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

A Wave of Women in the House and Beyond

They came from north, south, east and west. They were military veterans, Muslims, Native Americans, LGBT women, women of color, and they were progressive and powerful. They flowed like a river into a sparkling blue sea, flipping the House of Representatives, defeating long-term incumbents who thought their seats were safe, overturning state houses, taking their places on court benches. Now they will assume leadership positions on several powerful House committees. It seems fair to say their impact on governance in this country cannot be overstated, and it comes at a truly critical time.

It’s also fair to say that the blue wave of women we witnessed was inspired by other pioneering women who dared to enter participatory politics. Today’s women stand on the shoulders of those models, women like Hattie Caraway (b.1878) who became the first woman elected to serve a full term as a U.S. Senator representing Arkansas. She became the first woman to preside over the Senate.

 Shirley Chisolm is another role model. In 1968 she was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She went on to be the first black candidate for a major party's nomination for President.  Geraldine Ferraro, who served in the House, became the first female vice-presidential candidate representing a major American political party in 1984. Feisty women in Congress like Pat Schroeder of Colorado inspired many Second Wave feminists to enter the political arena, while Barbara Mikulski served in both the House and the Senate, becoming the longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. and the longest-serving U.S. Senator in Maryland history.

The Women's March on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Not long afterwards, the #MeToo Movement was launched by activist Tarana Burke. Both were monumental events, and both helped more than 110 energetic, passionate, visionary women win positions of power across the country in 2018.

In all, 428 women ran for Congress or governor as Democrats (compared with 162 Republican women) and 210 of them were nominees on Election Day. Maine and South Dakota saw their first female governors elected while other women shattered records and broke precedent. A third of female nominees for the House were women of color, and many newcomers beat out long-serving white male incumbents in primary races to go on to win seats in the House, bringing the percentage of women there to 25 percent. (With another 25 percent gain in 2020 the house would become representational of the country’s population.)

Women in Congress and state leadership stand a good chance of cleaning up much of the mess they will encounter. They understand, often first-hand, the urgency of ending gun violence, pay equity, family leave policy, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, a sound educational system, affordable healthcare, and more.  They care about protecting the environment and getting a grip on climate change. (Several women heading into leadership are scientists). Of course, they can’t clean things up all by themselves, and they shouldn’t be scapegoated when legislation fails, but they do bring a wealth of experience, expertise, and commitment to the job, with far less ego than many of the men on Capital Hill and in governors’ mansions.

Research by scholars who study political leadership posted on the website http://theconversation.com  reveals studies showing women collaborate more readily to solve problems and act as bridge-builders. A 2017 study on leadership styles found that women are more likely to use inclusive thinking (“both/and”) in which they see conflict and tension as an opportunity for creative problem solving vs. tension-making. (Men are more likely to adopt an “either/or” way of thinking.)

Numerous studies on teamwork show that groups that include women function better, partly because women build social connections, enabling conflict resolution and increased trust. Eleanor Roosevelt understood this when she led a United Nations working group drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after WWII. The final document recognized for the first time that all people are guaranteed certain rights, regardless of religion, race or creed. The declaration launched the human rights movement that defeated dictatorship in many parts of the world because Roosevelt managed to keep her colleagues focused on the urgency of developing and accepting the declaration, despite cultural differences and egos.

The Council on Foreign Relations found that peace talks involving women were more likely to reach long-lasting agreement, suggesting that the diversity, democratic, and participatory style of female leadership will be vital in the House of Representatives.

In short, women’s commitment to communication, collaboration, creative problem-solving, and a sense of community seems likely to effect real change in Washington and beyond.  Sure, there will be disappointments and difficult challenges. But there can be no doubt that having women in the House, be it federal or state, should go a long way to meeting the myriad demands we face.

They couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. For more of her work, visit https://elayne-clift.squarespace.com/blog

  

What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Saudi Arabia

The brutal execution of U.S. resident and Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey illuminated the government of Saudi Arabia as nothing else has. And finally, there has been some media attention regarding the Saudi regime’s ongoing slaughter and starvation of children and adults in Yemen in the U.S.-backed conflict that began because of a failed political transition meant to bring stability to Yemen following a 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

Both of these issues urgently require attention, especially the humanitarian crisis facing Yemen. According to the United Nations, since 2015 an estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict and almost 40,000 civilians have been injured. More than half the dead and wounded have been victims of Saudi-led, U.S.-supported coalition air strikes. According to UNICEF more than 6,500 children have been killed or injured since the conflict began and more than 22 million people, nearly all children, are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The UN Human Rights Council calls Yemen’s civilians “the victims of unrelenting violations of international humanitarian law.”

But there is something else happening in Saudi Arabia that we never hear about and it involves another kind of brutality that leads to state-sanctioned murder in the most hideous ways.

Recently, for example, an Indonesian woman, Tuti Tursilawati, was beheaded by the Saudi government seven years after being sentenced to death for killing her employer as he tried raping her. The young mother was a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, one of several Indonesian maids executed by the regime for similar acts of self-defense.

Domestic workers face a range of abuses in their employers’ homes. They are overworked, suffer forced confinement, and are often deprived of food. Frequently they are not paid, and and they are often victims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. If they attempt to report abuses, they can face prosecution for false claims of theft, and “black magic,” according to one New York Times report.

Women in the kingdom face formidable barriers to any level of autonomy. A male guardianship system, which limits everything from travel to decision-making, continues despite rhetorical promises to review, reform, or abolish the repressive control of women. It’s a system that, despite the recent hope for change derived from giving women the right to drive, some of whom have been arrested, male permission for a woman to secure a passport, marry, or be discharged from prison is still required. Women may also have to seek permission from a husband, father, or son to access healthcare or to work.

In Saudi Arabia drug trafficking, rape, murder, and armed robbery are punishable by death, often by barbaric methods. There are nearly two dozen migrant workers on death row in the kingdom where millions of migrant workers constitute over half the workforce. They suffer terrible abuse and exploitation, including forced labor tantamount to slavery.  Some employers confiscate their passports (as they do with domestic workers), withhold wages, and abuse workers physically and emotionally.  Workers cannot leave the country or change jobs without the written consent of their employers and they are punished for trying.

The kingdom discriminates against Muslim religious minorities in education, employment and the justice system. It also uses uncodified Islamic law to sanction people accuses of adultery, extramarital, and homosexual sex. In 2017 several dozen citizens of Pakistan, some of whom were transgender women, were arrested. One of them died in detention as a a result of torture.

People can be arrested for “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or for “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.” Children are detained and prisoners can be denied access to information about arbitrary charges and legal assistance. Sentences include flogging and children can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced as adults. Pro-reform advocates and peaceful dissenters are routinely arrested and given long prison sentences. One prominent blogger was sentenced to ten years in prison where he was flogged shortly after he entered jail.

The U.S. can hardly claim to champion human rights with any credibility given its history of slavery, its continuing racism and treatment of people of color, its failure to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, and other obvious failures.  But it is incredible that the Trump administration continues to support Saudi Arabia’s slaughter in Yemen by providing massive amounts of arms, and to stand with its crown prince in denying credible evidence by the intelligence community that the prince did, indeed, order Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.

What’s even more astounding is that in 2017 the United Nations member states elected Saudi Arabia to serve on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and UNESCO held its International Forum of NGOs in Riyadh, when the kingdom doesn’t allow NGOS to function and jails human rights advocates. Equally outrageous, Saudi Arabia was elected a deputy member of the International Labour Organization despite not permitting unions to exist and flagrant abuses of migrant workers. The country has also served on the UN Human Rights Council, which at least saw fit to conduct investigations into abuses in Yemen, while the UN Secretary General placed Saudi Arabia on his “list of shame.”

Viewed through a human rights lens, it seems any of us who turn away or ignore Saudi Arabia’s travesties deserve to be on someone’s list of shame.

