June 1st: Losing Our Heads Over Things

Comedy only works when it is funny. This week, Kathy Griffin was not funny when she posted a photo of herself holding a prop that looked like Donald Trump’s severed head. It was over the top, it was crude, and it wasn’t the kind of thing we should be joking about in a country that has an evil streak of violence that we can’t seem to overcome.

She was swiftly fired by CNN, she apologized profusely, and she will, no doubt, go through a period of banishment from the spotlight. She is not the first person to do something stupid and wind up with a scandal, and she most certainly won’t be the last.

Kathy Griffin was wrong. She was thoughtless, she was over the top, and she did something that should have been comedy but instead was uncomfortable and offensive. The response by Donald Trump, though, was what caught my attention.

In a tweet to the public, as he likes to do, Trump said “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!”

Now, he’s absolutely right. Kathy Griffin should be, and seems to be ashamed. And he’s also right: No child should be made fearful of their father’s safety and well-being in a terrible joke. But here’s where we run into a problem. Donald Trump attempted to spur up compassion for him and his family by claiming to be a victim, a poor soul who hasn’t done anything to deserve this.

Let’s shift that thinking for a moment. How does the President think an 11 year old with a parent with a pre-existing condition feel when Trump ensures that they will not be covered by insurance? How does the President think a transgender 11 year old feels when told that they have no place to use the bathroom in their school? How does the President think an 11 year old feels when the government puts forth legislation that makes it easier for people to get guns to bring to school, rather than harder for people to get guns? How does the President think an 11 year old child of immigrants feels knowing that their president considers them to be the enemy?

The argument that we should do anything with consideration for how this may affect those around Trump is no longer on the table. It is no longer viable to ask for compassion from the general public when it has been made perfectly clear that no compassion will be returned in exchange. If anything, Trump is now getting the chance to experience the kinds of questions and nightmares that parents all across the country have to quell every day. And not all problems are as easy to explain away as a comedian with an ill-considered joke.

Kathy Griffin did something that was disrespectful and inappropriate. She is being punished for it, and things will soon return to normal. But, we need to remind the President that while he absolutely shouldn’t be experiencing these kinds of things as a human being, he cannot cry unfair play simply because he now has to explain away the actions of an ignorant person who made the world seem scary. American parents have been having to do that for months already. Welcome to the Trump America, Mr. President.

May 5th: Low Unemployment, High Expectations

This morning, the Labor Department released statistics regarding job growth and unemployment rates for the month of April. Job growth was up by 211,000 jobs last month, while unemployment dropped to 4.4 percent, the lowest it has been in nearly a decade.

While a low unemployment sounds like great news for the average American, and more jobs means more opportunities, the time is quickly upon us to begin to wonder what the ramifications are going to be for the citizens who used the November election to ensure that their voice was being heard. For many in this country, times have been hard, and a status quo wasn’t going to be acceptable for turning around the fortunes that left too many Americans struggling to make ends meet.

In an NPR report this morning, it was noted that growth in technology fields have helped to show that boost in the economy, while brick-and-mortar retail stores have been struggling to keep up with online sales. This demonstrates an opposite side to the coin, regarding average Americans. While growth is growth, and generally a positive, growth in the technology field tends to help the highly educated generally better-off in society, while retail opportunities generally tend to be the place where those in need of immediate help turn. In that regard, not all growth is considered equal, and results in a multitude of different ramifications, depending on who is being assisted in any given moment.

The public has been asking for the government to take interest in their affairs for a long time. They expect to see quick results, and an immediate impact on their own lives. While statistics like the ones released today spell an initial success for the job market and for the Department of Labor, it remains to be seen whether or not the day-to-day lives of Americans are going to be changed for the better.

 

February 24th: Deregulation as Offset Regulation

Donald Trump took up the pen yesterday and removed a provision set in place by Barack Obama which allowed students to choose the bathroom at school that best matches their gender identity. Trump put the regulation in the hands of the state, rather than Federal mandate.

