The Death of Shame

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Growing up Catholic in the Sixties, I was more than well acquainted with the concept of shame. “Shame on you!” was a common reprimand to children who stepped out of line. As I got older, I started to see the propensity to shame people as a negative thing. And it can be. Making people ashamed of their natural feelings and inclinations leads to a low sense of self-worth.

Nowadays, however, I think we’ve completely lost the sense of shame to the point where we can hurt and abuse others and still go about our normal lives without any sense of contriteness or trying to rectify the situation.

The #MeToo movement exposed the sexual predation, harassment and assault perpetrated by many men in the public sphere. From Harvey Weinstein to Bill Cosby to Matt Lauer, we were horrified to discover how many powerful men have used their position to prey on women (and in some instances men). The behavior of these men -ranging from sexual remarks to nudity to sexual assault – was rightly denounced, and the perpetrators seemed to pay a price. For a while.

Take the case of Charlie Rose. Not long after he was fired from CBS over allegations that he paraded around naked in front of female interns and made inappropriate sexual comments, a report came out that Rose had been shopping around a comeback show in which he interviewed men who, like himself, had been accused of sexual harassment and predation. In other words, he had the audacity to attempt to profit off of the very heinous behavior that made him temporarily slink away from the public eye. My initial thought was, Have you no shame?

Little by little, however, these men will weasel their way back into the world of entertainment because we live in a world without shame. Not long ago, I read a story about an appearance by comedian Louis C.K. at a Chicago nightclub. (“No apologies, no notes at Louis C.K. show,” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 21, 2019) C.K. had been exposed (pun intended) for his propensity to masturbate in front of female colleagues behind the scenes of his standup shows.  During his Chicago show, C.K. alluded to the allegations against him by proclaiming that everyone had a “thing” that would be embarrassing if others found out about it – as if his behavior was a harmless peccadillo and not a case of harassment. He painted himself as a victim, alluding to the fact that he used to sell out giant venues and was now playing to a small crowd. No shame indeed.

I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised that famous men seem to have no sense of culpability for their own actions. After all, our current president bragged on video about grabbing women “by the pussy.” If ever there were a poster child for a world without shame, it’s Donald Trump.

Our society seems to have a high tolerance for the misbehavior of men, especially white men. For example, despite allegations of rape against Brett Kavanaugh, he was confirmed to the highest court in the land. Victims are consistently doubted and put on trial as if they were the perpetrators of harm. Even when we choose to believe the allegations, we seem to have a need to forgive and forget, thus allowing predators to get away with their actions and survive, if not thrive.

And that’s a shame.

 

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Socialist or National Socialist?

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Hey, Republicans! I’ll make you a deal. I’ll stop calling Trump a Nazi if you stop calling Democrats socialists.

As the Trump presidency deteriorates further and further, I’ve noticed a tinge of desperation in Republican attempts to portray Democratic legislators, and especially the Democratic candidates for president, as Venezuela-style socialists who are bent on destroying our great democracy. Hogwash!

Since when is trying to rein in runaway prescription drug prices a socialist policy? Trump himself has attacked Big Pharma and promised to get drug prices in line. But when Democrat Nancy Pelosi pushes for legislation to do just that, she’s painted as a socialist. And why is Elizabeth Warren condemned for insisting upon holding banks and other financial institutions accountable for irresponsible and predatory business practices? The laxity of regulations on these institutions helped bring about the Great Recession, after all.

Wanting to insure that all Americans have access to affordable health care should be a bipartisan goal. Addressing the enormous inflation in tuition at colleges and universities should be a common goal as well. Insisting that the richest Americans pay their fair share in taxes is common sense. Yet all of these ambitions – which, by the way, have widespread appeal across party lines – are deemed marks of a slippery slope toward Big Government controlling our lives. It’s a lazy narrative, and Republicans need to stop.

After all, what are the gigantic farm subsidies Trump granted to maintain rural support for his candidacy but a form of socialism? What about all the tax breaks and subsidies to giant corporations to keep them doing business in the U.S.? Republicans decry welfare to poor individuals, but they say nothing against the rampant corporate welfare that occurs in this country.

The other day I was reading a book set in Poland during World War II. In a chilling scene,  SS officers ruthlessly separate children from their families to be sent off to concentration camps. It reminded me of the immigration policy of a certain current president. But I won’t call Trump a Nazi, despite his love of dictators and predilection toward authoritarianism.

So let’s can it with the comparisons to Hugo Chavez and the boogeyman word “socialist.” Let Democrats and Republicans debate national policy ideas on their merits, and allow the American electorate to decide what they want for their future without resorting to scare tactics and ad hominem attacks.

What’s in a Naming Right?

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Chicagoans have been up in arms about the announcement that the 86-year-old Museum of Science and Industry will henceforth be called the Kenneth C. Griffin Museum of Science and Industry. Billionaire Ken Griffin secured that feather for his already plumage-filled cap by donating $125 million to the institution.

