Thursday, November 30, 2017

Who Are the Role Models These Days?

First, a comment or two about politics; but it's related to something that has been bothering me:  famous men behaving badly.  Yesterday, President Trump, who often complains about "fake news," tweeted out some inaccurate videos that claimed to show Muslims in acts of violence; he got the images from a far-right British organization known for spreading anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant messages. The president never bothered to find out if the videos were fact-based (several were not) before he sent them to his many followers, much to the dismay of some members of congress, American diplomats, and even the Prime Minister of England.  As might be expected, Mr. Trump's press secretary defended his sending out false videos, because "the threat is real."  The threat of what, I wanted to ask:  as I see it, the threat is from a president who regularly sends out inflammatory messages, just to please his base and perpetuate his own biases.

I have never understood why Mr. Trump thinks rudeness is a good thing. He uses Twitter to name-call, stoke resentment and outrage, spread conspiracy theories, and insult anyone he personally dislikes.  I find this behavior very disconcerting, and very un-presidential.  In all the years I've been alive, I've never seen a president act this way, just like I've never seen a president curse in public (as Mr. Trump did when expressing his anger at NFL football players who kneel during the anthem) or accuse the media of being "the enemy of the American people," or say that news networks like CNN, and more recently NBC, deserve to be investigated. Third-world dictators talk this way, not American presidents.  And yet, his supporters love and defend this behavior, for reasons I truly don't understand.     

But before some of my readers claim I'm just another "lib" who hates the president, this isn't just about President Trump.  Yes, he's the most recent example of famous men getting in the news for all the wrong reasons.  But as I mentioned in my previous blog post, this is absolutely NOT partisan, and it's not entirely political. Consider all the stories over the past several months about various indiscretions and outrageous behaviors by men in both political parties, as well as some members of the media. The biggest names recently were Al Franken, John Conyers, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Joe Barton, and Roy Moore, but there were plenty of others. Some of them, sad to say, have had their defenders; but for the most part, large numbers of us have become frustrated at the wealthy and privileged men who feel they can do whatever they want and get away with it.

It all started me thinking about if there are public figures we can still look up to.  Many of us grew up admiring some of the folks we saw on TV-- I remember my parents admired Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, for example.  I personally admired Pope John 23rd for taking a strong stand against antisemitism in the church.  Perhaps you recall Justice Thurgood Marshall or Senator Jacob Javits, or pro athletes like Roberto Clemente and Ted Williams, all of whom devoted much time and energy to causes that helped the less fortunate.  And although I didn't agree with Ronald Reagan's politics, I thought his devotion to his wife Nancy (and hers to him) was commendable.

Okay fine, perhaps if there were 24/7 cable TV and social media back then, we might have learned that some of these folks had many more faults than we were told about.  But my point is that these days, we're at the other extreme: every day, we learn that yet another famous person or political leader isn't what we thought they were. So many movie and TV stars, athletes, talk show hosts, and political figures turn out to be crude, petty, greedy, and self-centered, or they're in the news for sexually harassing someone.  Now and then, there's a feel-good story (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle seems to be one lately), but these past few months have given us example after example of high-profile folks who were brought down by their own bad behavior.

I'm generally an optimist, so I'd like to believe there are some famous people who really do take their marriage vows seriously, or don't claim to be religious while secretly breaking the majority of the ten commandments, or who really are compassionate and it's not just an act.  One of the things I've always admired about the rock group Rush was that success never spoiled them, and they remained family men, rather than getting caught up in the "rock star lifestyle."  So, I'd be interested in your suggestions for famous people you respect and admire, not because they're in your political party or you loved their latest hit movie; but because they have a history of trying to make the world a better place. I hope you can give me some names, as I'd like a little good news for a change!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Al Franken, Roy Moore and the Dangers of Partisanship

I was disappointed, but not surprised, that my Republican friends were almost gleeful about the accusations leveled by a female talk show host against Senator Al Franken. Given all the negative reports about Alabama Republican Roy Moore, I'm sure they felt a sense of relief. Now, they could say "See? Your side does it too!!!"

But that's exactly what's wrong with the conversation up to this point. It's become a predictable exercise in tribalism: my guy couldn't possibly have done such a thing, but your guy is absolutely guilty.  Republicans want to re-litigate Bill Clinton, or point the finger at Al Franken.  Democrats want to demand a reckoning for Donald Trump or focus on the many sins of Roy Moore.  Too many folks on each side are certain that the other side is lying, or that the women speaking about what was done to them are not victims at all-- they're just frauds with partisan motives.

Unfortunately, lost in all of the partisan defenses of "our guy" is this fact:  a lot of powerful men, in politics and entertainment and even the clergy, have behaved in a disrespectful way towards women; and up to a couple of months ago, most have gotten away with it.  Many professions have been dominated by men who regarded women as intruders-- these guys wanted to run the company like their own boys club, and women were not welcome (or were grudgingly tolerated). Yes, women who were pretty and knew their place could get hired; but they could also be subjected to crude comments and rude behavior-- and nothing would be done to help them if they complained.

True story:  I worked at a radio station where the guys would go off to the conference room to watch porn.  True story:  I worked at another radio station where a drunken rock star grabbed my breast and laughed (he will remain nameless because he did apologize years later, after he got sober); unfortunately, the guys standing there watching also laughed... I didn't think it was so funny, but there was nothing I could do about it.  When I hear women telling similar stories, I don't think "Wow, they must be lying." I think "Wow, a lot of us really did endure the same things." 

I don't know (nor did I even think about) the political party of the music business executive who tried to force himself on me during what was supposed to a job interview. But I do know that even 40 years later, talking about it is painful.  Defending Roy Moore, a right-wing provocateur, Dinesh D'Souza, said on Twitter that any woman who still cries about something that happened forty years ago is performing (or lying). I was doing neither, Dinesh. I was reliving something I hadn't talked about in years, and remembering it was not pleasant.  Being as partisan as you are, I wouldn't expect you to understand.

But some things aren't partisan, or they shouldn't be.  Some things are wrong.  They're wrong if a Democrat does them, and they're wrong if a Republican does them.  They're wrong if the guy thought he was being funny, and they're wrong if the guy thought he was the boss and had a right to act this way.  We can ignore the women (or demonize and mock them), we can pretend everything is fine and someone from "our side" would never do such things; or we can think about ethics and values:  many folks claim they care about morality, but they make excuses for men who think fondling a woman without her permission is funny, as long as those men are in the right political party or working in the right position of power.

So, before everyone retreats to their corners, I hope folks, especially the skeptics and doubters, will recognize what is happening in this moment-- why are so many women, in all walks of life, deciding it's okay to tell their story?  And ask yourself honestly if your company, and your workplace, is a safe and welcoming place for female employees.  It's nearly the end of 2017, and too many of us have suffered in silence for far too long.  If some folks continue to see this as just a bunch of lies from women with partisan agendas, we'll still be having this conversation next year, and the year after that; and an important opportunity to create positive change will have passed us by one more time.