The Global Problem of Child Marriage

Imagine being 23-years old and a promising science student studying on scholarship in England. Then imagine that having lived in the UK for half your life you are being forced by the government to return to your country of origin because your father demands that you marry your older cousin. Imagine that if you refuse, you will likely be killed.

 

That is the horrific story unfolding today about an aspiring astrophysicist whose identity is being protected by The Independent, which told her story last month. It’s a story that is repeated regularly for countless women in many countries who have no place to run. In this case, officials in England claim there is insufficient evidence that this young woman is at risk, despite the fact that she has reported frequent physical and mental abuse by her father and asserted that she and her siblings along with their mother fled to the UK. Her story should not be unbelievable; one in five murders in her native Pakistan are attributed to honor killings committed by fathers and brothers.

 

Now imagine that you have been betrothed at the age of eight, and then married off to your abusive first cousin, aged 34, at the age of 13. That’s what happened to Naila Amin in New York state and it was completely legal. Today Naila, who runs the foundation that bears her name, fights to ban child marriages in New York, which often occur because of loopholes and exceptions in the law.

 

According to a report earlier this year by the Associated Press, the U.S. has approved thousands of requests by men to bring child adolescent brides into the country. The approvals are legal because the Immigration and Nationality Act doesn’t set minimum age requirements. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services goes by whether the marriage is legal in the home country and whether the marriage is legal in the state where the petitioner lives. Naila Amin, like the astrophysicist, was from Pakistan, and a victim of that system.

 

According to a UNICEF report, worldwide there are more than 700 million women alive today who were married before their 18th birthday. More than a third of them were married before the age of fifteen. USAID claims that in the developing world one in three girls are married before age eighteen. Some are as young as eight or nine years old.

 

The minimum age for marriage in most U.S. states is eighteen. But every state has exceptions, including “parental consent” and judicial approval. The founder of the nonprofit organization Unchained at Last, herself a child marriage victim, told the New York Times, “Shockingly, 91 percent of children married in New Jersey were [found to have been] married to older adults [in a study she conducted], often at ages or with age differences that could have triggered statutory rape charges, not a marriage license.”

 

The Tahirih Justice Center, a national organization that protects immigrant women and girls who find themselves in the United States in arranged and abusive marriages, provides legal services and advocacy in courts, communities and Congress. It points out that “there are very few laws and policies in the U.S. that are specifically designed to help forced marriage victims.”

 

The District of Columbia and some states have statutes that criminalize forcing someone into marriage in “certain circumstances” the center says, but “these laws seem designed for other purposes than to prevent parents from forcing marriage or to punish them for forcing their children into marriage. The majority of state criminal statutes arise in the context of laws against abduction, prostitution, and/or ‘defilement.’”

 

Unchained at Last estimates that “given the size of the various communities in the U.S. that are known to practice arranged or forced marriages, which include Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Sikh, Asian, African, Hmong and other communities, hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the U.S. are in arranged/forced marriages.”

 

The story of a woman named Syeda puts a human face on the plight of immigrant women in forced marriages living in the United States. Forced into marriage in Pakistan at the age of sixteen, she first lived with her parents while continuing her studies.  When she was twenty-five her family moved to Boston. Her husband joined her there, moving in with her family. She was immediately subjected to horrific physical and sexual abuse which she endured for months until her family threw her out of the house because she refused to return to Pakistan with her husband. Syeda fled to a women’s shelter and has since taken control of her life. She has earned a college degree, has a job and lives independently. With the help of Unchained she is getting a divorce.

 

Syeda was lucky. But for thousands more children, here and abroad, the nightmare of forced or arranged marriage continues. Clearly, states need to step up their efforts to save these children. All of us need to realize what is happening to them, and to advocate on their behalf.

 

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

 

 

Women Pay the Price in More Ways Than One

It isn’t just the crisis surrounding Draconian measures aimed at controlling our reproductive health, privacy, autonomy, and indeed our lives, that threatens women everywhere. Globally, women continue paying the price of hideous policies and actions devised and implemented by dictatorial men, whose devaluation of women and the human rights for which they advocate, is stunning.

The injury to women activists in a great many countries is often invisible, especially outside their own nations, despite torture, imprisonment, and death. Women suffer atrocities simply because they have had the courage to confront injustices perpetrated by powerful men threatened by women’s voices and acts.  These women need to be recognized and honored for their bravery and sacrifice.

Among them is Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, recently sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. Sotoudeh has advocated on behalf of Iranian women prosecuted for removing their hijabs in public. In 2010, she was convicted of conspiring to harm state security and served half of a six-year sentence. Last June she was rearrested on an array of dubious charges and tried in secret. Charged with seven crimes and given the maximum sentence for all of them, with five additional years added from a 2016 conviction in absentia, the sentence was severe even by Iranian standards.

More recently, Mena Mangal, an Afghan journalist, was killed on her way to work in Kabul because of her work on behalf of women’s rights, and in May a promising Russian feminist journalist, Margarita Virova, 25, died after “falling” from an eighth-floor apartment window which Moscow Times reported as not suspicious.

After the Saudi Arabian government jailed several prominent female activists, many of whom had fought for women’s right to drive, media reports revealed that the incarcerated women had been subjected to torture, including electrocution and flogging, as well as sexual abuse in detention. One woman was made to hang from the ceiling. Another tried to commit suicide.

Joining Saudi Arabia, Sudan has threatened the death penalty against women who resist their own oppression. Last year, Sudanese prosecutors sought the death penalty for Noura Hussein, a teenager in a forced marriage who killed her abusive husband after multiple rapes. Saudi Arabia wants to execute Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist who sought equal rights for Shiite Muslims.

