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Archive for March, 2010

The wind-whipped tree limbs howl as the waters rise. The light goes dim and sleet begins its insistent tap on the windows. Is it an end-of-March weather flip-flop or something more sinister: 2012 in 2010, Hell unleashed, the Apocalypse? Bring on the locusts.

Blame today’s headlines: In Moscow, a bomber strikes another public transportation system. In Haiti, the tropical heat continues to bake the overworked volunteers and underfed survivors who vie for any kind of support or sustenance, physical or emotional. Karzai thumbs his nose at Obama and embraces Amadinejad, just as last week Netanyahu thumbed his nose at us and embraced more building. In the Congo, victims of torture most desperately need mental health services. Back here again, misconceptions about health care legislation loom while insurance companies hire lawyers to look for loopholes. Anger simmers, although articles assure us most people don’t make the step from thinking violent thoughts to doing violent deeds but then, oops, here come the Hutaree, a militia group of self-identified Christian warriors who, unable to wait any longer, have decided to stage their own end of days party.

The name, which is invented, suggests they are avid followers of sci-fi and have seen “Avatar” more than once but their mission is far from peaceful. The group, based in Michigan, is preparing to assassinate police officers, whom they see as “foot soldiers” to the federal government which, don’t you know, is working for the Antichrist to establish a New World Order. The Antichrist, according to the group’s website, might be Spanish physicist and former secretary general of NATO Javiar Solana, which gives this whole thing an international spin. Solana, a leading advocate for a European Union, does favor international cooperation; certainly the educated and soft-spoken foreign policy expert is a sophisticated choice for the role of all that is unholy. But I digress. The Hutaree philosophy blends “fear of a conspiracy to create a one-world government with a belief that a war is imminent between Christians and the Antichrist, as described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.” The group has been training in military-style exercises and preparing to defend themselves. Defense obviously includes offensive stealth attacks in order to stir the pot and encourage an uprising.

We know why this happens – or the experts among us believe they do: insecurity, fear of the unknown, unemployment, a sense of not belonging — all these things serve as catalysts for such groups and have since the beginning of human history. And yet, it’s difficult not to imagine this is bigger, worse, more imminent, more frightening. What if one of the many conspiracy theories turns out to be true? Or what if one terrorist group or another decides to do something really big, so big that it will scythe through great swathes of civilization as we know it? Are we doomed? The short answer is: probably not, or at least our demise is not imminent. That doesn’t exempt us from vigilance or excuse us from the rigorous application of rationality. But what I know, after surviving cold wars and heated rhetoric, is that everything from the headlines to the footnotes change over time. The forecast is for sun and milder temperatures.

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I occasionally mix up words and their meanings, in part because I’m drawn to words that roll off the tongue and in part because my brain lacks optimal agility. But I try hard not to use words carelessly or thoughtlessly and I’m careful not to toss off bon mots without making sure I have a handle on what they actually mean. In the world of politics, however, all is fair, which doesn’t make it any easier to ignore the twisting and turning, the skewing and screwing of the meanings of certain words for the twin purposes of inspiring fear and misrepresenting the views of those unknown people known as the Others.

Who are these “Others”? What words can possibly describe a group, let alone their beliefs, which poses such a clear threat to our very way of life?  Ladies and gentlemen, I have met the enemy and he is apparently me. I am such an Other. I’m also a United States citizen and I’ve had it up to here with insults and aspersions and yes, I’m ready to fight back. Hand me a dictionary.  CA7XFZKMCAPQHZ2YCAA3QKOQCAEK026ZCA91YWSYCADB339QCALURQF8CAKSMRQCCAE1WP27CALZF82ECAUEL6XOCAEXMAGICAPCK0N9CA539OOSCAV1I7VECAWK10YWCAfighter

Herewith, a selective list of the most inexcusably misused words and phrases that are currently being fired off like weapons of mass deception. Believe me, I’ve barely begun:

 1.  liberal: showing or characterized by broad-mindedness; having political or social views favoring reform and progress. These are good views to have, American views, one might say. Furthermore, there is no evidence that liberals are less moral, less family-oriented or less about the American way of life.   

