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Blowin' in the Wind: An American View

by Deborah Streeter


Blowin' in the Wind celebrates and critiques America; our culture, politics, people, history, religions and landscape. We also link to our friend Ed Kilgore's daily blog 
Political Animal, for an insider's look at our political process. Both of us try to keep it brave and free, like our nation, with some humor and progressive hope thrown in.

 

 

Sunday
Jan252015

Judge Not

A state ruling last week said that California judges are no longer allowed to belong to the Boy Scouts.

Wait a minute.  I know, as I get older, that various professionals seem younger and younger, like my doctor.  But are there now Boy Scouts who are judges?  Is there a judge’s badge they can earn?

Oh, I get it, California judges can’t be Boy Scout leaders, because the Boy Scouts prohibit gay Scout leaders.  The judge’s professional code says they can’t belong to any organization that discriminates on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin or (along with 21 other states) sexual orientation.  They had given an exemption for youth organizations, but last week took that away. 

I guess plumbers or even nurses can belong to whatever groups they want in their private lives.  But judges are supposed to be trusted public servants who are impartial.  Even the appearance of impartiality can disqualify a judge.

(Having been myself a public figure for some years, a local church minister, I know the tension of private and public lives.  In a small town I was aware that what I wore on my day off, or what my children did, reflected, sadly, on me and my church.  I had to think twice about what I did or said in any setting.  But I did stand for certain beliefs and behaviors, so I understood the conflation of public and private.  Judges also supposedly stand for something.)

California’s is the largest of all the state judiciaries: 2000 judges, along with 21,000 staff members hear 10 million cases a year.  It’s the first state to make this kind of ruling on judges and the Scouts.

But this is only the latest example of public opinion turning against the Boy Scouts.  For a century Scouts, at least the Boy version, has seemed as American as apple pie.  Corporations supported the Scouts financially as a way to improve their public image. Cities gave Scouts free or discounted space.  Churches vied to sponsor a troop.

But the Boy Scouts have always banned gay scouts and gay leaders, publicly kicked them out. In the past decade or so more public pressure finally forced the Scouts last year to change their policies; gay boys could now be Scouts.   But still gay leaders would be prohibited.  All kinds of stories of beloved leaders, including moms and dads, being expelled.  Surveys show that neither conservatives or liberals are satisfied with this Salomon-like ruling; there are just two halves of the baby. 

In a sense, this so called compromise forced the hand of many institutions.  In the past year, corporations like Intel and Lockheed Martin have announced they will no longer contribute to the Scouts as long as it gays can’t be leaders.  Even Disneyland quietly stopped supporting the Scouts.  Churches have started parallel programs like Scouting for All.

(Not being a Scout type myself, I can’t quite get why these big companies supported them in the first place – was it just old boy execs, some kind of tax breaks, a way to improve your image?  Lockheed Martin is a huge military contractor. Are the Scouts sort of a pseudo military organization? No, not really, but boys will be boys…)

The California judge decision and these changing corporate policies are more dominos falling down in the long and inevitable dismantling of homophobic laws and policies.  Because of dramatically changed public opinion on gay rights, 36 states now have legal same sex marriage, and over 70% of all US citizens live in one of those states.  Last week the Supreme Court also agreed to rule this year on several of the state’s cases that still oppose marriage, hopefully producing one national ruling and right to marriage equality.

But the increasing marginalization of Boy Scouts from “favored nation” status reminds us it is not just same sex marriage laws that are changing.  In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said the words “lesbian, bisexual and transgender” for the first time ever in such an address.  He said Americans “now condemn the persecution of women, religious minorities or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.”  The words “bisexual” and “transgender” had never before come from any President’s mouth.

  • Many factors contribute to this rapidly changing landscape here in the US.
  • People know more and more LGBT people personally.
  • More LGBT people are in positions of power and influence: the law, politics, media, religion.
  • Social media has lowered the wall between private and public, work and home.

