‘Things Are Being Said…’

Here is an excerpt from an article in my local paper the day after school board elections were held last week. [ Note: North Colonie is a suburb of Albany, New York.]

“In North Colonie, some voters said they agree with the “parents rights” movement, though they declined to give their names. ‘Things are going on the parents aren’t aware of,’ said one North Colonie voter. ‘Things are being said in the name of equity.’”

This sounds like the sentiment expressed at the Meet the Candidates forum that I watched for my home district, Guilderland. The idea that ‘things’ are being slipped into the curriculum under the guise of equity without parental knowledge was a concern of more than one candidate. This notion fits in with the larger conspiracy narrative that plagues our nation. It is alleged that unnamed forces are in cahoots to indoctrinate our children.

I have so many questions about this line of thinking. When I watched the candidates express this thought, I wondered first who was slipping this material in? Was it a teacher, a principal, the superintendent, the state education department? No names or titles were offered when they made their argument.

What exactly was being slipped in? One candidate mentioned a math problem where the pronoun used was he/she. The candidate suggested this was needlessly confusing. I thought to myself, it could be clunky, but is it really that big of a deal? What harm would it do? Would it actually lead a 7 year old, for example, to question their gender identity? They probably wouldn’t even notice it unless an adult brought it to their attention.

Or, was there more to it?

I decided to look for myself. Could I find examples of the types of material being used as part of this indoctrination? When I started doing the research the first thing I found was that some of the ‘new’ language being included in math textbooks was because social-emotional learning (SEL) goals were being incorporated into those texts. Furthermore, some commentators seemed to be conflating the use of SEL with critical race theory.

Apparently an analyst at the conservative think tank, Manhattan Institute, said the following about social emotional learning in a New York Times article and it has gained traction: “The intention of SEL is to soften children at an emotional level, reinterpret their normative behavior as an expression of ‘repression,’ ‘whiteness,’ or ‘internalized racism,’ and then rewire their behavior according to the dictates of left-wing ideology,” said Chris Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, the Times reports.

“Reinterpret normative behavior”? What does that mean? I googled it and normative behavior is that which we think should be normal.  Hmmmm. Is he saying that schools are trying to change norms of behavior? Perhaps reconsidering norms of behavior would be a fruitful effort in view of the state of the world – and I am not just referring to the current state of affairs. Reflecting on my school experience and that of my children, I think school climate (the health of our relationships as they play out in school) could have been better. We might have a more well-adjusted adult population had we addressed this earlier.

And what left-wing ideology is he referring to? Let’s take a closer look at what SEL offers.

I am familiar with social emotional learning from my years serving as a member of the New York State Dignity for All Students Task Force and from research and work done as a writer of policy for school boards across New York State.  One of the organizations at the forefront of the research and implementation of SEL was, and still is, CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning – casel.org). I refreshed my understanding by reviewing some of their summary material. This is the statement from their website:

“We define social and emotional learning (SEL) as an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

In that statement there are five core competencies:

Recognize and manage emotions

Develop caring and concern for others

Establish positive relationships

Make responsible decisions

Handle challenging situations

One might read that list and think either that all sounds exactly right – this is what we want for our children, as much as they need to read, write and do math, they need to know how to cope in the world. Or, a person might look at that list and wonder what the public school’s role is in developing those competencies. I hope we can agree that it is impossible to read this list and see how it teaches critical race theory – it would take monumental leaps to get there.

Over the course of my life, ideas about SEL have evolved. When I was in elementary school, in the 1960s, little time was spent teaching us to manage our emotions. The assumption was that children just figure this stuff out – you pick up on social cues, you make mistakes and go from there. Unfortunately, not everyone was successful at that. When I started my professional career, families and schools were still thinking of aggressive behavior among children as ‘boys will be boys,’ and ‘kids need to toughen up’  and other dismissive adages, without appreciating the price we were paying for that approach. We had normalized that behavior. As we became aware of the dangers of bullying, including the rise of cyberbullying, more enlightened thinking emerged.

Not to go into a whole history of the evolution of this, but societal changes have meant that public schools have taken more responsibility for supporting the whole child, meaning not just their academic needs. Some might argue that this is misguided or that it is asking too much of schools, but needs must be met. Children who are hungry, fearful, or unhealthy can’t learn (certainly not at the rate of their peers who are fed, stable and healthy). If children arrive at public school unprepared to learn, how can a school be successful? If our goal is to graduate citizens ready to contribute to our society, it behooves us to do what we can to meet their needs. Academics can’t be neatly separated from other aspects of their lives. If only we could, things would be much simpler.

I guess the question is: have ‘things’ gone too far? I’m not sure I know what that would look like. I can imagine some satirical sketch on SNL of children spending the day in a circle singing Kumbaya instead of learning to multiply. But that isn’t what SEL advocates, nor is that what is being described by unhappy parents.

One of the places where this controversy is playing out is Florida, which made the news recently when it removed 24 math textbooks from their list of approved texts because they included social emotional learning goals. I tried to find examples of the objectionable text. The New York Times found some examples (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/22/us/florida-rejected-textbooks.html). The Florida Education Department released four pages of offending material.

According to the material released, when SEL is incoroporated it might  involve calling children’s attention to their feelings when solving a difficult math problem – a thought bubble on the side of the text might remind the student to persevere, or might remind them to be respectful when disagreeing about how they solved a problem in discussions with a peer. In a high school textbook they used statistical data on implicit bias as the basis for an exploration of data analysis and statistics. The data came from Project Implicit (https://www.projectimplicit.net/).

What is the problem with these examples? Are the messages softening our children up in a damaging way? One of the recognized barriers in developing math skills is students’ preconceived ideas about it. Encouraging a more positive mindset seems at worst harmless and at best helpful.

Is the data set used in the high school textbook on implicit bias controversial? Why not ask high schoolers to assess the quality and ideas introduced by the data? What a great opportunity for discussion. Those who disagree with the findings might take a deep dive into the methodology and find it flawed, thereby advancing our understanding. If a student is troubled by the conclusions suggested by the data, what a great opening for discussion with parents.

This takes us full circle, back to the original quote from the voter in North Colonie. What ‘things are being done’? Education and society are evolving. This has ever been so.

A lot of issues are getting tangled up and making it more difficult to talk about. Social emotional learning is not an agenda to make children gay or trans, or to make them feel guilty about being white. It is about learning to manage emotions. Somehow racism, gender identity and expression, and the whole history of the United States, have all been tied up together in the culture war and SEL has been offered as the problem. It would be a tremendous loss if SEL was sacrificed on the altar of our current politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I have to believe we can have meaningful dialogue if we focus on the heart of the issue (what do our children need), without the accusations and fear of vicious reprisals.

Schools are caught in the middle of all of this. They serve students, parents and the broader community. Sometimes those interests are not aligned. It can be very hard to find common ground. We are not helped in finding that space if people assume the worst about each other, if they use inflammatory rhetoric or rely on sound bites for information instead of looking more deeply into the facts. We must do better. Our children and our democracy demand it.

