Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Three Generations of Jewish Women Present the Essence of Vulnerability, Connection and Being Jewish in the Documentary “Wendy’s Shabbat”

April 21, 2018 – 8:00 pm ET 
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)

Imagine a $4 burger, chicken nuggets, fries and a Frosty® meal with challah, Shabbat candles (battery operated) and wine (in the form of fruit juice) at Wendy’s fast food restaurant every Friday night for Shabbat, filled with elderly Jewish people, most in their eighties and nineties. Certainly, the least likely of places for a religious gathering. Yet, every week at Wendy’s in Palm Desert, California, twenty to forty people gather to celebrate Shabbat, and have been doing so for eight years. And now, this story is presented in the inspiring short documentary film, “Wendy’s Shabbat.“ Much to the surprise of the film’s creators, the 10-minute film has captivated audiences throughout the world, received national acclaim, and was selected for the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The film’s themes of the convergence of Jewish tradition, vulnerability in aging, and the ability to connect in an unconventional way, presents an idea that confronts time-honored practices and stereotypes with novel approaches. The juxtaposition of sacred Jewish customs that span the millennia with the instant get-it-now Wendy’s fast-food environment engenders both humor as well as a serious reflection on what it means to be elderly and what it means to be Jewish today.

Rachel Myers (Director), her mother, Abby Myers (Executive Producer), and Rachel’s grandmother, Roberta Mahler (the person who provides the film’s point of view and who lives in a retirement complex in Palm Desert, regularly participating in Shabbat at Wendy’s), together created the charming and touching film. Roberta’s experience provides the narrative for the film’s story of people, some of whom do not necessarily know each other and may have no connection other than their age and Judaism, meeting at Wendy’s each week through word-of-mouth to share an important Jewish ritual.

Talking with the three women revealed their passion for tradition, coupled with an understanding of vulnerability in aging, and the need for human connection though their Judaic roots. This provided the impetus for Rachel to bring three generations of the Jewish women in her family together to make the film. Rachel assembled the team, and Abby as producer managed logistics, with Roberta as protagonist.

Roberta spoke of “tradition” and how tradition translates itself into modern times. When she initially heard of the Shabbat at Wendy’s event, she was bemused. How could a public, fast-food restaurant be an appropriate place for something so revered as the celebration of Shabbat? Yet, she came to realize that although Jewish tradition in and of itself is important, it must be adapted to remain relevant, and most importantly to provide meaning to those who celebrate the traditions. The setting is not of importance; rather, the people and their desire to engage with one another is what matters.

Rachel spoke of the sense of “vulnerability” aging engenders through isolation of the elderly, and concern for her grandmother, the film’s protagonist, as her grandmother ages. She relished the role Shabbat at Wendy’s plays for her grandmother and others who experience the weekly event, and created the film to demonstrate how simple connections build community. She noted that as American society finds itself sequestered in the anonymity of the suburbs or high rises, without a “place” to simply meet others and to share, Shabbat at Wendy’s provides an incredible albeit simple platform for inclusion. There are 40 plus million Americans over the age of 75, representing 13% of the total population, and growing in numbers and proportions each year, representing the fastest growing age demographic in the nation (U.S. Census Bureau 2010 Census). This sizable group needs ways to overcome loneliness, as aging is much more than physical – it is often the loss of emotional connection.

“Wendy’s Shabbat” is the quintessential short documentary film, as it captures the essence of its important themes in just 10 minutes: community connection in the face of the isolation of aging in America, and the use of the traditional Shabbat service as a stage for connection through inclusiveness for the Jewish elderly. The incongruence of the fast-food restaurant setting of Wendy’s with the hallowed ritual of Shabbat creates the film’s intrigue. By portraying the challenge of aging with the essence of being Jewish, the film captures these themes through presenting a meal so unassuming that it defies the notion of pretense. No pageantry, no artificiality and no affectation. It is the pure simplicity and authenticity of the gathering and the meal that demonstrate the core precept of what it means to be Jewish, and how Judaism differs from so many other religions as so beautifully expressed in the film – connecting people to each other, not to a superior being through grandeur and pomp, not to an afterlife or some other-world existence, and certainly not through fire and brimstone, but to one another in ways that make Jews feel connected as people as they share a $4 dinner at Wendy's with laughter and human engagement in their senior years. “Wendy’s Shabbat” captures that essence through this captivating and moving film.

To view the trailer, click here.

P.S. – I joined the participants at Wendy’s Shabbat dinner for a first-hand peek. It was a delightful evening and complemented the experience of talking with the three generations of women and seeing the film.

A Little Taste of Heaven - A Short Story From My Childhood

April 12, 2018 - 10:30 am ET
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)

“Mommy, can I really have anything I want and as much as I want in the candy store?”

For a three-year old boy, this was paradise. I had just been told by the couple who owned the local candy story in Queens, New York that they wanted me to pick out any candy I wanted. My mother nodded “yes.” I began to search through the shelves of candy for the perfect combination of sweets, all under the loving gaze from the store’s owners. They watched as I looked at each shelf, picking up an item and then putting it down, thinking there might be something even better if I looked further. My mother chatted with them. Although I didn’t know these people, my mother spoke with them on familiar terms, and it was clear that she knew this couple before our visit to the shop that day. I paid no attention to their conversation as I was far too engaged in the search for the perfect combination of goodies to take home.

At one point, I looked up, noticing that the couple and my mother were watching me. They all smiled in unison. “Take whatever you want, sweetheart,” the woman said. “Yes, whatever you want,” repeated the man. Their faces were glowing and could not hide the joy they felt in watching me thoughtfully make my selections. “Take your time; there’s no rush,” the woman added. The couple continued chatting with my mother as I went further down the aisle examining the contents displayed so deliciously on each shelf. Finally, I selected the perfect delicacies and brought them up to the couple. They exclaimed that I had chosen a fine assortment of treats, and they seemed genuinely delighted by my glee. They were an older couple, or at least according to my three-year old perspective. Their faces had a worn look, but their smiles were loving. These were nice people, and I found their generosity towards me comforting. Like a kid in a candy store, only this was the real thing.

