MAKE AMERICA HAPPY AGAIN: INTRO

Life is composed of a series of moments. If you’re like me, many of those are happy. Of course, what makes me happy may not do it for you. Even so, there are basic happiness components that we humans have in common, like good health, the means to acquire things we need, and good relationships. 1 Robin

Sometimes, however, we get confused about what makes us happy and can even confuse simple pleasures like acquiring a new toy with an overall sense of well-being, of meaning and contentment. One way to see the bigger picture is to create a list of recent happy moments, a list that reveals your unique happiness patterns.

 One of my patterns combines family/friends, natural environment, and physical activity. For example, on March 20th, this year’s official start of spring, my husband and I took a long, brisk walk outdoors, even though the ground was still frozen. We chatted along the way and pointed out signs that spring had arrived – a couple of robins, spots of green grass, Canadian geese flying home, and open water on the bay.

 It was a good day to embrace the happiness that the renewal of life brings because, as I later learned, March 20th was also the UN’s International Day of Happiness and the day its Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) published the fifth World Happiness Report. This report and its implications for American happiness is what I want to tell you about.

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 In it the SDSN ranks 155 countries’ level of national happiness based on the life evaluations of a large sample of people in each country. The purpose of the report is to encourage governments, organizations, and civil society in general to “use happiness indicators to inform their policy-making decisions,” that is, to consider happiness as “the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy” (“Overview”). 

It’s about time, indeed, that policy-makers took the goal of achieving personal, social, and national happiness seriously. After all, that’s what people want – to be happy, regardless of their nationality, political leanings, religious beliefs, or socioeconomic status. We want it for ourselves and our family and friends. And we should want it for everyone, if for no other reason that that happiness is contagious. It’s much easier to be happy when surrounded by happy people.

4_95233082_gettyimages-84745752 Norway

This year’s happiest people are in Norway, which narrowly edged out Denmark (last year’s winner), with Iceland, Switzerland, and Finland close behind. Other countries in the top ten are the Netherlands, our neighbor Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden. Following these are Israel, Costa Rica, and Austria. (For a quick look at the full list of countries, from 1 to 155, see Wikipedia).

Then comes the United States, placing 14th. The U.S. has yet to break into the top ten; in fact, its rank has steadily decreased since taking 11th place in 2012, the report’s first year. What’s going on? Why are people in the top 10 happier on average than those in the U.S.? What can we the people of the U.S. do to increase national happiness? What are our happiness strengths, and how can we use those to boost our weaknesses?  

TDC visit capitol1o begin to answer such questions, we should become familiar with the six socioeconomic factors that the SDSN uses to measure national happiness, and then see how the U.S. stacks up. 

The factors are national wealth as measured by the gross domestic product (GDP); life expectancy, which includes healthcare; social support, especially in times of trouble; generosity as measured by donations; freedom to make life choices; and governmental and corporate corruption. 

I plan to look more closely at several of these factors in future posts, beginning with U.S. national wealth and income inequality. As Rachel Maddow likes to say, “Watch this space.”

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Photo credits: Robin photo by Charlene Ryan in the “American Robin”; World Happiness Report image; Getty image in BBC News story; and a photo of U.S. capitol taken from my iPhone.

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Political News In Brief: Mar 16-20

Where’s the truth? Where’s the compassion? Today, reflecting on the two-month anniversary of Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the U.S., I find these primary human values missing – and it’s deeply disturbing. Here are just a few examples, gathered from recent Washington Post stories.

HOT OFF THE PRESS: THERE’S NO BASIS IN FACT TO TRUMP’S NOW INFAMOUS TWEET THAT OBAMA WIRETAPPED TRUMP TOWER

This morning (Mar 20) in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, FBI Director James Comey clearly stated that the FBI has found no evidence to support Trump’s repeated assertion that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower during the presidential campaign. Comey, also speaking on behalf of the Justice Department, said, “I have no information that supports those tweets.” (“FBI Director,” WP)

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For the past two weeks, Trump and his allies have doubled-down on the Obama-wiretapped-Trump claim, recently citing their source as a Fox News host who, without any evidence, said that when Obama couldn’t get the U.S. intelligence agencies to wiretap Trump Tower, he had the British secret service do it. “Ridiculous,” the British responded – and during the hearing today, National Security Agency head Michael Rogers agreed.

Moreover, Comey made it clear that no president could request such surveillance from the NSA or any other intelligence agency – that’s not how it’s done.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies will continue their investigation into Russian interference – through hacking and dissemination of fake news – in our recent presidential campaign.

TRUMP GOES TWO FULL DAYS WITHOUT LYING (at least not publicly)

As Jake Tapper said to Bill Maher last Friday (Mar 17), Trump has a penchant for “peddling evidence-free conspiracy theories.” In fact, The Washington Post Fact-Checker tracked 247 false or misleading claims made by Trump during his first 56 days in office, on March 1st and 12th. (“Jake Tapper,” WP).

DON’T CUT MEALS ON WHEELS!