The Slippery Slope

In the wake of Trump’s presidency, I have been very concerned about the loss of respect for truth and integrity. The discussion I had with my accountant, which I wrote about in my last blog post, did nothing to allay my fears – not because my accountant is without integrity, but because he was unwilling to acknowledge a difference between Biden and Trump when it comes to that quality. My accountant said, “They all lie.” And since they all lie, he concluded, not in these these exact words, “Democrats are being unfair to Trump, Biden is just as corrupt.”

I do not accept that. I believe all politicians ‘spin.’ They present things in a way that reflects most positively on their ideas and actions. They leave out counterarguments. They cherry pick facts. Politicians of all parties do that. We need to distinguish that practice, which is distasteful (but apparently an effective communication strategy in a world beset by short attention spans), from lying and corruption. I will grant that there can be a slippery slope between spin and lying, but we need to examine the rhetoric and call it out when it crosses the line. We cannot throw up our hands and say, “They all do it,” and accept it.

I worry about our capacity for discernment especially after listening to Bill Browder’s assessment of Putin’s reign of terror in Russia and the war in Ukraine. Browder was interviewed by Preet Bharara on his podcast Stay Tuned. I highly recommend listening. Browder has 22 years of experience working with Russia and has seen first-hand Putin’s brutal management style. He described a Russian state hollowed out by Putin’s corruption. In setting the tone at the top, taking his percentage from all the oligarchs the way the head of a crime family does, Putin has not only robbed the country of assets and resources, but has created a culture where everyone along the line does the same. Everyone takes a percentage up the chain of command. In doing that, the essential structures of governance, the paving of the roads, the maintenance of fighter jets, the stores of fuel, have been compromised. Browder suggests that the poor performance of the Russian army is related to this culture.

One of the ironies of the war in Ukraine is that Zelenskyy was elected on a platform of fighting corruption. Ukraine was recognized as having a major problem with it and the people were fed up. Zelenskyy offered a different message. Putin is more comfortable with neighboring countries that either have a puppet as its leader or at least someone corrupt enough to be manipulated.

Corruption in the United States is also a problem, but I don’t think it is endemic to the system. Influence peddling has always been practiced. We have not rooted it out, but politicians have been forced out of office, they have been charged and jailed for their offenses. We have laws against it. I am worried that corruption can become the norm if we aren’t vigilant. I see a straight line between the practice described by Browder, that approach to aggregating power, and Trump. I believe Trump subscribes to a philosophy aligned with Putin, he has as much as admitted it. It is entirely about individual power and wealth – there is no concern for the greater good. Trump cloaks his desire to be the most important, powerful person in the world in patriotic rhetoric. Nothing he has ever done suggests that his patriotism is genuine or reaches beyond his narrow self-interest. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Trump is a murderer, as Putin is.

Some of Trump’s self-interest resulted in policies that benefited the economy, at least according to some analysts. To the extent that this is believed, those folks support Trump. But the grave danger isn’t in those policies (I would argue that those policies aren’t good for the country either, but that is not my point here). The greater long-term danger is in the underlying culture. Policies can change relatively easily. A tax cut can be reversed. Culture is more difficult to meaningfully transform.

In my academic and professional life, I took courses and training in internal auditing. The purpose was to give us tools to evaluate whether existing policies and procedures ensured the integrity of a given operation (in my case the efficacy of New York State funded programs). In every training that I received or delivered, the main message was the importance of ‘tone at the top.’ This was management’s essential responsibility – modeling the behavior and setting the expectations. That’s why I put so much emphasis on this when assessing the risk that Trump represents. The Republican party must reject Trumpism and instead nurture new leadership – people that offer core values of honesty and ethical behavior. I believe that many in leadership positions in the Democratic party do that, most importantly, Joe Biden – but not all of them. When Democrats fail to meet that standard (i.e., Sheldon Silver, Charlie Rangel, etc.), they too need to be cast aside. If you are a Republican and believe that Democrats are as guilty of corruption and lying, then I implore you to not accept that – make sure the Republicans put forward a worthy presidential candidate so that person can be elected. Please cast Newt Gingrich aside – I don’t know why he still merits attention, he gets trotted out on national media platforms as a spokesperson as he was just this past weekend. Why does he still get to weigh in when he has no standing to comment on issues of honesty and integrity?

My accountant asked me about Hunter Biden. I replied that if Hunter Biden did anything illegal, he should be prosecuted. If there is evidence of criminal behavior, he should be investigated. The investigation should follow the evidence and if it implicates Joe Biden, then he too should be prosecuted. The Bidens and Trumps should be held to the same standard. I would like to hear Trump supporters say the same thing about Don Jr, Ivanka and Jared – and about the January 6th insurrection. It is important that we continue these investigations until we uncover the truth and assign accountability. We can’t just sweep their actions under the rug and say it is time to move on. The precedent that sets, the message that sends, is dangerous to our country’s future as a democracy.

We cannot close our eyes to corruption and lies. We cannot let it become the norm. We need to redouble our efforts to expect and enforce ethical behavior at all levels – in government, in business, in media, in our relationships. We must be truthful, and we must call out lying. This is the slippery slope that allows authoritarianism to creep up on us.

Burnout

I have a running joke with the guy who prepares our taxes. When I call to make the appointment he responds, “Now I know tax season is done! I am in the homestretch,” he says with delight in his voice.

The joke is that I am almost always the last of his clients to call, usually with only a few days to spare until the deadline. This year I called on April 5th, a little early for me. Last year he was in shock when I called, and it was still March.

We have been working with the same guy for roughly 30 years, since Gary went into private practice and our taxes became too complicated for me to do myself.

Anyway, the point is not that I am a procrastinator, though I am that. My point is actually the conversation he and I had when we met this time. Over the years we have had many discussions, including an annual update on our respective families. I have always enjoyed our session – as much as one can when the ultimate purpose is to figure out our tax bill.

In all those years, we both understood that we do not share the same political affiliation. He is aware of the organizations I donate to – the usual laundry list of liberal causes, though they are mainstream compared to some of the more leftwing groups out there.  I know he is more fiscally conservative, befitting a CPA.  

Somehow during this visit our conversation strayed farther into the political realm. The Covid relief program came up and he shared his perception that it was ill-conceived, with folks who didn’t need assistance getting it. His message was, “if you saw what I saw, if you knew what I knew, you would agree with me.” I acknowledged that it is entirely possible that the program wasn’t designed appropriately – I know little about it, and I have no personal experience with it. I don’t doubt that our government is capable of mismanaging a program. The difference between our perspectives is the motives we ascribe to it and the conclusions we draw.

I think he sees governmental ineffectiveness and believes it is proof that there is corruption at the root, that inherently it will be flawed, and we shouldn’t support those programs. I see ineffectiveness and I want us to try harder, do better, build oversight mechanisms to ensure the money goes where it is supposed to go.  

What was interesting to me about our interaction this year was that it was more pointed but fortunately it didn’t get unpleasant. We agreed that we have different priorities. As a bottom line, I am more concerned about civil rights (including reproductive choice) than I am about our economy. He is more focused on our nation’s finances and what he perceives as a diminishing work ethic among our younger generations.