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Elayne Clift writes about women, politics and social issues from Saxtons River, Vt. For more of her work, visit www.elayne-clift.com

Big Brother is Alive, Well and Living in Silicon Valley

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sham, Shame and Real Purpose of a Senate Committee

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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.

                                                 

 

 

 

Are Democrats Poised toDo It Again?

If you’re a Democrat worried about the midterm election or simply an American worried about the country’s future come 2020, you are not alone. There is mounting consternation about how the Democratic Party will win over voters given the pressing issues before us, and a growing concern regarding how the party’s present leadership will ultimately select a viable nominee for president.

Pundits, left and right, have begun posing arguments about whether or not Democrats will again self-destruct before the November election by dividing and polarizing centrist Democrats and more progressive members of the party, which, along with Russian interference, cost us the Electoral College vote that brought us Donald Trump in 2016.

The arguments run something like this. Conservative voices, like that of John Daniel Davidson, writing in The Federalist recently, believe that “the party’s left-wing base is setting the stage for defeat.” Davidson suggests that the left isn’t taking into account the importance of the Electoral College, and he thinks that backing such ideas as single payer healthcare and renewable energy by “Sanders-esque” candidates creates “identity politics that threaten to turn what should be a successful midterm election for Democrats into an embarrassing debacle.”

Davidson refers to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young woman who won NY-14 (and NY 15 by write-in vote) as a “self-styled ‘socialist’ Democrat. There it is, that misunderstood label -- “socialist” -- which conservatives are quick to align with “European welfare states” that believe in healthcare for all, public education, safe and modern infrastructure, and criminal justice reform.

Countering conservative voices that gleefully announce the coming self-destruction of Democrats, more moderate views suggest that while Dems are shifting to the left, they are not about to self-destruct. As Sahil Kapur put it in Bloomberg Business Week, “Moderates continue to win primaries, with the ‘resistance’ avoiding the suicidal tendencies of the Tea Party.”

Kapur acknowledges that Democrats “face a rebellious activist flank that risks pulling their party to an unelectable extreme by defeating Establishment-friendly candidates,” but he seems reassured that so far, the left wing of the party hasn’t created a civil war. Progressives, he argues, “have found ways to to move the policy conversation to the left without attacking moderates.”

I’m not convinced we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. While labels like “socialist” and “progressive” are used in unnecessarily alarming ways, I don’t quite share Mr. Kapur’s optimism. I worry that we could be heading for another Democratic disaster, a concern that has less to do with policy differences than personalities, egos, and demographics.

While I agree with much of what Bernie Sanders espouses, I fear a reprisal of his divisive behavior, repetitive rhetoric, and ego-driven campaign. I believe that without Bernie – who has yet to declare himself a Democrat, or to show his own taxes - Hillary Clinton could have won the Democratic support she needed to win the election. No matter what issues one has with her, or with centrist politics, it’s hard to deny that we’d be in a far better place than we are now had she gone to the White House.

In my view, the days of Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, et al. are over.  (I think Joe Biden could lead us back to sanity with the right running mate.) These notable leaders have served us long and well and we are grateful. But it’s time for them to hand the baton over to younger, more progressive figures with demonstrated leadership skills and experience. We all have ideas about who the new leadership might include and that’s fine. What matters is that we, and the old guard, give them voice and support them in this uncertain, critical time. 

I am reminded of Beverly Sills, the opera star who had the good sense and the grace to stop singing before she lost her melodious voice. Her loyalty then was given to music, the Met, and the newcomers she mentored as they advanced their own careers.

The most important things right now, it seems to me, are new leadership, lessons learned, and policy perspectives that derive not from political posturing and ego-driven personal gain but rather from fresh vision in a time of possibly dangerous uncertainty. This is a time that calls upon leaders to speak with, and not simply for, the poor, the marginalized, the “other.” It is a time that requires a full understanding of the “intersectionality” of critical issues and an articulation of those issues that is cohesive, constructive, comprehensive, and conversant with the realities of our lives across the economic and ideological spectrum.

