Thursday, December 24, 2015

A World Without Boundaries?

Is it my imagination or are people less polite than they used to be?  I'm asking because several recent incidents got me thinking about manners (again).  I encountered some holiday shoppers who had parked in handicapped spots, even though they had no right to be there. I admit this is a pet peeve of mine, and I was disappointed to note they got upset when anyone asked them to move.  I also observed a number of folks who were cutting each other off in traffic or honking their horns at each other (or giving each other the middle finger) as they raced to the mall to do their last minute Christmas shopping.  There's a certain irony about folks who are supposedly shopping for gifts to make others happy, yet they are so angry themselves. 

And then, there was an incident from the campaign trail:  a much-discussed comment that Donald Trump made the other night, when he used a slang Yiddish word for the penis (I honestly never expected to be writing about male genitalia when I first began blogging).  He said that Barack  Obama had "shlonged" Hillary Clinton.  Okay fine, contrary to his insistence that using it like that refers to "defeating someone overwhelmingly," I do not think this word means what he thinks it means. I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, and I'm well aware of every vulgar Yiddish expression (Yiddish is a great language for profanity and sarcasm, by the way).  There's no getting around the fact that "shlong" is a crude term; and yet this man who wants to be president was using it on national TV.

I know, that's just Donald being Donald.  But it still puzzled me.  When I was growing up, NO candidate from either party would have used that kind of language in a public venue.  Richard Nixon, as we now know from the White House tapes that were released to the public, frequently used vulgarities when he was with his advisers.  But in public, never.  Ditto for Lyndon Johnson, another fan of using profanities with friends and colleagues.  In public, however, he was always courteous, even when talking about his political enemies.

Dave Weigel of the Washington Post recently wrote a very insightful piece about what has happened to our political discourse.  He equated Mr. Trump's way of speaking with how radio shock jocks speak.  It's a very apt comparison. (You can read his entire column here:  In fact, I notice that in much of our public discourse, courtesy takes a back seat to blurting out whatever emotion comes to the forefront at that moment.  

I'm not sure what to make of it all.  We seem to be in an era where people feel they can be rude and then say they are just "striking a blow against political correctness."  There certainly seem to be a lot of angry, overwhelmed, frustrated folks out there, all seeking someone they can blame, or someone they can lash out at.  But whatever happened to boundaries?  Is everything permissible now, even if it make life difficult for someone else?  Whatever happened to the idea of thinking before you speak, or trying to show courtesy, or speaking with civility rather than vulgarity?  Maybe politicians today do think of themselves as the heirs to shock jocks and bloviating talk show hosts.  Maybe online commenters think it's now okay to call people Nazis or make slanderous accusations against anyone they disagree with.  Maybe good manners are now just a relic of the past.  At times, it certainly seems that way... or is it just my imagination?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

There Really IS a War on Christmas (and on Hanukkah Too)

Hanukkah has just concluded (for those who aren't Jewish, it comes at a different time each year because we use a lunar calendar to calculate the date), and I noticed with some disappointment that it's not like it used to be.  When I was growing up, Hanukkah was a minor holiday in the Jewish year, celebrated with potato pancakes (latkes), "Hanukkah gelt" (coins made from milk chocolate) and big jelly donuts (sufganiyot).  It took place in the home, where we all lit the menorah, and we played various children's games, often with a little top called a dreidel; but Hanukkah was not the Jewish version of Christmas, nor was it supposed to be.  In fact, our big holidays were (and still are) Passover and Jewish New Year.

But these days, Hanukkah seems to have risen in importance:  I even saw one recent study that said Hanukkah is now the most widely observed Jewish holiday. I'm not sure that's a good thing.  Don't get me wrong-- I love Hanukkah and I'm glad more people are observing it; but I get this uncomfortable feeling that it has nothing to do with the religious meaning of the holiday.  Rather, it's about competing with Christmas, so Jewish kids don't feel bad that their Christian friends are getting a ton of expensive presents while they're just getting little tops and packages of chocolate coins.

Interestingly, my Christian friends often lament what has happened to their holiday too.  I was very friendly with a Catholic nun for many years, and she frequently expressed her sadness that Christmas was no longer about the birth of the Christian savior-- it was about having the most beautifully decorated tree, putting up the most lights, and making sure the kids all got the toys they wanted from Santa.  Okay fine, the lights are certainly pretty, and we can all debate whether Jesus was actually born in December (most scholars say he was not).  But I cannot help but think that if Jesus were here, he wouldn't want his Christian followers going into debt to keep up with the wish-lists of their kids.  Nor would he be pleased by equating love with how much money one spends.

Yet all the ads on TV stress that message-- if you really love your [pick one:  spouse, kids, significant other, best friend], you will spare no expense to find the right gift.  It all makes me wonder:  where would Jesus shop?  And where did he even say that his birthday should be celebrated with wreathes, and trees, and reindeer, and Santa and hundreds of dollars worth of gifts?  Unless I'm reading the wrong parts of the Bible, the New Testament says what matters most is feeding the poor and helping those who are less fortunate.  And the Hebrew Scriptures say pretty much the same thing.

And that brings me to the real "War on Christmas."  No, it's not some fake war dreamed up by Fox News and Christian conservatives, who sincerely believe that Christianity is "under attack" by so-called "secular progressives."  I promise you, my dear Christian friends, Christianity is doing just fine, and secular progressives are the least of your problems. Nor should you be worried about whether stores say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," or whether Starbucks does or does not have "Christmas messages" on their coffee cups.  The real issue is whether we are going to allow the true meaning of Christmas to slip away forever.  Originally, both Christmas and Hanukkah were times for family and friends to gather in the home, share a nice meal, and exchange simple gifts-- often gifts they made by hand.  Today, both festivals have turned into odes to rampant consumerism, as adults try to out-spend each other, and stores worry about keeping the latest popular toys in stock (or these days, they worry that online shopping is making brick-and-mortar stores irrelevant).

While Christmas is not my holiday, I understand that some of my Christian friends want to see public and visible symbols.  I, on the other hand, wish this season were not a contest-- whether or not there's a huge manger in front of City Hall is less important to me than whether we treat each other's holidays with respect.  Some cities may have a public menorah lighting at Hanukkah, but most do not.  In fact, there are a number of important holidays observed by American Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, and none of those holidays gets much attention at all.  They should.  Kids need to learn from a young age that there are many religions in America, and all should be treated with courtesy.

Sometimes, I wonder if the war on Christmas (and Hanukkah) has been lost.  Too many kids growing up in our modern world don't associate a religious meaning with either holiday-- rather, they just expect that they'll get more stuff this year than they got last year. That may be good for the corporations, but is it good for our ethics and morals?  I salute every parent who takes their kids to do volunteer work on Christmas, and each parent who teaches about the joy of giving rather than receiving.  It's an important lesson, but it may not be the lesson most kids are getting, given how ostentatious many of the holiday observances have become. 

One of my favorite Hanukkah memories occurred in the mid 1980s, in Rapid City, South Dakota. There were few Jews in town, but one family made it a point to preserve Jewish tradition and teach about the holidays.  I was in Rapid City on business, and I was invited to their Hanukkah celebration.  It was a cold winter night, and we stood on a hill, where the family had put up a big menorah; it was visible for miles.  And there we were-- the family, their friends, and I; and we lit the lights, and we sang the prayers, and we expressed our gratitude for the holiday season.  The local media covered the event-- they rarely saw Jewish observances-- and it was one of those beautiful, magical, yet very simple celebrations.  I have never forgotten it.

So, whether you have the most lights in the neighborhood or none at all, whether you celebrate Christmas in a religious way or a secular way or not at all, let this season be one of kindness, of compassion, and of giving-- not just giving presents, but giving warmth and welcome to those who need it most.  If you really want to fight the mythical war on Christmas, go ahead; but a better strategy is to remember what Christmas is really supposed to be about-- it's a time to say thank you, a time to be joyful, and above all, a time to let the light of wisdom pierce the darkness of ignorance.  May you have a wondrous holiday season, and may you have many reasons for celebration.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Few Thoughts on Neil's Alleged Retirement

If you're a Rush fan, the past several days have been a roller coaster ride.  It all started when some fan sites posted a couple of quotes from a magazine interview with the king of all drummers, Neil Peart, in which he said (or seemed to say) he was now retired.  Social media exploded.  Was this the end?  Would there be no more Rush?  Wild speculation took over, as it often does online, and many fans were inconsolable. 

To be fair, Rush's loyal fan base had been worrying about this since the most recent tour; it was very brief, and during it, hints had been dropped that this tour might be the last one.  But after the tour ended and the guys went home to rest and spend time with their families, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson gave subsequent radio and print interviews in which they said they'd be willing to perform again at some point.  But there was someone whose voice was missing-- Neil.  And then, out of nowhere, the interview with Neil appeared, in which he seemed to state that he would no longer be part of whatever plans Geddy and Alex might make.

