Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ben Affleck's Request to Hide Slave-Owner Ancestor Sparks PBS Investigation

Actor/director/producer Ben Affleck
No matter who we are in America, each of us is interwoven into the complex tapestry of race that defines this nation; and family secrets are something each of us have whether we know it or not.

Would you discuss yours on national TV?

The news that Ben Affleck asked the producers of 'Finding Your Roots', the acclaimed PBS genealogy series hosted by esteemed Harvard history Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to conceal the fact that he has an ancestor who owned slaves is an indicator of not just the deep complexity of race in America, but also why it's such a difficult topic to talk about in one of the most racially diverse nations in the world.

An article on the 'The Hollywood Reporter' Website posted earlier this evening reports that portions of the huge trove of hacked Sony e-mails that were released by Wiki Leaks last week revealed publicly that Affleck sought to repress the information about his family history after research conducted for his appearance on an episode of 'Finding Your Roots' revealed that an as-yet unnamed ancestor of his owned slaves.

The episode in which Affleck appeared aired back on October 14, 2014 (that made no mention of the ancestor in question) and the release of the Sony e-mail revealing that Affleck sought to censor the information about his ancestor has now triggered an internal investigation into the matter by PBS.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Anyone who's watched even a single episode of 'Finding Your Roots' on PBS knows that host Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. treats the knowledge and research that is revealed with a deep respect, quiet candor and lack of judgment that helps both the interview subject (usually a famous celebrity) and the viewing audience gain a deeper insight into not only history, but ourselves as a nation - and indeed, the complexity of the human condition. 

This nation was founded on an agrarian society that was based on the forced enslavement of human beings as a low-cost labor source, so race and the myriad issues related to racial identity lie at the very core of who we are as a people.

With the help of advances in science and technology that accelerates data search, Dr. Gates' conversations on the PBS show often reveal fascinating things about race and genetics; things that help us to better understand our complex racial identity in ways we can all understand.

For example there are black people who discover they have white or Asian ancestors. There are white people who discover they have African-American or middle eastern ancestors - and yes, there are white people who discover that their lineage includes ancestors who were part of the system that enslaved Africans for generations.

I watched a really intriguing episode of 'Finding Your Roots' with actor Kevin Bacon and his wife actress Kyra Sedgewick where it was revealed that Kevin Bacon has English royalty in his blood, but perhaps more interesting, Krya Sedgewick had ancestors who owned slaves in her family.  

It's fair to say she seemed surprised by this revelation. She quietly listened as Professor Gates explained the specifics and though she remained composed, I suspect that inside her mind she was wondering if the knowledge would change how people perceive her.

Personally, I thought it showed courage to share something like that on television, knowing it was an important, albeit uncomfortable, part of our collective history.

Personally I'm a huge fan of Sedgewick's excellent work on 'The Closer' (a well-written show with a diverse cast and a powerful female lead) and there's no way I would consider judging her negatively for the actions of her distant relative.

I can't help but think that Ben Affleck might have done better to take a page from Sedgewick's book.

Affleck achieved notoriety pretty early on in his career with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the script for the 1997 film 'Good Will Hunting' which he co-wrote with actor/writer Matt Damon, but the obsessive media attention on his short-lived marriage to singer /actress Jennifer Lopez perhaps unfairly overshadowed his genuine on-screen presence and raw talent as an actor.

Personally, I thought he elevated his acting to whole new level with his role as a successful salesman who finds himself downsized in the excellent 2010 independent film 'The Company Men' alongside Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner.

More recently, he won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for the 2012 film, 'Argo'

So I don't think it's surprising or shocking that Affleck would feel reluctant to publicly talk about an ancestor who owned slaves, particularly given how prevalent national media coverage of the killing of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other African-Americans at the hands of white police officers  was back in the fall when his appearance on 'Finding Your Roots' aired on PBS.

Affleck, whose real name is Benjamin Geza Affleck-Boldt, was born in the relatively liberal academic enclave of Berkeley, California to a social worker father and a mother who was a school teacher.

He was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is not exactly an intellectual backwater, so it's probably fair to say that his upbringing was much more progressive than it was conservative; even if Berkeley and Cambridge aren't exactly known as hubs of racial diversity.

Affleck got into a pretty heated exchange with Bill Maher during an October 3, 2014 appearance on the HBO show 'Real Time with Bill Maher' when he accused Maher and guest/author Sam Harris of what he felt were racist observations about Muslims and Islam.

Considering that Affleck's episode of 'Finding Your Roots' where knowledge of his slave-owning ancestor was not revealed, aired just eleven days after the highly publicized confrontation with Maher, looking back I wonder if Affleck's highly visible anger about the anti-Islamic comments were in some way related to his having learned about his slave-owning ancestor.