In Iran, Atena Daemi, a human rights activist, has been targeted by authorities for her anti-death penalty position. First arrested in 2014, she is currently serving a seven-year sentence for criticizing executions and human rights violations on social media.

There are many more stories of women who survive the discrimination and violence they live with daily because of their activism. But many women do not survive. Among them was Mariello Franco, a leading voice for poor people living in Rio de Janeiro before she died at the age of 38. Gay and black, she was serving a term on the city council when she and her driver were killed. No arrests were ever made.

Elisa Badayos, a human rights activist who worked on behalf of poor people in Cebu, Philippines trying to find disappeared family members, was murdered along with two colleagues in 2017. She is survived by four children. Again, no arrests were made.

Guadalupe Campanur Tapia, a Mexican activist who worked on environmental issues and the rights of indigenous people, was 32-years old when her body was found on the roadside. In a similar story, Juana Raymundo, a 25-year old Guatemalan nurse who also worked for indigenous rights was tortured before being murdered.

In Iraq, Su’ad al-Ali, president of a human rights organization focused on women and children, was leading a protest in Basra focusing on rising unemployment and corruption when she was shot in the head getting into her car. She was 46 and left behind four young children.

And who can forget the image of Razan al-Najjar, 21, the Palestinian volunteer medic in white shot dead last June when she ran toward a border fence in Gaza to help an injured person? Her last Facebook post read, “I am returning and not retreating.  Hit me with your bullets, I am not afraid.”

All these remembrances represent only a few of the tragic stories of women around the world who have been grievously harmed, or have given their lives, in the name of human rights and social justice. It is good and necessary to honor them and their sacrifices on behalf of multitudes of others.

But it is not enough. It is not enough to lay wreathes on their graves, or to say their names. It is not enough to allow such extraordinary women to remain invisible. It is not enough when the world continues to ignore the issues for which they fought. It is not enough, so long as men still have sufficient power to harm women and girls and to withhold from them their human rights. It is not enough when men can continue to harness female energy and action and silence female voices. It is not enough when men decide who among them shall live and who shall die. It will never be enough until every woman everywhere has the guaranteed right to decide her own course and to live her life freely and unafraid.

Why Harriet Tubman Belongs on the $20 Bill

The lengths this administration will go to in order to erase decisions made by the Obama administration or insult Blacks while signaling white supremacists are nothing short of stunning.

 

Those can be the only reasons that Treasury Secretary Steven Minuchin announced to a House Financial Services Committee meeting in May that the Obama administration’s 2016 decision to substitute Harriet Tubman for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill would “not be an issue that comes up until most likely 2026.”

 

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the U.S. who was elected in 1828, owned about 300 slaves. He is connected to the Trail of Tears, the forced relocations of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to areas usually west of the Mississippi River designated as Indian Territory. He was impeached for attempting to dismiss his Secretary of War, narrowly escaping conviction by the Senate.  Ironically, he opposed both the idea of a National Bank and paper money, yet his face still appears on America’s currency.

 

Compare Jackson to Harriet Tubman, the extraordinary woman who was born a slave and became the abolitionist and activist most well known for rescuing slaves, family and friends via at least a dozen trips on the network of safe houses known as the “Underground Railroad.”

 

Tubman, born into slavery in Maryland in 1820 or 1821, once said of her own journey to freedom, “I had crossed the line, I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”  But she saw to it that others, whose tears she had seen and whose sighs and groans she had heard, as she put it, found welcome on their difficult and dangerous journeys, because she had vowed to “give every drop in my veins to free them.”

 

In 1850, having escaped slavery, she returned to Maryland after learning that her niece was about to be auctioned off.  Leading her to safety, she went on to rescue more than 70 other slaves at that time, continuing her mercy missions until the Civil War broke out. She is thought to have saved as many as 3,000 slaves and she never failed in a single rescue, earning the name “Moses.”

 

Tubman, who was illiterate, often used disguises, sometimes pretending to read a newspaper or dressing like a field hand with chickens in tow. She also used spirituals and other songs as code for her followers. She managed to avoid police, dogs, mobs, and slave catchers, and often slept in swamps, moving on only at night. Known as the “black ghost,” the bounty on her head was about $12,000 or $330,000 in today’s terms.

 

During the Civil War she served as an army nurse on the Union side, and scouted or spied behind enemy lines. On one famous mission in South Carolina, she helped free 700 slaves in one go. Having worked for the army for three years, she applied for veteran’s compensation when the war ended. It took 34 years for her to get it after President Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward intervened. She was 78 years old at the time.

 

Although impoverished after the War, Tubman became active in the women’s suffrage movement, traveling to New York and Washington to give speeches despite having occasional seizures resulting from a childhood injury.  In the 1890s she underwent brain surgery to alleviate lifelong headaches, refusing anesthesia for the operation as she had seen soldiers do.

 

Harriet Tubman’s life came to an end in 1913 in Auburn, NY in a home for the aged that she had founded. She was 91 years old and was buried with military honors not far from the grave of William Seward. She had lived an amazing life, especially for an African American woman at that time.

 

This is the woman the Trump administration refuses to honor on the $20 bill.

New Yorker Dano Wall, an artist who's been working with 3D printers since 2012, has created a stamp that allows users to superimpose Tubman's face over Jackson's on the $20 note. Previously available online as an act of civil disobedience, it has quickly sold out since the delay was announced by Minuchin. Wall reported in May, shortly after the announcement, that he’d received over 2,000 requests for more stamps.  Apparently, the notes with the Tubman stamp have been used successfully in vending machines, although shops and banks may not recognize them as legal tender – yet.

