Are Democrats Poised toDo It Again?

If you’re a Democrat worried about the midterm election or simply an American worried about the country’s future come 2020, you are not alone. There is mounting consternation about how the Democratic Party will win over voters given the pressing issues before us, and a growing concern regarding how the party’s present leadership will ultimately select a viable nominee for president.

Pundits, left and right, have begun posing arguments about whether or not Democrats will again self-destruct before the November election by dividing and polarizing centrist Democrats and more progressive members of the party, which, along with Russian interference, cost us the Electoral College vote that brought us Donald Trump in 2016.

The arguments run something like this. Conservative voices, like that of John Daniel Davidson, writing in The Federalist recently, believe that “the party’s left-wing base is setting the stage for defeat.” Davidson suggests that the left isn’t taking into account the importance of the Electoral College, and he thinks that backing such ideas as single payer healthcare and renewable energy by “Sanders-esque” candidates creates “identity politics that threaten to turn what should be a successful midterm election for Democrats into an embarrassing debacle.”

Davidson refers to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young woman who won NY-14 (and NY 15 by write-in vote) as a “self-styled ‘socialist’ Democrat. There it is, that misunderstood label -- “socialist” -- which conservatives are quick to align with “European welfare states” that believe in healthcare for all, public education, safe and modern infrastructure, and criminal justice reform.

Countering conservative voices that gleefully announce the coming self-destruction of Democrats, more moderate views suggest that while Dems are shifting to the left, they are not about to self-destruct. As Sahil Kapur put it in Bloomberg Business Week, “Moderates continue to win primaries, with the ‘resistance’ avoiding the suicidal tendencies of the Tea Party.”

Kapur acknowledges that Democrats “face a rebellious activist flank that risks pulling their party to an unelectable extreme by defeating Establishment-friendly candidates,” but he seems reassured that so far, the left wing of the party hasn’t created a civil war. Progressives, he argues, “have found ways to to move the policy conversation to the left without attacking moderates.”

I’m not convinced we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. While labels like “socialist” and “progressive” are used in unnecessarily alarming ways, I don’t quite share Mr. Kapur’s optimism. I worry that we could be heading for another Democratic disaster, a concern that has less to do with policy differences than personalities, egos, and demographics.

While I agree with much of what Bernie Sanders espouses, I fear a reprisal of his divisive behavior, repetitive rhetoric, and ego-driven campaign. I believe that without Bernie – who has yet to declare himself a Democrat, or to show his own taxes - Hillary Clinton could have won the Democratic support she needed to win the election. No matter what issues one has with her, or with centrist politics, it’s hard to deny that we’d be in a far better place than we are now had she gone to the White House.

In my view, the days of Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, et al. are over.  (I think Joe Biden could lead us back to sanity with the right running mate.) These notable leaders have served us long and well and we are grateful. But it’s time for them to hand the baton over to younger, more progressive figures with demonstrated leadership skills and experience. We all have ideas about who the new leadership might include and that’s fine. What matters is that we, and the old guard, give them voice and support them in this uncertain, critical time. 

I am reminded of Beverly Sills, the opera star who had the good sense and the grace to stop singing before she lost her melodious voice. Her loyalty then was given to music, the Met, and the newcomers she mentored as they advanced their own careers.

The most important things right now, it seems to me, are new leadership, lessons learned, and policy perspectives that derive not from political posturing and ego-driven personal gain but rather from fresh vision in a time of possibly dangerous uncertainty. This is a time that calls upon leaders to speak with, and not simply for, the poor, the marginalized, the “other.” It is a time that requires a full understanding of the “intersectionality” of critical issues and an articulation of those issues that is cohesive, constructive, comprehensive, and conversant with the realities of our lives across the economic and ideological spectrum.

I firmly believe that Democratic success, not just in the voting booths but in a 21st century world, rests in grasping lessons learned throughout political history and in trusting and supporting fresh leaders who reflect our values and our interconnectedness across cultures, ethnicities, race, class, age, ability and gender within the context of our times. 

Who better to define the methods and the messages of these tenuous times than Democratic leaders who understand the goals and speak the language of Millennials, Generations X, Y, and Z than the newer generations on Capitol Hill, in state capitals, and at all levels of governance, no matter what labels they choose to identify themselves politically?

That kind of change leads not to self-destruction but offers instead new hope and possibility. As Beverly Sills might have put it, It ain’t over till the fat lady stops singing.

 

Civility and Civil Disobedience: We Need Both

In the recent uproar over civility, it was deeply frustrating to note the absence of civil disobedience in the discussions, and to see the time-honored tradition of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. being conflated with actions perceived to be rude and unkind.  It was also dangerous, and another sign of the ideology of autocracy being used to quiet resistance when government, and its officials, are doing the wrong thing.

One can argue that shouting at an agency head whose policies are vile to most Americans in a public space is nasty, or counterproductive. But it’s troubling to have that kind of action equated to the quiet, dignified way in which the Red Hen Restaurant asked Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to leave the premises because customers and staff were uncomfortable with her presence.

Civil disobedience is consistent with civility. It is non-violent and never incites harassment or foul language. It simply calls attention to and peacefully protests uncivil and unjust acts and laws. As former Vice President Al Gore noted, “Civil disobedience has an honorable history, and when the urgency and moral clarity cross a certain threshold, … civil disobedience is quite understandable, and it has a role to play.”

Peaceful resistance against oppressive regimes is a characteristic of civil disobedience. It’s meant to confront, expose and end an unruly system being imposed on citizens by the powerful in positions of authority.  It is, as Henry David Thoreau said, “the true foundation of liberty.” Gandhi knew that when he led the famous Salt March in India and Martin Luther King knew it when he and others led the civil rights movement with marches and sit-ins.

The demonstrations against the actions and policies of the Trump Administration, from the historic Women’s March of January 2017 to the protests demanding sensible gun legislation, an end to the Muslim Ban, and now an end to the tragedy of incarcerated children are all examples of legitimate, desperately needed, and constitutionally protected acts of civil disobedience.

All of these actions were carried out by peaceful protesters, as was the protest in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017, when 32-year old Heather Heyer was killed by white supremacists marching and shouting slogans like ““Jews will not replace us!” Where was the call for civility then? Where is it after any of Mr. Trump’s rallies when he incites vicious verbiage and vile acts?

Where was it when Mr. Trump mimicked a disabled man, or insulted a Gold Star family, or bragged about grabbing women by their genitals?  Where is the demand for civility when Muslims are harassed or attacked or when swastikas are painted on Jewish schools, synagogues and gravestones? Where is the call for civil behavior when police are called because a black person is driving or shopping or simply trying to go home?  What has happened to civil behavior at the borders and in the detention centers (jails) when workers are instructed not to touch or comfort weeping, terrified children?

Why did no talking heads on television or in the mainstream print media insist that civil disobedience be part of the conversation? Surely, at the very least, a debate about where the line should be drawn between civility and appropriate civil disobedience was called for.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.”  Now is the time, if ever there was one in this country, to do the right thing, and that includes peacefully protesting evil proclamations, policies and politicians. Autocrats and dictators thrive when they can suppress civil discourse and action, whether by fear and intimidation, trivialization, objectification, or ultimately arrest, all of which have already occurred in “the land of the free and the brave.”

