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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Losing My Religion

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I’m heartsick with grief for the sexual victims of men hiding behind the cloak of the priesthood in the Catholic Church. The revelations that thousands of children in Pennsylvania were being abused by priests while the diocesan hierarchy essentially aided and abetted their crimes has truly left my faith shaken.

Growing up, I was taught to deeply respect priests for their dedication and closeness to God, for their role in the Church in persona Christi. My teenage sisters worked in the rectory office and sometimes served dinner to our parish priests. My mother sewed their priestly vestments. To imagine any of these men violating a child in such a manner sickens and horrifies me.

The breadth of the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church is truly astounding. There seems to be no major diocese in the United States that has not been affected by it. Hundreds of priests and thousands of victims are involved. If this were any other kind of organization, there would be protests in the streets and calls for heads to roll.

Pope Francis has reiterated his sorrow at the horrors of priestly depravity, renewed his plea for forgiveness for the Church’s failures to stop it, and pledged that sexual abuse by priests will not be tolerated and that those in charge will be held accountable. But he has said all these things before. And few, if any, members of the Church hierarchy have been removed from office. Victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests have listened to our pope’s words and found them wanting.

What has enabled the flourishing of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is the all male, celibate priesthood. How else to account for the untold numbers of victims? Yes, other institutions have been found to harbor sexual abusers. But there is no comparison in the number of victims and the longevity of the problem to what has gone on in the Catholic Church for decades.

The Catholic Church must address the epidemic of sexual abuse of children head on, first of all by removing not only the offending priests, but also the bishops and other higher ups who shuffled them from parish to parish and otherwise allowed them to continue to abuse children. It is also time for the Church to allow priests to marry and to welcome women into the ordained priesthood.

I’m not saying that the condition of celibacy causes pedophilia. But I do believe that the requirement makes the priesthood attractive to men who are wrestling with the demons of their own predilection for young children, and they seek refuge there in greater numbers than in the general population. I also think the presence of women within all levels of church hierarchy would make the abuses less likely to be hushed up or tolerated.

It has been extremely difficult for me to attend Mass in my local parish since the latest revelations of sexual abuse by priests came to light. My membership in the Church gives tacit acceptance to what is being done – and more importantly, what is not being done – to address this horrible stain on the reputation of Catholicism.

I don’t want to lose my religion. My faith has been a grounding and inspirational force in my life, and I believe it can still be a force for good in the world. But more of us Catholics have to stand up and demand what is right and good and holy from our leaders. Only then can we carry on the sacred mission for which Christ died on the cross.

Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

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The European continent is in the midst of an unprecedented outbreak of measles – unprecedented, at least, since a vaccine was developed to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella in the 1960s. Thirty-seven people have lost their lives due to complications of this very serious disease. Why? Because people refuse to believe accepted scientific fact on the safety of the MMR vaccine.

Ignorance is killing us.

Possibly the biggest threat to future civilizations is the warming of the Earth due to greenhouse gas emissions. The ice melt at the North and South poles, rising sea levels, catastrophic weather events such as deadly hurricanes, and record-breaking heat waves in places like Canada and Scandinavia are all harbingers of doom. But they’re harbingers many people are willfully ignoring.

My cousin is visiting from the Pacific Northwest. She has a nagging cough from the smoke that is hovering over Washington State due to wildfires raging in British Columbia. My cousin told me that as her small plane “puddle-jumped” from her hometown to Seattle, she was unable to see any of the landscape below because the smoke was so thick.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is rolling back emissions standards for automobiles, deregulating the EPA, and encouraging a resurgence of dirty coal production. This is the 21st Century equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Once again, there is consensus that man-made global warming is a reality and that it may already be too late to save parts of the world from devastating floods, droughts, and famine. But for economic and political reasons, our government leaders are refusing to act. And they have persuaded many otherwise intelligent people that climate change is “fake news.”

And don’t look for future generations to be smarter about scientific facts. It’s well-known that the state board of education in Texas has an outsized influence on what school textbooks are selected across the country for use in our schools. In recent years, board members have objected to the theory of evolution being taught as fact, with one board member even declaring, “Evolution is hooey.” (Gail Collins, “How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us,” The New York Review of Books, June 21, 2012)

Science used to be the one pure subject that we could count on not being tampered with by political or ideological concerns. But in our politically charged atmosphere and with so much information (and misinformation) at our fingertips, even our scientific knowledge is being called into question constantly.

I guess the number one skill we should be concentrating on in educating future generations is critical thinking.  Only dispassionate and thoughtful inquiry will lead us to truth and away from ignorance.

 

Divided We Fall

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Aretha L. Franklin, President George W. BushThe news that Aretha Franklin died this week created an outpouring of tribute on social media. Everyone posted articles, photos, videos of performances – all honoring the Queen of Soul. It was heartening to me to see, for one brief moment, a meeting of hearts and minds on a subject.

In our divided country, you can’t even talk about the weather without potentially getting into a fraught argument over climate change. Everything from the Robert Mueller investigation of Russian collusion to the prospect of NFL players taking to their knees in protest this fall is cause for anger and vitriol.

It’s not that thoughtful people can’t disagree on a subject. With a two party political system, free speech, and a free press, it’s inevitable that individuals will have differences and the urge to express those differences. What’s new about the current state of discourse is that one needn’t confront someone face to face. With social media, we can sling insults at each other from a safe distance.

