United States of Emergency: Beyond Charlottesville

This past weekend offered a horrifying example of growing boldness empowering the hateful in America. The rally to “Unite the Right” under the alt-right banner culminated in the death of a counter protester run down by a white supremacist. Two local policeman helping to subdue the unrest were also killed in a helicopter incident.

The rally’s stated purpose was to protest the removal of a General Robert. E Lee Confederacy statue. The protest was organized by card-carrying bigot Richard Spencer, among others. Spencer played a key role in coining the term “alt-right” and has done much work to mainstream the divisive, radical ideology.

Ensuing discussions around who’s to blame for last weekend’s tragedy are moot and counter-productive. Ownership is clear. Richard Spencer, David Duke and their neo-Nazi thugs, including James Fields (the second-degree murder charge facing piece of garbage who mowed Heather Heyer) are directly responsible for the mayhem. Their words and actions incited hatred and violence that led to Saturday’s events. As political tensions blow up like powder kegs on issues such as Russia’s totalitarian actions, and the loose cannon of North Korea, it’s time for our country’s leaders to take strong, immutable positions against hate speech and violence.

To to white supremacists/nationalists/Neo-nazis trying to “take the country back,” a word of caution: nationalism is NOT patriotism. Members of “Unite to Right” are focused, not dissimilarly from their “spiritual” leader, President Trump, on entitled demanding and punishment, lacking any positive agenda to create a better, more productive America for anyone (including themselves).

There’s a severe disconnect between Spencer’s band of terrorists, who claim to feel disenfranchised, and the basic principles of inclusion. Gaining access and acceptance does not need to come at the expense of other groups. Equality and inclusion are not limited resources. The xenophobia I examined last week is boiling over, courtesy of a President that refuses to condemn the hate-filled intolerance of his core constituents. In fact, last weekend’s verbal response from The Donald adopted a “many sides” position that managed to affirm the white supremacists while casting vague blame on counter protesters. This is sickening.

You know Trump failed at bringing the country together beyond expectation when other conservatives trip over themselves to call out and condemn acts of domestic terrorism for what they are. The list includes Cory Gardner, Marco Rubio, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, Jeff Flake, and Tim Scott. Only open, vocal condemnation of white supremacists and their supporters will tell the Neo-Nazis they are not welcome here. The rhetoric of Republican leaders outside the White House is promising.

We need more than words, however. We need action. While freedom of speech is a foundational right, the border stop at inciting violent hate. Our leaders must condemn hatred and adopt all measures to protect diversity. Useless statements that allow white nationalists to misinterpret their advantage and gain momentum are the enemy.

If it’s time to “Make America Great Again,” we can’t equivocate. The alt-right is just plain wrong – and dangerous. 

America is in a state of emergency. We cannot doubt it. It’s 2017 and Nazis are terrorizing our country. Our collective response will make history – because either we stood together to expel hate, or because we failed our Constitutional commitment to each other.

Advertisements

America: You Must be This Tall to Ride?

Recently, we saw the introduction of some truly terrifying measures from the current White House administration. They include a bill that would halve the annual number of immigrants allowed into the United States. We’re also seeing Affirmative Action challenges in higher education: indicators of increasingly vocal levels of xenophobia. And over the weekend, the private sector joined the “fun” with a published manifesto from a Google employee advocating for less diversity, based upon debunked notions of gender inequality.

All of this points to an undeniable and disturbing trend. The administration – and more than a small number of (male) business leaders – want to directly control who has the ability to succeed. They’re also challenging what it means to be an American. Authoritarianism and “othering” were behind proposed changes to the Affordable Care Act, which were recently rejected. Similar shades of over-reach have been witnessed in continued attacks on women’s health. The fear and subjugation of the “other” is also found in an onslaught against trans civilians and individuals in the armed forces.

The rules for “who belongs” in America, set by predominantly white men is beyond unacceptable. While CNN’s Jim Acosta could have made his point without throwing shade at other country’s English-speaking capabilities, his larger argument was solid. By limiting who can enter, and further reducing the definition of free citizenry, we stray from the empowering words of “The New Colossus” engraved at the base of Lady Liberty.

