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

 

 

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

 

Is It Really Silly Season So Soon?

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

 

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

 

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


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


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

 

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


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


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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

www.elayne-clift.com

 

Beginning the New Year, Eyes Wide Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.elayne-clift.com

The Sham, Shame and Real Purpose of a Senate Committee

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Is America Up to Its Newest Challenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beware the Growing Demise of Democracy Globally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Think It Can't Happen Here? Think Again

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stunning Signs of Anti-Semitism in the Trump White House

By now it should be perfectly clear that, despite having a Jewish son-in-law for whom his daughter Ivanka converted, and three Jewish grandchildren, Donald Trump has a real problem with Jews and Jewish history.

He first revealed his distaste for all things Jewish when he released a notorious Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that didn’t even mention Jews, although he did manage to say the Trump team grieved for “all of those who suffered.”

And of course, he brought Steve Bannon into the White House, a man who openly abhors Jews and opened the floodgates of racism, white nationalism and anti-Semitism in America - along with his protégé Stephen Miller, who was photographed signaling white supremacists before being removed from public view for his vitriol.

Most recently, Trump managed to offend Jews again when the White House posted a ridiculous and insulting picture of what they called a Passover Seder.  It looked more like a casting call for Lubavitch Jews from Brooklyn.  And where were Melania and Donald? Where were the children and grandchildren? The staff? Personal friends?

Seder, one of Judaism’s most sacred holidays, is a time of tradition. It’s a time when family and friends gather to tell the story of the Exodus, and to remember Jewish oppression along with all people who suffer exile, solitude, and sadness. It is a time of renewal as we welcome the beauty of spring. It is a time of special foods and storytelling and warmth, not a time to sit at a barren table void of a host.

The tradition of Seder goes back many years at the White House and when properly done, it looks like this: [photo of Obama Seder dinner removed]

For further evidence that all is not well for Jews at the White House, fast forward to Sean Spicer trying to apologize for his hideous remarks about the use of gas to kill people.

“I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison.”

No, Mr. Press Secretary, it was not simply an insensitive reference to the Holocaust. It was a disgusting, despicable thing to say that Adolf Hitler was better than Syria’s dictator, because he “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.,” on his own people.

It was also grossly and historically inaccurate. To be clear: Hitler used Zyklon B in gas chambers at Nazi concentration camps, killing millions of people, many of them German, and most of them Jews. Sarin gas was discovered and weaponized by Nazi scientists.

No one serving in high office and representing the president of the United States, least of all someone employed to provide honest, accurate information and assumed to know the basic facts of history, should be allowed to remain in his post because he mustered an apology for his stupidity and painfully poor taste.

There can be no doubt about sentiments regarding Jews coming from a White House that refers to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.”  No doubt at all when advisors include people like Sebastian Gorka, whose father was openly aligned with the Nazi Party, or Steve Bannon, accused of anti-Semitism by his ex-wife, who testified under oath that Bannon didn’t want his children to attend schools with Jews, whom he openly and frequently stereotypes. No doubt when acts of anti-Jewish vandalism go unnoticed by the nation’s so-called leader.

The fact is that the White House is the People’s House, as wiser, kinder presidents have understood. It is meant to be a place where American values and traditions are enshrined, or at least symbolized, and where the people who live and work there are worthy of our trust and respect. It is time we restored that House to its rightful place in American history. That means that it’s time for the present occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the people they insist on surrounding themselves with, to leave.

Author Note: Several photos that make this piece stronger were disallowed - for an emailed copy: eclift@vermontel.net

Marching with the Multitudes to Make the World Sane Again

MARCHING WITH THE MULTITUDES TO MAKE THE WORLD SANE AGAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resisting Recklessness in the New Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Acceptance is Not a Virtue

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

No! No, no, no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marching Toward Dystopia

Marching Toward Dystopia

 

It’s hard to believe, given Donald Trump’s constant and egregious lies, his frequent name-calling and hate speech, his puerile tongue lashings, his visible ineptitude, and his recent debate performance, that he can be viewed as a serious threat to Hillary Clinton’s election in November. Issues and behavior that would have brought down any other candidate, ranging from imitating a disabled reporter to insulting a Gold Star family to being involved in three serious lawsuits, to refusing to reveal his taxes or professional health reports should have stopped him long ago. So should his inability to discuss policy priorities with any depth and his pugilistic, pro-Putin posturing. Yet, here we are as I write this commentary, nail-biting our way through every new poll and prediction, scratching our heads about how this looming disaster could possibly be happening.

