Friday, June 27, 2008

Would You Rather Have Balls or Heart?

Since I used my last post to rant against feminists, I think I'll use this post to target something decidedly more masculine. I'd like to talk about balls for a moment.

How tough are balls really?

Having balls (or cojones in Spanish) is equated with being tough, strong, and fearless. The irony is that balls aren't tough at all. They are actually one of the most vulnerable parts of the human body. The first thing a girl learns when she is growing up is to kick a guy in the balls if she gets attacked. Balls are so fragile, boys had to invent special apparatuses to protect their balls while they are out playing games. A bit of cold air or water and balls just shrink up and hide away.

We respect people with balls. Conversely, people without balls are weak, unworthy of respect, pussies. But whereas balls are constantly in need of protection from the tiniest threat, a pussy can withstand to be ripped in half by a 10 pound kid and then bounce right back. Try that with some balls. It goes without saying that our ideas of balls being tough and pussies being weak are all about our ideas of men and women. Although I might also point out that being a dick is not considered a complement. Dick's are heartless, inconsiderate, and mean (insert Dick Cheney joke here).

The Meaning of Heart

When we say someone has balls, we put a veneer of toughness over something ridiculously vulnerable, but what about when we say someone has heart? The heart comes encased in a protective cage of bone that takes incredible force to break through. It is pliable and precise, yet strong enough to power an entire body. A heart is essential for life. Everyone has a heart.

Asking someone to have a heart is asking them to be compassionate, empathetic, and sensitive. Yet having heart is not weak. When a basketball player plays with heart, it means he is emotionally as well as physically tough. The player with heart is not respected for the fearless bravado of someone with balls. The player with heart is respected for strength, skill, intelligence, dedication, and teamwork.

Of course there are negative expressions associated with the heart, being a "bleeding heart liberal" for example. But even that expression just reinforces the strength and importance of the heart. It isn't a healthy heart that's a problem. It's a malfunctioning, bleeding heart. In the grand scheme of things, do you want to be gawked at as someone who has the balls to dive at something thoughtlessly and recklessly in order to camouflage inherent weakness. Or would you rather be someone who has the quieter, essential, steady, life-affirming strength of a heart?

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hillary Clinton and the Meaning of Feminism

Hillary Clinton has often been called divisive. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the effect her presidential candidacy had on women. Conflicts bubbling under the surface for years came gushing out in a torrent of articles, blogs, and commentary.

The Reasons Women Gave for Voting for Hillary

I've never spoken to a female Hillary supporter who didn't say that Hillary's gender was one of their primary reasons for voting for her. This was generally followed by some excuses for her vote on the war and a sad attempt to convince me that her repugnant behavior should be forgiven because she is a woman and she "had to" behave that way or risk being seen as too soft.

Experience was the other top reason provided for a Hillary vote. Whenever I dared to suggest that being first lady should not automatically count for experience, people were up in arms about it. Surely these people don't think Laura Bush is now qualified to be president? I also heard all about how Hillary fought for health care, but nothing about what a horrible failure her fight was or how undemocratically she behaved in the process.

Another, often unstated reason, was sympathy. It seemed like every time some pig would make nasty comments about Clinton, she would get a bump in the polls. I recall one debate when Hillary spoke about the tough times she has survived, and everyone just knew she was talking about her cheating spouse and all the mean boys who made fun of her legs. The more of a victim she was, the more women rallied to her defense.

The Old Guard Feminist Defense of Hillary

Then there was the official feminist response to Hillary's candidacy. The National Organization for Women endorsed her, saying "she has a long history of support for women's empowerment, and her public record is a testimony to her leadership on issues important to women in the U.S. and around the globe." Funny, I thought ending violence was important to women around the globe. I mean, right on the NOW website is a link to their campaign to end violence against women, yet the fact that their candidate had supported violence against men and women in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran (a country whose people she she wanted to "obliterate" completely) didn't seem bother them at all.

