Make America Good Again

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The Covington Catholic boys didn’t have a chance. Once videos of their confrontation with a Native American leader on the Washington D.C. Mall made it onto TV and social media, their images and actions were pounced upon by an American public that has become too swift to judge and condemn.

Initial videos appeared to show the boys taunting Nathan Phillips as he performed a traditional Native American song. With their MAGA hats, their whiteness, and the “smirk” on the face of Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington boys were quickly painted as white supremacists in training. The subsequent release of further footage, however, showed that the boys themselves were being verbally attacked by a group known as the Black Hebrew Israelites and that Nathan Phillips approached them, not the other way around.

I’m not defending the boys from Covington Catholic. They may very well be entitled brats  who like to stir up trouble. On the other hand, they may have been in an uncomfortable position and were acting out to make themselves feel less powerless. I just don’t think I can judge them based upon a video, not having actually seen the incident. And I don’t think others really can either. What is remarkable is how quick the Right and Left are to leave their corners and spar over every incident, large and small, that comes into the American consciousness.

There is a reality to the concept of too much of a good thing, which is the case in our digital information age. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips but very little understanding. There is no filter for people. They jump before considering all the facts and nuances of a situation.

As for the MAGA hats, I personally don’t understand how any thoughtful person can support the agenda of Donald Trump. That doesn’t make wearing one akin to donning the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan, Alyssa Milano. Making statements like that undercuts legitimate criticism of many things Donald Trump has said and done since entering the race for president in 2015.

But that is the state of discourse in America. We are shouting into the ether and hoping someone latches onto our pronouncements and validates our thoughts. Truth, compassion, and understanding be damned.

Overshadowing the hysteria about the incident between the Covington boys and the Indigenous Peoples Marchers is the total lack of judgment on the part of the boys’ adult chaperones. In a situation that could have escalated and potentially become violent, these adults stood by instead of acting to remove the boys from the confrontation. The march was over, and they were merely waiting for transportation to leave the Mall. Why not shepherd them away from the madness and diffuse the situation? Covington is a Catholic high school. Why not step away and initiate prayer? If I were a Covington parent, I would have been incensed at the adults’ poor judgment that day.

As Mike Pesci writes in Slate, “The bothersome teens of Covington Catholic aren’t heroes or horrors.” (“Covington Boys: the Difference Between Jerks and Monsters,” Slate, Jna. 24, 2019) They just have the misfortune of growing up in an age where everything they say and do can potentially find its way into the public eye. I hope the incident has served as a learning experience for them and that leaders at their school, as well as their parents, use the opportunity to teach the boys about tolerance and compassion. They were, after all, in Washington to espouse their Christian love for the unborn.

We need to find a way back to rational discourse in America. Beyond the problem of fake news, we need to consider the multi-faceted nature of most issues and strive to look at all sides before jumping in to praise or condemn. Let’s summon our better angels and try to resurrect the values that truly make our country great.

 

 

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The Wall

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Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” So begins Robert Frost’s memorable poem “Mending Wall.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that poem as President Trump and the Republicans dig their heels in about erecting a wall across our southern border with Mexico.

Illegal immigration has become a divisive issue in our country and one that is long overdue for compromise. While I sympathize with the plight of Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence and believe our country should do everything in our power to help relieve suffering, I also recognize that we need to protect our borders and insist upon an orderly process whereby residents from other countries apply to live in the U.S.

The problem is that building a giant wall on our border with Mexico is expensive, environmentally damaging, and impracticable. And most of all, it won’t really work to stem the tide of illegal immigration or deter criminal activity. Most drug and weapons seizures, for example, occur at legal ports of entry. U.S. authorities have also found tunnels running under existing fences and other barriers, so those determined enough will still find ways to get into our country. And the urgency to build such a barrier has, if anything, decreased over the past decade, as illegal border crossings are at a 12-year low.