A case in point is Donald Trump’s use of Twitter. The president usually tweets in the wee hours of the morning, a time when most people’s discernment and judgment are not at their highest. These pronouncements are often filled with vitriol, as Trump attacks anyone he perceives as an enemy. And even though said “enemy” can take to Twitter to send a counterpunch, there is something not quite real in the exchange. If Trump were forced to confront these people face to face, I doubt whether he would act in such a hateful and spiteful manner.

This is true for all of us, and it is making America an inhospitable place. “Comments” sections on social media are minefields we should approach on tenterhooks. Feelings get hurt, friends get “blocked,” and our images of people we’ve known and liked, or even loved, are tainted.

The divisiveness prevalent in today’s society should worry us. It feels as if the very social fabric that makes up civilization is being irreparably torn. And once it is in tatters, it may be impossible to put back together.

War on Truth

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There are no less than three non-fiction titles on the New York Times best seller list that are pro-Trump apologetics. The titles, Such as The Russia Hoax and Liars, Leakers, and Liberals, clearly demonstrate a predilection for believing Trump’s wild claims and denials at the expense of demonstrated facts.

From early days in Trump’s improbable ascendancy to the presidency of the United States, Trump has boldly spewed bald-faced lies. He started to gain support based on the untrue and racist rumor that President Barack Obama was really born in Kenya. His platform itself was built on lies. As pointed out in The Washington Post, Trump’s claims that immigrants were crossing the border in record numbers, creating a massive crime wave in America, were demonstrably false. (“When it comes to lying, Trump is nonstop,” Washington Post, July 13, 2018)

The lies continued when Trump was elected, and many people were dumbfounded at how ridiculous it seemed that he would make such an issue of lying about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Kelly Anne Conway’s coining the term “alternative facts” came shortly after such preposterous lies were called out by the media, which Trump and his supporters have tried to paint as the enemy of the people.

In fact, if you go on the PolitiFact website, you can find ten pages of Trump lies. It just goes on and on. The more he lies, the less his supporters seem to care about what is really true. They simply shout “Fake news!” and continue to fawn at Trumpian feet.

The assault on truth is incredibly disturbing. Without agreement about what constitutes reality, reality becomes subject to those with the power and money to shout the loudest and make their message most prominent.  In his seminal novel 1984, George Orwell presciently describes a dystopian world controlled by Big Brother: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” More and more, the ominous words from that futuristic work hit closer and closer to home. (Another noteworthy quote from the novel: “Ignorance is strength.”)

Trump’s lies about Russian interference in the 2016 election are particularly damaging. With only minimal protest on the part of Republicans, Trump has painted the Robert Mueller investigation as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.” He has cozied up to Vladimir Putin, meeting him privately and making God only knows what concessions to a ruthless dictator from a country that has been a sworn enemy of the U.S. since shortly after World War II. Presumably in order to shield himself from accusations of collusion with Russia, he has gone on the attack against our highest law enforcement and intelligence communities.

Presidents in the past have lied, sometimes egregiously. Lies and coverups are what brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. And although Bill Clinton survived a seamy sex scandal, impeachment based on lying to Congress, and numerous other questions that cropped up during his two terms as president, these lies came back to haunt Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency in 2016.

I am not claiming Donald Trump colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. But if Trump is willing to lie about things as inconsequential as the size of an inauguration crowd, I have to wonder what other forms of dishonesty he is willing to engage in to grasp and hold onto power. It’s my hope that if there is any truth to the seeming conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, that truth will come to light and the American people will hold this president to account as they have presidents in the past.

As a nation, we need to hold fast to our ideals about honesty and integrity. Without them, we become no better or more free than the some of the worst autocracies we see around the world. Truth is always something to seek and hold onto, no matter the cost. Let’s hope that for the sake of our democracy, “The truth will out.”

 

 

 

Goodness: Pass It On

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16351925_GMost Americans would agree that race relations in 2018 are fraught. Stories about police brutality towards minorities, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of white nationalism: all point to the fact that inequity and tension still define relations between the races. Yet just this week, I read some news articles that tell a different story.

One of those stories was about an elderly white woman in Phoenix who discovered that an African-American man had no place to stay while he waited for his newborn daughter to be old enough to fly home with him. The man had been given custody of his child but had no funds to stay at a hotel for the 7 days required by the airlines for the baby to be allowed on a plane. The woman, a volunteer in the NICU at the hospital, simply told the man, “I’m coming to get you and take you home.” She welcomed this stranger into her home with his tiny infant. The two have promised to keep in touch.

This week I also saw a video wherein a black man sitting in his car encounters a homeless white veteran walking down the road with no shoes. So the black man gets out of his car and chats with the man, asking about his welfare, where he’s going to stay etc., all the while removing his brand new sneakers and giving them to the homeless man. What struck me about the encounter was not just the selfless gesture of literally giving someone the shoes off of his feet. It was the respect and caring in his conversation with a man clearly down on his luck. I’m sure the personal encounter meant as much to the homeless vet as did the new shoes.

And again, the other day I read that after discovering his new employee had walked 20 miles to his new job in Alabama, the CEO of the company offered the new employee his car. Here too the lines of race were crossed with sympathy and understanding, the CEO being white and the new employee black.

These stories give me a bit of hope. While there are many who live with fear and distrust of those who are different from themselves, there are also those whose innate kindness motivates them to reach out and take a chance on someone who has walked a different path in life. I hope our mass media continues to find and celebrate ordinary people working to make the world a better place. And I hope these stories will motivate all of us to pass on goodness wherever and whenever we can.

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?