Archive for October, 2010

We are approaching the time of All Saints Day, as well as All Souls Day, Samhain, All Hallows Eve or Halloween, and The Day of the Dead.  All these holidays connect to one another, and all are connected together in my heart, for this year, on November 1, I mark the 17th anniversary of the death of my father.

As my friend Dr. Suzanne Jubenville notes, Samhain “marks the moment when the Wheel of the Year rotates into the dark half of the year.”  This is also harvest time, the beginning of Celtic winter, and the point at which “it is believed that the veil between the visible and the invisible world reaches its thinnest point.”  No wonder that ghost tales developed from such traditions, and no wonder that people often try to communicate with their departed loved ones at this time of year.

Samhain and All Hallows Eve occur on October 31, marking the dying of the old year.  All Saints Day follows, on November 1.  Saints and martyrs are honored by the Christian church on this day, white is worn by liturgical celebrants to mark this holy day.  All Souls Day comes next, on November 2, known by Christians as a day to offer prayers for the souls of the faithful departed, with the wearing of black, white, or purple vestments.  The Day of the Dead runs concurrent with these days, and other traditions mark the time when, centuries ago, people would go from door to door, “Souling” — saying prayers for the dead and asking for contributions to mark a soul being freed from Purgatory.  Typically Soul Cakes (small cakes with cinnamon, cloves, and currants) were given out to those who knocked at the door.

Most of the people (and creatures) honored during the Day of the Dead were not saints — at least, not according to religious law.  They were ordinary loved ones — animals too – who are remembered by their families and celebrated on these days.  It is fitting that at the time when, according to the ancient ways, the veil between life and death is thinnest, we remember these souls.  And I do.

My father, Oscar Weiner, was a very ordinary soul.  The youngest of six children (and probably a change-of-life “accident” for his mother) he was born to Russian immigrant parents who were poor and had come to seek a better life in America.  He worked as button-marker, a haberdasher, a Fuller brush salesman, and later (when he and his family had scraped together enough money to send him to college) a teacher.  After he had acquired an MSW (Master’s in Social Work), he devoted his professional life to working with emotionally disturbed children, holding a particular love for troubled adolescents who had come from rough neighborhoods and poor families.  He saw in them a chance to make their lives better, and sought to help them find an opportunity to become more than perhaps they or their families had imagined.

My father was puckish — always ready to stir up a little debate over something to see how people would react — and wanted not much more than a good hamburger, an easy chair where he could read and smoke his pipe, a back yard where he could cut firewood, and the love of his family.  When he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, he insisted that he was not ‘suffering,’ and continued to joke and interact with his friends up to the very end.

Oscar insisted that he was, as Lou Gehrig had said in his famous speech, “the luckiest man in the world.”  He never complained, begrudged his lot, or wished for different than he had received.  His outlook was unfailingly cheerful and upbeat, and, as Robert Fulghum once wrote, he believed “…that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief…” and, most of all, “… that love is stronger than death.”  And for me, this ordinary man was a saint.

As we prepare to celebrate Samhain, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead, all these, intertwined, I hold to that common thread I believe all these observances have:  that there are connections that affirm that love endures into and beyond death, and the sure knowledge that only through death can life continue and be reborn, again and again, in many forms.

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Last week, NPR (National Public Radio) committed ‘news’ when they terminated the contract of news analyst Juan Williams for remarks he made on Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor about Muslims.  This was a move which brought both cheers and boos from all those commenting, with cheers coming from many media analysts who asked why it took NPR so long to act, and boos coming from conservative political apologists like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich as well as Williams’ considerable fan base.

NPR’s Ombudsman Alicia Shepard notes that the firing of Williams brought forth a firestorm of controversy, which much of the anger levelled at NPR.  More than 8,000 emails regarding the firing were received, more than for any other incident taken up by the network, enough to crash the email response program used for collecting such user feedback.  People were, and are, mad as hell.

Since then, people have been posting pictures of Muslims who are part of all walks of life on Facebook or their blogs, showing some wearing traditional religious clothing, others not (to illustrate, they say, that Muslims are part of all fabrics of our life and can be religious people no matter what their attire); reaming NPR for their actions, applauding Fox for increasing Williams’ air time on their network in the aftermath; and declaring war on the public funding NPR receives to keep it on the air.  It’s ugly and in some cases, petty, and once again, the liberals are lining up against the conservatives to wage social warfare.

