lee benjamins

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America’s Lack of Value for Families

Paternity Leave and the Missing Component of “Family Values”

In a 2013 article in The Atlantic, Brad Wilcox the Director of the National Marriage Project is quoted as saying “Family values terminology is so closely connected to the 1980s and Jerry Falwell-esque way of framing it — it’s an immediate turn-off” for many liberals. Elsewhere it’s easy to find evidence (here and here) that the Republican Party and those on the Right believe they are THE party of family values. However, I would argue that both camps fail to fully address, or address at all, a key component that should be at the heart of the family value debate and would strengthen families, guaranteed paid parental leave.

While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to mothers and fathers in some workplaces, by early 2014 only California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey guarantee 4 to 6 weeks of paid leave. Some companies, such as tech giants Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, have gone above and beyond providing as much as 17 weeks of paid leave, few other U.S. companies have made that investment in their workers. All that being said, it is even more shocking to find out that since 2010, the United States is the ONLY industrialized nation in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave for mothers. In this the U.S. joins the non-industrial nations of Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea as the only countries in the world who do not guarantee mothers paid leave. So, the United States lags behind just about every other nation in this regard and additionally falls behind the U.K., the Netherlands, France, and even Brazil and Australia in failing to provide paid paternity leave.

Recently, much of the debate has surrounded the later issue of paternity leave. And the issue of fatherhood itself is a major component of the scholarly literature within Masculinity Studies. (See articles, book chapters, etc. here, here, here, and here.) In a Special Report (The Daddy Wars: A debate about paternity leave) The Atlantic magazine found that not only did it give “fathers a chance to be involved parents from the very beginning.” But that overall the “results [were] good for men, women, and children—and for society.” Just this month (June 2015), Richard Branson, the multi-billionaire founder of Virgin Group, announced that male employees of Virgin Management would be eligible for paternity leave at full pay for up to a year. This is in addition to generous maternity leave already in place.

In my own experience as a new father, I must admit that I’ve been very lucky. Both my wife and baby were healthy and thus their hospital stays were minimal. Even though my wife is a doctor, the fact that she is essentially employed by the state of Texas meant that she had to use her own sick leave to take the 12 weeks provided by the FMLA. (Texas doesn’t provide paid maternity leave.) Yet again, we were lucky; she had enough sick leave available. In the 21st century childbirth should not be treated as a sickness or a “medical” event, but as a natural state of life that we celebrate and reward, rather than punishing women who make this choice. At the time my wife went back to work my academic semester came to an end. And this summer I’m able to spend 15 weeks with our daughter, however this is unpaid leave as my contract (like most other academics) is only for 9 months. Nevertheless, once again we were fortunate. The time that my wife and I spent with our daughter was amazing, but if we weren’t both financially able or had the proper time-off it wouldn’t have happened. It is sad reality that in the United States all parents cannot experience this pivotal period of bonding.

It’s time to press Congress to act. Here is an article by Josephine Yurcaba Want Paid Maternity Leave In The United States? 6 Ways To Push Congress To Change The Laws and here is a video from John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight on Paid Family Leave, they will make you think and make you laugh.

And finally a few things I’ve learned during my first 9 months as a father

10. Sleep is for after my daughter grows up.

9. When starting to change a diaper, snaps on onesies or pajamas… BEST INVENTION EVER

8. When trying to dress after a diaper change, snaps on onesies or pajamas… WORST INVENTION EVER

7. Waking up my little girls is a fabulous way to start the day.

6. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into… Well, I was wrong…

5. My day is complete when my baby girl falls asleep in my arms.

4. You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but don’t pick your friends nose… BUT it’s OK to pick your baby’s nose.

