The Upside Down

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The_Upside_Down_-_Public_Library_(exterior)I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the plot of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things revolves around the Upside Down, a shadowy world that lurks beneath the ordinary world in which the characters live. The Upside Down resembles the real world, but something very out of the ordinary resides there.

The Upside Down is a good metaphor for the American scene today. While the surface looks the same and the sun rises and sets in the way it always has, the fabric of American society is dark, frayed, and oozing corruption.

Take our climate. Despite huge ice melts in Antarctica, rising sea levels, and an upsurge in cataclysmic storms across the globe, the Trump Administration persists in its denials that climate change is real and continues to push the consumption of fossil fuels, a practice that scientists the world over agree has contributed to the warming of the Earth. We can’t see all the storm clouds gathering in the Upside Down, but they are indeed there.

On the economic front, Paul Ryan is leading the charge on so-called tax reform, which is really just a giant handout to the rich masquerading as tax relief for the middle class. The “zombie-eyed granny starver” is stomping around in the Upside Down and preparing to chew on the meager earnings of senior citizens and the poor. And if he’s really lucky, he will eliminate health care for millions of lower income Americans at the same time. A twofer!

Along with widening the divide between the haves and have nots, our government is insidiously eroding our freedoms. Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the press have been designed to discredit negative media reports about him and his administration. Meanwhile, in the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has clamped down on news leaks and is reviewing department policy on subpoenaing reporters, both of which may have a chilling effect on investigating corruption. Sessions has also backed away from the Obama era mandates on police reform, promoted tougher sentencing on non-violent drug offenses, and renewed the war on marijuana at a time when states have begun recognizing its medical usefulness and relative benignity as compared to opioids and other drugs.

It seems that big business is the shadow monster that lurks in the American Upside Down these days. The proposed tax bill, the push to help the coal and oil industries, the deregulation of financial institutions, and, most recently, FCC indications that net neutrality may become a thing of the past – all favor the moneyed interests in America and, indeed, the president’s own businesses themselves. Yet for all the howling about Hillary Clinton’s supposed conflicts of interest as Secretary of State, I don’t hear many complaints about policies that will make Trump and his family even richer.

But for me, the most disturbing aspect of this upside down world is the abdication of character and moral responsibility. And our president, Donald Trump, lurks at the center  of the morass. His complete disregard for women, minorities, and even the disabled; his petty squabbles with anyone who dares criticize him; his constant self-aggrandizing boasts and outright lies – they all create a primordial slime that makes the Upside Down seem dainty and quaint. Since Donald Trump became president, incidences of racially motivated hate crimes have skyrocketed. White supremacists have become emboldened to march with torches and riot gear and hurl hateful racial epithets with impunity. And for all Trump’s howling over sexual abuse allegations against prominent Democrats such as Harvey Weinstein and Sen. Al “Frankenstien” [sic], he has shown no interest in condemning a serial child molester, instead tacitly encouraging voters to make Moore the new senator from Alabama.

I find it especially ironic that Trump would liken Sen. Franken to a well-known literary and movie monster. With Trump’s own questionable business dealings and sexual history, I guess I’d have to say, it takes one to know one.

 

 

 

 

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The Leftovers

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Thanksgiving-Table-Setting-Featured-ImageI never realized that some people dislike Thanksgiving until I read Rex Huppke’s column in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. To me, Thanksgiving is the “un-holiday” with its emphasis on family togetherness, gratitude, and good food. Huppke’s objections to Thanksgiving mostly stem from his dislike of the traditional foods prepared on this day.

That got me to thinking. Everyone seems to have a favorite dish on Thanksgiving. You might be a meat-loving purist who goes for triple helpings of bird and then falls into an L-tryptophan-induced coma on Grandma’s couch. You might love stuffing, but only the kind your mom used to make (Begone, sausage and nuts!). You might be like me, the inveterate sweet tooth, pigging out on sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.

The question is, what Thanksgiving foods do you most hope become leftovers? That’s the other entirely wonderful thing about Thanksgiving – the leftovers. After a day spent eating, drinking, and watching football (and not arguing politics, let’s hope), it’s great fun to peruse the leftover pickings the next day: the turkey just begging to be made into a sandwich with some of that cranberry sauce on top; the multiple pies brought by various guests; the soft rolls that sat sort of neglected while other foods took yesterday’s stage.

