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.

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January 19th: An Uneducated Educator

In recent months, Americans have been obsessed with identifying the problems of our country. Financial challenges, social conflicts, and political clashes clamor for attention, replaced immediately by another problem, one after another.Solutions, on the other hand, are fewer and farther between. It often feels that the challenges are so complicated and interwoven that it will take decades to fully revitalize. How are we ever going to figure out the fine balance of cuts and stimulus to various projects and programs in order to help most or all Americans?

I have always believed that education is the best place to start. We may not be able to fix all of the world’s problems quickly, which means it is up to the future generations to be prepared to learn and, then, work for the betterment of society. Thus, if we want a strong future for all Americans, we need to invest in the future through ensuring all Americans get the chance to learn in schools that will educate and train them for their place in American society.

That all being said, you would think the Secretary of Education would be a highly educated, highly qualified individual. You would be wrong. Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Political Science. She had precious little experience in the administration of school systems or loan structures.

What DeVos does have are strong beliefs regarding the opening of the education system to a free market, essentially creating an educational industry, which would hope that competition and choice would force all schools to remain “competitive” in a market of options. This makes sound business sense for many in certain class brackets, but leaves huge swaths of the population in low-income and impoverished areas susceptible to being forgotten by the system.

During DeVos’ Senate hearing, a few issues came to light. First, DeVos indicated she was unaware of the distinction between growth and proficiency. The average American may not either, but THEY aren’t trying to take control of national education regulation. Growth evaluates a single student’s ability to advance personally, to have learned more over a period of time. Proficiency, meanwhile, evaluates all students by their ability to clear common hurdles. The distinction is essentially for those with more nuanced educational circumstances, whether it be learning disabilities or those coming into the school system with varying educational foundations.

DeVos also hedged on a question regarding guns in schools. She said that she was unwilling to say that guns have no place in a school, using fending of a grizzly bear as her primary example of a helpful time to have a weapon in the classroom. This is, fundamentally, a cop out. If she had a strong belief in the need for guns in schools, the American public needs to hear why. A half-baked excuse only works to make her look thoughtless and ignorant of the situation.

Education is the foundation of the future of our country. If we want to establish a strong future, we have to ensure that the person leading the system is not only aware of where we hope to go, but also has some knowledge of the system that is currently in place. Betsy DeVos has a singular focus on installing choice and competition into the world of education, and has neither the ability nor the interest to fix the other elements of the institution that are so desperately in need of repair. How ironic it is that the one who hopes to be responsible for education is so ignorant about its administration. 

We, as a country, can’t afford to place all of our eggs in that one questionable basket. And Betsy DeVos certainly hasn’t proven she has the knowledge nor the willingness to shepherd the educational system into a brighter future.

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.