The first step toward oppression and irreversible autocratic control often appears as attempts to silence protest and attack the press. It begins by calling others vermin and labeling protesters and reporters “uncivil” – all while behaving in the most odious and uncivil ways possible. It’s a cruel irony, and a calculated one. And it must be stopped dead in its tracks.

That’s why we must continue to resist by demonstrating peacefully, in the face of others’ terrifying and terrible behavior, the solidarity and strength of good, kind people whose behavior can only be called brave, decent, respectful, and totally representative of civility.   

 

Another Moral Giant Follows the Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It wasn’t the first time the Reverend Dr. William Barber, a pastor in Goldsboro, No. Carolina and co-founder of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, landed in jail, but it was the first time in Washington, DC.  He was arrested in June while leading a peaceful protest in front of the Supreme Court advocating for the protection of Americans’ voting rights. It was one among many of the organization’s “Moral Mondays,” in which people around the country  were advocating with him, and for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a revolution of values” when he started the original Poor People’s Campaign.

Rev. Barber first came to national attention when he spoke at the Democratic Convention in 2015. He is a quietly powerful man who is now garnering the attention he deserves because of appearances on the liberal media and a recent New Yorker Magazine in-depth profile. Being in the spotlight probably makes him uncomfortable; he is a shy man who suffers from a painful chronic condition that makes his large figure lean forward perpetually. But he keeps putting himself out there because he is passionately committed to social justice.

It is impossible to talk about Rev. Barber without also remembering Dr. King’s work. So I went back to King’s famous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” considered one of the most famous letters in American history.  Revisiting the letter was a profoundly moving experience given the state of America today. It underscored for me the urgency of Barber’s revival of the “Poor People’s Campaign” and the connections the campaign makes between all the issues that drive Dr. Barber’s tireless work urging people to “come together to break the silence and tell the truth about the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative.”

Rev. Barber is a practical theologian. He understands the power and political landscape under which he struggles. He knows that his quest for mercy and justice is up against unfavorable odds.  But he, like Dr. King, believes change is possible when people come together, across racial lines and in spite of others barriers imposed by those in power. That’s what his multi-racial coalition is all about, and it shouldn’t be written off as impossibly Pollyana-ish.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in May, Dr. Barber explained his motivation for resurrecting the Poor People’s Campaign.  “For too long,” he said, “we’ve accepted this kind of moral narrative in America that has blamed poor people for their poverty and has pitted people against each other … We’ve got to have what we call moral dissent, moral resistance and a moral vision in this moment.”

“Fifty years ago, we were fighting to come forward,” Barber continued. “Fifty years later we are fighting retrogression. We have an impoverished democracy that is going backwards rather forward.” And he points out, it’s not solely because Donald Trump is in office. Twenty-three states since 2010 have passed voter suppression laws. The same states are fighting living wages, denying healthcare, discriminating against immigrants, women, and LBGTQ communities, and eviscerating the education system.

Rev. Barber argues that racism and voter suppression are deeply connected to issues of poverty, and that in order to address racism and poverty, we must also address ecological problems as well as an economy that favors militarism. We also have to understand and resist the “false moral narrative of religious nationalism.” The goal all along,” according to Dr. Barber, “has been to change the model of conversation so it was no longer about civil rights and moral issues, but to trick people into voting against their own self-interest.”

The intersectionality of issues relating to social justice is key to understanding what drove Dr. King and what now drives Dr. Barber in today’s Poor People’s Campaign.  Stated simply, “Some things aren’t left or right, liberal or conservative. Some things are simply right or wrong,” Barber has said as he tries to resurrect a “moral revival.”  That’s exactly where Dr. King was coming from all those years ago.

In explaining to prominent white clergymen in Birmingham who opposed his civil disobedience there, Dr. King wrote in his famous letter, “I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

It’s really as simple, and as deeply complicated, as that. Like Dr. King, the Rev. Dr. William Barber felt “morally obligated to negotiate for the common good” on behalf of all of us. Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court knowing he risked arrest, he understood the profound urgency of resisting injustice, and of repairing the fabric of our mutual destiny. For that, given what is happening in our country right now, we must all be deeply grateful.

A Message for Millennials, Gen X & Y: We'll Get Through This

 

Everyone knows we are facing the worst political crisis in American history. The dreadful proclamations of Donald Trump, driven by narcissism, the mean-spirited moves by his cabinet, and the incipient evil represented by his administration, have brought us dangerously close to the path and policies of dictators, and the possibility of living with autocracy.

I’m not going to sugar-coat that terrible possibility. But I want to suggest to people younger than I, who weren’t around to experience other terrible moments in our history, that while things have never been quite this bad, we have, in many ways, been here before, and emerged on the other side intact.

Today kids duck under their desks at school to avoid gunfire. I ducked under my desk in fear of the white flash of a nuclear attack during the 1950s when the fear of Communism, Russia and nuclear war was pervasive, largely due to the Suez Canal crisis and the Cuban crisis. Luckily, the flash never came.

The Suez Canal crisis occurred when Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the canal. It ceased when European troops and the Israeli army withdrew from their invasion of Egypt, averting a lethal conflict with the Soviet Union. The Cuban crisis happened because of a frightening standoff with Russia when it pointed nuclear missiles at us from Cuba. Thankfully, President Kennedy had the skills to de-escalate the tensions, but for a time, we were on the brink of disaster – and we made it through.

In the 1950s too, America suffered through the McCarthy Era, which ended when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican and true demagogue, was brought down.  McCarthy led a real witch hunt sparked by his paranoid delusion that various sectors of the country, including the Army, had been infiltrated by Communists. Teachers, lawyers, actors, and others lost their jobs and were blacklisted, throwing the country into a state of abject fear. (My Ukrainian-born father warned me never to reveal that we were of Russian background.) In a memorable moment captured on TV, McCarthy’s fall came when lawyer Joseph Welch famously asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy’s travesty is akin to Donald Trump’s defamation of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the attacks on Robert Mueller, so the question Mr. Welch asked needs to be put to the president over and over again by every subsequent generation: “At long last, have you no sense of decency?”

In the 1960s, America faced some of its most terrible and frightening times. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, setting off devastating race riots across the country. A few months later, Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for president, was gunned down. The race riots and civil disturbances that ensued were shocking and the response to them horrifying. I will never forget the sight of storm troops lining the streets and bridges of Washington, DC against a backdrop of gray windowless vans waiting to take those arrested away. That, and what followed when protests against the Vietnam War were launched a few years later, left many Americans feeling our lives as we’d known them were over, and that indeed, they might literally end.

The anti-war protests began on college campuses. The students were our generation’s Parkland kids, and they, along with millions of other peace activists and protesters, ultimately stopped the war. But not before the Kent State University massacre happened in May 1970 when the National Guard killed several unarmed students.

Then came the Watergate scandal in 1972, which began with the discovery that five men had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC – which Nixon and his administration attempted to cover up. Because of their resistance to Congressional probes, America faced a constitutional crisis that led to Nixon’s resignation.

How did we, the so-called Silent Generation, get through all that? Many important factors played a role. For one thing, we stopped being silent. We went beyond protests, marches, and donations to liberal organizations. Some of us, like Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, had the courage to be whistleblowers. But mostly, we reached a transcendent moment together. Our solidarity, stubborn resolve, acts of resistance, commitment to truth and justice, and our mutual sense that we had the power to change things brought down Nixon and others. Our voices were loud, clear and cogent, just like what we see in the Parkland students. Like them, we refused to stop, to back down, to disappear. And that, more than anything, is what will get us through the dark days we face together now.

