Animals

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President Trump has once again revealed his true self. Speaking at a White House meeting on his attempts to rid America of undocumented immigrants, he said, “These aren’t people, these are animals.” (New York Times, May 16, 2018)

He was referring to notorious members of a gang called MS-13 who, according to Trump, are crossing the border in droves to rape and murder Americans. The problem with this reasoning is that MS-13 is a home grown gang that started in the largely Hispanic underclass neighborhoods of Los Angeles. According to PolitiFact, it is difficult to determine how many undocumented youth in MS-13 were gang members before they arrived in the U.S. and how many were recruited once here. (“Immigration, MS-13 and crime: the facts behind Donald Trump’s exaggerations,” Miriam Valverde, politifact.com, Feb. 7, 2018)

Highlighting the heinous acts of a Latino street gang is just another of the Trump Administration’s attempts to vilify non-white immigrants and build a case for his precious wall. Trump has consistently called non-whites criminals, rapists, and animals, and he has vilified their countries of origin as “shitholes.” How this transparent racism is allowed to stand is a mystery to me.

Trump’s latest remarks have concerned many people who recall that Hitler used the same term to refer to Jews before his successful campaign to exterminate millions of them. I think the rhetoric of this administration deserves universal condemnation from our leaders.

But let’s think for a moment about animals, forgetting for the sake of argument that all humans are considered animals. Animals are predominantly creatures of instinct. They spend their lives in a difficult environment just trying to survive. Some eat only plants, others just meat, and many are omnivores. Although there is some evidence that our close relatives the chimpanzees perpetrate wanton violence, most animals only kill in order to live or protect themselves and their young.

The scariness of the fictional Cujo notwithstanding, animals do not lurk in the shadows waiting to do harm. They can’t lie, cheat, or steal. They aren’t bullies or con artists. Their intentions are much more pure than that of even our own beloved children. (Just ask any pet owner.)

I really don’t think Donald Trump should be calling people animals. It’s an insult to animals.

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The Greatest Charlatan

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I’ve been mystified by the success of the 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, a movie based on the life of P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus fame. How does someone make a “feel good” musical about a man who preyed upon people’s basest instincts to make money?

P.T. Barnum literally rented an elderly black slave and peddled the fiction that she was George Washington’s nursemaid. He exploited people of other races, such as the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng. People came to see his freak show of humans with physical characteristics outside the mainstream of society. (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017) All of this is whitewashed by rousing musical numbers and anthems, ironically, of tolerance for people’s differences (Academy-award nominated song “This Is Me”).

I guess the popularity of The Greatest Showman shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we live in an America that elected Donald Trump. Like Barnum, Trump exploited people’s prejudices and fears to win votes. He peddled the fiction that he was a man of great business acumen despite numerous business failures and the exploitation of many who worked for him.

Both Barnum’s and Trump’s greatest gifts have been for self-promotion. Barnum even titled his autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. Similarly, Trump travels around the country like a religious tent revivalist, whipping up crowds and congratulating himself for his greatness and popularity. Trump is fond of phrases such as “we have the best …” and “like no one’s ever seen.”

Donald Trump has created his own three-ring circus to dazzle, obfuscate, and distract the media and the American people from his lies and the backroom dealings that keep coming to light through the Mueller investigation. He has managed to convince Republican legislators and conservative media pundits that the true chicanery lies elsewhere, with the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Justice Department, and American intelligence services. Unlike the offensive but entertaining smoke and mirrors of P.T. Barnum, Trump’s con artistry is bent on destroying American institutions.

Americans who so want to invest their hopes and dreams in a man like Trump are the perfect audience for a sugarcoated movie about a man who conned and exploited his way to fame and fortune, a man who was wiling to abuse both humans and animals to make a buck.

As historian Daniel Boorstin puts it, “Contrary to popular belief,” as Boorstin wrote, “Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.” (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017)

If anything explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump, that does.

Name Game

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In Bible study the other day, the lecturer suggested that parents choose the name Caleb for their sons. Caleb was a brave and faithful Israelite who helped conquer enemies in the Promised Land. The priest leading the study went on to recommend that Catholics choose other Biblical and saints’ names for their children. I felt a bit sheepish listening, as I’d already named one of my sons after a pagan Roman emperor and a daughter after a Shakespearean character.