Whatever side of this issue you land on — whether you liked Juan Williams and his commentaries on NPR or his role on Fox; whether the President of NPR picked a really bad time to take action or not; whether you think NPR should receive public funding or not; it seems to me that many folks have just missed the boat on the essentials of this matter.  Juan Williams was hired to be a news analyst on NPR.  He was not hired to be a commentator (to offer his opinion) on stories, but to probe them in greater depth to help us understand them.  Daniel Schorr, now of blessed memory, was also a news analyst, and Ted Koppel, late of ABC, has filled that role as well.  Both Schorr and Koppel have performed admirably in this role, bringing deeper perspective to a story to help listeners gain understanding.

Providing analysis requires you to delve into a story but not to offer your opinion.  And NPR rightfully should expect that if one of their employees accepts a position on another network, his work there will not conflict with his role working for NPR.  This was not the first time Williams had drawn controversy for expressing his opinions.  Whether NPR waited too long to take action, or took action precipitously as a knee-jerk response to Williams’ appearance on Mr. O’Reilly’s program, may be fodder for other columns.

For me, however, there should be little debate about the key issue:  Juan Williams forgot, or ignored, the requirements of his position at NPR and became part of the story he was discussing with Bill O’Reilly.  That may be what Fox wants from him, and if so, I hope that Williams and Fox and O’Reilly have a long and happy and fruitful relationship.  But NPR was right to expect and demand that their employees not cross the line by inserting themselves into the stories they cover.  This is basic journalism 101 for reporters and broadcasters, and it should not be mysterious to anyone, least of all a media veteran.

Let us, then, maintain our focus on the essentials of the matter – what any media outlet requires of its reporters and analysts (as different from commentators expressing opinion).  And let all who act as spokespeople for businesses or as reporters or analysts for media outlets remember that you simply can not have it both ways.

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Years ago, I remember reading Lillian Hellman’s book, Scoundrel Time.  In 1952, Hellman, a peppery character known for being a brilliant playwright and novelist, refused to become an informer for the House Un-American Activities Committee, thereby taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy as well as many other artists and politicians who caved to McCarthy’s demands to rat out their friends and colleagues.  I had become interested in this colorful story because it occurred when I was far too young to remember the political scene…a time that led to “duck and cover” air raid drills in school and images of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table for emphasis.

Something else had happened during that time, too.  We were living in Akron, Ohio, where my father was the Director of the Summit County Children’s Home, working with children who were orphaned or abandoned, removed from their homes because of mistreatment or because their parents were otherwise unable to care for them.  My father had written an op-ed piece which the Akron Beacon Journal (the local paper) published, in which he applauded the day care programs that had begun to operate in the Soviet Union.  He suggested that our country might learn something from what was going on in the USSR.  Late one night, the phone rang and an anonymous voice on the other end of the line told my father that unless he retracted what he said, his wife and daughter were dead.  Click.  Dad was supposed to retract, cave, and get the message that the Russians were bad in all ways.

Designed to strike fear into the heart of the person on the other end of such a call, that story’s worth recounting today because so much of what I see going on in our country, in the political environment, harkens back to the early 1950’s…particularly now, at the end of the Silly Season which ends on November 2nd. A message is sent out and passed on and on, and pretty soon, we’re all repeating it like robots.  That’s how things catch on, and it’s how phrases and behaviors get rooted in our culture.

A positive example of such viral communication can be seen in the progression of the “It Gets Better” slogan through large parts of our culture.  As far as I can tell, writer Dan Savage was the first one to use it, in response to the suicide of Tyler Clemente and a number of other gay, lesbian, transgender or questioning teens or young adults.  The Youth Pride Chorus, Ellen DeGeneres, and many, many others picked it up, and it continues to grow.  Thank heaven for this.

But a not-so-positive connection can be seen throughout the political landscape, as tea partiers make comments about Obamacare and plant scary messages about how taxes will be raised and what else will happen if “they” are re-elected.  Life as we know it, they would have us believe, will disappear.  This environment does bad things to people, and politicians are at the center of the behavior pattern.  Not all of them:  I’ve seen a number, including Massachusetts’ own Barney Frank, locked in a tight re-election fight, who have stood their ground.  But Sen. Harry Reid is trying to hold on in Nevada (and the odds are very iffy, if recent polls are to be believed), Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Barbara Boxer in California…and the politicians tend to start changing their songs when they’re afraid they’ll lose a race.

