The Sham, Shame and Real Purpose of a Senate Committee

The Sham, the Shame, and the Real Purpose of a Senate Committee

 

In the end it wasn’t what “she said, he said.”  It was what she did, what he did.

She gave moving, credible testimony. He rambled and raged. She was composed and coherent. He was defiant and disrespectful. She was polite and dignified. He was rude and belligerent. She was calm. He dissembled, putting to rest the myth of female hysteria. She was quietly self-assured. He threw a self-pitying, tearful tantrum.  She told the truth. He lied.

The world watched as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford told her riveting and difficult story with grace and courage. Then it watched, cringing, as Judge Brett Kavanaugh stumbled his way to self-aggrandizement and entitlement, unleashing a dangerous temper unsuited to service on the Supreme Court.

They witnessed a Senate Judiciary Committee in shambles as Republican members, all white men, reprised behavior familiar from the vile verbiage visited upon Anita Hill in 1991, including by two senators who were on the committee when she testified.

The contrast between the morning hearings when Dr. Ford gave her difficult opening statement and the afternoon when Kavanaugh simpered his Trumpian opening remarks couldn’t have been starker. The morning was civil and respectful. The female prosecutor hired to ask Republicans’ questions, while interrogating Dr. Ford as if it were a trial, said nothing overtly offensive.

Later, the civility ended when Republican committee members reverted to form, Senator Lindsay Graham spewing invectives at his Democratic colleagues while exonerating Kavanaugh.  It was then that the prosecutor, who’d been assigned to ask Republicans’ questions, disappeared, fired midstream when she asked something Republicans found dangerous.

Could anything make clearer what Republican men on the committee think of women?  Could they have treated Dr. Ford, Senator Dianne Feinstein, or the prosecutor with more contempt?

What was happening as we watched the fiasco? What is the real issue?

It’s sexism. Misogyny. Male privilege and male sense of entitlement. It’s the patriarchal power struggle grounded in robbing women of agency, autonomy – even over their own bodies - and a place in the public square. And it’s gone on forever.

Aristophanes understood that in 411 BC when he wrote Lysistrata, a play about women using their sexual power to stop war. Susan B. Anthony and the women at the 1848 women’s convention faced it when they fought for women’s suffrage. Contemporary women recognized it when Anita Hill was trashed. We know it now as we continue to fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the right to privacy and decision-making in our reproductive lives.

We live in a culture where male privilege and power are embedded, entrenched in every sector of society, from corporations and churches to academia, entertainment and news organizations, sports, science, and medicine. It’s a culture in which females are admonished to nurture and ensure the comfort of males while at the same time, we are reminded to protect ourselves from the uncontrollable sexual excesses of males because they can’t help themselves and can’t take responsibility for their behavior. We are taught to be good girls who dress properly, remain abstinent and restrained, who never go anywhere, not even the bathroom, alone. We are trained to be silent.

When women found the courage to tell Sigmund Freud about their sexual abuse he labeled their stories fantasies. Anita Hill was told that too. That’s why women don’t tell their stories. “No one will believe me,” they say.

Now that’s changing. In the last month calls to sexual abuse hotlines have spiked by 200 percent. Friends are telling friends. Wives are telling husbands and partners. Girls are telling parents. And women like Ana Marie Archilla and Maria Gallagher, the two brave women who demanded that Senator Jeff Flake look at them when they were talking to him, are putting politicians on notice: We are not going to be invisible or quiet or silent any longer. We matter!

As Rebecca Traister wrote in a New York Times editorial, and as poet Audre Lord, feminist writer Carolyn Heilbrun, and activists like Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too Movement, recognize, what has been denied to women until now is anger and expressions of anger. That stops now. We are speaking up, crying out, and refusing to be silenced any longer.  

So, as I write this commentary a cursory, controlled FBI investigation aimed at appeasement is occurring. The outcome of that investigation and what happens subsequently carries deep significance for our political future. But it doesn’t match the importance of what is happening in our culture as we make change and see it coming, however slowly.

