Guys and Dolls

Every semester I give my students a new set of articles to use as the topics for their essays up until midterm.  I look for ones that will offer opportunities for thoughtful discussion based on the facts and viewpoints provided so that my students can improve their writing and critical thinkingskills.  Sometimes, despite my best efforts, some articles just don’t seem to grab my students’ attention.  However, on occasion I hit the jackpot and pick a topic that—for reasons that I could not possibly have anticipated—hits a nerve and inspires some very interesting student writing.

This semester I added an article by Suzanna Danuta Walters entitled “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”.  At the point when I sent this to be copied for my classes, I could not have known that the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh would become an epic battle between the rage of sexual assault survivors demanding to be believed and the insistence of others that condemning without corroborating evidence—however strong the beliefs and emotions of the victims—is a mistake.  Partisan passions, scandal mongering media, and showboating politicians all helped to create the most incredibly divisive and mutually destructive nomination battle possible, and both the process and outcome will be studied and discussed for decades to come.

Not surprisingly, Professor Walters’ article has been the basis of a lot of student essays so far this semester, and the responses have run the gamut from agreeing that men are the source of most of the evils in our world to more evenhanded responses that saw her viewpoint as perhaps simplistic at best—and flat out insulting at worst.

Hatred tends to blind us to the complexity of the people whom we hate.  Just looking around at my classes on any given day I see men who are fathers, loving husbands, awkward singles, straight, gay, bisexual, talkative, shy, daydreamers, focused, politically conservative, aggressive, withdrawn, politically liberal, cerebral, apolitical, sad, upbeat, overwhelmed, confident—and virtually every other descriptor I can think to use.  To label all of them as brute oppressors and terrifying antagonists of women seems both foolish and impossible to support empirically.

This being said, our national dialogue about the sexual assault and harassment of women is both necessary and belated.  Human history has also been the history of organized warfare, daily violence, and cruel dominance—and a good portion of this has been perpetrated by men and has harmed women.  To argue otherwise would be ridiculous, and to fail to understand the pain of victims would be to deny the darkness that lies beneath our civilized veneer.

However, is it OK to hate men?

I would argue not.  Although we are all part of many groups and subgroups—and gender is perhaps the most easily recognizable grouping of all—men are not part of a collective hive mind and so must be assessed on an individual basis.  It is impossible to predict the behavior of individuals from the tendencies of the group.  In almost every collection of individuals—regardless of how they are sorted—you will find cruel and cowardly people mixed in with those who are decent and brave.  To presume every man is an animal and rapist—and so neglect the many good men in this world—might satisfy the rage of some, but it will build walls where none need exist and create a society that is far more lonely and suspicious than is actually necessary.

It is also appropriate to point out that men deal with a host of challenges as a group that are sometimes forgotten in the rush to castigate them for their “testosterone poisoning” or whatever the other clever insults of the day might be.  Men are 3.5 times more likely than women to commit suicide, account for over 90% of workplace fatalities, and are now far less likely than women to finish high school or earn a college degree.  Were we to point to this harsh statistical evidence of pain, danger, and ignorance affecting practically any other group in our nation, outrage would result—and a rush to find solutions would follow.  Unfortunately, men are presumed capable of bearing their pain on their own—or are somehow deserving of it—which are sad and isolating beliefs that condemn many to lives of misery and, worse yet, make them feel that asking for help is a sign of “unmanly” weakness.  Neither men nor women benefit when inane preconceptions based on gender alone drive our decisions or viewpoints.

Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 Presidential election convinced many that America is too innately misogynistic to ever overcome the more unfortunate aspects of the history of relations between men and women, but only the most blindly partisan could fail to note Secretary Clinton’s obvious shortcomings as a candidate.  Perhaps the better lesson to take away from her defeat in light of how so many women obviously did not cast their votes based on gender identity alone is that both women and men are looking more and more beyond mere surface realities regarding one another.  It could be the case that our perceptions are both more sophisticated and more nuanced than elite opinion could possibly imagine, and myths regarding how men and women see political and social issues dramatically differently might need to be discarded along with so many other ignorant and insulting ideas from the past regarding gender.

