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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”

– From The Handmaid’s Tale

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was still a teenager and it had a profound effect on me. I have read it several times since. The above bit of dialogue is what comes to mind first whenever I think of the book and its relevance to our current society. Which do we want? Freedom to do as we please as long as we’re not causing harm to others (or maybe even if we are, according to the judgment of some), or freedom from a subjective list of harms that could befall us? Obviously there is a very messy line between the two, and potential for a lot of overlap, but in my mind the conceptual difference between them is vast.

I live in Chicago, a city that recently has gotten some attention for its infamous and failed ban on foie gras, and also for its recent designation by Reason Magazine as the country’s worst nanny state:

Chicago reigns supreme when it comes to treating its citizens like children (Las Vegas topped our rankings as America’s freest city). Chicagoans pay the second-highest cigarette tax in the country, and the sixth-highest tax on alcohol. Chicago has more traffic-light cameras than any city in America (despite studies questioning their effectiveness), restricts cell phone use while driving, and it’s quickly moving toward a creepy public surveillance system similar to London’s.

Chicago also has banned handgun ownership (and has made no move to reexamine said ban in light of the recent Supreme Court decision), limits trans fats in restaurants, has only 1,300 bars (compared with over 7,000 in the 1940s). I will also include in this category the unfortunate city of Bensenville, which has the tragic honor of being adjacent to O’Hare airport, and atop the new expansion site. It is now a ghost town of boarded up houses and businesses, awaiting its final and inevitable fate at the hands of the courts (let’s call this one “freedom from property”). I should also mention the ban on cell phone use, but not cosmetics application, newspaper reading or picking one’s nose, while driving (“freedom from distraction by cellular communication”), and Mayor Emperor Richard Daley’s approval and support of relocating the Chicago Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to Grant Park. Grant Park’s 1836 mandate describes it as “a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever” (“freedom from open public space”). Chicago is even considering a ban on text messaging while walking in intersections (“freedom from death by idiocy, OMFG, LOL”).

Nationally, to this list I’ll add our expensive misadventure in Iraq (“freedom from the presence of Islamic dictatorships in strategic oil-rich regions”), the likewise expensive and ultimately ill-fated border fence (“freedom from feeling like the government isn’t doing anything about the immigration problem”), the war on drugs (“freedom from mind altering chemicals without a prescription excluding caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and chocolate”), the government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with other bailouts and corporate subsidy programs including the Farm Bill (“freedom from capitalism”), and some dubious social programs and “incentives” (“freedom from personal responsibility”).

Add to this a plethora of local and municipal fees and regulations, vehicle and pet registration dues, sin taxes, bottled water taxes and taxes to fund mismanaged, woefully inadequate prisons and public school systems (“freedom from liquidity”).

Personally, I would like to live in a nation where “freedom to” is the guiding principle. I would like to live in a city where owners of private businesses are free to allow their customers to smoke cigarettes, with thanks to those who, thinking like entrepreneurs, also offer well-ventilated, smoke-free areas. I would like to live in a city where, in accordance with the Second Amendment, I am free to legally own a hand gun, just like city officials currently are. I would like to live in a state where I am free to decide if my child is tall enough or weighs enough to safely ride in the car without a car seat. I would like to live in a city where, while driving, I am free to take or make an important phone call. I would like to live in a state where I am free to send my child to private school using my un-property tax money. I would like the freedom, as a law abiding citizen, to talk on the phone with confidence, knowing that the government respects my right to privacy. I would like the freedom, here where I live, to breathe unpolluted outdoor air, to drink pharmaceutical and chemical-free water and to have access to a renewable energy grid. Most importantly, though, I would like my country to preserve my freedom to live under a faithfully observed Constitution, and likewise to preserve my freedom from tyranny, including from laws that attempt to protect me from myself. I’m doin’ just fine, thanks.

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Costello: I’m asking YOU who’s on first.

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: That’s it.

Costello: That’s who?

Abbott: Yes.

