Taming Political Discourse

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When I first heard that ESPN had asked a reporter not to cover a UVA game because his name is Robert Lee, I’ll admit I found the decision utterly ridiculous. But I was loath to admit it out loud. Why? Because I knew the incident would be trotted out endlessly on every Fox News show and by every right wing politician trying to discredit liberalism.

Such is the state of public discourse today. Non-stop news coverage, political blogs, and social media have made communication a polarizing and fraught enterprise. The brouhaha about Confederate statues is a case in point.

There are legitimate reasons for citizens to call for the removal of statues glorifying the era of the Confederacy, a secessionist movement that amounted to rebellion against the United States. Despite what many Southerners see as an assault on their heritage, there is no denying that Confederate leaders stood for the preservation of slavery and used that cause to motivate Southern forces to fight the North.

On the other hand, there are arguments to be made about keeping the statues, and from my point of view, the biggest argument in favor of leaving statues alone is that we have much bigger fish to fry when it comes to racial justice. Furthermore, the threat of removing them has given white supremacists a cause to rally around, bringing them out en masse with sometimes devastating results.

On the Right, of course, pundits and politicians wonder aloud if it’s a slippery slope from removing Robert E. Lee to getting rid of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. They ridicule calls for defunding the Jefferson Memorial or removing Confederate statues from the Capitol building. Some rightly point out that many Southern Democrats were themselves segregationists back in the day.

This whole issue makes my head hurt. And I feel that it’s a distraction from policy-making in Washington. Republicans have been trying to do serious damage to social entitlement programs. Our president keeps threatening new countries with military action. The Trump Administration is dialing back progress on the environment by refusing to admit to the realities of climate change and by encouraging the revival of such destructive practices as coal mining.

Let’s get back to discussing these important issues in a reasonable and respectful way so that positive change can be made in our society.

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America the Beautiful

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At Sunday Mass, our closing hymn was “America the Beautiful.” It is by far my favorite patriotic song, and like many people, I think it should be our national anthem.

As we sang the familiar hymn, I really paid attention to the words in the song, and some of them particularly struck me in light of our current political climate.

“God mend thine ev’ry flaw.” We Americans certainly have our share of these. Yet we look to our system of government to right every wrong, address every injustice. It’s a lot for our Constitution to live up to. Americans on both sides of the political aisle disagree as to what those fundamental rights, freedoms, and privileges should look like. The song goes on, “Confirm thy soul in self-control,/Thy liberty in law.” Americans everywhere would do well to remember the limits we impose upon ourselves in the name of decency and respect for others.

“O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,/Who more than self their country loved,/And mercy more than life!” Most Americans cherish the self-sacrifice that members of our Armed Forces make to protect us and keep us free. What jumps out at me in the lyrics above is the value placed on mercy. We are a tough, individualistic culture. We value hard work and self-determination. But sometimes we forget to have compassion for those less fortunate. We fail to understand that even in America, everyone does not have equal access to the American Dream.

“O Beautiful for patriot dream/That sees beyond the years.” Unfortunately, living for tomorrow is not our strong suit in America. We look for instant gratification, get rich quick schemes, and creature comforts for now. We seek the easiest path without looking at the long-term consequences. This is especially apparent in the way we approach environmental issues. Our leaders would do well to “see beyond the years” when forming public policy. As Americans, we can forgo some present pleasures for future security.

“And crown thy good with brotherhood/From sea to shining sea.” There is so much packed into this iconic line. Our concern for our fellow human beings is not what it should be and what we as a nation have been known for in the past. I think about the government of France reaching across the ocean with the beautiful gift of the Statue of Liberty, as a token of its admiration for American heart and generosity. But here within our borders, there are hatred and prejudice, selfishness and greed. Our sense of brother (and sister) hood is lacking.

The words “from sea to shining sea” struck me with special resonance after this last presidential election. There was so much pitting of urban elites against ordinary rural citizens, liberals on the coasts against seemingly more humble Middle Americans.  The fact is that our American values apply to all of us, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, rural, urban, suburban, black, white, brown – the list is endless.

This week as we bask in our Independence, let’s take to heart the words of the song and work to make this truly America, the beautiful.

