Behind the Veil

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Women and their head coverings have been much in the news lately. There have been alternating praise and criticism for Melania and Ivanka Trump, for instance, for their sartorial choices on their recent Mideast trip with the president.

Some found hypocrisy in the fact that the women refused to wear a hijab when in Saudi Arabia but were practically covered head to toe in black to meet the pope. Others cheered their spunk and refusal to bow to a hated Islamist ideology. Similar decisions to cover or not cover their heads have been the subject of criticism for other First Ladies, such as Michelle Obama.

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To all of this I have to ask, what’s the big deal? I am far more disturbed by the fact that President Trump said nothing about the dreadful state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia than whether the First Lady was making a pointed political statement by allowing her hair to be seen. On the other hand, such criticism might be seen as hypocritical coming from a man who does not seem to hold women in particularly high regard. Still, it’s all relative, and I hope that at least privately the president put pressure on Saudi Arabia to advance the rights of women as a condition for continuing to arm them to the teeth.

What I find most disturbing about the recent brouhaha over headwear for women is that society persists in judging every single thing about a woman’s choices, right down to her clothing and hair. It’s the 21st Century, and yet we’re still focused on women as ornaments, somehow not fully human. No one mused philosophically about what the color of Donald Trump’s tie or the cut of his suit might indicate about his beliefs or intentions.

Muslim women who choose to wear the veil do so for myriad reasons, most of them religious. Why that choice should be denigrated and looked upon as political is beyond me. The primary purpose in covering one’s head and chest seems to be modesty. What devout Christian would have a problem with women being modest? Yet because of terrorism and the need to demonize those who oppose us, Americans have taken a hostile stance against Muslim women in hijab.

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Years ago, there was a great TV series called Jack and Bobby. It was about two young brothers, one of whom would one day become the president of the United States. The boys’ mother, played by Christine Lahti, is a college professor, and she has a hostile exchange with a female student who wears the hijab. In a memorable scene, Lahti’s character attacks the woman for allowing herself to be controlled by a male-dominated culture. The young woman throws back her belief that American women are the ones being controlled by men’s need to see them as perfect physical specimens whose looks are constantly on display.

That exchange gave me pause back in the Nineties, and it sticks with me to this day. Women of all cultures should be free to dress and speak and act in whatever way they choose. And it should be their character, intelligence, and personal inner qualities that are focused on, not their clothing, their hair, their modesty, or the lack thereof.

The real veil women are often required to hide behind is the metaphorical one imposed by a society that still does not see them as equal to men. Until we address that reality, what a woman does or does not wear on her head makes very little difference at all.

Snowflake, Meet Deplorable

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During the presidential campaign, I winced when I heard Hillary Clinton refer to Trump supporters as “deplorables.” First of all, name-calling is a mean-spirited and ineffective way of getting one’s point across. Secondly, I knew Trump supporters would have a field day with the comment, using it to point out how elitist and out of touch Clinton and her liberal base are with Middle America.

Conservatives have done their best to portray liberals as rich, intellectual elites who live on the two coasts and ignore the needs and wants of Americans in the “fly over zone.” Much was made of Hillary’s being part of the establishment in Washington, despite the fact that Trump was being propped up by career politicians in the Republican Party and is himself an “out of touch” billionaire.

The fact is that when it comes to belittling and mockery, the political Right is just as culpable as the Left. Lately it has become fashionable to sneer at college students as “snowflakes” who melt at the least little challenge to their multicultural, pie in the sky, kumbaya sensibilities. Over the past two decades, in fact, conservatives have taken an anti-intellectual posture, as if being smart and educated are bad things. What conservatives are really miffed about is that most colleges and universities have become bastions of liberalism where right wing ideas are marginalized. So their method of fighting back is mockery.

Since Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign from Fox News, the new champion of liberal-bashing has become Tucker Carlson. Tucker is a blue-blooded, boarding school, East Coast WASP, but you’d never know it the way he makes time to ridicule rich people. A regular on his show is Mike Rowe, a self-proclaimed man of the people whose job as host of a reality show called Dirty Jobs apparently makes him akin to all working class Joes. Rowe comes on regularly to belittle rich folk who would buy such preposterous items as pre-dirtied jeans or torn up sneakers for hundreds of dollars. I happen to agree that this practice seems crazy. But the subtext is what I object to. Here is a man worth millions of dollars pretending to be folksy and down to earth. Sound familiar? And who is his biggest fan? The baby-faced Carlson, who was born rich and undoubtedly has had servants taking care of his “dirty jobs.”

