Make Change, Not War

Standard

images

The looting and rioting in the city of Chicago early Monday did not happen in a vacuum. It was a response to the police shooting of a black man in the Englewood neighborhood earlier the night before. While it in no way excuses the violence and destruction, it’s important to understand the root of black citizens’ anger. No amount of peaceful protesting seems to move the needle at all on police abuse of black Americans.

That said, scenes of destruction in America’s cities are playing right into the hands of Republicans and Donald Trump, who is using fear to shore up his dismal ratings among voters ahead of November’s election. If we don’t want four more years of Trump, we need to stem the violence now.

In 1968, Richard Nixon, an eminently unlikable candidate and human being, rode to victory on a “law and order” platform that attracted voters tired of the rioting and civil unrest of the Sixties. Today we have the danger of history repeating itself. We have a grossly unfit president with no moral compass and an outsized ego that has made him a disastrous leader of the American response to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, we are seeing 24/7 coverage of looting, burning, and violence in so-called Democratic-controlled cities on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. These images are powerful and scary. No one wants to see our public spaces defiled or our communities descend into lawlessness.

Donald Trump has already shown his willingness to send in federal agents to quell unrest. It’s important that we not give him four more years to sink America further into autocratic rule. Let’s dump Trump and then hold Biden’s and other Democrats’ feet to the fire to make the changes they are promising.

America is in this state because of racism and an income inequality that continues to widen. This won’t get better under a continued Trump administration. Let’s put down our weapons and use the most important one at the ballot box in November.

New Revolution

Standard

062820 rural protests HS06

Tomorrow at our socially distanced barbecues, while we eat hotdogs and drink beer, most of us won’t think much about the significance of the date July 4. We know it is a day to celebrate American independence. But while watching fireworks, we don’t often think about how iconoclastic the Declaration of Independence was when it was written.

The American Revolution was a huge step in world civilization. Not only did 13 British colonies throw off the yoke of oppression, but they formed a government not seen in most of the known world: a republic. To be sure, that fledgling democracy was far from perfect. Our founding fathers’ biggest shortcoming was in allowing the scourge of slavery to make a mockery of the famous words “all men are created equal.” Yet the idea that the people themselves would be in charge of their own political destiny was a potent dream, and it spawned similar movements in other parts of the world.

Today we seem to be on the brink of another revolution. The demands for a reckoning with our racist legacy continue to grow, and the urgency cannot be denied. Forces both within and outside our borders insist on justice for black citizens. At the same time, the LGBTQ community is demanding that the rights afforded every citizen in the U.S. also be guaranteed to them. Women, religious minorities, and people of color are increasingly being elected to government office across our land. There is no going back to a time when white dominance was the unchallenged law of the land.

To be sure, there will be backlash. We see it in conservative reactions to protest in the same way we saw Nixon’s “silent majority” fight back against the activism of the 1960s. And there will also be excesses: riots, looting, toppling statues, tear gas. Once the fire of discontent has been lit, it is hard to control the flames.

Yet I believe in our country’s ability to change and grow. I believe in the next generation, who are not content to drift along with the stark inequities they see and are often victims of. This next American Revolution will not be fought upon the battlefield but in the hearts and minds of the populace and the political activism of the hour.

Let’s celebrate a better America this July 4 – with a determination to empower each and every individual member of our society regardless of race, color or creed. Let’s give true meaning to these famous words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

 

Racial Tolerance Begins at Home

Standard

images

In the course of discussing an essay she was writing on racial segregation, my daughter revealed to me some disturbing instances of racist remarks and gestures she has endured as an Asian American. When so-called friends reveal their casually racist feelings to you, the sting is even greater. As I reflected on our conversation, I realized that my daughter’s thesis – that racial segregation fosters racism – is not the entire story.

I grew up in a predominantly white, middle class suburb adjacent to the city of Chicago. While my personal exposure to blacks was minimal, I never had feelings of animosity toward them or any other minorities. I rightly found racist jokes and stereotypes offensive. Once in elementary school, I saw that someone had written the N word on a desk, and I was horrified.

It occurs to me that the reason I didn’t harbor these prejudices was that my parents never spoke in pejorative terms about blacks or other minorities. More importantly, they believed and taught that every human being has intrinsic value and is worthy of respect. I have carried these values with me my whole life and have tried to impart them to my own children.

My daughter theorized that it’s a lack of exposure to each other that makes for conflict between races. Ignorance, she feels, is behind much of our fear and dislike of others who are not like us. Certainly there is much to be gained by mingling people of various cultures, ethnicities, religions and so forth. Yet it’s not the only way to foster racial tolerance.

