Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I support free speech, but Je Ne Suis Pas exactement Charlie

I am a fervent supporter of free speech. I'm a member of the PEN Center USA, the ACLU, the American Library Association's Freedom to Read Foundation. In order to maintain a healthy democracy, journalists, artists, and writers in particular, must be able to express themselves without censorship. 

So how, you might ask, can I look at the horrific act of terrorism in Paris and say "Je Ne Suis Pas Exactment Charlie"?

First of all let me saying this in no way condones the heinous act of terrorism, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people, including a Muslim police officer, and injured eleven others, several critically. 

 But what I am trying to highlight here is that just because I support, wholeheartedly, our right to free speech, it doesn't mean that we have to use it willy nilly. With that right comes tremendous responsibility for the words and images that we put forth into the world. The pen really is mightier than the sword in influencing hearts and minds, and we must be aware that using that might have consequences. Potentially deadly consequences. 

I am a Jewish woman, brought up in a family that lost members in the Holocaust, and it has inevitably shaped my outlook on hate speech. My great-grandparents were murdered in the Ukraine. Our entire family that remained in Poland were murdered, with the exception of one person who survived. 

My late father used to tell me how scared he was as a boy growing up in the Bronx by Father Coughlin's hateful anti-Semitic rants spewing from the radio. So I am deeply conscious of how words and "satire" can have very real and dangerous consequences for the groups at whom they are directed. 

When I saw the Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, I gasped, because it reminded me so much of Nazi propaganda "satire" about Jews in the 1930s. 


Just because one is a cartoon and one is a print, it doesn't make it any more "satire'y" in my opinion. They are both using offensive stereotypes, meant to engender fear and "otherness."  With the memory of my father's words about Father Coughlin, I wonder how it must feel to be a Muslim youth growing up in the United States today listening to and/or reading  Rep Peter King, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and now even Thomas Friedman.

So instead of saying "Je Suis Charlie", I have a question:  "Pourquoi, Charlie?" Is using deliberately offensive stereotypes the best way to get the point across in an already inflamed world? 

France hasn't exactly been a hotbed of religious tolerance. When I last visited in 2000, before 9/11, before Israel bombed Gaza, before the shootings in Toulouse, before ISIS, I saw anti-Semitic graffiti in several places. Former Front Nationale leader Jean-Marie LePen was a Holocaust minimizer so it makes my head explode to have some of my European Jewish family members praising his daughter Marine for her support of Israel. Do they forget their histoire so easily?

I'd ask all the people who say that the newspapers who aren't re-printing the cartoon in question are cowards for not doing it as an act of defiance to terrorists to rethink their position. Would they say the same thing if those newspapers printed the picture below as an act of "bravery"?  

With free speech comes great responsibility to use it wisely for the greater good of humanity. Not to engender more divisions and hate. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

For everyone who had a yellow "Support the Troops" ribbon during the Iraq War: READ THIS

I first "met" my friend Rob Jordan online over 10 years ago on the Happytown listserv, for fans of the singer-songwriter Jill Sobule. We met in several times in real life at Jill's concerts, and have kept in touch through email, MySpace (remember Myspace?) and now over Facebook. Over the past few years, I've read, with increasing anger and frustration, about Rob's health problems and the way he has been treated by government after his long, honorable service in the US Military.  It makes me furious and ashamed.

 I want every single person who was so proud to put one of those yellow ribbon "Support the Troops" magnets or stickers on their cars back in 2003-2004 to read this and start thinking about what supporting the troops REALLY means. Because it's not about waving flags and putting bumper stickers on your car when we go to war. That's not support. That's typical wartime jingoism.

What matters, what really counts, is supporting our people when they come home suffering the physical and mental consequences of their service.

I'm talking to you, Congress. I'm talking to you, Senator Tom Coburn, (R-OK) who voted to send troops to war, but yesterday blocked the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Bill in the Senate.

But don't listen to me. I'm just a writer. Listen to Rob. And please, get as angry as I am and contact your Congressman and Senators.

I sometimes think that maybe I share too much of my personal life on this site. Possibly, but I am essentially alone, have no family nearby , and sometimes I just feel the need to share my thoughts. Thankfully I have a lot of family and friends here. Many of you go back to the days even before memory started to function.