Or not.  As it turned out when I did some fact-checking, this was not a new interview (I was told it had been done several months ago, and was just being published now); and more importantly, it was not in response to what Geddy and Alex had just said in their mid-November radio appearance on Q104.3 in New York.  Rather, it was just Neil saying basically what he had said before-- that he did not want to do any more touring.  As it turned out, it was not exactly a "stop the presses!" moment.

But once again, here was an example of how deep the love and admiration the fans have for this band:  even a couple of quotes that may or may not have been taken out of context could cause thousands of tweets, emails, and Facebook posts.  Since I didn't yet know the whole story, I simply commented that whatever Neil's decision, I respected it:  he had given so many years of outstanding music to fans all over the world.  Few drummers put as much energy and dedication into their craft as Neil did.  In addition to writing excellent lyrics, and being a legendary drummer, he always gave a dynamic performance, a true complement to the equally dynamic performances of Alex and Geddy.  Like them, Neil was always a professional.  He threw himself into his playing, no matter how he might be feeling health-wise (I still remember spending some time with him one night in 2012 and he had a bad sinus infection; yet he still gave 150% during the show, and I doubt anyone in attendance realized how miserable he felt).  So, if this was now the right time for him to stop, I could only wish him well.

Eventually, the story of Neil's alleged retirement was given some context. So, perhaps he would no longer tour, but he had not closed off the possibility of getting together with Alex and Geddy to create some new music.  When this might occur was uncertain-- Neil is loving every minute of watching his daughter grow up, and hanging out with his wife and his closest friends.  And while fans are probably disappointed that there might not be another Rush tour (no, Geddy and Alex would not replace him-- they have said previously if there's no Neil, there's no Rush), at least there might still be a new album.  Or perhaps a live performance somewhere.  Only time will tell.

Of course, if there's a lesson to be learned from the past few days, it's that quotes online are often not what they seem.  But realistically, the idea that he does not want to tour makes perfect sense.  Neil is no longer the young guy who could go from city to city performing for more than 300 days a year.  He's in his 60s now, and doing all that drumming can be physically painful-- he's had tendinitis, and let's also keep in mind that many drummers of his age can suffer from some hearing loss.  It's understandable that he might want to quit touring while he is still at the top of his game, and let the fans remember him at his best.   

I'd be lying if I said I know what Neil's plans are.  While I have several good friends at Rush's management company, it's Alex that I talk to the most often (I've also become friendly with Geddy's sister). But my interactions with Neil have been very few over the years.  That's fine with me.  He's a very private person, and I respect that.  If I want to know how he is doing, I do keep in touch with one of his close friends, and I can get a message to him that way.  But Neil has every right to live his life in the way that best ensures his health and happiness.  Maybe he'll get tired of retirement and want to perform again.  Maybe he won't. But we do know he has NOT definitively stated that he is done; he simply hasn't made any specific future plans.  I fully expect Geddy, Alex and Neil to get together at some point, to discuss what the next thing is.  Whatever it is, I will say what I've always said:  for forty-one years, I've had the privilege of knowing the guys in the band, seeing them perform, and enjoying so many of their songs.  I don't know if we'll get to hear any new music, but somehow, I get the impression that we will. Till then, I'm grateful for what the guys have given us. And there's nothing else I can say other than "thank you." 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Conversation About Guns That We Never Seem To Have

In the midst of the shock and horror of yet another mass shooting, I learned that this time, the alleged perpetrator had a Muslim name.  And I knew immediately that we were not going to have a discussion about why there are so many guns on the streets (and how easy it is for bad guys to get them); or why average citizens, rather than police officers or members of the military, need access to assault-style weapons.  No, we were going to have a conversation about "Muslim terrorists."  And sure enough, the political attacks from the Republican presidential candidates started almost as soon as that information came out.  Meanwhile, as if we were in two parallel universes, as Republicans were talking about Muslims, the Democratic candidates were once again talking about the need for reform of gun laws.  Two very predictable conversations, neither of which ever seems to result in anything positive.   

All the facts about the perpetrator have not come out yet, so despite rampant speculation on blogs and talk shows, we don't really know when or where he became radicalized: he was born and raised in the US, (his parents were from Pakistan), and by all accounts, he seldom if ever mentioned his religion at work.  It may turn out that we need to look further into how an educated American Muslim who seemed to be successful in his career, who was married and had a six-month-old child, could suddenly transform into the kind of monster who would kill fourteen innocent people at a holiday party.

But while I agree that this particular Muslim may indeed turn out to be a terrorist, I'm not persuaded that ramping up the right-wing verbal attacks on every Muslim everywhere will solve the problem of mass shootings in America. For one thing, the outrage about yesterday's mass shooting is highly selective.  Just last week, in Colorado Springs CO, a white Christian man shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three people, including a police officer, and wounding nine others. I was disappointed, but not surprised, when most Republicans said nothing; and those who did say something seemed to blame the victims.  Both Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina suggested that while the shooter was a criminal, such visceral dislike of Planned Parenthood is understandable because of the allegedly horrible things that this organization does. (Most Americans disagree:  in survey after survey, Planned Parenthood is viewed very favorably, despite repeated conservative efforts to demonize and distort its work.  But that is a story for another day.)  Only Mike Huckabee called it what it really was:  domestic terrorism-- and even he framed it in the context of how Planned Parenthood isn't especially deserving of our sympathies.

When Adam Lanza (another angry white guy) shot up a school in Newtown CT, killing twenty children and six adults, the dominant meme was that he was mentally ill.  The same was said about James Holmes, when he massacred twelve people and wounded seventy more in a movie theater in Aurora CO. In fact, whenever the shooter in white, it seems the dominant discourse is that he is "troubled" or "a loner" or "suffering from mental illness."  All of that may be true, but whether the violence occurs at a school, or a theater, or a women's health clinic, rarely is the dominant discourse that the person who committed the murders is a domestic terrorist, or any kind of a terrorist at all.  But now that the perpetrator is Muslim, well, it's definitely terrorism.  

My point is not to make this about race or religion.  My point is to ask why we can't have a serious conversation about guns in America without it deteriorating into side issues like whether the perpetrator was tied to Muslim terrorism, or even whether the person was mentally ill. I'm more interested in why we can't honestly discuss the documented fact that there are too many guns on the streets, or that too many of the wrong people can easily get them; we can't even debate whether anyone other than law enforcement or the military needs to have assault weapons.

And for those who hope for some legislative fixes to loopholes in current laws, congress seems powerless to take any action, afraid to stand up to the money and power of the NRA. Whenever I ask on social media about what I believe are sensible modifications of our gun laws, I often get angry responses-- folks who call me anti-gun or accuse me of being a liberal who hates the second amendment.  But name-calling isn't helpful either.  For the record, I am not anti-gun:  I respect those who hunt or engage in sport shooting, and both of my step-daughters served in the military (and my father, of blessed memory, was a decorated combat veteran in World War II).  And while I am indeed a liberal on some issues, my main problem with the 2nd amendment is how conservatives and lobbyists have reinterpreted it in a way that I believe the Founding Fathers never intended.

So, no I do not want to ban all guns.  But I do wish I could see a return to sanity about gun policies:  in 2004, congress allowed the ban on assault weapons to lapse.  Contrary to the folks at the NRA, I remain unconvinced that assault weapons should be in every home-- and if you ask the majority of police officers, they agree with me.  Yet we can't seem to budge on closing the gun show loophole or making it harder for folks to buy weapons online.  We can't seem to make it harder for people on the Terrorism Watch List to get weapons-- I mean, politicians want to demagogue about "radical Muslim terrorists," yet today again, the day after this latest mass shooting, congress refused to close the loophole that allows people on the terrorism watch list to purchase weapons.  But then, we can't even agree on whether convicted domestic abusers should be allowed to get their guns back.

As I see it, congress is being held hostage by 2nd amendment absolutists, folks who believe there should be NO restrictions on gun ownership.  As a result, even common-sense suggestions are immediately rejected by the same politicians who will go before the nearest microphone and claim they want to keep us safe.  It seems what they really want is to stay in power:  going up against the NRA these days means the public will be told you are a "gun grabber," and voters will support your opponent.  But even though in reality, nobody's guns are being grabbed, any time even a small limitation on gun ownership is proposed, the NRA immediately stokes the fears of its members, insisting the next step will be a total ban... a nonsensical claim, but one that seems to be widely believed by a small but very influential group of gun owners and the lobbyists who represent them.