So it’s harder for a judge to rule on a gay rights case and then go home and attend a Scout meeting where they dismiss a beloved gay leader.  Still happens, I’m sure.  Three states have no laws prohibiting judges from belonging to any discriminatory groups – go ahead a join the Ku Klux Klan!   Only half of the states include discrimination against LGBT folks as one of the outlawed policies. 

But the closet door has opened a crack wider. Not only are folks coming out, but folks like judges, straight or gay, can no keep themselves in the dark. 

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter  

Sunday
Jan182015

Selma

Selma is one of the greatest events in US history.

If they gave awards for landmarks and turning points in history, Selma would clean up.

But the recently released movie Selma - I was a little disappointed. 

Most critics raved about the movie, which tells the story of a few weeks in 1965 when Martin Luther King organized a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to bring national attention to the fact that blacks could not exercise their constitutional right to register to vote.

The critics' raves turned to outrage this week when the film was snubbed by the Oscar nominations.  It only received two nominations: best picture and best song.  Nothing for the impressive performances by David Oyelowo as King, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, or Ava DuVernay the director.

Racism was the obvious charge made against the predominately old, white, male members of the Academy of Motion Pictures who nominate and vote.  Every one of the 20 actors and actresses nominated are white.  All the directors nominated were white males.  Selma is directed by a black woman.

I wrote for these pages about the Selma march and another leader of the march, John Lewis, a couple years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, which King also organized.  These various 50th anniversaries are inspiring lots of timely books, conferences, TV shows and a few movies about the Civil Rights Era.

Timely, because many of that generation of leaders has died and many young people simply don't know that history.  A program called "Selma for Students" has raised money so that teenage students in over 20 major cities, like New York, LA, Nashville, Detroit, can see the movie free; as many as 275,000 students are eligible.

Timely also, because Republicans today are trying to take us back to the day when it was hard if not impossible for poor minorities to vote.  Many states have reduced voting hours, required picture ID and closed polling places, all a hardship on the working poor.  The Supreme Court last year ruled that racism was over and removed Civil Rights Era watchdog provisions on some communities that have been egregious violators of voting rights, mostly in the south.

And timely, and ironic, because so many people today don't even bother to vote.  In the movie we see blacks and their white allies being tear gassed, attacked by dogs and even killed by police (sound familiar?) because they want a right, the vote, that so many now say is pointless.  Our last midterm election had the lowest turnout in history, and voters were predominately older and white.  Guess who got elected to congress?

So I was glad the movie was made.  I just wish it had been better.

Too much of it felt like a soap opera, or People Magazine.  Long, SLOW scenes about the tension in the King marriage.  Panning of Coretta's pained suffering face.  Subtle references to King's infidelities - to what end?  King accusing Coretta of liking Malcom X more than him.  King's doubts and despair.

I saw another biopic this month - The Theory of Everything, about Stephen Hawking, and I had the same complaint.  Another movie about the loneliness of the great man and the long suffering of the great man's wife.  And so little about what their greatness was about.  I admire Hawking no end, and especially his persistence over his devastating disease.  But the movie told me nothing about his ideas, nothing about "The Theory of Everything."  I felt like they didn't think the audience was interested or could get it.  We were only interested in how they managed to have  children.

Likewise we could have learned much more about King's ideas, strategies, influences (one fleeting shot of a portrait of Gandhi in his home), his background, his legacy.  It was King lite, King shallow.

I have seen other biopics like this, that show just a few years, or weeks in a person's life and have it stand for or symbolize the whole career.  The very fine film Lincoln used the same style, the focus was on one legislative battle.  And Lincoln certainly also had his doubts and some marital tensions. And an unfinished life.  But Lincoln seemed to me, surprisingly, to have more dramatic tension - would the amendment get passed, who would vote for it.  It was essentially a courtroom drama.

