Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Thinking of Jill Carroll

I don't know why I can't get her out of my mind. You all know the story. She's a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. She was abducted in Baghdad a few weeks ago by a group calling itself the Revenge Brigade, and her captors said that they would kill her by January 20 if female prisoners held by U.S. and Iraqi forces weren't released. We of course "don't negotiate with terrorists" and maybe -probably- we shouldn't. As of January 28, she was apparently still alive.

Maybe the problem is that she's not that much older than my own children. The pain her parents must be feeling.... the desperation... the mind can hardly take it in. And then of course, there's her fear and desperation. But of course, there are other people being held unjustly, here and abroad. I care. Of course I care. But for some reason, Jill Carroll has captivated me.

A quick blog search reveals that people are trying to interpret the meaning of her abduction -and as a general premise I have to applaud the idea of trying to make meaning from tragic events. But there's nothing even approaching consensus. Her abduction either means that we should fight longer and harder -and extend the fight to include all Muslims. (Yes, that opinion is really out there.) Or, it means that the United States is completely wrong and if we had acted justly, this would never have happened. And everything in between.

Here's all I have. We care about Jill Carroll more because we've seen her. I don't have a television, and I've seen her, so everyone else must be inundated with images. If the White House were allowing us to see the images of the caskets of returning soldiers, we'd care about them more, too. As it is, we have death-toll numbers (about 2 American soldiers each day.... two's not so bad, surely, says our gullible subconscious) and the occasional retrospective on NPR of a young, dead-too-soon soldier's life. Can it really be true that there's a policy of not wanting us to care about these young men and women? That's rhetorical. Of course, it can really be true. If we cared, we'd be protesting this war in even more convincing numbers -and the numbers are pretty damn convincing as it is.

And then there are the inherent risks of being a story and truth-teller in any culture. What Ms. Carroll did -and does- is encourage us to "take the position of the other". To look at this war from the Iraqi point of view. We humans aren't nice to the idealists in this world; their fates are often...well... this. But oh how we need them.

I don't know what else to do, other than hold her in my heart. The Christian Science Monitor posts a daily update as to her fate, here: Jill Carroll update

Monday, January 30, 2006

Deaths in Iraq-an Update

U.S. military deaths stand at 2,241, as of January 28. If you want to get a regular update of this news, follow this link: Military Deaths. CNN reports (with slightly less recent numbers) that there have been 2438 "coalition" deaths. They keep a running list of names, with pictures and cause of death. It's heart breaking, but bears looking at nonetheless. And of course, "we don't do body counts", so counting civilian deaths is a difficult matter. But as of this morning, Iraq Body Count reports that the civilian death toll now stands between 28,224 and 31,826.

So now what? Blogging these numbers gets the word out only the tiniest little bit. It keeps the conversation alive, which is important. But what else is there to do?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Thinking People and Church -apologia

Here's the background. The long-suffering spouse is in DEEP trouble for some sins of omission, and he's too clueless to even know he's in trouble. So rather than pick a fight when there's no hope of a good outcome, I head off to Starbucks to drown my sorrows. I fully intend to wire myself to my iPod, drink some calorie-laden confection, and write excoriating prose into my journal. Time well spent, in my world view.

What actually happened, though, is that I ran into one of those acquaintances who thinks he knows me better than he does. He wanted to show off his new bumper sticker: "If you don't pray in my school, I won't think in your church." Did I like it? Refer back to paragraph 1. I was having a hard morning. I just said, "no." What a grouchy witch I can be, I'm sorry to say. Anyway, we regrouped and talked about it a little bit. Here's what I've got so far.

For one thing, there's the obvious problem of parading slogans as thought. Some thinking people go to church. And turning the same thought around, some churches welcome and seek out thoughtful people. So, the claim that thought and church don't go together is annoying and illogical. Some faithful people are also opposed to prayer in public schools. So, the notion that faith and public prayer must go together is flawed. So, even though this person is very well-educated and bright, he wasn't doing anything more than speaking in sound bites on a wedge issue -which is just trying to cause trouble, as far as I can tell.

However, faithful people do have a problem here. I have done no studies to support this claim, but I'll bet that educated people tend, statistically speaking, to believe that faith is the purview of fringe elements like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Further, I'll bet that people imagine, possibly because we really do believe odd and inexplicable things (transubstantiation, anyone?) that somehow rigorous scholarship is not -can not be- part of the mix.