Still, if $20 Tubman bills keep turning up, it’s enough to send a signal to the Treasury Department and the Oval Office. Who knows? It might even make the racist Andrew Jackson turn over in his grave. Holy Moses!

Girls and Young Women Will Suffer Most from Anti-abortion Madness

Reading Facebook posts these days has become an exercise in masochism for many of us. Daily horrific posts reveal various forms of violence against the least powerful among us.

Among the victims of such violence are young women and “emerging adult” females. A recent post referenced an eleven-year old girl in Ohio pregnant by rape. Given Ohio’s newly proposed anti-abortion legislation, she could be forced to carry the fetus to term. That’s nothing short of state-sanctioned child abuse. State after state, the same kind of cruelty could be repeated.

We have heard little about the full impact of Draconian measures aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade on women’s mental and physical health, but of this you can be sure: The impact will be more drastic the younger the girl or woman subjected to such measures.

It should be noted that research reveals having a safe, legal abortion does not pose mental health problems for women. According to Lucy Leriche, Vice President of Public Policy, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, “over 95 percent of women who have had an abortion report feeling relief that outweighs any negative emotion they might have, even years later.”

In contrast, a statement last month by the Activism Caucus of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) makes clear the psychological damage that will be inflicted on girls (and women) from restrictions on their reproductive rights, none more so than the hideous laws Alabama and other states want to impose.

“Growing girls learn that in crucial, life-altering ways, the government has more control over their bodies than they do. This is important for many reasons, one of which is that a sense of control has been shown repeatedly in psychological research to be important to mental health and well-being,” write psychologists Paula J. Caplan and Joan Chrisler on behalf of the AWP. “Rape and incest are examples of extreme loss of control, and at least in some cases, making the decision to have an abortion after rape and incest are important parts of healing, which the Alabama law prohibits.”

Like domestic abuse and sexual assault, current proposed and passed laws are about power and control, and men’s fear of losing that power and control. The laws aim to remove any sense of agency from women, over their bodies and their lives. In their worst form, they are a manifestation of terrorism in which a women’s body is owned by the state, as it was in the chilling novel, The Handmaids Tale. Laws that attempt to incarcerate a woman for crossing state lines to have an abortion, laws that can send her or her physician to jail for life, laws that in the extreme could result in executing a woman for having an abortion reveal the pure evil underpinning these laws.

Let’s remember that the same men (and yes, some women) who want to torture girls and women in these ways are the same men (and women) who legislate against ensuring the health, safety, education, and well-being of the babies born of this unspeakable coercion, and who rabidly support capital punishment.

Even if these reactionary attempts to challenge women reproductive and human rights were to fail, “the blaming and shaming of girls and women who choose to use birth control measures or who choose to have abortions causes fear, self-doubt, low self-confidence, feelings of being unsafe, and beliefs that others consider [women and girls] unable to make major, or ethical decisions,” the AWP points out.

The truly heartbreaking thing is that once shamed, fearful, self-doubting, and depressed, it is almost impossible to regain a sense of personhood or control over one’s life. That kind of despair, in which it seems impossible to envision a way out, especially prevalent in the young, can easily lead to self-destructive behavior, including suicide.

Some years ago, when I worked in Romania on reproductive rights, I saw the damage done to girls, women, and children during the time of the dictator Ceausescu. His regime required all girls graduating from high school to undergo a pelvic exam to determine if she was pregnant. Every working woman was also subjected to monthly pelvic exams in their workplaces. These cruel practices were enforced to ensure that all pregnancies were carried to term. I saw the results of that grotesque policy in the Casa Copii – orphanages where unwanted babies were dumped. Many of the children were visibly impaired, physically and mentally. Others suffered in ways that can only be imagined. Very few of them, I’m certain, had any vision of a happy future. It was worse than Dickensian and it broke my heart.

What is happening in this country now is not far removed from the tragedies that have occurred because of pronatalist policies elsewhere. The lack of humanity, morality, and ethics inherent in such policies is stunning. It leaves one speechless. Incredulous. Furious. Grieving.

But it must not leave us silent.

We must march in unity, speak out vociferously, resist mightily, vote, and support the #SexStrike movement together. Most of all, we must refuse to sacrifice our young and our females on the alters of misogyny and in the chambers of violence. Our survival as sentient beings depends upon it.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health and social justice issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com

Missing in Action: Democrats, Media, Public

Following the debacle created by Attorney General William Barr when he decided unilaterally that Donald Trump wasn’t guilty of collusion or obstruction of justice, it seems appropriate to declare that we are facing dark times in America. It should be clear by now that we are experiencing an unprecedented, deeply dangerous Constitutional crisis that begs the question: Why aren’t Democrats, some media, and the public reacting more vigorously to the growing nightmare of encroaching autocracy, if not outright dictatorship?

Political pundits will continue to deconstruct what happened following the release of the Mueller report for some time. Ideas about what went wrong and why regarding the myriad illegalities rapidly turning us into a Banana Republic will, we hope, ultimately be revealed. I leave that discussion to others.

I am compelled instead to focus on damaging failures by a disturbing number of Democratic leaders, some seasoned media figures, and a somnolent public, who seem insufficiently concerned with the serious threat this country faces: The creeping death of our Republic, so carefully crafted on a a set of principles grounded in the highest ideals and structured in a way as to ensure their continuity.

