July 20th: Broadening Our Horizons to Deepen Our Understandings

When was the last time you read an article written by someone with a different skin color than your own? When was the last time you read a blog post offered by someone of a different sexual orientation? Have you ever read a sermon by someone who practices another faith?

We, as a society, have grown awfully comfortable living within the echo chamber of our own identity. We don’t know how to think from anyone else’s perspective outside of our own. It’s because we’re out of practice. The thoughts and perspectives of others feel dangerous because if they are right, it somehow means maybe I’m wrong.

On top of it all, we’ve so thoroughly pigeon-holed individuals that identity seems to be all we can talk about. Black writers examine race, women challenge gender issues, gays argue for the rights of marriage equality. Of course, it isn’t everyone, but we come to associate someone’s identity with their preferred topic of discussion. Somehow we have revoked credentials for meaningful discussion on too many issues begging for attention.

I want to know what a gay man thinks about the economy. I want to know what a woman thinks about steroid use in baseball. I want to discuss the enduring legacy of the West Wing with a Muslim, to hear how he thinks differently or similarly to myself.

Truth be told, I want to have these conversations not only despite their identities but because of them. Who we are influences how we think, and teaches us a great deal about what is and is not important. It’s time we embraced the idea that we aren’t always going to get along or agree, and to widen our horizons.

The written word has the incredible ability to allow one person to gain momentary access to the thoughts and feelings of another person sharing this earth. With our modern technology, it is only getting easier to collect and consume it all. What a gift we’re wasting if we only ever read things that come from “people like me.”

It’s going to be a little bit messy. Reading can lead to frustration and discomfort and unease, even to anger. But that’s the cost of sharing a world full of people who aren’t always going to see things my way.

I’m taking up the challenge. I want to learn more, to listen to new ideas and to be inspired by others to think differently. I want to engage in powerful discussions without the need to “win.” I want to participate in a great debate worthy of the innovation and freedom we enjoy. I hope you’ll join me.

May 25th: Balancing Our Mentality With Our Budget

In a satirical column in USA Today, I learned that Kentucky is the state that most depends on Federal assistance to run their operations. I also knew, based on this election and every one that came before it, that Kentucky tends to be one of the most Republican-friendly states on voting day.

This comes as a bit of a shock. How is it that a state that depends so much on the help from the national government can so regularly support the political party that wants a small central power, with the real strength being given to the states? If that was the case, Kentucky would be dooming itself by biting the hand that feeds it, in favor of being left to its own (rather poor) devices.

This kind of political dissonance is baffling to me, and begs to question: what is it that Republican voters like about their Republican candidates that they would be willing to sacrifice themselves in that way? We know there are pet projects that the Republican party supports that are hot-button issues in places like Kentucky: guns, abortion, same-sex marriage, and others. But, on the larger scale, these are small issues when confronted by the fact that, if all goes according to the Republicans’ plan, states like Kentucky will be left out to dry.

It makes very little sense that a state so dependent on the national government for support would be willing to so consistently vote for the party that seeks to make government “small enough to drown in the bathtub.” And it should be for even greater concern when we consider what would happen if the people of Kentucky actually got what they have been asking for.

May 24th: A Pain We Must Endure

I was listening to NPR today, and heard a report discussing the aftermath of the terror attack in Manchester. While comparing the incident to other examples of mass destruction in recent European history, the reporter mentioned that he was noticing less devastating grief, and more resigned sadness, as if the people of England have become desensitized to the terrible things of the world.

In that one instant, my heart broke. In discussing the death of dozens of young people at a concert, we are no longer shocked, horrified, or surprised. These kinds of incidents have become part of what it means to be a citizen of the world, as if terror is something that is natural and normal. Simply put, it isn’t, and we need to be reminded of that.

