A Moral Failure

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There are many damaging actions Donald Trump has taken since becoming president: rolling back environmental protections, attacking LGBTQ rights, saber rattling against Iran, to name a few. But nothing comes close to the heinousness of housing migrant children in deplorable warehouses without even their own families for comfort.

Reports coming out of these holding facilities are horrendous: children having to take care of children, inadequate food and water, illness and lice infestation, children sleeping on the floor – even children dying while in custody. As Americans, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for being associated with such a heartless and inhumane policy.

Many of the children being held in these prisons have family members in the United States who could care for them. But that is not being allowed. Instead, they are being subjected to horrific conditions with inadequate supplies or oversight by adults. While I don’t share Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s opinion that they are concentration camps, these facilities fall far short of the conditions under which we should be willing to place any child.

The irony was not lost on protesters when the Trump Administration announced plans to reopen Ft. Sill in Oklahoma to house thousands of unaccompanied migrant children. Ft. Sill has been used for, among other things, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. To be fair, the Obama Administration also used Ft. Sill for detaining immigrants. But it should give us pause to think of forcing children to live in a place haunted by the inhumanity of our past.

I’m also disappointed by the silence in the Christian community to what is happening near our border. While evangelicals are busy championing the rights of the unborn, they are turning a blind eye to infants without diapers, children suffering and sometimes dying of contagious diseases, and countless little ones who will be forever scarred by their memories of being caged in these horrible places without a loved one for comfort.

Jesus told his followers, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25: 40) Let us not be condemned by his corollary saying: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45)

 

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Good News

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These days the simple act of picking up and reading the daily newspaper can be distressing. The headlines blare with all the dysfunction, disorder, and violence that has occurred since only yesterday. Some days I just avoid it altogether.

But today I bravely unfolded my Chicago Tribune and found, to my delight, two wonderful stories on pages two and three of the paper.

The first was told by Tribune columnist Heidi Stevens, about a young boy on the autism spectrum who was having difficulty facing the last day of school. When the boy’s teacher found out his parents couldn’t get him to budge to make the short walk to school, she got involved by FaceTiming him to persuade him. Ultimately, the school principal himself agreed to walk down to the boy’s house and escort him for his last day. The boy was so excited by his VIP escort, and the two chatted amiably all the way.

In other news, the city of Chicago was saved from evil by a new superhero, Galacto, who is really a young boy battling a rare immune system disorder. The real superheroes at Make-a-Wish Foundation – along with Chicago police and firefighters, the mayor, and the costume designers at Columbia College – had made this dream come true for a young boy with an uncertain future.

These heartwarming stories made my day. And it’s only 8 am! It’s great to be reminded that there are so many courageous, generous, and kind people in the world whose only goal is to help others. The school principal, Jonathan Ellwanger, who is one year shy of retirement, said, “For all of us, little things are big things. This is a little thing, but it’s what we do and, hopefully, describes what we are trying to be about as a school.” (Heidi Stevens, “Principal helps 1st-grader with autism face last day of school,” Chicago Tribune, Monday, June 10, 2019) I want to work for that guy!

Here’s to those who are trying to make the world a better place, in large ways and small. They are my superheroes.

Leaning Toward the Center

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Hell has officially frozen over. I agree with Tucker Carlson on something! On a recent show, Carlson read a quote detailing the idea that government action can and should make capitalism work for the American people. The source of the quote was not a fellow conservative, but presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Carlson went on to suggest that the current polarization in politics has made a sensible platform such as Warren’s untenable to either side.

I’ve written before about the virtues of moderation, and I truly believe the way out of our existing political stalemate is to elect officials from the center of the spectrum. A look at some contentious issues currently roiling the American electorate reveals just how centrism could help us find balance and promote real progress in American society.

The first of these is gun reform. Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans support background checks and closing loopholes to make sure guns are not in the hands of criminals and unstable individuals. Yet when running for office, politicians look to their rating with the NRA rather than consider what the people in their own districts actually want.

Another extremely divisive issue is abortion. While many object to legalizing any abortions on religious grounds, the majority of Americans support women’s right to choose while also insisting on some limits to that right, such as parental notification and curbs on late term abortions. Recent legislation in both red and blue states, however, has taken the issue to its ultimate extremes.

Immigration has become another hot button issue, mostly thanks to our current president and his ability to tap into people’s worst fears. That doesn’t mean our legislators can’t find common ground on humane and sensible ways to reform our immigration system, protecting our border while also helping our neighbors to the south who are grappling with poverty and extreme violence.

Compromise is not sexy. And it’s not always possible. There are issues of fundamental human rights that cannot really be compromised. But for most political issues, we can come together by leaning in toward the center and finding common ground. Let’s elect more centrist Democrats and Republicans to our local and nationwide offices and see how much can be accomplished in America.