They put my treats in a bag, and the woman reached out with her hand and cupped my chin. She turned to my mother. “What a sweet little boy.” She then said something in Yiddish. I was used to that. At family gatherings half of the conversations were in English and the other half in Yiddish. I could pick up some phrases and words. I understood that the woman had said “he should live and be well, such a sweet Jewish boy.” My mother thanked her. And then the man asked my mother if we would be back next week. “Of course,” my mother replied. The man looked at me and said, “Then you will have all week to think about what special candies you’ll want next time.” My eyes opened wide, amazed at the thought that this week’s trip was to be repeated.

My mother and I left the store. She spoke briefly about the couple – what lovely people they were and how I was always welcome in their shop and could have as much candy as I wanted. I could not believe my ears, and I began to survey the shop goodies in my mind, thinking about which candies I would select at the next trip. 

For the following year we would go back to the candy shop each week. My mother and the couple would chat, and I would spend my time slowly walking down the aisle, looking at the shelves, selecting the perfect set of treats for the week. Over time, they would engage more with me, asking questions about my week. They would nod their heads as I spoke and laugh at some of the things I would say. And always, I would end our time together with a bag of goodies. I can still see their faces, and most of all, their smiles as I would search the aisle for my candy prizes.

Then one day, my mother and I went to the shop, and she told them that we were moving. My parents had purchased their first house – on Long Island. The couple was so excited for my mother. “How wonderful! And your little boy will have a yard where he can play,” the woman said. My mother told her that we would get a cat and a dog. The couple was overjoyed. Although we would no longer have our weekly visits, they we so thrilled for us. They took the news well. We hugged, they kissed me, and we left with our final bag of candy.

As we walked home, I told my mother that I would miss them and the weekly visits, not to mention all the candy. They had been so generous, giving so much. I questioned why they were so kind to me all this time. My mother quietly explained. She began by asking me if I had noticed the numbers tattooed on their arms. I did notice, and I had seen those before on other people. She explained what those numbers meant.

I had heard of some of the horrors that my family and others had recently endured in Europe. At family gatherings, people would talk about “the war,” concentration camps, and other unimaginable atrocities well beyond my grasp at the time. And, of course, who survived and who didn’t. I knew that many people were killed, although the number six million was beyond comprehension at my young age. My mother explained that the couple had been in a concentration camp and that their children, along with the rest of their family, had all been murdered by the Nazis. And, the woman was no longer able to have children. I later came to understand that she had been part of the experimentations in which her reproductive system was destroyed. My mother continued. After the war, they came to America and opened the candy store. She said that nothing brought them more joy than to see little Jewish children come into the store and enjoy the experience of selecting some goodies. My mother said that I was not the only Jewish child with whom they share the sweets, and that they looked forward each week to many of the children’s visits, including mine. My mother explained that I was the one who was giving them joy, not the other way around. These visits weren’t about getting candy, they were about giving a moment of time with a happy Jewish child for this couple to savor. The gift wasn’t the bag of sweets for me; I was the gift for them – my happiness, my delight in selecting my weekly treasure, and my time with them. That was the gift. Although I was only four at that time, I had some level of understanding.

The years went by, and from time-to-time I have thought about the couple who owned the candy store. I regret that I did not ask my mother for their names, as I have long forgotten. I should have visited them. I should have told them that from the misery of their holocaust experiences and loss, that people like me carry the torch and will not allow the world to forget. I should have learned the names of their children who perished at the hands of those vile creatures called Nazis. I should have told them that I have two daughters, and that they, too will carry on for our people. But I didn’t.

I haven’t thought about the candy store for many years, but it came to consciousness last night while talking with a friend about my childhood as Jew, born shortly after “the war,” and the current evil environment of increased anti-Semitism and Nazism in America with the rise of Trumpism. I wish I believed in an afterlife – knowing that this wonderful couple is now finally, peacefully with their family and their children in some restful celestial place. But like most Jews, I don’t believe that. Instead, I know that these two human beings touched me and other Jewish children in their candy store, and that beautiful legacy lives on. The memories of the bags of weekly candy is all that remains. They live in my heart and I’m sure in the hearts of others who visited the shop each week, bringing joy to this wonderful couple who simply wanted and deserved to hear the voices and laughter, and see the excited faces, of happy children. No cosmic justice, no sacred rewards, no divine happily-ever-after. Instead, their heaven was in watching little Jewish children relish in the simple act of joyfully selecting candy.

​Gerrymandering - There Are Simple Solutions To This Problem

Published in HuffPost
September 21, 2017 - 04:40 pm ET
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)

Gerrymandering is a pernicious method allowing one political party control by manipulating electoral districts, producing a body politic of heightened polarization. It has become such an insidious way of destroying voter confidence and fairness that it has recently gone before the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling. During the SCOTUS debate, Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted to Neil Gorsuch when he questioned the issue relative to the role of the Supreme Court, she replied, “Where did ‘one person, one vote’ come from?” The Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Clearly, gerrymandering is an issue that SCOTUS must address, as the practice diminishes this clause as a fundamental foundation of democracy.

I asked myself how might we envision creating electoral districts blind to political outcomes? To be sure, there isn’t one answer, but there are solutions that are better than today’s method. I challenged myself to think of ways that would improve upon our current partisan approach, and devised one that uses basic geometry and algebra, along with statistical modeling, for its solution. I devised a simple one, perhaps worthy of adding to the mix of solutions on the table. It serves as an example of how we can think about the gerrymandering menace, and provide ideas for district mapping that are population and geography concentrated, and not based on other factors.

My background is in statistical analysis and data optimization, so the idea is based on a very simple use of optimization modeling. The concept is to determine the optimal districting within each state based on the solution that minimizes the shape of each district into its most efficient and concentrated and contiguous configuration, independent of all other variables other than population counts and geography. It’s a simple two-variable model, which would eliminate bias from any other variables (e.g. voting patterns, demographics), strictly mathematically driven without an eye to voting outcomes.

