Category Archives: Media

Reacting to Conflict in the Middle East: A Revealing Litmus Test

It’s amazing watching what people reveal about themselves when tensions in the Middle East explode. Some otherwise liberal, compassionate souls with big hearts suddenly morph into raging self-appointed authorities. Others who’ve suffered deeply and have reason not to be kind toward oppressors become surprisingly gentle. Some spew invectives while others weep for dying children.

But nothing rivals what has taken place on social media since the horrific conflict between Israel and the Palestinians began. Having responded to a friend’s pro-Israel Facebook post in which she equated my sympathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians with being “pro-Hamas,” a slew of opinions started flying and haven’t stopped.

“It’s one thing to be so-called ‘pro-Hamas’ but quite another to simply be against the slaughter of innocents,” I wrote. “No one denies Israel’s right to exist (least of all me, a Jew) or to defend itself, but their slaughter approaches genocide. I cannot sanction the disproportionate response to the aggression perpetrated by some Palestinians. Most people in Gaza are ordinary, impoverished folks trying to survive in terrible ghetto conditions with absolutely nowhere to go or hide. Given the Jewish experience with ghettos and extermination who should feel compassion for them more than Jews?

“When I learned that 25 people perished while eating a meal together during Ramadan (suppose it had been 25 Jews breaking the Yom Kippur fast?), or that hospitals and UN safe-haven schools were being bombed with children killed, maimed, traumatized, there is no way I could sanction Israel’s aggression. While both sides need to regain their sanity and end hostilities in a sensibly negotiated settlement, Gaza has become a killing field. It makes me sad, and I feel an unwelcome shame (where once I felt pride) that ‘my people’ could behave like this. I ask this simple question: How does killing more children after the tragedy of lost youth that started this conflagration solve the problem or redeem the tragedy?”

Some readers support my position, some argue against it, and some spew spurious vitriol. The people who agree with me frame their arguments as I have, with a social justice, human rights lens, while those with opposing points of view respond from a (frequently erroneous) historical and political perspective. The passion that both sides feel is stunning, and sometimes alarming.

Because of copious dichotomized debates, I want to offer some further thoughts, beginning with a quote from Holocaust survivor, Reuven Moskovitz. His words are credited to IAcknowledgeApartheidExists.org. “It is a sacred duty for me to protest against persecution, the oppression and imprisonment of so many people in Gaza. As a Holocaust survivor I cannot live with the fact that the State of Israel is imprisoning an entire people behind fences. It’s just immoral.”

Leaving a synagogue because of “our overwhelming silence as Jews” over what was happening in Gaza, writer Naomi Wolf said, “I mourn genocide in Gaza…I mourn all victims… Where is God? God is only where we stand with our neighbor in trouble and against injustice.”

Someone in Gaza wrote this email to my friend, “Israel has targeted houses and residential areas. When people flee their homes the warplanes target them in the streets. They didn’t even allow the Red Cross to pull dead bodies and injured people out. Medical teams and journalists are among the victims. More than 70 percent are children and women. We have no power and no water. It’s horrible.”

It is not my purpose here to debate the merits, mistakes or arguments of either side in this terrible conflict. Nor am I trying to justify my position. I am merely stating it. I think it is urgent to transcend the politically expedient rhetoric of Hamas and others who say their goal is to destroy Israel, wiping Jews off the face of the earth. Consider Israel’s military strength and its American support and you realize that is never going to happen. We also need to acknowledge that a human rights approach to the situation does not make one “pro-Hamas.” Name-calling serves no purpose other than to inflame.

Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, but that does not give it ‘carte blanche’ to slaughter innocent people by the thousands. Nor does Israeli oppression of Palestinians mean Hamas has a right to fire rockets indiscriminately. We must acknowledge that both sides are guilty of hideous violence, broken promises, outrageous lies, blind hatred, and unwillingness to negotiate in the interest of mutual survival. But we also need to recognize that both sides are equally terrified. That’s why the blame-game is useless. It gets us nowhere in solving the problem. Neither does name calling. Anti-Semitic accusations (and acts) must not be tolerated; no one should assert that charge against someone because they hold differing views.