I have to admit that my first reaction was to be appalled and to comment, “What an egomaniac!” about Griffin. The founder of hedge fund Citadel already has his name on numerous professorships and other endowments that he has made to various institutions across Chicagoland. Does he really need to see his name plastered on one of Chicago’s venerable cultural landmarks?

But who am I kidding? Naming rights often, if not always, go to their most generous donors.

People get upset about name changes such as the Sears Tower to the Willis Tower or the John Hancock Center to simply 875 North Michigan Avenue. But Sears and John Hancock were both corporate sponsors themselves. Once ownership of the building changed, so did the name. Even our beloved Wrigley Field was named for the chewing gum magnate.

I think it’s just a sense of comfort and nostalgia that makes people unhappy with the name change of a famous landmark. Here in Chicago, I thought there would be riots when Macy’s bought Marshall Field’s and had the audacity to change its branding. But in time people get used to the changes. As Chicago Tribune columnist Christoper Borelli pointed out in a recent op ed piece, our grandchildren will probably think nothing of the new name for the Museum of Science and Industry. (“It could be worse — The Yeezy-Kardashian Museum of Science and Industry,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 4, 2019) They’ll most likely start calling it “the Griffin” or even “the Griff,” Borelli suggests.

So I won’t begrudge Ken Griffin his monument to himself. I just hope some rich donor doesn’t help remodel a famous church and rename it the Donald J. Trump Holy Name Cathedral!

 

 

 

Sharing DNA Does Not a Family Make

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web_ready_gathering_final_kondrichLately I’ve been seeing stories about people seeking out others whose mothers were impregnated with sperm from the same donor – ostensibly looking for “siblings” they didn’t know they had. There’s even a new TV series called Almost Family, the premise of which is that a young woman discovers that her father, a renowned fertility doctor, used his own genetic material to impregnate many of his patients. This news sends her reeling and in search of biological half-sisters and other half-siblings running around unbeknownst to her.

I object to the idea that sharing DNA makes someone a part of one’s family. Aside from medical considerations such as the need for matching bone marrow or a kidney, there is no real family connection between people conceived in the sterile confines of a medical facility with sperm from the same donor. And the implication that somehow “blood is thicker than water” is a slap in the face to adoptive families such as my own.

I have three biological children conceived, luckily for me, the old-fashioned way. I loved the early bonding I was able to have with them, loved being able to nurse them and know them from even before they were born. I recognize the emotional pull of wanting to have one’s own biological children. And I truly understand why couples go through the rigors, expenses, and discomforts of fertility treatments.

But I also have a daughter adopted from China when she was eleven months old. I missed her very earliest days and the ability to breastfeed her. We had a short adjustment period during which we had to get to know each other, and she had to learn to trust us as her new mom and dad, brothers and sister. Yet today, my closeness with her, my sense of her as my own child is indistinguishable from my feelings for my other three children.

A family is made from shared love and experiences, from late nights comforting a colicky or sick child, from laughs shared at the dinner table, even from fights and defiance and setting boundaries. Families are made, not born, and a tenuous biological connection is fairly inconsequential.

I’m not dismissing the urge for adopted children to wonder about or search for their biological parents. Wondering why they were given away, wanting to know something about the mother, say, who carried them in her womb for nine months is perfectly normal.

But thinking that somehow you’re connected to someone because the same anonymous donor contributed his DNA to both of you? That reduces the idea of family to something mechanistic, impersonal, and ultimately meaningless.

In this day and age, families come to be in so many different ways. It’s unconditional love that makes a family, not the biological origins of one’s birth.

Speaking Truth to Power

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In a podcast from Season 3 of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell describes the 1980s hysteria that befell Washington with regard to supposed fraud in the medical research community. Democratic Congressman John Dingell was a formidable legislator who was in charge of overseeing  investigations at the NIH, the CDC, and the FDA for potential fraud. The problem was that researchers’ careers were being destroyed by matters as insignificant as a typographical error in a grant application.

In the middle of Dingell’s McCarthy-esque crusade, NIH director Bernardine Healy stood up against Dingell and his heavies, defending the work of the organization and refusing to make nice, even after successfully repudiating his accusations against her and scientists under her leadership. As Gladwell explains, Healy knew that the only way to stop the hysteria was to remain true to her principles, despite the fact that she needed Congressman Dingell’s support to fund the work of the NIH. In short, Bernardine Healy was willing to risk her career and speak truth to power.

Two years into a Donald Trump presidency, we need this kind of political courage more than ever. As the House of Representatives moves toward an impeachment inquiry, we need more Republicans to stand up and be true to their principles. We need more Republicans like former senator Jeff Flake, who declined to run for reelection rather than support the policies of the president. Flake recently spoke out in an op ed piece that appeared in The Washington Post, urging other Republicans to follow suit. (“Jeff Flake: Fellow Republicans, there’s still time to save your souls,” Washington Post, Sept. 30, 2019) He reminds them of his assertion two years ago, “’There are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.’”