But who represents the rest of us?  With each mass shooting, we hear the same platitudes, the same comments about thoughts and prayers going out to the victims, the same insistence that there's nothing we can do to change any of this.  Things did not used to be this way when I was growing up-- 2nd amendment absolutism was considered a fringe view, and even NRA members supported common-sense gun regulations.  It's a different world now, and the answer from the usual suspects is that we need more guns-- good guys with guns will allegedly be able to stop bad guys with guns.  Umm, that may be true in the movies.  But in real life, too many innocent people are being murdered, and until we can sit down and begin a serious conversation about sensible solutions, it seems that every week, another tragedy will occur, and then another, and another.  I fully expect this blog post will bring out the folks who generally call me names.  But what I hope will happen is that, instead of the usual polarized reactions, some people on both sides will look at where we are now, decide it's just not working, and demand that some changes be made.  It's a conversation we need to have... before even more people are killed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Attitude of Gratitude

Thanksgiving has never been a favorite holiday of mine. For one thing, I don't like turkey. And for another thing, when I was growing up, holidays meant spending time with assorted relatives; and let's be honest-- not all of us like or get along with our relatives. I was no exception to that rule.

But this year, while I still don't like turkey and while I don't have any social obligations (no relatives to see, no parties to attend... just a nice, quiet day at home with my husband), I do have a different attitude about Thanksgiving.

As many of you know, the day after Thanksgiving last year, I received the phone call nobody wants to get-- the one where the doctor told me my tests had come back and yes, I did have cancer.  Truth be told, I wasn't entirely surprised:  as I've mentioned before, nearly every female relative on my mother's side of the family contracted and later died from cancer.  But knowing you might get it one day versus being told for sure that you have it are two entirely different things.  And suddenly, there I was, getting the diagnosis I had long expected and sometimes dreaded.

The good news was that I had one of the most treatable kinds of cancer.  The better news was my doctors believed they caught it early.  And the best news was that I live near several internationally known hospitals that specialize in the treatment of various kinds of cancer.  In mid-December of last year, I had surgery.  I am told it went well-- the tumor was removed, and my oncologist didn't even leave a scar.  (And once again showing how things have changed since when I was growing up, the oncologist, as well as nearly everyone else on the team that provided my care that day, was female.)

After a course of radiation that lasted over several weeks, I went right back to work.  Although I didn't entirely have my energy back (I was told the recovery process would be gradual, and it could take months), working kept my mind occupied. In fact, all my life, whenever I've been worried about something, or whenever I just didn't feel healthy, I've always preferred to keep busy.  So, I taught my classes, wrote a number of essays, went to a conference and gave a talk, and generally tried to carry on with my life as though nothing had changed.

But in reality, a lot had changed.  I am now about to complete a year as a cancer survivor.  And although I put on a brave front about it all, sometimes I'm still afraid:  What if it comes back?  I know that the doctors believe they found it in time, but it's still very disconcerting to know that cancer is now a part of my story.  I understand that there are no guarantees in life: we live as long as we live, and not one minute longer.  But as I said, there's a big difference between knowing that something might happen, and knowing it did happen.

So, on this Thanksgiving, I guess you can say I have a different way of looking at the holiday:  this year, I am profoundly grateful to be alive.  I especially want to thank those who were so supportive during this time last year.  My husband went above and beyond in so many ways, as did several of my friends; but a special hat tip also goes out to the many Rush fans who reached out to me, proving once again that Rush fans are the best.

Above all, I am all too aware that this story could have turned out very differently-- my grandmother died at age 44, of the same kind of cancer that I just had. Her prognosis was so bad because of the times she lived in; mine is far more positive because of advances in modern medicine.  And so, even though at times I'm still in pain and at times I'm still worried about the future, most of the time I am just grateful.  I have a lot to be thankful for. And I know that. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Keeping the Immigrants Out

Like all people of good will, world-wide, I was outraged by the brutal attacks on Paris this past Friday night.  The terrorists who committed these murders claim to have acted the name of Islam, but I do not know any Muslims (including the Muslim students who have been in my classes over the years, the Muslims who were my neighbors, the Muslim professors and journalists to whom I speak online, or the imam who led the mosque in my hometown, and with whom I served on an interfaith committee) who subscribe to the version of Islam practiced by these extremists.  Unlike all the Muslims I know, these proponents of the so-called Islamic State are totally without ethics:  in Iraq and Syria, they believe it is okay to torture and rape women and enslave children; in other countries, like France and Belgium, they believe it is okay to murder civilians.  Some sources report that Le Bataclan was intentionally chosen by the terrorists because the owners were Jewish and had held pro-Israel events there in the past. Whether or not that is true (other sources say the owners had long since sold the concert hall), innocent people enjoying a night of dancing and rock music were killed, as were people having dinner at a restaurant.  Online news reports say supporters of the so-called Islamic State rejoiced, and called the attackers heroic. The rest of us see things quite differently:  these are the lowest kind of human beings, and if there is a hell, I hope they spend eternity there.   

But since it's election season, the political rhetoric has been all too predictable.  This is especially true for certain Republican presidential candidates, who are taking the opportunity to blame President Obama, while calling for war, and demanding that thousands of American troops be sent to Syria and Iraq.  And of course, some of these candidates are insisting yet again that immigrants are the problem (yes, one Syrian passport was found among the Paris attackers, but police have said they believe it was a fake; the terrorists themselves were all from France and Belgium, and by most accounts, they were not immigrants at all).  But using the theory that immigrants are causing chaos wherever they go, these politicians are insisting that no refugees from Syria be allowed to enter the United States.  In fact, 26 American governors (25 of whom are Republican, and 1 of whom is a Democrat running for re-election in a purple state) immediately asserted that no Syrian refugees are welcome in their states.

While we can have honest disagreements about whether President Obama has or hasn't done a good job with foreign policy, and while we can debate whether there should be Americans fighting and dying in Iraq and Syria, I am totally puzzled by the assertion that NO Syrian refugees should be allowed to enter the US.  Contrary to Donald Trump's claim that many thousands of Syrian refugees have been given permission to come to America, the real number is far smaller: in the past year, only 1,869 have settled here.  And contrary to myths that these immigrants (like all immigrants) are potentially dangerous, there is little credible evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than non-immigrants; in fact, there is evidence that immigrants commit far fewer over all, since they are generally happy to be living in their new country and don't want to cause trouble.  (Lest you think I'm showing my "liberal bias," one of my sources is research from a conservative scholar, published in the Wall Street Journal, which is certainly not a liberal newspaper. You can read that article here, and there are many others like it.

It's also worth noting that it's not easy to get permission to settle in America.  The majority of immigrants, including those from Iraq and Syria, are subjected to several years (!) of vetting, and there is a rigorously process before the US government decides to grant permission.  So, I was especially saddened several days ago to read about the Syrian family who had finally, after three years of waiting, gotten permission to move to the US; they were scheduled to be relocated to Indianapolis, IN, and all the arrangements had been made.  But just before they were supposed to arrive, the mother and father and their four year old child were told that Governor Mike Pence no longer wanted them there; he was refusing to allow them to settle in his state after all.  Fortunately for the family, the state of Connecticut has agreed to take them in, and they will begin their new life in the city of New Haven. But the entire episode seemed wrong to me.  It may have played well for Governor Pence and his constituents, but to suddenly roll up the welcome mat and close the door for no apparent reason other than politics is troubling.

Unfortunately, it's nothing new.  Back in the late 1800s, America refused to allow Chinese people to emigrate; in the 1920s, there were stringent quotas to restrict immigrants from such places as Japan and eastern Europe; in the 1930s and early 1940s, America restricted Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis.  And with each new generation, there have been quotas on other immigrant populations too.  The groups being restricted may have changed, but the reasoning remains the same:  fear that these immigrants are potential criminals, or that there will be too many of them and we won't be able to handle the flood of desperate refugees, or these days, that they will turn out to be terrorists.  And although there's no evidence the family Governor Pence suddenly decided he didn't want was dangerous, refusing to admit Syrian refugees (or others from Muslim-majority countries) gets loud applause when Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or other candidates say it.

I understand that America cannot open its doors to everyone, and that there have to be some common-sense rules. But supposedly, we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants, a land of opportunity, a beacon of hope for those who are fleeing persecution.  Political rhetoric aside, most people who want to come here are not evil and they do not have evil intentions.  Yet according to the current political rhetoric (which sounds suspiciously like the political rhetoric from past generations), we should turn away as many immigrants as possible.  In the past, it was the Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews we didn't want... today it's Hispanics and people from Muslim countries.  But instead of the same old slogans about "securing our borders" or "keeping out the terrorists," I keep hoping that members of congress will stop posturing and sloganeering and develop a sensible plan, something that makes it possible for new immigrants to come here and feel welcome, while preventing the few "bad apples" from spoiling things for everyone else.  I realize that during election season, the chances of congress actually working on an immigration plan are unlikely.  After all, partisanship and polarization are worse than ever, and even the few moderates who have expressed ideas about immigration policy don't seem able to get any agreement.  And yet, despite the challenges, I wish they'd keep trying:  given how much we are paying our senators and representatives, wouldn't it be nice if they surprised us and came up with something useful?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"True Believers" and the Rest of Us

Several days ago, the Boston Globe published an editorial praising the Catholic Church for something it did fifty years ago-- the actions of the Second Vatican Council in officially rejecting centuries of anti-Semitism.  Led by the late, great Pope John 23rd, and the equally commendable Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, the church moved away from teaching that the Jews were to be hated and persecuted for their alleged central role in the killing of Jesus (a role that modern historians of all religions have called into question); in addition, Catholic educators no longer had to teach that the "faithless Jews" practiced a false religion and thus needed to be converted to the true faith of Catholicism.  This ushered in an era of interfaith cooperation between Catholics and Jews, one that many people (myself among them) have benefited from. 