It is actually an incredibly human thing to desensitize ourselves to the horrors of the world. We wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves if we fell into devastation every time something bad happens in the world. Over time, we come to terms with the kind of things that we know are part of life. It’s why we ask “was he old?” when told of someone’s. Does it matter that he was old? Does that make it hurt less to a loved one? In a way, yes. We have programmed ourselves that the death of the old should be less sad than the death of a young person. It isn’t necessarily true; each individual gets to determine how they feel. But, in our subconscious, we insulate ourselves from losing ourselves in our grief.

Devastation and grief isn’t necessarily preferable. But the important thing we need to remind ourselves is that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. This isn’t normal, it isn’t natural, it isn’t something we need to learn to live with. A human being reached out and tore the life away from dozens of people, cutting their lives off entirely, and devastating the lives of countless others. Hate like that can never be made normal. Violence like that can never be allowed to become expected.

It is a terrible feeling to see the world falling apart and not know what to do about it. To get constant text messages and updates with acts of violence and not know how to help, how to make it better. But we need to live with that desperation, that passionate need for the world to be better than this. Because the other option is that the world continue as it is, and that simply isn’t acceptable. We have to be inspired to find a way to stop this hatred and this terror, and we aren’t going to be able to do that if we numb ourselves to the pain. The only way to make it hurt less is for us to figure out a way to happen less.

April 19th: The O’Reilly Factor Has Been Subtracted

Well, it only took a month for Fox to figure out what most others have come to terms with years ago. Today, Fox news cut ties with host Bill O’Reilly, more than two weeks after a New York Times article showed a long history of litigation against the talk-show host accusing him of sexual harassment.

O’Reilly, the host of one of America’s most popular political talk shows, has had a long history of pushing the envelope. From arguing with guests on his show to a near constant attack on the Obama administration, O’Reilly has fed conservative America exactly what they have wanted, often at the expense of being entirely truthful.

What is of note particularly in this situation is the time it took for Fox to come to the decision, and what it means for political activism. Very little has changed in the two weeks following the release of allegations against O’Reilly. In fact, according to the New York Times, the report may not have even been news, as the claim was that Fox supported O’Reilly through his legal troubles. That being said, his firing indicates that either the claims against him had reached a particular critical mass, or that the desire of the American public had finally reached the ears of the all-too-often tone-deaf when it comes to sexual assault and sexism.

With characters like Bill O’Reilly and even Donald Trump piling up with a long history of sexist, degrading behavior (if not actually assaulting), the political right has had to find an answer to the moral question: how can we support or buy into the things these people say when their behavior is so detestable? This is a huge opportunity for Fox News to move in a direction of more respectable personalities, with the hopes of getting rid of the distractions that take away from the political opinions.

As someone who has never been a fan of Fox News, O’Reilly’s show has always been of particular concern to me, as it puts a morally bankrupt individual in control of spinning political realities for a public that needs to be given the information with a particular skew. The general public has hopefully learned through this situation that we are in a position to demand characters who will give us our news without the ethical issues that we have come to expect.

With the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Tomi Lahren both losing their jobs within weeks of one another, the faces of conservative television are changing. Whether they move forward or backward is still very much to be seen, but now is the time for the public to flex their muscles and demand a certain level of integrity that we haven’t been receiving to this point.

April 12th: It Isn’t What Sean Spicer Said, It’s What He Meant…and That’s Just As Scary

When Sean Spicer says something ridiculous, I’m usually fine to chock it up to an ignorant loudmouth who just can’t seem to help himself. This week, though, he officially crossed over into new territory, and not only profoundly messed up, but blundered every opportunity to fix it.

In a press conference earlier in the week, Spicer was discussing America’s use of force against Syria. He was talking about the atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad, and attempting to justify why America needed to get involved. To accomplish this, he made the statement that even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons on his people. To which, of course, all American Jews said “of course he did, you epic moron.”

Now, it would have been one thing if he said that while he was swept up in the moment. But, one journalist gave him a chance to redeem himself, asking him to clarify what he meant. Spicer, realizing he had gotten himself into hot water, attempted to walk back his statements. In a later press release, he made the comment that Hitler had never used chemical weapons on HIS OWN people, but the atrocities of Hitler shouldn’t be undervalued, and it wasn’t what he meant. To make matters worse, he referred to concentration camps as “Holocaust Centers,” which sounds more like guest services at a tourist attraction than death camps where millions of Jews and other marginalized people were murdered en mass.

