Two “greater Bostonians” die in tragedy

Our community has suffered a terrible loss with the deaths of former UMass Boston Chancellor Sherry Penney and her beloved husband, Jim Livingston. They are dead from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning in their winter home in Sarasota, Florida.  Their extended family of friends, colleagues and students – all of whose lives were touched by this dynamic and loving couple – are in shock.

Sherry had been  interim president of the University of Massachusetts, Chancellor of UMass Boston and a provost at Yale University, but she especially left her mark as the creator and driver of the Emerging Leaders Program in the Center for Collaborative Leadership at UMass Boston.  Over the last 18 years, hundreds of young professionals have been tapped to develop their leadership skills and take their place among the future shapers of our community. They are bright, diverse and the faces of the future.  Sherry’s enthusiasm and hard work built a vast network of the region’s corporate, government and non-profit sectors.  It was very hard to say No to Sherry Penney.  Her many honors and awards are just a small suggestion of the significance of her many accomplishments.

Sherry’s husband, Jim Livingston, was a research physicist.  He retired, then taught for 20 years in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, then retired again, spending much time writing articles for professional and popular science publications. He also had a strong interest in American history, and, with Sherry,  co-authored a biography of the 19th century feminist and abolitionist Martha Coffin Wright entitled, “A Very Dangerous Woman: Martha Wright and Women’s Rights.” A man of quiet dignity and gentle humor, he was an avid tennis player. He was a full participant in Sherry’s many causes and always beside her in her many public commitments.

Sherry and Jim were a wonderful couple, always a joy to be with.  Each left an imprint on the world around them, and always for the better.  They lived full lives, and the tragedy of their deaths cannot be overestimated.

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My love-hate relationship with the news

I emerge from three weeks of flu, bronchitis and related maladies on World Press Freedom Day and want to take more than a moment to hail the work of so many journalists who put themselves on the line to give us the information we depend upon.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a stunning 43 journalists last year were killed for doing their jobs, in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Turkey and Mexico  but also here in the United States, at the Capital Gazette in Maryland, where five journalists were shot and killed.  Hundreds more have been imprisoned worldwide. 

Our President’s intemperate calumnies only make things worse.

Journalism is in my DNA, both by profession and appetite. That said, my appetite has discovered new limits.  Being ill and unable to sustain my usual consumption of news was a blessing.  As we swirl down the vortex of a looming Constitutional crisis, with every day defined by yet another Trump assault on decency and normative values (like truth, to name just one), I find myself overwhelmed, disheartened and seeking refuge from the very news our journalists are working to provide.  I depend increasingly on family and friends, listening to music and on welcoming the season’s hyacinths, daffodils, early azalias and even raggedy forsythia to counter the world of headlines and talking heads.

Today is also a milestone birthday for me, which may explain why  I was struck by a recent study by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard that found that news  consumers 65 years and older were the likeliest age group to share fake news from Facebook. They did it twice as often as those between 45 and 65 and seven times as often as those 18 to 29 years. Republicans shared fake news more than Democrats and liberals, but the biggest gap was between young and old.  C’mon, fellow geezers.  We can do better than this.  We’re the generation with the time to seek out solid sources of news, not get suckered into legitimately fake news (an oxymoron, I acknowledge) or seduced by some shiny new object titillating the punditry.

This is hard work, and even the pros can be flummoxed.  The venerable Poynter Institute on Tuesday released a list of 500+ unreliable news sources.  Today, the Institute posted a letter noting it has taken down the list, which it had compiled from various data bases and fact checkers. In auditing that list, the Institute found flaws in its methodology and failure to use rigor in assessing the”unreliable” news sources if was passing along.  The Poynter Institute calls itself the “world’s most influential school for journalists.” This gross mistake is a lesson in itself about the pitfalls in developing and dispersing  the news, even for a leader in the world of fact checking.

The American Psychological Association has documented the impact of increased stress on the emotional and physical health of regular consumers of news.  I have yet to find a balance between getting what I need and exceeding that which I can abide.

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Ilhan Omar – how representative is she?

Some of Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s comments are disconcerting at best, damaging and divisive at worst.  Equally troubling, she is allowing herself to be used as a tool by Donald Trump to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party.  The Somali immigrant’s comments are fuel to his incendiary style, which often incites violence against immigrants and Muslims. Not just coincidentally, she now reports an increase of death threats against her.  Those vile threats are dangerous and contemptible, but she, too, needs to understand her words’ magnified impact with her new larger platform.

