Monday, February 23, 2015

February 23rd: Heart and Soul

This past weekend, I watched the James Brown movie, Get On Up, a biopic that details the life of the Godfather of Soul, who revolutionized the way we think about African American music.

As the credits rolled at the end, I was fascinated by the concept of a biopic. A man lived his life, and someone else found it so meaningful, so transcendently significant, that he wrote the story down and got another person to pretend to be that character. I also got to thinking about whether or not James Brown knew what was happening as it was going down. At what age did he know he was going to be a household name? At what point did the idea cross his mind that maybe, just maybe, a movie would be made about his accomplishments?

By the depiction presented in the movie, it doesn’t sound like it would come as much of a shock to Brown that he was the subject of a film. His ego lent itself well to the kind of superstardom that he enjoyed, and he probably would have loved the idea of his story being told to a new generation, many of whom may not remember the world before Funk. In the moments that they were happening, though, those around him probably had no idea that they were bearing witness to a paradigm shift, that they would one day get their own depictions, not as the stars of their movie, but as bystanders in his.

When looking around the world we live in, what are the moments that are going to find their way into the stories we tell twenty, thirty, forty years down the road? There are some stories that we can fairly assume will find their way into the history books and even onto the silver screen. Major world events, like September 11th and the Arab Spring are easy examples. It is only a matter of time after a significant historical moment that someone begins to tell the narrative, the backstory that accompanies these turning points in human existence.

It is, though, the subtler stories that are the most fascinating. We go through life every day, and we are so often underwhelmed by how ordinary it might be. Nobody wants to write a book or shoot a movie about waking up, going to work, making dinner, and going back to bed. But everyone has a story to tell, and you can never really understand someone’s story unless you’ve asked them to share it.

You never know when the child you grew up with will turn into a superstar. You never know when the simple interaction you have at the grocery store might turn into a life-changing moment. You never know when the door will open and the beginning of your story might begin.

As I went about my day after watching the movie about a young boy from Georgia who changed an entire genre of music, I was drawn to the idea: what will my story be? And who will be listening? Even more so than that, what are the stories that I could be telling, if only I was paying attention enough to listen?

Monday, January 26, 2015

January 26th: Social Media Finding Their Niche

The ways in which we communicate continue to grow and develop as we not only create new and innovative ways to connect, but also advance the ways in which we use existing media.

In a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the 2014 report on social media usage revealed some very interesting insight into the most popular social networks and the demographics who use them most frequently.

Facebook was discovered to be the most “popular” social media site, with 71% of internet-using adults having accounts. At first glance, this appears to put Facebook at the forefront of the social media world, but, upon further inspection, this may not be the case. The 71% from 2014 is exactly the same as it was in 2013, which seems to indicate that there has been no growth in Facebook activity in the past year.

While Facebook remains consistently popular, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest all saw spikes in total percentage of use, with Pinterest seeing a heavily female bias. This seems to indicate that, while not matching the sheer numbers of Facebook, other social media are continuing to reach a meaningful audience and spread use of their applications.

Most interesting to me, though, was the proliferation of “multi-platform use,” which increased by ten percent from 42% to 52% this year. This means that more and more, users are choosing to diversity their content consumption and production to different platforms.

What this indicates is that there is a shift from the ideas of social media when they were first gaining traction to now. It used to be that the purpose of a social network was to house any and all elements of social life. Facebook was the home base for all chatting, photo and video sharing, networking, and resume building. Now, you have the opportunity to create a Facebook profile to house your “friends,” an Instagram account for photos, a LinkedIn for your professional growth, and Pintrest as your crafting showcase. Lest we forget Twitter as the place to engage with life’s daily activities, all of a sudden social media become less of a website to visit and spend time on, and instead turn into the outlet for which we share our lives, as well as consume the lives of those in our communities.

Some like to claim that Facebook is dying. I don’t really believe that to be the case. What we use Facebook for is changing, and Facebook has, since it’s inception, been fairly clear about their desire to keep up with the demands of its users. Facebook has turned into your homepage. We don’t consider the time we spend on Facebook because we are so often using it as a launching point for other websites. We click on videos that take us to YouTube. We click on articles that take us to blogs and news sites. We click on photos that take us to Instagram feeds. To say that Facebook is no  longer viable is to ignore the central purpose of Facebook, which is to catch the things that will be most especially interesting to you.

As these trends continue, we should expect to see continued push for specialized media that attempt to target a specific niche clientele. The expression “you can’t be everything to everybody” is proving especially true, and has created the opportunity for specialized networks, rather than catch-all social environments.

