Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving


Like many Americans probably do, I spent the days leading up to Thanksgiving thinking about the things I am grateful for. The list is extensive and includes a loving family, supportive friends, a stable job and my wonderful readers. But it occurred to me that what I am most thankful for is what I consider to be a “guardian angel” that helps guide my life. This might not be the literal sort of angel described in scripture (though I am open to the possibility that it could be), but some sort of guiding force that helps things “work out for the best,” as is the saying. At the very least, it can be described as good fortune.

I have faced challenges both large and small in my young life. Though I credit good advice, helpful people and hard work for overcoming most of the trials, I also believe that some invisible force guides me to those right people and things at the right time to solve my problems. After all, my right people, place and time started right at birth, as I was born to parents who were able to emigrate to the zenith of First World civilization so that I could have a promising future.

A difficult but overall fortunate series of events has led me to this moment of sitting in my New York apartment at my top of the line computer to write this article. But at this very moment, there are 1.3 BILLION people who do not have access to enough electricity to turn on a light bulb, let alone fire up an Internet connected computer. And as I sit and salivate over the turkey and trimmings I will enjoy in just a few hours, 870 million people don’t have enough food to sustain proper nourishment, let alone eat the estimated 4,500 calories on a typical Thanksgiving plate.

How is it that my life has worked out so fortunately when such an astronomical number of people lack even the most basic essentials that I often take for granted?

It is a question I cannot answer, but it is one that I find important to consider because it puts life in perspective. When I was younger, I used to think that the seemingly endless amount of financial hardship and health problems my family and I have faced for the majority of our American experience made me someone because together we’d been to hell and back. But in my adult life, as I have been able to pursue my dreams and goals, I slowly learned that the thing that makes me someone is being thankful for the many blessings I do have and giving something back to those that have less.

I write this piece not to be self-righteous or to manipulate my readers into feeling guilty over enjoying their Thanksgiving meals and life’s myriad blessings. I will certainly enjoy mine. And, despite my best intentions, I’m sure there will be many moments in the coming year when I slip and again take my blessings for granted. To be human is to be fallible. But to be human is also to reason and strive. With this piece, it is my hope and intention merely to encourage reflection. Though I do not believe this is true of my readers, it is becoming an indisputable fact that the holiday America created to give thanks is turning into nothing more than an excuse for Americans to gorge themselves before heading out to stand in long lines and trample each other to buy huge amounts of stuff they do not need. I hope this article can serve as a drop in the pond to encourage all of usmyself includedto strive to appreciate our lives (even) more.

On a deeper, personal note, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to my dear readers! On this day of gratitude, I am especially thankful for your continued interest, insightful comments and warm support. Some of you are strangers whom I have never met while others are friends or family members. However, whether you know me personally or not, you haven't given me a free pass when my writing has been off or my analysis missed an essential point. Thank you for considering what I have to say, the intellectual discourse you provide, and encouraging me to continue to evolve and strengthen my craft. As Pulse of My Nation proceeds into its second year, I look forward to sharing more of my work with you and receiving your ideas and encouragement.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Reflections on Independence Day


As we commemorate the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the foundational document of the United States of America, I am grateful and proud to live in a country whose ideals are to treat all people equally under the law and guarantee everyone the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Although there have been numerous examples in our republic’s distant and more recent history of times when it did not live up to those higher principles, it is the often too slow, typically erratic, but nevertheless unyielding march toward greater freedom that so inspires me about American history.

It’s never been an easy road. Too many battles -- bloody physical ones and exhausting emotional ones -- have been fought, uncountable casualties amounted, and generations later the scars of the Civil War, Civil Rights Movement, and various social uprisings such as the Stonewall Riots still haunt and affect us.

It is through the sacrifices of countless brave men and women that our union is stronger and more perfect in 2013 than it was when the country was first founded in 1776. Every achievement was a hard fought, well-earned victory that cost too many people much too much.

But the hard work isn’t over yet. Many people -- among them immigrants, LGBT-Americans, Wal-Mart employees, etc. -- still struggle for the dignity, equality and liberty that America offers many others and is supposed to offer to all.

It is my hope that as we flip our burgers and watch the fireworks this Independence Day, we will celebrate our good fortune to live in this country and honor it for all of its incredible, unmatched achievements. But I also hope that we will take a moment to reflect on America’s past, present and future so that next year we can celebrate an even more perfect union.

Happy Fourth of July to all of American’s peoples!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Discourse, Not Disrespect

After reading some of the comments on my recent Huffington Post article about same-sex marriage, I am both encouraged and concerned.