I hope there can be less hate and more understanding, less shouting and more listening—and more empathy and less derision—where relationships between men and women are involved.  Our differences are actually insignificant compared to all that binds us together as humans, and we should not allow partisans on either side of any issue seek to divide us for political gain.  There has been more than enough hurt and harm, and it is now time for healing to begin.

 

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What We Can Learn From The Bill Cosby Verdict

One would need to be living in a very deep cave to have not heard: Bill Cosby—once America’s favorite television comedian—is now a convicted sex offender. His conviction for aggravated sexual assault is both an affirmation that no one is immune from the force of the law and a depressing reminder of how those with power and influence typically believe they are far above the petty concerns of human decency and respect for others.

To say that everyone of a certain age is confused about finding out that Bill Cosby, Mr. Jell-O Pudding Pops, was in the habit of drugging and assaulting women—many, many women, apparently—is a stupendous understatement. Although he has been mostly out of the public eye in recent years—in part because of the mounting evidence of his criminal behavior—no one who came of age in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s could escape his mirthful and beneficent presence. He was America’s dad—no doubt about it.

Reading the comments on the media posts concerning Mr. Cosby’s conviction, one senses a collision of vindication and dismay. Bill Cosby was, as much as we might want to now conveniently forget it, a trailblazer who transformed the portrayal of African-Americans on television by presenting smart, compassionate professionals—super spy, teacher, and doctor—on a series of hit shows. It would be difficult to overestimate his influence in changing the perceptions—and correcting the misperceptions—of so many Americans across many decades. To now discover the twisted and cruel soul behind those sterling performances feels like the worst possible betrayal to his many, many former fans.

Nonetheless, knowledge is much healthier than fantasy, and this conviction will likely be a signal moment in the ongoing national debate—and painful reckoning—regarding the sexual harassment and assault of the past and present. To learn what we now know about Bill Cosby’s behavior is part of a necessary maturation of our society’s attitudes regarding the daily interactions of men and women.

Every moment of every day the sexes commune in ways that are typically mundane and sometimes profound or life-changing—and which must always be respectful of necessary and perfectly reasonable boundaries of privacy and personhood. We are still, of course, not where we need to be—yet. Sadly, both women and men still often shout across a divide where the differences between compliments and insults, flirting and harassment, or honesty and deception still sometimes feels like a common language is lacking. Add in our very human and messy sexual desires, and we have fertile ground for the misunderstandings and misgivings that cause many to cut off communication altogether because they fear being misinterpreted—or worse.

Many women still feel that Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump—a man who once gleefully described how she was “schlonged” by Barack Obama during her 2008 presidential run—is emblematic of the deep river of sexism that still runs through our society, and one would need to be very blind or foolish to fail to notice that women are still many times not accorded the respect that is their due. Indeed, however one might feel about Hillary Clinton’s policy positions or public record, it is sad to remember the many humiliations she has had to endure—ranging from America’s weird obsession with her hairstyles while First Lady to a philandering and thoroughly disingenuous husband—during her long and accomplished career. Many women understood and forgave her faults because they had experienced similar pain in their own lives, and they felt like the voters’ dismissal of her in favor of Donald Trump was a confirmation of all their worst fears regarding their own shaky status in American society.

Now that Hugh Hefner has gone to his eternal rest, perhaps we can now likewise bury his adolescent Playboy philosophy that is perhaps understandable in twelve year old boys but is still unseemly, nonetheless. Keeping firmly in mind that our nation’s past has never been as innocent as we might like to believe and idiocy can never be entirely eliminated, perhaps we can at least resolve to speak courteously, behave responsibly, and listen thoughtfully when around the opposite sex.

The divides between men and women are likely not so insurmountable as we might sometimes believe, and if we can all be a little open and honest regarding our own faults and shortcomings—no one is perfect—that might ease some of the anger that men and women sometimes feel toward one another. I know we can all agree that what Bill Cosby has been convicted of doing is wrong—wrong on every level and in every possible way. That might provide a basis for a dialogue regarding how our pervasive hookup culture and media misogyny has degraded and debased both men and women—and how healing and understanding requires a broad-based commitment to rejecting our worst instincts in favor of our highest aspirations. There is a lot of pain, bitterness, and confusion to be found all around us in both men and women; restoring the health of our relationships is a shared responsibility that we can either shun or embrace.