In the end, the conflagration will expire when its impact becomes intolerable. For me, it already is. That’s why I speak out. Will others find their voices of conscience before another woman, on either side, grieves a dead child who never had a chance at life?

America’s Culture of Violence Calls for Attention

Sadly, some topics bear repeated scrutiny. America’s penchant for violence is one of them, so once again, I am driven to write about the prevalence of gun violence, rape and violence in the media – all topics that pundits write about and TV talking heads ponder, while nothing seems to change.

Let’s revisit some facts. More than 84 people are killed by guns daily in this country; annually there are more than 31,000 gun-related fatalities. In 2010 we had more than 8700 murders by firearms; Great Britain had 638. There are over 300 million firearms in America, a country with a population of 311 million. Most disturbingly, the Children’s Defense Fund reports that in 2010 more than 2600 children and teens were killed by gun violence. That means more kids here died from guns in one year than all the soldiers in WWI, Vietnam, or the Iraq War. “We are a country drenched in bloodshed,” as Henry A. Giroux wrote on truthdig.com.

Current attention focusing on rape and sexual assault in our military has illuminated what some call a culture of rape in America. Tens of millions of women here suffer this heinous form of gender violence, including a large number of young women on college campuses. Last year’s documentary, “The Invisible War,” revealed that at least 20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving in the military and that a woman in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, as Francesca Bessey pointed out in an op ed. posted to neontommy.com.

Bessey also reported on sexual violence on college campuses across the country where an estimated one in four women is raped or sexually assaulted during the course of her college years. Incarcerated women are also raped in large numbers. According to a report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 80,000 inmates experienced sexual abuse during a twelve-month period prior to the report’s release. That’s four percent of all prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates nationally, figures that include juveniles housed in adult facilities.

Meanwhile, military action and aggression in general are glorified on TV, in video games and in movies. Social media is not far behind. Facebook has come under criticism for allowing postings of rape and domestic violence by advertisers or individuals. A recent open letter to the CEO demanded that pages such as Kicking your Girlfriend in the Fanny, and Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs, be banned along with photos of women beaten, bruised, tied up, drugged or bleeding.

To be fair, the U.S. is not the only country with gendered violence issues. Recent reports of raped and murdered women reveal horrendous acts of violence in countries as diverse as South Africa, India, Egypt, and Brazil, to name just a few.

But we need to ask ourselves what this is about in our national culture. There’s no doubt that the NRA is a force related to gun violence, but as Henry Giroux points out, “it is only one factor in the culture of symbolic and institutional violence that has such a powerful grip on [us].” The reality is that “violence saturates almost every aspect of North American culture.”

Studies show that by the time an American child is 18 years old, they will have seen about 200,000 acts of violence on television, including over 40,000 real or dramatized murders. The impact of that exposure is deeply troubling. One study conducted in 2000 by the Congressional Public Health Summit found that young children who have witnessed media violence have a much greater chance of exhibiting violent or aggressive behavior. A similar correlation exists when it comes to video games. Another study found that children who watch TV violence excessively around age eight are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts when they are adults.

In a recent op ed. posted to the blog readersupportednews.org, writer Tom Adams pointed out that the U.S. is the largest arms dealer in the world. We have more violent deaths per capita than any other developed nation and we have the highest incarceration rate of any country. Our homicide rate is by far the highest among industrialized nations. Arguing that “the harsh reality is that the violence that is deeply entrenched in American culture is inextricably tied to our economic and political systems,” Adams, like many others writing about or researching this topic, raises a number of important issues that require further exploration and conversation.

Meanwhile the violence continues, “saturating our social landscape like a highly charged forest fire burning everything in its path,” as Henry Giroux puts it. We are all in the path of that out-of-control inferno. That’s why we must fight it with everything we’ve got until the flames of violence are arrested once and for all, and we are safely out of its grip.

Mastectomies, Movie Stars, Media and Medicine

How ironic that Angelina Jolie chose National Women’s Health Week – and the week after Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action and a feisty advocate for women with the disease died (from Lou Gehrig’s Disease) – to share with the world that she had elected to have a double mastectomy in an effort to avoid breast cancer.