Additionally, analysts who understand the severity of what’s happening in the Trump administration know that what we are facing is worse than what happened in Nixon’s time. Finally, along with the media, they are speaking out forcefully about the urgency of our time. No longer afraid to call “fascism,” “dictatorship” and “autocracy” into focus, Americans from every generation who aren’t blindly wedded to Trumpian travesties are calling Foul! 

It’s a start. So is the Mueller investigation, which one hopes will conclude soon with irrefutable evidence that Mr. Trump and his foot soldiers must go.

 Even then, we won’t be out of the woods for some time. So I’m not diminishing the huge challenges we face. But the lessons of our past – that we endure, fight back, resist, and ultimately emerge from darkness intact – offer, as the Parkland kids do, a rallying cry, and a modicum of comfort, even as they warn against complacency. They give us hope, and move us to action, as they remind us that evil can be defeated, if we raise our voices, stay vigilant together, and perhaps most important of all, exercise our remaining right to vote.

Keeping a Finger on the Pulse of America's Dangerous Epidemics

Advocates for sensible gun legislation had it right when they framed the epic number of individual and mass shootings in this country as public health issue. Public health professionals and organizations like the American Public Health Association and the American Medical Association have continued to push for addressing gun violence as a growing epidemic, and so they should.

According to the Brady Campaign, 318 people in America are shot daily in murders, assaults, suicides, suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention. Every day 96 of them die from guns. No wonder. In this country, 1.7 million children live in a home with an unlocked, loaded gun and millions of guns are sold every year in “no questions asked” transactions.

Part of the gun violence epidemic we face resides in the growing, almost contagious episodes of police brutality and unnecessary use of weapons, primarily against people of color.  This year over 430 people have been shot and killed by police and the year is barely half over. Last year’s total number was 987. Some of the names we remember are Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. Among those whose names we may not recall are Danny Ray Thomas, an unarmed black man clearly suffering from a mental health crisis, who was killed by a Texas police officer, and more recently, Stephon Clark, another unarmed black man who was shot eight times, six of them in the back, by Sacramento police while simply holding a cellphone in his grandparents’ backyard.

We are clearly facing a growing number of public health crises involving guns, but gun violence, no matter who commits it, isn’t only contributing to a crisis that involves instant death or disability.  It is also leading to an epidemic of crises in mental health among survivors and victims’ families. Where is the discussion of that issue?  It’s telling that a search for information on this invisible crisis led me to myriad articles ruminating on the idea that gun violence is perpetrated by people with mental health problems, but not one link deliberating on the mental health toll gun violence takes on survivors or family members appeared.

Yet, just think what it must have done to Tamir Rice’s mother to learn that her child, simply playing with a toy, had been shot to death by police.  Or to Stephon Clark’s grandparents as they saw their grandchild gunned down in their backyard. Or to Eric Garner’s family, not only left to deal with economic worries, but with the lifelong sorrow of a husband and father being choked to death by police. Think about what Michael Brown’s family, Trayvon Martin’s family, Sandra Bland’s family and the multitudes of other family members of the unknown victims of violence– spouses, children, siblings – will have to live with for the rest of their lives. It is possible that there are worse things than death, like living with despair, and dread.

There is another epidemic of violence that needs attention as we appear to descend into a dark place while struggling with a new, unfamiliar reality grounded in our current political environment. America has always had an incipient underbelly, but unlike those who survived the fascism of Europe preceding and during WWII, Americans have been fortunate (until now) to avoid the punishing life of autocracy and dictatorship.

Now come Donald Trump et.al., and along with his followers, a dramatic increase in hate crimes not unlike the ones seen in many countries during the 1930s and 1940s and emerging once more. America has seen a growing number of hate crimes in recent years but they are proliferating even more as racists and white supremacy groups feel emboldened to openly spew their contempt for others. That contempt is aimed first at Jews, and then at Muslims, according to the FBI. Hate crimes are also on the rise as perpetrators target the LGBTQ community.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups has increased along with the growing number of hate-filled violent acts.  These crimes range from vandalism in synagogues and cemeteries to graffiti messages and Swastikas on buildings, to threats to religiously affiliated schools. Many hate crimes are perpetrated against individuals. In 2014 a man killed three people at two Jewish centers near Kansas City, and recently a Muslim man was beaten in the Bronx by attackers calling him a terrorist. In another incident in New York, a man shoved a Mexican immigrant onto the subway tracks after dragging him off a train. He narrowly escaped death.

All the growing violence we’re witnessing, whether manifesting as verbal abuse or escalating to hate crimes and murder, even at the hands of police, can appropriately be seen as epidemic. And epidemics, seen through the public health lens, call for controls and eradication. None of us can be inoculated against the diseases of hatred in our zones of relative comfort and safety, because “no man [sic] is an island.”  As another famous quote reminds us, “Together we stand. Divided we fall.” 

The pain of a potential fall looms large, and it is likely to be more than any of us could bear.

 

           

Why the Teacher Strikes Matter So Much

Recently, in a piece about mentors, I wrote about a teacher I had in middle school who helped me through a rough time just by being present and listening. I visited her every day after classes because she made me feel noticed when my classmates didn’t. Her calming presence helped me know that I mattered. That kind of validation can be deeply important when you are thirteen years old. 

When I was in high school I had several teachers I will never forget. Miss Davenport was one of them. Every day she wrote a word on the blackboard, charging us with learning its definition and using it in a sentence. They were delicious words, like ubiquitous, serendipity, obsequious, superfluous, sartorial, inchoate. They sounded like music to me, and they were, I’m sure, the foundation for my love of language. Mr. Jones was a stickler for good writing and “Doc” Castle made Latin seem fun.  Another teacher whose name I can’t recall helped us grasp geometry and algebra such that we felt competent in math.

All of that in a public school in small-town America in the 1950s because the teachers we had were sharp and dedicated and loved kids. Today, we have Betsy DeVos and her ilk taking away the rights of GLBTG students, stopping after school and lunch programs for poor children, and shutting down civil rights investigations while admonishing striking teachers to stop being so selfish.

I have been a teacher as well as a student so I see the impact they can have from that vantage point. Having taught at the university level, I experienced up close and personal the impact a teacher can have, whether in the classroom or during a crisis. There is nothing more satisfying than helping emerging adults develop a worldview that is informed and compassionate. There is nothing more challenging than having a student break down emotionally as they share the pain in their lives. And there is nothing more rewarding than watching a student have an AHA! Moment, or hearing them say your class changed the course of their lives. Sometimes the best you can do is help them learn how to write a clear and coherent sentence, but just watch the look on their faces when they master that ability.

Teaching has always been an undervalued profession, largely because it was seen as an avocation embraced by women, and we all know that women’s work is never properly rewarded. But now, in the 21st century, surely the time has come to realize what teachers really do and what they contribute to our collective future, even if you don’t have kids yourself.

