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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Is the right reaction sometimes the wrong reaction?

Saudi judge refuses to annul marriage of girl, 8

A Saudi judge recently refused to annul a marriage between an 8-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man -- a union apparently arranged by the girl's father to settle his debts -- a lawyer in the case told CNN.

This is the kind of news that elicits from me an immediate, visceral rage reaction. A second later, I'm raging about the American government and it's righteous indignation over the Taliban's refusal to permit the education of girls, while we play footsie with a wealthy oil nation that treats the institution of marriage as the most primitive form of slavery.

And of course, I'm right.

But it's possible to be wrong in being right. Right now, it's about five minutes after all that raging and ranting is done, and I'm feeling guilty. Because I know that sexism is my biggest button, and all my own righteous indignation is triggered when that button gets pushed. 

At the same time on CNN.com, I find reports that a giant coal sludge spill just inundated a town in Tennessee; Zimbabwe is about to try a human rights activist for trying to overthrow Mugabe; Hamas is firing rockets at Israel again; a seemingly innocent financier committed suicide because he'd lost so much money with Madoff; the military has taken over in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, following the death of the president; the Pope took a jab at gay marriage; and the Congo continues to be ravaged by violence so brutal and unending that 5 million people have died since 1998.

But that news about the little girl handed to a middle-aged man to pay off a debt -- the twisted feeling in my gut is reserved for that story.  Why is that? My initial response is that it's an identification thing -- that could be me. But I know that's not true. I don't actually identify with an 8-year-old Saudi girl any more than I identify with a Zimbabwean peace activist or a French financier. I have a daughter about the same age, but the thought of her fleeing a raging battle or drinking water poisoned by coal ash is just as upsetting. 

So then why?

I think the simple, plain truth is that, early in life, we each pick a cause to cling to; something that we hug close and hold dear all our lives; something that we reserve our moral outrage for. Whether the thing that twists our gut is the defiance of god's law, the rape of the environment, the scourge of poverty, the abuse of domesticated animals -- each of us has something that, at some early point in our lives, spoke to us in a way that left a permanent imprint on our brains, and forever after, THAT is the thing that draws a visceral response.

Is that a bad thing? I suspect it is, in the sense that it reflects how unreasoning we really are and how little we can be relied upon to assess need, risk, and the magnitude of tragedy with any semblance of balance and perspective. And then of course there are those of us who embrace the wrong outrages, who nurture venom toward the crime of being too dark, too irreligious, or too (insert random characteristic here). Maybe that's what evil is -- a  misdirected urge we all share. And maybe if we didn't feel that way -- if we didn't elevate one evil above all others in that place in our brains where we store up our anger and our indignation -- maybe we'd actually be better off.

Or maybe we wouldn't give a shit about anything anymore. I really don't know.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What we did

(Warning: Sentimental optimism ahead. Not for those with emotional-insulin deficiency or chronic cynicism.)

Ever since the amazing news last night that Barack Obama had won the presidential election, many of us have been repeating, “Yes we did!” But it pays to stop a moment and ask ourselves: What did we do? Because if we simply say, “We put a black man in the White House,” we will have told only a very tiny part of the story.

We chose the community organizer over the soldier.

We chose intelligence over witless platitudes.

We chose informed debate over homespun banality.

We chose articulate discourse over fevered rhetoric.

We chose calm reason over contentious quibbling.

We chose affirmation over denunciation.

We chose shared responsibility over greedy self-interest.

We chose the social contract over tribalism.

We chose unity over fragmentation.

We chose the ideal of peace over the reality of war.

We chose membership in the global community over world domination.

We chose quality of life over quantity of wealth.

We chose to be builders over hoarders.

We chose substance over form.

We chose the difficult, long road of progress over the facile dead-end of the status quo.

We chose change over stagnation.

But most importantly, we chose hope over fear.

Yes, we elected a black man president, and that is something as a nation of which we should be very proud. Yesterday’s election may be the end of that story, but it’s also the beginning of a long and complex story that has yet to be written, and which will not be completed during Barack Obama’s term.

