ME TOO: Who Among Us Doesn't Have a Story to Tell?

She was an exceptional legal secretary, a regal beauty, and an independent woman who repeatedly tried to ignore her boss’s advances.  One day, upon his return from a foreign business trip, he presented her with a string of French pearls and a litany of love. It was the 1930s so the secretary saw no way out but to quit her job. That woman was my mother.

She was a motivated professional who took her work seriously.  The first time it happened she worked for a medical board that certified physicians. At a formal dinner one evening, a doctor rubbed his hand up her leg under the tablecloth. She pushed it away. Later the doctor invited her on a trip to the Caribbean. She rebuffed him.

The next time, she was working in a different city when, standing next to her seated boss as he reviewed a document she’d handed him, he put his hand up her skirt. She slapped it away.

The time after that, she was on assignment in another country. Her work finished, she approached the local director to say goodbye. He grabbed her, kissing her on the lips.  Repulsed, she pulled away. But once again she told no one, because it was a time when women didn’t speak of sexual harassment or sexual assault, there being no words for it She was silent because she didn’t want to lose her job or be accused of “asking for it,” and she knew nothing would be done about it anyway.   That woman was me.

It isn’t necessary to cite other times it happened to me because by now everyone sort of gets the picture.  And I was one of the lucky ones: I was never raped.

Now, thanks to a growing number of brave, bold, truth-telling women, we are finally talking about the rampant sexual assault and harassment taking place in just about every workplace you can name. We are naming names. We are outing a pervasive culture of sexual abuse that exists in this, and most other cultures. We are refusing to be complicit via silence, choosing now to raise our collective voices in order to press charges so that we can put an end to the madness of male power and its concomitant sense of entitlement.

We thought Anita Hill’s dignity and truth-telling all those years ago might have been the beginning we see now, but it didn’t happen then.  Thankfully it’s happening now, because of a growing cadre of women who will no longer submit to second-class status, silence, or male prerogative.

Many of those women now hold public office. But they no longer hold their tongues. By telling their stories in the halls of power, they are starting to bring down men who insult them, trivialize them, accuse them of being liars and sluts, physically assault them, and once made them feel small and afraid.

There are men standing with us now too, taking up the fight against sexual harassment and abuse. Perhaps they heard playwright Eve Ensler when she said, “I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you? You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren’t you standing with us?” To those men, we say, it’s about time, and if they really kick in, thank you.

Rob Okun is one of them. He is a writer and psychotherapist who edited a collection called Voice Male: The Untold Story of the Profeminist Men’s Movement.  In a recent blog on www.counterpunch.org he wrote, “For decades, men who have never battered or raped would offer excuses for not standing up for women who faced harassment – and worse – offering this lame rationale: ‘I don’t engage in these behaviors, I’m a good guy, these are women’s issues, not mine.’ Those days are over. Sexual assault is not a women’s issue; it’s a community issue, and men, ready or not, we have to break our silence.”

In his piece, Okun credits women with “dragging domestic and sexual violence from society’s shadows” as they created rape crisis centers and shelter for domestic violence survivors. He credits the few men who stood with them initially as allies while coming to grips with their own passivity in the face of violence against women. He calls upon more men to act. He also calls out Donald Trump, who “has yet to pay a price for his sexual assaults.”

The work of Okun and other men working independently and alongside women is encouraging. But like gun violence, the problem of sexual harassment and assault will not simply disappear. It will take concerted group effort, and individual brazen acts. It will require telling our stories. It will take laws and enforced regulations in various workplaces. It will call for zero tolerance.

Can we get there in the age of Weinstein, Spacey and Trump?  As one good man said not long ago, “Yes, we can!” But only, it seems, if we raise our voices, tell our stories, press charges, and vehemently declare Enough!

Why is Disaster Relief So Disastrous?

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with a vengeance. In the aftermath, criticism of the government’s response was swift and decisive: America had learned nothing from prior failures in relief efforts. The Bush administration had not paid ample attention to the threat in Louisiana and had neglected to put emergency plans in place or to share information that might have saved lives, according to a Congressional report that revealed 90 findings of failure at all levels of government.

Much of the criticism about failures to respond quickly and appropriately to Katrina fell on the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as the lead federal agency for disaster preparedness, response and relief.

FEMA’s main job is to distribute aid to individuals, state, and local governments after natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. But FEMA’s response to many major disasters has often been slow, disorganized or “profligate,” as one critic put it. The agency’s actions have sometimes been harmful, such as when they blocked relief efforts of other organizations because of bureaucracy and dysfunction.

“The mistakes made by FEMA during its response to Hurricane Katrina ‘are the stuff of legend’” one analyst said in a 2012 US News and Report article, including “fail[ing] to get to the worse hit areas for days and [being] unprepared for the scope of the disaster.” FEMA’s failures, the article claimed, “are largely due to the inability of the federal government to acquire the local knowledge needed for effective disaster response and relief.”

The Red Cross, often the go-to organization for people who want to help, also fails to be effective in its response. For example, in the aftermath of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Isaac, the organization “botched key elements of its mission, leaving behind a trail of unmet needs,” according to a 2014 report by ProPublica and NPR. “Red Cross officials at national headquarters in Washington, D.C. compounded the charity’s inability to provide relief by ‘diverting assets for public relations purposes,’” the report claimed.

International bodies, like the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), continue to offer rhetorical responses in the aftermath of natural disasters. In a September 2017 response to this year’s horrific hurricanes, PAHO’s director told ministers of affected countries attending a conference that she extended “heartfelt condolences on the occasion of the deaths and injuries, the utter devastation and destruction, the extensive dislocation and the psychological trauma resulting from [the four hurricanes].” But have we seen any reports of PAHO attempting to alleviate dire health-related problems in Puerto Rico or elsewhere in the region?

Meanwhile, we are repeatedly reminded of the failures of governmental and non-governmental organizations, here and elsewhere, to learn from past experience – whether a devastating earthquake in Haiti, or a similar disaster in Nepal.

The most recent example is, of course, Puerto Rico, where lawmaker Jose Enrique Melendez called the federal response “a disaster,” and the mayor of San Juan begged the  U.S. President  for help, saying that if it failed to come, the little island of American inhabitants would “see something close to a genocide.”

“We are dying here,” Carmen Yulin Cruz told the president. “Mayday! We are in trouble!” She could not fathom, she said, “the thought that the greatest nation in the world cannot figure out the logistics for a small island of 100 miles by 35 miles.”

Donald Trump’s response? He called the mayor “nasty” and blamed Puerto Ricans for not doing enough to help themselves. Blind to the reality of the disaster – no water, no food, no communication, no electricity, no health care for emergencies or chronic illnesses – he simply tossed paper towels at people and then threatened to cut off relief funds and pull out first responders.

A Congressional bill for $36.5 billion in emergency funding for hurricane relief in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as for wildfire relief, was subsequently requested by the Trump administration. The House measure included $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund.

Anyone want to guess how much of that $36.5 billion will go to Puerto Rico? Or how FEMA will use the proposed $18.7 billion?

The legislation also proposed that Puerto Rico receive a $4.9 billion low-interest Treasury loan so it doesn’t run out of cash as the island recovers. That’s right: a loan to an island already in desperate straits financially and in need of debt forgiveness if it has any hope of recovering from the two hurricanes that slammed the island in rapid succession.

The continuing failures of timely and effective disaster relief boggle the mind and beg this question, based on lessons learned: What specific steps need to be taken and what key elements must be in place for relief efforts to best serve those affected by catastrophic natural disasters?

Now, in light of the unprecedented travesty of Mr. Trump’s behavior and inaction in Puerto Rico, we must also ask, how do we ensure a compassionate response? In the face of nature’s fury, how do we contain the fury of a president who fails to grasp essential humanity? 

In these troubling times, perhaps that’s the first question we should be addressing.

Back to Barefoot and Pregnant Politics

 

In the late 1970s as I was beginning my career in women’s health, one of the first feminist icons I met of was a flamboyant, passionate, and deeply committed woman named Perdita Huston.  She had made her mark internationally working as a journalist and a Peace Corp professional, but what put her on the feminist map was her 1979 book Third World Women Speak Out

 

Huston’s book was remarkable because she was the first person to give women in the developing world a chance to tell their own stories. She gave them voice, and with that voice what they proclaimed most loudly was that they wanted fewer children, and they wanted those children to be educated.

 

It was a radical moment with far-reaching ramifications because it coincided with the early days of family planning becoming a goal of international funding agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). With the help of the Women in Development movement, spawned in large part by the Women’s Movement at large, donor organizations had begun to realize that family planning was key to a country’s economic and social development and that women’s reproductive health was an issue that mattered.

Subsequent years revealed that family planning was, indeed, a wise investment. Countries like Egypt and Bangladesh showed that once women controlled their fertility, families, communities, and countries benefited, whether by increasing educational opportunities for girls, widening agricultural opportunities for women, or bringing women into decision-making at some levels of society.

None of this happened quickly or easily; there are always naysayers and development “specialists” willing to argue against innovation (and empowering women), no matter how simple and effective an intervention may be. But gradually the world saw how important family planning was to the healthy development of nations, let alone women and their families.

Now fast forward to Trumpian times, in which the president has reinstated Ronald Reagan’s Mexico City Policy of 1984 – revoked by Bill Clinton, restored by George W. Bush, and revoked by Barack Obama - in which nongovernmental organizations are forbidden to receive U.S. federal funding if they perform or promote abortion in other countries. 

Trump goes even further. His administration, including the Departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury and Labor, wants to make it easier for employers to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees if the employer has “a religious or moral objection” to doing so. The administration also wants to make it harder for women denied birth control coverage to get no-cost contraception directly from insurance companies, as they have been doing.

