Burden of Proof

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I’m a little tired of seeing conservatives bemoan the lack of due process in the Kavanaugh situation. Where’s the presumption of innocence, they want to know? But we’re not talking about criminal law here. No one to my knowledge has suggested arresting and trying Brett Kavanaugh in a criminal court on charges of attempted rape. Rather, Judge Kavanaugh is being scrutinized for a lifetime appointment on the highest court in the United States.

Two women have come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault in high school and college respectively. This is not a small matter. It goes directly to the character of a proposed sitting Justice of the Supreme Court. And, if true, it indicates an attitude toward women that is incompatible with Supreme Court decisions on the myriad issues affecting women in this country.

I am not saying Judge Kavanaugh is guilty. But the allegations must be brought forward in a transparent and fair hearing by the senators who will decide whether or not to vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Unfortunately, many Republican senators have already decided that they do not believe Christine Blasey Ford. Public statements by Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell clearly indicate that they will vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation no matter what Ms. Ford or other witnesses say.

Judging from social media, conservatives have all decided that Brett Kavanaugh is a good man being wrongly smeared. How do they know? I don’t think any of my Facebook friends are personally acquainted with Judge Kavanaugh. They are simply taking the partisan line, which is unfortunately the default in this country of late.

But there are many open questions. What does the reference to “Renate Alumnius” in Kavanaugh’s yearbook mean? Is it a reference to the alleged sexual conquest of a girl named Renate he and his friends knew in high school? What about the high school buddies who tell a tale of binge drinking and partying throughout high school? And why is Mark Judge, a man Ford claims was present when Kavanaugh attacked her, in hiding? If his friend Brett Kavanaugh is such an upstanding guy and there’s no truth to Ford’s accusation, you’d think he’d be eager to come forward and testify.

These questions about a Supreme Court nominee should give the Senate Judiciary Committee pause. And it should take the time to investigate the claims of the two women who have accused Kavanaugh. But even if the allegations are true, I doubt they will stand in the way of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. After all, when Anita Hill was practically dragged into the hearings by her hair to testify to sexual harassment by then-nominee Clarence Thomas, she was not believed. Rather, Thomas played the race card, declaring the hearing to be a “high-tech lynching.” I find that detail to be a bit ironic, as it’s usually liberals being accused of playing that particular card.

Many women have regrets over sordid sexual encounters with men. They may feel shame or disgust. But sexual assault engenders something else: fear. The women who have accused Kavanaugh have expressed such fear and its disabling effect on their lives. These women at least need to be heard and truly listened to. The mostly male Senate would do well to remember that these women are someone’s daughter. How would they wish their own daughters to be treated, not just by men such as Brett Kavanaugh but by their own deliberative body?

 

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Homecoming Dated

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Everyday Life of Students of Eastern Kentucky University in the 1960s (17)This past weekend was my daughter’s Homecoming dance. As always, I was on hand with the other parental paparazzi to take pre-dinner/dance photos.

I am always amazed at how mature our teenagers look when they are dressed up in snazzy dresses, heels, suits and ties. Still, they have their kid personalities, and it’s almost as if they’re playing at being grownups. The boys congregate to one side while the girls chat on the other, and it’s up to the loudest parent to corral them into groups for the requisite photos.

What struck me the other evening, though, was how the kids glittered and glowed while we parents looked a bit schlubby in our casual clothes and lack of makeup or hairstyling. Of course, there were some parents who’d made an effort and looked pretty put together in a casual yet chic way. But for the most part, we parents were on the sidelines, our own sense of youth dimmed by the dazzling display around us.

That’s one of the things that happens when you become a parent. I remember being a new mother and bemoaning the soft new “mom bod” I had developed. Late nights and breastfeeding and clothes covered with spit-up didn’t quite exude youthful sexiness.

But that feeling of being a young person in an old fogey’s body really heightens as the children near adulthood. It’s hard to remember the thoughts and feelings you had as a little kid. But it’s easy to remember your high school and college years, a time when you failed to appreciate your youthful vibrance and energy. With adolescent freshness all around you, it’s natural to feel a bit wistful about the days when you were the belle of the ball.

To our kids, we are hopelessly outdated, clueless about our smartphones, and generally relegated to coexistence with the dinosaurs. After Homecoming photos, my daughter dismissed me with a quick smile and a toss of her glossy black mane. I went home to takeout and TV with my equally ancient hubby. But on the car ride home, I couldn’t help smiling as I remembered the shiny, baby blue halter dress I wore while dancing with my date to “Precious and Few” at a Homecoming in the distant past.

