Archive for March, 2012

Time Magazine Photo of the War torn city of Homs

We get overwhelmed. Rightfully so. If we had only to focus on one international travesty, the rest of the world united behind us, solutions would be simple. Bad guys would be identified. Good guys would mete out punishment. Our emotions would be backed by concise opinions and it comes easy to imagine that the backlash for war crimes would be swift and justified. Unfortunately we live in a diffuse world, and the multitude (sometimes magnitude) of crimes against humanity can be demoralizing. Fraught with dissolution, we turn a blind eye to the mess. The far-off problems of other countries and cultures are not of our particular interest. Besides we have our own problems here, right? We are not morally obligated to help. We are not even morally obligated to care. Shit, all I do is write about it and I express a markedly higher level of concern than most people. So to what do we owe the millions of citizens across the world? How do we determine what the right reaction is? And forget about helping. That seems a far cry from what the majority of people are willing to do. But I do think we are obligated to know and open discussion about the affairs of other nations. During the uproar of the Kony2012 campaign, there was a tug-of-war between the compassionate and the skeptical. Neither side maintains an accurate account of virtue, but the fruits of that argument are what make the campaign worth while. It forces us to defend our opinions with knowledge. It follows from that knowledge that we take on the responsibility of correcting those who are false, or in turn reexamine our own platitudes. This is our moral obligation. We, as a populace without censorship, without oppression (in comparison), should take up the responsibility of the moral high ground. We should judge other nations and cultures for their indiscretions and we should be able to defend our opinions in doing so. When an authority violates the basic rights most of the world agrees that its citizens have, and they are unable to defend themselves, we become compelled to (at the very least!) chronicle the disaster. Let us argue over the worth of other lives.

For many of the lay people here in the States, of all generations, the Arab countries are the paradigm of turmoil, violence, sectarianism, and more recently terrorism and religious fanaticism. Between the rogue American Soldier murdering Afghan civilians, Koran burnings with subsequent riots, and the girl in Morocco that committed suicide to not suffer the indignity of marrying her rapist, it is easy to dismiss the prospects of a thriving, civilized Arab world—one, in which America takes place in the civilizing process. Let us not debate the accuracy of those descriptions and grant for now that it is a troubled chunk of the globe. Within the last year we have seen a turn for the better though! And with the advent of the “Arab Spring” we have seen major change in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Protests against a culture of oppression have accumulated in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman in relative peace (particularly in comparison with our own revolutionary war). While the results of these protests and revolutions remain to be seen, there is still hope that over the horizon there is an era of peace, prosperity, and justice—even if it is only marginally so. What is important is that these movements, similar to the Occupy or Tea Party crowds here, is that they are movements of the people. The powers that be are being challenged by the general consensus of citizens, not political factions (that comes later on). This is very important because it says something about the youth movement against traditional regimes, and about the power of quiet rumblings of dissatisfied civilians.

Speaking of regimes, the ruling faction in Syria is fighting the dream of liberalism to the best of its ability. While Egypt and Tunisia were stealing the spotlight for much of 2010 and ’11 Syria was quietly boiling over. What started as school-age mischief has turned into mass extermination. A quick and (overly)simplified introduction to how the Syrian rebellion began:

1)      The unrest started in the southern city of Deraa in March when locals gathered to demand the release of 14 school children who were arrested and reportedly tortured after writing on a wall the well-known slogan of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The protesters also called for democracy and greater freedom, though not President Assad’s resignation. – As BBC reports.

2)      When the people marched for their release which was a minor protest, the government’s security forces opened fire on the crowds, which included suppressive sniper fire.

3)      The following day, mourners of those killed in the protests were fired upon during funeral processions by the police forces under orders from the government. It is an act of protest to mourn the loss of loved ones that were considered traitors, and apparently this act is punishable by death.

From there the rebellion spiraled out of control, as I’m sure you could imagine. Uprisings against local police forces in isolated cities prompted a military response using heavy artillery, including tanks. The cities of Deraa, Baniyas, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and the capital of Damascus have been targets for leverage used by rebels and the government. Homs in particular has been the most heavily shelled city.

The death toll in the conflict is nearing 10,000 by some reports, though the exact number is hard to calculate because no one is offering a clear representation of the conflict.

Of course sympathizers to Syria’s ruling regime are the wealthy minority—minorities, both economically and religiously. This illuminates the driving force of the identities within the conflict though it doesn’t appear anyone has lit the fires of sectarianism. It remains just a near-civil war between the poorer youth and the reigning power of al-Assad. The battle for the government has been to paint the rebels as unsavory terrorists, the type of people no one wants to associate with. If the government is able to cut off popularity amongst the people, it will crush the uprising and come out looking like heroes.