It’s also time to grasp what teachers contribute out of pocket or pro bono to their classrooms, and the price they pay to remain in those classrooms because they love teaching and they are committed to the kids they serve.   According to one website tracking teacher salaries in the U.S. the median salary for teachers last year was $41,500. But salaries vary widely geographically, and they have been dropping steadily. Adjusting for inflation, teachers are making about $30 less per week than they used to. Many of them who are striking report weekly incomes in the $300 range, which is why they’re taking on second and third jobs to stay afloat.  One science teacher reported that he makes twice as much at his second full-time job as a waiter than he does as a teacher. Another says that her 19-year old daughter who works as a nanny makes more than she does. Teachers are also footing the bill for things they need in the classroom, ranging from books and supplies to rugs and furniture.

That’s what the strikes are all about in Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia and Colorado as the movement for teacher-power grows, because teachers’ lives matter too.

The fact is, we can’t afford to lose many more dedicated, qualified teachers. Already, teacher education enrollment is down by about 30 percent in recent years and job turnover is rising. The resulting shortage of teachers is alarming but not surprising. After all, who wants to deal with unmanageable class size, inadequate facilities, and cuts to healthcare?

Looked at through a wider lens, we cannot long survive as a vibrant and productive nation, or leader among nations, if we continue to under-educate our children, underpay those who teach them, and in doing so, undervalue education. Already prisons in this country absorb more of our tax dollars than public higher education did 40 years ago. They are filled with high school dropouts and people with low literacy. It is a disgrace that we spend three times more for each prisoner than we invest in each child's education annually.

Nelson Mandela was right when he claimed that “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” So was Malala Yousafzai: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” 

We need to change our world now - one child, one teacher, one book, one pen at a time – and who better to lead the way than America’s dedicated, compassionate, determined, and sadly devalued educators.

Seeing American Through the African American Lens

Several events and personal experiences have converged to make me reflect again on American racism’s historical travesties and current oppressions. 

Recently I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.  It’s the only national museum devoted to documenting African American life, history, and culture and it’s a powerful experience. “Nearly 40,000 objects have been displayed to help all Americans see how their stories, their histories, and their cultures are shaped by a people’s journey and a nation’s story,” the museum’s website says.

Those objects include original documents, artifacts, and memorabilia that bring to life the painful history of African Americans. There are original books by slave poet Phyllis Wheatley and orator Frederick Douglass. There are slave auction documents and drawings of slave ships that reveal how thousands of human beings were forced to lie next to each other like sausages for weeks. There is a shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, and an actual slave cabin.  The history section alone could take days to visit. It would take another day to see the collections in the culture section of this moving museum.

Just after I visited the museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama.  The memorial honors 4,400 black people killed by lynching and other racial violence between 1877 and 1950. The memorial is “the country’s first dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence,” its website points out. You can’t look upon the design of the memorial grounds and the iconic sculptures it exhibits with a dry eye. 

Located nearby is the new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, occupying the site of a former slave pen where auctions were held. An “unflinching reminder of America's racist legacy, the museum details the history of the slave trade and follows through to current-day problems associated with mass incarceration.” The connection it makes clear between slavery, lynching, civil rights, and mass incarceration is vital to understand.

That connection heightened my own awareness of the continuum of racism manifested in today’s police brutality and flawed criminal justice system. It made me think of our overcrowded, for-profit prisons, and of the black youth and men who fill them, many innocent of the crimes they are alleged to have committed, or languishing behind bars because of minor infractions.  

According to www.diversityinc.com, last year police killed over 1,000 people, with officers charged with a crime in just one percent of cases. Of those killed, 27 percent were black, despite being 13 percent of the population. In the majority of incidents, officers were responding to non-violent offenses, or no crime had been reported. Eighty-seven people killed were stopped for traffic violations.   

One thinks of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and Philandro Castro, among so many others. Or of Glen Ford, one of many black men wrongfully incarcerated for a crime they didn’t commit, who died in 2015 shortly after being released from death row after 30 years.

Not every black person harassed or abused by police ends up in jail. But the indignities many suffer speak volumes about brutality, terror, and criminal injustice. Just recently a mentally disturbed young black man was tased to death in his shower by police when a neighbor reported he’d been acting strangely. (Stories like these go largely unreported.) A recent video went viral when a young black woman in the Los Angeles subway was accosted by police.  Bethany Nava was resting her foot on the edge of a seat when an LAPD officer confronted her and then dragged her off the train, handcuffed her, and arrested her for allegedly refusing to remove her foot. Another woman of color, Selina Lechuga, objected to the officer’s handling of Nava. Both women were taken into custody and Lechuga was charged with committing battery against an officer, despite video evidence to the contrary.

Nor does every instance of humiliation or oversight that black people suffer involve the police or the courts. Take, for example, the fact that while touting his friendship with Kanye West, the president saw no reason to honor James Shaw, Jr., the young black man who tackled the Waffle House killer, saving God knows how many people, and then fundraised for victims’ families.

I close with another recent experience. Invited to read from my memoir to a group of students, I chose a piece about an event that occurred when I was young in small town 1950s America, when lunch counters were segregated and the occasional lynching still occurred.  The incident resided in racism and having been to the museum in Washington, it seemed a good time to share it. I couldn’t get through it without weeping, because I was reminded that nothing much has changed since those days.

Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the DC museum said, “The African American experience is the lens through which we understand what it is to be an American.” For better or worse, that seems truer today than ever.

I Couldn't Have Done It Without You! A Tribute to Mentors and Second Moms

When I was growing up my mother was chronically ill and my father, a severe asthmatic with a heart condition, went bankrupt. It was a lonely and frightening time during which I was a loner at school and a caretaker at home. But I was blessed to have a teacher who understood, and a neighbor - a second mom really - whose home became my refuge. I think it’s fair to say they both saved my life.

Mrs. Myers, my seventh grade English teacher, was a gentle woman whom I visited every day before leaving school. She knew that I had difficulty speaking up in class because I felt ostracized by my classmates so she seldom asked me to talk. She also knew something about what was happening at home.  I don’t remember talking about any of that but I do recall feeling better by the time I left her classroom after we’d chatted. She made me feel good and strong and capable and that meant so much when I was an anxious thirteen-year old.

Once home I crossed the street to my neighbor’s house to play with her kids, whom I babysat every weekend. I’d sit at Helen’s kitchen table, talking as she prepared dinner, which made me feel warm and welcome. In time, her family became mine. I slept over at weekends, joined them for Christmas and went on their beach holidays each summer. Helen, who is gone now, became my second mom and to this day I think of her that way with enormous love and gratitude. She taught me so much about hearth and home, about kindness to strangers and about how healing it is to laugh at yourself. My family and I still spend Christmas with her kids most years.

As a teacher and a professional I too became a mentor and to this day nothing gives me more pleasure than helping young people (and sometimes peers) as they navigate their way through careers, relationships and life’s other myriad challenges.  When a student says, “You changed my life!” or a colleague thanks me with, “I couldn’t have done this without you!” I feel blessed to have been part of their journey in a helpful way.

But what makes me feel even better than that is being a second mom, or a second grandma, to some very special people.

My first “adopted daughter” was a woman I’d met at a women’s writing conference back in the 80s. She is black and her mother had just died. When she shared her grief with me I said, “I’ll be your white mama.” She smiled through her tears. “And I’ll be your dark daughter!” I still get emails from her addressed to WM and signed DD, and a Mother’s Day card arrives each year full of love.

