Sunday, June 28, 2015

Amazing Grace

If you did not see or read President Obama’s eulogy for Rev./SC State Sen. Clementa Pinckney on Thursday afternoon, you missed something unique and magnificent. The perspective of the President’s language was very Christian because he himself is very Christian and he was offering a eulogy about a minister, so that’s not surprising. But his tribute was particularly eloquent and filled with messages of basic humanism, the possibility for the evolution of human kindness, historic truth, common sense, and social and political necessity, all of which was entirely appropriate in the context of the eulogy and the time in which we live. If you missed it, I encourage you to click on one of the links above.

The President’s core message was that we are blessed by God with grace – the grace to be good people; people capable of love and forgiveness even in response to the most vile wrong-doing and the most heart wrenching grief; and that if we can learn how to live our lives and view others with a more open heart, anything and everything good is possible. Even if you take God out of that scenario and simply view the capacity for grace as something that is a central part of our DNA which we can choose to cultivate or ignore, the message still rings true and is worthy of contemplation and discussion.

As my regular readers know, I embody a great deal of anger, cynicism, and hardcore judgment about things and circumstances I don’t like. I apply this rancor to all the subjects this blog is primarily about: politics, contemporary culture, new technology, and the ruination of the English language. I try to reveal the sense of humor I have that keeps me relatively sane and has so far prevented me from committing acts of violence. But I’ve also discussed my considerable depression and misery.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve twice watched the President deliver the eulogy and read the text once. Besides increasing my respect and affection for him, I’ve thought a lot about the lack of grace I’ve cultivated within myself and wondered (1) if I have the ability to do so and (2) if even the effort would give me a greater sense of inner peace if not outright love, happiness and joy. I don’t know the answer, but I admit that I fear the process, not because of its difficulty, but because I’ve clung to these feelings like a teddy bear for decades.

Indeed, they remind me of a great Robin Williams scene in Moscow On the Hudson, in which he plays a foreign musician and he’s just jammed with a blues band and is talking to one of the American musicians: “When I was in Russia, I did not love my life, but I loved my misery. You know why? Because it was my misery. I could hold it. I could caress it. I loved my misery. You know, I have a whole family I will never ever see again. You see? Now you see. You know it. There it is. Now you know that the saddest thing in the world is life. Yeah, man. Now you see. Thank you. Thank you for a wonderful night. Boy, I feel great. Take care. I love you.”  “If that was wonderful, what happens when he hits deep depression?” 

The murders in South Carolina filled me with a hopeless sadness and fire-breathing rage. The ability of a number of family members of some of the victims to confront the killer in court and express their grace and forgiveness filled me with humbled awe. The President gave me a whole lot to think about. And the Supreme Court’s affirmation of national marriage equality gave me happy hope – and the sense that enough of the Justices had been blessed with true grace.

I don’t know what the lasting impact of the diverse events and language of the last couple of weeks will be for me – or others. I don’t know how I’ll feel or think or what tone my writing will take, especially as the 300-year campaign of the 2016 election moves glacially along. But whatever people’s different feelings about all this may be, none of us can deny that something extraordinary has happened. And that in itself is amazing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Calling a Spade a Spade

For the last few days, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and soul-searching about Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black people during a bible study class at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, last week. First, I will not do what I’m still hearing the media do: call Roof a “suspect” or say that he “allegedly” carried out this massacre. There’s no suspicion or anything alleged about it. This sick ticket told friends he was going to do it; wrote a manifesto about it on his website; and confessed to police that he had done it. We know who’s dead, we know who killed them, and we know why.

The other thing I will not do is call this incident an act of terrorism. That word has other connotations and we as a nation have become comfortable with it – albeit in a frightened, unsettling way. This was a plain, old fashioned, act of American racist murder. And the word we no longer want to say is racism.

There are supposedly intelligent people out there who think racism is over because we elected a black president. On the contrary, the deep core of racism that still exists in this country – but which a lot of people had been keeping quieter about with the passage of time and the undeniable strides of the Civil Rights Movement – has been surging upwards because of President Obama’s election. What do you think the Tea Party types mean when they say “We want our country back”? Who do you think they think took it away? How do you think they feel when they see an increasing number of black people in other significant positions of authority in government and in business?