Had he heard about the results of Professor Gates' research before her went on Bill Maher?

Perhaps on some level he was fighting to distance himself from what he'd discovered about his own past; perhaps his indignation reveals a man who was struggling to come to grips with learning about having a family member who owned slaves; and what people might think of him because of that.

I don't know, that's only speculation on my part.

But I do know that I don't judge Ben Affleck negatively because of something a distant ancestor of his did.

After all there were thousands and thousands of people who owned slaves over the course of American history. From interviews I've seen or read with American descendants of slave owners, or slave traders, some white families see it as an aspect of family history that's never talked about, or only discussed in whispers.

For some white people, even talking about slave-owning ancestors has actually divided families between members who see it as a taboo family secret and those who want to discuss it openly.

Consequently I know there are many African-Americans, particularly older generations, who refuse to discuss it or view it as something too traumatic, painful or embarrassing to discuss; not every black American family rushed out to research their family tree after Alex Haley's novel 'Roots' was published and the subsequent ground-breaking television series aired on ABC. 

After all, slavery represents the most painful and bloody chapter in American history, a scourge of human misery and suffering that stands in total contrast to the lofty ideals of the Constitution.

But it's not a simple history, in fact it's rather tricky.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, yet he fathered children with an African-American woman named Sally Hennings. The "father" of our country George Washington owned slaves too.

There are any number of well-known celebrities, politicians and leaders who come from families who owned slaves.

Like Anderson Cooper, his great-great grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad magnate, owned slave plantations; in fact he owned one in Georgetown, South Carolina where First Lady Michelle Obama's ancestor Jim Robinson worked as a slave in 1850.

British Prime Minister David Cameron's descendants, like many wealthy British families, profited handsomely from slavery too through the 202 slaves they owned who worked the family's Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica.

The British historian Dr. Nick Draper of University College in London has estimated that up to one-fifth of all wealthy English families in the Victorian Era inherited part or all of their wealth from the slave trade; the Bank of England was a major financier of the West African slave trade as are other companies and financial institutions that exist today.

It wasn't just wealthy British who made fortunes from slavery either; French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Belgian and Portuguese made fortunes as well.

Closer to home, one of America's most prestigious universities was founded (in part) with money made from trading or owning slaves.

John Brown I, born in 1736 was a leading statesman, merchant and major east coast slave trader who was not only instrumental in founding Brown University in Providence, he used his position in politics to advocate for the institution of slavery; even though he was leading figure in the American Revolution.

George W. Bush, Paula Deen and Pastor Rick Warren are just some of the famous Americans with relatives who owned slaves; that's not a judgment so much as a part of American history.

So Ben Affleck isn't alone by any means, but I can sympathize with why he tried to conceal the knowledge.

With the story breaking publicly, Affleck has issued public statements and message on his Facebook page apologizing for requesting that PBS producers not reveal the information about his ancestor.

That's not something that could have been easy for him to process.

Our nation is over 239 years old and the foundation of slavery predates the actual forming of the United States as a country by generations. We fought a Civil War over it that almost destroyed our nation.

To this date, Americans, both black and white still have a hard time talking about slavery as an institution.

It's something that's a part of us, something that defines us, yet we are repulsed by the idea of it even as we struggle to understand it and recognize the need to come to grips with it.

So Ben Affleck isn't alone. Aside from his celebrity, he's actually just like all of us; an American still trying to understand an institution that predates the Constitution.

Just another American trying to figure out how to talk about it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

30 Minutes in Baltimore - The Death of Freddie Gray

Freddie Gray, 25, died Sunday
Brooklyn. Queens. Philadelphia. Cleveland. Ferguson. Chicago. Miami. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Charleston. Tulsa.

The list of American cities where unarmed African-American boys and men have lost their lives during encounters with members of law enforcement doesn't seem to keep pace with prosecutions of those police officers responsible for unjustified use of deadly force.

Will that change with the city of Baltimore now that the disturbing case of Freddie Gray has been thrust into the media spotlight?

From the terse, guarded statements released by Baltimore PD, it's going to take time to unravel the truth.

The facts are still murky, but as you've probably heard the end result is all too clear; and shocking by any standards of a modern civilized society.

At 8:54am on Sunday April 12th Gray was arrested by members of the Baltimore PD mounted on bicycles before being transferred to a police wagon to be transported to the police station three blocks away.

At 9:24am police called paramedics to the police station of the western district where Gray was found with three broken vertebrae in his neck; a neck injury so severe it almost severed his spinal cord.

He lapsed into a coma and eventually died in the hospital this past Sunday April 19th.