I met my Chinese “adopted daughter” in Beijing during the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. She was the assistant manager of my hotel and we connected immediately. One night she brought moon cakes to my room and as our conversation grew deeper she told me about her fiancé who had emigrated to Toronto. She feared that he would never manage to bring her there.  When he did, I spent long hours on the phone with her as she adjusted to life in a foreign country.Today, they and my Chinese “grandson” live in Canada and we talk frequently.

Then there is my Romanian “daughter.”  We met when my husband and I stayed in her mother’s newly opened guest house in the north of Romania. She had come home from college to be our guide for a few days since she spoke English.  Again, the connection was immediate. When she came to the States to study, I was here for her and I know how much that eased her transition.  Like with my Chinese daughter, we are still in touch, even though each of them has adjusted to a foreign country, marriage, a child, and a successful career.

My “Caribbean daughter” and “granddaughter” came into my life eight years ago. They live nearby so I get to see them often, which is delicious. Initially a mentor, I am now a second mom for sure and that fills me with great joy. I think I can say I am her Helen and that is one huge mutual gift.

Two years ago I was at the birth of my newest “granddaughter” who now lives in Boston.  Mom was my student and now, in my heart, she is one of my adopted kids too.

I have loved watching my family grow over the years thanks to our adopted kids and grandkids, each of whom brings something so special into our lives. When I reflected on the deep feelings I have for them this past Christmas, which they reciprocate in words and deeds, I was reminded of the love and nurturing I received from my second mom all those years ago. If I bring them half as much comfort as I received in the years of my growing up, my life will have had true meaning. For that gift, I thank them all from the   bottom of my very full heart.

 

Is America Up to Its Newest Challenge?

We’ve been through a lot for a country with a relatively short history.  Starting with the American revolution against the British, we’ve faced many challenges that could have broken us. There was the Civil War, which cost us more American lives than any other, World War I, World War II, the 1929 stock market crash, the Dust Bowl era and various economic crises, the Vietnam War, political assassinations in the 60s and the 1970 Kent State massacre, race riots that could have divided the country again, the terrorist attack on 9-11, and more.

But what we face now is alarming in unprecedented ways. There have been bad presidents before and governments rife with corruption as well as administrations that lacked skill, compassion, and ethics. In those times, as David Kaiser wrote in TIME Magazine in 2016 after the presidential election, we overcame threats because of “the nation’s ability to come together and embark upon a great enterprise to solve a critical problem.” In the face of our current crisis, we seem unable to muster the spirit of compromise, cohesion, good judgment, and sound governance, not to mention moral compasses.  

As Kaiser wrote in TIME, “Americans are entitled to hope that the new crisis will not end with hostile armies marching through our territory and fighting battles.” He had yet to envision that cyber warfare would eliminate the need for marching troops, nor could he imagine just how disastrous a Trump presidency would be.

In a recent New York Times editorial, Sen. Orrin Hatch is quoted. “This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes, but it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up.” He was talking about President Clinton in 1999. The senator’s hypocrisy is stunning, and extremely dangerous at a time when the Republican opposition cannot own – and reverse – its behavior, even when our country is faced with monumental threats.

The Times editorial addresses the “growing possibility” that Mr. Trump might attempt to end the ongoing investigation into his campaign, his administration, and his possible obstruction of justice if not overt collusion with the Russians. Should such a moment come, The Times said, we will “suddenly find [ourselves] on the edge of an abyss, with the Constitution in [our] hands.”

If Mr. Trump succeeds in his attempts to shut down the ongoing investigations, he will have destroyed the very foundation of American democracy and rule of law, already fragile by nature because it relies upon tradition, good sense, and strong motivation for the greater good. He will, most awfully, have set himself above the law and effectively become a dictator. 

Should that terrifying scenario come to pass, it will be up to Congress to uphold our laws, maintain the separation of powers established by our founders, and keep intact the constitutional framework that has kept us a government, “of the people, for the people, and by the people” for over 200 years. There will be no time for continuing polarization in the Capital or the public square, no room for vitriol and partisanship, no benefit in clinging to harmful ideologies and hateful rhetoric. We will all be on the sinking ship together, and none of us will be singing to the end.

Everyone paying attention now acknowledges the fact that our democracy is truly threatened. We admit to feeling terrified by what could happen. We openly use the word “fascism,” so long danced around. We talk with a façade of levity about leaving if it gets much worse. We see Facebook posts of what Hitler and Goebbels said and we shudder before sharing. We learn about protesters being arrested, and the Sinclair broadcasting syndicate scripting pro-Trump messages for their many stations.

We join hashtag discussions about police brutality, racial injustice, ICE roundups, anti-Semitic and Muslim hate crimes, pro-natalist positions, abuses in education, the environment, and the interior by functionaries like Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, and Ryan Zinke. We bemoan the fact that the new Secretary of Health and Human Services is a former senior vice president for corporate affairs at Eli Lilly and Co. who served as president of Lilly USA LLC.  We worry about how the State Department can operate without a Secretary or a full staff of seasoned diplomats in a world on the brink of disaster in various parts of the world. 

We stress over the lack of access to safe and effective healthcare, none moreso than women in need of reproductive healthcare. We worry about shrinking consumer protections, reduced regulations that keep our water and air clean, and who will be seated next in our federal and Supreme courts. We fret about voter registration being tampered with, and innocent immigrant children being shipped to countries they’ve never known, and we wonder how long it will take to correct the problems created by this administration if and when we finally elect sane legislators.

But most of all, what we worry about is this:  Will politicians finally put America and its people above any consideration of personal power or benefit, and will they, at long last, have the decency and moral courage to stop the travesties of a Trump administration before it is too late?

In short, can we, together, meet America’s greatest challenge ever, and can we come back again?

 

The Legacy of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and the Kids Who Would Make Her Proud

They are gay, straight and transgender. They are Jewish, Christian and Muslim. They are black, white and Latino. They are middle-class, affluent, and poor. And together they are doing something we’ve never seen before.  They are connecting the dots – recognizing something we now call “intersectionality,” defined by Merriam Webster as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”

They are the teens of Parkland, Florida, the kids in DC and Chicago schools, the 11-year old children who spoke so eloquently to the crowds in Washington at the March for Our Lives on March 24th.  Their words were heard around the country and the world by multitudes of people who flowed into the streets of their hometowns to plead in unison that, “Enough is enough.” Together, the voices of millions formed a chorus speaking truth to power as they awakened to the connections being made in the name of universal human rights.

Now, I’m not one for quoting the Bible but I can’t refrain from paraphrasing the Book of Isiah: “And [the children] shall lead them.”

  And not just away from gun violence in schools, movie theaters, malls, clubs, or the horrific violence of police shooting innocent black people and getting away with it.  These future leaders were speaking about the much larger issues that America has failed to address, like poverty, class, race, gender, disability and institutionalized discrimination. They were pleading for the survival of all of us, and for a future defined by unity and not division, love and not hate, compassion and not greed, dignity and not death, whether by commission or omission.  They were demanding that we place values above violence, and they did it with such respect, force, energy, and eloquence that there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.

They taught us a life lesson and they gave us a reason to hope.

They went beyond “Mi casa es su casa,” because they know that what happens in their casa, their community, their houses of worship, their schools could happen in any one of our houses, neighborhoods, or common spaces, no matter what color we are, how much wealth we have, or how mainstream we may have become.