The wall is not a practical reality but a symbol: a symbol of Donald Trump’s attempts to portray nonwhite immigrants as criminals. Ironically, Trump’s stance against Central American immigrants has spawned the phenomenon of migrant caravans crossing into Mexico, a kind of thumb on the nose to the president and his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The other reason Trump is insistent upon building a wall is that he wants one, and he hates to lose. He is willing to shut down the government and let federal workers go without pay so that he can get his “big, beautiful” symbol of exclusion and isolation. Meanwhile, no meaningful conversations go on about realistic ways to secure the border and deal with the thousands of immigrants already in this country.

President Trump, we don’t need a wall with Mexico. What we need is leadership, something that has been sorely lacking since you became president two years ago. It’s time to ditch the idea of an expensive and impractical wall, sit down with Democrats, and work on real solutions to our immigration issues.

A Becoming First Lady

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I had mixed emotions while reading former First Lady Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir Becoming. On the one hand, I was filled with admiration for the integrity, grace and determination Mrs. Obama has shown since her early days growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the child of blue collar workers who sacrificed everything to give their two children the best possible chance at a good life. On the other hand, I felt saddened and angry at how swiftly the improbable Obama ascendancy to the White House and the substantial progress made during Obama’s two terms in office are being dismantled and discarded by the Trump presidency.

Like many First Ladies before her, Michelle Obama was a reluctant political wife. Her main concerns as her husband campaigned first for state office, then U.S. senator, and finally for the highest office in the land were for her two daughters and their well-being. She strove to keep their lives as normal as possible and did not allow them to become pampered princesses in the White House. She also found a way to use her stature as First Lady to further the causes on which she had been spending her professional life before Barack Obama became president.

During the Obama presidency, the White House became a more inclusive and vibrant place. The many minority staff members were made to feel valued and important. Lesser known minority artists and regular citizens from less privileged backgrounds, especially children, were welcomed time and again to special events and to help with Mrs. Obama’s signature mission: helping children become healthier. Kids from a local school came regularly to tend to the giant fruit and vegetable garden initiated by the First Lady. They were able to enjoy the fruits of their labors quite literally with dishes made from the produce they harvested.

The crucible of political life was not always kind to the Obamas. Too often, mean-spirited antagonists criticized their looks, clothes, or gestures, looking for ways to cast them as “other” and not quite American. Even their teenage daughters were criticized for rightly finding the whole presidential Thanksgiving “turkey pardon” ludicrous.  Through it all, though, Michelle Obama kept her dignity and hope, reminding herself that the majority of Americans she had met in her life were good and compassionate people.

Reading Becoming made me nostalgic for a truly kindler and gentler administration. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the Obamas to relinquish the White House to the hateful man who had spent years questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and had campaigned on a divisive, racist platform.

Still, I will take a page from Michelle Obama’s playbook and choose to be hopeful. I will choose to believe, as she clearly does, that we are all still in the process of becoming – hopefully, becoming better people bringing a better world for our children.

The Kids Are All Right

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Millennials-stock-image-e1479316113621Everyone loves to bash Millennials. There seems to be no end to the stories and complaints about how soft, spoiled, and pampered these children of the 80s and 90s are. My husband likes to call them “the shared plate crowd” and mocks the way they are always taking pictures of their food.

All kidding aside, though, Millennials do seem to have different characteristics from their hard-charging Baby Boomer parents. They have grown up surrounded by advanced computer technology, and their comfort with and reliance upon it has surely shaped how they see the world. They want things fast: information, consumer products, general gratification. They don’t seem overly concerned with privacy in the way earlier generations do when faced with the ever-increasing sense of “Big Brother” watching us through our phones and laptop computers.

Unlike their parents, most Millennials have not known great want. Nor were they raised by Depression-era parents who harped upon their own deprivations during the 1930s. Critics like to point out how Generation Y (the lesser known name for this cohort) has grown up receiving participation trophies for sports and thus been deprived of a killer competitive edge.

But I think we are selling our kids short. If anything, my older two kids have faced a way more competitive workplace as children of the giant Baby Boom generation came of age in the early part of this millennium. They have faced a changing landscape in our country as traditional types of jobs become obsolete and the need for advanced technological knowledge requires even more education than earlier generations needed.