For each state, the model would use the population counts at the discreet block level (the lowest level of census data – not block group nor census tract levels) as per the U.S. Census for all blocks within the entire state. By entering the number of districts needed for the state (let’s call this number “X” for any given state), it would use a simple algorithm to determine the optimal configuration of all possible combinations of contiguous blocks that form “X” districts that minimize the sum of the perimeters of all “X’ districts and that produce districts of relatively the same numbers of population (total population of the state divided by “X”). Of all possible permutations (outcomes), the one permutation which produces the lowest value for the sum of each of the perimeters combined for all “X” districts, each with about the same population counts in a continuous shape, would become the optimal districting map solution for that state. It forces the map to provide districts that are as simply and efficiently shaped as possible, based solely on population counts. The geometric area of the districts would not be the driver nor enter the equation, as some parts of each state are sparsely populated and large in area. And, gerrymandering can occur in districts where the area of the districts are small, but the perimeters are large because the districts are designed with convoluted shapes. 

However, using this idea of perimeter minimization, the issue of districts is not the area of the district, but its perimeter. Think of a square of 3 miles X 3 miles (a square is used in this example as it is an efficient 4-sided polygram – the circle or more circle-like polygrams, such as an octagon, are more efficient but not used in this example to keep the example simple). Its area is 9 square miles, and its perimeter is 12 miles long (the sum of the sides of the square). Now think of a long rectangle 1 mile by 9 miles (assuming its population count is comparable). Its area is also 9 square miles, but its perimeter is 20 miles long. The 3 miles X 3 miles square is more efficient as a district as its perimeter is less and it represents the most efficient way to cover 9 squares miles in this example. This is fundamentally how the model could work, where the perimeter of each district would be the driver. One wouldn’t wind up with perfect squares or other polygrams (or circles) necessarily, but with configurations that minimize perimeters in the most efficiently shaped districts possible, according to how the population distributes itself geographically by blocks.

This would be a relatively easy algorithm to create, program and run the data, and would eliminate gerrymandering. Of course, this, like other ideas, would need to be tested with real data, and all ideas would be compared to see how the different solutions look.

The point is that the idea noted above demonstrates that there are ways to configure electoral districts that eliminate gerrymandering and mitigate political and other bias, through the utilization of mathematical models based on data optimization. And, it’s time for our political system think in new ways, including utilizing database technologies for optimization modeling, to protect and uphold the “one person, one vote” principle.


“Care” - An Important Film About American Values on Aging and the Workforce Caring ​for a Growing Population

Published in HuffPost
August 30, 2017 – 01:57 pm ET
By Rich Weissman, San Francisco, California (www.richweissman.com)


The documentary “Care,” directed by Deirdre Fishel and produced by Tony Heriza, will have its national television broadcast premiere on AMERICA REFRAMED on Tuesday, Sept. 5 at 8 p.m. (check local listings) on WORLD Channel, right after Labor Day. The broadcast will be followed by free streaming at http://worldchannel.org/programs/america-reframed/ starting Sept. 6. The film is a touching drama of four home caregivers, who lovingly care for their clients as they approach life’s end through illness and/or old age. It’s provocative cinema verité showcasing the overworked, undertrained and underpaid home caregivers who nurture the weakest amongst us, in a society that does not recognize their work as important. It’s a brilliantly developed and produced film about the ongoing frustrations in caring for those who have lost their health, youth and independence. The source of the frustration isn’t a lack of empathy on the part of the caregivers, but due to the low value our society places on their contribution.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1900 less than 2% of the U.S. population was over 65. It grew to 4% by 1950. By 1970 it approached 10%, and this doubled to 20% by 2010. The trajectory is expected to continue through 2050, with over 80 million Americans projected to be 65+, twice the number from 2010. The trend is a result of two key factors: declining birth rates as we have fewer children, and greater longevity as we improve mortality rates. Moreover, there are increasingly large numbers of elderly people without families to support them. Although most elderly people want to stay in their homes (90% state homecare as their preference), that option is limited and many are forced to live in institutional care facilities. Add the increasing numbers of people who are ill, but surviving albeit unable to care for themselves, and the trend of needed ongoing care is exacerbated. And, the U.S. is not unique in its aging population statistics. Canada, Europe, China, Japan and others are experiencing the same phenomenon, with booming aged populations.

Yet, the cultural and economic realities presented by this burgeoning population is a topic we in the U.S. prefer to ignore, unwilling to notice the train approaching us personally and as a nation at rapid and crisis speed. “Care” exposes this topic without all the statistics. There are no demographic models presented. Instead, the film simply shows us the realities of living with illness and old age through the eyes of caregivers who provide their clients with the most basic of human needs. And through these caregivers, the story starkly captures the hypocrisy of a society that claims compassion, but is unwilling to value the work that is needed to care for us with compassion when that time arrives. In the film, we come to recognize that the wealthiest society in the history of the world has a clear message to its own citizens: don't get sick and don't get old - we won’t help you if you do.

We idolize the billionaires and the glitterati, while devaluing those who take care of our most basic physical and emotional needs each day when we need them. We spend billions on beauty products, electronics, cars, a military unlike any other, but we are only willing to pay home caregivers a median income of $13,000 annually (Medicaid pays less than $6 per hour) to attend to our parents, spouses, and someday to us personally. The film forces us to ask if the caregivers who attend to our loved ones are not worthy of decent wages? Are the roles they play not as honorable as others in the workforce? We spend more on medications and diagnostic equipment than on those who ultimately take care of the ill and elderly each and every day.

In the end, the film raises important questions. Who are we, and does the American dream and the pursuit of happiness solely apply to the young and healthy, only to be discarded when illness or old age comes upon us? The film engenders both sorrow for and anger at a nation that does not value dignity at all life stages. The film’s message is clear. We have a choice. We can foolishly convince ourselves that we and others will never need such care, or we can face the inevitable and build a society that cares for those in need. We can redefine the role of caregivers, so that they are admired and treated as critical members of the end-of-life cycle which we all will experience in our inescapable future.


