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.

 

 

#Oscars So Awkward

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Jordan Horowitz, Warren Beatty, Jimmy Kimmel

The 89th Academy Awards closed with an embarrassing gaffe and a surprise upset win by the low budget coming of age movie Moonlight.

The telecast began in a more or less conventional way with a peppy song and dance number by Justin Timberlake, whose song “Can’t Stop the Feeling” was nominated for Best Song. As the camera panned the A-list acting crowd, though, I was surprised at the lack of rhythm in a room full of performers.

There were the expected humorous digs at Donald Trump from Jimmy Kimmel, who was funny in a low key way. My favorite was when he tweeted the president with the message “Meryl says hi!” There were also many serious references to tolerance and inclusivity on the part of presenters and award accepters, including a protest statement by Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who had refused to come to the ceremony in protest over Trump’s travel ban.

Also as expected, the overrated La La Land began to clean up in the awards department, winning technical, writing, acting, and most importantly, directing Oscars. So it seemed inevitable when Warren Beatty, looking befuddled, fumbled with the envelope, and Faye Dunaway’s clear voice rang out, “La La Land.” The whole cast and crew, it seemed, trouped onstage to receive the golden trophy.

I was musing over the irony of the white producer, surrounded by mostly white actors and producers, rhapsodizing about inclusivity in the movies, when the unthinkable happened. Mid-sentence, Jordan Horowitz abruptly switched gears and told the producers of Moonlight that the Best Picture Oscar was theirs. I thought this was one of those self-important but slightly condescending attempts to honor a fellow movie-maker. But he was insistent and held up the Best Picture card for the camera to capture the word, “MOONLIGHT.” Apparently, someone picked up the Best Actress envelope, and it had been given to Beatty instead of the Best Picture envelope. I had never seen anything like it.

I have to hand it to Horowitz and the other La La Land folks. They were very gracious as they were replaced onstage by Barry Jenkins and the mostly black cast and crew of Moonlight. It surprised me that such a small movie about a controversial subject would be the favorite of Oscar voters. And although I haven’t yet seen the film, I’m glad La La Land, a sweet but unremarkable movie, did not sweep the Oscars this year.

There were other awkward aspects to the ceremony. Viola Davis gave an overwrought speech claiming artists are the only people to “celebrate what it means to live a life.” And Hollywood seems to have both a short memory and its own share of hypocrisy when you consider that Mel Gibson sat smugly in the audience, his anti-Semitic rants apparently forgiven and forgotten, and Casey Affleck, who settled a couple of sexual harassment suits against him in 2010, won for Best Actor.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Oscars spectacle. I love checking out the gowns, hairstyles, and personas of Hollywood stars. I like to see scenes from movies, and I always appreciate the solemn memorial to those in the movie business who passed away in the preceding year. I also think entertainment vehicles such as movies and television shows help marginalized groups attain acceptance in society. Actors and movie makers, themselves often from the fringes of society, do seem to understand the struggle for acceptance of differences from society’s norms.

Still, Hollywood’s elite could do with an occasional dose of humility and self-awareness. Maybe the big Best Picture gaffe will remind them that they too are only human.

White Men: Stop Whining

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Post-election analysis has concluded that angry white men tipped the scales for Donald Trump and propelled him to victory. These men apparently feel left out and disenchanted by government policies. Throughout the election, white men were portrayed as victims of bad trade deals and immigration policy, both of which have supposedly robbed them of jobs.

I find it ironic that the same people who have for years been decrying political correctness, identity politics, and the victim mentality of minorities have themselves been playing the victim. But who are they kidding? Take a look at the composition of governmental bodies, corporations, law firms, banks, and even most manufacturing concerns, and you will see a preponderance of white males. We have had one black president and no women presidents in over 200 years of our existence as a nation.

The fact is that white males are still the dominant group in American life. Not only do they hold the reins of political power on both the national and local levels, but white men are more likely to be your bosses and school administrators. While the economic dislocation caused by loss of manufacturing and automation has affected all working class people, it has hurt minorities more than it has harmed white men.

If you are a white male, you are less likely to be stopped randomly by a police officer. You are less likely to be beaten or killed by a spouse or intimate partner. You are much more likely to see yourself portrayed in movies and on television as a hero. Guess what, white men? Your places of worship are not being terrorized or burnt to the ground. You’re not cowering in the shadows worried about being deported. If you commit horrible crimes, no one calls you thugs. They describe you as “disturbed.”

I have great sympathy for individuals who find themselves struggling financially. If I were president, I would be concentrating my efforts on providing retraining for workers displaced by the loss of manufacturing jobs. I would widen the safety net, not shrink it. Yes, I feel for people of all races who are hurting economically in this country.

But the one group I am not in the mood to coddle? White men.

Pen and Sword

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Many Fox News media personalities (I hesitate to call them journalists) are crowing over the president’s smackdown of the “liberal media” in his now infamous press conference last Thursday. Having been singled out by Trump as praiseworthy for their supposed fair and respectful coverage of His Highness, Fox pundits went on their own rant about liberal media bias with conservative comedian (also a term I’m using loosely here) Greg Gutfield yesterday. What Gutfield and friends don’t seem to realize is something Trump, however buffoonish he appears, understands quite well: The pen is mightier than the sword.

When Trump tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!,” the entire political establishment on both the Left and the Right should have called for his immediate resignation. Instead, the lone critic among conservatives was Sen. John McCain, who to his credit has been unceasingly critical of Trump’s unconscionable statements.

On his show, Gutfield proved that he has totally missed the point of Trump’s relentless attacks on the media by pointing out that no one has tried to ban or silence news outlets. But the Trump administration knows it doesn’t need to take such drastic action. Instead, they seek to create a reality in which the media in general is suspect, not to be trusted. Among Trump’s loyal supporters, this has already been the case for months. But as serious allegations surface concerning the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia and other Trump administration ties to the despotic regime, it has become imperative for them to discredit the very independent press that could do the most damage to their existence.

I grew up during the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. America learned about the Republican dirty tricks and coverups of the Nixon administration only because two intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, relentlessly pursued the truth. I have no doubt that there are serious journalists right now who are investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. But will they be believed?

There are some encouraging signs of the media fighting back. Chris Wallace, anchor on the right-leaning Fox News channel, took White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to task this morning for Trump’s words. As he pointed out to Priebus, “You don’t get to tell us what to do, Reince. You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama did. Barack Obama whined about Fox News all the time, but I’ve got to say, he never said we were an enemy of the people.”

A free press is the very foundation of a democracy. Without true freedom of speech and an acknowledgment of the difference between facts and opinions, a democratically elected president can become an autocrat. It is up to responsible journalists to keep asking the probing questions, to keep investigating, to keep seeking the truth, whether it favors the Right or Left.

And it is up to the American people not to let a bully tell them whom or what to believe.