Whether we live in a diverse or homogenous community, we can impart a progressive worldview to our children: one that sees the beauty in all of humanity.  We can refuse to allow hate and fear to govern our outlook on people of different races and ethnicities.

The first step, though, is to talk openly about race. This is something that minority parents do early on as a matter of course. White parents, however, are reluctant to mention race for fear that they will create divisions where their children had previously seen none. Yet it’s important to educate our children about our history of racial discrimination and prejudice. It’s important to help them see how institutional racism has disadvantaged people of color for centuries. We may claim “I don’t see color,” but we are being dishonest and disingenuous. And our kids will encounter racism in society whether we prepare them or not.

Best to begin teaching racial tolerance and understanding at home when our children are young and still want to listen to us. Like many things, our attitudes and beliefs begin at home. Let’s make our homes ones of acceptance and love for all people.

America Burning

Standard

Unknown

Scenes of broken windows and buildings on fire have dominated the news and our public consciousness for the past few days since a white police officer killed George Floyd, a black Minneapolis resident accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. We have been here before – far too many times and for far too long. The photo below is from 1965:

2000

What I keep thinking about, though, is why the protests have been so widespread this time. With past highly publicized police abuse cases, the protests and unrest have occurred predominantly in the city in which the incident occurred: Baltimore and Ferguson come to mind. This time America saw the horrendous killing and exploded. Why?

I think one of the reasons is that the coronavirus pandemic has created so much fear, anxiety, and deprivation for so many people that the safety valve on people’s emotions just blew. Particularly in the black community, which has seen disproportionate fatalities and economic fallout from the disease, yet another instance of police targeting an unarmed black man was more than they could take.

But the larger answer is that we have suffered through almost four years with a president who openly foments racial animosity. Even before he made the disastrous (for us) decision to run for president, Trump was promulgating the infamous “birther” conspiracy, suggesting that President Obama was born in Kenya, not the U.S. Both during the presidential race and following his election, Trump continued to practice dog-whistle politics to reassure his white supremacist base that he was still their man. How else to explain his contention that there were “good people on both sides” of the infamous Charlottesville face-off between white nationalists and people protesting the glorification of Confederate leaders – a confrontation that led to death and mayhem.

President Trump has called African nations “shithole countries.” He has described black NFL players as “sons of bitches.” And most recently and infamously, he tweeted that the “thugs” protesting should be shot. Donald Trump’s rhetoric has caused a documented resurgence of hate crimes against minorities of all kinds.

And America has had enough.

Of course, much of the violence has had nothing to do with outrage against the injustice of what happened to Floyd and happens to blacks in America every single day. There have been numerous photos and reports of whites not involved with the protests coming in and causing destruction. When whites protest, police stand around passively and watch. When blacks do so, they are met with officers in full riot gear spoiling for a fight. 

Our president should be calling for justice for George Floyd. He should be appealing to Americans for peace and the ability to come together to solve the biggest stain on the soul of our nation. Instead he’s threatening to send the U.S. military into cities to quell the unrest. In short, he’s acting like a petty dictator in the greatest democracy in the world.

I think America has had just about enough of Donald Trump. Let’s remember that come November.

 

Race, Class and the Royals

Standard

images-10

We Americans like to think of ourselves as egalitarians, not at all interested in separating people into social classes. Yet we have an endless obsession with the life of the royals across the pond. Last week the world was riveted by the rift exposed when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan declared their intention to live apart from the royal family for some  portion of the year and to become financially independent.

While our own Senate begins its deliberations about whether to remove the president from office, our obsession lies with “Meghxit” and what it will mean for the future of the dynasty that has had us in its thrall for decades. There have been no shortage of news stories and op eds about the defection of Harry and Meghan. Speculation about how Queen Elizabeth will handle these upstarts also runs rampant.

Many in the press are sympathetic to Meghan Markle and the fact that she has had to endure some racially biased attitudes since her engagement to Prince Harry. Despite the huge influx of immigrants from around the world into the UK, English society holds onto strict class distinctions. Kate Middleton may have been a “commoner,” but she was a distinctly well-bred white woman. With Meghan Markle’s mixed racial heritage and her past as an American actress, she has had to fight the disdain of this class-conscious society in which she lives. Even baby Archie is not immune from the thinly-veiled racism, having been described as looking like an ape by a British journalist.