The press lit up with the news. Breast cancer “experts” and media moguls leapt at the chance to say Jolie had been “brave,” and “courageous,” and indeed she had: Choosing to have your healthy breasts amputated at the age of 37 takes guts and must have been a heart wrenching decision to make. In her case, it is understandable. Having an estimated 87 percent chance of contracting a potentially fatal disease is enough to make any woman think twice about whether prophylactic mastectomy is warranted. (I still wonder how that precise percentage was derived.)

Still, a chill ran down my spine when I heard the news and I wondered what Barbara Brenner, an outspoken breast cancer educator who had had breast cancer herself, would have said. Here’s why.

Only about one percent of American women carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation that Jolie’s doctors identified. Therefore, as H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice pointed out in a CNN commentary, her story “is not relevant to more than 99 percent of women [here].” Although it’s a terrible thing to carry the gene, it affects relatively few women. Yet, now that Jolie has gone public, even more women will be seeking mastectomies, adding to an alarming increase in demands for the surgery ever since Sherly Crow, Marlee Matlin, and Miss America contestant Allyn Rose made the same choice or heartily endorsed it.

Mastectomy and all that it entails is not something to be taken lightly. As with other major surgeries, it can result in serious complications, along with persistent pain and limited mobility. Repeat surgeries may be necessary, especially if a woman chooses to have breast implants. If tissue is transplanted from other parts of the body to reconstruct the breasts, more incisions will be needed, and if muscle is removed for this purpose, long-term weakness can result. As one advocate put it, “it is not a breeze” and not a cure-all.

It is also an expensive proposition, as is the testing for BRCA 1 and 2. It costs about $3,000 dollars to be tested and many thousands of dollars to have elective surgery. Some insurance companies cover some of the costs, but many don’t. That’s okay if you’re a movie star, but ordinary women, including many women of color, will never be able to afford treatment close to what Angelina Jolie has just experienced. And even she still has a chance, reduced though it may be, to getting breast cancer.

In The New York Times op ed. revealing her surgery, Jolie said “cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts.” How many women’s decisions around prophylactic mastectomy are based on fear-mongering rather than evidence-based decision-making? Was it responsible for Jolie to remind readers that “breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year,” without also providing the stats on the gene she carries?

Many women are choosing mastectomy – even for healthy breasts – when advances in early detection and subsequent treatment, including lumpectomy, offer viable alternatives. Joan Walsh of Salon.com made this case, based on her own personal experience. “I chose a course of rigorous medical follow-up,” she posted, “[including] an annual screening mammography and twice-yearly breast exams by a surgeon.” Walsh elected not to be tested for the BRCA gene, instead giving emergency attention to the slightest anomaly. “I’m so glad I didn’t listen to the doctor who wanted to treat my breasts like ‘ticking time bombs,’” she says. As respected breast surgeon Dr. Susan Love noted in The New York Times, “When you have to cut off normal body parts to prevent a disease, that’s really pretty barbaric when you think about it.”

The risks and benefits of any breast surgery, and especially mastectomy, vary from woman to woman. As Dr. Isabelle Bedrosian, a surgical oncologist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston put it in a New York Times report, “There is an upside to [Jolie’s] story and that is that women will hopefully be more curious about their family history. [But] we need to be careful that one message doesn’t apply to all. Angelina’s situation is very unique. People should not be quick to say ‘I should do like she did,’ because you may not be like her.”

Fortunately, few of us are. That should be the starting point if we are ever faced with a decision about breast cancer treatment options, even if that decision proves to be as difficult as the one Angelina Jolie made

Ok, Can We Move On Now?

Ok, can we move on now?

Enough already with the banter over bangs and ball gowns and the focus on athletes who are either lying dopers or duped innocents, if not dupers themselves.

Now that we are into the president’s second term, can we turn our attention on some of the really important things going on in the world, like the crisis in Mali with its far-reaching and frightening implications? Like what’s going on in Egypt or the implications of Israel’s election and the party to the right of Netanyahu that is gaining a serious stronghold? Can we think about what to do with Iran or our deteriorating relationship with Pakistan? And what’s with North Korea’s new bobble-head leader?

