Sunday, April 26, 2015

What We Remember and What We Forget

There was a fascinating article in today's Boston Globe about why we remember some historical events and forget others.  The author, Christopher Klein, began with a discussion of the tragic sinking of an American ship, the Sultana, in 1865.  More than 1,800 of the passengers (including many soldiers returning home from the Civil War) perished when the Sultana's boilers exploded.  Even today, 150 years later, it remains "...the greatest maritime disaster in American history."  And yet, most of us, myself included, either know little about the sinking of the Sultana, or have never heard of it.  "And as the 150th anniversary of the tragedy arrives, expect to hear the same thing you have heard about the Sultana for the last 150 years — nothing. Unlike the sinking of the Titanic, which claimed 300 fewer lives, the Sultana disaster never spawned any Hollywood blockbusters, theme park-style attractions, souvenir plate collections, or breathless anniversary commemorations."

It's a very interesting question:  why do some historical events almost immediately recede into history, barely recalled, except perhaps by those the event affected; while other events attain an almost iconic status in our collective memory, remembered annually with parades or commemorated with monuments?  I gave a talk recently about an event of great significance when it happened in Boston in 1919-- the "great molasses flood"-- a huge molasses storage tank ruptured, covering a large part of the city with the thick, gooey substance, killing about twenty people and injuring 150 others. More about that event, which dominated the newspapers all across the country when it happened, can be found here:     
But just as quickly as the molasses flood made the news, it was soon replaced with other major stories.  Today, other than local historians and readers of Stephen Puleo's excellent book about it ("Dark Tide," published in 2004), the molasses flood is rarely discussed. 

What we remember as a culture and what we forget is worth considering, especially given the ongoing battle by some political figures to rewrite history, eliminating events that put their country in a bad light.  We are seeing this even now with the government of Turkey's refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, and the government of Japan's unwillingness to acknowledge that during the second world war, their army used Korean girls and women as sexual slaves.  In some Muslim countries, leaders insist the Holocaust never happened. And let's be honest:  through the years, there have been American politicians who tried to downplay slavery, or who insisted school history books should promote the view that America never did anything wrong.

Of course, it's human nature to want to sanitize the past.  Many schools talk about Columbus as a great explorer, but avoid discussing how brutally he treated the native peoples; history books often teach about George Washington as a great president, but many avoid mentioning his ownership of slaves.  I can sort of understand taking a simplistic view when teaching little children, but even in college, some of the famous people I was taught about had their "blemishes" removed, with their anti-black or anti-Semitic views conveniently omitted.  

I don't have a good answer for why some events stick in our collective memory, and why some don't; nor do I have a good answer for why some people become famous, while others who (in my view) made important contributions to society are totally forgotten.  But I do know it's important to keep having this discussion, and especially, it's important to ask if we are being told the entire story.  Unfortunately, these days, there is so much information being thrown at us, from TV, radio, social media, movies, etc. It becomes hard to fact-check all of it, and some people don't even try.  It seems that many of us just go from celebrity scandal to celebrity scandal, from political crisis to political crisis, each new thing replacing the one that was such a big deal only a few days before.  (Media critic Douglas Rushkoff addresses this eloquently in his book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now." 

I am not a person who worships the past, but I do believe it holds some important lessons.  And I am not alone in believing that.  There are many fake quotes on the internet, but this one by philosopher George Santayana is quite real:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905, p. 284).  It's a quote worth contemplating when watching, reading, or listening to the news:  which stories will continue to resonate with us in the future, which stories will we quickly forget... and why?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

If You've Got Your Health...

I have great admiration for people who can blog every day.  I can't do it.  It's not that I don't have opinions-- if you know anything about me, you know I have opinions about all kinds of things, from politics to religion to pop music to sports.  But I worry about being boring.  Someone left me an anonymous comment several weeks ago, saying my blog offers nothing new and there's no good reason to read it.  Okay fine, you can't please everybody, but I really do want my blog posts to at least be worth your time.  So, I don't try to arbitrarily turn out X number of words every day.  I try to blog only when I've got something I really want to say, usually once a week.  I suppose that sometimes, these posts will indeed bore some of you.  I guess it's unavoidable.  I'm still sort of new as a blogger, and I'm still trying to get the hang of it.

