There’s More Than One Reason to Dislike Komen(TM) for the Cure(TM)

Since you’re reading this on the internet, I will assume you have heard about the week-long controversy about Susan G. Komen for the Cure cutting future funding to Planned Parenthood, ostensibly due to it being under investigation, but probably due to anti-abortion Vice President for Public Policy Karen Handel (along with other conservatives at the helm). You probably also heard that Komen kinda sorta rescinded the decision (we’ll get to that), and just today there was news that Handel resigned. But before we go flocking back to pink ribbons, it’s important to realize that there are plenty of reasons to think twice about supporting Komen.

For starters, as Angus Johnston has pointed out, Komen hasn’t actually decided to fund Planned Parenthood again. It’s merely decided to allow them to apply for funding again with no real promise of granting the funds.

The new statement does not pledge Komen to reverse its funding decision, and it does not promise Planned Parenthood any new funding. Let’s look at the relevant passage (emphasis mine):

“We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.”

Komen had never intended to renege on its existing grant commitments to Planned Parenthood, as PP themselves noted in their press releaseannouncing the break between the two organizations (again, emphasis mine):

“In the last few weeks, the Komen Foundation has begun notifying local Planned Parenthood programs that their breast cancer initiatives will not be eligible for new grants (beyond existing agreements or plans).

It’s important to acknowledge that Komen hasn’t had a change of policy, or really even a change of heart. They’re doing damage control, most recently signified by Handel’s resignation, but in a year when the heat has died down they may very well refuse to award Planned Parenthood more funds.

There’s an article on Mother Jones by Clara Jefferey that’s well worth a read, where she explains that Komen used to be quite neutral on the abortion issue until anti-abortion activists began targeting the organization for its Planned Parenthood grants. But besides outside pressure, she takes a deeper look at who sits on the board of directors at Komen and why that could be a problem.

The point is that Komen is a giant grant-making operation (nearly $2 billion since 1982) that purports to represent all of womanhood and it’s being run as if it were still a small family foundation. Brinker and son, Custard, and O’Neill all run in the same circles, sit on the same boards, send their kids to the same elite schools. Komen’s board makes a nod to race (both Lauderback and Leffal are African-American), a nod to medicine, and a nod to someone with pull in DNC circles, but the core is a group of rich, Texan, conservative friends.

Gin and Tacos has the usual mix of snark and anger coupled with this breakdown of what Komen really is – hint, it’s not a charity, it’s a consulting firm:

[Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker] draws a salary of $459,000 annually, money well spent compared to the 39% of its budget the foundation spends on “public health education” (i.e., marketing itself). Not to mention that they also spend a million bucks per year in legal fees to threaten other non-profit groups who use the phrase For the Curetm, to which Komentm claims to have intellectual property rights.

That last part is important to the organization, of course, because every successful marketing campaign needs a good logo and a slogan. And that’s all Komen is – a consulting firm that helps large corporate clients sell more of their products through pinkwashing campaigns. By slathering everything from pasta to baseball bats to perfume to fast food with the Pink Imprimatur, consumers are led to believe that their purchases are making meaningful contributions to breast cancer research. Somewhere down the line a few cents per purchase may trickle into those bloated coffers, but the immediate and motivating effect of that pink packaging is to get you to buy things. In short, Komentm is a group of salespeople selling image. Whatever money benefits the sick, researchers, or recovering patients is ancillary.

Point is, Komen might still restrict funding for Planned Parenthood. On top of that, the organization will continue to spend most of its money on marketing and on filing lawsuits against other charities that use “for the cure” in their name. It’s better to give somewhere else. You can give to Planned Parenthood directly, as many have done. Otherwise you can give directly to research institutions and bypass the pink ribbon middleman. In addition to all of that, if you have the time I’d highly suggest reading Barbara Ehrenreich‘s 2001 piece in Harper’s Magazine, “Welcome to Cancerland,” and Lea Goldman’s more recent article in Marie Claire. They both go to great lengths to explain a lot about just what’s wrong with the breast cancer charity industry, from the goals to the mentality of the whole thing.