Whatever the inevitable political and psychological post-mortems reveal, one thing is frighteningly real: Donald Trump has exposed and unleashed the underbelly of American society, releasing into the ether rampant racism, virulent anti-Semitism, overt hatred of “the Other,” including Muslims, and frightening violence borne by those whose world view he represents - people so full of animus toward human beings who don’t look, think or act like themselves that Hillary Clinton was honest enough to call them “deplorable,” a descriptor verified by polls questioning any standard of decency among other Americans.

Noted political commentator Rebecca Traister saw trouble coming during the Republican convention. She wrote,” What we have seen … is the Republican Party offering its stage and its imprimatur to speakers who have not appeared reluctant or conflicted, but rather buoyed and energized by the way in which Trump’s candidacy has allowed them to come out as inciters of sexist, racist, violent mob action and xenophobic fearmongering. What’s more, by framing their hateful rhetoric in terms of patriotism, they are reminding us that much of the poison in this country runs deep.”

The kind of indecency and poison that Trump spawns and encourages is all too clear when his son says we should be “firing up the ovens.” It is clear when white supremacists pride themselves on finally being legitimate within the public arena while wearing white hoods and waving Nazi or confederate flags. It is more than clear when a 69-year old woman on oxygen is physically assaulted at a Trump rally by one of his supporters.  

The examples of hate-filled rhetoric and behavior among Trump supporters abound in social media, if not in most of the mainstream press, which has been woefully inadequate in its coverage of Trump’s mania. Even should he lose the election “the message of hatred and paranoia that is inciting millions of voters will outlast the messenger [and] the toxic effects of Trumpism will have to be addressed,” a New York Times editorial noted. Those effects include documented increases in bullying in schools and increases in anti-Semitic and other hate crimes. 

Analogies drawn between Trump and Hitler, considered in bad taste and reluctantly shared to make clear similarities in terms of their political strategies, may still be useful. To quote Robert Paxton, an authority on fascism, in Slate.com recently, “The use of ethnic stereotypes and exploitation of fear of foreigners is directly out of a fascist’s recipe book. ‘Making the country great again’ sounds exactly like the fascist movements. Concern about national decline was one of the most prominent emotional states evoked in fascist discourse, and Trump is using that full-blast, quite illegitimately … . That is a fascist stroke. An aggressive foreign policy to arrest the supposed decline [is] another one. Then, there’s a second level, [one] of style and technique. … [he is] like Mussolini … the bluster, the skill at sensing the mood of the crowd, the skillful use of media.” 

In light of the terrifying specter before us should Trump prevail, the challenge for those who understand how close we could be to a dystopian future is convincing people who don’t like Hillary that they have to vote for her anyway. I’ve tried and it’s not easy. Some of them don’t get that democracy resides in participation and that without voting they are colluding with a possible Trump win that could mean we enter into an inconceivable Draconian age. Some of them think he’s not as bad as the show he puts on. Some of them just don’t seem to care.

How did so many people whose very interests and futures are at stake become so apathetic and deluded? That is perhaps a question for another time.

Right now what matters urgently is that as many people as possible vote, which means that all of us experiencing cold sweats ratchet up the dialogue, knock on doors, argue with our right-leaning friends, do whatever it takes to shine light on what the options are: Either we vote smart and elect Hillary, or we dig in our heels and hope to survive years of dictatorial disaster. 

Want to know what that feels like? Ask anyone whose lived under Saddam Hussein, Assad, Romania’s Ceaușescu, and now Mr. Erdogan of Turkey.  It’s not a pretty picture. As Trump would say, “Believe me.”

                                                       

 

 

   

The Political Power of Narrative

Years ago, when I was working in the women’s health movement, I was fortunate enough to attend the last of the three UN Decade for Women conferences in Nairobi, Kenya. Ten years later I also attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. During the intervening years I was present at various other fora where women spoke, often giving testimony about their life experiences and sharing the challenges they had faced and overcome. 

Bearing witness to those moving testimonials was an unforgettable and moving experience. Whether through individual conversation or a particularly compelling speech, the impact of the stories those women told is still with me, and while I don’t recall many individual stories now, I still remember the profound effect of listening to those collective voices from courageous women bringing their reality to life for all the world to hear.

Their first-person accounts, painful as they often were to hear, gave me, and all who heard them, a far greater understanding, and a deeper empathy, than any speeches riddled with statistics could ever have done. One woman talking about her own experience with female genital cutting because of patriarchal-driven custom, or one woman relating her experience of spousal abuse or rape during war, sears itself into your soul as no official document can.

I thought about those conferences and about the importance and power of story, particularly as a writer, while watching the Democratic convention. The video of Humayun Khan, the brave soldier who died in America’s war, and the now-famous appearance of his parents at the convention, as well as Michelle Obama’s reflections on how she and her husband raised their daughters during the White House years, and other memories shared by speakers in the course of their remarks, all served to remind me of how compelling personal narratives are and of their importance in political discourse.

