Tag Archives: CNN

Bury Your Head or Go Insane? Dealing with the Flood of News & Social Media

“I wonder if being sane means disregarding the chaos that is life, pretending only an infinitesimal segment of it is reality.” –Rabih Alameddine, Koolaids: The Art of War 

Hello friend,

I lost my temper on social media this week. I feel ashamed of it now as I think of the moment. Not ashamed of what I said—in fact, I wish I had said more to make my point more clear—but rather, ashamed that I let what is happening on the news and in social media cause me to boil over in rage.

I am a mellow, happy guy and have a habit of very deliberate processing with my journal that allows me to deliver measured, thoughtful responses to most issues that arise in my day. I don’t fly off the handle. My opinions may ruffle feathers, but not usually my delivery. Because I don’t lose my temper. I don’t write angry. Until Tuesday….

Probably like you, I followed the big story of last weekend—the ban on refugees and travel restrictions from certain Muslim-majority countries and its subsequent protests—on the news and through social media. The nature of the ban, as well as the criteria for selection of the nations involved in it, was deeply disturbing to me and only the latest in a long line of red flags being raised in my conscience regarding the new administration. I admit to being highly sensitive to the reputation of America internationally being dragged into the mud, and also when I feel the government does things that increase the gap between the ideals that America supposedly represents and the reality we are representing in practice. So, I was already edgy going into the new week.

After the election, I had mostly removed myself from social media until around Christmas. And though I kept tabs on the news, it was a much-needed break from the idea circus that is Facebook and the like. After the holidays, I slowly inched back onto my apps and, not surprisingly, became progressively re-addicted. I use social media as much for news as to see what my people are thinking about and doing. If I watch CNN on television or listen to NPR on the radio, then I subscribe to them on social media. So, I get a mix of real news and then my friends’ interpretation and reaction to the news (mixed in with some fun photos of their kids and their food, and an occasional cat video).

If you have been alive with your head above ground these last couple of weeks, you probably know that all is not running so smoothly in America. If you only watched reputable news channels and didn’t even know what “social media” meant, you would know that. Likewise, if you were a social media nut but didn’t care a thing about “serious” news outlets, you would also be aware of the tension that currently defines us at this point. And if, like me, you have both regular news and social media, well, you are swimming in it!

By Tuesday night, I definitely needed some goggles and a snorkel.

I had watched in horror as the Executive Orders came down. I heard the stories of people unable to return to their jobs and families here in America after visiting relatives in banned countries. I thought of the many Somali families in my own community—classmates of my children—and how they would be affected. I thought of the refugee family that my church is sponsoring—we had their apartment all set up with furniture and supplies—who was supposed to arrive this week from Somalia that is now stuck in Kenya (the mother has been in the refugee camp there for twenty years, her children never knowing any other place). That part was particularly heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, of course, I wondered about the fate of our schools as the Senate seemed about to confirm someone who seemed wholly incompetent to be in charge of them; and about the future of free speech in America as even the most neutral, even-handed news outlets are being warned and belittled by the administration; and about the environment and climate change scientists as they come under attack; and about whether our next Attorney General would actually stand on the side of the law and the Constitution; and on and on and on. There was no shortage of stories, no shortage of crises.

In the midst of all of the news and reactions Tuesday evening, as my blood pressure seemed to rise with every post, I read one from a childhood acquaintance, a long rant (her word) about how President Obama had just done this same ban on Cubans two weeks ago, and where was the liberal media then, and angrily on and on. This is when I should have checked myself, turned off all electronics for the day, and taken some deep breaths. But no. I let it make my blood boil, the effects of too much time in front of the screen taking hold. Even though her whole premise was based on a falsehood, making the argument completely unsound, I couldn’t just laugh it off. I was on the very edge of writing a reply to her and setting her straight, but I gathered my wits just enough to recognize that with some people, there is just no talking sense into them (another lesson from my short time on Facebook).

And just as I began to think I had done well in resisting a fight, I scrolled down and hit the one that sent me over the edge. It was from someone I wasn’t even sure I knew, but I think she was in my brother’s class in school. Anyway, it was a meme—of course it was a meme, it is always a meme—with a picture of the plane hitting the World Trade Center on September 11, saying something like “For all of you whining about the ban on Muslims, a little reminder for you.” I almost screamed. I was absolutely livid! I could not let it go. So, against the better judgment I had just applauded myself for a moment earlier, I clicked on the “Write a comment…” space. I typed the first thing that came out of my head (after the swearing, I mean): “Are you serious, Sheila? Perhaps we should post a picture of the KKK performing a lynching and call for a ban of all Christians.” Return. That was it.

As I sat there fuming, I thought of other things I wanted to say to her, such as “Interestingly, none of the nineteen hijackers on September 11 were from the seven countries banned by the President. They were from four other countries, all of which the President has business ties to.” And I almost hit the Comment box again, but thankfully, I found my senses again. But I didn’t let go of my outrage. I was still stewing about it late that night, tossing in my bed as I tried to sleep.