Our Own Worst Enemies

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There has been a recent cry for Facebook to be broken up. The social media giant has too much power, argue critics. Robert Mueller’s report about Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election shows how massive amounts of disinformation were spread to the millions of people who use Facebook.

I’m all for regulating companies whose business practices are predatory and monopolistic, and I can certainly see how the success of such Silicon Valley behemoths as Facebook, Google, and Amazon can pose a threat to free commerce. But one of the reasons Facebook users were so easily swayed by bogus and slanted stories during the election is that they wanted to believe those stories. Many of us live in the echo chambers of our own belief systems. Whether it be from Facebook, TV news, or newspapers, we seek out information that conforms to our worldview and disregard or hold with intense skepticism those stories that contradict our beliefs.

In short, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to digesting information.

I certainly think our national security apparatus should deal more vigorously with avoiding a repeat of Russian or any foreign interference into our next presidential election. That won’t happen, of course, because Russian interference benefited Donald Trump, and he sees no reason it won’t help him again. I think we are past the point where anyone really believes Trump’s motivations are anything but self-serving.

What we can do as Americans is learn to take in information and opinions in a more critical and thoughtful way. Trump’s and Republicans’ complaints notwithstanding, there are still reputable news organizations and journalists working tirelessly to publish factual information about politics, the economy, foreign policy etc. When we hear or read things that sound hard to believe, we need to question those stories. “Pizzagate” comes to mind. There are also numerous nonpartisan fact-checking organizations that can confirm or refute what we are hearing from our leaders.

As a teacher, I used to work on critical thinking skills with my students. They learned about fallacies of logic, how statistics can be manipulated, and how language can affect the message. We need to do a better job in our children’s schooling to raise thoughtful individuals who are willing to question their own assumptions and test the arguments they encounter in the public sphere.

Facebook may indeed have too much power. Fox News might in fact be little more than a mouthpiece for conservative viewpoints. But it is up to us, the American people, to take the time and effort to discern what is true and what we should view with skepticism. Only with thoughtful and informed citizens will our democracy be sustained.

 

 

FOMO Foments Prejudice

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Social Media GraphicsMy kids use a lot of texting abbreviations that it has taken me a while to figure out. One of them is FOMO: fear of missing out. In the social life of young people, fear of missing out is what keeps them tied to their smartphones, scrolling through Instagram to see what their peers are doing at any given moment.

But FOMO is also a dangerous human tendency. In times of economic insecurity, people worry that they won’t get their share of resources. Often they project their lack on others they perceive as taking what is rightfully theirs.

Donald Trump has exploited this insecurity by pitting Americans against Hispanic immigrants coming across the border “to get our jobs.” He has increasingly favored protectionist trade policies because he perceives other countries – particularly Mexico, Canada, and China – as having taken unfair advantage of America. And these policies have effects. Yesterday the Dow plummeted in the face of China’s retaliatory trade tariffs.

Throughout the history of the United States, particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups were used as scapegoats for citizens’ insecurities and fears about not having enough. Many of us have ancestors of Italian, Irish, German, or Polish descent who recounted stories of discrimination and hatred when they began arriving on the shores of America. Japanese and Chinese immigrants faced even worse persecution, as did blacks whose ancestors were slaves and those who immigrated more recently from the African continent and the Caribbean.

Sadly, the human condition has not changed much over the centuries. Nowadays, people of Middle Eastern descent, especially Muslims, are targets of hatred and fear for many Americans. Jews are still being targeted for hate crimes and stereotyped as money hungry connivers who are trying to take over all aspects of American commerce. Even “model minorities” from East Asia, such as Koreans, Chinese, and Indians, are being met more and more with resistance on the part of Americans who feel they are making too many inroads into our prosperous society.

A case in point is the story of a bus company in Champaign, Illinois, called Suburban Express. Suburban Express conveyed students to and from the University of Illinois campus for years. However, in recent years, the company came under fire for discriminatory advertising and business practices. For instance, the company sent out an email ad that promised, “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” Furthermore, according to the Champaign News Gazette,

Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructed employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well and recorded a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents by saying “No Engrish.” (“Suburban Express Shuts Down,” News Gazette, May 7, 2019)

Suburban Express ceased operations after it was sued by the Illinois Attorney General, and a consent decree cost the company $100,000. The unrepentant owner declared he was shutting down because running the business wasn’t fun any more. I guess it’s no fun if you can’t publicly mock minorities.

As the mother of a Chinese American daughter, this attitude sickens me. Even before the blatantly racist actions of the bus company came to light, I would sometimes hear complaints from friends and acquaintances about the large numbers of Chinese nationals attending the University of Illinois. They seemed to feel that the Chinese students were making it harder for their own children to gain access to the state’s premier public university.

I don’t think it’s racist to argue about how many out of state students should be allowed to attend a university partly subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. In fact, about a decade ago, Illinois residents decried a dramatic increase in out of state acceptances, and the university backed down, keeping the numbers of Illinois residents attending U of I at a large majority.