2.     socialism (see also socialist): A system of government that aims to prevent the concentration of wealth within a small segment of society, either by complete nationalization of the means of production and distribution or, as is far more common in contemporary society, selective nationalization of key industries while maintaining private ownership of capital and private business enterprise. People, we do NOT live in a socialist country and we’re not likely to. Government oversight is not a bad thing. It’s not always good either; I’m not keen about endless snooping disguised as protection from terrorism. But all this ranting about losing your “freedom”; what are we talking about? Freedom to openly carry a gun? You got it, at least in some states. Freedom from taxes? How would you like your vaunted terrorism protection provided to you? Or your roads paved? How about the freedom to live in this country without giving a crap about the effect your way of life has on other people? Yeah, I thought you’d like that one. If I were you, I’d pay more attention to privacy issues. But that’s another argument.  

3.      moral: (see also immoral); of or pertaining to matters of right and wrong. Believe it or not, the world is becoming more moral over time — slowly, imperceptibly and selectively throughout the world. For example, many people (although regrettably, not all) see slavery and genocide as wrong. It still seems necessary to remind the fine citizens of this country that people who don’t agree with them aren’t necessarily immoral. Neither are atheists or agnostics. Neither is the concept of social justice, never mind Glenn Beck. 

4.      elite: a group or class of persons enjoying superior intellectual, social, political, or economic status. Okay, I can see where this would inspire envy and anger, especially when it appears to be deliberately exclusionary. But then why do we exempt athletes, lucky reality show stars, or outrageously overpaid political commentators?  Why don’t we focus on the word’s secondary meaning, i.e. “best in class”? That’d give us all something to aspire to. 

5.      theory: a well-substantiated and plausible explanation of a phenomena. Scientific theories are generally accepted as true, unless and until new evidence is discovered that alters the accepted explanation. Scientific theories aren’t like conspiracy theories, and evolution isn’t just “one of several explanations.” 

6.    secular: wordly, temporal, not overtly religious (see also “humanist), i.e. someone who does not believe religion is required in order to “provide for the common good” or “promote the general welfare” of a society. Secularists may be atheist, agnostic, freethinkers, private religious, or spiritual; but not necessarily, as Newt Gingrich likes to say, “godless.” And yet, they do believe church and state need to stay very separate. I am proud to say that yes, I am a secular person and this is my country, too. 

7.      Constitution (of the United States): the foundation and source of the legal authority underlying the existence of the United States of America and the federal government of the United States. Three points to consider: a) it’s a legal document and subject to amendment and interpretation b) it does not appear to have been written in order to create and preserve a Christian nation but rather to protect a potentially persecuted minority 3) before anyone is accused of subverting the Constitution, the accuser should have read the Constitution.      

      I pride myself on being a reasonable, open-minded person who is more than willing to listen to the complaints and concerns of my fellow citizens. I share some of those concerns, especially as I begin to fill out my census form and consider how the information will be used. But I’ve been feeling under attack recently and I don’t like it. I’m getting a little edgy, not so much afraid as irritated. And you do not want to irritate me; I might wallop you with my Webster’s.  Websters2

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Rumors have been flying that both France President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife, singer/model Carla Bruni, have strayed. By American standards, things are pretty far along: Bruni is said to have fallen in love and moved in with popular French singer Benjamin Biolay. Meanwhile Sarkozy has supposedly taken up with right-wing politician (and former karate champion) Chantal Jouanno.

But between strict national privacy laws and the notorious French indifference to the personal pecadillos of political figures, no one seems inclined to confirm these rumors, least of all, the French mainstream press.

The whispering, such as it is, is taking place in — where else — the blogosphere. Three French-language blogs are reporting on the supposed affairs, though the one I read did not seem to constitute confirmable information. Besides, why would a mainstream editor risk angering public figures to follow a story that does not, in the French version of politics, relate to the political? As the French themselves might say,  “Ca ne fait rien.”

