Wednesday, August 24, 2016

At 100, National Park Service celebrates diversity -- Aug. 25, 2016 column


With his signature, President Barack Obama in June made the Stonewall Inn in New York City a national monument with the protection of a national park.

“Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights,” the president said in a White House video announcing the new monument.

“I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country – the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us,” he said.

Decades ago, the Stonewall Inn was a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village at a time in the city when serving alcohol to gay people was illegal. Police raids were frequent, but in June 1969 a raid led to riots and then to protest marches. The Stonewall Uprising was a turning point in the gay rights movement.

Not everyone was thrilled with the designation of a gay bar as a monument. Evangelical Christian leader Franklin Graham, son of televangelist Billy Graham, called the Stonewall recognition “unbelievable.”

“War heroes deserve a monument, our nation’s founding fathers deserve a monument, people who have helped make America strong deserve a monument – but a monument to sin?” Graham wrote on Facebook.

Graham has a right to his opinion, but I’m with those who celebrate our nation’s diversity and the fights by racial, ethnic and other groups for equality.

From now on, Stonewall will be recognized as a watershed for gay rights the way Selma, Ala., is for voting rights for blacks and Seneca Falls, New York, is for women’s suffrage.

Congress authorized the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1980, commemorating the first Women’s Rights Convention there in 1848, and created the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in 1996. The 54-mile trail tells the story of the 1965 march that led President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act.

The Stonewall National Monument includes the bar, a triangular park across the street and nearby streets – 7.7-acres in all – and, managed by the park service, will preserve the stories of the gay rights movement for future generations.

It’s fitting as the park service celebrates its 100th birthday that its centennial mission is “a promise to America that we will keep not only its sacred places, but the memory of its most defining moments,” Jonathan Jarvis, park service director, said at the National Press Club this month.

Besides Stonewall, Obama has authorized the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C., the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, among others.

Obama’s protection of lesser known historic sites ensures that some details of the American experience we might sweep under the rug will be remembered. The new monuments build his legacy as a champion of diversity and provide a way for him to honor key Democratic constituencies.

While only Congress can create a national park, the president and Congress have the authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create national monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

National parks were never about scenery alone. History was always part of the picture.
When President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation creating the National Park Service 100 years ago this week, Aug. 25, 1916, he brought together in the new bureau 35 parks and monuments and those yet to be established.

The purpose was “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife . . . by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Today we’re all better off because we have more than 400 national park areas.

We’re fortunate Congress thought to preserve historic objects and places as well as beautiful vistas. And we can thank the National Park Service for finding ways to help us understand all aspects of the American experience and reinterpreting historical events as times – and passions -- change.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Read now, live longer -- and more good news about books -- Aug. 18, 2016 column


A young woman walking in my neighborhood the other morning had her eyes not on her phone, playing Pokémon Go, but on the page of a book.

“Must be a good book,” I said as we passed, catching a glimpse of the cover. “Oh, it is!” she assured me.

It was a romance novel – but no judging. It cheered me immensely to see a millennial so engrossed in a physical book that she couldn’t bear to put it down.

Evidently, she’s not alone. There’s good news, finally, about books. We can stop writing the obituary for the physical book.

Retail sales at bookstores were up 6.1 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the first six months of last year, according to the Census Bureau.  

And 2015 was healthy too, with bookstore sales up 2.5 percent over 2014, the first annual increase since 2007, Publishers Weekly reports.

Spurring sales in 2015 was the No. 1 bestseller “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s first book since “To Kill a Mockingbird.” People had been waiting 55 years.

This year’s presidential election has juiced bookstores with political tomes. The top four non-fiction books on this week’s New York Times best seller list are anti-Clinton or anti-progressive. 

Physical books outsold ebooks last year for the second consecutive year, with revenue from hardbacks up 8 percent, the Association of American Publishers reported last month in its annual survey.

People are also listening to more books. Revenues from downloaded audio books have nearly doubled since 2012, the publishers’ survey found.

Even more surprising in the era of modernistic temples to Apple: Dusty, used bookshops are a hot new retail venue. Among the cities where used bookshops are making a comeback are New York, Washington and Richmond, Va., according to news reports.