I knew it wasn’t just this one stupid meme that was tormenting me. It was all of it: the Executive Orders, the incompetence, the acrimony on both sides of the political aisle, the nonsensical responses on Facebook and Twitter, the fear that my friends feel and that I feel for them, the embarrassment on behalf of my country, the shame that I am not doing more to speak up and resist, and so much more.

I confessed my anger and my torment to my wife the next morning. I told her I was torn. On the one hand, I liked my several weeks away from social media and just a small but sufficient amount of regular news on a neutral news app. I was less stressed, riding the “Ignorance is bliss” theory. It made me think of a conservative friend of mine, whom I had spoken to just after the election and who knew I was bummed about it. She said, “I don’t even watch the news about this stuff. But at least I’m happy!”

It is hard to argue with happy. On the other hand, I don’t just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening around me. As uncomfortable as it is, I think it is necessary to wrestle with that discomfort and figure out my place in its midst.

I feel like the biggest danger to us is indifference. Not caring. Not speaking up to support what our cause or idea is (or worse, not caring enough to even have an opinion). Just quietly letting it happen to us. I think of my hero Martin Luther King as he was considering his greatest obstacles to progress, well aware that it was not the Ku Klux Klan or other extremists but rather the masses of polite but silent white people allowing the violence and oppression to continue. “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

I think that appalling silence comes more frequently when we bury our heads in the sand, allowing denial to rule. It is a pleasant denial, but I am seeing now that in our most divisive moments, that pleasant denial is mostly cowardice. That conclusion doesn’t sit well with me. I think again of Dr. King, who reminded us, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of controversy and challenge.” There is a slippery kind of comfort and convenience to tuning out the world in times like now. Just turning off the news and social media. It is so, so alluring. Tragically so.

But how much is enough? That is the question that is torturing me now. I am determined to maintain my composure, to not let myself get as livid as I was on Tuesday night after too many hours of accumulating news stories and social media opinions. But I want to know the truth about the world, too. I want all the facts. I know I will be outraged by some, and I think it is probably time that more of us were outraged and moved to action by events in our world. But under control! I am not going to lose my temper. I am going to channel it the right way. But not in denial!

ARGH!!! This is hard! What is the right balance of intake versus processing, of reality versus sanity? That was my question to my wife.

Her suggestion: “Just pick one time per day—I think morning is best—to do a quick look at social media. Then, if you still want a regular news show, listen to something neutral, like NPR. But nothing more. Quick and done! Otherwise, you are sucked in!” That seems wise.

I have been attempting to follow her advice the last few days, mostly successfully. I sometimes, out of sheer habit, unconsciously turn on my phone, open Facebook, and start thumbing through. But then I catch myself and turn it off. I am just trying to be more conscious about it, to give myself permission to look only at a certain time of day for only a certain number of minutes. It is hard to resist, but I can tell my spirit is getting stronger for it. Not in denial, either. Facing reality, but not swimming in the rot. It is a delicate balance that I will no doubt be wrestling with for all of my days to come.

How about you? How do you balance denial with peace and sanity in these tumultuous times? Open up your journal and examine your level of engagement. This goes for everyone on every side of the political spectrum, and even those completely off the political spectrum who are simply trying to decide how much news of any sort they want to take in. Let’s start with your current habits. What are your news sources? Do you watch your local news? Cable news? Do you use news apps or subscribe to news pages on social media? If so, do you tend to choose more neutral sources or ones that skew toward your particular side of the spectrum? Do you read a lot of the “news” things that your friends on social media share? How about the radio, like NPR? How much time do you spend with each on a daily basis? How much time do you spend on social media in general? For both news and social media stuff, do you try to regulate the amount of time you spend per day? Are you addicted? How healthy is your relationship with all of this stuff? Does it ever feel like it is going to drive you crazy? Do you get angry? Is your anger and frustration more from the news in general, like the political strife or violence that always seem to lead the headlines, or from particular things that your friends share, like memes or rants? Do you comment and engage people you disagree with, even if you know it won’t change their mind? Does that make you feel better or worse? Have you found the right balance for yourself with the amount of time and energy you can devote to this stuff and still feel authentic and at peace? Are you more on the “Burying My Head & Smiling” side or the “I’m So Engaged I’m Going Crazy” side? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the right balance of news and sanity for you?

May Peace be always with you,

William

P.S. If today’s letter helped you take a fresh look at this and find some clarity, please share. Perhaps together we can find a way to be both sane and engaged. Cheers!

A Whole New Politics: What Better Time To Blow It Up & Start Fresh?

DSC_0406“Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” –Mark Twain

Hello friend,

On Monday night, I turned on the television to take my little peek at CNN. I wanted to see what the hot election topic of the day was. Of course, it was another Donald Trump night, this time centered on his refusal to disavow the Ku Klux Klan in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper the previous day. It created an absolute firestorm in the political world, most interestingly in the Republican party, which Trump is leading for the nomination to be our next President. With everyone intensely aware of the sensitivity around race relations in this country and not wanting to be dubbed a racist, it seemed that every politician in the party was—if they had not already, that is—blasting Trump and distancing themselves from him as much as possible. The chorus of Republican leaders chanted, “He is not one of us! We don’t support him!”

Watching that night, I had a glimmer of an idea.