I firmly believe that Democratic success, not just in the voting booths but in a 21st century world, rests in grasping lessons learned throughout political history and in trusting and supporting fresh leaders who reflect our values and our interconnectedness across cultures, ethnicities, race, class, age, ability and gender within the context of our times. 

Who better to define the methods and the messages of these tenuous times than Democratic leaders who understand the goals and speak the language of Millennials, Generations X, Y, and Z than the newer generations on Capitol Hill, in state capitals, and at all levels of governance, no matter what labels they choose to identify themselves politically?

That kind of change leads not to self-destruction but offers instead new hope and possibility. As Beverly Sills might have put it, It ain’t over till the fat lady stops singing.

 

Civility and Civil Disobedience: We Need Both

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Another Moral Giant Follows the Footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It wasn’t the first time the Reverend Dr. William Barber, a pastor in Goldsboro, No. Carolina and co-founder of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, landed in jail, but it was the first time in Washington, DC.  He was arrested in June while leading a peaceful protest in front of the Supreme Court advocating for the protection of Americans’ voting rights. It was one among many of the organization’s “Moral Mondays,” in which people around the country  were advocating with him, and for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a revolution of values” when he started the original Poor People’s Campaign.

Rev. Barber first came to national attention when he spoke at the Democratic Convention in 2015. He is a quietly powerful man who is now garnering the attention he deserves because of appearances on the liberal media and a recent New Yorker Magazine in-depth profile. Being in the spotlight probably makes him uncomfortable; he is a shy man who suffers from a painful chronic condition that makes his large figure lean forward perpetually. But he keeps putting himself out there because he is passionately committed to social justice.

It is impossible to talk about Rev. Barber without also remembering Dr. King’s work. So I went back to King’s famous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” considered one of the most famous letters in American history.  Revisiting the letter was a profoundly moving experience given the state of America today. It underscored for me the urgency of Barber’s revival of the “Poor People’s Campaign” and the connections the campaign makes between all the issues that drive Dr. Barber’s tireless work urging people to “come together to break the silence and tell the truth about the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative.”

Rev. Barber is a practical theologian. He understands the power and political landscape under which he struggles. He knows that his quest for mercy and justice is up against unfavorable odds.  But he, like Dr. King, believes change is possible when people come together, across racial lines and in spite of others barriers imposed by those in power. That’s what his multi-racial coalition is all about, and it shouldn’t be written off as impossibly Pollyana-ish.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in May, Dr. Barber explained his motivation for resurrecting the Poor People’s Campaign.  “For too long,” he said, “we’ve accepted this kind of moral narrative in America that has blamed poor people for their poverty and has pitted people against each other … We’ve got to have what we call moral dissent, moral resistance and a moral vision in this moment.”

“Fifty years ago, we were fighting to come forward,” Barber continued. “Fifty years later we are fighting retrogression. We have an impoverished democracy that is going backwards rather forward.” And he points out, it’s not solely because Donald Trump is in office. Twenty-three states since 2010 have passed voter suppression laws. The same states are fighting living wages, denying healthcare, discriminating against immigrants, women, and LBGTQ communities, and eviscerating the education system.

Rev. Barber argues that racism and voter suppression are deeply connected to issues of poverty, and that in order to address racism and poverty, we must also address ecological problems as well as an economy that favors militarism. We also have to understand and resist the “false moral narrative of religious nationalism.” The goal all along,” according to Dr. Barber, “has been to change the model of conversation so it was no longer about civil rights and moral issues, but to trick people into voting against their own self-interest.”

The intersectionality of issues relating to social justice is key to understanding what drove Dr. King and what now drives Dr. Barber in today’s Poor People’s Campaign.  Stated simply, “Some things aren’t left or right, liberal or conservative. Some things are simply right or wrong,” Barber has said as he tries to resurrect a “moral revival.”  That’s exactly where Dr. King was coming from all those years ago.