I have been having an internal argument lately and I very recently made a decision that I know that some of you will think is crazy. Please do not argue as it is my decision alone to make. Feel free to save any disagreements that you may feel obligated to voice until such time as you are in a similar situation and have this decision to make on your own.Many of you are well aware of the issues that I have been dealing with for the last 3.5 years. In 2011 I returned home from a deployment to Afghanistan with a rather impressive list of medical issues which were not in existence prior to this time. Since that time the problems have worsened and spread to other areas.

An Air Quality Report that was conducted in the area I was stationed showed that the air we were breathing contained an extreme amount of contaminants due to the use of a very large “burn pit” on base. When cross referencing the identified contaminants with the effects of them on humans I found that all of the problems I had been dealing with could be traced to inhalation of these chemicals. In addition burn pit health problems were just starting to be publicized in the media. I have a fairly extensive collection of these documents if anyone should have any interest in them.

For 3.5 years now I have been attempting to get the government to admit to at least a degree of culpability in this issue. As a matter of fact when I was finally able to present this info to an Air Force Doctor instead of the empathy and direction that I was expecting I was met with derision and scorn. It was obvious that the assumption was that I was in some way trying to take advantage of the system.

In February of this year I was approached by a personnel representative with an idea. I was told that with my health issues I would be able to get a disability retirement through the Federal Government. I took this individuals advice and submitted the application. I even signed resignation paperwork to be submitted upon approval of my application.After a seven month wait I was notified that my application was disapproved. However, my resignation paperwork had already been submitted. As a result me health insurance was cancelled. Coincidentally I was scheduled for a heart procedure the following week. This had to be cancelled since I was no longer insured. I appealed the decision but was notified last month that the appeal was also disapproved.

So I find myself unemployed and uninsured as a result of trusting someone within the system. Of course this has made me extremely leery of accepting any more advice. I am afraid that with the next decision I could end up homeless.

I have run up against all types of personalities while dealing with this issue. Our system is made up of gatekeepers, those who do their best to prevent anyone from achieving benefits lest someone obtain something they are not entitled to. Empire builders who will sacrifice an individuals livelihood rather than admit that they made a mistake and run the risk of appearing less than perfect. And the politicians that will smile to your face and reassure you while siding with the system because, well, it’s just easier that way.After 32 years it has been an extremely jarring reality check. If I could give advice to anyone new in the system, or in almost any career actually, it would be this. Do not live for your job. Make sure that you devote at least as much effort into family, community, or other fulfilling interests. The system does not care about you as an individual.

Remember, the promotions, medals, awards, and other recognition are not given because leadership cares about you as an individual. They are given to recognize what the system has gotten from you. When you are no longer able to contribute, you will probably just be cast aside.

Within the last month or so I have developed some new health issues that have me actually worried for the first time. I have started losing my balance at completely random times while walking. For this reason I usually carry a cane with me to add stability when needed. At least when pride permits. The issue that is bothering me the most is that I have begun experiencing short spells of confusion. There are times when my mind seems to empty out and I could not even tell you my name.

These are the primary reasons that after 3.5 years of this ordeal being at the forefront in my life, after pushing as hard as I could yet still falling backwards, I will fight no more.I believe that it is safe to assume that I will not be living to a ripe old age. I do not want the time that I have left to be taken over by something that just makes me bitter and angry. There are many great people in my life and many things that I enjoy doing. I want to put all of this negative crap out of my head and concentrate on living a life that I enjoy with the people that are important to me.

I know that there are many that will say, “But that means that the system won!” To this I say, “No, I won. I am living a life where their lies and hypocrisy don’t matter“. The system is being run by heartless assholes and idiots. I don’t give a single good goddamn whether they win or lose.

Chief Rob out.

Remember how the government didn't want to admit that contaminants at Ground Zero had anything to do with the respiratory ailments and cancers that first responders and pit workers suffered? It wasn't until massive political pressure was put on them that the Zadroga Act was finally passed in 2010 (it's up for reauthorization next year - make sure you encourage your Congresspeople to vote in favor).

 Congress is rightly perceived by a majority of Americans as being completely dysfunctional. The only way we can get them to do the right thing is by massive political pressure. Please. Contact your reps. Make noise. Do it for Rob, and for all other other vets who answered the call when asked, but are now being treated so horrendously by the nation they served.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why The Hunger Games is a trilogy for our times

I have two Twitter feeds, one for my author life @sarahdarerlitt and one for my life as a political columnist @realsaramerica. This morning as I was scanning my political feed I came across this article in the International Business Times.

While hundreds of black celebrities have happily doused themselves in freezing water for the Ice Bucket Challenge, news outlets like Hip Hop DX, Ebony and Buzzfeed, as well as social media users, have accused prominent African-Americans of being too quiet about the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, two weeks ago.