On Thursday (Mar 16), Trump released his proposed 2018 budget. Eliminating federal funding for Meals on Wheels is one of the of many uncompassionate cuts in the proposal. That afternoon during a news conference, his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, defended the proposal. Regarding the Meals program, which provides food aid to over 2.4 million needy seniors, Mulvaney claimed that it is “just not showing any results.”

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But this simply isn’t true. A 2013 review of research “found that home-delivered meal programs for seniors ‘significantly improve diet quality, increase nutrient intakes, and reduce food insecurity and nutritional risk among participants. Other beneficial outcomes include increased socialization opportunities, improvement in dietary adherence, and higher quality of life.’”

Meals on Wheels is highly cost effective. For example, it helps “seniors stay at home and out of costly nursing facilities. If you’re interested in keeping a lid on health-care costs, the importance of this finding can’t be overstated.” And it’s been found that “those receiving daily meals also experienced fewer falls and hospitalizations.” (“Meals on Wheels,” WP).

The 2018 federal budget process is just getting started. Surely members of congress will listen to their constituents and to their hearts and keep Meals on Wheels.

Photo credit: Image for The Washington Post “Can He Do That?,” a podcast series; Meals on Wheels photo by Leah Nash for The New York Times.

Political News in Brief Will Resume in March

My husband and I are flying to Florida in the morning to meet up with family for a beach vacation. I’ll return to the news in March. Meanwhile, here are links to good overviews of the week’s two biggest stories: the firing of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn; and Trump’s first solo press conference as president.

Flynn episode ‘darkens the cloud’ of Russia that hangs over Trump administration” (Washington Post)

President Trump Seems Determined to Continue the Permanent Campaign” (NPR)

Stay informed :-).

Political News in Brief: February 6-12

NOTE: If you receive my posts by email, remember to go directly to my website by clicking “Political News In Brief” at the top of the message – for easier reading and for an aesthetically more pleasing experience.

People surrounding the new president are making almost as much news as Trump himself. This week I put a spotlight on a newsmaker whom Saturday Night Live (SNL) just wickedly lampooned. After that, I encapsulate several other news stories. Preview: In the future, I will spotlight other lampooned newsmakers.

KELLYANNE CONWAY & JAKE TAPPER

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Conway served as Trump’s campaign manager and now serves as Counselor to the President. In a bizarre SNL sketch last night (Feb 11), one that brings to mind the movie Fatal Attraction, Kate Mckinnon portrayed Conway as the sexy, murderous, spurned lover of Jake Tapper (Beck Bennett). Tapper is the CNN talk-show host who refused to have her on his Feb 5 Sunday show, State of the Nation, because of her loose connection to the truth.

Last Tuesday (Feb 7), however, Tapper conducted an extensive interview with Conway on his weekday show, The Lead, that, according to mediamatters.org, “only confirmed her credibility issues.” She ducked questions and continued to promote Trump administration misinformation. For example, when Tapper confronted her on Trump’s repeated claim that the murder rate is “at its highest level in 47 years,” which is provably false (in fact, the rate is among the lowest ever), Conway responded by complaining about her treatment in the media.

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Then Thursday (Feb 9), Conway seriously misstepped in a way that even Republican legislatures couldn’t ignore. She was on Fox & Friends defending Trump’s tweet that blasted the Nordstrom department store chain for dropping his daughter Ivanka’s fashion line. Conway told viewers, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff…. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.” Oops! That appears to be illegal!

“Federal ethics rules state that an employee of the government’s executive branch cannot use public office for personal gain or to endorse products or services on behalf of friends or relatives,” explained the New York Times. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, and Elijah Cummings, the committee’s ranking Democrat, have jointly sent a letter to the Office of Governmental Ethics requesting an inquiry into the matter. Meanwhile, the White House says Conway has been “counseled,” whatever that means.

POLITICAL NEWS CAPSULES

Week’s Most Immediately Far-Reaching Story:  Federal appeals court rules 3 to 0 against Trump on travel ban – The judges wrote, “The Government has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the Order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States. Rather than present evidence to explain the need for the Executive Order, the Government has taken the position that we must not review its decision at all.” The Trump administration promises to fight the ruling; however, for now there is no travel ban on people legally entering the U.S. from anywhere. (WP)

In Close Votes, the Senate Confirms Three Highly Controversial Trump Cabinet Picks: First there was the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, a billionaire who donates thousands to Republicans and who has no experience in (nor, it seems, previous love for) public education (NYT). Then Jeff Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General, a former senator considered by many as no friend of civil rights or voting rights (NYT). Finally, there was Tom Price as secretary of Health and Human Services, a former legislature who opposes the Affordable Care Act and wants to overhaul Medicare, possibly making it a voucher program (The Hill).