At first, his blunder could have been swept away as having been caught up in the moment and saying something foolish. That could have been forgotten, if not forgiven. When he had plenty of time to craft a response, clarify his point, and do what he could to mitigate the problem, he instead decided to say that Hitler hadn’t ever attacked his own people, implying that German Jews weren’t really Germans, and dehumanizing them in much the same way that Hitler had. Not only was Spicer dumb enough to use Hitler as his example, but in some ways he literally bought into the deranged and horrifying thinking of the Nazis.

The defense of Spicer will be that of course that wasn’t what he meant, and that we are all just being too sensitive. But, the reality is, Spicer WAS trying to insinuate that Assad’s actions were worse than Hitler’s. He was attempting to say that America did the right thing, because if we didn’t, it would get to THAT level of bad. By saying this, Spicer so entirely undervalues and disrespects the experience of the Holocaust, and directly attacks the Jewish community (and others) across the world who know all-too-well what “worse” looks like.

American Judaism has been under attack for months. We have been threatened, defaced, belittled, and marginalized. To this point, the White House hasn’t done nearly enough to protect or defend the rights of the Jewish community, and has demonstrated zero interest in making sure that the kind of anti-semitism of the the first half of the 20th century.

Now, the man who speaks with the voice of the White House has the audacity to belittle the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. In February, Trump failed to mention the Jews at all in connection to the Holocaust. Now, Spicer states directly that the Jews weren’t real Germans, so Hitler wasn’t killing “his own people.” We have now crossed a line from the blunders and goofs that we have come to expect from the Trump White House, and crossed into the kind of underhanded attacks that should never be taken out against a group of Americans in this country.

Hitler treated us like we weren’t real Germans. But Jews damn well are real Americans, and it’s about time that the office of the president treated us as such. Sean Spicer’s comments were ignorant, were stupid, were insensitive, and were wrong. And he must be dealt with appropriately. If he is not, than that is a not-so-subtle reflection of agreement from the President, something that cannot be ignored or overlooked.

March 27th: Wearing Your Politics on Your Shirt

Last week, I was working out at the Jewish Community Center, as I do most nights. The JCC in Cincinnati, like many gyms, got really busy in January with resolution setters, but has been able to maintain the high attendance since. I’m used to getting to the gym and seeing people of all shapes, sizes, and demographics. While the JCC is clearly a Jewish space, it is filled with a great many people who aren’t Jewish, sharing the resources.

One individual jumped out at me this time. A white man, likely in his early to mid 40s, was lifting weights, wearing a shirt that caught my attention. The shirt was a white tank top, with an American flag at the top, and the words “No illegals” below.

I grew angry seeing that shirt, especially in a Jewish environment. I understand that people come to their political opinions for a multitude of reasons. But, to me, I felt like this shirt was an outward attack on a group of people, in an overly simple way that a t-shirt shouldn’t be.

“Illegals” are people, people who almost certainly came to this country for a reason. While I understand that we shouldn’t be encouraging people to break the law to enter this country, a line on a t-shirt undermines the humanity of those who are looking for a better life in America.

I also detest the use of the American flag as a sign of patriotism for those who want to shut the borders. The political right has commandeered the American flag, making it a symbol for selfish politics, for those who will defend “true Americans.” Can I not have pride in my flag and also want to help those fleeing oppression? Can I not love my country while also wanting to allow others the ability to love it as well?

The thing that made me most uncomfortable was the fact that this man was in a Jewish community wearing a shirt that seemingly undermined the humanity of others. We know that similar sentiments were used against the Jews in the 1930s and 40s. We know that the Jews have spent centuries fleeing from one place that didn’t want us to another. It is incredibly un-Jewish to see someone as “an illegal,” rather than as a human being. Jews have an obligation to do better for others than what was done for us, and to ensure that nobody has to experience what we experienced not so long ago.

