Sunday, April 24, 2016

Why Paul LePage is Wrong about Addiction

There are times when politicians completely mystify me.  I'm not naive:  I've been a broadcaster and a news reporter, and I've taught Political Communication for a while, so the exaggerated claims or the promises that are impossible to keep don't shock me. I understand that during primaries especially, candidates need to say what they think their audience wants to hear.  But there are certain times when politicians who are not in campaign mode make a statement that is so outrageous, or so cruel, that I have a difficult time wondering how they sleep at night.

Exhibit A is the current Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage.  Maine has tended to be a purple state:  even its Republican members of congress are generally moderate.  But Governor LePage seems to pride himself on being somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun.  This is the same governor who has claimed that immigrants bring diseases to his state (not much evidence of that, by the way); who has asserted that black drug dealers come to Maine to impregnate innocent white girls and get them hooked on drugs (police statistics have noted that nearly every drug dealer arrested in Maine has been white); and who once said he would like to "tell Obama to go to hell."  This seems to make him very popular with some conservatives, but I doubt that his latest action will win him much praise:  he just decided to block bipartisan legislation that would provide a life-saving medication called Naloxone (better known as Narcan) to addicts who have overdosed on opioids.  Narcan gives the addict a second chance at life, and that may be one good reason why legislators from both parties unanimously passed a bill to make it more readily available to pharmacists (who would now be able to dispense it without a prescription); these Maine politicians recognized, as legislators in about thirty other states did, that addicts need treatment rather than punishment.

But for Governor LePage, addicts are criminals, and that's all there is to it.  Not only that, but he believes taking drugs is a choice, so those who do it must suffer the consequences.  In other words, the thousands of Mainers addicted to drugs don't deserve to be helped if they overdose, since they're inevitably going to go right back and do the same thing the next time.  He said as much when he vetoed the bill:  “Naloxone does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose.  Creating a situation where an addict has a heroin needle in one hand and a shot of Naloxone in the other produces a sense of normalcy and security around heroin use that serves only to perpetuate the cycle of addiction.”

I find those comments both ill-informed and heartless.  I have never done drugs, but I've lost a number of music industry colleagues to addiction; some of them were people I really liked a lot, and if there had been a medication to save their life, I would have been glad to see them get another chance.  I understand that many addicts do go back to using again, and as a former counselor, I have seen how frustrating it is to try to treat people who still do not accept that they have a problem.  But while I saw first-hand that many addicts were not about to quit, I also saw some who were fed up with their life and determined to make a positive change.  And yes, there were success stories:  several friends of mine have been clean and sober for years, and one of them even decided to get a Master's degree in counseling in order to help other addicts.

Believe me, I am not trying to minimize the problem of drug abuse in our society -- I am well aware that addicts steal, they lie, they disappoint those they love.  And yes, many addicts will be back on the street using again.  But as I said, there are always exceptions; there are always some who know they need to stop, some who desperately want to get clean and sober.  I would hate to write off an entire group of people, since it's impossible to predict whether this time, the addict is serious about seeking treatment.  Shakespeare said "the readiness is all," so perhaps this time, the person will be ready to turn his or her life around.

But not in Paul LePage's world.   Governor LePage's message to addicts seems to be "you made your bed, and now you can lie in it."  One wonders if he would say that to someone in his own family.  One wonders if he would say that to a grieving parent whose child overdosed and was unable to get the medication that would reverse it.  In many states, governors are realizing that just locking up addicts, or demonizing them, doesn't help them to change.  But Governor LePage seems happy in his black and white world, where there are no shades of gray-- just good guys and bad guys; a world where people who suffer from addiction can expect neither compassion nor mercy.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why Can't We Put Our Differences Aside?

Back in 1998, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen wrote a book I've always liked. It's called "The Argument Culture:  Moving from Debate to Dialogue," and in it, she talks about how our discussions are increasingly "agonistic"-- that is, they display what Tannen calls "a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.''  Examples of agonism are all too prevalent in daily life, where even the simplest disagreements can escalate into the verbal equivalent of World War III.  We can find plenty of agonistic behavior on cable TV and talk radio, where members from each side shout at their opponent as if the other side is utterly insane and unworthy of being heard. We can also find examples of argument culture when fans debate their favorite rock band, or when partisans debate hot button issues like abortion or immigration.  Even online, it doesn't take long for what started as an exchange of viewpoints to spiral out of control and become a series of mean tweets or angry Facebook postings (I assume there are now emojis for varying levels of disgust or contempt).

