Being Qualified No Longer Matters

It took “Dancing with the Stars” to jolt me into the realization that many voters no longer care whether candidates are qualified. Bobby Bones, who hosts a nationally syndicated country music radio show, has a large and devoted following that just voted him into the finals on “Dancing with the Stars.” He’d never scored higher than 8 with the judges, but viewer votes pushed him to the top, eliminating a star who’d repeatedly scored perfect 10’s. Bobby Bones is certainly a delightful person who’s overcome a heartbreaking childhood, but this is dancing with the stars. I was fine with keeping him on the show along with the other stars who couldn’t dance, but voting him into the finals? Come on! Even Bobby was giving a thumbs-down when he eliminated the best dancer of the season.

I should have realized about qualifications when Hilary Clinton, arguably the most qualified candidate ever to run for President, was defeated by Donald Trump, who had no experience in government. I hoped Trump’s election was a fluke, and, after all, Hillary, the qualified candidate, had won the popular vote. Still, “I can’t stand Hilary” was often stated as the reason why a voter acknowledged but ignored her qualifications. But somehow I imagined that, given all those likeable stars on “Dancing with the Stars”, the dancing would determine who won. Or that the judge’s scores would prevail. Thus the jolt. Now I am truly frightened for our country.

Many voters now seem to vote for candidates who are like them. It’s deeper than preferring candidates who look like them. With Obama’s election and the recent Congressional elections of the first Muslim and Native American women, the first black women from New England, the first Latina women from Texan, most of us seem to have gotten over the need to elect candidates who look like us. (Both Bobby Bones and the dancer he defeated are white males.)

Instead, many voters seem to be choosing candidates whose personalities make them feel good about themselves or who could be their friends. Quotes from Bobby’s followers included “I can’t get up in the morning without listening to you. I love you Bobby Bones.” It’s the same as “I can’t stand Hilary.” Trump’s a master at being a buddy to his base. The crudeness, barbs, and nasty tweets bond his followers into an in-group. And when Trump boasts at his rallies that he knows better and does better than any other President, isn’t he conveying that, by supporting him, they, too, know and do better? It appears that his base says, “Who cares if he’s qualified? He’s one of us!”

But when I analyze how I choose political candidates, my analogy with “Dancing with the Stars” breaks down. Mike Pence is qualified to serve in government, but his positions (banning abortion, curbing LGBT rights, promoting coal over clean air, and funding vouchers for charter and religious schools) are not mine. I can’t stand Pence, but that’s because of his positions more than his personality. Was that what the voters who couldn’t stand Hilary meant? Were they referring to her platform or her likeability?

I realize that for me, it’s not qualification in the “can-do” sense but in the “what I value” sense that drives my vote. It’s not friendship, shared background, nor making me feel good about myself. I’ve even voted for a crook because his positions match mine. Perhaps, because I value dancing, my analogy does hold.

Qualification, personality, platform – on what basis do most voters vote? Not knowing may be scariest of all.

VOTE!

I urge everyone who hasn’t already voted to go to the polls on November 6. Only if we all vote, will we know what most Americans want. Remember the term “silent majority”? Well, the silent majority has let the voting minority take over this country. I cringe when I hear any politician say, “This is what Americans want.” Unless most Americans vote, politicians can’t speak for “Americans.” And who knows: if we all vote, we may find that we are not as divided as we think.

But you say, “My district is gerrymandered so that my vote doesn’t count.” I say, “Vote in every election and for every local and state office because it’s at the state level that districts are gerrymandered. Choose candidates who will district fairly or, more cynically, who will gerrymander in favor of you.”

You say, “The electoral college determined the 2016 election. Clinton won the majority, but Trump is president. Why bother to vote?” I say, “The electoral college applies only in presidential elections. Vote in 2018 for Congressional candidates who will work to eliminate the electoral college.”

You say, “I can’t vote.” Perhaps you committed a crime or your name has been removed from the rolls. I sympathize but ask that you not give up. Next time, volunteer to get out the vote for a candidate, especially a candidate for governor, who will see that whoever is in charge of elections will work to reinstate you.

