Friday, July 25, 2014

Gut-wrenching Headlines: Too Much Anguish

Life seems pretty OK til you read the newspaper.
NY Times photo of Gaza children escaping bombing. Note English on clothes, Adidas pants

Because my husband has to talk about current events and pop culture on the radio for three hours each weekday, we get four major newspapers every morning.

Trouble is, I read them.

Newspaper content has changed over the years, and now, sitting down with my mocha and the day's headlines has become a disheartening, depressing experience.

In more civilized days (say, 30 years ago), papers never showed dead bodies. They never invaded the most personal emotional moments of victims and loved ones and horrified passers-by. Journalists reported stories with "the five w's" in the lede, just the facts: what, when, who, where and why.

Now we see splayed bodies of children, twisted in the mud. We watch contorted faces of the truly horrified, mortally wounded, devastated and crumpled. Images that would be withheld from children a few decades ago are now strewn carelessly on the sofa.

Perhaps because I was one of those sheltered children, I now recoil in agony when I flip through the pages of the paper. "Planes Bearing Bodies Reach Netherlands," blares a Wall Street Journal headline stretching the width of the page--across six columns. Above that are photos: "Relatives of the victims of Flight 17 wait for hearses carrying remains..." reads the caption. Do I want to witness the soul-ripping pain these people feel? How do you get these images out of your brain, once they've penetrated?

Next page, same section: "Hospital Attack Catches Civilians in Crossfire," says the headline over a photo of a lifeless young man. The pictures show Gazans, including many children, either dead or terrified. Is this propaganda? If so, as a psychologist who understands that emotion trumps logic--and that visuals trigger emotions best--I am shocked at the message, as well as its frequency.

Is such astounding coverage required by "the public's need to know?" Words with less graphic images could as efficiently convey the facts. Are photos now mandatory because cameras are ubiquitous and intimate intrusions possible? Is it because an abundance of news outlets compete for our attention, and the most outrageous are most likely to win?

All these may be true, but it seems no one considers the impact of so much in-your-face anguish, mayhem and gore. It desensitizes all who see it, and especially everyone watching it repeatedly, every hour, on a variety of outlets, so that death becomes just inert forms, mourning is what far-away people do, and we perceive the world as a place of continual peril.

Those who would be violent are encouraged by the notion they're just another in the flow of anger and aggression visible everywhere. Or by the idea that a spectacular attack will gain them the fame they could never earn in normal life.

Yes, I could throw away the news sections of all my periodicals, but that's hardly shelter from awareness. As my husband and I wrote in our book Saving Childhood: asking someone to avoid media is like asking him to stop breathing.  Media messages are all around us, transported in the very air we consume.

The degeneration of standards of respect for suffering bothers me. Do these wailing widows want others observing their intensely nightmarish moments? Does being in a newsworthy setting automatically grant every journalist approval to distribute expressions of searing pain, penetrating loss and paralyzing fear around the world on instant video?

Too much information. Too much agony. I'm very sensitive; I refuse to go to movies with violence, suspense or slapstick, because I identify too much with what I see. I ache for the people portrayed in those news photos; I can't just put down the newspaper, take another swig of mocha and move on.

Yet I also can't repair the victims of genital mutilation in Iraq, or protect the Gaza "civilians used as shields" at Hamas weapons stashes. I can't fathom the horror of bodies and debris from Malaysian Flight 17, nor stop Boko Haram from taking Nigerian towns or schoolgirls. Each of these situations is appalling, and I am powerless. Am I somehow better off for knowing about them? My heart feels weighted by these realities. I can pray, but can't truly comprehend.
Nigerian mother holds photo of daughter, 17, kidnapped by Boko Haram (The Guardian)

My plea for greater sensitivity in journalism, I realize, is useless. The news business always relied on shock value, but having so many outlets requires ever-increasing extremes to produce reader/viewer response. So the prospect of uplifting the baseline of printed/broadcast decency is poor. Still, discussing standards reminds us that we can avert our eyes, and judge what ends up before them anyway.

So I savor the Science, Style, Cooking and Arts sections, and get most of my news from talk radio, where the host I prefer couches his descriptions in language my sensitive ears and tender heart can tolerate. My children see this, and learn it, and sometimes even protect me from encountering the gory and gruesome. That's probably the best any parent can do--prepare children to fend off and push back, so as to preserve personal compassion and gentleness in an increasingly frightening world.

Friday, July 11, 2014

God's Iron Dome Protecting Israel from Hamas' Barage of Missiles

My photo of bus stop shelters in Sderot, Israel
Just got off the phone with my teacher, Rabbi Teller, in Jerusalem. He's a frequent guest on my husband's radio show, internationally in demand for his lectures, books and videos--and he's the father of 18 children, (grandfather of dozens, though he's still got young kids at home). He was telling me what it's like to spend time in air raid shelters.