 

Defending Science

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Scores of independent scientific advisors to the EPA were recently told that their membership on the Board of Scientific Counselors would not be renewed in August. The move seems like part of the Trump Administration’s efforts to quash the dialogue on climate change, an unsurprising move given the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA along with Trump’s own rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Unsurprising, but alarming.

From the moment Donald Trump took office, the White House website removed information on climate change. Even though a consensus of scientists agrees that the Earth’s atmosphere is warming and that the warming is largely due to human activity, Republicans have stubbornly refused to address the issue. Recently, Energy Secretary Rick Perry (not exactly a rocket scientist) denied the correlation between global warming and human actions. It’s as if a group of Republicans were standing in the rain and insisting there was a drought.

The politicization of science is not new.  The season finale of Genius, the story of Albert Einstein, depicts Jewish scientists being dismissed from the prestigious Prussian Academy and books by Jewish scientists such as Einstein being burned in a massive fire by Nazi soldiers. The series also demonstrates Einstein’s outspoken objections to his discoveries being used to create weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout history, political powers have interfered with scientific discovery that did not advance their agenda, or that conflicted with their beliefs. Galileo is a perfect example of how politics (and, to a degree, religion) can affect the reception of new scientific ideas.

The ability of scientists to work independently of political agendas is vital to discovery and progress. Nowadays, the issue of the safety and efficacy of vaccines has become a political football. So has research on climate change. Meanwhile, an ice melt the size of Texas has been discovered in Antarctica. Sea levels are rising, and global weather patterns are being disrupted, with potential for devastating complications.

It’s time to allow scientific inquiry to inform our political decisions and not the reverse.

 

Hamilton

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I’ve finally seen it. After months and months of hearing and reading all the hype about the theater sensation of the new millennium, I finally went to see Hamilton.

My husband had surprised me on Mother’s Day with tickets to the play at Chicago’s Private Bank Theater. Our seats were fantastic – dead center and so close I could see the actors spit. My hubby took a photo of me with the stage as a backdrop and sent it to our kids with the quip: “Mom in the third row center for Hamilton: What a waste!”

See, I had been somewhat indifferent to the frenzy that had surrounded the opening of Hamilton. For one thing, the subject matter did not really interest me. A play about the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of our less vaunted Founding Fathers? Yawn. I also was not sure about the rap and hip hop infused nature of the music. I love all the traditional old musicals, such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, etc. So I didn’t think I would enjoy a more modern twist.

Furthermore, people’s insistence that I just had to see the play, that it was the greatest thing ever, made me stubborn about not wanting to join the bandwagon. With so much hype, I just couldn’t imagine enjoying it to the level at which everyone seemed to regard it. Indeed, as the play opened, the audience roared with expectation, and I wondered whether they were just responding to the hype or had already spent thousands of dollars on repeat viewings of the pricey play.

I really enjoyed the play. I found the music and lyrics creative and fun, at turns funny and plaintive. The choreography and the characters, the costumes, the comic appearances of a snarky King George: all were well done. And I loved that the closing number was an emotional and subdued one rather than the bombastic, glittery finales of most Broadway musicals.

Yet I wouldn’t say Hamilton is the best musical I have ever seen. While I got the gist of the theme as being about an improbable hero, I found the story less than compelling. I realize that the author, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was working within the limits of real history. And I did appreciate the underlying messages of inclusion and of fighting for one’s ideals – particularly in the current political climate that exists in the U.S.

I think my enjoyment was hampered in part by all the hype. The way the audience reacted to certain characters appearing on the stage was over the top. It was as if they were all in on a joke to which I wasn’t privy. I felt more like I was at a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show than at a Broadway musical. And the underlying insistence from everyone I knew that I just had to love it put me off a bit.

Still, I’m glad I was able to see the musical sensation of a generation. I have no doubt that in many ways, Lin-Manuel has opened the genre of the Broadway musical to further invention and creativity. Perhaps he will also be responsible for keeping the genre alive for the millennials coming of age in the next decades.

Have you seen Hamilton? I’d love to know what you think.

Best Laid Plans

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For the past nine days, I have had the privilege and the pleasure to accompany my son and his college football team on a tour of Ireland and Scotland, complete with a visit to the iconic Guinness Storehouse and a friendly game of American football against the Scottish East Kilbride Pirates.