I also think many Baby Boomers criticize Millennials because they are frankly a bit jealous of them. Millennials are changing the workplace and society in general by demanding a better quality of life. For instance, after unseating longtime Congressman Joe Crowley in the House of Representatives, New York Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez drew mockery for saying she was going to take some time for self-care after the whirlwind of a political campaign. This is a particularly Millennial outlook and one I feel will benefit future generations. There is nothing especially heroic about killing oneself for a job, yet Baby Boomers still insist on carrying this trait as a badge of honor.

Millennials have also brought a degree of social enlightenment with their more open and tolerant attitudes. It’s no surprise that as they have come of age, acceptance of gays and gay marriage has increased in our culture. And as widespread social media have highlighted racial injustices in our society, it is our young people out front demanding change. This trend seems to be continuing with Generation Z, Millenials’ little brothers and sisters. Think of how the Parkland High School activists have developed a high-profile presence to protest the horrible scourge of school mass shootings.

My biggest criticism of Millennials is that they don’t vote. And because there are so many of them, their voter apathy has real consequences. With more election participation on their part in 2016, we might have seen a Bernie Sanders presidency. However, the Trump presidency may be waking up many Millennials who have been too cynical and disengaged to participate in politics in the past. Their new cohort in Congress may be a first step toward their greater influence on the political scene.

Every generation disparages the ones that follow. It’s our age-old fear of becoming irrelevant. (Remember how Greek god Cronus deposed his father Uranus and then suffered the same fate at the hands of Zeus?) And the older generation can feel judged when their children make different life choices. We don’t want to think there might be a better way.

But I see Millennials as a bit more self-centered, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We Baby Boomers wanted a better life materially for our children. Millennials seem to be looking for more balance in their lives. They take themselves less seriously – although not, apparently, their food (see above)!  I’m hopeful that Generation Y will usher in a more healthy and open society. And if so, I think it’s to our credit – we Baby Boomers – who gave our kids security and tended to their self-esteem in a way that was not available to us.

So mock all you want, but I think the kids are going to be just fine.

Thankful for a Break from Politics

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Thanksgiving dawned in Michigan in the usual way: cloudy, barren skies and chilly temps. Michigan is the home of my husband’s family and the destination of my family’s Thanksgiving travels every year. Besides looking forward to the delicious turkey and fixings my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law were up early to prepare, we were anticipating the happy chaos that is always a part of our visits to the Motor City.

True to form, the buffet table groaned with an assortment of dishes and later, far too many desserts even for us and for my husband’s six siblings and their families to consume. And while there were a few minor dramas, for the most part Thanksgiving held a convivial air.

What I appreciated most about the many conversations in which I took part was the complete absence of political dialogue. At least to my hearing, there was no talk about Trump, immigration, foreign policy, or the recent November elections. Instead, Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions football dominated the scene in the family room where the cousins congregated in front of the giant TV and good-naturedly trash-talked each other’s teams.

Other than a comment made about a movement to eliminate the Thanksgiving holiday because of white settlers’ mistreatment of Native Americans, there was nothing to ruffle any feathers, and no one “talked turkey” about their political beliefs. This fact, coupled with my avoidance of Facebook all day, made for a blissfully nonpolitical and mostly unstressful holiday.

Instead, we took turns holding our nephew’s adorable baby and playing “store” with her older sister. We helped ourselves to another slice of apple pie and enjoyed the camaraderie of family members. We drew names for the annual Christmas grab bag we hold each year. By the time we were ready to bundle up and head home, we were all ensconced in the happy glow of full bellies and family togetherness.

This morning the sun is out. The brief reprieve from November gloom is a welcome sight, and it is prolonging my feeling of happiness and peace. Now the Christmas holiday season is upon us. All the shopping, baking, decorating and bustle begin. I’m so glad I had the chance to spend a day in thankfulness for the bounty in my life: family, friends, and food.

Maybe I’ll keep up my fast from politics for the entire holiday season.

Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

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Sheep-in-Wolfs-ClothingBack in 1971, the musical duo Loggins and Messina came out with “Danny’s Song,” an innocent ballad about love and the future. I remember listening to the lyrics, “Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey, everything will bring a chain of love.” My response? “Oh, sure. What are you going to do? Live on love?” Yes, I had become a 13-year-old cynic.

