Learning to Listen

America has a hard time listening. We can watch the news and see what’s going on, but there’s a difference between looking and listening, especially when there’s so much noise to filter. Learning to listen requires us to go beyond the words, to hear and appreciate what’s also being communicated in moments of silence.

Over the past week, we’ve seen our listening problems rise to the surface, unfolding via the growing reports of harassment and misconduct by Harvey Weinstein. News coverage prompted numerous celebrities and victims to emerge from the shadows years, or even decades later. What caused the delays? A familiar set of problems – hostile work environments, fear of retaliation, a power imbalance and good old fashioned fear.

Actress Rose McGowan’s Twitter account was suspended after sharing her own abusive experience with Harvey Weinstein. Her initial accusation was shushed out of court for $100,000. The deluge of accusers that have supported McGowan’s account reflects another dark chapter for male accountability in Hollywood. It’s clear that Weinstein’s actions were well-known, and textbook bystander silence was the rule until the accusers generated enough media coverage to make it safe for other powerful men to come out against Weinstein.

Consider this situation in the context of the recent repeal of campus sexual investigation standards promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The repeal means that the burden of proof shifts even further toward victims, while protecting rapists like Brock Turner.  The result? Offenders are receiving the communication that they can abuse with minimal (if any) repercussions.

In the short and long term, victims are facing ever steeper battles to be heard while waiting for (historically) ineffective campus police/security to take action, under rules which mandate that rape kits and tests be performed within 72 hours of an attack. Additional roadblocks placed in front of people who deserve support.

Remember that the man-child in the Oval Office stands in the company of Weinstein and Turner for his own aggressive and unwelcome behavior towards women. There was outrage a year ago when the infamous Access Hollywood footage came to light, but not enough to derail his campaign. Is that predictive of Weinstein’s fate? Some time in the pop cultural penalty box  before business resumes as usual?

We cannot afford silence any longer. There isn’t space to devalue the traumatizing experiences others. A nation recovering from several natural disasters (with a notable lack of action and coverage in Puerto Rico), a President speaking to hate groups while cancelling necessary healthcare subsidies for lower-income citizens….we need a multitude of loud voices against these atrocities, but we must also learn to listen. The cynically powerful and repressive are muffling voices that should be heard. 

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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.

 

Trump’s Away, But Congress Still Plays with America’s Future

When President Trump boarded a plane last week Friday for his first foreign mission (as with any discussion regarding the Trump administration, “mission” is a loose placeholder word for whatever it actually is this group executes), I breathed a sigh of relief. I’m certain there were others of the same mind. Moments of national embarrassment were bound to occur. Perhaps Trump would exhibit behavior more reckless for the safety of our union, inveterate loose cannon such as POTUS is. But it was kind of nice to have the house to ourselves for a moment. To take a deep breath and if not process all that’s happened since January 20 (who has that much time and money for therapy?), at least grab our collective bearings.

Because Trump just can’t help himself, the restorative breath did not last long. Some of the tour’s early coverage exposed the President’s oddly low brow, yet stubbornly persnickety, eating habits. Per Newsweek via Raw Story, “President Donald Trump eats like a 6-foot-plus, 240-pound petulant child—if that irritable youngster had the ability to push a button and make a lackey fetch a Coke.”

Other reports centered on Trump’s attention span and stamina challenges. And just what, in the what, in the WHAT was happening with that orb business in Saudi Arabia? It was the two-dimensional plot kickoff to an Austin Powers movie.

But while some of our attention drifted overseas in tandem with Trump’s reality show farce of a presidency, there’s still plenty going on stateside. Enough to remind a majority of voters that 45 is an ongoing danger to sanity and integrity wherever he roams, yes. At the same time he’s merely a product of the political culture from which he spawned. It took the Republican Party and its “base” four decades to bring us this week’s cynical two-ring mendacity circus. And President Trump was far away from the Big Top.

Let’s start with the proffered budget plan. Unveiled this week by Tea Party darling Mick Mulvaney, it doesn’t contain much to further candidate Trump’s populist agenda. Esquire’s Charles Pierce found it both wanting and sadly predictable:

“Make no mistake. This is not a ‘Trump budget.’ This is a Republican budget, a movement conservative budget, a product of the tinpot economic theory and the misbegotten Randian view of human nature towards which every serious Republican has pledged troth since the days of Reagan, a government-sanctioned fulfillment of all the wishes that Paul Ryan wished over the keg during the college experience that our contributions to Social Security helped buy him.”