What else explains the fact that quite a few of the 684 Republicans trying to run for president said of Dylann Roof that we’ll never really know why he did what he did. Really? He made his reasons pretty clear. He said black people were “raping our women, and taking over the country. They’ve gotta go.” That clear enough for ya?

I also want to add here something I was saving for after the 2016 election. I do believe that many Republicans and Conservatives in both houses of Congress were genuinely concerned that President Obama would attempt to do all sorts of radically liberal things; after all, he had campaigned so vehemently about “change” and “it’s our time” and all that. But the reality turned out to be that his governance has been remarkably centrist, even right of centrist, in a determined effort to work cooperatively with the opposition.

But no matter what he did or didn’t do to try to reassure them, their response was to not work with him at all! Instead, they gave obstructionism powerful new meaning. They actively disrespected him to a shocking extent. They questioned his citizenship, patriotism, college record, honesty, and said he was not a “legitimate” president. And in so doing, they riled up white supremacists like Dylan Roof and, all puns intended, showed their own true colors.

What’s hurt me most about the behavior of those who call themselves members of The Party of Lincoln, is that it clearly never even occurred to them (1) how much this milestone meant to black Americans and (2) it would have been a real gesture of human kindness and political decency if they really enhanced their efforts to treat him with extra respect and work with him especially cooperatively. They had the power to make sure he didn’t do anything too liberal. So why didn’t they do anything like this? Because it makes them crazy to see a black man in The White House. 

Despite all the racial violence we’ve recently witnessed by white police against black citizens; and despite all of the incredibly racist connections that exist in relation to poverty, hunger, disproportionate incarceration, education, unemployment, income inequality, etc., etc, etc., there has also been heartening progress in other ways. And oddly enough you see it more in the south than you do in the north. A lot of white folks who were raised in a climate of racism have matured out of it. It’s why I chose the photo shown above, of a white man grieving at the gate of the South Carolina church. 

And then there’s this. Many atheists think anyone who is religious takes a moronic, literal, evangelical view. Not true. Most look to their faith for strength, courage, basic values to live by, wisdom, patience, and the capacity to love and forgive, even when such feelings would seem impossible. As a secular Jew and Interfaith Minister of Spiritual Counseling, I admit, to my chagrin, that I haven’t found within myself the capacity to love or forgive Dylann Roof – not yet. But I’m paying attention and trying to grow. And at the very least, speak truth to power and weakness. My own and others. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Hue and Cry

As an extremely white-looking biracial person who was raised by my biological white mother and black father to “think of myself as” Colored, Negro and Black (the words changed over the years but the idea was the same), color me bemused and fascinated by the “racial scandal” surrounding Rachel Dolezal. She’s the woman who until a couple of days ago was a highly effective NAACP chapter president and is now a subject of curiosity and scorn, because she’s white (according to her white biological parents) but self-identifies as black. We might consider her transracial: a black woman who believes she was mistakenly born in a white woman’s body.

Ms. Dolezal is accused of doing some odd, even duplicitous things, including attending then suing Howard University (one of the country’s most famous black colleges) for racial discrimination because she’s white; assuming guardianship of one of several unquestionably black children adopted by her white parents; ticking several racial categories on official documents; marrying a black man (to whom she’s no longer married, but I don’t know why); and giving birth to a biracial child (biracial if indeed she’s white) who apparently looks unquestionably like a person of color.

Ms. Dolezal looks like a white woman with a tan and a ‘fro who says with no clear explanation that she identifies as black. Some black people resent this because they feel she has no personal knowledge/understanding of the black experience. But what is the totality of the black experience? American blacks come in a variety of hues because of the long history of the rape of black women by white men from Slavery until now, because there’s still a racial component to some rape.