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Deportation of Immigrants Stepped Up: She Showed Up Yearly to Meet Immigration Agents. Now They’ve Deported HerGuadalupe García de Rayos, 35, yearly checked in at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office (ICE), a requirement for being caught using a fake Social Security number so she could get a job at a water park to support her family. When she checked in on Wednesday (Feb 8), she was arrested and deported to Mexico. Ms. Rayos has lived in the U.S. since she was 14 and has a family – a husband and two children now in their teens. Her deportation, which led to protests, is the public face of the ICE “surge” that took place this week. (NYT)

That’s enough for now 🙂.

Photo Credits: McKinnon & Bennett portraying Conway and Tapper on SNL Feb 11, Daily Beast screengrabJake Tapper & Kellyanne Conway during a Feb 7 interview, CNN;  Guadalupe García de Rayos and her children, Yahoo news.

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Political News In Brief: January 30-February 5

And I thought Trump’s first week as president was tumultuous! This one, his second, is just as raucous, if not more so. News comes at a rapid-fire pace. I’m feeling overwhelmed. So I’ve decided to focus on news that affects our relations with people in other countries, Trump’s travel ban in particular, which continues to outrage. I keep thinking of the (apocryphal) Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”  But there are feel-good moments – and I end with an especially heart-warming one.

TRUMP’S TRAVEL BAN REMAINS BLOCKED – FOR NOW

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The Federal District Court in Seattle, led by Judge James Robart, temporarily blocked enforcement of Trump’s travel ban on Friday (Feb 3), one week after Trump signed an executive order that barred people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. – whether valid visa holders (like international students) or well-vetted refugees (like Syrian families with U.S. sponsors). 

As expected, the Justice Department quickly appealed Judge Robart’s decision. Early Sunday (Feb 5), the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected the Trump administration’s appeal. This rejection means that “travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — as well as vetted refugees from all nations could, for now, continue to enter the country” (“Appeals Court,” NYT).

In short, the Ninth District Court affirmed Judge Robart’s ruling, which stated that the travel ban “adversely affects the states’ residents in the areas of employment, education, business, family relations and freedom to travel,” including “the operations and missions of their public universities and other institutions of higher learning.” Indeed, it’s estimated that the travel ban affects over 23,000 students who hold visas to study in the U.S. (An article in USA Today gives a break down of foreign student enrollment country-by-country.) 

While the Trump administration lost the first two rounds, it will surely take its case to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security has resumed using the same standard policies and procedures on travelers and refugees that existed prior to Trump’s executive order. And immigrant advocates are “encouraging travelers from the affected countries to get on planes as soon as possible” because of the legal battle isn’t over (“9th Circuit Court,” WP; State Dept. reverses,” WP).

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Travelers Previously Blocked from Entering the U.S. Begin Arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport. News of arrivals is beginning to trickle in. Using Twitter, a reporter wrote that a woman from Iraq was the first to pass through customs. Among other first arrivals were at least two Iranians: a college student and a research scientist (“Travelers,” WP). In another article, 40 Iranians were reported to have arrived in Boston on one flight, as well as at least one Syrian women at Dulles International, who reunited with her son and his wife, both doctors (“A race,” WP). 

More stories about arrivals from the previously banned countries are surely forthcoming. Including this one, just in from NPR: “Airport officials in Cairo say a total of 33 U.S.-bound migrants from Yemen, Syria and Iraq have boarded flights on their way to the United States.”

 INTERNATIONAL REACTIONS AND DEALINGS

International reaction to Trump’s travel ban was swift and varied. Many were highly critical: for example, Iran called the ban “insulting” and a “gift to extremists,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “against the core idea of international aid for refugees and international cooperation.” Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the high road and “defended the importance of welcoming refugees,” saying that “those fleeing persecution, terror and war were welcome in Canada.”

Others sided with Trump: for example, Saudi Arabia said it would cooperate. Britain’s far-right leaders cheered. And Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed that every nation should be able to control its own borders – but Turnbull still expects Trump to adhere to the Obama administration’s agreement to accept 1250 of the 3000 refugees Australia holds on island detention centers; Trump called this “the worst deal ever” (“World leaders react,” CNN; “worst call by far,” WP ).

Yet Trump embraces aspects of Obama’s foreign policy. Several surprising and welcome moves this week: Trump warned Israel “not to expand the construction of Jewish settlements beyond their current borders” because to do so could hamper “the goal of peace” with the Palestinians. Trump’s chosen ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, “declared that the United States would not lift sanctions against Russia until it stopped destabilizing Ukraine and pulled troops out of Crimea.” And Trump appears to have no plans to rip up Obama’s highly-successful (so far) deal with Iran to dismantle its nuclear program (“Trump embraces,” NYT).

In fact, on Friday (Feb 3), the Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Iran to punish Tehran for its “latest ballistic missile test.” The administration describe the sanctions as “the first in a series of efforts to confront Iran around the globe.” (“U.S. Imposes,” NYT).

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Protest Saturday” Around the World. On Saturday (Feb 4), peaceful rallies were held in major U.S. cities and in cities around the world like Berlin, Barcelona, Jakarta, London, Manila, and Paris. They protested Trump’s policies, particularly his travel ban. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Nerves are especially raw in Germany, a country where fears of war are traditionally high as a result of the devastation the Nazi regime caused during World War II.”

