Category Archives: current affairs
Months ago, I swore I wouldn’t get too emotionally or otherwise invested in this year’s presidential election.
In 2012, I wrote and ranted and worried. I wanted to ensure that everyone knew exactly what I thought about the candidates and why my opinion was justified.
In retrospect, I doubt anything I wrote had much, if any, influence on anyone.
People who agreed with me, well, agreed with me.
People who disagreed with me either ignored me, posted negative comments, unfriended me or unfollowed me.
America re-elected Obama, politics continued to divide us, and America has continued to be torn apart by issues of race, equality and social justice.
And this presidential campaign has devolved into a completely horrifying spectacle.
Yet up until now, I’ve refrained from writing about it.
Maybe I’ve just become too cynical and convinced that some people’s brains simply can’t separate facts from propaganda and can only spout ridiculous rhetoric.
But something happened to my self-imposed reticence after watching the first of three scheduled presidential debates on Monday night.
I realized the hypocrisy of my temptation to make light of Donald Trump’s hair, his weird orange complexion, his constant sniffing and his absurd facial expressions.
Because in doing so, I’ve lowered myself to his standards of valuing, or devaluing, someone based solely on appearance. This is, after all, a man who discussed the potential size of his toddler daughter’s breasts https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1w2T1owSV0U, has used physical attributes as a qualification for employment http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-pol-trump-women, and, the night after the debate, defended hurtful comments about a beauty queen’s weight http://www.npr.org/2016/09/27/495611105/in-post-debate-interview-trump-again-criticizes-pageant-winners-weight,
As a country, we have to be better than this.
We must do better than this.
We have to raise our expectations and our standards.
And, most importantly, we have to make the voice of human dignity louder than anything money can buy.
There are two national headlines gnawing at my brain right now.
The first is about the murder of three police officers in Baton Rouge.
The second is about WV State Delegate Michael Folk tweeting that Hillary Clinton should be hung on the National Mall.
Both are senseless acts of violence.
An expression of hate is the ammunition that fuels physical assaults and attacks. It turns the words and actions of someone who looks, thinks, acts, or believes differently into a significant threat to individuals who have been programmed to protect their own closed-minded fortresses of right, wrong, and justice.
Making a statement that any person deserves to be hurt at the hands of another does absolutely nothing to improve anyone’s circumstances. Yet this type of brutality is quickly becoming the norm in the United States.
As a country, we are sinking fast in the rising waters of spiteful words, and no one throwing us a life jacket.
Only we can get ourselves out of this mess, which means we have to hold the haters accountable.
I’m not encouraging censorship. Freedom of speech is a core value, and our nation can only improve when we listen to ideas and thoughts that are different from our own. But freedom of speech must be treated with the same respect that we give to anything that is fragile and prone to break when it is mishandled.
And, as a country, we are being anything but gentle with each other.
Having a right to say what you want and not being held accountable for your words are two entirely different issues.
When I was a child, I lived with the taste of soap in my mouth because I was constantly saying things that provoked my parents. There was no law against the words I used or the tone with which they were said. But my words were disrespectful and inappropriate, and I paid the price by becoming a connoisseur of a wide variety of soap brands.
The soap in the mouth punishment isn’t feasible with politicians, community leaders or others who choose to continue to pollute political events and social media with their hateful and violent words.
But the rest of us can ensure that there are consequences.
We can choose not to vote for them.
We can unfollow them on social media.
We can call other leaders and lawmakers and express our concerns.
We can write letters to the editor.
We can even write blogs about them.
Collectively, when each one of us speaks up, our voices are bound to drown out the nasty ones.
“Gritter.” It was such a completely foreign and wrong word, yet it was also very powerful.
Until I moved to West Virginia as an awkward adolescent, I never knew such words even existed. I was aware that some people used negative words to describe different races, but I didn’t know that there were also words to describe people by their social status. I had certainly witnessed my share of ridicule of the poor and outcast, but I didn’t know there were actual labels for such individuals.
What I did know was that associating with people who wore such labels was social suicide and defending them could be just as dangerous.
I was already teetering on the edge of not belonging, and I was worried that even the slightest mistake would send me hurtling over the edge. I was already considered weird because I had transferred from a state that was thousands of miles away. Then I had made a near fatal error of comparing my old life to my new one. In other words, in the eyes of my peers, I thought I was better than they were.
Nothing was farther from the truth. Maybe, if we hadn’t all been so wrapped up in the complexity of adolescence, my classmates might have recognized how completely alone and alien I felt.