I’m Wary of Kristof

When I first got into this whole caring-about-human-rights thing, I was directed to the writings of Nick Kristof. He’s the ubiquitous columnist for the Times that is always writing about the tragedy of violence in the under-developed world. You know, subjects like genocide and mass rape and child slavery. He’s been lauded by many as a reporter with a drive to raise awareness about injustice in the world. I used to read some of his work to learn more about the world’s tragedies, but now I peruse it occasionally out of anger.

Over time I’ve gradually distanced myself from Kristof and his writing as it has become more and more clear that his work doesn’t really achieve all that much. Recently, I read two particularly good pieces that explain how this is so (thanks to Aaron Bady and Tom Murphy for the links). Exhibit A is a lengthy but very well-written piece at The New Inquiry, “Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics” – the whole thing is well worth a read. In it, the author analyses the living shit out of Kristof’s writing style, his subjects, and his imagery. What is revealed is a startling formula:

Kristof fabricates legible narratives out of snapshots of distant worlds. He then crafts stunningly simplistic solutions to the seemingly irrevocable problems that plague those backwards places. Kristof accomplishes this by using a standard and replicated formula: some mixture of (1) a construction of a bestial and demonic Other creating a spectacle of violence; (2) a rendering of the object of that horror—a depoliticized, abject victim, usually no more than a body; (3) a presentation of a (potential) salvific savior figure(typically the West writ large or a Western agent—some teleological process immanent in capitalism or development, the reader himself (who can act by donating money), and almost always Kristof himself as well); and (4) an introduction of potential linkages with larger systems and structures … only to immediately reterritorialize around the non-political solutions and the savior implementing them.

It’s a formula that attracts attention and a following, but doesn’t do enough to actually make a difference – at least not the type of difference it should make. Educating people about conflict is usually seen as the first step to galvanizing action, encouraging them to write a letter to their Senator or maybe inspire a business student to go into development. But for Kristof raising awareness isn’t the first step to anything – it’s the only step. He makes you aware and simultaneously makes that all that is needed. Now you know about the tragedy, but it’s been taken care of by other brave, ambitious souls and there are no more problems. Since the orphan now has a roof over his head in the refugee camp, he ostensibly will not be worried about deplorable living conditions or  the resumption of conflict or being marginalized in society. He’s safe now. But knowing about injustices only solves everything for the reader.

Merely knowing about (parts of) it rather than doing something about it signifies the critical orientation toward the phenomenon. And as a result, Kristof’s attempts to shock the conscience serve, perversely, to push out the frontier of what no longer offends or alarms.

Kristof educates you enough to say that you are aware, but stops short of you wanting to do anything. In a different way, taking a line from this Esquire piece on Jon Stewart – he “shows you how to give a shit without having to do anything about it.” But that’s just part of it. In addition to this type of writing, Kristof also engages in all some shady behavior. He includes the names and photos of rape victims, a general journalism (and humanity) no-no, citing that it’s acceptable because they probably aren’t affected by his reporting. Even if that were true it is still a shame that he doesn’t think that these people’s privacy is worth protecting. He is also proud of the fact that he has bought slaves in order to free them, which is controversial because he has effectively funded the slavery system. And on top of all that, we have this take-down at which critiques these two Kristof excerpts:

“This new research addresses an uncomfortable truth: Poverty is difficult to overcome partly because of self-destructive behaviors. Children from poor homes often shine, but others may skip school, abuse narcotics, break the law, and have trouble settling down in a marriage and a job. Then their children may replicate this pattern”.

Besides questions around the differences between correlation and causation, a theme and assertion emerging from Kristof’s writing seems to be this: that ‘poor families’ simply do not love each other as much as non-poor. Whether this is a conscious assertion or not, I do not know. But, it seems to be quite visible. In a 2010 New York Times Op-ed on global poverty, he states

“that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households”.

Besides being an extremely broad and patronising generalisation, it is dismissive and unaware of the structural, geographical and local factors that can affect a family’s income, its allocation and access to education.

Again, this writing seems to come from the same perspective as the first articles. He makes an “other” out of the impoverished by showing how they do not value their children or education as they should. It’s a terrible message to spread, and it points to how this other group of people needs our assistance instead of pointing to why things are the way they are. It encourages donating to a charity or sponsoring a child in school rather than asking the big questions like how trade policies affect global poverty.

