Sometimes , when I get worked up and need to release some tension, I like to photoshop. Here’s my latest creation – the dueling t-shirts:
Inexplicably, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about ethics and morality lately. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) Beyond the obvious reasons – the daily escapades of an ethically and morally bankrupt pwesident – it also has to do with my younger daughter, Lily. On starting high school, she opted out of Religion class* and attended one called ‘Ethics’ instead. She periodically comes to me with questions arising from those lessons. Early on she wanted to know the difference between ethics and morals and I gave her my lay definition. Crassly oversimplified, I said ethics are individual ideas about right and wrong, whereas morals are more communal understandings about how people should behave and interact.
Before I started writing this post, I figured that I should quick check Google just to be sure I hadn’t told her something wrong. Sure enough, the first five sites defined the two terms exactly the opposite of what I had said. Oops.
So I did what people do in these situations. I kept surfing till I found definitions that were in line with what I believed to begin with (and found a cool website in the process!) Here it is:
According to this understanding, “ethics” leans towards decisions based upon individual character, and the more subjective understanding of right and wrong by individuals – whereas “morals” emphasises the widely-shared communal or societal norms about right and wrong. http://theconversation.com/you-say-morals-i-say-ethics-whats-the-difference-30913
Now that we’ve cleared all that up, I can go on.
I have shoplifted once in my life. A skein of embroidery floss from the Dime Store. If memory serves, the agonizing guilt I felt afterward made me furtively return it to the store the following day – an experience that terrified me even more than the original crime. And still the guilt didn’t dissipate. I kept feeling it for the next . . . oh . . . 48 years or so. And counting.
This whole experience makes me suspect that my own sense of personal ethics is fairly rigid. (I blame my grandfather). I can’t stand cheating on tests and never did it myself. When I need digital music, I buy songs from Amazon. When a friend offered to share a trove of pirated Kindle books with me – 1000s of them – it didn’t cross my mind for a second to accept. I realize that all these things are common in this country – that the ‘widely shared communal or societal norms’ aren’t too bothered by these actions – but they just seem wrong to me.
So I was in a real dilemma when Lily and I decided to binge-watch ‘Big Little Lies’ during our last micro-braiding session (which, as some of you know, can last anywhere from 6 to 10 hours). By Episode 4 I was hooked. The braiding was done midway through the second last episode and that was when I realized we had been illegally streaming it the whole time.
But I really really wanted to see how it ended.
So I did what people do in such situations. I borrowed Lily’s IPad to watch the last episode. She wanted to use it herself and said I could just as easily use my own laptop, but I didn’t want any digital traces of my crime on this machine. Her sigh expressed her feeling that I was being totally ridiculous. ‘You do know, Mom, that everyone does this.’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I know.’
At any rate, to finish this part of the post, I’ll say that the ending of the series was great. And next time I am in a store and see the DVD, I guess I’ll be buying the darn thing. (Would it be unethical of me to wait until the price comes down a little?)
In terms of professional ethics, I have had very few dilemmas to deal with over my years of teaching. I never held a position of any authority over anyone other than my students, and I believe that as long as a teacher develops a working relationship of mutual respect with them, there is very little that can go wrong. I only had to deal with one complaint in my 30 years at the university. Someone went to my boss and said I wasn’t holding my course. She had tried to attend three weeks in a row and the classroom was locked and empty. Turned out she had been going to the wrong room.
There was one situation, though, that has stuck with me over the years. In one course, my students had to present a topic, including a position on that issue, and then lead a discussion afterwards. I gave them the hint that a lightly provocative topic or standpoint would help in getting the other students to speak up in the discussion part. It was even okay if they didn’t truly or fully believe in the opinions they were promoting, but if they went that way, it should not be obvious to us during the talk. (They could then tell the others their true ideas at the end.) So I heard presentations about how Greenpeace was a terrorist organization, that unemployment benefits should be abolished, that the European Union was just a corporate takeover of the country . . . we had some lively discussions!
One student came to me with the idea of presenting ‘South Africa was better off under Apartheid’ and I smiled and gave her the green light. Her turn rolled around a few weeks later and she began by stating that all those Apartheid protesters didn’t know what they were talking about. But she did, because had lived in South Africa as a child. My inner alarm bells started going off as she began to tell us how things were before and after the end of that system, about her experiences with black people there. Her entire premise boiled down to the ‘fact’ that black people were too stupid to run a country by themselves. She gave us several examples to prove it.
‘We had a gardener and we asked him to plant lettuce. He just dug a hole and poured all the seeds into it. So we had to show him how to do it properly. The next time we asked him to plant lettuce, he dug another hole and poured the seeds in again!’ She paused at looked at us with a ‘Can you believe it?! How stupid can you get?!’ attitude.