“I think there is definitely a lack of articulation in public forums,” Mark Anthony Neal, a professor in African and African-American studies at Duke University in North Carolina, told International Business Times.“The weird irony behind getting black celebrities to weigh in on Ferguson is that every five minutes you see another one of them doing an Ice Bucket Challenge.”

I don't feel it's my place to comment on that. The quote that I'm here to talk about is from Neal Lester, an African-American literary and cultural studies professor at Arizona State University:

At end of the day what preoccupies people’s minds is what’s happening on TMZ, not what’s happening on CNN.”

When I read that, all I could think of, once again, was how Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES is the trilogy for our times.

I've written about my admiration for the Hunger Games before - I have an essay, The Politics of Mockingjay in the SmartPop anthology The Girl Who Was on Fire, and an additional essay, "Occupy Panem" that comes as extra digital content with the movie edition of the book.

I've seen some great discussions lately about books to use to talk about Ferguson. School library Journal had a piece focusing on "Resources on Protest, Nonviolent Resistance, and Civil Rights". But the reason I think The Hunger Games is also a great discussion resource is this: inequality and distraction. Panem and Circenses.

I don't want to take anything away from the very real issue of race that is at the core of what happened in Ferguson. I have friends who have been stopped for "driving while black." My boyfriend got lost while driving in the exclusive private area of Greenwich known as Belle Haven the other day, and the security guard just waved at him because he was white and driving a nice car. We both imagined how things would have gone if neither of those factors had been true. Somehow I doubt the security guard would have just waved.

But there's another important issue at playing out simultaneously worldwide that we cannot and must not ignore - inequality.

Collins' trilogy is a wonderful way to start kids thinking about these ideas - leading to discussions of the political strategy of "bread and circuses", reality TV and media literacy.

The problems in our country stem from complex sources and it's important to have our kids understand that we need to attack them from all fronts if we're going to make headway.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Kim Kardashian and the culture of Narcissism - Kidlit Authors propose an antidote! The #selfless campaign

Yesterday, we learned that Kim Kardashian is going to publish a book of 352 selfies called "Selfish."

I won't post a picture.

But I will post one quote from the article:

"So I had Stephanie (her assistant) get a Polaroid and we were taking photos around the entire house … making this cool book and it ended up turning out so cool we came up with this idea to do a selfie book so I'm going to make some super racy. I mean, every girl takes like full like pictures of their a-- in the mirror."

Do we? Do we really? I created this survey to test Ms. Kardashian's hypothesis. Please take the survey!

I was teaching a writing workshop a few weeks ago, and two students (12 and 14) were arguing about who was more popular and cool based on how many followers they had on Instagram and how many "likes" their posts got. It made me incredibly sad.

That's why I'm so happy that my work as a writer for young people has brought me into the incredible #kidlit community. My fellow Kidlit authors are the antidote to the culture of narcissism I see in so many other realms of today's society. Just after I'd posted a link to this news accompanied an expression of despair, my friend Melodye Shore had a great idea:

This is one of the many reasons I love my work and the wonderful community of writers I get to work with. Within an hour, Melodye set up a Facebook page, Hashtagselfless, with this description:

A collection of selfies in which ordinary people go about their everyday lives, doing/observing extraordinary things, maybe, but w/o #Selfish motives.

The motivation behind this campaign is similar to the work of one of the most incredible organizations I've had the privilege to be associated with, StoryCorps. Founded by Dave Isay, StoryCorps records "our" stories - interviews of "ordinary" people, who, when we get to hear their stories, are far from ordinary. I learned more about parenting from MOM: A Celebration of moms from StoryCorps than I did from any parenting book. Yet we get swamped with "celebrity mom" parenting books, published not because the celebrity has proved to be a great parent, but merely by virtue of their fame.

I've learned to find my heroes in real life, not reality shows.

Help us celebrate #selfless by posting pictures to your social networks using the hashtag. Visit the HashtagSelfless Facebook page and post there.

Let's try to give our young people some more inspiring, non-celebrity folks to look up to.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Corporate sexism rant - Part Deux

I had a rant a week or so ago because not long after I signed up for private banking, Chase sent mail to my house (the one upon which I hold the title and the mortgage solely in my name, not to mention the investment account solely in my name, the fact that I WAS THE PERSON WHO SIGNED THE PRIVATE BANKING AGREEMENT SOLELY IN MY NAME etc) addressed thusly:

Josh, you might remember, is my son. Not my husband. My college aged son. He is, however, the only person with the name Littman in this household who happens to have the XY chromosome. You will note that this letter wasn't addressed to my daughter (who also has an account at the same bank linked to mine over which I have co-signing authority) and myself. It was addressed to my SON and myself.  Remember this fact for later. It is important and relevant.