Now, more than 200 years later, as we watch those principles and ideals being decimated and discarded, how can it be that – with so many canaries in the coalmine – about 40 percent of Americans appear to be inured to the dangers ahead as we face a Constitutional crisis of huge proportion. I repeat: A Constitutional, not a political, crisis that every sentient citizen ought to be deeply troubled by, and none more so than our elected officials.

And yet the speaker of the House of Representatives, and other Democrats, say that Donald Trump isn’t worth impeaching. Or that it’s too soon to impeach. Or that we need more solid evidence of the deep, pervasive culture of corruption this administration and this president have spawned.

I am reminded of the saying, “Today may be too soon, but tomorrow will surely be too late.” For while I understand the argument for taking the time to build a solid case for impeachment in the face of Republican’s incalcitrant political posturing and lack of moral or ethical behavior, I also worry that a duplicative, drawn out inquiry, and more dangerously, expecting voters to rid us of our present scourge at the polls next year is sheer folly. Too many voters don’t seem to understand what’s happening before their eyes and many of them have no interest in the Mueller report. They put Donald Trump in office – or at least the Electoral College did – and now they want to “move on,” while disinformation, voter disenfranchisement, and Russian hacking are likely to grow.

It bears repeating that this is not a political issue. It’s not even solely a moral or ethical issue. We are living through a failure of conscience, of intellect, and of will that every American needs to understand and face with the utmost consciousness. One need only remember the terrible travesties of this administration – the caging of children, the scapegoating of Muslims, the sanctioning of violence, hate crimes, and white supremacy, the vile utterings and copious lies of an ill-equipped and often cruel leader who reveres dictators, the injustices increasingly suffered by so many Americans, the rape of sacred lands and pollution of the environment, the dangerous rollbacks in regulation in the name of profit, the threat of nationalizing media and arresting journalists, and more.

Consider just this one fact:  The Justice Department has itself just obstructed justice. People can argue that we need to address “real issues,” like health care, jobs and the economy. I agree that the media has failed to expose numerous policy issues we face while allowing Mr. Trump to suck all the oxygen out of the air waves. But none of these things will ever be attended to if we don’t recognize the urgency of defeating autocracy before it’s too late.

As for the canaries in the coalmine, none is more prescient, it seems to me, than the deepening misogyny and racism we are witnessing. Where, for example, were the Democrats in Congress when Ilhan Omar was vilified because she is a woman, a person of color, and a Muslim? 

And surely the media, while drawing attention to dangerous Trumpian demagogues hell-bent on destroying our systems of governance, needs to cover more fairly the competent women running for president. Every one of us should be outraged by moves to marginalize, trivialize, and punish these extraordinary women. Such dismissal of women as potential candidates reveals the underbelly of countries dominated by patriarchal autocracies.

The late Norman Birnbaum, illustrious journalistic and scholar, noted that “Modern authoritarianism is not subtle, but it is omnipresent.” He also said “Avoidance, falsification, and trivialization mark our encounter with past and future.” He was right -- modern authoritarianism is staring us in the face.

Let’s hope, therefore, that Winston Churchill was also right. If we act wisely, this may not be “the beginning of the end.” With enough courage to impeach, perhaps it is “the end of the beginning.” A new beginning couldn’t be more timely or urgent.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics and social justice from Saxtons River, Vt.

 

Women Beware! Birth Control, Abortion, and Your Healthcare Are at Risk

 

You’re a middle-class mom with two kids, a mortgage, a fragile marriage, and an elderly parent to care for when you find yourself pregnant. You’re a sexually active college student and because of a condom failure you’re pregnant. You’re pregnant with a wanted child when you learn your fetus has a serious anomaly and probably can’t survive outside the womb. You are a rural woman with limited income who gets routine healthcare at a Planned Parenthood now threatened with closure.

Variations on stories like these abound. For all kinds of women, and their advocates, they are terrifying, as federal and state legislators continue gunning for Planned Parenthood and vehemently resisting female autonomy, privacy, and decision-making.    

As a recent New York Times piece by the editorial board stated, “In its continuing assault on reproductive rights, the Trump Administration has issued potentially devastating changes to the nation’s nearly 50-year-old family planning program, Title X, which allows millions of women each year to afford contraception, cancer screenings, and other critical health services.”

To be clear, health clinics like Planned Parenthood have been barred from using federal funds for abortions, but they have been able to to offer non-federally funded abortions and other family planning services under one roof. Now the Department of Health and Human Services wants to make clinics that provide abortions navigate ridiculous regulations if they want to receive Title X funds. I mean ridiculous regs, like having separate entrances for abortion patients, or establishing an electronic health records system separate from their regular system. Providers will also be prohibited from making abortion referrals, or providing information that adheres to standards for “informed consent.”

In addition to threats at the federal level, more and more states are attempting to pass ridiculous anti-abortion laws, like requiring wider hallways or revamping janitor’s closets.

More Draconian is the unethical “domestic gag rule” that allows so-called “pro-life” staffers in Title X facilities to say a particular procedure doesn’t exist or to lie to patients about false risks of abortion.

As Dr. Leana Wen, the new president of Planned Parenthood, told The New York Times, “There will be many providers that will face an impossible decision: to participate in Title X and be forced to compromise their medical ethics, or to stop participating in that program,” a step that would lead to overwhelming demand for reproductive health care but not much in the way of supply to respond.

Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, states have been constructing a maze of abortion laws that codify, regulate and limit whether, when and under want circumstances a woman can have an abortion, as the Guttmacher Institute points out. Major provisions to states laws, some on the books, other in litigation or defeated, include requiring that abortions be performed in a hospital or set gestational limits on abortion.