But how do we know which candidate to vote for? Who will represent what we value and want? With fewer newspapers, more social media, and a deluge of 30-second TV ads, it’s hard to find a candidate’s positions. Attack ads like “My opponent will take away your Second Amendment rights” should make us ask for specifics. Will he eliminate the Second Amendment, take away my bump stock so I can’t kill a lot of people with my hunting rifle, make me wait for a background check before I can buy my gun, or force me to hunt with a bow and arrow? Maybe if politicians talked about the details, they’d find enough in common to write bipartisan legislation.

It used to be easier to vote by party. The Republicans, who used to be counted on to guard the nation’s treasure, are now running up the deficit. They’re pro-life but seem to have little interest in providing those lives with services or a healthy environment. Democrats are willing to support the newborns with SNAP, housing subsidies, and clean air, but then they want to send everyone to college for free. Voters who would ban abortion but fear climate change must decide which issue takes precedence.

To learn positions, voters must seek information about individual candidates. The League of Women Voters’ non-partisan voters’ guide, www.VOTE411.org, is available in New Jersey and some other states. Voters need only enter their address to see the responses to League questions of every candidate on their ballot (provided the candidate answered). Voters who don’t know who their candidates are can use their sample ballots to find their candidates’ names, Google them, and then visit their websites or read what’s been written about them.

“Too much effort,” you say? Nonsense! You’re looking for people who share what you value and want: a “you” but with power. What is more important than having a say about our wealth and health, the people around us and the planet we share?

“But,” you say, “the candidates I vote for rarely win.” Yes, but as in sports or the lottery, you cannot win if you don’t play. Keep trying. Vote!

The Right to Life

The right to life”—we are all endowed with it. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, next to the right to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course we believe in the right to life. But what if that life will be denied the liberty to pursue happiness? When we stick up for the right to life by trying to ban abortion, do we consider whether the child whom we mandate be born will have the love and care to maintain life? Do we consider whether the three rights are equal? Or whether “quality of life,” as implied by liberty and the pursuit of happiness, should be taken into account? And are we talking about only the unborn lives or also those of the living who will be impacted by each new child? Because I can’t answer these questions for others, I support the availability of abortion.

I know a couple who already had four young children when they found they were unexpectedly pregnant with a fifth. The baby would likely be as beautiful and bright as its siblings, but the parents had neither the money nor energy to absorb another child without jeopardizing the welfare of all five. In a decision that would remain painful throughout their lives, the parents chose abortion. Abortion was not taken lightly. No need for the in utero photos brandished by pro-life supporters. The parents could picture the child whose life they were ending. But they could also picture the struggle for food, bedtimes with too few beds, no time for stories, no room in the car for everyone, and not enough money to be sure that each child would have the chance to experience anythingfrom camp to college.

Not that I prefer abortion. Contraception is my solution. I’m furious when two people, perhaps even strangers, hot for sex, and likely inebriated, have a one-night stand that results in a human being no one wants or is prepared to raise. Furious if a child is conceived to prove its father’s sexual prowess. Furious if its mother spreads her legs so she can boast, “See, he loves me. I’m going to have his baby.” No child asks to be a badge of its parents’ sexuality. Each baby deserves to be the result of a loving commitment to raising a human being. But since it’s unlikely that sex will be limited to those times when adults want to create or increase a family, contraception is the answer.

But contraception isn’t always reliable, affordable, or available—and never in rape. And so I support abortion because I care most about the welfare of the child after it’s born, not its right to a life that could be miserable. To me, abortionlike food, adequate housing, educational opportunity, and, most importantly, the parent’s desire to have a child—must be available to insure that each child born can pursue happiness.

What about the mother’s right to liberty? Without abortion as an option, a woman is forced to carry an unwanted child through birth. Nine months of her life dictated by others—perhaps because the contraception she’d counted on failed. Pro-lifers might argue that the baby can be put up for adoption. More cruelty because once a woman has heard and held her baby, maternal instincts kick in. Giving the baby away is wrenching. And what if the child is not adopted? Right now, more children are eligible for adoption than there are adoptive parents. Even if we believe that life begins at conception, can we recognize that abortion might be a better alternative than lives constrained by whatever conditions caused the request for abortion?