Charlottesville - When Tolerance Isn’t Enough

Published in HuffPost
August 17, 2017 - 01:29 pm ET
By Rich Weissman, Black Butte Ranch, Oregon (www.richweissman.com)

A friend of mine, who is a devoted churchgoer, asked a simple question: What should the churches of America be doing in response to Charlottesville? Here’s what I told him … The issue in our nation has been and continues to be that most Americans think that America is, at its core, a Christian, white, heterosexual nation. This is the “default,” and good, open-minded people believe that it is incumbent on Americans to accept those who are not part of this majority, whereas the bigots do not. The inclusion of others is what separates progressive, decent Americans from their hateful and xenophobic counterparts. The enlightened think in terms of “tolerance,” an America that is tolerant of those who are non-Christian, people of color, and LGBTQ people. They believe that America should reach out to these minorities and create an environment in which these people are accepted, contrary to the anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, racist and homophobic haters who presented themselves in Charlottesville (and of course, this extends to the misogynists as well, who view being male as the idealized gender; no accident that the haters this weekend appeared to be almost all men).

So, what should the churches of good-will do after the horrific events of last weekend? Should they shout “tolerance” from the pulpits? Should they remind their congregants that inclusiveness is critical in today’s world? Yes, they should, but that’s not enough, as it only reinforces, albeit unintentionally, the notion that fundamentally America is a Christian, white, heterosexual nation.

Following Charlottesville, churches need to look in the mirror and move beyond “tolerance.” They need to think about themselves in an altogether different way. Unfortunately, the position they need to take will be, for many, most uncomfortable, and I appreciate that the ideas being proposed here are controversial and may be hard for many good people to internalize.

The churches of America need to state, clearly state, that America is not a nation of religion, is not a nation of race, and is not a nation of sexual identity. They need to embrace the notion that America is neither Christian nor otherwise religious, neither white nor otherwise of a specific racial descendance, neither heterosexual nor otherwise defined by sexuality. Instead, America is a secular, multi-racial, sexually diverse nation, whose only purpose is to allow people to freely be who they are under the Constitution. This is the American paradigm. Can the churches of good-will in America say that, and more importantly live by that creed?

As a start, they need to understand that their behaviors have allowed this trifecta to lead to an unanticipated ugly place, which reared its head last weekend. Although the well-intended would never salute a Nazi or Confederate flag, would never speak poorly of minorities, and would never discriminate, good people do behave in ways that, nonetheless, support the ideal of America as a de facto Christian, white, heterosexual nation, albeit a tolerant one. And this not at all consciously driven.

How? How do well-meaning churches and people do this? What things do they say and do that somehow create a backdrop for assessing minorities in ways that position those minorities as “less thans?”

For the well-intended churches, the first part of the trifecta manifests itself relative to affirming the ideal that America is based on Christian values (some do say “Judeo-Christian” values, a term that is today an anathema to and abhorred by most Jewish people, as it assumes that Christianity is the step beyond an incomplete Judaism), where the Christian Bible is the code by which all Americans should live. They believe that accepting Jesus is the path all should take. And they think that Christmas is for everyone, and praising Jesus’ birth is something about which everyone can participate and sing out loud (maybe with a token Hanukah or Kwanza song thrown into the mix). In particular, the Christmas experience is the embodiment of the belief that the Christmas celebration and the Christmas ham are as American as apple pie.

They don’t see their religion as personal and private, applicable only in the privacy of their churches and in their homes. They don’t see America as a nation without religion, without the Bible, without Jesus. They don’t see the Constitution as the only document that binds all Americans, where religious books, doctrine and song are for personal use only.

Ask yourself these questions … Do I impose my Christian religion on others in how I speak? Do I quote the Bible and use it as a code of ethics in all places in my life including my public life? Do I talk in terms of WWJD in secular settings? Do I think that Christian holidays are “for everyone” and oppose those who try to “take Christmas away?” Have I bought into the “Grinch” mystique that somehow Christmas is an American holiday and those who wish to remove it from the public space are mean-spirited and joyless? Do I think that those who are not Christian and who do not accept Jesus are somehow less than I am?

Or, do I live by the secular standards laid out by the Constitution and U.S. law, and never, never allow my religious beliefs to enter into civil society, where my religion is of no interest to anyone else other than to me and my church? In the end, do I see the Constitution as the only “truth” in America, where my religion and its teachings are subordinate and irrelevant to that document?

Of course, the same kind of thinking along racial and sexual lines are true for the other two components of the trifecta. How often is it said by the well-intended that race relations would be improved if people of color simply stopped being so vocal about it. If only black youth stopped wearing hoodies and African Americans didn’t insist that black lives matter. Or if those people from the middle-east just dressed like “us.” Or if Latinos would only speak English and if Mexicans simply stopped taking away “our” jobs. How often is it said by the well-intended that queer people would be better accepted if they wouldn’t “flaunt” their “gayness” and just try to be less flamboyant? Or if trans people would simply stick to the public restrooms of their sexual chromosome. America will tolerate these racial and sexual minorities so much more if they, like the non-Christians, accept the notion that they are not “the default” and learn to behave more like “the default.”

So, it’s time to end the public displays of Christmas, to take down the Confederate statues, and to shatter the notion that Cinderella can only be told as a heterosexual story, even though these symbols may evoke melancholic childhood memories of comforting past times. It’s time to remove all those notions that everyone has to mimic “the default.” They tell the non-Christian, non-white, non-heterosexual minorities to “get over it and act like everyone else.” To be tolerated, one has to be more like Christian, white, heterosexuals. Well intended perhaps, but time to end this kind of thinking.

Clearly, most Americans are not at all the vile, torch-bearing haters in Charlottesville. Most Americans were sickened by the scenes shown on the Internet and tv. And because of our revulsion, we all owe it to ourselves to ask how Charlottesville could have happened. And we must ask ourselves how we have, often unintentionally, in our words and deeds created an environment in which we think of America as a Christian, white, heterosexual nation, the very ideal the haters in Charlottesville promoted.