But not every denomination of Christianity agrees.  There are still some evangelical denominations who, while not necessarily calling for Jews to be persecuted, still believe we are in the wrong religion and must be "shown the truth."  A good example of this attitude is former congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who recently asserted on a Christian radio program that it is imperative for the Jews to be converted, since Jesus is returning soon.  (I must admit this line of reasoning has never made sense to me:  given that Jesus was Jewish, if anyone is supposed to be converted, shouldn't they all become Jewish like him?)  But all joking aside, I do understand that to some of my Christian friends, Judaism was replaced by Christianity and only those who believe in Jesus can be "saved."  Still, while I have my differences with those who believe they must come to my door and try to witness to me, I respect their views.  Most of the missionaries I know are courteous (although somewhat intense), and they sincerely believe they are doing me a favor by telling me that I'm in the wrong religion and need to "get right with the Lord."

We seem to be living in a time when "true believers" are everywhere.  Some are peaceful, using their powers of persuasion, and their interpretation of scripture, to show that only they know what God wants. But sadly, in some parts of the world, the true believers don't rely on words-- they resort to violence, in order to impose their faith on others.  We especially see this in certain Muslim countries, where extremists have hijacked Islam and now seek to return it to a medieval worldview, rejecting interfaith tolerance in favor of a rigid and harsh orthodoxy that forbids dissent of any kind.  The rise of  extremist Muslim groups like al-Qaeda, the so-called "Islamic State," the Taliban, and Boko Haram thus poses a grave danger to Islam: if violent extremists become the face of a religion, there can be no room for modernity-- no education (several of these extremist groups have forbidden the study of history or science, and they refuse to let women study at all), no ethics, no respect for "the other."   Meanwhile, moderates and dissenters in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan or Syria or Iraq are being silenced or killed.  It remains to be seen whether those Muslims who disagree with extremist interpretations can take Islam back.

There was a time when Christianity too promoted this kind of rigidity, punishing anyone who disagreed.  Dissenters were shunned, excommunicated, exiled, even killed.  If you have studied American history, you know that some groups who came here for religious freedom thought it was okay to deny it to others.  And in some groups, they even turned on their own members, who were not considered sufficiently religious-- the Puritans, for example, drove Roger Williams out of Massachusetts; he ultimately founded what came to be known as Rhode Island.  That state became a haven for those of divergent views: the oldest surviving synagogue in America, the Touro Synagogue, still stands there, and in an amazing show of religious tolerance, it was visited by President George Washington, who asserted in 1790 that America would not accept bigotry, even against its smallest minority.

Some Americans seem to forget that today.  These days, it's not the Jews who are the most common victims of religious bigotry-- it's American Muslims, who are seeing their mosques vandalized or being told they are unwelcome in certain communities. As someone who remembers all too well when anti-Jewish attitudes were both common and acceptable in the culture, I cringe when I hear some of the screeds by anti-Muslim bigots. I may not agree with my Muslim friends and colleagues on religion (or on the Middle East), but they have as much right to live here as I do. What worries me more than the presence of Muslims in my neighborhood (where they've lived peacefully since about 1910) is the presence of people of any faith who believe theirs is the only way, and everyone else is going to hell.  No religion seems to be immune from this:  it is worth noting that in Burma-- also called Myanmar-- it is Buddhists, members of a religion not generally associated with extremism, who are expressing some of the most extremist views, denying the Muslim-minority Rohingya the right to be citizens, and subjecting them to constant persecution.  One wonders what the Buddha would say about that. Somehow, I doubt he would be amused.

Periodically, I read comments by atheists who say this just proves religion is the cause of all the world's problems.  That's a facile explanation, although I would agree that extremist interpretations certainly contribute to a climate of hatred and bigotry.  But religion in and of itself is not to blame: it depends on what you do with it.  For those who have a religion, it can be a comfort in times of trouble, and it can provide an ethical guide for living one's life.  And yes, for some people, it can promote feelings of smug superiority ("I'm saved, and you're not") or it can be used as a cudgel to beat up the infidel.  It seems to me that organized religion is at something of a crossroads:  will the extremists, the ones who believe only their way is the right way, be the ultimate winners?  Right now, they seem to be speaking the loudest.  I can only hope the rest of us, those who believe "the other" isn't synonymous with "the enemy," will raise our voices too.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What I Learned from my Mentor

Many people who have met me assume I have a lot of confidence.  After all, I've spent many years working in broadcasting; I've interviewed a number of celebrities; I've been quoted by newspapers and magazines; and I've given talks in front of audiences of all sizes.

But the truth is I'm only confident in a professional context.  Giving a presentation in front of hundreds of people rarely worries me; being a guest on a radio show doesn't make me nervous at all.  But invite me to a party, or ask me to socialize with even a small group of people and I'm completely at a loss.  It's always struck me as bizarre that I can MC a rock concert and feel completely comfortable, but sitting in a room where a few people are chatting makes me feel totally awkward and out of place.

There was a time when I wasn't confident professionally either.  How I acquired that skill is a long story, better told some other time; but suffice it to say one major factor was having someone in my life who encouraged me.  It was a professor of mine (his name was Bob), and he believed in me when no-one else did.  It's funny what having a mentor can do.  I had never had one before-- I grew up in an era when girls were not expected to have careers, or if they did have one, it was only until they got married.  When I told people I wanted to be a disc jockey, few of them took me seriously; disc jockeys were men with deep voices, and if there were girls on the air at all, they were giving fashion tips or talking about recipes. The fact that I wanted to play the hits seemed strange to most people, but for some reason, Bob understood, and he even told me he thought I'd sound great on the air.  

Many times, when I was frustrated because no-one (not even the folks at my college radio station) would give me a chance, and when it seemed my dream might never come true, Bob remained certain that one day, I would get that opportunity and I would have the career in broadcasting that I wanted.  He was right: in October of 1968, I finally was allowed to be on the air, the first female d.j. in the history of Northeastern University.  He was proud of me, but he wasn't surprised.  He has always known. He also knew I'd be successful:  he helped me to develop coping strategies when things seemed bleak, and he helped me to overcome my own self-doubt.

I'd like to tell you that he continued to cheer me on, but unfortunately, he couldn't.  Although he was an amazing professor, who was very popular with his students, he was also an alcoholic, and in the end, that is what cost him his job. It also contributed to his death a year later, at the young age of 43.  I admit that at the time, I knew very little about the disease of alcoholism:  I don't drink at all, and my parents rarely did. I had heard all the stereotypes about alcoholics being lower-class or skid-row bums, but Bob was an educated man with a good heart and a PhD.  As I later learned, this disease can affect people of all ages, races, and social classes.  But at the time, all I knew was I had lost the one person who had faith in me.  And all I could do at that point was learn to have faith in myself.

To honor him, I got a Master's Degree in Counseling, with training in working with people who have been affected by drug or alcohol problems.  And to this day, I try to be a mentor whenever I can, especially when I encounter students with alcoholism in their family.  I teach them about the Three C's-- a valuable lesson I learned when I went to Al-Anon meetings:  you didn't cause his (or her) disease, you can't cure their disease, you can't control their disease.  In other words, it's not your fault that the alcoholic drinks; you can't make them quit if they are not ready; and while you love or sympathize with the alcoholic, the best thing you can do is focus on your own emotional and physical health.

 Next month, it will be the 46th anniversary of his passing, yet every now and then, I find myself thinking about him; I am still saddened by his death, but I remain grateful that I knew him.  A part of me still wishes I had more knowledge about alcoholism back then-- perhaps I could have given him the kind of encouragement that he gave me.  On the other hand, I came to understand that he wasn't ready (or able) to quit drinking; and although that fact was difficult to accept, I also realized it was time for me to get on with my life. And while my broadcasting career, and years later, getting my PhD, resulted mainly from my own hard work and determination, I sincerely believe that none of it would have happened if a certain professor had not seen my potential and decided I needed a mentor (and a friend).