It’s gratifying to see that people have very strong, passionate opinions about same-sex marriage. Their support is what will usher in marriage equality.

However, with strong feelings on any issue, there is also a chance to push too far too quickly and inadvertently contribute to the opposite of the desired goal or effect.

For example, some readers took issue with my cousin and friend’s father because of their position on marriage. Of course, I took issue with their position too, which is why I wrote the article. And I presented their point of view from my own perspective. But my intention was to lay out a nuanced argument that encourages deeper thought and conversation, not finger pointing and name calling.

People with ideas that are different than ours can be dangerous because their vote might bind us to a terrible policy we don’t deserve. This can make us feel vulnerable and scared, which can lead to a strike-them-before-they-strike-us attitude. But if we point fingers, yell and name call, all we do is alienate those people further from ourselves without opening an honest dialogue to encourage them to think differently. This principle applies to many issues, not just same-sex marriage.

Disagreement and disrespect personified?
We cannot champion our causes without passion and conviction. But increasingly in almost all issues across the political spectrum, passion and conviction have led many people to extreme, unyielding positions. More and more we engage in mudslinging than achieving compromise that ensures effective governance.

To be clear, I do not in any way encourage compromise that would allow for a victory of a homophobic position. I do not believe civil unions are the answer to the same-sex marriage question. I believe that both straight and gay couple should be allowed to marry across the 50 states. With that said, I also do not encourage passionate insults that do little to advocate or educate.

I hope I do not sound disrespectful, for that is not my intention. I am very grateful that people took the time to read, think about and comment on my point of view. My words in this article are meant to elaborate on a larger issue of how Americans discuss their politics today.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Instead of a Life, a Shrine

When images speak louder than words: A disturbing site in New York's Greenwich Village, where 32-year-old Mark Carson was brutally, senselessly gunned down in the early hours of May 18, 2013 solely for being gay. Image copyright Daniel Davidson.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What Saying, "Me and My" Says About You


Me and my friend went to the movies last night.
If you read that sentence and paused, you must know something about English grammar. That being that the sentence should read: my friend and I went to the movies last night.
Changing the order of the words makes the sentence sound better (doesn’t it?), but aside from its contribution to a better aesthetic quality, is the order of the words important?
Though grammatically incorrect, ‘me and my _______’ has become a commonly used—or, I should say, misused—expression. Though it sounds awkward, on a fundamental level the misused expression communicates the exact same simple meaning of the grammatically proper one: that the speaker and his—friend, lover, sibling, etc.—are part of a shared experience. But if examined deeper, the placing of ‘me’ before others communicates something more complex: that the speaker is framing himself as the most important subject in the shared experience.
To understand how this works, consider basic sentence structure. A complete sentence has a subject and predicate. The subject is who or what the sentence is about and the predicate is a verb that expresses the subject’s action or state of being. A sentence may also have a compound subject, meaning that the sentence is about more than one person or thing. A sentence like ‘my friend and I went to the movies’ is an example of a sentence with a compound subject because the sentence is about my friend and I.
By saying ‘my friend and I went to the movies,’ I am literally putting my friend first by declaring her as the first subject in the sentence and relating her experience ahead of my own. And by relating her experience before mine, I am also figuratively communicating a level of respect and importance attributed to my friend.
If I rearrange the same sentence to say that ‘me and my friend went to the movies,’ it still has the exact same compound subject: me (a variation on the I previously used) and my friend. However, by switching the order of the two subjects, I’ve put me first, thereby signaling both literally and figuratively that me (—I—) is (—am—) the more (—most—) important subject in the sentence.
By placing me first, I am communicating that I value myself and my experience more than I value the person(s) who shared the experience with me. The message is subtle and most likely unintentional. The speaker probably doesn’t realize he’s even doing it. But he is, and the message is there.

The English language is complex and people are bound to make grammatical mistakes from time to time. I’ve even known professional English teachers and writers who’ve made the occasional error.

But ‘me and my ______’ is a mistake so pervasive in our vernacular that it deserves special attention. Mistakes happen, but we should be careful and conscious to say what we really mean. If we’re not, the consequences of failing to attribute respect to others in the way we speak could be diminished respect for ourselves. After all, my friend is probably telling others about seeing a movie with me too.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Celebrity Terrorists

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Just by reading those names, you likely draw an instantaneous connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

The name Adam Lanza probably immediately links your thoughts to the Newtown shootings.

No doubt Timothy McVeigh rapidly pulls your mind back to the Oklahoma City bombing.