In an attempt to rush this through, the administration made the absurd claim that taking time to seek public comment would be “contrary to the public interest,” and went so far as to say that coverage of contraception could lead to “risky sexual behavior,” a nod to those who believe women’s sexuality is evil.  Not only is that one huge misogynistic insult to women; what is riskier than setting women up for unwanted pregnancies while trying to eliminate safe abortion and shut down Planned Parenthood?

 These actions are a setback of huge proportion. They affect not just American women, but women around the world.  In Madagascar, for example, the change in policy is forcing dramatic cutbacks by the largest provider of long term contraception in the country, Marie Stopes International (MSI), which receives millions of dollars from USAID for its work there. Ironically, abortion is illegal in that country, but MSI cannot receive American aid because it will not renounce abortion as part of reproductive health services in other parts of the world.

Hundreds of women and girls flock to remote MSI clinics where they receive everything from malaria prevention to HIV treatment to contraceptives. It’s a scene repeated all over the developing world no matter who is providing services. What is to become of all those women?

The policy, already making its way to the courts, is clearly aimed at mollifying organizations like March for Life and Real Alternatives, anti-abortion groups that don’t qualify for religious exemptions but claim to hold strong moral convictions unrelated to a particular religion.

In his long string of lies, Trump and his administration have claimed, absent of any evidence, that its new rules won’t have an effect on “over 99.9 percent of the 165 million women in the United States,” while simultaneously arguing that low-income women will still be able to get subsidized or free contraception through community and government health programs. All this while the administration plans to substantially cut government spending on such programs.

The President’s attack on birth control, safe and accessible abortion, and the Affordable Care Act is low on intelligence and high on lies. It is spiteful, vindictive, woman-hating, and downright mean. It will hurt millions of women and their families. There are only two ways to describe it: utterly inhumane and grossly misogynistic. Everyone should be resisting mightily.

Sizing Up the World: Growing Smaller While Supersizing

When I was a kid, our hero was Superman, the mild-mannered guy who brought petty criminals to justice while flying around in a cape.  Today’s heroes are animated, mechanized, robotic super heroes who battle inter-galactically for control of the universe.

Remember when movies simply had stars we loved to watch? (In my day, it was Bogie and Bacall, Cary Grant and Sophia Loren). Now, it seems all actors are super stars, giant novae on screen or stage regardless of talent.

We used to call nations countries. Now we talk about super powers.  We shop super saver sales, eat oversized meals, drive ever larger vehicles, and live in McMansions if we can afford them.

Once, when we got sick, it was just a bug. Today we live in fear of superbugs that challenge science to find stronger antibiotics before an expected pandemic takes hold. We’re talking about manipulating what might be called super genes that offer some health benefits while raising serious ethical questions.

Even with matters out of our control in what we refer to as “the natural world,” there was a time when a storm was just a storm that it shut down schools and workplaces for a few days. Today we have superstorms that are massive, frighteningly powerful, and proliferating, along with huge, uncontrolled fires, and monstrous earthquakes.

Somehow, perhaps aside from natural disasters, it seems the smaller our world becomes externally, by virtue of the speed of the Internet and travel, the larger we want quantitative, measurable elements in our lives to be, as though having large things will bring us comfort or safety in a world that feels oddly squeezed and vaguely ominous.  We seek bigness like babies want their blankies.

There is a certain irony in our weird appreciation of largeness as we simultaneously hug our metaphorical stuffed animals while watching our world both shrink and enlarge, because the more threatening our outer world becomes, the more reduced and inconsequential we feel in our essential interiority - that quiet, private place wherein we reflect, ruminate, remember, feel afraid, and make meaning. It’s that piece of us that informs what we call personality. It defines our identity, our sense of purpose, our place in the world.

Once, when I was in Africa’s Serengeti, I was seized by an almost panicky feeling of claustrophobia. Surrounded by endless open plain, I felt trapped by the very vastness around me. How would I get out, I wondered, if I became ill? Where would I retreat to for help?  Where was the exit ramp?

I felt that same kind of near-panic briefly during the recent hurricane Irma while fires were burning in the west and Mexico was being rocked by an 8.1 earthquake.  North Korea was saber rattling and terrorism was ever on the horizon. To where could one escape for safety on the whole of the earth, which suddenly seemed insufficient, tiny, crowded? I imagine what I felt was similar to what refugees experience as they flee famine and violence, lost in the vastness of new and mysterious terrain while simultaneously trapped in a small and shrinking unknown environment.

At the same time that I felt claustrophobic in Africa, the landscape and the magnificent animals who live there made me aware of how small a place I hold in the cosmos. What was I in the vastness of time, of place, of history?  What difference did my being make? In a hundred years, hopefully the animals would still roam the Serengeti. But who would know that I had lived? What did I really matter in the entire realm of being?

I think many of us feel that way, although we may not be attuned to it. We sense that we are part of a vast, virtual, oversized, impersonal computer-screened community that dupes us into thinking that we are engaging with a world full of big things and grand ideas, even as that world becomes ever more entrapping.

Still, something gnaws at us, at our essential interiority, our ruminating, fearful, lonely and sometimes joyful selves. A sense of aloneness, of smallness and irrelevance, casts a shadow and we wonder where we really fit in the scheme of things. How do we know that we exist in a meaningful way? To whom shall we confess our fear of being lost in an unrecognizable crowd? How shall we proceed, divested from the largess of modern life, to find our place in a hopefully more sanguine world?

We dream big, and so we should; dreams are not meant to be diminished. But we also stand alone in the wilderness, amid a vacant bigness, seeking to find in our larger-than-life dreams the pleasures and rewards of life’s small satisfactions. Achieving that, perhaps we could let go of angst and safely live in a world devoid of super-sized distractions. That would be a welcome reality.

 

Privatizing the FAA Makes Fear of Flying Rational

When Erica Jong wrote about her fear of flying some years ago, she described perfectly my own anxiety the minute I leave the ground in a missile that’s about to hurl across the sky faster than a speeding, well, missile.

 “My fingers (and toes) turn to ice, my stomach leaps upward into my rib cage, the temperature in the tip of my nose drops to the same level as the temperature in my fingers…and for one screaming minute my heart and the engines correspond as we attempt to prove again that the laws of aerodynamics are not the flimsy superstitions which, in my heart of hearts, I know they are,” Jong wrote.

I know from observing other passengers and talking to air crew that I’m not the only one who finds flying unnatural and unnerving. I’ve seen women in airports working worry beads, their lips moving in silent prayer. Once, on a shaky island hopper in which the pilot sat puffing away on a cigarette under the sign that said “No Smoking,” a guy sang a capello all the way across the Aegean Sea as the ride became rougher and rougher. Even frequent flyers get tense on take-off, relaxing visibly when the seat belt sign blinks off and the drinks cart makes its way down the aisle. 

Every time someone says to me, “Have a safe trip!” I’m forced to acknowledge that I have no control over what could happen in the next few hours. And now that the Trump Administration wants to privatize the FAA, I have even more reason to worry about flying.

Congress first established FAA’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program in 1997 to look at privatization as a way to access sources of private capital for airport improvement and development, according to FAA’s website. It allowed private companies to own, manage, lease and develop public airports. The 2012 Reauthorization Act doubled the number of airports that could participate, increasing the number from five to ten. That meant that ten public airport sponsors could sell or lease an airport with certain restrictions and could be exempt from some federal requirements. It was somewhat reassuring that only one large hub airport could participate in the program. As of this year, there are four airports in the program, ranging in size from the Westchester (NY) County Airport to the St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

This has caused the general aviation community to express grave concern about where they stand in an air traffic control system dominated by big airlines like American, United, and Southwest. (So far Delta Airlines doesn’t support the privatization plan because of its expected increase in costs to travelers).

Another serious concern is safety and no one takes that more seriously than Capt. Sully Sullenberger who famously landed an airplane in the Hudson River without a single loss of life. “Sully” argues that air traffic control privatization is a power play for America that compromises public safety and punishes the wider aviation community.

“The FAA is not broken,” Sully says. “What this proposal does is take an extreme solution to a non-problem.” The famous pilot says that privatization would allow for a corporate monopoly heavily influenced by major airlines that would be managing the nation’s skies. “It gives the keys to the kingdom to the largest airlines,” he says.

Now, who would you trust more: Capt. Sully Sullenberger, or the country’s largest profit-making airlines and US policymakers?

Even though I’m considering launching a new FAA – Flyers Anxiety Anonymous – I can admit that, at least for the time being, flying is statistically safer than getting into our cars. I also know that it is a necessary part of modern, fast-paced, global life.

Still, there’s something about flying every time that aircraft door is sealed from the outside and those engines rev as I’m racing down a runway that makes my throat dry up and my stomach flip.  Imagine in what a state I, and others like me, would be if we knew air traffic controllers were working for the airlines and not the FAA.

Erica Jong would understand. “Constant vigilance,” she wrote. “I keep concentrating very hard, helping the pilot fly that 300-passenger *!#+@!”

For now, I keep hoping really hard that Capt. Sully, and other pilots like him, will keep speaking out about privatizing the FAA. As the good captain said, “I can guarantee you the largest airlines don’t always have the interests of the traveling public in mind.”

What huge, for-profit businesses do consider the public interest and safety a priority, especially in the present political climate? Perhaps it’s time to check out your closest Canadian airport.

Is the Democratic Party Disappearing?

 

Ever worry about this? “What if we gave a party and no one came?”  Right now, I’m worried that many of us are invited to support a party that we don’t really want to be part of and don’t feel good about voting for, and the disturbing thing is the problem is of their own making.

 

When Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and others blathered about “A Better Deal” recently I, and I’m sure others, despaired. It’s not just about the economy, Stupid! I wanted to tell them. It’s not just about the middle class and working (white) people! It’s not about more of the same blah, blah, blah we’ve heard since the 1990s. And I’m not sure who’s writing their copy, but what were they doing using a Trump-loaded word like “Deal”?

