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Category — Politics

Dear Vienna, I love you. But…

It is easy to hate the U.S. these days. I don’t mean the land which, from sea to shining sea (with the exception of that 880 mile stretch on I-40 through Texas), is one hell of a country. And I don’t even mean most of my 321.4 million fellow citizens, including the almost 63 million who, out of fear, desperation, lack of belief in basic American principles or, sorry, just plain stupidity (Bring coal back? Really?) voted for the man who makes it so easy to hate America.

And it is easy to love (at least parts of) Europe. And not just for usual reasons Americans fall in love with Europe, like food, art, music, history, charming villages, vibrant cities, joie de vivre, dolce vita, food and um, food. But, these days, for France’s spirited stance against right-wing extremism and Germany’s open borders, for the Netherlands pioneering LGBTQ policies and Scandinavia’s take-it-for-granted egalitarianism.

I’ve just spent three weeks living in Vienna. I say “living” rather than visiting because I wasn’t so much a tourist. I worked. I lived in an apartment. I shopped at the local Spar. I did laundry and hung it on the line.

I absolutely love this place. What’s not to love? The city regularly ranks #1 as the most livable city on the planet. It is a city of baroque castles, 19th century palaces, gilded concert halls, grand gardens, sweeping public squares and an urban forested oasis twice the size Central Park. And did I mention free health care, almost free higher education, efficient inexpensive public transport, six weeks of paid vacation, parental leave for both parents (which can be taken sequentially) and really really good bread? Also, consider this: UNESCO has listed an “official” Viennese pastime as lingering over an espresso drink with a pastry while reading the newspaper. That’s right, I said READING the NEWSPAPER.

But, lest you think my hatred of my homeland coupled with my love affair with The Imperial City (nice nickname) has completely blinded me to the latter’s shortcomings. I hereby declare that Vienna is not perfect. That’s right. You heard me.

Here are two of the city’s most egregious faults.

Toilets. As in few and far between. As in, they cost money. I mean, I pay $400 to see my physician for 15 minutes, but I’ll be damned if I have to pay 40 cents to take a pee. And then there are the porta-potties, as we call them, which you can sometimes find in parks. Is the CEO of the Austrian porta-potty companies a 2 year old? PiPiBox? ToiToi? Really. Is there no dignity in urination?

Spargel. Or, for you non-German-speakers: asparagus. It is spargel season here, and Austrians go nuts for it. And by “it,” I mean big, fat, thick spears of overcooked white asparagus drowning in cream sauce. It’s crime against the vegetable kingdom. Asparagus is my favorite spring vegetable: thin, bright green spears served naked and al dente, the way god intended.

So you see, Austria, you’re not perfect.

Only nearly so.

May 10, 2017   5 Comments

Dear America, Get over yourself. Love, Europe.

I decided to practice what I’ve been preaching. I know: What a novel idea.

When I talk to journalists, as I have been doing for the past week and a half here in Vienna (and in workshops elsewhere), I stress the importance of being smarter than the material you want to write about, of not writing until you have done the careful work of trying to understand what lies beneath the surface. I stress the importance of not imposing yourself on a story, not striding in brimming with self-confidence you have no right to feel, firing away questions you think are important, setting the parameters instead of discovering them, establishing the tone instead of listening for it.

I had set myself the task of trying to see how Trump’s America was “playing” in Europe. Well, in Austria, in Vienna. This I would write as a blog post, a dispatch from overseas. And so, not practicing what I preach, I proceeded to ask everyone I met, “What do you think of America under Trump?” And I got opinions. I got opinions that had a lot to do with whom I asked (schreibers, kunstlers, lehrers) and how I asked it – I do not have a poker face, and anyway, my phrasing “Trump’s America” is kind of a giveaway. That and the Bernie sticker I still have on my macbook air.

Then I caught myself (well, after three days I caught myself), and I shut up, observed and listened. Just what I tell others to do.

Here’s my report:

My fellow Americans, we should get over ourselves. No we shouldn’t stop making noise and taking to the streets and supporting the organizations and policies we believe in. What we should stop is thinking we are it. Because we aren’t anymore. The writers and waiters, the teachers and grocery store shoppers, the social democrats and unionists and other Lefties are looking elsewhere for inspiration. We are not the guiding light. We are not the world’s leader (in anything that is important). We have nothing to teach others about how to act ethically in the world, about how to treat our citizens with dignity, about how to create a just and joyful society.

Spain was once it. Britannia once ruled the waves. The Ottomans. The Romans. I understand that the Habsburg Empire used to be quite the deal.