My point is this: We will never get anywhere in political discourse if we spend our time putting down people with opposing views. All Trump supporters are not racist. All Hillary supporters were not out-of-touch millionaires. We can criticize actions, statements, and policies without resorting to sarcasm and ridicule. With the exception of comedians, who are paid to be rude and sarcastic, Americans of all stripes need to put down their sharp weapons and try to meet in the middle. A little mutual respect would go a long way to heal divisions and truly make this country great again.

 

The Trump Effect

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Since Trump’s improbable run for the White House, public and political discourse in America seem to be devolving. Trump himself was able to call immigrants rapists and “bad hombres,” demonize Muslims, criticize women’s looks, and talk about his inappropriate sexual advances – all without having a substantial effect on his popularity. Notwithstanding the interference of the Russians and James Comey as factors in the Trump victory, Trump and his supporters seem to have taken this fact as license to spout off any mean-spirited remark that comes to mind. I call this the Trump Effect.

Case in point are some of the comments Republican lawmakers have made about health care in their efforts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. For instance, Rep. John Shimkus questioned why pregnancy coverage should be required, and Rep. Roger Marshall said that poor people don’t care about their health anyway. More recently, after the House passed a bill that would allow states to opt out of coverage for pre-existing conditions, Rep. Robert Pittenger helpfully explained that people can just move to another state if they can’t get coverage. And Rep. Mo Brooks implied that getting sick was a moral failing that the “rest of us” shouldn’t have to pay for. Worst of all, Republican members of the House of Representatives voted essentially to deny health insurance to millions of Americans while keeping their own government-paid health plans.

The Trump Effect has not been limited to politicians. Across the country, Trump’s election has emboldened some Americans to dust off their swastika posters, shout racist epithets at strangers, and attack people wearing head coverings whom they think are Muslim. For example, not long ago, a man was removed from a plane for harassing Muslim passengers and asking them if they had a bomb in their luggage.

And speaking of airlines, the Trump Effect seems to have caused companies to say, “Screw it” in their approach to customer satisfaction. After the egregious abuse a man endured being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight, one would have thought all the major airlines would have run employee sensitivity training immediately. Instead, we keep hearing of more abusive behavior on the part of airline employees. Recently, an American Airlines flight attendant had to be reprimanded for her handling of a woman and toddler with a stroller. And just the other day, a young couple was threatened with jail and the removal of their children if they did not take their infant out of his car seat and give the seat (that they had paid for) to another passenger on an overbooked flight.

I honestly feel sorry for the writers of satire such as Saturday Night Live. People’s real life behavior has gotten so outrageous that it is hard to exaggerate for humorous effect. In fact, the situation in our country has gotten so awful that our comedians more and more have felt the need to play it straight. Jimmy Kimmel, for instance, made a heartfelt plea to lawmakers not to pass a law that would force families to watch their infant die because they couldn’t afford life-saving treatment.

Of course, Jimmy’s plea was met with compassion and restraint, right? Fat chance. Instead, we got deadbeat dad and right wing radio blabbermouth Joe Walsh saying, Sorry, Jimmy. I don’t care if your kid dies. I don’t want to have to help pay to save him. Yeah, I’m actually getting nostalgic for George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” and his son’s “compassionate conservatism.”

The Trump Effect has also extended to alternate views of reality. Because Trump so often outright lies, members of his administration have been emboldened to do so. Remember Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “Bowling Green massacre”? Trump has peopled his Cabinet with climate-change deniers and shown his knowledge of history to be shaky at best. How else to explain his gaffes about Jefferson Davis and Andrew Jackson? The latest lies, of course, are about the effect the new health care law will have on ordinary Americans. The Republicans are hoping those lies hold until at least after the mid-term elections. Meanwhile, Trump, with a totally straight face, tells Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull that Australia’s universal healthcare program is better than the one in the U.S. No shit, Sherlock.

I don’t think I’m hyperbolizing when I declare that the Trump Effect is turning civilization on its head. Our rapidly descending standards for what is acceptable in a U.S. president are influencing the rest of American government and the society beyond. We need a return to norms of civility and kindness before it’s too late.

Deja Vu

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_87171044_composite976_afpAmericans had our comeuppance when we ridiculed the Brits for their foolish vote on Brexit. After the UK decided to break from the European Union, many Britons had  “voter’s remorse.” Many didn’t really understand what they were voting for. It seemed a travesty – until November 8, 2016. On that day, many of us had to eat crow when we realized our nation had just elected an unstable, egotistical game show host as President of the United States.

