Questions, After Kavanaugh

Image: A person holds their face in their hands, tears dripping from their chin. (Counselling/Pixabay)

I’ve been thinking of how to talk about the news and the Kavanaugh nomination. I finally gave up on writing anything useful.

My opinions are colored by my own history as a survivor of sexual violence. I simply can’t think of this without being reminded of all the women I have known who were targets of sexual violence by men who knew that they’d never face any consequences for what they did. I’m not going to pretend I can be “objective” about this situation.

Nor do I think that anything I say is going to affect the vote by the Senate, or even anyone else’s mind. Let’s be honest – Americans have pretty much made up our minds about this, one way or the other, haven’t we?

Instead, I would like to raise some questions about the future.

  1. If it is unfair for men to face accusations of sexual misconduct years after the fact, what are we going to do about making it more possible for victims to report sooner and with fewer negative consequences for reporting? I’m talking not only about the barriers in law enforcement and the court system, but the fact that many persons making such a report face blame and judgment from family and friends.
  2. What is it going to take for us to believe people who say they have been attacked? A study using FBI data over the period from 2006 to 2010 concluded that of the rape reports in that time period, only 5% were false or baseless. In other words, someone reporting this humiliating crime is highly likely to be telling the truth. Meanwhile, the majority of sexual assaults go unreported – meaning, no one is accused of them. They go unreported because victims are not stupid – they are aware of the facts I list above. Moreover, they are likely to encounter doubt and counter-accusations from friends as well as law enforcement. Even among the minority of perpetrators who are actually accused, they are highly unlikely to be prosecuted or convicted.
  3. When are we going to recognize that the phrase “ruined life” applies to the victim of a violent crime, even though we’re more likely to hear it in reference to the accused? There may somewhere be survivors of such crimes who just walk away unharmed, but I’ve never met one. Instead, sexual assault survivors often deal with a lifetime of PTSD, anxiety and phobias, huge therapy bills if they want to recover some semblance of peaceful existence, and many like myself have to deal with physical sequelae as well. Many of us choose brave language (like “survivor” instead of “victim”) as part of our recovery but our lives were changed forever by what was done to us.
  4. Why do we have to talk about “wives and sisters” when we plead for attention to be paid to these injustices? Why can’t a woman’s life matter on its own? Why do the male victims of sexual attacks have to be invisible?
  5. What concrete actions can we take to make things better in the future? How can we handle reports of rape or sexual violence so as not to demonize the person who reports? How can we change the system, or ourselves, so that we identify at least as much with the victim as we identify with the accused?

Especially if you feel that Judge Kavanaugh has been treated unfairly, I’d be very interested in your take on these questions.

 

 

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Insight from Bob Woodward’s “Fear”

I have been reading Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward. I’m about half way through it, but I’ve already noticed something that will change the way I choose my words about politics from now on.

As President Trump brings on his cabinet and advisors, he seeks out many military figures who disagreed vehemently with the previous president. Mr. Woodward reports some of their presentations to the president, including their descriptions of what they felt were the mistakes of the previous administration.

To my surprise, their arguments sounded a lot more reasonable to me than they had in the past. I was able to see the logic in their arguments, even when I didn’t agree. This confused me – had I been so poor a listener? I went back a couple of chapters and began reading again.

It finally dawned on me what was different. Mr. Woodward reported the advisors’ points of view in very dispassionate language. There were almost no adjectives or adverbs, and no editorial comments whatsoever. It was just the unadorned chain of logic.

When I heard the same arguments in the past, they had always come in highly charged language.  For example, I’d ask someone for their opinion on Mr. Obama’s Middle East policies, and the answer would begin with “Obama! He hates Israel!” or something similar – something that would immediately set me on the defensive. I didn’t – and don’t – think President Obama “hates Israel.” But when someone arguing against the Iran deal led with a bunch of statements like that, my heart would shut down. It would be very difficult to listen to anything else they said, however logical.

This has caused me to reflect on my own language. If such statements made it impossible for me to hear what someone else was saying, then what about the times I lead with my opinions of President Trump? In fact, until this post, I have had a tendency to avoid the title “President Trump” because I have such revulsion for him. Now, I will use the title – he is the President of the United States – and I will try to editorialize less about his person as I talk about his policies.