Not only does the plan, as it were, savage funding for the arts, sciences, Medicaid and numerous human services – certainly nerve-wracking enough. But the actual numbers are an irrational output of magical thinking. Peter R. Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget during President Barack Obama’s first term, was quoted by the New York Times in response to a review of Mulvaney’s document. Words were not minced.

“It is not hard to write down a series of number on a paper and say: ‘Tada! I balanced the budget!’…That is a much different process than having a credible plan for how that could be achieved. And they have not done that.”

Americans are being served the same warmed-over, inequality-propelling trickle-down economics. A decades-old can of Spam we’re supposed to accept as fresh and nourishing. We watched this approach balloon our deficit in the 1980s and early 21st Century. Yet all the scolds and hawks of the Obama era seemed to have vanished. Funny, that.

This ideological pattern has little to do with Trump. He is merely a distracting, erratic vessel. It’s ok if he costs the Republican Party a generation of voters as long as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan achieve upward redistribution of wealth and maintain a Republican SCOTUS majority. There’s no long-term thinking for these guys. Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em. We little folks are just so many generic cigarettes.

The other freak show in Washington this week is the House Intelligence Committee. I have to admit, I’m not even sure what the GOP is doing here. This investigation is not helping further American interests. It’s also not doing much for Trump and the Republican Party. A disgraced Devin Nunes skulking around the White House in March. And just yesterday, former CIA Director John Brennan pantsed Trey Gowdy. A lot of time and money wasted on a forgone conclusion that embarrasses everyone involved.

Donald Trump returns to the White House this coming Saturday. There’s hope for a somewhat slow news weekend as the man-child recovers from jet lag and a public rebuff from Melania. Enjoy another few moments before Hurricane 45 unleashes anew. But never take your eyes off Congress. There’s not much novelty there. Just more of the same bad policy and American Dream erosion.

We Bombed Syria. What Now Trump?

“I was not a fan of President Obama’s ‘red line’ followed by a general approach of confusion and inaction toward a ravaged Syria. But neither am I in favor of unilateral violence ordered by a President cloaked in corruption, scandal and general, inhuman oddity.

The first two and a half of months of the Trump administration have been a break necking blur of stupidity and heartlessness. However, the third leg of this gang’s unholy stool is incompetence and while they’ve tried to illegally ban certain immigrants and wrench grateful Americans from their Obamacare, we can be grateful they’re too disorganized to succeed. But Syria has been bombed, officially. It has never taken genius or coordination to fire weapons and indiscriminately kill.”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Tim Kaine: Feminism Has a Southern, White Male Face

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“It’s now abundantly clear that I and others who placed Kaine in the category of benign, unthreatening or more of the same had it all wrong. Because although the Senator poses no menace in the traditional, physical or emotionally aggressive sense, he is nonetheless kind of revolutionary. And a real thorn in the side of the Trump/Pence ticket.

The country has gotten to know Tim Kaine better over the last few months. Though the sole VP debate remains a shrill blight on the candidate’s otherwise appealing canvas (in interruptus style, if not policy and factual substance), liberals and moderates mostly like what they see. His approval rating is above 50 percent in his home state, notable in a land that leans red (as of the 2014 midterm elections). Nationally, there’s a little something for every voter demographic: devout Christian faith and missionary work, fluent Spanish-language skills that connect directly with 52.6 million native and second-language speakers (a population larger than Spain) and a stable legislative record largely devoid of flip flops. There’s also – pleasant surprise of all surprises for this pundit – a strong, defiant feminist streak.”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

I Am You: An Open Letter to Trump’s Accusers and Promoters of Rape Culture

Alongside my partner Bob and my two nieces, I love my sister Jennifer more than anyone in the world. It breaks my heart that Fall has had a way in recent years, of bringing about events that move my her to share heartbreaking personal stories. However my pride in her courage and willingness to open up, to create dialogue and change, is beyond description. Ladies and gentlemen, please read this week’s important guest post.

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I don’t consider myself a writer, and I certainly didn’t want to write this piece. But just as it was last November, current events, personal experience and an acute sense of universal injustice compel me to speak. Although I work in broadcast communications as a career, my private life is something I guard with care. This is a difficult story for me to tell. But here it is because tell it I must…

Women are coming forward in droves with horrifying tales of physical violation. These stories do more than provide corroboration for the sick words Donald Trump spoke on the now-famous Access Hollywood tape from 2005. These reports lay bare that Trump’s vile rhetoric was much more than indiscrete “locker room talk” The accounts of these women expose a pattern of frightening, inhumane Trump experiences, experiences which he is of course refuting. When pressed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper during the second presidential debate on Sunday October 8, Trump claimed that his revolting dialogue was just loose “guys will be guys” bluster. Certainly he never assaulted anyone….