The next night was Super Tuesday, when so many Presidential delegates get divvied up by the multiple primaries across our great land. When I returned from voting, I popped on CNN to see how it was all going, with one big question on my mind: Would any of Trump’s comments and the passionate condemnation of him by his Republican leaders have any effect on the actual voting? After all, so far in this campaign, the voters have shown a remarkable unwillingness to listen to the party leaders and pundits. If all had gone according to plan, it would be decided by now that Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were the nominees for our two parties. Obviously, reality lies elsewhere.

The fact that the voters supported Trump by a wide margin on Tuesday only seemed to infuriate the Republican leaders more, forcing them to face the reality of their Doomsday Scenario. I pictured them wringing their hands and wondering: What are our options if HE is now the face of our beloved party? He’s not even a real Republican! And even though Clinton won a majority of states on Tuesday and is holding the lead for the Democrats, I have no doubt that their party brass has, along the way, had a few tense (though certainly not as horrified) moments of wondering: Is Bernie Sanders really the face of our beloved party? He’s not even a real Democrat! 

The manic few days since Tuesday in the Republican party have reinforced what has become clear over the entire course of this campaign cycle: We have two very fractured political parties on our hands. And here is where my glimmer of an idea turned into a most amusing thought experiment!

Imagine, if you will, five politicians who, deep down inside, hold these views:

  • Politician A: Stereotypical ultra-conservative on all fronts. Think Tea Party.
  • Politician B: Stereotypical ultra-liberal on all fronts. Socialism plus.
  • Politician C: Sees herself as literally “pro-Life” in broad terms. Against legalized abortion. Against capital punishment. Favors strong gun control measures. Favors publicly-funded, universal health care. Strong on environmental protection. Against massive military spending. Against major Wall Street reform. Against same-sex marriage. Against campaign finance reform. Tough on immigration/does not favor a path to citizenship for people already here illegally.
  • Politician D: Against strong gun control laws. In favor of legal abortion. In favor or capital punishment. No strong feelings on the environment. Against publicly-funded, universal health care. In favor of massive military spending. Against (or indifferent to) major Wall Street reform. In favor of same-sex marriage. In favor of campaign finance reform. Moderate on immigration and open to the possibility of a path to citizenship.
  • Politician E: Favors strong gun control measures. Against legalized abortion. In favor of capital punishment. In favor of strong environmental measures. In favor of publicly-funded, universal health care. In favor of massive military spending. In favor of major Wall Street reform. In favor of same-sex marriage. In favor of campaign finance reform. Tough on immigration/does not favor a path to citizenship for people here illegally.

In our current, two-party system, in order to rise to some level of real power, each of these five politicians has to choose to be either a Republican or a Democrat. Unfortunately, the way things are working—or, more accurately, not working—in Washington these days, whichever party the individuals go with, they would have to swallow the blue pill or the red pill and toe the party line. For Politician A and Politician B, choosing the appropriate party might be relatively easy, even if they didn’t believe the party was leaning far enough in their direction.

But what about the other three? Each holds some views that would plant them firmly on the Republican side and other views that are firmly on the Democrat side. In today’s political game, though—you know, the one we are all so disgusted by—these folks would have to choose one side and swallow all of their other beliefs that don’t go along with the party rule. If they don’t, they would be ostracized and told they weren’t a real Republican (or a real Conservative) or a real Democrat (or failed the “Progressive test”) by their party members and shut out of the system.

In our two-party system and with the current toxic climate in Washington–in which politicians are demonized by their own party if they make any sort of compromise with members of the other party—there is no room for a complex set of beliefs. To make it there, and especially to stay there (that is, to get re-elected), you have to act exactly like a Republican or exactly like a Democrat. You reject whatever the other party proposes on principle, whether it has value or not. You support whatever your party proposes on principle, whether it has value or not. The principle being: We are right; they are wrong. No exceptions.

But imagine again, if you will, that there was a separate party for each of the five politicians above, and a party for others with different combinations of positions on the important issues. In my thought experiment, I was picturing four to six parties (at least two that would form out of each of our current parties, and then another one or two with relevant distinctions from them) roughly equal in size. Aspiring politicians could be open and honest about where they stand on the various issues with no worries that they would not find a group of relatively like-minded folks to band together with.

In the ideal world of my mind, this new system would create and encourage a whole new attitude in Washington and thereby a whole new attitude of us citizens toward our leaders. You see, if our Congresspersons knew that the five parties were proportioned almost evenly, they could be certain that in order to get anything accomplished, they would have to work together with members of the other parties and compromise. There would be no more shame in that. No one group could stonewall the others with any effectiveness. And since there would be enough options so that everyone could be honest about their positions, and enough cooperative work to ensure exposure to multiple points-of-view, it wouldn’t be such a scandalous thing to change parties at some point in your lifetime. You could actually be authentic, because becoming a member of one party wouldn’t make you much more powerful than being a member of another party.

Imagine how much more you could trust the folks in Washington if you thought they were being completely honest, were genuinely trying to do what they pledged to you, and were voting on principles that you could support rather than strictly along party lines. With multiple parties, your representatives could actually be complex individuals and good public servants simultaneously. How cool would that be! And even better, it might make the idea of running for public office more appealing to more and better people, giving us a much more attractive pool of candidates than the rag-tag bunch we have up there right now.