So what happened during the 30 minutes when Gray was locked in the back of that police wagon?

According to an article by Justin Fenton and Jessica Anderson posted on the Website of the Baltimore Sun earlier this evening, the Baltimore police are still being vague about why they arrested Gray in the first place.

In documents filed with the district court, officer Garret Miller states that officers chased Gray after he, "fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence."

Not to be flippant, but given the recent high-profile deaths of any number of young black men at the hands of police, and given Baltimore PD's tense relationship with the largely African-American community it serves, is it really surprising that Freddie Gray ran?

Police statements offer the usual assortment of "facts" typically offered up to justify excessive use of force or a violation of a defendant's rights. We've yet to hear from the four officers involved in the incident; perhaps they "felt threatened".

In a press conference, deputy police commissioner Jerry Rodriguez stated that Gray was in a high-crime area where drug trafficking was known to occur; so not only are some Baltimore residents trapped in a cycle of poverty, their being locked by geographic and economic boundaries in high-crime neighborhoods is in itself, justification for police to stop them. 

Was Freddie Gray criminalized simply for walking around in his neighborhood?

Once he was stopped, police claim to have found a switchblade knife clipped to the INSIDE of his pants pocket; so he was arrested.

Is there any proof the knife was his? If it did belong to Gray, by the police's own statement, it wasn't even visible when they saw him.

And even if it was his knife, if you've watched HBO's groundbreaking series "The Wire" anyone walking through Baltimore's west side would probably be carrying something to protect themselves.

Regardless the police court statement goes on to state that, "The defendant was arrested without force or incident...During transport to Western District via wagon transport the defendant suffered a medical emergency and was immediately transported to Shock Trauma via medic."

Remember, he was arrested three blocks from the station; what were the police doing for 30 minutes with Gray already handcuffed and locked in the back of the police wagon?

According to members of his family who saw him in the hospital last week, Gray's voice box was damaged and his brain was swollen.

Gray's lawyer, William Murphy, Jr., speaking on behalf of the family said, “We believe the police are keeping the circumstances of Freddie’s death a secret until they develop a version of events that will absolve them of all responsibility.”

Until the truth comes out those 30 minutes Freddie Gray spent in the back of that police van are essentially "missing" in time.

At least one of the four Baltimore police officers who've been placed on desk duty knows what happened but unfortunately the wheels of justice turn slowly when it's the word of four cops against a dead black defendant in this nation.

But the wheels do turn. For the sake of justice and the rule of law, hopefully technology (video, CCTV, radio transmissions or cell phone video), science, facts and a visible public outcry will allow the dead to speak.

And while the Baltimore PD will try to vilify him and slander his character, hopefully the media will help remind the public that this victim of such horrific and unexplainable violence was a son, the brother of a twin sister and a friend; a 25 year-old guy who loved to joke around and was generous to those he knew.

The fact that Freddie Gray won't have an opportunity to testify about those 30 minutes in the back of that police wagon is not only a sad measure of the state of law enforcement in America, it offers us insight into how black humanity is perceived - and the value of black life in the 21st century here in the greatest nation in the world.

I think a quote from his distraught sister Carolina sums it up best, “If someone has surrendered and you’ve put the handcuffs on him, what is the point of you beating them?"

That's a question we can ask, but the law enforcement community and the court system in this country is going to have to provide the answer.

And it's going to take a lot longer than 30 minutes.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Inside Professor Brownback's Laboratory & The Vilification of the Working Poor In America

Ready? Cut! Kansas Governor Sam Brownback
There are arguably some pretty crazy Republican governors in these United States, but you really have to admire Governor Sam Brownback's stubborn determination to turn the state of Kansas into an idealistic conservative Utopia; at any cost.

Earlier today he signed into law some of the most restrictive laws in the nation that severely limit how Kansas welfare recipients can spend their money.

That's right, the same governor who's ranted about "big government" and the intrusion of government authority has used the legislative power of the state government to mandate draconian restrictions on how Kansas families on welfare can spend their money.

According to an article on, the list of no-no's includes things like concerts, tattoo artists, psychics (yes psychics), cruise ships or movies.
But interestingly, as NPR reported today, the new Republican restrictions do NOT apply to firearms.

So Kansas welfare recipients can't use their money to take their kid to see a movie, but they can buy ammo; how Republican is THAT?

But wait, there's more. Remarkably, the restrictions also limit each ATM transaction of the debit card Kansas welfare recipients are issued to a mere $25. As the article notes, that essentially imposes a tax on welfare recipients given that most ATM's charge withdrawal fees, don't issue bills in $5 denominations and the majority of poor or lower middle-class Kansas welfare recipients often don't have access to normal banking services.