 

At a time when the Democrats should be about to launch a vigorous, inspired campaign designed for a major takeover of Congress, why are they poised for self-defeat yet again?

When will the leadership realize who their constituents are and understand how they are failing them?  Where is the vision for a better future, not a better deal? To put it another way, where is our next “Yes We Can” moment? Without a bit of inspiration, how can the majority of us come together as a nation that can feel proud of itself again as we regain our stature in the world?

 

To illustrate just how pathetic the Democratic party is right now, consider this. An extensive online search for “Democratic Party platform” yielded the campaign rhetoric and plan for 2016! It’s 2017 and we’re heading into a crucial election year. Where are you, Mr. Perez, Mr. Ellison, Nancy, Chuck, et al? Enough with the continuous calls for contributions. It’s time to tell people of color, people explained in the book Hillbilly Elegy, people terrified of losing their health care, the LBGT community, women and others who once trusted you what you stand for and what you’re going to do to insure that their futures are healthy, safe, and yes, economically sound while also ensuring that their Constitutionally protected rights are not going to be snatched from them behind closed doors by a creeping and creepy autocracy.

 

Speaking of creepy, how could any Democrat in leadership possibly dare to violate women’s right to control their own bodies by endorsing anti-abortion candidates?  Are they really ready to throw women under the bus for a few votes?  And what’s next – embracing racist candidates? Homophobic candidates? Islamophobic candidates? I doubt it, which underscores the point that betraying a major constituency is, in this case, tantamount to political pimping.

 

“There is not a litmus test for Democratic candidates,” according to Rep. Ben Lujan (D-N.M.) who declared that “we need to have Democrats that can win in districts across America.”  Yes, Mr. Lujan, there is a litmus test – or there once was. It was meant to ensure that all Democrats would stand for the principles and values for which they were once known and trusted.  

 

So, sorry, Nancy Pelosi, the fact that you grew up in a “very devout Catholic family” whom you loved should have absolutely nothing to do with your political position on women’s health, reproductive rights and choices.

 

Bernie Sanders?  Sorry, but backing Heath Mello to serve as a mayor is not okay given his anti-choice legislative background.  Such endorsements represent political prostitution and showcase misogyny writ large, which the Democratic party and its frontrunners may realize as contributions dip dramatically and polls become troubling because many former supporters understand what a huge betrayal the leadership just handed us.

 

Yes, “raising wages and incomes of American workers and creating millions of good-paying jobs” is important. So is lowering the cost of living “for families,” but let’s not forget the multitudes of young and single people out there, or women heads of household, or disenfranchised, appropriately angry and afraid minorities.  Yes, “lower prescription drug prices, crack down on monopolies and the concentration of economic power.” But where is campaign finance reform?  Where is climate change, environmental integrity vs. oil drilling in treasured national parks and polluted waters, the urgency of infrastructure, support for science and research, a viable, well-articulated health policy that fixes the flaws in the ACA? Where is the commitment to ensure safety nets like social security and Medicare/Medicaid? Where are women in your plans?  In other words, where is your 2017-18 policy platform?

 

Writing in The Guardian recently, columnist Jamie Peck said, “the Democrats seem more determined than ever to bungle their comeback from 2016’s humiliating defeat. From small-thinking policy proposals…and slogans that read like satire…to their quixotic obsession with wooing ‘moderate’ Republicans and the rich to the detriment of progressives and the poor, their strategy is, at best a wet fart. At worst, it’s a plan to sell out everything they once stood for.”

 

I’m with Jamie Peck and other thinking Dems who’ve simply had enough. At this point, who among us can say we’re still coming to the party? The question now is, what are Democrats going to do about it?

Banning Grandparents is Inhumane

Kudos to Hawaii’s US District Judge Derrick Watson who ordered the government not to enforce the ban on grandparents, grandchildren, and other close relatives of people in the United States. "Grandparents are the epitome of close family members," the judge declared. In my book, he’s absolutely right.

The book I refer to here is my first essay collection, Telling It Like It Is, in which I included a piece called “Under the Willow Tree.”  It went like this: When I was small, the childhood classic The Wind in the Willows was my favorite. That was because of my willow tree, the weeping giant by Belle Tract Lake under which my maternal grandfather used to tell me and my siblings a bubbachka when he came to visit us on weekends.

“The ritual began with my Zayde walking slowly up the street toward our house having disembarked from the bus which had brought him from Philadelphia to our New Jersey home. He smelled of cigarette smoke, old newspapers, and the scents of the bus that had brought him and he always carried a small bag that included some chachkas for us kids.

“Yayde’s here! We shouted to our mother who was already making him a glass of tea. The two of them would settle at the kitchen table and before long one would say something to outrage the other and a Yiddish shouting match would ensue until both contestants repented. Then Zayde would go to his room until dinnertime when all was forgiven and conversation turned to the updated trials and tribulations of my mother’s two brothers and their families.

“On Sundays one of us kids would suggest, as though it were an original idea, that we should “make a picnic” and go to the lake, all as pretense to hearing a bubbachka, a story, under the willow tree. Bubbachkas always lost their magic, their credibility and romance when they were told anywhere else but under that mournful, majestic weeping willow. It was also an unspoken truth that bubbachkas only wove their spell if no grown-ups went along.

“And so our entourage would assemble, my older sister carrying the brown grocery bag of food (wicker baskets being for goyim) me following with a cloth to sit on, and my baby brother, nubby knees sticking out of short pants, holding Zayde’s hand as both of them struggled to keep up. At the corner of Delaware Street, I became the Safety Patrol, nodding solemnly with the all-clear. We appeared, no doubt, to have stepped straight out of a Normal Rockwell painting.

“Our picnic lunches were always the same: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carrot and celery sticks, graham crackers, and fruit juice in a red plastic container. We’d settled under our weeping willow, which miraculously no pigeon or person ever sat under when we wanted it, and wait for feast and fable to begin.

“The bubbechka Zayde told was also always the same. ‘Once upon a time in a shtetl in Vilna, there was a boy called Jacob (or a girl called Sasha)…’  Just as it was coming to an end, my sister or I would jump up to announce that if we didn’t get back, Zayde would miss his bus back to Philly. While we groaned and cleaned up, Zayde promised to tell us the happily-ever-after part, and another story, next time he came to see us. And so it was until my beloved Zayde died when I was seven years old.”

My two grandmothers had passed away before I had a chance to know them, and my paternal grandfather, who we only saw once a year, lived in Canada and spoke not a word of English.  And so all my childhood love for a grandparent was lavished on my Zayde, even though in later years I learned he had been a difficult and not always kind man.

The memory I wrote about happened more than sixty years ago, and yet it is as clear a remembrance as if it had happened only a few weeks ago. Such is the depth of such connection, the place of ritual in our lives, the unconditional love between an elder and a child. 

No grandparent should ever be denied the right to that love, and no child should ever have to wonder why the stories they tell have disappeared. None of us should be made to grieve the absence of a beloved relative and no willow should weep for our absence.

Judge Watson did the right thing. So did the Supreme Court when it let stand for now the court order from Hawaii that grandparents and other relatives who want to visit family members in the U.S. can be admitted while the case is pending appeal. Let’s hope that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco reaches a sensible decision when it decides the larger case regarding enforced restrictions on refugees still under a travel ban.

From Shophouses to Strip Malls: America's Changing Economy

I grew up in a shophouse. I realized this after living in Thailand when I was teaching and traveling throughout Asia, where business-cum-home arrangements are ubiquitous.

My father, a haberdasher, owned a small, narrow store on Broad Street in the New Jersey town where I spent my childhood. It was called Tip Top Men’s Shop and it catered to the town’s gentry. My mother, father, two siblings and I lived in a railroad apartment above the store. The rooms lined up one in front of another along a claustrophobic corridor. There were two bedrooms so when my brother came along, he slept in the living room.  It was a convenient if cramped setup for my parents until they could afford to build a house, and it was fun for us kids, even though living in such small quarters drove my mother mad.  Also, we could have done without the Arrow Shirt boxes lining the living room.

My dad held all the franchises that upscale companies like Arrow Shirts offered to only one vendor in a town, so he had no competition to speak of, and having overstocked his store during the war years, he did well into the 50s.

But then things began to change. Franchises were extended to other stores and more importantly, box stores and discount merchandisers began to appear. Customer loyalty waned as a burgeoning bargain mentality developed. My father, driven out of business by these factors, ended up working as a floor salesman in one of those box stores, selling inferior off-the-rack suits and cheap shirts and ties. It was devastating for a man whose self-esteem derived from being his own boss.

By then we had moved to a three-bedroom house a mile from the center of town. And we, too, began bargain hunting and shopping in the stores that were rapidly displacing local merchants and changing the face of our familiar and beloved Broad Street.

It didn’t take long for those box stores to join forces as large and then larger shopping malls proliferated, becoming a developer’s dream. The first one in our area was the Cherry Hill Mall in south Jersey. Everyone flocked there on weekends, to window shop, meet friends and occasionally partake of sales.

Later, when I was living just outside Washington, DC, malls sprung up in Virginia and Maryland. Gradually, they became more upscale. Some of them were huge. Shaped like an elongated letter H, Macy’s might be at one end, Bloomingdales at the other, displacing the original Sears and Penney’s. In between these two giants, a plethora of small boutique shops offered a ridiculous amount of stuff that prospering suburbanites thought they couldn’t live without.

About this time, outlet malls began to dot the landscape, some becoming so popular that chain motels and restaurants built facilities nearby. Some of them were so big they actually had artificial ski slopes or water slides in them. In a booming economy, everyone and every business seemed to thrive.

But then things changed again.

