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.”

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The Power of a Story

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3722407_070718-cc-thai-soccer-team-imgThe fate of 12 young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand for over two weeks has captivated the world. Daily news about the boys, the conditions inside the cave, and the perils faced by both the boys and their rescuers made for a riveting story. When all 12 boys and their coach made it safely out of the cave, there was widespread jubilation.

Even though these boys are from a country across the world, Americans were on tenterhooks praying for their safe escape. Yet here at home, as many critics have pointed out, young children continue to be separated from their families after being apprehended at our border trying to enter the U.S. illegally. Why the difference?

The Trump Administration has refused access to the media and most other Americans to see the facilities where children and babies wail disconsolately for their mothers. Photos are scarce, and there is no opportunity for us to learn the stories of these would-be asylum seekers. Without their stories touching us, it is easy for us to shrug or turn away.

The power of a story cannot be overestimated. As a literature lover, I have always preferred to learn about history and about real people through fiction – or through riveting memoirs and other non-fiction such as the works of Jon Krakauer. Where the starkness of bald facts can be numbing, a story helps draw us into the experiences of others.

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A good example is the 2014 story of Boko Haram and its kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The fate of the girls became an international news phenomenon when prominent people, such as First Lady Michelle Obama, took to social media with photos of individual girls who were missing and feared kidnapped by the extremist group. The pressure created by the girls’ story prompted the Nigerian government to go after Boko Haram more aggressively. Ironically, another kidnapping of 100 Nigerian girls by the terrorist group earlier this year has been barely a blip on people’s radar. Without a compelling story, the situation is unlikely to capture the world’s attention.

Since ancient times, human beings have been storytellers. Our oral traditions were our histories. Our imaginations help us to envision the plight of others and give us more empathy. Perhaps if Americans knew the stories of some of the asylum-seekers at our southern border, they would demand a more humane response and the immediate reunification of families. Like the scared and malnourished Thai soccer players in the cave, these children are just like our own. Shouldn’t we care for them as if they were?

 

Land of the Free

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IMG_1229“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men 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.”

With these famous words, our Founding Fathers began a justification for the thirteen American colonies’ Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, setting the stage for revolution and the creation of the United States of America.

Of course, the equality espoused in the declaration of 1776 applied only to white men, and that reality has been the source of many hardships and injustices that have stained the greatness of our great country. The fight to live up to that ideal goes on even today.

But the moral ideal encompassed by the most well-known words in the Declaration of Independence has also inspired a fight for freedom and equality in many parts of the world. And it continues to give America its conscience hundreds of years after it was written.

The idea that human beings have certain rights helped framed the U.S. Constitution. It guided us out of two terrible world wars and helped established international standards to which all nations on Earth are meant to be held. And while even in our own democracy we struggle to assure the dignity of each person, the concept that we share “inalienable rights” gives us something to strive for in our laws and policies.

Freedom is a tricky thing. Fifty states with different laws and customs must somehow stay united as a nation. Our democratic institutions allow for a certain amount of unrest and strife that is not seen in more autocratic countries. Even the current state of caustic discourse that is roiling our democracy is the fruit of that freedom.

When my children were young, I learned a method to teach them about freedom and responsibility. It involves locking the thumbs and forefingers of each hand to form interlocking circles. One circle represented freedom, the other responsibility. With the circles locked together, it was clear that as the kids grew and gained freedom, they were also saddled with more responsibility.

That is our challenge as a nation as we celebrate our two hundred forty-second birthday. We need to remember our responsibility to the ideals that gave birth to our great republic. We need to hold them as applicable not only to ourselves, but to every American – indeed, to every human being on this planet.

Happy Independence Day!

Fab Four

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I was just a little girl when the Beatles came on the scene in the mid-Sixties, but I quickly caught Beatle fever. The four English lads with dark mops of hair had an infectious sound and personality that made toes tap and girls swoon. I spent many an hour clad in white vinyl go-go boots dancing in the family basement rec room to Meet the Beatles, The Beatles Second Album, and Beatles 65.

This past weekend, I was able to reminisce about the Fab Four by listening to a weekend-long show on Sirius XM Radio’s Beatles channel. Hosted by music producer Peter Asher, the “All Together Now” show featured the top 100 Beatles songs as voted on by listeners. Although I might have quibbled with some of the listeners’ choices, I enjoyed the musical tour through Beatles history, punctuated by arcana from the knowledgable Asher.

Having not only been a music producer during the Beatles’ rise to fame but also a close personal friend, Peter Asher is well qualified to discuss the intricacies of their music and to share the personal stories behind many Beatles songs. In fact, Paul McCartney lived with Asher’s family for two years and wrote many of his beautiful songs in the Asher family home.

An interesting tidbit I learned was that the hit “Hey Jude” was originally titled “Hey Jules.” This makes sense since, as I once learned, Paul wrote the song to cheer up John Lennon’s son Julian when the Lennons were in the process of getting a divorce. John, for his part, wrote one of my favorite songs about his mother, Julia. McCartney also used many of his personal experiences to form parts of songs. For instance, the lyrics of “Let It Be” came from a dream Paul had of his mother. “Martha, My Dear” referred to Paul’s pet dog, and “Penny Lane” was based upon a street in his childhood neighborhood in Liverpool.

One of the most interesting details I learned was that Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” is a song about civil rights. In Paul’s words, “This was really a song from me to a black woman, experiencing these problems in the States: ‘Let me encourage you to keep trying, to keep your faith, there is hope.'” Indeed, as the Beatles evolved, their songs became deeper and richer in many ways. They also got in trouble with conservatives for some of their comments and lyrics. I still remember my father’s outrage when John Lennon declared that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ. And the John Birch Society objected to the upbeat “Back in the USSR,” which I interpret to be a tongue-in-cheek take on the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.”

To this day, I have a special fondness for the Beatles’ early music. It was so upbeat, sweet, and danceable. It’s just not possible to be in a bad mood while listening to “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Help!,” or “Happy Just to Dance With You.” I’m not such a fan of the psychedelic phase the Beatles had, in which all the lyrics sounded as if they were written under the influence of mushrooms or LSD. But much of their later music only improves with age. Soulful ballads such as “Let It Be,” “Something,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” reveal a maturing foursome, ironically as the band started splintering.

There will never be another band like the Beatles. As I listened to song after song in the top 100, I realized that not only had I heard almost every single one many times, I knew most of the lyrics. The Beatles were a formative part of our lives in the 1960s and 70s. Hearing so many of their masterpieces this weekend, I realized that Beatles music will never get old.

The Beatles’ gift to music and culture is immeasurable. And I hope for each of them the lines of “The End” have held true: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

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.

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.