When even the simplest, most harmless criminal event occurs, we instantly want to know the identity of the criminal so that s/he can be brought to justice. It follows, then, that when an event occurs that kills, injures and shocks our conscience on a mass-scale, we want to find, punish and often understand the reasons of those responsible. So we pursue the perpetrators with the full extent of our resources, waiting with baited breath to discover their identities.

But what happens once we discover who they are?

Almost as soon as someone learned the identity of the Newtown shooter, his photograph hit the Internet as well as print and TV news. Soon after, a hodgepodge of information about him and his mother began pouring forth. Suddenly, his hauntingly angry image and persona were everywhere.

Somewhat similarly, once investigators gathered enough information the FBI released the names and photos of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, instantly beaming them onto our screens—and into our minds. Though at the time this was done as a means of enlisting the public’s help in finding the suspects, images and profiles of the two brothers have continued to be directed at us every day since the older brother died and the younger brother was captured.

The result of the constant stream of information: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Adam Lanza, Timothy McVeigh, and others of their ilk are people as easily recognized and remembered as Rihanna, A-Rod or Anderson Cooper.

A Google search for "Tsarnaev" reveals over 20 million results.
Through the citing of their names and images in dozens of articles, videos and social media outlets, these terrorists were lifted from absolute obscurity into the national spotlight. In spite of—and alarmingly because of—their heinous crimes, they now enjoy a peculiar celebrity status. I do not mean to suggest that we enjoy their work or celebrate their accomplishments like we do with movie and music stars, sports celebrities or other popular personalities. Dzhokar Tsarnaev is not getting a book deal. But we remember these murderers and terrorists with the same ease as we call to mind Justin Timberlake’s latest song and give them nearly as much, if not sometimes more, attention in our media than we give to our cultural icons. (Whether we should give our cultural icons so much attention is another, separate issue.)

By repeatedly recalling these monsters’ names, we ensure that their names will live on long after the collective whole forgets the names of their victims. That is, if the media that hammers the perpetrators’ names into our minds bothers to mention the names of the victims with any kind of frequency—which it doesn’t.

On one hand, the names of these terrorists serve as symbols of hatred, instability and inhumanity. They are exemplars of how not to behave. Their names will be remembered by most (but likely not all, as one man’s terrorist can be another’s hero) with anger and abhorrence. In that way, they join the list of symbols like Adolf Hitler, the name arguably most synonymous with the epitome of pure evil, and it can be argued that they should be remembered for this reason.

But on the other hand, when symbols like Hitler and Osama bin Laden (not to mention Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, etc.) already exist, there seems to be little utility in turning more names into symbols. This is especially true of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers who, aside from having the distinction of being the first domestically bred, technically foreign bombers to attack civilians on US soil (unlike the Oklahoma City bomber), are not much different from other young terrorists who have deployed bombs or exploded themselves in terrorist attacks overseas.

Intelligence experts should analyze the Boston Marathon bombers’ backgrounds. Psychologists and other experts should use the Newtown shooter as an example for a case study (if he serves as a proper subject—I do not know enough about the discipline to comment). But we, the general public, do not need to remember these terrorists’ names to remember what they did or to learn of warning signs to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

To be clear, I am not advocating that the identities of these attackers should not be released. The public will always be curious, and in events like this has a right to know who threatened its safety. But once we find out who these people are, we don’t need their names thrown at us on repeat, until we have no choice but to remember them whether we want to or not. They and their names should fade away into the same oblivion into which they cast their souls the moment they chose to harm others.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Don't Use Boston Bombers To Generalize

As the investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings continues, authorities are increasingly concerned that Tamerlan, 26, and Dzhokhar, 19, Tsarnaev “could represent the kind of emerging threat that federal authorities have long feared: angry and alienated young men, apparently self-trained and unaffiliated with any particular terrorist group, able to use the Internet to learn their lethal craft.

It is unclear whether the suspects are being described as “angry and alienated” because their horrific actions speak to that effect or because the suspects are Chechen-born immigrants to the United States from two different central Asian countries. Since the names of the suspects were released last week, much of the news media has painted a picture of the suspects as unassimilated immigrants who chose to lash out against American society. While this may be partially true, questions of assimilation and the suspects’ immigrant status should play less of a role in the national discourse.