Before we got to the point where we concluded that we would agree to disagree, we touched on a wide range of subjects in addition to Covid relief,  such as police, U.S. support of Israel, Hunter Biden, Ivanka and Jared. Don’t you talk about that stuff with your accountant? With each topic, we quickly came to a dead end. We shrugged and kind of laughed. We were not going to come to a meeting of the minds. In between we returned to the task at hand – my (and Gary’s) 2021 tax return. We ended on a reasonable note, appreciating that we could have the conversation since so many could not.

Naturally, as I drove home, I pondered our divide.  Aside from understanding that much of it came down to differences in our respective priorities and foundational beliefs, I had another thought. We are creatures of our environment and experience. Being an accountant for all these years, watching the endless (absurd? irrational? circular? targeted?) changes to the tax code, interacting with a certain segment of the population, would shape one’s perspective. My accountant may not have seen the people for whom the Covid relief program was a lifesaver. This is true in all professions – high school teachers, doctors, police detectives, the list goes on. When you do a job for a long time, you may not even realize that your view has narrowed. You may think you’ve seen it all, but it is still a narrow slice of humanity.

I think about Gary, who is an endocrinologist (he treats many diabetics). He has patients who are non-compliant – maybe they drink too much, eat an unhealthy diet and/or don’t exercise. There is a danger that he could become cynical about people’s ability to manage their disease – I don’t believe he has. I believe he has maintained his compassion, but it would be understandable if that faded. It would not be acceptable, and it wouldn’t be good for his relationship with his patients if he were to prejudge them, but I can imagine it happening.

Or take another issue that all doctors face: insurance and the bureaucracy that has developed around medicine. Having negative experiences with insurance companies, where they look for loopholes to deny coverage, could color one’s perspective. It could lead to giving up more easily before getting the patient the treatment they need. The quality of care can be compromised if one isn’t vigilant.

Both challenges can lead to burnout among practitioners.

I think about my dad who was chair of a social studies department of a New York City public high school. He retired as soon as he was eligible at the age of 56. Not because he was tired of teaching or because of the students – he still enjoyed being in the classroom. It was all the red tape, all the obstacles, and the lack of resources that drove him to end his career. I think it is fair to say, after over 30 years in education, he was burnt out. Today we see educators leaving the field in droves, long before getting their 30 years in.

Every profession is susceptible to it, and if not burnout per se then being so entrenched in the negative that it becomes the lens through which you see the world. I knew it was time to leave school board service when my frustration intolerance got the better of me after nine years. But that was a volunteer position – I could step back without consequence to my family’s well-being. Not everyone has the luxury that I or my father enjoyed. He had a good pension; he could move on.

In some instances that jaded, cynical perspective can be dangerous. I’ve written before about the hazards police officers face, on many levels. Police officers see us at our worst. The consequences of approaching a new interaction with a citizen expecting the worst is problematic. I imagine, after years on the job, police officers may not have the most balanced view of humanity. I’m not blaming them, I think it comes with the job.

The question then is: what can we do about it, if anything? How do we keep our perspective broader than our circumstances allow, whatever profession we practice? How do we guard against the creeping cynicism that may be inherent in any work we do? Self-awareness may be the first step. We need to admit to ourselves that we are susceptible to the bias in the field in which we work, and then we need to pursue professional development or other experiences that keep us fresh. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one.

When I got home and told Gary about my visit with our accountant, he looked at me incredulously. “You had that conversation with the guy who is going to tell us how much tax we owe?” I nodded. I choose to maintain my faith in humanity.

Upward Mobility

Note: The following essay was written by Gary Bakst, my husband. Thank you, Gary, for you thoughtful, insightful piece.

The American dream is you work hard, and you get ahead.  Your children should have a better life than you have.  Their children should have a better life than theirs.  And, to be fair, this country has lifted millions of people into the middle class over the years, especially during the post-World War II years.  While there are all kinds of questions about how you measure this, the middle class is mostly estimated to comprise over 50% of our total population and has been over 60% at times. 

That is the dream.  Then there is reality.  Many people are struggling to achieve that goal.  Many others are struggling to hold on to that achievement.  The share of Americans in the middle class has gradually diminished over the last 5 decades according to most estimates and the percentage living in poverty has gone up.  People have fallen out of the middle class showing us that mobility can go down as well as up. Income inequality has risen.  The wealthiest Americans have seen their share of wealth grow ever larger while most people struggle to meet their expenses for food, fuel, heat, medicine. 

The myth of upward mobility is the real world for so many people.  Not that nobody is able to achieve a better life, a more comfortable financial situation.  Some do.  But, I am writing this because I am thinking about the people I see every day.  I see patients and I see staff working in our office.  So many make decisions about their care that would be different but for the cost of their medications. 

So many patients tell me about their children.  Some are doing amazing things and it is so nice to hear those stories.  I think about the kids who are accomplished professionals, or well on the way to becoming that.  Children who have their own lives, homes, families and are such sources of joy and pride to their parents. 

But it feels like many more of my patients describe children who live in a different reality.  They are dealing with unstable job situations, unstable relationships.  Some deal with addictions, depression.  Some have children but need help taking care of those children.  Many are adults living in their parents’ homes. 

As I have thought about these people, I have tried to make associations.  What is the common denominator that explains who has done well?  Of course, there is no perfect predictor, but I do think that stability in the parents sure does help the children.  I think of some of the married couples I take care of who are just such fine people.  Maybe they are not particularly wealthy, but they are terrific role models.  It seems to me that this, along with the expectation that their children will get a college education, goes a long way. 

But some other people are also fine people, hardworking and with wonderful values.  But life perhaps has just not gone the same way for them.  Perhaps they have had children but a relationship that did not last.  Perhaps they have had career setbacks.  It seems to me that it is so hard to recover from those setbacks in this country.  I know these people hold their children just as close to their hearts as others do.  But I wonder if their expectations for them are different. 

I remember when I graduated from high school, there was a mother who was crying with joy saying she never imagined she would have a child who would graduate from high school.  I recall thinking how different that was from my parents’ expectations and from my own.  Perhaps the child internalizes those expectations, and their goals and decisions are likewise impacted.  My parents had little education, but they sure did believe in its power and were determined that their children would go to college.  

It seems to me that community has an awful lot to do with these expectations.  I see people who live in small towns and may not have the same opportunities that others do.  There may not be a tradition of people going on to higher education there.  That same issue can often be true in urban areas.  While we are nearly all connected virtually, we still live in a concrete world that we see, walk on and experience.  It is a powerful message about what is possible.  

I did not intend this essay as a dissection of American public policy, but I do think that we need policies that encourage that upward mobility and the factors that promote it.  I think we should look at what personal characteristics and family dynamics are most helpful and do more to encourage them.  And I believe we need to break down barriers that prevent people in specific localities from reaching their dreams. 