Many are saying that too much is expected of Obama – that it will be impossible for him to deliver on all of his promises under current circumstances. And it’s true. This is far too much to put on the shoulders of one man. Which is why we need to remember what choices we made yesterday, so that we continue to make those choices again and again until we do begin to see the progress and to experience the changes we hope for. Too much for one man to shoulder, yes. But not too much for all of us to shoulder together.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My personal Halloween horror

It seems like the things to talk about this Halloween are the skirt lengths and bustlines on girls' costumes. On the Today Show, they ask, Kids' Costumes Too Sexy?  On the NPR show Tell Me More, the "Mocha Moms" discuss saying no to their daughters when they want to wear revealing costumes.  The author of the New York Times blog Motherlode tells us about her trip to a Halloween store: "There were cinched waists and bodices stuffed to hint at breasts. The photos on the packages were of Lolitas in training, with pouty red mouths and one hip angled just so." Blame tends to be spread around generously, from Miley Cyrus to Britney Spears and beyond.

Moms of America, you have no one to blame but yourselves.

When my daughter was in preschool, I naively signed her up for ballet lessons without inquiring what kind of end-of-year show the place put on. We ended up with an $80 costume covered in red sequins and a flyer informing us that rouge and lipstick were mandatory.

At age 5, my daughter was invited to a fashion-show  birthday party held at a place that does only that. The entire hour and a half was spent putting together outfits, doing hair, and, yes, applying makeup. Oh, and of course putting on a runway show in which the girls were encouraged to pose. Many hips were "angled just so."

At 8, my daugher attended another birthday party held in a nail salon. The celebration consisted entirely of mani-pedis for all. Of the some 15 little girls there, only one besides my daughter had never had one before.

Which brings me to my next point: It's not just birthday parties and special occasions. Let's talk shoes. Shoes with heels. Shoes with heels for little girls.  Two-inch heels. Like these. I once went to a family gathering where one 8-year-old girl was sitting inside, watching the other kids running around in the yard. I asked why she didn't go join them. She just pointed to her high- heeled shoes.

And make no mistake: These kids' mothers are the same ones complaining about those risque halloween costumes and the teeny tank tops the middle schoolers wear.

So here's what it is: Too many parents train their girls to crave attention based on appearance. Their mistake is that they think it's okay, as long as too much flesh isn't being revealed. But kids are not stupid,  and they recognize the hypocrisy in that right away. Raised in a "Look at me! Admire me!" culture, it doesn't take long for girls to realize that its all about sex appeal. Mom draws a line between the sex appeal of catwalk poses and reddened lips and nails, and the showing of actual skin. But it's a distinction without a difference. You can't blame a girl who's been taught that her value is in her appearance; who's been encouraged to put fashion above comfort; who's learned to see clothes, makeup, and shopping as forms of entertainment -- you can't blame her for internalizing the message, for believing it, and for acting on it again and again throughout her life.

Because the root of the problem isn't early sexualization (though that's a symptom). The root of the problem is plain old vanity. If you teach a girl that clothes and makeup are the ultimate fun, and then tell her her skirt is too short, you're doomed to fail.

But I confess -- when I hear other mothers complaining about what their girls want to wear, I never speak my mind. I don't say, "Gee, wasn't it at your daughter's party where the girls spent half an hour picking lipstick shades?" I just shrug and keep my mouth shut in the interest of maintaining good relations and not turning my daughter into a social pariah. So am I just as much a part of the problem? I tell myself no  -- nothing I say would change their values. But I still don't exactly feel good about my part in the whole thing.  

So do I let my daughter wear ultra-miniskirts and belly shirts, on Halloween or otherwise? No. She's nine. I also don't take her for manicures or let her wear makeup (unless it's someone's birthday party, that is).  But when she's old enough to make those choices for herself -- a teenager -- I don't plan to kick up a fuss about it.  Flunk a class, however, and there will be hell to pay. I'd much rather have her wear a teeny tank top to the debating team than to the fashion club.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Election Day isn't for voting anymore

Vote early.