And of course, much of current apologetics doesn't help. So much of it reasons like this. Why are you faithful? Because God said to be faithful. Okay, why do you believe in God? Because that's what faithful people do. Wow. That's helpful. Not. It doesn't make sense to quote Scripture as a defense of faith to a person who doesn't accept Scripture as a source of wisdom. What we need is a defense of faith that isn't solely internally referenced -something that makes sense from the outside looking in. I'm not looking for an argument as to why people MUST be faithful, because I'm pretty sure there's not one, just why they might be. (And oh yeah, I know that greater minds than mine have struggled with this, so who the heck do I think I am? C.S. Lewis is probably lobbying for crossing my name off the heavenly roster at this very moment.)

And since I never got my caffeine burst, I'm struggling here. I know this much. There is some real connection -one that many bloggers explore without naming it like this- between critical thinking, moral integrity, and citizenship. Many of us want to reason well, to do good, and to have both going on in some sort of community of like-minded people. I think that there's enough evidence that we can just assert that to be true, but of course it's not exactly a defense of faith, yet. We could look to Jung for some sort of defense of an underlying spirituality to the universe. That's not quite the same as faith either, but we're getting closer.

What happens if we put those two thoughts together? Anything? I think it's going to come down to a juxtaposition of the modern notion of psyche/self with the Greek notion of psyche/soul. Jung and others argue that a fully actualized "self" finds a balance between the absolutely unique contribution of any individual and a recognition of the transcendent self that all people share. So, we're absolutely individuals -except, not so much. So, the individualist part of our nature wants to make a unique contribution and to avoid being part of a herd. In other words, we want to be critical thinkers. And some of us call that transcendence not so much self as something beyond self -God, perhaps. Those of us who make that leap are thoughtful, faithful people.

I think.

And all this blathering just from a bumper sticker and an innocent comment. Aren't you glad you don't live in MY head?

Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday Random 10

You know the game. Take out your iPod and set it to shuffle mode. Tell us the first 10 songs that appear -and no fair leaving out the ones that make you look like a dork or adding in ones you think will make you look cool. Here are mine for this week:

  • That Don't Impress Me Much; Shania Twain (I know... I know.... at least you know I'm not editing the dorky ones out. It's in my I Do NOT Understand Men playlist.)
  • The Thanksgiving Song; Fred Holstein in my Grateful Heart playlist
  • Power and Glory; Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert from my Rebel with a Clue playlist
  • You Rise and Meet the Day; Dar Williams from my Dawn Patrol playlist
  • Study War No More; Sweet Honey in the Rock from my I've Had It! playlist
  • Nocturne for Piano in C Sharp Minor; Chopin via Joshua Bell from my Piano Concerti playlist
  • Hope Has a Place; Enya from my Joyful Meditation playlist
  • Manic Monday; The Bangles in my Bringing Down the House playlist -house cleaning music
  • Carol of the Bells; Angel City Brass in my Christmas music playlist which I should "smart playlist" out of circulation for a while, I suppose.
  • Gentle Annie; Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy from my Need a Good Cry playlist. This song makes me sob.

Now, which songs can we put in a State of the Union 2006 playlist?
  • If I Only Had a Brain, sung by the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (except it turned out HE'D had a brain all along);
  • Holding Out for a Hero; Bonnie Tyler
  • My Give-a-Damn's Busted; Jo Dee Messina
  • Wipeout -who does that one?
  • So You Think You're a Cowboy; Emmylou Harris
  • Free From You; Jack Stafford Foundation
  • Can't Believe It; Bob Dylan
  • Send in the Clowns; Judy Collins
  • We're Sons of our Fathers; Phil Collins
  • Fools Rush In; Elvis Presley
  • The Great Pretender; The Platters
  • Give Me One Reason; Tracy Chapman
  • Tell Me a Lie; Griffin House
  • How Many Mistakes; James Gordon
  • Crazy; Willie Nelson
  • Still Crazy After All These years; Simon and Garfunkle
  • and we should end with We Shall Not Be Moved by Sweet Honey in the Rock. THOSE women would scare him ;)

Wow! That was easy. What would you add?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

State of the Union Quiz

Honest to Pete, my brain is off-duty for the night. So, just so you know I haven't forgotten about all of you, try this: State of the Union quiz. We'll see who scores the highest ;)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Serenity and Outrage

The young woman who lives across the street has a bumper sticker on her car that says "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." I love that bumper sticker, but even more than that I love that she's paying attention. I frequently leave in the morning at the same time that she does; if I'm behind her in my little car, HER car always makes me smile.

And, heaven knows, I can work up a good head of steam when it comes to the current state of the world. I don't lose my temper very often, but no one does righteous indignation as well as I do. I do a pretty good imitation of outrage, as it turns out. It's a skill I share with the world in this blog. Learn from the master, grasshoppers ;)

But here's a thing. I also have had a yoga and meditation practice for a really long time, and some stuff is actually starting to sink in. Non-attachment to outcome. Serenity in the midst of chaos. Just breathe; just sit. That's what you're supposed to be doing now. Without an anchor like that (and I know it's not the only possible anchor; it's not even my only one.), my youthful outrage would have caused me to spin off into the stratosphere by now. No one looks at me and says "My goodness, that woman is serene" -not by a long shot. I'm just saying I've made progress, that's all.