Enter the Internet and the world of Amazon.com.  Soon, every store, big or small, was selling online. Customers loved it. UPS and FedEx loved it. Online businesses of all kinds proliferated, and profited.

What didn’t “profit” from this particular economic change was a semi-urban landscape increasingly dotted with deserted strip malls, empty box stores, and desolate super shopping venues. Who didn’t profit were all the people who lost their jobs.

Ironically, as I was contemplating writing this column, economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece in The New York Times on the topic of our changing economy. He noted that a magazine article had just appeared in which a photographic essay addressed “the decline of traditional retailers in the face of internet competition.  The pictures,” he wrote, “contrasting ‘zombie malls’ largely emptied of tenants with giant warehouses holding inventory for online sellers were striking.”  Krugman also highlighted Macy’s plans to close almost 70 stores and lay off 10,000 workers, while Sears, was doubtful that it could stay in business.

All of this brought my shophouse childhood back to me, with its pleasures of being a Broad Street kid watched over by the merchants between Curtis and Cooper Streets and the excitement of Christmas and Father’s Day shopping. But I also remembered what it was like when my father lost his business, his identity, and a good bit of his income. And I recalled what Broad Street looked like the last time I drove through my hometown – a shattering scene of tatoo parlors, bars, and vacant, decrepit buildings where once commerce and friendship flourished.

“Change is the only reality,” a Greek philosopher once said. I’ve lived long enough to realize the wisdom of those words. We live in an ever-changing world in so many ways, a world with new and often troubling landscapes in which the future is full of uncertainty. 

Witnessing those emerging landscapes, I’m very glad for my shophouse days.

 

                                   

America's Assault on Its Antiquities

Anyone who has seen pictures of the Taliban-battered giant Buddhas in Afghanistan, or the destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra by Isis, will understand why environmentalists and naturalists are devastated by Donald Trump’s Executive Order calling for the identification of American national monuments that could be rescinded or resized.  The destructive nature of that Executive Order is on a scale no less traumatic than the travesties committed by the world’s two most uncivilized bodies, and the fact that the present administration doesn’t get that is extraordinarily troubling.

 

With the stroke of his pen, the president opened the way to drilling, mining and other development on federal lands, lands like Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which together comprise more than three million acres that Trump’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke claims to be of no concern to “people in D.C. who have never been to the area” and who have “zero accountability to the impacted communities.”

Mr. Zinke plans to advise President Trump to shrink Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument to a scatter of isolated sites. The Utah monument is sacred to Native Americans seeking protection for Bears Ears because of its deep cultural and ecological significance. Tribal leaders have worked for nearly a decade to document the significance of this national monument.

These and other national treasures have been protected since 1906 when the Antiquities Act was passed. The Act gives U.S. presidents the power to keep vulnerable lands and waters safe. Virtually every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used it to protect archaeological, historic and natural sites from commercial exploitation.

 

Adam Markham, Deputy Director of Climate and Energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), is one of the people speaking out about the president’s action. He points out that many sites originally designated as national monuments were later upgraded by Congress to become national parks, including Bryce Canyon and Death Valley. Designating such places as monuments kept them safe when congressional leaders with ties to special interest groups and industries involving coal, oil, timber and mining threatened their future.

 

Donald Trump’s April Executive Order “puts this important regulatory protection for conservation and historic preservation at risk,” Markham noted in a UCS blog. “The clear intention of the Order is to lay the groundwork for shrinking national monuments or rescinding their designation entirely, in order to open currently protected public lands for growth in coal, oil and minerals extraction.”

 

Mr. Trump has ordered a review of all presidentially-designated national monuments since 1996 if they are over 100,000 acres in size. And incredibly, the Department of Interior signaled in a press release that it has no intention of undertaking a fair, independent review by describing Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante as “bookends of modern Antiquities overreach.”

 

The administration appears to be woefully out of touch with the impact of its threat to federally protected land and water. The National Park Service(NPS) oversees 59 national parks and many other natural and historic sites.  They host millions of visitors every year, generating millions of dollars in tourism-related revenue. The NPS also employs over 315,000 people. Research shows that local economies expanded with monument designation. They will surely collapse when their beloved monuments are gone.

 

That’s in part why five sovereign Native American Tribes with ancestral ties to Bears Ears, including the Hopi and the Navajo Nation, have formed the Bears Ear Inter-Tribal Coalition, as if they didn’t have enough work to do trying to protect their sacred lands. Bears Ears is home to thousands of sacred and culturally important sites. Ceremonies are performed there and medicinal plants are gathered. Among its archaeological treasures are the Lime Ridge Clovis site which was inhabited over 11,000 years ago.

 

Amazingly, at the same time the president was signing the Executive Order and budgeting for a 12 percent decrease in the Interior Department’s funding, he declared that one of his administration’s priorities was “to protect these magnificent lands, and to ensure all Americans have access to our national parks, as well as to other National Park Service sites, throughout the next century.”

 

Thankfully Sen. Dick Durban (D-IL) has introduced the America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act to protect over 9 million acres of land in Utah threatened by oil and gas development.

Seventeen other senators support the legislation. 

 

But much more will need to be done to protect America’s beloved and diverse landscape, as well as magnificent sites like Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and numerous other venues rich with Native American history, cliff houses, pictographs, ancestral remains and vistas of extraordinary range and beauty.

 

Preserving these vistas and their historical significance is a gift to future generations. They tell us who we are as a people and a country. To attack or abuse them is to bring down our Buddhas and our Palmyras. It cannot be allowed to happen.

 

America's Rural Health Care Crisis Grows

Not long ago I received a call from my doctor’s receptionist. My long-time primary care physician and partner in healthcare decision-making was retiring her practice, she said, along with two other doctors in our small town. Together they would be leaving 4,000 patients to find care in a community where most physicians are not taking new patients because they are already overwhelmed by their caseload.

I felt especially troubled by the news since I don’t go to just any doctor, even if one is available. As a proactive health consumer, I research providers carefully because I want to work with someone with proven competence, a compassionate heart, and a philosophy of primary health care that supports my own. Finding a doc like that is not easy. It’s especially challenging when there are too few physicians available.

I also realized that I had become part of the troubling landscape of rural health care. I was suddenly caught up in a picture represented by facts and statistics like these: Disparities in access to healthcare for people who live in rural areas of America continue to widen. Recruiting physicians willing to work in isolated areas has also become more difficult, and is not helped by Donald Trump’s plans with respect to work visas and travel bans. Rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate. In the past six years, 80 of them have closed and if the rate of closures holds, 25 percent of rural hospitals are predicted to close in less than a decade.

The number of doctors per 100,000 residents is 40 in rural areas compared to 53 in urban environments. That’s not counting specialists, where the comparison is 30 to 263. More than half of our counties have no practicing psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker while opioid-related addictions and overdoses are disproportionately higher in rural areas.

In addition, America’s rural population is older, makes less money, smokes more, is generally less healthy, and uses Medicaid more frequently.  Diabetes and coronary heart disease are more prevalent in rural areas and the death rates for rural white women have increased as much as 30 percent in recent years, reversing previous trends.

Studies published in the British Medical Journal recently revealed a severe lack of resources at rural hospitals, sparse staffing and limited access to specialist consultations and diagnostic tools. An attempt to reduce emergency department admissions for cost-cutting is also putting patients at risk.

The situation is complex and challenging due to economic factors, social differences, educational shortcomings, lack of understanding and political will among legislators, and the isolation of living in remote areas, according to the National Rural Health Association.

Some health care analysts and managers advocate for increased use of technology to help solve the growing problems in rural health care delivery, arguing that while technology won’t solve all the problems, it can make a discernable difference. For example, the Institute of Medicine believes that telemedicine can allow rural hospitals to “cut down on the time it takes rural patients to receive care, particularly specialty care.”

That’s all well and good, perhaps, when it comes to hospitals reducing costs and meeting their other needs. But where does it leave me, and other rural patients, when we’re sitting in our johnnies waiting to (literally) see our doctors?  Where is the comforting face-to-face communication and the physical observation so vital to a clinician’s assessment of a patient’s condition and emotional state? Where is the Q&A necessary for shared decision-making? I once left a practice because my doctor, who had previously looked me in the eye when we talked, listened carefully to what I said, and talked to me like a peer, suddenly couldn’t get his face out of his computer screen long enough to greet me when I entered the room.

As I search for a new doctor – the right doctor – in the coming days, I recognize that like many others, I have a big challenge ahead. For me that challenge goes beyond numbers - something the profession includes in discussions of “accessibility.” It involves trust, proven skills, two-way communication - often around intimate issues or possible critical life decisions - and mutual respect.

Such a partnership for health is not easy to find no matter where one lives. In rural America, it is becoming even more difficult. Patience and perseverance in selecting, hopefully, from a crop of good new physicians, may be just what the doctor – and this community -need to order.

 

Immigrants, Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Myths of Migration

When I was a child, I thought everyone was a first generation American like me. I couldn’t believe it when friends said their parents and grandparents were born here. All of my maternal and paternal family – parents, aunts, uncles and their parents – emigrated to the United States and Canada to flee persecution as Jews in Russia. That history is, in part, why stories of refugees and immigrants move me mightily, as they did in the recent book, The New Odyssey: The Story of the 21st Century Refugee Crisis, by Patrick Kingsley.

It’s been widely said that unless we are Native American, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants here in the U.S. What isn’t emphasized enough perhaps is the crucial role immigration has played in the story of America.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), immigrants account for 47 percent of the increase in the workforce in this country over the past ten years. They fill important places in both fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy and contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits. Further, they boost the working age population and contribute notably to technological progress as well as to filling jobs regarded by domestic workers as unappealing or lacking career prospects. It should be clear from such research that most immigrants don’t come here seeking social benefits; they come to find work so they can improve the lives of their families.