In the grand scheme of things, social media are still brand new. We are very much learning how to use them both to get our messages out, as well as to receive messages that we find personally meaningful. We will continue to see more and more people using multiple social media at the same time, while also seeing the prevalence of niche apps competing against “catch-alls” like Facebook. While none will match the sheer population of the Zuckerberg giant, each will have more impact within the specialized community that is more thoroughly engaged with the site.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January 21st: Strength of a Union

A transcript of the State of the Union Address can be found here.
Last night’s State of the Union was a social media explosion, as has become the case for most events of its size and nature. The resounding opinion was that this was Obama’s greatest one yet, and that his confidence and determination brought new hope to a presidency that has, in recent months, seen a dramatic decline in support.

As a nation, it is great to see our leader demonstrating such bold strength and confidence. It inspires those feelings within ourselves. What happens today, the day after such a declaration, though, is what defines its success.
The primary focus of last night’s speech was to highlight the progress the country has made in the past several years, and note areas where the president would like to see progress and, in some cases, where he refuses to accept decline. The speech’s thesis statement was that “the shadow of crisis has passed, and the state of the Union is strong.” Comforting words, no doubt, for a nation that needs a little hope, amid a world that continually looks to be falling apart.

The idealism was palpable. A strong focus was placed on the middle class, centered around the notion of equalling the playing field, not for the purpose of dragging down the elite, but for the chance to elevate those who do not get a fair chance. He said “That’s what middle class economics is -- the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” One country, striving together to lead the world is exactly the type of image that we all need to hear about. The challenge becomes making it a reality.

Now, as we review the materials, it will be easy to slip back into the partisanship that has plagued the last six years. We leave the shared goals of a strong, united nation because of the distraction of the details along the way. Yet, in President Obama’s speech, he speaks directly to this issue. The words that ring clearest today for me from last night are when the president addressed not only the possibility for disagreement, but rather the need for it.

He said “If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments -- but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.” Obama knows that he will not say some magic words and suddenly have Republicans and Democrats getting along. He knows that the gridlock will continue, and that the aisle will continue to divide us. But the point of a speech like this is to remind us that there IS an option, that we can find ways to disagree while also striving for the shared goals of a single nation.

We now need responses from two different groups to turn last night’s emotion into today’s action. We need President Obama to continue to play that role that he did last night. We need him to continue to be sassy, to be strong, to be willing to have meaningful debates and be ready to listen. We need a leader who will be willing to stand above the drama of Washington and steer the country as a whole where the people need and want it to go. We also need Congress to have listened. The time for crossed arms, grumpy faces, and fingers in our ears are gone. We can’t afford that anymore. Representatives of the people in the federal government owe it to this nation to continue to work for what is best for the country, not what is best for keeping one’s seat or pandering to a certain demographic.

Some might say that these are dreams, fun to talk about in a speech, but impossible to get done. This isn’t what real government looks like, they might say. The problem is, government ceases to look as it should, and we now have the ability AND the need to fix it.

Last night’s speech concluded with another powerful statement. In his conclusion, he said “We’ve laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter -- together -- and let’s start the work right now.”

Last night’s speech brought with it a heavy dose of idealism. Idealism is nearly impossible to actually enact. There are pitfalls and there are challenges. Yet, that is why we set the bar so high: so that we know that this country can be the greatest in the world, if only we were willing to make it so.

Well, let’s get to work.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January 13th: Drawing Conclusions

Sometimes, in our attempt to comprehend a tragedy that is utterly inconceivable to most rational, mentally healthy humans, we work ourselves into corners. The world is struggling to understand why 12 members of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered execution style by ISIS sympathizers in France. Along the way, the public can come up with some sad and often frightening comments.

The knee-jerk reaction to a horrible hate-crime like the one that hit Paris last week is a mixture of sadness and confusion. That confusion manifested itself on Wednesday with select few analyzing the reason that the attackers gave for their actions. In this case, the killers were looking for those involved in political cartoons that portrayed the prophet Muhammad, which were offensive and sacrilegious to many Muslims. That led a select few to attempt the argument “It’s absolutely unacceptable that these people were murdered, but what they were drawing was very offensive and wrong.” Or “I don’t support violence at all, but if you insult an entire religion, you are running the risk of backlash.”