I am not suggesting that money is everything.  There is so much more.  We should not equate money and success, money, and happiness.  And there are surely lots of paths to a happy and fulfilled life.  It does not have to be, it really cannot be, the same path for everyone. 

But it is hard to imagine that having the means to live a healthy and comfortable life is not better than not having those means.  Money for many of my patients is a direct barrier to health.  It seems like that ought to matter to somebody.  

It is also worth pointing out that I am not suggesting upward mobility means everyone should be richer than their parents.  For one thing, some parents are already doing quite well and there may not be that much room to go up.  How rich would a child of Bill Gates need to be if we used that definition?  For another thing, the goal is surely not endless wealth.  That seems like a bizarre set of values. We are hoping for people to be secure and happy; healthy and safe.  Money is part of that but is not an end in itself.  

I wonder if anyone else out there has thought about this issue.  What factors do you see as positively or negatively affecting these outcomes, be it at the family, neighborhood or even at the public policy levels?  How do we make the dream attainable for more Americans?

Compassion Anyone?

A flash of insight can come at the most unexpected time. I was driving to my poetry group on Saturday and I was thinking about why I was so agitated that morning.  Why was I feeling so ‘judgy’ of others? I suddenly understood something that maybe should have been obvious, but somehow wasn’t.

            Here is what I understood: If I don’t feel the emotion that the person is sharing, I am prone to judging them. If I can feel, really feel, the emotion, I am less judgmental.

            I think of myself as an empathic person. When someone shares their troubles with me, I usually feel their pain or frustration. Sometimes too much. However, there are instances where I don’t, especially these days. I was attributing that to being spread too thin and my general sense of frustration with the state of the world. It occurs to me, though, that isn’t the complete story. I have been ‘judgy’ before the pandemic.

            When a friend or relative is sharing something I can relate to, perhaps have experienced myself, I am able to recall the emotion readily. The disappointment or sadness or anger comes flooding in. When that person shares an experience or feeling foreign to me, that’s when I am predisposed to judgement. If I can’t connect their reaction to my own, I am left to intellectualize – then judgement can follow.

            I may not express it– I usually know enough to keep those thoughts to myself. But I stew in it. I’ve been stewing a lot lately. I won’t say to the person that I think they are wrong or over-reacting, but it is what I am thinking. My powers of empathy are more limited than I care to admit. Sitting in judgment doesn’t feel good, though. I don’t want to be a harsh appraiser, especially of those I love. Plus, I think it is counterproductive. Even if I don’t outwardly express it, it creates distance, or it may leak out in other destructive ways.

            Thinking about this as I was driving, the ‘aha’ moment hit me: maybe if I can’t feel what the person feels, there is another path to empathy. What if I imagine what it feels like to be that person? Not through the prism of my experience, but through theirs. So, if a person is expressing their terror of getting Covid, something I don’t feel to that degree, rather than thinking about whether they are justified and thereby trying to convince them they shouldn’t be so afraid, focus on what it feels like to be terrified. Being terrified is an awful state of mind – I can empathize with that irrespective of the cause. During the conversation, I may share some information that I hope allays their fear, but it would be delivered from a place of compassion, rather than judgment.

            Maybe the divisions among us would be helped if we tried to understand the emotion first, acknowledge and connect to it. Maybe if we named the other person’s feeling – fear, anger, hopelessness – and remembered what that emotion feels like even if it was in a different context– we could start a more fruitful conversation.

            For example, anxiety is something I have experienced, but I have had only one panic attack and that happened when I was an adolescent. Others experience panic as a regular expression of their anxiety. And, I may not be set off by the same triggers, nor have the same physical reaction, but I still know how horrible it is to feel panicky.

            My anxiety manifests in rumination, as I wrote about last week. But, even at the worst of times when I was living in my head, I was functional. Not as productive as I wanted to be, but I wasn’t paralyzed. If someone was to share their experience of ruminating, I would reflect on my own. If they were so tied up in knots that they couldn’t get out of bed, I would feel sorry for them but wonder why they couldn’t manage to get it together. While listening, it might instead be more helpful to imagine myself in my bed so overwhelmed that I can’t get up– how terrible would that feel?  – rather than thinking about whether I would react in the same way as my friend did.

            Maybe we can’t help but see things through the prism of our experience, but it is too limiting. This might be one way to be more open to others.

            I wish I could report, having had this insight, that I was free of judgment the rest of the weekend. It probably isn’t reasonable, or even desirable, to suspend all judgment. There are times when it is appropriate to criticize. Sometimes a person is so dug into their emotional state that they have lost all perspective. A compassionate loved one can offer another view. It likely won’t be well-received if it is delivered in a judgmental tone – the compassion is key. The problem is sometimes I don’t feel much compassion and that is the point of this whole essay. How do I find the compassion?

            It takes some work to locate it and I have to be willing to put in the effort. Yesterday, once again in the car, I passed two lawn signs that got me angry – a kneejerk judgment. Having had the insight the day before, I tried to test my ability to find compassion.

            The first sign read “Fuck Biden.” Great way to advertise your politics! Why would I want to have compassion for someone, why would I want to try to understand someone, who puts up a sign like that? They are entitled to their view, but in putting it out there like that, it invites anger. Should I do the work to look beyond that, to understand their rage? That is a big ask. The answer, for me, was no, no compassion. I stayed angry. My anger met theirs, metaphorically.

            The second lawn sign demanded “Unmask our children now!” My first reaction to it was to mumble ‘asshole’ to myself (actually Gary was driving and I had to explain I wasn’t calling him that). This one was easier to swallow. I could envision having a conversation. Though I am not a parent of a school-age child (I am a grandparent of a preschooler), I can imagine the frustration of dealing with the pandemic and the desire for my child to go back to ‘normalcy.’ It is unlikely that I would come to a meeting of the minds with the parent with that lawn sign, but the starting point wasn’t as hostile. As I mulled it over, my stomach muscles unclenched a bit. I would call it a semi-successful effort to find compassion.

            These two examples aren’t quite the same thing as listening to a friend or family member express something I don’t feel, but there are parallels. My goal is to walk around holding less hostility in my gut. Does my suggestion hold any water for you? If you have other ideas for how to do that, I’m all ears.

Cuomo esta?

Governor Cuomo is in trouble. I have mixed feelings about that. He is a complicated public figure. I can’t claim to have first-hand knowledge of how he operates but having worked with his administration on education issues and knowing folks who have attended meetings with him and living in the Albany area for the last thirty years, I have certainly formed opinions about him. Before the pandemic, my impression was largely negative, even though most of his policies aligned with my own views. I did not like the way he did business.

Recent reports that Governor Cuomo or his aides threatened to ruin the careers of adversaries are very believable. I think that has been Cuomo’s modus operandi for most of his career. The evidence suggests that he is a bully. Maybe our culture is changing such that his behavior has become unacceptable and that would be a good thing. I think, to varying degrees, bullying in the workplace has been acceptable in the past. I have worked with men who got away with a version of that – yelling and intimidating people to get their way, driving employees to tears. Maybe they didn’t go so far as to threaten to ruin careers, but scaring underlings was a tool they used. Perhaps they had anger management issues, but nobody called them on it. From what I have observed, some men benefitted from the behavior. Cuomo may be caught in a changing tide. What was once okay (or at least overlooked) is now not. One question this raises is: what is the penalty for that? I’m not sure that the punishment (forced to resign or impeached) meets that crime. Is it enough for him to acknowledge it and pledge to behave better? (If he was willing to do that.) Should he be forced to step down?  It would be a simpler calculus if that was all he was accused of.