“There’s a used bookstore renaissance going on in New York City right now,” Benjamin Friedman, co-owner of a bookstore café in Queens, told The Wall Street Journal, whose reporter Anne Kadet last month counted more than 30 used bookshops in the city, and more than 50 when she included rare-book dealers.

For me, few pastimes are more enjoyable than browsing books, new or used, in bookstores. I recently was in a used bookstore in Staunton, Va., where an old – make that classic -- jazz record was playing on a turntable. Perfect!

If “vinyl” can be cool, why not books with paper pages? The White House said President Barack Obama took five books with him on vacation.

For the first time, The New York Times devoted a special section of the full-sized paper to an excerpt from the acclaimed new novel, “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, and said it was the first of an occasional series of long excerpts from new books.

“Though we are excited by innovations like virtual reality and digital storytelling, we also recognize the lasting power of the broadsheet,” the editor wrote. The section was “a special ink-on-paper product, one not available in digital form. It is finite and tactile; to read it you must have gotten your hands on the Sunday paper.”

Think about that. The Times made something available only in the newspaper, making paper more valuable than digital. Brilliant.

Here’s another bit of good news about books: People who read books live longer than those who don’t, a Yale study reports.

The study of 3,635 people 50 and older over 12 years found that book readers lived longer than non-book readers. Those who read books for three-and-a-half hours a week or more – half an hour a day -- lived on average almost two years longer than those who didn’t read books or just read newspapers and magazines.

Reading books promotes “deep reading,” engaging the brain more than newspapers or magazines do, and can foster empathy and other traits that lead to greater survival, Avni Bavishi, Martin D. Slade and Becca R. Levy wrote in their study, “A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity.”

“We also found that any book reading gives a survival advantage over no book reading,” Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale, said in an email.

There’s never been a better time to crack open a book – and you may live longer to read more.  

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Finger wag or wagging tongue? Olympics win -- Aug. 11, 2016 column


Before the Obamas decamped to Martha’s Vineyard last weekend on vacation, President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio address:

“Every four years, our nation’s attention turns to a competition that’s as heated as it is historic. People pack arenas and wave flags. Journalists judge every move and overanalyze every misstep. Sometimes we’re let down, but more often we’re lifted up. And just when we think we’ve seen it all, we see something happen in a race that we’ve never seen before.

“I’m talking, of course,” Obama said, “about the Summer Olympics.”

Good one. And he was right. The Olympics, unlike that other quadrennial contest, haven’t let us down.

The Rio games are historic, dramatic and fun. We see some of the best American athletes who have ever competed. Their drive, joy and patriotism are infectious.

And don’t forget attitude. Who knew wagging an index finger could say so much?

Swimmer Lilly King, 19, a first-time Olympian, wagged her finger twice to mock Russian competitor Yulia Efimova for doping, after Efimova, 24, who was allowed to compete in Rio at the 11th hour, wagged her finger No. 1 after winning a preliminary heat.

“You wave your finger No. 1 and you’re caught drug cheating? I’m just not a fan,” King said in an interview with NBC.

After she beat the Russian by two-hundredths of a second to win the gold for the 100-meter breaststroke, King said, “It’s incredible, just winning a gold medal and knowing I did it clean.” Take that, Russia.

Then, superstar swimmer Michael Phelps, competing in his fifth Olympics, wagged his finger No. 1 after he won his 20th gold medal and beat his arch rival.

Earlier, Phelps blew up the Internet with his caught-on-camera “death stare” at Chad le Clos of South Africa. Le Clos was dancing and shadow boxing right in front of Phelps in the warm-up room before the 200-meter butterfly competition.

Phelps reclaimed the gold le Clos had won in the 2012 Olympics in London, and le Clos came in fourth in Rio.

Those displays of one-upmanship pale compared to the trash-talking on the campaign trail. This may be the first time a major party presidential nominee has been so willing to set tongues wagging. 

We don’t need Gallup to tell us we’d rather see athletes wagging their index fingers than hear the ugly rants of Donald J. Trump or, for that matter, more damaging revelations from Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Trump’s latest flap involving an off-the-cuff remark may have been “a joke gone bad,” as House Speaker Paul Ryan, who’s always sweeping up after the elephant, said. Or it could have been a call to arms to “Second Amendment people” if Hillary Clinton is elected, as Democrats and some Republicans charged.