Breaking down those walls and dialing down the defensiveness will not be easy for many because of past experiences that have made it difficult to trust one another again, but the alternative is loneliness and an empty existence. Therefore, just how hard of a choice is this to make—really?

A World Turned Upside Down?

There is a possibly apocryphal story that, upon surrendering to the American revolutionaries at the Battle of Yorktown, General Cornwallis instructed the British Army band to play “The World Turned Upside Down”. The situation must certainly have seemed so to the British, smugly certain of victory against the colonists, whom they deemed to be mere rabble—the “Deplorables” of their day. These farmers, laborers, and small business owners certainly must have seemed to be no match for the power and glory of the Empire at the very peak of its influence.

The world has now turned upside for a great many people who were convinced the sun would never set on the D.C. empire of ever-expanding government and regulation fueled by ever-increasing tax hikes and federal bureaucracy. Watching the sea of exceedingly sour Democratic faces during President Trump’s State of the Union address last week, it was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for those who still cannot seem to reconcile themselves to the new reality. This perhaps helps to explain the policies and positions now shrilly advocated by the Democratic minority that seem so at odds with both their party’s historical norms and current rhetoric.

I grew up with a Democratic Party aligned to the interests of blue collar workers. This stance obviously translated into policies that put cash into the pockets of the hard-working middle class that created so much of our nation’s prosperity through both their labor and personal spending. Although I realize the Democrats many years ago morphed into the party of Silicon Valley and Wall Street—it is no mere coincidence that Nancy Pelosi is from San Francisco and Charles Schumer is from New York—I believe their implacable opposition to the business and personal tax cuts recently enacted by the Republican Congress is spectacularly suicidal. Staking out an unyielding position against a bill that is already driving capital investments by businesses, prompting many corporations to hand out immediate cash bonuses to their employees, and reducing the federal tax bite for the vast majority of workers seems difficult to understand except as a short-sighted defense of overpaid D.C. bureaucrats instead of our tax-weary citizenry. For someone old enough to remember the Democratic Party as it used to be, this seems an upside down reality.

By the same token, it is probable that several shelves of books will someday be written to explain the Democratic somersault on the subject of illegal immigration. Democrats have somehow quickly moved from President Obama’s early vows to crack down on illegals to a current advocacy—if not outright endorsement—of sneaking into the United States and staying here. This stunning change in perspective among Democratic lawmakers is, in addition, today conjoined with a reflexive support for unabated migration from nations known to support terrorism. One has to wonder how Democrats plan to win back voters who don’t live in. . . San Francisco or New York. Watching so much of the nation’s electoral map turn Republican red two Novembers ago should have been sufficient to convince all but the most ideologically blinded to reconsider extremist immigration policies that helped put their party out of power—but it seems that upside down is the position still preferred by many Democratic loyalists.

By the same token the Democratic Party’s loud defenses of both the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, both of whom recently seem to be executing their investigative duties in manners that should raise the eyebrows of all but the most extreme partisans, also appear quite odd when put in historical context. I am old enough to remember when liberal Democrats (Is there any other kind today?) deeply distrusted the FBI and its motivations. Moreover, one need only glance back at the Clinton presidency to discern a very different attitude toward special investigations with elastic and expansive mandates.

The dead end search for Russian collusion in the 2016 election now seems to have mutated into an endless fishing expedition—accompanied by far too many self-serving and inflammatory leaks to the press—that serves to provide the unending appearance of wrongdoing in the absence of actual evidence. One need only to flashback to Kenneth Starr and his dim-witted defense of democracy, which eventually took the form of prosecuting the President of the United States for Oval Office nookie, to wonder what has snapped inside Mr. Mueller’s Democratic cheerleaders, who seem to have completely forgotten the damage done by odd investigative zealotry just a couple of decades in the past. Reality again lands bottom side up.

There is, however, one ongoing investigation in Washington that has real potential to be a political—and perhaps Constitutional—bombshell. Someday soon the Inspector General for the Department of Justice will be releasing a report regarding the FBI investigation of the Hillary Clinton email scandal—and the inexplicable assertion by former FBI Director James Comey that no federal laws were violated by either Secretary Clinton or her associates. If the Inspector General’s report were to show that the highest law enforcement officials in our nation were in fact tailoring their investigations and prosecutorial recommendations to help throw a U.S. Presidential election to one candidate over another, that would be a crisis of monumental proportions that would compel swift action to restore the integrity of our federal government.