Maybe I didn't get caught up in this movie because I know the Selma story and how it ended. I've studied it and written about it. And I've heard about it from my husband, who in 1965 was a young Unitarian Universalist minister, and one of many white clergy who answered King's call for white supporters.  He went on a chartered flight from LA with other clergy and joined the last two days of the march into Montgomery.  It was interesting to watch the movie with him.  He knew the young white Boston UU minister, Charles Reeb, who was murdered by whites during the march.  He thought the portrayal pretty accurate.

But he was probably more disappointed than I was in the film, or at least sadder.  About what hasn't changed.  And what has gotten worse.  How we were left with really no hope, we know how it ends.

I did appreciate how the film portrayed King's faith, and that of Reeb also; their faith was complex, motivating, real, unlike so much of Hollywood's mocking people of faith as stupid or hateful.  There's a great scene where King kneels in prayer and changes his mind in a bold yet vulnerable way you don't see much in American men.

A weird note on the speeches King gives in the film - they weren't his real speeches, because his estate had already given (ie sold) to Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks the rights to use the text of King's speech in some other movie and they wouldn't give that up.  So the director wrote her own versions, using the same style and cadence of King.  They were moving, but I could tell something was missing. 

OK, so on reflection I'm glad the film was made. I'm glad I saw it.  I'd encourage folks to see it.  I'd vote for Oyelowo as best actor.  (Especially since he is British, as is Ejogo and the script writer.)  I'm glad all those teenage students are seeing it.  But I wonder if we like the movie because we like the idea of Selma more than we want to have to learn about all its complexities and realities and failures.  Selma and the Civil Rights Era are more than a soap opera and King was more than a lonely doubter. 

King had a dream.  This film wasn't a nightmare.  But it was sort of a long slow sometimes boring day dream.  We needed more.  And we need someone like King today.

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter

Sunday
Jan112015

Some American Responses to the Charlie Hebdo Massacre 

“I am Charlie Hebdo.”

“I am not Charlie Hebdo.”

“It’s Obama’s fault, he’s a wimp.”

“Sure it was horrendous, but what about (innumerable other examples of terror or censorship)?

“Well, if those people would just not be quite so offensive…”

“Islam is a violent religion, unlike Christianity. Christian terrorists aren’t really Christians.”

-------

Such a range of American responses to this week’s violence in Paris, from Fox News to far left. The range reflects how polarized we are as a nation about religion, violence, speech and humor.

A few examples:

1) Fox News: Another Benghazi - Obama is a liar - It’s all about us – We’re next.

The reports on Fox “News” were, as usual, less on what actually happened and more about blaming Obama, both for lax security and lying. It was like the way they have flailed the Benghazi story; why won’t the President tell the truth about what really happened (well actually, in both cases, he did), why can’t he use the word terrorism to describe the events (well actually, he did.) And why is he such a wimp? Fox’s Gretchen Carlson fanned the flames with “Keep in mind this administration is more concerned about executive actions for manufacturing and even climate control today, and releasing Gitmo detainees. We now know many of those detainees go back to join the jihad. So at this crucial moment, after a horrific attack on one of our allies, will politics continue to trump reality?...Will the United States once again be next hit (by terrorism)?”

2) Nice White Well Meaning Moderates: can’t you just tone it down a bit?

David Brooks, a smart but often smarmy right/moderate regular columnist for the New York Times titled his column, “I am Not Charlie Hebdo.” While condemning the attacks and affirming the value of free expression, he indulged in his frequent style of condescension:

"In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct."

This reminds me of what a lot of well meaning but stupid white people are saying about our epidemic of police violence against unarmed black young men: “Well, if those black young men would just behave better, not be in suspect places, go home at night, pull their pants up, be nicer….” Kids’ table indeed.

3) Islamophobia and Religious Double Standard

Many right wing commentators almost gloated and relished what they saw as more proof of Islam’s “essential” violence. Trying to counter that lie, some scholars of religion and left wing appreciators of the great diversity within Islamic cultures reposted the results of a study done a couple years ago about American’s attitudes toward Christians and Moslems who commit violence, and our sorry double standard. 