Names have been much in the news lately. Just yesterday I picked up my Chicago Tribune and saw a story about young African-American students on the South Side who are campaigning to have the city change the name of a local park from Douglas to Douglass. What’s the difference? you ask. The park is named for former U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Civil War era Illinois politician who wanted the issue of slavery left up to individual states. The students want to see their local park named after the great Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leader of the abolitionist movement during the same era.

In the past few years, we have seen the toppling of Confederate leaders’ statues and a general activism on the part of blacks to call into question honoring those in the past who promulgated slavery. What I love about this recent protest is that is has been driven and organized by fifth graders, who are learning about political and social activism at a young age. When I was in fifth grade, my biggest concern was getting through the school day without having my bra strap snapped.

In other news, the Boys Scouts of America are planning to change their name to Scouts BSA since their decision to start inviting girls into the organization. I’ve seen some criticism of this decision online, but it puzzles me. If there are boys and girls in the program, it’s no longer the Boy Scouts. Perhaps what critics are really upset about is the admission of girls in the first place. And that’s, of course, a different issue altogether. Personally, I’d rather get a route canal than participate in a Pinewood Derby.

I’ve noticed in my travels many stretches of highway named for state troopers, most likely fallen heroes being honored for their sacrifice. In the city there are little brown street signs under the large green ones that give honorary names to segments of major thoroughfares. Most major cities I’ve been to have a Martin Luther King, Jr., boulevard or avenue to honor one of the United States’ greatest African-American leaders. All of these naming rituals serve to honor the legacies of people who have striven and sacrificed and deserve recognition.

Still, when name changes are proposed – or forced upon us by a change in corporate sponsorship, say – we are apt to be a bit put out. As creatures of habit, we cling to what we know and are used to. Don’t ask me to call the Chicago White Sox baseball venue anything other than Comiskey Park. And don’t even get me started on the renaming of Chicago’s Sears Tower.

But change is an inevitable part of life. And so are name changes. When most women marry, they give up their former surname to take their husband’s. Children who don’t like their names sometimes go by a nickname or change theirs altogether when they grow up. Performers take stage names.

So whatever one’s stance on the name game, the practice is undoubtedly here to stay.

 

 

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

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Tomorrow is a favorite holiday for Irish-Americans and, well, just about everyone else: St. Patrick’s Day. In Chicago, the river will be dyed an unnatural shade of green, and a big parade will course down (ironically) Columbus Drive to the wild cheers of the Chi-town throngs. Hardier partiers will start their pub crawl at an ungodly hour, and green beer will flow.

Being Irish has always been an enjoyable part of my life. My Dad loved to sing old Irish songs, some of which are very plaintive and touching. So did my red-haired Uncle Jim, who favored the  funnier ones, such as “Who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” I myself loved to listen to and create funny limericks, thought to be named for an old Irish song, “Will You Come Up to Limerick?” (Of course, I was never privy to the bawdier versions of these poems.) And Irish tales of leprechauns and banshees and other magical lore from the Emerald Isle were endlessly fascinating to me.

On St. Patrick’s Day, our Catholic school took a holiday, and we would wear our kelly green sweaters. My mom would make corned beef and cabbage, the traditional Irish-American fare, for dinner. If St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday, the Catholic Church would even give us a dispensation from going meatless on Lenten Fridays. One year my parents even braved the crowds downtown and took us to see the parade.

As I got older, I delved into the history of Ireland and learned that being Irish certainly did not come with a pot of gold. The story of my ancestors was one of privation and persecution. A particular story I read in English class, “The Sniper,” made a big impression on me. It’s a story about the sectarian war in Northern Ireland, and the reveal at the end of the story is that the sniper ends up being killed by his own brother. It  is a metaphor for the tragedy of civil war and the age-old enmity between brethren.

I also learned to appreciate both the beauties and the struggles of being Irish from reading Frank McCourt’s trilogy of memoirs, beginning with his Pulitzer-prize winning book Angela’s Ashes. His memoirs are filled with laughter amidst the sadness, which is a very Irish way of looking at the world.

I think that’s what I love about being Irish most of all. It’s an irrepressible zest for life coexisting with a maudlin sense of doom. The Irish are drinkers, dreamers, story-tellers, and poets, singers and dancers and revelers. That’s the side of being Irish we celebrate on St. Patrick’s Day.

And it’s in that spirit that I say, Erin Go Bragh! Ireland Forever!