Obviously, this is merely a thought experiment, and I understand that blowing up our entrenched, two-party system would be unfathomably difficult and messy. But what if we could? This moment, with both parties as splintered as they seem to be, seems like that one fateful moment in time when there is a window of opportunity for a revolution to occur. Do we dare blast that window open and start anew? I, for one, think it would be pretty cool if my kids grew up having reasons to trust our elected leaders, or, better yet, aspiring to become the leaders of their generation. I would blow it up for their sake.

How about you? What ideas do you have for improving our political system and restoring the public’s faith in Washington? Open up your journal and your imagination. Of course you know that your ideas are highly unlikely to be implemented in the near future, and hopefully that frees you up to consider your most idealistic fantasies. If you could give a letter grade to how you think the current system is working, what would it be? (I am waffling between a “D” and an “F”.) Does it seem like the animosity grows more and more every year and the parties cooperate less and less? What do you think it says about the public’s faith in our government and politicians that the “outsiders” Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have far surpassed everyone’s expectations in this Presidential campaign? What do you think their success says about the health of our two political parties? If we could put this situation in a vacuum and ask the members both parties simultaneously, “Would you agree to split your party in half if they agreed to split their party in half, creating four parties in similar size?” do you think they would go for it? Which party do you think would be more eager to start dividing? In your opinion, what effect would it have on our politicians if we had several different options for them, seemingly all with an equal chance of allowing them to reach their goals? Would they, as I suggested, become more honest with their positions and more willing to work with all of the others? What effect would it have on you as a voter and citizen? Would you have more faith in your elected officials? Finally, what effect would it have on the next generation who would grow up in the new political climate? Would it be worth the pains of transition? Could it be any worse than our current mess of mistrust and obstruction? Would you be open to trying? If you had to join a party with one of the five politicians mentioned above, which one would you choose? Write down where your heart stands on each of the issues I listed—free yourself and listen to your heart, not your current political party—and see if you are the leader of your own political party. What would you call it? Leave me a reply and let me know: Are you ready to hit “RESET” on the political system in America?

Value your voice and your choice,

William

P.S. If this thought experiment made you wonder, share it. We all need to re-imagine our world anew sometimes. Have a blessed week!

Mass Shootings in America: Prayers, Politics, & A Culture of Violence

DSC_0550“This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction.” –President Obama following October 1 shooting in Roseburg, Oregon that left nine dead

Hello friend,

The violence in America kept up at its usual, breakneck pace this week. With everyone in the major cities on guard for a repeat of Paris-style massacres, we showed that terrorism can be homegrown, too, with the Planned Parenthood shooter early in the week. By the time we were at midweek, his headlines were stolen by the San Bernardino couple whose assault rifles destroyed even more lives, leaving the rest of us shaking our heads in sadness and disbelief. Meanwhile, the politicians split their efforts between pointing fingers at one another and offering tweets of prayers to the families of the deceased. Just another week in America.

It is difficult to avoid becoming numb to this seemingly daily violence in our country. In other weeks, I have completely kept my eyes off the news and kept my head buried in the sand. The continuous stream of stories about violence and negativity are very difficult for me to watch. They seem to hit me like punches to my heart, and after a few minutes of watching, I cannot bear it anymore. I am forced to bury my head in the sand again just so I can keep getting out of bed in the morning. I don’t let it in very often, but when I do, it pains me deeply.

At the start of this week’s action, I mostly kept my eyes turned away. I almost gave in to being absorbed by the Planned Parenthood shooting because I wanted to see how many people were willing to call it what it was: terrorism. I didn’t, though; I just wasn’t up for it. When the California massacre happened, though, I couldn’t resist. I knew it would break my heart, but I turned on CNN anyway. It was unbelievably sad. These things are always so very sad.

Of course, there was action on Facebook, too. One of my friends posted a photo of the front page of the Daily News, which read “God Isn’t Fixing This” and showing tweets from Republican leaders saying that they are praying for the victims and families. My friend wrote a passionate plea to go along with it, essentially calling out the politicians for not enacting any significant gun control laws that might help prevent or limit these mass killings. He exhorted them to stand up to the NRA, ban some things, close some loopholes, and just generally DO SOMETHING instead of sending out thoughts and prayers to victims.

In his post and in a couple of other articles that I read, a fascinating stat was cited. It was this: there have been 355 mass shootings—four or more victims—in America in the 336 days so far this year. Now, I cannot verify these numbers—one of my friends said that the FBI’s number is 21 mass shootings this year—but whatever the count is, I think we can all agree that it is way, way too many.

The other interesting Facebook post I saw—to provide an immediate counterpoint to the gun control posts—was a big picture of the actor Samuel L. Jackson with his quote: “I don’t think it’s about more gun control. I grew up in the South with guns everywhere, and we never shot anyone. This [shooting] is about people who aren’t taught the value of life. I don’t think this was a quote from this week, but it applied just the same.

