Sunday, October 31, 2021

Where Politics Doesn't Belong

When I tell my students I'm 74, they're often surprised-- fortunately, I'm still reasonably young-looking, but that's not what surprises them. Many of them don't know (or talk to) a lot of people who grew up in the 1950s.  And for obvious reasons, their picture of that time in our history is somewhat different from mine. Theirs was shaped by the news stories they learned about in history class, along with the iconic figures they studied. Mine was shaped by being there and seeing a lot of it unfold in real time-- although I admit I didn't always understand the importance of it all, because I was not quite in my teens.  

It's no myth to say the fifties were a very conservative and traditional era, where conformity was valued; it was a time when young people used rock music as one of their few forms of rebellion.  Fortunately for me, I had parents who encouraged me to read, and who discussed current issues with me; it made me feel very grown up to do that.  In fact, I still remember watching the evening news and then talking about it, especially with my mother.

But here's what we didn't talk about: politics. Now, I know what you are thinking: "But Donna, if you watched the news, the president (Dwight D. Eisenhower) was a Republican. And the governor of Massachusetts was a Democrat (Foster Furcolo)." That's true-- but I had no idea that one was good and the other was bad. In my house, we focused on what these people did, not what party they were from. I got the impression that my family tended to vote for Democrats, but on the other hand, sometimes, they liked Republicans. And I was a kid, and that was fine with me.

I had no idea what political party our family doctor came from-- I just knew he seemed like a very friendly and trustworthy guy and my parents liked him.  At the synagogue we attended, I had no clue who the rabbi voted for; he mainly spoke about the scriptures and about living an ethical life.  Frankly, it never occurred to me that I should know his political views.  Nor did I know the political views of our dentist or the pharmacist or the Kosher butcher or the milkman (they still delivered milk to your home back then).  Some of them were outgoing, some of them seemed totally focused on business; some seemed to like kids, and others regarded kids as a nuisance. But none of these folks talked about politics with the customers. Ever.

And as for my teachers-- most seemed very traditional and very serious.  They didn't like rock music, and they expected us to conform to whatever the norms were back then. Some were nice, some were strict, but I couldn't tell you who their favorite candidates were. Similarly, my mother would go to PTA and meet with various teachers, but nobody screamed at anyone. Disagreements were handled, but everyone was expected to be polite.  I'm not claiming it was an ideal universe where everyone loved everyone else-- my mother belonged to several volunteer organizations, and I'm sure there was plenty of pettiness and gossiping, as there is in every generation. But again, nobody shouted at the board members, nobody issued threats, nobody stormed out and promised to return with a gun.    

Today, I heard about a Southwest Airlines pilot who made an anti-Joe Biden remark over the loudspeaker. For months, in various states, I've been reading about school board meetings where people have been showing up to express their outrage at one thing or another, shouting at board members and calling them vulgar names.  I've seen videos of high school sporting events where parents are cursing out the referees, or cursing out the coaches. And this has been going on for a while. Some people want to blame the Democrats. Others want to blame the Republicans. Or Facebook. Or Twitter.  Or the pandemic. Fill in your favorite villain. 

But as for me, I blame a shift in the culture. And one problem is the need for some boundaries-- there ought to be spaces where politics doesn't belong, where everything isn't about what tribe you're in and which candidate you support. I absolutely do not miss the conformity or the casual bigotry I saw in the 50s. But I do miss being able to interact with people as people-- not as folks with the right views or folks who supported the right party. I'm tired of the anger, the rudeness, the divisiveness, the blame. And I'm really tired of the pundits who claim it's all the fault of [fill in the blank]. 

No, it's on each of us-- to say enough is enough and stop treating even the slightest disagreement like it's going to lead to World War 3. It's on each of us to model courtesy and show kids they can disagree without hating the "other side." But above all, it's on each of us to stop weaponizing our political differences. I want to be able to go into a store or take a plane ride or attend a ballgame without hearing vulgar political chants.  So yes, by all means, vote for the candidates you believe in, vote for the causes that animate you. But don't go on social media and mock the folks who didn't support "your side."  Let's stop making everything about politics. It's not doing anyone any good... and it's doing our country a lot of harm. 




Friday, October 15, 2021

The People who Inspire Us

The other day, I got some folks on social media upset with me when I said that I never understood the popularity of Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, who are basically famous for being famous.  A number of fans of Kim K leaped to her defense-- even though I wasn't really attacking her. They told me she has done great work in prison reform, to cite one example. As I understand it, that's a fairly recent cause for her; but no matter how long she has done it, I'm certainly glad she is using her wealth and fame to do some good in the world.  However, that wasn't my point.  I was just musing about how some celebrities (both male and female) have no particular accomplishments other than being well-known, and yet they are adored by millions of folks -- and I can't understand why.  

I am sure that the folks who took me to task for insulting her (or seeming to insult her) are sincere when they say they find her inspirational. But I must admit I don't share their views. I generally don't find most celebrities to be inspirational. Entertaining? Yes. Nice people, in some cases? Yes. But inspirational? Not usually.  I spent four decades in media, as most of you know, and I met my share of famous people-- movie  and TV stars, radio deejays, athletes, and many well-known musicians. I've got lots of great memories and lots of great stories. But very few of the folks that I met were a source of inspiration for me-- even if I was impressed with their achievements.

There were a few exceptions, of course. The three members of Rush are an inspiration to many of us-- these guys worked their way up from nothing, spending long days and nights on the road perfecting their craft, and when they did become famous, they remained the same down-to-earth, kind people as when I first met them. They were charitable before, and they remained charitable-- but they rarely let anyone know. I also found Dolly Parton inspirational for the same reason-- she too worked her way up from nothing, and even after she became a household name, she never really changed who she was.  When I met her, she was remarkably humble; she never acted like someone who takes herself too seriously. 

But for the most part, while there have been a number of celebrities I liked and admired, I've generally found my inspiration from people most of you have never met-- and probably have never heard of.  Last week, I gave a talk for the Antique Wireless Association, about the women of early amateur (and commercial) radio. If you didn't see it, it's here:  Most of these women never became famous. Most never became rich. But their contributions to broadcasting were often groundbreaking. I never forget that I am standing on their shoulders: if they had not had the courage to pursue what was a mostly all-male profession, the industry might never have opened its doors to me years later. 

I find what my grandparents did very inspirational-- imagine the challenges of coming to a new country, where you don't speak the language; escaping prejudice in the old country and trying to create a better future for your children in a land where you don't know anyone and you aren't always welcomed. What my immigrant ancestors did never made them rich or famous or popular. But thanks to their courage, and the determination of my own parents, I'm able to tell this story.

Most of all, I find inspiration in people who have spent their lives trying to make the world a better place: the teachers, the social workers, the folks who advocate for human rights, the first responders... these are people who don't believe it's all about them, who are determined to do their part because it's the right thing to do... even when it seems nobody notices.

SO, that's all I meant. Yes, I applaud the great athletes and the famous performers. But every day, quietly, the good deeds of people who receive far too little appreciation keep our world going. And without any insult intended to your favorite athlete, movie star, or YouTube celebrity, I wonder why as a culture, we often praise the already-famous and ignore the folks who are really doing what matters. So, to all the folks who are making a difference, my thanks and my gratitude. Perhaps you'll never become famous-- but then again, maybe you don't want to be.