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.

Deja Vu

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_87171044_composite976_afpAmericans had our comeuppance when we ridiculed the Brits for their foolish vote on Brexit. After the UK decided to break from the European Union, many Britons had  “voter’s remorse.” Many didn’t really understand what they were voting for. It seemed a travesty – until November 8, 2016. On that day, many of us had to eat crow when we realized our nation had just elected an unstable, egotistical game show host as President of the United States.

Now the French are having their turn in the spotlight with a presidential election, and it feels to me like a bad case of deja vu. There are so many parallels between the 2016 American election and the upcoming contest in France.

As in America, there is no incumbent running for president. The two likely contenders are Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front party and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist “insider,” while in the wings there is a Bernie Sanders-like figure in Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leftist with rabid followers who likely will refuse to vote for the more centrist Macron, leaving Le Pen’s unlikely candidacy to imitate that of Donald Trump, the xenophobic outsider who wants to make their country great again.

The nationalist, anti-immigrant stance of Le Pen is similar to that of Trump’s. Like Trump, Le Pen is capitalizing on the sentiment that immigrants (mostly Muslim) are taking resources from hard-working Frenchmen, causing violence, and creating a clash of cultures. Her refusal to cover her head in a meeting with Lebanon’s highest religious leader solidified her support with the far right. She has also denied France’s complicity in sending thousands of Jews to their deaths during World War II.

Also as in the U.S. election, Russia is meddling with the French election. For example, Russian website Sputnik spread rumors that Le Pen’s likely opponent, Macron, is gay.  Le Pen, for her part, paints Macron as a part of “the system” and vilifies his opinion that globalization is actually a good thing.

The white nationalist movement is growing in Europe, due in part to the refugee crisis and in part to the economic uncertainty of a rapidly changing, interdependent world. Leaders like Trump and Le Pen appeal to a “me first” mentality that causes people to hark back to an imagined simpler time when they and their country were considered strong and great.

Unfortunately, the isolationist tendency to retreat from the European Union and from trade treaties, to crack down on minorities and immigrants, and to scapegoat those who don’t fit a sanitized cultural mold won’t make our countries safer. Rather, such nationalism will create greater polarization, inequality, and radicalization, all of which will serve to destabilize our great democracies.

I hope France does not succumb to the politics of division and hate. But I am not optimistic. After all, this is a country whose cultural hero used to be Jerry Lewis.

Religious Persecutors

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I recently watched the film Patriot Days, which tells the story of the Boston Marathon bombings. It details the lives of some of the victims as well as the bombers themselves and the law enforcement officials who apprehended them.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, like many fanatics, used religion to justify the murder and maiming of innocent men, women, and children. His brother Dzhokhar, who seems less ideologically driven, does not come off any better in the film, showing a selfishness and callous disregard for human life. He even ran over his own brother with a car in his haste to save himself. Tamerlan is dead, and Dzhokhar languishes in prison while lawyers appeal his death sentence for the bombings and the shooting death of an MIT campus police officer.

Today is Good Friday, and Christians all over the world commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus Christ at the hands of the Romans but at the behest of religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat to their power. These leaders used trumped up charges of blasphemy to justify handing over an innocent man to be crucified, a cruel and ignominious form of execution.

Although the larger story of Christ’s passion and death points to his resurrection and the salvation of the world, the actions of the chief priests and Pharisees of Jesus’s time are echoed in history’s many instances of people using religion to justify violence.

The world is filled with many faith traditions, each with its own beliefs, rituals, and customs. People of faith may disagree with and even criticize each other. But our religious beliefs should never be the basis for hatred or killing.

As Jesus neared his death, he prayed, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” If Jesus can forgive his tormentors, we too should seek to promote peace and healing, not violence and death.

Proportional Response

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a41f726b05591a56da4d18Politicians on both sides of the aisle are praising President Trump’s decision to bomb an airfield in Syria in retaliation for Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons against his own people. The air strike is being called a “proportional response” to the egregious attack on the part of the Assad regime. If anything, it’s significantly less heinous than the wholesale massacre of innocent civilians using a slow and painful method of murder.

While I’m not sure I join the pundits in praising this recent U.S. military action, it has gotten me to thinking about the idea of proportional response. This idea goes back to Biblical times, wherein Jewish law specified the so-called “eye for an eye” administration of justice. What many people don’t realize is that this law was not meant to incite violence but rather to contain it. Therefore, if someone took an eye from you, you were allowed only to go so far as to take an eye from him, not to kill him or his whole family.