The NOW endorsement came while Hillary was still the front-runner. Later her candidacy began to falter. She didn't just swoop in and skate through the nominating process. She, her husband, and her supporters started alienating African Americans with their hints about Obama's drug use and comparisons to Jesse Jackson. Her campaign, unprepared for a real competition, began to fight amongst themselves. The candidate who ran as the person who would fix our economy buried herself under a mountain of debt. Obama's campaign picked up steam and feminists began crying foul.

First came Gloria Steinem's article in the New York Times titled Women are Never Front-Runners. Conveniently forgetting that Clinton had been the front-runner just a few short months before, Steinem claimed that, had Barack Obama been a woman, he would never have been elected to the senate much less become a presidential candidate with a shot to win. Steinem claimed that gender is "the most restrictive force in American life." And while she said she was "not advocating a competition for who has it toughest" she claimed that black men receiving the right to vote before women demonstrates that gender is more restrictive. (She apparently never heard of poll taxes, and lynchings, and a little something called The Voting Rights Act.)

Then along came Geraldine Ferraro, completing the job that Steinem had started. While Steinem claimed merely that race was less restrictive than gender, Ferraro claimed that Obama's race actually helped him, saying “if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman of any color, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” When people were understandably outraged by her cluelessness, she started calling Obama sexist and said she was thinking about voting for McCain. And she wasn't the only one making that threat. There were countless other articles about the sexism that hurt Hillary's campaign and the angry women who were going to vote for McCain because of it.

Progressive Feminists Weigh in on Hillary

Just when I was about to lose all faith in my gender, more rational minds began to weigh in on the controversy. Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler published an article on the Huffington Post called Feminist Ultimatums: Not in Our Name in which they criticize the feminists who turned the "undeniable misogyny of the media into an imperative to vote for Clinton" and blast the women who try to pit sexism against racism, doing no service to the fight against either.

Alice Walker also weighed in with Lest We Forget: An open letter to my sisters who are brave. In her letter, Walker takes a more personal approach. She describes her childhood when white children (male and female) rode off to go to a school she was not allowed to attend. In Walker's experience "white women have copied, all too often, the behavior of their fathers and their brothers."

Barbara Ehrenreich, for her part, gives a scathing critique of Hillary's behavior in her article Hillary Revealed That Women Can Be Nasty, Deceptive Candidates Too. Her article criticizes Hillary's race baiting, hawkishness, exaggerations of foreign policy experience, and statements inferring that McCain was a better candidate than Obama. Ehrenreich writes that "Hillary Clinton smashed the myth of innate female moral superiority in the worst possible way -- by demonstrating female moral inferiority."

Clinton v. Obama Supporters Generational and Philosophical Differences

Clinton had strong support among older women. My mother, who voted for Clinton, genuinely seems to believe that men and women are so inherently different that a woman will rule differently just because she is a woman. (I think she might have missed the Margaret Thatcher years.) Other women, the ones who said she had to compromise herself to get ahead, were often women who were also "climbing the ladder" and perhaps had made a few shameful compromises along the way.

Younger women I spoke to, even ones who had initially been somewhat supportive of Clinton, were eventually appalled at her behavior. Many were still angry about her vote for the Iraq war. I for one was furious about her staunch support of Israel during the war with Lebanon. As the campaign progressed and she began her fear-inducing 3:00 a.m. phone call commercials the disgust grew.

Older women often claimed that younger women did not understand the struggles they went through. They believed we were not voting for Clinton because we took for granted all the things our predecessors struggled for. Perhaps I do take for granted the opportunities I have, but I have a fundamental philosophical difference with these women. They want to see more women rulers. I want a world without rulers. Power corrupts and I won't make excuses for the corrupted regardless of which gender they are. Obama was less corrupted (for now) and therefore received my vote.

Is the Term Feminism Still Useful?

After the election, Linda Hirshman wrote an article in the Washington Post called Looking to the Future, Feminism Has to Focus. The gist of her article is that women are half the population, but the "movement" hasn't brought us together because we are split off into different groups by "race, class, and age." For her, adding concerns about racism, war, environmentalism, or prison issues into the mix have just distracted the "movement" from addressing what she feels are the real feminist issues.