In explaining to prominent white clergymen in Birmingham who opposed his civil disobedience there, Dr. King wrote in his famous letter, “I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

It’s really as simple, and as deeply complicated, as that. Like Dr. King, the Rev. Dr. William Barber felt “morally obligated to negotiate for the common good” on behalf of all of us. Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court knowing he risked arrest, he understood the profound urgency of resisting injustice, and of repairing the fabric of our mutual destiny. For that, given what is happening in our country right now, we must all be deeply grateful.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

           

Why the Teacher Strikes Matter So Much

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing American Through the African American Lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Couldn't Have Done It Without You! A Tribute to Mentors and Second Moms

When I was growing up my mother was chronically ill and my father, a severe asthmatic with a heart condition, went bankrupt. It was a lonely and frightening time during which I was a loner at school and a caretaker at home. But I was blessed to have a teacher who understood, and a neighbor - a second mom really - whose home became my refuge. I think it’s fair to say they both saved my life.

Mrs. Myers, my seventh grade English teacher, was a gentle woman whom I visited every day before leaving school. She knew that I had difficulty speaking up in class because I felt ostracized by my classmates so she seldom asked me to talk. She also knew something about what was happening at home.  I don’t remember talking about any of that but I do recall feeling better by the time I left her classroom after we’d chatted. She made me feel good and strong and capable and that meant so much when I was an anxious thirteen-year old.

Once home I crossed the street to my neighbor’s house to play with her kids, whom I babysat every weekend. I’d sit at Helen’s kitchen table, talking as she prepared dinner, which made me feel warm and welcome. In time, her family became mine. I slept over at weekends, joined them for Christmas and went on their beach holidays each summer. Helen, who is gone now, became my second mom and to this day I think of her that way with enormous love and gratitude. She taught me so much about hearth and home, about kindness to strangers and about how healing it is to laugh at yourself. My family and I still spend Christmas with her kids most years.

As a teacher and a professional I too became a mentor and to this day nothing gives me more pleasure than helping young people (and sometimes peers) as they navigate their way through careers, relationships and life’s other myriad challenges.  When a student says, “You changed my life!” or a colleague thanks me with, “I couldn’t have done this without you!” I feel blessed to have been part of their journey in a helpful way.

But what makes me feel even better than that is being a second mom, or a second grandma, to some very special people.

My first “adopted daughter” was a woman I’d met at a women’s writing conference back in the 80s. She is black and her mother had just died. When she shared her grief with me I said, “I’ll be your white mama.” She smiled through her tears. “And I’ll be your dark daughter!” I still get emails from her addressed to WM and signed DD, and a Mother’s Day card arrives each year full of love.

I met my Chinese “adopted daughter” in Beijing during the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. She was the assistant manager of my hotel and we connected immediately. One night she brought moon cakes to my room and as our conversation grew deeper she told me about her fiancé who had emigrated to Toronto. She feared that he would never manage to bring her there.  When he did, I spent long hours on the phone with her as she adjusted to life in a foreign country.Today, they and my Chinese “grandson” live in Canada and we talk frequently.

Then there is my Romanian “daughter.”  We met when my husband and I stayed in her mother’s newly opened guest house in the north of Romania. She had come home from college to be our guide for a few days since she spoke English.  Again, the connection was immediate. When she came to the States to study, I was here for her and I know how much that eased her transition.  Like with my Chinese daughter, we are still in touch, even though each of them has adjusted to a foreign country, marriage, a child, and a successful career.

My “Caribbean daughter” and “granddaughter” came into my life eight years ago. They live nearby so I get to see them often, which is delicious. Initially a mentor, I am now a second mom for sure and that fills me with great joy. I think I can say I am her Helen and that is one huge mutual gift.

Two years ago I was at the birth of my newest “granddaughter” who now lives in Boston.  Mom was my student and now, in my heart, she is one of my adopted kids too.

I have loved watching my family grow over the years thanks to our adopted kids and grandkids, each of whom brings something so special into our lives. When I reflected on the deep feelings I have for them this past Christmas, which they reciprocate in words and deeds, I was reminded of the love and nurturing I received from my second mom all those years ago. If I bring them half as much comfort as I received in the years of my growing up, my life will have had true meaning. For that gift, I thank them all from the   bottom of my very full heart.