Low self esteem still exists within the black community – less now, since some measure of civil rights success. But most people (black, white and “other”) know about the old paper bag test (if you’re darker than a brown paper bag you’re too dark); if you’re very light-skinned you’re “high yaller” (yellow); and there is still a measure of antipathy between dark and light skinned blacks, although with an interesting twist. Up until the 60s, light skinned blacks felt superior to their darker kin. Since civil rights that’s somewhat reversed. And now that there are an increasing number of biracial people there’s just a whole lot of racial confusion.

Race and racism are about color. It’s ironic but true that in many parts of Africa, American blacks aren’t considered black, because our historic coffee has been diluted with so much cream. “Pure” African blacks are black, what’s still called here “he’s so black he’s blue.” Whereas here, the economic construct of Slavery came up with the notion of the One Drop Rule (“one little drop of niggra blood and you’re a niggra too”). This made it easier and cheaper for Slave owners to acquire, even breed, more Slaves, rather than buy them fresh off the boat. It’s also true that there are millions of “white” Americans who have “black blood” in their family histories and don’t even know it!

But to get back to the beleaguered Ms. Dolezal: I personally feel a great sense of sympathy for her, as well as a kind of reverse empathy. Sympathy, because there’s obviously been a considerable amount of racial weirdness and confusion in her life and I think she does have a sense of the black experience. She grew up with a number of adopted black siblings, went to a black college where she majored in black studies, married a black man, has a “colored” child, and apparently did considerably beneficial work for the NAACP. If we accept (even if we don’t quite understand) that people can be transgender, is it really so hard to accept the concept of transracial?

My sense of “reverse empathy” comes from being told to view myself as black but my mirror told me I was not. It seemed insane that I had two parents of different colors and was told to identify with the one I didn’t look like. I had no problem seeing myself as  racially blended, but in my youth we didn’t have the terms “mixed race” or “biracial.” And when I gleefully discovered the word mulatto, which is a Spanish word for exactly what I am, I was told it was a derogatory term. I was basically told that my very being was an insult! I’m 63 goddamn years old and I still haven’t truly come to terms with my racial identity. And I think that says more about American society than it does about me.

The moral of the Rachel Dolezal story – like the moral of the Caitlyn Jenner story – is that identity is a personal and complex thing. Neither science nor sociology have a true, full understanding of human sexuality, or an explanation for the need for strong racial distinctions in a racially mixed society. What we have in both areas is ignorance, fear, polarization, habit, meanness, exploitation, and plain old stupidity. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see this stuff straightened out – and, for the record, it’s made much of my life miserable.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A Plea To Public Television

I love public television – commonly known as PBS. I’ve been a viewer (and inconsistent member, I’m ashamed to say) since the 70s and The Great American Dream Machine. I worked on staff at 13/WNET New York for a year and when I later went into business full time as a freelance writer, WNET was my client for ten years. My cable system offers three PBS stations and they are the channels I watch most. All that said, they are driving me insane with their Pledge (fund raising) periods, which have become longer and more tedious with every passing year. And because I care so much about the importance of public TV, I fear their fund raising tactic may be their undoing rather than their salvation. I find that a disturbing prospect indeed.

Perhaps for your edification (not everybody knows this), PBS is not a television network in the way that CBS, NBC and ABC are networks. They are still The Big Three networks on broadcast TV (vs. cable or anything else) and their “local” stations – the ones that begin with “W” in the east and “K” in the west – are affiliates directly responsible to and controlled by the primary network powers that be.

In direct and critical contrast, public TV stations are independent, self-supporting, local channels. PBS – the Public Broadcasting Service – produces and/or acquires many of the programs seen on public TV nationwide. But there are several other significant program services, and, a number of the larger stations – such as those in New York City, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco – also produce major programs with and without an assortment of production partners, that are also seen nationally.

There are around 300 independent public TV stations and the organization that to some extent unites them is APTS (the Association of Public Television Stations), which functions as a kind of union capable of standing up to PBS, which has been known to be a little grandiose and overbearing, however well-intentioned they mean to be. At least this is how things worked in the 90s, which is when I was last privy to the inner workings of public television; some important things may have changed that I’m unaware of.