Try as hard as we might to assimilate every immigrant, and try as hard as every immigrant might to complete the process, sometimes it just won’t work. Even if we increase outreach to immigrants through more social programs, better education and balanced attitudes, there are numerous barriers to assimilation that immigrants face: language, culture, ethnicity, socio-economic class, etc. Though it may be easier for younger immigrants to overcome some of those barriers (language and culture, for example), it is still difficult, and sometimes impossible, if one feels caught between two worlds. For instance, my siblings were in their late teens or early twenties when we came to the United States. They all speak English, but with accents. They feel American, but a lot of who they are is also informed by their experiences of growing up in Russia.

Translated: St. Petersberg House of Books: Books, Music, Films - Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY
But just because someone cannot assimilate does not mean he will develop into a terrorist. (Forgive me if the point seems obvious, but the news media seems to disagree.) The immigrants I’ve known who have had difficulty assimilating have typically done one of several things: they moved to communities in which they’re surrounded by others who share their culture and speak their language (like Brighton Beach), they work harder to integrate, or they move back to their country of origin.

Disenchantment with America coupled with a sense of being unassimilated may create anger and alienation, but in most cases those emotions do not lead to murder and terror. Respect for life and refrain from murder are not distinctive American values. They are human values universal to every society and culture. The failure of the Tsarnaev brothers to assimilate into American society may have, and probably did, contribute to their suspected actions at the Boston Marathon and should be studied further. However, it is dangerous to use these men to draw broad conclusions about immigration and assimilation, especially when many details about their experiences and motives are not yet known.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Gateway to Immigrant Assimilation Lies Beyond Education


In light of the revelation that the suspected Boston Marathon bombers are Chechen-born immigrants to the United States, immigration reform is being evaluated as an even more critical issue than it was before. Prior to the bombings, much of the discussion surrounding immigration had to do with mechanisms of law for things like entry or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But as we continue to examine and scrutinize Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s feelings of being an outsider coupled with his younger brother Dzhokhar's seemingly typical teenage life, a new, non-legal question about immigration is becoming central: how successfully do immigrants assimilate* into the fabric of American society?

In a New York Times op-ed titled “Immigrant Kids, Adrift,” Marcelo M. and Carola Suárez-Orozco identify non-legal factors that affect the happiness, wellbeing and stability of young immigrants and assess how they help with assimilation. The op-ed cites a large-scale 1997 study of newly arrived immigrants, ages 9 to 14, in 20 public middle and high schools in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts and the San Francisco Bay Area. The authors state that in those 20 schools, there was “no sense of shared purpose, but rather a student body divided by race and ethnicity, between immigrants and the native born, between newcomers and more acculturated immigrants.” According to the authors, such environments contribute to declines in academic performance in college and lead to other consequences such as gang membership as they create feelings of alienation and prevent assimilation. The authors note that the Tsarnaev brothers fit the profile of those studied and conclude the article by urging educators and policy makers to assimilate students into the fabric of society through “academic, psychological and other supports.”

The Suárez-Orozcos are correct in urging educators and policy makers to pay greater attention to the needs of young immigrants, but they stop short of addressing another crucial element that affects, perhaps even prevents, assimilation. “Most Americans think we are lazy, gangsters, drug addicts, that only come to take their jobs away,” notes a 14-year-old immigrant boy in the Bay Area who is quoted in the op-ed. Though this is the only mention of broader American attitudes towards immigration in the article, it is the most significant issue raised and glossed over by the authors.

Educational policy and outreach alone cannot be successful in creating a better sense of belonging among young immigrants when the country’s attitudes about immigration remain hostile and laced with racial profiling and stereotypes. Yes, educators can and should work harder to give immigrants more attention and respect, thereby directly and indirectly urging their native born students to do the same. However, students do not learn every life lesson in the classroom and often do not act according to instruction.

My personal experience as an immigrant is illustrative. Fleeing persecution, my family came to the United States when I was five-years-old. I spent my entire life in the American school system, in private Jewish day school. In middle and high school, I was constantly harassed for my Russian heritage, despite sharing a common religious background with my classmates, speaking perfect English with no accent, and being a naturalized United States citizen. I was often called a “communist spy” and told to go back to Russia. “Dirty Russian” was another common insult hurled my way. The classmates who directed these comments at me were native-born Americans, but many of their parents were adult immigrants from Latin-American countries.

These incidents occurred several times a week for years, despite a supportive team of teachers and administrators who were aware of the situation and actively worked to stop and prevent it. They also occurred against the backdrop of Jewish teachings urging my classmates and me to recognize our unity as a people and have respect for every Jew. This suggests that the students who teased me received instruction about their attitudes towards immigrants from somewhere other than the classroom. I was strong enough to get past the constant taunting and hold onto my sense of being American, though it was often not easy. I wonder how many young immigrants like me may not be able to cope as well, especially if the hostility they’re treated to is far more intense than what I went through.