I sat there struggling with a barrage of strong emotions. It was clear by now that she wasn’t just being provocative – she really meant all these things. This girl was turning my classroom into a platform for appalling racist garbage. But what was almost more disturbing was the complete silence of the 20 other young people in the room. I soooo wanted to take her down, to ask her if stupidity was the only possible explanation for her gardener’s actions, if maybe, for instance, he didn’t care if your lettuce grew. But I couldn’t. I was her teacher and had a certain power over her in our unequal relationship. I was the one who could pass or fail her. It wouldn’t be right for me to humiliate her in this public space even though I hated the opinions she was expressing.
Her presentation ended and she moved on to the discussion part. The silence was deafening. And it went on for a long time. I had no idea what to do if none of them spoke up, but I knew I couldn’t do it for them. Finally, finally, finally, one student said quietly, almost under her breath, ‘This is so racist!’ Then another student spoke up, and another, and another. I wouldn’t describe it like a dam breaking or anything; the discussion remained halting and muted until the clock ran out. But it was a whole lot better than subjugated or complicit silence. I will always feel gratitude toward that one courageous listener who spoke out first. With her protestation, she saved the lesson from turning into a total calamity.
And if a certain South African gardener is still out there somewhere, a shout out to you, too.
Greetings from a country with no government.
For anyone out there reading this who is not versed in Austrian politics – and I’m guessing that is all but one of you (Hi Ly!) – here is the shortest possible synopsis of the political situation here.
After the last election in 2017, the Right party with its 17 year old leader joined together with the Far Right to form a coalition to govern. I can’t think of any particular principles these two groups had beyond ambition and opportunism, but they set off together to set things right and get things done and drain the swamp and make Austria great again. A Far Right guy bagged the coveted Minister of the Interior post where he got to boss around the cops and make life as uncomfortable as possible for all the refugees that had been allowed in the previous year. This Minister Kickout proceeded to make a string of authoritarian, nationalistic, and xenophobic statements such as a suggestion that they be ‘concentrated’ in . . . well, I guess something like camps. Meanwhile he mucked around in the asylum policies in ways that repeatedly pulled the rug out from under the applicants. Being forbidden to work or start learning a trade, and this over waiting periods of four or more years, many of the young men drifted around in packs, had trouble learning the language or integrating. Some turned to unofficial work with exploitation wages. Some turned to dealing. Others, like my unofficially adopted third child, H. from Afghanistan, have managed to go to and stay in school, but he goes through periods of anxiety or near despair as he waits and waits and waits for a decision on his asylum application. We’ve learned to recognize the signs of one of these phases coming on. He’ll start skipping classes or talk about taking off for France . . . We talk him through these times.
But I digress. Back to Austrian politics.
Fast forward to May 17, 2019 when a video appeared and broke the Austrian internet. It was seven hours long and showed the head of the Far Right party in a Spanish bungalow colluding with a woman he thought was the niece of a Russian oligarch. You publish nice articles about us and we will give you fat public construction contracts . . . stuff like that. It came out later that the whole thing was a set up.
Nevertheless, the party leader resigned the very next day. Eight hours later the 17 year old Chancellor broke up with entire party and asked the President for new elections to be called.
Two days later, the Chancellor tried to get Mr. Kickout fired and all of the ministers from his party resigned in protest. They retaliated further in joining a no-confidence vote which happened the following week. The Chancellor lost his job.
The President called for new elections in September and, for the interim, he installed experts to run the various ministries as well as a non-partisan temporary leader. Austria had its first female Chancellor (of sorts).
I sat there and marveled at the efficiency of this implosion. Americans have suffered an onslaught of daily outrageousness for two and a half years with no end in sight, but here, one lousy video toppled the government in the space of 10 days.
In the following four months I started thinking Hey! This no government thing is not so bad. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. The economy chugged along. The post was being delivered and the trains were running on time. After a wildly destructive thunderstorm in June, the road workers were out the very next day fixing everything up. A week later new roadside ditches had been dug to prevent similar flooding in the future. The evening news reports were scandal free and did not induce a single flinch.
Of course it couldn’t last. About two weeks ago the political roundtable discussions began on TV in earnest. The entire old cast of characters was back. Political videos began ping-ponging around the internet. H. came into my office to show me one of Kickout. He was spitting cynical venom about Austria’s ‘Triple A rating’ in dealing with migrants. He said what ‘AAA’ really stood for was ’aggressive Afghani asylum seekers’ and bragged to the crowd about how he was going to deal with them. They loved it.
And the campaign signs started appearing on the side of the road. All these earnest or friendly faces underlined with the corresponding slogan. I’m not sure how things look in other parts of the country, but the Far Right party signs are the most ubiquitous around here.