That’s the uncomfortable discussion America needs to have post Charlottesville. Not how do we become more “tolerant,” but how do we move beyond tolerance and finally, finally see America as a truly secular, multi-racial, sexually diverse nation, where we don’t simply “allow” minorities to live among us, but we accept that there is no majority group in America, there is only freedom.


It’s About The Russians, Stupid

Published in HuffPost
August 9, 2017 - 03:16 pm ET
By Rich Weissman, Black Butte Ranch, Oregon (www.richweissman.com)

​Our heads are spinning. Each day something new from the Trump administration and the GOP. The ACA is going to be replaced, no wait, repealed, no wait, replaced, no wait, there aren’t enough votes for any change. Tax cuts are in, no wait, they’re out, no wait, they’re in, no wait, we’ll deal with it later. The Mexican wall is on, no it’s downsized, no it’s back bigger than ever and Mexico is paying for it, no wait, they’re not. And of course, there are the immigration restrictions from Muslim countries, the rebuke of the Paris Accords, prohibiting trans people in the military, building the pipeline, privatizing public education through school vouchers, and all the other issues of the day. Like a roller-coaster ride where we’re not strapped in, hanging on for dear life. And all the tweeting. Everything from attacking celebrities, his own cabinet, media people and media outlets, and inane, head-scratching covfefe-like nonsense.

And the firings. A parade of “your hired”, no wait, “your fired”. Quite the revolving door. The White House has become the most powerful temp agency in the world.

There is so much noise, so much attention on things that make no sense and simply add to the cacophony. What’s with all of this presidential vomit spewing out from the White House each day?  What is the point of it?

It’s so simple. This is all just one big distraction from the real story, the only newsworthy story – it’s about the Russians, stupid. It’s the only focus we should have at the moment. It’s the only game worth watching.

So, let’s reduce it to its core elements, of which, I think, there are three distinct parts …

First, the Russians were clearly involved in obtaining the “dirt” on Hillary and the DNC, and getting the stories out there, some true, most false. The Russian objective would have been to tarnish her and the DNC’s reputations without sufficient time for a real analysis or understanding of the source. The investigation has confirmed the role of the Russians and the Trump family in this operation to discredit the Hillary campaign. The investigation now focuses on understanding the extent to which Trump and his people were actively involved in the plot to discredit Hillary by subversive Russian activity.

Second, there may have been hacking into the election systems, both the voter base and election vote-counting mechanisms. The Russian objective would have been to ensure a Trump win in targeted areas where he needed the electoral college counts, particularly in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. If this can be found to have happened, then the election itself was, in Trumpian vocabulary, “rigged”. The investigation will now need to determine the degree to which Trump and his campaign were actively involved in changing and tampering with voter registration and counts through Russian hacking.   

Third, there may have been money laundering to enrich the Trump family from the Russians through real estate deals by Russian proxies purchasing Trump (and Kushner) properties, and through bank loan forgiveness from Russian banks who had loaned to the Trump family businesses. The objective would have been to transfer money from the Russians to the Trump family in ways that would not be easily traced. At the moment, the investigation is publicly focused on this component, with the establishment of the grand jury for this specific purpose.

In the end, we will learn about each of these components, who specifically was involved, how each component may relate to one another, and how they might demonstrate a pattern of collusion at worst, cover-up at best. If these are true, then the Russians would have promised the Trumps and his team that they would bring down Hillary, ensure the necessary electoral college numbers, and enrich the Trump (and Kushner) family. Such a scenario would truly lead to a Constitutional crisis of mindboggling proportion.

Of course, the big question is: what would the Russians gain from this three-prong strategy? Why would they engage in these activities? They do enjoy creating chaos, particularly within the world’s most powerful nation. But, I think there’s a lot more that they would they expect from a U.S. President who is beholden to them for the election and for lining his pockets?

Here’s what I think …                                                                

First, the Russians want the sanctions imposed through the Magnitsky Act that have frozen the billions of dollars in U.S. assets to be removed. Putin personally would gain significantly as many of these assets represent his personal wealth. Removing sanctions would be a clear financial benefit to the Russians and to Putin in particular. 

Second, the Russians want to ensure that they have a U.S. President who is soft on Russian expansionism (e.g. the Crimea and Ukraine). The Russians’ desire to expand their borders is clear, and to have the U.S. quiet on these moves would help give the Russians a green-light for further expansion goals. 

Third, the Russians want to see a weak NATO. This organization has stood as a unified threat to the Russian pursuit of anti-democracy hegemony. Since NATO’s inception, every U.S. President of both parties have been strong proponents of NATO and its mission. The Russians want a U.S. President who is at odds with U.S. European allies and who diminishes the authority of NATO, promising an “America First” platform. This would be a game-changer for Russian dreams of domination. 

What is so fascinating is that Trump is already working to try to meet these three Russian demands. And he is willing to fight with members of his own party in order to deliver to the Russians in a way that no other U.S. President has in the past.

Connecting these dots is not hard. It’s not a wacko conspiracy theory, and the current investigation is unveiling evidence. Although we need to fight Trump on every one of his horrific moves on healthcare, tax relief for the wealthy, transgender rights, and all the other issue-of-the-day positions Trump proposes, we must understand that at the center of it all is the critical issue upon which we must focus — the Russian connection with Trump, his family and team. Over the next weeks and months, this focus must be front and center as the single most dangerous and explosive crisis of our times.


Trump - What He Says Vs. What He Does

Published in HuffPost
August 1, 2017 - 02:54 pm ET
By Rich Weissman, Black Butte Ranch, Oregon (www.richweissman.com)

We scratch our heads in disbelief. Trump promised and continues to promise everything under the sun to his base. But let’s be honest, none of these promises have or will see the light of day. Do Trump supporters know that? Do they feel fooled by his lack of accomplishments for all the plans for which they voted? Do they know that his wall will not be built, his complete repeal of the ACA will not materialize, his dismantling of NATO will not happen, his wild tax plans will not come to be? Do they know that there is an extremely low probability that these and the myriad of all the other insane ideas that he suggested will ever come to fruition, because they aren’t possible, require leadership that Trump does not possess, are unaffordable, are illegal, or simply have no general support? All his rhetoric and tweeted promises and rally speeches will result in no action. It seems like the rest of us know that, but what about his core base?