I do not mean to generalize my particular experience to every situation, but I believe it is informative. The student-body in my school was composed of white Jews, and yet it had varied cultural backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. These backgrounds informed or, in the case of students with immigrant parents, failed to inform my classmates’ approach to my immigrant status. Now consider a divided student body like the kind described by the Suárez-Orozcos. It cannot be entirely controlled by educators or policy makers. District lines can be redrawn, but there will always be students of different cultures, religions, socio-economic class, etc. in our public schools. Teachers can teach about equality and unity, but students leave the classroom as members of a larger world that tells them immigrants are bad for America.

Before we can write policies that encourage assimilation, we must rewrite the rhetoric with which immigration is discussed. The legacy of strong anti-immigrant rhetoric in America dates back to the early 19th century, if not further still, and remains essentially unchanged in every generation. Only its target varies. At some point America didn’t want the Poles, then the Jews, now the Mexicans, and most recently the Chechens. I cannot say whether “most Americans” think of immigrants as lazy criminals as the 14-year-old quoted in the op-ed notes, but when immigrants, legal and illegal alike, are endlessly described as a drain on resources taking away from American prosperity, it’s not a stretch to imagine people concluding that immigrants are no good for “us.”

*Note: I personally do not like the word 'assimilation,' as it connotes erasure of immigrants' culture in favor of its American counterpart, but 'assimilation' is the term being used by the news media. For the purposes of this article, I equate 'assimilation' with 'acclamation,' thereby defining the term as a mechanism for immigrants to build a sense of American national identify that coexists with their ethnic cultural background.

Monday, April 15, 2013

At a Loss for Words for Boston

At separate times and for different reasons, a few friends suggested today that I am a man of words who uses them well. I like to think those lovely compliments are true most of the time, but I find myself at a loss for words right now as I watch the news and reflect on the day’s events at the Boston Marathon. Lots of words—among them fear, terror, carnage, anguish, prayer, pain, grief, worry, relief, and sadness—come to mind as buzzwords to describe the horrific attack (more buzzwords), but something feels empty about them all.

Maybe it’s because none of those words characterize anything truly essential. Images of the attack and its aftermath speak for themselves, and speak louder. They tell us that those buzzwords are at least part of the reason for this brutality. Nevertheless, the buzzwords provide no deeper reason for the madness, no analysis of its implications, and no clue about who caused it.


On the other hand, maybe it’s because another prominent buzzword comes to mind: pity. I feel terribly sorry for the victims and families whose day of personal triumph turned into a life changing day of tragedy. But how much comfort can I provide with my words? What can I say—what can any of us say that wholly expresses the distress we feel about this event?

Plenty of words will be said and written about Boston in the days and weeks to come, but I wonder if any of them will be adequate for an event like this.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

'Glee' School Shooting Episode Aired at the Right Time

Earlier this week I wrote about how effectively Grey’s Anatomy beamed information about struggles of the Syrian civil war into American living rooms, thereby raising our awareness about the escalating situation in that country.

Now, a week after that Grey’s Anatomy episode aired, another prime time TV show showcased a major issue with chilling effect. Though some reactions to this week’s episode of Glee, titled “Shooting Star,” have been negative, I believe this episode depicts an important message that aired at a critical and appropriate time.

Like each of the series’ other episodes, this Glee entry starts off with song and cheer. The cast of teenage characters go about their daily lives, eager for glee club practice after school. But halfway through the episode, the sound of gunshots sends the characters—and the audience—into panic.

The next ten minutes are the tensest moments I’ve felt watching a television show since Grey’s Anatomy featured an episode on the same theme several years ago. The lights are dim, background music and sound effects are gone, and we only see and hear the character’s anguished sobs as they hide from an unknown assailant.



WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!

By the end of the ordeal, we find out there is no shooter. Rather, the gun—which is brought to school by Becky Jackson, a student with down syndrome who is scared of change—is set off accidentally and does not hurt anyone. Jackson does not mean to shoot anyone, and apologizes to her coach and longtime mentor for bringing the gun and for its accidental discharge.

END SPOILER

The Daily News states that this episode could have been done at any time and accuses Ryan Murphy, the series’ creator and show runner, of creating this episode now because “it had [the recent] Newtown [shooting] as a raw, visceral reference point.” The article expresses disappointment that we experience the ordeal by focusing only on the main cast of characters and concludes that the series “us[ed] [the] tragedy for its own advantage.” It claims that the accidental discharge is “just an unfortunate mistake by someone who didn't fully grasp the consequences of casual firearms use. But for viewers who didn't know this, it was a setup, a way to scare us at a moment when we are most vulnerable to being scared.”