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Peacemaker's Tragic (and Unnecessary) Death

I generally avoid writing about the Middle East, because what is happening there really makes me sad.  Like many American Jews, I am pro-Israel (although not especially fond of the country's current ultra-conservative government), and I am in favor of a Two-State Solution.  But these days, there are fewer people who hold out much hope that Israeli Jews and Palestinians can ever find a path to peace.  I understand that each side in the conflict has its own narratives about why peace is so elusive, but rather than allowing this post to devolve into blame and recrimination, I want to pay tribute to someone who tried to make a difference... but was not allowed to do so.

I don't think I ever met Richard Lakin in person, but I certainly knew his work.  He and I exchanged messages on Twitter a few times, usually about educational issues (he opposed endless high-stakes tests, and wanted to see the classroom once again be a place for critical thinking, where a child's curiosity was encouraged).  He was a passionate advocate for teachers, and he believed that a good education could be life-changing, especially for kids from impoverished backgrounds.  He wrote a beautiful book called "Teaching as an Act of Love," and even after retiring from being a high school principal, he continued to tutor and to help disadvantaged students. 

In 1984, he and his family moved to Israel, where he brought that same passion and love for learning.  He was committed to peaceful coexistence between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and he and his wife established a school in Jerusalem that taught English to students from all religious backgrounds.  He also devoted many hours to promoting better communication and more understanding among the various religious and ethnic groups.  By all accounts, he was loved and respected, even by those who might not always agree with him.

Several weeks ago, Richard Lakin was riding a bus, when two armed Palestinian men boarded and began attacking the passengers with knives and guns.  Mr. Lakin was both shot and stabbed repeatedly.  He never recovered, and died yesterday.  He was 76 years old. 

I write this because acts like the murder of Richard Lakin seem so senseless.  Here was a man who came to Israel to try to promote peace, a man who was admired by both Jews and Muslims.  When his obituary was posted (you can read about his life in more detail here:, some of the online comments immediately blamed the "Israeli Occupation" and seemed to defend the men who murdered him.  I cannot accept that.  Whatever your feelings about Israel's policies, Mr. Lakin was not responsible for the lack of progress in the peace process, nor can he be blamed for the frustration felt by many Palestinians.  He came to Israel to try to make a positive difference.  And he died for no good reason, the victim of an act of senseless hatred.

I agree that there are extremists on both sides in the Middle East, and I agree that these extremists are currently dominating the conversation.  But whatever our religious views, and however we may feel about the current Israeli government (or about the current Palestinian leaders, for that matter), we cannot sit idly by and allow the extremists to win.  Although Richard Lakin's voice has been silenced, I hope other educators and advocates will continue his work.  He would not want us to give up on the dream that one day, Israeli Jews and Palestinians can learn to live and work together, as friends and colleagues rather than enemies.  Although the odds of a positive outcome have often seemed long, Mr. Lakin never wavered in his commitment to doing the right thing; he continued to believe in the power of education, and he continued to believe peace was possible.  For now, the world has one less peacemaker, but I hope that others who share his views will soon pick up where he left off.  And may the memory of Richard Lakin inspire acts of kindness, rather than further acts of violence. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In Praise of Pitbulls

I never thought I'd write a blog post about dogs-- I have no pets (I'm allergic to dogs and cats, in fact) and I admit to being genuinely puzzled by folks who treat their pet like a finicky human child (will your dog refuse to eat unless you buy it gourmet pet food?); I've even known some people who talk to their pet more than they talk to their colleagues or neighbors.  I do realize that because I'm not a pet-owner, it's hard for me to understand the emotions of people who dote on their dog or cat (or any other pet). But just because I don't share those emotions, that doesn't mean I have no empathy for the pet-owners who see their animals as companions or even friends.

And that is why I am puzzled by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which seems to have decided that some dogs don't deserve to be loved or befriended-- PETA seems to have bought into the belief that one breed-- pit bulls -- is inherently dangerous and incapable of being a good pet.  According to this logic, breed-specific bans are necessary, because pit bulls are attack dogs, and only by banning them can we all be safe.  (In one famous opinion piece, PETA's president went even farther, saying that the only way to spare people from being bitten is to make sure that no more pit bulls are born. You can read it here:

Of course, research has repeatedly shown that pit bulls are no more likely to attack than many other breeds, and that any dog who is poorly raised can be taught to act viciously.  Sadly, that is what has happened to pit bulls: they have been used in dog-fighting, and some have been trained to act in a menacing way.  But that is not the fault of the breed; it's the fault of their owners.  Based on what I've read, and based on conversations with responsible pit bull owners, "pitties" can be sweet, friendly, and affectionate-- if that is how they are raised. You may have seen a TV show on the National Geographic channel called "Dogtown," about Best Friends Animal Society, an organization which rehabilitates dogs, training them and helping them to overcome past abuse. Their goal is to prove that few dogs are hopeless cases.  (Best Friends rehabilitated many of the dogs abused by Michael Vick.  And while a small number of those animals were in fact too vicious to be helped, the vast majority turned out to be extremely friendly and able to be adopted into good homes. You can find out more about the work Best Friends does with pit bulls here: 

I wanted to write this because I know someone whose pit bull, a cuddly and friendly family pet, was arbitrarily removed from that home due to a local ordinance that banned anyone from owning a pit bull.  As someone who hates it when human beings are stereotyped, I am equally dismayed by stereotyping an entire breed of animal:  since there's no scientific proof that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, and since there's a lot of evidence that if they have good owners, they can be wonderful pets, I fail to see the benefit of demonizing their species. Rather, I'd like to see stronger penalties for people who abuse these dogs or use them for fighting.  In many cities, animal abuse gets one the proverbial "slap on the wrist."  That needs to change.

Meanwhile, all over the country, there are pit bulls who are in shelters, waiting for someone to give them a chance.  Many will be euthanized before that happens.  As I said earlier, I am not a pet owner, but I absolutely understand how much comfort a companion animal can bring.  And if that animal is a pit bull, it doesn't necessarily mean anyone will be in danger.  Rather, I am told by friends who own one that the vast majority of pit bulls are loyal and sweet.  I agree with Best Friends and other advocacy groups that it's time for the states and cities with breed-specific bans to reconsider them. People who can give these dogs a loving home should be allowed to do so.  And as someone who likes to see factual information, I believe it's also time for the myths about pit bulls to end.  To help with that, here's a good site that refutes the misconceptions people have about this breed-- and hey, even Betty White says pit bulls can make wonderful pets!

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Best Congress Money Can Buy

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a very important investigative piece, entitled "The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election.  You can read it here, and I sincerely hope you will, but be warned:  it's somewhat depressing.

In the article, the authors note that a small number of super-rich men (and they are overwhelmingly men, as well as overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly from the older demographics) have provided the vast majority of the political donations up to this point:   "Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign...Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago." Of these super-rich donors, 138 have given their support entirely to Republicans, who have promised to cut their taxes, cut back on regulations they dislike, and scale back so-called "entitlement programs" that benefit the poor and working class.

I know what some of you are thinking-- if these donors gave their money to Democrats, Donna would be fine with it.  But you'd be wrong.  I would be every bit as upset, although for different reasons.  Whether I like the policies of Democrats better than those of Republicans, the fact remains that allowing a small number of super-wealthy men (or women, for that matter) to control our politics is not good for democracy, no matter which side they happen to support.  Call me old-fashioned, but when I vote, I want to feel my vote means something.  If billionaires can use their wealth to get congress to favor policies that only benefit them and their business interests, how can I or anyone who works for a living hope to compete?  What can I give my member of congress that will make him or her listen to me?  On the salary I make as a professor, there's no way I can donate a large amount of money in exchange for access.  So I don't get that access.  But those 158 billionaires certainly do, and it's all because they can throw several million at a candidate's campaign and not think twice about it.

Something is wrong with that picture.  And something is even wronger when the New York Times report led to ... radio (and TV) silence.  As Charlie Pierce of pointed out, not one of the Sunday talk shows on television even addressed the report; nor have any of the major networks discussed it since.  Perhaps that's not surprising, given that some of these wealthy donors own companies that are also huge advertisers, and some may even sit on boards of the corporate media giants.  But still, you'd think it would at least merit a brief discussion of the excessive role money is playing in our politics.  Sadly, it has not. I wonder if it will.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is drawing large crowds and evoking cheers when he talks about how problematic it is for billionaires to have so much influence.  I am sure some people who dislike Bernie believe he is anti-business (he has said he does not think of himself as a capitalist), but doesn't he have a point?  Democracy cannot survive if only the big-money donors are able to get whatever they want, while the rest of us are relegated to the sidelines, bemoaning how corrupt and how inept our congress has become.  And this should not be a partisan issue:  neither working-class Republicans nor working-class Democrats benefit from a system that only rewards the wealthy among us.  I'm one of many who believe the Citizens United decision only made matters worse.  If you're interested in helping to overturn it, here is where you can find some like-minded people:

One of my favorite Rush songs is "The Big Money," and some of Neil Peart's lyrics couldn't be more appropriate:  "Big money got a heavy hand/ Big money take control/ Big money got a mean streak/ Big money got no soul..."  I keep expecting people to realize they are in fact being manipulated by politicians who are distracting them with claims that immigrants or Planned Parenthood or lazy poor people are causing the problems.  No, not really.  Once again, it's the big money.  And although many voters seem resigned to the situation, I still hope that in the near future, the voting public will finally see what the game is, and demand some changes.  But until they do, we're all dancing to the tune of 158 super-rich people.  And that doesn't sound like democracy to me.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Youth Sports and the Disappearance of Childhood

I was reading an article in the Washington Post yesterday, and it really bothered me.  No, it wasn't about politics, or religion, or the other hot button issues I sometimes blog about. It was about kids and sports.  I have many memories of watching schoolboy sports, as well as watching the kids in my neighborhood assemble their own teams for pick-up games.  It seemed like no matter what time of year, some sport was being played at some local field somewhere; and those of us who couldn't play were the loyal spectators, cheering for our team. 