I'm not saying that because I'm afraid you'll change your mind before election day, or because I worry that you'll forget to vote in the general election. I'm saying that because I don't want you to go through what I went through on primary day. I arrived at my polling place only to find that I was in the book under the wrong party, despite having been a registered Democrat all my life, and despite having voted every year in that same polling place as a Democrat for about a decade. In my state, the error meant I could not vote in the primary I wanted to vote in. It took me two hours at the county courthouse and an appearance before a judge to gain the right to vote in the primary of my choice.

If you think that story is a fluke, it's not. When I arrived at the courthouse, there were a half-dozen others there for the same reason. And the mistake was always the same: Democrats incorrectly listed as Republicans. I was later told by the executive director of the county Democratic committee that there were many more cases than the few I'd encountered myself. The explanation given by voting officials was human error: When the paper records were being entered into a database, because this is a heavily Republican county, the data entry people sometimes automatically checked "Republican" without paying attention. This is not a very credible explanation, and even if true, it hardly inspires confidence.

If you think it's just my little corner of New Jersey with the funny business, it's not. Remember 2000. Here's a fine reminder: Steal the Election Once, Shame on Me, Steal It Twice...

If you can't vote early and you do encounter a problem at the polls, do what I stupidly didn't do: Demand to cast a provisional ballot. Then, if you don't happen to have a couple of hours to spend getting the mess straightened out right then, you can do it later.

Oh, and after that, don't forget to do what I did: Call some reporters.

(ETA: Just read the Rolling Stone article, Block the Vote, which can be downloaded at stealbackyourvote.org. They warn against casting a provisional ballot because they're often tossed in the event of a vote-counting dispute. In fact, they say, in 2004 a third of provisional ballots were tossed. So don't settle for the provisional ballot. Do whatever you have to do to cast a regular vote on or before election day.)


These voters would not be denied
by Lawrence Ragonese/ The Star-Ledger
Wednesday February 06, 2008, 9:25 AM

There were quite a few stories Tuesday of people striving to overcome obstacles that might have prevented them from voting. Here are a couple from Morris County:
Tamar Wyschogrod of Morris Township would not be denied when it came to casting a ballot for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. It took a two-hour battle, including standing in front of a Superior Court judge in her gym outfit, to win her case.

For Colleen Markley of Morristown, it took three-hours to get court approval in her quest to vote for Obama.

Wyschogrod went to the Sussex Avenue polling place Tuesday morning, after her workout. A long-time Democrat, she found herself listed in the official voting rolls as a Republican. Poll workers said there was nothing they could do for her -- she could vote Republican or take her case to a judge.

So, she drove to Morristown -- in a car that sports a sticker that says "Defend America, Fire the Republicans -- spoke to elections officials and went before Judge Stephen Smith.

"I was kind of mortified. The judge was holding a trial and had to dismiss a jury to hear my case," said Wyschogrod. "And here I was in my gym outfit in court."
Eventually, she got a court order from Smith allowing her to vote. But it was not an easy process. A check of computerized voting records showed Wyschogrod voted in the 2000 presidential election as a Republican.

"Not so," she said. "I was really adamant about this. So, they had to go back and check the original paper records. Finally, they straightened it out."

But even with a court order in hand, however, when Wyschogrod went back to her polling place, she said poll workers still wanted her to sign the voting book as a Republican, where her name was listed. She refused, prompting more discussions, until, finally, they agreed to put her name on the Democratic register - with an explanatory note.

So, was it worth the effort and disruption of her life to cast a Democratic vote?
"Damn straight it was," she said. "I really wanted to vote for Obama. They weren't going to deny me."

Colleen Markley and her husband, Brian, were registered as Republicans since 1994. But in May, 2007, they filled out forms to change party registration and handed them in to a records/documents office at the Morristown municipal building.
When Colleen attempted to vote at 11 a.m. Tuesday, however, she found she and her husband were still listed as Republicans. She was given an option by poll workers of going to court to plead her case.

So, she took her young daughter home for a nap, called her father to come over and baby-sit, and headed to county elections offices, with six-year-old son Alex in tow, to sort out the problem.