It is coming because of courageous women like Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford, Ana Maria Archilla, Maria Gallagher, and the multitudes of others who will not be silent  any more in the face of violence perpetrated against them. We will no longer defer to malicious men. We will no longer suffer political rape symbolized by the cry to “plow through” uttered by men in power. We will fight with everything we’ve got until men crawl kicking and screaming toward seeing, hearing, believing and respecting women.

It begins with three simple words: “I believe her.” And “thank you, Christine.”

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It's Time to Hold White Collar Criminals and Clergy Accountable

A recent New York Times editorial asked, “Why do we have zero tolerance for some criminals while others get a pass?” In light of what’s happening in government – and the Catholic Church – it’s an important question. So is, What are we going to do about it?

As the Times editorial noted, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, for example, have been cheating people, hiding money and ripping off government for a long time. Much of their behavior was blatantly illegal. How is it they didn’t come to the attention of authorities before now?

Why have white collar crime prosecutions, like tax, corporate and securities fraud, been falling dramatically? In May, 2018, 459 white collar crimes were prosecuted, down 8.4 percent from the previous month, and down 35.4 percent from five years ago, according to Justice Department data. (These are likely to be corporate offenses, not the large-scale crimes involving the government currently.)

Over two million incarcerated Americans are in correctional facilities, ranging from federal prisons to juvenile correction facilities, military prisons, detention centers, and Indian Country jails, according to the website www.trac.syr.edu. Relatively few inmates have committed white collar crimes and only about 150,000 of them on any given day have actually been convicted of a crime. Almost half a million are being held on drug offenses. Over 8,500 young people are behind bars for “technical violations” of probation, and 2,300 youth are incarcerated for “status” offenses, i.e., behavioral issues like truancy. In 2010, incarceration numbers by race per number of people in these groups were Whites, 380; Latinos, 966; Blacks, 2207. What’s wrong with this picture?


White collar crime became a term in 1939 because of concerns that law enforcement was paying too much attention to street crime and not enough to crime committed by people in high status occupations. Today, it seems, without a special counsel investigation to trap white collar criminals, they simply carry on, undetected or un- prosecuted. It doesn’t help that a series of Supreme Court decisions have made it harder to prosecute white collar crime at the same time that enforcement resources have begun to dwindle due to terrorism threats and anti-immigration sentiment.

No one understands how to evade prosecution better than Donald Trump. As a blogger put it on a recent Vox.com blog, “From his empty-box tax scam to money laundering at his casinos to racial discrimination in his apartments to Federal Trade Commission and Securities and Exchange Commission violations, Trump has spent his entire career breaking various laws, getting caught, and then plowing ahead unharmed.” Some role model.


Meanwhile, the revelation of heinous sex crimes within the Catholic Church, from Pittsburgh to the Pope’s back yard, presents another appalling example of white collar crime –by men who literally wear white collars.


I first learned of the travesties of the Catholic clergy from an adult student some years ago. Abused by a priest as a youth, he became a priest “to prove,” he said, “that there could be good priests.” Sometime into his priesthood, he began researching cases of sex abuse within the church and among its hierarchy. That quest led to his leaving the priesthood and conducting in-depth research resulting in a huge database of offenses and who had committed them. He became an educator and advocate, but he fell fatally ill and died at the age of 42. I think of him often now and wonder what he might have contributed as Catholics, and others, confront the huge betrayal of one of the most trusted institutions on earth.

One of the things he told me was that there were a large number of nuns who were “pimping” for priests, so nothing I’ve learned since then actually surprises me. He also said that some of the most prominent church leaders in the U.S. had hired the best lawyers in the country and were getting away with what they had done. The Church, of course, helped by paying off people, relocating priests, and protecting their reputations at all costs.


Now the Church, and the Pope, find themselves in what could be the greatest crisis in the modern history of Catholicism, and rightly so, because no white-collar criminal should be allowed to get away with a crime, least of all a crime that harms the most vulnerable among us.


It’s infuriating to see Donald Trump and his ilk chugging along, one dangerous, cheating affront after another. But it’s deeply disturbing to see Pope Francis, the leader of a nation of sorts who seemed to bring the Church (some kicking and screaming) into the 21st century, remain silent on the crux of the issue before him -- a massive, Mafia-like sub-organization within his Church that has brought terrible suffering to so many. His silence on policy change speaks volumes. Unless he is willing to bring the guilty to justice, what future can there be for his organization? Just as “thoughts and prayers” have proven inadequate in government, so too have they been useless within the Church.