It may come as a shock to anyone who has read my blog before, but I don’t have an issue with this from the perspective of political ideology. A true Republican believes that legal decisions such as this belong in the hands of the states, not the federal government. It makes sense that a man representing the Republican party would deregulate nationally and put the power in the hands of the state legislators. This seems to match his general tone of deregulation. Trump has made it clear that for every new regulation he puts into place, he intends to eliminate two existing ones.

Two issues jump out at me. The first is that Trump needs to remain consistent in his goal to state authority. He can’t go back and forth, saying that some issues are more important than others for federal jurisdiction. If you’re going to tell me it’s a state issue to determine gendered bathrooms, don’t turn around and nationally declare religious freedom to allow refusal to gay customers. While I may not agree with the notion of a small government, I can respect a consistent application of it, which isn’t something we’ve seen very much in the past decade of Conservative governing.

The other, more concerning idea is a lack of faith in the morality of the state legislators. If it is up to them to protect the rights of citizens, I don’t have a lot of hope that all 50 states will look out for all citizens equally or create protections for even the marginalized members of American society.

The track record isn’t good. Indiana and North Carolina have both put forward laws in the last two years that have demonstrated a willingness to restrict the rights of many, rather than protecting them. Not all Americans will receive equal rights in this system, which may work to even further divide and sectionalize the country which is already struggling to unify and bond.

As a result of the power being given to the states, advocacy styles will have to change. Petitioning and lobbying the White House will be far less effective (not that it was entirely effective before). Instead, we will have to mobilize to 50 states, in hopes of creating the uniformly accepting society one state at a time. If we want to ensure that all Americans are able to live with the rights and protections they deserve, we will have to be able to convince each state separately, making the task far more difficult, yet no less important.

With a Republican president in place, the activist community is going to have to adjust the mode of attack. Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with putting the power in the hands of the states, but it puts the onus on the public to ensure that the states regulate according to our notion of what is right, and to ensure that huge sections of the country don’t fall prey to states that legislate in contradiction to the values of the nation as a whole.

February 16th: A Resignation for One Doesn’t Mean a Resignation for All

The American public is already highly attuned to the White House relationship with Russia. The resignation of Michael Flynn only exacerbates that concern, as leaders from both sides of the aisle call for an investigation.

After a phone call in December with Russian diplomats before Donald Trump took office, Michael Flynn misled the administration as to the content of the discussion, leading Vice President Pence to misguidedly defend Flynn on the national stage. It is for this misleading that Trump asked for and received Flynn’s resignation, rather than because of the content of the call itself.

flynn-2At face value, it is disconcerting to see a government official forced out for inappropriate conduct. It should leave Americans wondering what will be the short-term and long-term effects of another change in leadership, and how the administration will handle the development of the future relationship with the Russian government.

When asked about the situation, though, Trump didn’t talk about Russia or about the damage done by the disgraced member of his team. Instead, Trump stated that the worst part of the situation were the political leaks that led to the public finding out in the first place. He also stated that Michael Flynn was treated “unfairly” by the public for his dedication to his country.

What is most disturbing is Trump’s unwillingness to discuss the situation with Russia, instead focusing on the “unfairness” against him and his people. Rather than take ownership of the situation and lead the country through it, Trump wanted to blame someone else. Worse still, he wanted to blame someone because his administration got caught doing something wrong. The implication, of course, is that everything would have just kept going along if it weren’t for the “meddling” public finding out what was really going on.

We are less than three decades removed from the end of the Cold War, a period in this country’s history when Russia was a very real and very scary threat to both the values and the safety of our nation. Yet, the Trump administration has failed to properly distance themselves from a Russian government that has demonstrated aggression and human rights violations reminiscent of Stalin.

Most bafflingly, Trump had his scapegoat in Michael Flynn. He could have cut the advisor loose, demonstrated remorse for the situation going bad without his knowledge, and moved right along. Yet, his commitment to blaming anyone and everyone else for the mistakes of his administration has put him in a position where the public can’t help but wonder: what else is going on behind closed doors that Trump and his team are just hoping doesn’t get leaked to the public?