Although I am way, way over to the “control” side of the gun control debate, I must say that Mr. Jackson has a point. Somehow we have arrived at this point where the default reaction to being disgruntled or depressed is violence, usually of the gun variety. We have a problem in America that other countries don’t seem to share. Our level of peacetime violence relative to the rest of the world—even in our movies—is off the charts. We need a seismic shift culturally and psychologically to get out of this place. But in the meantime, we need to figure out what to do—an action—to minimize the frequency of these events. We need to stop the bleeding.

I admit that I am oversensitive when it comes to violence. I think boxing and MMA are barbaric and should not be sports, and I could just as well enjoy watching an NFL flag football game or an NHL hockey game with no fighting or checking allowed. So yes, I am heavily biased. But really, can’t most people see that we have gone off the deep end? I can’t imagine I am the only one wondering why ordinary Americans are able to buy assault rifles and why we use all guns with such regularity. Am I?

I want stricter gun laws. Correction: I would like guns to be virtually eliminated from our society. Of course I know that is not going to happen any time soon. I also know full well that I am not any sort of expert on each state’s current gun laws or the history of the issue. I am just telling you what I want and what feels right to me, a guy who is very disturbed by violence of all sorts.

It just strikes me as completely odd that we all have access to guns. I don’t get it. Well, I don’t get why so many people want guns, either, but that doesn’t disturb me as much as how many people are allowed to own guns, especially things like assault rifles. Does anyone outside of the police force or military really need an assault rifle? I don’t understand why they are available. I wish they weren’t. Heck, I wish guns of any sort were not available to anyone without very strict safety certification, background checks, and proof of insurance. Even then, I would only be in favor of the kind my Dad showed me how to use for hunting when I was a kid—you know, where you can’t take more than two shots in succession before you have to stop and reload. If I could figure out a way for folks to prove they were only going to hunt animals with the gun, I would be in favor of that, too (Hey, it’s my fantasy, so let me run with it!). Finally, to get my process started, I would like the government to confiscate all of the other millions of guns that are currently in people’s homes across the country that don’t meet my demands.

I know this is all a pipedream, of course, but why can’t we at least take some baby steps in my direction? I can hear the politicians now: “Ever heard of the 2nd Amendment? You can’t just change the Constitution! I hate that argument. I find it weak, because it is a convenient way to avoid the issue and doesn’t address history and precedent. If we stuck with the Constitution the way it was originally written, my Black wife would count as 60% of a person when it comes to representation, and of course she couldn’t vote. Neither Black people nor women of any race were allowed to vote.

Sadly, the framers of that great document were neither all all-wise nor all-knowing. They lived in a different time with different realities. (They resented the British for trying to take their guns away at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War and wanted it in writing that this wouldn’t happen again.) If they got slavery wrong and got women wrong, what makes us so sure they got guns right? Future generations wised up and amended those other failings, so what makes this one above question? I don’t get it.

I know we can’t fix the cultural norm of violence overnight. I know that there are going to be people who are depressed, disgruntled, or otherwise disturbed who will have violent urges. But I feel like the least we can do is to make it difficult for those people to act out those urges on other people, especially large groups of them. In the long run, sure, I hope we will make my fantasy laws into a reality. But for today, I just want us—the citizens and the politicians who represent us—to do something. I want baby steps rather than no steps at all. If we don’t, for each one of the mass killings that takes place on our watch, there is blood on all of our hands. I can’t take much more. I’ve grown weary from the washing.

How about you?   Where do you fit into the culture of violence in America? Open up your journal and explore the way it affects you and what you think we ought to do about it. Do you follow the news closely? What effect do the seemingly endless stories of violence have on you? Do you watch more news or less when one of these mass shootings occurs? Do they sadden or anger you, or are you numbed by the regularity of them? How violent are you personally? Do you get into fights? Are you in favor of spanking kids? What do you think spanking teaches? Do you own a gun? If so, what do you use it for? Have you ever been in a situation—not in war or police action—where a gun has protected you? Should our gun laws be more strict? What kinds of weapons should normal citizens have access to? Are you in favor of government confiscation of guns if new laws are enacted limiting access? What does your fantasy look like on this issue? Do you agree with me that we are all guilty of these mass shootings if we don’t begin to make changes to reduce them? Are tighter gun laws just a Band-Aid solution to the bigger problem of apathy toward human life? If so, is there still some value in enacting stronger legislation around gun control? Why have we done so little on this issue despite the obscene number of gun deaths in our country? Do we just not care? Leave me a reply and let me know: What part do you play in this violent movie? 

I wish you Peace,

William

P.S. If this letter helped you to think about this difficult issue more clearly, please share it with others who may need clarity as well. Thank you.

Open Season on the Voiceless: In Search of Compassion in the Age of Disrespect

DSC_0645“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” –Mohandas Gandhi

Hello friend,

My feathers are ruffled this week. I am stirred up. Anger, shame, envy, and simple hurt feelings are forming a combustible mix in my heart. They have been building up lately as I watch more and more of the political coverage on CNN, but what really tripped my storm this week was a simple Facebook post by a friend. It began with the type of snarky meme that I am becoming so accustomed to seeing—this time it was a baby shooting us the skunk-eye with the saying, “Why the heck do I have to press 1 for English? Did America Move?But instead of being accompanied by her commenting something like “Truthor “So sick of this! or some other diatribe against immigrants, my friend went the exact opposite direction. She blasted the people who post this type of meme for their perpetuation of hate and negativity, and implored us to move beyond the hate with some tolerance. She made great points, challenged the readers, and was super-passionate (her flair for the F-bomb is something I can only aspire to!).

