Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ms. Executive Editor

Speculation abounds, but I don’t really know why Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. fired Jill Abramson.  Her abrupt departure has caused a flurry in the press and not surprisingly so.  Ms. Abramson was the first female executive editor of what the New Yorker’s David Remnick has called America’s “singular news organization”.  Her 2011 appointment caused much rejoicing.  It marked a deserved milestone in a distinguished career, but even more so a major breakthrough for women in what has always been the Times top leadership “boys club”.   As it turned out, her tenure, expected to be long, lasted less than three years.

Abramson’s departure was messy.  The Times and Sulzberger himself have been put on the defensive.  The media has what it loves, a juicy story about troubles at the top of an icon.  That said, interest in this story is probably greater in New York, and especially in its “talking to themselves” bubble, than in the country or world writ large.  The Times will survive in tact and will be led editorially by a highly distinguished and popular new executive editor, Dean Baquet.  Abramson was the first woman to hold the job; he is the first African American.  Another breakthrough.

If you want to get some insight into the Abramson saga, check out Times writer (and one of my favorites) David Carr’s excellent analysis.  Without diminishing its importance to her and those involved, let me focus on something we do know about.  I’m talking about women in the workplace and in our society in 2014.   Abramson’s rise at the Times and Hillary Clinton’s expected rerun for the presidency notwithstanding, the road for women remains long, frustrating and mostly ad hoc.  Years ago Philip Morris prematurely touted women’s liberation when they promoted Virginia Slims with the tag line, “you’ve come a long way baby”.  Of course, the cigarettes probably took some of those women to the grave and no matter how many Abramson or Hillary stories we can tell, only a few women, the exception not the rule, sit atop, for example, our corporations, law firms, academic institutions.   Name a female hedge fund billionaire.  Right.  The Joint Chiefs are still all male as is the Roman Catholic priesthood.

Wait a minute, you’ll say.  Women are now the CEO’s of IBM, Hewlett Packard, PepsiCo, and yes General Motors.  Very true, but the more telling news is that for the one hundred top corporations only nine are led by women.   I’d call that coming “a short way baby”.  The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta reported that a factor in Jill Abramson’s firing was that she had complained about unequal pay relative to her male predecessor Bill Keller and in fact in all the jobs she held.  Unequal pay for women doing the same work, that’s a stunner.  Remember the first bill signed into law by President Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act addressing the rampant problem of unequal pay.   To put a number on it, the 2012 Census revealed that workingwomen earn 77cents for every dollar earned by men.  Patheic as it may be, our society still puts a higher value on men’s work, not to mention our reflex default expressed so well in those highway construction signs, “Men at Work”.

For sure, women have made progress; take for example in the judiciary.  There are three currently sitting female Supreme Court Justices.  Yes, but women account for only one in four federal judges over all.  There has been significant progress within many religious denominations, but the orthodox among all faiths, hold steadfastly to the idea of clergyman — men at work.  Indeed among these religious groups “baby hasn’t come any way at all”.  And speaking of baby, a part of the problem women face is the language we use, not to mention those stereotypical images — powerful images — that we project onto women.  Maybe we don’t hear it as much any more but “that’s woman’s work” (anything around the house or with children) is just one of them.  The notion of a “weaker sex”, says so much more than women perhaps not having the same physical strength as men.  And, as I suggest in my book, the place of women can be traced to the powerful idea of a he-God, reinforced especially for Christians by a divine son.  Why not, I asked there, a Jessica rather than a Jesus?

Forceful male leaders are often described as demanding; women doing the very same thing are called pushy.  The first is meant as a complement; the second translates as hard to work with.  Men are intense, women high strung.  Are these descriptors always used?  Of course not, but even assuming it’s just often is bad enough.   Jill Abramson was definitely “pushy” a term not employed in describing Howell Raines, the last Times executive editor to be sacked.  And, from what I’ve read Raines was far pushier than Abramson.  Fortunately, in these not so post racial but at least improved days, it’s unlikely that Dean Baquet will ever be labeled openly as uppity.  That doesn’t mean some people won’t think it (my April post, OMG — A Black President).

To be sure, as with all human beings, there are genetic elements that separate us one from another including men and women.  On some very important levels we celebrate those differences.  But when it comes to the workplace, our attitudes are heavily and purposefully nurtured.  As the breakthrough Oscar Hammerstein South Pacific lyric suggested, our prejudices are learned:
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught
So much of how we see women, and indeed how they often see themselves, is carefully taught, ingrained into our conscious and unconscious.  It’s done in small seemingly innocent and innocuous ways — that pink outfit, that doll, that little tea set all reserved for girls — but make no mistake, its there.  Is it all bad?  Again, of course not, but when it comes to the workplace that teaching we get before we’re “six or seven or eight” puts a special burden on women.  To be sure, some of it is self-imposed, but honestly most of it is inflicted.  A woman in the workplace remains, unnatural and abnormal.  At least it reads that way.  It may not have been decisive in Abramson’s firing, but it didn’t help.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Supreme prayer.

On May 5, 2014, the Roberts Court took another significant step toward eroding the wall of separation between church and state.  Writing the majority opinion in the 5-4 Greece v. Galloway decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy declared, “The prayers delivered in Greece …may have invoked, e.g., the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes, e.g., by calling for a “spirit of cooperation.”  Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a particular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.”  Given how many Americans have left religion behind (I call them Transcenders), it is especially disturbing, though hardly surprising, that the today’s Court appears intent on turning the Establishment Clause clock back not forward.