Where Hirshman sees a lack of focus for a "movement" that isn't moving, I see the inherent problem with the term feminism. What the hell does it even mean? Are you a second wave feminist? A third wave feminist? An anti-racist, post modern, anarcho, enviro feminist? Women like Hirshman want feminism to be a nice neat category containing the issues meaningful to some middle class, white women - women who want success on the terms already defined by men and within the current systems we have.

Meanwhile, women like Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler "see feminism as something other than a 'me too' bid for power (and) not separate from the struggle against violence, war, racism and economic injustice." If feminism means so many things to so many people, if it is a term that requires a page of qualifiers in front of it, what's the point? Can't we all just explain what it is that we believe? Is arguing over semantics or creating largely artificial divisions and separation really going to get us anywhere? By pitting men and against women, black against white, etc., aren't we just buying into the very mechanisms used to perpetuate the injustices we are supposed to be against?

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Is Education Overrated?

Recently, John McCain opposed a bill requiring equal pay for women. He received a maelstrom of blogosphere criticism for his assertion that what women needed was "education and training." Let's, for the moment, set aside the fact that we were talking about women with equal education and training. Was what John McCain said really so different from the same tired lines we always hear about education?

Education as a panacea

Both Barack Obama and John McCain's websites highlight our failing educational systems. McCain focuses on public schools "cultural problems" and lack of choice. (Read: Fearful parents should be able to remove their children from schools filled with the other.) Obama wants to provide funding, improve teacher pay and make a college education affordable for everyone.

Regardless of whose position you most agree with (and I admit that I agree with Obama's), the implication remains the same. Without education, children will fail in life. They will not be able to get good jobs. They will be poor. They will always struggle. And all of this joblessness, poverty, and struggle will be the result of their poor education. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who will disagree with that statement. No one seems to question it at all.

What do we mean when we say education?

About a year ago, I was on a mini-tour outside of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. My boyfriend and I were on our way to some natural hot springs called Las Fuentes Georginas. Sharing the van with us were two other tourists, one woman from DC and one from Australia. As we drove the winding road to the hot springs, passing Mayan farmers working their fields, the Australian commented on the impressiveness of their mountainside agriculture. The American quickly responded that the Peace Corp had come in and shown them how to do everything.

Now, for those of you who do not know, indigenous people of the Americas have always been some of the most gifted agriculturalists in the world. Their efforts over centuries have brought an incredible array of foods that the world relies on to survive, most importantly corn and potatoes. In fact, recent scholarship has focused on how to undo some of the western agricultural practices imposed on indigenous people by our so-called experts and on learning about their much more sustainable traditional ones.

The point of my story being that the American could not conceive that someone without a formal education could know something. It was easier for her to believe that a twenty-something Peace Corp volunteer would know more than a 40 year old farmer who had centuries of knowledge passed down to him or her.

When we say education, we mean formal education. We mean education that comes with a piece of paper. We mean that someone who has already been certified as worthy confers on us this same worthiness. We can then show this paper to the world and say, you see, I deserve to make a decent living.

Is formal education just stratification?

For employers, the formal education system is, at best, a shortcut. Presumably, that piece of paper evidences a certain level of knowledge and ability that the employer can rely on. But since not everyone has the opportunity to get that piece of paper, it also acts as a barrier and as a means of conferring status from one generation to the next. If you are wealthy and one of your parents went to college, you are far more likely to go yourself.

Employers are not necessarily conscious of the prejudicial filtering effect of this system. Every nonprofit I have worked for has been chagrined at the lack of diversity in their offices. They often set up diversity committees to figure out what is going wrong. They think of elaborate ways to recruit a more diverse staff.

The reason non-profits are not diverse (ethnically or economically) is simple. Minorities are disproportionately poor. They have less opportunity to go to college. Since nonprofits require a bachelors to sweep the floor, they filter out good people who had less opportunities in life. (On top of which, the main entry point to the world of nonprofits and government is through unpaid internships, which no poor person can afford to take.)

