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.

 

 

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Thoughts and Prayers (Part 2)

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54432764_10218769922861934_369198906342375424_n“What if we’ve been thinking and praying about mass shootings for decades and Jesus sent us an army of determined Moms in red shirts”
– @BobbyHoward63 on Twitter

The quote above refers to an activist group of intrepid women who form the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In recent years, the Moms in their bright red t-shirts have been seen all across the country in statehouses trying to get common sense gun legislation passed.

The mission of Moms is simple: Restrict gun ownership to law-abiding citizens by strengthening background checks and eliminating loopholes in gun laws. Demand the safe use and storage of guns so that children and other innocent people aren’t victims of accidental shootings. Create laws that get illegal guns off the the streets.

As part of a larger advocacy group called Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action was a response to the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that scarred the nation perhaps more than any other mass shooting in the past few decades. The thought that first graders can’t even be safe in the confines of their school got these moms on the march.

Over the past five years, this stalwart group of women has had many successes in the realm of gun safety. Everything from getting background check legislation passed to getting candidates favoring gun safety elected has been part of a slowly winning agenda. While there is still much work to be done, there is hope that America can gain control over the terrible scourge of gun violence in our country.

The Twitter quote above reminds me of a story about faith and action. A man’s home was being flooded, so he climbed to the roof and prayed for God to rescue him. After some time, a boat came by and offered to ferry the man out of danger. “No, God will save me,” he assured the would-be rescuer. A while later, a police helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a lifeline down for the man. “No, God will save me,” he said as he declined the rope. Eventually the floodwaters covered and drowned the man. When he got to Heaven, he demanded of God, “I prayed for you to rescue me. Why didn’t you?” God’s reply? “I sent you a boat and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

Sometimes we fall back on thoughts and prayers because we feel helpless and scared. We think meaningful change is out of our hands. The women of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America beg to disagree.

Don’t mess with the Moms!

Come Together

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(photo from Chicago Tribune)

On Tuesday night, there was cause for jubilation in my hometown. Voters finally approved a major referendum to fix and modernize our old, crumbling high schools. It was the third attempt in three years to raise funds for the purpose of bringing our highly ranked high schools into the 21st Century.

What made the difference on Tuesday was the sustained, enthusiastic, and concerted effort of hundreds of citizens in our school district. My next door neighbor spearheaded the “Yes” campaign, so I had a front row seat to all her organizing and mobilizing the troops: both to win hearts and minds to the cause and to motivate people to get out and vote in a spring election, when turnout has been historically low.

The campaign was a heartening lesson in community strength and power. At campaign events I attended, there was a spirit of fun and camaraderie. Through our success, we learned that we are strongest when we work together towards a common goal. And the glow of victory remains on the faces of people I see in town every day. It’s not just the satisfaction of winning; it’s the feeling of connectedness. Without a struggle to pass the referendum, I’m not sure we would have that sense of oneness today.

Elsewhere in Chicagoland and across the country, history was being made by people who have historically been at the margins of society. Chicago elected its first black female mayor, one who also happens to be openly gay. And she was not the only gay candidate to win an election that day. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there has been a groundswell of activism that has resulted in the election of more women, gays, Muslims, and other minority candidates than ever before at the local, state, and federal levels. This may not seem like a big deal to the younger generation, but I remember when John F. Kennedy was considered a questionable candidate because he was Catholic!

The power of individuals coming together cannot be overestimated. Not only can people further the causes about which they feel passionate, but they can develop a sense of togetherness, a feeling that we can depend on each other and bring out the best in each other. That has certainly happened in my own small community. It gives me hope for the future.

Let’s Stop ABiden Sexist Behavior

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joe-biden-stephanie-carterI believe Joe Biden when he says his touchy feely behavior with women is not sexual. To my knowledge, no one has come forward to claim Biden touched them sexually or planted an unwanted kiss on the lips. That doesn’t mean Joe Biden should get a pass for his “handsy” behavior.

Joe’s penchant for leaning over women, putting his hands on their heads or shoulders, and occasionally kissing the tops of their heads is an inappropriate and sexist tendency by a patrician male – one that no man would tolerate having done to him either in public or private.

Biden’s behavior with women is patronizing and condescending. The familiarity of touching a person in this way is a method of asserting dominance. It’s what an adult might do with a young child: squeeze her shoulders, ruffle his hair, plant a kiss on the head or cheek. Imagine Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaning over President Obama at his desk in the Oval Office and giving his shoulders a squeeze. It just wouldn’t happen.

When a man in a position of authority is overly familiar with a woman, it’s just plain sexist. He would never treat a man in his employ or in his sphere of influence that way. Men meet each other on mutual footing. They may engage in lateral back-slapping or a quick man-to-man embrace. But head-patting or shoulder rubbing from behind? Uh uh.

I have nothing against Joe Biden or his potential presidential bid. I do have something against the way he manhandles women. It displays a lack of respect for women as equals. Whatever his views on legal aspects of women’s equality, I’d like to see Biden – and all males for that matter – personally treat women as colleagues, not pets.

Jussie and Donald – Flip Sides of Same Coin

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Two surprising things happened this week. First of all, the completed Mueller report supposedly found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Even more surprising, all charges were dropped against Empire cast member Jussie Smollett for faking a hate crime. While the factions of people who support either of these two men could not be more different, the wheels of justice actually turn for them in exactly the same way.

