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.

 

                                                            # # #

 

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

 

 

America Faces an Uncertain Future. Why is it Happening?

Having Donald Trump militarize America’s Independence Day, subjecting children and adults to, yes, concentration camps, and defy the courts are not events that can be easily ignored or overlooked.

 

However, firing climate change scientists or banning them to a Midwest gulag is a lot easier. So is rescinding food and drug safety regulations, rolling back health care protections for LGBTQ patients, foreclosing on working home owners, destroying public education, and compromising the country’s air, water, and wildlife.

 

There’s more, and it signals the Trump Administration’s dangerous, pro-profit, white supremacist politics, disrespect for the rule of law and the Constitution, and contempt for human rights.  Every day we draw closer to full-fledged fascism while the Democrats diddle, and most mainstream and cable media regurgitate premature political polling while allowing Trump to suck the oxygen out of the air waves.

 

Collective fatigue and self-preserving denial are understandable, but it’s time every one of us took serious notice of what is happening because a dangerously demented authoritarian, voted into office  - just as Adolf Hitler was - is getting away with murder (literally if you count the dead immigrants at the border) and no one seems able to stop him – not Congress, not the courts, and not the Constitution.

 

When I first considered writing this commentary, I thought about all the departmental travesties taking place, most without much notice. I began doing research, department by governmental department and that’s how I came upon troubling information at numerous government agencies. Here are just a few examples.

 

Thanks to an expose by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, I learned that a number of specialists working within a scientific group advising government for nearly sixty years on various issues, including defense and most recently climate change, were being fired. Scientists working on Department of Agriculture issues were given a month’s notice to decide if they would move their families to Kansas – where no facility for them to continue their work exists, or be fired. A short reprieve was issued for scientists working at the Department of Energy so that studies underway could conclude, but the future of the group’s 65 impressive scientists is unclear, even as it diversifies its client base. As the Washington Post pointed out, “Research is being decimated by the Trump team, especially when it comes to climate science and other research that doesn’t comport with the Trump agenda.”

 

Thanks also go to Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) who called out Ben Carson for failing America’s working families at HUD.  Interviewed by NBC after her tough grilling of Carson in a Congressional committee hearing, Porter said, “I wanted to engage Carson on the critical issue [of foreclosures] but what I got was evasion. Carson’s two-plus years as the leader of HUD have been marked by failure after failure to do right by this country’s working families.” Porter continued, exposing Carson’s total lack of awareness of his agency’s jurisdiction, his claim that “poverty to a large extent is a state of mind,” and his proposal to to slash HUD’s budget.

 

The National Education Association exposed the horrific record of Betsy De Vos at the Department of Education, where promoting education privatization is a top priority while serving special needs and trans children is being rolled back. DeVos also wants to repeal federal protections that hold predatory for-profit colleges accountable, to rescind sexual assault guidelines, and to put guns in schools.

 

National Geographic posted “15 Ways the Trump Administration has changed environmental policies,” while The Guardian wrote about the “nosedive” the FDA is taking in warning people about food and drug regulations not being enforced, and Politico revealed how the Trump administration is rolling back health care protections for LGBTQ patients.

 

The more I learned, the more I realized how much is happening “under the radar” – an expression that sounded familiar. Looking back on my commentary topics over the last 18 months, I realized that I had twice written pieces with that phrase in the title. That made me question not what was happening, but why it was happening.

 

Here are a few possibilities. One is that many in the Fourth Estate are largely failing to demand and drive accountability. Given that the courts, federal and Supreme, are being stacked against democracy and sound Constitutional interpretation, it is urgent that media editors and producers “call a thing [like racism] a thing.” That means not normalizing a dangerously delusional president or treating him like an ordinary candidate in next year’s election.  It means asking tough questions and demanding answers. It means putting priority issues over advertisers.

 

Further, the Democratic Party must realize this is no time to pussyfoot. Its strong suite is plurality which must not become its pitfall.  Democrats need to unify, fight, respect boundaries, message wisely, and start saving America. Equally, entities and individuals inside and out of government must vociferously say “No!” when Trump breaks rules, bullies, and acts crazy.

 

Americans, no matter how tired or disillusioned, must demand leadership that recognizes the slippery slope of looming dark days -- because it’s not only about the economy, jobs and healthcare. It’s about our future and our survival as a democratic beacon to the world.

