Tuesday, November 30, 2021

First Ladies Get No Respect

Well, evidently Jill Biden is a failure, at least according to about 50% of the folks online: her Christmas decorations are boring and ordinary. Her holiday decorating skills pale in comparison to Melania Trump, whose Christmas decorations were elegant and beautiful. Or not. According to about 50% of the folks online, Melania's Christmas decorations were gawdy and ostentatious. "Tacky," said one critic.

I'm Jewish and I don't much care about Christmas decorations, but as a media historian, I do care about what is written or said about First Ladies. And even though it's 2021, it certainly seems like we still hold First Ladies to an impossible standard. People criticize what they wear. People criticize the charities they favor. And if they make a comment about current events, people criticize their opinion-- or say they should keep it to themselves.    

None of this is new, of course. Back in the 1860s, Mary Todd Lincoln was accused by critics of being greedy and selfish, someone who cared more about spending money than setting a good example for thrift and prudence.  As popular as Eleanor Roosevelt was in the 1930s, she had detractors who accused her of trying to get too much attention from the press, rather than staying in the background.  Fast-forward to the 1980s, and accusations of being a big spender were often made about Nancy Reagan (who was also mocked for her belief in astrology). And when Hillary Clinton was First Lady in the 1990s, her critics said she wasn't ladylike, and they accused her of being pushy, manipulative, and dishonest.  

And I notice that Kamala Harris, our first female Vice President, is being subjected to the same kinds of critiques on social media as First Ladies often receive.  She was recently criticized for buying an expensive cooking pot (the same brand, I might add, that I bought a few years ago-- it does a wonderful job). I truly don't recall male vice presidents getting their purchases critiqued. Does anyone know what Mike Pence bought? Did anyone care?  

On the one hand, we have made some progress-- Dr. Jill Biden (who has also been criticized for wanting to use "Dr.," her professional title) is the first First Lady to hold down a paying job in addition to being First Lady. I'm fine about First Ladies working for pay-- there were many in years past who had excellent credentials but were never allowed to choose whether to work or not. The fact that Mrs. Biden still teaches at a community college is not as controversial it might have been as recently as a decade ago.  

And yet, some folks insist on having a debate over whose Christmas decorations are best, and I wonder why that's even a thing worth discussing. Frankly, I don't think it is. Nor do I think comparing which First Lady is "more glamorous" is useful.  I think these social media discussions are simply a proxy for whether some folks prefer Joe Biden or Donald Trump. 

As for me, I just want to see First Ladies get some respect. Theirs is not an easy job: they get all the scrutiny and criticism, yet they aren't elected, they don't make policy, and their own popularity is often tied to their husband's. In this holiday season, I don't care if Melania or Jill or whoever else wears nicer clothes or hangs up nicer decorations. I just want to see people take a break from sniping and criticizing, and focus on helping others and being kind. Historically, First Ladies haven't always been treated with kindness. Maybe this year is a good time to start.

Monday, November 15, 2021

A Place Where We Can Belong

As some of you know, I used to be a chaplain. I was teaching media courses at Emerson College in Boston at the time, and my job was to be a support person for the Jewish students. There was a Catholic chaplain, and a Protestant chaplain, and a Muslim chaplain, and I think there was a Hindu chaplain too. The regular Jewish chaplain needed a semester off due to illness, and since I had a counseling background (and since I was Jewish), I got asked to fill in. 

Our offices were near each other, and we all had a cordial relationship. In fact, there was nothing particularly remarkable about that semester...except for the fact that everyone who came to see me wasn't Jewish. No, it's not that they wanted to convert. In fact, most of the students who reached out didn't seem to care which denomination of chaplain was available-- they just needed someone to talk to, someone who had a spiritual background.  Fortunately, I've taught world religions, and I do understand the basic tenets of most faiths. I hope that I was able to comfort or encourage the students who came to see me. After all, it's the same God, even if each of our traditions recommends different pathways or uses different scriptures.

What brought this to mind is a rather unpleasant trend I've been noticing among some folks on the far right, both in Europe and in the US. There has been a troubling resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiments in Hungary, in Poland, in Lithuania, and elsewhere.  And we even saw examples of it here in 2017, in Charlottesville VA, when Neo-Nazis marched with their torches, chanting "Jews will not replace us"-- reflecting a false belief called "Replacement Theory" that teaches how Jews are allegedly bringing in millions of non-white immigrants, with the goal of changing the culture and destroying all that white Christians built. (Various permutations of this theory have been around for generations, but thanks to social media, bigots have a much easier time spreading it and finding like-minded individuals who will embrace hatred of Jews, or immigrants, or anyone considered "the other.")  

Last week, a conservative provocateur on social media tweeted that it was time for Jews to "assimilate," to prove they were like everyone else by embracing Christian holidays and ceasing to observe Jewish ones. Needless to say, a lot of us were not amused-- I mean, I'm as American as anyone else, thank you very much. I was born here, as were my parents; my father fought for this country, as did most of my male relatives. And if I celebrate Jewish holidays, I'm still an American.  In fact, one reason why my ancestors came here was because we are guaranteed freedom of religion. I don't need to "prove" that I love America by taking on someone else's religion. I am free to be an American, no matter what religious tradition I follow. Or so I was taught.

But then, several days ago, Michael Flynn, an ally and advisor to the former president, spoke at a rally staged by Christian conservatives in Texas, and he stated, to applause from his audience, that "If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God, right?"  Umm, no. Wrong. The Founding Fathers didn't ask for one official religion, and even if it's an applause line at certain events, asserting that America needs to establish Christianity and diminish all other faiths is not in the Constitution.

It's also not a belief I want to see again. I wasn't fond of that kind of bigotry when I was growing up in the 1950s, and it isn't a belief that has aged well. And yet, today, there are websites and videos that promote it, and evidently there are some people who think it's a great idea. I'm not one of them. I hope you're not either. America has long benefited from different beliefs and different perspectives. Agreed, finding common ground isn't always easy when it comes to certain theological issues; but just like when I was a chaplain, sometimes the goal should be giving people encouragement and helping them to find their own path. 

There's no right way to do that. But telling some of us we don't belong here, or that our beliefs are inferior (or unwanted), is not a helpful message.  In such a contentious world, having allies is very important: so, even if you're not Jewish, when you hear folks making bigoted remarks, or see them posting those kinds of claims on social media, I hope you'll let them know that you don't accept what they're saying. Maybe you and I don't agree on politics, or religion, or which sports team is the best. But surely we can agree on this: there should be no place for intolerance and religious prejudice in America. Not now. Not ever.