There was even a rally in Janesville, WI, the hometown of Paul Ryan, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (next in line for president should something befall both the president and vice president). On a cold, windy Saturday with snow falling in this relatively small city, a group of 500 to 700 protested Trump’s immigration and border security plans. And, according to the county newspaper’s GazetteXtra,  “they railed against what they believe is … Ryan’s solidarity with Trump’s stance on immigrants and border security.” One sign read: “Will swap 1 Donald Trump and 1 Paul Ryan for 20,000 refugees.”

FEEL-GOOD NEWS

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A mosque in the small city of Victoria, TX burned to the ground during last Saturday’s wee hours (Jan 28), just hours after Trump announced his travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. Cause is unknown. But the outpouring of support has been overwhelming. As of Wednesday (Feb 1), almost a million dollars had been raised, in online contributions, for rebuilding.

And in a wonderfully heartwarming gesture, Jewish community members walked into the home of one of the mosque’s founders and gave him a key to the synagogue. The president of Temple Bnai Israel explained, “We have probably 25 to 30 Jewish people in Victoria, and they probably have 100 Muslims. We got a lot of building for a small amount of Jews” (Business Insider).

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Photo Credits: A family of Syrian refugees in Jordan limboed due to Trump’s travel ban, Jane Arraf/NPR; a Virginia Iraqi family welcomes their grandmother home at Dulles International Airport, Astrid Riecken/European Pressphoto Agency; protesters in Janesville, WI against Trump’s policies and Speaker Ryan’s likely complicity, photographer Angela Major; signs by supporters of the Muslim community in Victoria, TX whose mosque burned to the ground, REUTERS / Mohammad Khursheed.

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Political News In Brief: January 23-29

My head is spinning from the onslaught of troubling news this week, President Trump’s first full week in office: from his neediness to appear the greatest to his disregard for the truth, from his first attacks on the environment to his appalling executive order that is, in effect, a Muslim ban. Below I offer my take on the week’s top stories. I’ve tried to keep it brief – but do know there were a lot of other signals that our democracy, as we know it, is in danger. 

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AFTERMATH OF TRUMP’S ENTRY BAN: CHAOS REIGNS AS IMMIGRANTS AND REFUGEES ARE DETAINED AND DEPORTED AT U.S. AIRPORTS

President Trump on Friday (Jan 27) signed an executive order that immediately blocked refugees from any country and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. – including people holding legal visas and permanent residents holding green cards.The seven countries are Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen – none of which were involved in the 9/11 and San Bernardino attacks, although those attacks were cited as reasons for the ban.

By Saturday afternoon (Jan 28), the chaos that this poorly considered and abruptly implemented order created was apparent across the U.S. and the world: On arriving at U.S. airports, people from the banned countries – like international students, immigrants returning to their families, and business folk – were detained or promptly deported.

Word got out and large protests in support of immigrants and refugees erupted in airport terminals – in the U.S., as well as abroad where people from the travel-banned countries heading for the U.S. weren’t allowed to board planes. Protests continue.   

Meanwhile, lawyers are at work on behalf of the detained, deported, and those likely to be denied U.S. entry or deported despite their previously legal right to be here. As of this morning (Jan 29), several federal courts have temporarily blocked aspects of Trump’s order, allowing some of the detained to enter the country.

Expect much more media attention on this matter – it’s being covered as I write. Stay tuned. This is a very big deal!

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TRUMP’S “ALTERNATIVE FACTS” (as his counselor Conway put it)

Until the entry-ban news broke, Trump’s difficulty with accepting facts that negatively affect his grandiose self-image received a lot of media attention – particularly regarding two matters: (1) the fact that no evidence exists, none at all, to support Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with 2.9 million more votes than he did only because there were 3 to 5 million illegal votes – all of which went for her; and (2) he refused to accept the fact that the crowd at Obama’s 2009 inauguration was considerably larger than his, despite the ocular evidence in the side-by-side photo above. (See this linked NPR story for more details, including on several matters that suggest Trump has a serious fact-deficiency problem).

Why does Trump’s penchant for making up facts matter? Indeed, shouldn’t we count on our President to tell us the truth? If he’ll create media squabbles about trivial matters like crowd size, what else might he lie about and what important issues could the media be covering instead? Climate change and other environmental issues, for example, should receive a lot more attention than it has in the past.

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TRUMP AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Meeting with business men on Tuesday (Jan 24), Trump promised to cut regulations by 75% and told the group that he’s something of an environmentalist and has “received many, many environmental awards.” He first made this claim in 2011; since then reporters have looked for evidence, finding none. The Washington Post did, however, give Trump an award for this claim: Four Pinocchios – in other words, “whoppers.” Apparently he’ll lie about anything.