Tell that to the multitude of women over decades who experienced traumas verbatim to what Trump described to disgraced Today Show anchor Billy Bush. A particularly disturbing account from a former People magazine reporter sent chills down my spine. I don’t have to imagine the humiliation and terror she must have felt being violated on the job by a powerful man.

It’s not hard to put myself in Natasha Stoynoff’s shoes because like far too many women (conservative estimates place the incidence at 1 in 6), I have been a victim of sexual assault. More than once. The first violation occurred was when I was 12 years old, walking down a neighborhood street with my older sister. A man walking in the opposite direction grabbed my breast, gave a satisfied leer and continued on. I can never forget that look, like he was certain something erotic had passed between us, the disgusting, humiliating intimacy it suggested. Sickening. Though other passerby and drivers on the busy road must have seen something, no one bothered to help. I was a child assaulted in broad urban daylight.

Though this unnamed educator never crossed the line to physical contact, as a senior in high school, I experienced systematic degradation from an AP English Language teacher. Every time I raised my hand to participate in class, I was acknowledged by the “pet name” Cookie Buns. After many such publicly embarrassing, misogynist incidents, I stopped raising my hand. This man did more to negatively impact my education (academically, and the school of life) than he will ever know.

That same year, a stranger followed me home from the train to my apartment vestibule. Initially, I wasn’t sure if he lived in the building. Anonymous city life. Then he pinned me against the door of my unit and started to reach up my skirt. It was shrill screaming and the insane barking from my very large Golden Retriever, Max (always keenly on the lookout for threats to my safety) from behind the locked door that saved me from what was certain to be rape, if not more. After my attacker fled, I was so shaken I couldn’t dial 911 for several minutes. I also blamed myself for what happened. I remember crying and asking, “Why did I wear a skirt today?!” But the tragedy wasn’t complete until a male neighbor later told me he heard my screams but thought I was “horsing around.” That man, a member of my community, could have intervened or called authorities. Maybe the sicko who attacked me would have been caught. To my knowledge, he never was.

I wish this was the end of my story. But it’s not. In my early 20s, I was grabbed by the breasts (again) by a drunk supervisor at a company event. Some of my colleagues witnessed this, as the assault took place in a crowded room. I went to another (female) supervisor, embarrassed and enraged. I naively figured she’d move quickly to address the obvious impropriety. Instead she all but dismissed the incident with this observation: “I assumed you’d be okay with it.”

Boys will be boys, right? Never mind that I’d done nothing to invite that kind of behavior, or that I was married with a child. What kind of person publicly acts out his sick private thoughts and keeps his job? I’m sure it will surprise few women to know that he did remain employed. Years later, when we professionally encountered each other again, he pretended not to know who I was. Another tactic to obfuscate and rob me of my dignity.

This is the society we live in. A society in which we blame and shame the victim, call them liars, insist that they “asked for it.” No matter what anyone says, this is why Trump’s targets didn’t come forward sooner. Sexual assault is an isolating, psychologically gutting experience. It’s reasonable to believe these women were looking for a safe sign to come out of the shadows. The leaked Access Hollywood tape and Trump’s bold, arrogant denials provided that signal. It’s beyond maddening that these accounts are being tossed aside by some for political expediency since we are a month away from an election. Very inconvenient for Republicans. Another classic case of victimizing the victim, forcing them to relieve trauma all over again.

I confessed my struggle with putting this story out for public consumption. I have experienced the denial, the shame, the fear and the isolation. Frankly, it’s not a side of me I want people to know, especially my daughters. I don’t want them to think of their mommy in danger or, worse, fear for their own safety. But this story is bigger than one narrative. I am Trump’s victims and they are me. And although women bear the brunt of our society’s rape culture, too many boys and men have also been violated, or love someone that has suffered and continues to suffer. Paralyzing fear is a tool of the oppressor. I’m done being oppressed. Staying silent does nothing.

This story is for all those with an agenda, attempting to invalidate a women’s personhood or trauma. You’re disgusting and on the wrong side of history.

This story is for those who haven’t talked about their harassment and/or assault, regardless of the reason. You deserve to be heard, and I believe you.

This story is for all the young boys and girls who may experience unwanted, unasked for aggression in the future. Anyone who behaves in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable is in the wrong. Period. Speak up. Scream as loud as you need to.

This story is for anyone who isn’t yet clear about respecting other human beings. Assume nothing. You have no fundamental right to someone’s body. Don’t touch anyone without permission.

History will not be kind to the 2016 presidential election and its Republican standard bearer. But we can learn. And we can start healing wounds and prevent future damage. We have a common interest in doing so.

“The greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.”

– Mahatma Gandhi