 

Is America Up to Its Newest Challenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that, we can all be grateful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

"Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink!"

Those are the words of “the Ancient Mariner,” in a 19th century poem written by Samuel Coleridge. They seem eerily, and creepily, relevant today. While we aren’t floating on a sea of undrinkable salt water, we are facing the threat of not having water to drink.

Flint, Michigan became the canary in the coalmine regarding the crisis in clean drinking water in this country when the nation learned that the drinking water there was full of lead. Looking to cut water costs, the governor had hired an outside firm that came up with the idea of getting Flint’s drinking water from the Flint River, known to be heavily polluted, instead of the Detroit River system. Contamination from the Flint River interacted with the aging lead pipes in Flint’s water delivery system causing dangerous levels of lead contamination for people without water filters.

But the issue of water standards is not just taking place in cities like Flint. It’s also occurring in rural places like Kentucky, Texas, Kansas and elsewhere. And then there’s the very real problem of water shortages occurring in many corners of the world due to climate change and other factors.

Many water problems in this country come from mining, waste from burning coal, and large-scale agriculture, along with aging pipes. In Marin County, Kentucky, for example, people often get their water from wells sunk into flooded, abandoned mines with water loaded with heavy metals. Other communities from West Virginia to North Carolina trace their water problems to waste produced from burning coal stored in liquid ponds that can leak or spill, according to a recent article in the New Republic. Further, in large-scale rural farming areas, nitrogen-based fertilizer slides off farmlands and makes its way into freshwater systems.

In 2016, Reuters released a report about America’s drinking water. It concluded that nearly 3,000 locations in the U.S. have drinking water where the lead contamination is at least double of that found in Flint’s drinking water.  And according to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 2.5 percent of children in this country have elevated levels of lead in their blood, the effects of which may not show up until adolescence.

According to a Michigan State University report referenced on www.desmogblog.com,  the U.S. could see large portions of the population unable to afford water in the near future. This is due to “a variety of pressures ranging from climate change, to sanitation and water quality, to infrastructure upgrades, placing increasing strain on water prices.” It would take an estimated $1 trillion dollars to replace aging water infrastructure in the U.S. alone in the next 25 years. That could triple the cost of water bills to households.

The water crisis is global. Cape Town, South Africa has been in the news recently because it could be the first major city in the world to run out of water. June 4th is designated as Day Zero. That’s when the city’s taps will be turned off, causing residents to have to line up at collection points to get 25 litres of water per day, per person. Climate change-induced drought and a growing population are said to have caused the current crisis.

So far, most of the people facing water shortages live in so-called “developing countries.” In many places women and girls walk miles to find water, sometimes several times a day. But even China regularly sees moderate to severe water shortages, and every year the vast country uses more water than rain replaces. An estimated 25 – 33 percent of Chinese people lack access to safe drinking water.

There is something even more frightening to contemplate about the world’s future, and that is the real possibility of water wars. Conflicts over water could easily break out in the Middle East, especially in Israel, Jordan and Syria. But water conflicts are also possible here. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California all share water from the Colorado River. Those states have already begun negotiating how to manage the river’s limited water supply.

Statistics about water are telling. According to www.seametrics.com, by 2025 an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagues by water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions.  780 million people in the world now live without clean drinking water. Extreme drought is expected to render vast expanses of land useless by 2050 while over the past forty years, as the world’s population has doubled, use of agricultural water has quadrupled.

According to the U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Water Security, by 2030 “humanities ‘annual global water requirements’ will exceed ‘current sustainable water supplies’ by 40 percent. By the year 2040 there will not be enough water in the world to quench the thirst of the world population and keep the current energy and power solutions going if we continue doing what we are doing today.”

The unquenchable thirst described in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is enough to make any mouth dry.  The thought that we may experience such thirst in our lifetimes is unfathomable, but it is real.

                                   

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?