Thank God for Aljazeera English (which is not the same Aljazeera that so terrifies Americans as a dangerous Muslim propaganda arm). It, and the BBC, are about the only sources of news I can find that actually seem to give a damn about what’s happening in the rest of the world.

C’mon mainstream media, get with the program. Dress designers, royal pregnancies, Hollywood romances, sex scandals, snowstorms, sports events and the like all have their place upon the page and the screen. But can we get real about what’s seriously important to know?

I get it that you and your sponsors are into what sells. It’s the American way. But, jeeze, I’d sure like to know what’s happening in other parts of the world, because events abroad have an impact on all our lives. The media should care about that too. After all, what happens elsewhere affects your bottom line.

So, can we move on now?

Why Language Matters in An Election Year

There is never a time when what one says and how one says it matters more than in a crucial election year.

The words, and the slurs, candidates use reflect their attitudes, beliefs and values. They act as a barometer of their integrity, compassion, intellect and honesty. Perhaps more than that, words and suggestive sound bites shape how the electorate thinks and acts in the voting booth. There are loaded words, coded words, and so-called gaffes which tell us a lot about those who aspire to the most powerful position in the world. We must pay close attention to them.

It was ever thus. In a recent History News Service blog, author Rosemary Ostler pointed out that when Thomas Jefferson ran against President John Adams he was dubbed a “Franco-maniac” because he sympathized with the French Revolution. Anti-Jefferson newspapers predicted an American Reign of Terror if he were president. One editorial warned that “the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” A rumor even spread that, if elected, Jefferson planned to confiscate Bibles.

More recently FDR was labeled “the Soviet candidate” for his New Deal policies. (Today President Obama is frequently called a “socialist.”) John Kerry was accused of “looking French,” thus being insufficiently American. Now President Obama has been accused by former candidate Newt Gingrich of having a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” world view while others posit that he is promoting ideas “foreign” to American history, culture and values.

That word “foreign,” or the insinuation of it, keeps cropping up as the political rhetoric intensifies in the run-up to November. For example, former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff in the Bush ‘43 White House, John Sununu, said that the president needs to “learn how to be an American,” a strange admonition coming from someone born in Cuba of Spanish and Palestinian parents.

The allegations suggesting dangerous foreign ideas and infiltration have spread to others in the Obama Administration in an alarming reprise of McCarthy-ism. Rep. Michele Bachmann has gone so far as to accuse Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s respected aide Huma Abedin of conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to infiltrate the U.S. government.

These hostile, unfounded references to otherness – to being a dangerous outsider – have deeper meaning when one is in a heated battle with a likeable black incumbent. As Dr. Molefi Kete Asante wrote in an essay entitled “Identifying Racist Language: Linguistic Acts and Signs,” the “contextualization of speech is itself a political act.” Dr. Asante, arguing that incipient racism is still prevalent in American culture, claims that “offensive speech is deliberate public or private language intended to ridicule, post a threat, or belittle a person” because of their cultural or racial origin and political belief. “Use of such language is usually intended to create discomfort in the persons to whom the language is directed.”

Dr. Asante’s 2003 essay seems prescient. “The offending speaker believes his own discourse because he or she has never explored the information in an objective manner. … This person sees reality from the standpoint of major distortions of reality. … The speaker is sure that his or her information…has something to do with intelligence and ability and morality and God.”

Aside from the ideation of otherness transmitted via loaded language that suggests being foreign and thus threatening, there is something else to be considered: What do words mean? When are they coded?

No one explained this idea better than social critic Noam Chomsky. In a 1986 interview captured in the 1992 book Stenographers to Power he said, by way of example, that the term “national interest” is used to connote something that’s good for us. “However,” Chomsky noted, “if you look closely, it turns out that the national interest is not defined as what’s in the interest of the entire population; it’s what’s in the interests of small, dominant elites who command the resources that enable them to control the state. … The term “special interests,” he continued, is used…to refer to the general population.”

“This is [how] the framework of thought is consciously manipulated by an effective choice and reshaping of terminology so as to make it difficult to understand what’s happening,” Chomsky said. Understanding this point explains why during the Vietnam War the term “pacification” was used for mass murder, and why after World War II we no longer had a War Department but rather a Department of Defense. It’s why we refer to civilians killed in military operations as “collateral damage.”