What is societies responsibility to business and vice versa?

There was a time when business was required to provide training to their employees. Then, at least, if an employer was going to make money from your labor, they had to provide you the skills to do it. Today, we are expected to obtain the skills ourselves. Employers want society to provide education. They want their employees to have previous experience. For-profits don't want to waste a penny of their bottom line on training. Non-profits use the excuse of few resources.

In fact, university education itself has changed. It is no longer about a liberal arts education. It isn't about pondering the meaning of existence or critical thinking about the issues of the day. It has become, more and more, about simply providing the skills that businesses are looking for. If our entire education system revolves around what business wants, is it any wonder that business has taken over our political and personal lives as well?

Does an "uneducated" person deserve their fate?

When we were kids, my father used to tell my sister that, if she didn't improve in school and go to college, she would end up flipping burgers in Wags Restaurant. (Wags was a lot like Denny's, if you're not familiar.) This was said with absolute certainty, without any doubt as to whether or not this most terrible fate would be deserved (or if it was a terrible fate at all).

When I was in high school, a classmate of mine was stabbed to death. During the trial, the defense brought up his poor performance in school as evidence of his inherent badness. The logic went that, if he performed poorly in school, he must be one of those bad kids. If he was one of those bad kids, he must have done everything that the defense said he did. They bought it and the murderer got off.

Whenever we hear about a farmworker making pennies and living in a cardboard box, or an inner city youth who can't find a job, or an Appalachian former coal miner barely surviving, our response is that they need eduction. The implication is twofold. Without a formal education, it is acceptable that someone can't even make enough to feed their family, regardless of how hard they work. And without a formal education, a person doesn't have the ability, knowledge or skills to contribute to society in a way that deserves decent compensation.

What role should education play in our lives?

I'm not suggesting we all embrace illiteracy and ignorance. I'm saying that knowledge from a professor duly authorized by the university system is not the only kind of knowledge there is. Not only people with graduate degrees deserve to live humanly.

Perhaps we need to start questioning the motives of people for whom formal education is their answer to everything. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how much our idea of education should revolve around certification of the skills some well-paying businesses want and more around how to produce a just society in which everyone can participate.

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

Drug Policy Changes and the 2008 Presidential Election

Looks like it's going to be Obama vs. McCain in the general election. One has freely admitted former drug use. The other's wife is a recovering addict. Back when Bill Clinton was running for office, his non-inhaled pot smoke caused an uproar. This time the controversy surrounding Barack Obama is that he may not have done as many drugs as he seemed to indicate in his autobiography. Does this mean the change voters have been clamoring for may extend to drug policy?

Drug Policy and Past Presidents

I was born in 1973, just a couple years after Richard Nixon kicked off his war on drugs. I grew up in South Florida where the uber-wealthy did lines on their yachts with impunity, while crack houses in Liberty City were raided on the five o'clock news for everyone to see the dark face of the drug problem. In those years, the drug war was the political issue. Anyone who needed a bogeyman, from Hollywood to the Whitehouse, just pulled out the archetypal evil drug dealer.

Every successive president tried to outdo the last in a violent, futile hypocrisy-fest. Ronald Reagan escalated the drug war, while at the same time illegally supporting the Contras in Nicaragua (many of whom were, according to congressional testimony, known to be involved in the drug trade). Then there was his successor, George Bush, with his now debunked claim about buying crack in front of the Whitehouse. And Bill Clinton who went out of his way to prove how tough on crime (ie. not a bleeding heart liberal) he was by presiding over an administration which saw the U.S. prison population grow by leaps and bounds - in large part due to drug laws.