While I agree that this episode could have been made at any time in the series’ four year run, I think it is most effective now in the wake of the events in Newtown. The Newtown shooting is an unimaginable horror, but it brought the gun control debate to the forefront once more (giving it more attention than it got prior, at least in my opinion). In its wake, the Obama administration started paying attention to gun control and even congress is working on the issue. Nevertheless, gun loving people across the nation refuse to budge an inch—some even want to nullify federal law to escape gun regulation. Glee’s depiction of the suspense and fear felt by its characters is exactly the kind of visceral representation that can engage people’s minds where written words and news reports fail.

It does not matter that the episode is a setup. That’s the whole point. It presents the viewer with a powerful ‘what if’ scenario. And how many school shooters can be said to “fully grasp the consequences” of firearm use? At the end of the episode, the audience is relieved that none of the characters we care about are hurt. And maybe we walk away considering the consequences of a situation like this occurring in real life, especially when the gun is used intentionally.

Glee airs Thursday nights on Fox.

Monday, April 8, 2013

'Grey's Anatomy' Shocks; Subtely Raises Awareness About War in Syria

It has surprised audiences with tales of exploding bombs, cold-hearted shootings, and disastrous plane crashes. But last week, longtime ABC drama Grey’s Anatomy did something truly shocking--and important. The episode titled “She’s Killing Me,” aired on April 4, continues to follow the personal and professional lives of the main cast of characters, but this time with a key difference. As the surgeons of Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital go about caring for patients, they have the additional task of training two Syrian surgeons in battlefield trauma medicine. The surgeons were flown out of the war zone in Syria to learn from a highly qualified team of American doctors. To begin the process, the Grey-Sloan team assembles what it deems are basic tools, but quickly discovers that the Syrian doctors have far fewer tools to work with. Numerous scalpels are removed off the surgical tray, and looks of confusion and surprise take hold on the American doctors’ faces as one of the Syrian surgeons turns off the lights and holds a flashlight over the simulated patient.
A Syrian surgeon holds a flashlight over his patient to provide light for surgery
Grey’s Anatomy is not known for subtlety, typically showcasing overly dramatic, often utterly improbable story arcs that involve disaster after disaster mixed with personal triumph and despair. Nevertheless, last week’s episode serves as a shockingly subtle and extremely effective public service announcement about the ongoing, escalating war in Syria. By visually demonstrating the hardships faced by Syrian doctors trying to keep their patients alive--patients that include many children--Grey’s Anatomy undoubtedly called the situation to the attention of millions of fans and perhaps demonstrated a new way in which art can raise public consciousness and affect social and political change.

A clip of the episode is available here.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Bill Clinton: Representative or Opportunist?



Last week, I wrote an editorial urging people to celebrate Senator Rob Portman for coming about on the issue of gay marriage. This week, I wonder if Bill Clinton deserves the same consideration. On September 21, 1996, Bill Clinton quietly signed a law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman for the purposes of federal law. This law, known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) makes it legal for states to not recognize gay marriages even if they are validly performed under the laws of a state in which gay marriage is legal. The law also denies federal marriage benefits that are given to straight couples. Now, 17 years later, Bill Clinton came out to say that DOMA is unconstitutional and urge the Supreme Court to overturn it. Although they are both involved in politics, Bill Clinton and Rob Portman are two fairly different people. Portman is a conservative, a Republican senator whose son came out of the closet two years ago and helped him turn around on the issue of gay marriage. Bill Clinton is a liberal, a democrat who has been around gay people and had gay friends since 1968. Clinton is also the first democratic presidential candidate to court a gay vote. Nevertheless, unlike Rob Portman, who stood against the party line in publically announcing his support for gay marriage, Clinton “resolved not to get burned” in an election year. He signed DOMA in the middle of the night without a public ceremony to avoid drawing attention to it. His supporters acknowledge and applaud Clinton’s evolution, citing the courage it takes for a President to admit that something he did while in office was unconstitutional. Others claim that Clinton’s latest anti-DOMA statements are as self-serving and opportunistic as his support of DOMA was in 1996. The reality is that the country was not ready to support gay marriage in 1996. Even in 2013, it is arguable that the majority that supports gay marriage is slim (with only 53% in favor). Bill Clinton signed a law that was representative of the attitude of the country at the time, and that is what a leader of the United States, a representative republic, is elected to do. Clinton now supports gay marriage, echoing the attitude of the rest of the country. On the other hand, our Constitution is built with certain safeguards to avoid the creation of a tyranny of the majority. Our history is full of defining moments in which we have created greater protections for minority groups and opinions. It seems to me that Bill Clinton chose politics over conscience. Twice. Though I believe that Bill Clinton sincerely supports marriage equality in 2013, I doubt he would have spoken out in its favor if public attitudes weren’t as open and accepting as they are. Perhaps it is his job to speak for the public only when there is majority support for what he’s saying, but a politician is not a puppet either. Politicians, presidents especially, are elected to represent the people, but also to lead.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Sadly, Supreme Court Unlikely to Find Constitutional Right to Gay Marriage