One example is the attempt to ban abortions when a faint heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks, before a woman may know she is pregnant. Another is state restrictions on coverage of abortion in private insurance plans, and states allowing individual health care providers to refuse to participate in abortions. Some states mandate that a woman have counseling, including information on purported links between abortion and breast cancer, the ability of a fetus to feel pain, or long-term mental health consequences for the woman.

The Trump administration clearly wants to evict Planned Parenthood from the federal family planning program. It also hopes to ban abortion referrals. At the state level, early abortion bans called “heartbeat bills” are being proposed in several states. So far, five of them have advanced this legislation but every “heartbeat bill” passed to date has been overturned in state or federal court. With Judges Gorsuch and Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, who know what will happen?

Five states have already passed preemptive “trigger laws” which would immediately ban abortion outright if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Several abortion cases are currently in federal appeals courts or pending litigation in various states. Lawsuits are challenging such issues as required waiting periods, required ultrasounds, 15-week bans, admitting privileges, abortions for minors, and Medicaid coverage.

The situation, not only for women seeking their constitutional right to abortion, but for women – and men - seeking appropriate, quality, accessible, affordable reproductive health care ranging from preventive screening and contraception to treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, grows ever more dire as the Trump administration, and state legislators attempt to control what should be women’s private, personal decisions.

The irony is that rules rooted in anti-abortion (and anti-sex education) feelings threaten access to contraception, which prevents unwanted or unintended pregnancy and consequently increases health care costs in a nation where the cost of care is already skyrocketing.  Can anyone explain why that makes sense? 

More importantly, perhaps, can anyone fathom what would happen without Planned Parenthood?

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

www.elayne-clift.com

 

 

Can We Get Israel's BDS Issue Straight Once and For All?

As an American Jew who supports Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) in response to Israel’s violence against and persecution of Palestinians, I was appalled to see a list of congress-people, especially Democrats, against the BDS movement. I understand their reluctance to go public on the issue – even those who actually agree with BDS - because they take large sums of money from individuals and lobbying organizations seeking their support of Israel, right or wrong.

However, the time has come to make clear to politicians and regular people alike that the BDS movement is aimed at stopping the Israeli policy of inhumane treatment of Palestinians. It is not an anti-Semitic point of view.  People like me support BDS as a movement because we are against Israeli policy – not against Jews or the right of a Jewish state to exist. 

Why, I wonder, is that distinction so difficult to grasp and elucidate? I’d like to have a dollar for every time I’ve been tagged an anti-Semite by friends and family because I criticize Israel’s policy – not Jews.

As a human being sickened by Israel’s apartheid policies, and yes, that’s what they are, policies that translate into violence against an entire people, I ask this: What if another country – say Germany – was doing to --say Jews – what Israel is doing to Palestinians? Would people shout terms like “anti-Semite” at those decrying cruelties against an ethnic group?

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., headlined by many in the media as a Muslim freshman in the House of Representatives, (emphasis mine) was pilloried when she spoke out as so many others have done, and was immediately tagged an “anti-Semite.”  I would argue that the attacks on her are not so much about anti-Semitism as they are about anti-Muslim sentiment.

Omar, as you will recall, used the term “Benjamins” in a tweet that set Twitter on fire. Let’s be clear: Ben Franklin’s picture appears on the US $100 bill. “Benjamins” was a term coined to refer to money, especially large amounts of it, as in “I’m broke! Can you lend me a Benjamin?” It was coopted to refer to Jews with money and has now become a trope to convey anti-Semitism. I wonder if Ilhan Omar even knew that.

In response to the accusations against Omar, Rashida Tlaib, the other Muslim woman elected to the House of Representatives, said, “This is the U.S. where boycotting is a right and part of our historical fight for freedom and equality.” The ACLU agrees. That’s why they are fighting against laws, already in place in many states, mandating state contractors to sign a pledge stating they don’t participate in boycotts of Israel or the settlements.

In Texas, several people including a school speech pathologist and a teacher have already lost their jobs.  It all smacks of McCarthyism, and violates the Constitution and its guarantee of the First Amendment right to free speech.

Let’s be very clear: As the Palestinian BDS National Committee puts it, The BDS movement is a global campaign promoting various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets what the campaign describes as “Israel’s “obligation under international law,” defined as withdrawal from the occupied territories, removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and “respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.” Nothing anti-Semitic about it.

Protests, conferences, and conversations in support of the campaign have taken place in numerous countries while support for the BDS movement grows. This movement is not run by anti-Semites, but by people of conscience representing all faiths, including a global coalition of 40 Jewish groups from 15 countries that has issued a statement condemning attempts to stifle criticism of Israel with false accusations of anti-Semitism.

In its 2017-18 “Report Freedom,” Amnesty International cited numerous violations of human rights currently being implemented in Israel. Among them are illegal air, land and sea blockades of the Gaza Strip, now in its 11th year, humanitarian crises resulting from reduced access to electricity, reductions in clean water and sanitation, diminished health services and more, making Gaza “unlivable” according to the United Nations.

In the West Bank, Palestinians are restricted in their movements by military checkpoints and firing zones and live in fear of collective punishment. The report documents arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, unlawful killings, excessive use of force, violence against women and girls, limitations on association and assembly, denial of refugees and asylum seekers, and punishment of conscientious objectors.

America stood by far too long as genocides occurred in countries all over the world, despite post-Holocaust pledges of “Never Again!” None of those events led to labeling meant to shame those who spoke out against such passivity.  Yet when it comes to Israel, the anti-Semitism charge is immediately invoked. It is the refuge of scoundrels. Among those scoundrels are politicians eager to accept money from those who remain willfully blind to Israeli atrocities.