The root of the youth movement today, so tragically launched by the events of February 14, 2018 in a school in Florida, is what empowers students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School and the others now joining them. Its foundation is what they understand about the “realpolitik.” They are defining and now representing a new generation that is not only unique but vital, because these “kids” truly get it that together we stand, divided we fall. 

Additionally, they know how to bring their vision and their message to voters, to so-called leaders, and to those whose political futures are at stake. Strategically, these emerging adults are nothing short of brilliant. They understand how to use social media and they have a natural proclivity for using the methods of media advocacy, which means they put a human face on their issue, they tell stories to humanize statistics, they include action steps in their message – Register, Educate, Vote! – and they repeat tag lines that are pithy, powerful, and easily repeated.

The woman for whom the now well-known school was named, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, would be so proud of these students. A journalist and author, women's suffrage advocate, and conservation activist, she was every bit as feisty and politically astute as the students who attend the school that bears her name.  Her influential book The Everglades: River of Grass, published in 1947, redefined the popular conception that the Everglades were nothing more than a worthless swamp. It has been compared to Rachel Carson's important book Silent Spring.

According to her Wikipedia profile, Douglas was “outspoken and politically conscious, defending the women's suffrage and civil rights movements.” She undertook her work to protect the Everglades when she was nearly 80 years old and she lived nearly 30 years beyond that, working to the end.

Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’s spirit and legacy are now being felt not only by students who went to school one day as youngsters and came out (if they were lucky) as young adults creating a new kind of leadership. It is being realized by Americans and others who may never have thought of themselves as “political” but who will be forever changed by what happened that fateful day, and the movement it spawned.

For that, we can all be grateful.

Redefining News: What We Don't Read Under the Radar

Have you had enough of Donald Trump’s narcissistic rallies featured regularly on mainstream media?  Tired of the debate about guns in schools? Seen enough of Sunday morning talking heads rehashing the week’s old headlines?  Maybe it’s time for editors and producers to remember what constitutes news and to realize that there’s a world out there about which we know far too little.

There are plenty of scandals, ethical breaches, sensational stories and other travesties swirling around Donald Trump and his minions for his cabinet heads and staff to keep us mired in swamp news for the rest of his hopefully limited term. But there is so much happening beyond that about which we ought to be concerned. I’m not talking politics. I’m talking humanity, and the human faces of tragedies we ought to know about. Here are some examples.

In America, the cruelty of ICE makes social media occasionally, but what does it look like when children are ripped from their parents as they leave school or the supermarket? What happens when your mom is thrown in a Border Police van and you have no idea where she’s going or when you will see her again?

That happened recently in San Diego when an Africa woman who came to the U.S. seeking asylum was suddenly separated from her daughter who was shipped to a facility in Chicago. The woman listened to her daughter’s screams as agents dragged her away without explanation or any idea when she would see her child again.  The ACLU has filed suit in that case, but many are not so lucky. The Florence Project in Arizona documented 155 such cases last year as the Trump administration strongarms families into accepting deportation in order to get their kids back.

And what about offshore?  In East Ghouta, Syria medical facilities supported by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) report receiving nearly 5,000 wounded and more than 1,000 dead over a two-week period in February, and that doesn’t cover all medical facilities. Fifteen of 20 MSF facilities were bombed during recent escalations with no end in sight and no relief supplies getting through. What must it be like for mothers and fathers to watch their children die under those circumstances? What courage does it take to hide in cellars day after day, night after night, without food or water? What must it be like to feel the world has forgotten you?

In Yemen, where increasing violence and unrelenting airstrikes have left millions of families in desperate need of help, what is to be done in the poorest country in the Arab world? What is to be done for the women and children who have no health services, poor water and sanitation, and a child malnutrition rate among the highest in the world? What is to be done when nearly 19 million people have no idea where their next meal will come from and where 5,000 new cases of cholera are reported daily? What is to be done when the U.S. and Saudi Arabia tighten blockades in a proxy war that has no end in sight?

And what is to be done about the genocide of the Rohingya people of Burma when even that country’s once revered symbol of peace, Aung San Suu Kyi, has denied not just their suffering but their existence?  The Rohingya people have lived in Burma for centuries, but they are considered outsiders whose rights were removed in 1982. Last year the military intensified their campaign against them, burning villages, massacring adults and babies with extraordinary cruelty, and forcing almost a million people to flee to Bangladesh in what has been called “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

In Nigeria, precious little was done in 2014 when nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from their school by Boko Haram. There was almost no media follow up. When 110 girls were taken from their school in February this year, hardly a word was written or spoken about it. Now the president of Nigeria, who claimed that Boko Haram was defeated while they continued deadly suicide attacks, has said he will “negotiate” for the girls release instead of using military force because troops are needed elsewhere.

And then there is Israel, where one of the more shocking pieces of news to barely emerge in recent weeks is that African refugee women are being temporarily sterilized with injections of DepoProvera without their consent. There are also numerous cases of violence against Palestinian children, including acts of violence that are not physical.

Take, for example, the case of Ahed Tamimi, a teenager who protested the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem. She was jailed after being arrested in the middle of the night at home.  Israeli officials and politicians want to make an example of Ahed, calling for “severe punishment to serve as a deterrent.” Her family is prohibited from visiting her in Israeli detention, where she was unlawfully transferred from her home in occupied territory, and she remains alone and scared. At this writing, her trial is set for mid-March but many worry it will not take place.

These stories reflect the world in which we live. It extends far beyond Washington, DC or America.  It’s a world that we should all know and care more about. It is the responsibility of media to be sure we do. So are, they are failing miserably.

 

"Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink!"

Those are the words of “the Ancient Mariner,” in a 19th century poem written by Samuel Coleridge. They seem eerily, and creepily, relevant today. While we aren’t floating on a sea of undrinkable salt water, we are facing the threat of not having water to drink.

Flint, Michigan became the canary in the coalmine regarding the crisis in clean drinking water in this country when the nation learned that the drinking water there was full of lead. Looking to cut water costs, the governor had hired an outside firm that came up with the idea of getting Flint’s drinking water from the Flint River, known to be heavily polluted, instead of the Detroit River system. Contamination from the Flint River interacted with the aging lead pipes in Flint’s water delivery system causing dangerous levels of lead contamination for people without water filters.

But the issue of water standards is not just taking place in cities like Flint. It’s also occurring in rural places like Kentucky, Texas, Kansas and elsewhere. And then there’s the very real problem of water shortages occurring in many corners of the world due to climate change and other factors.

Many water problems in this country come from mining, waste from burning coal, and large-scale agriculture, along with aging pipes. In Marin County, Kentucky, for example, people often get their water from wells sunk into flooded, abandoned mines with water loaded with heavy metals. Other communities from West Virginia to North Carolina trace their water problems to waste produced from burning coal stored in liquid ponds that can leak or spill, according to a recent article in the New Republic. Further, in large-scale rural farming areas, nitrogen-based fertilizer slides off farmlands and makes its way into freshwater systems.

In 2016, Reuters released a report about America’s drinking water. It concluded that nearly 3,000 locations in the U.S. have drinking water where the lead contamination is at least double of that found in Flint’s drinking water.  And according to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 2.5 percent of children in this country have elevated levels of lead in their blood, the effects of which may not show up until adolescence.