We all know the famous routine. But have we stopped to think about why it is so funny, and why we can all relate to this kind of humor? Abbott and Costello are talking about two different things. They have different images in their heads, different perceptions of reality. I think that is why the humor is so universal – we have all experienced this when we’ve had arguments that stem from a fundamental miscommunication.

I have been following the Creationism/Intelligent Design/Theory of Evolution issue for some time now, and was interested to learn about Ben Stein’s upcoming documentary titled “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” The premise of the film as I understand it is that “Big Science” has been working to suppress any questioning of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and that anyone with a dissenting viewpoint is blacklisted in the scientific community.

The problem that I have with the entire debate is not philosophical, not atheism (Science) vs. creationism (Religion). The problem I have is with the debate itself. The way I see it, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is an explanation for the question of how, and Intelligent Design is an explanation for the question of what. See the Abbott and Costello connection? We think we’re talking about the same thing, but in reality, the two sides are are not talking about the same thing at all. Related things, but not the same things.

We can observe evolution in action. Ask anyone who has bred domestic animals or fiddled with fruit flies in biology class. Evolution explains the process by which the earth went from a primordial soup of emerging proteins to a planet teeming with life forms of amazing biological complexity. It does not attempt to explain the creation or origin of the universe.

Scientists see evolutionary processes at work, and individually they may or may not believe that a creator, or some kind of universal intelligence, set those processes in motion. Creationism/Intelligent Design calls this intelligence God. Since we cannot prove the non-existence of something, there is little value, in my opinion, in debating the existence of God. Atheists see no evidence of God, and therefore believe that God does not exist. Creationists see evidence of God, and therefore believe that God does exist. These opposing views likely will never be reconciled even if empirical evidence one way or another is discovered. People can be stubborn creatures and will believe what feels right to them, what fits into their experience of the world.

Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that human beings are classified as apes, and share a common ancestry with chimpanzees and gorillas. They often incorrectly distill anthropological information into an indignant sound byte: “those scientists are trying to get me to believe that I evolved from apes.” It has emotional pull. We like to consider ourselves as special and somehow removed from the evolutionary process that drives life on earth. We wear shoes. We eat with forks and knives. We create art. We make love in private. Well, most of us.

Personally, I’m OK with my relationship with chimpanzees and all other creatures on earth. I don’t have an emotional stake in it, other than being continually amazed at the beauty and complexity of life, and feeling privileged to be able to observe and feel such wonder, such communion. On a human level, in terms of how we relate to one another, how we treat each other and how we interact with nature, religion can serve a valuable purpose. Ideally it can help us to understand that we need connections, that we need a moral code in order to live our lives in harmony so that we can sustain ourselves and our place in nature now and in the future.

Creationism is a human concept of what, or perhaps more specifically, who, is responsible for the origin of all things in existence. Who’s on first, so to speak. This is something that science can neither prove nor disprove; at least it can’t yet. This leaves us up to our own imaginations, our religions and our cultures to explain and debate. This is something that is part of the human experience, something that we can discuss in social studies classes, in church and around the table. Evolution is likewise part of the human, or really global, experience, something we can discuss and debate in science classes, in church and around the table. They are related topics, often leading into one another and twisting around each other. But they are also different ideas, answers to two different questions. We need to treat them as such.

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I love Sunday mornings, which I ritually begin with a trip outside with the dog and return with the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Then I plop down on the couch with a cup of coffee and tackle the crossword puzzle. After that’s out of the way, I read the paper nearly cover to cover. Imagine my surprise and confusion yesterday morning when the Parade magazine (a tabloid-style rag with celebrity news, no-brainer, recycled tips on staying healthy and fit, and an inspirational celebrity cover story) slipped out from the plastic-sleeved advertising packet. On the cover was a picture of Benazir Bhutto with the headline, “I Am What The Terrorists Most Fear” and the question, “Is Benazir Bhutto America’s best hope against al-Qaeda?”