It’s time that politicians and ordinary people alike stand up to Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing. It’s time to recognize what happens when people like Ilhan Omar, and me, speak out. It’s time to support BDS.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, health, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com 

 

 

Will Afghan Women Pay the Price of a Peace Plan?

Khadija was 23-years old when she set herself on fire in December 2017. She had a three-month old baby but still she set herself alight. Such was the horror of her life as a young wife and mother in Afghanistan. A victim of domestic abuse, physically and emotionally, she survived third degree burns. “I am not alive, but I am not dead.” Khadija says. “Women are all handcuffed in this country.”

Her story, reported in TIME Magazine last December, is not atypical. Here’s another provided by an advocate in Kabul who says that because of her work she “could be killed at any moment.” Just before her 16th birthday, a young woman who was to be married to her cousin, tried to jump off a sixth-floor balcony. She said that her uncle – father of the groom - had been raping her since she was 10 years old.

These stories, and many others, illustrate why women attempt or commit suicide in such high numbers in a country where an estimated 3,000 people kill themselves every year, 80 percent of whom are women.

Afghanistan is one of the most challenging places in the world for women to survive. Many of them die in pregnancy or childbirth, 85 percent have no formal education and are illiterate, and their life expectancy is 51.  Forced marriage is the norm, usually before age 18. In 2012, 240 honor killings were reported but the real number is likely higher.

Under Taliban rule (1996 to 2001), women were controlled to such a degree that they were rendered invisible. They could be stoned to death for minor infractions of Taliban law. They could not leave their homes without a male relative, attend school, shop, or show their ankles. Widows were forced to beg, and then beaten for it.

Now, Afghanistan’s 2015 National Action Plan says it will offer equal rights for women, a commitment that Democratic senators are urging the Trump administration to ensure as peace negotiations proceed. 

A Taliban spokesman has said that “if peace comes and the Taliban returns, [it will not be] in the same harsh way as it was in 1996.” He added that while the Taliban weren’t against women’s education or employment, they wanted to “maintain cultural and religious codes,” adding, “we will be against the alien culture clothes worn by women and brought to our country.” Does that signal the return of blue burqas?

A Gallup survey conducted last summer revealed notably low levels of optimism in the country. While findings were not disaggregated by gender, we know that Afghan women suffer disproportionately in a country ranked the worst place in the world to be female.

“It hurts me to say this but the situation is only getting worse,” says Jameela Naseri, a lawyer at the NGO Medica Afghanistan, an arm of the German-based Medica Mondiale, which helps women and girls in crisis zones. She calls what happens to women in Afghanistan “a war on women.”

An Afghan diplomat promised anonymity told a journalist recently that “the government wants to say they’re prioritizing women, but they’re really not. Supporting women in Afghanistan is something people all over the world pay lip service to, but money and aid never get to them. It’s eaten by corruption.”

Last February, Afghanistan passed a criminal code hailed by the UN Assistance Mission there as a milestone. But one chapter of the code was removed before the law was passed. It was the one penalizing violence against women.

In a recent piece on Radio Free Europe, reporter Frud Bezhan noted that, “With increased talk of peace in Afghanistan, the Taliban is projecting itself as a more moderate force….The Taliban said in a statement issued on February 4 that it was committed to guaranteeing women their rights – under Islam – and ‘in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.’”

 But in the same statement, Bezhan said, “the Taliban also suggested it wants to curtail the fragile freedoms gained by women since the U.S.-led invasion…prompting concern among Afghan rights campaigners.”

That concern is legitimate. The Taliban has denounced “so-called women’s rights activists” and has said that “due to corruption, the expenses brought and spent under the title of women’s rights have gone to the pockets of those who raise slogans of women’s rights. Under the name of women’s rights, there has been work for immorality, indecency, and the promotion of non-Islamic cultures.”

No wonder Afghan women are worried. Says activist Samira Hamidi, “According to the Taliban, we are so-called activists who are responsible for poor health, lack of education, and violence against women.”

“We are not turning back,” promises Fawzia Koofi, a female member of the Afghan parliament. “Anyone who wants to do politics [here] needs to respect the human freedoms, including the rights of women.

Adds Jameela Naseri, “Afghan women need to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait for the government and international charities to save or liberate us.”

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Why Are So Many Native American Women Abused, Missing and Murdered?

Savanna Greywind was a young woman in Fargo, North Dakota about to give birth in a few weeks when she was brutally murdered. Leona LeClair Kinsey was an older woman living in Oregon when she went missing eighteen years ago. She is still missing. RoyLynn Rides Horse, a Crow tribal member, died in 2016 after being beaten, burned, and left in a field to die.

These stories are all too common, but statistics about how pervasive the problem is are hard to find. Many cases go unreported, others aren’t well documented, and no centralized database exists in the U.S. government to track cases.

 According to the Indian Law Resource Center, violence against indigenous women in the U.S. has reached unprecedented levels on tribal lands and in Alaska Native villages. More than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. Alaska Native women have reported rates of domestic violence up to 10 times higher than in the rest of the United States. On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at more than ten times the national average.

“You really have to contact tribe by tribe, family by family, to really see the true impact,” one advocate says. “We are shoved under the rug by corruption even in our own homelands,” says another. “I’m here to say we will not be shoved under the rug anymore.”

At the heart of the problem is the longstanding indifference and hostility to Native Americans, especially Native American women, which can be traced back to the days when separating Native people from their families and homes and denying them their culture was a deliberate attempt to destroy Native beliefs, ways of life, even people.

