Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ted Cruz and the Meaning of Freedom

Thanks to my years in media, I've met a lot of famous people, and not just musicians or TV and radio stars.  I've volunteered on several senatorial and presidential campaigns (I know what my conservative friends are thinking-- "bet you only volunteered for Democrats"-- but you're wrong about that).  In fact, over the years, I've met and chatted with politicians from just about every major and minor party.  On the other hand, there are some political figures I've never met, and I really wish I could.  To cite two examples, I've never met Bill Clinton, nor George W. Bush; I'd welcome an opportunity to sit and chat with them, given how influential each has been on the history of the past several decades.

Among the more recent politicians I haven't met is Texas Senator Ted Cruz.  By all accounts, he's quite intelligent, a good debater, well-versed on the issues, and passionate about his beliefs. I'm sure we could have an interesting conversation, even if I doubt we'd agree on much.  Several days ago, Senator Cruz announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for president.  How he announced was interesting:  he made a speech at a well-known Christian college, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.  He spoke to an audience comprised of "10,000 cheering evangelical Christian students," and he specifically tailored his speech to that audience, delivering "an overtly Christian message, roaming the stage like a megachurch pastor with a wireless microphone." (It is worth noting that attendance at his speech was not voluntary; he may have gotten an enthusiastic reaction because students agreed with his message, or they may have responded because he is a very entertaining speaker.  But  in either case, they still had to be there.  For more about this, see Politifact, which fact-checked the claim that attendance was mandatory, and found it to be "true."

Throughout Mr. Cruz's speech, he made reference to how "people of faith" felt ignored and unheard by the (presumably secular) Washington establishment; he pledged to be the kind of candidate who would take a strong stand for traditional Christian values.

None of this surprised me:  after all, Mr. Cruz has long appealed to Christian conservatives, and his rhetoric often includes calls to restore religion to a central place in American life.  In fact, during his speech, he asserted that if evangelical Christians would become politically engaged and vote in large numbers, "the promise of America" could be restored:  "It's going to take a new generation of courageous conservatives to help make America great again, and I'm ready to stand with you to lead the fight..."Today, roughly half of born-again Christians aren't voting.  They're staying home. Imagine instead millions of people of faith all across America coming out to the polls and voting our values."

As a student of politics, and a professor of political communication, I have no problem with Ted Cruz's call for Christian conservatives to become more active. It makes sense for him to target a group he believes he can win.  (Whether he actually can become their preferred candidate is an open question, however.  There are other Republican candidates who are also in good standing with evangelicals, most notably former Arkansas governor and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.  An ordained Baptist minister, Huckabee is very popular with Christian conservatives.  Further, he does not have the incendiary and polarizing reputation Ted Cruz has.)

But what concerns me as a Jewish person and a political moderate is what Mr. Cruz means when he talks about "freedom."  For Ted Cruz, it's an article of faith (pun intended) that today's America discriminates against conservative Christians, and that President Obama is waging an "assault" on "religious liberty."  I have heard this claim before, from other religious conservative candidates, and I must admit I don't understand it; I find it equally puzzling when my conservative friends claim there is a "war on Christmas."  (I wrote a commentary about the alleged War on Christmas for my local newspaper this past December: As far as I can see, nobody is stopping Ted Cruz from attending the church of his choice, or reading Christian books, or attending Christian movies.  Nobody is telling him he can't teach his kids about Christianity, and yes, he can observe Christmas without fear of arrest.  (Sadly, in some countries, members of minority religions are arrested for trying to worship.  But that is not the case in the United States.)

But what Ted Cruz cannot, and should not, do is advocate for a theocracy.  America is not a "Christian nation," contrary to various online myths.  A majority of Americans are some denomination of Christian, yes, but there is no official church in America, nor did the Founding Fathers want there to be.  I don't think I'd want to live in the country where only one version of religion were promoted-- the Puritans tried that in America's early years, and it did not turn out very well for those who were either not Puritan at all, or not Puritan enough.  I would hate to go back to those bad old days, when government and religion were intertwined.  Such a mixture is rarely good for those of us in the minority.

I guess that's the main reason I would like to talk to Mr. Cruz.  I would want to ask him if he sincerely believes separation of church and state is a bad idea.  I would want to ask him if in his America, those who do not share his interpretation of Christianity (or who are not Christian, or not conservative) would be welcome.  And I would want to ask him what he means when he talks about his respect for the Constitution.  If he respects the Constitution, does he also respect the First Amendment?  As I said, I am fine about his political decision to court evangelical Christians.  But I am not fine about any politician who claims America would be a better country if only one certain set of beliefs (theirs) were followed.  Like it or not, we are a melting pot, home to people of many religions (and some of no religion).  I'd like to see it stay that way.  And I'd like to know why Ted Cruz would not. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The "Utah Compromise" and a Decade of Social Change

At one of the universities where I used to teach, I had a gay colleague who had been with his partner for nearly three decades.  Although they loved and cared about each other, they could not marry, nor even have a civil union.  Their relationship was not recognized by law, nor did they expect that it would be; both had lived through the 1950s, an era when acknowledging one's homosexuality could result in being fired.   (I even saw that happen in the early 1970s:  a friend of mine was a high school teacher, and when her school found out she was gay, she lost her job.  There was nothing she could do about it.  That is how life was back then.)