In the study, more than 8-in-10 (83 percent) Americans said that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians. In contrast, less than half (48 percent) of Americans say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims. The study’s director noted that those who self-identify as white evangelical Protestants have the largest double standard:

"Among white evangelical Protestants, the gap is a staggering 47 percentage points: only 10 percent of evangelicals believe that a self-identified Christian perpetrators are really Christian, compared to 57 percent who believe that self-identified Muslim perpetrators are truly Muslim."

That statistic was born out this past week in the conservative Christian media.

4) Yes, horrible. But what about……?

Many leftish commentators mourned and condemned, but then they did the comparison exercise; why so much heat and outrage in this instance and not in others? For example, Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive Jewish Tikkun Magazine wrote:

"Why wasn’t the media] this interested in a bomb that went off outside the NAACP’s Colorado Springs headquarters the same day as they were highlighting the attack in Paris? Colorado Springs is home to some of the most extreme right-wing activists. It was a balding white man who was seen setting the bomb, some reports claim, and so the media described it as an act of a troubled “lone individual,” rather than as a white right wing Christian fundamentalist terrorist.

Few Americans have even heard of this incident.

Paris, January 11, 2015And when the horrific assassinations of 12 media people and the wounding of another 12 media workers resulted in justifiable outrage around the world, did you ever wonder why there wasn’t an equal outrage at the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed by the American intervention in Iraq or the over a million civilians killed by the U.S. in Vietnam, or why President Obama refused to bring to justice the CIA torturers of mostly Muslim prisoners, thereby de facto giving future torturers the message that they need not even be sorry for their deeds (indeed, former Vice President Cheney boldly asserted he would order that kind of torture again without thinking twice)?"

5) Me, still in shock.

As for myself, I am still in shock, appalled, sad. A confirmed Francophile, I confess I probably am more outraged by this violence than the daily violence my own country inflicts world wide. How’s that for denial?

When I heard the news of the massacre, I happened to be reading a novel about Paris. I’m on a Hillary Mantel kick and am in the middle of her historical novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. I already had my Paris maps out to see where the Cordelier district was and where Danton and Robespierre lived. I only had to move my eye a bit from the 6th to 11th arrondissements to find the Charlie Hebdo headquarters. The plots have similar features. Parisians killing each other. Blood in the streets. People talking about being martyrs for a cause. Debates about free speech. The role newspapers play in democracy. Is this a revolution? Will Paris ever again be a place of safety?

Later that day I went to the Monterey Aquarium, where I volunteer every Thursday. I wear a badge that reads “Je parle Francais.” I was standing in the aviary and heard a woman speaking French. In halting French I said, “Je suis tres desolee pour votre tragedie. C’est incroyable et tragique. Aujourd’hui nous sommes Charlie.” I think she understood me; with tears in her eyes she said, “Merci.”

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter

Sunday
Jan042015

We’re a Little Lost Here in America 

“Kathy I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America.”

I try, in this column, to look for America. I’ve been writing about that search here for almost three years now. Not sure what we’ve found, but the search is challenging and rewarding, for me at least.

But like songwriter Paul Simon, I often feel empty and aching about my native land. Probably lost, too, not sure why. Of equal concern to me is that my nation feels lost. Where are we going, and do we know how to get there?

In these columns I use lots of travel images and metaphors; I have written about road trips and great rivers, about marchers and mountain climbers. Maybe I’m trying to convince myself that “we the people,” a pilgrim people (meaning we will always be on the road) actually have a plan, a map. Like the Constitution, that’s a good guidebook for a people on a journey. Our destination shouldn’t really be that hard to find: I suggest we plan to stop at “ liberty and justice for all.”