Fortunately, while blinding, dominant, white male ideology is working to limit the diversity that actually makes America great, individual movements are mobilizing to combat the ignorance.

For our trans brothers and sisters, Bandcamp hosted a fundraiser this past weekend to benefit the Transgender Law Center. This comes on the heels of Lambda Legal preparing recourse should the tweet storm come to actual military disenfranchisement. Perhaps even more significantly, even if we’d prefer to raise attention another way, the Kardashian Clan’s outrage toward Caitlyn Jenner’s “Make America Great Again” cap is creating conversation on social media.

As far as immigration, the statistics prove that increasing or reducing the number of entrants to the country has little to no impact on jobs available to U.S. citizens. In fact in industries staffed with majority immigrant labor, the economy is bolstered rather than injured. This verifiable truth highlights the hypocrisy and cynicism of the Trump administration.

If we’ve reached a place where we’ll stop efforts at educational equity, accept immigrants on a points system, restrict basic healthcare, and deny rights based on selfish and irrational interpretations of gender, it’s time to tear down the Statue and mail her back to France in boxes.

Nobody likes packing. Let’s leave the Lady, and American diversity, standing stronger, rather than torn apart in pieces.

Stepping Out

This is going to be my last post on BeckySarwate.com for a few months. As readers who know me offline are aware, I’ve been contracted to write my first non-fiction book with friend, colleague and Lost in the Ivy author, Randy Richardson. We’re headed into the intensive drafting phase (at least I am – the always on top of things Randy is already six chapters in), so I have to step back from my baby here for a bit.

The book, with a working title of Cubservations, will be a collection of perspectives from high-profile fans about what it means to bleed Cubby blue. Naturally, the work was greenlit because in November 2016, the team permanently shed the Lovable Losers mantle and millions of long-suffering fans were granted a dream fervently nurtured, but scarcely imagined. When Randy, who has published multiple novels in his career, first told me about the project, I thought myself audacious in volunteering to serve as a reader. The moment I comprehended his offer to co-write remains frozen in time, an unbelievable, overwhelming flash of unreality.

Since April, supported by the solid research and detection skills of our own Brian Walsh, I have interviewed a collection of talents and personalities admired, in many cases, for decades. How is it possible that the weird, snaggle-toothed nerd who pored over fantasy league stat sheets with her father throughout the 1980s and 90s, a young girl who wept openly over Cub heartbreaks in 1984, ’89, ’98, 2003, ‘08 and ’09, would get to discuss 2016’s unbridled joy with the legendary Bob Newhart?  A combination of amazing fortune and most excellent taste in friends and collaborators.

The time for conversation with Mr. Newhart and others with whom I never imagined corresponding, is winding down. Now I must start organizing all of this rich material to tell the stories of these successful Cub fans – locals and transplants, genetic die-hards and rebels, believers and skeptics. It will be hard, rewarding work and I look forward to resurfacing when the book is ready for primetime.

In addition to expressing my gratitude to Randy and Brian for opportunities and support already amply given, it would be an egregious oversight not to recognize my fiancé. I said at the beginning of this post that it would be my last for a while. But I haven’t published to the blog section of this website since October 2016, not for lack of anything to say.

Today is Bob’s 37th birthday. And in just 17 more turns of the sun, the love of my life and I will marry in front of 32 of our dearest ones. For years I bled my feelings, struggles, tragedies and triumphs all over the Internet. I had to in order to survive. Writing my life was more than therapy. It was a guarantee that the story would be told and recorded, that I would not be forgotten across almost a decade of lost isolation. With word and reflection, I looked for the escape hatch from a vortex of bad decisions, health struggles and a continually shattered heart.

I’m not finished searching. I am not done with blogging. And those who know me away from the screen can confirm I’ll never have surfeit of oversharing. But I’m evolving, growing into a better woman and hopefully, a more stable, confident creative.