At my mother-in-law’s, where my family spends each Thanksgiving, there are some delicious Middle Eastern additions to the traditional Thanksgiving banquet. Alongside the turkey, there are usually a curry dish of some kind, delicious dumplings called kibbeh hamath, and aromatic saffron yellow rice. If we play our cards right, we will get to take some of this bounty home with us for post-Thanksgiving noshing. 

Yes, leftovers are one of the more delightful aspects of Thanksgiving. But what of those who have no Thanksgiving feast, never mind leftovers? On this bounteous holiday, it bears remembering that people all over the world are hungry. This is not a reason to despair but a reminder to share. We can make feeding the hungry a regular priority in our charitable giving. We can gather in groups and participate in food-packing events for Feed My Starving Children. We can even spend some of our holiday time at a soup kitchen. We can include a lonely neighbor or relative in our Thanksgiving celebration.

This Thanksgiving, while we are being thankful for leftovers, let’s not forget those left out.

Alabama Pastors Show Politics Trumps Faith

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You’d think evangelical leaders in Alabama would be brandishing their 10-foot poles in order to distance themselves from the child molesting Republican candidate Roy Moore in the race for the U.S. Senate. You’d be wrong.

David Floyd, for instance, pastor of Mervyn Parkway Baptist Church, rationalized that “all of us have sinned and need a savior” in his statement defending Moore. “I’ve prayed with him. I know his heart.” (“On morality, evangelicals get religion,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 19, 2017) Of course, Floyd was not so forgiving of President Bill Clinton back in 1998 when he told church members that Clinton had to go because of his sexual dalliances. Apparently Floyd is confusing himself with Jesus because he believes he has the right to judge who is morally worthy and who is not.

Moore himself brandished a list of 50 Alabama Christian pastors who still support him despite the growing number of women who say Moore made sexual advances upon them when they were teenagers.

What is happening here? The answer lies in an “end justifies the means” attitude that many Christians took to the polls with them to elect Donald Trump in 2016. Because Trump said all the right things about abortion, he passed the evangelical litmus test for office. Since his election, he has cemented evangelical support by appointing a conservative justice of the Supreme Court and coming out against transgender individuals in the armed forces .

With reference to Moore, evangelicals see him as a man who “hold[s] positions close to ours.” (Tribune) So they give him a pass on behavior that does not even meet legal standards, never mind moral ones. As evangelical professor John Fea states, “What you’re seeing here is rank hypocrisy. These are evangelicals who have decided that the way to win the culture is now uncoupled from character.” (Tribune)

But the hypocrisy goes deeper than that. Evangelical Christians also tend to be politically conservative in other ways, and so this latest instance of propping up a morally corrupt leader serves to advance the conservative agenda on other issues, such as taxes and immigration. Proof of this is something Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas First Baptist Church reminds us.

Said Jeffress, “A watershed moment was 1980. Evangelical Christians chose between a born-again Baptist Sunday school teacher and a twice-married Hollywood actor who had signed the most liberal abortion bill and whose wife practiced astrology. And evangelicals chose Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter.” (Tribune)

It’s clear that Roy Moore has no intention of stepping away from the Senate race in Alabama. And although many evangelical leaders there have denounced his candidacy, many others justify their support in this hypocritical manner. Whatever happens in Alabama, this abdication of moral authority will ultimately backfire on religious leaders, especially with the next generation, whose hypocrisy radar is often quite high.

But the American people may ultimately pay too high a price if we continue to choose politics over character in our leaders.

 

Fashion Backward

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Every morning my 16-year-old comes down the stairs wearing short shorts and an oversized sweatshirt or fleece pullover that makes it appear she is wearing no pants. This attire is worn irrespective of the weather and seems to be the new school “uniform.” At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old scold, I find this and many other teenage fashions mystifying, unattractive, and even a bit silly.

This morning while dropping my daughter off at the high school, I saw a girl wearing jeans with a large hole in each knee and a gigantic flannel shirt that would fit Paul Bunyan. In another context, I might have mistaken her for a panhandler. And just when I was getting used to girls wearing form-fitting leggings and tiny tops!

The new trend seems to be “working man chic.” Lumberjack shirts, chunky work boots, and ripped jeans are all very well on someone out chopping wood, pounding nails into the frame of a new home, or doing other forms of tough manual labor. But I can assure you that despite the over-sized blue work shirt my daughter wears, she is not performing any heavy duty physical tasks.