That said, what's on my mind today is not sports or music or politics.  What's on my mind today is health.  I was thinking about my maternal grandmother (of blessed memory).  Her name was Dora and I never met her.  She died of cancer in 1939, about eight years before I was born.  She was only 44 and had been suffering for months with what today is a very treatable kind of cancer; but back then, her options were few, and she didn't get a chance to see her daughter (my mother) get married, nor did she live to see her grandchildren.  I've heard a lot about her from my older relatives who knew her, and from all accounts, she was a loving and saintly person, who endured many hardships (anti-Semitism, the Great Depression, poverty, several serious illnesses), yet she continued to be optimistic in spite of them.  She was an inspiration to my mother; in fact, the D in my first name is for my grandmother (it is customary for Jews of European ancestry to name their children after a relative who has died, so the person's memory lives on in the good deeds the living person does in their memory).

As many of you know, this past December, I was operated on for uterine cancer.  Unlike my grandmother, I had the benefit of early detection, plus I had health insurance and lived near Boston, a city with many outstanding hospitals.  My doctors believe they caught it early enough such that I will make a full recovery.  My story will have a far different ending from my grandmother's (or for that matter, my mother's-- she also died of cancer, although she lived to be 71).  Truth be told, I was not dealt a very good genetic hand:  my grandmother, my mother, and about five of my female aunts and cousins died of cancer.  That scares me, and I have to admit it.  I try to be brave, and I usually succeed, but not always.  Many people who know me think of me as a strong and positive person; I've been praised for my willingness to be open about having cancer, and I've encouraged others who have it.  Being ill is nothing to be ashamed of, and we need to remove the stigma from having this disease.   But there's another side of me that some people don't know:  sometimes, late at night, I wake up and I'm afraid.  I know that's not logical, but it happens sometimes. I don't want to die. I want to be the person in my family who beats cancer.  But as optimistic as my doctors are, cancer is still the great unknown. We've come so far in research, yet there's no predicting how long anyone who has it (or had it) will live.

So, I try to take things a day at a time.  I try to keep busy.  I work a lot.  I write articles.  I do research.  I mentor students.  I send get-well cards to friends who are ill.  And of course, I blog.  Sometimes, all of these things are very cathartic.  Sometimes, they don't help very much at all.  But even when I am feeling scared inside, I still figure that I'm one of the lucky ones.  I have far more options than my grandmother, or my mother (who died in 1987) ever did.  I'm still here, and I hope that will continue for a long time.  Meanwhile, I've become more convinced than ever that the old saying is true:  if you've got your health, you've got everything.  And I am sure some of you know from experience exactly what I mean.          

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ready for Hillary... or Not

So, in news that surprised absolutely no-one, Hillary Clinton announced she is running for president.  Compared to other such announcements, hers was comparatively low-key.  There was no arena speech, no press conference, no staged event.  Rather, she relied on the internet-- on YouTube and social media-- to launch her campaign.  And at the end of the beautifully-produced two-minute and eighteen second campaign video, Hillary asserted that she was running because "everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion."

There isn't much I can say about Hillary that hasn't been said before.  Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton is an enormously polarizing figure.  Those who like her really, really like her.  And those who don't like her believe she is contemptible.  There seems to be no middle ground where she is concerned.  In fact, the intensity of the "Hillary haters" has always puzzled me-- and their negative feelings are not new.  Hillary haters can be found as far back as the 1970s, when she married Bill Clinton and decided to keep her name.  It was a time when many professional women (myself included) kept their name, but Bill had been elected governor of Arkansas, and traditionalists were horrified that she wanted to be known as Hillary Rodham rather than Mrs. Bill Clinton. 