Nearly a year ago, Bob and I began intensive discussions about our future, our home and our time together. In tandem, I made an unconscious decision to reclaim a complicated, messy, busy and satisfying analog life. I continued writing about politics, sports and the Chicago theater scene. But it no longer felt necessary to process my relationships and trajectory via the World Wide Web. Instead I can turn around and talk to a smart, loving and loyal friend, who’s also, I might add, pretty to behold. The computer can’t compete with that.

Anyway, I’ll still publish the occasional theater review even as I shut down for what is certain to be a novice author’s anxious and exhilarating writing, editing and publishing process. And I’ll still have plenty of succinct commentary to share on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, Brian will keep the lights on here with regular Missing in Action updates.

I appreciate your constant support of this website and my journey as a writer. See you soon.

Cubs Post All-Star Hot Streak: Welcome, but Weird

“How about 9-2 since July 11? Sounds a lot better, doesn’t it? Looks and feels different too. Our cross-town rivals, The White Sox, were kind enough to part with starting pitcher Jose Quintana on July 13, and Q has quickly proven a valuable addition to the Cubbies’ bruised staff of hurlers. His July 16 debut at Camden Yards was verifiably historic, with Quintana fanning 12 batters over seven innings – without allowing a run. Holy Cow! A commanding announcement that the Epstein administration’s eye for the right talent at the right time remains unclouded.

The batting averages clearly have room for growth but Kris Bryant is leading the pack at a respectable .278 (at the time of publication). Wilson Contreras is the best catcher in baseball and in the middle of a red-hot hitting streak. Fan favorite Kyle Schwarber is back from a stint in the minors and crawling from the bottom. And the outfield is much better with a healthy Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.

Yes indeed Wrigleyville Nation. Things are looking up. The Cubs remain a half-game behind the first place Milwaukee Brewers, but have widened the gap considerably between themselves and the rest of the NL Central. Can we all just take a moment to savor a fourth-place Cardinals club (with all-due love to Dexter Fowler)?

As I mentioned in a Facebook post yesterday, I’m always elated to #FlyTheW. I’m certainly not looking for trouble. That said, and despite all the winning, there’s a few…curious variables at play. Some strange things are afoot with some of our key players that could impact current momentum. As wizened, sober residents of Wrigleyville Nation, we need to keep our eyes on the following…”

Read the full post at Wrigleyville Nation.

The Spice Girls

Yesterday, as news broke regarding the resignation of Sean Spicer as White House Press Secretary, I immediately contacted a fellow Washington vigilant – my younger sister Jenny. Since our earliest childhood days, we’ve been news and politics aware (I’ll hardly regret a ballot more than one cast for Reagan in a 1984 kindergarten mock election). But ever since the post-9/11, Fox News-aided ascendancy of modern-day Republican ideology, neither one of us has been able to relax for a moment.

Wound tightly by patriotic and personal concerns involving the war on terrorism, protracted assaults on woman’s reproductive health, the social safety net, voting rights, immigration and rational gun policy, we’ve been busy worrying. The Obama years brought some comfort in the form of a decent, rational if imperfect leader. But even then the Tea Party and other self-styled citizens of the “real America” talked endless, incendiary shit about the President, immigrants, the LGBTIQ and a long-settled woman’s right to make decisions about her own body.

Some of it was more than talk. Jenny and I have paid attention to what’s gone down in the states, including our own. Budget impasses, government shutdowns, disgustingly offensive bathroom laws, innocent citizens of color gunned down by local police. Elections matter and the right has been gaining the macro and micro majorities required to transform America into something less free for “those people” (most of us) – for decades.

My second favorite pundit and I are especially alert, exhausted and afraid for our country in the Trump era. The international shame, ridicule and danger. The proud, illiterate ignorance of our President, the moral and ethical stench wafting from every corner of the White House. But every now and then we’re given a gift of comic absurdity, a small moment of levity that transcends danger into the mere comically sad. So many of those moments have been offered by Sean Spicer these last, harrowing six months. Bless him.