As an article posted on reported, "Meanwhile, during debate over the bill state Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau (D) pointed out that many recipients need to withdraw hundreds of dollars some days in order to be able to pay rent." 

No one is going to argue that transitioning Americans off welfare in ways that will allow them to be self-sufficient is a bad thing, but the extreme nature of the Kansas welfare restrictions come off as  vindictive, petty and chiefly motivated by a desire to appease the fringe element that now holds the strings of the Republican party; thanks to ALEC, similar restrictions have been passed in 20 other states.

The Associated Press quoted Shannon Cotsoradis, president and CEO of the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children as saying of the new Kansas laws severely restricting how welfare recipients spend their money: "It really seems to make a statement about how we feel about the poor."

These kinds of restrictions on how welfare recipients spend their money are disturbing on multiple levels.

They reinforce distorted perceptions of the working poor (most American adults on welfare work) as 2nd class citizens who need to be told how to spend their money.

But perhaps more disturbing is that these restrictions are essentially a retreaded version of the vilification of the poor used by the Reagan administration when he and his economic advisers ranted against "Welfare Queens" back in the 1980's, regurgitating simplistic stereotypes of poor African-American, Hispanic and whites and mocking populations of poorly-educated urban and rural residents geographically locked into impoverished neighborhoods through economic and racial discrimination and stuck in cycles of poverty.

When it comes down to it, is there a difference between an impoverished family that lives in North Philadelphia, rural Kentucky or on a reservation? These restrictions are economically discriminatory as much as they are racial or political; or based on other ethnic attributes.

Brownback has never hidden how he feels about the wealthiest and the poorest in the state of Kansas.

He made national headlines over the past couple years after his bold initiative to take advantage of his gubernatorial powers and an eager GOP-majority state legislature to use the state of Kansas as a working "laboratory" for executing fringe conservative ideas.

Aided by a former key Reagan administration economic adviser and representatives from groups including Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and yes, the Koch brothers, Brownback enacted a series of sweeping tax cuts affecting top earners and businesses.

How sweeping? Like a mad swordsman he slashed regulations and all but eliminated taxes on businesses in the state of Kansas while gifting wealthy Kansas citizens with unprecedented cuts in income taxes.

Conservatives drooled and fawned.

Here at last was a chance to validate the long-disproved "Trickle Down" economic theory long espoused by wishful Republicans as if it were some kind of magical elixir that could jump start the American economy and set the nation on a path to prosperity instead of the discredited political-economic philosophy credible economists have shown it to be. 

We've all heard the party line: slash taxes for the wealthy and business and they will pump that money back into the economy creating jobs and prosperity for all. But Brownback's "experiment" was a colossal failure that drained state revenue, stalled economic growth in Kansas to anemic levels, killed job growth and sent the state economy straight into the red.

Read op-ed writer Yael Abouhalkah's piece published in The Kansas City Star back on February 2nd of this year if you want to get a true picture of how Brownback's tax cuts have destroyed the Kansas economy.

Abouhalkkah quotes figures right from the Kansas Department of Revenue showing that in the first two years of Brownback's tax cuts starting in 2013, revenues from state income tax dropped by a staggering $713 million.

The remarkable thing is even after the state began slashing spending on essentials like public education, roads and public pensions in order to try and make up the difference - the people of Kansas re-elected Brownback to another term during the fall 2014 elections. 

If I were a political cartoonist, I'd sketch Brownback as a modern day Don Quixote sitting astride an elephant.

His checklist of destructive conservative policy initiatives is so bizarre and brazen, I'd bet a five-spot that he's eager to jump into that growing pool of "potential GOP presidential candidates" which seems to get stranger by the minute.

Take for example, the Republican party's "answer" to Hillary Clinton, "potential" presidential candidate Carly Fiorina - who's been dipping her toes into the presidential pool as well.

GOP presidential hopeful (?) Carly Fiorina
And yes, that's the same Carly Fiorina (pictured left) who spent over $22 million in a failed bid to unseat Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer back in 2010.

Earlier this evening Sarah Farris posted an interesting piece on

According to the article, Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO, was quoted as saying that "Conservatives are 'winning' on abortion" at an event hosted by the conservative pro-life group known as the Susan B. Anthony List.

By any measure, that's a pretty astounding statement.

If stripping access to healthcare and cutting off access to breast cancer and other types of screening for millions of low-income women and making it harder for abortion clinics to operate through arcane laws enacted by Republican state legislators is what Fiorina meant by Republicans "winning" on abortion, then yeah, I guess she's "right."

But it's says a lot about today's GOP that Fiorina, who once led an enormous high tech company with thousands of employees, is now proudly trumpeting the trampling of women's rights as a credential for being president of a nation of over 300 million - more than half of whom are women.  