A recent study using 2014 data conducted by the New American Economy, revealed that immigrant workers earned nearly $655 million and contributed one in every 29 tax dollars to the state. They paid almost $86 million in social security and Medicare taxes (even though they don’t receive Medicare benefits), and then contributed to the U.S. economy for housing, food, and other basic needs. Clearly, it is a “myth that immigrants simply drain public coffers,” as Michelle Chen put it in The Nation last year.

Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are displaced persons who are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, as my grandparents and parents did. They are requesting sanctuary individually, unlike refugees who are invited and resettled by the U.S. Department of State after a prolonged process of vetting and judicial review.

A myth about refugees is that once they are resettled, crime rates go up. Not true. For example, Decatur, Georgia took in 6600 refugees from countries like Burma and Iraq between 2006 and 2015. During that period, violent crime rates went down by over 62 percent and property crime went down by nine percent. These FBI statistics are similar to those of most other large and small cities.  Further, according to a CNN report, “no person accepted into the United States as a refugee, Syrian or otherwise, has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up systematic procedures for accepting refugees into the United States.”

Given the data, and the reality of life for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, it is deeply sad that U.S. immigration policy is being driven by fear, stereotyping and falsehoods. The stigma of ‘criminality’ ascribed to people who have suffered in unimaginable ways is not only unfortunate and unfair, it is wrong. Recent ICE actions, and the threat of more border patrols, national guard units and police being coopted into roundup and arrests is irrational, alarming and counterproductive.

About 44 million foreign-born people now live in the U.S. Something like 33 million of them are lawful immigrants, including naturalized citizens, green card holders, students and workers, like the doctors from abroad who came to practice in underserved areas but were recently turned away during the Muslim Ban. Of the other 11 million, three-fifths entered the country without proper documents; the other two-fifths simply overstayed their visas.

Among the people who came to this country one way or another and live here are Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur “Genius” Awardees, and founders of large companies. Many of them now say they feel discriminated against because of their religion or country of origin.  Some are fearful. As a New York Times editorial put it, “They await the fists pounding on the door, the agents in black, the cuffs, the van ride, the cell.”

That’s no way for anyone to live, especially in a country that considers itself “exceptional” for its principles of religious and political freedom. A recent Senate resolution stated that “the United States should remain a global leader in welcoming and providing refuge to refugees and asylum seekers and that no person should be banned from entering the United States because of their nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender.”

Is that really so hard for the so-called leaders of the free world to agree upon?

The Power of Women's Truthtelling

                                                        

“What would happen if just one woman told the truth about her life?” poet Muriel Rukeyser asked as Second Wave feminism was finding its feet. Her answer? “The world would split apart.”

Rekeyeser understood how powerful women’s life stories were. She knew that wrapped in those stories lay a reality that represented the underpinnings of male-dominated institutional cultures, whether from the marketplace, the academy, or the Church. She also knew that if women could give voice to that reality they would help to expose those patriarchal cultures and perhaps even change them.

The history of women’s courageous truthtelling is long and instructive. From their diaries, journals, letters, autobiographies, poetry, books and a collection of writings dating as far back as Egyptian tomb inscriptions circa 2300 B.C., women have been writing in ways that Plato later called “passionately direct.”

Sixteenth century St. Teresa wrote a brutally honest book called “Life” and 17th century Alice Thornton described her everyday life with notable emotion. The 20th century saw an explosion of uninhibited, political writing from women like Ida B. Wells, Emma Goldman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and others who asserted themselves effectively through expressions of their personal power.

Fast forward now to 21st century social media and other platforms, and to 2017, and think about what happened to Bill O’Reilly. And make no mistake about it. It wasn’t just the withdrawal of sponsorship by major companies from The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox network that brought Mr. O’Reilly down. It was women telling their stories, women supporting them, women advocating for them, and feminist legal experts like Lisa Bloom.

Without truth-telling women exposing the institutional culture of sexual harassment at Fox, the sponsors never would have ended their sponsorship. Sure, the power of the purse was a driving force, and it’s fine to acknowledge that. But let’s also acknowledge that women consumers exerted pressure on Fox’s sponsors, and most importantly that the impact of women telling their stories was hugely important and deeply powerful in effecting O’Reilly’s disgraced departure.

The media either overlooked or downplayed this point. For example, the iconic conservative lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, told CNN with absolute certainty that women coming forward didn’t account for the network’s decision. It was O’Reilly breathing hard into a taped phone call that did it. Another male guest agreed with him as he repeated the claim that it was the advertisers who finally got to the network.

Attorney Lisa Bloom, to her credit, was quick to point out that it was “the effort by a group of women who day after day after day were calling in complaints, who were going on TV despite their fear, who were putting the public pressure on, who were going to the advertisers,” she fumed. “Maybe that’s what happened! I want these women to get credit.”

Wendy Walsh, the woman who brought her case to Bloom and agreed to go public with it – not for any financial compensation but so that “other women and [her] daughters wouldn’t have to go through similar experiences,” added that while advertisers pulled their support from O’Reilly’ show, they did it “because they care about their women employees and they care about their women consumers. It was girl power.”

What happened at Fox clearly doesn’t suddenly end the anti-woman culture at the network that paid $13 million to five women to settle their cases of sexual harassment and gave O’Reilly a golden handshake of $25 million. This should tell you all you need to know about how rampant the problem is at Fox News: 21st Century Fox has made payouts related to sexual harassment allegations at Fox News totaling over $85 million, the majority of which was paid to men ousted from the network because of harassment allegations.

Clearly, sexual harassment cultures still prevail and ending them will not be easy, as we know from our recent election and current political landscape. But because of the legacy of women truthtellers, and the courage of the growing number of women coming forward to speak truth to power, at least now when we ask, “What would happen if women told the truth about their lives?” the answer can include the fact that at least some sexual predators will get busted.

I think we owe the women who have begun, hopefully, to change the landscape in which we live, at least a little recognition for that, and a very big thank you.

Stunning Signs of Anti-Semitism in the Trump White House

By now it should be perfectly clear that, despite having a Jewish son-in-law for whom his daughter Ivanka converted, and three Jewish grandchildren, Donald Trump has a real problem with Jews and Jewish history.

He first revealed his distaste for all things Jewish when he released a notorious Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that didn’t even mention Jews, although he did manage to say the Trump team grieved for “all of those who suffered.”

And of course, he brought Steve Bannon into the White House, a man who openly abhors Jews and opened the floodgates of racism, white nationalism and anti-Semitism in America - along with his protégé Stephen Miller, who was photographed signaling white supremacists before being removed from public view for his vitriol.

Most recently, Trump managed to offend Jews again when the White House posted a ridiculous and insulting picture of what they called a Passover Seder.  It looked more like a casting call for Lubavitch Jews from Brooklyn.  And where were Melania and Donald? Where were the children and grandchildren? The staff? Personal friends?

Seder, one of Judaism’s most sacred holidays, is a time of tradition. It’s a time when family and friends gather to tell the story of the Exodus, and to remember Jewish oppression along with all people who suffer exile, solitude, and sadness. It is a time of renewal as we welcome the beauty of spring. It is a time of special foods and storytelling and warmth, not a time to sit at a barren table void of a host.

The tradition of Seder goes back many years at the White House and when properly done, it looks like this: [photo of Obama Seder dinner removed]

For further evidence that all is not well for Jews at the White House, fast forward to Sean Spicer trying to apologize for his hideous remarks about the use of gas to kill people.

“I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison.”

No, Mr. Press Secretary, it was not simply an insensitive reference to the Holocaust. It was a disgusting, despicable thing to say that Adolf Hitler was better than Syria’s dictator, because he “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.,” on his own people.

It was also grossly and historically inaccurate. To be clear: Hitler used Zyklon B in gas chambers at Nazi concentration camps, killing millions of people, many of them German, and most of them Jews. Sarin gas was discovered and weaponized by Nazi scientists.

No one serving in high office and representing the president of the United States, least of all someone employed to provide honest, accurate information and assumed to know the basic facts of history, should be allowed to remain in his post because he mustered an apology for his stupidity and painfully poor taste.

There can be no doubt about sentiments regarding Jews coming from a White House that refers to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.”  No doubt at all when advisors include people like Sebastian Gorka, whose father was openly aligned with the Nazi Party, or Steve Bannon, accused of anti-Semitism by his ex-wife, who testified under oath that Bannon didn’t want his children to attend schools with Jews, whom he openly and frequently stereotypes. No doubt when acts of anti-Jewish vandalism go unnoticed by the nation’s so-called leader.

The fact is that the White House is the People’s House, as wiser, kinder presidents have understood. It is meant to be a place where American values and traditions are enshrined, or at least symbolized, and where the people who live and work there are worthy of our trust and respect. It is time we restored that House to its rightful place in American history. That means that it’s time for the present occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the people they insist on surrounding themselves with, to leave.

Author Note: Several photos that make this piece stronger were disallowed - for an emailed copy: eclift@vermontel.net

The Horror of Detention Centers is Making a Comeback

I can’t get the pictures out of my mind. The barracks. The women with babies and bundles disembarking from buses. The guards. The packed dining halls and inadequate living quarters. The sons in US military uniform.

They are, of course, the pictures of Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar and other internment camps during WWII, many of them now on display at the Smithsonian’s national Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Seventy-five years ago, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, about 120,000 of them – men, women, children, elders - were held in ten camps across the country where appalling conditions prevailed. Toilets lacked privacy, barracks were filled with rows of cots, guards with rifles patrolled from towers, barbed wire surrounded the desolate landscape, and fear was ever-present.

“It was like Nazi Germany concentration camps,” recalls a woman who was interned at the age of seven. “We were constantly under threat if we went near the barbed wire fences.”

