Big Brother is Alive, Well and Living in Silicon Valley

 

Leaving aside Donald Trump’s paranoid delusions about social media companies’ biases against him, there are increasingly troubling signs of massive control from industry giants. I realized this when I received a chilling document from Facebook after donating to a charity on Paypal via Facebook.

The five-page document, “Facebook Data Policy,” was shocking, even though I know there is no privacy in the Internet Age. Here is some of what I learned.  Facebook collects copious, varied information about users, “including created and shared content, and messages or communication with others.” Its systems “automatically process content and communications [users] provide to analyze context and what’s in them.”

This is done for many reasons, none of them worry-free. For example, information is collected about “the people, pages, accounts, hashtags and groups” we connect to and how we interact with them across all Facebook “Products,” like Instagram and What’s App.  Facebook knows who we communicate with, when and for how long, what groups we belong to, the content we view, react to, and share, the actions we take. And that’s just for starters.

They collect information about our purchases and financial transactions, what kind of credit or debit card we used, and our contact details. They also “analyze content, communication and information that other people provide [about us] when they use Facebook products.”

Facebook, we are told, “collects information from and about the computers, phones, connected TVs and other web-connected devices you use that integrate with our Products, and we combine this information across different devices you use…to better personalize content, including ads.”

Those are excerpts from page one. Subsequent pages include information about everything from “device attributes and operations” that relate to consumer behavior, “Identifiers” (like “accounts you use”) or access to GPS location, camera and photos. Advertisers, app developers and publishers can send Facebook information about us, and can in turn “provide information about your activities off Facebook, like websites you visit, purchases you make, and ads you see.”

We are warned to consider carefully with whom we share information “because people can see your activity … and can choose to share it with others … including people and businesses outside the audience you share with. … People can share a photo of you in a story, mention or tag you at a location in a post, or share information about you in their posts and messages.” Information is shared “globally and externally” and information “may be transferred or transmitted to, or stored and processed in the U.S. or other countries.” Data is stored until “it is no longer necessary.”

If you haven’t yet read the novel “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, now would be a good time to grab it.  Like “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” it is a frighteningly prescient story of a mega-firm like Facebook that seems wonderful until its sinister control of everyone is no longer stoppable.

A guy named Alistair Mactaggart in California took on Silicon Valley after becoming alarmed at what he learned from Information Age tech friends with amazing results, reported in an August New York Times article. While researching the problem of lost privacy, Mactaggart had learned that the U.S., unlike some other countries, has no single, comprehensive law regulating the collection and use of personal data. Companies can collect and buy information without and limits.  What laws did exist, the ones you never read in the fine print, had been crafted by the companies that rely on personal data.

“Advertisers could buy thousands of data points on virtually every adult in America,” Nicholas Confessore wrote in the Times. “With Silicon Valley’s help, they could make increasingly precise guesses about what you wanted, what you feared and what you might do next. … And no one knew more about what people did or were going to do than Facebook and Google.”

Mactaggart realized that Silicon Valley was transforming politics because the political establishment saw that the key to its future rested in companies like Google and Facebook with a vast capacity for surveillance and information collection. He decided to do something about it. 

The result of his complex efforts was the passage in June of California Assembly Bill 375, the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018.  It is unprecedented in the U.S. and applies European-level compliance obligations similar to a standard set by a General Data Protection Regulation, according to the website www.FocusontheData.com. The law, which takes effect in January 2020, includes new disclosure requirements, consumer rights, training obligations, and potential penalties for noncompliance, among other things.

The law is complicated and comprehensive. Key provisions include the right to transparency regarding personal information, and businesses must provide a clear link on their homepage to a “Do Not Sell My Personal Information” option. Consumers have a right to ask a business to disclose categories and specific bits of personal information the business has collected and they can opt out at any time. There is no private right to action but the California Attorney General can bring actions for civil penalties up to $7,500 per violation.

It’s a start that could become a much-needed national norm. For someone who does online research, sometimes at kinky sites, and as a vocal political lefty, it can’t come too soon.

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.”

                                                            ###

 

 

 

Can We Recapture Norman Rockwell's America?