3. Everyone who said, “You don’t understand until you have your own… they were right…”

2. I will never have this opportunity again and I must soak up every minute I can.

1. My love for my little girl grows daily.


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It’s Just a Flag

Education, Memory, and Texas in the Civil War

CONFEDERATE FLAG RALLY (Image Credit: AP/Dave Martin)

On March 23rd, 2015 the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Walker vs. Sons of Confederate Veterans. The question before the court in this case is whether the state of Texas can deny motorists a special state license plate. The group Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans wants the state to grant their request to create a new Specialty License Plate for their group. In Texas there are already numerous organizations that have such plates including animal rescue groups, various universities, and even the Dallas Cowboys. The problem is that this group would like to include the Confederate Battle Flag on their new plate.


[The proposed Specialty Plate for the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans.]

The controversy and debate surrounding this case brought to mind a recent exchange I had with the administration of a local middle school here in Houston.

While accompanying my stepdaughter to a middle school swim meet back in December, I noticed something disturbing, a Confederate Flag hanging in one of the upstairs classroom windows. It was large and visible from the outside walkway as we entered.


[A Confederate flag hanging in a classroom at a middle school in Houston, December 2014.]

The next day I wrote to the school administration to voice my concerns. I kindly introduced myself, explained my background as both a former Texas public school secondary teacher and a historian of the Civil War era, along with the fact that I found the display inappropriate. Additionally I wrote:

While it may be a matter of free speech for a teacher to own and display this symbol on their private property, it should not be part of their classroom decorations.  For many people, particularly African-American students, this is a symbol of white supremacy, hate, and oppression that they should not be forced to observe on a daily basis in their public school classroom.

I requested that the flag be removed and the teacher asked to explain why it had been displayed in the first place.

Several days later I received the following in reply from the principal:

Dr. Benjamins – Many thanks for reaching out.  The flag on display is one of six in our 7th grade Texas History teacher’s classroom…  Each flag represents a sovereign nation that controlled Texas.  As you are aware, the Confederate States of America had sovereignty from 1861-1865, in between stints with the United States of America (1845-1861; 1865-present).  

I certainly acknowledge the sentiments and emotions that the Confederate Flag represents; I am also well-aware and sensitive to the feelings it evokes. It’s important to me, and I’m sure to you as well, to teach America’s history in its fullest sense, which includes the good, bad, and sometimes ugly. The confederacy and what it represents is part of that history as well…

To be honest, I wasn’t surprised that both the principal and the teacher (who is teaching history in a Texas public school) both had their history so wrong. So much of what has previously been taught and continues to be taught about the Civil War throughout the United States is not based on current historical scholarship, but on the myth of the Old South created after the fact.

I took this as an opportunity to educate the principal and teacher with the hope that they might not only remove the flag, but also that they might teach future students an accurate historical narrative about Texas and the Civil War. Clearly, it can be a little confusing because in the short history of the CSA it did have three national flags.


[The 1st National Flag of the Confederate States of America (Nov. 28, 1861-May 1, 1863) [final version with 13 stars]


[Second National Flag (May 1, 1863 – March 4, 1865)]


[Third National Flag (after March 4, 1865)]

In my reply I wrote:

I applaud (the teacher’s) efforts to teach history in it’s fullest sense, including the “good, bad, and sometimes ugly” as you say…

However, there are two points that you bring up that go to the heart of the problem.

First, it is true that Texas participated in an effort to secede from the United States and join the Confederate State of America. And those states claimed that they were a sovereign nation. However, in no way were they ever sovereign. Not legally, militarily, nor most importantly diplomatically. No other nation recognized their independence and based on the basic definition of a sovereign nation they met none of the criteria.

Second, yes it is important for students to understand the role that Texas played in the unrecognized state that was the Confederate States of America, but only a flag that actually represented the CSA can enhance that understanding. The one on display … was never an official flag of the CSA and never flew over Texas. The flag on display is a 20th century combination of the CSA Battle Flag’s colors with the CSA Second Navy Jack’s design.  The historical reality is that states like Texas returned to flying their state flag or possibly one of the three CSA national flags, but the flag on display in the classroom never flew over Texas in any way.