To hear these things were, quite possibly, the most unpatriotic thing I’ve ever heard from Americans. Yes, the drawings had the ability to be offensive. Yes, the magazine was known for being, at the very least, insensitive and, at the very most, Islamophobic. But that should mean nothing now. In these moments, these people were killed for their drawings. These people were killed because extremists have been taught their entire lives to kill the traitors. These people were killed because they represented an “other” to a group that refuses to acknowledge their right to exist. There are days to argue about when free speech borders on hate speech. That day was not last week, or at the very least did not belong in the same breath with men and women who were executed for exercising their rights, whether politically correctly or otherwise. Using a qualifier when expressing condolence is simply unacceptable.

The day after the mass murder, the attackers stole the world’s attention again, this time holding hostages in two locations, one of them a Kosher grocery store. The inherently Jewish nature of this location added a level of antisemitism, only further causing strife, especially in my especially Jewish social media circle. Within hours, the proud declaration “Je Suis Charlie,” French for “I am Charlie” in support of Charlie Hebdo, became “Je Suis Juif,” or, “I am Jewish.” The hopes of bringing solidarity to the Jews of France injected just another element of religious fervor to an already complex situation involving Islamic extremism and the complexity of Islamophobia.

It was right about then that I saw the following post:

“Dear Atheists,

Once again, just gotta say, you’re doing a great job of not committing any acts of terrorism. Keep it up!



Sure, the post is clever. But what really gets me upset is that religion is becoming a bad thing. Because of the actions of these select few, all of a sudden it is wrong to be religious. Religion is now synonymous with extremism, conflict, terror, and hate. Which is the exact antithesis of what religion is supposed to be.

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo attempt to rock the very foundations upon which we, as Americans, have grown comfortable. They attacked our freedom to express ourselves. They attacked our sense of security in public spaces. Most importantly, they have hijacked our ability to use faith as a meaningful part of our lives, for fear that relating to a religious identity will instead cast us as zealots or extremists.

I refuse to give them that power. We cannot let religion become a symbol for hate. Faith could be the one thing that saves us from this kind of destruction. Sometimes the greatest forms of medicine, when taken incorrectly, can make us terribly sick. We must not abandon our values, simply because others choose to use it for their own battle cry.

God didn’t get us into this mess. People did. But people will also be the ones to save us. Maybe then we’ll feel a little closer to God.

Monday, January 5, 2015

January 5th: Let's Be Honest

I don’t generally like the concept of a “New Years Resolution.” We don’t need a single day every year to evaluate our lives and strive to be better. That’s something we should be doing every day.

This year, though, timing just happens to put my need to evaluate things in line with the beginning of 2015. More than that, though; this year’s resolution is about the intersection between myself and the rest of the world. This year, I’m resolving to look for the best in people, in situations, and in the way I go about my daily life. And I’m encouraging anyone and everyone to join me.

Over the last several months, I’ve been confronted with the understanding that you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life. You don’t know what they’re thinking about just before they fall asleep. You don’t know what they’re dealing with in the darkest parts of their heart. You don’t know what another person’s challenges are. So how can you really judge a person based solely on what you see on the outside?

Patience is the virtue I struggle with most. I want things to operate according to a plan. More accurately, I want things to operate on MY plan. That isn’t the way the world works, though, and if I am going to be able to find any level of happiness, I need to be able to understand that. Patience with other people is even harder. Being patient means acknowledging that others are behaving in certain ways for reasons I may not understand. Being patient requires me to take a step back and realize that I may not know everything, and that sometimes that just has to be ok.

We need to be more patient with one another. The world is filled with pains and hardships. Airplanes fall out of the sky, orphaning children and widowing lovers. Disease takes not only the life but livelihood away from the strong. Natural disasters test the very foundations upon which we build our lives. These are all easy to see, blatantly in need of the combating of fear that caring, support, and love provide.

But everyone is going through something, no matter how significant or insignificant it may feel in comparison to the plight of others. We don’t need to belittle our feelings by saying that there’s somebody suffering more than we are. You are allowed to be disappointed by your shortcomings. You are allowed to mourn the ending of a relationship. You are allowed to feel doubt about your future. And we, as people interacting every day, need to give you the freedom to deal with those hardships without adding judgement, frustration or impatience to the mix.

The hardest thing in the world is emotional honesty. Emotional honesty means accepting how you feel and being willing to tell someone else, to communicate to another person that you are going through something. Sometimes it’s to tell someone you’re hurting. Sometimes it’s to tell someone you love them. No matter what it is, it takes incredible strength simply to know WHAT you’re feeling and THEN be willing to share that deep part of yourself. Yet, when we are most healthy as people, when we are most likely to be truly happy, is when we are able to accomplish this. There is no better feeling in the world than knowing that someone else in the world knows how you’re feeling, and can support you when you can’t carry your burden any more.

