Recent graduates give hope

For people who believe in the inevitability of the progress of civilization,  the last two to three years have been a tanker truck full of cold water. Global trends toward narrow-minded, border closing, mind numbing bigotry have been magnified here at home, with the President of the United States playing to fear and hatred, sowing division, denying science, and every day lying and feeding his basest most narcissistic impulses, caring about little other than himself and occasionally his family. Aside from the possibilities raised by in the mid-term election, there hasn’t been much cause for optimism.

Saturday there was another side to the story. Our grandson graduated from Arlington High School.  A class of more than three hundred and their speakers were a testament to diversity, academic excellence, embrace of science, the arts, global language proficiency, community service and all the solid values – kindness, compassion, curiosity, commitment – so missing on the national scene. Ninety-five percent are going on  colleges and universities.  These young people are a gift to our older generation, a kind of promise that they and other well educated new graduates around the country will be able to begin the great work of restoration of democracy and enlightenment.

I’m sure that many of you may have felt the same at graduations  you attended or while listening to  commencement speakers. I couldn’t help at this moment of joy, reflecting on the students of Marjory Douglas, those graduating and the lives lost.  I also thought about Juliana v. the United States, a case brought by a group of  students from around the country against the federal government alleging violation of their rights to life, liberty and property by failing to protect our environment and defend public resources. Will these young people succeed in doing what their parents and grandparents did not?

Faculty speaker Timothy Marten, chosen for his role by the class, had a message that applied equally to parents and grandparents as to the students. Urging graduates to tackle new experiences head-on despite their anxieties and self-doubt, he said, “The only way to find yourself on the other side of the (daunting) task is to do it.”  It’s a lesson about which we all need to be reminded as we look forward to the 2020 election and the hard work needed to write a new and improved chapter of this nation’s history. I hope these and other young people register, organize and vote.

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Trump keeps promise: expands war on women

First, it was the slurs against Mexicans; then the attempted ban on Muslims and the attack on  all immigrants. Now it’s war against women.  The latest  salvo came in Alabama, with a virtual ban on abortions.  Other red states are falling in line.  Trying to take away women’s reproductive rights usurps our freedom to control our bodies, our economic lives and, with that, our power for self-determination. This cannot go unchallenged.

This is not just a women’s issue.  It’s a racial issue. The abortion rate in the black population is dramatically higher than for white women. Forty percent of all abortions are of black fetuses. And, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 60 percent of abortions in Alabama were on black mothers; in Mississippi, it was a staggering 78 percent.  Given the relative difficulty of finding adoptive families for black babies, more end up in the challenged foster care system.  And, since many pro-lifers act on their beliefs only from conception until birth, money is severely lacking for social services, child care, and for foster care and adoption services.  The anti-choice legislators are often those who have opposed expansion of Medicaid to pay for the Affordable Care Act and who regularly attack Planned Parenthood.

This is also a class issue. If the clock is turned back and abortion is virtually banned, wealthy or even middle-income white women will find a way to get to states or other countries for safe abortions.The poor, black and white, with unwanted pregnancies will be driven to “back alley” pre-1973 abortions, where unsafe conditions will likely lead to higher mortality rates. Unwanted pregnancies also entail social costs.

In Alabama, 25 white men and a docile female governor determined that, unless women’s lives are “seriously” at risk,  they may not get abortions, even in cases of rape and incest. Doctors who perform abortions could go to jail for up to 99 years, a longer sentence than that imposed on a rapist or incest predator. In Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Mississippi, new laws will ban abortions after doctors can first detect a fetal heartbeat, which can happen before many women even know they are pregnant. Missouri and Louisiana are taking similar action.

These efforts are the spear of the Trump/Federalist Society attack on the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.  Until the court’s recent tilt to the right, anti-choice activists were content to chip away at abortion rights, passing restrictive regulations on clinics, increasing waiting periods, requiring certain ultrasounds and more. With all the new constraints, many clinics providing abortion as one part of women’s health services have simply closed, making abortions harder to obtain in a number of states. These Draconian measures also end up limiting women’s access to diagnosis and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and certain kinds of cancer, birth control and emergency contraception.

Now the patchwork quilt of new abortion-limiting laws is certain to end up going to the Supreme Court. Watch out, ladies.  If you once thought you had a right to determine your own medical choices and decide when you wanted to plan a family, you are on the brink of losing your agency. Small wonder that pro-choice activists demonstrated Tuesday in all 50 states.  They know that the decision about whether and when to terminate a pregnancy is a deeply personal matter. The choice is not an easy one, but it is one best decided between a woman and her doctor.   Every year, millions of women do choose to terminate pregnancy, which is reflected in a Wall Street Journal-NBC poll last July found that 71 percent of registered voters support preserving Roe. A recent CBS poll put that support at 67 percent.

There are many unintended consequences that must be addressed if these horrible restrictions are allowed to go forward. If a fetus is labeled a person, would a mother who terminates a pregnancy be charged with murder? Would an embryonic “person” entitle parents to a tax deduction? Should child support start when the embryo is implanted in the uterus?  Will fetal “persons” be included in the census?  Will they be declared citizens before birth?

Before we go down the road of these linguistic and legalistic questions, the immediate challenge is to stop these restrictions in their tracks – by judicial action, protest, advocacy, pressure on lawmakers, and, above all, engagement in the political process.  It is essential that outrage at this attack on women be sustained and animate Presidential, Congressional and state legislative races.  There is much at stake on so many issues, but the right of women to receive quality reproductive health care and decide on their own medical treatment must remain high on the list.

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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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