Where justice is called for, there should be no divide between political parties or ecclesiastical liberals and conservatives. Too much is at stake. We are called upon, each and every one of us, to press the leaders of both church and state to have the courage to purge corruption wherever it resides. The time for talk, whether from the Pope or the President, has come. The time is now.

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.

 

           

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.

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.

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!

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.

Immigrants, Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Myths of Migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Horror of Detention Centers is Making a Comeback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Look of Fear on the Human Faces of Misogyny

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Marching with the Multitudes to Make the World Sane Again

MARCHING WITH THE MULTITUDES TO MAKE THE WORLD SANE AGAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resisting Recklessness in the New Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Acceptance is Not a Virtue

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

No! No, no, no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Morning After: Reflections on an Election Gone Wrong

“Stunned into silence. Sitting Shiva for America. God Save Our Souls.”

After watching Hillary Clinton’s extraordinarily gracious concession speech in the aftermath of the election that shook the world, I tweeted those words.

On Facebook’s larger platform I added, “I try to take solace in the thought that some moderate Republicans may vote on crucial issues with the 48 Democrats in the Senate; that in two years we can elect more good Dems to Congress; and that Hillary won the popular vote, which means that good Americans will revolt when things get bad.

What just happened in archetypal terms,” I added, “is that Americans have begun a collective journey that will change us all. On that journey, we must enter the Underground (“dark cave”) and emerge on the other side in order to achieve enlightenment.”

In conversations of shared grief and fear, I reminded people that we survived Nixon and George W. I suggested that Trump’s government will self-destruct, probably pretty quickly. I tried to believe my own words.

I was in a state of mourning when I posted to Facebook in a halfhearted effort to offer hope that we would find our way back to the light at the end of this darkness. I told friends who called or wrote from all over the world that I found some relief in the thought that the Senate would be strengthened by the addition of California’s first female attorney general Kamila Harris, Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator in US history, and feisty veteran Tammy Duckworth.

Then, as spontaneous, peaceful protest marches took place all over the country after the election I did begin to believe my words. I was reassured to see so many people gathered to send a strong message to the president-elect, all proclaiming that Trump is “not my president.” The show of solidarity, no doubt a collective antidote to fear, served notice on the incoming administration that we are everywhere, we are watching, we are not going away, we are not going back, and we will not allow a new government to destroy who we are as a diverse and dignified nation.

But we have work to do and miles to go. As analysts point out, the racist ghosts in our closet have come out. The gaping wounds of racism, misogyny and more in our national psyche cannot simply be bandaged over. To continue the metaphor, these prurient infections need to be properly diagnosed, cleansed, treated and monitored. It won’t be easy or quick but we can no longer ignore the flaws in our hearts and our systems that threaten our collective healing.

We also have a massive amount of political work to do. For a start, we need to eliminate the electoral college, which is no longer relevant. Like keeping kosher, it had its reasons when established, but no longer serves a useful purpose.

We must pass a law that all presidential candidates are required to reveal their taxes during the campaign season, which desperately needs to be shorter and publicly financed.

We need a mechanism for swiftly investigating organizations of state (like the FBI) that may have interfered with the electoral process.

We must ensure that Citizens United is overturned and that Dodd-Frank and other financial reform continues.

We must vote out legislators whose only goal is obstruction and we must insist that judges are seated on Federal and Supreme Court benches who remember that their job is to uphold the Constitution.

We also need to reform voting laws on a national level.

Additionally, we must hold the media responsible for the highest standards of journalism and continually remind them that they are the critical Fourth Estate, without which there can be no true democracy. They must be bold, balanced and aggressive in their reporting, no matter what their networks and sponsors demand.

We must educate the electorate, who know far too little about U.S. civic history, constitutional protections and rights, and the importance of facts, words, and knowledge, all of which form the foundations of democracy. So too does participation in the political process, including voting.