The style harks back to the Nineties grunge era, when bands like Nirvana reigned and people loved TV shows set in the rugged Pacific Northwest. I used to tease my older daughter about the ugliness of her “Kurt Cobain shirts,” as I referred to the shapeless, dull plaid flannel shirts that were a mainstay of her wardrobe. Isn’t life depressing enough, I would think to myself, without dressing like an extra in Deliverance?

Of all the styles that are popular now, though, the worst is the faded, ripped-up jeans that young women are wearing. In my day, a tear here and there in a pair of jeans was the result of many months or even years of loving wear and washing. Those rips were earned, by golly. Nowadays, girls spend beaucoup bucks on brand new jeans with dozens of meticulously made rips. The only way those rips would occur naturally would be if Freddy Krueger came through and made several swipes at them.

I must admit, though, the new styles are reminding me of my own fashion faux pas from years gone by. I too loved sporting oversized shirts and had a penchant for men’s white Calvin Klein undershirts tucked into my stone-washed, waist-high jeans. Come to think of it, I wore even more embarrassing styles – like gaucho pants! I had a pair of yellow ones that I paired with a brightly-colored, striped t-shirt. I’m pretty sure I looked liked a toucan.

I guess every generation despises the styles of the ones younger than theirs. Still, ladies, if you want your jeans ripped up, come on over and I’ll do it for free.

The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

Thoughts and Prayers

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prayer-1As the smoke clears from another horrific mass shooting, politicians once again are offering their “thoughts and prayers.” I join many frustrated citizens and people of faith when I say that thoughts and prayers are not enough.

When someone we know is afflicted with a disease, we offer thoughts and prayers; but we also try to help them cure the disease.

When hurricane victims lost everything, we sent our thoughts and prayers; but we also sent food and water.

When we send our soldiers into battle, our thoughts and prayers go with them; but so do munitions, armor, and military strategy.

Thoughts and prayers are good. Thoughts and prayers are compassionate. Thoughts and prayers carry weight with our God.

But thoughts and prayers won’t feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, or make us safer. God asks us to pray, yes. But he also asks us to be His hands and feet in the world. That requires action.

No, thoughts and prayers are not enough to heal the hearts of those who lost a loved one in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And they are not enough to prevent the next mass shooting.

 

 

Paying the Piper

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As yet another horrific act of mass murder by firearms goes by with the usual platitudes and talking points, I am coming to the realization that in many areas of needed reform, an appeal to the humanity of our leaders is sadly misplaced. So I have another angle to help persuade government leaders, institutions, and the American public: the steep cost of failing to change.

In the area of guns, a Johns Hopkins study found that gun violence costs $2.8 billion in medical costs annually. That doesn’t take into account the expense of police and other law enforcement involvement, court costs, and prison expenditures, all of which are borne by us, the taxpayers. Even the health price tag comes back on individual Americans through higher insurance premiums and taxes to pay for victims on Medicaid. The high cost of gun violence could be reduced by expanding background checks, thus keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and domestic abusers, and by requiring owners to complete training in the safe use and storage of firearms, thus preventing the many accidental gun injuries and deaths that occur each year.

Another area in desperate need of reform is policing. Unwarranted shootings of suspects are not only an abrogation of individuals’ civil rights; they become a huge expense for police departments, which must shell out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by victims and their families. Guess who ends up paying those bills?

Even in the business world, the current push to deregulate business and industry can have detrimental effects on our pocketbooks. Questionable investment and banking practices, for instance, nearly brought down the entire economy in 2008. More recently, Wells Fargo Bank employees were found to have created over a million fake accounts for which their customers were charged fees. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created during the Obama Administration to prevent financial institutions from playing fast and loose with other people’s money. But now the Trump Administration has destroyed the ability of citizens to participate in class action lawsuits, the threat of which can prevent banks and other institutions from mismanagement and fraud. Maybe it’s time to go back to the days of hiding our cash under our beds.

And in the area of the environment, our EPA is looking more like the Environmental Pillaging Agency than an agent of protection. Beyond the idealistic goal of keeping our wildernesses wild and pristine, environmental damage is costing us in real dollars and cents. Unsafe drinking water and polluted air cause health problems for ordinary Americans, and those health problems cost money to treat.

So if you’re not moved by the sight of dwindling wetlands, gunshot victims, or grieving families, maybe this will spur you to action: It’s gonna cost you.