Maybe it's not surprising though. Fiorina earned a reputation at HP for being a "big picture" ideas-oriented executive who was adverse to compromise and reluctant to delegate authority; the latter two arguably being fairly important qualities of anyone who expects to be the chief executive in Washington, DC.   

For a couple of Republicans with little mainstream appeal who have their respective eyes on the GOP presidential nomination, Fiorina and Brownback are making an awful lot of conservative noise.

But to quote Shakespeare, "Sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

One Broken Tail Light, One Life Ended; Too Many Questions

US Navy veteran Walter L. Scott
Now it's obviously quite disturbing to watch the cell phone video of 33 year-old North Charleston, South Carolina Patrolman 1st Class Michael Slager shooting an unarmed 50 year-old African-American man named Walter Lamar Scott in the back multiple times. 

Regardless I think it's important to watch it for what it reveals about ingrained bias within American law enforcement.

But perhaps even more disturbing than watching a police officer casually fire shots at a man who is running away from him, is how Slager reacts once Scott is on the ground.

Last Saturday morning April 4th (the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination) while some of us were contemplating our Easter Sunday plans, Slager spotted a broken brake light on the back of Walter Scott's black Mercedes and pulled him over on a Charleston street not far from a muffler shop.

According to excerpts of an interview in Charleston's The Post and Courier  with his older brother Anthony, Walter Scott was not some kind of crazed violent criminal.

He was a gainfully employed African-American father and US Navy veteran who was simply scared of being arrested because he had missed several appearances in court for failure to pay back child support and he didn't want to be jailed and jeopardize his job.

So he made the worst mistake of his life, he ran; and Patrolman Slager took off in pursuit. At some point in a grassy field the two tussled briefly and officer Slager shot Scott with a taser gun; but Scott managed to break free and took off running again.

Officer Michael Slager
Slager (pictured left) took out his handgun and fired eight shots at Scott, four of which struck him in the back according to the Scott family's lawyer, killing him.

In the wake of the fatal shooting, Slager released a statement through his lawyer David Aylor claiming that he fired because he was in fear for his life after Scott wrestled his taser gun from him.

He said he "felt threatened". Sound familiar?

Based on a number of recent high profile cases of police officers facing no charges after shooting (or choking) and killing unarmed men of color (and boys too, lest we forget 12 year-old Tamir Rice) in cities around the nation, Slager's statement probably would have been taken as gospel and the North Charleston police likely would have pointed to a 28 year-old assault and battery charge against Scott reaching back to 1987 as evidence of his being "dangerous."

But recently released cell phone video of the incident taken by a young bystander standing outside the fence of the field behind the muffler ship where the incident took place totally contradicts officer Slager's statement and his account of the incident.

There's nothing ambiguous about what happens in the video. Watch the unedited version for yourself.

Slager not only shoots Scott, he gets on his police radio, reports the shooting then says the victim (Scott) took his taser. 

With sirens approaching, Scott then hurries back over to the area where they'd just tussled, picks up the taser gun, brings it back over to where Scott is laying on the ground dying; and drops it near him.

Perhaps most chilling, for at least two and a half minutes after shooting Scott, Slager just stands there. He makes no effort at all to tend to Scott or administer CPR.

Remarkably you can see Slager yelling at Scott (who's motionless on the ground) not to move after he's shot him five times; he cuffs the dying man, like the poor guy wasn't just trying to run away from him a few minutes earlier.

Another officer arrives and starts to inspect Scott's body for gunshot wounds, but no CPR is administered. The video reveals not only a totally unjustified shooting, it shows a police officer casually trying to stage the scene so he can concoct a story to save his own ass.

Attorney David Aylor quickly announced that he would no longer be representing Slager.

The bystander who took the cell phone video took it to the Scott family, who passed it along to state investigators; if you watch clips of the North Charleston police Chief Eddie Driggers and Mayor Keith Summey discussing the incident, you can see the disgust on their faces and hear the emotion in their voices.

Chief Driggers was hired to help address charges of rampant biased policing and excessive police violence against poor minority communities in Charleston; to say that Walter Scott's death is a setback to his efforts to restore trust between police and the communities they serve would probably be putting it lightly.

The release of the video and subsequent murder charges filed against officer Slager will propel this tragic case of excessive police force into the national spotlight pretty quickly and the trial will obviously be closely watched.

But Mayor Keith Summey probably summed it up best though in his press conference when he said:
"When you're wrong, you're wrong. If you make a bad decision, don't care if you're behind the shield or just a citizen on the street, you have to live by that decision."

Wrong is right. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Are Republicans Becoming 'The American Taliban'?

Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the new face of discrimination
Okay it's only Tuesday but I've decided to  award this week's George Lincoln Rockwell Award to Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence.

Not because he's necessarily a bad guy.

But because he totally misread the American zeitgeist and shirked his moral obligation as Governor by using the power of his political office to pass a law that actually removes legal barriers from individuals and businesses that chose to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation. 

Of course Pence also gets the Rockwell because of his bumbling, almost incomprehensible verbal exchange with George Stephanopoulos on the ABC Sunday news show, 'This Week'.  

Not only did he completely implode on a live national broadcast when directly asked if he thought it was right to discriminate against members of the LGBT community, his strange indignant accusations about an "avalanche" of misunderstanding and bad reporting about the "religious freedom" act were so contrived that it made it painfully obvious that he KNEW the act was discriminatory. 

He ducked the question eight different times because like many members of today's Republican party, he'll gladly back concocted measures like 'Voter Identification Laws' or 'Religious Freedom' that mask discrimination against others - as long as he's not forced to actually call those measures what they are in public.

Now let's be honest, was there some kind of unprecedented wave of secret persecution against Indiana Christians that would prompt a Republican-dominated legislative body to create a law to "protect religious liberty"?

Of course not. It's a lame-ass fabricated means to a right-wing extremist end.

One of many Iraqi Christians crucified by ISIS
To me, Pence and his conservative ilk having the gall to claim that Christians in the state of Indiana are having their "religious liberty" threatened is an insult to Christians in other parts of the world who are actually being tortured and killed for their beliefs.

If Republicans want to get indignant about "religious liberty", maybe they should focus some of their fiery self-righteous rhetoric on places like Syria, or Egypt; where 21 Christian members of the Coptic Church in the village of al-Our were beheaded by members of ISIS back in February.

Remarkably, tone-deaf Republicans are proactively defending Pence's support of The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in a klutzy effort to try and convince people that it's something other than what it actually is: a license for businesses and individuals to discriminate.

Undeterred by growing criticism that Indiana's RFRA would sanction discrimination against LGBT Hoosiers, blight the reputation of the state and become a major downer for state tourism and business, today a variety of conservatives, from religious activists in Indiana to 2016 Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush used a completely bogus comparison to support Pence's effort to legalize discrimination.

Bush, Pence and others tried to claim that Indiana's RFRA is identical to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that was passed back in 1996 under then-President Bill Clinton with overwhelming Congressional support; and similar laws that have passed in 20 other states.

That's absolutely NOT true.

DOMA is a federal law that allows states to NOT recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state. 

Indiana's RFRA goes much further. As Lambda Legal attorney Jenny Pizer was quoted as saying in a article by Kerry Eleveld:

"SB 101 (Indiana's RFRA passed by Gov Pence) is substantially broader than the federal law. It extends religious rights to all businesses, no matter how large and completely secular they are. In addition, the federal law can only be invoked against government action. SB 101 goes much further, inviting discrimination by allowing religious beliefs to be raised as a defense in lawsuits and administrative proceedings brought by workers, tenants and customers who have suffered discrimination in a business transaction based on someone else's religious beliefs." 

So what's the response from Republicans in other states?

The legislature of the great state of Arkansas went ahead and passed it's own version of the RFRA and sent it to Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson to sign.

North Carolina (shocker!) is preparing to act on their own version too.

So here we are in the season of Lent, approaching Good Friday when Christians around the world prepare to mark the Crucifixion of Jesus.

We're days from Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar and how is the extremist wing of the Republican party observing this somber and triumphant time?
By using political majorities in state legislatures to allow Christians who've warped the true message of Christ to discriminate against American citizens.

Funny how some of the same Republicans who ceaselessly criticize the President for government overreach for providing health care for citizens and for his handling of ISIS in the Mid-East, are simultaneously using their political advantage to create their own conservative theocracy in the heartland of America.  

Writer Aaron Sorkin was right when his lead character Will McAvoy (a disillusioned ex-Republican newscaster on HBO's 'The Newsroom' played by actor Jeff Daniels) said of today's Republican party:  "We should call them what they are: The American Taliban."

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Balancing Faith & Practicality In Contemporary Society

People place candles at a makeshift memorial for the Sassoon children.
This time last weekend the headlines were filled with news of the horrific house fire in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, New York that killed seven children from the same Orthodox Jewish family on March 21st.

The focus of the "24-Hour News Cycle" may have moved on but the aftermath of this tragedy is still being felt.

By now seven of Gabriel Sassoon's eight children, Eliane, 16; David, 12; Rivkah, 11; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; Sara, 6 and Yaakob, 5, have been laid to rest in Jerusalem.