It is reasonable to expect a Trump voter to go onto the defensive when I open an argument with my emotional opinions about the man’s character. It’s not that my opinions about policy have changed – not at all! – I loathe most of his policies – but when I adorn my arguments with insulting nicknames and wild speculation about his motives, I close the ears of anyone I might want to persuade.

I am fond of saying that “words create worlds,” pointing to the first chapter of Genesis. Words can also build or burn bridges. Words are how we connect to other human beings. Perhaps one thing we need to do, if we are going to heal this divided country, is to speak less in passionate editorial prose and more in language that actually communicates facts.

I know that there are other problems in our speech in America right now: the whole issue of what is real, what is true, what can be known seems to be up for grabs. That’s a very serious matter, and I doubt there is much I alone can do to shift it. But on this little thing, to quit the namecalling, to quit ascribing motive, that’s something I can do, and I believe it could make a difference in my communication with others.

 

 

As Usual, Silence = Death

Image: One person helps another to the top of a hill, in silhouette. (Pixabay)

This past week a friend pointed me to “Pick a Hill Worth Dying On, America.” I found it moving and motivating and I thought I’d pass it on, with a few additional thoughts. John Plavlovitz is one of my favorite Christian bloggers and he writes with an energy and urgency that I admire.

He begins, “If your eyes are clear and open right now you can see it: this is a pivot point for us, America.” 

In November 2016 I was very upset about the election, but my mantra was, “Our democracy survived Watergate and it will survive this, too.” I have vivid memories of those days in the 1970’s and while it was a worrisome time, the system functioned the way it was supposed to.

In the months since the election – and really, before that – things have happened in which it’s clear the system is no longer working. The first big sign of it was Senator Mitch McConnell’s refusal to allow a confirmation vote on President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. At the time, that was simply unbelievable: I kept thinking, “but they can’t do that!” The GOP could, and they did.

Since then, the hits have just kept coming. The first thing President Trump did was sign an executive order for the Muslim ban.  After the recent Supreme Court decision, a modified form of the ban is in place. For those of us who feel strongly about not targeting people on the basis of religion, it’s a failure of the system.

About 5,000 American citizens died from the hurricane in Puerto Rico, but our government only admits to 64. Babies were torn from their mothers’ arms at our borders. Our government apparently didn’t even bother to keep records of who was where – some of those children may never locate their parents again. My tax dollars at work. And then there’s corruption, and the evil tax bill, and on and on…

Worst of all, facts are now a free-for-all. Fox News says one thing, the other news sources say something opposite, the White House sniffs, “Fake News” and we stumble along in the dark. I feel like I’m living in Orwell’s London of 1984.

NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL. The United States has always had a problem with racism, but for most of my lifetime, we had the good grace to be ashamed of it. The United States has a nasty history of mistreating immigrants and exterminating Indians, but in the last 50 years, we were not in the habit of celebrating those behaviors.

Now we have Nazis running for office, and hatred on display everywhere. Indictments have been brought against 12 Russian spies who interfered in our last election, but the coming midterms are still vulnerable to such attacks.

I agree with the Rev. Plavlovitz: It’s time to pick the spot where we will dig in. There are plenty of topics, and we don’t have to totally agree on anything, just stick together long enough that this country does not become a place of shame for centuries to come.

  • I can work on voter registration.
  • I can hound friends and neighbors to vote.
  • I can write op eds.
  • I can write letters to the editor.
  • I can correct fallacies on social media with links to solid sources.
  • I can call and call and call my elected officials.
  • I can encourage the elected officials who already get it.
  • I can give money to campaigns.
  • I can be a good ally, supporting those with whom I have some issues in common.
  • I can refrain from demanding ideological purity from my allies.
  • I can be civil to all comers, but firm with people who have no intent to be civil.

And whenever I feel tired, whenever I want to just lie down and hope for the best, I will remember these verses from the Scroll of Esther:

Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.

On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” – Esther 4:13-14

During the AIDS crisis, one of the slogans of the movement to deal with the epidemic was “Silence = Death.” Then it meant that if we don’t communicate, we’ll die. If we don’t speak up for others, they’ll die. I’m beginning to feel like that slogan needs a revival, because we truly cannot afford to sit in silence.