Omar’s personal story is riveting, an immigrant raised by her father and grandfather after the death of her mother, who fled war in Somalia, and, after four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, came to the United States. Omar became a  citizen at the age of 17.  She was a community activist and majored in political science in college. She worked as a nutrition outreach coordinator and, in 2016, defeated a 22-term incumbent to become a state legislator.  Two years later, she moved on to the U.S. House of Representatives, at 37,  the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. An American success story, she was a Time Magazine cover story on “Firsts: Women Who Are Changing the World.

She won her 2018 race in a safe Democratic district by almost 60 points, a wider margin than Hillary Clinton’s in that district in 2016. Omar does not have to worry – as do some of her colleagues– about how she votes or what she says.  Or does she?

In her early months in Congress, she has not been reluctant to speak her mind. She hinted that Lindsay Graham backs the President because Trump has compromising information on him, a possible reference to rumors the South Carolina senator is a closeted gay. Her remarks were not that specific but stirred controversy.  In the Foreign Affairs committee, she focused on past US abuses in Latin America while going lightly on current Venezuela dictator Maduro. And she refused to let Obama off the hook, claiming his “caging of kids” and “droning of countries around the world” were similarly bad policies “just more polished.”

Omar welcomes the comparison to Tea Party hardliners and feels Democrats can learn from the Republican insurgents. In a Politico interview, she said she didn’t believe that “tiptoeing is the way to win the hearts and minds of the people. ” She seems to believe that grand proposals like  Medicare for All and the Green New Deal can be legislated  without making hard compromises. She embraces the label of troublemaker and her role as firebrand.

It’s on the issues of Israel and the rights of Palestinians she is most passionate, willing to indulge in anti-Semitic tropes and use inflammatory rhetoric, even if she alienates others in the Democratic caucus who are similarly critical of Israeli policies that mistreat Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Her tweets went beyond legitimate criticism of Israeli policy to slurs against all Jews.  She started out with a series of anti-Semitic tropes that Jews’ loyalty is to Israel not to the United States, and that Jewish money is driving the political process.  I find it hard to believe that she didn’t know exactly what she was saying when she tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Omar did apologize for that round, saying “Anti-Semitism is real and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.”

Her most recent provocation came in a speech to the Council on American-Islamic Relations reflecting on the 9/11 tragedy.  “Some people did something,”  she said. Her video comment, some of which Trump cherry-picked and retweeted,  was part of a longer critique that some Muslims did a terrible thing but not all Muslims should have been blamed for it. This was not some off-the-cuff comment. It was part of a prepared speech.

Islamophobia is real, and Omar’s defense of Muslim civil rights is legitimate. But she has been around long enough to know you have to choose your words carefully because those who would sow mischief can easily lift portions of your statements to misrepresent context and intent.  No one should be surprised that the President and his allies hypocritically vilify Omar and charge her with being dismissive of victims of 9/11. It’s the anti-Muslim hate strategy that helped him win in 2016.

The media don’t help. While it’s wrong to tar all the media with laziness, there is a certain herd mentality from which some reporters and commentators are slow to break out. Drawing from Twitter and loving controversy, they fall into Trump’s trap allowing his language to make Omar and a handful of more radical new faces stand for the whole Democratic Party.

Omar has a command of Twitter, but those who dominate social media are not necessarily representative of the larger Democratic electorate.   A Gallup poll found that a healthy majority of Democrats want a more moderate party than that envisioned by Omar, Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan and the only other Muslim woman in Congress,  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a self-described Democratic Socialist) and others.  They call themselves “the squad” and come from overwhelmingly Democratic districts. The majority of newly elected Democratic Congresspeople come from more centrist districts, which could tilt back to red in 2020.

It’s the extremes in both major parties that wield major influence in the primaries, which can lead to nominees without broad enough appeal in the general election.  Omar is riding a wave of celebrity, has huge social media presence and fund-raising capability. Optimally, she’ll learn  that, while vigorous debate is healthy,  the overriding goal for 2020 must be finding a level of unity that results in defeating the incumbent.

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Biden behavior outdated but not disqualifying

Talk to some politicians and they’re always looking over your head to see if there’s someone better in the room upon whom to bestow their attention. Not Joe Biden. He looks you square in the eye, exudes warmth, is generous with hugs to both men and women. Politics, he says, is about connecting with people. His every action signals he cares. He makes you feel valued and understood. I’ve experienced the “Biden touch” and wasn’t offended. But those signals, especially to younger women in this #MeToo era, are offensive and seen as violations of their personal space.