“Yes!!!was all I could think to write in the Comments section, because it was exactly what came out of my mouth as I was reading it. Yes Yes YES!!! I was charged up. So many different emotions were swirling. For one, I was really proud of her, specifically for standing up to the ignorance and negativity that is so especially prevalent on the web and Facebook. I was also simply excited that someone was saying something, especially something with so much spirit and intelligence behind it. That also made be extremely envious of her for having the guts to do it. She said something I should have said any number of times when I read mean-spirited and ignorant posts, and I wished it was me with the guts. That made me ashamed of myself, especially as I am keenly aware of my privileged position as a White, heterosexual, middle-class male in America. I have a voice in this society that I didn’t do anything to earn. Nobody stood in the way of me putting my voice out there, and all of the characteristics I just mentioned automatically lend some credence to my opinions that people without those characteristics are denied. They are the voiceless.

I see all of these memes on Facebook—about welfare recipients, Muslims, immigrants and others whose first language is not English, and on and on—that are extremely mean-spirited and narrow-minded. And I understand that some people who create or share these things are trying to be funny—hey, my own humor is also quite sarcastic—but the clever factor in these pieces is far outweighed by the disrespect and complete absence of compassion. They perpetuate so many hateful and factually incorrect stereotypes. And they are EVERYWHERE!

There is a wave of insensitivity sweeping over us. It has become perfectly acceptable to bash anyone and everyone at any time. Perhaps it is the Internet age, where any nutjob—perhaps I am one of them—can get their opinion out to the world, and negativity draws more attention than positivity. But it is not just in crazy, underground blogs. It is in the mainstream media, and no one is safe from it. The Pope is sweeping America this week, mostly drawing positive reviews for the way he seems to galvanize support even while challenging people on both sides of the political spectrum. And yet, there I was watching CNN a few nights ago after stirring speeches to Congress and at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the woman representing the Tea Party was completely slamming him in the most petty and mean-spirited tone. Look at the level of disrespect shown to President Obama that goes way beyond simply disagreeing with him; it is off the charts! It is as though we have lost control of our manners. The old, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all,has been replaced by, “If all you have are nice things to say, save your breath! Negativity leads. If you can make your negativity “funny” and add a photo to it, your ideas can reach a lot of people in a short time. Even the Pope and the President aren’t immune to the onslaught of disrespect and disdain. Nothing is sacred.

But the Pope and the President are big boys. They both have lots of privilege and lots of protection. They can handle a skewering on social media, no matter how classless the attacks. They have a loud, public voice to respond. On the contrary, the other groups I mentioned—Muslims, immigrants, welfare recipients—have no accepted voice in this country, no way to inform the conversation. So, they are easy targets for disrespect and inhumane treatment. Bullies pick on the kids who can’t fight back. Unfortunately, it seems we are becoming a society of bullies.

I look at the astounding level of animosity toward Muslims as an example of this bullying. Even though there are millions of Muslims in America—almost all of them peace-loving, hard-working, and tolerant, by the way—they are a voiceless group right now. And because of that lack of a voice, they are being demonized and disrespected at an alarming level. Yesterday I saw a couple of my Facebook “friends” share an anti-Muslim meme, and all of them, I am quite sure, neither know any Muslims nor know anything about the central tenets of mainstream Islam.

I said to my wife the other day, “Muslim is the new Black. I was serious. There was a time not long ago—and stretching back to this country’s beginnings—when you could write or say anything you wanted to say about Black people without fear of backlash. Public figures could call them names and tell racist jokes and chastise them, and nothing would come of it. Black people had no voice. They do now. Sure, all sorts of awful things still happen to them on a daily basis in more covert ways, but a shift has been made in our society. What was once socially acceptable when it comes to Black people in America is no longer. But Muslims? Not at all. You can still say whatever you want without fear of reproach. The meme I mentioned above joked that we have been at peace with Japan since we dropped atomic bombs on them, concluding with, “IT’S TIME WE MADE PEACE WITH ISLAM (you can tell the high intellect of the creator of this one, as it makes perfect sense that we can bomb a religion).

This kind of bigotry and absence of compassion is on display on my nightly peek at the Presidential candidates on CNN. Ben Carson tells us boldly that a Muslim should not be President. Donald Trump fails to correct a man at Trump’s own rally who says that the problem with America is Muslims. These are the two leaders in the race for the Republican nomination right now. Leaders.

Trump says he doesn’t have time to be politically correct. The poll numbers show that a lot of people love that philosophy. Unfortunately, too many are taking that as a license to act like bigots. They are checking their compassion and decency at the door and attacking every voiceless group that comes into their ever-narrowing minds. It is open season. It really saddens me. It frightens me, too.