Recently, a series of bombs targeting government buildings have sparked outrage in the capital city of Damascus. The people there, some ways off from the battles of other cities, thought they were safe from the uprising. As one of the most thriving areas in the nation of Syria, it’s easy to imagine where most of the sympathies lie within the Damascans. Local media sources there have tried to cite foreign forces as being responsible for the bombs which killed 27 and injured nearly a 100 more, though interestingly enough it is not being attributed to the Syrian National Council (SNC, the united group officially representing the rebels) or the Free Syrian Army (FSA, a group of defected military persons). This seems like it is obviously a move to sway national opinions in their favor, and preemptively cutting off the possibility of sympathetic countries like the U.S. and Turkey interfering. Aljazeera’s video here shows the complexities of the bombings in Damascus, and the reaction from the people:

The United Nations in their inception was not designed to meddle in the affairs of sovereign nations. Though, as Hillary Clinton has argued, when it comes to crimes against humanity, where better to mediate and interfere? Al-Assad is making all the noises of a war criminal, in which the U.N. would be able to interfere, but in order to facilitate a peaceful transition to a post-Assad government it becomes important to not label him as such, as it will also dissuade other despots from relinquishing power peacefully. China and Russia have voted against motions that were near unanimous in declaring Bashir al-Assad as a war criminal, therefore putting him in the scope of possible military action. As major players on the world stage this is a critical blow the suffrage of the oppressed people of Syria.

Kofi Annan, a major member of the U.N.’s security council has been trying to open talks with the Syrian government to reach a diplomatic solution to the war. However, his role has not been without controversy as he was voted against by Russia and China as the choice for the position. Many fear that the attitude towards Syria has been one that is already predetermined by western and Gulf forces as being similar to those of the Libyan example. Strong arming the ruling party could incite further violence and further destroy and already tarnished image of western foreign policies.

It has been tough for Obama to make a public stance on the matter because it is election season. He runs the risk of losing blocs of voters no matter how he responds. In a speech he had said that all options are still on the table for Syria, though military action is still premature. The declarations of war from the conservative campaign have shown the irrationality of shoot-first foreign policy, not to mention the irrationality of the party itself. It’s unfortunate, though perhaps circumstantial, that an international crisis becomes a risky topic to address to the public. It appears that the diplomatic actions taken by President Obama and Hillary Clinton within the parameters of the U.N. supports the willingness to coalesce an ideal world government. This is by and large a laudable course of action, though the crack downs by the Syrian government has made it hard to not intervene. At what point will it become completely necessary for military action either sanctions or unsanctioned by the U.N.? How many deaths? What kind of tactics? 25,000? 100,000?

What now for us? Well it seems that for the time being we are forced to maintain the discussion about countries like Syria in the same way the virility of the Kony2012 sparked discussion about the accuracy and intentions of the Invisible Children group and their goals. The yaw and pitch of opinions gives a direction that is ultimately desirable for all groups. While it seems that the social fervor for Joseph Kony and the nay-sayers that haughtily criticized the supporters of the campaign were taking pot shots on social media, they were really participating in a learning process! The lull in the post-viral stage of the campaign I think is due to the better understanding of who Invisible Children really are, and how successful, emergent countries like Uganda have dealt with issues like Joseph Kony. We can apply the same argument here with Syria. Let us argue the finer points of diplomacy and military action. Let us delve into how the Syrian people feel. We can debate the legitimacy of government crackdowns or social uprisings, as we did with Egypt. Raising the bar of social conscience is how we take part in the realm of things like foreign affairs and moral dilemmas. The more we argue the more refined and defensible our opinions become. By becoming responsible for our personal opinions we defend our own moral ground, which in turn advocates for the moral grounds of others. This is where our moral obligations lie. Everything else is compassion.

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Don’t Forget…

Posted: March 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

Check out the About page if you haven’t already and I added a new section which will include various creative works. The piece is a short, mildly fractured memoir. Enjoy!

I will have a regular blog post up this week regarding some issues raised about foreign policy. So there’s that to look forward to as well.

For about a month now the culture wars have become the new epicenter for political controversy. The media for the time being have shied away from Jobs and Deficit talk to shit-kick social conservatism and the rights of religion, and briefly took time to mention things like gas prices to keep the public’s blood at a simmer for President Obama. There is nothing like election season for those who want to sound the alarms for social issues and this has been an Indian summer. With the Republican race drawing to a close, and the candidates, having exhausted what little they have to offer on economic policy, turned to topics of social conservatism in education. Rick Santorum has been calling Obama a snob for wanting everyone to be able to go to college or trade schools. This type of anti-intellectual sentiment is fuel for the conservative fire, and in particular the red states that have the lowest student competency rates. Reproductive rights have been making the headlines. The discussion on invasive trans-vaginal sonograms for women choosing abortion, have created uproar in the states implementing that policy into law. And now, the new topic is about contraception.