Today many people are rightly worried that the growth of “detention centers” to be run by large private corporations that profit hugely from operating such centers will be used as holding camps for immigrants awaiting deportation. They have every reason to be afraid following Donald Trump’s recent executive order and his promise to remove “bad duded” quickly and completely.

And anyone who thinks the recent roundups aimed at capturing undocumented immigrants aren’t an escalation needs to think again.  Recently, passengers on a domestic flight arriving at JFK airport in New York were not allowed to disembark before showing their IDs.  An undocumented immigrant diagnosed with a brain tumor while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody was forcibly returned to a detention center from her hospital bed in Texas. She told reporters her ankles and wrists were tied as she complained of severe pain. Neither her family nor her lawyers were allowed to communicate with her. It’s pure Kafka.

According to the ACLU, the U.S. immigration detention system locks hundreds of thousands of immigrants away unnecessarily every year. These detainees are subject to brutal and inhumane conditions, confined sometimes indefinitely, at huge costs to American taxpayers. Mothers and children are torn from each other in many cases. No regulations or enforceable standards are in place so that medical and mental health treatment, access to telephones, access to legal services, and even to religious services are denied. And many of the people trapped in such Draconian settings are lawful permanent residents and asylum seekers.

Such detention centers have grown exponentially in recent years and more are planned as ICE turns to contracted facilities such as for-profit prison corporations. These facilities operate outside the purview of public oversight and accountability and they have limited, often untrained staff, which translates into poor care and treatment of inmates, in order to maximize shareholder returns. They have, ACLU says, “a particularly grisly record of detainee abuse and neglect.”

Human Rights Watch Reports that indefinite detention of asylum-seeking mothers and their children takes a severe psychological toll. Many of them report serious depression, suicidal thoughts, and other symptoms of major psychological trauma.

Detention of innocent people is not new in America as we know from the Japanese American experience. In another example, after 9-11, several innocent men who had overstayed their visas were detained, abused, and otherwise badly mistreated because they were suspected of being radical Muslims. Several of these men who had been detained for months or in some cases years sued the Justice Department’s Attorney General (John Ashcroft), the FBI director (Robert Mueller) and several other government officials for violation of their fourth amendment rights. In January of this year, their case reached the Supreme Court. With Justices Kagan and Sotomayor having to recuse themselves, only six justices, four of them right-leaning, will decide the case.

It’s a case that brings together the Muslim Ban, the increasingly brutal roundups of immigrants and asylum-seekers, the issues surrounding private “detention” centers, and the role of the courts in addressing and ending law enforcement transgressions, especially in a Trump administration. Let’s hope the courts, at every level, get it right. The very future of our nation, which prides itself on being dedicated to freedom and human rights, depends on nothing more vital than a sound, well-reasoned, compassionate and moral judicial system.

 

 

Stay Awake, America! We're Heading for the Abyss

Right after the election of Donald Trump, I was anxious in a cerebral way.  I experienced a level of anxiety, disbelief and grave concern that can be energizing and I jumped into the resistance movement full steam ahead, full of adrenalin produced by stress.

Now I find myself in a state of deep, visceral anxiety. I am truly afraid – of lots of things. Anti-Semitism and white supremacists. A Muslim ban and immigration policy that have barely begun to reveal their terrible consequences.  The threat of being too late to save the planet from the effects of climate change and global warming. The threat of nuclear war. The idea of millions of people dying for lack of health care. The demise of public education and necessary regulation. The disasters waiting to happen if we don’t fix our failing roads, rails, bridges, tunnels and airports.

But even worse than that, I’m afraid because I can see truth dying in this country and because I think the freedoms we take for granted will be next. I’m afraid because conspiracy theories designed to destroy our trust in the institutions that have existed to keep us “free and the brave” are giving way to an alternative reality. I’m afraid because we are rapidly descending into a state of nationalism in which a few madmen will kill our system of checks and balances, ignore our justice system, attempt mind control by denying media legitimacy as they spew lies that people begin to believe because they are repeated so often.

Think that’s going too far?  Why, then, have agencies been rapidly dismantled, their senior staff fired, so that no institutional memory or proven expertise prevails? Why have government agencies been silenced? Why has critical information been removed from agency websites? Why are Alt-Right media being credentialed while mainstream reporters are denigrated and denied access? Why are so many clearly corrupt, unqualified people now in charge?

When all these egregious, undemocratic actions began occurring, we cautioned against “normalizing” what was happening. Now we are beginning to hear a new word: “Destabilization.”  That’s a serious word, one that we can no longer ignore or make nervous jokes about.  Our collective fear is not subliminal now; it has grown into overt, overwhelming anxiety because we are staring at the real possibility of witnessing the demise of democracy in the face of rising fascism. 

The idea that our future is in the hands of a few deranged demagogues is nothing short of terrifying.  Our president is not the leader of the free world; he is the emperor with no clothes and he is madly marching toward the abyss, dragging us behind him.

So, my question is: Why are we so powerless to stop him and his cronies? How do we move beyond hand-wringing and bearing witness before it’s too late? (And there comes a time when it is too late.) We are, of course, up against a Congress largely devoid of compassion and intellect, but we must bring enough pressure to bear on our legislators that we deny the encroaching evil. It falls to us, concerned constituents, to ensure such evil does not prevail. It falls to us to see that America does not die for lack of goodness.

As Rabbi Hillel once asked, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

Every day social media and mainstream news reveal more Russian collusion, more heinous decisions emanating from the West Wing asylum, more lies, more Draconian travesties from Donald Trump’s henchmen. They simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Nor can the Mar a Lago madman in the attic. We cannot think that reason will ultimately rid us of his scourge . Reason alone will not stem the tidal wave of his hate or rid us of his putrid swamp, full of predators snapping at our feet.

We have heard already the language of “purges” and women as “hosts,” both terms reeking of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We’ve seen good people, like TSA agents, airline personnel and border patrol, do bad things. We’ve seen bad people do bad things, like deface synagogues, burn down mosques, march in favor of killing people or forcing them to abandon the country of their birth.

We can’t wait for a dramatic disaster to understand that the time has come to reclaim our country and to take back its values. We can’t allow ourselves to be sucked into the irreversible vortex of Bannon’s nationalism or Putin’s agenda or Trump’s narcissism.

And so I ask again, as Rabbi Hillel did: If not now, when? If not us, who? And if not now, and not us, will we be forced, sooner than we think, to ask how it happened?

The Look of Fear on the Human Faces of Misogyny

 

We hear the word “misogyny” so often in the litany of worries about a Trump administration that, like other words in that long list, it begins to lose meaning – although the silencing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was a great reminder. Behind that word, however, are the faces – and lives - of women, both inside the U.S. and further afield. We need to hear their stories, in their own voices, to remind us what’s at stake for women when a government is headed by a man who gloated over his own acts of sexual assault and called women “pigs.”

 

Writer Jia Tolentino recalled recently that “during the Obama Administration, I had begun to feel, thrillingly, like a person. My freedom no longer seemed a miraculous historical accident; it was my birthright.” She experienced her loss as a “woman-specific disaster,” captured in the words of a woman at a protest in New York the night after the election. “I’m afraid that a man will hurt me in public, and everyone around will think it’s okay.”

 

Women serving in the military and female veterans are feeling the potential threat of misogyny in particular ways that call for empathy. “Many of my close friends are survivors of sexual abuse in the military,” says advocate and filmmaker Patricia Lee Stotter. “Both men and women who have been raped and sexually harassed during the years they served their country are now enraged and despairing. It’s understandable. When Mr. Trump was asked about the problem of rape in the military, he said, ‘What did these geniuses expect when they put men and women together?’”

 

It’s a horrible trigger,” Stotter continues. “and it’s re-traumatizing survivors of military sexual assault. Their cases were adjudicated within the chain of command which was another act of violence. … For survivors of military sexual assault, the idea of a predator being commander in chief is devastatingly reminiscent of their experiences in the military.”

 

Speaking on the promise of anonymity, one woman veteran who suffered military sexual assault, told me that “women feel unsafe because Trump’s rhetoric is what many of us experienced in the military. I’m triggered. I can’t sleep. I’m having trouble focusing. I am nearly blind with anger. I feel unsafe.” Corroborating Stotter’s concern, she continued, “Both women and men that are assaulted while serving in the military may have very limited faith in the chain of command when the Commander in Chief normalizes abusive behavior. And otherwise decent people may be swept up in either participating in normalizing, or failing to oppose assaults or harassment fueled by the Trump Effect. When abuse is given a green light, nobody is safe.”

 

Here is a voice from abroad that illustrates how far-reaching the Trump Effect is. Annie Viets, an American business professor teaching at a private Saudi university, sent me these remarks. “I have heard a number of comments since the election from students who want to get their masters degrees abroad. In the past, the first choice of many of them has been the U.S. But now some students who were thinking of using their scholarships to study there are looking toward Europe. They say, ‘It doesn’t look like we’re going to be welcome in the United States anymore.’” And Saudi Arabia isn’t even on the restricted list, so far.

 

What make this so sad Viets says is that, “When students return from the U.S., they are forever friends of our country. Their experiences are inevitably positive and they develop a deep appreciation for our freedoms and way of life. Welcoming young people from around the world to study is essential if we want to spread the value of democratic principles peacefully. In turn, we benefit from their many lively minds and perspectives.”

 

Rula Quawas, a professor of Women’s Studies and Literature at the University of Jordan in Amman, says her students are afraid of coming to the U.S. on scholarships too. However, she wrote me, “the fear will not stop them from coming to be educated. I agree with them. This is the time when we should stop being afraid. We must be vigilant and push back when the need arises. But we are not going to let one man or his administration hijack our dreams. We are entitled to a good life and a good education.”