And they are usually placed in pairs. The new top candidate’s happy face followed quickly by mean Mr. Kickout, peeking out from behind him, hovering over his shoulder, whispering into his ear . . .
Tomorrow is Election Day. I’m thinking about moving to France.
“Lock her up” was bad enough, but yesterday’s “Send her back” made something snap in my brain.
I am done trying to “understand” the Trump supporter. Especially the ones claiming to be evangelical.
I can’t find a single reason for wanting this man in the White House that doesn’t derive from one of the following:
But don’t take it from me.
16 These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him:
17 A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood,
18 An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief,
19 A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.
I’m back to talking chickens.
Loyal readers will know what that means: there has been too much NSFB (“not suitable for blogging”) stuff going on and occupying my thoughts lately. Add to that the fact that I also subjected blogworld to two political rants in a short space of time, making me feel like I have to make up for it somehow. I have been rooting around for a nice, easy, non-political topic I can spend some time on . . . now, let’s see . . . what could I write about? . . . I know! . . . chickens!
“We’re going to be grandparents of three,” my husband said to me a few days back. He had just checked our third batch of incubator eggs with his special illuminator device, homemade out of a toilet paper roll and some tin foil. Of the six eggs, three of them had dark shadowy innards. It takes almost exactly 21 days for the eggs to hatch, so in about two weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if he was right.
Our first attempt, some of you may remember, resulted in the deformed, short-lived Quasimodo and the equally doomed Fred, the German Reich’s chicken who was clearly too beautiful to live. Those two were accompanied for their short time by some hastily purchased Wyandotte chicks, all four of whom turned into roosters and, subsequently, three of whom turned into dinner. The fourth is the father of our current incubator batch. This time I am actually hoping for a rooster. I want to name him “Pete Buttig-Egg”.
Our second attempt at incubating was more successful – it produced four hearty Orpingtons who managed to survive the harsh winter in a small henhouse with an open door. They did it by sticking close together. By March we had three full grown hens and one rooster but, sadly, no eggs. For months I fed them, checked the empty laying box, and then informed them that they were a bunch of good-for-nothing losers. But then – on the very same day Mueller finally submitted his report to the aptly named Barr – one of them laid an egg:
Surely there will be more to come. There has to.
All this focus on progeneration naturally led me to other thoughts. What about me? Where do I come from? I still remember asking my mother about it way back in grade school when the topic of nationalities was first introduced into my consciousness. Just like Elizabeth Warren’s mother’s tale of a Native American ancestor, my mom had a theory of her own to tell:
“Well let’s see . . . you are German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish and Roman. Pretty much in that order.”
“Roman?” I asked. “Where does that come from?”
Mom told me that her own mother was 100% English, but that she had dark hair and olive skin – so that probably went back to some Roman soldier from the Empire’s occupation of England in the first millennium. It seemed pretty feasible.
In defense of my mother, I assume now that she was being a little facetious and never thought I would go on to repeating that list of nationalities – including the last one – for the next two decades. Thank goodness there was no “Roman” box to tick on my college application form!
The mystery surrounding my heritage was further complicated by my elder sister who has spent years compiling a massive database of our genealogical tree. I only know a tiny bit of it, but I vaguely remember her correcting my version of our connection to the Mayflower and – more importantly – not being able to confirm the “Irish” part of my nationality list. This disturbs me greatly because I once distinctly heard the call of my ancestors while wandering around the peninsula of Dingle in Ireland. On the other hand, when I was in Rome a few years back, I listened for a similar call and . . . nothin’.
Fortunately, modern science might offer me a way to prove or disprove my mother’s and sister’s theories. My Cuban friend (whose mother told her she had some Chinese ancestry) did a DNA test through “MyHeritage” and got some surprising results. To cut to the chase, she now walks around feeling less connection with the Ming dynasty and more with the Massai.
Of course, after hearing her tale, I went online and ordered two kits for me and my husband. They have been sitting on a shelf for weeks, but I’ve decided that today is the day to force the hubby to swab. Once that is done, I will mail the spittle off. So . . . in about six weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if my mother or sister was right. I’m curious to find out who, if anyone, will be exonerated.
“He thinks it’s still the 1980s!!”
I said that to my sister when, once again, our long distance call turned to politics – a topic that has become almost obligatory in the Age of Twump. As usual, we spat some venom and vented our frustrations and exclaimed our disbelief at whatever the scandals of that particular week happened to be. Afterwards, the sentence above stuck in my brain and kept me brooding. Eventually, it occurred to me that I had reams of old materials about the United States in my office upstairs dating all the way back to my first year of teaching English. I thought I should dig those things out and see what the issues of the day had been . . .