Sderot playground doubles as bomb shelters (photo by Diane Medved)
I speak to him every week when we "learn together," the term for his teaching me the deeper meanings of Jewish texts. Right now we're "learning" Yechezkel, which in English is called Ezekiel. We've been covering the section about the End of Days, eerily resonant when he describes the bomb-missiles intercepted today by the Israeli defense system called Iron Dome.

Rabbi Teller said that yesterday, Iron Dome caught several missiles headed for Jerusalem; one got through but detonated outside the city. He said sirens blare one minute before expected impact; at their piercing tone, everyone scurries to the nearest bomb shelter--each apartment building has one; they're found on every block. If there's no explosion and shattering noise within a few minutes, people emerge and carry on as before.

Iron Dome missiles protect Israeli cities in Operation Protective Edge
Can you imagine continuing daily life aware that enemies not far away are shooting missiles at you? How long would the United States tolerate rocket attacks on us?

Here's an app that lets you compare your home to the distance Hamas' deadly M-302 missiles travel.

As part of the Medved Israel Tour last year, we visited the city of Sderot, just a few miles from Gaza. After touring a site that had hosted Iron Dome, we went into the town--where every home has a reinforced bomb shelter in--or replacing--its back yard, and bus stops and even children's playground equipment double as metal-strengthened protection when sirens shriek.

Now Hamas rockets can reach 50 miles, and were launched at Israel's most populated cities: Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Iron Dome was employed against 27. It has a 90% accuracy rate. The attacks have affected every region of the tiny country, with sirens heard from the northernmost border with Lebanon down to the nation's southern tip, where the resort beach at Eilat was evacuated, apparently for a false alarm.

As the Sabbath approaches, Hamas missile attacks have stopped access to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and air traffic at Ben Gurion Airport; sirens have brought code red warnings in several Southern cities, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared that Operation Protective Edge--the name for Israel's present effort--will expand.

We have many friends and family-members living in Israel, and we can only speculate
Message on Jerusalem building urges faith in God
about the stress brought by nearly constant threat. During an earlier period of conflict, I asked my brother-in-law about it, and he thought my concern was ridiculous. Living "in a bad neighborhood" comes with risks and inconveniences, but Israelis I know believe their protection comes not only from the sophisticated military technology and expertise of their defense forces, but from the Iron Dome that God provides for His people and His Land.

The strength provided by prepared defense forces is bolstered by the spiritual underpinning of their stance. Jews around the world continue to pray for The Almighty's intervention to thwart deathly missiles, and reinforce God's biblical promise (Genesis 12:3) that He "will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse."

(The building is lit with the main Jewish prayer: "Listen, Israel: (The One) God is our God. God is the one and only.")

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Murder of Three Israeli Boys: Intense Emotional Reaction as Seldom Seen

I'd just finished my morning prayers when I turned on my computer to learn of the horrific murders of three Israeli boys, Naphtali Fraenkel, Gilad Sha’ar and Eyal Yifrach, abducted 18 days ago near their schools in Gush Etzion.

My heart fell in my chest with shock and dismay over the loss. I'd written a post shortly after their disappearance describing the unity with which Jewry worldwide banded together in prayer--our natural reaction to such news.

Eighteen days is a long time of rallies, beseeching the Almighty and performing mitzvot--God-commanded positive acts--in the merit of the missing young men. Eighteen days was enough for a strong investment of emotion, as Jewish organizations of all types remembered the boys' plight and continued pleas to God for their safe return.

The young men became symbolic of Jews' requirement for freedom of movement, freedom from terrorist threat, freedom to pursue normal life. Instead of the outcry diminishing with time, it only increased in fervor, as more individuals and organizations fueled swelling concern.

With the awful outcome, families of the murdered children suffered the most deflating blow possible, but the Jewish family at large also endured injury.

Immediately, my email in-box crammed with statements of grief and mourning from dozens of rabbis and organizations. Every Jewish outlet that ever gleaned my email address, and many not connected to Israel or Judaism, made loud public expressions of horror, sadness and resolve to bring justice to the perpetrators and prevent further terrorist acts.

My husband's brother Jonathan, resident in Jerusalem for 25 years, spoke on the air with stirring emotion that reflected the intensity of response shared by the emails and internet-disseminated communications.

Given present worldwide Muslim violence and aggression, this animalistic attack engenders anger. Jews have never enjoyed comfort and acceptance, and today's sad outcome re-ignites solidarity in fighting anti-Semitism and thwarting aggression with strength.