While the flag on display is known as The Confederate Flag, the fact that it wasn’t used until the 20th century is problematic… because it was used for the most part as the symbol of white supremacy, the Jim Crow South, and by members of the KKK….

 After that I noted that a basic online search for the six flags that flew over Texas more often than not had the correct flag for the CSA. There were even sites where full sets could be purchased. Next, I pointed them to several articles that I had read over the past few years on the subject including:

Why celebrating the Confederacy is offensive” by Robert E. May of Purdue University

The War of Northern Aggression” by James Oakes of the CUNY Graduate Center

Rebel Yell” by Eric Foner of Columbia University

After examining the information the principal sent the following response:

Dr. Benjamins – Thanks for the edification and links.  You are very correct; we have removed the flag and ordered the appropriate one for that period….

 While this was clearly a victory (at least a small one), the fact that it happened at all shows that we, as historians and educators, still have much work to do. Yet, the problem can’t be left only to the professionals. A cultural paradigm shift will require all those who know the Confederacy committed treason in defense of slavery to stand up to those who promote misinformation and hatred.

Some media reports suggest that the Supreme Court will likely rule in favor of banning the Confederate flag on the Texas license plate, while some suggest that as despicable as the flag is the ban infringes on free speech. If Texas is allowed to ban the specialty plate more legal cases are sure to follow.  Numerous southern states, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia all allow vehicle owners to request a state-issued license plate featuring the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo.

I would suggest that the problem is really not the fact that some Americans would choose to display the Confederate flag on a license plate or elsewhere. The problem is that so many Americans believe that the Confederacy is something to celebrate at all. Even those like my middle school principal and teacher who want to do the right thing just don’t know their history.

It will take time, possibly decades, to re-educate the American public, particularly the South, about the historical realities surrounding the Civil War. While this is a campaign of monumental proportions, I relish the challenge and look forward to continuing the struggle.


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Have we become Big Brother?

1984 screen shot

In the 1949 dystopian novel, Nineteen Eight-Four or 1984, written by George Orwell “Big Brother” is a fictional character or symbol claiming to be the leader of the totalitarian state Oceania.  Throughout the novel the oppressed people of Oceania are reminded that “Big Brother is watching” and he is watching to monitor their behavior “for their own sake.” While the term “Big Brother” has entered the English lexicon as a representation of the governments abuse of power or threats on civil liberties through mass surveillance, I want to ask, have we ourselves become Big Brother? And if so, is this development such a bad thing?

It is true that many people question our loss of privacy due to the proliferation of surveillance cameras in both public spaces and private companies. And based on information leaked by people such as Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange it is clear that various government agencies are collecting our private information and this is a cause for concern.

However, increasingly technology is being used by average citizens to ferret out bad behavior by other average citizens.  And with the increased use and access to social media these isolated incidents of bad behavior have become the topic of conversation for the nation and the world. This exposure has increased conversations in the media and for many in their daily lives topics such as race, racism, white privileged, gender equality, and marriage equality.

Would the racist chants of fraternity brothers at the University of Oklahoma have sparked discussion of racism on college campuses with out that 9 second video? Clearly not.

Whole sites on the internet have been created for citizens to post video of what they believe to be police brutality.  See for example: http://www.policebrutality.info/category/videos

And the list goes on. You can easily find examples of homophobic abuse, gender inequality, sexual harassment on the streets of New York and elsewhere, and it’s all caught on tape. Some of these cases “go viral” and become the topic of larger conversations, some do not.

Now the real question, is this a bad thing? If these exposures provoke conversations on difficulty subjects isn’t that a move in the right direction?  Can these conversations lead to actual change?  Only time will tell.

Nonetheless, the genie has been released from the bottle.  Anyone and everyone should assume that the things you do both in public and in your private residence are being watched by “Big Brother.”  The only difference with reality and Orwell’s novel is that we are now all “Big Brother,” we are all “watching you.”


Big Brother Is Watching You Poster

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