And so it began.  People said she was too selfish, too ambitious, a political liability for her husband.  They criticized her hairstyle, her glasses, her outspokenness. In Arkansas, as in many other states, the wife of a politician was expected to know her place; and being a fiercely independent woman was controversial.  Bill Clinton's Republican opponents sensed an opportunity:  they tried to use Hillary's unpopularity to their advantage, manufacturing accusations of corruption and scandal that were supposedly linked to her.

Contrary to what her detractors believed (and still believe), none of the accusations ever proved to be true; but that didn't stop the media from covering the accusations relentlessly.  Nor did it stop talk show hosts later on from listing the supposed litany of evil deeds that Hillary had done.  Rightly or wrongly, Hillary came to regard the press as her enemy, part of what she called in 1998 a "vast right wing conspiracy" determined to destroy her and her husband.   In Arkansas, she ultimately did take her husband's name and tried to accept her role as a political wife.  But when she tried to focus on issues that a First Lady was supposed to care about, those who disliked her continued to be scornful, accusing her of being insincere. Then as now, people either liked her or hated her.  (An interesting article about that period of her life, which quotes friends who knew her in Arkansas, can be found here:

I'm not writing this blog post to defend Hillary Clinton, and I don't even know if I'll vote for her, assuming she gets the nomination.  Yes, as a second-wave feminist, of course I'd like to see a woman president in my lifetime.  And yes, I believe she has the qualifications and the experience; she was, after all, the first former First Lady to become a US senator or serve as Secretary of State.  And while I don't agree with every vote she cast or every policy she supported, I really do want to like her.  But I need to see her run a better campaign this time around than she did in 2008.  I need to know where she stands on a number of the issues I care about, and what her plan is for moving this country forward.  In other words, I need her to do what she pledged to do in her campaign video-- I need her to earn my vote, to tell me why voting for her is the right decision. 

But I also need the media, including the pundits and commentators, to do a better job of covering the electoral process.  Even today, much of the scrutiny aimed at female candidates (no matter what their political party) tends to be harsher and more judgmental than what is directed towards male candidates; too often, the coverage focuses on trivial things rather than on issues of substance.  I frankly don't care whether Hillary has wrinkles, or that she has an unusual laugh; the fact that she likes pantsuits rather than skirts is fine with me.  And I truly don't want to hear about Bill's infidelities all over again (as if somehow this was her fault).  Her detractors will haul out the same tired old accusations that began in the 1970s, and use the same distorted quotes.  I've heard that stuff already, as I've heard how she has "baggage"-- but so does just about every politician, so why does that even matter in 2015?  What I want to know, and I assume other voters feel the same, is what's her vision for our country's future, and how would she implement that vision.  More importantly, I want to know what she believes she can do better than Ted Cruz or Rand Paul or whoever else on the Republican side.

Things have improved greatly for women in politics:  it is no longer unusual for women to run successfully for congress, or become mayors and governors.  But not everything has changed.  To cite one example, First Ladies still have problems carving out their own identity: even in our modern age, the public's expectations of what a First Lady should do are quite traditional.  Much like it was in the 1950s, even a woman like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama (or Laura Bush, for that matter), a college graduate who had a successful career before her husband became president, is expected to give up her career and focus on being a wife and mother, as well as finding a "cause" or a charity to occupy her time.   Much of the outrage Hillary evoked in some quarters when she was First Lady in the 1990s resulted from her wanting to participate in policy decisions, rather than accepting the more traditional role.  And now, she is running for president, the ultimate position of power.  Has America changed enough to give her candidacy (or that of any other qualified woman) a fair chance?  I don't know if America is "ready for Hillary"-- I'd like to believe we are, but it's so hard to predict the mood of the American public.  In the next few months, as her campaign progresses, I'll weigh in with further comments.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Internet Giveth, the Internet Taketh Away

There have been times when I thought about running for office. I'm reasonably honest, I care about people, and I might be able to make a difference.  I also think I could pass the vetting process--  unlike some politicians with scandals in their past, my life has been somewhat tame.  I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't use drugs (I really do remember the 60s). I've been married to the same guy for 28 years, haven't broken any laws that I know of, and I even pay my parking tickets, on the rare occasions when I get one. So, it should be smooth sailing for me, am I right?