But lately we feel more like a traffic jam, or a car crash pileup with fist fights over who’s to blame. Reading all the end of the year reflections and summations, and predictions for the new year, gets me thinking this way. How many roads must we walk down, before we are called a nation? The answer may only be, that it’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Charlie PierceSo as I ease back after a couple weeks off, allow me to reprint selections from the fine and wise end of the year column by a writer and social critic I admire, Charlie Pierce. He writes a regular political blog for Esquire Magazine, is a sports and culture contributor to Grantland , and is a regular panelist on the very funny National Public Radio news quiz show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” 

This is from his political blog, somewhat edited.

He begins by reminding us of how much has changed in the past 10 years. Think about what it was like in 2005:

A decade ago, we were all preparing to endure the second round of the Avignon Presidency*, which we, as a nation, unaccountably had re-installed in Washington -- or that we, as a nation, at the very least, had voted for in sufficient numbers to keep the result of the election within the Margin Of Finagle in places like Ohio. Hurricane Katrina was still in our future…. Very large investment banks were writing mortgages with their eyes closed, monetizing those mortgages into securities, selling those securities to various suckers, and betting on the failure of those securities among themselves. A lot of people were getting very rich planting land mines throughout the world economy. All of that was going on as we prepared, in our infinite wisdom, a mere decade ago, to inaugurate George W. Bush for a second term as the most powerful man in the world.

(*Avignon Presidency: That’s Pierce’s slang for the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. He says, “The "Avignon" refers to a period of the Middle Ages in which the people were seized by a sense of dread and fatalism when confronted with the incompetency and flagrant wastefulness and corruption of the ruling party in the Catholic Church.”)

Now I will skip to the end of Pierce’s column. I’ve reformatted it into separate sentences. It almost sounds to me like a confession or prayer:

We are a little lost here in America.

Too many of us have tuned out, and too many of us are deeply tuned in to the wrong things.

Our eccentricities have curdled into crochets.

Our love for the strange and deeply weird has soured into a devotion to the mean and deeply angry.

Our renegade national soul has given itself up to petty outlawry.

We have tailored the principles of our founding documents -- flawed though their authors were -- into cheap camouflage for our boring traditional grudges.

(That’s Pierce’s lament. He ends with a little hope, but he’s basically a pretty cynical/realistic guy, so it’s just a hint of hope):

None of these things are good things. But none of those things is permanent, either. Imagination always has been the way out -- a faith in that which seems impossible, a trust that not every mystery is a murder mystery, and that not every mysterious creature is a monster. Imagination is the way out -- a belief that safety is not necessarily the primary (or even the secondary) goal of democratic citizenship, and that a self-governing political commonwealth does not always come with a lifetime guarantee. Yes, we are a little lost here in America, but we can find our way, and the best way that we can find is the one that seems like the least secure, the darkest trail, the one with the long, sweeping bend in the road that leads god knows where. We must trust what we can imagine, and we must trust that what we can imagine is the product of what is the best of us. And, whether we imagine it or not, it's going to happen anyway.

Or, as that great sage Joaquin Andujar once put it, "My favorite word in English is, 'Youneverknow.'"

Happy Fcking New Year, to all of us magnificent bastids.

To which I’ll add in my New Year’s greetings: May we keep imagining, and may we find our way.

Copyright © 2015 Deborah Streeter

Sunday
Dec142014

Just Say Know: When Should Kids be Allowed to Drink and Drug?

Here at Blowin’ in the Wind, we’re spending December looking at American behavior and attitudes toward drinking and drugging.  First we looked at Prohibition, and then last week, the very American history of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Today, our attitudes and actions on teenage drinking and drugging, and some comparisons to other countries. 

If you want to drink legally in America, you have to be 21 years old.  Same age for folks who want to smoke marijuana in the three states who have legalized pot.

How many other nations have a legal drinking age of 21, besides the US?   Only three: Palau, Indonesia, and Mongolia.  Every other country in the world allows either 16 or 18 year olds to drink alcohol.  (And presumably smoking pot, where legal.)