The allegations of sexual harassment are another matter. I have to admit that these charges came as a surprise to me. It was not something I heard whispers about before, though that doesn’t prove anything. At first, I wondered if the allegations were actually more about how his bullying behavior manifested with women. The first reported complaint that I read about, back in December, sounded like that. Creating a toxic work environment was consistent with what I understood about him. Unwanted touching, though, is a whole other thing. The incident at the wedding where he cupped the young woman’s face (she wasn’t an employee of his) and asked if he could kiss her sounds like he was being a creep (perhaps drunk?) and doesn’t reflect well on him but does not seem to be harassment. Now there have been other allegations that involve more aggressive unwanted touching of employees. The question this raises is:  should he resign based on the allegations? I think the investigation should play out first. I know that in the heat of the stories emerging, it is tempting to leap to conclusions, but a rush to judgment isn’t fair. I think there has been too much of that.

Then there is the nursing home situation that is also being investigated. The issues here fall into a couple of different categories. The coverage I have read has focused on the wrong things. The number of deaths reported in which categories is less important than the facts of the deaths. We need to understand what happened and what can we learn from it.

Throughout the pandemic, at all of those press conferences which I watched, the person I was least impressed with was the Health Commissioner, Howard Zucker. He did not inspire confidence, unlike the Governor. I know he, and the whole administration, was faced with an unprecedented crisis. And, to add to the challenge, they didn’t get guidance or support from the federal government. Even cutting Zucker some slack for that, I don’t think he performed well. His role in managing the nursing home situation needs to be understood. While the buck stops with Cuomo, I have to assume that decisions about protocols were largely informed by medical advisors. What guidance did Zucker offer?

The first question with the nursing homes is: what guidance did the state give regarding Covid patients? Were nursing homes given support, in terms of PPE, respirators, or treatment suggestions? Was the state made aware of what was happening on the ground? How timely and adequately was support given? What instructions were the hospitals given about releasing Covid patients back into nursing facilities? If the Attorney General’s investigation answered these questions, I didn’t see much coverage of it. These are far more important questions than whether nursing home deaths were erroneously counted as hospital deaths. No one has said that the total number of deaths was undercounted.

I can imagine, in the midst of the crisis, that it was all a giant clusterfuck. Some of it can be forgiven because no one knew what to do, but if decisions were made that led to more deaths, we need to understand that. Not for the purposes of punishing someone necessarily, though if it involved negligence or willful disregard for human life then we would need to assign consequences, but rather so that we learn and do better. There will likely be another pandemic.

Then there is the allegation that the Cuomo administration lied on federal forms in reporting nursing home deaths. I am not suggesting that Cuomo gets a pass on the handling of the nursing home debacle. If he directed people to lie on federal forms, there needs to be a consequence. Given the posture of the Trump administration, their incompetence and politicizing of everything, it is easy to imagine the Cuomo obfuscating, if not outright lying. Truthfully when the allegations that they lied on federal forms came out, especially when it didn’t mean that he lied to the us (New Yorkers) about the number of deaths, I didn’t give a shit. I could be missing something, but in the midst of all that was and is going on, with the virus still raging and so many suffering, I thought there have to be more important things to be focused on.

We need to concentrate on the right questions. Unfortunately for Cuomo, he has made a lot of enemies, probably deservedly, and they want to capitalize on whatever they can get on him, regardless of whether it rises to the level of an impeachable offense. Add to that the usual partisan power politics, Republicans would love to take advantage of Cuomo’s weakness, and we have a situation ripe for a rush to judgment.

I took comfort from Cuomo’s guidance during those daily press conferences. He provided leadership that we needed. He deserves credit for that. In the midst of calamity, he made many decisions that saved lives and stepped into a role that should have been filled by the President but wasn’t. How does that fit into the analysis of how he gets treated now?

On the one hand, I like the fact that Democrats demand a standard of behavior for elected officials. I would like some standard to have been applied to Trump. On the other hand, we can’t have knee jerk responses to allegations. Lots of prominent Democrats have come out saying that Cuomo should resign. They say he has lost the confidence of the people of New York. Has he? One thing I haven’t seen reported is what do New Yorkers think? What do the polls show? We are bombarded by polling most of the time. While I don’t like the idea of making decisions based on poll results, it seems relevant in this case since Cuomo is in office by virtue of the most important poll, the one in the voting booth.

I think the investigation(s) should play out. When we understand what Cuomo has done, then we can make an informed judgment about his future.

Note: I wrote and posted this before seeing that Quinnipiac has a poll out showing 55% of New Yorkers approve of Governor Cuomo. I think that supports my point.

Healing

Healing is on my mind. I thought Joe Biden struck the right tone in his speech Saturday night. He appealed to Americans to stop looking at each other as the enemy if we belong to a different political party. Easier said than done, though.

Is healing a bridge too far?

I am fortunate in that I don’t have a lot of experience in needing to heal relationships. I have never been estranged from my parents or brothers, or aunts, uncles or cousins. At least not that I am aware. I’m not suggesting that there hasn’t been ebbs and flows, or hurt feelings here and there, but never a breach in the relationship. The one significant friendship that was broken happened when I was in elementary school. I learned a lot from that experience. I think about it today because though it was a personal relationship, I think it bears on the challenge that faces our country.

I wrote about this incident previously on this blog (here). I was playing with my good friend in the alley between our houses when other kids from the block showed up and started taunting her. Rather than defend her or take her into my house to escape, I joined in. I’m still horrified by having done that, but I can’t deny it. I felt terrible and after some time passed, I apologized to her. She accepted my apology and we went back to being friends and remain so to do this day – more than 50 years later. I can’t speak from her perspective, but I have thought about why we were able to overcome my betrayal.

I did offer a genuine apology. I knew I was wrong, and I think I owned that. Whether she truly accepted my apology immediately, or whether she decided to give me second chance to see if she could trust me, I can’t say. Either way, her willingness to do that was huge. Many people would not be able to move on from that hurt. I don’t know if over the years I have disappointed her, but I do know that she has remained in my heart even when we don’t see each other for long periods of time (she lives on Long Island, while I am in upstate New York). When we do speak or get together, we pick up right where we left off.

What does this have to do with our country? I’m doubtful that the conditions that allowed us to repair our relationship are in place, despite Joe Biden’s appeal to our better angels. Will anyone take responsibility for the wrongs they have done? I’m not painting myself as a hero, but there is risk in apologizing. I needed to accept that I had done wrong, and I needed to take the chance that she would reject me and we both had to give each other time to rebuild the trust. Is either political party up to the task?