Contrast this attitude with the United States, whose tabloid culture permits pusuit of almost any public figure. Ever since Presidential candidate Gary Hart challenged journalists to “catch him in the act” with  model Donna Rice, the personal lives of politicians have become fair game for former celebrity-chasing papparrazzi. The National Enquirer is being considered for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the John Edwards affair, a turn of events which must have mainstream editors of old spinning in their graves.

The cultural difference is clear. The French, as one reporter noted, believe public figures should be judged not on their “sentimental lives” but on their work. He observed that former presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac both had mistresses without suffering any political fallout. Sarkozy is different: a highly public and flamboyant figure whose apparent need for the spotlight and lack of discretion might lead voters to conclude his private life has impeded his ability to fulfill his public duty.

Then again, it depends on how public he chooses to make his supposed affair, because this is not a story that will be printed (or confirmed) without Sarkozy’s tacit approval. Not so in this country, where our journalists feel an almost sacred obligation to follow the rumor and pull the story out into the light of day. Their reasoning, which we have frankly provided for them, is that the private doings of public officials become our business when they take an oath to serve us.

Clearly, we have cultural differences with the French. A “man on the street” interview in Paris found that most people, whether disappointed or not (no one seemed particularly shocked), didn’t automatically see a worrisome connection between the private activities of the first couple and the political necessities of the job. That view is anathema to many Americans, who hold that knowing how public (or spiritual) leaders conduct their private lives will tell us how honestly and effectively they will conduct their public ones. Viva la difference, one might say.

Of equal interest is what publishers, editors, and journalists feel needs to be reported. In France, the press tends to be in a laissez faire mode when it comes to covering the personal comings and goings and doings of the ruling class, a frame of mind not usually challenged by its readership. In the United States, scandal sells, especially scandals involving elected officials.

In the end, we may all agree that politicians are scoundrels but in France, that non-newsworthy item is greeted with a shrug; here, it’s greeted with both righteous indignation and the sort of pruient interest that can earn a tabloid a top journalism prize.

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A  series of billboards in Georgia are linking abortion with supposed “efforts” by various groups to reduce or limit the size of the black population. The ads first surfaced at the beginning of February, in time for Black History Month and have gradually been reported in the mainstream press. The most recent story appeared on March 1st in the Los Angeles Times.

The billboards are the brainchild of Ryan Bomberger, founder of Georgia-based group “Radiance.” Bomberger, who is adopted, claims to be the son of a white woman raped by a black man.  He believes data that shows a much higher percentage of black women seeking abortions, as well as the number of Planned Parenthood offices in urban areas, is “evidence” of racial targeting, a claim several minority women’s groups denounce as offensive, condescending, and dangerous nonsense.  They concede the high number of abortions among black women in Georgia, but point to other socio-economic factors, such as limited access to birth control and family planning information as well as inadequate insurance coverage.

But the anti-choice forces are jumping on the bandwagon. The Georgia Right to Life organization has partnered with Radiance on the eighty or so ads, which will be displayed at least through March.  Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr., experienced a religious conversion after two abortions and now sits on the board of Georgia’s Right to Life organization. She claims to know absolutely that abortionists are targeting the black community for ethnic cleansing.

As a staunchly pro-choice supporter, I am nevertheless deeply sympathetic to those who are deeply distressed by abortion. In truth, all of us are; as one  advocate put it: “Pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-abortion.” No one I have ever met, including those who’ve had abortions, has ever been the least bit cavalier about the procedure, which is why I hope that a measure of common ground can someday be found — say, in efforts to expand information about birth control and family planning.

But I’m also deeply offended by  deliberately provocative and highly misleading advertising that attempts to shame and terrorize women who need and deserve support in making decisions about their reproductive health.  Moreover, I’m infuriated by yet another attempt to use words to drive people further apart on one issue  – abortion – by raising a red flag about another – racism.  I’m afraid – truly afraid – we haven’t seen the end of these billboards.

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