But, they didn’t. Or, if they did, they didn’t care.
And so, I felt a complete urgency to assimilate into a new culture and to adopt a new language, even when it went in the face of everything in which I believed.
I made the mistake of trying out my newly acquired word “gritter” on my family during dinner.
“What does that mean?” my mom asked
I tried my best to explain about the kids on the bus that were gritters and how they wore the same clothes over and over again, lived in the mobile home park and were generally unacceptable.
My parents got really, really angry.
More than 30 years later, I don’t remember much of what my parents said, but I do remember the look on my dad’s face when he said that he would have been a “gritter” in high school. And I remember my ambivalence.
To the depths of my soul, I knew how wrong judging and labeling other people was. But I also knew that I had absolutely no social footing, so standing up against what was a social norm would just further alienate me. My peers had a pecking order, and I wasn’t about to question it.
Until this past week, I’d completely forgotten all about gritters and my parents complete outrage at the ease with which I had used the word.
But then the West Virginia primary election brought it all back.
Donald Trump easily won West Virginia’s nod for President of the United States. While this wasn’t a surprise, the political pundits immediately began analyzing how one of the nation’s poorest states could engage in a love affair with a man who has nothing in common with the people, the culture and, of course, the lack of resources.
And even though I’m personally frustrated by the whole situation, I kind of get it.
West Virginians have been ridiculed for decades. The entire population is often stereotyped as poor, uneducated hillbillies whose culture is defined as being on par with the dueling banjos in the movie Deliverance.
No one wants to be called the equivalent of a gritter. We want people to believe we are better than that, even if that means we point our fingers at other people and blame them, not ourselves, for our problems.
That is Donald Trump’s schtick.
He builds himself up while tearing others down – the poor, the undocumented, women, people with disabilities, people with accents, etc. Basically, he has taken license to belittle anyone who isn’t exactly like him.
No wonder West Virginians are buying it. If elected, they will have a leader who gives them license to call their neighbors gritters and blame others for their problems.
I am only grateful that I am no longer that awkward adolescent that was afraid to speak out or embrace the wisdom of her parents. Now, I’m willing to yell at the top of my lungs “Putting other people down doesn’t make you a leader or a better person. In fact, it does the exact opposite.”
Maybe Donald Trump will never hear me, but at least I know someone will.
And that’s a start.
If you don’t know anything about “the welfare system,” then drug testing “people on welfare” makes sense.
After all, your hard-earned taxpayer dollars are being used to support “people on welfare.”
Even on days when you don’t want to go to work, you show up because that is what is required for you to bring home a regular paycheck. Obviously, “people on welfare” are looking for an easier way to get money.
And, because they aren’t working hard like you are, they must spend their time doing whatever they want – including watching television all day and doing drugs. Since they don’t have jobs, the money that “people on welfare” use to buy those drugs is obviously coming from their “welfare check” that we, the hard- working taxpayers, provide them. If they didn’t use the money from their “welfare check” to buy the drugs, then they don’t need a “welfare check” at all.
To ensure that no one “on welfare” is using our money to buy drugs, then we have to drug test them. That way we won’t be wasting taxes, right?
The seemingly ongoing demand and state jumping on the drug testing band wagon isn’t based on facts and statistics but rather on prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation about “the welfare system.”
It’s also a waste money. Requiring drug tests for individuals who receive social services benefits has consistently been shown to increase administrative costs with little else to show for the efforts.
When the State of Tennessee started testing individuals who applied for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), only 37 out of more than 16,000 applicants failed drug tests during a six month period. Those results weren’t much different from those in other states, such as Utah and Florida.
I don’t know what the cost of administering those tests was, but I do know there is no way that those results can be spun to indicate cost-effectiveness. But then, the outcry for drug-testing people who receive TANF has never really been about cost-effectiveness or even helping families with drug addiction.
Despite public perception that “people on welfare” are lazy and don’t do much to contribute to society, the life of people who receive TANF isn’t all that restful. First they have children to raise.
TANF, which was established during the Clinton administration, is only available to families with children. It also requires recipients to participate in programs that help them learn skills and gain employment. In West Virginia, TANF recipients are required to sign a personal responsibility contract which they have to follow or they will lose benefits.
Even if they do all that is required of them, federal law prohibits them from receiving more than 60 months of assistance during a lifetime.