But greatness ends. The man who ran on “Make American Great Again,” has, if the conversations I’ve been listening to are any indication, succeeded in lowering the world’s opinion of us to the extent that they care much less than we think about “Trump’s America.” They worry that we will do harm to the global environment. Yes. But they look to alternative energy innovations in China. They look to health care successes in Scandinavia. They look to the Netherlands for enlightened LGBTQ attitudes and laws. They look to Canada for compassionate immigration and refugee policies. They look past America.

What do they think of America under Trump? They think America is increasingly irrelevant. They think we – like the rest of the world – should look elsewhere for inspiration and innovation, for compassionate and egalitarian ways of behaving. They think we have a lot to learn.

May 3, 2017   4 Comments

Old World New World

Tomorrow I leave for several weeks to teach writing seminars in Vienna. I am very very interested in what people there think about Trump-era America. I will be asking everyone I meet and reporting back to you.

Although the population of the US has become increasingly diverse, still about 72 percent of Americans trace their ancestry to Europe. (Before 1965, policies limited immigration and naturalization opportunities for people from areas outside Western Europe. Exclusion laws enacted as early as the 1880s generally prohibited or severely restricted immigration from Asia.)

America was considered “the new world.” The “Old World” was Europe. Thus, many of us (particularly the almost three-quarters of us whose families originally came here from Europe) may think we have much in common with western Europe.

Actually we don’t.

Because I will be asking “Old World” Austrians how they perceive “New World” Americans these days, I wanted to get a better sense of the (everyday experience) lens through which they see us. In doing that research, I discovered how little we have in common.

Here’s a short list:

Elections of 2016. In 2016 election, the Trumpian far right candidate was defeated. Former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen, the child of political refugees and a committed liberal, won.

Health care. In Austria, everyone receives publicly funded care. (They also have the option to purchase supplementary private health insurance.)

Energy. Lower Austria, the largest of the country’s nine states, gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy (hydro, wind, solar). The rest of Austria gets 75 percent of its electricity from clean/ renewable energy.

Education. The country’s university system was free until 2001. Now the cost for Austrian citizens is €366 per term ($391). This includes masters, Ph.D., medical school, etc.

Language. Multilingualism is the rule – not the exception – in continental Europe, with more than half of EU citizens speaking a second language. In the US, 22 percent of us can speak another language (and it is far and away Spanish, the result of first and second generation Americans with Mexican ancestry)

Vacation. By law, every country in the European Union has at least four work weeks of paid vacation. Austria, which guarantees workers the most time off, has a legal minimum of 22 paid vacation days and 13 paid holidays each year. Parental leave is law.

Who we are must seem increasingly strange to Europeans. Let’s see what they have to say.

April 19, 2017   3 Comments

D E T E R M I N A T I O N

What does it mean to be determined?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, like many of us have, as we watch –in a state of almost indescribable horrific awe — the actions of a man determined to bring disrespect, dishonor and ridicule on the office of the presidency. And on our country. Which is to say on all of us.

But I have also been thinking about our determination, determination to show ourselves, our neighbors, our communities and the rest of the world what we value and what we are willing to fight for.

Which has got me thinking about what determination actually is and how to nurture it in ourselves and others. Because we need a lot of it. And we need it now, and we need it for the long haul.

Lest you think determination is an unpleasant scowling, grit-your-teeth experience, let me suggest just the opposite: Determination is a positive emotional feeling that involves persevering toward a difficult goal in spite of obstacles. It is about facing challenges with (I love this phrase) anticipatory enthusiasm. In the field of positive psychology – the best thing to happen to psychology since Freud died – determination is studied and identified as a constructive and optimistic force that compels us toward action and results in important outcomes.

One obvious outcome is that we “win.” Our determination defeats the obstacles. But that may be an in-it-for-the-long-haul outcome. What about in the meantime? In the meantime, as we are being our determined selves, we are nurturing perseverance and resilience. And as we persevere, we develop important coping mechanisms. As we persevere, we get stronger.

Determination in the face of daunting obstacles strengthen and empowers us. Strengthens and empowers. It fuels us. It stokes the fire.

Oh, and here’s something else from the woman who brought you Counterclockwise (that would be me): A number of studies have linked the meeting of challenges with determination to increases in physical health and mental well-being. Some specific positive outcomes include illness resistance, increased survival rates and decreased levels of depression.

March 22, 2017   1 Comment

Liar, Liar, President on Fire

What we are seeing, what we are in the throes of, my fellow Americans, is part Huxley, part Orwell – and a whole lot of Leon Festinger.