Democrats have participated in gerrymandering and their rhetoric has been extreme at times. Democratic candidates have been guilty of putting the desire for power over good policy choices. I think the Clintons, in particular, were guilty of that. Will they own it? Will any prominent Democrat acknowledge their responsibility?

From where I sit, though, I believe the Republicans have more to apologize for. In allowing Trump to behave as he has, in turning a blind eye to his (and his family’s) corruption, in not rejecting his hate speech, they have a lot to answer for. And, actually, going back to Newt Gingrich, who ushered in (I believe) this culture of scorched earth politics, is any Republican willing to disavow that approach. Will anyone apologize to Merrick Garland, or more importantly, the American people?

It seems to me that Biden was suggesting that we put all of this behind us and start anew – rather than reckoning with the damage. For healing to happen, though, I don’t believe you can just sweep it all under the rug. Maybe, in truth, he isn’t suggesting that we heal, but rather just move on.

I think healing would be far healthier, if we can do it. We have never faced our divisions or confronted the wrongs – we still haven’t reckoned with the Civil War for crying out loud. It is a huge undertaking but if we don’t do it, will we inevitably face another one?

The path forward requires that those who have done wrong to publicly acknowledge it. And by wrong, I am not talking about policy mistakes. We can debate immigration or economic policy (though putting children in cages is more than just a policy mistake). I am referring to processes – the systematic hoarding of power, the disrespect shown to adversaries, the corrupting influence of money and the spreading of lies. The fact that these things have been done has to be admitted.

If Democrats and Republicans take that first step of taking responsibility, then they will have to take another difficult step. They will have to give each other another chance.

I’m not sure anyone is ready to take either of those steps. It won’t be enough if it is only Joe Biden who does. We need more Democrats and we need a lot of Republicans to step up. With Trump at the helm, and still denying defeat, it seems unlikely. I have no expectation that Trump himself is capable of taking responsibility, but if those Republicans who remain in leadership positions don’t do it, I don’t know how we make progress.

While I am very relieved that Biden and Harris won, and I want to be hopeful, the challenge before us is daunting.

A Lying Liar

My parents taught me that lying was wrong.

 Their argument was five-fold:

  • First, ultimately the truth comes out; maybe not immediately, but in time it would emerge, and you would be embarrassed or ashamed to be caught in that lie.
  • Second, your lie could hurt someone, and we didn’t want to hurt other people if we could avoid it. [They did offer this caveat: If it was a white lie, intended to protect someone from harm, it might be okay.]
  • Third, it can be hard to keep track of lies and you might contradict yourself later (“What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” –  I remember that adage from that font of all wisdom, Sargent O’Rourke on F-Troop.)
  • Fourth, if you make a practice of lying, you won’t be trusted, and when you need to be believed, you will be out of luck (see the fable ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’).
  • Finally, and possibly most important, when you lay your head down on your pillow at night you want to have a clear conscience so you can sleep peacefully.

I was convinced. I am not perfect – I can’t say I’ve never lied, but I am really bad at it. Ask my family.

It appears that our president didn’t learn this lesson, or he has conveniently forgotten it. It is hard to believe that we need to review the reasons to value honesty. Let’s take a closer look at how Trump fails:

  • The first argument assumes a person can be embarrassed. Trump has no shame. When he is caught in a lie, he doubles down on it.
  • The second argument assumes that we value not hurting people. Trump is unconcerned about people’s feelings – he puts this on display every time he mocks someone for their disability and, more generally, how he treats people in his life.
  • Trump could not care less about keeping track of his lies, he makes no attempt to do so. When a reporter brings up statements Trump has made in the past which were incorrect or contradictory, he pretends it never happened or shrugs his shoulders.
  • Trump doesn’t value relationships and doesn’t want to acknowledge dependence on anyone, so he moves through the world without worrying about whether his word means anything. He has been sued repeatedly for not fulfilling commitments. His lack of credibility has done damage to our relationships with allies across the world.
  • Considering that he is known for tweeting at all hours of the night or early morning, sleep appears to elude him.

Trump’s enablers and followers apparently didn’t learn that lying is wrong either. It frightens me for our future – lying has become normalized. What will it mean for our country if our culture no longer values personal integrity and if we believe the ends justify the means?

Trump’s lying may in fact be criminal when you consider his handling of the coronavirus. I believe he has blood on his hands.

I understand the temptation to lie when it is expedient. If a lie gets you what you want in the short term, it can be quite tempting. Sometimes we lie to avoid conflict or unpleasant conversations. Whatever the motivation, it is short-sighted. If you lie to avoid conflict, it puts off the inevitable and possibly makes it worse when you finally do have to confront it. If you lie to achieve a short-term goal, it may jeopardize more important long-range accomplishments. We need to take a longer view, in our personal relationships and in our professional lives. I think any number of societal issues we face would be improved if we did that.

I was thinking about this because of a Facebook exchange I had with a neighbor. She is a Trump supporter and she posted a comment that she wasn’t voting for Trump’s personality, but for his principles(!). What principles? I was stunned. She made this remark in response to someone that criticized Trump for lying. Incessant lying is incontrovertible evidence of a lack of principles and/or mental illness. In either case, it is not a quality that someone who is entrusted with the presidency of our country should possess. This neighbor’s world is upside down. But, that’s what happens when you depend on Fox News and talk radio for your information.

Yesterday that same neighbor criticized Biden on Facebook for being boring. I long for boring. I am exhausted after four years of outrageous statements. I can’t wait for us to turn the corner and heal from this divisive and painful time – not to mention finally getting a handle on the pandemic with thoughtful, scientific federal guidance.

Tomorrow is election day. I pray that Americans send a resounding message by rejecting the Lying Liar and those that have enabled him in the House and Senate. While I also hope that Trump is held accountable for his crimes after he is out of office, I think I will be satisfied if he and his family fade away and are no longer part of our national conversation. It is an interesting question: what is best for our country? Pursuing investigations and possible prosecution or focusing on the future and turning the page on Trump. But, I am getting ahead of myself. We can debate that question after he is sent packing.

I am practically holding my breath with anxiety – I need to remind myself, and you, to breathe until we get through this, hopefully in 48 hours.

Revisiting Controversy

Note: Today is Columbus Day or Indigenous People’s Day. It seems apropos to revisit another historical controversy – one not quite so long ago. Also, I’d like to give a shout out to my cousin Ira, celebrating a milestone birthday today, having been through a lot more than most. I wish him health, happiness and many more celebrations.

In a series of previous blog posts, I wrote about the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Teachers Strike of 1968 because it was a seminal event in both the history of New York City and my family. My Dad was a union activist and walked that picket line. That strike is seen by many as a turning point in the relationship between the Jewish- and African-American communities, damaging it so much that it reverberates to this day.

As part of my exploration of the topic I attended a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society in late January of 2019. Monifa Edwards, the valedictorian from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Junior High School in 1968, began the session by talking about her journey. Ms. Edwards, who is in her 60s now, held herself like a dancer, lean and elegant. She spoke with assurance. She gave some background, noting that her family, originally from the Caribbean, valued education. Her parents were distressed that the neighborhood schools had such a poor reputation. As a result, they enrolled her in a public elementary school in Gravesend, way across the borough of Brooklyn, an opportunity offered by New York City to desegregate the schools.