The discovery of the three bodies inflames Jews' already smoldering ire against those who behave so contrary to God's rules, while claiming He supports their deathly morality. Viewing photographs of the young men wounds my spirit, but I believe the plethora of emails, statements, articles and discussion causes a cosmic consequence as powerful as anything military. Terrorists may harm bodies, but ultimately, positive spiritual unity will prevail.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Escaping Poverty, and the Cultural tolerance for Sex

Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution researched causes of poverty and found three controllable factors make all the difference.
Pres. Johnson on his fact-finding War on Poverty trip to Kentucky, 1964

"Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children," they write in the Washington Post. "If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class or above rise from 56 to 74 percent."

Important to note is that 88% of people have little chance of being poor, and 56% are likely to join the middle class--even without the three magical factors. But high school grads who marry before procreating and hold a job can be confident of a solid financial future.

Of these three factors, I believe the most important is married childbearing. Pew Research Center data from 2013 shows that the poverty rate for single mothers climbed for the fourth straight year, to 41.5%, comprising 4.1 million households in the population. At the same time, just 8.7% of married couple families were in poverty, a total of 2.1 million households in America.

In the half-century since Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty with massive government assistance programs, the national poverty rate has fallen only modestly--from 19 to 15% of the nation.  Investment of billions of tax dollars failed to eliminate poverty. Why?

Because unmarried childbearing is closely correlated with child poverty, and the disassociation of marriage with parenthood occurring over the past decades has placed more women in a dependent financial state.

Poverty is not just a marriage issue; it's a morals issue. With the re-defining of marriage from a one man-one woman commitment centered around raising children to a declaration of love, there's little stigma if new parents skip the party. And, one could argue that the programs initiated to combat poverty have relaxed any pressure to wed, since unmarried moms qualify for government support more easily than couples do.

As Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation notes, "When the War on Poverty began in the mid-1960s, only 6 percent of children were born out of wedlock. Over the next four and a half decades, the number rose rapidly. In 2008, 40.6 percent of all children born in the U.S. were born outside of marriage."

In perhaps the most illuminating article on the subject, Dr. Rector concludes, "Marriage remains America’s strongest anti-poverty weapon, yet it continues to decline. As husbands disappear from the home, poverty and welfare dependence will increase, and children and parents will suffer as a result."

 The broken connection between parenthood and marriage, at root, isn't just about childrearing but about sex. The promiscuity urged in the 1960s and '70s by baby-boomers eager to fulfill adolescent hormonal desires now masquerades under a pretentious banner of tolerance for any sexual expression. When stigma against free, easy sex disappeared, more babies resulted--and the compassion-fueled post-facto response was to rescue them from poverty with government programs.

Perhaps the national conversation should return to the basis of poverty--the sexual culture that leads to out-of-wedlock births, and that allows individual feelings to trump the welfare of children and society.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Reason we Lost The War on Poverty

Just returned from appearing on a panel at the Road to Majority conference in Washington, DC, where I addressed "A New War on Poverty."
Pres. Lyndon Johnson with poor people in Kentucky, 1964

We now "celebrate" the 50th anniversary of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson's original War on Poverty. And as I opened my talk: poverty won.

In fact, poverty flourishes. Of course, it can never disappear, not only because genuinely poor people will always exist--sidelined by disability, downturns, age or incompetence--but because "poverty lines" will always be drawn and adjusted.

Presently, earnings below $11,670 for an individual, $15,730 for two, $19,790 for three and $23,850 for four people defines official poverty.

But as a psychologist, I maintain that people who stay beneath those thresholds have a different mindset from those who leave poverty and move into higher economic status:
A long-term perspective leads to short-term poverty. A short-term perspective brings long-term poverty.

What that means is that people who see themselves in a temporarily squeezed situation that doesn't define them permanently, tend to use drive and vision to move up. Those with a "victim" mentality, feeling stuck, tend to live that self-fulfilling prophecy. In the present political climate, these people might resent "the 1%" who they assume selfishly hoard too much of a finite financial pie; they might then feel entitled to benefits from government to make up for a position inherited or "received" through no fault of their own.

It's the difference between the grad student living on a shoestring who self-identifies as a professional enduring temporary times of sacrifice, and someone who looks forward only to a nice meal when the government assistance check arrives.

I found this comment, originally from Gawker and quoted by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, most instructive:
"I make a lot of poor decisions; none of them matter in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don't pay a thing and a half this week, instead of just one thing?"

The writer continues, "I will never have large pleasures to hold onto; there's a pull to live what bits of life you can while there's still money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are, you'll be broke in three days anyway."

For such people, short term is all they envision, so they might as well enjoy now.