According to a Michigan State University report referenced on www.desmogblog.com,  the U.S. could see large portions of the population unable to afford water in the near future. This is due to “a variety of pressures ranging from climate change, to sanitation and water quality, to infrastructure upgrades, placing increasing strain on water prices.” It would take an estimated $1 trillion dollars to replace aging water infrastructure in the U.S. alone in the next 25 years. That could triple the cost of water bills to households.

The water crisis is global. Cape Town, South Africa has been in the news recently because it could be the first major city in the world to run out of water. June 4th is designated as Day Zero. That’s when the city’s taps will be turned off, causing residents to have to line up at collection points to get 25 litres of water per day, per person. Climate change-induced drought and a growing population are said to have caused the current crisis.

So far, most of the people facing water shortages live in so-called “developing countries.” In many places women and girls walk miles to find water, sometimes several times a day. But even China regularly sees moderate to severe water shortages, and every year the vast country uses more water than rain replaces. An estimated 25 – 33 percent of Chinese people lack access to safe drinking water.

There is something even more frightening to contemplate about the world’s future, and that is the real possibility of water wars. Conflicts over water could easily break out in the Middle East, especially in Israel, Jordan and Syria. But water conflicts are also possible here. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California all share water from the Colorado River. Those states have already begun negotiating how to manage the river’s limited water supply.

Statistics about water are telling. According to www.seametrics.com, by 2025 an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagues by water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions.  780 million people in the world now live without clean drinking water. Extreme drought is expected to render vast expanses of land useless by 2050 while over the past forty years, as the world’s population has doubled, use of agricultural water has quadrupled.

According to the U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Water Security, by 2030 “humanities ‘annual global water requirements’ will exceed ‘current sustainable water supplies’ by 40 percent. By the year 2040 there will not be enough water in the world to quench the thirst of the world population and keep the current energy and power solutions going if we continue doing what we are doing today.”

The unquenchable thirst described in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is enough to make any mouth dry.  The thought that we may experience such thirst in our lifetimes is unfathomable, but it is real.

                                   

Beware the Growing Demise of Democracy Globally

With each passing day, a question rises to the top of my troubled thoughts: Why don’t more people seem to get it? Why don’t they sound concerned about what pundits dub the death of our experiment with democracy? Why can’t they grasp that autocracies are rapidly flourishing?  Why doesn’t that scare us into greater vigilance, and more sensible votes?

Democracy becomes threatened in many ways. While violent power grabs are increasingly rare, the number of elected officials subverting the very processes that led them to power – a global phenomenon - is alarming.

In most cases, plutocracy, or oligarchy, means governments ruled by the rich for personal gain. As analysts have noted, with the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, which allowed unlimited amounts of money to flow to politicians, “the wealthy are getting the democracy they pay for” in America.

In order for autocrats to hold onto power, voting rights are threatened or removed. Recent examples in the U.S. are the purging of voter registration rolls in Republican controlled states, and restrictions that make it harder for Blacks and Latinos to vote. At the same time, the media is positioned as an “enemy of the state,” not to be trusted with information, and facts, they share.

Another threat to democracy exists when voters are apathetic and take the rights they enjoy for granted. We have notoriously low voter turnout rates, although this year that may change. But when people feel they can’t do anything that will make a difference, they stop paying attention, and don’t go to the polls.

Carol Anderson, a history professor at Emory University, sounded this alarm recently. “Bringing an independent judiciary and investigative branch under the domination of the executive is one of the first moves of regimes that do not respect the rule of law.” She cites Pinochet’s Chile, Nazi Germany, and Putin’s Russia as examples. “The rationale is simple,” she says. “Besides the military, the judiciary and law enforcements branches are the most powerful in a state. Control and politicization of that wing allows rulers to criminalize opponents … when in fact they are really defenders of a more viable, democratic nation.”

It’s not just what’s happening in America because of the Trump administration.  Examples of threats to democracy around the world are frightening, and they matter. Civilization is once again threatened by regimes that quickly, effectively, and surreptitiously bring down democracy. As a collective movement, those regimes are again creating the resurgence of totalitarianism, with unimaginable results because nations of the world no longer live isolated from each other, politically, socially, or economically. 

Here are examples of what is happening elsewhere. In July, people in Poland marched to protest “the impending death of democracy” under the Law and Justice Party. Parliament had passed a bill giving the government the power to remove all Supreme Court judges through forced retirement. The president also announced he would sign a bill making it illegal to discuss Poland’s role in the Holocaust. (There were good Poles who resisted, but Poland also committed atrocities; denying them is denying historical fact.)

In Hungary, the right-wing party won sweeping political power in its national elections. Under Viktor Orban, the political climate is one of “a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party culture,” as Patrick Kingley put it in The New York Times. Orhan has instituted financial penalties for groups that help migrants, changed the electoral system, assaulted the country’s Constitution, curbed the media along with the country’s checks and balances, made homelessness a crime, and diverted huge sums of money to his loyalists. He is now influencing other Central and Eastern European countries like Romania.

In Egypt and Turkey, things are not going well either. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pushed his most serious opponents out of scheduled elections. Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy says the country is “caught between an American-style Sisi and an Egyptian-style Putin.” Yet Sisi enjoys the support of Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Rex Tillerson.

Meanwhile, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan, is dismantling democracy in his country and turning it into an autocracy divided by ethnic and religious factors. In the name of “stability,” Erdogan has concentrated power in his office. As of next year, he can appoint the cabinet and a number of vice-presidents without parliamentary approval, and he can select or remove senior civil servants at will.  Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, must be turning in his grave.

The problem of dissolving democracies doesn’t stop in Europe or the Middle East. Latin America has had its destructive experiences and so have African countries. In Kenya, people are worried that their democracy is disappearing. Television stations have been shut down by the government, opposition politicians are under arrest and journalists have been threated with jail under President Kenyatta.

The rise of authoritarianism is real, dangerous, and on our doorstep. Nationalism, polarization and tribalism are being used to centralize power, destroy institutions of democracy, and lay the groundwork for re-writing rules that have been the foundation of democracy.

The question is, will we allow enemies of freedom to kill the democratic safety nets we have come to take for granted, or will we resist mightily at the ballot box and beyond?

 

A Deeper Look at What the ME TOO Movement Can Teach Us

 

It’s been some time since the Harvey Weinstein revelations opened the floodgates of personal stories about sexual harassment and assault. Still, women’s stories keep coming, and so they should. We must bear witness if things are going to change, not only in the halls of Hollywood studios and Capitol Hill offices, but everywhere that people live, work and carry on their lives.

We’ve learned good lessons in the telling of those stories, and in the copious commentary that followed. We’ve recognized that Zero Tolerance policies must be implemented and enforced, that non-disclosure agreements, buyouts and retaliation must end, that the real issues behind acts of aggression against women and girls - culture, misogyny, male privilege and power, for example – are big, complex, and urgently need to be the center of exploration, discourse, and social change. We know that we have to educate our children, both male and female, about what is acceptable and what is not in human behavior. We need, as one columnist put it, “to move away from the narratives of victimization and sympathy.”

But there is a deeper analysis occurring now and it is beginning to help us understand the dynamics involved when one person hurts, attacks, terrifies and traumatizes another, based on gender.