Now the French are having their turn in the spotlight with a presidential election, and it feels to me like a bad case of deja vu. There are so many parallels between the 2016 American election and the upcoming contest in France.

As in America, there is no incumbent running for president. The two likely contenders are Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front party and Emmanuel Macron, a centrist “insider,” while in the wings there is a Bernie Sanders-like figure in Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leftist with rabid followers who likely will refuse to vote for the more centrist Macron, leaving Le Pen’s unlikely candidacy to imitate that of Donald Trump, the xenophobic outsider who wants to make their country great again.

The nationalist, anti-immigrant stance of Le Pen is similar to that of Trump’s. Like Trump, Le Pen is capitalizing on the sentiment that immigrants (mostly Muslim) are taking resources from hard-working Frenchmen, causing violence, and creating a clash of cultures. Her refusal to cover her head in a meeting with Lebanon’s highest religious leader solidified her support with the far right. She has also denied France’s complicity in sending thousands of Jews to their deaths during World War II.

Also as in the U.S. election, Russia is meddling with the French election. For example, Russian website Sputnik spread rumors that Le Pen’s likely opponent, Macron, is gay.  Le Pen, for her part, paints Macron as a part of “the system” and vilifies his opinion that globalization is actually a good thing.

The white nationalist movement is growing in Europe, due in part to the refugee crisis and in part to the economic uncertainty of a rapidly changing, interdependent world. Leaders like Trump and Le Pen appeal to a “me first” mentality that causes people to hark back to an imagined simpler time when they and their country were considered strong and great.

Unfortunately, the isolationist tendency to retreat from the European Union and from trade treaties, to crack down on minorities and immigrants, and to scapegoat those who don’t fit a sanitized cultural mold won’t make our countries safer. Rather, such nationalism will create greater polarization, inequality, and radicalization, all of which will serve to destabilize our great democracies.

I hope France does not succumb to the politics of division and hate. But I am not optimistic. After all, this is a country whose cultural hero used to be Jerry Lewis.

Sadly, GOP Will Always Be With Us

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The Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare has been very revealing. As members of the House of Representatives discuss the American Health Care Act, or as one Chicago Tribune reader cleverly named it, “TryanCare,” the true colors of the Republican Party are being shown to the public.

Rep. John Shimkus, for instance, wanted to know why men should have to pay for prenatal and childbirth coverage. Aside from the fact that such a question shows a total ignorance of how insurance policies work, Shimkus’s comments reveal  his selfishness. “What’s in it for me?” should be the new GOP national slogan.

Republicans are simply tone deaf when it comes to ordinary Americans. Rep. Jason Chaffetz suggested that people might be able to afford health care if they simply refrained from buying such luxuries as an iPhone. If only a year’s worth of health care insurance cost $600, Jason! But what disgusts me is the likes of this privileged politician whose health care is paid for by taxpayers showing condescension toward Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

Rep. Roger Marshall was even worse, misrepresenting Jesus by quoting from the Bible, “The poor will always be with us.” Say what? I’m pretty sure Jesus did not mean that we should ignore the poor since we’ll always have them to kick around. Marshall continued to dig his own grave by saying that poor people don’t take care of themselves and don’t really use health care services except in emergencies. That’s because until Obamacare, they had few decent options for obtaining regular health care services, you heartless buffoon.

There is a persistent theme among Republicans that people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work. Such attitudes go back, at least in my memory, to the Reagan era, when the black welfare queen was the image of poverty favored by the GOP.

The irony of all this is that Paul Ryan, architect of the new health care law and would be destroyer of Medicare and Medicaid, would not be where he is today if the Social Security system had not helped him and his family after the untimely death of his father. If we examined all the ways “corporate welfare” and other preferences made the fortunes of so many Congressmen and women, they would be hard pressed to defend their ruthless attacks against struggling Americans.

I’ve read that no one in the GOP wants his or her name on the new health care bill. I’m not surprised. I have a suggestion. Let’s call it the Ebenezer Scrooge Health Care Law and give Republicans a big fat “Bah, humbug!”

 

Where There’s Smoke

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Darth-Smoke-lThroughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Republicans kept trying to find a smoking gun to indict Hillary Clinton. Investigators combed through her emails, and her family foundation came under scrutiny. It all amounted to very little, but with the help of FBI Director James Comey, Clinton’s campaign was hobbled by allegations of misconduct.