I did not know this.  I knew the drinking age was younger than 21 in the UK and France – is there even a drinking age at all in France?  Probably also Germany.  (Turns out 14 year old Germans can drink in public with their parents, and in the UK parents can give their kids drinks at home as long as they are over five. No ale for you, little four year old.)

But I guess I thought America had decided on age 21 because all our great American scientists and educators and legal experts had settled on that age as the best balance of adolescent development (surely we want our kids to be healthy) with personal freedoms (we do have a sort of frontier pattern of allowing all kinds of crazy behavior) and public safety (we’re pretty good on auto safety laws and say we want to reduce auto accidents.)

But every other nation is 18 or younger?  Are they just reckless sots and bad parents?

And how’s that age 21 legal age working out for us?  Are our young people happy to stay sober so their adolescent brains can develop drug free?  Are they staying out of trouble so much that our law enforcement agencies are freed up to put resources into other illegal activities?  Are we wiser and more obedient than other nations? 

Or we still hanging on to some of our moralizing and misguided attitudes from Prohibition? 

An interesting group of Americans has recently come out in favor of lowering the drinking age.  No, it’s not college students.  It’s college presidents.  135 of them signed a statement supporting a nationwide conversation about young adult drinking and a reconsideration of the drinking age.  Why?  Because of the epidemic of binge drinking.  Half of all US college students who drink report that they engaged in binge drinking in the previous two weeks.  Campus binge drinking is a major factor in another campus epidemic: sexual assaults.  These university presidents point out that in European countries teenage drinkers tend to be introduced to alcohol by their parents and that only one in ten drinking episodes results in inebriation.  In the US, on the other hand, young people learn to drink away from home and in half of every drinking session the young drinkers get loaded. 

The organizer of this effort is a former Middlebury College history professor.  He knows his US history: Prohibition, he reminds his colleagues, had more unintended negative consequences than success.  Folks actually drank more and faster when it was prohibited.  That’s what binge drinking is now.  Crime and illegal supplying of booze skyrocketed in the 20’s and today there is still a huge subculture of illegal and criminal supplying to minors.  He points out that drunk automobile accidents started going down in the 60’s, when the drinking age was 18, and has stayed down, despite the change in drinking age in the 1980’s, and can be credited to air bags, seat belt laws, lower blood alcohol level and designated drivers.  Not to this new Prohibition.

Oh, and speaking of blood alcohol levels, a rough survey of the laws for that in different countries suggests that most places bust you for fewer drinks than in the US, even for commercial drivers (most places it’s zero for truck drivers etc, but in the US it’s .04, half of what regular drivers can get busted for.)

So other countries seem to do a better job setting up a learning process with their kids and being more realistic about what kids are up to.  And holding them, and commercial drivers, more accountable when they do drink.  (Or am I just indulging in grass is greener, anything is better than US envy?  Easy to do.)

As I’ve said it the two previous columns, we’re so ambivalent in the US about having fun in general – we are puritans and libertines at the same time.  And we seem to give our kids that very mixed message with a dollop of denial. When it comes to drinking, and sex for that matter, we say, “It’s fun, great, our basic hoped for activity at the end of every day.  So don’t do it.”  Especially as we relate to our kids.  Our default approach to difficult issues seems to be Nancy Regan’s favorite: Just say no.  Like having your only sex ed curriculum be abstinence.  It just doesn’t work.  Instead of parents discussing with their kids how to make decisions on important issues like drinking or sex, we just say, don’t do it!  Til you’re out of the house. 

As part of the newly legalized marijuana in Colorado the state health department is trying to convince teenagers to obey the law (age 21) by citing studies that heavy dope smoking in young teenagers affects IQ and increases risk of schizophrenia.  One of their campaign slogans is “Just Say Know.”  (More on legaliztion of marijuana next week.)

I like to think that knowledge is better than denial, that “know” is a better approach to education than “no.”   But, then, I’m an American, ambivalent and in denial.

Copyright © 2014 Deborah Streeter