OK. So Huxley is obvious. As in Brave New World, we are seeing the construction and manipulation of a “state” based on the principles of obedience, homogeneity and consumption. Indoctrination is not via hypnosis but rather tweet blasts and bald-faced lies masquerading as “alternative facts.”

And then there’s Orwell, literary creator of a dystopia controlled by privileged few and headed by a leader who enjoys an intense cult of personality. (Um…?) Remember newspeak and doublethink? War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. Black is White. A true believer not only proclaims black is white, but believes black is white and forgets that anyone ever believed the contrary.

But who the heck is Leon Festinger?

Leon Festinger was an American social psychologist best known for developing the theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when you are faced with reality that goes against what you firmly believe. For example, you firmly believe – you have been led to believe (you voted based on the belief) – that the Affordable Care Act is “imploding,” and that Trump’s plan will, as promised, insure more people, giving them more choice, at a lower cost.

Then you are faced with the reality of that Plan: that millions of people will lose their coverage or not be able to afford coverage (so choice is not an issue) and that the cost for those who most need insurance – hint: not the young and healthy – will increase (and I use this word advisedly) astronomically. And that you, working-class, rural, Red state supporter, are in the crosshairs.

What do you, true believer, do with that information?

Leon figured that one out back in 1956 – it’s known as “belief disconfirmation” — when he and colleagues wrote When Prophecy Fails. Here’s what happens: In the face of patently contradictory, inarguable verifiable information, your original belief is…deepened. Or, slightly reconfigured to make room for the clearly contradictory information without that new information materially changing your original belief.

You may have heard about the famous study that underlies this finding. It had to do with an apocalyptic religious cult, members of which had given up homes, jobs, material possessions — and left their families – in preparation for the end of the world. The world was ending because of Sodom-and-Gomorrah type corruption (like, oh, being able to use the bathroom of the gender you identify with). Only the self-sanctified members of this cult would survive, spirited to the planet Clarion by an alien spaceship. No, this is not the plot of a 1950s sci-fi pot-boiler.

The world would end (big flood) right before dawn on Dec. 21, 1954. The rescue spaceship would arrive at a predetermined place on the stroke of midnight.

The cult assembled. Midnight stroked. No spaceship. The disconfirmed prophecy caused them acute cognitive-dissonance: Had they been victims of a hoax? Had they foolishly given up everything? What Festinger found was that to resolve the dissonance between apocalyptic, end-of-the-world beliefs (oh, let’s just call them Trumpisms) and the earthly reality (oh, let’s just call it reality), most of the cult restored their psychological consonance by choosing to hold a less mentally-stressful idea to explain the missed landing. Instead, they decided to believe the alternate facts their leader presented: The aliens hadn’t arrived not because the prophesy was false but because the aliens had given planet Earth a second chance. In the face of the prophesy-that-didn’t-happen, people did not leave the cult. People did not stop believing in the corruption of the world and their own sanctified status. In fact, they got out and proselytized.

As Festinger wrote, “If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must after all be correct.”

March 15, 2017   4 Comments

In Our America

What does it mean to be an American?

We have been forced to think deeply about this right now. What forced us – the thoughtless, aggressive, xenophobic, distinctly un-American actions (and, god help us, tweets) of the man some voted for president – is not a good thing. But where this is taking us, to a clearer understanding of who we are and what we believe, is a good thing.

Who are we? We are immigrants all.

Somewhere in all our family trees – this generation, the last, or many before that – our intrepid ancestors arrived on these shores. Some in chains. Some starving. Some escaping war, persecution, crime. Most with empty pockets and big dreams. This is who we are.

And, with every rally at airports and in the streets, we are showing ourselves and the world that this is who we are.

From the state department (thank you, Sally Yates) to Starbucks, from governors, state attorneys general and mayors to the CEO of Ford Motor Company, from Apple to airbnb to universities throughout the land, we are publicly and forcefully embracing the historic, aspirational message of America: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” We are reinvigorating our 240-year (somewhat checkered but still pretty damn good) history of (mostly) welcoming the different cultures and religions that make up the amazing patchwork quilt that is America.

The person who some elected President has said he will punish those who stand up for these core American values (goodbye Sally Yates) and that he will figure out ways to inflict hardship on cities, states, universities, corporations. Like withholding federal funds or devaluing stock prices by slanderous tweeting. A class act.

This fired-up opposition, this burgeoning sense of corporate social responsibility, the sanctuary movement, the demonstrations and rallies…this is just the beginning, folks. It is what we must do to prevent the overturning of Roe v Wade. What we must do to protect affordable insurance. What we must do to protect LGBQT rights (thank you, Boy Scouts of America!). What we must do to continue to act as humanitarians on a global level. Those challenges are all ahead of us.