The other day, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders went to Rome to speak at a conference; while by all accounts, Senator Sanders is a non-religious Jew, he has great admiration for the work of Pope Francis in speaking out about climate change and global poverty. The senator has said he disagrees with the pope on theology, but he sees the good in what the pope is trying to do as an advocate for social justice.  After he gave his talk at the conference, the senator and his wife (who was raised Catholic) were able to have a brief meeting with the pope-- an exciting and unexpected event that was a high point in the visit. (While the senator has met many famous people over the years, meeting a pope is undoubtedly a unique experience, no matter what religion you might be.)

The online and cable TV criticisms began almost immediately:  he was trying to distract from the fact that he is losing to Hillary Clinton; he was pandering to the Catholic vote; he praised a man who opposes marriage equality and has other controversial moral stands; he shouldn't have gone to the conference in the first place.  I took a different view of it all-- and no, I am not speaking as one of Bernie's partisans. Rather, I saw what he did as typical of him-- he took the opportunity to participate in a conference on global economic issues, a subject he cares deeply about.  As for his excitement at meeting the pope, I met Ronald Reagan once and while I wasn't a fan and I never voted for him, being in the same room as a sitting US President was pretty exciting, I have to admit.    

More importantly, I thought there was a good lesson in what occurred:  Senator Sanders has some very real disagreements with the pope, yet he also sees some important areas of agreement.  Rather than being an absolutist, he focused on what was good about Pope Francis, instead of dismissing him because he can't agree with everything the man says.  And I am not just singling out Senator Sanders.  I know a number of good folks, some of whom are friends of mine on social media, who have very strong views on the issues, views that differ from mine; yet they are able to resist the temptation to turn every discussion into an argument. It's a trait that I admire.

Unfortunately, as I've noted in previous blogs, that trait is all too rare.  But wouldn't it be a nice change of pace if we could resist the tendency to be part of the argument culture?  How difficult would it be to just be happy for someone, even someone we may not always agree with, when something good happens in their life?  I may not be a big fan of the pope, but I'm glad that Bernie Sanders got to meet him.  I may not be a big fan of Donald Trump, but I know people who have attended an event and told me how excited they were to be there.  My point is that life is short, and we seem to occupy so much of it with annoyance and frustration.  I wish we could put the agonistic behavior aside even for a few minutes, and just let someone's happy moment be there, without feeling the urge to criticize it.  Contrary to the combative way too many ideas are presented in the media, not everything needs to turn into an argument.  Sometimes, the right thing to do is to share in the other person's happiness.  There will be plenty of time for argument later on. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Steve Miller Was Right

When I was a rock and roll disc jockey, I always liked the Steve Miller Band, largely due to its versatility. The band's music during the '60s and '70s ran the gamut:  "Living in the USA," "Brave New World," "Going to the Country" and "Space Cowboy" were widely played by the album rock stations where I worked, while "Fly Like an Eagle" and "The Joker" were big at top-40.  And then, in the early 80s, Steve reinvented himself with dance-music hits like "Abracadabra," a song that went to #1 on the pop charts.  Miller also ran into radio censorship with his 1977 song "Jet Airliner"-- the original album version included one line with a certain four letter word (the one that begins with sh- and rhymes with "hit")-- but the radio version substituted the word "kicks" instead, keeping the airwaves pure for yet another day.

Given his long and productive career, I was pleased when I learned Steve Miller would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  But then, while he was backstage, he decided to give his opinion about the Rock Hall, and some people were shocked by what he said.  I was not one of them.  While I understand that some of his frustration was because his band-members were not given free tickets to the ceremony and the Rock Hall used some of his work without a signed agreement giving permission, I thought the rest of his rant was totally on-point.

For example, he spoke of a flawed, unpleasant and arbitrary process, one that ignores talented and very qualified artists and provides no reason for the decisions the judges make.  And while he did not elaborate on those flaws, I can totally empathize as a Rush fan.  Look at how many years Rush got ignored-- excluded time and time again, while artists with fewer accomplishments were inducted. I am not taking anything away from many of the wonderful performers who did get in-- but Rush should not have been kept out for so many years.

At some point, the guys in Rush made their peace with the fact that certain of the judges (and, it was rumored, Jann Wenner himself) hated the band and refused to even consider them.  It took some of the old guard retiring and/or being replaced by some newer judges before things changed and Rush finally got a fair hearing.  (And trust me, many of us-- myself among them-- had tried for YEARS to get the judges to change their minds, without much success.)  When Alex gave his hilarious "blah-blah-blah" speech at the award ceremony, I couldn't help but think it referred not only to inductees who gave endlessly long and boring acceptance speeches (talking to you, Quincy Jones); it referred to all the naysayers who for years had given ridiculous excuses for why Rush did not deserve to be in the Rock Hall.