It’s a tall, long term order but a vital one. These measures won’t happen easily or early. But they must be part of our national agenda as we move forward because we have so much work to do in the days ahead and in the aftermath of a Trump administration. 

That’s what I think Tim Kaine meant when he quoted William Falkner: “They kilt us but they ain’t whupped us yit.”

As Betty Davis famously said, it’s time to fasten our seatbelts because it’s going to be a rocky ride. Still, I find comfort in these words I read in a novel just before I wrote this commentary: “Every human heartbeat is a universe of possibilities.” The outcome of this stunning, alarming election remains to be seen, monitored and managed. But in the long term, our human heartbeats may indeed offer a necessary universe of possibility.

 

                       

Getting Real About Guns

Post Orlando, let’s get real. The latest massacre in America, and its worst to date, was not about ISIS. It was not about Muslims or Islam. It was not about mental illness.

It was about guns and how easy they are to obtain in this country. It was about our incredible inability to effect legislation that would do something about what is now recognized as a national embarrassment as well as a continuing national tragedy, one that is finally acknowledged to be a major public health issue.

The shocking numbers support that claim. Last year 469 people died as a result of 371 mass shootings. So far this year at least 288 people have died in 182 mass shootings. Since Orlando, more than 125 people have been killed by guns, 269 were injured, and five mass shootings have occurred. We don’t even hear about most of these events, or the fact that nearly 10,000 American children are killed or hurt by guns every year.  Nationally, guns kill twice as many children and young people as cancer and 15 times more than infection according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Let that sink in.

Here’s another startling statistic. In 2010 there were 3.6 gun murders per 100,000 Americans.  In Canada and Portugal there were 0.5. Many other countries ranked even lower than that, including Australia at 0.2.  (Does anyone seriously think they have fewer mentally ill people per capita than we do?)

Lat month a story in Seven Days revealed that a reporter bought an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in South Burlington, Vt. for $500 cash with “no paperwork and no background check. [The seller] had no idea who I was or what my intentions were,” Paul Heintz wrote. “Nine minutes after I met the man, I drove away with the sort of weapon used 39 hours earlier to slaughter 49 people in Orlando.” A woman in Philadelphia reported a similar experience, beating Heintz’s time by two minutes.

Sadly, my home state of Vermont has the nation’s most permissive gun laws, so what took place when Heintz bought his gun, the same kind that killed all those children and their teachers in Newtown, Ct., was legal. The same kind of gun, by the way, also killed the people in Aurora and the people in San Bernardino.

What will it take to end the madness? One answer comes from a grassroots movement in Vermont, where gun laws have been nearly nonexistent and its politicians have waffled over the issue for years.

Gun Sense Vermont (GSV), an example for others, has been effectively moving reluctant politicians and prospective candidates toward action. Since startup three years ago, GSV’s track record is impressive. It first began a conversation about guns in the Statehouse. Then last year state senators received 1400 letters from constituents along with 12,000 petition signatures calling for action, all from Vermonters. Two Senate committees seriously considered gun-related issues and gun-owning groups announced a plan to lead a Vermont version of the suicide-prevention New Hampshire Gun Shop Project. The Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send a bill to the full Senate making it a state-level violation for felons to have guns, and to require court records of dangerous individuals be submitted to the National Instant Background Check System. And the governor signed into law a bill to prevent gun violence.

“Gun Sense Vermont is a growing, bipartisan, grassroots organization that focuses on closing gaps in Vermont’s gun laws that make it too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands,” says Ann Braden, founder of GSV. “We come from all walks of life and 160 Vermont towns and every voting district. We are united in our call for common sense action that protects the rights of individuals as well as those of our communities.”

After Orlando, Vice President Joe Biden sent a letter to people who signed a petition calling on the government to ban AR-15-type assault weapons from civilian ownership. In it he addressed the thriving gun culture in this country that allows gun violence to continue.  “The President and I agree with you,” he wrote. “Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines should be banned from civilian ownership. … These weapons have been used to commit horrific acts. They’ve been called ‘the perfect killing machines.’”

Then he explained that the 1994 bill that banned assault weapons expired two years ago and was never renewed. How can that be, we might ask. The answer, in two words, is Republican Congress.