It’s kind of hard to pick a favorite. Writers such as Erin Gloria Ryan have pointed out that Spicey came out swinging for the unintentionally humorous fences:

“Mr. Spicer’s relationship with the press got off to a bad start. Just one day after President Trump’s inauguration, our boy Sean issued a bizarre statement claiming the crowd was the biggest ever. His sagging suit indicated that perhaps he was not the greatest at gauging the sizes of things.”

Her piece in The New York Times yesterday ends with an endearment I burningly wish I’d written first: “Goodnight, sweet wince.”

No matter how insane Spicer’s behavior grew in defense of his probably-bankrupt-in-every-sense boss and the Trump administration, it was a mostly harmless show. We (and here I mean the larger “we,” not just Jenny and I) have long expected slanted spin from the Press Secretary’s podium. Spicey added that special mix of pitiful audaciousness that made his briefings among the highest-rated programs on daytime television. The man hid from the press in the bushes. This is a thing that actually happened. Under the direst circumstances – the running aground of America by a circus clown and his enablers – we need the occasional laugh to keep us going.

What are we to do now? Basically, this was my question to Jenny when I messaged her late yesterday morning. I sent her a link to the Times’ breaking news item about Spicer’s decision to walk away from the madness. She’s a mother of two girls married to a wonderful Muslim-American man. As many readers know, Jenny’s had to take vigilance a step further than some (me) when it comes to protecting her family from rhetorical and legislative threats. Thus she was predictably less flapped than I:

“This should surprise no one.”

Point taken, and yet somehow I was blindsided by Spicer’s move. I assumed that a man who’d spent six months and a day eating shit in front of America on behalf of Donald Trump could survive anything – especially a new supervisor. The moment when one is lulled into the belief that a head can’t be further scratched, The Donald and his team offer a new itch.

In reply to Jenny’s resigned assessment of the latest Friday news twist in Washington, I offered this. Maybe a sign of obscured, but persistent optimism.

“We must be ready for anything and yet because absurdity continues every day, any sort of end of it is still a jolt.”

Spicey was easy to dismiss. A fool who earnestly wanted respect, even if he had no idea how to gain it.  As Forrest Gump said, “Good, that’s one less thing.” Scaramucci, Sanders and their soulless sleaze on the other hand? No more laughing. Just more worrying.

America’s Red Herrings

Do you know the term “red herring?”

Dictionary.com defines it as “something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue.”  The concept, removed from argument context, should be familiar; we’ve been exposed to it every news cycle since the 2016 election process began, though examples can be found throughout history.

But back to 2016 and our present. It was an efficient distraction to say “look at her emails.” It may now be worth it to the President to sacrifice a son to media frenzy in order to make darker moves behind the scenes. The red herring has to receive notice, it must be given attention to be effective.

That process is made easier with reduced access to information. The media and public are ready to pounce on any morsel delivered by POTUS via Twitter, even when the tweets don’t make any sense. That’s what happens when he controls the message. From the ranks of dubiously moral Mad Men character Don Draper: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” That’s exactly what we’re witnessing. The conversation keeps changing. “Alternative facts”  have ascended. The term is part of popular vernacular and explains why Kellyanne Conway still has a job despite never saying anything relevant.

This shift is worrying, but dig a little deeper below the surface distraction. The big, bold red herring headlines aren’t always what’s important to the American people, the stuff of daily life. What does impact us? The little things hiding behind Don Jr. ‘s turn at e-mail scandal, or what’s been swept under the rug of America’s consciousness:

These examples brings me back to the point: the surface craziness of Team Trump serves as distraction from the larger agenda. It’s the flash that hides the impact, allowing the Trump administration to dominate news cycles with loud, hollow clamor. Meanwhile, the shady bits are happening outside the average citizen’s social media or news feed. It’s not just POTUS engaging in this charade. Congress is complicit as well,  as with 2016’s non-appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. In 2017, it’s secretive discussions on healthcare reform that are meant to strong-arm support while introducing massive, decimating reforms under a arbitrary deadline.