Failing this were it to be necessary, our faith and trust in the guarantees embodied in the Constitution would be turned upside down, inside out, and shaken to the core. We cannot allow this to occur.

These D.C. Shenanigans Don’t Interest Me

The recent indictment of a prominent Washington political lobbyist, Paul Manafort, is prompting a rapturous response from some. Even though the criminal charges have nothing to do with last year’s election, those who wanted Hillary to win are now convinced that impeachment (Remember that Russian collusion!) is right around the corner. However, there are others who, even if not thrilled with President Trump’s policies or personality, are notably cooler to the idea. Me? With apologies to Rhett Butler—and as much as it pains me to say this—I don’t give a damn.

If you ever needed further proof that Washington, D.C. is a world utterly separate from the one we downtrodden peasants occupy, you need only to listen to the self-important chatter emanating from the banks of the Potomac regarding this non-story about a non-issue that is nonsense.

Given that we already know our federal government is a hopelessly corrupt conglomeration of back scratchers and influence peddlers masquerading as public servants, I am going to guess that I am not the only one who finds it impossible to work up to the target level of outrage. Listening to supposedly sane commentators froth at the mouth concerning the notion that lobbyists might not be the most honest of God’s creations reminds me of Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca fulminating about the doings at Rick’s Cafe: “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!”

The outrage machine will, however, continue to grind on for as long as it is good business to do so. Anger and investigations encourage donors to write checks, so that is as good a reason as any to try to gin up a story about an apparently corrupt lobbyist into the latest iteration of “the scandal of the century”. If you read many of the reactions in the media, one notable undercurrent is that these investigations and indictments might—at least temporarily—interfere with the real business of Washington insiders: Making obscene amounts of money by selling access to executive, legislative, judicial, and (most important of all) regulatory power brokers. Working for the public good is just fine—as long as it does not interfere with personal profit.

A short list of what our federal government should be preoccupied with might include right-sizing operations in order to stop driving our nation into ever more catastrophic debt, holding agencies and departments accountable for producing measurable public benefits, devising cost-effective strategies for dealing with our crumbling infrastructure, reforming the cesspool of campaign finance, strengthening our military to meet a host of new and disturbing dangers, and pushing back against the many threats to our rights to privacy and free speech. If you can’t focus on your jobs, just get gone for good—for the good of us all.

If I want to watch stupid people engaging in stupid behavior, I can tune into countless reality television shows where dysfunction is worn like a badge of honor. I (perhaps unreasonably) expect more from my national government—particularly in light of the many problems we face today. Perhaps a few high profile prosecutions will provide some minor temporary benefit that will help to support the illusion that real change in a culture of entrenched corruption is at last at hand, but I strongly suspect that much stronger medicine will be necessary to heal what ails our country. Occasionally sacrificing someone of middling importance on the prosecutorial altar does not absolve our nation’s capitol of its many sins. There is far more to answer for regarding the many messes we are in today due to neglectful—or actively damaging—leadership in Washington.

However, feel free to enjoy the D.C. circus of empty rhetoric and feigned concern if that is to your taste. However, I am certain I am not the only American who just does not care—and wants the whole crowd of crooks and cuckoos out of our lives as soon as possible. I can’t say that many of them will be missed.

The Hangover

The question at the heart of the movie from which I am taking the title of this commentary—“What the hell happened last night?”—is perhaps an apt description of the state of the Democratic Party today. It seems to me that a lot of energy is still being expended trying to figure out “what happened” last year to derail the dream of a liberal utopia where the party would never end. Watching Hillary Clinton now wander the country like Marley’s ghost, rattling her chains and bewailing her fate, one has to wonder when those who are still stunned by the election of Donald Trump—and the many sharp policy turns his ascendancy represents—are going to snap out of their stupor and fully engage with the many changes now afoot.