"I really wanted to vote. I'll admit, I went home a cried when told I could not vote as a Democrat." the Morristown woman said.

Markley eventually got a hearing before Superior Court Judge W. Hunt Dumont who ruled in the couple's favor. He ruled they made a sincere effort to change party registration and said town officials should have directed them to the correct place to hand in required forms.

Was the three-hour ordeal to get a court order worth it to Markley?

"Yes it was," she said. "I wanted to vote for Obama. We've seen his speeches on TV and on-line. We were impressed. I'm so glad I'll get to vote for him."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The media and the myth of equivalence

Barack Obama pals around with terrorists.

John McCain was one of the Keating Five.

“Candidates Go Negative but Risk Alienating Voters,” screams the headline on CNN.com.

That response to the two statements above is a clear example of something the mainstream media has been guilty of throughout the presidential campaign: setting up false equivalence and making it seem that both sides are just as bad.

For a long time now, the media has been running scared from the charge that they demonstrate a liberal bias. The effect has been that, whenever they have something negative to say about one side, they do their best to level the same charge against the other side – even when there’s no real equivalence. In doing so, they create the impression that both sides are engaged in exactly the same behavior. And they’re not.

No one – not even the McCain campaign – claims that Barack Obama contributed to or supported acts of terrorism. The charge against him is that he has had a working relationship with a man who was a member of a violent radical group decades earlier, and who is now Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. According to media reports, Obama did receive a $200 donation from Ayres for his 2001 campaign.

Was McCain one of the Keating Five? Did he have close personal ties to savings and loan mogul Charles Keating? Did McCain receive $112,000 in political contributions from Keating and his associates? Did McCain make trips at Keating’s expense, only paying for them once the scandal broke? Did McCain continually oppose regulating Keating’s industry? Was McCain criticized by the Senate Ethics Committee for his role in the affair? Yes.

And yet the media sets up the “pals around with terrorists” charge as being equivalent to the Keating Five charge by labeling them both as “going negative.”

Barack Obama is “dangerous” and “too risky for America.”

John McCain wants to “tax health care, not fix it.”

“Campaign Ads Going Negative,” a Chicago Tribune headline tells us.

“McCain, Obama Camps Trade Barbs on Negative Ads,” says the Associated Press.

There it is again – that equivalence thing. Where one candidate is criticizing his opponent’s health care policy, the other candidate is implying his opponent is a security risk to the nation. Yet the Chicago Tribune (and most of the rest of the major media outlets in the nation) label both as “negative” and treat them as if they were equally damaging to a healthy political process. That’s kind of like saying the basketball player who double dribbled and the one who kneed the opposing forward in the groin are both playing dirty.

And as if that weren’t enough, CNN.com tells us this:

Candidates Hit Back Hard, Fast Against Online Attacks

Barack Obama is not a Muslim, and John McCain did not tell the television show 60 Minutes he was a war criminal who intentionally bombed women and children in Vietnam...Joe Biden is not planning to step aside in favor of Hillary Clinton as vice president, and Sarah Palin did not order books banned from the library when she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

But if you have spent any time browsing the Internet this year, you may have read rumors to the contrary.

All these stories -- and more -- are being e-mailed to friends and family and posted on blogs.

Granted, it’s nearly impossible to gauge the prevalence of viral e-mails, but does CNN honestly believe that the “McCain is a war criminal” myth is just as prevalent as the “Obama is a Muslim” myth? Everyone in America knows someone who’s received an e-mail warning that Obama can't be trusted because he's a Muslim. It's so prevalent, one of McCain's supporters actually said it to the Republican candidate himself at a rally. But I’m still looking for someone who’s gotten that war criminal one. In fact, more than three-quarters of the people I've asked have never even heard the rumor.

It’s time to fight this false equivalence that’s being set up in the media. When one side is behaving far worse than the other, it’s the media’s job to say so, not to elevate some minor or invented infraction on the other side into an equivalent charge. It’s time for the readers and viewers to call them on it – so when you see those examples of false equivalence in the media, take a minute to fire off an e-mail or pick up the phone and let the news outlets know you’re not buying it.