 

Perhaps yesterday may have been too early to act, but surely tomorrow will be too late.

 

                                                # # #

 

 

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!

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.

                                                            # # #

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?

                                                            # # #

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.

                                                            # # #

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.”

                                                            # # #

 

 

Let's Be Clear About Third Trimester Abortion

As a longtime women’s health educator and advocate, I was apoplectic when I read a recent commentary in my local newspaper by a “chaplain serving an elderly population” who is also “treasurer of the Republican Party” in my state and a “county party chair.”

The op.ed. proffered so many spurious and false assertions, often stated by others with far-right political views, that my hair was nearly on fire. Given where we are in this country regarding abortion, I felt compelled to address one of the egregiously uninformed views of the author, which I did in a Letter to the Editor.  It seems to me now important to share what I wrote for a wider audience, in the hope of reaching others inclined to make uninformed claims about a vital issue that affects so many lives and the culture in which we live. 

This is the claim that blew me away. It relates to a bill in my state proposing a law like ones in some other states protecting a woman’s right to abortion moving forward. “The bill goes far beyond Roe [v. Wade], guaranteeing unrestricted abortion through all nine months of pregnancy…” the author wrote. It’s a misleading claim that calls for revisiting the facts regarding the inaccurate use of the term “late term abortion.”

The first thing to note here is that abortion after fetal viability is a rare occurrence and usually involves a medical crisis. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, abortions after 21 weeks make up less than 1.3% of all abortions in the United States. Abortions that occur beyond 24 weeks make up less than 1% of all procedures. Exceptionally rare cases that happen after 24 weeks are often because a fetus has a condition that cannot be treated and and that renders the fetus unable to survive, regardless of gestational age or trimester.

Secondly, the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees due process and equal protection under the law, was vital to the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. The 14th amendment also protects the right to privacy and the Court held that a woman's right to an abortion fell within that statute. By a 7–2 majority the Court ruled that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. Importantly, the Court also determined the point of fetal viability as the “capability of meaningful life outside the mother's womb,” hence the 24- week marker. The Court’s decision gave women a right to abortion during the entirety of the pregnancy, however, while defining different levels of state interest for regulating abortion in the second and third trimesters.

It’s important to know that, as the Guttmacher Institute points out, if a physician determines that the child is “non-viable” and/or the abortion is necessary for the physical or mental health of the mother, a woman can have an abortion from the moment of conception until the child’s birth. State laws restricting third trimester abortions are unconstitutional under the precedent of Doe v. Bolton, a case in which the Supreme Court overturned a Georgia law. (Numerous states have laws that ban or restrict abortions in the third trimester. Because these statutes remain in place or haven’t been contested in federal court, they may imply that they are allowed by federal law. But because federal law trumps state law, no restrictions can be enacted that do not also allow the doctor to determine if abortion is necessary for the health of the mother.)

Here’s another fact: Overturning Roe and Doe won’t end all third-trimester abortions. When the Supreme Court throws the abortion issue back to individual states, third-trimester abortions will still be protected in states that reiterate prior standards for “viability” or “health.”

But here’s the most important thing for everyone to know. No woman decides to have an abortion after 24 weeks recklessly or without a great deal of anguish. Perhaps she does it because of a serious illness she has, like decompensating heart disease. Maybe her baby has a delayed diagnosis of anencephaly, which means the fetus forms without a complete brain or skull. There are a multitude of medical crises that can precipitate a third trimester abortion. But the decision is never taken lightly. In most cases, there is deep grieving and a profound sense of loss, brought about because of medical necessity and the wish that a much loved and wanted baby not suffer.

That’s why people like the man who wrote the troubling commentary – claiming that he “doesn’t oppose or seek to diminish women’s rights” and that he “supports [women’s] right to their own body and right to choose” -- people who misunderstand not just the right to abortion but the reasons women choose it, at any stage of pregnancy, must move beyond facile arguments, misstatements of fact, and feeble justifications. They must somehow begin to recognize that for many women, the choices they face are devastating and immensely complicated.  

Most urgently, they must find it in themselves to be compassionate and to resist judging those whose experiences and viewpoints differ from theirs. 

                                                                        # # #


Elayne Clift writes about women, health, 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

Is It Really Silly Season So Soon?