I have nothing but admiration for the logistical and sheep-herding talents of our tour guide, who has been responsible for getting 50 people on and off our motor coach for visits to five different cities on two different islands. We have seen everything from the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher on the southwest coast of Ireland to the awe-inspiring Croke Park, one of the biggest sports arenas in the world, to the charming and ancient city of Edinburgh, Scotland, a city with its very own medieval castle. We have been fed, housed, and otherwise looked after with consummate professionalism and unfailing friendliness.

The ancient lands from which my ancestors descended are some of the loveliest places I have ever seen. The verdant fields dotted with peacefully grazing sheep. The mysterious islands shrouded in fog. The mountains and rocky coastlines. The charming little rural cottages and the Georgian row houses in the big cities. The rivers winding through these tiny countries that formed the lifeblood of commerce and sustenance for the people, as well as made them bombing targets during the World Wars.

We have had the good fortune to learn from our history buff of a tour director so much about the past that has formed the British Isles into what they are today. It was one thing to be somewhat aware of the sectarian violence that has marked many periods in Irish and Scottish history. But it was quite another to see in person the partitions that still separate Catholics from Protestants in Belfast, Northern Ireland – or to witness the Orange marches asserting Protestant dominance in Glasgow, Scotland. Such estrangement reminded me of the political divisiveness in the United States these days and makes me realize that all countries have conflict and strife of one kind or another.

Yet this trip has been a unifying and bonding experience for us. My husband and I have met and gotten to know so many of my son’s teammates and their parents. We have had great fun with their coaches and joined in on their good-natured teasing of each other. Was some of this camaraderie fueled by pints of Guinness? Maybe. But I have been so gratified to know that my son is living and working among good young men with good people as their role models.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” But in the case of this wonderful tour, those plans have been executed flawlessly to create an experience that will give us memories to last a lifetime.

 

The Trump Effect

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Since Trump’s improbable run for the White House, public and political discourse in America seem to be devolving. Trump himself was able to call immigrants rapists and “bad hombres,” demonize Muslims, criticize women’s looks, and talk about his inappropriate sexual advances – all without having a substantial effect on his popularity. Notwithstanding the interference of the Russians and James Comey as factors in the Trump victory, Trump and his supporters seem to have taken this fact as license to spout off any mean-spirited remark that comes to mind. I call this the Trump Effect.

Case in point are some of the comments Republican lawmakers have made about health care in their efforts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. For instance, Rep. John Shimkus questioned why pregnancy coverage should be required, and Rep. Roger Marshall said that poor people don’t care about their health anyway. More recently, after the House passed a bill that would allow states to opt out of coverage for pre-existing conditions, Rep. Robert Pittenger helpfully explained that people can just move to another state if they can’t get coverage. And Rep. Mo Brooks implied that getting sick was a moral failing that the “rest of us” shouldn’t have to pay for. Worst of all, Republican members of the House of Representatives voted essentially to deny health insurance to millions of Americans while keeping their own government-paid health plans.

The Trump Effect has not been limited to politicians. Across the country, Trump’s election has emboldened some Americans to dust off their swastika posters, shout racist epithets at strangers, and attack people wearing head coverings whom they think are Muslim. For example, not long ago, a man was removed from a plane for harassing Muslim passengers and asking them if they had a bomb in their luggage.

And speaking of airlines, the Trump Effect seems to have caused companies to say, “Screw it” in their approach to customer satisfaction. After the egregious abuse a man endured being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight, one would have thought all the major airlines would have run employee sensitivity training immediately. Instead, we keep hearing of more abusive behavior on the part of airline employees. Recently, an American Airlines flight attendant had to be reprimanded for her handling of a woman and toddler with a stroller. And just the other day, a young couple was threatened with jail and the removal of their children if they did not take their infant out of his car seat and give the seat (that they had paid for) to another passenger on an overbooked flight.

I honestly feel sorry for the writers of satire such as Saturday Night Live. People’s real life behavior has gotten so outrageous that it is hard to exaggerate for humorous effect. In fact, the situation in our country has gotten so awful that our comedians more and more have felt the need to play it straight. Jimmy Kimmel, for instance, made a heartfelt plea to lawmakers not to pass a law that would force families to watch their infant die because they couldn’t afford life-saving treatment.