Actually, no.  Whether I'm honest or kind or law-abiding, to be a successful candidate these days means raising millions of dollars, even for local races. In our post-Citizens United world, when unlimited cash from anonymous billionaires dominates the electoral process, it's almost impossible for an average person like me (average = not a millionaire) to get any traction.  I could have the best message, the best ideas, but without lots of cash, nobody would know I exist.  And even someone with a good reputation can still have enemies-- it doesn't take much to get some folks upset.  Years ago, people who were upset with someone talked about them behind their back or tried to spread rumors.  But that was then.  This is the world of the internet, when one rude remark can travel all over the world, and one accusation can grow to twenty times its size in seconds.  In such a world, anyone can suddenly become the object of scorn.

Politicians know this all too well.  A rude remark by a campaign staffer, a gaffe at an event, even something that never happened but someone claims it did... years ago, you could control the damage or keep it tamped down.  But these days, it doesn't take much to get Twitter, Facebook and the Blogosphere exploding with "the news" of the latest outrage.  Suddenly, the mainstream press is reporting on it, and instead of focusing on your talking points or your message, you are explaining what you really said or what you meant to say or what actually happened.  And then the next outrage occurs, and the next trending topic, and the next.  So not only does today's candidate have to be extremely wealthy (it takes money to fund those attack ads that refute the accusations against you and make accusations against your opponent), but he or she has to be perfect-- never saying anything wrong, never looking upset or impatient, never making an unintended gaffe.  And if a candidate fails in even the slightest way, the online world is ready to take that person to task, instantly and angrily. Personally, I can't imagine why anyone would want to endure the modern political campaign... Perhaps for some, the thought of having power is worth going through all the aggravation.  But as for me, while I like to win, I guess I lack the "killer instinct."  (And I certainly lack the money.) So I guess the "Donna for congress" banners will have to wait.

A final thought on an entirely different matter, although related to the internet world.  This past week, we saw once again the power that the online universe has.  As most of you know, Indiana (and to a lesser extent, Arkansas) became battlegrounds in the debate over so-called "religious freedom" laws.  We can debate the need for such laws, but many of us believe these Orwellian regulations are really about allowing conservative Christian business owners to deny certain services to gay people (I discussed the issue in an earlier post). Wherever you stand on RFRA laws, one story fascinated me:  a woman named Crystal O'Connor, whose family owns a pizza shop in Walkteron, Indiana, told a reporter that as a Christian, she could never cater a same-sex wedding because it violates her religious beliefs.  What happened next, as it often does in stories about the culture wars, was sadly predictable: the online world exploded, at first in outrage over what were perceived as bigoted remarks.  Then the story received news coverage in the mainstream media, and the store owners began to receive death threats; food reviewers trashed the store; endless rude tweets about the owners were posted, etc etc. Memories Pizza had to close due to all of the furor.

But while sometimes the internet attacks, sometimes it defends. A conservative website (The Blaze) and several conservative commentators (including Glenn Beck) led the defense; a GoFundMe page was set up to raise money for the owners, and suddenly, there were numerous comments, tweets, and blog postings in support of Memories Pizza, and their owners' freedom of speech.  In the end, donors raised $800,000 on their behalf. I'm hopeful they will use some of that money for a worthy cause (if they won't feed gay people at a wedding, perhaps they can donate pizza to the poor or the homeless?); but I found myself somewhat glad the story had a happy ending for the pizza shop:  don't get me wrong; I don't agree with their views on gay marriage.  But I also don't agree with outrage and rudeness (on both side, I might add) whenever someone says something controversial.  Death threats because you don't agree with someone?  Really?  I wish the owners felt differently about marriage equality, but they did have the right to express their feelings. That said, I hope there won't be too much gloating over what seems to be a win for the conservative point of view.  Public opinion can turn all too quickly.  In the online world, it doesn't take much to go from a hero to a clown... or from a clown back to a hero.  The internet giveth, the internet taketh away.