Thursday, December 19, 2013

What's in a Name? Depends on Who's Calling It.

Over this past week I packed and cleaned and wore myself out getting ready for a long trip toward the places where I'm hoping merry holiday spirits abide. It would be a cruel trick if they didn't.

During our long, long travels we got caught in not one but two snowstorms.  We spent three nights on the road when one night in a motel would have been more than enough.  When we could finally travel we had to drive well under the speed limit watching for black ice.  Here in Michigan we try not to think about the fact that winter won't even officially begin until Saturday.  We are sick of it already.  (Oh, I know--you New Yorkers have it much tougher, even though--may I remind you again--nearly every storm you get has already come roaring through our neck of the woods.)

You can see where I'm at these days, so forgive me if I don't give two shits about what somebody I don't even know is saying out loud, even if it offends more than half the country's tender sensibilities.

Megyn Kelly said on Fox News that there is no question that Santa and Jesus were two white guys.  This was in answer to an article in Slate by Aisha Harris, who wrote that maybe Santa shouldn't be an old white man anymore; maybe he should be a penguin, instead.

Maybe it was just my mood--I was looking for something to laugh about--but I found the whole thing hilarious.  In fact, I must remember to thank Megyn for putting a ray of sunshine in what was otherwise a bleak couple of days.  The fact that she's not the brightest bulb on the tree was a foregone conclusion even before she said what she said.  Nothing has changed, except that, honest to God, I got an email asking me to sign a petition to get her off the air!  Are they nuts?  For what?  Being so successfully bad at what she does?

And then there's Phil Robertson, that long-bearded Duck Dynasty guy:  I'm betting he was an established oddball long before he said what he said about gays, the bible, anuses and vaginas.  I caught about 20 minutes of that show once, and after the first 10 minutes of it nothing any of them might say would ever surprise me.  But yesterday I got an email from a friend asking me to sign a petition to demand that A&E come to their senses and put the guy back on the air. If the petition hadn't suggested that the suspension was blatantly anti-Christian, I might have been tempted to sign it.  Nobody should be forced out of a job over a few rancid words.  Even that guy.

When MSNBC fired Martin Bashir for saying something truly foul about what should happen to Sarah Palin in order to make her understand how terrible slavery really was, I objected to that firing, too, even though I thought Martin went way over any decent line.

If MSNBC had wanted to fire Alec Baldwin for dismal ratings they were well within their rights--his ratings were dismal--but they chose instead to tell the public he was fired for uttering a homophobic slur while lashing out at a photographer.  It's not as if MSNBC didn't know going in that Baldwin was a loose cannon.  That must have been part of his appeal for them.  In fact, his (or their) decision to play it straight (as it were) is probably what killed the show.  He was no Jack Donaghy.  He was barely even Alec Baldwin.

None of these people are politicians or leaders.  What they say has no impact on policy-making; nor does it change anything for any stranger who might feel victimized by their words.  We don't know those people and they don't know us.  I'm not defending any of them--every one of them said something stupid--but how sensitive is too sensitive?  Is a single utterance reason enough to cause someone to lose a job?

After a successful career spanning decades, the ever-entertaining Howard Cosell found himself at the center of controversy for directing the term "little monkey" to a black player during a televised football game in 1983.  Cosell, clearly no racist, had used the term at least three other times within a span of about 10 years.  He refused to back down, and left broadcasting at the end of that  season.

Thirty years later, we're still looking for insults inside stupid sentences.  It's as if we've never experienced a comments section.  

Read the comment section of any article smacking of even a hint of controversy and you'll see name-calling soaring to spectacularly vile heights. Some of it comes after a public figure has done the wordy deed and the commenters respond in kind, as if they're competing to see how ugly it can get.

Some participants in the comment sections have a talent for it; the vast majority don't.  F-bombs and its various variations dropping all over the place, as if there is no word it can't replace.  MFing L-bombs lobbed at even little old liberal ladies (just saying. . .).

So here I'll make a confession.  I hate the F-word.  I don't just hate it, I despise it.  I have never used it, never written it, and even now, when its usage is more common than breathing, it still offends me.  I grew up in a time when it was so rarely used it was shocking to hear it spoken out loud.  We saw it in writing even less. But even when it's directed at me I don't fall apart over it. What kind of sissy would I be if I went off pouting or calling for heads to roll every time I heard it used in a way that I found offensive?  (Which, for me, don't you know, would be every way.)