But according to the article I read, that isn't happening as much any more:  in fact, participation in youth sports has been declining.  These days, fewer kids are playing baseball, basketball, soccer... they're not even getting together for a game of touch football.  No, it's not because kids prefer to be glued to their devices (although that certainly may be a factor for some).  Mainly, it's because youth sports are no longer about having fun.  They're about hard work and high expectations, the result of too many parents making too many demands. The focus of youth sports has changed:  what used to be a good way for kids to get some fresh air and exercise is now treated like a high-stakes athletic competition, even at the youngest levels. There is so much pressure on kids to be the next big star or to win the next big game that many are just giving up and walking away.

According to the article (which you can read here, too many parents are ignoring the emotional and physical needs of young athletes.  These parents forget that youth sports are played by kids, not grown-ups; the players are still young, still maturing, still learning, and they probably won't play the game perfectly.  But then, not that long ago, nobody expected perfection, and if a kid made a bad play, it was disappointing, but it wasn't the end of the world. 

These days, however, if you attend any youth sporting events, you may notice a disturbing trend:  some parents in the stands are shouting at their kids or criticizing them as they play (or worse yet, screaming at the officials).  Every dropped pass or strike-out is treated like a personal affront, rather than something that happens even to the professionals.  And rather than letting their kids just be kids and learn at their own rate of speed, some parents expect their sons and daughters to practice for hours; parents who can afford it are even hiring private coaches for their kids, and treating each game as if it's an audition for an athletic scholarship.  (These are the moms and dads who claim to be doing what is best for their kid-- whether their kid wants to play pro ball or not.  But in reality, they may be hoping their kid vicariously achieves the athletic success they never had.)

Back in 1982, Neil Postman wrote a book called The Disappearance of Childhood, in which he discussed how attitudes about children have changed over the centuries.  He noted a time when kids were shielded from some of the harsh realities of adult life, when children were allowed to be innocent and to act like kids, when they were not expected to act like miniature adults nor grow up too fast. I would be the last person to claim that we'd all be better off going back some mythic "good old days," but I do wish we could go back to a time when kids played sports for fun, and parents let them do it.  I cringe when I see a parent yelling at a kid who made an error, and I hate it when parents call the referee rude names-- how does this teach kids good sportsmanship?  Postman noted in his book that even in the 1970s and 1980s, parents were turning youth sports into adult sports, professionalizing and pressurizing them, as if every game was the Super Bowl; and since then, it's only gotten worse.  I am not sure who benefits from doing that, but I do know what the cost has been... and it's the kids who are paying for it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

What the Pope Can Teach Us about Education

Given how the visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. has dominated the headlines this past week, I would be remiss if I didn't make a few comments about what I learned from his visit (and yes, even those who are not Catholic can learn something from the great religious leaders of the world, no matter what their faith tradition).  But before I begin, let me stipulate that I have a number of theological differences with Pope Francis.  Much as I respect him, I wish he would take a bold stand and modify the church's ban on contraception-- for one thing, Jesus himself never said anything about this subject; and most Catholics in western countries simply ignore the ban.  But more important, the lack of access to birth control is one of the main reasons for extreme poverty, especially in the third world.  Given that the pope genuinely cares about the poor, it would be humane for him to address the issue of family planning.  Of course, I understand that he probably won't.  But that doesn't stop me from wishing he would.

Theology aside, what I found the most impressive about his visit was his consistently courteous tone.  Even when he waded into the proverbial "hot button" issues, he did so with civility.  He did not shout, he did not scold, he did not condemn.  He gave his views, he represented church teachings, but he did so in a way that did not castigate those who might disagree.  That is something to be praised, and it's also something all too rare these days.  We hear too many political figures lashing out at their opponents, name-calling and slinging insults; we hear too many religious figures sitting in judgment, claiming that only their interpretations are correct and anyone else is deserving of scorn.  The pope chose neither of those styles.  He defended his (and the church's) beliefs, but he did so in a way that was neither judgmental nor scornful.

And he modeled tolerance in a very personal way:  he joined with faith leaders from other traditions, including Jews, Protestants, Hindus, and Muslims, in a service to remember those who died on September 11, 2001.  He didn't have to.  He could have taken a hard line (as some other religious leaders might have) and said that since he does not agree with those other faiths, he would refrain from praying with them.  He could have said, as some popes said centuries ago, that members of other faiths are in error and must be converted by any means necessary.  But he didn't do that either.  And since he holds the traditional view that women must not be priests or lead the service, he could have refused to be on the stage with women prayer-leaders.  But once again, his tone was one of inclusiveness.  And many of us found that very refreshing.

As an educator, I was especially pleased by what the pope did, because I know that tone matters.  Yes, the Catholic Church has its rules, and Pope Francis did not advocate breaking them.  But he taught about those rules in a way that said "Even if you disagree with me, we can still be kind to each other, and we can still seek common ground."  I have been in classrooms where I saw teachers ridicule students who were slow, or harshly correct students who got things wrong.  Agreed, there are students who are exasperating, students who don't work as hard as they should.  But mocking them is probably not the best way to inspire them to change their behavior.  Whether in a house of worship or in a classroom (or in congress, for that matter), those who hold authority need to do so in a way that is neither imperious nor unkind.  I am not suggesting that we all should join hands and sing "Kumbaya"-- believe me, there are times when students can try anyone's patience, and when they absolutely need to be corrected, or held accountable for what they did wrong.  But as the pope demonstrated, you can adhere to the rules in a way that doesn't make the other person feel invalidated, and you can state what you think is wrong in a way that doesn't make the other person feel stupid.

In the end, those of us who differ with this pope on issues of theology will probably continue to do so. But I hope we can conduct those disagreements the way he did-- with a willingness to listen, and a willingness to discuss our differences courteously. For the best rule, it seems to me, is the Golden Rule: treat others the way you would like them to treat you. That is what I saw from this pope, and I hope I continue to see it long after he has returned home.     

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Some Reflections about the Ten Days of Repentance

In my experience, the most difficult words to say are "I'm sorry" or "I was wrong." For some reason, there's a human tendency (call it pride, perhaps, or ego) that makes us avoid taking responsibility for the rude or harsh or unkind things we've said.  Even if deep down, we know we made a mistake, we tend to defend it. We try to find an excuse, or insist it wasn't our fault; we claim we were victims of circumstance.  Of course, it wasn't anything we did:  "mistakes were made," but nobody knows who made them.  Or, it was the other person's reaction that caused the problem.  But it certainly wasn't us.

You can see this behavior in all walks of life:  politicians who, when caught making a factual error, either double down and keep repeating it, or insist their opponent is the one who is wrong; people in relationships who are so eager to blame the other person, and so unwilling to look at their own role in how things are going; students who come up with a millions good reasons why their term paper (which they knew about all semester) is late.  I admit I'm as guilty of making excuses or defending my mistakes as anyone else.  But at this time of the year, I tend to think about it a little more.  After all, it's the Ten Days of Repentance, and that's something I take very seriously.

As any of you who have Jewish friends know, the Ten Days of Repentance are the period from Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). During that time, we are supposed to try to make amends with those we have wronged.  But while that may sound easy enough, it's not.  For one thing, some of the people we've wronged may no longer want to talk to us.  Others are holding onto their anger, even as we are trying to let ours go.  And then there's the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this post:  while we may know an apology is in order, we can't bring ourselves to say the words.   

I struggle with that sometimes.  I've had disagreements or arguments with people I cared about, verbal exchanges that seemed so important at the time, yet so trivial and stupid when I looked back on them later on.  But even though I knew I should have apologized for my part in the dispute, I didn't.  Often, I wished I had; but still, I remained silent.  Perhaps that has happened to you too:  you allowed a friendship to be lost, or a relationship to be damaged by being unable to humble yourself and admit that maybe you said the wrong thing at the wrong time.