We all have stories to tell. And those stories are important. They matter – to us, and for others. As a British faith-based organization called Stethelburgas put it on their website, “Hearing the stories of others breaks down the fears that underlie prejudice, and opens us up to the perspectives of others. Through story we see more easily the unique challenges of every individual, and how their beliefs and attitudes make sense within the context of their own experience. We may still disagree with a particular perspective but begin to see how that view makes sense within the story of that person’s life. As a result, we tend not to argue with story as we might with opinion. Stories change the ‘contract’ with the listener.”

I can think of so many narratives, often shared through extraordinary oratory, that changed the contract with listeners.  Sojourner Truth, an illiterate slave who was a small woman with a huge heart and a big voice, told a story when she asked of her all white, male audience, “And ain’t I a Woman?” Martin Luther King, Jr. did it when he said to the world, “I have a dream.” Gandhi inspired his followers when he admonished, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Alice Paul, who fought so hard for women’s right to vote, shared a bit of political poetry and wisdom when she said, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”

Vivian Gornick understood the central role narration – story - plays from a writer’s perspective. In her book The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative she points out that memoirists always explore a situation through the story embedded in it. “The situation is the context or circumstance; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” And she adds, “The memoirist must engage with the world…must convince readers they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know.”

Gornick’s words, it seems to me, are relevant for speakers and listeners as much as for readers, never more so than within a political context, especially during this unprecedented election.  The stories, and the oral narrative within which they reside, afford us an opportunity to break down fear, to open up to others, to truly listen, and to see the unique challenges ahead of us in new ways, ways that no doctrinaire speechmaking or facile sound bite can. 

The truth is we are all hungry for story, child and elder alike. The love of a good tale never leaves us, especially when it’s about someone’s dreams, the reclaiming of our better natures, or striving together for “the golden fleece” promise of a positive future. 

Whether those stories come to us by way of books, visual narratives or spoken words, we owe it to ourselves as never before to be paying attention to them, and to be seeking their gifts in this time of challenging governance.  

                                   

Days of Drought: A Landscape of Desperate Times

The photographs are difficult to see. Receded murky waters reveal river beds that resemble threadbare ancient shrouds. Earth once fertile lies cracked and brown like mosaics now devoid of their artful tiles, the missing grout leaving gaping. mazed striations.  In Thailand, India, African countries, even in Central America and Poland, the earth is browning, farmers are losing their livelihoods, thirst is taking hold, economies are struggling, political instability threatens. Societies are drying up.

In the wake of Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee, and the terrifying prospect that he could actually become president, the dark days of drought seem like a stark, strange and alarming metaphor for the browning of America, a phrase meant to allude to the brown-shirted storm troopers of fascist Germany. 

Take a hard look at what’s going on in America. 

We are now a nation in which legislation has been proposed or passed that discriminates against the civil and human rights of immigrants, the LBGTI community, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and women. Some states have moved to legislate where you can pee, or people to whom you can deny services.

Some have moved to criminalize or deny abortion, even though it is still a constitutional right, and some have proposed or enacted laws that can put a woman in jail for murder if she suffers a miscarriage. That’s a Draconian measure reminiscent of Romania’s (assassinated) 1980s dictator,  Nicolae Ceaușescu, who forced women to undergo monthly pelvic exams to ensure that pregnancies were carried to term. (It resulted in huge numbers of children abandoned to orphanages so poorly run that development disabilities were rampant.)

Gun violence, police brutality and other forms of institutionally sanctioned killings take place every day in this country, while the sponsor-driven media seems to be stuck in its own brain-dead “brand.”

 In short, we are witnessing the drying up of a society once thought (somewhat erroneously) to be a democratic icon as it approaches its own demise. It’s a society, and a once-proudly diverse culture, that now appears to be devoid of the ability to govern, to engage in civil discourse, to show compassion or intelligence, and to behave respectfully, let alone humanely. We are, it seems to many, decidedly on the brink and facing a disintegrating future as Donald Trump continues to spew invectives and to reveal his utter incompetence as his poll numbers rise.

There are those who are loathe to compare Trump’s victory and possible presidency to Hitler’s totalitarian regime, but look at their similarities: Both ran campaigns grounded in fear-mongering based on hate, economic frailty and stereotyped, scapegoated minorities, both were anti-woman (Hitler believed women’s national loyalty resided in bearing as many babies as possible), both fostered incipient violence, and both were authoritarian and dangerously devoid of reason.

There’s another comparison that some have called upon to sound a note of caution and that is the fall of the Roman Empire.  Scholars point out that the causes of the Empire’sdownfall included an antagonistic relationship between the Senate (their Congress) and the Emperor (President), rampant political corruption, heavy military spending, a failing economy, and a decline in ethics and values. It is also be worth mentioning that slave labor (income inequality) was a factor, as were natural disasters (like drought).  As one source put it, “Life became cheap … and judgments about what was valuable or important in life declined. There was a total disregard for human and animal life.”