I was a young adult when feminism grew strong enough to become an F-word itself. I've heard it all. Words hurled at me by strangers have almost always been meaningless.  They can't hurt me unless I let them.  And why would I let them? Water off a duck's back.  Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. 

And nyah nyah, you lousy cootie.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Terrible Horrible No Good War on Happy Holidays

I’ve been sending out Christmas cards since I was around 16 years old, when my mom told me I was old enough to start sending out my own cards.  The cards I chose over the course of many,many, many years depended on a lot of things, but it never occurred to me—ever–to wonder if my choice of card would offend anyone.


My choices could be anywhere from Currier and Ives winter scenes to merry Santas to red nosed reindeer to Christmas trees to peace doves to celebrations around the world to the Christ child in the manger.  Over the years I’ve received many more cards than I’ve ever sent and I’m happy to say I’ve enjoyed them, each and every one.


Sometimes I would choose my card based on the inside greeting.  It might say “Merry Christmas to you and yours” or “Happy Holidays!” or “Great Joy and Glad Tidings” or “Peace on Earth”.  Something along those lines.  (“Season’s Greetings” went to people I didn’t know very well but felt obliged to send a card.  You know how it is.)

I’ve wished people I barely know a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays without giving a thought to how they might take either salutation.  I love Christmas.  I love the entire happy holiday season from beginning to end.  It’s a wonderful time of the year and once I get my damn shopping done and cook whatever the hell I’ve promised to cook, my heart is full of great joy and glad tidings.

I, a non-religious now, still love the Christian part of Christmas.  The story of the nativity is breathtaking and beautiful.  The Christmas concerts in our local churches are uplifting and glorious.  Christmas carols sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir never fail to cause my heart to swell and my eyes to tear up.

During the Christmas holidays our collective hearts swell so much it’s a known fact that charity toward others grows exponentially as the days of December wane.

There is no question that Christmas is the holiday that celebrates the birth of Christ. The joy of that event has long translated into Joy to the World.  December 25 is a date Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  It corresponds to early pagan solstice celebrations, the sharing of which, for decades, was no big deal.  Those of us who are religious celebrate it in one way and those of us who aren’t choose another.  It is and always has been the joy of Christmas that bound us together.  We honestly thought it was enough.

Now we are engaged in a great religious war.  A baffling religious war.  A religious war that, if I weren’t so immersed in the aforementioned joy of Christmas, I might even call the worst bad joke in centuries.  As jokes go, award-winning bad.  An insult to anyone who has ever celebrated Christmas.

The escalation of this phony war on Christmas came out of the head of one super showman. Oh, there might have been some grumblings over the years about the commercializing of Christmas—a righteous reason to grumble, in fact.  But it was one Bill O’Reilly who turned the War on Christmas into an annual event, assigning two words—Happy Holidays—as the opening salvo to Christmas, and thus Christian, Armageddon.  (Note lack of O’Reilly links.  I don’t want them here.  You can find them for yourself if you choose.  They’re all over the place.)

Along the way O’Reilly has recruited some surprising foot soldiers.  People I know well are now talking about this supposed War on Christmas, as if it were real and not just somebody’s clever but hateful idea of a ratings guarantee.

I would ask these people:  Where is the battleground?  Where are the bodies?  Who has been injured?  What army has forced them to stop celebrating a Christian Christmas?

Have the churches been shuttered?  Has the singing of Carols been outlawed?  Has any single Christian been inconvenienced at all by the non-religious celebrations of the Christmas Holidays?

I saw a sweat shirt the other day with this banner:  “I’m Not Afraid to Say Merry Christmas.”

Huh?  Who is?  Who in America is afraid to say “Merry Christmas”?

News Flash:  Nobody is afraid.  That would be stupid.  But just in case, since I was going to do this sometime anyway, let’s give it a whirl and see what happens:  (If I’m wrong and I end up dead or something, let me just say right now. . .Really??)