The Roberts Court is probably among the most ideologically driven in our history.  But this decision certainly isn’t the first assault on separation.   Justice Kennedy grounded his opinion in the earliest of precedents.  The First Congress”, he wrote, “voted to and pay official chaplains shortly after approving language for the First Amendment, and both Houses have maintained the office virtually uninterrupted since then.  Indeed, we have become so accustomed to having invocations delivered by clergy at all manner of events, private and public, that we think nothing of it.  My father delivered an invocation at my public high school graduation and I did the same at various public occasions in my years serving a congregation.  Presidential inaugurations always include invocations and benedictions.  Some, as was true with Rick Warren’s appearance in 2009, have caused controversy but not much over whether or not they are appropriate.

I have always found the government funded Senate and House chaplaincy cited by Kennedy especially curious.  An early draft of my book included a consideration of that institution in a prospective chapter entitled God Rules.  I wrote there about theocracies including the one for which some of today’s hard right surely wish.  Given last week’s decision, let me share some of what I wrote then specifically in the context of the Establishment Clause and the push and pull that has existed about in throughout our history, including those chaplaincies. 

Thomas Paine, the inspirational articulator of the revolution without whose pen John Adams contended, “the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain", was overtly hostile to organized religion.  “All national institutions of churches,” he wrote, “whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish  [Muslim] , appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”  These are the kind of words one might expect from the late Chris Hitchens, who wrote a book about Paine.  George Washington felt otherwise, spontaneously adding the words “so help me God” to his presidential oath and then referencing the Almighty in his inaugural. 

Thomas Jefferson, more aligned with Paine, was the one who articulated the classic formulation of separation in his famous letter to the Virginia Baptists.  Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life,” Jefferson wrote, “freedom of religion affects every individual.  State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights.  Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion.  Erecting the wall of separation (my italics) between church and state, therefore, is absolutely essential in religion.  Erecting the wall of separation between church and state, therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”  But the line drawn by Jefferson has been fluid since the earliest days of the Union — think Washington’s oath. 

As cited in his opinion by Justice Kennedy, one of the oldest and seemingly benign examples of that fluidity plays out daily on the floor of the United States Senate.  Every session begins with an invocation delivered by a clergyman, usually the salaried employee of the body.  The chaplains have all been non-Catholic Christians.   While the Senate chaplaincy and the practice of invocations is relatively well known, its exact nature and the broader services it provides might surprise you.

“Throughout the years,” says its official website, “the United States Senate has honored the historic separation of Church and State, but not the separation of God and State (my italics).”  This is a pretty aggressive assertion for a government website.  It plays with words as if they had a different meaning, but really are a semantically nuanced way of sidestepping, if not subverting, separation.  Where does it leave the religious who also cherish the theological neutrality of their secular state or the many citizen atheists who would absolutely reject this notion?  From its start in 1789 the website continues, “All sessions of the Senate have been opened with prayer, strongly affirming the Senate's faith in God as Sovereign Lord of our Nation.”  Really?  The Senate (all of its members and the body as a whole) has faith in God — considers God the sovereign Lord of the nation?

Over the years this chaplaincy evolved from a part time assignment into what is portrayed as a full-time “nonpartisan, nonpolitical, and nonsectarian (a stretch)” job.  The website tells us that the current incumbent, Reverend Barry Black (the first Seventh Day Adventist), opens each session with a prayer and offers “counseling and spiritual care for the Senators, their families and their staffs, a combined constituency of six thousand people.”  He helps them with spiritual and moral issues, assists with research on theological and biblical questions, conducts Bible study groups and oversees a weekly Prayer Breakfast, all at taxpayer expense.  One wonders what “theological and Biblical questions” the legislative body of a secular state might have, or could officially have, considering our Constitution.

The point is that while the Court’s decision in Greece is very disturbing to those of us who believe firmly in the separation of church and state, and also as evidence of how ideological this court, Kennedy’s logic is totally in line with what is afoot under the Capital’s dome.  Nonetheless, as Katherine Stuart writes in her recent NY Times Op-Ed, this was an especially big win for what she describes as the “prayer lobby”.   And to underscore how big a victory that was, she sites the Township of Greece’s “prayers that acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross”.   That’s hardly neutral religious language and it’s quite different than what we might hear (I hope) from a Senate chaplain.  Nevertheless, this very specific theological statement didn’t trouble the Roberts Five. 

Stuart suggests that an underlying objective of the prayer lobby is to restore that we are (as they see it) a Christian nation.   Of course, the logic for their case in part is that the majority of Americans were and still are Christians, albeit many of them nominally so.  “In his concurring opinion”, Stuart writes, “Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dismissed concerns about the blatantly sectarian tilt of the town’s proceedings, which were led exclusively by Christian ministers for nearly a decade, by pointing out that Jews make up a mere 3 percent of the local population and alleging that other non-Christian groups are no larger.”  Wow!  For me, Alito’s statement summarizes the problem.  The very idea of the Establishment Clause is to protect the very 3% that he talks about.  And what do you say Mr. Justice, about the 20% (1 in 3 of Millennials) of the citizenry — our fastest growing demographic — that have left religion behind?  Separation is good for everyone, but it is absolutely essential for the minorities, religious and not.  That Alito and his colleagues don’t get that or purposefully refuse to do so exposes their underlying ideology.  In a not so funny way, it reminds me of their equally  laughable contention that powerful corporations are the same and have the same rights, as individuals.

The Court’s decision in Greece marks a sorry day for the Establishment Clause, but more so for the country and its diverse citizens that it was meant to protect.