We live in a society where anyone is allowed to wear a shirt stating their own political opinions. And I’m sure there are many in this country who would be made uncomfortable by t-shirts that I would see and not bat an eyelash. In many ways, I’m still grappling with why it bothered me so much to see a man wearing a shirt.

There is a time and place for policy discussions. There are appropriate avenues for discussing why someone believes what they believe. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that a slogan on a shirt at the gym isn’t the space and isn’t the way to have a meaningful conversation. And, in a Jewish space, this behavior so profoundly doesn’t match a community that must constantly remember that we are built on a foundation of values.

March 15th: Distrust of “the Media” Misguided Attempt to Find Truth

“The Media” is under attack, seemingly from all angles. The one thing most Americans can generally agree on is a distrust of the media. But, are we even sure what we mean when we say media?

Media is a general term for the ways in which people communicate to a wide range of audience. What most people mean, though, when they say they distrust the media is the news media, primarily print and TV news, although the internet has certainly complicated things in the past decade and a half.

Texting, when done between two people, is not generally considered media. That is two-way communication. But, as soon as it becomes sent to a wider spectrum of audience, the lines between communication and media becomes far more blurred.

Now, most people can identify the difference between the New York Times and a mass text. Things get more complicated when we enter the world of the internet.

During the most recent election cycle, we saw the rise of “fake news,” which is at the heart of much of the newest wave of distrust for all media producers. While President Trump often accuses CNN or NBC of being fake news, that isn’t generally the origins of the term. A fake news site was meant to indicate a piece of text on the internet that was done in the style of news, meant to “dress up” as a real piece of news, and yet was based in no element of truth. A story with the headline “Donald Trump wears a toupee made from tiger fur” is an example of fake news, in that there is no basis in fact, no screening process, nor an editorial board putting it together. I can’t prove it, but the beauty (and danger) of the internet is that there is nothing to prevent me from saying it anyway.

Yesterday, as his tax returns were revealed on NBC News, Trump tweeted “Does anyone really believe that a reporter, who nobody ever heard of,’went to his mailbox’ and found my tax returns? @NBCNews FAKE NEWS!” This isn’t an example of fake news, though. There is a reporter, who we can verify, who says he received the tax returns in his mailbox. The fact that it is being said IS a fact, and it isn’t wrong for NBC to report on it, as a form of sharing the sources they used to produce their content. Whether or not the information is NEWSWORTHY is a totally other issue. Whether or not it is profound journalism isn’t even the point, either. A better example of political fake news may be the wire tap on Trump Tower. This is an unverifiable claim, with no evidence to back it up, put forward in a way that was meant to be news. 

But the real question at hand in this conversation is the media, and where the boundaries lie in determining where we take out our frustration. Buzzfeed is a perfect example of the kind of website that obscures whether or not it belongs to the amorphous fraternity of “the media”, or whether or not it is a medium of a different kind.

On the whole, Buzzfeed content is a combination of humor, personal interest, and click-bait. Entertaining? Yes. A member of “the media?” Probably not. Sure, there are some articles that attempt to share some version of the truth, but if Buzzfeed is your primary source for deciding how to vote or determining your stance on major policy decisions, you are profoundly misguided. The same issues could be levied against Facebook, where much of the content comes from such a wide spectrum of sources, that it is nearly impossible to determine the credibility or journalistic integrity of the source.

In attempting to keep up with the places where viewers “hang out” virtually, news media have tried to find a home on social media feeds. In so doing, they have put themselves into position to be judged just like anything else you can find on the internet, which has compromised their credibility and our ability to decide what is legitimate news and information, and what is opinion, what is conflated, and what is just downright fake. Not all URLs are created equal, but when we judge them all as having the same validity, it doesn’t come out well for the journalistic community.

It is fair to be very critical of the information we find online, and the way we consume news and data. But, when we are willing to throw away the credibility of anything we consider to be “the media,” we run the risk of destabilizing the world of journalism, a central component of the rights of a free society, and the destabilizing of truth as a whole.