Another Republican who has been willing to speak truth to power is Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who called Pres. Trump’s tweet about the possibility of impeachment causing a civil war “beyond repugnant.” Kinzinger is paying the price. He is the only Republican Illinois Rep that Trump declined to name to his reelection team. (“Kinzinger only GOP rep left off Trump’s Ill. reelection team,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 3, 2019) As Kinzinger himself points out, he’s far from a “Never Trumper” and has supported the president on such issues as the military, immigration, and healthcare. All the same, he is willing to stand up for his beliefs and criticize the abhorrent rhetoric of the president.

The impetus for impeachment, of course, goes beyond rhetoric. It goes to the very heart of a corrupt and self-aggrandizing presidency that threatens our democratic institutions. History will certainly judge the actions – and inaction – of those in a position to make decisions on behalf of a venal and unscrupulous president or in service to the greater good of our republic.

 

Smoking Gun

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A handful of people have died from vaping, and President Trump immediately instituted a ban on certain flavored e-cigarettes. Three times that many people were killed in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and hand-wringing was the only action anyone took.

I’m not a fan of e-cigarettes, and I have no issue with regulating them more strictly in light of the mysterious recent deaths and the fact that vaping has caught on with a young, vulnerable population. Indeed, the government’s role is to provide regulations to help keep Americans safe. But when it comes to guns, there is a glaring inconsistency.

In the latest mass shooting, the gunman had obtained his weapon from a private sale, thus skirting a background check that would have marked him as ineligible to have a gun. There are numerous loopholes to our system of background checks that, if closed, could prevent violence.

There are also ways of getting around strict gun laws in one state; get a gun from a neighboring state. Once again, a nationally consistent set of laws governing the sale of guns would help keep them out of the hands of criminals and people with a violent history or history of mental illness.

Alas, I’m beating a dead horse here. The difference between the vaping crisis and the gun one is simple: money. E-cigarette manufacturers and vape shops simply don’t have the lobbying clout of the NRA.

What makes it even more frustrating to me is that in the case of vaping, I am in charge of whether or not I use a product that is increasingly being shown to have serious health risks. I can simply refuse to partake. But in the case of guns, lax laws could mean that in the course of going around minding my own business, I could still be shot and killed. Guns are a lethal weapon against which I expect the government to protect me.

There is not a single right enshrined in the Constitution that does not have some curbs attached to it. You can’t perpetrate violence in the name of your religion, for instance. Hate speech and inciting people to violence are not allowed. The right to bear arms must also be controlled in some fashion.

Ironically, President Trump cited his own 13-year-old son in his remarks about banning e-cigarettes. It’s laudable that he would want to protect his young son from danger. But don’t guns pose an even bigger risk to the son of the president? Secret Service protection notwithstanding, doesn’t Pres. Trump see that his child would be safer in a world with fewer guns in the wrong hands?

We’re not seeing the forest for the trees when it comes to guns. Unfortunately, there’s a raging forest fire, and no one is moving to extinguish it.

Our Own Worst Enemy

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There has been a rash of car thefts in my neighborhood lately. I’d be a bit more concerned about the safety of my area if I didn’t know that in almost every case, the stolen car had been left outside unlocked and with the keys inside. These car owners are practically inviting a car thief to help himself to their vehicles!

In so many ways, human beings are their own worst enemies. We willfully do things we know to be unhealthy or dangerous – to the point that the state has to pass laws protecting us from ourselves. Seatbelt laws and newer ones banning cell phone use and texting are evidence that we just don’t know what is good for us.

Another thing I see a lot of is people pumping gas with a cell phone to their ear. Have they not heard of static sparks igniting a fire. And speaking of igniting things, how can anyone in this day and age take up the habit of smoking? I truly feel for older adults who became hooked on nicotine before we knew the dangers inherent in smoking. Nowadays, though, when I see a teenager smoking, I just shake my head in wonder. Are their heads in the sand? Did they not see the diseased lungs during their D.A.R.E. lessons?

To top it off, vaping has become a craze among teens. Flavored substances make vaping attractive to kids, despite the fact that they are still getting hits of nicotine (and sometimes other substances). Recent illnesses and deaths due to vaping have made using the product even more scary. But do you think a photo of a teenaged kid on a ventilator due to a vaping-related illness will stop anyone from picking up a Juul? Fat chance.

What is it about human nature that makes us our own worst enemies? Is it our pleasure-seeking id that seeks only its own gratification? Do we have a sense that we’re immortal until it’s proven to use dramatically that we’re not?

I myself am not immune from the tendency to act against my own interests. Despite mounting evidence that sugar is a cause of many modern health problems, I can’t seem to quit the stuff. The problem is that if I eat a sugary, fatty donut, I don’t immediately keel over with a heart attack. Those smokers and vapers and gas-pumping cell phone users have performed those actions numerous times without dropping dead or setting themselves aflame.

I guess we’re our own worst enemies because danger seems abstract when it is not right in our faces. The chances of a thief selecting my car out of all the other cars in town to steal seems remote. Still, I won’t take any chances. I’ll choose to learn from the mistakes of others and lock it up tight.