Silence = Death. Let’s not go there.

Adul Sam-on, Stateless Hero

Image: Adul Sam-on in the cave, photo adapted from the Hindi First Post.

 

I woke this morning to the news that the 12 boys and their coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand have been rescued alive, and are now in the hospital. That was wonderful news, and people all over the world are relieved.

Several outlets reported that a key element in the rescue was the contribution of Adul Sam-on, a member of the team. Adul was described by the New York Times as “the stateless descendant of a Wa ethnic tribal branch.” He was the only English speaker in the group, and he handled the communication with the British divers who originally found the boys on July 2:

Proficient in English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa, Adul politely communicated to the British divers his squad’s greatest needs: food and clarity on just how long they had stayed alive. -NYT, 7/10/18

Adul Sam-on’s impressive language skills were hard earned. He had been born in Myanmar, but he did not have Burmese citizenship. His ethnic group, the Wa, have a troubled history relative to the Myanmar government. They live in the “Golden Triangle” area of Southeast Asia, and are associated with drug production and trafficking. His parents were able to smuggle him to a church in Thailand where he has lived since he was small, attending the Ban Wiangphan School in Chiang Rai province. They clearly wanted something other than drugs and gangs for their son.

Now let’s look at Adul Sam-on through a different lens, the lens he would face at the US border. He has the following pro’s and con’s:

Pro: Young, healthy, intelligent, multi-lingual, good at sports. Now has shown his translation skills in a highly stressful setting, performing with aplomb. He is the pride of his school, beloved of his teachers.

Con: Stateless person. No passport. Refugee. His tribe is known to be involved in the drug trade. Sounds like there was trouble in his old neighborhood, too.

I think it’s safe to say that were he to turn up at the US border, he’d wind up in the custody of ICE, labeled a “lawbreaker,” with extra worries about possible drug connections. Even though he has a lot to offer any nation who takes him, we wouldn’t want him. We’ve made it very clear that we don’t want refugees.

What’s wrong with this picture? And what’s wrong with us, that we are fearful of the Adul Sam-on’s of the world? Immigrants are responsible for less crime than native-born US citizens. Immigrants can add a lot to a society, bringing things like language skills and their drive to succeed.

How many of the young adults in ICE custody or under threat of deportation are potential leaders, potential teachers, potential communicators? How many of them could shine under pressure like that young man? We’ll never know.

The Torah commands not once, not twice, but 36 TIMES that we are to “love the stranger.” It reminds us that the Jewish people were once strangers in Egypt. And for the last 2000 years we have more often been strangers than we have been truly at home, because we were stateless and unwanted.

The current immigration policy of the US Government is racist, bigoted, cowardly, and selfish. We don’t deserve a Adul Sam-on; I’m glad he has a bright future somewhere else.

 

A Bitter Psalm for Our Times

Image: B&W Photo of a crying child. (PublicDomain/Pixabay)

We live in a time when terrible things are happening to our nation and the world. Sometimes I cannot believe what I see on the news, then I talk with people who’ve been there and seen that with their own eyes, and I am forced to believe that there are babies in cages, children shuttled all over who knows where, and a nation built by immigrants led by someone who uses words like “infestation” to describe human beings.

People that I trust have personally witnessed the detention of children. They are not in “summer camp” or “boarding school.” They are held in prison-like conditions, without their parents knowing their whereabouts, and without knowing when or how they will see their parents again. Some appear to have been transported around the country to foster care, which sounds good until we realize that the foster parents have no information about the parents, or how long the separation may last. There seems to be a lack of concern at both the Department of Homeland Security and at the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as in the Oval Office itself.

Discussions about the alleged guilt of the parents is completely beside the point. The persons receiving this punishment are children, innocent children who have done nothing to anyone. To those who blame the parents, I say, “Do you know for a fact that each individual parent is a fraud?”

What we DO know for certain that such a separation from family is permanently damaging to children. We know it from Holocaust survivors who were “hidden children” or “kindertransport children” , even those who were able to reconnect with relatives, and even those who were adopted by very nice people. Without exception, the people I know who survived in that way are grateful for their survival, and feel a profound sense of loss even in old age.