Obama and McCain on Foreign Drug Policy

The basic tenets of U.S. foreign policy related to drugs have been:

  • Push to ensure other countries make illegal the substances we want illegal
  • Push for harsh penalties for violating drug laws
  • Provide money, weapons, and logistical support for police and (more often) military
  • Eliminate the "source" of drugs using crop eradication
Not only have these policies been ineffectual, they have side effects. Eradication programs have killed food crops, displaced rural communities, damaged ecosystems, caused health problems, and exacerbated international conflicts. And, as drugs and democracy in Latin America so clearly shows, our support for military solutions within countries (solutions that would be illegal in our own country) have contributed to violence, human rights violations, and the weakening of civil institutions.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that either a McCain or Obama presidency would change our foreign policy regarding drugs. Neither have challenged the basic tenets of our policy. Both McCain and Obama have come out in support of the Merida Initiative (increasing counter-narcotic support to the Mexican government). They have also supported Plan Colombia.

McCain, for his part, said in a speech to The Florida Association of Broadcasters that "our security priority in this hemisphere is to ensure that terrorists, their enablers and their business partners, including narcotraffickers, have nowhere to hide." Obama, when questioned at a foreign policy event I attended about how to handle opium growing in Afghanistan, said that we need to look at bringing in agricultural experts. While his looking at the root of the problem (the need to make a living) and not resorting to a knee-jerk military response is laudable, crop substitution programs have been tried and failed.

Obama and McCain on Domestic Drug Policy

On the domestic front, things are somewhat more hopeful. There seems to finally be some recognition that our policies have failed. The two main areas of movement are:
  • Medical Marijuana and Marijuana Decriminalization
  • Alternatives to Incarceration of Drug Offenders
McCain opposes decriminalization of marijuana. Obama has, in the past, come out in favor of marijuana decriminalization, but he recently did some very disappointing backpedaling. Both McCain and Obama have stated in the past that they would respect state's rights and end the federal raids on state medical marijuana patients. It is McCain who has backpedaled some on that issue, but Obama still says that arresting medical marijuana patients and raids are not a good use of federal resources.

Both McCain and Obama have advocated alternatives to prison for first time users. In fact, the only place you will see drug issues listed on Obama's website is under the civil rights section. There he advocates rehabilitation through ex-offender programs (including substance abuse treatment), elimination of sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, and the expanded use of drug courts (which even the U.S. Department of Justice admits reduces recidivism).

Questions for Obama and McCain

While there appears to be some improvement on domestic policy, we still have a long way to go. Here are a few questions about drug policy I would like to see asked of the candidates in a debate:
  • Would you agree that a law is a rule we as a society agree to live by? If nearly half the population is breaking a law, wouldn't a reasonable conclusion be that the law may not be appropriate or just? In 2005, the Department of Justice reported that 46%, or nearly half, of all adults surveyed had used illicit drugs in their lifetime. Would you send half the population to prison?
  • Senator Obama, you have in the past said that you supported marijuana decriminalization. Recently, your campaign stated that this was a misunderstanding of the term decriminalization - which means to remove criminal penalties. Are we to take it that you support criminal penalties, including jail time, for possession of small amounts of marijuana. If so, please explain why, aside from its current illegality, it is a good idea to send people to prison for marijuana possession.
  • Both of you have supported continuing Plan Colombia and ratcheting up support for similar programs in Mexico. Does this include support for eradication programs, which have been shown to have disastrous effects on food production, caused environmental destruction, had negative health effects on populations, and caused potentially explosive border disputes with neighboring countries? And does it take into consideration the fact that it was a supposedly successful eradication campaign in Mexico in the 1970s that actually pushed drug production into Colombia in the first place - the well documented balloon effect.
  • If a business has been cheated or stolen from, they generally have options as to how to address that problem. They can call the police. They can sue in civil court. They can go to the newspapers. If a drug business has a similar problem they have only one option, violence. Wouldn't it follow, that by opening up other options, by legalizing drugs, we might be able to curb the violence plaguing places like Mexico and Colombia? Senator Obama, in a recent speech to the Cuban American National Foundation you criticized sticking to "tired blueprints on drugs and trade, on democracy and development." Aren't our current tactics in the drug war the most tired blueprints of them all?
Now I don't expect the candidates to have an epiphany, but I do think there is a chance in this election that we might get some thoughtful answers for a change. Perhaps this is a public discussion we are finally ready to have.

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