The vice president discussed other legal measures that could be taken which were debated and defeated in the Senate last month, a shameful event that resulted in a sit-in by House Democrats demanding action.

Faith leaders, law enforcement officials, businesses, public health experts, the majority of gun owners, and some legislators are calling for legislation that will help put an end to death by gun violence in this country. All over America millions of people are marching, pleading, praying, weeping for gun control. But pleading and prayers won’t do it. Neither will stigmatizing the mentally ill or spewing rampant Islamophobia or fear-mongering about ISIS.

Voting will help do it. That’s why this year is so important.  If we want to confront the gun culture that is ripping our nation apart, now is the time, once and for all, to get real about guns.

 

                       

What's Missing in Dialogues About Poverty?

When six Republicans met in South Carolina recently to discuss combating poverty their focus was predictable. Marco Rubio talked about broken families, dangerous neighborhoods, substandard housing, failing schools, and drug dealers, all while rejecting the idea of raising the federal minimum wage. He argued that welfare should be turned over to states, especially those that have recipient work requirements.

Jeb Bush, who agrees with Rubio on states taking over welfare, blathered about giving Americans the “right to rise.” Ben Carson said that “some people hate rats, some hate roaches, I hated poverty.” And Chris Christie warned against drug addiction as the gateway to incarceration.

Rubio invoked his parents, a bartender and a maid, to extol rising above poverty. But they had jobs which presumably they could get to without too much hassle, steady incomes, and, it would seem, someone to watch the kids.  Bush’s comments smacked of not wanting the problem in his neighborhood, and Carson seemed to equate poor people with vermin.

It reminded me of Paul Ryan and the accolades he received when he said he “could not, and would not, give up [his] family time” to serve as House Majority Leader. But does he hold to that ideal for people who spend hours waiting for several buses to get to two or three minimum wage jobs, worried that there is no “angel in the house” to take care of the kids, and no decent day care? Does he realize, as Judith Shulevitz pointed out in a recent New York Times op ed., that there are more than four times as many American families run by single moms as by single dads, and that a third more households are headed by women on welfare than those run by men?

The fact is the competing Republicans don’t get the reality of poverty. They’ve never lived it and they don’t like it. The only emotion it seems to raise in them is pity. God knows it’s never empathy. Nor do they get the interconnections between major federal issues in need of urgent attention and poverty alleviation.  Shove punitive, top-down, us/them welfare problems back to the states is their mantra. They don’t want to see it and they don’t want to deal with it, because dealing with it means addressing really big issues, and then funding them.

Transportation infrastructure is one example. None of the naysayers has ever had to get to work without a car (and often a driver). How willing would they be to rise in the wee hours of the morning to catch several buses in any kind of weather? How many of them have ridden sophisticated transportation systems in other countries, where wait times are almost nil and connections are well planned so that people who really work for a living can be moved about by the millions with relatively little hassle?

 

How many of the Horatio Alger guys have had to worry about quality, affordable, accessible daycare? Hey People on the Hill: Poor folk don’t have nannies!  They don’t have stay at home spouses. They don’t even have enough food to feed their kids half the time and some of you want to cut food stamps?

Speaking of nutrition, it’s a big part of staying healthy so you can work. So is affordable, accessible, quality healthcare.  It might be worth factoring that into the equation for ending poverty while you’re trying to gut Obamacare or avoid universal health care.

I wish Republicans who talk in clichés would understand important connections like these.

Judith Shulevitz raised an interesting approach in her Times piece. She pointed out that a number of countries are contemplating a “universal basic income” or U.B.I. A proposal in Finland, for example, would experiment with giving every adult 800 Euros (about $870) a month. Switzerland and Canada are among other countries calling for similar experimentation.

The rationale is that it’s a way to reimburse people who lead productive lives, like mothers and other caregivers who don’t receive money for what they contribute to society.  (About thirty years ago a social scientist figured out that if women were remunerated for all they do their worth would be something like $40,000 annually. Imagine what that is in today’s economy!) The U.B.I. also reflects “a necessary condition for a just society,” as Shulevitz puts it. It’s seen as a general entitlement in this framework. It’s also been called “a floor below which nobody need fall.”  