It is Scoundrel Time.  John McCain may offer us one of the most distressing examples of this behavior in which someone will say or do anything to get re-elected. McCain, who was once the sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform along with Sen. Ted Kennedy (a position that won him no love among the conservative electorate) moved in a different direction this year. Focusing on border security, McCain embraced Arizona’s controversial hard-line immigration law and, in an ad, called on the federal government to “complete the danged fence” — three years after dismissing the notion of a border fence in a Vanity Fair article. Four years ago, McCain told students he supported repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans gays from serving openly in the military. But in May, the former war hero and Navy prisoner of war promised to filibuster any bill including that change that landed on the Senate floor.

When the going gets tough, too many politicians run, as one Worcester, MA, politician proclaimed some years ago, “like rats” to avoid the damage.  When the heat is on, as it surely is in the final days of the mid-year election cycle, way too many have suddenly reversed their original positions, having found a ‘change of heart’ somewhere in their souls (inspired, no doubt, by their reading of the latest political poll).

To go back to my story from the early 1950s:  after he received that threatening phone call my Dad sat up, thought for a while, and then called the police.  But he also decided that the person on the other end of the phone hadn’t understood the point Dad was trying to make – that we in America could learn from another country’s model of child care, not so that we could all become Communists.  He called the editor of the Beacon Journal and asked if he could rewrite the op-ed to run again in the paper, not changing the focus of the piece, but changing the words, to make the points clearer.  The editor gave him a go-ahead, and the piece was republished.  The police watched our house, I am told, and went through it with bomb-sniffing dogs.  And obviously I am still here.

Those were bad times, back then…times when anyone who uttered the word “Communist” was subject to suspicion and innuendo.  McCarthy was denounced, of course, when someone finally stood up to him, stood up to his bullying and his allegations and his career-destroying tactics.  Later the playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible, overtly about the Salem Witch Trials, but really about McCarthyism, to point out what happens when one person influences a whole population to turn on their neighbors.

It was a long time ago when all that happened.  But from where I perch, it seems like it’s back again:  the name-calling, the suggestions that people are going to destroy our way of life. The scoundrels are out, running for office, saying what they will to influence our vote and build fear in our hearts.  I know that those words ‘hope,’ ‘courage,’ ‘commitment,’ have been over-used.  Yet surely those are the elements we need to survive this generation’s scoundrel time.

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A few weeks ago, Ben and I finally got around to watching the movie “Doubt,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley, starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.  The film was engrossing and compelling in demonstrating what happens when rumors and unproven allegations are used to destroy individuals’ reputations and lives.

In it, Hoffman’s character, a priest named Father Flynn, tells his congregation that rumors are “like feathers on the wind…” that once they are released, they go everywhere, and it is impossible to take them back.  The film also delves into what happens when secrets are kept — when someone knows something and is admonished to hold on to a secret — as well as what happens when things suspected are shared without substantiation.

There’s a lot in the story of “Doubt,” much of it deeply disturbing to me because it has so many connections to the news today — and to parts of the life I’ve lived.  My thoughts, first, went to the lives of public and private figures that have been undermined and perhaps more, by rumor and innuendo.  It is, of course, the height of the Silly Season, except that this year, the political campaigns I’m watching aren’t so much silly as vicious.  Candidates are being dragged out for public whippings, or maligning and verbally beating up each other…relentless name-calling, innuendo-tossing, mud-slinging.  Frankly I wouldn’t want to vote for any of these people.  While they will suggest that they have no direct connection to the messes being created, they all have political operatives who are ginning up the charges and counter-charges, digging through the personal dirt, trying to find something that they can nail the ‘other’ in the campaign with.  It makes me gag.

We’re not immune to it either, of course.  Earlier in my career, I found myself in the office of the President of my organization where he asked me if I (as a staff member who was officially charged with being neutral in institutional politics) had engaged in conversations suggesting the way an upcoming election might turn.  No, I replied, I had not.  Which was true.  But I had, a week prior, been in the company of a colleague who had tried to put words in my mouth while on a business trip, tried to pry information from me, tried to suggest that my friendship with an officer of the institution placed me in a privileged situation.  No, I had not engaged in inappropriate activities.  But my ‘friend’ had placed words in my mouth, made suggestions to others, spread rumors, and lodged questions in the mind of our President.  I was livid, and confronted the person who had  ‘shared’ the misinformation — but you can’t undo such damage.  The innuendos, once out, are like feathers on the wind.

As a people we are prone to tearing each other down to build ourselves up.  We stand on the shoulders of others, not to learn from them (either good or ill) but to knock them to the ground, toss trash on them, and then tell ourselves that we’re really good people who are trying to bring out the ‘truth.’  Former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez discovered this the hard way recently, after he publicly trashed not only talk show host Jon Stewart, but his bosses at CNN and Jews around the world.  His demise followed that of Dr. Laura Schlessinger…and heaven knows, I wish that Glenn Beck, with his mockery of people whose home burned to the ground because they didn’t pay a fire service surcharge, would follow.