At the rally in Wilmington, N.C., Trump was talking about what would happen if Clinton were elected: “She wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. And, by the way, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

When his remarks caused a firestorm, Trump blamed the biased media and insisted he meant Second Amendment supporters should galvanize to defeat Clinton at the polls. Clinton, who does not want to abolish the Second Amendment, accused him of “casual inciting of violence.”

The Chinese water torture of released Clinton emails continues to raise questions about how her work at the State Department intersected with the Clinton Foundation and what roles Bill Clinton would play in the White House and the foundation.

No wonder people have Trump -- and Clinton – fatigue.

So we turn gratefully to the Olympics, continuing through Aug. 21, to cheer Team USA and lift our own spirits. The Olympics are everything the 2016 presidential campaign is not: Team USA’s inspiring performances contrast sharply with Trump’s intemperate remarks and Clinton’s excruciatingly calibrated responses.

Trump is as undisciplined in his speech as the Olympic heroes are disciplined in sport, and Clinton as stiff as the athletes are limber.

The presidential campaign gives us headaches. The Olympics warm our hearts.  

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

Beware politicians who predict `rigged' elections -- Aug. 4, 2016 column


Earl Long, governor of Louisiana in the 1940s and ‘50s, quipped: “When I die, I want to be buried in Louisiana, so I can stay active in politics.”

The line is good for a groan, but election fraud is no laughing matter. Our system of government relies on citizens’ believing that our elected officials hold power legitimately.

Election fraud is almost nonexistent, studies have found, and yet nearly every presidential campaign brings dire warnings that the election is about to be stolen.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain claimed before the 2008 election that Acorn, a group that organizes low-income communities, was “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

Donald J. Trump is the latest to conjure election fraud. Not waiting for November, he is preemptively laying the groundwork for a “we wuz robbed” excuse for losing to Hillary Clinton.

“I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged. I have to be honest,” the Republican presidential nominee said Monday at a rally in Ohio. Republicans need to be “watching closely” or the election will be “taken away from us,” he told Sean Hannity of Fox News.

“The voter-ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development,” he told The Washington Post Tuesday in an interview. “We may have people vote 10 times.”

Trump has a habit of seeing a stacked deck when things don’t go his way – and even when they do. During the primaries, he railed against Republican Party rules he said were rigged against him, even though the rules were set before he entered the race -- and he won handily.

Bernie Sanders also complained the system was rigged -- against him and in favor of Clinton. In Sanders’ case, however, Democratic National Committee emails leaked last month backed up the claim.

Candidates preach to the converted about a rigged system. The 2000 election debacle in Florida fueled lingering cynicism. More than half the voters believe the way parties pick presidential candidates is “rigged,” a Reuters/Ipsos poll found in April.

Trump now claims Clinton and the Democratic Party rigged the presidential debates to fall on NFL game nights – even though an independent commission, not the political parties, set the schedule. The debates were scheduled in September 2015; the NFL schedule was set in March 2016, PolitiFact reported.

Election fraud is the rationale for tough new state laws requiring photo IDs to vote. Thirty-two states have voter ID laws, and 18 require photo IDs.

In the last few weeks, however, federal courts have ruled against five state voting laws, suggesting in some cases that the supposed cures for fraud actually would rig the system against minority voters.

North Carolina’s 2013 law targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision” and was “one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history,” an appeals court ruled.

A federal judge blocked North Dakota’s voter ID law from going into effect, saying it made it hard for Native Americans to vote. He cited “a total lack of any evidence to show voter fraud has ever been a problem in North Dakota.”

A federal appeals court in Texas ruled that state’s voter ID law discriminatory and ordered a lower court to come up with a temporary fix before November. 

A federal judge told Wisconsin to change its procedures and make it easier for voters to get IDs so they can vote. Kansas must count the votes of thousands of people who didn’t show proof of citizenship when they registered to vote.
In the judicial pipeline is a voter ID case from Alabama, scheduled to be heard in federal court next year. In Virginia, state legislators and the governor are fighting over voting rights for 200,000 felons.

While some may joke about dead-people voting and ballot-box stuffing, we can’t forget that in many places elections truly were rigged against minorities for more than a hundred years with poll taxes and literacy tests. In the 21st century, we need to work together to ensure integrity and fairness at the polls.

We can’t allow any candidate to destroy the legitimacy of our election simply because he fears defeat.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.