Of course, Jimmy’s plea was met with compassion and restraint, right? Fat chance. Instead, we got deadbeat dad and right wing radio blabbermouth Joe Walsh saying, Sorry, Jimmy. I don’t care if your kid dies. I don’t want to have to help pay to save him. Yeah, I’m actually getting nostalgic for George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” and his son’s “compassionate conservatism.”

The Trump Effect has also extended to alternate views of reality. Because Trump so often outright lies, members of his administration have been emboldened to do so. Remember Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “Bowling Green massacre”? Trump has peopled his Cabinet with climate-change deniers and shown his knowledge of history to be shaky at best. How else to explain his gaffes about Jefferson Davis and Andrew Jackson? The latest lies, of course, are about the effect the new health care law will have on ordinary Americans. The Republicans are hoping those lies hold until at least after the mid-term elections. Meanwhile, Trump, with a totally straight face, tells Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull that Australia’s universal healthcare program is better than the one in the U.S. No shit, Sherlock.

I don’t think I’m hyperbolizing when I declare that the Trump Effect is turning civilization on its head. Our rapidly descending standards for what is acceptable in a U.S. president are influencing the rest of American government and the society beyond. We need a return to norms of civility and kindness before it’s too late.

Young Women Need Feminism

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Kathrine Switzer made history in 1967 when she participated as a registered runner in the Boston Marathon. Despite rules barring women from competing, Switzer signed up and managed to run the entire marathon, despite an official physically trying to drag her out of the race. Fifty years later, Switzer jubilantly ran in this year’s Boston Marathon, leading a group of 100 women runners.

After the race, Switzer was quoted as saying,  “If young women today take for granted the fact that they can compete like men in the sport of running, that’s fantastic. That’s what we wanted when we began working for acceptance.” (amightygirl.com) I’m not so sure I agree with her.

I think it’s a problem that young women today don’t realize how many rights women gained only through the activism and struggle of their forebears. It has been less than 100 years since women won the right to vote in America. Even in more recent history, women were discriminated against in the workplace and barred from many rights that today’s woman takes for granted.

In the 1960s, for instance, women could be refused a credit card, and married women had to have their husbands co-sign to obtain one. Married women were also listed on passports as simply the wife of a man. Most of the Ivy League schools barred women from admittance until the late Sixties and beyond. And only married women with menstrual difficulties were allowed to purchase contraception in the early Sixties.

Even as women began entering the workplace in greater numbers, they faced widespread harassment and discrimination. In the 1960s, women earned approximately 60% of what men earned, largely due to the occupations that were open to women, but also because men were looked at as the breadwinners and therefore in need of greater compensation. This was quite overt, as evidenced in the comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which Mary’s boss quite clearly states that she is being paid less because she is a woman.

Aside from salary issues, women were subject to sexist and discriminatory policies at work. For example, a woman could be fired because she became pregnant. Flight attendants in the 60s (called “stewardesses”) were subject to height, weight, and attractiveness qualifications. And stewardesses could be fired for getting married. After all, the predominantly male clientele on flights wanted unrestricted access to attractive single women whom they could sexually harass with abandon.

This week Fox News icon Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign under allegations of sexual harassment, following his old boss, Roger Ailes, who also left the media giant amid such accusations.

Back when I was a young working college student, there was no such concept as “sexual harassment.” Women were routinely subjected to unwanted comments and advances from co-workers. I remember being forced to kiss my boss – on the lips! – on my last day of work at an insurance agency. There was no recourse available to women until Gloria Steinem’s exposé of the Playboy enterprise brought to light the rampant victimization of women in the workplace.

Today many of the rights women take for granted are imperiled by a conservative movement that wants to relegate women to their past restrictive roles as wives and mothers. Particularly in the area of reproductive rights, legislation is intruding upon the rights of women to obtain contraception and other medical care of their choosing. And as indicated by many recent high profile instances of sexual harassment and domestic violence, as well as the current pay gap of 20% between men and women (aauw.org), women still need to fight for our rights, not take them for granted.

Many young women today dislike the term “feminism,” seeing it as a pejorative term for a ball-busting hater of men. What they need to realize is that without feminism, they would not be enjoying the freedoms and rights they enjoy today. And without continued feminism, those rights may slip away in the future.