 

In this spirit, an American woman who asked not to be identified told me, “The venom being spewed toward women is stunning and terrifying. As a woman and an activist, I feel afraid too. I don’t think a lot of people – even the good men – are getting the level of trauma and threat women feel. But women are mobilizing and we will keep up our acts of resistance, whether they are marches, strikes, donations, letters to Congress and news outlets, or speaking out in public forums. We will support each other as we strike back in solidarity. We must remember to share our stories, pace ourselves for a long battle, marshal our resources, laugh when we can, feel the warmth of family and friends, honor what we have achieved, and trust in our own resilience.”

 

Writer Susan Chiva puts it this way: “The overall struggle is to stay relevant in the age of Trump.”

Take note, Mr. Trump: We can – and we will.

 

Marching with the Multitudes to Make the World Sane Again

MARCHING WITH THE MULTITUDES TO MAKE THE WORLD SANE AGAIN

As the old adage goes, “you had to be there.” There could have been lots of places in the U.S. and abroad because women’s marches took place the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration on every continent and in at least 700 locations around the world.   The turnout and global solidarity was unprecedented, and deeply important: It signaled a turning point and a resistance movement that could well save democracy here and internationally.

The idea for a march began a week after Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency, not by popular vote but because of an antiquated Electoral College that has prevailed since the 18th century. A Hawaiian woman named Teresa Shook thought there ought to be a march so she posted the idea on Facebook. The post went viral – and helped make history as it mounted global resistance toward all that a Trump administration represented.

The global marches weren’t just a rebuke of Donald Trump’s agenda or tactics, nor were they a call solely for women’s rights, a point largely missed. In addition to women’s rights as human rights, the marches focused on issues like immigration, climate change, healthcare, economic stability, LBGT rights, education, political representation and safety. As one New Zealand organizer put it, “This movement is about inclusion and solidarity [after an election that] insulted, demonized, and threatened many people. … The marches are an expression of the millions of people around the world who stand up for those who were vilified during [Trump’s] campaign.”

As soon as I learned about the DC march, I knew I had to be there along with the anticipated 250,000 people expected. So did my daughter. We drove to DC from New York. At a stop on the New Jersey Turnpike it was clear that everyone there was on their way too. “Pussy Wagon” one van said. “Nasty Women” and “2017 March on Washington” were scrawled on other vehicles. People high-fived each other and gave thumbs up as they smiled broadly at each other. Traffic was terrible but no one got upset. Instead, they waved at each other from their cars and waited patiently for their turn to pass through toll booths. It was like a block party on an Interstate.

On the morning of the march the excitement for us began as we headed toward the mall amidst a growing stream of knitted pink hats. The atmosphere was one of energy, community, and hope. On the mall, prolific signs, some serious and many hilarious, gave rise to cheers and photo opps.  “We Shall Overcomb!”  “You can’t comb over climate change!” “I wish my uterus shot bullets so it wouldn’t be regulated!” “Exercise Respect or Expect Resistance!”  “Immigrants Make America Great!” “I can’t believe I Have to March Again about this stuff!” “I’ve seen better cabinets at IKEA!” “Tinkler, Traitor, Groper, Spy.”

 People continued arriving, most on foot, some with walkers or in wheelchairs, little ones in strollers, elders in bicycle rickshaws. As more and more people converged, I was reminded of Gandhi’s Salt March in India. Then as now, people flowed like rivers joining a swelling sea of humanity.  The crowd grew larger and larger. Strangers hugged each other, laughed together, shared knowing smiles, all of us touched by the kindness and courtesy of the crowd. It felt like one big family reunion.  

Many of us gravitated toward 14th Street where the march would continue from Independence Avenue. Soon we heard the sounds and saw the banners. Then they came – and came and came and came -- for hours. By this time an estimated million-plus people were either marching or cheering marchers on. Periodically a chant would rise up or a banner would elicit a collective roar that swept across the city like a tsunami sound wave. 

“I hope Trump is looking out his window at the White House and takes a hint,” a man who had come with his young daughter told me. “It’s hard enough to be a teacher, but now?” a young woman said. An older woman stood silently holding a sign that said simply, “Nyet,” the Washington Monument looming large behind her.

At about 3.30 in the afternoon people who’d been on their feet for hours began peeling away from the continuing parade to make their way toward Pennsylvania Avenue where they hoped the march would pass by the White House. Overwhelmed security personnel began trying to clear a path in the road, red lights flashing and sirens wailing. But the street filled again with a river of people after they’d passed. Then police blocked access to Pennsylvania Avenue and began turning people back. Multitudes kept coming, unaware that they would be caught in a morass of marchers. Still, calm prevailed despite the crush of bodies.

At this point, being claustrophobic, the pangs of panic began rising in my chest. My daughter told a benevolent but seemingly befuddled officer that she had to get me out of there, and he allowed us to cross a barrier so that we could move toward the Ellipse and Constitution Avenue.  From there we walked until we could hail a cab back to our friend’s house.

The entire day, in a word, was awesome. One of the most amazing things about the largest protest march in U.S. history is that not one arrest occurred and no one was hurt despite the huge turnout. In place of anxiety or unanticipated consequences a palpable spirit of friendship, solidarity, commitment and hope prevailed. Even when the density of the crowd became potentially alarming and an organizer instructed participants through a megaphone not to move, calm prevailed as participants waited patiently for directions on how to leave.

After it was all over we heard some wonderful stories. A woman from Vermont said that when her bus made a pit stop at a Walmart’s en route to Washington, the workers applauded.  At the end of the march, a DC Metro driver asked over the loudspeaker, “You ladies have a good day?” A roar of approval went up. Then the driver said, “Thank you for what you are doing for all of us.”  And a Southwest Airlines jet had all its interior lights shining pink. We also learned that all the discarded signs from the march would find their way to various museums, this being such an historic event.

My daughter and I had marched together for reproductive rights in 1989. Here we were nearly thirty years later doing it again. I asked her what she thought the real significance of the day was. She hesitated thoughtfully and then said, “Progressivism is the future. Young people know it and want to build and sustain that future. Historically, many others around the world know from experience – or from older relatives – what it’s like to live under dictatorships or autocracies.  They look at the US as a beacon of hope, a symbol of democracy and freedom.  The US still promises this vision. It’s part of what they were marching for, what we were all marching for. We can’t let go of that.”

I think she hit the nail on the head. Somewhere between the rhetoric and the reality of America resides the hope she spoke of. The multitude of marchers we were part of still believe in that hope and promise, even as they fear it is slipping away.

That’s why we were all there: We can’t, and we won’t, let go of that hope. That was the promise we made to each other, and to the world, on the day of the marches.   It’s one we will not break, which is why the marches continue even as I write this piece. We are resilient, resourceful and determined. As women said in Beijing at the 1995 4th World Conference of Women: “We are here. We are there. We are everywhere. And we are not going away!” We are your mothers, your wives, your sisters, your daughters, your granddaughters, your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues. We roar and we vote. And we are not going back.

Note: Unable to post pictures with this piece, not sure why!

Resisting Recklessness in the New Administration

I get many comments when I publish commentary or post an opinion piece to a blog. It’s great to hear from readers, especially when they are validating fans who counter the crueler responses I’m now used to receiving. People write  with thoughtful agreement and with shocking vitriol. But no one has asked me for help – until now.

Recently a reader wrote via my website after reading a column in which I made the case that we need to be vigilant and active in the unprecedented age of a tweeting president who seems not to grasp the gravity of his new position, or to understand that good governance requires not only in-depth knowledge of complex issues, but frequent briefings, good relations with Congress and the media, and more than 40 character communiques. It also includes trusting experienced advisers and proven experts.

The reader wanted to know how she “could make a difference” in the troubling times we are facing. I thought about her important question and then sent several suggestions. In a “thank you” email, she said, “You should make this a column.”  So I thought more, did some research, and came up with these suggestions for resisting the dangerous recklessness that Mr. Trump continues to exhibit.

My first piece of advice is to check out the guide “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” written by volunteers, all of whom have worked as congressional staffers. (www.IndivisibleGuide.com)  These people know what they’re talking about. They drew many of the lessons they share from the success of the Tea Party, when activists “took on a popular president with a mandate for change and a supermajority in Congress.” They point out that the Tea Party came out of nowhere quickly, organized locally and then convinced their members of Congress to reject the Obama agenda. “Their ideas were wrong, cruel, and tinged with racism – and they won,” the authors of the guide note. They believe, rightly so I think (along with Bernie Sanders), that we need to build a similar grassroots resistance movement to defeat Mr. Trump’s dangerous agenda. And it’s already happening.

The Women’s March in Washington, DC is a great example. As I write this, at least 250,000 women and men are expected to be in the nation’s capital the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, to remind him and the Republican Congress that we refuse to go backwards when it comes to women’s rights, human rights, gay rights, voting rights, privacy, affordable health care, and more.  The March wasn’t organized by large, notable organizations like NOW or NARAL Pro-Choice, or Planned Parenthood, all of whom will be in attendance. It was launched by a few women who felt they had to do something. So they put up a Facebook page inviting people to come to DC for the march, and the next morning found that 10,000 people had signed on. It grew from there and numerous cities across the country will be holding similar, simultaneous marches.

Here’s another example. In record time, activists all over shut down the Republican attempt to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics. Phones on Capitol Hill rang off the hook, petitions flew, threats of being voted out of office abounded, and within two hours of announcing the changes the right wing wanted to establish, they had recanted. Pure people power!

Those accounts are meant to inspire. These ideas call for action.

Hold the media’s feet to the fire.  When CNN, MSNBC or mainstream media don't cover an important issue with sufficient depth or urgency, or if they don’t insist on getting their questions answered specifically, call them on it. If they give too much time to the bad guys or normalize Mr. Trump's madness, call them – literally! As MSNBC host Chris Hayes has said, “The media is about to face a litmus test to see which reporters have the guts to scrutinize Trump, to expose his scandals, and to call out his lies for being lies…” He also suggests “posting their cowardice on Facebook.”