Flynn’s resignation leaves the American people wondering where we are going in our relationship with Russia. The lack of confidence this incident has inspired doesn’t bode well for what is certainly going to be a turbulent and anxious foreign policy experience. And if the administration isn’t going to be forthcoming with the way they are handling things, we need more transparency, not less, to be our answer for success.

January 30th: Maybe a Trump Ban Will Do The Trick?

We have come to a boiling point in our nation’s history. We knew it was coming. The “America first” rhetoric that Donald Trump employed during his Inaugural address warned us that we would be turning our backs on the world, ignoring the rapid pace of globalization in favor of trying to get control of the minute details of citizenry.

Yet, this past week, when Donald Trump issued an executive order banning immigration to the country from several Muslim-dominated countries, we saw what it means to not only turn ourselves away from the politics of the rest of the world, but also the people in it. All across the globe, men, women, and children face persecution and terror, afraid for their lives and looking for a place to treat them with dignity and respect. Under a Trump administration, that won’t be the place founded on such ideals.

Nobody is naive enough to believe that these individuals should be let in with no vetting and with an issuing of a passport, $100,000 a-year job, and a brand new Cadillac. Of course we need to ensure that the individuals coming into the country have America’s best interests at heart. But we are a cowardly nation if we shy away from the hard work of that process in favor of the easier, scared answer of refusing them altogether.

America has never been a country based on fear. America was a nation founded on a set of values, built upon the notion of fighting for liberty and justice for all. Our ancestors were not given that gift as a birthright. No, they had to stand up and demand it, to declare their freedom, and do what it took to make it happen.

Now, we have to put our collective feet down and demand that our values be enforced. In the 1940s, when Jewish refugees arrived at the shores of America, they were sent away. America was too busy to care or too afraid of the repercussions. Those Jews were sent back to Germany to be tortured and murdered. Now, we have the opportunity to fix that mistake, to offer refuge to those who have no home and no safe place to call their own.

Trump has also threatened sanctuary cities, taking away yet another option for those in need of help. From near and far, this administration wants to make it abundantly clear that nobody is protected from harm in the US, that nobody has anywhere to seek shelter. That is not the America that I believe in, nor is it the America that we have fought so hard for over the past 250 years.

The fear is that Trump may be closer to getting his wish after all. When America abandons its values and the foundation upon which the country was created, immigrants will cease to believe that this country has anything to offer them. On that day, we will cease to be a global power at all. On that day, this country will become irrelevant. We won’t have to send people away; they won’t even want to show up.

America is built upon a foundation of morals, ethics, and strength. We do what is right, what is just, even if it is difficult. With an immigration ban, Trump is telling the world that we are too afraid to do the work to ensuring that our country can be both safe and welcoming, that we can be both a haven for the needy and defensive of our citizens’ health and well-being. If that is the case, maybe it is a Trump ban that we need, rather than a ban on the immigrants who are following in the footsteps of generations of those seeking a better life.

January 17th: Speak Up or Say Nothing

2017 has not started off kindly for Jewish Americans. A menorah in Phoenix was vandalized, a rabbinical school was defaced, and a march was scheduled to antagonize and harass a Jewish community in Montana. Yet, one event on the horizon may or may not change the way the American public views the Jewish community, and it may or may not even be a good idea.

rabbi-hier
Rabbi Marvin Hier

Rabbi Marvin Hier is scheduled to deliver the benediction at the inauguration for Donald Trump on January 20th. Hier is the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization that describes itself as an international Jewish Rights institution. He is also the founder of the Museum of Tolerance.

For a rabbi to have an opportunity to stand in front of the country and offer words of inspiration and Torah would be an incredible honor, and serve the American Jewish community well. For several years in the early 1900s, a rabbi speaking at the swearing-in was a mainstay. Since 1985, though, no rabbi has been involved in delivering a benediction. In a vacuum, this would be an ideal situation for Hier to make a statement, both verbally and visually, of the strength and vitality of the Jewish community in this country.

With an inauguration as volatile and contentious as this one, though, Hier finds himself in a troubling situation. Donald Trump has just finished a presidential campaign rife with conflict, and left huge populations of Americans feeling disenfranchised, marginalized, or threatened. The future is a scary one for those seeking religious tolerance, and a man in the business of working to create tolerance could be in a very difficult spot.

