The Global Problem of Child Marriage

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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.

 

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Women Pay the Price in More Ways Than One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Harriet Tubman Belongs on the $20 Bill

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it must not leave us silent.

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

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

Missing in Action: Democrats, Media, Public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.elayne-clift.com

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Will Afghan Women Pay the Price of a Peace Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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. 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That means by all of us.

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Seeing it happen in the 21st century is unacceptable.

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

Will Artificial Intelligence Put an End to Real People?

Okay, I confess. Sorry, Siri, but I find you and Alexa creepy. I worry that native intelligence is being replaced by “artificial intelligence,” which strikes me as a modern-day oxymoron, like “virtual reality.” I’m scared about what’s coming as technology takes over our lives. And I’m nearly convinced robots are going to make humans unnecessary if not extinct. Call me crazy, but that’s what they called Jules Verne too.

It seems I’m in good company. Some pretty big names in science and technology have also expressed concern about the inherent risks AI could pose. They include the late physicist Stephen Hawking who told the BBC several years ago that, "the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race." Elon Musk, engineer and head of Tesla, has said that autonomous machines could unleash “weapons of terror,” comparing the adoption of AI to “summoning the devil.” And Bill Gates is worried that AI is only viable if we make sure humans remain in control of machines.

As one techie posted on Tech Times.com, what happens if Siri decides that she wants to take over the world? He didn’t seem to think that was a real threat, but what if AI becomes so advanced that it decides it wants power of its own? Others worry that if artificially intelligent systems misunderstand a mission they’re given, they could cause more damage than good and end up hurting lots of people.

A lot of folks are worried about the implications of AI-controlled weapons. They might be able to help soldiers and civilians in war zones, but they could also cause a global arms race that could end up being disastrous.  According to a scientist at the Future of Life Institute, “There is an appreciable probability that the course of human history over the next century will be dramatically affected by how AI is developed. It would be extremely unwise to leave this to chance,” he argues.

There are also troubling ways in which AI could infringe upon our personal privacy. Facebook’s recent problems have already demonstrated some of the possibilities, from unwanted intrusion to exposure that leaves us vulnerable. Facebook can already recognize someone by the clothes they wear, the books they read, and the movies they watch. What happens when government agencies have fully developed recognition systems?

In one alarming thesis put forward by Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University philosopher, artificial intelligence may prove to be apocalyptic. He thinks AI “could effortlessly enslave or destroy Homo sapiens if they so wished.”

No longer the stuff of science fiction, many AI milestones have already been reached even thought experts thought it would take decades to get where we are now in terms of relevant technology. While some scientists think it will take a long time to develop human-level AI or superintelligence, others at a 2015 conference thought it would happen within the next forty years or so. Given AI’s potential to exceed human intelligence, we really don’t know how it will behave.  If humans are no longer the smartest beings on earth, how do we get to stay in control?

A recent, lengthy article about “Superior Intelligence” in The New Yorker, pointed out that imbuing AI with higher intelligence than humans have risks having robots turn against us. “Intelligence and power seek their own increase,” Tad Friendly posited in his piece. “Once an AI surpasses us, there’s no reason to believe it will feel grateful to us for inventing it, particularly if we haven’t figured out how to imbue it with empathy.”

Here’s another interesting thing to contemplate. In 1988, Friendly shares, “roboticist Hans Moravec observed that tasks we find difficult are child’s play for a computer, and vice versa. ‘It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance in solving problems on intelligence tests, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.’”

And here’s a scary thought: According to The New Yorker, Vladimir Putin told Russian schoolchildren not long ago that “the future belongs to artificial intelligence. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”  In light of recent interference with western elections, one must wonder what he’s got in the way of AI technology (or whether he has already found a way to infiltrate Donald Trump’s brain and program his mouth.)

I realize I may be getting ahead of things and sounding unduly alarmist, but it’s all pretty scary stuff. I hope the day never comes when people younger than I am have to admit that, along with Stephen Hawking et. al., I was not totally out in left field. Worse still, I hope they never have to dodge incoming missiles directed by maniacal robots angry because we didn’t make them even smarter and more powerful than they already are.    

 

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Elayne writes and worries from Saxtons River, Vt.

 

 

 

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.

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

www.elayne-clift.com

Big Brother is Alive, Well and Living in Silicon Valley

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sham, Shame and Real Purpose of a Senate Committee

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            ###

 

 

 

Can We Recapture Norman Rockwell's America?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

           

Why the Teacher Strikes Matter So Much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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