If this is how the arc of the moral universe goes, I fear for our society, for we are neither good, nor just, nor wise, nor fair to ourselves or, in this season, the electorate.

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I’m groaning with the onslaught of political advertising bombarding the media, as I note with resignation that the mid-term elections are five weeks away.  The mud is flying, fast and furious, or should I say, faster and more furiously, since it’s been going on for quite a while already.  Analysts are looking at polls, incumbents are, in general, in big trouble, and upstarts – be they tea partiers or just ‘someone new’ are coming up.  The prevailing mood is one of anger and disgust.

“Throw the rascals out” is a term that arose decades ago in response to misdeeds and political abuse of power as an election approached.  In 2010, with the recession officially over but high unemployment, foreclosures, and belt-tightening still the norm, the cry rings loudly throughout America.

We have become a society that expects instant response and instant fixes.  We get our information on handheld devices, and people post updates on Twitter and Facebook, sometimes minute-by-minute.  TV channels and websites like eBayoffer home shopping opportunities that are triggered by a clock counting down.  Quick – get that bargain they’re offering and that you might or might not need, now, before time runs out!  No wonder newspapers and magazines are enduring a slow but inevitable death:  they have to be printed and mailed or delivered and before they arrive, the news is outdated.

And so it is with politics and our collective tolerance for addressing our national ills.  There are, to be sure, reasons to be angry, and there are politicians who have stayed too long at the party and need to retire.  But the impulse to boot out those who have worked to make the system better, who have come in after huge amounts of damage have been done and who now labor to fix things, slowly — no.

Take Barney Frank.  Frank, the outspoken congressman from Massachusetts, is locked in a tough re-election battle against an opponent named Sean Bielat.  Bielat, a man with no political experience who is armed with a recent degree from the Wharton School of Management, is allied with the Tea Party.  Some longtime Frank voters are headed to vote for Bielat simply because Frank has been in Congress for 29 years.  But in those 29 years, Frank has led the charge for reform of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Do we really want to throw him out to get someone new and very inexperienced in his place?  What will that do in a town like Washington, where it takes years to build relationships and connections?

And then there’s the matter of the Senate race in Delaware, which is just plain weird.  Christine O’Donnell, who has few credentials (including academic) to offer other than her appearances on Bill Maher’s show, has proclaimed that God is keeping her in the Senate race.  I suspect it’s a little more than that, and now, although questions have also been raised about O’Donnell’s difficulties paying taxes on her mortgage and an allegation that she used campaign funds to pay for personal expenses in a previous election, she’s got more than $2 million in her warchest. Oh, and let’s not forget her comment about dabbling in witchcraft.  That is a talent that will probably serve her well in Washington.

And this week, Carl Paladino, the tea partier running for Governor of New York, was caught on tape verbally attacking a reporter and suggesting that the reporter check out opponent Andrew Cuomo’s history of marital infidelity.

I know that people are impatient.  We want the damned recession to be over again so that we can go back to spending on credit, but of course, we also want jobs, mortgages, and a release from what seems like an endless time of economic depression and oppression.  Me too.  On the other hand, we didn’t get into this mess overnight (something too many people seem to forget).  The prior White House occupant did plenty to cause the messy bed that we are now lying in, and he had eight long years to get us there.  So we are now mad as hell and impatient because that upstart mixed-race tall skinny guy with the odd name who we elected on a wave of hope, has not yet been able to fix everything.  And now we’re ready to march in and — since we can’t throw Obama out during the mid-terms — throw out everyone else, in a baby with the bathwater move.

Not so smart.  And please, America, not so fast.  Yes, I share the frustration and the wish for better times.  I also recognize that Obama and many members of Congress, and governors, too, are doing everything they can to ease the recession and bring us into smoother economic waters.  They did not say it would happen quickly, and it isn’t.  And that is frustrating for all of us who want it all to be over, now.

Let us remember, however, that we are a people who live in a country that was built out of the sweat and toil and debates of many years.  The first and second meetings of the Continental Congress, which led to the Declaration of Independence, took years.  The problems being faced by our country now — which influence and are influenced by the economies and politics of the rest of the world — will take as long, or longer, to address.  We need patience, fortitude, and commitment to remain in the struggle, while we resist the impulse to stamp our collective feet and go try another brand that offers untested promises.

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