Mind you, they’re not talking about sexual assault or harassment.  They’re talking about feeling discomfort at a boundary being crossed.  And potential presidential candidate Joe Biden, a good guy but a good guy from another era, is paying the price for being slow to understand that, despite having no intention to harm, his touchiness is sometimes unwanted. That price, however, should not be an automatic disqualification from running for President.  You can’t in any way put him in the same category as the misogynist-in-chief or even Al Franken the groper.

Admittedly, the montages of “Uncle Joe” holding women’s shoulders or waists and whispering in their ears are cringe-worthy. That’s undoubtedly what Nevada lieutenant governor candidate Lucy Flores experienced in 2014 when Biden kissed the back of her head and sniffed her hair. Yuck. In a recent op ed piece, she acknowledged his action wasn’t violent or sexual, but she found it “demeaning and disrespectful.”

Biden has stated he never intended to cause anyone discomfort, but Flores’ feelings and those of others deserve respect. Biden this afternoon released a video restating his pledge to adjust to the new norms and be mindful not to encroach on personal space. It seemed sincere and to the point.

It’s tempting to dismiss Flores as a former supporter of Bernie Sanders, now possibly a Beto activist, and ponder whether her coming forward five years later is politically motivated. It may be. But I also know from personal experience that it’s awkward to tell a friend you don’t want him or her to greet you with a mouth kiss, so you let the behavior continue for years. Maybe the #MeToo gave Flores permission to come forward. Clearly, the rules of personal interaction have changed.

A more important part of Biden’s baggage is his failure to stand up for Anita Hill in her 1991 testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Biden has apologized for that (though apparently not to her directly) and lamented his inability to do anything about it. But he was the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he could well have called witnesses to corroborate her testimony. Regrettably, he did not, and we have had Thomas on the Supreme Court for 18 years.

Part of me wishes that, for his own sake, Biden doesn’t run so he doesn’t have to endure all the toxicity of political life in 2019. But let’s face it.  While Biden’s favorability may be at its peak the day he announces, he is now the candidate with the greatest ability to defeat Donald Trump in the general election.

If he is going to run, – and I think he should be in the mix – he has to move off the dime. Right now, his delayed entrance is leaving a vacuum, and others are filling it by defining him according to #MeToo nuances.  Our democracy is a mess thanks to Trump’s relentlessly abnormal violation of norms of decency, rationality, inclusivity, and more. He is a clear and present danger to the best values for which this nation stands. The Democratic Party must quickly size up its multi-candidate field with an eye to finding the strongest candidate to defeat him in November of 2020.

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Anti-vaxxers jeopardize more than their own children

photo: Immunization Action Coalition

Apparently having their unvaccinated children barred from school since December wasn’t enough to persuade some New York area parents to get their kids inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella. So Rockland County, just north of Manhattan, has now barred those under 18 years of age and not vaccinated from being in public places. And that’s as it should be.  Public places are those where ten or more people gather, including schools, places of worship, restaurants, stores and public buses.  Penalty for violating the law could be a $500 fine and a few months in the slammer.

More than 150 cases of measles have broken out in the county since October. (New York City has confirmed more than 200 cases.) It’s highly contagious. You can catch it from being in a room that an infected person has passed through two hours before.  Side effects from measles can be pneumonia, encephalitis, deafness and more.  While rubella is not as nasty in the beginning, exposure to a pregnant woman can mean birth defects, including developmental disabilities. Mumps can render a male sterile.

By 2000, prior to the surge of anti-vax craziness, medical authorities had declared these diseases eliminated thanks to the near universality of MMR vaccinations, at ages one year and four to six years. There’s also the MMRV injection, which includes chicken pox. How lucky we are that immunizations like these have been available since the early 1960’s.

Already in 2019, more than 300 cases have been reported in 15 states, including Washington, Texas, Illinois and California.  The recent surge has been especially prominent in populations with ties to Israel, a gift from the Holy Land by religious communities there who, like those in Rockland County, are anti-vaxxers. Children, teenagers and adults, especially traveling to foreign countries, should get vaccinated. No child in any school system should be allowed to attend class without proof of vaccination.

Beyond the ultra-Orthodox of Rockland County or Brooklyn, other denominations have obtained religious exemptions from immunization regulations.   If you object philosophically or your religion tells you that vaccination is interfering with God’s destiny for you, your right should be respected.  But that exercise of personal freedom doesn’t give you the right, in effect, to weaponize your child by sending him or her to school and exposing my child or grandchild to potentially life-altering disease.  This regulation should be extended, as in Rockland County, to other places.