I guess I’m realizing more and more that, when people set out to raise awareness about tragedies happening in our world today, they need to think of how they are telling that story. Telling someone about a grave injustice does not require that you can mistreat the oppressed on paper. They are still people deserving of being more than a prop in your awareness campaign. Kristof is a prime example of a platform misused – but maybe that’s our own fault since so many choose to read his work. His writing on the horrors of the world inform us that something is wrong and allow us to go back to eating dinner, when it should show us what is wrong and allow us to go help address it.

Why I Will Never Vote to Drug-Test Welfare Recipients

Wednesday night I sat at home aghast at a lot of things. I was watching the Republican Presidential debate, for one thing, but I was simultaneously reading reports (both links are videos) about police violent cracking down on protesters at Berkeley and also hearing about Joe Paterno’s defenders at Penn State rioting and giddily flipping over a news van. But one thing that caught me off guard was one of the polls on Facebook’s questions app.

A number of my friends had voted “yes” on the question, “Do you support drug testing to get approval to be on Welfare?” Now, I’m a vehement no, but I know that A. a lot of my friends are pretty conservative, and B. there’s a strong (and incorrect) stereotype about the people who need welfare and how many are addicts who should just pick themselves up and work harder. But I didn’t vote, initially, because I’ve never answered a question before. Then my wife decided to take a gander, and reported back to me.

So, I voted, because that’s a lot. And at the time of this posting (Thursday night at 7:30), it was 2.2 million for, 108,000 against. I thought I would move on, but this morning I was still a little irked about it, so I threw this piece together. I naively hope that it changes some minds, but at the very least I’m putting my opinion out there, which is practically what the internet is for these days, right?

The Mythical Relation Between Drugs and the Poor

Apparently everybody thinks that the poor do drugs all of the time. I’ve heard, time and again, that the poor wouldn’t be so poor if they kicked the habit and got jobs. If they just picked themselves up, they’d be fine and dandy. Before we assume that this is true, we should acknowledge something else that is true: mental disorders, physical disability, trauma-related disorders, and depression are all things that can lead to substance abuse – and are also found in low-income communities. Now, do they use drugs at a higher rate than the rest of us? Michigan was the first state to implement drug testing for welfare recipients in the 90s, and it found that 10% of recipients were drug users. And a subsequent survey found that 9% of all Michigan residents, on welfare or not, were drug users. Regarding a similar law passed in Florida in the late 90s, some researchers have already said that such assumptions about the poor are “unwarranted.” In fact, another study showed that only 5% of those applying for assistance failed a drug test.

Some studies have definitely shown that those on welfare are more likely to use drugs or be dependent on them, but they are quick to qualify that if they stopped using drugs they would still be living in poverty because of illness, poor education, and unemployment.  And let’s take a second to note that addiction isn’t easy to break, and often one needs support in order to successfully kick a strangling habit like substance abuse. In 1996, over 200,000 people qualified for SSI because of disabilities related to drug addiction and alcoholism. That category has since been eliminated, and those people no longer have that support. Often, drugs are used as escapism, and being stranded without support will only lead to more abuse and less treatment and recovery. This is not the way to actually help people help themselves, nor is it the way to build a healthier society.

Oh, and it’s Unconstitutional

No authority can search you (or your property) without reasonable suspicion. That’s the law, and it includes taking urine samples. And applying for welfare is not reasonable cause, because – as we’ve discussed – there’s no reason to suspect that the poor are more likely to be on drugs. And that’s where the glorious Fourth Amendment comes into play. The wise authors of our Bill of Rights stated that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”  Which is why the Supreme Court decided in Chandler v. Miller that Georgia could not drug test elected officials, and why state efforts to drug test welfare recipients in the late 90s also faltered. This is also why Florida’s current drug-test-for-welfare program is on hold. Because it’s unconstitutional.