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The new administration’s disregard for the health of our planet was displayed in several other ways this week. For one thing, Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday (Jan 24) giving the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access oil pipelines the go-ahead for construction. But, as The Hill reported, these are not done deals due to lawsuits pending in Nebraska and by the Standing Rock Sioux. 

The day before that (Jan 23), ProPublica confirmed that the Trump administration had “imposed a freeze on grants and contracts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], a move that could affect a significant part of the agency’s budget allocations and even threaten to disrupt core operations ranging from toxic cleanups to water quality testing.” This freeze goes along with Trump’s executive order to institute a hiring freeze for all new federal workers. 

BEST NEWSY THING FOR ME THIS WEEK

hidden-figures-poster-405x600Hidden Figures received three nominations for an Academy Award, including Best Picture. The film is based on a true story about 3 African American women whose talents and courage led to holding crucial NASA positions during the early years of the space race. My husband and I enjoyed the film on Wednesday. In my view, it’s a must-see!

Photo/Image Credits: Demonstrators at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, G. Morty Ortega/Getty Images; on the National Mall comparing Obama 2009, left, and Trump 2017 inauguration crowds, Reuters; four Pinocchios, Washington Post graphic; signs of protest near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times; and Hidden Figures official poster, 20th Century Fox.

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Political News In Brief: January 16-22

You may notice that my tone is different in this edition. Previously I strove for objectivity, but I couldn’t maintain it this week. Trump’s speech and the Women’s March, data on climate change and economic inequality – I couldn’t help but react. Perhaps you couldn’t either. In any case, I apologize upfront for my occasional editorial remarks.

TOP STORIES: From the Sublime to the Resisted Ridiculous

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Obama’s Farewell Press Conference

On Wednesday (Jan 18), Barack Obama – with grace and good humor, as well as warnings tempered with hope – told the White House press corps that he was looking forward to some quiet time and doesn’t plan to rush right back into the political fray. However, he did make it clear that he will speak out if he believes that America’s “core values” are at stake. Among the values he mentioned are freedom of the press, voting rights, absence of systematic discrimination, protection of children of undocumented parents, and the right to protest (quick read – NPR; detailed overview – NYT).

Trump’s Inaugural Speech

On Friday (Jan 20), Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. I enjoyed watching the usual pomp surrounding the ceremony but was appalled by Trump’s inaugural speech. It was dark, filled with negative exaggerations about the state of the nation, but thankfully short, running 16 minutes. Trump spoke as if he were at one of his rallies – the same divisive rhetoric and belligerent “strongman” tone. What should have been an uplifting celebration of the peaceful transition of power felt like a funeral for American values.

Perhaps the most chilling part of Trump’s speech was his repeated use of the phrase “America First,” the name of “the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler” CNN. He put forth a warped image of America as having lost its greatness due, among other things, to “the ravages of other countries … destroying our jobs.” (Inaugural story told with photos – NPR; detailed story of the day – NYT.)

The next day (Jan 21) was much better

Turnout for Women’s Marches Greatly Exceeds Expectations

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Wonderfully diverse crowds of women, men, and children – with and without pink “pussy hats” – marched. Trump’s frightening “America First” inaugural speech may have helped swell the crowds. According to crowd scientists, “The women’s march in Washington was roughly three times the size of the audience at President Trump’s inauguration” (New York Times explains how experts arrived at this estimate.)

In the U.S. alone, it’s now estimated that up to three million marchers turned out, from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco and many places in between, including our own Madison, WI with its estimated 75,000 to 100,000. Estimates for other cities include over half a million in D.C., more than 400,000 in New York City, and hundreds of thousands more in Chicago and Los Angeles. There were also large marches abroad – in Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, Buenos Aires, and Sydney, to name a few, and even a small group in Paradise Bay, Antarctica (NYT, NPR, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

The marchers were there “to express solidarity with the aims of the original march: opposition to President Trump’s agenda, and support of women’s rights and human rights in general,” wrote NPR. Not only was it an anti-inaugural march against a new president who lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, it was also a call to mobilize a national movement for action on progressive issues like abortion rights, sexual assault, and equal pay, as well as “immigrant rights, police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression and environmental protection” (NYT).

OTHER IMPORTANT NEWS

2016 Reported as Hottest Year on Record on same day Trump’s EPA Nominee Refuses to Attribute Global Warming to Human Activity

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USA Today reported, “The planet sizzled to its third straight record warm year in 2016, and human activity is to blame, federal scientists announced Wednesday” (Jan 18). According to paleoclimatic data, it’s been 125,000 years since the last time the earth was this hot.

“No leader can afford to ignore these results,” a leading economist told USA Today. And yet if the Senate confirms Trump’s nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, the results may be ignored.Not only has he sued the EPA 14 times in an effort to block clean air and water regulations, but also during his Senate hearing on Wednesday (Jan 18), Pruitt said that it’s debatable whether humans are part of the cause – a statement “not consistent with the scientific consensus on climate change” (NYT). Nevertheless, it’s likely that Pruitt will head the EPA.

