Name-Calling the Refuge of the Weak



I like Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot. She is a tough and no nonsense leader, and I think she will be good for Chicago. So I was disappointed to read yesterday that she had called the head of the police union a “clown,” a “fraud,” and. a “liar.” Lightfoot was angry that FOP President John Catanzara supported having federal troops come into the city to help quell unrest. (“Lightfoot defends insulting text messages sent to FOP president: ‘I don’t take back one word that I said,'” Chicago Tribune, Friday, July 24, 2020) Instead of a reasoned and even impassioned disagreement, Lightfoot lashed out with an ad hominem attack.

Such discourse has become all too commonplace in society today. Our current president actually insulted his way right into the Oval Office by coining nasty nicknames for his opponents (Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” “Crooked Hillary”). He referred to Mexicans as “criminals and rapists” and protesters as “thugs” and “sons of bitches.” Once in office, Trump has continued to denigrate his political enemies, minorities, and women. For instance, he recently retweeted a post referring to Hillary Clinton as a “skank.” There seems to be no level too low for our Name-Caller-in-Chief.

In the Trump era, we have seen a true degeneration of discourse in the public sphere. This has been aided by social media, where vitriol and insult can explode across the internet universe. But while it may be upsetting to see ordinary Joes on Facebook or Twitter making nasty remarks, it is far more serious to see prominent elected officials resort to name-calling.

Yesterday Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made an eloquent speech in the House of Representatives after Republican Rep. Ted Yoho verbally assaulted her on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, calling her “disgusting, crazy and dangerous.” Worse, out of earshot from AOC but within hearing of reporters, Yoho called her “a fucking bitch.” The Democratic women who spoke pointed out that this kind of defamatory language is part of a larger culture of “‘violence and violent language against women.'” (“On House floor, Dems call out verbal assaults against women,” Chicago Tribune, Friday, July 24, 2020)

Name-calling is the refuge of the insecure. We wield it when our arguments are shaky or we don’t care to listen to an opposing point of view. It is also a form of bullying, a way to strike fear into our perceived enemies so as to silence them. And it is extremely detrimental to a civil society. As psychiatrist Ronald Pies points out, “When the most powerful man in the world provides an example of bullying by repeatedly deploying offensive nicknames, this ought to concern us all.” (“Trump’s Nicknames and the Psychology of Bullying,”, July 8, 2018)

We need to demand more of our leaders at every level. They should be our role models. And when they fail to live up to that standard, we should let them know we are not pleased – at the ballot box.


New Revolution


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Tomorrow at our socially distanced barbecues, while we eat hotdogs and drink beer, most of us won’t think much about the significance of the date July 4. We know it is a day to celebrate American independence. But while watching fireworks, we don’t often think about how iconoclastic the Declaration of Independence was when it was written.

The American Revolution was a huge step in world civilization. Not only did 13 British colonies throw off the yoke of oppression, but they formed a government not seen in most of the known world: a republic. To be sure, that fledgling democracy was far from perfect. Our founding fathers’ biggest shortcoming was in allowing the scourge of slavery to make a mockery of the famous words “all men are created equal.” Yet the idea that the people themselves would be in charge of their own political destiny was a potent dream, and it spawned similar movements in other parts of the world.

Today we seem to be on the brink of another revolution. The demands for a reckoning with our racist legacy continue to grow, and the urgency cannot be denied. Forces both within and outside our borders insist on justice for black citizens. At the same time, the LGBTQ community is demanding that the rights afforded every citizen in the U.S. also be guaranteed to them. Women, religious minorities, and people of color are increasingly being elected to government office across our land. There is no going back to a time when white dominance was the unchallenged law of the land.

To be sure, there will be backlash. We see it in conservative reactions to protest in the same way we saw Nixon’s “silent majority” fight back against the activism of the 1960s. And there will also be excesses: riots, looting, toppling statues, tear gas. Once the fire of discontent has been lit, it is hard to control the flames.

Yet I believe in our country’s ability to change and grow. I believe in the next generation, who are not content to drift along with the stark inequities they see and are often victims of. This next American Revolution will not be fought upon the battlefield but in the hearts and minds of the populace and the political activism of the hour.

Let’s celebrate a better America this July 4 – with a determination to empower each and every individual member of our society regardless of race, color or creed. Let’s give true meaning to these famous words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


Vanity, Farewell



Since Illinois’ stay at home order began in March, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worn makeup or fussed with my hair. My wardrobe has consisted of the most casual and comfy of clothes. As the weeks and months stretch on and the gray creeps through my hair, I realize I’ve all but lost my sense of vanity.

When I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to wear fancy dresses and high-heeled shoes. I’d wobble around my older sisters’ room in their pumps and smear my lips with their lipstick. As I became a teen, I was acutely aware of my plumpness, my unruly curls, and the many imperfections I found on my face when I looked in the mirror.