The Race Issue

In America, you can’t talk about “the poor” without talking about racial minorities. Most of our communities of color are disadvantaged, and many residents in these areas need assistance like welfare. Many are also targeted for drug use. Which is where policy regarding the poor is also policy on race. The National Poverty Center lists the 2010 poverty numbers with 27.4% of blacks and 26.6% of Hispanics living in poverty while less than 10% of whites (and 12% of Asians) did. So, we know the poor are predominantly minorities. Which is what makes it interesting that a study from The Sentencing Project (PDF) found that race had virtually no effect on the levels of drug abuse, stating that the disparate numbers were actually the result of law enforcement policy, saying that:

Police agencies have frequently targeted drug law violations in low-income communities of color for enforcement operations, while substance abuse in communities with substantial resources is more likely to be addressed as a family or public health problem.

And yet, The Drug Policy Alliance found that, in New York, young white people are more likely to use marijuana, but that black people were arrested at seven times the rate of whites and Latinos (PDF). The narrative continues to argue that the poor and the colored are the ones using drugs, when it’s really that poor minorities are just the ones being arrested for it. The stereotype affects the mentality of the law enforcement, who in turn reinforce the stereotype with disparate statistics every time they choose to arrest and jail minorities and only confiscate the white offender’s drugs, maybe with a warning.

An Unnecessary Hurdle

Last week I was talking with one of my clients in Glendale. He has lived in the U.S. over a year and is a permanent resident. Unable to get a job, he had run out of money a long time ago and relied on his roommate to pay rent. With his roommate moving, he applied for public housing. Lo and behold, to qualify for public housing in Glendale you have to work within city limits for five years. Because the type of people who can work for five years are the ones most likely to need public housing. And this is just a minor example of how we continue to place hurdles in the way of the poor, essentially keeping them that way forever.

Barbara Ehrenreich detailed how we have criminalized poverty ten years after writing her book on how the poor struggle to get by. She explains that food stamps have increased by huge numbers during the recession, but welfare has barely moved because it is so difficult to actually qualify. You can’t qualify for disability without medical documentation, which costs hundreds of dollars for those without health insurance.  Plus, the bullshit welfare system that we have now, ever since Clinton “reformed” welfare, provides supplemental income – which means you have to get a job first, then the government will help, which deals a huge blow to those who can’t find jobs. Ehrenreich explains how one couple down on their luck had to apply for 40 jobs per week while attending daily “job readiness” classes just to get assistance, which is a tall order for anyone having trouble paying for gas, a bus ticket, or a baby sitter. And that’s just to qualify for welfare.

If you find yourself worse off, you face constant harassment at the hands of useless laws like loitering, jaywalking, and the like. Ehrenreich also tells an anecdote of police raiding a homeless shelter to arrest the homeless (while in a shelter) for prior offenses like sleeping on the sidewalk. Las Vegas has even made it illegal to give food to the needy unless you’re a certified organization. When I was in high school I volunteered at a food bank where the poor had to bring proof of residence in order to receive meals – apparently the homeless weren’t allowed food (I didn’t volunteered there again). When you’re not poor, it’s easy to not realized just how many obstacles are on the path to assistance for those who really need it.

Spending Money on the Right Things

People continually argue that, it’s not a war on the poor and it’s not racism, it’s just about fiscal responsibility. We just want to make sure our tax dollars don’t go towards buying illegal things like drugs. So we put the poor through all of these steps in order to make sure that welfare money goes towards what it’s meant to. But, I say, why stop there? Other people receive public funds as well, and we don’t check them.

We should drug test all of the seniors on Social Security. I mean, they’re frail and dying, they’ve got to be on something. Have you seen Little Miss Sunshine? And while we’re at it, I know some friends in college who smoked weed and they were on state-funded scholarships. In a time when it’s harder to afford college, shouldn’t drug users have to fund their own addiction while we give scholarships to the ones who earned it? And we should definitely drug test anyone who wants a driver’s license. When I was teaching last semester, I got the impression that at least a few high school students do drugs, and yet they’re still allowed to drive. I don’t get it. It’s illegal to drive under the influence, but we don’t preemptively check. It’s like we’re just telling them it’s okay to do drugs.

But while we’re talking about watching our dollars, how much does it cost to administer drug tests, process results, and print out new forms and all of that? I mean, Florida’s currently-on-hold law stated that the state would reimburse applicants once they passed, which led to lots of additional costs when only 2% of applicants failed to pass the drug tests (no reliable data on how many chose not to get tested, for obvious reasons). Everyone knows that bureaucracy costs money, but they’re okay adding to it as long as it affects the poor. I mean, this isn’t to improve the welfare system at all, so much as it is about keeping them marginalized.

