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What To Worry About in 2018

December 27, 2017

Approaching the New Year, a recent message from the Council on Foreign Relations invited its members to the following discussion: What to Worry About in 2018. “Everything” was my immediate and hyper-anxious thought — since everything includes what cannot be predicted or imagined. However, with 2017 as the baseline, at the very least we can expect continued volatility and degradation of governmental norms. Everything is political, as evidenced by the comprehensive assault on social justice and the policies of the Obama administration. Little has been untouched by the destructive reach of the President, his administration and a compliant Congress. To cite but a few examples: the languished program to provide subsidies for children in need; the denigration of State Department officers in their diplomatic work; the diminishment of national monuments in violation of sacred spaces; the debasement and repudiation of science-based language in the work of the Center for Disease Control and the EPA; the assault against immigrants, public health programs and public education; the torrent of vilification and false news. And, as if this were not enough, the President has advanced a toxic mix of the political and personal in sexual dynamics.

There, of course, has been push back. Michele Goldberg declared in The New York Times that the first year of the Trump Administration has been one of resistance through political action. First came the Women’s March in DC and throughout large and small cities; protesters defended immigrants and the Affordable Health Care Bill; voters turned out in significant numbers in Virginia, Alabama, Georgia and in many local elections — specifically, voters who did not think their votes mattered in the 2016 election. Voice in the press and social media have hammered home distinctions between truth and fabrications, honesty and corruption, the defense of country and collusion with adversaries.

In a state of high alert and anxiety we keep reading the press and listening to the media to try to understand what is going on. A few weeks ago, the highly regarded New Yorker writer, George Packer, spoke at CCNY about the impact of the Trump era on liberal norms and ideas. I thought it an important and provocative statement. He identified four active narratives and beliefs that dominate and compete for our loyalty in the political and civic spheres: libertarianism, cosmopolitanism, diversity and America First. He found each of them problematic and detrimental to the viability of America’s social cohesion and liberal democracy — forces that he maintained need greater and stronger support than ever. His speech was an intellectual’s call to action. 

I was struck at the time by his idea that diversity is both a powerful and deficient narrative that competes with the other three. He spoke about resistance, particularly in academia and publishing, to the exchange of ideas and perspectives involving different racial, religious, national, gender, economic, social and cultural perspectives. In highlighting diversity, Packer was focused on one of the most important concepts and aspirational principles of Humanity in Action. We define ourselves as an educational program dedicated to social justice through diverse voices. Our work has been to find an inclusive base of inquiry from which to probe both the dangers and promises of pluralistic societies. I must admit that before Packer’s talk, I had never regarded diversity as a powerful, destructive American narrative — as a cacophony of competing and intolerant identities. I had always thought positively in the spirit of E Pluribus Unum. 

There was another aspect of Packer’s talk that I think is worth pondering for the work of Humanity in Action. In response to the revelations of the past months and weeks about rape and harassment, I suddenly find it interesting that Packer did not emphasize attitudes and behaviors in the changing relations between men and women, home and work, power and vulnerability. They did not register in the broad political themes and history that Packer developed about the Trump era even though the 2016 campaign drew fuel from misogynist and racial forces. 

One might speculate that The Times refused to give up on that story and its political ramifications. (Was it following up since Clinton was too compromised to push back effectively on sexual violations when allegations hit the Trump’s presidential campaign?) But then the Weinstein stories in The Times and New Yorker could not be dismissed or ignored. Based on accusations of rape and payoffs, Weinstein’s violent, immoral behavior involved too many well-known stars and corporate and political protectors. After Harvey: the deluge. Female voices (and a few males ones) suddenly took down a full field of powerful men, making them unsafe for the Democratic Party and corporations and public institutions. Roy Moore’s Senatorial campaign lost, in part, on this issue. The fall from power of many stars in entertainment, news, politics and the arts is unprecedented in tempo, scale and scope. Exposes of sexual predation continue to resonate around the President as “predator-in-chief.”

Thus at home, in schools, in universities and in too many fields of work, the boundaries of unacceptable and acceptable sexual behavior are radically shifting. Despite laws against harassment in the work place, now the risk is too great for corporations to market the accused or to ignore predatory environments. Microsoft just became the first major corporation to abandon obligatory private arbitration for allegation of sexual harassment. President of Microsoft Brad Smith recently wrote in the Washington Post that he was stunned to learn that the arbitration requirement prohibited 60 million Americans from bringing sexual claims for adjudication in the courts. 