Worth noting: “Less than an hour after taking the oath of office, the White House’s webpage on climate change disappeared” (The Hill)

Richest 8 Men Hold Half the World’s Wealth

Oxfam International, which annually releases data on the world’s wealth, announced on Monday (Jan 16) that 8 super rich men have as much wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people, half the world’s population. Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, called this disparity “obscene.” She said that economic inequality traps “hundreds of millions in poverty” and “is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy.” Six of the men are Americans. (NPR)

BEST FEEL-GOOD MOMENTS OF THE WEEK: all those wonderful videos and photos of Women’s Marches around the globe

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Photo Credits: Trumps and Obamas on White House steps, Jim Watson/AFP/Getty; Women’s March in New York City, Nicole Craine for The New York Times; Ice in the Arctic Ocean’s Chukchi Sea region, Esther Horvath in The New York Times; Women’s March in Madison, WI, Amber Arnold for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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Political News In Brief: January 9-15

What a week! Russian election interference remained at the center of our national conversation. The Justice Department announced an investigation into the FBI director’s actions regarding Clinton’s emails. Congress began confirmation hearings on Trump’s cabinet nominees and geared up to repeal Obamacare. Trump talked smack about two American icons. And (ending this edition on a high note) Obama delivered his Farewell Address and later awarded Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

TOP STORIES

Allegations and Questions Abound about Trump’s Ties to Russia and Russia’s Influence on Our Presidential Election

This explosive and ongoing story began on Tuesday (Jan 10) when BuzzFeed dumped an unverified, classified document on the Internet called “US Presidential Election: Candidate Donald Trump’s Activities in Russia and Compromising Relationship with the Kremlin.” CNN ran with this “breaking news,” and other news agencies quickly followed – for the first time making public what they, and many others, have long been aware of but have neither confirmed nor disproved.

The document Trump received in a briefing alleges that Russia has been gathering information on Trump for five years, intel that includes a sordid sexual romp in a Moscow hotel and questionable business negotiations – info ripe for blackmail, if true. The most serious allegation is that during the campaign the Kremlin fed “Trump and his team valuable information on his opponents,” including on Hillary Clinton.

Trump strongly denounced the unproven claims on Wednesday (Jan 11), during his first press conference as President-elect. He blamed the intelligence community for the leak (which it has denied) and lambasted the media for carrying the story.

Wednesday night, according to an intriguing New York Times story on how the document came to be, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper talked with Trump and then released a statement saying that intelligence agencies don’t know if the information in the document is reliable or not – although the former British agent who uncovered it has an excellent reputation with the intelligence community.

In his news conference on Wednesday, Trump finally acknowledged what the intelligence community had been saying all along: that the Russians had hacked and made public emails belonging to the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The next day (Jan 12) in their joint statement, a Republican and Democrat announced that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence would engage in a bipartisan inquiry on Russian inference in the recent elections. They said, “we believe that it is critical to have a full understanding of the scope of Russian intelligence activities impacting the United States.” (NPR)

Justice Department to Investigate FBI Director James Comey about His Handling of the Clinton Email Case

Michael Horowitz, Inspector General of the Justice Department, announced on Thursday (Jan 12) that he would open an investigation on FBI Director Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case, including Comey’s “decision to discuss it at a news conference and to disclose 11 days before the election that he had new information that could lead him to reopen it.” (NYT)

Apparently the FBI found nothing new: three days before the election Comey closed the case. But the damage was done. In fact, Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters believe that Comey’s actions then, as well as his unprecedented announcement in July calling her use of a private email server “extremely careless,” cost her the election. Members of both parties have questioned Comey’s judgment to make statements that appear to violate the FBI’s policy never to appear partisan and never to do anything that could influence an election.

OTHER NEWS OF INTEREST

Key Cabinet Nominees Disagree with Trump

This past week the US Senate held confirmation hearings on a number of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, nominee for Attorney General, received the most media attention because of actions, ancient and recent, that suggest he holds racist beliefs. Of great interest to me, however, is the extent to which Sessions and other nominees disagreed with Trump on statements he repeatedly made before and after the election.  

Sessions, for example, said he believes that water-boarding is illegal and that a ban on Muslims entering the country is unconstitutional; Trump has disagreed.

Former ExxonMobile CEO Rex Tillerson, nominee for Secretary of State, called Russian president Putin an “international threat” that we must counter. He also opposes a Muslim ban and is committed to NATO; Trump has said the opposite.

General James Mattis, nominee for Secretary of Defense, said he supports the Iran nuclear agreement, “a stark contrast from Mr. Trump’s view that the Iran negotiations produced ‘one of the dumbest deals ever.’”

And like Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, nominee for CIA director, all of these “nominees have taken strong stands against Russia” and agree with the intelligence community that Russia meddled in our presidential election.

Perhaps, as Representative Susan Collins of Maine said, “Trump wants advisers who will bring him different views.” That would be, as she says, “very healthy”; or, as the New York Times suggests, “it could lead to confused messages both to our allies and adversaries.”