Compare that to Asian immigrants. Pew Research did, and began their report, "Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success..." This within a century of being "low-skilled, low-wage laborers crowded into ethnic enclaves and targets of official
Amy Chua forces daughter to practice while on vacation

What's the difference? Ask Harvard professor Amy Chua, who became famous as the Tiger Mother who made her daughter stand outside in the cold for not sufficiently practicing her violin. The source of a long-term perspective is the family culture, the values that infuse everyone's expectations and behavior. Children learn what they see, and internalize the messages expressed and enforced. Work hard now, excel, accept only your best. How many individuals infused with those values end up in poverty?

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Jersey Boys" movie--Not a pretty picture

Caveat is that I am very sensitive and avoid movies with violence, slapstick and suspense. That rules out most films except romantic comedies, but with "Jersey Boys" I thought I'd found something. At least I'd have that nostalgic Four Seasons music, a warm-fuzzy sound from my childhood. I even own some 45s from back in the day, including "Big Girls Don't Cry." (If you don't know what a "45" is, ask your grandma.)

I'd never seen the Tony Award-winning stage hit, and Clint Eastwood, (who I like and remember fondly from his Republican Convention "empty chair" address) as director of this picture was a big draw. I was humming "Shair--eeee, Sherrie bay-by!" entering the theater.

Well, the movie's not a showcase for a bunch of great music, the way "Mama Mia!" creates a plot around Abba's tunes. It's got the music, though it surrounds the plot rather than the plot linking the songs. "Jersey Boys" is a drama, and in many ways a tragedy.

Its message is that Jersey creates failure. Everyone in this film, which flows flawlessly through the 1950s the '80s and beyond, wants to leave the neighborhood, where petty crime, mob connections, bleak employment prospects and abusive relationships reign. With narration that distractingly pops into scenes by characters otherwise engaged in the action, we learn that friends rotate in and out of prison, scam each other and say family's important while screwing around and withdrawing.

Yes, we root for Frankie Valli, played well by John Lloyd Young, but he never even savors success, autograph seekers and swooning fans notwithstanding. The others in the group--other than Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) who's an active low-life--seem passively pulled along in the current. There's no up moment; every scene is tinged with the grime of deception and cheating that underlies that culture, deemed "the wrong side of the tracks."

Amazing period sets and costumes stay dull in dim light with gray colors. Even crooning the upbeat melodies in close harmonies doesn't bring the characters any pleasure. Choreographed in sync onstage, they trample each other off.

"Everybody remembers it how they need to" is the grammatically abhorrent slogan for this movie. I want to remember the bopping and car-harmonizing to "Walk Like a Man" of my happy history--now I associate the Four Seasons with a seamy underside of life I'd rather avoid.  "Jersey Boys" is a fairly good movie, but not a feel-good movie.

If you want to enjoy a Son of Jersey, I suggest you watch Gov. Chris Christie boogie with Jimmy Fallon in this Father's Day video from The Tonight Show, "The Evolution of Dad Dancing." He's actually got some decent moves, and you'll gain the grins that "Jersey Boys" omits.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Missing Israeli Boys Bring United Response

Word that three Israeli teens were missing brought a predictable response among world Jewry: prayer.

The three yeshiva (religious school) youths were hitchhiking home for the Sabbath when they disappeared. Immediate speculation was that they were kidnapped by terrorists inspired by previous willingness to trade large numbers of prisoners for a single person (eg. Gilad Shalit, held five years and released in a trade for 1,027 prisoners in 2011).

Mrs. Obama with the hashtag
Immediately, emails, texts and tweets requesting that Jews repeat Psalms, particularly Psalm 121, as entreaty to God for the boys' safety, filled in-boxes. The hashtag Mrs. Obama, with her glum expression, tweeted to publicize the kidnapping of 250 Nigerian girls by the Islamist group Boko Haram, was quickly adapted for the three Israelis: #bringbackourboys.

Eyal Yifrach,19, Gilad Sha'er and Naftali Frankel, both 16, vanished Thursday from a popular hitchhiking location in the hills near Hebron, near the schools they attended. While Israel deploys its intelligence and military capabilities to find them, the rest of the world prays.

Where? the natural instinct for Jews in Israel is to converge at the earthly spot closest to God--the foot of the Temple Mount, near its surrounding wall, the Kotel. Videos of massive crowds praying, singing and pleading to God fill my Facebook feed. It's our natural reaction.

I didn't read any responses like that surrounding the horrifying kidnapping of so many
Crowds at the Western Wall in Jerusalem praying for the missing boys
young girls in Nigeria, and indeed, the girls have yet to be located and freed, after a full month of captivity. While I'm sure many anguished prayers have asked God for their release, from all reports I've seen, the reaction was not the simultaneous, instinctual unity that Jews are exhibiting now.

We pray that these boys will be found unharmed and that any others contemplating kidnapping realize Israelis have more than material strength at their disposal.