On the other hand, Meghan Markle did not exist in a bubble when she met her prince. The royal family’s stuffiness, the British public’s relentless prying and open criticism of various members, and the tabloid nature of many British publications should have clued her in that her every action would be scrutinized and that is was unlikely she would remain unscathed under such a microscope. As Maureen Dowd put it in her spot-on column, “It is hard to feel sorry for the Duchess of Sussex complaining that her diamonds are heavy.” (“Gone With the Windsors,” Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2020)

There is also some sense that Meghan has been responsible for causing, or at least exacerbating, the enmity between brothers Harry and William. And as a royal living off of public funds, she has certain responsibilities to that public that she has refused to honor. For example, she refused to be photographed leaving the hospital after the birth of Archie. She and Harry have insisted on a level of privacy that is just not possible in their positions. Now they want to abscond to Canada, necessitating expensive security measures that they are in no way able to afford “independently.”

Is Meghxit a sign that the authority of the British monarchy is on the wane? Is it a breath of fresh air into the stuffy halls of Buckingham Palace? Or is it an entitled and childish tantrum against the golden chains that bind the royals to their destiny? Whatever the case, our enduring fascination with monarchs and class distinctions indicates that we may not be as democratically-minded as we like to think.

 

The Evolution of Humor

Standard

Unknown-25

In the old days, comedians had to tow a strict line when it came to language and content. In the early Sixties, for example, Lenny Bruce was routinely arrested for using profanity and sexual references in his comedy. In the Seventies, George Carlin made hay with “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” repeating the obscenities over and over for humorous effect. I remember listening to this bit and being scandalized.

At the same time, comedians were allowed to make blatantly racist jokes, and Archie Bunker was everyone’s favorite lovable bigot on TV. Disrespect for women was also totally allowable. Take Jackie Gleason’s catchphrase on The Honeymooners: “One of these days, Alice – to the moon!,” implying that if she didn’t stop her yapping, he’d punch her lights out.

Nowadays, we have seen almost a complete reversal of these late Twentieth Century standards. Chris Rock can stand up and riff about deviant sexual practices using graphic terms, and no one bats an eyelash. Foul-mouthed comedians are a staple of  comedy clubs. Even on network television, still a bastion of common decency, characters can use swear words such as “hell” and “damn” and vulgarities such as “bitch” without censure.

Yet on sensitive subjects such as race and sexual harassment, comedians tow a fine line today. And violence, particularly involving shooting, has become verboten in the world of comedy. I was thinking about this recently when I recalled the lines of a humorous Christmas parody written by my brother-in-law a few decades ago. The song describes the nightmare before Christmas when a parent tries to put together a gift using the English-language-challenged user’s manual. One of the verses goes:

O come, o come and pay the man the bail
And ransom captive Da-a-ad from jail
He got so mad he blew a fuse
His rampage through the store was on the news

 With today’s reality of mass shooting after mass shooting, I’m not sure we can joke about people “going postal” anymore.

I think that for the most part, this evolution in comedy is a good thing. Making it socially unacceptable to joke about hurting people or to denigrate someone’s race or gender is, overall, a good thing. But our desire to be “politically correct” can sometimes make us humorless.

Humor is, after all, the juxtaposition of the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and bizarre, the right and the wrong. Back in the day, when Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife – please!,” it was a corny but tongue-in-cheek dig at the sacrosanct institution of marriage.

When we take ourselves too seriously, we refuse to see the inconsistencies and hypocrises in our and others’ behavior, in our families, and in our institutions. For example, John Mulaney, a favorite comedian of mine, regularly mocks his Catholic upbringing. While I have grown to appreciate my Catholic faith more and more as I’ve grown older, I recognize the exasperation of a young person sitting through what can sometimes feel like the interminable and pointless rituals of the Mass. And I sense a fondness Mulaney has for his experiences even as he makes fun of them.

In the area of comedy, there will always be people who are offended by a particular skit or remark. As much as I am happy to know that spousal abuse is no longer something to joke about, I hope that we don’t completely lose our sense of irony and humor about the ills of our world. A world without comedy is no laughing matter.

 

Beloved Author

Standard

images-1

The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, I didn’t really understand it. The figure that haunts Sethe, the main character, is omnipresent yet mysterious. It took a second reading many years later for me to capture the import of this seminal work of American literature.

Toni Morrison’s death at age 88 has had many readers reminiscing and reflecting on her greatness. The first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison wrote with such power and lyricism that her works almost literally vibrated. Despite how puzzling I found Beloved, I followed up by reading some of her earlier works: Sula and The Bluest Eye.

As a woman, I identified with some of the emotions and the powerlessness felt by the female protagonists of Morrison’s fiction. Feelings of uncertainty and of not being good enough in the eyes of others are issues that have always faced “the second sex.” The sacrifices mothers make for their children is another universal theme Morrison explored in works such as Beloved and A Mercy, one of her later works. After I became a mother myself, I could relate to the pain and helplessness these women felt in trying to protect their children.