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage (or, as its proponents prefer to call it, "marriage equality").  It caused a firestorm of controversy: religious conservatives were outraged, claiming that traditional morality was now under attack; while civil libertarians praised the decision, saying gay people should not have fewer rights than straight people.  As one of those straight people, I have to admit that I hadn't thought much about the issue. Of course, I didn't want to see anyone treated unfairly, but the idea that gay people might want to marry was foreign to me.  I'm embarrassed to admit this, but like many people of my generation, I had been taught that gay people were all promiscuous and would never want to get married even if they could.  I later found out this was a myth, as were many of the other stereotypes I had learned; what changed my perspective was meeting and talking with gay men and lesbians who were in long-term relationships.  It turns out that my favorite philosopher, the late great Emmanuel LĂ©vinas was right when he said that it's important to look into the face of "the other," to get to know the person rather than the stereotype.

Whenever there is a hot-button issue in the culture, it doesn't take long for politicians to capitalize on it.  In 2004, civil marriage for gay people was still a new and very controversial idea:  in fact, polling data done by ABC News showed only 32% of Americans supported it.  President Bush was in a tight race with then-Senator John Kerry, and Bush's chief strategist Karl Rove understood that one way to win was to get base voters energized so that they would turn out in larger numbers, especially in battle-ground states.  Capitalizing on negative attitudes about gay marriage, Rove made sure that in eleven swing states, there were ballot questions supporting a constitutional ban. This appeal to religious conservatives was successful:  Rove himself later told reporters that voters who turned out to express their disapproval of gay marriage contributed to Bush's election victory.

Yet it is not clear if such a tactic would work today:  only ten years later, in 2014, ABC News revisited attitudes about gay marriage, and found that the numbers were quite different:  nearly 60% of respondents were now in favor, and the number had been steadily rising over the past five years.  As I write this, there are now more than 30 states where gay couples can marry.  But perhaps the most surprising turn of events recently occurred in Utah, one of the reddest of the red states, with a history of opposition to marriage rights for gay people.  While the Mormon Church, the dominant religious group in Utah, is still on record as being opposed to gay marriage, the church and Mormon legislators were able to craft a law that bans discrimination against gay people in matters of housing and employment. The so-called "Utah Compromise," while still allowing exceptions for religious institutions, is being hailed as "a breakthrough in balancing [gay] rights and religious freedom, and [could serve] as a model for other conservative states..."

And although some gay rights groups are saying the legislation doesn't go far enough (and some religious groups are saying it goes too far), the fact that it passed at all is rather amazing.  Ten years ago, the idea that a conservative state legislature would be able to pass any bill protecting gay rights would have been greeted with skepticism.  And yet, it just happened, and the "Utah Compromise" has been widely praised as a good start:  as the Boston Globe said in an editorial, "...the Utah legislature just reminded politicians across the country that, in fact, half a loaf is often better than no loaf at all."

As for me, today is my wedding anniversary; and contrary to the claims in 2004 that allowing gay people to marry would harm "traditional marriage," my husband and I have been married for 28 years.  And as far as I can tell, we are still heterosexual, and we are still married.  The only thing that is substantially different since 2004 is that now, my gay friends and colleagues can also get married.  And while I know my conservative readers will disagree with me, I fail to see what problem marriage equality has caused.  I'm glad that attitudes, including mine, have changed so much, in such a relatively short time. In fact, when my students remark that attitudes about a cause they support don't seem to be changing at all, I can tell them not to be discouraged:  as we've seen over the past ten years, public opinion about an issue can suddenly shift; and it can happen faster than any of us ever might have expected.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Of Airports, Rush Fans, and Gallup Polls