It is only human to weep in the face of such trauma and such evil – but what are we to do besides weep? Many good people have been demonstrating, reporting what they know about the locations of children, calling their elected officials, and doing other good works – gemilut hasadim – acts of lovingkindness – to right these great wrongs.

Meanwhile, our Congress has been busy remaking the safety net that stands between the working poor and utter disaster. They have made use of our distraction (by the great crime on our borders) to pass a budget that gives tax cuts to billionaires while cutting  Medicare and Medicaid.

These wrongs are nothing new in history. Here is what the psalmist had to say about cruel and unjust rulers in his own time:

Psalm 58

For the leader; “Do not Destroy.” Of David. A michtam.

O mighty ones, do you really decree what is just? Do you judge mankind with equity?

In your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands you deal out violence in the land.
The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb.
Their venom is like that of a snake, a deaf viper that stops its ears
so as not to hear the voice of charmers or the expert mutterer of spells.
O God, smash their teeth in their mouth; shatter the fangs of lions, Eternal One!
let them melt, let them vanish like water; may their arrows be blunted when they aim their bows;
like a slug that melts away as it moves; like a stillborn child that never sees the sun!
Before the thorns grow into a bramble, may God whirl them away alive in fury.
The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Men will say, “There is, then, a reward for the righteous; there is, indeed, divine justice on earth.”

This is an ugly psalm, with shocking sentiments. It gives voice to the anger that a good person feels when such cruelty is done by the powerful. It is also a reminder that while such evil may prevail for a while, in the end there is only the judgement of history and, for believers, the judgement of God.

If you are angry at what is being done to innocent children, know that you are in good company. But know, also, that all of us who are U.S. citizens are complicit in these evils: our tax dollars are paying for these crimes. We must raise our voices in any way we can, keeping in mind that we want to do less harm to the families, not more. In my next post I will address some specific actions we can take.

Woe to those who have done such things, and woe to those who do not care.

Tennessee Memory Lane: Remembering Governor Ray Blanton

Image: Front page of the Nashville Tennessean after Gov. Ray Blanton was convicted of selling alcohol licenses. Headline is “Blanton Guilty.” (from the Nashville Post)

I should mention up front, there’s no real Jewish content to this post, I’m just taking a trip down memory lane. However, I think you may find it interesting in light of recent events.

The President’s pardon of Dinesh D’Souza, convicted of campaign finance fraud, and his talk about pardoning Rod Blagojevich have sent me down memory lane.

In 1975, when I was still a Tennessean, we elected a scalawag named Leonard Ray Blanton to be Governor of Tennessee. He had already served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1967-1973, so it isn’t like we didn’t know what we were getting. He was famous for his poor attendance record in the Congress and his pursuit of pork barrel projects for his part of the state. (I must admit, the 7th congressional district had the nicest road surfaces of any rural counties in Tennessee.) He was also known for having come up as a politician through the Crump Machine out of Memphis.

In other words, anyone who thought Leonard “Ray” Blanton was an innocent was not paying attention.

Well, he got elected governor because in those days, we’d only elected one Republican governor in the previous 50 years. That was a nice dentist named Winfield Dunn, and everyone was so shocked at having a Republican governor that between four years of Dr. Dunn and the Watergate scandal, it just seemed safer to go back to what we were used to. (I say “we” although I voted for his opponent, Lamar Alexander, today a Senator from Tennessee. My politics have changed since I was in my 20’s, but I think Senator Alexander is a sight better a human being than Gov. Blanton ever was, despite his mistaken opinion on many matters.) Anyway…

Governor Blanton ran as a populist, putting together a coalition of assorted folks who believed that Republicans were practically the devil because they’d brought in Reconstruction 100 years before. (I wish I could say I was making that part up.) He talked a lot about morals and about honesty and Christianity, so of course he was going to be a good governor, right?