Dressing for school, and later work, became a lengthy ordeal that included many ablutions, including putting on a face-full of makeup and trying to tame my thick mane. When I became a mother, many of my vanities started to fade in importance. My body became first and foremost a nourishing and protective vessel for my infant daughter. Of course, I still had to appear out in the world, and I struggled with adult acne and the inevitable changes a woman’s body goes through when she gives birth.

Aging has its own way of humbling our vanities. No matter how fit I try to be, my skin is not as elastic as it used to be. My face has thinned and my body thickened. Dark circles shadow my deep-set eyes and show me the ghosts of my paternal aunts in the mirror. I used to think they were so ancient, and now I am they.

But the pandemic has given me at least one little gift. I see almost no one, and when I do go out, I am wearing a mask that covers most of my face. My inability to go to a hairdresser has made it almost inevitable that I would decide no longer to cover my gray. Most importantly, during a scary time when we are reminded of our own mortality, looks have faded in importance – at least in my mind.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. It’s fun to dress up for a night on the town, gratifying to be complimented or called pretty. But losing the anxiety I used to have around my looks has been a liberating thing. I have gotten used to my unadorned face in the mirror – when I bother to look at all. My husband and kids like the mysterious streams of white and gray running through my hair. They love my face because they love me. And that is as good a reason to forgo vanity as any I can think of.

Belittled Women



The irony was lost on members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at last night’s Oscars when it showed a film clip from Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. In the scene, fledgling writer Jo March and her sister Amy disagree about the importance of Jo’s work. Confessing her doubts, Jo asks, “Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance.” Amy responds, “Maybe we don’t see these things as important because no one writes about them.” The act of writing them, she argues,  “makes them important.”

Despite being nominated for Best Picture, Little Women did not garner a directing nomination for the gifted Gerwig, whose stories about girls and women are quietly subversive. In the case of Little Women, Gerwig took a cherished and sentimental classic and transformed it into a commentary about the limits society places upon women. These limits are still clearly being felt, as evidenced by the boys’ club in Hollywood that fawns over directors like Scorsese and Tarantino with their male-dominated, machismo-saturated storylines.

Indeed, the latest version of Little Women was looked upon by many as a “chick flick,” something no self-respecting guy would watch. A story featuring and dominated by women – “a story of domestic struggles and joys” –  still holds limited appeal in a society that glorifies war, racing, crime and other manly subjects.

Everything about Gerwig’s version of Little Women made it worthy of an Oscar. The acting, the script, the production design that created a series of impressionistic visual images, the soaring musical score: it was a masterpiece. And it did win an Oscar – for costume design. I guess a “women’s movie” is allowed to be praised for its fashion sense.

As inspiring as it was to see a relative unknown, Bong Joon Ho, win big for his movie Parasite, I was disappointed that in 2020, women are still struggling against a perception that their stories and concerns are too light and inconsequential to be taken seriously. Maybe if Greta Gerwig makes the sequel, Little Men, the Academy will finally take notice.


The Evolution of Humor



In the old days, comedians had to tow a strict line when it came to language and content. In the early Sixties, for example, Lenny Bruce was routinely arrested for using profanity and sexual references in his comedy. In the Seventies, George Carlin made hay with “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” repeating the obscenities over and over for humorous effect. I remember listening to this bit and being scandalized.

At the same time, comedians were allowed to make blatantly racist jokes, and Archie Bunker was everyone’s favorite lovable bigot on TV. Disrespect for women was also totally allowable. Take Jackie Gleason’s catchphrase on The Honeymooners: “One of these days, Alice – to the moon!,” implying that if she didn’t stop her yapping, he’d punch her lights out.

Nowadays, we have seen almost a complete reversal of these late Twentieth Century standards. Chris Rock can stand up and riff about deviant sexual practices using graphic terms, and no one bats an eyelash. Foul-mouthed comedians are a staple of  comedy clubs. Even on network television, still a bastion of common decency, characters can use swear words such as “hell” and “damn” and vulgarities such as “bitch” without censure.

Yet on sensitive subjects such as race and sexual harassment, comedians tow a fine line today. And violence, particularly involving shooting, has become verboten in the world of comedy. I was thinking about this recently when I recalled the lines of a humorous Christmas parody written by my brother-in-law a few decades ago. The song describes the nightmare before Christmas when a parent tries to put together a gift using the English-language-challenged user’s manual. One of the verses goes:

O come, o come and pay the man the bail
And ransom captive Da-a-ad from jail
He got so mad he blew a fuse
His rampage through the store was on the news

 With today’s reality of mass shooting after mass shooting, I’m not sure we can joke about people “going postal” anymore.

I think that for the most part, this evolution in comedy is a good thing. Making it socially unacceptable to joke about hurting people or to denigrate someone’s race or gender is, overall, a good thing. But our desire to be “politically correct” can sometimes make us humorless.