For a small amount of cash assistance (in West Virginia, a family of four receives an average amount of about $385 each month), TANF recipients must go to classes, do volunteer work and actively seek employment. Studies show that the average time any individual receives TANF is 24 months, and that is usually the result of unfortunate circumstances like the loss of a job or divorce. Much like an insurance policy, TANF was available to these individuals who had been taxpayers but fell in tough times until they could once again be taxpayers.
I have many more friends who never used TANF not because they never had financial difficulties but because they had the resource friends and family to help them through the crisis. Not everyone is surrounded by people who have the resources to help.
But even when we look beyond the stereotypes about who receives TANF, there are even bigger issues.. For example,what happens when someone does test positive for drugs? What will happen to their children (since they must have children to even receive the assistance.) Just as critical, who will be responsible for treatment and recovery services? In my community, those services are usually unavailable and inaccessible to low-income and rural individuals. Advocates have been complaining for years about the lack of treatment programs. Before we focus on drug testing anyone, we must have the community capacity to help those who struggle with addiction.
The call for drug testing “people on welfare” only makes sense to those who either don’t understand the social services system or who don’t want to understand it. It only makes sense to people who don’t mind stereotyping low-income people or who don’t realize that’s what they are doing. And it only makes sense to those who think that subjecting people who are already struggling to additional accusations is more effective than subjecting them to a helping hand.
He was telling my parents about places where he hadn’t been allowed to go.
I couldn’t understand why, so I asked.
“It’s because I’m black,” he said.
I didn’t understand and I told him so.
“Some people don’t like black men and some people are just afraid of us,” he said.
I still didn’t understand, and neither he nor my parents could give me a good answer. Treating him based on the color of his skin made absolutely no sense to me.
I’m not telling this story to illustrate how children aren’t born prejudice. I’m telling this story because it’s not the story at all. Instead, it is the introduction to a more complex story about how children, just like adults, can fool themselves about their capacity for prejudice. It is a story that illustrates how blind some of us can be to the complexity of human beliefs and behaviors, particularly our own, I’m telling this story even though I hate what it says about me. I’m telling this story because it demonstrates how someone can claim not to understand discrimination and racism while they are in the process of developing their own prejudices.
In the early 1970’s, I was one of only a few white families living on an Indian reservation, and I knew I didn’t belong. My knowledge wasn’t a result of the fact that I looked different from most of my peers. They told me I didn’t belong, probably repeating the words they had heard their parents and other adults say.
That might explain why I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I was the only white child in my kindergarten class, even though my teacher was a white woman named Mrs. Short. My tears must have had an impact because schedules were manipulated so the only other white child my age was put in my class.
That was the year of increased concern that my peers were losing their cultural identity. To address this, members of the tribe came to class to teach us native language and traditions. That was the year we had to learn native dance and participate in a root feast. That was a year when I was taught that the white men were the bad guys. That was the year I was taunted, teased, bullied and chased home from school.
According to my parents, that was also the year I began to hate people of a certain skin and hair color. My mother says once we moved off the reservation, I insisted I never wanted to go back. We did, and I don’t remember being particularly upset. Of course, I also don’t remember ever having the disdain for an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to overcome this embarrassing piece of personal history. I like to think I don’t make rash judgments about people and that I treat everyone with the same fairness. But when I’m completely honest with myself, I have to admit that I can be as judgmental as anyone else.
But here’s the thing – I admit that to myself. Maybe that’s because I was raised by parents who expected me to be accountable for both my beliefs and my actions. Maybe it’s because I have personal experience being different, and therefore threatening, to others. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because the young child still in me would be disappointed with anything less.
Whatever the reason, I wish other people would take the time to look inward and realize that any words or posts on social media about an entire race or social class are always going to be wrong because they are based on limited experience.
Groups of people are not an experience or an incident. They are composed of individuals, and each individual is a complicated mix of good, bad, funny, sad, right, wrong and most of all humanity.
This holiday season, I encourage everyone to embrace that humanity and push aside the limited experience.
When we do, the child still in all of us will celebrate.
Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.
Last week, WV Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.00 an hour in 2015 and to $8.75 in 2016.
Opponents of the new law have had multiple complaints:
Teenagers working part-time jobs will be making more money than they really need;
The amount employers will be forced to pay for overtime will increase significantly;
When minimum wage increases, everyone else’s income is worth a little less.
I’m not an economist nor am I a labor expert, so I really can’t disagree with any of these statements.
What I can do is provide a little bit of perspective.