Republicans in Congress, sympathetic to their evangelical base and with no respect for a woman’s right to liberty, champion the right to life of a fertilized egg but show little interest in assuring that the resulting child has a chance at happiness. They’re reluctant to increase support systems such as CHIP, to raise the minimum wage for over-worked parents, or to allow the puny tax breaks for the middle class to extend beyond eight years. Don’t the conditions of life count, too? Who should be the judge?

Your God or My God?

The Supreme Court is hearing the case of the Colorado bakery artist who refused to create one of his masterpiece wedding cakes for a gay couple because doing so would violate his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. His refusal was a slap in the face to the gay couple; their love was unworthy. Here’s the problem: does the baker’s religion also condone demeaning other people? Or is this a question we forget to ask when sticking up for our religious beliefs?

The baker argues that the Constitution guarantees the right to freely exercise his religion. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” He exercised his belief. Were the gay couple able to exercise their belief that their marriage was valid?

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are major monotheistic religions. We all have one God, but we evidently don’t share the same rules about how God wants us to behave. So when we stick up for our religious beliefs, we’re like children on a playground taunting, “My God is righter than your God.” I picture God, the Father, looking down and shaking his head in dismay, “Oh dear, the children are fighting again.”

We sing hymns: “With God on our side.” But do we really want God to takes sides? Religious beliefs pit Shiite against Sunni, Evangelical against Episcopalian, but it’s hard to picture God cheering, “Go Sunnis! Get those Shiites!” Or “Homosexuality’s here to stay, Evangelicals go away!” If, as we say we believe, God created heaven and earth and all its creatures, would He take sides among His own children?

The problem with justifying a position based on religion is similar to that of the Supreme Court when deciding how to interpret the Constitution. Some Justices look to the Founding Fathers for their interpretation; other Justices take into account today’s reality. Who is more right? Thankfully, the Constitution is a paper document. God, however, is supposed to be God.

Perhaps instead of concentrating on what religions tell us not to do, we should rely on what they tell us to do. Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The same words appear in Judaism, Leviticus 19:18, and are sometimes called the central commandment of the Torah. I’m no expert on Islam, but I’ve read a quotation from the Prophet Muhammad, “None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”

I have to give the bakery artist credit for fairness because he stopped making signature wedding cakes, even though he lost money. But what if, instead, he had whispered to God, “I’m sure You don’t approve of this marriage, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings and, after all, it’s up to You to deal with homosexuality,” and then had smiled at the gay couple and asked what decorations they wanted on their cake?

Righteousnesssticking up for one’s beliefsfeels good, but it doesn’t lead to peace. And with conflicts raging almost everywherefor power, property, and profitI want peace. “Peace” is stenciled on my Christmas cards and extolled in the carols I’ve sung since childhood. So for this Christmas season, I’ll stick to the Golden Rule and try to respect rather than demean other people.

Musings

I’ve blogged only once since Trump became presidenta blog about white supremacy. Helplessness and fear do not inspire blogging, yet may I share my despair?

Recently I went to a rally in support of DACA. Before the rally even got underway, we were told that the previous night ICE had taken away four Princetonians. I imagine men in black bullet-proof vests, ICE stenciled on the back, pulling up to a house in the Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood. The house is dark and peaceful, its occupants sleeping. Suddenly the door bursts open and four people are dragged outto detention camps, to deportation. ICE is not the nice Princeton cops who obey Princeton Council’s resolution to protect immigrants and who trust me with the key to the Suzanne Patterson Building, no questions asked nor ID needed. ICE is strangers who invade my town against my wishes.