But there are two changes of which I’m very cognizant. The first is that public stations now refer to themselves as PBS stations. I can’t tell you how vigorously this used to be fought against. Stations were passionate about trying to make the public understand that they were independent and their independence was critical to how they were funded, as well as their very reason for being: stations that produced/acquired numerous programs that specifically served local and regional communities in ways the Big Three affiliates never did and still don’t. But the “We’re not PBS message” was too difficult to explain and never got through, so it looks like the effort was finally abandoned.

The second change is how much they Pledge. There used to be three (and only three) key Pledge months: March, August and December. And pledge periods lasted for only one week in each of these months. Now, these three months are virtually consumed with Pledge, and in addition, other Pledge periods of varying lengths pop up throughout the year. This is no doubt happening because government funding, philanthropic funding and corporate funding have been in perilous decline since the 90s. So has individual viewer membership, which for most stations is where the bulk of their funding comes. As a result, some stations have folded. Some have joined forces. But all of them are hurting. Fiscal crisis is a constant in public TV.

The problem with Pledge as it’s currently conducted is that special “Pledge Programming” is broadcast, much of it provided by PBS. New programs are presented here and there, but most of it is very old, and it’s re-run countless times. How much of the same New Age self-help, music from the 60s, financial advice, and classical tenors is a person supposed to sit through – Pledge month after Pledge month, year after year? I watch little or no public TV during Pledge because my favorite programs have been replaced with the same Pledge shows that have been on for a decade or more! (They’re still showing Motown 25 and Motown is now over 60!). 

I’m not angry with public television for the volume of its Pledging; I know they need the money. I’m irritated with their lack of creativity – and very possibly financial effectiveness – in how they’re doing it. I urge public TV to abandon Pledge months and tired Pledge programming altogether. Instead, fund raising should be constant. Some short, some longer breaks between every program for a start. And, since the non-commercials are looking more like commercials anyway, have real commercials, just don’t interrupt programs and don’t have them between every show and don’t run more than one or two in a row. I could also live with a short crawl at the bottom of the screen once during a program, but not necessarily every program. Thinking outside the box might help you dig yourself out of your financial hole and stop torturing those of us who love you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Here Comes Memorial Day...Again

I published the post below in 2009. I planned to write a new one this year, but when I read the old one, I realized I didn't need to. The old one still applies. Obviously, some of the statistics have changed: there are now more dead, more very seriously wounded, 22 service-men and women now commit suicide daily, veterans still not receiving adequate physical and mental health care, more veterans and their families living in or near poverty, more homeless veterans, and more unemployed and under-employed returning veterans.

As I explain below, many Americans don't know that Memorial Day honors the military dead, while Veterans Day honors the military living. It seems to me that except for waving flags and exclaiming "We support the troops!" most people don't do a damn thing to honor the military, whether living or dead. And I also think the best way we as citizens, and the government that sends men and women off to war, could best honor the dead is by doing a whole lot better for the living. It doesn't matter whether we support current or past wars (Vietnam veterans are still suffering greatly) or even think some of our veterans committed horrific acts. They were either drafted or signed up (a) because they believed they were doing right by the USA or (b) had no where to go in civilian life and thought the military could give them a skill or an education that would prepare them for a productive, self-supporting civilian life afterwards, and in the meantime they were being brave and useful.

This country is severely messed up in a lot of ways and these problems are serious and have no easy solutions. But without a doubt, how/why/when we go to war, then how we treat our returning warriors, is one of the sickest situations we need to deal with. So, on Monday, May 25, 2015, by all means say a prayer or a respectful atheistic thank you to and for the dead. But more importantly, find some time this summer to write to your Senators, Congressional Representatives, and the President and let them know you want to see vastly improved benefits and services of all kinds for living veterans. The dead don't need our showy, basically meaningless tributes. But the living need and deserve our respect, our appreciation, and all practical support and privileges our humongous Defense budget can provide.
Having just watched the 20th annual National Memorial Day Concert on PBS, I feel compelled to say: let us indeed remember and honor those military men and women who died in defense of this country, from the Revolutionary War over 200 years ago to yesterday in Iraq and Afghanistan. But let us also add some genuine meaning to the putrid schmaltz that comprised the majority of this holiday special by creating a new standard for patriotic pride, one that advocates peace and diplomacy, and demands that our government also honor those who fought and managed to survive, by giving them all the medical care & therapy, financial benefits, education & training, housing, family assistance, and anything else they need or want, because no matter how much they get, it’s still much less than they deserve.