Basic income proposals like this one from both right and left are not new but they are complex. It’s something to think about while good folks genuinely strategize around ending poverty in our rich country. Of course, the Republicans who flap their cake holes about poverty would never consider such an idea.

The thing is, maybe it can help move them toward more rationale, responsible thinking about poverty alleviation. At least they might not dump it all on the states as nothing more than a local problem loaded with society’s detritus.

 

Shut Up and Put Up: A Military Culture of Retaliation When Rape Happens

Sometimes as a journalist one thing leads to another and you suddenly find yourself going down a dark rabbit hole that you hadn’t planned to visit. That’s what happened to me recently when I was writing a piece about how the Veterans Administration’s mental health system and the military in general were failing women in need of care following sexual assault.

I interviewed a lot of women veterans who had suffered military sexual assault while serving their country for that piece and what I heard wasn’t pretty. Nor were the things they said about what had happened to them when they sought help, or when they tried to tell their stories. That’s the part that led me down the rabbit hole, because the truth is retaliation is rampant in the military against those who tell the truth about what happens to victims of abuse.

“It’s a culture of silencing,” one source who’d been warned not to talk to the media told me. “They take away your First Amendment right to free speech.” Then he called me, twice, in a panic.  “Don’t use my name,” he said. “I still work for the VA.” Soon afterwards I got a call from another source who asked that I water down her comments. “My husband still gets his care at the VA,” she explained.

But don’t take my word for it. In May 2015 Human Rights Watch released a report called “US: Military Whistleblowers at Risk” in which it detailed retaliation for reporting sexual assault. “Military service members who report sexual assault frequently experience retaliation that goes unpunished,” the report said after its 18-month investigation in partnership with the human rights organization Protect Our Defenders. “Despite extensive reforms by the Defense Department to address sexual assault, the military has done little to hold retaliators to account or provide effective remedies for retaliation,” the report said, adding that “the Military Whistleblower Protection Act has yet to help a single service member whose career was harmed.”

Let’s put a human face on this travesty. “A Sergeant told me he would kill me if we ever went into Afghanistan because ‘friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens’,” a female soldier told Human Rights Watch.  Another reported that she was assaulted by a cook whose colleagues harassed her so much she couldn’t eat in the mess hall. She “lived off of cans of tuna” for seven months. In another case a female Marine’s name and photo were posted to a Facebook page where other Marines could comment. “Find her, tag her, haze her, make her life a living hell,” someone wrote. Another soldier said she should be silenced “before she lied about another rape.”

Is it any wonder that one advocate I interviewed said she advises women who come to her for help to “get out right now because you life is on the line.” She told me “it’s not unusual for women to go missing” or to have their deaths called a suicide.

A study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2014 revealed that 62 percent of women who reported unwanted sexual conduct to military authorities experienced some form of retaliation. The study also found that 35 percent of women reporting sexual assault suffered an adverse administrative action, 32 percent suffered professional retaliation and 11 percent were punished for infractions after reporting. It didn’t count the number of women who receive pseudo-psychiatric diagnoses like “Borderline Personality Disorder” which is often used to damage or end a victim’s career.

“These sickening stories of retaliation against survivors should make every American angry,” Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) has said. “We keep hearing how previous reforms were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime. Yet there has been zero progress on this front and this mission is failing. Survivors will not be able to get the justice they deserve until we change this business-as-usual climate without any real accountability and create a professional, non-biased and independent military justice system.”

Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, agrees. “When no one is held accountable for retaliation, it creates a hostile environment for all survivors, and sends a message to criminals that they can act with impunity. When a survivor who reports sexual assault is 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation than they are to see their rapist convicted, it demonstrates the military has a long way to go to fix this problem.”

After talking to so many brave women who have suffered terribly, first by being raped and then for telling the truth about it, I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I’ve written their stories here and elsewhere, which has led me to wonder occasionally if I will be retaliated against in some way. So if my column doesn’t appear next month please come looking for me. Maybe you should start with that ultimate black hole – a military brig – where someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to Al Capone may well be watching over me.