Once he was elected, however, he became known for heavy drinking and womanizing publicly, for vulgar language and high-handed ways. He gave himself a five-figure raise. The papers reported on his expensive junkets around the world to attract business to Tennessee and on the entourage of his friends who went with him. There were rumors about much worse, stuff like selling pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down in his Capitol offices. The state of Tennessee even paid his bar bills and those of his cronies, until the newspapers shamed him into paying us back. Meanwhile the legislature changed the law, so that he could be the first governor in Tennessee history eligible to serve a second term.

By 1977 it was beginning to smell pretty bad. He fired a single mother named Marie Fajardo Ragghianti, who his administration had hired to be Chair of the Pardons and Paroles board, an improbable hire given her youth and inexperience. She refused to release a shady bunch of characters he pardoned because she suspected they had paid bribes to someone for their pardons. It was a very bad business, but there was no proof Gov. Blanton was involved. For a while, Ms. Ragghianti was out of a job, her name was mud, and after she went to the FBI, she was threatened by thugs who felt she was not sufficiently respectful of the governor. If you want the details of that story, you can watch the movie Marie

By the next election, in 1979, everyone smelled the horse manure, so we elected Lamar Alexander governor over Blanton. However, Gov. Blanton wasn’t done with us. The Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court got a phone call from the Lieutenant Governor and the State House Speaker that Gov. Blanton was staying up late signing pardons willy-nilly. His plan was to turn loose every white murderer or rapist in the state prison system as a big “so there” to the people of Tennessee for not re-electing him.

They got Mr. Alexander up and swore him in real quick, three days early and in the middle of the night, so that Gov. Blanton couldn’t sign any more pardons. Lieutenant Governor John Wilder called it “impeachment, Tennessee style.”

Ray Hill of the Knoxville Focus would later write:

Despite his populist rhetoric and talk of honesty and political morals, Ray Blanton would preside over perhaps the most corrupt regime in Tennessee history. (Knoxville Focus, 1/22/17.)

The cooperation of politicians from both sides of the aisle put an end to Gov. Blanton’s shenanigans. They put love of the State of Tennessee ahead of their own agendas. I’m proud of them to this very day. After Lamar Alexander’s dramatic midnight swearing-in, law enforcement in the state and at the FBI went to work and eventually Blanton was indicted and convicted on charges he was convicted of charges of extortion and conspiracy for selling a liquor license, and he spent 22 months in prison. Two of his cronies were convicted of selling the pardons, but he was never officially charged with it. Governor Ray Blanton died in 1996, still insisting that he’d “never taken a dishonest dollar” in his life, and I’m sure somebody still believed him.

When good people are willing to stand up and be good people, when we are willing to put the common good ahead of our own pride and self-interest, good things can happen. If on the other hand, previously decent people can’t see past their ideologies and their greed, then evil will prevail.

That’s all I’ve got to say.

 

 

 

 

 

“You’re a Bad Jew!”

Image: Eleven angry, screaming faces. (Photo from Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Reading the comments sections of Jewish online publications, I cringe. There are people who seem to entertain themselves by logging on and writing comments about what a “bad Jew” the writer is for having such-and-such an opinion, or what “bad Jews” other people are. They write as the arbiters of everything Jewish, in a tone that implies vast Jewish learning, with content that reveals only vast ignorance.

I imagine someone who wants to learn about Judaism reading this stuff, and I shudder. What are they to learn? The misinformation this supposed expert just spouted? That Jews speak hatefully to and about one another? That somewhere there is a “Jew-Hell” that “bad Jews” go to?

(Aside: No, there is no Jewish hell, except for the ones we make here in this life.)

Sometimes these bumptious blowhards seem to say that only the most traditional practice is valid. Sometimes they seem to be saying that their Judaism is the only real Judaism. Other disagreeable dogmatists seem to think that any traditional belief or practice is terrible, or they take delight in detecting any scrap of what might be an inconsistency in someone else’s practice. And all of them are cruel, using belittling language to make their point: “Not only are you a bad Jew, going to Jew-Hell, but you are unintelligent and ugly, too!”

Do you honestly think anyone was ever persuaded by hateful words?

Words have power. We learn that in Genesis 1:3:

.וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר

And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.

Words create worlds. It is up to us to decide what kind of world we want, and to create it with our words. Cruel words produce a cruel world. Is that really what we want?