For the Birds

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I have never really understood the purpose of Twitter. Communicate an idea in 140 characters or less. But why?

Sure, I can see the allure of posting pithy sayings that get a lot of likes. I can pat myself on the back for my cleverness, but that sense of self-congratulation doesn’t last. I can also see that Twitter might be a good space in which to vent, to spew out into the Twitterverse one’s anger or discontent.

But to me, the Twitter world creates more harm than good. Look at our current president. He spend hours rage-tweeting and creating angst. What is our Commander in Chief doing ranting through the night and revealing an enraged, bullying, and narcissistic personality to the entire world? And for Trump, the now-280 character limit doesn’t really work. Instead, he posts a diatribe through a series of tweets. If only the Unabomber and Son of Sam had had Twitter!

These days, Twitter wars erupt over all kinds of minutiae. Celebrities get into vicious spats, and we’ve even seen all-out fights over which chicken sandwich is the best. Even more dangerous, world leaders have taken to Twitter and nearly incited real wars. Whether it was Turkey vs. Greece or Israel and Pakistan getting into it, the war of words can come dangerously close to a war with real weapons. And, of course, our fearless leader takes to Twitter routinely to threaten friends and foes alike. His recent tweets threatening to decimate Iranian cultural sites caused an uproar. Sad when the U.S. president has to be scolded for publicly threatening to flout the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Twitter may have been the perfect commercial enterprise for the sound bite generation. But it is a poor substitute for reasoned discourse and general civility. This #NeverTrumper pledges to be a #NeverTweeter. Care to join me?

 

Race, Class and the Royals

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We Americans like to think of ourselves as egalitarians, not at all interested in separating people into social classes. Yet we have an endless obsession with the life of the royals across the pond. Last week the world was riveted by the rift exposed when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan declared their intention to live apart from the royal family for some  portion of the year and to become financially independent.

While our own Senate begins its deliberations about whether to remove the president from office, our obsession lies with “Meghxit” and what it will mean for the future of the dynasty that has had us in its thrall for decades. There have been no shortage of news stories and op eds about the defection of Harry and Meghan. Speculation about how Queen Elizabeth will handle these upstarts also runs rampant.

Many in the press are sympathetic to Meghan Markle and the fact that she has had to endure some racially biased attitudes since her engagement to Prince Harry. Despite the huge influx of immigrants from around the world into the UK, English society holds onto strict class distinctions. Kate Middleton may have been a “commoner,” but she was a distinctly well-bred white woman. With Meghan Markle’s mixed racial heritage and her past as an American actress, she has had to fight the disdain of this class-conscious society in which she lives. Even baby Archie is not immune from the thinly-veiled racism, having been described as looking like an ape by a British journalist.

On the other hand, Meghan Markle did not exist in a bubble when she met her prince. The royal family’s stuffiness, the British public’s relentless prying and open criticism of various members, and the tabloid nature of many British publications should have clued her in that her every action would be scrutinized and that is was unlikely she would remain unscathed under such a microscope. As Maureen Dowd put it in her spot-on column, “It is hard to feel sorry for the Duchess of Sussex complaining that her diamonds are heavy.” (“Gone With the Windsors,” Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2020)

There is also some sense that Meghan has been responsible for causing, or at least exacerbating, the enmity between brothers Harry and William. And as a royal living off of public funds, she has certain responsibilities to that public that she has refused to honor. For example, she refused to be photographed leaving the hospital after the birth of Archie. She and Harry have insisted on a level of privacy that is just not possible in their positions. Now they want to abscond to Canada, necessitating expensive security measures that they are in no way able to afford “independently.”

Is Meghxit a sign that the authority of the British monarchy is on the wane? Is it a breath of fresh air into the stuffy halls of Buckingham Palace? Or is it an entitled and childish tantrum against the golden chains that bind the royals to their destiny? Whatever the case, our enduring fascination with monarchs and class distinctions indicates that we may not be as democratically-minded as we like to think.

 

The Age of Disinformation

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Recently on Facebook, I started seeing stories purporting that arsonists had started the wildfires that have engulfed huge swaths of land in dry, brittle Australia. I soon learned that the stories were false, an attempt to dissuade the public from thinking that this latest catastrophe had anything to do with global warming.