However, I can’t help feeling that this animosity toward Asian-born students in particular is tinged with racism. I doubt there would be much hue and cry if German or Swedish nationals started descending on the Illinois university system in large numbers. Because Asians are so readily identifiable and less likely to speak mellifluous English, they are unfairly singled out for scorn and discrimination.

Our society is stronger when we welcome and accept people of all different persuasions. Instead of looking for scapegoats for our societal ills, we should be addressing issues such as underemployment and unequal education head on. Let’s not use our FOMO as an excuse to deny the humanity and dignity of others.

Our Dangerous Attraction to Ourselves

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An Israeli teenager plunged to his death at Yosemite National Park recently while posing for a photo. He had been trying to recreate a popular pose taken at Telegraph Rock in Rio de Janeiro wherein the subject dangles off the side of the rock. The difference was that Telegraph Rock is much closer to the ground than the site at Nevada Fall where the young man lost his grip and fell. (“Israeli teen who fell to death in Yosemite was posing for photo,” Chicago Tribune, April 23, 2019)

The impulse to document our lives has never been more widespread than today. We carry little cameras around in our phones and snap anything and everything: our friends, ourselves, our food. It’s not enough just to experience that hike to the top of Nevada Fall. We have to prove we were there. More than that, we have to garner lots of likes by pulling a foolhardy stunt like dangling off of a rock.

Our narcissism is actually killing us. A recent Washington Post headline reads, “More than 250 people worldwide have died taking selfies, study finds.” As the lead author of the study, Agam Bansal, points out,

“Taking a toll on these many numbers just because you want a perfect selfie because you want a lot of likes, shares on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, I don’t think this is worth compromising a life for such a thing.” (WaPo, Oct. 3, 2018)

Indeed.

Recently I had occasion to go through old photo albums, and I enjoyed the memories conjured up by the pictures there. Documenting vacations, holidays, and rites of passage for my children has given me something special to hold onto and recall in the future. But often we overdo the photos and videos of an event and fail to experience it in the here and now. And certainly, no one needs to remember that delightful piece of avocado toast we just had to take a picture of at brunch the other day.

Our modern penchant for selfies may be a sign of insecurity. Look at me, these photos seem to say. Don’t I look fun/athletic/sexy/cool? Maybe it’s normal to want to be seen, and we finally have the technology to make it happen easily. But we need to take stock of this self-centered behavior. Not only is it obnoxious at times, but it just may be the death of us.

 

Notre Dame, Notre Coeur, Notre Ame

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556629-istock-852755038_primaryThe sight of the venerable Parisian cathedral Notre Dame on fire filled onlookers around the world with horror and sorrow. Unlike most of the disasters that make news worldwide, this one thankfully involved no loss of life. And yet the dismay so many of us felt on Monday as centuries-old treasures of art, architecture, and religion threatened to go up in flames was only too real.

Across the Seine, the crowd broke into spontaneous prayer and hymns as they watched smoke billow up from the spire of the medieval cathedral. To imagine a Paris without the iconic edifice complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses was, well, unthinkable. Notre Dame is one of the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people have been posting photos and memories of their own visits to Notre Dame since its very existence became imperiled Monday. The wealth of art and the breathtaking feat of engineering that has held up the 12th Century structure for so long are irresistible for art lovers, historians, and even casual tourists.

But Notre Dame is first and foremost a monument to the Catholic faith and the devotion of its followers who risked life and limb to build such a beautiful and imposing structure.  Catholics hold a special place in our hearts for Mary, “Our Lady.” No doubt many Catholics fervently begged Our Lady to intercede with Christ to save her namesake church.

I have nothing but admiration for the tireless efforts of firefighters to contain the blaze and limit the damage to Notre Dame. Much in the same way as the builders of Notre Dame in the Middle Ages, these courageous Parisians risked their lives to save a building. Luckily only one firefighter was injured while working to put out the flames. Still, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of divine intervention in saving the venerable cathedral.

The fire at Notre Dame has brought public awareness to three other fires that occurred in the past two weeks at historically black churches in Louisiana. The fires were no accidents, however. They were incidents of arson, and a white man has been charged with hate crimes in connection with the destruction of the three historic places of worship. A Go Fund Me campaign has since raised $1 million for reconstruction.

All of this has occurred in the midst of the Lenten season and Holy Week, the preparatory 6 days before Easter, the Christian celebration of resurrection and new life. In the past few weeks the flames of hatred and destruction have raged. On Saturday night, the flame of the Easter Candle will be lit at churches all around the world to symbolize the return of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

The response to the fires in Louisiana and Paris, whether religious or secular, has shown that the human spirit will always rise up to champion goodness, beauty, and hope. A fitting message for the Easter season and the arrival (finally!) of spring.