Republicans Start the Process of Repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

On Friday (Jan 13), the Republican-led Congress’ first act was to rush “approval of a budget resolution … that sets up a framework for repealing Obamacare.” The proposed budget includes cutting off funds for Planned Parenthood. At this time, Republicans haven’t arrived at an affordable replacement that would keep the popular ACA benefits (for example, coverage of preexisting conditions) and eliminate the unpopular parts (for example, the mandate to have health insurance).  (NPR)

Trump Slams American Icons in Tweets

Last Sunday night (Jan 8) at the Golden Globes, actress Meryl Streep was honored for a lifetime of notable work. During her acceptance speech she described her shock at watching a person seeking the presidency mock a disabled reporter, someone “he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back.” Never directly mentioning Trump, she said, “It sank its hooks in my heart.” The next day Trump tweeted that Streep was “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and a “Hillary flunky who lost big.” (NYT)

Then on Friday (Jan 13) in an interview for NBC’s Meet the Press, Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights icon, said that “he did not regard Trump to be ‘a legitimate president’ because of allegations that high-level Russian operatives interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf.” Early the next morning Trump tweeted that Lewis is “falsely complaining about the election results” while his district “is in horrible shape and falling apart.” Trump, as he sometimes does in retaliatory lobs, ended his two-part tweet with “Sad!” Many have come to Lewis’ defense since then. (Washington Post).

BEST MOMENTS OF THE WEEK

Obama Delivered His Farewell Speech to a Rapturous Crowd

On Tuesday night (Jan 10) in Chicago where his political career began, President Obama delivered his farewell address, speaking, as the New York Times says, “to a rapturous crowd that recalled the excitement of his path-breaking campaign in 2008.” He offered a message of hope, a warning against giving in to fear, and a call for individual action. Early in his speech he listed several of his administration’s accomplishments:

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high

As I watched his speech live on TV, like so many others I was deeply moved. He ended his address by asking us to believe – “Yes, we can!” 

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.

I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

 Obama Farewell Address full video and text 

Obama Bestows the United States’ Highest Civilian Honor on Biden

In a surprise move on Thursday (Jan 12), President Obama awarded Vice President Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling Biden “my brother” and saying, “He’s as good a man as God ever created.” Biden, deeply moved, told Obama, “This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it’s a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit. I don’t deserve this but I know it came from the President’s heart.” (CNN)

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Whew! That’s a lot of news for one week – and yet there was so much more I could have mentioned. If you spot any factual errors, please let me know. Thanks!

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Political News In Brief: January 2-8

I’m a political news wonk who’s worried about the prevalence of low-information Americans. I understand that working people, especially families with children, haven’t the time to delve into the news. But now, as a retired educator, I have the time not only to read the news (instead of just grabbing sound bites off the TV or radio) but also to provide a kind of national news digest for those with busy lives. That’s one of my goals for this blog: to sum up, as I see it, the major political stories of the week as often as I can. At this time my primary news sources are the New York Times (NYT) and National Public Radio (NPR). Here’s my first edition.  

TOP STORY OF THE WEEK

Heads of Intelligence Agencies Meet with Senators and then Trump shortly before releasing their report on the Russian Hacking to the Public 

“A united front of top intelligence officials and senators from both parties on Thursday [Jan 5] forcefully reaffirmed the conclusion that the Russian government used hacking and leaks to try to influence the presidential election, directly rebuffing President-elect Donald J. Trump’s repeated questioning of Russia’s role” (NYT).

On Friday (Jan 6), top intelligence officials provided Trump with a two-hour briefing, concluding that “President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia directed a vast cyberattack aimed at denying Hillary Clinton the presidency and installing Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office.”

Shortly after Trump’s briefing, these officials released their intelligence report to the public in what the NYT called “a virtually unheard-of, real-time revelation by the American intelligence agencies that undermined the legitimacy of the president who is about to direct them.”

According to the report (as summarized by CNN), Putin’s motives for hacking and leaking embarrassing Democratic emails included undermining Americans’ faith in the democratic process and “discrediting Secretary Clinton because [Putin] has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime.”

While the election itself is legitimate – for example, no evidence exists that voting machines were hacked – the intelligence community is confident that there was Russian interference during the campaign.

OTHER NEWS OF INTEREST

Republicans’ Rocky Ethical Start to 2017

In a secret meeting on Monday night (Jan 3), House Republicans voted to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE).  Under their proposal, the OCE would no longer serve as an independent ethics watchdog. Instead, the foxes (U.S. representatives themselves) would watch the hen house. One reason given for the change was “to prevent the office from pursuing investigations that might result in criminal charges” against House members. When the news got out, public outrage arose. And by the time the new congress was sworn in on Tuesday (Jan 4), House Republicans had abandoned the proposal. An independent OCE remains, at least for this session of Congress. (Full NYT story here)

In a related ethics story, NPR reported (Jan. 7), “The Office of Government Ethics is raising alarm over the pace of [Senate] confirmation hearings for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees, saying Saturday that they have yet to receive required financial disclosures for some picks set to come before Congress next week.”