Certainly, some grandstanding by politicians running for office is part of the calculus. The electorate understands that there will be over-promising. But Trump is in a different solar system, and it seems so incongruous that he can promise everything, including the most absurd ideas (and frequently off-the-cuff as the thought-of-the-moment), and deliver on nothing. Remember his secret 90-day plan to eliminate ISIS, his promise to eliminate the EPA first thing, his promise to fix the Middle-East in a matter of days, his assurance that he would deport millions of illegal immigrants within 24-hours, his assertion that he would immediately create job-ready infrastructure projects?  (And, of course, his promise that he would release his tax returns.) These are just a few of the many “bigly” promises he made, all to happen day-one. Things were going to happen so fast that our heads were going to spin. Right?

But they didn’t happen and Trump can’t get past go, let alone collect $200. One would think that his base would find this scenario egregious. After all, any psychologist can tell you that this kind of a situation would produce such incredible cognitive dissonance, that his base would certainly be leaving him behind in droves, angry droves. But they’re not. And it’s most confusing to rational people who expect others to reasonably deliver on what they promise. So what is going on? How does his base reconcile these disconnects?

Is it that they are patient and simply expect that he’ll get to it at some point (although he promised to get all these things done within the first 90 days)?  Is it that they blame others (although who might they blame since the GOP controls Congress)? I don’t think so, even as he now tells his base that things are harder than he thought (who knew that running a nation isn’t easy?). I think there is another deeper phenomenon that presents itself, and understanding it will help us to better understand how Trump got elected and how he retains support from his base.

We have to understand that there is a psychological paradigm that requires us to recognize that what we say and what we do are often two different things. It’s how we deal with the disconnect that reflects on our ability to behave as rational people. Sure, we plan on saving for retirement, but we don’t; we promise to attend to the household repairs, but we don’t; we are sure that we will start getting to work on time every day, but we don’t. What we want to do and what we actually do are often at odds. For most people, this creates cognitive dissonance as they view themselves as rational people wanting to feel in control of their lives. For these people, such dissonance indeed creates the discipline needed to follow-through. That’s how it’s supposed to work. That’s how human beings manage to accomplish things and move our lives forward in positive directions. Cognitive dissonance is a wonderful mechanism to help humanity progress.

For some, however, the need to be rational and in control of their behaviors is of less value, and so the discipline required to ensure follow-through is of less importance. Whereas rational people look at their behaviors and the behaviors of others as the measuring rod, those for whom rational thinking is of less value look at intentions as the measuring rod. The former works on insisting on tangible outcomes and ensures that things get done; the latter works on believing in intentions and allows things to slide.

For Trump’s base, what matters is what he intends to do, not what he actually does nor accomplishes. It’s about having faith in his intentions, and not an objective assessment of his performance. It doesn’t matter if the wall never gets built. All the matters is that he said he wanted to build it and he said it with the best intentions and will full faith in the idea. For his base, that’s enough. He had the right intentions, bless his heart. Because faith is never about actions results; it’s always about intent. And with that, his base can accept his sexual behaviors, crudeness and rudeness.

And the rest of us are baffled. It’s a cognitive structure that we don’t comprehend. It’s alien to our fundamental driver of cognitive dissonance. Moreover, we have difficulty accepting that nothing anyone says will change this cognitive structure among his base. No laundry list of unrealized promises; no critiques of his inability to produce; no analysis of incompetence; no pointing out all of his vile behaviors. None of these matters.

Most rational people want to see the checklist of promises and what has or will be delivered from our leaders. We want the to-do list, with dates and deliverables. And pity the leader who doesn’t produce. We think in term of the road to hell as being paved with good intentions. When my children were young and insisted that they would clean their rooms, I was not impressed. When beds were made, clothes picked up and put away in drawers or laundry, and toys put back in their place, only then were they given praise. Not a moment before. That’s the rational approach.

But with Trump, there’s a catch. Rational people can point out all of the unkept promises and debacles (the beds are still unmade and the floor is still littered with clothing and toys). It doesn’t matter to his base. What matters are his statements, what’s in his heart, and what he believes. If he tweets that Planned Parenthood should be eliminated, then that’s enough, even if he fails miserably at getting it done and even if it will hurt women who voted for him and even if it has nothing to do with the abortion issue. If he tweets that he wants to eliminate transgender people from the military, then that’s enough, even if the military tells him that there is a process to follow and that this makes for poor military policy. Nothing matters other than intentions.

The problem is that this kind of approach has not shown its face in sufficient numbers in recent political history. It’s always been there, but never so strong. In the past, the primary and Presidential debates mattered, and the candidates all strove to be prepared and methodical in their statements, and to talk about past accomplishments and to lay out highly specific plans. A rational model prevailed. But we now face a different set of rules, and the thinking of the Trump base makes it near impossible to debate. It goes against the rational mind. It makes the rest of us feel frustrated because it makes no sense. And that’s the point: his base isn’t looking for things to make sense; they are looking to believe and have faith in his promises and nothing more.

So, what do we do? Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do, other than understand that talking points of incompetence and poor performance have no impact on his core base. The talking head pundits sure don’t get this. They say that maybe he’ll pivot, maybe he’ll reset and become presidential, maybe his base will erode. But no, neither will happen, and we have to accept that he and his core base are a lost cause, and trying to convince them of their misplaced faith is a waste of time. As hard as it is to accept, we need to understand that the rational mind is not present among Trump supporters, and attempting to debate with those who are not interested in rational thinking is an act in futility. Instead, we need to build a larger and stronger rational base that is driven by behaviors and outcomes, and not by intentions and beliefs. We need to spend our energies on developing political participation among rational people who have not yet fully engaged in the process. In the end, uncovering and energizing those who come to the table with rational thinking, rather than attempting to convince the irrational core Trump base of his shortcomings, is the only path to overcome Trumpism.