The Millenials and iGen-ers may be taking over. But they can’t take away the memories of our own shining youth and the knowledge that back in the day, we were pretty cool ourselves.

Seeing Red

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Ever since the concept of red states and blue states became a shorthand in politics, I’ve been puzzled as to why Republican-dominated areas would be designated as red. After all, throughout the latter part of the 20th Century, red was associated with Communism – think, Red China and Soviets being called “reds.” There was even a very good movie with Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton titled Reds, about the Bolshevik Revolution. So I’d think the party of vaunted patriotism and anti-Communist fervor would avoid an association with the color red.

Red has often been associated with sin and death. M. Night Shyamalan, for example, uses the color symbolically in some of his movies. In The Sixth Sense, red doors are connected with death. And in The Village, residents are taught to fear the color red so as to avoid violence. Red is also the color associated with wanton sexuality. For instance, in Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler, disgusted with his wife’s undying lust for another woman’s husband, forces her to show up to the woman’s home in a skin tight crimson dress. Even her name, Scarlett, acts as a symbol for her selfish rapacity when it comes to other women’s men. The Red Violin depicts the history of a musical instrument steeped in misfortune. The Red Shoes tells the story of a woman torn between romantic love and dedication to her art. If a company is losing money, it is described as being “in the red.” If I’m angry, I’m “seeing red.” And red pens are the choice of teachers as they ruthlessly correct their pupils’ homework.

Of course, red has positive associations as well. In Chinese culture, for example, red is the color of happiness and good fortune. Brides wear red, and children receive red envelopes full of money to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Red candies are usually the most popular ones in the assortment because of both their color and flavor. And red is the most frequently used color on national flags around the world.

Research shows that the color red is associated with aggression in competitive contexts and sex in relationship contexts. The red of blood is most likely the reason it is used to symbolize the military and competitive dominance of a country, according to a study by psychology professors in China. (“Red color in flags: A signal for competition,” Tengxiao Zhang, Shiyu Feng, Buxin Han, and  Si Sun, Aug. 10, 2017, Wiley Online Library abstract) Their research shows that while red is the most commonly used color in national flags, it is one of the least used colors in international cooperative organizations.

At the same time, red is a signaling color for sex in animal world. Female primates, for example, display their fertility with swollen, red genitalia. And while humans have evolved to be a bit more subtle, women still use brightly painted red lips as sexual signaling. Hence the Scarlett O’Hara as temptress scene in GWTW. The phenomenon might also explain why red roses and red hearts are so popular for Valentine’s Day, our national holiday for romance.

Red is the most dramatic and vibrant color in the spectrum. It can be happy and cheerful, but it can also be frightening and threatening. A 1980s song by the German rock band Nena perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of the color in its song “99 Luftballons” (in English, “99 Red Balloons”):

You and I in a little toy shop
Buy a bag of balloons with the money we’ve got
Set them free at the break of dawn
’til one by one, they were gone
Back at base, bugs in the software
Flash the message, “Something’s out there”
Floating in the summer sky
99 red balloons go by

99 red balloons
Floating in the summer sky
Panic bells, it’s red alert
There’s something here from somewhere else
The war machine, it springs to life
Opens up one eager eye
Focusing it on the sky
As 99 red balloons go by

99 Decision Street
99 ministers meet
To worry, worry, super-scurry
Call out the troops now in a hurry
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it, boys, this is war
The president is on the line
As 99 red balloons go by

99 knights of the air
Ride super high-tech jet fighters
Everyone’s a super hero
Everyone’s a Captain Kirk
With orders to identify
To clarify and classify
Scramble in the summer sky
99 red balloons go by
99 red balloons go by

99 dreams I have had
In every one a red balloon
It’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty
In this dust that was a city
If I could find a souvenir
Just to prove the world was here…
And here is, a red balloon
I think of you and let it go

Why Representation Matters

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I finally had the chance to see the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians. I had been so excited about the film ever since learning that Kevin Kwan’s fabulous satire was being made into a movie.