Neurotic Groceries

It’s just about everyday that I hear somebody say “I’m so OCD!” because they’re tidy or they like things organized. In addition to the tiny detailed fact that you can’t be a disorder, that’s also not all that OCD is. But that’s not the point I’m making. The point I’m making is that I’m OCD I get a little neurotic about pretty much one thing only: groceries.

The few times Kim and I both go to the store, she ends up abiding by my routine or observing as I correct her. My shopping cart will perpetually be divided between frozen, refrigerated, and room temperature. And room temperature will be divided between will-go-in-pantry and will-go-in-fridge, will-go-to-pets, and will-go-elsewhere (toiletries, for example). As we shop, if things slide or get misplaced, I’ll frequently stop and rearrange them. When it’s check out time, I put all of the frozen things on the conveyor belt first. They are followed by refrigerated goods, room temperature foods going in the fridge, room-temperature foods going in the pantry, pet-related things, and then the toiletries and miscellany.

Unpacking groceries tends to be just as fun, but Kim often at least unpacks things and leaves them on the counter, which lets me sort things in some sort of order that I can deal with. Kim manages to play the role of accommodating significant other very well, actually.

So anyways, this is my major thing. Do you have any quirks?

Not Cool, Netflix.

People are pretty grumpy with Netflix’s recent price change, and – as consumers – it’s in their economic interests to gripe. But Netflix is doing more than just charging you a little extra. They’re enacting the brilliant plan of having prices low enough to keep you, but still make enough to keep competition at bay.

By this, I mean that Netflix was amazing when it started. I joined Netflix pretty early on, and it’s always been a pretty awesome company as far as low prices and magically speedy shipping. The annoying thing isn’t that Netflix is raising prices (although that does bother my wallet a bit), but that Netflix kept its prices low for years while driving Blockbuster and Hollywood Video into the ground, and now that they’re barely alive Netflix is beginning to screw over its customers. There have been a few tiny price hikes recently, with the most recent division of streaming and sending being the biggest.

On top of that, the objective of splitting digital subscriptions and mail subscriptions is built pretty much to encourage you to drop the mail and go digital-only. This will, of course, give Netflix the ability to fire a lot of the people who do the super-fast work or sorting through all the discs you mail in, and Netflix will improve their profit margin even more.

Business at it’s finest, I guess.

Academics at War

In my junior year at ASU I was awarded a fellowship to work with a professor on a research project. His research project was particularly interesting because of the framework: he was researching counter-insurgent discourse in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Western Europe. His research was diverse, but boiled down to trying to figure out who was on “our side” in contested regions, and how to connect with them. It was one of a small group of projects that comprised The Minverva Initiative, a program funded by the Department of Defense to help better understand the conflicts in which the United States is involved.

A couple years removed from this, I’m wondering if I would still choose the same fellowship (we each chose from a list of potential projects on which we would work, I ended up landing on this one, researching the background of the rebellion in southern Thailand). The Minerva Project, being fully funded by the DoD through the Office for Naval Research, uses academics to assist the military in its work around the world. There’s a lot to be said about the pros and cons of such a relationship, and I find myself wavering a bit in whether or not academics should really be so involved in the military’s operations. One – well, four – points made by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists was this:

The US university system is already highly militarized, that is, many universities take in a large proportion of their research funding from military sources.  This is problematic for four reasons:

  1. The fields so supported are distorted by focus on issues of utility to warmaking.  Whole fields of study hypertrophy and others shrink or are never developed as researchers are drawn from one field into the other, Pentagon-desired ones.  Nuclear and other weapons research related areas grow, at the expense of environmental research, for example.  Moreover, theory, methodology, and research goals in such fields as physics, computer science, and engineering after decades of military funding now operate on assumptions that knowledge about force is paramount.
  2. These research foci begin to structure what gets taught to students and what research projects students themselves see as the best options for their own work. A brain drain from other research directions occurs.
  3. The dependence on single sources of funding with their own agenda tends to reduce intellectual autonomy in ways that go beyond the selection of subject matter for research.
  4. The University becomes an instrument rather than a critic of war-making, and spaces for critical discussion of militarism within the university shrink.