My first reaction was one of confusion. I mean, hadn’t she been assassinated more than a week before? Had there been some kind of mistake? With a furrowed brow I flipped to the story and scanned it for some kind of explanation. Nothing. The writer of the piece, Gail Sheehy, refers to Bhutto as a “riddle of a woman” who is “brilliant, beautiful, fearless [and] also ruthlessly ambitious, devious and corrupt” (never mind that those who accused her of corruption were likely corrupt themselves). When Sheehy feels that Bhutto is seeking pity, she states that she “moans” and “whimpers…As if on cue, tears fall.” Bhutto isn’t surprised by the author’s suggestion of corruption; according to Sheehy, she “feigns surprise.” A big, blown-up quote states, “‘She will work with anyone to get back into power,’ says her own niece” (she’s the daughter of Bhutto’s slain brother, and she blames Bhutto for his death). Sheehy explains that “Bhutto’s own family dismisses her little-girl lost script. ‘Her father’s death was enormously convenient for her politically,’ her American-educated niece, Fatima Bhutto, tells me. ‘She has no legacy of her own so she rests on her father’s laurels.'”

The article goes on and on with disparaging and highly subjective remarks (Bhutto’s supposed manipulation of Musharraf was “true to form,” as if Sheehy knows her well enough to judge such a thing) and repeatedly uses her obviously hostile niece as a source of slanderous quotes. I was floored by the article’s lack of journalistic integrity. The entire piece was condescending, judgmental and only addressed its stated question at the very end, when Sheehy explained that Bhutto might be a more effective partner than Musharraf in cooperating with the U.S. and NATO on the war on terror. The rest was subjective fluff, never giving the reader any meaningful insight into her life (other than mentioning her father’s execution), what led her to her place in it, or any sense of what she represented in the minds of the Pakistani people.

By this point I had assumed that Parade magazine goes to press long in advance of the 400 papers it supplements, and that it made the editorial decision to distribute the magazine anyway. This assumption proved to be correct and very troubling. On NPR, Parade’s publisher Randy Siegel said that getting Parade out is “not like publishing a daily newspaper. It’s simply different.” While noting that pulling the magazine would have cost millions of dollars, he said the primary motivation for going ahead with distributing the unchanged issue was that, “what Benazir Bhutto had to say should be heard, and this story deserved to be told.”

This raises two issues. First, if publishing Parade magazine is “simply different,” in terms of quick and timely publication, then it should not cover stories that could be time-sensitive. Benazir Bhutto was the victim of numerous assassination attempts, and it was well known that she traveled in the open with woefully inadequate security. A lot could, and obviously did, happen in the week leading up to the elections in Pakistan. Second, the article was not about what Benazir Bhutto had to say so much as it was what Gail Sheehy had to say about Bhutto. Siegel’s explanation rings false to me.

With a ten day lead time, the article should have been edited to reflect her death, her legacy and her impact on Pakistan and the world. I’d love to have been a fly on the boardroom wall when Parade was making its decision not to pull the magazine, to pretend that it was about anything other than money. I deeply suspect, however, that if the article had been about John F. Kennedy or an as-yet assassination of a prominent American politician, Parade would not have dreamed of publishing a similar and unedited cover story.

Besides the obvious disrespect for Bhutto and her family, and for accurate and timely journalism, the article confused many, many people. The tiny editor’s note on the second page corner of the newspaper (not Parade magazine – it was the newspaper editors who took on the onus of informing their readers that something was amiss with a magazine they did not publish) did nothing to mitigate the initial shock of seeing Bhutto referred to in the present tense. The article was not flattering, and was not an appropriate posthumous commentary on an assassinated political leader. She likely was corrupt and she likely was devious. She was also seen as the best hope for the future by many Pakistanis. There is no way that this can be justified. If Parade magazine is not prepared to edit and redistribute in a timely fashion, it should stay away from time-sensitive topics, or even topics that could potentially be time-sensitive. In this day and age, there are plenty of outfits that can pick up the slack, and do a much better job to boot.

Parade magazine has received many critical comments on its website. Curiously, and as a side note, when people type the word ‘Pakistan’ it appears as ‘****stan’ in the final comment. I’m sure there’s some security-related reason for the censorship, but it’s a little weird.