But what really affected me about Toni Morrison’s work was the window it opened into the world of blacks, particularly black women. Morrison’s unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery were hard to read. The goings-on at the ironically named Sweet Home of Beloved and the D’Ortega plantation in A Mercy show the devastating effects of whites’ willingness to dehumanize black men and women. Morrison’s writing forces whites to see the evil legacy of slavery, and it refuses to let us look away.

Toni Morrison opened up American literature to the black female voice. Her success even led to the rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, a gifted writer from the 1920s. Americans will be forever indebted to her for championing the artistic efforts of other black women authors, as well as for her own deep and beautiful body of work.

A few years ago, I had the great good fortune to see Toni Morrison in person. She was in town to receive the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s annual Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a benefit dinner to which I was invited. She was a formidable presence on the stage, but when she autographed my copy of Beloved, she gave me a warm smile. I am still grateful for that close encounter with her literary greatness as well as her graciousness. Her presence in our world will be sorely missed.

 

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

Standard

baby-trump-balloon-njjpg-42197551ad37c22d

Donald Trump’s entire strategy for defending himself against any charges is to go on the offensive. Essentially, he lobs at his critics the playground retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”

In the past few weeks, the president has actually told U.S. citizens of color to go back where they came from. More recently, he decided to attack his critic Rep. Elijah Cummings by denouncing Cummings’ district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The comment was akin to his description of certain African nations as “shithole countries.” The more blatantly racial Trump’s attacks become, the quicker he is to label his critics as racist or un-American.

And instead of calling on the president to refrain from such remarks, his apologists get into a dissection of the victims. First they analyzed and called into question every statement made by the four Congresswomen who were the subject of Trump’s vitriol: women of color, all of them U.S. citizens and only one of them born outside the U.S. And as pundits pointed out, even that naturalized citizen had been a U.S. citizen longer than Trump’s own wife, Melania.

In the case of Trump’s attack on Baltimore, Rep. Cummings’ home turf, pundits started in on the Democratic failures to solve endemic poverty in big cities. Again, all this serves as a dodge to avoid confronting the fact that they support a small-minded racist.

The Trump strategy of counterattack is a brazen and shameless one. Despite the fact that there is ample evidence he obstructed justice in his attempt to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump has managed to turn the investigation against itself, demanding that U.S. justice and intelligence agencies be investigated for pro-Hillary/anti-Trump bias.

Aside from the fact that the “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic is the mark of a man with stunted emotional maturity, the repeated attempts on the right to distract the American people from legitimate concern and criticism of this president are disturbing and dangerous. It seems clear that the Republicans in power, their media mouthpieces, and Trump’s diehard base will ignore any level of impropriety, dishonesty, and meanness from this president.

It’s up to the rest of us to keep focused on what we see right in front of us: a divisive, mean-spirited, and narcissistic bully who must be called to account – in 2020, if not sooner.

Normalizing Hate

Standard

Unknown-1.jpeg

Twitter has done at least one beneficial thing since its inception: given us a glimpse into the mind and heart of our current president. And it’s not a pretty picture. The president’s latest tweet attacked four women of color, all U.S. citizens, with the admonition to go back where they came from. The House of Representatives rightly voted to condemn this racist and xenophobic rant on the part of our country’s supposed leader.

The president has done everything in his power to attack and marginalize immigrants of color. Muslim travel bans, cruel treatment of Latin American migrants, labeling them criminals and rapists: This is classic scapegoating. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it must not be normalized.

I know I’m not supposed to haul out Nazi Germany as a comparison, but the same tactics were used to victimize and ultimately exterminate millions of Jews during World War II. First they were attacked for being dishonest and mercenary. Cartoon depictions of Jews made them seem less than human. These tactics made it easier for ordinary citizens to stand by while Jewish people’s possessions were taken away and ultimately they themselves were rounded up.

I used to be opposed to going through the trauma of impeachment proceedings against our current president. It’s not that I don’t think there is ample cause for impeachment. I just felt that Democrats needed to focus their efforts on defeating the man in 2020. However, allowing this president to spew vitriol and hate for another year and half is unacceptable and runs the risk of normalizing such attitudes. The Congresswomen cited in the latest hateful tweets have been dealing with death threats. Let’s not wait for someone to make good on such a threat before we take action.

The American people must not allow hatred against certain religious or ethnic groups to take hold in our national psyche. It goes against everything our great nation stands for. Let’s not normalize hate but condemn it whenever and wherever we find it, even at the highest echelons of our government.

 

More Than One Thing

Standard

lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.