She described a harrowing experience on one particular trip. The bus was surrounded by angry white parents. The driver and bus monitor vanished, and the parents started rocking the bus and yelling epithets. Monifa recounted that she could still see, in her mind’s eye, the face of one of the mothers – her hair in curlers, her face twisted in hate. Monifa was terrified and traumatized by the experience. She came home and told her parents that she was going to go to a neighborhood school next year, no matter what, even if the education offered was inferior.

I heard Monifa’s story and it broke my heart. I could imagine her fear as the bus threatened to tip over.  It made me think of my own experience in 1973 attending junior high school in Canarsie despite a boycott of the schools because parents were against the proposed busing of black students into our district. I walked a gauntlet lined by police and white demonstrators who were yelling and shaking their fists at the few of us who dared to attend classes. It was unnerving.

Monifa continued, explaining how based on this incident, and other painful experiences, she was ‘primed to be radicalized’ (her phrase). To her radicalized meant adopting the beliefs of the Black Panthers. When she asked adults around her, how could that white mother hate her so much and want to do her harm, she was told that white people were the devil. This made sense to her young self. It explained what she had experienced.  I could understand how a child would receive and accept that message. As a young teen she joined the Black Panthers in Brooklyn and they became involved in the controversy over the schools in Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Hearing about the Black Panthers brought back images I saw on television when I was growing up. Angry young black men, wearing berets, camo and armed to the teeth came to mind. Those images were unsettling when they flashed on the nightly news in 1967, 1968 and 1969. The energy and anger that radiated was scary – especially when coupled with footage of cities burning. It felt like revolution was in the air.

As a young white girl in Brooklyn, it was beyond my control or understanding. I remember my Dad coming home from the picket line, tired and frustrated; talking about the ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘opportunists’ that were stirring the pot. He viewed the strike as necessary to protect union rights, to ensure due process for teachers who were disciplined. He thought schools needed to be protected from local politics. I implicitly trusted my dad’s judgment – I knew him to be an ethical, thoughtful person.

Dad (on the right with the blue sport jacket) on the picket line. Screen shot from Eyes on the Prize

I later came to understand that the students and parents in the community felt unheard and disrespected in the current system. Though it wasn’t my dad’s intent, the structure he was supporting likely contributed to the community’s alienation. It was a dangerous situation – with the mostly white picketers (the teachers) in a Black neighborhood, Black Panthers on the scene, epithets flying both ways, anger bubbling to the surface, police sharpshooters on the roofs of buildings across from the junior high school. Each side believing in the righteousness of their cause. The civil rights movement, which had been nonviolent, was undergoing a change, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. earlier that year.

Years later I watched the documentary Eyes on the Prize and learned more about the Black Panthers; I gained a fuller understanding of the organization. Their ten-point program doesn’t seem quite as radical today. These are the ten points:

What We Want Now!

  1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
  2. We want full employment for our people.
  3. We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.
  4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
  5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
  6. We want all Black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
  8. We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
  9. We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
  10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.

I’m sure some of those demands would trouble people today. Freedom for all incarcerated black men is not realistic, though I can’t deny that racism is embedded in the criminal justice system. ‘Robbery by the capitalists’ is still incendiary language, as well. But the thrust of the program addresses legitimate grievances.

The Black Panther platform also included statements of belief. This part likely stoked more of the controversy.

What We Believe:

  1. We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny.
  2. We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the White American business men will not give full employment, the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.
  3. We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities: the Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
  4. We believe that if the White landlords will not give decent housing to our Black community, then the housing and the land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make a decent housing for its people.
  5. We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.
  6. We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like Black people, are being victimized by the White racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.
  7. We believe we can end police brutality in our Black community by organizing Black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our Black community from racist police oppression and brutality. The second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States gives us the right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all Black people should arm themselves for self-defense.
  8. We believe that all Black people should be released from the many jails and prisons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.
  9. We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that Black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peers. A peer is a persons from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical, and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the Black community from which the Black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of “the average reasoning man” of the Black community.
  10. When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its power in such a form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accused. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.

When I read it now, I am first struck by the reference only to men. The organization may have been progressive, but they didn’t extend the call for liberation to Black women.  I am also struck by the rage that permeates. We needed to acknowledge that fury. We didn’t then, and we are still dealing with the consequences. While I don’t accept a number of their remedies (or all of the assumptions), some of their answers seem appropriate (decent housing, education that includes contributions beyond those of White men, and, reparations should be negotiated).  As is often the case, more attention was given to the extremes, rather than focusing what could be agreed upon.

I can certainly imagine that a young person, like Monifa, would find all of it empowering and tantalizing.

Sitting in the audience that night listening to the discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I thought there was a hole in the presentation. The perspective of someone like my father, whose motivations were not drenched in bigotry or a hunger for power for power’s sake, who legitimately believed that the principles of the union were at stake, was not represented. While giving parents a voice in schools is essential, it is reasonable to ask what their role should be if teaching is a respected profession. Having served as a school board member for nine years in an upstate New York suburb, I have grappled with this question. It is not easily answered. Sadly, in 1968 the union and the community could find no middle ground.

I think in one respect that panel discussion repeated the sins of the past. An important voice wasn’t heard.

Sitting in the audience that night, I was also reminded that the messages we receive as children are powerful. I absorbed messages that I still need to examine, so did Monifa Edwards.  It takes work and awareness to overcome them. Many people are not introspective, some may not want to make the effort, and others may not be willing to be honest with themselves. But if we are ever going to progress, we need to do the work.

Ms. Edwards said she had long since moved beyond her radical phase, she was able to overcome the hateful message that white people were devils.  Unfortunately, time was limited and there were other issues to discuss so we didn’t learn how that process occurred or how long it took.

How many people in the world, who are currently traumatized by violence and/or abuse, are ‘primed to be radicalized?’ How many will do the work that Ms. Edwards did to move beyond hate? And, I wonder how she feels today, eighteen months later, in the wake of continued instances of black citizens being murdered by police, seemingly without consequence.

And, finally, I wonder when we will truly learn to listen and try to understand, beyond just the words.

A Reckoning

NOTE: Today’s blog post is written by Gary, my husband. He was reflecting on the fact that we have, depending on the data source, reached or exceeded 200,000 American deaths from Covid-19. Gary and I feel that we have become numb to the loss; maybe complacent is a better term. He wrote this as part of a letter to our children. I asked if he would allow me to share it on the blog. Obviously, he said yes.

            One other thing you need to know. In our family since Trump was elected, we have referred to him as the CF. CF stands for character flaw. We were naming his flaws, dishonest, misogynist, selfish, ignorant, when our daughter Leah noted that there were too many to count and that in fact, he was just a giant Character Flaw, hence he is the CF which is how Gary refers to him the letter that follows.