Currently, a full-time minimum-wage employee making $7.25 earns $15,080 annually.
The poverty threshold in the United States for a single person is $11,670 annually. According to that, a person making minimum wage is rolling in the dough since he/she makes $3,410, or nearly 23%, above poverty guidelines. Never mind that this threshold is so low that most social service agencies use guidelines such as 138% or 150% of the poverty level to determine eligibility for services and emergency assistance.
Who couldn’t afford housing, utilities, transportation, groceries, medical bills and clothing with all that extra money? Granted, if there are two people in the household, the poverty guidelines increase to $15,730 a year. That means both people would have to work to keep the family above the poverty line, and one would only have to work part time at minimum wage to do so. Of course, if that household is comprised of one adult and one child, living above the poverty line becomes a bit more tricky.
In my job, I encounter people trying to navigate that tricky situation every day when they are seeking help keeping the electricity on or paying their rent.
But here’s something you may not realize: you probably encounter them every day too.
They are the people providing services for you behind cash registers and brooms. They are the people caring for your children and you parents. And they are the people who are working long hours for the lowest legal pay and are still often called lazy when they can’t pay their bills.
During the recent debate over the minimum wage in West Virginia, I was reading arguments for and against the increase, and one exchange struck me more than any other.
An individual in favor of the increase stated that he was working two jobs to support his family and that the increase would help.
In response, someone else stated that this person wouldn’t have to work two jobs if he had gotten an education.
As a very educated person, I can personally attest to the fact that an education is not a ticket to a good salary. But even if I hadn’t had to personally struggle with low-paying jobs, I’ve still had many advantages.
I was blessed with a childhood during which my parents cared about my brain development and supported me in school. I was blessed by people who encouraged me when I pursued a higher education. And I’ve been blessed with circumstances that didn’t require me to support others when I was getting that education.
Not everyone has the opportunity or the aptitude to get an education. And even if they did, there would never be enough decent-paying jobs to support everyone who meets the educational requirements.
Besides, many of us depend on people who are willing to work for minimum wage to do the tasks that make our lives easier.
Instead of condemning them, we should thank them.
And a slight increase in their pay is just a start.
The boxes were big – really really big/ And there was one for my brother and one for me. They were among the first gifts to appear under our Christmas tree, and my brother and I couldn’t have been more excited.
We were ten and twelve years old that year – old enough to know that our parents were practical and extremely unlikely to splurge on anything expensive AND impractical. But we were ten and twelve years old that year – young enough to be hopeful and confident that the boxes were too big to actually hold anything practical.
We were wrong.
On Christmas morning, we both tore into the large boxes, which simply revealed what we had known in our hearts all along: our parents were extremely practical.
Inside each large box was a puffy winter coat. To us, the boxes might as well have held nothing at all. My brother and I were both devastated. Our mom had actually wrapped winter coats in beautiful packages with elaborate bows as though the gifts were incredibly special.
As an adult, I can appreciate the presents and that my parents wanted to ensure our warmth. But as a child, I felt like I had been fooled. Sometimes I feel like I’m still being fooled or, just as often, I’m fooling myself.
I still jump to conclusions based on the appearance of a box without knowing what’s inside. For example, I was recently discussing the backpack program, in which food is sent home with students who may not have enough to eat over a weekend. For some reason, the discussion turned to a specific neighborhood, and I said, “Why waste time in that neighborhood, shouldn’t they should focus on neighborhoods where children are really hungry?”
The neighborhood in question has large homes with spacious, well-manicured lawns.
“Because there are hungry children in some of those homes,” I was told. When I started to argue, I was put in my place. “Some families bought those houses in hopes that the value would grow. At the time, they didn’t have enough money to furnish them. Now, their houses are worth considerably less than they owe, and they are struggling just to make the bare minimum payment. They have no furniture and often can’t afford food. There are hungry children in side those big, empty houses.”
And I realized those houses are like pretty boxes. We think we know what is inside, but we are often wrong.
This week is Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, and I hope everyone will take some time to think about boxes: empty ones and ones we can fill up with food for hungry families. This year, our help is needed more than ever. SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits have been cut, and nonprofit organizations are receiving less support from the government than in previous years. That means our hungry and homeless are depending on community members.
Let’s fill up those empty boxes.
My parents not only allowed me to read banned and challenged books, they actually encouraged it.
And look how I turned out.
I have a (fairly) open mind.