We live in an age where the risk of disinformation is extremely high. During the 2016 presidential election, there was a preposterous yet widely reported story that Hillary Clinton was among a cabal of evil pedophiles running a ring inside a D.C. area pizza place. The story reminded me of a plot line from the TV series Homeland, in which a Russian operative doctors a photo of a survivalist’s wounded young son to imply that the son had bled out alone in a hospital emergency room. Posting the photo was an attempt to destabilize the the US government.

In real life, there have been recent instances of such doctoring for political reasons. One shows former President Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian president Rouhani, a man Obama had never actually met. Then there was the video doctored to make it seem as if Nancy Pelosi was slurring her words. And Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Joe Biden were falsely depicted as racist through the editing of video clips.

Social media giants like Facebook are making some effort to identify and take down fake news that appears on their sites. But the magnitude of the problem and the free speech issues involved make it difficult, if not impossible, to monitor all this disinformation. It is a great threat to our democracy if we cannot tell truth from propaganda.

The internet has in many ways been a democratizing force on the dissemination of information. No longer does one have to have the connection to a publisher or media network in order to express ideas or bring important stories to light. But the danger in its “no holds barred” format is that the internet has become increasingly like a Wild West of competing ideologies and agendas.

As we gear up for the Democratic primaries and the November election, we Americans need to take seriously our responsibility to be informed citizens. We need to consider the sources we credit and sometimes (as in the “Pizzagate” case) just use common sense to be critical consumers of news and other media.

Most of all, every American needs to be engaged in meaningful thought and research about the important issues of the day. Every American needs to be determined to vote for the candidates they feel most closely share their positions and values. Let’s go into the 2020 election year with open eyes and analytical minds in order to ferret out truth from falsehood. Only then will our democratic republic continue to thrive and prosper.

Christmas Wish Granted

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Twelve years ago, Grant Achatz was a rising star in the culinary world. Inside an unprepossessing building in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, Achatz was laboring day and night to make his restaurant Alinea the Michelin-starred destination it is today. Dining at Alinea is more like an experience of performance art with food and drink.

But a diagnosis of stage 4 tongue cancer shook the foundations of Achatz’s world. Doctors told him they would have to remove his tongue, and he was only too aware of the irony involved in a chef without the means to taste food. Yet his renown also made the news known to a group of specialists at the University of Chicago Medical Center, who urged Achatz to come in for a consultation. Achatz agreed to a then-experimental treatment that involved chemotherapy and radiation, one that would allow him to keep his tongue, his livelihood, and his life. Today Achatz, who has created two other restaurants, The Aviary and Next, is cancer free and free to follow his passion.

In 2017, my own piano teacher was also diagnosed with late stage tongue cancer and told she would have to have her tongue removed. A former opera singer who taught voice as well as piano, her diagnosis had a similarly chilling effect on her future. But Achatz’s fame and his cancer story led her to the University of Chicago, where by now the protocol for treating cancers of the head and neck has become standard procedure. Although the process was grueling, my teacher also came out the other side healthy and cancer free. This December, she hosted her first recital for piano and voice since her diagnosis two years ago.

Vision and artistry are the guiding principles of these two very different individuals. And it was the vision of the cancer team, led by Dr. Everett Vokes, that helped them create a treatment for cancer that would improve outcomes and quality of life. At Christmas, I’m grateful for the gift of life given to my friend and others who are, as a result, still free to use their singular talents in our world.

Time to Tell Trump: “You’re Fired!”

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The House vote to impeach President Donald Trump was as inevitable as the likelihood that the Senate will fail to remove him from office. In fact, many critics reasoned that it was a waste of time, and possibly damaging for Democrats, to go through  with impeachment when it would not lead to Trump’s ouster. Yet impeaching Donald Trump was simply the right thing to do.

Before the 2016 presidential election, suspicions swirled around Trump and his cronies, whose meetings with Russian officials appeared inappropriate if not conspiratorial. And indeed, special prosecutor Robert Mueller found evidence that Russia had interfered with the U.S. election – and not to help Hillary Clinton. Since taking office, President Trump has done nothing to distance himself from the dictatorial Vladimir Putin and many things to indicate a predilection toward helping Putin advance his territorial ambitions.