And if you find this program a little too cozy of a relationship, you’ll shiver at the thought of Human Terrain Mapping. A couple of years ago the Army unveiled a new program called Human Terrain Systems which dwarfs the involvement of academia that programs like Minerva created.

HTS Researcher in Afghanistan, via

The program, as described by the Army, places small Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) with Army and USMC combat teams on the ground in conflict zones. HTTs conduct research on the ground to help create “human terrain” maps that influence combat decisions, including “planning, preparation, execution and assessment of operations.” The teams are a mixture of military and civilian, including social scientists, researchers and analysts. Some have argued that HTS is “weaponizing” disciplines such as anthropology, and the debate has continued over the last couple of years. It’s hard to argue against the fact that universities are being funded more and more by the military, and that this does alter how universities operate – whether you think it’s good or bad.

The Next Chapter of TOMS Reads Like the Last One

So, this week TOMS made a huge announcement with a coordinated, nation-wide reveal: their expanding beyond shoes. The idea is to expand the One for One model to fit everyone’s needs – not everyone is in need of shoes, but some need eyeglasses, for instance. And, as one might guess, with TOMS revealing a new campaign I thought about revealing a new blog post about it.

The One for One model has spread around, despite TOMS having trademarked the phrase. There are many companies that match purchases through giving, but TOMS still feels like a rock in my Converse. While others have contacted partners in developing areas to work with, TOMS continues the shoe-drop model. As before, my main gripe about TOMS is the lack of sustainability involved in handing out shoes to tons of people who need them. It does nothing to buttress the economy or to help recipients improve their livelihoods – save adding shoes to their wardrobe.

If the next chapter for TOMS included opening manufacturing centers in developing countries and employing people to build and sell the shoes instead of handing them out, that’d be an improvement. Training local people to become business leaders allows them to rise up by their own bootstraps and it provides a new service to the community (if there is a gap in that sector, which there isn’t always). If you decide to add finance training, micro-loans, and other services you’d really be in business.

But the next chapter of TOMS included eyewear. The One for One model shifted slightly with this expansion. Instead of just glasses-for-glasses, it’s eyesight-for-eyesight. You buy a pair of shades and TOMS will either give out glasses, provide prescription medication, or perform eye surgery on those in need. Pretty sweet, right? Well, only kind of. I see some improvement in providing health services, but TOMS isn’t building anything sustainable here. They say that giving people sight will improve education, health, and economy but really, it’s only improving eye sight. The members of these communities will only be impacted in that they can see better and that they will depend more on the next development NGO to roll into town.

Back to that paragraph about sustainability: if you want to buy glasses that do something more than help you see better, try Warby Parker. It’s a company I only recently heard about, so I am not endorsing it, mostly because in some instances they give glasses at the conclusion of a free eye exam, which isn’t really sustainable. But their partner is. VisionSpring does more than provide the glasses – they also train low-income women to sell glasses to people in their communities for $4, even providing them with a eye-care-business-in-a-bag.

The co-founder of Warby Parker used to direct VisionSpring, where he first put together the idea that you can avoid aid dependence if A. the recipient makes the decision to get glasses, and doesn’t just have them given to him or her, and B. the recipient gains ownership over the glasses literally by paying for them. On top of all of that, they help train and employ women who are in need of income. Win, win!

Warby Parker partners with VisionSpring, which is an amazing group – so if you feel like making an impact with your glasses that seems like a better option. If you’re feeling good you can even donate directly to VisionSpring! And – as usual – if you’re going to try to make a difference in others’ lives, make sure it’s a positive difference.

A PSA to Those Left Behind

As most of you have heard, today is supposed to be the rapture, or something. It used to be that crazy ideas like this were pretty centralized in some small cult or something, but this whole May 21st rapture thing spread fast, and it has had some bad effects on people. I don’t think I would be affected directly regardless, but my friend Max posted something today that I felt I should pass along.

Rather than taking a victory lap today, let’s remember the consequences of the blind faith of the doomsday-sayers. Pets put down, life savings spent, jobs thrown away. I’m sure more stories will be coming out in the following weeks. Lets remember to try and insert a healthy degree of skepticism into our own beliefs, not just to that which we know to be ridiculous, but to that which we hold unshakably true.