This kind of flimflam is completely unacceptable, particularly from men and women elected to  lead America through an increasingly complicated 21st Century. This is not the America we were promised, and local elections are beginning to show impact from concerned citizens awake to the con. Long declared party loyalties are disintegrating – with good reason.

As easy as it is to place blame on a distant and cynical Washington D.C. for the easy circulation of red herring news, we are equally culpable.  We must overcome all-too pervasive apathy toward staying informed and engaged. We don’t have the luxury of avoiding tough challenges that can depress the mood. The health of our nation is like work, oxygen, love – we need it.

Staying informed is a responsibility bestowed upon us by privilege-turned-rights of the First Amendment. Cutting through the din is unpleasant, but sticking your fingers in your ears is much more dangerous.

 

HIR

Amy Morton (Paige) and Em Grosland (Max)

Described in press materials as “a subversive comedy by celebrated playwright, actor, singer-songwriter and performance artist Taylor Mac,” I must own to feeling rather humorless as I exited the Chicago premiere of “HIR” this week. The original, 21st Century take on the dysfunctional family trope offers a realistic emotional experience for Steppenwolf Theater audiences. The trials of a household are usually hilarious, and heartbreaking, in(un)equal portions.

As the curtain rises, we meet Paige (Amy Morton). At first blush she seems to embrace a “woke,” flexible and free approach to marital relations, housekeeping and child rearing. Rules are made to be broken. In fact they must be in order to counteract a stultifying, regressive patriarchal society that values order and ownership above expression. Paige’s home is full of costumes, culture, whimsy and loving chaos.

Or is it?

Paige’s pseudo-liberation from the tyranny of a brutal marriage is gained not through determined agency or death. Rather her new world order is brought about by a simple quirk of destiny that sets off a linear regression for Paige and her husband Arnold (the monumentally talented Francis Guinan). They are a couple of children — Arnold in a cognitive and motor skill sense, Paige in a bitter, retributive and controlling expression of shifting power dynamics.

Into this landscape walks Isaac (Ty Olwin), a dishonorably discharged Afghanistan vet whose issues both predate, and are simultaneously exacerbated by a three-year absence from his family. Broken communication on both sides have left the family’s troubled history frozen in time for the PTSD-afflicted Isaac. His father is a bully. His mother is a work hausfrau and his sister looks to him for leadership. These truths and the horrors of the battlefield are what he knows. There is predictability in familiar discomfort.

The physical timeline of the production’s two hour and 15-minute run (with one intermission) spans one very long day. One in which a newly returned Isaac must adjust to a stroke-addled father, drugged into further decommission by a mother who disguises revenge as a form of experimental enlightenment. Isaac’s sister is now Max (Em Grosland), a precocious, transgendered teen who also serves as the namesake of “HIR.”

The dialogue includes a running discussion, replete with helpful chalkboard diagramming, of gender fluidity. “HIR” is the pronoun that bridges the male/female gap, welcoming and including everyone occupying space outside of staid, heteronormative boxes. The education is held up by Paige as detached and redemptive, and yet her rules for living 2.0 are perversely rigid and uncompromising. Where once Arnold represented the excesses of a fragile, yet dominantly violent male ego, Paige is the id run amok in one lane. Cleanliness, ownership and categories must be rejected wholesale.

What exactly either ideology has to do with the living, growing Max, searching for himself and establishing principles amidst psychological warfare is deliberately unclear. At one point, Isaac asks his sibling (insensitively) if his gender transition is driven by Paige’s anarchy. A more prescient question for all of the central characters, as well as the audience: Are any of our values and belief systems the product of enlightened free will? Or are they driven by history, environment and rebellion?

There are laughs aplenty sprinkled throughout the script. The different challenges confronting each character offer fertile ground for absurdity. All four performances are nuanced, complicated and fully formed work that defy categorization.

Yet I suspect few audience members will be chuckling during and after the production’s final scene. Mild spoiler alert: Max is the only one left standing. We’re left with the impression that Paige, Arnold and Isaac’s stories could only ever have ended one way. “HIR” journey has just begun — and is likely to be endured alone.

“HIR” runs through August 20 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.