January 1, 2019 and the horses were out of the gate, their hoofbeats assaulting our already over-taxed patience. The political horseplay began with a vengeance - before the new Congress set foot in Washington and before anyone had formally declared they were running for President next year. The new year promised the American public, and the world, a long and rocky race as all eyes, arguments, and predictions focused on the 2020 election.

 

Some pundits say the palaver is right on time. But most of us would probably concur that it’s way too early to begin the non-stop spewing and sputtering when we don’t even know who the serious contenders will be, or what they have to offer.

 

Still, the mainstream media dug in its heels and to the exclusion of reporting real and urgent news, they started having a field day. The New York Times, for example, ran a piece with this over-written, somewhat hysterical headline: "Rashida Tlaib’s Expletive-Laden Cry to Impeach Trump Upends Democrats’ Talking Points"!  "Expletive-Laden Cry"? She said one bad word at a private event and got caught on tape. The M-F- word, it seems, is enough to ruin a woman’s budding political career, but a guy who says publicly that he likes to “grab pussy” gets a pass and becomes president?


Dancing while Female?  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez danced, beautifully and joyfully, while in college, mimicking a famous movie dance scene. Someone taped it. A right-winger posted it, and hey presto, she's the bad "little girl."  


Elizabeth Warren went public first and she's immediately "unlikable." Sound familiar? Not only was Hillary Rodham Clinton tagged “unlikeable,” her headbands and hairstyles were scrutinized ad nauseam, as was Michelle Obama’s choice of sleeveless dresses, now the norm in women’s fashion.

 

Common denominator? Fear of powerful women, i.e., misogyny, and it needs to be called out every single time it rears its ugly head, whether in Congress, in conversation, or by TV pundits, social and print media, among the worst offenders for stoking this kind of sexist nonsense. Women like Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters know that game when they see it, and they aren't afraid to confront it, making them superb role models.


Moving on, how fair is it to be polling for favorite 2020 candidates and reporting on outcomes when most potential candidates have not yet declared? How in the world can anyone know who they are inclined to vote for until they hear what frontrunners have to say, never mind time to scrutinize their experience and policy perspectives?


It was nothing short of shocking to hear potential candidate Terry McAuliffe, former governor of Virginia, do a self-serving pre-stump speech critical of the progressive agenda of the Democratic party’s left in which he revealed how out of touch he is with what just happened in the mid-term election. Similarly, California Senator Dianne Feinstein didn’t get what the Blue/Pink Wave was all about. With all due respect to Joe Biden, Sen. Feinstein, and Mr. McAuliffe, the election was not about same old white guy-driven policies and agendas that don't speak to the new generation of Democratic constituencies. It was about inclusivity, relevance, and effectiveness in a 21st century political world.

 

That world is culturally, ethnically, and economically diverse, moving toward progressive ideas and goals, deeply committed to social justice, the earth’s survival, a democratic future, and other critical issues of our time. People like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke and others deserve their chance as McAuliffe, Feinstein and Biden have had theirs.

 

Messages about economic gains for the middle class (which means mostly white people) no longer resonate at a time when the U.S. government is caging and killing kids, when our water and food is no longer safe and children are dying because of rolled back regulations, when adults and seniors are dying prematurely because they can’t afford their medicines (like insulin) and can’t access health care, when Americans can’t earn a living wage, when people get killed just for being black and hate crimes are on the rise, when the planet we share is in real danger of dying, when ethical and moral behavior in Congressional offices and chambers no longer exists, and when we are on the brink of serious disasters, man-made and natural, with no one at the helm or in government agencies who understands or cares so long as their coffers are full.

 

This is not a time to be politically regressive. Our full attention, our intellectual faculties, our conscience and compassion have never been more important or more necessary. They must be exercised by each of us to the fullest degree if we are to survive as a nation and as citizens of a morally and physically safe world.

 

Everyone must commit to that effort, including those who have served as our political voice in the past, and those who want to find their way and use their voices to offer appropriate legislation and new, important ideas, knowing that they will be heard and that their ideas will be considered carefully, not judged on what they say privately, what they wear, or how they dance.

 

                                                            # # #

 

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.”

                                                            ###

 

 

 

Can We Recapture Norman Rockwell's America?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                 

 

 

 

Civility and Civil Disobedience: We Need Both

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Is America Up to Its Newest Challenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that, we can all be grateful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beware the Growing Demise of Democracy Globally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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