It was the year 1984. I had just arrived in Austria to begin my new job as resident native speaker and representative of the American society and culture. In other words, I was just launching a 35 yearlong effort to explain the inexplicable to sundry Europeans who crossed my path. At the very start, in the fall of ’84, the presidential election back home was heating up and in my eternal if naïve optimism, I told everyone that Mondale had a real chance to make Reagan a one-term president. (For those who have lost or repressed that particular memory, Reagan won 49 states.) When it came to presenting other current issues of my home country, I was a bit less starry-eyed. I put together materials like these “Facts about the United States” using the state-of-the-art technology of the time: photocopiers, scissors, glue and magic markers.
In the same binder where I found these materials, there were other articles and book passages that, for some reason, I never tossed in the paper recycling bin. Looking at them again after three decades, I was immediately struck by a weird sense of . . . for lack of a better word . . . convergence.
Immigration, drugs, crime, guns, the wealth gap, the Moral Majority, North Korea – they were all there as issues three decades ago. Some of them were being hyped at the time by the political right to create maximum fear in voters, while others were conveniently ignored and allowed to metastasize. Take any one of these issues and analyze the way it has developed since the 80s. The left tried desperately to reframe most of them, talking about a path to citizenship, decriminalization, ending mass incarceration, universal background checks, income inequality, religious tolerance, nuclear deterrence, etc. Twump, however, stayed old school. He talks walls and ICE, zero tolerance and Muslim bans, good guys with guns and punishments for women who choose, all while fantasizing about the proliferation of his namesake towers – next stop: Hanoi! I can’t think of a single 1980s right-wing position that is not in his repertoire.
It’s mind-boggling. Imagine you could pick any decade to get stuck in. You’d have to be a special kind of person to choose the 1980s.
Then again, Twump had a lot of help in maintaining his world view over the next two decades . . .
As I continued flipping through the binders of my old teaching materials, I discovered this little gem:
It was the early 90s and the Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain had come tumbling down over here in Europe. At home, the Right went in search of a new foil and the focus of their wrath shifted from the Commies to the Clintons. At the same time, the Evangelicals, the NRA and AMI (publisher of Weekly World News and the National Enquirer) went into lockstep with the Republican Party. Fox News joined forces with them shortly thereafter. Lobbying, PACs, and SuperPACs became a thing. The work of the military was outsourced to Blackwater, Halliburton, and Burger King. Prisons were privatized. The guns got bigger and more numerous while the school children they were aimed at got smaller and fewer. Some Conservative figured out that 5 Supreme Court justices could be just as effective as 50 Senators at maintaining the status quo and at a much cheaper price. That would later give us a President Bush, corporate personhood, the revolving door, Citizens United and an entire industry around Clinton-bashing. Conspiracy theorists inched into the mainstream, turning the media landscape into an (Info-)warfront and transforming Hillary from a relatively harmless alien baby adopter into a serial rapist enabler, a woman targeted for so long and with such viciousness that she became less electable for enough people than a gropey Reality TV charlatan. Would he ever have won without all that groundwork laid out for him and against her in advance?
For eight years there was a brief period of respite, but otherwise, politics seemed like one long, dark litany of events designed to depress the liberal-minded and keep everything the same ol’ same ol’.
But, once again, I get that weird sense of convergence.
Think of the people behind these depressing developments and how so many of them reemerged and/or coalesced around the 2016 Republican candidate. Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Rush Limbaugh, David Pecker, Jerome Corsi, Steve Bannon, Eric Prince, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Julian Assange, the Michaels Flynn and Cohen, most of the pwesident’s cabinet members, a congressman or two . . . they have been at their dubious respective games for years with impunity. But now, one by one, thanks mostly to their association with the current administration, they are coming under serious fire. If justice is truly divine, then a lot of these members of the opportunistic Lock Her Up Gang just might have jumpsuits in their futures.
There is always hope. I’m no longer so sure about the “change” part.
Two and half years ago, I wrote the prequel to this blog post (“Pink Flamingos”) about how I experienced the beginnings of this long political pendulum swing to the right. It was dated October 16th, 2016 and in my eternal if naïve optimism, I all but pronounced the upcoming historic election of our first female president. It was just three weeks away!
Instead we got her alien manbaby and his promise to make America 1984 again.
It seems that the 2020 election season is already upon us. Speaking as one of the many American frogs swimming in a pot of slowly heating water and screaming “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!!” here are the qualities I am looking for in the future Democratic candidate.
He or she will not say or do anything that is:
She or he will not talk about:
the Electoral College
the enemy of the people
the art of the deal
He or she will have respect for:
the free press
separation of powers
the Hatch Act
the Magnitsky Act
the Emoluments Clause
the 1st, 13th, 14th, 15th and 25th Amendments
basic human decency