With all that we know and all that we, as Americans, have been privileged to claim as our own as part of our residence in this great land, how dare we betray our gifts and turn our backs on our responsibility to be a positive example to the rest of the world? We have an amazing amount of privilege. If any of these characteristics describe you—White, American, Christian, male, middle or upper class, employed, English-speaking, heterosexual, healthy—then you have power in this society and a great advantage over many others. It is an advantage that you probably did little or nothing to earn. When we don’t acknowledge our privilege–and especially when we don’t see it as something we didn’t earn—we tend to lack empathy and compassion. Instead of seeing ourselves in the eyes of others, we see our differences. We build walls instead of bridges between us. It becomes easier to dehumanize “them” because they are not “us”. They are different, and as long as we have the power to define the terms, they get defined as less than us. Not as good. Not as human. Not as deserving of respect and compassion. There are very few things in the world as damaging as the absence of empathy and compassion. It saddens me to think we are living in that absence.

When I saw my friend’s post on Facebook with the offensive meme, it triggered that sadness in me. Her passionate response, on the other hand, triggered my belief that we can do better. That excited me. As the guy who is always striving to live his best life and help the world do the same, it made me envious of her for putting herself out there, knowing that she has a powerful voice and could use it for good. It also made me ashamed of myself for not squashing so many other negative and pitiless messages that I have seen and heard. After all, I have a voice. It is to be used. It is to be heard. I must take responsibility for my privilege and use it to not only share my own message of gratitude, positivity, and self-knowledge, but also to give a voice to the voiceless. To make sure they are represented, not misrepresented; that they are respected; and that they are seen as part of the universal “us”, not “them”. I can do that.

How about you? What kinds of messages are you sending with your voice? Open up your journal and think about what role you play in this drama. I mentioned Muslims, immigrants, and welfare recipients; what other groups are out there that catch a lot of negativity and seem to have very little voice to defend themselves with? Go through my list and yours, and with each group, ask yourself what your impression of them is and how that dictates your interactions and your judgments. Are you being fair? Why not? What is it about certain groups that make you separate them into “them” versus “us”? Is it appearance? Religion? Economic class? Who comes to mind when you think about public figures—whether politicians or talk show hosts or religious leaders or celebrities—who deliver a message that really speaks to your heart and mind? What is it about that person’s message that appeals to you? Is it more inclusive or divisive? More positive or negative? How often do you see Facebook posts or shares that run counter to everything you stand for? Do you just fail to “like” it, or do you comment on it or unfriend that person? How do you feel about your track record for standing up for what you believe in, even in the face of hostility? Do you engage in political or social justice issues when you are online? If I were to look at your posts, shares, comments, and likes, how compassionate and positive would I find your message to be? Are you doing enough to fill the world—even just the Internet world—with examples of empathy and inclusion? Do you protect the voiceless, or do you tend to do the bullying? Are you proud of your message? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is your voice calling for?  

Be the change,

William

My Next President

DSC_0181“In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” –Napoléon Bonaparte

Hello friend,

“IS THIS THE BEST WE CAN DO???” That is what I keep asking myself as I watch the 2016 Presidential candidates begin to emerge and strut their stuff for the voters. One day it is Donald Trump spouting racist comments that cause the PGA tour to cut ties with him. The next day I see Hillary Clinton’s extremely low poll numbers when it comes to honesty and trustworthiness. Then there is the prospect of Scott Walker, and I think of how many people from Wisconsin I have met who are totally mortified that he is their governor. And, oh my goodness, might Joe Biden, the butt of so many jokes, really run for President? Who will the Republicans and Democrats trot out next: Jeffrey Dahmer or your crazy Aunt Cleo? I am again left scratching my head and wondering, “Is this the best that we can do?”

I know, I know, we are not supposed to talk about religion and politics in polite company, and I am certainly going to offend most people with this post today. But we aren’t talking here. We are just here to get you to think about what makes you tick. When you write about this in your journal, you are writing to yourself, for yourself. Of course you can talk about it with others, but you do that at your own risk. When you journal, you risk nothing. You only gain. You gain clarity and perspective, and you get to hash out potentially unpopular ideas without the prospect of losing friends as a result. It is your Truth, not someone else’s. So yes, go ahead and talk politics. I dare you! But first, hear me out. Maybe I can ruffle your feathers enough to stir up a passionate journal entry or two.

These candidates are killing me! They really are. As a guy who almost never follows current events but has an odd fascination with Presidential politics, I have found myself wondering if I could be more unimpressed by this group. But, you know, it is not really the fault of the candidates themselves. After all, they are just folks who are ambitious enough to want to be President of the United States. That is pretty darn admirable of them, actually. I guess it is the political parties and us—yes, you and I—who are to blame. How did we allow it to get to this point where it is so extremely difficult to uncover a couple of wonderful candidates for the highest office in the land? We should have made it clear to most of these folks long ago that they just weren’t what we are looking for when it comes to our global ambassador. We failed, and now here they are, lined up at our door (or at least our TV sets).