Humor is, after all, the juxtaposition of the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and bizarre, the right and the wrong. Back in the day, when Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife – please!,” it was a corny but tongue-in-cheek dig at the sacrosanct institution of marriage.

When we take ourselves too seriously, we refuse to see the inconsistencies and hypocrises in our and others’ behavior, in our families, and in our institutions. For example, John Mulaney, a favorite comedian of mine, regularly mocks his Catholic upbringing. While I have grown to appreciate my Catholic faith more and more as I’ve grown older, I recognize the exasperation of a young person sitting through what can sometimes feel like the interminable and pointless rituals of the Mass. And I sense a fondness Mulaney has for his experiences even as he makes fun of them.

In the area of comedy, there will always be people who are offended by a particular skit or remark. As much as I am happy to know that spousal abuse is no longer something to joke about, I hope that we don’t completely lose our sense of irony and humor about the ills of our world. A world without comedy is no laughing matter.


The “They”s Have It



I’m something of a stickler when it comes to English grammar and usage. Whenever I see a misplaced apostrophe or the incorrect “their/they’re/there” in a sentence, I cringe a little.

So it surprised me a bit that I didn’t have a more negative reaction to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year: the singular “they.” Of course, in ordinary speech, for some time now people have been using the word “they” to refer to either one or more people without regard to noun-pronoun agreement. But using it in writing was always taboo.

This led to difficulties such as having to use the awkward “he/she” or “he or she” when the subject was of unspecified gender. And many people just used “he” without regard to the sexist nature of assuming that human equals male. So it’s a bit of a relief to me that style manuals will most likely be updated to allow for the singular “they.”

There’s another reason that “they” was chosen as the Word of the Year by Merriam-Webster. “They” is often the preferred pronoun for gender nonconforming individuals. So the dictionary makers are right in choosing it as a significant movement in the English language.

There will be those who object to this modern use of the word “they,” whether because they are grammar purists or because they object to the normalization of LGBTQ matters. But as Benjamin Dreyer points out in The Washington Post, “Language is here to serve those of us, all of us, who use it, and when one’s perhaps unconsidered thoughts as to what is correct run smack into the honor we owe another person, one can only hope that it’s honor that wins out.” (“Language is here to serve all of us. Merriam-Webster’s word of the year shows that,” Benjamin Dreyer, Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2019)

So if a person wants to use the singular “they” in their writing, they should definitely do it.

Beloved Author



The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, I didn’t really understand it. The figure that haunts Sethe, the main character, is omnipresent yet mysterious. It took a second reading many years later for me to capture the import of this seminal work of American literature.

Toni Morrison’s death at age 88 has had many readers reminiscing and reflecting on her greatness. The first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison wrote with such power and lyricism that her works almost literally vibrated. Despite how puzzling I found Beloved, I followed up by reading some of her earlier works: Sula and The Bluest Eye.

As a woman, I identified with some of the emotions and the powerlessness felt by the female protagonists of Morrison’s fiction. Feelings of uncertainty and of not being good enough in the eyes of others are issues that have always faced “the second sex.” The sacrifices mothers make for their children is another universal theme Morrison explored in works such as Beloved and A Mercy, one of her later works. After I became a mother myself, I could relate to the pain and helplessness these women felt in trying to protect their children.

But what really affected me about Toni Morrison’s work was the window it opened into the world of blacks, particularly black women. Morrison’s unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery were hard to read. The goings-on at the ironically named Sweet Home of Beloved and the D’Ortega plantation in A Mercy show the devastating effects of whites’ willingness to dehumanize black men and women. Morrison’s writing forces whites to see the evil legacy of slavery, and it refuses to let us look away.

Toni Morrison opened up American literature to the black female voice. Her success even led to the rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, a gifted writer from the 1920s. Americans will be forever indebted to her for championing the artistic efforts of other black women authors, as well as for her own deep and beautiful body of work.

A few years ago, I had the great good fortune to see Toni Morrison in person. She was in town to receive the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s annual Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a benefit dinner to which I was invited. She was a formidable presence on the stage, but when she autographed my copy of Beloved, she gave me a warm smile. I am still grateful for that close encounter with her literary greatness as well as her graciousness. Her presence in our world will be sorely missed.


USWNT Strives for Equity



The other day I did a Google Images search for the U.S. Women’s National Team that is poised to bring home the World Cup on Sunday. To my chagrin, the very first image that greeted me was a shot of Alex Morgan in a bikini. Here is a professional soccer dynamo who has scored over 100 goals in her career, including 2 in the 2011 World Cup and 6 in the current contest, being reduced to a sex object. (An image search of the U.S. Men’s National Team yielded no corresponding beefcake photos.)