“Make America Sick Again”

With the Republicans set to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA, popularly known as Obamacare), the new Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, in a parody of Trump’s campaign slogan, declared on Wednesday (Jan 4) that the Republicans were on a path to “Make America Sick Again.” Meanwhile, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence said that Trump’s first order of business would be to begin the repeal of the ACA through “a series of Executive Orders,” the very kinds of action Obama was repeatedly criticized for using. (Full NPR story here)

“Michelle Obama’s Emotional Farewell” 

This past Friday (Jan. 6) on TV, I watched Michelle Obama give her last speech as First Lady. NPR described her talk as “a passionate pep talk to the nation’s young people.” “That’s my final message to young people as first lady,” she said. “Lead by example with hope, never fear. And know that I will be with you, rooting for you and working to support you for the rest of my life.” I was overcome with emotion and, along with school counselors standing behind her, cried.

Engaged Motion: One Key (of many) to Creativity and even Genius

treadmillFor Christmas I gave myself a manual treadmill. I try to use it daily for a strenuous, indoor workout I much need during northern Wisconsin’s long icy winters. But it’s noisy. I knew it would be, so I ordered a stand for my laptop and a headset to go with it. Now while treading I listen to archived radio programs that I probably wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.

A few days ago, for example, I listened to “Seeking Sites of Global Genius” on NPR’s On Point (1/22/16), which featured Eric Weiner talking about his recent book The Geography of Genius (book’s animated trailer here). Weiner argues that much more than natural talent and hard work go into the making of a genius like Plato, Michelangelo, or Steve Jobs. Geniuses, he says, are grown and appear in “genius clusters,” like in ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and today’s Silicon Valley. But why? geography-of-genius-eric-weiner-263x409

During his NPR talk, Weiner discusses a number of factors that nurture genius, especially mentors, social mingling, and diversity, as well as hardship, immigration, or even a traumatic event early in life (for Plato, think the execution of his mentor Socrates and Athens’ agora). So it seems that having a perspective different from one’s peers, along with sharing ideas with others, contributes to the flourishing of creativity. Consider Apple’s slogan: “Think different.”

About halfway through the program, Weiner briefly mentioned that walking is also associated with creative genius (research backs this up). By then treading had exhausted me, and I took a break at my desktop. Scrolling through the NPR homepage, I found and read a heartwarming article, “Young Artists Find Home and Healing at Pittsburgh Art House” (1/24/15). It then occurred to me that not just walking but many kinds of engaged physical activities are likely to prompt creative thinking. 

Vanessa-German

Arriving at the notion of engaged motion pleased me, as did connecting the NPR article to the Weiner talk. But more than that, I became intrigued by the Art House founder, Vanessa German, an amazing visual and performance artist who, in my view, is a genius of engaged motion. (See an example of her performance poetry here).

Art House began on German’s front porch, which is next to a bus stop in Pittsburgh’s impoverished, frequently violent Homewood, a neighborhood where kids play “gang” in the alleys. When her sculptures grew too large for the basement studio, she worked on her porch. People would stop to watch. Adults commented on how weird or even scary the fetish-like objects seemed to them (examples of her sculptures here). But kids, she tells us in this 2015 TEDxPittsburghStatePrison talk, “weren’t looking at what I was making; they were watching me do the making.”

SEAsia carved birds
A gift to me from friends

Kids were engaged in the process, the doing, and wanted to help. German told them, “You cannot help me, but you can do your own thing.” She gathered old brushes, paint, cardboard, and materials from a demolished house up the street and set the kids to doing their own art. Soon her porch and front yard were filled with kids. And eventually the young artists got their own place (photos of Art House in the NPR article).           

At the Art House housewarming, German said, “I experience such joy and a sense of deep rightness and completeness when I’m making things…. Like when I’m deciding how I’m going to engineer some sculpture to stand so it looks like it’s defying gravity, and I’m using my brain, and I’m moving around, and I feel like giving myself a high-five – why wouldn’t kids feel that too!?” (NPR).

CandleCurl sculpture Jan15
My candle curl “sculpture”

In my view, German is a genius of engaged motion. But clearly Homewood is not, in Weiner’s terms, a “genius cluster.” Nevertheless, German has found just the right place to grow and nurture her own genius – and to help others grow theirs. On her Love Front Porch website, she says, “I know that art makes a difference, that it can heal, inspire, change anger into love. Art is love. Love is power.”

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“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”                                                                                                      ~Musical genius Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart

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Image Credits

The Geography of Genius cover comes from Eric Weiner’s homepage and Vanessa German’s publicity photo from a TEDxCambridge site. I took the other three photos with my iPhone: the treadmill setup in my loft; the wood-carved birds, a gift from close friends who traveled to Bali and parts of Southeast Asia; and my candle curl “sculpture,” which continues to grow atop one of my book cases.