As the Supreme Court gears up to hear oral arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry tomorrow, I think of adjectives such as historic, courageous, and just to describe the potentially wide-sweeping decision that the Court may render to legalize same-sex marriage across the country. However, I’m not very optimistic about such a decision's chances. I worry that despite all the momentum there has been in advancing same-sex marriage rights, there hasn’t been enough of it for the Court to jump on the bandwagon. The Supreme Court tends to be reactionary, preferring to solidify change toward the end of a social movement instead of being on the front line. It is an institution outside of the democratic process and works hard to avoid usurping power away from voters. Many argue, and I agree, that gay marriage is a Constitutional issue that doesn't belong to the whims of voters, but I doubt the Court will easily see things this way. In the wake of a nationally divisive case like Roe v. Wade, which Justice Ginsberg describes as "mov[ing] too far too fast," the Court may be extremely reluctant to take the same kind of activist action again. Popular referendums in the last election that, for the first time, upheld or legalized same-sex marriage in 4 states after 29 states amended their constitutions to ban it may signal to the Court that this social movement is in its infancy and is best left in the hands of democratic mechanisms. There are many other arguments on both sides of this debate as well, but it’s anyone’s guess which ones the Court will find most persuasive. Despite what the justices often claim, they do not live in vacuums and consider controversial legal issues far in advance of when the issues first officially come before them. The justices then make the law far more often than they “find” it. I hope they find that gay couples are equal to their straight counterparts and make law to support that conclusion, but my instincts tell me they aren’t there yet.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Stop Bashing Rob Portman



Lay off Rob Portman! He did a huge, great thing by coming out in support of gay marriage—the only sitting Republican senator to do so. Ever. 

Maybe he would have never done so if his son wasn’t gay, but why should that matter? Channeling a personal experience into activism is not self-serving. It’s how most of us go about discovering what causes to champion in our daily lives. We often don’t understand something until confronted with it head-on. Consider the number of HIV activists in the gay community. How many of them worked so hard for the cause before they became infected?

I am not arguing that as a senator—and as a human being—Rob Portman shouldn’t soul search and champion causes that aren’t part of his personal experience. As a U.S. senator, he’s tasked with the responsibility of doing the right thing for all citizens, not just the ones he can personally relate to. I hope he understands that and will act accordingly. There is no reason, though, to attack a man who arrived at one right thing because he’s had a personal encounter with it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wow!

“Dozens of prominent Republicans — including top advisers to former President George W. Bush, four former governors and two members of Congress — have signed a legal brief arguing that gay people have a constitutional right to marry,” The New York Times reported this morning.

“[C]onservative groups said the White House had informed them that [President Bush] would soon endorse efforts to pass an amendment to the United States Constitution defining marriage to be between a man and a woman,” The New York Times reported nine years earlier, on February 5, 2004.

I still remember the boy who sat in his room 10 years ago following the twists and turns of the Lawrence v. Texas case, Rick Santorum's subsequent hateful comments, and George W. Bush's divisive campaign against gays across America. That boy never imagined that progress and change would happen so quickly, if they would ever happen at all.

Today, that boy is a man who is proud of his country and its leaders and knows that everyone he loves is one step closer to the freedom and equality promised to all Americans.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013

State of Disunion

Considering that President Obama used his State of the Union address to call on Congress "to put the nation's interests before party," it is surprising that he chose the same platform to say--for the first time in one of his SOTU speeches--that "the state of our union is stronger."

For years I have wanted Obama to echo the words of George W. Bush and tell the public that the state of the union is strong. Sure it always felt hollow when Bush said it, but it was a rhetorical device that evoked hope even in its absence of truth. Obama finally gave me what I've wanted for years...

...and left me entirely pissed off.