Continuing racism and sexism contribute to the impression that indigenous women are assailable, says Barbara Perry, a profess at the University of Ontario. “It’s not unusual for women of color generally to be perceived as inferior to white people as a class and inferior white women as a subclass.”

The effects of these travesties remain present in unique ways for Native women. In addition to suffering sex trafficking, sexual violence, and the risk of being disappeared, they are often homeless, living in dire poverty, and totally disconnected from their families and communities.  

Now they face a new vulnerability from the flood of non-native workers into oil-rich regions or near reservations. Of particular concern is the workers who will lay the Keystone XL pipeline running from Canada through Montana, Illinois, and Texas, bringing many more workers into the “man camps” being built along the way. The problems that these camps bring is particularly acute in a region stretching across 200,000 square miles along the Montana-North Dakota state line. Attacks there on Native American women have increased dramatically as tens of thousands of transient oil workers have inhabited the temporary housing known as man camps.

Tribal law enforcement has no jurisdiction over non-native men who assault Native American women on reservations, according to Cheryl Bennet, an Arizona State University professor. “If a white person commits murder or rape against a Native American person, the federal government would have jurisdiction over those crimes instead of the tribe or state government.” But when tribal law enforcement sent sexual abuse cases to the FBI and U.S. Attorney Offices, federal prosecutors declined more than two-thirds of the cases, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.

In recent months, the plight of Native women has begun receiving attention thanks to a growing activist movement that is being heard in state capitals and on Capitol Hill. Last year Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), defeated in the November mid-term election, introduced a bill to standardize law enforcement protocols relating to missing and murdered Native Americans. It attracted sixteen co-sponsors but didn’t make it out of committee.  

At the state level, Republican Rep. Gina McCabe introduced a House bill in Washington State that would bring the federal, state, and federally recognized sovereign tribal governments together to ensure that everyone in the state who goes missing is reported and listed in a central location. The bill, now making its way through the legislative process, mandates that the State Patrol creates a list of missing Native American women in Washington by June this year, working together with tribal and non-tribal police agencies.

May 5, 2017 marked the first National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Twelve years earlier, the movement for the safety of Native women, largely spearheaded by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) and other groups, had led the struggle to include a separate title for Native women, called Safety for Indian Women, in the Violence Against Women Act. It was a start in raising awareness of this national issue but much more needs to be done.

More than half of Native American women have been sexually assaulted, including over a third who have been raped during their lifetime. That rate is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than for white women, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice study.

As the NIWRC said at the first National Day of Awareness, “Before this crisis is sufficiently addressed, it must first be acknowledged.”

That means by all of us.

                                                            # # #

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.www.elayne-clift.com

 

 

 

Women vs. Fetus: Is Social Control Out of Control?

Not long ago, a woman in late pregnancy suffering severe depression tried to commit suicide. She survived but her baby died. She was charged with murder. A pregnant woman who lost her unborn child in a car accident in New York state was charged with manslaughter. So was a woman in Indiana who gave birth to a stillborn baby.

 

Even in cases where a fetus hasn’t died, pregnant women have been charged with crimes in various states – for miscarrying, falling down the stairs, failing a drug test, or taking legal drugs during pregnancy, often prescribed by doctors.

 

These examples, reported in a recent New York Times series exploring “legislative intrusions into the womb,” reveal a paternalism that is not new, but is alarming, and growing in the Trump era. They are also reminiscent of other frightening autocratic and dictatorial eras. Hitler, for example, “recruited” German women to produce Aryan children. Under the Romanian dictator Ceaușescu, assassinated in 1989, women were subjected to monthly pelvic exams in their workplaces while high school girls were routinely digitally raped by male doctors to ensure that all pregnancies were carried to term. In The Handmaid’s Tale, resurrected in the face of Trumpian resistance to reproductive freedom, forced insemination of those selected to be Mothers is assisted by designated Wives.

 

If all of this is disgusting to imagine it should be because it derives from a vile act of social control. Such control, still relatively rare but growing, is already occurring in America.

 

Here’s just one example.  Politicians in Ohio recently considered a bill that could have allowed abortions to be punishable with life sentences or the death penalty. The proposed law, would have extended the definition of a person in Ohio's criminal code to include the "unborn human." That meant that a fetus, from conception to birth, would be considered a person, leaving people who perform abortions or women who have them vulnerable to severe criminal penalties.

 

According to the ACLU, at least 38 states have fetal homicide laws, most of which relate to fetuses killed by violent acts against pregnant women. So-called pro-life advocates use laws like the Fetal Protection Act, the Preborn Victims of Violence Act and the Unborn Victim of Violence Act to argue that fetuses are persons, or “a child in uterus,” and need to be protected in all circumstances.

 

The ACLU argues that “a pregnant woman and her fetus should never be regarded as separate, independent, and even adversarial, entities. Yet that is precisely what some anti-choice organizations, legal theorists, legislators, prosecutors, doctors and courts have attempted to do in the past decade.”

 

Legislation designed to protect fetuses can take different forms, the ACLU points out. All of them endanger reproductive rights. States may amend existing homicide statutes to include fetuses as victims, they can pass statutes defining a fetus as a person, or establish a new crime category called “feticide” or fetal homicide. They can also permit civil suits against anyone who causes the death of a fetus, or enact new statutes to penalize injury to a pregnant woman that causes fetal death or injury. This law is aimed primarily at practitioners, which flies in the face of the constitutional right to choose, established by Roe v. Wade, which calls for abortion to be exempt from punishment when performed by “health care workers with the consent of the woman or in medical emergencies, and self-abortions.”