I’m happy to say that the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was as delightful as I’d hoped. I took my Chinese-born daughter with me, and her reactions after seeing the film highlighted for me why this movie with an all-Asian cast is so important. First of all, she found it gratifying to see so many Asian characters and actors in a movie. More surprising, though, was her comment that she’d like to visit her homeland of China some day.

This was a first for my very American daughter. As much as I’ve tried to interest her in Chinese culture over the years, she has always just wanted to be a regular American girl. She has even complained at times about her Asian middle name. Any time I’ve mentioned a heritage trip back to Anhui Province in China, where she was born, my suggestion has been met with indifference.

Such is the power of representation in popular culture. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not stereotypes or relics from a far too distant past. They are rich, modern, fashionable, and subject to the same foibles and machinations as the characters in a Jane Austen novel. At the same time, their Asian languages, customs, and sensibilities are important parts of their characters. In other words, Crazy Rich Asians is not just a version of Dynasty with an Asian cast.

When someone like my Chinese daughter can see herself represented in popular culture, whether in movies, television, books or music, it enhances her self-esteem and widens her expectations for herself. And for whites, minority representation helps tear down stereotypes and encourages us to see people of other races and ethnicities as individuals, not members of a monolithic group.

Years ago when my son was about 4, he asked me, “Mommy, can boys be doctors?” Score one for feminism, I laughingly thought to myself. But the question also gave me pause. In his young life, my son had never met a male doctor, so he wasn’t sure if it was a role that was open to him. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be never to encounter professionals, actors, or even fictional characters that look like you.

The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians is so much more than just a coup for author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu. It is a sign, I hope, that we are hungry for stories about all kinds of people from all walks of life in all parts of this great big, beautiful world of ours.

Road Not Taken

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A Facebook friend posted an interesting article about how most people misread Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” The poem has been taken as an ode to individuality, to striking out on one’s own less common path. The final lines of the poem seem to confirm this: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.”

In reality, the narrator of the poem acknowledges that the two roads are virtually the same: “Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,/ And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black.” In other words, neither path was really an untrodden one, and the view that choosing one “made all the difference” is only seen in hindsight. It’s the story “I shall be telling … with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence.” In fact, there’s nothing in the poem that even indicates the choice was the better one – just that it was different.

We would all like to think that our decisions are momentous ones, and we give weight and significance to our choices because we desire more than anything that our life have meaning. The place we live, the jobs we take, the person we marry: all certainly force us to forgo other choices. Our biological children would not exist if we had not made certain choices in the past. While all of this is true, it’s not necessarily the case that we were meant for this path and this path only.

I’m a religious person, and I do think God has an overarching plan for my life. My faith provides an outlook that gives meaning and consequence to the twists and turns on the path I’m taking in life. But that does not mean there are no coincidences. It’s tempting to believe that God is literally putting joys and trials in our way as part of some divine plan for us. But that makes God more of a puppet master than a divine presence. Rather, our belief in God shapes the way we view our experiences. It imbues them with meaning instead of our concluding that, “All is vanity and grasping for the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

“The Road Not Taken” was written by Frost to tease a fellow poet and friend who was notoriously bad at making decisions when they went out walking. (“Robert Frost: ‘The Road Not Taken’,” Katherine Robinson, poetryfoundation.org) But it’s also a meditation on the fact that we all have to make choices, large and small. The narrator in the poem wants to go both ways, but he must choose only one. Like him, we all second guess our choices at times and wonder what our lives would have been like had we chosen the other path.

It’s comforting to realize, though, that however our lives turn out, we have the power through our own beliefs to give them meaning. And that makes all the difference.

Just Be It

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In our current political climate, controversies abound about displays of patriotism – or the lack thereof. Colin Kaepernick’s famous (or infamous depending upon your point of view) decision to take a knee during the national anthem has incited a nationwide debate over such displays. And last week, the Nike campaign honoring Kaepernick’s protest has fanned the smoldering flames just in time for the start of football season.

Also last week, there were protests about the new movie First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. People objected to the omission of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, correctly pointing out that the American landing was a victory in the space race of the 1960s during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The filmmaker’s decision to depict the moment as more of a human achievement than a political one was seen by some as evidence of a namby-pamby liberal sensibility.

Of course, controversy over demonstrations of patriotism in America is nothing new. In the Sixties, many protests against the Vietnam War featured the burning of the American flag. Fierce battles over Americans’ First Amendment rights vs. respect for our national symbol raged. More recently, President Trump has suggested punishment for people who would burn the flag. And so the controversy goes on.