I understand that because we are in the midst of active war on two grisly fronts, it is appropriate on Memorial Day 2009 to acknowledge living veterans – particularly those severely wounded and those (largely) intact who have served in our current wars. That said, one of my longstanding civic pet peeves is that so many flag-waving Americans don’t know the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, so let me make that distinction clear for anyone who may be confused.

Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, was first commemorated in 1868 to honor the military dead of the Civil War and continues to be the holiday that honors all war dead, held on the last Monday of May each year. Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day because it commemorated the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, is the day we honor military veterans (war survivors) of all wars in which Americans participated, and it is held on November 11th each year, no matter what day of the week it falls on. For decades, both holidays have been primarily viewed by the oh-so-patriotic populace as occasions to go shopping, and, in the case of Memorial Day, participate in cook-outs and start wearing white for the summer.

My grandfather was a wounded veteran of World War I and received several medals. My father was a Merchant Marine veteran of World War II, during which he survived two major fires on two different oil tankers. My uncle is a WWII Navy veteran who served in the Pacific. And over the years, I’ve had friends who served in the Army, Navy and Marines, including a lesbian who was drummed out of the Navy during a gay witch-hunt in the 50s. I may be a 60s peacenik, but I have never disrespected war veterans, and, I’m proud to say, was never among those who greeted returning Vietnam War veterans with shouts of “baby killers!”

Throughout history, some wars have been morally necessary, others were totally contrived for cynical, often purely economic reasons. But all of them wounded and/or killed persons who (very often) voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way, because they believed they were doing something essential in defense of their country and the values for which it stands. This is true of the military personnel of all countries, whether they’re our allies or our enemies. And for a while, there were Rules of War, a perhaps oxymoronic concept that said “this form of brutality is allowed, but this other form is not.” Among those rules at various times were Don’t Kill Civilians, Don’t Attack Hospitals and Schools, and Don’t Torture Prisoners of War. I think it can be fairly said that the gloves have been off on all those fronts for some years now, and America is hardly alone in this regard.

But to return to the purpose of Memorial Day: one of the great ironies of modern warfare is that battlefield medicine has been so enormously improved, many of those who would have died of horrendous injuries in wars gone by are now patched up sufficiently to make it home, only to endure countless surgeries, tortuous physical rehab, and existence of either lifeless vegetation or grossly limiting disability. Is this progress or torment? I imagine that those with severe, lifelong injuries have different opinions; unfortunately for them, many of them can't tell anyone what their true wishes are.

It’s worth noting here that (as of April 2009, per 4,278 military personnel have so far died in Iraq and Afghanistan; and 31,215 have been wounded, most of them severely and 20% with completely life-altering brain or spinal injuries. reports that 30% of returning troops develop serious mental/emotional problems within 3 to 4 months of their return, and 140 veterans of the Army alone have committed suicide – a trend that is increasing by all accounts. It is also worth noting that through mid-2009, $800 billion has been spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and President Obama recently requested another $76 billion. It costs over $300,000 per year to deploy one soldier. All facts worth remembering this Memorial Day.

One of the few musical moments in tonight’s concert that didn’t prompt me to roll my eyes with nausea or despair came from country music singer Trace Adkins. He sang a beautiful, plaintive song called “`Til the Last Shot’s Fired,” the chorus of which says: Say a prayer for peace/For every fallen son/Set my spirit free/Let me lay down my gun/Sweet Mother Mary, I’m so tired/But I can’t come home/`Til the last shot’s fired. Let’s honor the war dead – and the war survivors – by finding a way to fire the last shot; to finding new and better ways besides war to stop tyranny and other ills in their insidious tracks.