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People are funny creatures. At a time when the right wing is warning us that we need to keep vigilant lest we find ourselves wearing burqas here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, it is apparently failing to take a peek at itself in the mirror. It just might find a teenage girl who has embraced the “modesty” movement and has officially “devoted her virginity” to her father before God and her peers.

During the Cold War, the United States inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. The idea was that we wanted to show the world that it was our national spirit, not our bombs, that made us an invincible nation. A godly nation. We needed to prove to the Soviet Union that our people had superior moral and spiritual fortitude, that our hearts and minds were united and pure. We wanted to look, feel and behave differently, to make a moral case for ourselves in our quest to come out as the government truly by the people, for the people. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was doing basically the exact same thing.

Since our focus has shifted to the Middle East, we hear daily reports of human rights abuses in the Muslim world. Young girls being murdered by their brothers, uncles and fathers in honor killings. Women being tortured and killed for allegedly not wearing their burqas correctly, or for being in the presence of an unrelated male. Even in India we hear about bride killings, where a new wife dies in a mysterious house fire, leaving the husband free to remarry and obtain a second dowry. And anywhere male sons are prized (because they are their parents’ retirement plan, whereas daughters are a financial and social liability), female infanticide and abortions of female fetuses remain a tragic human rights failure. The World Health Organization estimates that about three million girls, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, are subjected to genital mutilation each year. There is one cultural tenet that unites all of these practices: women’s bodies are not their own. They are property.

Now there is a new and growing trend in America. Christian teenage girls and their fathers are attending “Purity Dances,” which look and sound a lot like wedding ceremonies. Father and daughter walk down an aisle, daughter vows to remain chaste until marriage and father vows to “protect” his daughter’s virginity. Father gives daughter a ring. Daughter gives father a key (the key to her vagina, apparently), and father keeps the key until daughter’s wedding day, when he hands it over to the groom. According to the Chicago Tribune, one in six teen girls are signing virginity pledges. Also according to the Tribune, 88% of them will wind up having premarital sex.

American Christians are also embracing a move toward more modest dress. This I can truly get behind, as long as it is voluntary and falls into the parameters of what I would consider reasonable. Butt cracks and exposed pierced navels just aren’t what I’d consider to be attractive, and I think that women and girls (and men, for that matter) who don’t leave a single thing to the imagination are doing themselves a disservice. However, the advertising can go the other way. Girls are now announcing their chastity, with t-shirts that read “Abstinence Ave. Exit When Married,” and, even more creepy, underwear that states, “Notice: No trespassing on this property. My father is watching.” Whose property is it? The daughter’s or the father’s?

The idea of a father “owning” his daughter’s virginity is fraught with problems. What does this say about the relationship in terms of sexuality? What happens when daughters break their vows (as, apparently, 88% of them do)? Do they tell their fathers and face the possibility of being disowned? Or do they feel guilty and ashamed, in silent anguish when their fathers fork over their virginity key to their new husband, who is not their first lover? Do they feel they betrayed God and their fathers when, at as young an age as ten, they were asked to promise to remain virgins until their wedding night? Is this a fair thing to ask of such young girls? Would we even dream of asking boys to do the same?

Back to my original thoughts. We are told we have a new enemy now, an enemy that doesn’t treat its women so well. An enemy that holds double (and triple) standards, where girls are property but boys will be boys (with girls held responsible for their irresistibility). An enemy that condemns our fast and easy western lifestyle, yet when the cat’s away will often attempt to emulate it with a singular fervor.

So the Christians are buckling down and waging their reactionary cultural war. They are dressing more modestly, covering themselves up more, if you will. They are advertising their virginity with as much zeal as a prostitute advertises her lack thereof. They are conducting ceremonies wherein daughters embrace their status as sexual property in a patriarchal religious system. They are beginning to exhibit a similar world view to the very people they feel most threatened by, and they are too myopic to even realize it. Different war, same old human nature.

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