing is in short supply; medicines are outrageously priced (with little competition to bring prices down); and unskilled or semi-skilled workers are barely able to keep up with how much groceries cost.  In addition, even people who make a good salary can be driven into debt by an unexpected crisis (like a car accident, hospitalization, or... 35 days without a paycheck). 

But whatever the reason for the lack of sleep, it's a national dilemma.  Kids are coming into early morning classes so sleepy that they're dozing off in class (which never makes their teachers very happy).  Adults are feeling more stressed and more exhausted (and making more mistakes as a result).  As many reputable medical sites point out, lack of sleep can lead to accidents (drowsy drivers get into car crashes more frequently than those who are not half-asleep); it can lead to being less effective at work (if you're feeling drowsy, you are probably not mentally sharp); it can even lead to medical conditions like high blood pressure.  And the less sleep a person gets, the more likely they are to feel anxious, impatient, or short-tempered.

In 1942, the average person got about 7 and 1/2 hours of sleep a night.  These days, surveys show that large numbers of folks are living on 5 to 6 hours; some even get less than that.  There are relaxation techniques that sleep experts suggest, which work for some people-- though not for everyone. The experts also say you shouldn't keep your devices in your bedroom, where you'll be tempted to stay awake and use them.  I've also read about various changes in diet that are supposed to help, like limiting alcohol or caffeine or sugar.  But frankly, I think this is a cultural issue-- until we as a society make getting enough rest a priority, I doubt much will change. As long as too many of us feel constantly pressured, as long as we feel we have to cram so much activity into so few hours, folks will continue walking around exhausted. I'm one of them, and I'd be interested in what others are doing to deal with this very real problem.   


Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Nobody's Right if Everybody's Wrong

I've always loved classic rock (of course, it wasn't classic when I played it as a deejay; it was new back then).  Sometimes, a song from the 60s and 70s will just pop into my mind, and over the past few days, I've been thinking about "For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey What's That Sound)" by Buffalo Springfield. When it came out, many of us thought it was about the Vietnam War, but it wasn't; it was about clashes between young people and the police in mid-1966 in Hollywood, California. Still, the lines about polarization, and how each side was convinced that their side was good and the other side was bad, really resonated with me.  They still do, more than five decades later. Back then, those of us who were opposed to the war were having heated and often-angry debates with those who supported it. Sometimes, the rhetoric got really intense, and just like the song said, it seemed like a no-win situation, since neither side would back down. ("There's battle lines being drawn/nobody's right if everybody's wrong...")

Fast-forward to today. As I write this, the government has been partially shut down for more than three weeks, causing over 800,000+ people to not receive a paycheck, and causing countless services people rely on to either shut down or operate with a skeleton (and unpaid) staff. Each side is convinced that their side is right, and the other side is wrong:  President Trump, who said on TV that he'd be "proud" to shut down the government over funding for a border wall, refuses to negotiate unless congress agrees to give him more than five billion dollars. The newly empowered Democrats in the House are willing to give him funding for border security (more immigration judges, more border agents, reinforcing the fencing and barriers in various places) but they're unwilling to give him five billion for a wall.  And while both sides are dug in, 800,000 government workers have no idea when is the next time they'll get paid.

I see this "I'm right/you're wrong" attitude in many areas of life, but especially in politics. There's an unwillingness to engage in discussion unless the other side agrees to give in (the "my way or the highway" approach); in fact, as some political scientists and commentators have noted, "compromise" has become a dirty word, which now carries a connotation of "weakness." In the border wall debate, each side's supporters are urging them to "stand strong" and "not surrender," rather than encouraging a much-needed effort to find some common ground and get those 800,000 people back to work.

Refusing to compromise wasn't always the default position. Historians note that many times in our country, voters demanded that politicians stop bickering and find some middle ground. Agreed, there were times this was not the case-- the Civil War, for example, and the Vietnam War era. But many other times, compromise was seen as necessary for getting things done.  Unfortunately, we don't hear much of that from our political leaders today.  Thanks to social media and 24/7 cable channels, the people with the most intransigent and extreme views are the ones who get noticed (and listened to). And as for everyone else--including those of us who DO want compromise-- we're left to feel like nobody cares what we have to say.

What worries me, as an educator, is the message this is sending to young people. When kids sulk and throw tantrums, we correct them or punish them; and we tell they're being immature. But when our politicians (and even our president) behave that way, they get rewarded with lots of TV and online attention, voters often praise them, and in all too many cases, they get re-elected.  We're living in a time when stubbornness is seen as a virtue, when refusing to give an inch is seen as a good thing. But it's not. It's telling kids that acting like an angry five year is how to deal with a problem. Meanwhile, 800,000 government workers are sidelined, their fate resting on whether congress and the president will finally decide to be adults and solve this, rather than only doing what's right for each side's political needs.