Friday, December 6, 2013

Why Martin Bashir's Apology Should Have Been Enough

Until Martin Bashir either resigned or was let go by MSNBC this week, I was a loyal fan. I watched Bashir because the things that engaged him usually did the same for me.  At my house, in the Eastern Time Zone, he was on at 4 PM, which meant whatever had happened that day had already been dissected to death by the daytime pundits.  But he had the ability to find something fresh and insightful and, yes, funny, about what was going on out there.  Maybe it's his accent, his enunciation, his eyebrows--I don't know. He is a devilishly clever wordsmith--smarmy, but in a good way.  I have been known to hurry things up just so I can get home in time to watch him.

So I was home and watching on the day he went into that thing over Jake Tapper's interview with Sarah Palin--the part where Palin would not back down from comparing the national debt to slavery.  Tapper gave her many outs, bless his heart, but she stuck by every word.

The interview went like this:
TAPPER: Mitch McConnell has said no more government shutdowns. He didn't think it was a smart idea.
If you were advising Senate Republicans, would you encourage them to do a --

PALIN: What shutdown? What shutdown?

It was a --

TAPPER: Partial shutdown.

PALIN: -- 17-day slim down -- no, a 16-day slim down of about 17 percent of the government. We need to rein in government.

And when is the time, finally, for people to open their eyes and for the media to -- to open its eyes?

What is the time and the magic number, when it comes to debt, when it comes to this trajectory of government growth, for people to say, we do need to start slimming this thing down?

TAPPER: So, you obviously feel very passionate about the national debt. The other day, you gave a speech in which you compared it to slavery.

PALIN: To slavery. Yes.

And that's not a racist thing to do, by the way, which I know somebody is going to claim it is.

TAPPER: Don't you ever fear that by using hyperbole like that -- obviously, you don't literally mean it's like slavery, which cost millions of people their lives and there was rape and torture. You're using it as a metaphor.

But don't you ever worry that by using that kind of language, you -- you risk obscuring the point you're trying to make?

PALIN: There is another definition of slavery and that is being beholden to some kind of master that is not of your choosing. And, yes, the national debt will be like slavery when the note comes due.

TAPPER: So you're not -- you're not work -- I mean I'm -- I'm taking it as a no, but you're not -- you're not concerned about the language --

PALIN: I'm not one to be politically correct, evidently.


PALIN: And, no, I don't -- I don't worry about things like that, because no matter what I say, no matter what a lot of conservatives say, they're, you know, they'll be targeted and distractions will be attempted to be made to take the listener and the viewers' mind off what the point is, by pointing out, oh, she said the word slavery in a speech, and, I did say the word slavery, because I want to make a point.

TAPPER: You can understand why African-Americans or others might be offended by it, though?

PALIN: I -- I can if they choose to misinterpret what it is that I'm saying. And, again, you know, I'm sure if we open up the dictionary, we could prove that with semantics that are various, we can prove that there is a definition of slavery that absolutely fits the bill there, when I'm talking about a bankrupt country that will owe somebody something down the line if we don't change things that is, we will be shackled. We will be enslaved to those who we owe.
Oh, Sarah.  Clueless, smug, privileged Sarah. Why is anyone still interested in what you have to say?

See, this is what grinds some of us who think the serious stuff should be left to serious thinkers.  The issue of our country's debt crisis is clearly not something Sarah Palin has studied judiciously.  And clearly her audiences don't expect anything more from her than some funnin' over the fuss the liberals make over every nutty thing the Republicans come up with.

So when CNN's Jake Tapper sits down with Palin for what seems like a real interview with a real leader, giving her the deference a real leader might deserve, some of us, including or maybe especially Bashir, feel the tops of our heads threatening to blow off. 

When Bashir began his segment on Palin's national debt/slavery connection, I was all ears. Here we go! Give it all you got, Mah-tin!

He called her an idiot right off, and I, how you say, blanched. Nooooo! Amateur hour. Don't even go there!

Then he told the story of a sadistic Jamaican plantation overseer named Thistlewood who meted out unspeakable punishments to his slaves.  Punishments involving feces and urine.

If Bashir has ended his piece with the hope that Sarah Palin might never have said what she said if she fully understood what real slaves had to go through, it would have been a case of lesson learned.  Thank you, Martin, for reminding us all. . .

I fully expected that was where he was going. But he wasn't. Reading from a teleprompter with blowup shots behind him of an African slave about to be punished on one side and Palin on the other, this is what he said:

When Mrs. Palin invoked slavery, she doesn’t just prove her rank ignorance. She confirms that if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, then she would be the outstanding candidate.