Sexism also seems to be at the heart of the pay differential that the current USWNT is challenging with both FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation. The USSF has been claiming that men’s soccer yields higher profits and therefore higher payouts to male players. Yet the “U.S. women’s team generated more revenue for the federation from 2016-18, bringing in $50.8 million compared to $49.9 million by the men’s squad.” (“Pay dispute resurfaces as U.S. women prepare for World Cup final,” Reuters, July 3, 2019)

The lawsuit against the USSF argues that in addition to the pay differences, women’s soccer gets inferior treatment in publicity, travel and training conditions, and medical attention as compared to the men’s team. Yet the women’s team has been far more successful in the past several years than the men’s team has.

During the semifinal game against England the other day, when Carli Lloyd made her way onto the field towards the end of the game, she was greeted with rock star level adulation. The two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA Women’s World Cup champion, and 2015 & 2016 FIFA Player of the Year is just one of the superstars that have made this year’s Women’s World Cup such an exciting event.

It’s disheartening to me that in 2019, almost 50 years after the historic Title IX legislation that addressed inequities in education and athletics between males and females, women athletes still have to fight for better pay, working conditions, and respect.

The women on the USWNT are our daughters’ heroes. Let’s give them their due.

Divas in Cleats



When the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team takes the field against France today in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, millions of fans will be cheering for their own red, white, and blue team. If France were to win the World Cup this year, it would be the first time that both men’s and women’s teams from the same country held the championship at the same time. (Sports Illustrated, June 3-10, 2019) But I’m placing my bets on the irrepressible U.S. team.

The U.S. women came out roaring with a 13-0 trouncing of Thailand in their 2019 World Cup debut. Critics assailed their “running up the score” against a clearly overwhelmed Thai team, and many questioned the U.S. players need to celebrate each goal with such glee. But these soccer divas left no question in anyone’s mind about their dominance on the world stage.

The word diva has developed negative connotations, conjuring images of difficult and temperamental female stars. And certainly some Americans might take issue with Megan Rapinoe’s strong anti-Trump stance. But I refer to the USWNT as divas in the original sense; the word comes from Latin and literally means “goddesses.”

Women’s sports are infamously underpaid and under-appreciated, especially team sports. Despite the fact that the USWNT scored more goals in one game than the U.S. men’s team scored all season, professional female soccer players in America make a fraction of the money their male counterparts make. Even in the World Cup, the $30 million in prize money for the women’s tournament looks pitiable when compared to the men’s $400 payout. (SI, June 3-10, 2019) In fact, the discrepancy in pay has been an underlying topic during this year’s Women’s World Cup. Let’s hope the excitement and dazzle of the women’s performance in the tournament leads to an improvement in gender pay equity.

I have watched more soccer games in my lifetime than I ever dreamed I’d see. All of my four children at one time or another have played the game. And my youngest is determined not only to play throughout high school, but to find a spot on a college soccer squad. My daughter has been working relentlessly toward that goal: sacrificing time with friends, getting up early, traveling to tournaments and soccer clinics across the country, keeping herself physically fit and mentally hungry.

I’m delighted that my daughter and countless other girls and women are getting a front seat to the greatness that can be achieved by a group of women out on a soccer field. I’m thrilled to witness the strength, athleticism, and camaraderie that the U.S. women’s team has displayed on the world stage.

Regardless of the outcome of today’s match between the U.S. and France, I will have only one thing to say about the fearless women of soccer: “Brava!”

Let’s Stop ABiden Sexist Behavior


joe-biden-stephanie-carterI believe Joe Biden when he says his touchy feely behavior with women is not sexual. To my knowledge, no one has come forward to claim Biden touched them sexually or planted an unwanted kiss on the lips. That doesn’t mean Joe Biden should get a pass for his “handsy” behavior.

Joe’s penchant for leaning over women, putting his hands on their heads or shoulders, and occasionally kissing the tops of their heads is an inappropriate and sexist tendency by a patrician male – one that no man would tolerate having done to him either in public or private.

Biden’s behavior with women is patronizing and condescending. The familiarity of touching a person in this way is a method of asserting dominance. It’s what an adult might do with a young child: squeeze her shoulders, ruffle his hair, plant a kiss on the head or cheek. Imagine Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaning over President Obama at his desk in the Oval Office and giving his shoulders a squeeze. It just wouldn’t happen.

When a man in a position of authority is overly familiar with a woman, it’s just plain sexist. He would never treat a man in his employ or in his sphere of influence that way. Men meet each other on mutual footing. They may engage in lateral back-slapping or a quick man-to-man embrace. But head-patting or shoulder rubbing from behind? Uh uh.

I have nothing against Joe Biden or his potential presidential bid. I do have something against the way he manhandles women. It displays a lack of respect for women as equals. Whatever his views on legal aspects of women’s equality, I’d like to see Biden – and all males for that matter – personally treat women as colleagues, not pets.