Humor - The Best Weapon Against Trump

Published in HuffPost
July 31, 2017 - 12:03 pm ET
​By Rich Weissman, Black Butte Ranch, Oregon (www.richweissman.com)

It’s remarkable how much anti-Trump satire we are seeing on Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert and other late night talk shows, along with the clips on YouTube from Randy Rainbow and others, and of course all the memes and postings on social media that we see and share each day. We’re so busy clicking “like” and reposting and making sure that we re-tweet so everyone gets in on the joke. All of them poking fun of Trump and his motley crew, with hilarious attacks on Spicer, Sessions, Pence, Bannon, DeVos, Conway, Huckabee-Sanders, Ivanka and her husband and siblings, and all the others. Couple this with serious journalists who call Trump and his crew out as crazy and who are out of control, way over their heads. No longer in measured language, but outright ridicule. Even Peggy Noonan, a conservative reporter for the esteemed Wall Street Journal this week called Trump out as not conforming to “American masculinity” and a “drama queen” in a serious, but humorous, article entitled “Trump Is Woody Allen Without the Humor. Half his tweets show utter weakness. They are plaintive, shrill little cries, usually just after dawn.”  Peggy Noonan knew exactly what she was saying and to whom she was addressing this article. It hit at the core of Trump’s tiny heart. What could hurt more than to be laughed at and called a sissy by a conservative woman?

Of course, humor presented through cartoons and other political satire a la Smothers Brothers of the 1960’s is not new in the U.S. It’s been a part of the fabric of American commentary since the founding of the nation. Ben Franklin and his peers loved to poke fun at political leaders and they did so quite often. Political parody and mockery have always been an integral part of free speech. They act as an accessible mechanism to present a political viewpoint. Americans have always enjoyed lampooning their leaders. Indeed, we have created institutions such as the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and other such venues where roasting the leadership and laughing all the way is the main course. Couching political viewpoints through sarcasm and ridicule, where everyone laughs, is as American as apple pie.

Yet, it does feel different today. Humor seems to be taking on a different role since Trump took office. It is no longer simply commentary on a political issue or leader, a mechanism for voicing a viewpoint. It has become a mechanism to effectuate change and move America to a safer place. It is no longer an after-the-fact opinion, but a device to engender a reaction and change the fundamental way in which our leaders behave and how our government now operates.

It’s simple. Most leaders accept criticism; most expect it. Most leaders behave like adults, and take the humor in stride, laughing along and enjoying good satire. The joke is on everyone, and its ability to propel change within government is modest. Without that perspective, there would be no White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

But Trump and his crew are different. (Indeed, Trump refused to attend this year’s dinner - no surprise.) The difference is that Trump takes the humor personally. He sees it as an affront to his self-esteem and self-worth. It hits him hard. He is incapable of letting it slide and moving forward with his agenda. Instead, responding to the ridicule becomes the agenda. The more Trump is belittled by humor, the more he reacts in childish ways, and it only gives more fodder for the satirists. In the end, it takes him off-track and the joke becomes the news, and it makes him look weak.

Why is this helpful? Why would we think that joking about Trump at the hands of the comic would serve our nation?  It’s simple. Bullies win when people are afraid and don’t speak up; bullies lose when they are shown to be ineffectual and pathetic. The ridicule around Trump empowers us all to feel emboldened. We’re not afraid of him or his henchman, as they are nothing more than buffoons in a late night comedy act. It removes the fear that Trump wants us to feel. How can we possibly be afraid of this caricature of a man who is presented as a fool?  We can’t, and by making fun of his orangeness, the size of his hands (and other parts of his anatomy, some small, some large), his inane behaviors and his sheer witlessness, we are no longer afraid. By watching SNL and laughing out loud to Spicey rolling down Fifth Avenue on his podium, and Ivanka selling her new fragrance “Complicit” in a bad perfume advertisement, these people are no longer the class bullies but the class clowns. And we feel empowered to freely dissent.  

If we look at other dictators, we see a different pattern. No one dared to make fun of Hitler. Stalin was not the butt of an ongoing media parade of jokes. Not at all. But thank goodness here in the U.S. we have quickly created an environment of flippant and irreverent jabbing of the Trump gang. Perhaps not part of their strategic plans, but SNL, Colbert, Randy Rainbow and others have played a more important role in de-throning Trumpism than any other sector of our political and social society. They have been the ones showing us that the emperor has no clothes and that he is most unattractive undressed. We laugh aloud. We talk about it among our co-workers and friends. We see him and his gang for what he is and what they are. And that belittles them and makes us powerful. Far more powerful than the talking points of the talking head pundits.

So, ramp it up. Share those memes. Post those ridiculous photos. Tweet those funny stories. And laugh. Laugh a lot. Mind you, what he and his cronies are doing is quite dangerous, and must be defeated in Congress, state legislatures, the courts, and ultimately in the voting booths. But we also have a new and powerful tool. And it’s very simple: make fun of Trump. (P.S. It’s not hard to do, either.)


“Southern Baptist Sissies” - Not Just A Powerful Drama, But An Insight Into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Published in HuffPost
July 6, 2017 - 12:59 am ET
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)

I recently attended a live performance of Del Shores’ drama “Southern Baptist Sissies” in Palm Springs, California. The play was performed at The Desert Rose Playhouse, directed by Steve Fisher.  The show was exquisite. The young men who played the principal roles were stellar, and their performances can best be described as gut-wrenching. The others added depth to their roles, and the entire cast, including the wonderful organ player, should be congratulated for the overall experience of “Southern Baptist Sissies”.