Can I help? I march and chant with 200 others. I choke up when a Dreamer takes the mic and asks “Couldn’t you have given up part of your Thanksgiving for me?” She’d been on a four-day hunger strike before Thanksgiving to call attention to her imminent deportation. She’d sat, hungry, outside a Congressman’s office and been ignored. She and others had tried to interrupt the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade to state their case. They were removed. Now she’s crying. She knows no country other than the United States. In coming here her father had wished only to give his children opportunity. Is that a crime? Time is running out and she is desperate. With the others I cheer my support. But what clout do I have with the five New Jersey Republican Congressmen who don’t support a clean Dream Act?

Thanksgivingand the Girl Scouts publishes an essay arguing that little girls should not be forced to hug relatives they may see over the holidays. I’m shocked at this attack on family. My granddaughter not hug her grandpa, my husband? And then I remember hearing from friends about sexual abuseabuse committed by inebriated fathers or by that dear old friend of the family whom they’re told to call “Uncle Jimmy.” My skin crawls. How can men do this to little girls? The Girl Scouts are right. But what do we do about those fathers?

During Thanksgiving grace, I give silent thanks that North Korea has not yet fired a nuclear warhead at the United States. If it hit Seattle, I’d lose my daughter and granddaughters. If it hit Manhattan, my son would be vaporized, never saying good-bye to his children. No matter. They and I would have little time to mourn him as radiation drifts across New Jersey. Is it worth treating my melanoma when Kim Jong Un may rain cancer down on all of us?

And then there’s the tax reform bill. Medicare and Medicaid slashed. Deductions for property tax, income tax, and student loans gone. “Personhood” inserted as part of the attack on abortion. Little tax relief for those earning under $70,000which is everyone earning minimum wageand a huge tax break for the 1%. Any attempt at fairness is obliterated.

And so I write the nine Republican senators who haven’t yet agreed to support the bill and beg them, in individualized emails, to vote against it. Beyond signing thirty online petitions per day, it’s all I can think to do. Then on NPR I hear that Senator McCain, the one I counted on, the one who saved Obamacare, has thrown his support behind the bill. And before I can post this blog, the Senate has approved the bill.

The world as I knew it, the world as I wanted it, is being destroyed and I feel helpless to prevent it. Are words enough?

White Supremacy

It’s been a long time since I last blogged, but Trump’s election left me speechless. Then I read the latest Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report on white supremacists and was suddenly struck by how pathetic their beliefs are. I’m better because my skin is white? Skin color isn’t even one of my accomplishments. It’s like little kids boasting “I’m older than you are.” Wouldn’t it be more valid to base one’s worth on something internal? Probably that’s what experimenters realized when they tried to correlate white skin with larger brains, more refined morality, etc. Their attempts, now discredited, are an admission that skin color is a feeble basis for superiority.

Do we need white supremacy to compensate for our individual disappointments? My mother based her superiority on the triple bulwark of race, ethnicity, and religion. We were WASPS, “not Catholic, not Irish,” she often added, to reinforce the point. But mother had few personal accomplishments, and her ambition was to be rich and a member of high society. She was thrilled when I dated the grandson of IBM’s founder, ate steak with his family, and drove around his property in an antique car. She was furious when I turned down his invitation to go yachting because I’d already promised the day to a young man of lower class.

I can understand that she resented my failure to bring her status. I can understand that she was not content with having kept me well-fed, clothed, and educated. I don’t understand what kept her from trying to find herself and to take pride in her own accomplishments. By ninth grade, I had an inkling of what I might accomplish and no longer needed to rely on being a WASP. But perhaps personal disappointmentsunemployment, poverty, and a sense that the American dream is no longer possible lie behind today’s resurgence of white supremacists.

Of course, supremacy denotes power. For our own safety, we’d like to be members of the group in power, and, in America, that’s people with white skin. I’ve certainly benefited, and I’m well aware of the institutional injustices that people of color have been powerless to prevent. It’s natural to fear that people who don’t look like us won’t share our interests and so will trample us if given power. White people, black people, Latinos, Asians, Muslimsall of us want to protect ourselves. Trump’s “Make America great again” was a familiar appeal to white supremacy. But did white people win?