As I was mulling this commentary over in my mind, I happened to read a sentence in a clever, somewhat bizarre novel call The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink. It’s a riff on everything from politics and social activism to sex, marriage and the quest for a meaningful life. The sentence that jumped out at me read:  “The injustice of mortal existence cried out with greed for euphoria.”  It was followed by, “Delicacy had no place in [his] world.”

Donald Trump is playing on people’s desperation for euphoria, it seems to me. But delicacy has no place in his world. Neither do facts, fair play, intelligence, good judgment or any of the other critical attributes required for sound, safe, humane leadership. 

Those attributes are like tributaries that flow into a flourishing river. When they go dry, so does the river that carries our commerce, feeds our fields, quenches our thirst, and keeps us civilized.  America simply cannot allow the river to become dry. Our future depends upon the metaphorical waters that give life, today and for a long time to come.

That’s why Donald Trump must not win in November.

Overcoming the Politics of fear

 

Sometimes when I am contemplating a commentary events conspire to help me reflect more deeply on the subject at hand. Such was the case when, after Donald Trump’s outrageous suggestion that Muslims in America should be registered and no more Muslims should be allowed to enter the country, I began to write about the politics of fear. 

I first recalled what Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans during World War II: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the president said. He was cautioning a frightened population against fear-induced paralysis. It was an especially important message given that considered, decisive action and not passivity was urgently needed to defeat evildoers like Hitler. Perhaps he was also warning us not to cower in the face of demagogues and not to yield to unacceptable language that serves to fuel heinous deeds. Quite possibly he was also cautioning against becoming inured to a kind of evil that can invade our collective psyche so that seemingly innocuous words like “normal,” “necessary “and “needed”  begin to justify a nation’s dangerous, destructive, shameful behavior.

While I was thinking about this I happened to be reading an extraordinary novel by the Russian-born writer Paul Goldberg. The Yid is about Stalinism, anti-Semitism, racism and more in 1950s Russia and it struck me as incredibly relevant. Goldberg’s protagonist, for example, compares political purges to epidemics that “start out with a small, concentrated population, then expand their reach nationally, even globally.” Epidemics of infectious diseases, he says, “can reach a peak” before inevitably receding. He concludes that Fascism is an infectious disease and Stalinism is a plague. Neither can survive, but in their long brutality many people suffer and die.

I can’t be the only one to read this book and think of Donald Trump’s vicious talk and insidious proposals when it comes to Muslims or immigrants and refugees.

Goldberg’s character was right to say that epidemics – even political ones - can become global. The growth of France’s right wing party or for that matter the far right voters in the UK, Poland, and elsewhere demonstrate that. Never has there been a more urgent time to ask ourselves, as Goldberg does, “What are we dealing with? Is this outburst of ignorance and hatred akin to systemic disease? What if you could find a way to intervene and neutralize it?”

Then something else happened as I was tossing all of this around in my mind.  I attended an amazing non-denominational religious service in which a gifted minister spoke about fear and what it can do to us. Without ever mentioning refugees, immigrants, Republicans, or Muslims, and using only Good Samaritan stories to make his point, this good, compassionate, intelligent man hit the nail on the head. 

Fear, he said, leads to hate and hate leads to demonizing people who may be different than we are. We need to see past those differences. We must be global citizens and good neighbors. We must recall and reclaim our national shame in remembering what America did to Native Americans, to Japanese Americans during the war, to the Jews we turned away when they were desperate to escape Nazi atrocities, to the multitudes of Black Americans who died hanging from trees or attacked by dogs when they fought for civil rights, to HIV/AIDS or Ebola victims – all because we saw these human beings as “they,” The Other, the Outsider, the threat that fueled our fear. We need also to reclaim our own Good Samaritan stories if we are to survive, the minister reminded us. We must reject the fearmongering of Biblical literalists who often forget that to be human is to behave humanely.

So, no more polemicists like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson who preach fear and hatred from their pulpits.  No more demonizing of others by right-wing zealots in Congress or elsewhere. No more Trump travesties or political poison born of bigotry. No more foul-mouthed, unfounded accusations. No more letting fear dominate our decisions and behavior. No more fear defining our national character so that other nations no longer want to engage with us.

The time for proclaiming with our voices and our vote that we are not going to do it anymore is now. The time is here to say clearly that we reject fear as our future. Instead, let us see past challenging times in order to survive as a unified, dignified nation. Let us be a country whole and healthy. Let the fearmongers slink away and find their own place in the world, but let it not be ours.