The play focuses on four boys in a Texas Southern Baptist church who come to realize that they are gay, and the challenges they have in coming to terms with their sexual identities in this highly repressive, homophobic Christian church environment. Although each boy has the same underlying issue of an inability to reconcile his religious foundation (and often family as well) with his sexuality, each one deals with his inner struggle in a different way. Together, each of the ways each boy attempts to overcome his struggle touches on the different manifestations of the same condition: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

While watching the play, I was struck with the sense that I wasn’t simply listening to the stories of these four boys and the intolerance they face in Texas. Rather, I was listening to survivors of gruesome trauma, akin to the stories of survivors of the Holocaust, physically and emotionally wounded soldiers of war, victims of rape and brutality, and people who have been subject to the most horrific experiences of ruthless cruelty. These boys were exhibiting the same symptoms of the most abused, and their reactions to the abuse were psychiatric textbook classic. I was expecting to see a drama about the lives of these boys and the intolerance they face in their very Southern Baptist world; I was not expecting to see a case-study enactment of psychiatric journals, dealing with the very real issues of the most horrendous abuse that children can experience and the classic ways in which they deal with those experiences through traumatic disorder behaviors. The story was from Del Shores’ own childhood events, and not from the study of psychiatric paradigms (which was the focus on my thesis in my Ph.D. program at NYU, focused on statistical analytics).  Nonetheless, Shores was able to transcend those personal experiences and uncover the underlying theme of psychological abuse and trauma endured through the Southern Baptist narrative. Although the characters and writing are superb, it is the ability to move beyond the characters and writing, and to uncover the core issue of fundamentalist religion as a form of child abuse as a psychiatric condition, that makes this play brilliant.

I left the play not only saddened, but as a social scientist, determined to better understand the link between the play’s writing and PTSD. As part of my graduate training, I worked as an intern with adolescents in a psychiatric facility for teenagers diagnosed with schizophrenia, paranoia and other serious conditions. These kids had a host of issues, including those that were experiential and for others chemical/biological. We worked with drug therapies, group therapies, and a variety of other treatment modalities. It was not a happy place, as these youngsters were so terribly damaged and the path to recovery was an extraordinarily difficult one. Although it was a long time ago, while I was watching “Southern Baptist Sissies” it brought back memories of the psychiatric facility in which I worked. I sensed that I was once again confronted by young people with deep-seated disorders that came about through monstrous childhood experiences. Not all psychiatric issues are experiential as many conditions are written in the DNA. But many are not and are based on trauma and ways in which human beings attempt to deal with that trauma, albeit often in self-defeating ways, as presented by the boys in “Southern Baptist Sissies”.

The character TJ engages in a common form of PTSD: denial and repression. He pushes his emotions away, claiming they are false, and denies his homosexuality and previous sexual activities. He allows himself to fall victim to an emotional state not dissimilar to flat affect. He becomes overly-masculinized, marries a woman to prove his heterosexuality, and in his own mind is no longer able to access his sexual attraction to men. Benny, on the other hand, engages in another common form of PSTD: rage and desire for retribution. He engages in the opposite behaviors of TJ, and becomes fully feminized as a venomous drag queen, angry at the world. He becomes a choleric stereotype to keep his pain in check. Andrew, the character whose story ends most tragically, comes to a place that is too often the result of PTSD: hopelessness and suicide. He is so filled with shame, viewing himself as unworthy of life, and seeing his situation as untenable. Mark, the narrator, tries hardest to reconcile his trauma and is more generalize in his behaviors, but remains in another state of PTSD: confusion and depression. His self-loathing and sense of having been betrayed and forsaken – a feeling typical among PTSD victims – does not allow him to truly accept himself and “move-on”. He remains, as with so many victims of PTSD, in a continued state of uncertainty. All four characters find different ways of dealing with the trauma they endured, but none of them emerge able to genuinely move beyond the abuse. All of this is classic PTSD. Of course, throughout the play the characters of Peanut and Odette are sitting on the sideline watching the story unfold, drowning in their alcohol, so typical of those fighting the demons of PTSD.

But who were the abusers, and in what manner were these boys being abused? We readily understand abuse from survivors of the Holocaust, wars, rape and other abusive situations. But these four boys? All that happened to them was that they lived in devoutly Christian (and seemingly loving) homes and went to church. How can that be seen as abusive?

There is an emerging body of psychological literature on a new topic entitled “Religious Trauma Syndrome” (RTS).  “RTS is a function of both the chronic abuses of harmful religion and the impact of severing one’s connection with one’s faith and faith community.” It occurs when the religious belief claims that the individual is in physical danger for both engaging in a behavior that is essentially at the core of the individual’s identity and leaving the religion because of it. Concepts like the rapture, hell, and other devices provide the foundation for the belief that one is in danger and there is no escape. RTS is seen as a part of the newly emerging diagnosis of “Complex PTSD”, which is not single event-driven, but the result of repetitive and prolonged trauma, occurring over long periods of time, often from caregivers – those whom the victim loves and trusts. Feelings of terror are common, and these kinds of feelings were aptly described in “Southern Baptist Sissies”.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), which is the core differential diagnostic tool of the America Psychiatric Association, does not yet recognize RTS, although all of the etiology and symptoms are clear in the Trauma and Related Disorders section of the manual. The newer version (version 5) does for the first time recognize PTSD as belonging in its own category of trauma and stress disorders, which is a step that recognizes trauma in a more comprehensive way. The concept of RTS is new, but works like “Southern Baptist Sissies” clearly enlighten relative to the need to label the experience for what it is: abuse. It is nothing short of abuse when children are told that their very being is at risk and that they will be disowned by their loved ones, community and even God himself, banished and forced to spend eternity in the fire of hell, simply for being LGBT.

The play essentially asks a simple question… At what point does religion cross the line and at what point are parents harming their children through their religious doctrine? When do family and religion no longer uplift and no longer provide meaning to the human experience, but become demeaning and treacherous? And in the U.S. today, what should a “Christian” upbringing look like so that it is enlightening and enriching, not abusive? This question is the essence of “Southern Baptist Sissies” and an incredibly important one in today’s religious (and political) environment. Kudos to Del Shores for having the foresight to understand that the experiences of young Southern Baptists is traumatic and abusive, and it needs to be called out as such.

If the play comes to your city, be sure to see it. Of course, it was also produced as a movie.