Donald Trump has gotten a pass on allegations of sexual harassment and assault, unscrupulous and fraudulent business dealings, and the use of campaign funds to pay off porn stars. His clear attempts to derail the investigation into Russian collusion have been treated as rightful exercises of executive privilege. Why has Trump gotten away with vilifying war heroes, mocking the disabled, and denigrating women? He is a powerful celebrity and has friends in high places. For heaven’s sake, he’s got an entire news organization in his corner, deflecting his misdeeds right and left like a tennis ace and redirecting the outrage at their perennial whipping post, Hillary Clinton.

Smollett also has friends in high places who worked on his behalf to help him wriggle out of detestable and criminal actions that would send ordinary people to prison. I’m sure his two days of community service were wrenching and difficult, and that $10,000 forfeit of his bond must have hurt terribly, since he reportedly only makes 6-10 times that per episode on Empire. Not even the lead prosecutor is claiming Smollett to be innocent. Still, we can’t have our celebrities do jail time, can we?

It amuses me that people are calling for the heads of Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and other rich parents who schemed and cheated to get their kids into elite colleges and universities. They were only doing what well-connected people do: leverage their money/influence/celebrity to get ahead and, when their misdeeds become public, weasel out of them.

There have been exceptions, of course. Martha Stewart did time for lying about her financial dealings. And Bill Cosby was actually convicted and sent to prison for sexual assault. But for the most part, rich and famous people just get away with behaving badly.

There are still investigations pending about the business dealings of Trump and his children. I’m skeptical that anything will come of them. We have a different set of rules for the famous and well-connected. Until that changes, we can assume Lady Justice is peeking under that blindfold.

Church and State

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In recent months, two high-profile Trump Administration officials have suggested that Trump’s presidency was ordained by God. In interviews with the Christian Broadcasting Network, both White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that God wanted Donald Trump to be president to further the faith-based causes in which Christians believe.

These kinds of statements are a disturbing intrusion of religion upon government in the U.S. While Sanders and Pompeo are entitled to their religious beliefs, the fact that they are at high levels of the U.S. government makes their comments inappropriate and indicates a willingness on the part of the Trump Administration to defy the Constitutional separation between church and state.

At the very beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump moved to ban people from Muslim countries from entering the United States. It was a transparent bone tossed to his base of white, anti-immigrant Americans. It was also a nod to the religious right that helped elect him despite his less than savory moral character.

Over the past few years he has named an unapologetically religious Secretary of Education who is determined to see private (read, “parochial”) schools get the benefit of U.S. tax dollars. He has praised statewide efforts to have the Bible be used in public schools.

The rhetoric of the Trump Administration has been heavy on condemnation for the persecution of Christians by ISIS in the Middle East. I agree that such persecution should be called out and even acted against wherever possible. But there has been no such outcry in this administration about the mass killings of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. I think it’s obvious why Trump has chosen to champion the rights of the former over the latter.

Members of the Christian right keep crying about their religious freedoms being trampled upon. If anything, the Trump Administration is working overtime to assure the ascendancy of Christianity over any other religion in the United States. This is the antithesis of what the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Many countries in the world are theocracies. There is one established religion, and if one practices any others, he or she risks prosecution, imprisonment, or even death. One of the reasons that religion thrives in America is that our right to practice our religion free from government interference has been enshrined in our Constitution. The separation between church and state is a fundamental principle that is being flagrantly ignored by this administration.

It’s time people of all faiths – or no faith at all – stand up and demand that our leaders adhere to this basic freedom that makes our country great.

 

Fact or Fiction?

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During Oscar season, I noticed that many of the nominated movies featured real people: pianist Don Shirley in Green Book, Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and, of course, the late great Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film Vice told the story of the Bush years with uncanny performances by Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W., and Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney. The Favourite, though a work of fiction, depicted Queen Anne, a real life historical figure. Even Roma was a thinly disguised autobiographical story of director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood.

In the Trump era, truth is certainly stranger and more riveting than any fiction could be. Each news day features a revolving cast of characters in the White House, manic tweets from the president at all hours of the night, investigations, accusations, and counter accusations. Fox News has become little more than Trump’s mouthpiece, and suddenly fictional stories like Wag the Dog, Being There, and, most ominously, 1984 have become eerily prescient.

Yet the world of fiction still holds a fascinating allure. While the MPAA favored reality film in its Oscar nominations this year, superheroes and their villains dominated the box office. Such films as Venom, Aquaman, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp – as well as the latest sequels in such franchises as Spiderman and The Avengers – all made tidy profits for the movie studios at a time when theater audiences have been dwindling. The smash hit Black Panther, the first black superhero movie, was even nominated for Best Picture along with numerous technical awards.

Our appetite for escapism will always co-exist with our interest in real life drama. And the intersection of the two is often the key to unlocking truths about the human condition. I’m thinking particularly of dystopian and science fiction. These genres take us into the future, but they are really making commentaries on the present. I recently read Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, The Hazards of Time Travel, which depicts an authoritarian North American state in 2039. The main character, who has the temerity to ask questions and think for herself, is sent back to 1959 Wisconsin for “re-education.” As I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The manipulation of truth, control over the media, and other horrors of Oates’ fictional future feel ominously close to American society today.

Fact or fiction? Either way, our interest in stories may be the key to saving civilization. As long as we are able to think and feel about the human condition, we will continue to question and challenge the status quo. In the legendary words of Abraham Lincoln, “you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time: but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”

As we venture into another presidential election cycle (God help us!), let’s hope Honest Abe was right.