To say that the political and social Left in America is in an exceedingly surly mood is putting it mildly. Having convinced themselves in 2008 that the election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of an inevitable electoral wave that would permanently put their policies in place, most were stunned when the tide receded and Democrats suddenly found themselves with the lowest percentage of state and federal elected officeholders since the 1920’s. As much as those who voted for Hillary Clinton like to comfort themselves with the fact that she received more popular votes, the basic problem still remains that Secretary Clinton was running for President of the United States—not Empress of New York or Queen of California. Watching the middle of the nation turn bright red on Election Night, leaving only isolated blue redoubts on the coasts and Chicago, liberals were left to curse the grim math of the Electoral College and cling to the hope of still elusive proof of Russian collusion, neither of which has yet yielded much beyond cranky sound bites on CNN and MSNBC.

And so the hangover began.

To say that the Democratic Party has a long road to recovery on a national level is like saying someone who has been run over by a truck—and is now sporting a body cast—is a little under the weather right now. Locked out of power in D.C. and many states, Democrats have resorted to erecting the moral equivalent of a spite fence by continually castigating Republicans for their hateful ignorance while reassuring themselves that today is all nothing but a bad dream that will pass when they awaken to find Trump is finally indicted and removed from office.

This might not be the wisest course of action. If the Democratic Party is going to rebound sooner rather than never, it seems three specific actions would get them off to a good start:

Elevate the next generation of leadership—immediately.  It is time to finally admit that the folks who lead you down the road to ruination need to be replaced. The “Chuck and Nancy” show in the Senate and the House has clearly run its course, and the next tier of loyal Capitol Hill lieutenants who have also helped to propel today’s electoral meltdown are little better. The time for a shake-up is right now. The longer the Democrats wait and keep fresh talent on the shelf, the longer it will take to turn around their national fortunes.

Prioritize. The Democratic agenda that has developed over the past few decades boils down to the following: “Everybody should be given everything they want (unless it is a bottle of pop or a Nativity scene) by the government for free every time they ask for it—and no one need suffer from an opinion contrary to our own regarding the need for this.” As a result, our nation has ended up with a tottering and financially unsustainable big government monster that has turned the Democratic Party and its supporters into an easily caricatured herd of pettifogging bureaucrats who seem to have their noses in everybody’s business—all while gleefully belittling those whom they don’t like. It is little wonder that so many voters are ditching them. It’s time for a thorough discussion to distinguish what is important from what is tangential. After this is done, Democrats can pick a few signature issues and rebuild their tattered brand. However, if they plan to continue to be all things to all people (except for, of course, those people whose opinions and values they don’t like), the Democratic Party can expect a long stretch in the wilderness.

Talk less and listen more. One of my father’s favorite sayings was this: “You’ve got two ears and only one mouth—that should tell you something.” The unfortunate Democratic propensity for telling everyone (very loudly) why they are wrong has not won a lot of votes recently. It might be better to put down the mocha lattes and spend some time around voters who don’t live in New York, San Francisco, or a college town. Someone who disagrees with a core Democratic tenet is not necessarily a disagreeable individual; it is simply a fact that their beliefs are being informed by different life experiences, values, and judgments. Most people are fairly reasonable and are willing to have a sensible discussion on a variety of issues; if, however, your conversational style tends to leap into sneering condescension directed toward those whose beliefs differ from your own, you’re going to have a hard time convincing anyone. Moreover, sometimes you just have to adjust to the possibility that—incredible as it might seem—you are just plain wrong. That’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but that might be just what is necessary to prompt a Democratic renewal.

Will any of this happen? I hope so. Thoughtfully planned and executed government policies play a major role in improving our daily lives and ensuring a bright future for our nation, and we need cooperative and respectful dialogue to create a better tomorrow for our citizens and our country. Most importantly, given the broad range of challenges ahead, we need voices from across the political spectrum involved. It is not healthy for our country to have the electoral math so skewed in one direction, and a reinvigorated and resurgent Democratic Party could play a significant role in promoting programs that would ensure a more broad-based prosperity.

However, to be honest, I don’t yet see this happening. The Democratic finger-pointing and purity tests seem still to have to run their calamitous course. However, I humbly offer this blueprint for a path forward. If my suggestions turn out to be wrong, so be it. I offer them for whomever might care to listen—from one concerned citizen to another.