Alternate Reality

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MadHatterSignpostDHThe other day I overheard Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson getting indignant over a New York Times story revealing that U.S. intelligence officers had paid $100,000 to a Russian operative for dirt on Donald Trump. Curious, I pulled up the actual Times article and read that the intelligence community paid the money to retrieve stolen NSA cyber weapons, not intel on Trump. The article specifically stated, in fact, that the officers did not want any “dirt” on Trump during a presidential election. This is the alternative reality that Trump apologists like Carlson have created – aided and abetted by a behemoth of an organization called Fox News.

The whole so-called political scandal inside the FBI is a creation of the right wing establishment and Fox News, who have been desperate to deflect attention from the very serious Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Instead of welcoming the truth, conservatives want to taint any findings that might come out of that investigation by claiming that the investigators themselves are all politically motivated.

The problem is that millions of Americans get their news from Fox, including the president himself. This leaves us in an Orwellian world where truth is a function of what one believes, not of what can be factually demonstrated. We should have been more frightened back in 2016 when Kellyanne Conway blathered about “alternative facts.” So between a steady diet of Fox News and an algorithm on Facebook that presents them with only pro-Trump, anti-Hillary/Obama/Democrats information, Trump supporters can live in their own alternate reality.

I’m not claiming that the editors of other news organizations are always free from bias. But I have never seen the deliberate omission and/or twisting of facts to fit the right wing, pro-Republican narrative as I have witnessed on Fox News. Even when something negative happens, such as the drastic drop in the stock market last week, Fox News calls it a “correction,” whereas in the Obama era, it would have been considered a sign of the president’s unfitness.

And when I hear people I know murmuring about “the Deep State” or referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” I realize the extent to which Trump and his own special news network have infected the American consciousness. Conservatives mocked Hillary Clinton back in the day when she referred to a vast right-wing conspiracy against her and her husband. But after a brutal presidential election that featured relentless attacks against Hillary and investigations prompted by conservative groups like Judicial Watch, I have to say I find her theory much more plausible.

Liberals and conservatives will never see eye to eye on all the issues. That’s what makes the political system interesting and vital. But if we can’t even agree on what constitutes reality, we are in danger of becoming a society in which the loudest and most well-financed voices are the only ones we hear.

 

 

The World in Black and White

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When I was about 9 years old, our family got our first color television set. It was a wonder to us and a plague to my father, who spent endless hours trying to get the color adjusted properly. People on early TV shows always looked orange or green, it seemed, but it was exciting to see the television world full of color. It was like that moment when Dorothy gets deposited in Oz, and she steps out into a new and beautiful world.

The advent of color TV coincided with a flowering of expression and political activism in the United States. The civil rights movement had given birth to the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the beginning of a larger push toward affording blacks equal rights to whites. Growing unrest over US involvement in the Vietnam War led to protests and violent clashes with police. The late Sixties was the time of hippies, free love, and drug experimentation. Many in America, youth in particular, rebelled against the homogeneity and conservatism of the 1950s.

The Fifties were a prosperous time for many, and after the deprivations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, Americans naturally craved comfort and security. The problem was that nonconformity was frowned upon, and prosperity and security remained elusive for blacks. So although some of the unrest and unruliness of the Sixties was negative, overall the era brought about progress for women and minorities.

Trump’s America seems to be a return to black and white. So much of his political platform and presidential agenda are designed to turn back the clock on civil rights, reproductive freedom, and freedom of expression. During the campaign, for instance, he called nonwhite immigrants criminals, rapists, and terrorists. He questioned the validity of Barack Obama’s U.S. birth certificate until late in the campaign. He said that women who had abortions should be punished and bragged about grabbing women’s genitals against their will. This was dismissed by his supporters as “locker room talk.” It seemed clear to those not dazzled by his reality TV fame that his slogan “Make America Great Again” really meant “Make America White Again.”

As president, Trump has put his reactionary views into action – decreeing a de facto travel ban on foreign Muslims, appointing an anti-civil rights attorney general, removing the contraceptive mandate from Obamacare, calling for a ban on transgender individuals in the military. He has made both veiled and overt threats against press freedom and taken exception to NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. He has called these peaceful protestors “sons of bitches” while refusing to condemn white nationalists marching in Charlottesville and shouting slogans such as “Jews will not replace us.”

Seeing things in black and white is an apt metaphor for both the conformist Fifties and today’s politically polarized environment. It is incredibly depressing to see the hard-fought gains of the Sixties and Seventies being undone by the current administration with the complicity of the Republican-dominated Congress. I can only hope that the many Americans who have grown to love a world of color will rise up and demand that our country move forward, not backward, in the advancement of freedom and human rights.

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.