The point is that when politicians tamper with the truth through distorted or evasive language, when they speak pejoratively about people with cultural backgrounds, skin colors and beliefs that differ from their own, when they omit information and create illusion in negative ads and stump speeches, when they insinuate that which is not true, we are all at risk of losing our common goals and aspirations.

That is why we must be vigilant against offensive, delusional speech that impedes the expression of ideas. No less than our democracy is at stake.

Ennui, Anonimity & Overload: A 21st C. Paradigm

A recent New Yorker Magazine cover said it all. Titled “The Cloud,” it featured a Magritte-like picture of a man in a bowler hat whose face, and therefore his identity, is totally obscured by huge clouds, which also surround him. The sky is beautifully blue but vacant. He is Everyman, lost in the fog of modern life.

The cover resonated for me because I’ve been thinking a lot about the new gestalt, the often unseen but deeply felt forces that are affecting most, if not all of us as we struggle to keep up with, understand and function in a 21st century world as we are catapulted toward an unknown, and increasingly unsteady, future.

There are three phenomena that I believe are affecting us more powerfully than we may realize.

The first is our sense of political despair. Irrespective of party affiliation, I think a great collective sigh – a recognized sign of stress – is being exhaled as we drag ourselves toward another election and the inevitable political post-mortem once we cast our ballots. The “silly season” as Barack Obama calls the interminable lead-up to November voting, has us all feeling averse to one more night of MSNBC, CNN or Fox News. We’re fed up with hyperbole, lies and distortions, no matter their source. The lack of facts, civil discourse and meaningful analysis has even politicos and news junkies running to Netflix for relief.

But the larger point is this: We no longer believe our legislative or judicial branches know how to do their jobs (and many of us are terrified that a new executive branch might not either.) The thought that something might actually happen, through bi-partisan negotiation, to solve the problems and reduce the threats of modern life for regular folks is no longer part of our psyche. We have lost confidence that the political process can save us from the abyss and that is a terrible burden to bear. So we slump further into quiet despair, wondering where our energy and enthusiasm has gone.

Another force contributing to our malaise is information overload. As one friend put it, “You’re either caught in the spider web of social media and Internet technology where you get eaten up, or you’re stuck in old, pre-tech cobwebs where you’ll soon be swept away.” The fact is, there is only so much time, energy and patience in a day. Who can read all the newspapers, magazines, blogs, tweets, and Facebook posts (let alone comment on them)? Yet, we feel compelled to do at least some surfing and sharing lest we feel completely out of touch and unnoticed. After all, aren’t we all co-opted into have our workplace successes, intellectual vigor, and fabulous senses of humor showcased in today’s competitive world before we become yesterday’s online detritus?

Related to this rush to be noticed and relevant is the deep fear, perhaps the knowledge, that technology is rendering us increasingly invisible — and deep down, don’t we all worry that if we can’t be seen, we don’t exist? Our growing sense of isolation from each other by virtue of emails, tweets, electronic commuting and the like, surely must be as palpable to others as it is to me as I sit here, alone in my office, writing this commentary. Sure, it’s nice to work in my pajamas in a quiet space that I don’t have to drive to, but how I miss the camaraderie of occasional meetings, work break schmoozing among friends, simple human contact! Nowadays, no one even responds to my emails unless they want something. Has human courtesy and connection become a luxury we can no longer afford in our Internet driven lives?

It is my contention that deep down, we all have a sense of the political ennui (i.e., our powerlessness) enveloping us, as well as the plethora of information threatening to overwhelm us like an Internet tsunami, and the isolation that renders us invisible. Bundled together, these three phenomena suggest a vision of a frightening future in which spider webs or cobwebs devour or inhibit us. (No wonder so many of us are on anti-depressants!) That vision is unacceptable to me. So I just have to believe that we can sweep away all those murky webs lurking in the dark corners of our communal house and that somehow we will raise the blinds to let the sun shine in again before it’s too late.

In the meantime I can but hope for happier covers on my weekly magazines.