The problem is that it’s one thing to stand up for the national anthem and another thing altogether to be a true patriot. It’s somewhat hollow to wave a flag over the bodies of men, women, and children killed in a pointless and immoral war. It’s easy to plaster a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on our cars but more important to fight for the safety and dignity of our military men and women, both active duty and veterans. And the sight of the Stars and Stripes is cold comfort to black families who have lost innocent spouses, parents, and children to police brutality.

The other day I noticed that the flags in my small home town had gone up, no doubt to commemorate the devastating losses our country suffered on 9/11. I admired the grace and beauty of the flags lining our streets as they rippled in the breeze. They brought to mind all that has transpired, both good and bad, since that horrible day when terrorists attacked our land.

What I most admire from that fateful day 17 years ago was the outpouring of support for the victims of 9/11 and their families. The courageous acts of first responders. The leadership of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. The rebuilding of the site where the Twin Towers fell. The tireless advocacy by Jon Stewart and others to maintain the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to help those affected by the horrific act of violence. Sure, people started putting out flags and adorning their cars with patriotic messages in the wake of 9/11. But it was action, not symbolism, that made a difference in people’s lives. It was people being patriotic, not just saying they were.

One of the most iconic photographs from World War II is the Pulitzer-Prize winning shot of marines hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima. The image captures the gritty reality of war, courage, and sacrifice. Some of the flag-raisers were killed in action a few days later. The image has been depicted in movies and made into a U.S. postage stamp.

But it was the selfless sacrifice of fighting for freedom and against tyranny that made the difference – not whether or not the American flag waved from the top of Mt. Suribachi. So as we mourn the losses we sustained on 9/11 and in the ensuing years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, let’s do more to be the patriots we claim to be when we raise the flag or place our hands over our hearts during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Losing My Religion

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I’m heartsick with grief for the sexual victims of men hiding behind the cloak of the priesthood in the Catholic Church. The revelations that thousands of children in Pennsylvania were being abused by priests while the diocesan hierarchy essentially aided and abetted their crimes has truly left my faith shaken.

Growing up, I was taught to deeply respect priests for their dedication and closeness to God, for their role in the Church in persona Christi. My teenage sisters worked in the rectory office and sometimes served dinner to our parish priests. My mother sewed their priestly vestments. To imagine any of these men violating a child in such a manner sickens and horrifies me.

The breadth of the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church is truly astounding. There seems to be no major diocese in the United States that has not been affected by it. Hundreds of priests and thousands of victims are involved. If this were any other kind of organization, there would be protests in the streets and calls for heads to roll.

Pope Francis has reiterated his sorrow at the horrors of priestly depravity, renewed his plea for forgiveness for the Church’s failures to stop it, and pledged that sexual abuse by priests will not be tolerated and that those in charge will be held accountable. But he has said all these things before. And few, if any, members of the Church hierarchy have been removed from office. Victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests have listened to our pope’s words and found them wanting.

What has enabled the flourishing of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is the all male, celibate priesthood. How else to account for the untold numbers of victims? Yes, other institutions have been found to harbor sexual abusers. But there is no comparison in the number of victims and the longevity of the problem to what has gone on in the Catholic Church for decades.

The Catholic Church must address the epidemic of sexual abuse of children head on, first of all by removing not only the offending priests, but also the bishops and other higher ups who shuffled them from parish to parish and otherwise allowed them to continue to abuse children. It is also time for the Church to allow priests to marry and to welcome women into the ordained priesthood.

I’m not saying that the condition of celibacy causes pedophilia. But I do believe that the requirement makes the priesthood attractive to men who are wrestling with the demons of their own predilection for young children, and they seek refuge there in greater numbers than in the general population. I also think the presence of women within all levels of church hierarchy would make the abuses less likely to be hushed up or tolerated.

It has been extremely difficult for me to attend Mass in my local parish since the latest revelations of sexual abuse by priests came to light. My membership in the Church gives tacit acceptance to what is being done – and more importantly, what is not being done – to address this horrible stain on the reputation of Catholicism.

I don’t want to lose my religion. My faith has been a grounding and inspirational force in my life, and I believe it can still be a force for good in the world. But more of us Catholics have to stand up and demand what is right and good and holy from our leaders. Only then can we carry on the sacred mission for which Christ died on the cross.