Write or call your Congresspeople, whether they are left or right. They listen to how constituents feel and they count calls to use numbers in their arguments on the floor. Remember, members of Congress want to get re-elected so they want their voters to like them! Also, localize your response to a particular piece of legislation. Remind them that Johnny (a real person) who lives in your town is likely to die if he is denied a medication or treatment. Tell them that you really don’t want to have to go to the press with the story. Indivisible advises that if you visit your Senator or Representative in DC or in their home office, prepare questions ahead of time, record and/or videotape the visit, and send a report to local media. If your Congressional representatives won’t see you, tell the press.

 Write letters to newspaper editors specific to something that has broken in the news or is being proposed. Big or small issues, big or small papers. Use what is known as “creative epidemiology” in health communications: Instead of saying a million people will suffer, say how many jumbo jets those people would fill. Be sure to follow the paper’s guidelines.

Sign petitions – online or otherwise. They often make a difference, especially if they come from a large, respected group like MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood, or Human Rights Watch. Share them on social media. Also, speak up and out on issues that matter to you, whether with a friend or in appropriate gatherings. Be armed with facts, stay calm and polite!  Then ask everyone you know to do the same!                

“Protecting our values, our neighbors, and ourselves will require mounting resistance to the Trump Agenda,” the Indivisible Guide says. “Together, we have the power to win [like the Tea Party did].” I would add that this is no time for complacency, no time to normalize our threatened future, no time to be too tired to act. It is time to resist.              

When Acceptance is Not a Virtue

“We should give him a chance.”  “Once he’s in office things may well change.” “America prides itself on ensuring a smooth, orderly transition.”

No! No, no, no!

You don't give plutocrats, oligarchs, or insipient fascists a chance. They don’t change when they win, they only grow bolder, tell more lies, expand and tighten control, find more enemies to attack. That’s why we must call them out every chance we get, right from the get-go!

It’s only mid-December as I write this commentary and there's already enough going on in the so-called presidential transition phase that speaks volumes about what's happening to our democracy, a system of government that is inherently fragile but which we’ve come to assume is immune to dangerous mutation or worse.

What will it take to stop the madness from overcoming us? Why are we being so passive in the face of impending disaster?

As a Facebook friend of mine posted recently, “What would be happening right now if Donald Trump had won more than three million more votes than Hillary Clinton, but Clinton prevailed in the Electoral College? Would he, his supporters, and prominent Republicans have said, “We don’t like the outcome, but that’s how the system works”? Of course not. They’d be screaming bloody murder, they’d be preparing articles of impeachment to file on the day Clinton was inaugurated, they’d be charging that the vote was stolen, they’d be filing lawsuits to overturn (not just recount) the results in every swing state, and Trump would be telling his supporters to use any means necessary to achieve justice.”

Let’s be clear then. It is not acceptable to ignore or diminish the potential impact of the greatest threat this country has ever faced. As Rob Reiner put it on a Sunday morning talk show, "We have a hostile foreign power that has invaded our country. This is enormous and the fact that people aren’t screaming about this, I don’t understand it.” Bombs didn’t fall, Reiner said. No buildings collapsed. “But this [Russian hack] is an invasion of that magnitude. Was Trump colluding with Russian agencies?”

It is not acceptable that the president-elect is threatening to end daily press briefings and to muzzle journalists who write things he doesn’t like. His Barbie-bimbo spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway went to far as to suggest pretty explicitly that there would be retaliation against naysayers.

It is also unacceptable for a president to own his own media company or to be a media executive, to fail to relinquish his business interests, to try to get around nepotism laws so that his children – who are supposedly going to run his not-so-blind trust – can serve as advisors. It should be unacceptable that he has never, and never will, reveal his taxes, or for that matter proper health records.

Speaking of media, it should be totally unacceptable that the mainstream media covered Hillary Clinton’s email server for months but barely touched upon the Russian hacks, or the misdeeds of the FBI director, until they could no longer be ignored. It’s appalling that they never held Donald Trump or his spokespeople’s feet to the fire, but gave him carte blanche when it came to his mass rallies (so reminiscent of those Mussolini like so much) while barely covering his opponent unless she was having a sick day.

It’s also not acceptable that the proposed Trump cabinet is mainly comprised of rich old white men who have no expertise in governance, and in some cases, have publicly vowed to eliminate the agencies they’re being tapped to run. These unqualified people have also denied such realities as climate change and have threatened programs and agencies designed to protect our environment, national parks, health care delivery as well as scientific research and public schools.

It should also be noted that Mr. Trump’s proposed cabinet has more religious bigots, and more generals, than at any other time in modern history. Conversely, it has fewer women or people of color than any administration in recent memory, and no hint of any LBGT or disabled representation.

There are many other commissions, or omissions, one can point to that make what is happening terrifying and unacceptable – among them the possible appointment of an ambassador to Israel who would undoubtedly lead to massive unrest and the growth of ISIS, if not outright war in the Mideast should he succeed in denying a two-state solution and expanding settlements.

This and many other potential disasters should remind us of Elie Wiesel’s idea that there should be an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”

So… are we going to practice acceptance until there is no longer a way out? Or are we up for some real organized resistance? For example, will we all identify as Muslim if they are forced to register? Are we prepared to launch national strikes, especially by government workers, teachers, and the like? Can women repeat the strategy of the Greek play, Lysistrata, and refuse to have sex if there is no abortion or birth control available? Do we really mean it when we say, "keep America strong!"

Did we really mean it after the Holocaust when we vowed, “Never again?”

Cuba, Castro and An Uncertain Future for a Caribbean Island with a Troubled Past

“Yo soy Fidel!” “Nos son Fidel!” “F-I-D-E-L!”

We are in Havana on the morning after Castro’s passing at age 90 and students from the University of Havana are marching up Avenida de los Presidentes, chanting what will become a familiar refrain as our route coincides with that of Fidel Castro’s funeral cortege over the next nine days.

Several days later, in the town of Sancti Spiritus, we watch from a hotel balcony as people begin assembling in the plaza at 5:00 a.m., music blaring from loudspeakers, to await the arrival of Fidel’s ashes and honor guards. At 11:00 a.m. the cortege arrives. Jeeps of army officers and other vehicles, including the flowered one carrying Fidel’s flag-draped miniature coffin in which his ashes lie, slowly circle the square. The procession stops for the singing of the national anthem, then slowly continues to the next stop. Flags wave wildly. School children and adults alike sing. Women weep. Men weep. A woman faints. A group hug comforts a group of friends.

But who was the man who inspires such devotion? The answer to that question is difficult. A complex history, the politics of reform, and economic reality come together in this island country once dominated by Spain and America and then ruled by the revolutionary Fidel Castro, challenging visitors like us to make sense of it all.

Accounts of the Cuban situation depend largely on an individual Cuban’s personal experience, political persuasion, education and class. Depending on which side of the divide individual Cubans were on at the time of Castro’s 1950s revolution, and what their experience has been since, one is subject to differing views.

Some suggest that Castro’s revolution was the product of an egotist’s ideology wrapped in the rhetoric of social change that has never been fully realized. Others talk about how bad things were in the dictator days of Batista, pointing out that Cubans now have free education, health care, social security, food and housing, arts and culture. Those benefits come at a price however. Everything in Cuba is totally controlled, from where you shop to what you eat to what information is shared on state media. In Castro’s day life was especially dicey with even more shortages than exist today.

In her 1998 book Havana Dreams about four generations of Cuban women, two of them Castro’s illegitimate daughter Alina and her mother, Wendy Gimbel paints an interesting picture of Fidel Castro and his regime. Bear in mind that she was writing when the punishing US embargo was in effect, the USSR had collapsed ending aid to Cuba, and the women she was writing about were among Havana’s elite.

At that time, Castro was seen as a “romantic adventurer,” a “ruthless cold-war villain” or a “ruthless dictator,” depending on the source. He was clearly passionate, intelligent and self-disciplined. He was also egocentric, and much like Donald Trump it seems. “He had the narcissist’s disease,” Gimbel wrote, with “the unshaken confidence that attention should be centered on him.” In her interpretation, again like Trump, Castro “expressed no sense of responsibility for Cuba’s fate, no disappointment with himself. … Sometimes Fidel seemed to live in his own reconstructions of the past; that accounted for his endless speeches, his self-absorption, his passion for his own words, their created realities.”

How interesting it would have been to see Fidel Castro and Donald Trump dance around the new relationship fostered by the Obama Administration, especially given the 140 daily flights expected to soon arrive, the massive restoration and building of new high-end hotels designed to welcome visitors with open arms, Air France’s expansion and management of Cuba’s international airports, and massive amounts of foreign investment waiting to pour into the country.

In 1959 Fidel Castro launched his still unfilled revolution in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba where he had once been a student. From there he made the 600-mile journey to Havana where he was hailed as a hero. In 2016 he made the journey in reverse, being driven from Havana to Santiago to be laid to rest. In every town and city his cortege passed through people of all ages wept and mourned.

To an outsider, it wasn’t entirely clear why. He had, of course, liberated his country and restored national pride among Cubans after 400 years of Spanish and American occupation and oppression. But he had also established a brutal regime and headed an oligarchy that has yet to realize his idealized dream of an egalitarian country prepared for life in a modern globalized world.

To ordinary Cubans, it seems, the Revolution wasn’t quite “everything” as Castro had promised. It still remains to be seen if it was sufficient to ensure Cuba’s survival in an increasingly complex and seemingly dangerous world in which nations are at odds with themselves and others.

For the extraordinary people of Cuba, whose generosity of spirit and enduring joie de vivre makes a visit special, one can only hope.