This is truly an historic time…and not just because the White House is inhabited by a lout, a loose-cannon who has never served his country in any capacity. It is because we are on the dawn of another American revolution. And you and I are in the trenches.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted …
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends,
it is [the people’s] right, it is their duty, to throw off such government.

February 1, 2017   3 Comments

The long haul

Okay, folks, the shit has officially hit the fan.

After the election, I calmed myself with thoughts like this (maybe you did too):

Once he’s in office, he’ll realize that you can’t run the country like a reality TV show. The loutish, aggressive, provocative behavior will modify.

Or, this thought: As we know, he’s a liar and a fabricator. So, it is entirely possible that he lied about what he intended to do as president in order to curry favor with a certain segment of the population. Once elected, he will not follow through. He never intended to.

Or, this thought: Moderate Republicans (of which there are still a number out there) will put on the brakes. They will not allow this president to ruin their party or the country.

Or, this final thought: After all, how much harm can one man do in four years?

I don’t have to tell you about all the harm that has already been done during the first few days of this presidency, from the defunding of international women’s health care programs to reviving the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, from moving ahead with The Wall to the plan to close down our country to desperate refugees. Lifting the ban on CIA-run black sites to “more thoroughly” interrogate suspected terrorists.  Dismantling the ACA.

It seems to be a juggernaut. No one is stopping him. We have to stop him.

We have to show the rest of the world and each other what we value, what true American values are (aspirational if not actual): inclusiveness, diversity, egalitarianism, compassion, optimism. And we can show it the way we showed it on January 21 with massive demonstrations all over the country. Yes, again. And again. We must be in it for the long haul.

And we can show it by fomenting a state’s rights revolt. Gov. Jerry Brown of California is showing the way here by publicly, forcefully stating that California will stay true to its people and the legislation they enacted regardless of what the federal government decrees. Universities are declaring themselves safe places for students from those countries our new president has declared evil or students who may be undocumented. Our cities, counties, states, schools, churches, temples and mosques can take a stand. Need to take a stand. We can make them take a stand.

Here’s another idea, one I am embarking on tonight: Write short, reasonable (that is, no ranting) emails to as many moderate Republicans as you can identify. Tell them they must stand up to this dangerous, out-of-control bigot, this bully (don’t use those words). The majority of Americans will support them in this. And, bonus: They will be able to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning.

I hope you will find a way to stay active and involved. I hope that you won’t give up hope.

I want to hear what you’re doing.

(photo is of the Portland, Oregon demonstration, 100,000 strong. The biggest demonstration in the city’s history.)

January 25, 2017   5 Comments

This is what democracy looks like

stand-up-speak-out What can we do? That’s the big question. We can gasp at what he says, shake our heads in disbelief at the people he chooses for government posts, get angry, get depressed, mock him, proclaim that “he’s not my president.” But, I repeat: What can we do?

We can take a stand in our communities. We can come together in our communities, in our cities and towns and state loudly and publicly what we believe in and what we will do. The President-elect lost big in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco – and many other smaller cities across the nation. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, by unanimous vote, passed a heart-stirring resolution that serves as a template for communities across the country. Each of us, all of us, need to assess our own communities and see if we can follow San Francisco’s lead.

I begin here with how the resolution ends:

…although the United States will soon have a President who has demonstrated a lack of respect for the values we hold in the highest regard in San Francisco, it cannot change who we are, and it will never change our values. We argue, we campaign, we debate vigorously within San Francisco, but on these points we are 100 percent united. We will fight discrimination and recklessness in all its forms. We are one City. And we will move forward together.

And here is a sampling of the resolutions:

RESOLVED, That no matter the threats made by President-elect Trump, San Francisco will remain a Sanctuary City. We will not turn our back on the men and women from other countries who help make this city great, and who represent over one third of our population;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That we will never back down on women’s rights, whether in healthcare, the workplace, or any other area threatened by a man who treats women as obstacles to be demeaned or objects to be assaulted;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That there will be no conversion therapy, no withdrawal of rights in San Francisco. We began hosting gay weddings twelve years ago, and we are not stopping now. And to all the LGBTQ people all over the country who feel scared, bullied, or alone: You matter. You are seen; you are loved; and San Francisco will never stop fighting for you;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That Black Lives Matter in San Francisco, even if they may not in the White House. And guided by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, we will continue reforming our police department and rebuilding trust between police and communities of color so all citizens feel safe in their neighborhoods;

FURTHER RESOLVED, That climate change is not a hoax, or a plot by the Chinese. In this city, surrounded by water on three sides, science matters. And we will continue our work on CleanPower, Zero Waste, and everything else we are doing to protect future generations;

Grassroots, folks. Let’s proclaim our values. Let’s stand by – and back up – our beliefs. What can we accomplish in our communities?