I first saw him standing beside the pool at a hotel in Lake Attilan, Guatemala.  Wavy grey hair, a slender, erect posture, and his trademark cravat were unmistakable. It was Norman Rockwell. The year was 1972 and I was on my honeymoon. He and his wife Mollie were vacationing. My husband and I greeted him with trepidation, marveling later at his cordiality. That evening we had drinks with the most famous illustrator of his time and his wife. The next day Mollie told me they were leaving their holiday early because Rockwell couldn’t stand being away from his studio for long.  That explained, in part, how the artist I had loved as a child for his Saturday Evening Post Magazine covers could be so prolific.

Recently I visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts to see the exhibit Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition. Seeing some of Rockwell’s paintings again, and the more than 300 covers he did for the Saturday Evening Post, reminded me of my childhood, and more than that, of what America was like in the years of my growing up and beyond.

Paintings like Girl at Mirror in which a young girl dreams of being a woman, or Henry Ford, The Boy Who Put the World on Wheels, featuring a boy about the same age showing off a wooden car he has designed – crafted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ford Motor Company – were lighthearted reminders of what life was like in the mid-20th century. So were more poignant works like the one in which a black family moves into a white neighborhood, scrutinized by local white children, and another in which a little black girl is escorted to school by police.

Rockwell had an amazing way of showing us who we were then, and what we stood for. Today, his work asks us to consider who we are now, and begs the question, can we recapture our goodness and regain our collective humanity? Can his storytelling in pictures, which so brilliantly expresses our shared experiences and multifaceted lives, return us to our better selves?

Nothing in Norman Rockwell’s vast repertoire reveals our fundamental American ideals more than “The Four Freedoms,” featured as Saturday Evening Post covers during the height of World War II. Based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s annual message to Congress two years earlier, the four paintings depict the right to be free in speech and worship as well as to be free from want and fear. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings is one in which a family gathers around the Thanksgiving table while Grandmother serves a large turkey. But who would not recognize the working man speaking at a town hall meeting, reminding us of the freedom of speech? Or the parents tucking their two little ones into bed at night, free from fear? And who among us is not moved by the gathering of immigrants, praying together?

Rockwell’s acclaimed 1950 painting, “Shuffleton’s Barbershop,” now owned by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and on long-term loan, also captures the things in daily life that can be meaningful. In the painting, three amateur musicians enjoy an evening of music in the back room of a barbershop – Rockwell’s hometown barbershop in Arlington, Vermont. Rockwell, who often used his friends and neighbors as models, had the shop’s owner, Rob Shuffleton, model for the fiddler in the back room. It’s a work that speaks to the importance of community and reveals the artist’s affection for, and understanding of, rituals that celebrate the commonplace.

Seeing the great illustrator’s work again seemed very timely. It moved me, as it always does. But it also prompted me to remember with affection, and hope, what America has always stood for, even when it fails to live up to its own principles. Seeing something as simple as a portrayal of a cop helping a runaway kid in a diner made me want to reclaim our human spirit and to remember how we all need to be there for each other. Looking upon a soldier feeding a hungry child reminded me that there is always something we can do to help.  Seeing “Rosie the Riveter” made me feel strong and proud again.

I long for the days, and the kind of people, Rockwell shared with us. I want to see and feel and trust America’s fundamental ideals of democracy, freedom, and human dignity again. I want to be free to speak and to act and I want to be free from fear. But most of all right now, I want to believe that we can return to being the country my immigrant parents came to, the country that enabled me to be who I am, the country I want to love and be proud of again.   

I want to reclaim Rockwell’s America – blemishes and all – because I believe, as he did, that we are fundamentally a good and kind nation, made up of people from all walks of life, all classes and colors, all belief systems, all ages and orientations, who have in common the most important values of all: tolerance, respect, generosity, kindness, and empathy, drawn from hearts that understand and cherish the rituals and rhythms of shared lives.

                                                 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

           

Why the Teacher Strikes Matter So Much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing American Through the African American Lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that, we can all be grateful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beware the Growing Demise of Democracy Globally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think It Can't Happen Here? Think Again

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Barefoot and Pregnant Politics

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sizing Up the World: Growing Smaller While Supersizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is the Democratic Party Disappearing?

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

From Shophouses to Strip Malls: America's Changing Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then things changed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

                                   

America's Assault on Its Antiquities

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Seventeen other senators support the legislation. 

 

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

 

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

 

America's Rural Health Care Crisis Grows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Immigrants, Refugees, Asylum Seekers and the Myths of Migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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