Trump really represents Wall Street, corporate interests, and billionaires. Look at his cabinet nomineescertainly mostly white (and male) but all members of the 1%. Look at his policies. Trumpcare would have reduced by millions the number of people who have healthcare while letting each of the nation’s 400 richest families save $7 million per year. Medicare, Medicaid, and social security are on the chopping block. Investment brokers who handle retirement funds will no longer have to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own compensation or company profits. Banks may risk our savings. The Environmental Protection Agency is being decimated, and global warming, which threatens our existence, is denied.

The 1% is now supreme, the group with power. They do not share our interests, and they will trample us. People of color will be hurt the most, as usual, but so will the rest of us. For all our whiteness, we are watching our social safety nets disintegrate while the richest among us get tax breaks.

White supremacists have been duped. Skin color has nothing to do with values. If we want supremacy and its power to protect, we must band together with people who may not look like us but who share our interests. We’ll need a platform that rises above the divisiveness of race, ethnicity, and religiona platform based on the need for shelter, sustenance, and security. And we must vow to vote in such numbers in 2018 that no elected official dare ignore us. Paradoxically, our success will give each of us a sense of personal accomplishment.

My College Reunion

I’ve just returned from my 50th reunion at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, as after every reunion, I’m struggling not to evaluate my life in black and white.

Reunions are joyous: catching up with classmates, revisiting Wellesley’s gorgeous campus, and huddling in the dorm with my old roommates until the wee hours, just as we did fifty years ago.

But reunions invite us to take stock of what we’ve achieved. Every five years our class produces a fat record book full of statistics and personal narratives. Reunions invite us to compare ourselves to others, and, compared to Wellesley’s famous “others,” I’m a failure.

Perhaps such comparisons are a hazard of any reunion, but at Wellesley the bar is high. I remember my interview at Wellesley fifty-four years ago. On a table in the admissions office was a Chinese vase given by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, a Wellesley graduate. As the daughter of a name-dropper, I was impressed. Would some of her fame rub off on me? Today I share the Wellesley name with Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton, who was a freshman when I was a senior. Perhaps I passed her on campus without, of course, knowing she is likely to become the first woman President of the United States. Being a Wellesley graduate makes for a good game of six degrees of separation.

But there is pain in having known famous women. Cokie Boggs Roberts and I were together in the Wellesley Widows, an a capella singing group, for three years. I adored her. We shared intimacies. She even stayed at my home in Greenwich after the Widows took a spring trip to Jamaica. But we went our separate ways. She became famous, and I know that now she doesn’t remember me. I shared a dorm with Diane Sawyer. Same story. Everyone in the Class of 1966 is proud that one of us became a Wellesley College president and another is a wealthy woman whose generosity built the college’s social center and whose contribution put our class at the top of giving this year. These classmates know me, but they’re too busy, and I’m too intimidated to consider ourselves friends.

And there’s the challenge of Wellesley’s motto: Non Ministrari sed Ministrare. “Not to be ministered unto but to minister” – four Latin words that capture the College’s mission: to provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Have I made a difference?

After every reunion I must remind myself that I am me, that apples can’t fall far from the tree, that it’s OK to fill the center of the bell curve. Without the bell, there would be no end-points for the famous others. But this year, while I’m consoling myself with clichés, I receive a letter from a classmate whom I don’t know very well. She’s seen my blog and writes, “I was really glad to have made the time to read your pieces, and I respect, too, your long career teaching in an inner city school. You have made a more lasting and positive impact on America than the rest of us put together.”

What an overstatement, but I’ll take it! I needed affirmation of my contribution. I realize, again, that failure is not the opposite of fame. And if fame is recognition, perhaps I am famous. Last week a security guard at the Sun Arena in Trenton asked if I’d worked at Trenton High School. He hadn’t been my student, but he remembered me bustling around the school on student government activities30 years ago.

My reunion doubt is gone. Why make comparisons? Why be a name-dropper? Instead, like my classmate, I’ll write letters affirming the contributions of others who, like me, are neither famous nor failures. We all make contributions, and we all need recognition.