December 7, 2016   3 Comments

What we did wrong

ht10k8x4xoavdyhd6kfd_400x400It’s been three weeks. Three very long weeks. We’ve now had time to experience the first four of the famous five stages of grief and loss: Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. I know that you, like me, are NOT interested in (nor are we ethically or morally capable of) moving to stage 5: Acceptance.

No. We will not accept. We will not go gentle into that [very dark] night. I don’t mean to propose that we hunker down in the “he’s not my president” bunker. Because, um, he is. Or soon will be. I mean we cannot, must not, blanket our grief with desperate acquiescence. We cannot say to ourselves or each other: “Gee, he can’t really fuck up everything, can he? Maybe we just wait it out.”

We don’t just wait it out.

We move. We act.

But what do we do that is not just a repeat of what we did that resulted in where we are now? I’d like to suggest that we good-hearted people, we card-carrying members of the (Social) Justice League helped create the climate and the culture that elected the person who is about to head our country. I would like to suggest that we accept some of the blame and learn from our mistakes.

Here’s what I think we did wrong, not in the months leading up to the election, but for years and years.

We failed to create an understanding that we are NOT in a zero-sum game here. My empowerment is not your disempowerment. My win is not your loss. My right to marry whomever I love is not your loss of marriage sanctity. The more people we empower, the more power we ALL have, the stronger we ALL are. Why wasn’t that our clear message?

We allowed basic respect for human beings and sensitivity to others to be branded “political correctness” and then turned into a joke. How did that happen? How did being civil and granting people dignity become political in the first place? What the hell does it have to do with politics?

And speaking of war of the words that we lost, may I just say: Pro-Life. What a genius (and largely unchallenged) move to re-brand those who sought to rob women of the power over their own bodies as pro anything. We who oppose them are, what, anti-life? When you allow others to craft the narrative, they can assign you a part. And they did.

We did not insist, a decade or more ago, that Media Literacy be a required course in middle and high school. Or part of adult education in our communities. So we have hundreds of thousands, we have millions and millions of people who don’t know the difference between fake news and vetted, verified information, who don’t know the difference between opinion and fact, who can be fooled by fabrications, who know the world through tweets. Shame on us.

My list is longer. But I’ll stop now. I want to hear from you. Where do you think we went wrong? Let’s get it out in the open and take some responsibility. And then let’s move forward with intelligence and heart, with energy and deep commitment.

November 30, 2016   4 Comments

Fear. Hope.

indexI am afraid.

I am afraid of what he will do, a man full of anger and ego, a man who lashes out, who mocks and bullies, a man who respects no one, a man who has never served our country in any capacity.

I am afraid that he deeply deeply misunderstands what being “great” means.

I am afraid of the damage he can easily inflict, and has promised for the last 18 months that he will: the obliteration of the Affordable Care Act; the nomination of a Supreme Court justice – undoubtedly two, maybe even three – that could make the overturning of Roe v Wade a reality; a retreat from any attempts to deal with climate change, which he has publicly declared is a Chinese scam to weaken us; the passage of xenophobic, Draconian immigration policies that destroy the heart and soul of what does, in fact, make American great. And I could go on.

He is a bombast, a loose cannon, a cheater who has gotten away with it, who has in fact become a billionaire doing it, and has now become the next President of the United States doing it.

But more than anything else, I am afraid of us, of my fellow Americans, the millions and millions of people who voted for this man, who listened to him make fun of the disabled and brag about his sexual exploits and call Mexicans rapists and crooks and promised to close our borders to all followers of Islam, a man who embodies the worst of us, the most fearful, selfish, angry worst of us.

And yet, at the same time, I trust my tribe, my millions-member, cross-continental, multi-generational, multi-cultural tribe of forward-looking, diversity-embracing, open-hearted women and men who will do what we do, what we know how to do, what we have been doing, what we must now do with greater commitment: Work with rekindled energy and overarching kindness to make our communities safe and welcoming, help those who need help, protect those who need protection, embrace and learn from those who want to be a part of us and add to the richness and texture of our culture. I trust my tribe who believe in and live the precepts of social justice. I trust that, after we have absorbed this shock, after we have cried and hugged each other and talked through our fears, we will carry on, with renewed vigor, with fierce love, with unshakeable commitment. Because this is what makes America great.

November 9, 2016   4 Comments