First, an apology.  I normally write my blog on Saturday.  But that wasn't possible this past Saturday, because thanks to Southwest Airlines, I was stranded in Phoenix, where I had to spend all night at the airport.  They didn't offer a hotel, nor a voucher to buy dinner, absolutely nothing.  The folks working the ticket counter seemed really overworked and understaffed, and they rapidly grew impatient.  Me too, though I tried to be polite. Bottom line:  no flights out till early in the morning, go sit in the terminal and wait.  So I did. It's been years since I people-watched in an airline terminal.  As the hour got later, there were only a few people walking by, but I did see a couple of totally adorable kids, ages seven and five, on their way back to Mexico with their parents, after visiting relatives in Phoenix; fortunately, my high school Spanish enabled me to communicate, because they were just so friendly. The five year old wanted to know why I was sitting there-- I told him I wanted to know the same thing.  I watched the cleaning crew cleaning (they came from a wide range of countries-- Somalia, Micronesia, Mexico, Ghana, Sudan, etc).  I saw a few folks who were also stranded, who were trying to get some sleep. And I hung out at the one 24-hour Starbucks, buying a caramel frappuccino at 4 AM, and using a very unreliable WiFi that arbitrarily disconnected us every few minutes just because it could.   Okay fine, worse things have happened to me.  (After all, I'm now officially a cancer survivor.  Having cancer was much worse.)  But this experience was a close second:  I didn't expect to be unable to get from Phoenix to Boston for nearly 48 hours.  Suffice it to say that blogging was the last thing on my mind-- getting home was.

And that brings me to Rush fans.  On Facebook, I have nearly 4,000 followers.  No, I am really not that popular-- but as the woman who discovered this amazing rock band and helped to launch their career, I am sort of the patron saint (saintess?) of the world-wide community of fans.   Alex, Geddy, and Neil have graced me with their friendship for more than 40 years.  And thanks to them, I have met Rush fans from just about every country-- and there are fans in places you might not suspect.  In addition to North and South American fans, you can find lovers of Rush's music in Indonesia, Pakistan, Japan, Israel, and elsewhere. I even know people who have learned English to better appreciate the lyrics to Rush songs.

Anyway, I vented on Facebook about my plight and suddenly my page exploded with outrage, derision, annoyance, offers to flock the Southwest website and protest, etc.  In an otherwise miserable situation, it was so heartening to know that the fan community cares what happens-- and not just to me.  Like the members of the band, who are well-known for being philanthropists and family men, Rush fans take care of each other.  In fact, in all the years I've spent in broadcasting, they are some of the most compassionate people I've encountered. They have reached out to folks with cancer, folks who are feeling alone, folks who are having a difficult time.  They get together before and after concerts.  They hold dinners and parties.  They are like a large, noisy, sometimes contentious family.  They are politically all over the map:  some are righties, some are lefties, some are libertarians... but the one thing they all agree on is that Rush is the best rock band ever. And I appreciated the fact that they were there to support me online during my frustrating adventure in trying to get home.

And then I finally got to Boston, and I was thinking about what to write (part of this blog is to fulfill the requirements of a course I am taking about politics campaigns) when I came upon a news article from the always reliable McClatchy News Service:  "People Don't Like Republicans or Democrats, Gallup Finds."  The article restated the results of a recent Gallup Poll, which found that both major U.S. parties are now below 40% in approval ratings for the first time since Gallup began tracking perceptions of political parties in 1992-- you can read the poll and the analysis here:   And it made me think of something I wrote in my very first blog post-- how we have become an "argument culture," where polarization is the rule rather than the exception.  (Ironically, it's well known that while people hate "congress," they keep voting for most of the same folks over and over, since they generally believe their own local politician is okay.  This too is a trend that Gallup, as well as political columnists, repeatedly noted:   Thinking about this, for a moment, it made me wish more people could be like Rush fans-- able to focus on what they have in common rather than dwelling on the areas where they disagree.   Yes, I know-- these days, such hopes seem like the impossible dream.  But wouldn't a lot more get accomplished, in congress as well as in daily life, if "compromise" had not become such a dirty word? 


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Fifty Years After Selma, Myths and Stereotypes Persist

All too often, online conversations about race in our polarized society deteriorate into accusations and name-calling. Commenters who have probably never met the person about whom they are passing judgment, refer to black teens as "thugs" or "gang members," and accuse them of wearing the wrong clothes or being disrespectful to authority.  I've also read comments that arbitrarily assume whenever a black person is questioned by police that "he must have been up to no good."

And yet, life is rarely that simple, and not every scenario can be divided easily into good guys and bad guys; nor can we assume that one race is more criminally inclined than another.  For example, many of my black colleagues jokingly talk about the "crime" of "driving while black," and as it turns out, they are more right than some of us want to admit.  In fact, in some cities, even "walking while black" can get a person in trouble.  The U.S. Justice Department just issued a scathing report about the Ferguson, Missouri police department, and in the report, it discussed such practices as the overwhelmingly white police department "... conducting “pedestrian checks,” in which they stopped people walking down the street and demanded to see their identification without any probable cause."  Further, "When people refused to comply with — or even questioned — unconstitutional orders, police sometimes responded with force. Stun guns ... were commonly used even when officers were not threatened."