After I ranted about this on Twitter, Chase's customer service department asked that I follow them so I could DM them some info. They said they would bump this up to their Executive Office and they were taking it very seriously. 

"Good!" I thought. "So they bloody well should!"  

If you read my previous post, you'll see that this kind of thing is an all too common occurrence for women, and it PISSES US THE FRICK OFF. 

Well, this morning I opened the letter from Chase's Executive Office that was supposed to put this situation to rights and say it didn't is an Understatement of Epic Proportions. 

To say that Ms. DeLeon has missed the point is being kind to missing the point. Technically she is correct. Yes, I am the secondary signer on my son's accounts, because they were set up when he was a minor, so yes, hello, DUH! 

But this is completely missing the MAJOR POINT of my complaint, which is this was a mailing from CHASE PRIVATE BANKING and *I* am the Private Banking Client, NOT my son! He is the secondary client at Chase Private Banking. I am the primary client. He is just along for the ride because HIS ACCOUNTS ARE LINKED TO MINE. I made this very clear in my DM's to Customer Service on Twitter. But somehow that doesn't seem to matter. And it's curious that they sent it addressed to my son and not to my daughter. After all, she has accounts linked to mine, and I'm the secondary signer on her accounts, too? So out of three Littmans living at this address, Chase chose to send this letter addressed not to me, the Private Banking Client, the mortgage holder, the investment account holder, the savings account holder. Not to my daughter, a checking and savings account holder linked to mine over which I am a secondary signer. No, they chose to send it to my son, the male name over which I have secondary signing authority, but then claim that there is no sexism involved at all. 

If this is really Chase's response to an accusation of sexism ie/ we can send letters to your son who isn't the primary client as if he is the primary client, instead of you, the woman, who IS-  and not only that we can tell you you're wrong because when he was of the age to be allowed to set up a checking account, you did so in order to teach him financial responsibility with you as secondary signer, I'm going to start thinking about moving banks. And that investment account I just set up with you guys?  I already have a broker elsewhere who knows better than to be sexist with me. I'm sure he'll appreciate having some extra capital to invest for me, along with the commissions and fees. The ones that you will lose. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

In which I go off on another Parenting Rant - inspired by Daughter's college orientation

My "baby" (who stands several inches taller than me now) is heading off to college in the fall, and we spent Wednesday at her institution of Higher Learning attending Freshman Orientation.

 This whole "Freshman Orientation" in the middle of the summer - with concurrent "Parent Orientation" is a new business. We did not have such things back in the Dinosaur Era when I matriculated at my Institution of Higher Learning. I flew down a week early to attend Project WILD, a pre-start of school wilderness program run in conjunction with the North Carolina Outward Bound School. My parents drove down to meet my grimy, bedraggled, but very proud self at the end, helped me move in, gave me a hug (after I'd had a shower!) and then drove away.

The best parts of the day were:

1) presentation by the avuncular head of Campus Police, who addressed the parents and students together about safety policies, alcohol and drug policies, and skinny dipping in the large fountain in the middle of the quad policies. I am relieved to report that Daughter has no desire to skinny dip in aforementioned fountain, but had thought about a surreptitious clothed swim. (Go for it, honey. (Clothed!)  You only live once!)


2) excellent presentation by head of the school's new Title IX department, who spoke to parents only. "I don't want to scare you, but statistics show that one in five college women report having experienced sexual violence."

Dude, I was already scared enough about sending my daughter off to college with all the date rape stories. In fact,I'm getting her one of these.

What I loved about both his presentation and others was the message, "You are losing control of your kids, but you aren't losing influence. TALK TO THEM about things like using alcohol responsibly, and parents of male students, have a conversation about consent."

I LOVED THIS. It wasn't just "Girls, don't drink and be slutty hos, because it'll be your fault if some guy can't control himself when you're passed out."


They even posted a great definition of consent:

But then things started to fall apart.

We had a half hour presentation on...Dining Plans. Really? I read all that stuff in the brochure when we signed up. Did I really need to sit through a half hour Powerpoint presentation about it?