Update: AOL Weird News has a live-blog of Rapture-related news here.

Is it political?

Everyone has opinions. One of the most important things studying history can teach you, I think, is the ability to see other perspectives. Learning about the actions and decisions of others allows you to see things their way. I’ve been able to employ that in the classroom a number of times, especially when discussing current events in Government.

I drew a line. Some teachers do, some don’t, but I decided from the get-go that my opinion would, for the most part, be masked by my teaching. Despite having talked about hyper-controversial issues such as women’s rights to abortion, intervention in Libya, and levying higher taxes on the rich, I’ve maintained a position in the middle – even for the shorter conversations about reducing foreign aid or tuition protests.

But I’m not completely closed off. I’m very open about talking with my students. We’ve also discussed anything and everything. And in these conversations I’ve found a few spots where the line I drew wavers, and I’m not sure if it’s political or not. I have said that Barack Obama is a United States citizen more than once, and I have reprimanded students for using the word “gay” as an insult.

Both of these stances have a hint of liberal in them, but I don’t feel like they are political at all. I believe there is ample proof that our President is qualified for his position, and I think the birther movement’s existence does no good for the country. I think using the word “gay” as an insult is inappropriate since it perpetuates that there is something negative about being homosexual. Those are apolitical opinions to me, they’re about the recognition of facts and a nation’s understanding, better use of semantics and less bullying.

Today was the Day of Silence, a campaign to remain silent in solidarity with and support of GLBTQ youth being harassed and bullied. I participated three times, and I chaired the planning of it in my high school (in actuality, it was a minor job, but one I’m still proud of). I told each and every one of those students today “thank you” and “I’m proud of you.” It wasn’t meant to be political. I don’t think they will, but if anyone tries to say I shouldn’t have done that, I don’t care. Bullying is bullying and it shouldn’t happen.

On Being Backwards

I don’t follow too many opinion editorial writers, but I’ve been a fan of Nick Kristof for quite some time.  However, this post by Kristof has got me a little irked.  The article itself brings up the stagnation of the Middle East’s progress after the twelfth century.  Citing a new book that attempts to address the reasons for this, Kristof asks what caused the “backwardness” of the Middle East.  While the article touched on Islamic law (i.e. business agreements, inheritance law, et cetera), it was Kristof’s word choice that got me.

When asked about it, Kristof tweeted his reasoning for saying the Middle East was backwards, citing “literacy rates, female labor force participation, political systems.”  But there seems to be a disconnect.  While I agree that many governments in the Middle East have some fundamental problems, I would think long and hard before calling a whole section of the world “backwards.”  Individual people are to some extent products of their societies, but societies are not a monolithic whole – they’re made up of those individual people.

To treat a whole group of people – a group spanning from Morocco to Bahrain, Egypt to Syria – as if they were all the same is already a misstep.  To take society’s problems and extrapolate a “backwardness” of people is an even bigger one.  It seems that Kristof is ignoring that the (not backwards) people are oppressed by these oppressive governments.  Many of these governments are governed by people who are far from backwards – Western-educated, wealthy, elite – but who exploit their societies to oppress their citizens.  Often, this oppression takes the form of limiting education, targeting women, curbing political dissent.  Being oppressed is different than being backwards. I hope Kristof knows this.

This ignores the fact that backwardness is misguided to begin with.  The idea that there is a forwards and backwards, and Kristof is implying that the Middle East is one (and therefore the West is the other) is far too conceited.  He’s hearkening back to Orientalism, practically, trying to use the institutions of America to judge the lack of institutions in a whole collection of countries.  A lot of stuff happened in the Middle Ages that put the societies of the Middle East on one track and the societies in Europe on another.  Stuff like the latter invading the former, among other things.  The thriving world of Damascus and Baghdad didn’t ebb because religious law halted progress. It happened for the same reason that America made gains after WWI while Europe did not, and that Europe made gains in the 18th Century while Africa did not.  Not one particular reason, but innumerable reasons.  That’s kind of how history works.  To say a change in a whole civilization was caused by one thing, or even one type of thing, is reckless.  It’s even more reckless to argue that members of a society, because they are oppressed, are also backwards.