Though we have made some progress on the economy, energy and cutting the deficit, most of those achievements were accomplished only after months of political mudslinging and often coming within inches of completely toppling the economy. This shows--as Obama reflected at the start of his speech--that our union is anything but "stronger." It is fractured. Divided, even. The ideological split currently plaguing Washington seems to have been outmatched only one time in our history: During the Civil War.

I am not suggesting that the current divide is as powerful or traumatic as the Civil War was. However, the current divide hinders progress, discourages political participation by the 'average Joe,' and weakens America's position internationally.

No no, Mr. Obama. Methinks that our union is anything but "stronger" at the moment.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Faith

Faith is a powerful thing. For those who believe. To them, faith provides enormous amounts of comfort even in the most dire circumstances. I do not have (much) faith. Nevertheless, it holds power over me because it is such a mystery.


I grew up attending private Jewish schools. Though my parents were never particularly religious, they believe in God, and it was important to them to instill a sense of Jewish identity in their children.

For a time, I had faith. Then things changed. I grew up and learned about the state of the world, and I saw powerful examples of suffering right in my own family.

My grandmother spent 30 years as a prisoner of a broken body. For a long time, she led a mostly joyless life.  When my sister was young, she barely escaped alive from her abusive ex to become a struggling single mother of two kids. Just when she'd finally gotten on her feet, many years later, a reckless driver hit her car. For over three years now, she's been in constant pain and is barely able to walk as a result of that accident.

My grandmother believed in God. My sister still does. So does the woman in my office whose thirty-something year old son who just died of cancer.

I cannot wrap my mind around how these people--and so many others--believe in God's love and kindness in the face of such awful hardships. Perhaps I should admire them for their convictions and humility, but, for now at least, I am simply mystified.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thank You, America

21 years ago today, my family arrived in America. On January 31, 1992, I woke up on an airplane and peeked out the window just as the sun began to rise over the horizon and shine its rays over New York City. I was five years old then and much too young to appreciate this most remarkable and poetic moment of my life. I literally opened my eyes to see the dawning of a bright, new future.

Of course, my life in America has not been perfect or easy. My family faced many challenges over the past 21 years, and despite how hard we’ve worked to achieve the financial American Dream, we’ve never come close to breaking the middle class barrier. My parents’ advanced degrees in engineering and literature were not highly valued in the United States. That coupled with my parents’ middle age (they were in their mid and late 40s when they arrived) and developing health problems made it difficult for them to find lucrative employment opportunities. I spent much of my childhood wanting toys that my parents could not afford or missing school trips that my classmates took for granted.

Nevertheless, my parents have been able to achieve a different kind of—and much more valuable—American Dream.  From 1992 on, they worked hard to educate their children. They managed to put me through private school for thirteen years,* send my older sister to college to earn two degrees, see my older brother become an optometrist, and help send me to one of this country’s top universities and law schools.  They did not do it alone, of course. Their children understood that we had to contribute to our own future, which meant we had to work hard for money and scholarships. It was not easy for any of us, but we’ve come out the other side wiser and with greater strength of character.

Though my parents were educated professionals in Russia, their careers could only advance so far because of their religion. Even though the Soviet Union claimed to be free of class and religion, identity documents listed one’s religious affiliation in plain sight. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in Russia proper, as well as the Muslim Republic of Uzbekistan where my family lived. As a result, my father was held back from top military rank and postings despite over twenty years of service. My mother could not finish law school.

My parents have said time and again that never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that their children would be educated professionals, and that one of their children would achieve such educational heights in a country that is not his birthplace.

The United States of America has given my family incredible opportunities. Though my parents do not live luxuriously, they are secure in their home and thrive with what they have. Their children have world-class educations, own homes of their own, and are raising families.** And, most importantly of all, they have all this in a country that is truly free, that allows people of any religion or background to thrive, and that gives so much to people who are willing to work hard. 

I have written many other blog posts praising and critiquing America. I stand firmly by my arguments that its political system is too fractured and that it too often does not live up to its own ideals.

Nevertheless, I am proud and grateful to be an American. The beauty of the United States is that, though it is not perfect, it is ever evolving for the better, and it allows its citizens to participate in creating positive change. When I think about how different my life would be if I lived in Russia now—an allegedly free, democratic country that continues to crackdown on free expression and individual rights—I recognize how incredibly blessed I am to be an American.

21 years of struggle and triumph have made for an incredible adventure, and have created a appreciative and, hopefully, better man.

*They could not afford most of the tuition, but I worked hard to earn scholarships.
**I still rent and remain single, but I am also the youngest and just finished school.