His wife Gayle, 45 and daughter Siporah, 15 survived the fire and remain hospitalized in critical condition.

Obviously this tragedy has touched people on multiple levels, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or nationality. The contemplation of losing so many members from one family in a fire that could have been prevented is as universal as it is unthinkable.

It's been hard for me to get this incident out of my head, and it's been on my mind all week.

When I lived in New York City, my friend Shane lost his life back on the night of October 31, 2002 in a fire that he was responsible for setting after he went home and fell asleep on a couch in his apartment with a lit cigarette in his hand.

Obviously the scope and cause of these two different tragedies are quite different, but the knowledge that the fire was preventable has always haunted me.

Last week, in the days following the Brooklyn fire, a lot of media coverage was devoted to important issues this accident brought into focus.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and other community leaders brought attention to the fact that there is no specialized trauma burn center unit in any hospital in Brooklyn and that serious burn victims must be transported to hospitals in Queens, the Bronx, or Manhattan.

The tragedy also sparked an interesting debate on the practices followed by observant Jews who must (in accordance with Jewish law and tradition) abstain from working on the Sabbath.

This includes the burning of fires, cooking, any use of electronic switches, buttons or anything that alters the flow of electric current on the Sabbath (or Shabbos), or during certain religious holidays.

For example, some multistory buildings in New York (and elsewhere) have designated Shabbat elevators that are programmed to automatically stop at each floor of a building during the Sabbath, so that Jews observing traditional law do not have to physically touch the buttons of the elevator in order to come and go as they please.

The balance between faith and modern technology was at the heart of the tragedy in Midwood.

A typical hot plate used to keep food warm during Sabbath
As you probably heard, the fire in Brooklyn last week was caused by a hot plate in the kitchen of the house that had been left on to keep food warm during the Sabbath.

Investigators are still not 100% sure whether the hot plate itself malfunctioned, or if there was a problem in the wiring of the house itself.

Regardless of the exact cause, the fire was complicated by the fact that there were no smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors in the kitchen, stairwell, or on the upper floors of the home that could have alerted the Sassoon family to smoke in the house and given them a chance to escape.

Last Wednesday Josh Nathan-Kazis wrote an interesting article in The Jewish Daily Forward looking at the challenges observant Jews face in balancing religious law with trying to serve hot meals during the Sabbath; if you scroll through some of the reader comments below the story you can get a sense of the complexity and debate surrounding observation of Jewish law in a contemporary society.

There a was really informative radio interview on The Brian Lehrer Show last week with Jewish Daily Forward reporter JJ Goldberg. It's worth a listen if you want to gain some deeper insight into rules governing behavior on the Sabbbath and how this most recent "Shabbos fire" has impacted the Jewish community in New York; and their perceptions about some of the public criticism non-Jewish people have leveled at the Orthodox Jewish community in particular.

As someone who's had some first-hand experience seeing Orthodox Jews balance faith and technology, my sense is that there's been a lot of misunderstanding over the past week.

When I lived in an apartment on 112th street and Frederick Douglas Blvd in New York, my upstairs neighbor was an Orthodox Jew who worked as an NYPD officer. He was a super nice guy who always went of his way to say hello, was never judgmental and had a way of making you feel good about yourself just by talking with him. He was just a cool guy.

One day, I was in my apartment and there was a knock on the door and he was standing there in the hallway with his usual smile, and he asked me if I would mind doing him a favor.

He asked me if I could come up to his apartment, so I grabbed my keys and followed him. He was the only one of my neighbors in that building I really talked with, and certainly the only one whose apartment I ever visited.

We walked up one flight and went in his apartment and he lead me into his bedroom and asked me to open a drawer next to his bed and take his cell phone out for him. It was the Sabbath and he was strict about not using electronic devices.

As an NYPD officer, he had to check in with his sergeant. So he asked me to turn on the phone and find her name in the contact list; we lived in Manhattan but the precinct he worked in was in Brooklyn and his sergeant was a Hispanic female.

So I dialed the number and she picked up and I explained who I was and that my friend had asked me to call her to check in because it was the Sabbath and he couldn't use the phone. She understood and I relayed a couple mundane "cop things" about a shift start time from him to her and vice versa.

And that was it. He thanked me generously and I went back down to my apartment feeling sort of impressed at the depth of his faith and adherence to his religious law. He was intense, but open and non-judgmental about it.

Jewish law allows Jews to have what's called a Shabbos goy perform certain tasks for them on the Sabbath. Things like turning lights on or off, switching on devices; that kind of thing. But a Shabbos goy is not supposed to do like carpentry, or contracting-type work. 

