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.

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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.”

 

 

 

Suffer the Children

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Dear Jeff Sessions,

Here are a couple of Biblical quotations you might have missed:

Matthew 19:14: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Mark 10:15: “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

Don’t go quoting the Bible to justify the inhumane act of separating parents from their children. During the Holocaust, at concentration camps, the first thing the Nazis did was separate adults from children. As one victim of America’s shameful policy of Japanese internment pointed out, even he was never separated from his parents.

The spin being put on this horrifying immigration policy by the Trump Administration and the pundits on Fox News is making me want to vomit. Their excuses are simply lame.

The first one is that this is a long-standing policy that Bush and Obama followed. That’s just wrong. Except in extremely rare cases where the legitimacy of the parent/child relationship was in question, Hispanics crossing the border illegally were not separated from their children.

The Trump Administration’s second lame excuse is that the policy will deter illegal immigrants from trying to cross the border. Clearly that’s not the case when were are seeing literally thousands of children being warehoused in cages like animals.

The third excuse is that it’s all the Democrats’ fault! I’m surprised Trump hasn’t blamed Hillary and her emails for the policy. Seriously, Republicans. You are not going to weasel out of responsibility for this heinous violation of human rights that easily. (Of course, the U.S. has just left the UN Human Rights Council since it would be hypocritical to be a part of something it doesn’t actually practice itself.)

I’m not sure why, but when I picture Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Sessions cooking up this heartless policy in the Oval Office, I see them all in Nazi uniforms. I wonder if they stood at attention the way Trump would prefer all his underlings to do in front of him. After all, that wonderful guy Kim Jong Un gets that kind of treatment.

My favorite statement from these monsters was Sessions’ inane argument that if these immigrants don’t want to be separated from their children, they should leave the children at home. Say what?

I’d like Americans to picture the desperation a person must feel to undertake the perilous and difficult journey to come to America in search of safety and a better life. Now imagine how much more dangerous and difficult that trip would be with one’s own precious children. What the U.S. does about so many immigrants trying to obtain asylum in this country is open to debate. But whether or not to put their children in cages is not.

 

 

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.

No Comment

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I have been avoiding the comment section of Facebook posts lately. Other than wishing my friends a happy birthday or anniversary, or sending a complimentary word about a family photo, I have tried to stay out of the fray of these comment threads – especially political ones.

First of all, I doubt that my arguments with other Face-bookers will change their minds. Whether the subject is Donald Trump, gun violence, sexual harassment or racism, people have their strongly-held beliefs, and I’m just not going to change them. Worse, arguments on Facebook often lead to ill will. Without the social filter of physical proximity to the person with whom we are arguing, we tend to get more strident and offensive.

I’m also trying to eschew online comments because they are bad for my own mental health. Every time I enter the fray of a heated argument on Facebook, my blood pressure starts to rise at some of the responses I get. The only way to calm myself down is to refer to the point above and realize that my righteous indignation will change nothing.

Still, it’s very hard for me to refrain from offering my opinions. I grew up in a very argumentative household where it was almost a badge of honor to shout the loudest and make one’s judgments heard. Yes, family dinners did often give my poor mother a headache.

Also, I like to think of myself as a maven. I fancy myself in possession of lots of knowledge and wisdom, and I just know others would benefit from my sharing it. Well, in the context of Facebook or other social media, not so much.

So I will continue to work on repressing the need to comment on Facebook posts while still being my friends’ online cheerleaders. It won’t be easy, though. I shudder to think what would happen if I got an account on Twitter.

In Praise of Moderation

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America is a nation of extremes. Either we are subsisting on grass and twigs with the Paleo diet, or we are Supersizing our fast food hamburgers and fries. We can’t just use our phones to stay in touch with each other. We have to have them in our hands constantly to check email or go on social media. And watching a television show or two won’t do. We have to binge watch an entire series in one sitting.

Nowhere is our penchant for extremes more obvious – and potentially more dangerous – than in our politics. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have been skewing far to the left and right respectively in the past several years. The Tea Party movement on the right has pushed candidates with views that go way beyond traditional conservative beliefs about limited government. Tax cuts at all costs seems to be the new Republican mantra, regardless of how severely they will impact the national debt. And the election of Donald Trump shows a disturbing trend on the right to vilify immigrants and minorities, roll back environmental protections, and normalize the white nationalist movement.

On the Democratic side, we see the popularity of socialist-leaning Bernie Sanders and such idealistic but impractical agendas as providing free college for all Americans. And while I personally favor a single-payer health care system such as the ones found in most Western European nations, the hue and cry over the baby steps of Obamacare shows that the country is not ready for quite that massive of an overhaul. I believe that Sanders supporters’ refusal to get behind Hillary Clinton in the presidential election was in part responsible for the election of Trump.

The political polarization is being fed and magnified by social media algorithms and the various websites that have sprung up pushing extreme agendas and often fake news. There is no more talking or meeting of minds. We are simply shouting at each other, and our political leaders are, for the most part, perpetuating the great divide we have between the left and the right.

There needs to be a new movement: not the Tea Party nor the Coffee Party. Let’s call it the Milk Party. Milk is a little bland and unexciting, but it’s also wholesome and nutritious. It builds strong bones and teeth. Likewise, we need our leaders to come together and work with each other. Compromise is not a bad word. As Sheriff Hopper explains to Eleven in Stranger Things, it means “halfway happy.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be halfway happy than completely miserable.

After the recent tax bill passed, legislators admitted that they had not even read it. And already the U.S. Treasury Department is being deluged with complaints about ambiguous language and unintended consequences of the new law. We are paying our government leaders well. I think we deserve better than the dysfunction in Washington, which, contrary to the intentions of the Tea Party, has grown worse.

In short, we need the moderates to stop hiding or being co-opted by the extreme right and left. We need the leaders in the sensible shoes and serviceable haircuts to step forward and lay claim to being the voices of reason in the insanity that has grown up around politics in America.

As in most areas of life – including our diet, exercise, religious practices, child-rearing, and the like – moderation in politics may be the key to saving our democracy.