I guess there are some basic things I am looking for out of my next President—some minimum qualifications—regardless of political affiliation. These are the things I want the candidates of the major parties to have so that we can have a fair fight. Let’s start with charisma. We are talking about the leader of the free world here, so this person needs to have that certain something that draws people in. Captivate me! I also want to think my President is both intelligent and wise. I want the person to be able to not only understand the daily security briefing but also be able to make good decisions based on it. I want my President to be likable. Easily likable, so I don’t have to scour through the crabby surface or used-car-salesman surface or arrogant surface or patronizing surface to find some semblance of likable. I also want the main candidates to be on the younger end, frankly. Preferably 40s or 50s, not so much 70s. I know that sounds horribly ageist—and it is—but I am actually not saying it for me. I am really talking about what I think the two big parties would ideally put out there to appeal to the greatest number of voters. Personally, I don’t mind if the President is 65, but I think the candidates have more mass appeal when they enter around the age of the most recent Presidents (Clinton, W Bush, and Obama) rather than the Reagan/HW Bush ages. In this age of celebrity and social media, I really believe that we will see more candidacies that emerge as a wildfire-style movement—I think Obama’s first election will, in the long run, be seen as the first version of this—which is why youth, charisma, and even celebrity may play an increasingly large role in Presidential politics going forward (you think George Clooney couldn’t win an election right now?).   I also think you cannot be seen as an extremist (though both sides like to paint each other as extremist, hopefully you and I can see the truth).

These basic standards of appeal seem so simple, obvious, and easy-to-meet, but look at the candidates emerging. Who meets them? You can answer for yourself. Does Hillary Clinton have likability or age on her side? Does Donald Trump have anything but celebrity—and perhaps charisma—on his? Vice President Biden is in his 70s, which is tough. Bernie Sanders seems too extreme to the left to attract enough people, and I think anyone Tea Party-related has the same problem but from the right. Who remains? The Democrats seem to be out of appealing options, unless Elizabeth Warren could be convinced to join the race. As for the Republicans, maybe the likes of Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush fit the basic standards. I suppose even that answer somewhat depends upon your political leanings.

I definitely have my biases, too. I have told you in previous letters that I am very liberal. I have zero inclination to attach myself to any party, but I admit that the Republican candidates—especially the Tea Party folks—frighten me more than the Democratic candidates. I actually think that Clinton would do a fine job as President, but I also think that the likability factor doesn’t make her a good candidate when we go back to our basic list.

Maybe it is just not possible in this age to find a person that seems at least generally appealing to most people (political views aside). After all, I tend to think President Obama is charismatic, likable, and young enough to appeal to a broad audience. If you look at the levels of hate and vitriol sent in his direction, though, he is clearly not a universal favorite. Maybe W Bush was that way, too. By his second term, the very sound of his voice made my skin crawl—I was very against the wars—but maybe even his most level-headed supporters wondered by everyone didn’t think he was the coolest guy ever. It is quite possible that the low level of respect that we grant even our highest officers today—maybe I was shielded from it growing up in a Republican household in the Reagan/Bush years, but it felt like no one dared to disrespect the President in those days—makes it impossible for us to find some consensus on who would be a generally good leader (political views aside). Nothing is sacred in 2015, and no one is safe from the haters.

Still, I hold out hope that the 2016 election will offer us some candidates from both parties who meet the basic standards. I would love to arrive at Election Day and be excited about the final contenders. I have lived through the elections where neither player excited me—see Bush vs. Gore—or when I was petrified at what might happen if the President died while in office (“Hello, President Palin!”). I think I want what each party wants: to deliver a candidate and running mate who are charismatic, likable, smart, wise, and appealing to a wide range of people. And I really want to spend the months leading up to the election without shouting at CNN, “Is this the best we can do???”

How about you? What is your take on the possibilities for your next President? Open up your journal—the only safe place to talk politics—and make a Wish List. What are the minimum standards on your list? Are they similar to mine, or quite different? How well has your preferred party done at producing candidates that meet those minimum standards? How well do you think the other party has done? Are you ever embarrassed for either party? Do you like it when the other party nominates an obvious dud? Given that no matter who each party nominates, the election is bound to be a close one and could go either way: even though I feel like my side gains a slight edge if the other side’s candidate seems awful, it still always freaks me out that the awful candidate might very well win and I will be stuck with this person as my leader (a recurrence of my Sarah Palin nightmares). Do you think that is the case in this election, with Hillary Clinton as the presumptive nominee for the Democrats despite having some serious popularity and trust issues? Should the average Republican voter be loving this or terrified that, despite these issues, she might be the next President? How open-minded are you about which candidate you will ultimately vote for? Have you picked a favorite yet? Are you open to the idea of a female or Latino or Indian-American President? How much does gender, race, or religion play into your candidate preferences? How much difference do you think is really made by choosing a Republican rather than a Democrat for President, or vice versa? Do you always vote by party, or can a personal quality or an issue sway you? Do you know someone personally—maybe even you—who you think would be a good President? What is it about that person that makes you feel this way? Would you want the job? Why or why not? If you answered “NO” to the job, do you think this is why we have such a shortage of good candidates on both sides? What can we do about that? Leave me a reply and let me know, “Is this the best that we can do?” 

Demand the best,

William