            Today is the final day of summer with fall well entrenched in the air and the days rapidly shortening.  Fall officially begins tomorrow morning.  It is a time for introspection for us as Jews with the high holidays underway and the annual fast less than a week away.  It is a time of bounty with harvests, apple picking and pumpkin picking and a time when leaves begin to change color leading to what will be the prettiest time of the year.  

            At the same time, it is a time when summer plants wither and die, flowers fade, and soon, frost covers the morning landscape.  You can smell the change in the air.  That warm, soft smell of summer is giving way to the smell of leaves and the mornings start to become foggy with the sun slower to burn off the haze.  So, while it is a time of beauty and bounty, it is also a time of loss and withering. 

            This year, of course, it is a time to mourn in very specific ways.  For so many people, it is a time to mourn the loss of certainty with jobs lost, incomes lost; with lives upended, people suddenly stuck at home.  People are working from home more than ever before; people are stuck home without daycare available to them and schools are still struggling, even with the school year already underway, to find ways to deal with COVID and still provide for the needs of their students, their teachers and other staff and the families that depend on them. 

            Everything is upended.  Things we have taken for granted are no longer true.  Going out to eat, going to a movie, going to a ballgame, a museum, a concert are all either no longer possible or are so very fraught.  

            There are different counts of how many Americans have died of COVID but it appears to me that we have, in fact, reached another tragic milestone:  200,000 dead Americans.  As brutal and horrible as this reality is, as many people have died, have lost loved ones, often dying alone in ICUs with family unable to be with them, the fact that it did not have to be this way makes it so much more tragic. 

            The CF has been accused of mismanaging the pandemic, but that accusation wildly understates what he has done and how serious the crimes he has committed are.  People make mistakes but they are not all created equal.  If a doctor makes a mistake, someone could be harmed, someone could die.  If an air traffic controller makes a mistake, many people may die. 

If a president makes a mistake – let’s say President Obama failing to block a resolution unfairly condemning Israel, there can be repercussions on an international level.  The Palestinians, in that case, became yet more emboldened in their rejectionist policies.  But that was, relatively speaking, a minor mistake.  A much larger mistake was President George W Bush invading Iraq.  It broke that country apart, opened a Pandora’s Box of Sunni and Shiite militant groups, bolstered the Iranian regime and paved the way for the creation of ISIS.  It cost many, many lives in the region, cost thousands of American soldiers’ lives and cost us enormous sums of money.  It also harmed Israel by permitting Iran to send advanced weapons to Hezbollah (and more recently also to other militant Shiite groups) over land through Iraq and Syria. 

That was a gigantic mistake.  It has repercussions that have continued to harm us and will continue to harm us for some time.  But it was still a mistake.  (Not a mistake by Cheney – intentional on his part and on the part of others.  But, I believe, a mistake on W’s part). 

            The CF, however, did not make a mistake.  He thought that his intentional sabotage of our efforts to confront the coronavirus pandemic would bolster him politically.  It has not worked out that way – that was a mistake.  But he absolutely, positively intentionally lied to us about the pandemic and he has blood on his hands.  I cannot tell you how many people have died because of the CF’s lies, but I am absolutely certain that he lied and that deaths resulted.  We know that from innumerable reports over these months.  We know that from the audio tapes recorded by Bob Woodward. 

            And we know it from the words of the CF himself.  He admitted that he lied.  He lied while admitting it – when he tried to sell us on the excuse that he did it to avoid fear among the American people.  Nonetheless, he lied to us.  And, because he lied to us, and because he also presided over an administration that left its job, the job of organizing our response to the virus, of generating strategies for confronting it, to the states, lots more Americans died.  Lots of Americans became sick, many suffering a devastating illness, many suffering a very long term illness, many never regaining all of what they lost.  Many lost loved ones.  Many will never be whole again. 

            Think about it for a minute.  Someone in that position, someone who has chosen to take a position that has enormous responsibilities, that places the health, safety, even the lives of the American people in his hands.  He has actively campaigned for the position, been in that position and had years to familiarize himself with the responsibilities inherent in it.  He has been given a huge challenge to save Americans’ lives.  That challenge is his duty – his sacred duty – as the person given all of the titles and powers and resources that come with the job he chose to take.  

            And he intentionally chose to let Americans die instead.  He said things – it’s a hoax, the media and the Democrats are hyping it, it’s no worse than the flu, it will soon disappear, it will magically disappear, the best thing you can do if you have a mild case is to go to work with it.  He’s said things – open up the economy, open up the schools, open up sporting events, open up anything and everything, open them up quickly and regardless of the consequences.  

Think about this for a moment, during the entire time that we have been confronting this horrific, deadly plague, he never once – never – took the position of waiting.  He never said that those people in that meat packing plant should not be there until they figure out how to safely operate it.  He never said that eating in a restaurant in a state with incredibly high virus prevalence might be dangerous.  Not even once. 

            The intent is as horrific as the crime itself; it is unforgivable.  It is something people should be learning about for generations to come, forever.  When we learn about American history and we think of people who have been traitors to our country, we should not first think about Benedict Arnold whose name itself has come to be synonymous with such treachery.  In the future, that distinction should belong to the CF.  (“He took money to provide classified information to the Russians.  He’s a CF.”  “She hacked into the computers of our electrical grid and demanded ransom payments in order to not plunge millions of Americans into darkness during a heat wave.  She’s a CF.”)

            200,000 Americans and counting.  It is sad, tragic, horrific.  It is worse than that because it is also treachery.  And it is a disaster that is far from over. 

            Another tragedy, of course, is the passing of the magnificent and beloved Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose life is exactly the opposite of his.  She did not come from wealth.  She faced obstacles that she ought not have had to face because of her gender, because she was a mother.  Nobody took her entrance exams for her.  Nobody used their money and influence to help her get into the places she got into.  And, once there, she was consistent, moral, ethical and used her passion, abilities and energies to help others.  She was a good and loyal friend to many and demanded more of herself than of others. 

            And she should also be remembered forever.  She should be remembered as a hero, a role model and an inspiration to us all.  Women, in particular, will find inspiration from her good works and, as Jewish people, we can allow ourselves just a bit of nachas that it was one of our own who did all of this. 

            Her story is one that we can all think of when we wonder what it is that we can do to make the world a better place.  For crying out loud, she was 5’ 1”  and probably never even weighed 100 pounds.  So much greatness in such a little package.  She could fit in aunt Rochelle’s clothing. (Editor’s note: Gary’s sister is also a petite person as anyone who knows her can attest – also, not a person to be underestimated.)

            While the political part of what is going on now is very concerning, and while it may take a while to know what the outcome of it will be, the greatness that she embodied is something we will hold onto and let us allow some of that light to shine on us.  

NOTE: I wanted to share this because I think we need to look at the totality of what Trump has done through this pandemic. It can’t be emphasized enough. We need to look for the light in the midst of the darkness, and RBG’s legacy can offer that, but we need to reckon with his actions and that many have been complicit in it. We can disagree about what would have been the best strategy to fight the virus, but his lies cannot be forgiven.