I don’t think people of a particular economic status or a particular religion are any better than anyone else.
I don’t believe you can judge other people or their circumstances.
I think that talking about tough and sometimes uncomfortable subjects always does more good than pretending they don’t exist.
And I encourage my own children to read banned and challenged books.
Even worse, I’m actually promoting Banned Books Week during this last full week of September, a time that frightens some people more than the last week of October.
That’s because some people are scared that their children, other children and even other adults might be exposed to books that challenge the way they think and their values. Some are even afraid their children might learn something new – usually about sex, or drugs or violence or mental illness.
And they are probably right.
When I was in sixth grade, the school administration decided to break students into different groups depending on our reading ability. I don’t remember any books my reading group was assigned. I do remember that on certain days, students in my group were allowed to read whatever we wanted.
And the book that everyone wanted to read that year was Forever by Judy Blume,
I have the distinct memory of a group of girls sitting on a pile of mattresses stacked in the corner of the school gym while a girl named Karen read passages out loud. I also remember being a bit shocked but also amazed. I had read hundreds of books, but that was the first time I had ever read a book that discussed sex.
I wasn’t sure what to think of that, and apparently the other girls didn’t either. The book didn’t condemn sex, but neither did it glamorize it. Instead, it laid out potential consequences and made all of us think.
Maybe that is what most scares people who promote censorship: thinking.
They fear that people will think rather than simply behave or believe as they are told.
Apparently, there’s a lot of fear in the United States.
According to the American Library Association, over the past ten years, more than 5,000 books have been challenged for the following reasons:
- 1,577 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
- 1,291 challenges due to “offensive language”;
- 989 challenges due to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”;
- 619 challenged due to “violence”‘ and
- 361 challenges due to “homosexuality.”
An additional 291 were challenged due to their “religious viewpoint,” and 119 because they were “anti-family.” (Some works are often challenged on more than one ground.)
Some of my favorite books are on the list of the most commonly banned or challenged books of the 21st Century:
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Now a few of my daughter’s favorite books are regularly appearing on the annual “most challenged” lists. including The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Looking for Alaska by John Green.
But here’s the thing protesters don’t get: when my daughter is reading such books, she wants to talk to me about them, and the resulting discussions are incredibly rich. They provide an opportunity to talk about values and beliefs in a non-threatening way.
And those are discussions we’d never have if the books were banned.
I certainly don’t like every book my daughter reads or every idea that is presented in them. In fact, there are some I prefer she didn’t read.
But that doesn’t mean I have the right to say the author’s words don’t count or aren’t meaningful. Doing that is stepping into very scary territory.
Just ask anyone who witnessed the Holocaust.
I want more for our next generation, and because of that, I encourage everyone to go to a library, a bookstore (whether in a building or on the internet) or their own bookshelf this week.
And I want everyone to pick out, read and enjoy a banned book.
In second grade, I was told I should never brag, and I took that admonishment to heart.
I have no recollection why I was boasting, but I do remember Carla Shown looked at me with disdain and said, “No one likes people who brag.”
Her words have stayed with me, but there are times when we have to balance the lessons we learned in our childhood with our experience as adults.
Now is one of those times, and I am going to brag a bit.
I am a product of Head Start.
I feel an obligation to brag, because the voices of low-income children aren’t being heard above the clamor about Syria.
Head Start provides early childhood education, health and nutrition services as well as parent support for low-income children and their families. The services are designed to foster stable family relationships and address early childhood developmental needs.
Research tells us that children who have been through Head Start and Early Head Start are healthier, more academically accomplished, more likely to be employed, commit fewer crimes and contribute more to society.
Common sense tells us that the future of our country hinges on our children, and we should invest in our future.
Unfortunately, common sense often doesn’t prevail on Capitol Hill, and, as a result of sequestration, Head Start has eliminated services for more than 57,000 children this school year. The program is facing even more cuts in the future.
We are going backwards.
Head Start began in 1965, and, because of where I lived, I was enrolled in the program in the early 1970’s. I still have the report cards that documented my progress at mastering a list of tasks and skills and the photos from graduation ceremonies.
At first glance, the photos of my Head Start graduation don’t tell much of a story. There is no indication that the chubby little girl in the red dress would grow up to be the outspoken person I have become. Nor does it indicate that the little boy in the striped pants would someday graduate from Dartmouth.
But it does show what hope looks like, and if we don’t do something to meet the needs of our children now, we will be seeing fewer and fewer of such photos in the future.