Call me prescient but I saw trouble ahead.

Bashir apologized, of course, on his next show, and he meant it sincerely.  So sincerely, I wondered how it could have happened in the first place. It wasn't something uttered in the heat of the moment.  The segment was planned, the words were scripted, he said them on the air. Sometime during the hours it took to produce the segment, the initial fury over Palin's noxious jabbering should have abated.

It's a mystery why it didn't, but there it was.

The internet went crazy.  The Right--wouldn't you know?--grabbed this unexpected but oh-so-welcome gift and ran with it.  Alec Baldwin, no stranger to controversy, wanted to know why he was suspended for spontaneous raging at a reporter but Martin wasn't for planning and airing this icky diatribe against Sarah Palin.  The cries for punishment never let up. 

It was an awful, awful moment, but it was a moment come and gone.  It was an ugly flub in an otherwise smart and often enlightening body of work.  It did not reflect who Martin is, was or ever will be. What he said in that one single utterance, egregious as it might be, was not enough to kill a good man's otherwise trouble-free career.

Martin Bashir has lost his job.  Resigned under pressure, forced out--no matter.  He is among the unemployed because he said something stupid and he should have known better.

We've always been cavalier about someone else's job, and there's no reason to believe it will ever be otherwise. Nobody is out there protesting his dismissal. MSNBC is under no pressure to take him back.

So, Martin, I will miss you.  I wish you the best.  I hope to see you again soon, because you know I will follow you anywhere.  

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Politics of Cruelty

I'm coming off of my Thanksgiving week high, settling down, and what's the first thing I think of when I get back to my desk to do some writing?  Cruelty. Institutional cruelty, at that.  Political cruelty.  The kind of cruelty that knows no bounds and fears no punishment.  A new kind of cruelty, right out in the open and expecting rewards.  The New America, courtesy of the Tea Party, the Koch Brothers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

I had a lovely week.  Our dinner was great, I avoided Black Friday, we celebrated a good man's birthday, and our 350 mile trip back home was uneventful.  No wind or snow or traffic jams, and the ferry, our lifeline, was running on time.

Maybe it was because of that fine respite--I don't know--but at my desk those thoughts about where we are on the inhumanity front kept coming through. 

If there is a catalyst, I blame Joe Arpaio, the infamous, publicity-seeking sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County.  He's the guy who thinks it's cute to keep his prisoners in pink underwear.  He stays awake nights trying to come up with ideas to humiliate and demoralize the inmates in his care.  He gets a real kick out of it and never misses a chance to publicly tighten the screws.

To save money, Arpaio says, he feeds his prisoners only twice a day on between 15 cents and 40 cents a meal.  The meals are vegetarian, no salt and pepper.  He's working on charging them a dollar a meal, because, he says, "Everybody else has to pay for their food, why should they get freebies?"

Last Wednesday he took the time to tweet his Thanksgiving menu

"Thanksgiving menu is all set! Hope the inmates give thanks for this special meal being served in the jails tomorrow." 

Five ounces of turkey soy casserole and donated brownies.  56 cents a meal.  Did he do it to save money?  Sure.  Did he have to do it?  No.  (Did he eat it himself?  Have you seen him?)

But Joe is small potatoes compared to the various Federal, state and local leaders busy thinking up ways to stick it to the little guy.  Governors refusing Federally endorsed Medicaid for their citizens.  A $40 billion cut in food stamps.  A fight to block minimum wage hikes.  Cuts in unemployment benefits.  Cuts in Veteran's aid.  Cuts in public education.  Complete and total neglect of crumbling infrastructure.  Refusal to recognize the Affordable Care Act, along with a hearty wish that that damned website would just die already. 

Cruel, cruel, cruel, cruel, cruel, cruel, cruel, and cruel.  Every "no" vote, every obstruction sentences hundreds of thousands to needless suffering.  But because that kind of cruelty is now the American version of politics-as-usual, some of us rail (and not for the first time) while some of us cheer, but in the end, the power is no longer with the people.  Endless, needless, avoidable suffering and nobody goes to jail.  

Except Joe Arpaio, but only long enough to torment his inmates for yet another day.  Then he gets to go home, where nothing can hurt him.  Ever.