I want to be more emotionally honest. I want to be more supportive of those who are emotionally honest with me. And, maybe the greatest challenge for me, I want to be patient with those who haven’t found the time or the courage to tell me what they’re going through, so that I can make their road to emotional honesty and, eventually, happiness all the easier.

Monday, December 1, 2014

December 1st: Starting the Right Fires

I think we are going to remember November 24th, 2014 for a long time. I think it is going to be a day that makes the American history textbooks, and serves as a turning point in how we look at race relations for years to come. The thing is, what are we going to remember? Are we going to remember a city in unrest, rioting and consuming itself? Are we going to remember an 18 year old man who was killed by a police officer? Are we going to remember the underlying meaning of why it so profoundly troubled the American people?

The public has been struggling for a week to figure out exactly how to feel about what happened last Monday in the Grand Jury decision in the Ferguson, MO case against police officer Darren Wilson. I intentionally took a full week to try to process my own thoughts and put them together, rather than responding emotionally, which I think is at the root of the issue to begin with.

First of all, we have to address the issue of justice. A large percentage of those enraged by the decision not to bring charges against the police officer who shot and killed 18-year old Michael Brown have claimed that justice was not done, and that the people of Ferguson have had their right to justice stolen from them.

The reality is that justice was done. Justice is lawyers and judges sitting and discussing the facts of the case. That happened in the courtroom. Justice was done when those facts presented a situation that a judge deemed ill-fit for a trial. That was justice. As much as we may or may not like the result, the pathway to it was justice.

We are, in a lot of ways, confusing justice with fairness. But we don’t have fairness either. Do we really believe that pressing charges on the police officer will bring Michael Brown back? Do we hope that, in making an example of the cop, that this won’t ever happen again, out of fear for retribution? Do we feel that, despite the physical evidence’s inability to create reasonable grounds to press charges, that we should allow our own emotional reactions to infiltrate the legal system?

Michael Brown has, in many communities, turned into a symbol for the need for reform. He now represents those who face racism every day. He has turned into a headline, a polarizing character in the story. Some want to believe he is a terrible thug who threatened Darren Wilson to the point of fearing his own life. Others insist he was a saint, a good boy going about his business who was so wrongly gunned down, just for the color of his skin. I don’t believe either to be true. I believe he was a kid, an 18 year old, who was stuck in a bad situation. He probably loved his mother and struggled sometimes in school. He probably had good friends and he probably screwed up every now and then. He was, I’m sure, not 100% good or 100% bad. He was human. As far as I can gather from the facts, he reacted badly in a very bad situation, and a police officer did the same. At the end of the day, two lives were changed forever, and a great many more too. Now we, as the American public, have to decide what to do with what’s left.

We can’t, though, treat Michael Brown like he is the patron saint of race relations. We can’t name legislation after him, we can’t use him in political cartoons, we can’t make him the hero of this story. Because, at the end of the day, he is human. Opponents of this situation will always be able to find something wrong with this one man. “He was robbing a convenience store,” “he was getting into a physical altercation with a cop,” “he was a ‘bad’ kid.” All of these are character hits that we just can’t afford to taint the message of equality and progress we’re really looking for. Rather than holding up any single example, it is important that we look at the issue as a whole, and understand that we can’t keep going on the path we’re on. We need to insist on a positive change, but not for any one individual. This needs to be greater than any single person.

We also have to look at our own reactions to the situation. I know that, as a white person, I will never understand the rage that comes from the feelings of discrimination and hate. I know that I’ll never understand what it’s like to live every day facing the possibility of racism and oppression. That being said, burning down someone’s beauty shop isn’t going to get the point across. Violently tearing apart your city isn’t going to lead bigoted white people to want to stand in solidarity with your struggle.

I have a Facebook friend (although not a particularly close one) who was aggressively enraged by the decision in Ferguson. She posted “If you are not angry enough to burn down a building right now, than unfriend me and never speak to me again.” I thought long and hard about unfriending her and never speaking to her again. The fury that comes with something you find  morally wrong is understandable. Yet, when we let that fury turn into reckless and violent behavior, we are losing our ability for others to hear the value in our argument. Those who riot in the streets are giving away their voice, instead giving an excuse to those who look to oppress them.

I love to use the phrase “there is a difference between being right and winning.” Being right is easy. It’s easy to know what is best, to be morally superior, to know in your gut that your feelings and thoughts are righteous and valid. The much harder thing is to win, to make others acknowledge that your point is as valid as you believe it to be, and to, in the end, get what you want out of a situation.