So, for me, the Ten Days of Repentance provides an opportunity:  it's a good reason for getting back in contact with someone I may have upset.  It creates the possibility that someone I spoke harshly to, even unintentionally, will forgive me and we can get back into communication again. Of course, it comes with a risk:  just because I am ready to make amends, the other person may not want to hear it.  But still, during this holy season, I have to at least make a sincere effort.  And that's what I'm trying to do.

I always tell my students that communication is the most powerful thing we've got.  I also tell them that communication is constitutive:  it calls something into being that wasn't there before, just by our putting it into language and speaking it.  What I am trying to speak during the Ten Days of Repentance is my sincere apology for anything harsh or judgmental or dismissive I may have said; I am trying to call into being the possibility that I will communicate more effectively and with more kindness in the upcoming year.  For those who have been reading my blog, whether we have agreed or disagreed, I extend my thanks for your presence in my life; and whether you observe the Ten Days of Repentance or not, I pray that this new year will give you many reasons to be encouraged, and few reasons to be regretful. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Harm that Stereotypes Can Cause

Like many in the social media universe, I was offended by what happened to Ahmed Mohamed.  If you haven't been following the story, he's a fourteen year old high school freshman, and like many kids his age, he loves to tinker. Sometimes, he tries to repair things around his house, and sometimes he tries his hand at inventing.  The other day, he made his own clock.  It wasn't aesthetically beautiful, but it worked and he was proud of it.  So he brought it to school to show his engineering teacher.  He wanted to impress the teacher with what he had managed to do.  And that's where things went wrong.

It should be noted that Ahmed lives in Irving, Texas, where the mayor, Beth Van Duyne, has become a favorite on conservative talk shows for making inflammatory remarks against Islam, and promising to fight against "Sharia Law" in Texas. As fact-checkers and journalists have pointed out, there have been no efforts by any local Muslims to impose Sharia Law; but the facts don't matter to those who fear or dislike Muslims.  So, Mayor Van Duyne became a media darling for her promise to stand up to the mythical threat of creeping Sharia.  (Truth be told, most Muslim immigrants in Irving and in many other cities, including Quincy, MA where I live, have assimilated quite well:  they are happy to be in the US, they want their kids to attend good schools, they become citizens, they work hard, and while some are religious, others are not.  And yes, Muslims use Islamic religious law in their mosque; but that's similar to how Catholics utilize church teachings about taking communion or Jews follow Biblically-based dietary laws.  In the workplace or at school or in most other places, the vast majority of Muslims are fine about America's separation of church and state; and they understand that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of worship to all.  Thus, while Ahmed Mohamed's sisters dress in traditional head-coverings, not all Muslim women do; and Ahmed dresses like a typical American teenager, in fact.)  But back to the story of his invention.

When he showed his home-made clock to his teacher, he was told not to show it to anyone else.  This was not the response Ahmed had expected-- after all, he wanted his teacher to be proud of his ingenuity. But then, another teacher saw his invention... and the next thing Ahmed knew, he was being handed over to the police and asked why he had built a bomb.  The police held him in a room for more than an hour, refusing his requests to call his parents (which, I am told by lawyer friends of mine is not legal-- as a minor, he had the right to have a parent present if the police needed to question him).  The police kept wanting him to admit he had built a bomb; in fact, his principal told him he would be expelled if he didn't admit he had built a bomb.  He kept trying to explain it was not a bomb-- it was a clock-- but they wouldn't believe him. And then they handcuffed him and arrested him for "building a hoax bomb."  He was also suspended from school for three days.

Since that happened, the charges against him were dropped, but the police, as well as the principal and the mayor, have defended what happened, saying they were simply following protocol and trying to keep the school safe.  But like many on social media, I cannot help but wonder: if a young man named John Smith, rather than Ahmed Mohamed, built a home-made clock, would the outcome have been different?  Ahmed's father wonders too-- was it really necessary to interrogate his fourteen year old son for over an hour like a criminal, handcuff and arrest him (humiliating him in front of other students), and take him to the police station?  Ahmed wasn't rude, he wasn't combative-- he just kept trying to explain that he had built a clock. As his father noted, his son is a good kid, with a good reputation, and his love for tinkering is well-known.  Yet the assumption was that he must be a terrorist of some kind.

Okay fine, I know that we live in a post-9/11 world and people are skittish about potential threats.  But based on what reporters learned about the story, this did not seem to be a threat at all.  One wonders if the suspicion about Muslims that can be heard on so many talk shows, and the remarks of the mayor against Sharia Law, played a role in creating an environment where a kid named Ahmed who built a clock was suddenly perceived as someone dangerous.  The story has a semi-happy ending:  in addition to getting lots of support on social media for what does seem like a total over-reaction by the school and the police, Ahmed has received an invitation to attend a special evening for inventors to be held at the White House; he also received invitations to tour Facebook headquarters, visit MIT and visit Harvard.  But I still can't ignore the fact that this young man was treated with such contempt by adults who should have known better. I hope he will be able to forgive those who thought he deserved to be arrested, adults who saw him as someone to be feared, rather than as a creative young man with a bright future.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What Do We Mean When We Say "Religious Freedom"?

When I was a kid growing up in a suburb of Boston, Catholics were the majority faith in the city, and Protestants dominated the rest of the state.  It was back in the days when there was still prayer in the public schools (it was always Christian prayer), and when Christian kids observed their holidays in the classroom, while everyone else's holidays were generally ignored.  If you know me personally, you know that while I am proud to be Jewish, I am not opposed to the practice of Christianity; and you know I respect other people's beliefs, even if I don't agree with them.  But growing up in a time when Christianity was imposed on everyone, even those of us who didn't want to hear about it, was often difficult.  My French teacher wanted me to learn the Rosary.  (I did, and I suppose it will come in handy if I am ever at death's door in MontrĂ©al and need someone to pray for me.)  One of my elementary school teacher began classes with a mandatory reading, often a long reading, from the New Testament.  Day after day, there were reminders that Christianity was the dominant ideology.  

So what should I have done?  Walk out? Refuse to listen? Complain to the principal?  I was one of only about ten Jewish kids in the school, as I recall.  I was also young, and it was an era when disobeying the teachers could lead to expulsion.  So I was advised not to make a scene and to be polite about it.  I followed that advice, but I never forgot how powerless I felt each time my teachers imposed their religious beliefs on me. 

Fast forward to today.  Kim Davis, the Rowan County (KY) clerk who had refused to give marriage licenses to gay people received a hero's welcome when she was released from prison-- a sentence she could have avoided by obeying the law and respecting the ruling of the Supreme Court.  Again, she has every right to her beliefs, and I can respect them, whether I agree or not.  In fact, in her personal life, she has the right to go to any church, say any prayer, and believe that all gay people will burn in hell.  But in her job description, she took an oath to uphold the law, and not just the laws she likes.  Yet there she was, just like the people of my childhood, imposing her beliefs on everyone else-- refusing to issue the licenses because she personally opposes gay marriage.  She claimed she didn't have to obey the law because it violated her religious freedom.  That, by the way, is the same rationale my teachers used when they gave New Testament bible readings in my public school class-- they had freedom of worship.  Even years after the Supreme Court ruled (in 1962) that "captive audience prayer" is no longer legal, many public schools, most of which are in the "bible belt," have ignored that ruling and continue to have sectarian prayer because of what they call their "religious freedom."   

And today, I saw Republican Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, the man who had recently told ABC's George Stephanopolous that Kim Davis had every right to disobey any law she felt was unjust, the man who had said the Supreme Court is NOT the final authority.  He turned her release from jail into a political and religious pep rally, encouraging the crowd to basically commit acts of sedition.  He agreed with what Ms. Davis had done, and asserted yet again that "God's law" takes precedence over the constitution-- a puzzling claim for someone who wants to be president and who must swear to defend the constitution.  Many of Ms. Davis's supporters were far too gleeful about her willingness to disobey the law.  I understand that they believe gay marriage is wrong, and I understand they are upset that America is, as they see it, far too secular. But we don't live in a theocracy.  And we don't get to pick and choose which laws we obey. 

While I respect Kim Davis for her commitment to her faith, she does NOT have the right to impose her beliefs on others, and her followers should not be cheering about what she did.  As an elected official, her duty is clear:  she was not elected as a pastor, nor as a defender of evangelical Christianity in a secular world. She was elected to uphold the law.  Shame on Mr. Huckabee for pandering to the ultra-conservatives in Kentucky, and shame on the members of the crowd who think that they don't have to respect the beliefs of those in the minority.  As someone who knows first-hand what it feels like to be subjected to intolerance, I know nothing good can come of refusing to treat others as equals.  