Now we have high level members of Trump’s  Cabinet who have been less than forthcoming about their meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and conservatives are trying to act as if that’s no big deal. Pundits on Fox News have been pointing out that Kislyak, a fixture at Washington gatherings, would have spoken with any number of Trump’s campaign supporters in the regular course of social events.

There are a few things wrong with this attempt to downplay Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s interactions with Kislyak. First of all, these men were not chatting about the caviar at a Washington social event. They met privately with Sislyak on more than one occasion during the presidential campaign and then failed to reveal those meetings during their Cabinet post hearings.

Furthermore, Kislyak is considered the “eyes and ears” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Therefore, any conversations American political candidates and their surrogates might have had with Kislyak should give us pause. These were not government officials doing official business with the Russian government. They were supporters of an unabashedly pro-Putin candidate, so their actions merit the scrutiny they are receiving.

What’s more, the fact that Trump’s advisers were speaking to the Russian ambassador during the campaign is germane because U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed Russia’s meddling in the campaign and its clear preference that Donald Trump and not Hillary Clinton be our next president. In other words, these weren’t meetings that happened in a vacuum.

If it were to be found that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government during the presidential campaign, that would be grounds for impeachment. The American people deserve to know whether that did or did not occur. If the Trump Administration has nothing to hide, it should welcome an airing of these issues. I truly wish more Republicans would demand answers on the nature and extent of Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. Doing so would go a long way toward reassuring the American people that our leaders expect honesty and transparency and will not allow a foreign government to have influence in our democratic process.

 

Glimmers of Hope

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ct-jewish-cemetery-vandalized-20170222Lisa See’s memoir On Gold Mountain describes the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After the law passed prohibiting Chinese nationals from obtaining visas to come to America, racist hatred of the Chinese escalated into terrible violence against Chinese immigrants. That history so closely parallels Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban that it is scary. Even before the president instituted a ban against travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries, indeed immediately following his election, verbal and physical attacks against Muslims increased. Trump’s angry rhetoric about non-whites also awoke latent anti-Semitism in this country.

Yet with all these unwelcome developments since November 8, 2016, I see some glimmers of hope. First of all, the courts immediately struck down Trump’s initial ban, and I have hope that they may see his latest attempt as equally unconstitutional. The Administration has hidden behind vague and unspecified threats to American security in order to justify the ban. Perhaps the cooler heads of the judiciary will see through such tactics.

I have also noticed that Americans are standing up to the hateful racism that has become more overt since the November election. For instance,  when an airline passenger asked a Pakistani couple, “That’s not a bomb in your bag, is it?,” nearby passengers alerted the flight attendant and the racist man was booted off the flight. As he and his female companion gathered their belongings, passengers jeered, “This is not Trump’s America!” and “Goodbye, racists!”

Those “up-standers” were not unique. As a white male terrorist shot and killed two men of Middle Eastern descent at a bar, another white man came to their defense, getting shot himself. Thankfully, this up-stander is recovering from the gunshot wound.

Similarly, when the headstones at a Jewish cemetery were desecrated and knocked over, Muslim groups collected funds to repair the damage, and people of many religions and ethnicities gathered to do the work. People have also been taking it upon themselves to remove Nazi and anti-Semitic graffiti from subways and other public spaces. Such actions make me hopeful and remind me that the vast majority of Americans are decent, well-meaning people who will not stand by while others are subject to hatred.

Even in Republican states, lawmakers are showing some reluctance to further the divisive agenda of Donald Trump. Although Trump rescinded the executive order regarding transgender bathroom use in schools, proposed state anti-transgender bills have been facing intense backlash. These states are learning the lesson of North Carolina, which has lost quite a bit of revenue since passing its famous “bathroom bill.” Numerous sports organizations and other groups are refusing to hold events in the state until that bill is revoked. Once you hit them in the pocketbook, even the most conservative Republicans may yield to public opinion.

Finally, I recently read an article about white extremist “recovery” programs such as Life After Hate. Run by former white supremacists, Life After Hate seeks to help extremists leave behind their abhorrent ideology and find belonging with others who had learned to channel their anger into hatred of the “other.”

To be sure, we need to remain vigilant about attempts to undermine civil liberties in our country. We need to keep standing up for those who are attacked because of their race, religion, or gender. We need to remember our history and vow to do better than our predecessors at championing tolerance. Let’s not slide back but move forward proudly and compassionately to show the world that the greatness of America resides, not in our power or military might, but in our hearts and minds.