Most of us under the age of 35 have received some level of sex-ed in school. I can almost vaguely remember through the fog of teenage indifference, some elderly health teacher demonstrating how to put a condom on using props. And while perhaps the message itself may have been lost on the students in class, the conversation was there and it was not taboo for teens and pre-teens to discuss the parameters of sexual relationships. It was in this generation that adults stopped being willfully ignorant of teenage sexuality and started to address the problem with education and forwardness at home. Parents were being encouraged to have the talk with their teens and pre-teens regarding the responsibility that sex requires to be practiced safely. “I don’t care what you do, just use a condom,” my dad told me when I was 12 or 13, “If you need me to, I’ll buy them for you.”

So here is how the story goes: Under Obama’s healthcare reform employers are mandated to offer contraception to their employees. This includes religious organizations. I’m sure you can see the issue already if you haven’t heard about or read about it by now. Conservative organizations and companies that often employ secular workers, such as schools, have reserved the right to withhold the coverage for contraceptives in all their forms because it conflicts with their religious values. They also claim that not paying the insurance companies for contraceptive coverage lowers their premiums, ultimately saving them some pence on the pound. The evidence for this is inconclusive and speculative, and there are lots of conflicting reports as to whether or not this claim is accurate in the numbers. Regardless, the main defense for the conservatives was the economic basis for having to offer coverage for contraception, and by comparison, little was focused on the moral issue. Well there is a reason for that.

I think most people are familiar with what church doctrine has to say about contraception. While the bible doesn’t mention anything about latex condoms, some historians believe there were tonics and other rituals practiced as means to have sex without conceiving that predate the beginning of the Common Era. It wasn’t until 1968 when Pope Paul VI wrote the Encyclical Letter entitled Humanae Vitae where the magisterium of the church officially condemned the use of birth control. It says, “We are obliged once more to declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children.” So it follows that Catholics cannot use birth control as it goes against God’s law. Related to this is an interesting statistic that’s been making its rounds both in public discourse and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used it on the senate floor: 98% of American Christian Women have used contraception. Some media outlets have taken the liberty of making the number 99% in the wake of that numbers new significance. The study that produced this number has come under some fire because it is so overwhelmingly one-sided making many people skeptical. The most accurate way to word the findings is, “Data shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age and who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives,” according to a spokesperson for the study itself. Regardless, even if the number was around 50%, that still is a substantial amount of women who have used contraception at least once, and that goes against the Catholic Church. This can mean one of two things. The first is that a super majority of women and presumably men think they know better about their belief system than the authorities on the topic, i.e. the Pope. Or, that the actual rules set by their faith are less important than the professions and image of upholding their belief system. Everyone becomes a type of apologist because they can rationalize their excuses for not being a slave to their faith and using practical means to ensure a safe and healthy lifestyle.

So senate republicans tried to repeal President Obama’s ruling on contraception coverage. After having held a hearing comprising of almost all religious men, they decided it was necessary to reverse the mandate on moral grounds, but argue it in terms of economics and the right to offer what ever coverage they saw necessary. Besides, if a secular person wants to work in a catholic school, shouldn’t the just accept the conditions? Well perhaps, but why shouldn’t the organizations just offer the coverage and leave the devices of contraception usage and sin up to the employee. The devout wouldn’t be using them anyway presumably. And then the argument went to its logical end when it was brought up that any form of payment could possibly lead to the purchasing of contraception, for which the religious organizations would be facilitating anyway. In the end, the real dispute became about allowing religious organizations to have more immunity (or amnesty) from the common laws of men. The repeal was defeated 51 to 48 in the senate with party lines intact. Only one republican voted against the reversal, the departing Olympia Snowe of Maine.

One woman was allowed to testify for the case to uphold the mandate. Her name is Sandra Fluke. The woman of whom Rush Limbaugh undeservedly stole 15 minutes of fame from by calling her a slut and a prostitute, referring to his fact that the taxpayers would be paying for her to have sex. Her testimony is attached here, it explains pretty thoroughly the importance of equal coverage for everyone with regards to contraceptives and why it has become a need.

I think we do have a right to casual sex now. Maybe it’s not so clean cut as that sounds, but we, in practice, exercise this freedom rather vigorously. This is independent of whether or not you repent for it afterwards. For the prudish organizations of our culture to claim the right of exemption on the premise of divinity has long outlasted its nuance. What is worse is when they seek immunity so they can limit the freedoms of their loyalists or at the very least, their workers. For the first time in this century, and the second time in American history, sexual freedom is a form of rebellion. This time, we reserve the right to be able to do it safely.