I strongly doubt that Jesus would think Mike Huckabee did a good thing by encouraging the crowd to break the law; and I strongly doubt that making the country even more polarized is what a presidential candidate ought to do.  The answer to this contentious issue does not lie in name-calling or in acts of sedition.  "Religious freedom" should not be code words for "my way is right and I am going to impose it on you."  I am sorry Kim Davis doesn't like the Supreme Court's ruling.  But her response seems more about being stubborn and less about being religious.  That may sound harsh, and I don't mean to seem judgmental.  But I guess I get a little sensitive when I see anyone stubbornly imposing their beliefs on others and claiming that's an example of "religious freedom."  Trust me:  it's not.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A New Semester and the Meaning of a College Education

A few days ago, a college freshman from Duke University wrote an impassioned opinion piece about why he refused to read something his professor had assigned:  he said the particular assignment (a memoir by Alison Bechdel called "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic") violated his Christian beliefs.  The book in question has been described by critics as "a fresh and brilliantly told memoir," and adjectives like "powerful" and "engrossing" were used as well.  That said, the book is not without controversy:  it is about the author's reflections on her childhood, growing up with a closeted gay father who owned a funeral home-- and Bechdel is very frank about her father's, and later, her own, sexuality.  I understand it's not a book everyone would find appealing; but the professor had every right to assign it, and I find it odd that the student would not even read it.

Please don't misunderstand me.  I am not against other people's religious beliefs, and I am not against religion.  But part of going to college, it seems to me, is to be exposed to new ideas and new experiences.  Over the years, I've assigned students readings from a wide range of sources, from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal and everything in between.  I've assigned readings I personally disagreed with, and readings I personally loved.  I see my role as promoting critical thinking-- the ability to analyze and evaluate the ideas that are being presented.  I want students to learn to think for themselves, to form their own opinions, to challenge what they've always been told, to consider varying perspectives and seek to understand why people feel so differently (and so passionately) about certain issues.

But my role is NOT to protect my students from "dangerous" ideas or to shield them from perspectives they might not like.  Far too often, our culture seems to promote "confirmation bias"-- seeking only those sources that agree with what we already believe.  So my conservative friends nearly always quote Fox News or Rush Limbaugh when they are debating online, while my liberal friends generally respond with something Rachel Maddow or Bernie Sanders said.  Talking points fly through the air, memes get repeated (even if the quotes are taken out of context or the person never actually said it).  That is not education.  That is public relations:  making "your side" look like the only sane choice, while playing up the flaws in the competition.

I've heard some conservative pundits claim that most professors instill a "liberal bias" in their students, or worse yet, that colleges encourage students to be anti-American.  It's a myth, but it's one I frequently encounter.  Because I live in Massachusetts, a blue state, many of my students may indeed have liberal views, especially on social issues.  But not all of them do.  While many of the students I encounter could be classified as center-left,  I have also had students who are center-right:  some who are pro-life, some who oppose gay marriage, even some who thought the war in Iraq was necessary.  And yes, I've had students whose parents vote for Republicans.  (One of my best students worked on the Romney campaign in 2012.  He and I had some great debates about politics, but the tone was always respectful, and although we differed on who would be the best president, when it came to his final exam, he got the "A" he deserved.) 

And that's my point:  all I ever ask of my students is that they have good reasons for their responses; that they read the materials I assign (whether they personally like those materials or not); and that they make up their own mind whether the points in each article or chapter are persuasive.  I have never penalized a student for disagreeing with me, and I don't expect them to always see things my way.  As long as students can demonstrate that they understood the readings, all will be well.  And if they didn't like a certain reading, as long as they can explain why not (without resorting to insult or name-calling), then I've done my job.

I feel sorry for the Duke student who could not even allow himself to read what Alison Bechdel wrote. I feel sorry for any student whose views are so rigid that they cannot even expose themselves to other beliefs.  Reading something does not mean accepting or believing it.  For example, when I was in college, I had to read the works of Catholic and Hindu and Buddhist theologians in my world religion class; but even though I did not agree with those readings, I would never have told my professor that as a Jew, I refused to even read them.  I worry that our culture has become so closed-minded that people, students included, see no benefit to learning other views or experiencing the world through someone else's eyes.

As a new semester begins, I hope that my students will find my classes challenging, thought-provoking, and interesting.  And yes, I know that some students will be in my classes because for them, college is a means to an end-- a place to acquire the skills to get a good job.  But I hope they will realize there's much more to a good education than that:  college really is an adventure, and along the way, students can encounter ideas and perspectives they might never have thought about before.  In fact, I believe the truly educated students are the ones who have mastered critical thinking, the ones who are able to make intelligent decisions and think for themselves. I hope that my classes will provide many opportunities for that kind of education to take place.  Welcome to the new semester! 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Special Person and a Special Anniversary

I could easily write yet another outraged post about something racist or sexist or xenophobic that one of the candidates said. I could easily write about the misinformation I read online, or the folks who prefer to compare people they disagree with to Hitler.  But not this time.  Today, I want to focus on something positive.  I want so talk about someone who means a lot to me.  His name is Jeff, and he is autistic.  Today marks the 31st anniversary of when we met.

In August 1984, I was between jobs, trying to establish my radio consulting business, and seeking ways to make some extra money.  I saw an ad for vacation relief workers at a human services agency, and since I had a degree in counseling, I figured I would apply. The pay was low-- you don't get into human services for the big bucks. [Note to self:  I need to write an outraged post about how poorly we pay the workers who do some of the most difficult and often thankless jobs in our society, including home health care workers, nurses' aides, and care-takers for people with special needs.]  But it was work I could feel good about doing, even if it wasn't going to make me rich.

I found some agencies were very committed to the folks they were caring for, and tried to treat them well; but sadly, I also found agencies that operated over-crowded, under-staffed facilities, with management that seemed indifferent to the people they were supposed to help. It was in one of those places that I met Jeff.  He was 27, and had never spoken.  He made various noises, he screamed and hit himself, he rocked back and forth, he repeated what others said (a behavior called "echolalia").  He usually seemed oblivious to the chaos around him-- a good strategy, perhaps, since the group home where he lived was indeed chaotic.  There were a few very kind staff people, but they were clearly overwhelmed.

I don't know what there was about him-- but I don't believe there are accidents in life, so I am sure that he and I were supposed to meet.  And there I was, a very driven and often impatient professional broadcaster, spending time with an adult with autism who rarely acknowledged anyone and was mostly fixated on food. (I later found out that he had previously been in an institution where staff starved him if he "misbehaved.")  And there he was, unable to make eye-contact, unable to communicate, with a sort of haunted look about him.  Because of his behaviors, and because of a lack of staffing, the group home "managed" him with large doses of psychotropic medications.  And that was his life.

I was told I was wasting my time to talk to him.  I was told he'd been this way for years and there was nothing that could be done. I was told I wasn't an "expert" in autism.  But when I looked into Jeff's eyes, I saw a human being, and I made him a promise that I would become his advocate.  It was a promise I honored even after I went back to my broadcasting career.  I also promised I would get him out of that group home and find him somewhere he could get the help he needed and deserved.  At first, I had no idea if he understood a word I was saying to him, although I wanted to believe he did.  It took six months before he spoke to me-- the first thing he said was "I love you, Donna."  It still makes me emotional to remember that moment, even though right after it, he returned to rocking back and forth.

But gradually, he began to communicate more.  My then-boyfriend (and now husband) would take him swimming or hiking; I took him to museums and restaurants.  We both kept encouraging him and teaching him, whether he seemed able to respond or not.  Fast-forward to today:  Jeff has over 350 words in his vocabulary, and while he isn't what you and I would call "conversational," he is very capable of making himself understood.  After a battle with the state bureaucracy (which I won), I was able to get him out of the group home; and I also worked with some doctors to get him off of the medications he didn't need.  These days, he lives with a very nice family, has a job, and is supervised by an agency that is very committed to his well-being. My husband and I see him nearly every weekend.  As for the behaviors I was told he would always have, they are rarely seen-- he seldom screams or rocks back and forth.  In fact, if he knows you, he'll say hello and he likes to be hugged.   He thinks of me as a mom-figure, and he thinks of my husband like a dad.

Other than knowing the members of Rush, I can honestly say that knowing Jeff changed my life every bit as much, although in a different way.  He helped me to become more patient (it takes a while to teach him something new, but once he learns it, he doesn't forget it).  He helped my husband to become more outwardly affectionate (my husband is a very kind person, but he grew up in that era when guys were supposed to be "macho."  Jeff likes to be hugged ... so my husband became more comfortable with public displays of affection from someone who looks like a big guy but thinks of himself as a kid).  I continue to be amazed at how much has changed for the better in Jeff's life, how he has achieved so much more than anyone thought he could.  I remain his advocate, but these days, he is surrounded by lots of people who love him, and who reward what he can do rather than punishing him for what he can't do.  And if there's a message here, it's that things are not always what they seem, and when someone says "oh you'll never be able to do X," that just might not be true... Happy anniversary Jeff; I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see how far you've come, and to be a part of your journey.