And yet, even today, you and I can name plenty of bands who are still being ignored.  We don't know why-- while the fans can vote, the criteria the judges use are mysterious.  They seem not to like certain genres, and as Steve Miller pointed out, they also seem not to induct many female performers.  And while I know his comments are being portrayed rather negatively in some publications, I'm glad he pointed out once again what I have always wondered:  what is the reason why certain bands with long and impressive track records are still being ignored, year after year?  I never understood why it took Rush so long to get the respect they deserved, and my hat's off to Steve Miller for asking that same question about some other very deserving bands.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Equal Pay for Women: Still a Controversial Idea

I never realized until about 1979 that throughout my radio career, I was paid less than my male colleagues for doing the same job-- and not just paid a few dollars less, but paid substantially less.  When I first started out, I didn't know that; I assumed that my low salary was because I was inexperienced. I had no way of knowing that inexperienced guys were offered a higher starting salary than I was.  And then I found out.

I don't remember the exact circumstances, but I do recall the way it unfolded. I was a music director (and assistant program director) at a very powerful AM station, back when AM radio was still influential.  I was having a casual conversation with my FM counterpart one day, and he mentioned he was asking his boss for a raise.  Somehow, his weekly salary came up in conversation and I was shocked to learn he was making more than $200 a week above what I was being paid.  We both had the same amount of experience (in fact, I had a little bit more), we both did the same work, our stations were both owned by the same company.  And yet, he got a bigger weekly paycheck than I did.  Needless to say, I was not amused.

So, I went to the station's general manager and asked why I was making less than Bob was.  He looked at me as if I had said something utterly ridiculous.  "But Donna," he replied, "you're making excellent money for a woman."  I reminded him that I didn't get a discount on my rent for being a woman, nor a discount on any of my other bills, so why would I want a discount on my pay?  He seemed unconvinced that this could be an issue. "Don't forget," he went on, "that Bob has a family to support, and you don't." And as if that weren't enough, he added, "I know your boyfriend, and he makes a good salary; so I'm sure you don't really need as much money as Bob does."

There are few things in life that render me speechless-- I am, after all, a former d.j. and an experienced public speaker; but at that point, I didn't know what to say. And when I had some conversations with other women in broadcasting, I found many had similar stories to mine.  But as I said, this was back in the 1970s and 1980s.  So, surely things must have dramatically improved since then, am I right?  Well, as it turns out, not exactly.

As New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller noted several weeks ago, "Women... are now better educated than men, have nearly as much work experience and are equally likely to pursue many high-paying careers... [but] women's median annual earnings stubbornly remain about 20 percent below men’s."  And her article was not based on opinion--she found plenty of data to support her assertions.  For example, researchers who analyzed census data and wages have found a troubling phenomenon:  whenever women enter a previously all-male field in increasing numbers, the pay in that field soon declines; conversely, whenever a field that had previously been dominated by women begins to admit more men, the pay goes up.

At times it seems to me that society still believes what women do just isn't as important (or as valuable) as what men do. There's still a perception that if a woman can do it, it can't be all that difficult.  Okay fine, there are more women in science, more women in medicine, more women in law and politics than there were when I was growing up. That's a good thing.  But studies suggest that even though we talk a great game of equality, women in these fields are still being paid less than the men they work alongside, even when they are keeping the same hours and doing the same jobs. 

And then there's women's sports-- I've argued on social media that the way the mainstream press ignores even the best women's college teams (like the University of Connecticut's championship Lady Huskies basketball team) is unfair.  True, the men play a more "in your face" kind of game, with lots of slam-dunks and trash talking; but the way the women play the game is far from dull. The best of the women's teams display an impressive level of skill and athleticism; and believe me, the Lady Huskies could give some of the men's teams a run for their money.  Yet all the attention goes to the NCAA Men's Finals, and year after year, the women are treated as an afterthought.

Thus, I was not surprised when five members of the US Women's Soccer team decided to file a complaint against the US Soccer Federation, demanding equal pay with their male counterparts.
It's not a frivolous complaint:  the US women, who have won more games over all, won three World Cups, and attracted huge TV ratings, are paid an average of $99,000 annually; the US men, who have repeatedly been eliminated from the World Cup, earn $263,000.  The women's team received a $2 million bonus for winning the World Cup; the men's team, which made it to the round of 16 and were then eliminated, still earned a bonus of $9 million.

I don't know about you, but I find these numbers outrageous.  And the fact that we are still having this conversation in 2016 is equally outrageous to me.  I've heard all the reasons about why it's okay to pay women less than men under certain circumstances, but what about if the woman is doing exactly the same job (and in some cases doing it better)?  Could someone please explain why giving women equal pay for equal work is still such a controversial idea?