Maybe cynicism is a phase that teenagers go through in order to seem cooler than they are. But mine carried through into adulthood, and it still hovers in the background of my personality. And I think I finally know why.

A cynic is a disillusioned idealist. My 13-year-old self had so many romantic notions. I devoured romance novels and fantasized about being swept off my feet by a Mr. Rochester type. I carried a photo of Michael Jackson around in my wallet and dreamt of one day being Mrs. Michael Jackson. Yet already at that tender age, I realized that life is hard and one needs money to live. If love really meant never having to say you’re sorry, we’d all be in trouble.

Cynicism is a kind of mental and emotional armor. If I mock something, I can mask the fact that I really care about it. A case in point is the way my sisters and I would provide running commentary while watching beauty pageants. We were ruthlessly critical of the women parading around in swimsuits and spouting platitudes about world peace. For me, the sarcasm masked the fact that I would have loved nothing more than to be so prized for my beauty that I was part of a national or worldwide contest to proclaim the most beautiful.

Being cynical is also common in the arena of politics. The disillusioning effects of dirty campaigns, corrupt officials, and the need to be rich in order to have a chance at winning elections all serve to make many people turn away from politics altogether – or to look at every politician as a con artist. This might explain, at least in part, the very low turnout for most U.S. elections. For instance, Illinois’ governor’s race this year was a case of holding one’s nose and choosing between a billionaire who had done very little to improve the state in his previous term and another billionaire whose previous dealings smacked of corruption. It’s no wonder cynicism flourishes in modern society while idealism languishes.

I’m not knocking realists. It’s important to see things as they are and not always to be viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. If we don’t acknowledge our failings and those of our leaders, we won’t make any positive changes. But I miss the youthful enthusiasm I used to have for causes. I miss dreaming big. Perhaps as I get older, I will return to my childlike state and become a hopeless romantic once again.

 

Judging Elections

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I worked as an election judge for the first time Tuesday, and the experience opened my eyes to many issues with our current system.

First of all, election judges get minimal training and are both overworked and underpaid. We judges showed up at the polling place by 5 am and were not able to leave until after 8 pm. There was scarcely any opportunity to use the restroom or grab a bite to eat.

As the polls opened, our epollbooks, which are used to look up voters’ information, were not working. We were scrambling to post voter applications and get voters into the booths to vote before they headed to work for the day. Not having actually ever performed the task, I was uncertain exactly what to do and sometimes which form to use. This despite the fact that I had attended training and had studiously read the entire election judges manual for a couple of days before the election.

There is no boss at a polling place in Illinois. All judges have equal weight in seeing to it that voting takes place in the proper manner. But this can create confusion. One of our judges insisted upon asking people for IDs even after I told her it was not allowed in Illinois. It took a couple of poll watchers and someone from the election commission who came to our precinct to set the judge straight.

Inevitably there were issues with voters. Some had moved but not changed their address. Others were at the wrong polling place. Some voters had become inactive after not voting for a few years. Even with the opportunity to hand out provisional ballots, it took me the better part of the day to learn how to follow the proper protocols for all of these special situations and make sure everyone had the opportunity to vote.

Our election system needs an overhaul. It should be much easier and less complex to vote. In Washington State, for instance, all voting is done by mail or drop off. There is no scrambling to get to a polling place or need to stand in a long line to vote. There is no need to recruit citizens to sacrifice a long and exhausting day at the polls. Unsurprisingly, voter turnout in the state was over 50%.

Don’t get me wrong. My day as an election judge was not all bad. I enjoyed meeting my fellow judges, who hailed from all different walks of life and were eager to do their part to participate in democracy. I loved seeing the great turnout at the polling place to which I was assigned. It heartened me to see so many citizens, many of them young people, determined to cast their vote.

I would love to see Illinois and other states work to make voting more streamlined and ultimately less costly than the wieldy system we currently have. Short of that, election judges need to be paid better and required to receive more training and supervision before being allowed to work at a polling place. They should also not be required to work an entire 15- hour shift on Election Day.

Voting is one of our most cherished rights and responsibilities as Americans. Let’s make it easier to participate and encourage citizens to vote in every election. It will make our democracy more vibrant and representative of all the people.