Now we have clear evidence that the president used his office to extort political dirt on a Democratic rival from the government of Ukraine, even going so far as to withhold military assistance from a country that is struggling to resist Russian hegemony. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi points out, Trump’s actions are not only unacceptable in a democracy, his clear preference for helping Russia is a threat to national security. Just yesterday The Daily Beast reported that “the Trump administration is quietly fighting a new package of sanctions on Russia.” (“Trump Administration Battles New Sanctions on Russia,” Betsy Swan, The Daily Beast, Dec. 18, 2019)

While it’s unlikely we will see an early exit from Donald Trump, it’s important to take a stand against his unconscionable and dangerous behavior. The House of Representatives did just that in voting to impeach. And I hope this stain on his presidency convinces voters in 2020 to tell the reality TV president, “You’re fired.”

Layaway

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When I was a college student, my bank balance usually hovered in the five dollar range. During my freshman year, I realized that my winter coat was insufficient for the harsh reality of life on the Illinois prairie. So I headed to our small campus town in Champaign, Illinois, and found the coat of my dreams. It was a light, cream-colored parka with a furry hood. But as the price tag was significantly higher than my bank balance, there was only one option for me: buying it on layaway.

With just a few dollars down, I could have the jacket stashed away for me until I was able to pay for it in full. Week after week, I saved up money from my part-time job at the university library and tried working a few extra hours so that I could put more funds towards an eventual reunion with that warm and lovely coat.

I was reminded of this experience from my past by a news story I read the other day. Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack went into a Florida Walmart and paid off the $80,000 in layaway debt shoppers had accrued so that families could go home with their merchandise. (“NFL star Khalil Mack pays off all $80,000 worth of layaways at hometown Walmart,” Christopher Brito, CBS News, Dec. 11, 2019) I have seen similar stories at the holidays of other athletes and celebrities playing Secret Santa for layaway customers, and it always warms my heart.

In this day and age, the ubiquity of credit cards has made the concept of layaway almost old-fashioned. Instead, we simply charge everything and hope to pay it off eventually, often accruing serious amounts of interest in the process. But for many low-income people, a credit card is not even an option. So using layaway is a method to have purchases saved and put away until their buyers can come up with the money to pay for them.

It bears remembering that in this season of bounty, so many are struggling to afford the necessities of life, never mind the extras. Here in Chicago, we may not have much to brag about when it comes to professional football prowess. But we can admire the magnanimous heart of Khalil Mack and others striving to make the world just a little bit better.

Ignore the Clowns in the Center Ring

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Every day, the Trump circus provides some new craven and offensive remarks that send the media a-Twitter. Today’s insults were directed against a decorated war hero and his uniform of all things. Cue the outrage and opposing memes reminding America that President Bone Spurs and his sons have done exactly zero to be of service to our country – including and especially throughout their disastrous stint in the White House.

Never mind that any self-respecting 10-year-old playground bully wouldn’t lower himself to the level of these “burns.” Democrats have to come out angrily denouncing the comments, and the statements themselves take on a new life on Facebook, Twitter, the news etc.

I have news for everyone. This is exactly the intent of Trump’s constant barrage of attacks on Twitter, in speeches, and at his omnipresent political rallies. He wants to distract the American people from the reality of what is proceeding in Congress these days as dignified and credible witness after witness testifies that our president used the power of his office to extract political dirt on his likely opponent in the 2020 race.

I’m not saying we should excuse or ever get used to the leader of our nation reducing individuals to dismissive nicknames, mocking their looks, manner and dress, or questioning their patriotism. But at this stage, our main goal should be focusing on Trump’s misdeeds, of which there are many, and keeping his actions as president the focus of our criticism.

It is quite clear that not only did Trump ask for help from Ukraine to discredit Joe Biden, but he withheld military aid from an ally that is currently besieged by the object of Trump’s main bromance: Vladimir Putin. If, prior to 2016, you had asked people to imagine Republicans standing by silently while a U.S. president praised a Russian leader and simultaneously maligned distinguished members of our own military, most people would think you were either crazy or a Hollywood screen writer.

Let’s stop feeding our narcissistic leader the attention and even outrage he so obviously craves. Ignore the side show and focus on the main events: the current impeachment hearings and the next presidential election. The only way to make the circus leave town is to get rid of the man in the center ring.