It is not just powerful celebrities who have been exposed. The Times on December 20th focused on rampant predatory behavior against black women at two Ford factories in Chicago. In the world of assembly plant labor, many men enjoy a misogynist, salacious and degraded culture built into their workaday language and actions. On a daily basis, women are mostly unwanted and unprotected as they seek to make a living based on comparatively high wages for unskilled workers. Finally Ford, despite lawsuits and settlements over many years, issued a public apology and promises of rectification. If one looks for further vindication, it is to be found in Anita Hill’s appointment as the leader of a new task force on sexual dysfunction in the entertainment industry.  

The contentious American struggle over the role of women, especially in the work place and public and civic space, is an unremitting battle. It is clear, however, that we are entering a new phase of reckoning or negotiations over the eternal drama of what men and women—and now transgender individuals — are entitled to in their personal, social and working lives. The changes are — and will continue to be — subject to powerful generational differences. I suspect that the recent explosive revelations resonate most painfully with generations of those 30 and older. I simply don’t know any woman who has been free from some menacing and demeaning behavior — from rape to unwanted and threatening actions and language in and outside the home. Silence was the norm: we rarely talked among ourselves and to ourselves about the damage. Younger generations, more on guard and knowledgeable, still have much to work out. This too is part of Humanity in Action’s work. 

Let me share some final and hopeful thoughts on the cusp of the New Year. Each Saturday during the Jewish Sabbath, a prayer for the country is read in Conservative synagogues. The prayer precisely calls for blessings upon “its leaders, judges, officers and officials who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public.” It continues: “Plant love and companionship, peace and friendship among the many peoples who dwell in our nation.” And finally: “Grant us the knowledge to judge justly, the wisdom to act with compassion, and the understanding to root out poverty from our land.” 

There is much to believe in and work for. Wishing all happy holidays and strength in the New Year.



Suggested Readings 

In her op-ed piece for The New York Times, “Harvey Weinstein in my Monster too" Salma Hayeck poses the question of why "so many of us, as female artists, have to go to war to tell our stories when we have so much to offer? Why do we have to fight tooth and nail to maintain our dignity?", before concluding that "it is because we, as women, have been devalued artistically to an indecent state, to the point where the film industry stopped making an effort to find out what female audiences wanted to see and what stories we wanted to tell." (Link to article

Jessica Bennett in The Times piece, "When Saying ‘Yes’ Is Easier Than Saying ‘No’", endeavors to describe the "Cat Person' Sex" phenomenon – drawing reference from a recent New Yorker story recounting the "uncomfortable reality that clouds" sexual consent. "In this particular moment of cultural reckoning, it gets at a crucial nuance that seems to have long been missing from the conversation around sexual harassment and assault: that consent isn’t always black and white. Sometimes “yes” means “no,” simply because it is easier to go through with it than explain our way out of the situation. Sometimes “no” means “yes,” because you actually do want to do it, but you know you’re not supposed to lest you be labeled a slut. And if you’re a man, that “no” often means “just try harder” — because, you know, persuasion is part of the game." (Link to article)

Michelle Goldberg's New York Times article talks about the turning of the political tide in America following the Women's March in January. "The Year in Resistance" makes the claim that "while Trump has given his followers the liberal tears they crave, that victory contains the seeds of its own reversal. Trump has done more to spur progressive political organizing than Bernie Sanders, George Soros and Saul Alinsky combined. The president once warned that if he fell, he’d take the entire Republican Party down with him. Thanks to the Resistance, he might still have the chance." (Link to article)

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn tackle the question of sexual harassment of blue-collar women – focusing specifically on the female workers at Ford, where "harassment had persisted despite a quarter-century of legal and regulatory attempts to stamp it out," thus concluding that "despite the optimism of this moment, sexual entitlement is a stubborn force, and the battle to change attitudes has only just begun." (Link to article)

Brad Smith, the President of Micosoft, reflects on "What Microsoft learned from our #MeToo moment" in an op-ed piece for The Washington Post. Smith muses that "to a degree different from many other issues, sexual harassment has persisted because the victims too often have been silenced. The change that is needed requires more than courageous victims. People need confidence that their voices will be heard by an objective listener who can take effective action," thus prefacing Microsoft's recent endorsement of new legislation to change work-place provisions requiring arbitration of sexual-harassment claims. (Link to article)

George Packer, staff writer at the New Yorker and author of The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq and The Unwinding: The Inner History of the New America, leads his year’s Irving Howe Memorial Lecture at CUNY Graduate Center, where he argued that the decline of liberal values helped to create the Trump presidency. (Watch here)

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