And then we got to the Q & A, and the helicopter parents started piping up. A parent asked, I shit you not: "Do the washing machines in the dorms take quarters or (the college name) points?"

*Sarah's head explodes*

<Commence Rant>


Your child is 17 or 18 years old, and about to embark on their college experience - an experience which yes, is about academics, but which is also part of preparing them to stand on their own two feet, employ critical thinking skills, problem solve, learn life skills, and enter the real world of earning a living and supporting themselves.


It really isn't that complicated. And if they can't figure it out? Let them learn to ask questions - to advocate for themselves. That, too, is an important life skill.


Clearly it was a long time ago, but the one question I remember my parents asked during my college trips was "How much is the tuition?" I cannot imagine for a million years either of my parents asking about laundry machines. I was taking the Tube to school by myself in London by the age of 9. So there would have been absolutely no doubt in my parents minds that I could figure out how to use a dorm washing machine and tumble dryer. They trusted me to figure these things out for myself. They called me once a week, on the twin assumptions that "No news is good news" and "Bad news travels fast."

Parenting is a constant balancing act - like the Talmud says, one should "push away with the left hand while drawing closer with the right hand" (BT Sanhedrin 107b). By the time our kids get to college, we need to be able to let them go - to relinquish control, but maintain influence, trusting that if we've done our job, they'll do just fine.

We can set the expectations for ethical behavior, and what it means to be a good human being, and model that behavior. We can't say one thing and do another.

We can let them know that they'll make mistakes, because everyone does, including us, and we'll be here for them when they do.

But above all, we have to let them go figure out things for themselves. That's what it's all about.

<End Rant>

Monday, July 28, 2014

Being in the moment - do young people know how to experience concerts anymore?

I went to see Queen with Adam Lambert two weeks ago. It was, in a word, AWESOME. 
I'd seen Queen a while back with Paul Rodgers from Bad Company on vocals but I have to say that Adam Lambert blew Paul Rodgers out of the water when it comes to being a Freddie Mercury replacement. He's got the vocal chops and the flair.

I was particularly thrilled because they played one of my favorite songs from A Night At The Opera, '39.

By the way, did you know that Brian May is actually Dr. Brian May (and it's a real doctorate, not a fake one like so many folks have been exposed as having here in CT in recent weeks)  with a degree in Astrophysics? I love it that one of my favorite musicians is so brainy. 

But there was one moment I found really depressing at the concert - and I wondered how Dr. May felt about it as the performer on the stage. He had this cool "guitar cam" rigged up to the neck of his guitar, so we could see his lightning fast fingers move during guitar solos. When he walked down the runway into the audience and stood playing right there, in front of them, only feet away, what did the guitar cam capture? Excited, exhilarated people entranced by the music? No. Rows and rows of fricking CELL PHONES recording the experience for later. 

I thought about the few times I've been lucky enough to be in the front rows of concerts. I was front row at the Palladium for Carlos Santana when I was in high school, and it was MAGIC. Okay we didn't have cell phones then, because I AM OLD, but even if we did, I was so INTO THE MUSIC, so completely involved with the wonder of the experience, that I can't imagine just holding the thing up and recording instead of just being there and feeling the music and grooving.  Also, Carlos Santana smiled at me!!!! Would that have happened if he'd seen my cell phone instead of my rapturous, smiling face?

Carlos Santana vintage 1978, around when I saw him, front row

I wonder how it must feel to be playing the Garden and instead of seeing the excited faces to see people just standing their with their cell phones. I can't help thinking that being a titan of Rock isn't what it used to be. It makes me understand why Robert Plant continues to steadfastly refuse another Led Zeppelin reunion (as much as I'd be tempted to remortgage my house to get tickets if he changes his mind).  

My friend Adam Bernard (keep an eye out for his hot self in my upcoming novel, BACKLASH) wrote a great piece on The First Three Songs Rule, and how it should become universal concert law. 
Here's Adam:
You go to a concert to have an experience, to enjoy a band you love, and to create a memory. The problem these people have is that they’re so busy trying to capture the moment that they don’t spend any time creating a memory to associate with it. Sure, they have a hundred pics from the concert they just went to, but, “Remember the time I held my arm up for 45 minutes” is not a good concert memory.
This. So much this!

Kids, take a picture or two then put the phone away. Let the music fill your soul. Be in the moment. And maybe, when you're middle aged like me, you'll remember the time that amazing guitar player whose records (okay, you don't listen to records, but you know what I mean) you played so many times the grooves got worn, SMILED AT YOU.