 

Clearly, fetal protection legislation fosters the policing of pregnancy, just as it did in Romania. It makes it more likely that practitioners will become overzealous, thereby complicating routine healthcare decisions. In Florida, for example, a woman was told by her doctor that he would send law enforcement to her home if she didn’t get to the hospital immediately for a C-section. A New Jersey mother lost custody of her newborn after refusing a surgical delivery.

 

All of this raises the larger, deeply troubling issue of social control, which usually comes at the expense of women. Writing in The Atlantic’s latest issue, editor Peter Beinart sounds this alarm: “Authoritarian nationalism is rising in a diverse set of countries [for various reasons, but] right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing, which often goes unrecognized in the U.S.: They all want to subordinate women.”

The question is why, and Valerie M. Hudson, a political scientist at Texas A&M, has this answer: “It’s vital to remember that for most of human history, leaders and their male subjects forged a social contract: ‘Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.’ This political hierarchy appeared natural—as natural as adults ruling children—because it mirrored the hierarchy of the home. Thus, for millennia, men, and many women, have associated male dominance with political legitimacy. Women’s empowerment ruptures this order.”

In other words, keeping women “barefoot and pregnant” is essential to patriarchy. Autonomous women liberated from childbearing, empowered with reproductive choice, unleashed into the marketplace, the academy, and government threaten male power. That reality has played out in various forms throughout history.

Seeing it happen in the 21st century is unacceptable.

                                                            # # #

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. www.elayne-clift.com

Beginning the New Year, Eyes Wide Open

“People are slow to recognize events taking place around them. They have other priorities, events happen invisibly, changes are incremental, people keep recalibrating.”

That quote, from an article in the November issue of Smithsonian Magazine, appears in the introduction to a story of a young Jewish girl’s diary written during WWII and only recently discovered.  Her name was Renia Spiegel and she was murdered by Nazis when she was 18.

The quote jumped out at me because as 2018 was coming to a close I found myself increasingly concerned about the precipice we seem to be facing as American democracy steals ever closer to dangerous and perhaps irrevocable decline. The rapidity with which we are descending into unprecedented political depravity was alarming in itself, but so too was the fact that so many people didn’t appear to understand what was happening, or didn’t seem to care.

One can perhaps understand the lack of gravity among people too young to remember the terror of 1930s Europe or our own crisis of the 1960s and the Nixonian blight, but how, I wondered, could the worries of the present, and the warnings from those who witnessed WWII through the lens of global aggression, hatred, prejudice, and violence not be taken more seriously?

We are not, of course, the only country flirting with or openly embracing fascism. Almost all of Europe is now threatened with reprisal of a time, and a scourge, we thought impossible to repeat when the war ended. Many other regions of the world from South America to the Philippines are also facing threats, or the reality, of dictatorship. It’s a situation we all need to be aware of and to resist mightily. After all, to where does one flee when the majority of nations have succumbed?

But our country has other trouble signs that don’t exist elsewhere and they need attention and action too.

We are virtually the only “developed” nation in the world that has chosen to ignore the visible, verifiable science of climate change.

We are a country unable to enact gun laws that could keep our children from being murdered.

We are a country in which white men, like outrageous sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, or crime partner Michael Cohen, can negotiate their way out of appropriate jail time despite serious crimes they’ve committed, while black men caught with a bit of marijuana in their possession a decade or two ago languish in jail, and women like Cyntoia Brown, a victim of sex abuse and trafficking who killed her 43-year old abuser when she was 16, gets a life sentence with a 50-year wait for possibility of parole. 

We are a country that lets people die for lack of access to massively expensive healthcare, a country that stands by as our sacred lands and national parks are drilled, fracked, and mined, our water is polluted, and our kids can’t get a decent meal in school, which for many is their only solid meal a day.

We are a country in which decent people seeking safety and the dignity of work are torn from their children and an agency like ICE can detain and deport them at will while holding their kids hostage in cages and desert jails.

We are a country (although not the only one) where hate crimes and violent rhetoric and behavior have escalated dramatically in the last year, and where anyone perceived as Other is fair game for such crime and violence.

And we are a country where legislators try their damnedest to forbid women control over their bodies and agency over their lives.

It’s enough to take anyone’s breathe away and it makes it really hard to “go high,” as Michele Obama would say, because there seems to be no end to how low people who have no business in government are willing to go.

For two years I clung to the idea that surely, this event or that would be the one to end the dysfunction, cruelty, corruption, lying and various abuses we were experiencing and witnessing. I’ve tried to offer optimism and hope to people as their (and my own) angst has grown. And as 2018 faded, there were signs that we might see an end to the travesties engulfing us. The courts were holding, journalists were doing extraordinary investigative research while media was finding its voice when feet needed to be held to fire, and Robert Mueller was closing in. And that big blue, female wave in Congress and down-ballot was, I believe, a foreshadowing of the change that is possible, and I think inevitable – so long as we maintain vigilant and vocal.

All of that is encouraging. But there is still a tsunami coming toward us and the clock is ticking. The moment when it will be too late to hide or run get to higher ground is nearly upon us. So, while we cling to hope and optimism, we must never allow ourselves to let other priorities prevail or to miss noticing, or rejecting, incremental or invisible changes lurking below the radar. Perhaps most important of all, we must never, ever recalibrate our way into complacency, and thus ultimate collusion.

                                                            # # #

Elayne Clift writes about women, politics, and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt.

www.elayne-clift.com

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.”

                                                            ###

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

           

Seeing American Through the African American Lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that, we can all be grateful.

Think It Can't Happen Here? Think Again

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Barefoot and Pregnant Politics

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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