In her important book Women and Power, English scholar Mary Beard reminds us that the silencing of women was ever thus. Aristotle thought women’s voices proved their wickedness and that virtue lay in masculine tones. Mythology shares stories of women who’ve had their tongues cut out to silence them while other tales have women turned into inanimate objects.

Such attempts at silencing females have long trailed women, from Odysseus’s wife Penelope to Hillary Clinton and other women in the world’s public spaces. Stories of silencing women, whether mythological or modern, are part of our personal stories too – “mansplaining,” not recognizing the value of our ideas until they think they were theirs first, ignoring our leadership skills. As Beard says, “When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.”  So have Eastern cultures. A recent NPR story exposed schools in China to which girls are sent to learn that their purpose in life is to serve their husbands silently, even those who rape and beat them.

Beard urges us to “interrogate our notions of power,” and to examine why they exclude women. Why are our ideas about authority, mastery, and knowledge perceived as gender-based, she asks. And how, when institutional structures are “coded as male,” can you ask women to fit into them? Clearly, the structures themselves must change.

Greg Weiner, writing in The New York Times, reminds us that character matters when it comes to moral behavior, which “calls for a deep capacity for judgment.” True morality, he argues, must be cultivated and must exceed private, coded actions.  

Adding to the #ME TOO tsunami, Paul Bloom’s recent discussion of new books in The New Yorker includes Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others, an exploration of humans’ capacity for cruelty, by philosopher David Livingston, who quotes Claude Levi-Strauss: “Humankind ceases at the border of the tribe,” the noted anthropologist said. Here, the tribe consists of men bound together by deep-seated misogynistic feelings that render them incapable of seeing, and treating, women as equally human.   That’s why it’s easy to “slut-shame” and to say you can grab women by their genitals; after all, they are not “like I am.”

In Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, makes this observation about sexual violence: “The idea of rapists as monsters exonerates by caricature.” She argues that we must recognize “the banality of misogyny,” much as Hannah Arendt argued that the world had to acknowledge “the banality of evil” after the Holocaust.  Manne raises “the disturbing possibility that people may know full well that those they treat in brutally degrading and inhuman ways are fellow beings, underneath a more or less thin veneer of false consciousness.” Like others, Manne argues that that there is a larger truth in this tendency. “Misogyny, she says, is “often not a sense of women’s inhumanity as lacking. Her humanity is precisely the problem.”  Men, she explains, have come to expect things of women, including attention, admiration, and sex. “Misogyny,” adds Bloom, “is a mindset that polices and enforces these goals, it’s the ‘law enforcement branch’ of the patriarchy.”  Bad women must be punished.

This is heady, important, and sometimes difficult stuff.  But it offers the possibility of deeper examination that could lead to necessary exploration of factors that explain why so many men do what they do to women, especially in the workplace where females may be highly threatening.

Such analysis leads to other important considerations: How does this psychological and sociological reality within cultures influence media coverage of stories about women? Who gets to frame issues and how?  What language do we use in interpreting women’s experience? Who tells their stories? What impact can this deeper grasp of human psychology have on decision-making in the halls of governance?

That’s just for starters.  Still, we must begin somewhere. As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) has said, “This is our moment.” Oprah Winfrey sounded a clarion call to action in her Golden Globe speech. Now, poised for the moment when we do move forward, women’s voices, experiences, and insights are leading the way. Surely, that is how it should be. Their time has come.

Think It Can't Happen Here? Think Again

 

They were kids at summer camp, passing hot days in routine activity and comradery. They were also learning to speak German, singing German songs, practicing military drills and greeting superiors with Hitler salutes. Wearing Nazi-style uniforms, the children marched, took rifle practice, and raised Hitler Youth banners. There were 16 locally organized camps like this one in the 1930s.

The campers’ parents belonged to the German American Bund, people of German ancestry who formed citizens groups in many countries extolling “German virtues” and lobbying for causes helpful to Nazi Party goals. The German American Bund formed in 1936 as “an organization of patriotic Americans of German stock,” according to Alan Taylor writing in The Atlantic in June, 2017. The U.S. Bund soon boasted tens of thousands of members across 70 regional divisions.

In 1939, the Bund held an “Americanization” rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden to denounce Jewish conspiracies, FDR and others. Attended by 20,000 supporters, the 27 photos of the rally, and the children’s camps, included in Taylor’s Atlantic piece, are chilling.

As WWII began the Bund was disbanded, its leader arrested for embezzlement and deported to Germany.  But the American Bund happened.  Right here in the U.S. we had a large, active, hate-filled Nazi group training its youth to be brown-shirts. It was our own Third Reich.

Arne Bernstein, author of Swastika Nation, learned about American Nazis first-hand as a young man when a neo-fascist group threatened his Jewish neighborhood. “In the 1930s, 1940s and beyond,” he wrote on The History Reader blog in 2013, “fascism and Nazi loyalty was as American as a proverbial apple pie.”

Bernstein says the German-American Bund eventually boasted a following of 200,000 nationwide. The FBI put the number at somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 while an American Legion study found over 25,000 members. Whatever the actual number of American Nazis, there were enough of them to develop “a nationwide system of family retreats, businesses, publications” and Americanized versions of Hitler Youth and SS squadrons. Among those who didn’t seem to have a problem with the Bund were Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, along with the 15,000 members of The Silver Legion of America.

In 1935 Sinclair Lewis published a novel called It Can’t Happen Here.  Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s making a comeback now. Lewis’s novel is a cautionary, alarming and seemingly prescient tale, about the fragility of democracy. It tells the story of an elected authoritarian president who becomes a dictator in the time of the Great Depression. The country’s new president wants to save America from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press, as the jacket cover says. Sound familiar?

Upon publication, the book originally resonated for Americans worried about the possibility of a fascist regime in this country, and the growth of such regimes abroad – think Hitler, Mussolini, and now right-wing factions rising in Europe, again in times of political upheaval and economic turmoil.

Lewis wasn’t the only one writing about the threat of fascism as American angst grew. Articles proliferated, one by Walter Lippman, who noted that the country had “come to a period of discouragement,” as Michael Meyer noted in his introduction to the novel’s new edition. Myer points out that America had its fair share of right-wing polemicists then as now. William Randolph Hearst proclaimed, for example, that “whenever you hear a prominent American called a ‘Fascist,’ you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism.”

By page two of Lewis’s novel, readers know what’s coming, foreshadowing a chilling sense of our own time, when a general rhapsodizes on the idea of nationalism. “Our highest ambition is to be let alone … We must be prepared to defend our shores against all the alien gangs of international racketeers that call themselves ‘governments.’ …A great nation must go on arming itself more and more…for peace….” And on goes the diatribe about isolationism, military strength, alien gangs and other perceived threats to thunderously affirming applause.

Lewis’s novel is full of fiery speeches, proselytizing pastors and politicians, simplistic rhetorical proclamations, and bizarre claims that grow more fervent as the noose tightens on a nation. While the story moves all the way to executions and concentration camps – scenarios we are not ready to imagine possible – it is still a cautionary tale, one that ends with the liberal journalist and leader of the resistance fleeing to Canada “where quiet men awaited news of freedom.”

The leader has realized too late that “the tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of … all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded [liberals] who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

That’s an analysis worthy of our attention, as Lewis’s novel is a book worth reading in these troubling times. Because it really can happen here. It already has.

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.