Rabbi Hier must serve the American Jewish people by demonstrating what it looks like to be a soldier of peace, and a creator of tolerance. That could come in one of two ways.

On the one hand, Rabbi Hier could deliver opening words that bring the country together. He could speak about the importance of healing, of looking out for one another. He could demand that the incoming administration take seriously the call for all Americans to be treated with respect and given a chance to be successful. And he could insist that Donald Trump use his new position to make great the lives of all Americans, not simply the ones who match his worldview.

On the other hand, Rabbi Hier is in a position to use his selection to make an even greater statement: he could step back and refuse to speak at all. By refusing to speak, he would be telling the world that the man taking over as Commander-In-Chief has failed to live up to Jewish values, and isn’t worthy of the words of a man who uses Torah to make the world a better place. In an act of public commitment to what is right, he has the opportunity to demonstrate the American Jews will not stand for the kinds of injustices that have been suggested over the past two years.

Regardless of what Rabbi Hier chooses to do, he cannot duck the responsibility. He cannot deliver toothless words that do not demand that the world do better. He cannot afford to offer pleasantries and sweet nothings when the world is looking to him to speak out for those without a voice.

A benediction is an opportunity to take a moment and reflect upon the holiness of a moment, to connect with one another and with God. On Friday, Rabbi Hier must use the microphone to either make a very important statement in the name of Tolerance, or not say anything at all.

December 14th: Voices of Protest Are Screaming

I have been a fan of Keith Olbermann for a long time. His show on ESPN a few years ago was an excellent combination of sports and morality, looking at how we can expect our sports and entertainment to reflect our values and represent something bigger than itself. He is well-spoken, clearly very intelligent, and always brings evidence to back up his claims.

After bouncing back and forth between sports and politics (my two favorite passions), Olbermann finally arrived at GQ, where he began a web series. As the 2016 political season ramped up, he began to direct his attention to stopping Donald Trump, using argumentation and data to structure his attack.

I loved what he was saying. To hear a political analyst use sound argument to call out the ridiculousness of the election was fascinating and entertaining, and spoke to many of the issues I had with what America was creating. His refusal to hold back his opinions was exactly the kind of authenticity and honesty that so much of what others were hoping for from their analysis of the events of the past year. Olbermann identified his bias and used it to show a vitally important idea, one that resonated with me.

Then, the election happened. After a year of hoping that this was some kind of stunt, Americans woke up having elected the least experienced and most scandal-prone president in the history of the country. Worse still, it became clear that he had won the electoral college without the popular vote, meaning more Americans had voted for the loser than the winner. In essence, Trump would be ruling without a mandate.

As the country began to come to terms with a president-elect that did not represent a unified country, Olbermann’s tone changed dramatically. He became determined, committed to finding ways to resist the ideologies he did not believe in and to demand that the American government not sink to the level of Trump’s campaign.

His passion has not wavered. In fact, listening to his web show, he speaks with more conviction than almost anyone I’ve ever heard. His willingness to say what others won’t set him apart, and makes his role as a dissenting-opinion all the more focused. And yet, that focus has grown a life of its own, blinding him from any other ideas or approaches.

In that regard, Olbermann becomes a symbol for what can happen when dissent becomes anger. His rhetoric has begun to take on the same venom that his opponents have used for months. His desire to object and resist have placed him at the forefront of the liberal radicalism that serves as an opposite extreme to the alt-right.

Keith Olbermann has become an example of what happens when a much-needed opposition to the ruling government stops making an argument and just begins to scream. Even in his legitimate claims against Trump, he is delegitimizing himself to too many who disagree with him, damning his ideas to fall on deaf ears.

We need a strong resistance in the next four years. We need to ensure that the American government reflects the needs of the American people, and we each have a strong role in letting Trump and his government know what is and is not acceptable. While Keith Olbermann has done a good job of using his voice to attempt to demand representation, he has also become a cautionary example for what happens when we let our passion turn into anger. If we have any hope of actually having a positive impact on our country and our world, we need to be careful to stay on the rational side of the dissenting line.