Shabbos goy is a combination of the word Shabbos which is Sabbath and goy, which means a non-national or non-Jew in Mishnaic Hebrew. I've never heard of female Shabbos goys, but he (or she?) is a gentile or non-Jew who can use machinery or electricity on the Sabbath.

When I lived out in LA, my roommate Mitch was a non-religious Jew who told me many synagogues around the country hired African-Americans as a designated Shabbos goy on the Sabbath or for specific holidays.

Some Shabbos goys also work as security personnel or janitors in the synagogue; and they are paid for the service.

A number of famous people worked as Shabbos goys when they were younger including Colin Powell, Martin Scorcese, Mario Cuomo and even Elvis Presley.

I was more than glad to perform the Shabbos goy task for my friend the cop in New York that day, to me it was a neighborly thing to do and that's what neighbors do.

It's too bad the Sassoon family didn't have someone who could have stopped by to turn their hot plate on or off for them last Friday, but in New York, most Orthodox Jews tend to live in neighborhoods populated by other Orthodox Jews, so the complexities of geography (and expense) doesn't really make a Shabbos goy practical for some folks in New York who live in private homes or apartments.

But whether it's a hot plate or lights that operate off a preset timer, or a Shabbos goy, the fire in Midwood lends insight into some of the complexities of modern Jewish life. 

But if you take the time to read Josh Nathan-Kazis' article in The Jewish Daily Forward (click the link above), some of the reader comments reflect a questioning of what not working on the Sabbath really means.

Most of the comments suggest the majority of Jews do believe it means no working and thus no use of machinery or electronic devices and switches.

I'm not Jewish obviously, but in the aftermath of a fire that took the lives of seven children, I can't help but wonder if God would really mind it all that much if a mother or father simply took the time to switch off a hot plate before going to bed in the interests of safety.

Jewish law makes exceptions for Jewish physicians to work on the Sabbath if a life is at stake, maybe such an exception should extend to a designated family member in the interest of home safety as well.

As we now know, a simple switch on a hot plate was indeed the difference between life and death for the Sassoon family of Brooklyn.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Asia Ford Crosses the Finish Line

Asia Ford flanked by her son Terrance and Lt. Aubrey George
The inspiring story of Asia Ford and Louisville, Kentucky police officer Lt. Aubrey Gregory represents a welcome change in the tone of what has often been a strained relationship between American police and the communities they serve. 

I was on the treadmill at the gym during my lunch break earlier today when I happened to catch a live interview on CNN with Ford and the man she emotionally called her "angel".

As you may have heard or read, Ford was nearing the end of a 10-K race in Kentucky recently and was starting to struggle when Lt. George saw a couple EMT's walk over and ask her if she could make it and she insisted she would; so he decided to walk over, introduce himself to her and her son Terrance, took her hand and helped her finish the final 1.2 miles to the finish line.

Ford trained for the race as part of her courageous effort to loose weight in an effort to make changes for a healthier lifestyle for the sake of her kids. She's lost 217 pounds already.

During the interview on CNN, George said as helped her to the finish line, he took her mind off her exhaustion by talking to her about her son Terrance and telling her about his own mother's struggle with diabetes (she died fourteen years ago) and assured Ford he would see her through to the finish line. 

I was really touched as I watched her tear up recalling his gesture of kindness; George said he was personally inspired by her efforts to complete the race.

When CNN host Brooke Baldwin asked Ford the obvious question about whether George had changed her mind about police interactions with the community, she said she didn't really see his badge or uniform, she simply saw the humanity he extended to her when she needed help. 

Too often in the history of this nation, seeing the humanity in one another has proved elusive.

Over the course of the past couple years, media headlines that highlight the unfortunate schism that exists between some members of American law enforcement and communities heavily populated by racial and ethnic minorities, have often overshadowed the positive exchanges police have with civilians.

Clearly many of those stories (Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice or Michael Brown) deserved the extensive media coverage and analysis they received; particularly those concerning the use of excessive physical violence or even deadly force against unarmed or innocent people.

Just today the Justice Department criticized the Philadelphia Police Department in a report released today for an unusually high number of shootings of unarmed men, mostly African-American over the past eight years; the report recommends changes in training in tactics to curb unnecessary police violence.

So after everything that's happened in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and elsewhere, it's uplifting to see a story make national headlines because a selfless police officer and a mother came together in a moment that's captured the hearts of millions of people around the nation - and around the world too.

Ford's son Terrance said it best in an interview with a local TV news station, when he summed up the feeling that's made this story blow up nationally; "...with all the stuff that's going on with police it's nice to know there're good people out there." 

It is nice.

A story like this offers hope and a positive glimpse of what relationships between police and civilians should be like. Let's hope it inspires both.