In recent history, America has seen a decrease in tolerance for proportional response. Take, for instance, the recent assault on an innocent United Airlines passenger who refused to give up his paid for seat on a flight. Instead of trying to coax the man off the plane, flight attendants called the police to board the plane and forcibly remove him. He was yanked out of his seat, made bloody as his face was banged against the handset, and literally dragged on the floor out of the plane. The entire incident was caught, of course, on cell phone video and has been broadcast all over television and the internet. One would think United – and those officers – would know better.

Yet even with the installation of body cameras on police officers, incidences of  police abuse seem to be increasing. Routine traffic stops and minor infractions, such as illegally selling cigarettes on the street, are met with disproportional and sometimes deadly force. Why?

Certainly there has been a racial component to many instances of police overkill (literally, in the case of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times). But whether dealing with individual suspects, performing house raids in the war on drugs, or even responding to street protests, the police have become increasingly militarized – using armored vehicles, assault weapons and grenades, and often going in guns blazing to deal with ordinary criminals. For instance, a Georgia toddler was severely injured by a flash grenade in a raid on the home of a suspected drug dealer.

The war on drugs itself has been responsible for mass incarceration and the creation of career criminals who, due to Draconian “three strikes “laws, are spending most of their natural lives in prison for minor drug infractions. Meanwhile, we are witnessing an epidemic of people addicted to opioids prescribed by their own doctors. Yet Trump’s new Attorney General Jeff Sessions has shown indications that he wants to ramp up the “war on drugs” that has done so little to reduce crime, addiction, or the proliferation of weapons in our country.

I certainly believe in the right of law enforcement officers to defend themselves from armed criminals and to use SWAT teams in very dangerous, high risk situations. But the normalization of these military tactics and responses is a danger to innocent people who may be swept up in a raid or peaceful protesters who are exercising their First Amendment right to assembly. More importantly, I believe that violence begets violence, whether we are dealing with military conflicts around the world or our own citizens here at home.

Our government, our laws, our military, and our law enforcement agencies should keep in mind the concept of proportional response in dealing with transgressions. They should seek to de-escalate conflict wherever possible. Such policies would increase respect for the men and women entrusted with keeping the peace and keeping us safe.

 

 

 

 

Hate Has No Ideological Boundaries

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Wednesday’s attack on London’s Westminster Bridge has once again raised the specter of Islamic extremism and no doubt will unleash further animosity against Muslims living in the West. Although British authorities believe the terrorist, who died in the attack, had acted alone, ISIS claimed responsibility for inspiring the terror that killed 4 and seriously injured many others.

Without minimizing the effects of ISIS’s promulgation of hate against the West, I hope cool heads will prevail and leaders will not overreact to this instance of “lone wolf terrorism.” The truth is that hate, while inconsistent with the beliefs of any major religion, is unfortunately a universal emotion that plagues the human heart, and practitioners of religions ranging from Islam to Christianity to Buddhism have used a twisted take on their religious beliefs to justify their hateful and terrorist actions.

How else to explain why an Israeli Jew was just arrested for spreading bomb threats throughout U.S. Jewish centers? An attorney for the unnamed Jewish man is claiming mental instability as a cause for the cyberterrorism that has “sent a chill through the American Jewish community.” (Chicago Tribune, Friday, March 24, 2017)

And one need not go back very far to find instances of right wing Christian terrorism, such as the Planned Parenthood attack by Robert Dear or even the massacre of blacks in South Carolina by KKK admirer Dylann Roof. These individuals espoused extremist Christian ideology that justified attacking abortion providers and those who are not white.

Our great religions have striven over the centuries to inspire, comfort, and guide human beings in their quest for meaning. Many sacrifices and acts of heroism were guided by people’s religious beliefs. For example, numerous Christians acted to save Jews from the holocaust during World War II.

But humans being human, there are those among us who, for whatever reason, allow hate and anger to be the guiding forces of their lives. They also seek meaning in religion, but they must twist it to their violent desires.

At the risk of sounding trivial, the story of the Stars Wars saga puts it well: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side.”

We will not solve the problem of hate crimes and terrorism by unleashing more hate or violence. We can only do that by strengthening the forces of love and community that might help turn some of these marginalized individuals away from violence and help them gain a sense of purpose that comes from healing, not hurting.