There are plenty of ways to be be right and NOT win. You may be right when you tell your boss you think he is an idiot. You’re going to lose, however, when you get fired. This is exactly the same case. The people of Ferguson are right. A terrible situation happened that resulted in the death of a young man. A police officer, meant to protect the community, killed him. There is a racial divide in America, leaving many African Americans fearing those who are meant to protect them. Yet, all of those incredibly meaningful points get lost when, at the end of the day, the rioters lose their point in the screaming and the violence and the outcry.

It’s easy for me to stay calm, because this doesn’t have a direct relationship with my day-to-day life. I’m not scared of the police. I don’t feel discriminated against on a daily basis. I don’t live in near-constant fear. But, when we look back on the greatest human revolutions in history, they were not done by those who yelled the loudest or threw their weight around most, but by the people whose passion manifested itself in heartfelt and insistent calls for change. We are allowed to be upset. We are allowed to be angry. We just can’t afford to lash out, for fear of losing the war for the sake of the battle.

This was a tough piece for me to write. The bottom line is that this is a complicated case, and that there are deeply emotional responses on both sides, arguing over deeply troubling and often cloudy facts. While it may be easy to read these or any words and immediately jump to conclusions about the values of the writer, I think this whole conversation needs a dose of patience.

All too often this week, I’ve seen writers say “if you argue with THIS, then you don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “The last thing anyone needs to read about Ferguson.” There will never be something to say that nobody can argue with. There will never come a be-all, end-all comment that will bring about a world-wide silence of agreement. We should argue about everything. We should be asking questions, we should be pushing each other to think harder, think deeper about every issue. While this post is what I think and feel, it is a constantly evolving thought. So push me. Ask questions. Start a conversation. That is, after all, how we’re going to change the world.

Monday, November 24, 2014

November 24th: A Nation of Strangers

When I first heard about President Barack Obama’s executive order for immigration reform, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. The notion of allowing men and women who had arrived in America illegally to continue to live here smacked of some degree of giving up, law enforcement’s way of saying “well, can’t do anything about it now!” I was sceptical that the country would be even a little understanding of a president-driven initiative to avoid going after individuals who have broken American law by arriving in this country without going through the proper processes.

(For a transcript of the speech, click here)

The more I read, though, the more I understood, on an ideological level, where the president was coming from. America is a nation founded upon immigration. Every major city in America was, at one point, a form of safe-haven for foreigners to come and set up new roots. Boston is deeply Irish, Cincinnati has strong German ties, and even New York is a settlement for people from, well, OLD York!

The general public has reacted in vicious and generally selfish ways. There has been such an arrogant outcry from a large segment of the American people, firmly believing that their right to be American was hard-won, God-given, and would be compromised if foreigners were to steal their birthright of Star Spangled Awesome right from underneath them. This is, for all intents and purposes, the most self-righteous attitude I could possibly imagine.

Most Americans didn’t do anything to deserve their “birthright”; in most cases, you’re an American because your mother birthed you in the “right” place. Because of your geographic location, you have a form of privilege that is nearly impossible to fully grasp.

Now, someone born on the other side of the border may not be as lucky. They do not have the privilege of growing up in a country that offers them the kind of opportunities that we, as Americans, take for granted.

Yet, in almost every case, those who cross the border into America illegally demonstrate a skill that we would love to believe is uniquely American: dedication. These are people willing to risk their lives and their livelihoods in an attempt to improve their lives, to make a living and find a job and go to a place where, in their minds, dreams can come true. How do we, as the Americans, rationalize beating these people back to where they came from when it is so American of them to do what it takes to succeed?

This is, of course, challenged by the fact that these people broke the law. They bypassed a system set in place to try to bring order and justice. They put their own needs ahead of those of the greater society. We cannot be held hostage by those who have a disregard for the law, and cannot allow national security to be compromised by those who have not proven they can be productive members of American society. As President Obama put it, “All of us take offense to anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America.”

On that point, though, Obama was abundantly clear: If you are a contributing member of society, a skilled worker or thinker, you should be able to pursue the American dream.

My favorite moment from Obama’s announcement was his reference to being strangers. He said “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal, that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will.”

This executive order is idealism at it’s finest. It isn’t perfect. Frankly, it isn’t even a realistic long-term option, as idealism rarely is. Real reform has to take place, and soon. But, in it’s most basic form, this is Obama’s way of saying that we need to do something to improve America, and we need to do it now. We need to be kind. We need to be welcoming. And we need to be strong. And I couldn’t agree more.