And consider this: "Blacks in Ferguson accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests over a two-year period studied by investigators. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of those charged. A black motorist in Ferguson was twice as likely to be searched, according to the report, even though searches of whites turned up drugs and other contraband more often."  And as if that were not bad enough, black people who could not pay their traffic fines were jailed, while white people's fines, according to the report, either were dismissed by sympathetic court officers, or the inability to pay did not result in incarceration.  In fact, there was evidence that suggested fining black residents of Ferguson for even the most minor offenses was a major source of revenue for the town.  (You can read the full report, along with commentary about it here:, and here:  I would like to tell you that the attitudes found in Ferguson are unique.  But they are not.  There are other cities in which the same practices occur.  In 2015, that's not something to be proud of. 

Please don't misunderstand me.  I am not saying all police officers, especially white police officers, are racists.  Many, perhaps most, work hard in their communities and try to do the right thing.  Nor am I saying that all black people who are arrested are being persecuted.  There are certainly black criminals, as there are white ones.  But it seems the law is often applied very differently for the black defendant than it is for the white one, and evidence backs that up.  And yes, I know we have come a long way in our society:  when I was growing up in the 1950s, society was still either de facto or de jure segregated.  And then, in 1954, Brown versus the Board of Education was decided, ostensibly ending segregation.  But pro-segregation attitudes did not go away, and in many cities, there was great resistance to integrating schools; or admitting black people to previously all-white restaurants and hotels; or allowing black people to vote without being subjected to a civics test that no white person was ever asked to take.

Attitudes take time to change, and in the mid-1960s, there was tangible evidence that much remained to be done.  Many Americans were horrified by what they saw on TV in cities like Selma, Alabama, where marching for civil rights could subject peaceful protesters to being attacked by vicious dogs or beaten with clubs by police.  Even the bridge the protesters wanted to cross, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, was a reminder of racist attitudes:  it was named after the Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.  It still bears that name to this day.

Bigoted assumptions have a long and unpleasant history in America, going back to the days of slavery and continuing up to the present.  I know that some online commenters believe racism is now a thing of the past  (we have a black president, so everything is now fine); I am told there's no need to discuss racism anymore.  But it does still need to be discussed.  True, I am white and racist attitudes don't affect me in the same way they affect someone who is black.  But that doesn't give me the right to stand back and remain silent.  I'm a professor of communication and ethics, and I believe I have an obligation to continue the discussion:  to call attention to, and ask my students to analyze, the discourses and arbitrary assumptions that continue to associate people of color with criminal behavior.

I've seen it in my own life.  I was a Big Sister here in greater Boston, and my Little Sister was an absolutely adorable black girl, age 10, polite, courteous, just a really sweet kid.  One day, we went to a mall to get some things at a local department store.  She asked if she could look at the new DVDs, and I told her I was going to look at clothing; we agreed to meet in a few minutes.  But before I could get to the clothing department, I noticed that store security was following her.  Keep in mind:  she had done absolutely nothing other than walk through the store separately from me.  But suddenly, she was the object of scrutiny.  I wondered why:  did she "look suspicious"?  Was she "up to no good"?  I walked over to the store security person and inquired if there was a problem, telling him she was with me.  That seemed to make everything okay in his mind.  But it didn't make me happy at all.

A friend of mine, also black, is a member of the clergy.  He has told me several times about how when he is wearing his clerical uniform, he is treated far more respectfully than if he is in street clothes.  He too has been stopped by police for "walking while black."  Okay fine, some readers might say these stories are anecdotal and why worry about it?  After all, misunderstandings will happen. Well, that may be true, but for people to still be subjected to negative assumptions for no logical reason irritates me.  And as someone who teaches political communication, I know that some of these discourses about the sinister or dangerous black criminal can show up in attack ads, usually implying that one candidate isn't sufficiently "tough on crime."  Some of you may recall the infamous 1988 "Willie Horton" ad that helped to sink Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis's presidential campaign, with its innuendos that he allowed black rapists to leave prisons on furloughs.  Unfortunately, such ads can still be found, and they still resonate with certain segments of the population who genuinely believe that black people, especially black men, are to be feared.

So now what? Fifty years after the brutality of Selma, we have indeed come a long way.  But the misunderstandings, the myths, and the racial stereotypes persist, often with deadly consequences.  I don't believe for a minute that I can single-handedly change attitudes that have endured for several centuries.  But I do believe it's up to me, up to all of us, to decide where we go from here.  The unjust way the law is enforced in many communities of color is a fact, and there needs to be an honest discussion about it.  The DOJ report about Ferguson should not be ignored, and it must not be turned into online attacks about all the alleged "thugs" who live in that town.   There really is something terribly wrong, and pervasive negative stereotypes about black people are a big part of the problem.  Now, with reminders of Selma in 1965 fresh in our minds, we cannot keep insisting everything is fine.  We cannot defend a system that punishes innocent people for walking down a street or driving a car.  If we do not take some action to make things better, then fifty years from now, our children will still be confronting the same set of problems; and they will wonder why our generation didn't do something to solve them.