Science has debunked the exaggerated dangers of vaccination, though, in the current anti-science atmosphere,  facts have not succeeded in eradicating  virulent pockets of anti-vaxx hysteria.  Immunization is 97 percent effective, and I deeply believe that refusal to vaccinate one’s child should be treated as a form of child abuse. But, even if you don’t want to be that harsh on misguided, ill-informed parents, their refusal puts more than their own children in jeopardy.

Good for Rockland County for taking bold steps, not to be punitive but because they are necessary for public health.

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On impeachment: should pragmatism Trump principle?

The thought of impeaching Donald J. Trump is enticing, especially because my preferred approach, drawing and quartering, became illegal in the mid 19th century. Despite the allure of impeachment  and despite its having been a pledge on which some new members ran for Congress in 2018, Nancy Pelosi was right to say she is against impeachment “unless there’s something that’s “so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country.” Besides, she added, “He’s just not worth it.”  Her reluctance may seem heretical to some, but it is shrewdly strategic to chill the left’s lust for impeachment at this time.

Impeachment, which the Democratic House of Representatives could well pass, would be just step one, a prolonged process of gathering evidence, holding hearings, drafting and voting on the indictment.  The House would impeach by majority vote. The Senate would then have to prosecute the case, with the Chief Justice presiding,  and vote by two thirds to convict. That isn’t going to happen.  As former Congressman Barney Frank, speaking last Thursday to a New England Council gathering, reflected, “There is nothing to be gained in starting an impeachment that will fail.” Given the Republican-controlled Senate – led by some who live in fear of being “primaried” by Trump supporters – it is hard to imagine a Senate conviction. Remember, when Richard Nixon resigned, he was facing trial in a Democrat-controlled Senate.

Even if it succeeded in the Senate, it likely wouldn’t happen until sometime in 2020, leaving just a few months for the remainder of Trump’s term.  Meanwhile, this man, whom Pelosi holds to be “ethically unfit, intellectually unfit, curiosity-wise unfit,” could become a martyr, with increased blow-back on the Democrats. Besides, why give even a few months of honeymoon incumbency to right-wing conservative and religious zealot Vice President Mike Pence as a leg up  on 2020?

In 1998, Bill Clinton was impeached by the House (on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice), but the Senate failed to convict.  Former MA Congressman Bill Delahunt, also at the New England Council, recalled hearing then-Speaker Newt Gingrich tell Congressman Tom Delay in the White House gym that the Republicans would surely pick up 15 to 20 seats in the election because of the impeachment process. Instead, Republicans had a net loss of six seats.

By 1998-1999, the American people were fed up with two years of impeachment-induced paralysis, and “nothing came out of it that warranted the suffering that paralyzed the country for two years,” said Delahunt. Among the effects of that impeachment process was the derailing of Clinton’s progress toward a Palestinian/Israeli solution.   Current investigations of Trump can legitimately go forward – and should with deliberate action – without drafting articles of impeachment and without bringing the 116th Congress to a standstill.

Frank faulted  impeachment advocate billionaire Tom Steyer and others for impugning the  courage of those who disagree with moving to impeach.  I would include Yoni Applebaum, senior editor of The Atlantic, in the Steyer camp.  She, too, says failure to impeach would be Congress’ deferring to the voters “to do what it cannot muster the courage to do itself.”   I don’t see this as lack of courage but a clearer sense of pragmatic strategy to achieve the overriding goal of replacing Trump in 20 months.

Applebaum also argues that Trump’s “ability to sidestep scandal by changing the subject- perhaps his greatest political skill – will diminish” with the impeachment process.  But if, in the likely case that Trump is not convicted, the outcome could boomerang. After the Senate failed to convict Clinton, his approval rating skyrocketed.

The Constitution doesn’t mandate impeachment. As Barney Frank pointed out, “No prosecutor was ever mandated to bring a prosecution no matter what the consequences would be. Yes, having someone be guilty is a prerequisite for prosecution, but it is not required to go forward.” The strategic alternative is to defeat Trump in the general election, rather than stoke the already-acerbic divisiveness in the system.

Former Representative Michael Capuano believes this represents the view of the majority of Democrats. “Proof matters. Evidence matters. News reports aren’t enough to throw the country” into a tailspin.  Refusing to rush to impeach doesn’t absolve the President of his many missteps, transgressions, high crimes and misdemeanors. If current Congressional hearings establish wrong-doing that trigger outrage from a sufficient margin of now-invertebrate Senators to convict, then the principled and pragmatic approaches could become one.

If the Democrats want to beef up their chances to regain the Senate and the Presidency, a better course is developing the best public policies to meet the needs of the American people and reflect sound values gone AWOL in Washington. If they succeed, and communicate their message well, they could hold the House, regain the Senate and take back the White House next year.

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