Perhaps my task as a person of a "certain age" (47, I do believe) is to let meditation teach me about how to foster social justice. Creating a just world has something to do, I think, with ensuring that people are safe. Social workers and social-justice workers usually take that to mean something fairly low on the scale of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Are people eating, and sheltered, and not being victimized by war and abuse? Those are good questions, and we need to keep asking them. But we could also look at creating safe havens, truly sacred spaces where compassion and resilience and tolerance can thrive. And that has to start in my own soul.

It's not that the woman across the street needs to let go of her outrage, grow up and become me. Oh, God forbid. Nor do I need to grow up and become the person who's ahead of me on the path. In fact, I reject the notion of a linear path where people are ahead of and behind each other. Rather, she needs to be fully herself, which involves outrage. I need to be fully myself, and the outrage has mellowed to a gentler passion, and the tempest has calmed just a bit. Not so you'd notice -just a bit. And together, we'll change the world.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Here We Go Again -The Patriot Act

When last we left our "heroes," it was December 2005. A bipartisan group of Senators had filibustered to prevent reauthorization of a version of the Patriot Act that did nothing to protect civil liberties. By February 3rd, Congress must reconsider the Act, or 16 of its provisions expire. And of course, there's considerable pressure from the executive branch not to let that happen. So, we have to re-motivate ourselves on this subject.

We continue to get more and more evidence that the president's lust for power is limitless. And arguably without principle. Here's a small opportunity, though, to curtail him just a bit.

A loose coalition of groups (including the ACLU, the ALA, and others) is organizing tomorrow, January 25, as National call-In Day regarding The Patriot Act. Specifically, there are three changes that they are pushing for:
  • Language in section 215 (the "“business records" or "“library" provision) requiring a statement of fact linking the person whose records are sought to an actual terrorism investigation -no "fishing", in other words;
  • Language allowing a section 215 recipient (the library, for example) to file a meaningful challenge to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court order; and
  • Language allowing a section 505 recipient to pose a meaningful challenge to a National Security Letter.

I would love it, too, if we could look at Section 214, which enhances the federal authority to exact the death penalty. Should it pass as written, it could be imposed even when the defendant had no intention of killing or recklessly endangering human life. Section 211 adds 25 crimes to the roster of crimes eligible for the death penalty. It seems to be the general consensus that either provision would violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, but again there seems to be an odd disregard for niceties like that lately.

There's one thing, though, that I'm delighted about in this whole political process. We now have the phrase Radical Militant Librarian in our collection of great phrases. Go here: ALA to buy a Radical Militant Librarian button and to benefit the ALA's efforts to foster intellectual freedom. And call your Senators and Representative and urge them to adopt the provisions of the Senate's version of the USA Patriot Act's reauthorization.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Policing Academic Freedom -and not in a good way

A UCLA alumnus has decided, I know you've all heard, that he is in charge of academic purity in the classroom. (I can't force myself to provide a link. You can do a google search and find the story.) He'll pay you $100 for classroom materials and tape recordings from professors. He's worried about professors who don't like the president's policies and who are challenging the so-called war on terror. He says that he's worried about indoctrination of any stripe, but he's certainly not soliciting material from professors who might be "indoctrinating" from any other perspective.

Leave aside the fairly obvious problem that students probably retain very little classroom material -in their brains or in their piles of paper- 6 months hence. If indoctrination were even an option, professors would probably be using this formidable power to get students to remember, say, the course material. Alas....

However, there are even bigger problems to consider here.

He pretends not to understand that there is supposed to be very little supervision (internal coordination, yes -but supervision, no) of course materials. Otherwise, unpopular theories would never be explored except in academic journals and bars. Students would never be exposed to hypotheses that turn out to be wrong, thus missing an important opportunity to learn how our intellectual limits are pushed back. And they would miss learning how one can disagree respectfully while still arguing forcefully. The role of the public scholar, the professional academic, is not much less grandiose than helping to ensure the health of the nation. Democracy itself depends on people who can think and reason. And being spoon-fed information in easily digestible amounts does nothing to further that project.

Rather, teachers ought to be provocative -in the sense that they have a duty to provoke thought and discussion. A courageous and intelligent student will seek out those teachers rather than the ones who, for whatever reason, are teaching the party line by rote. If the academy were working as it should, every single teacher at UCLA -and beyond- would be on this guy's hit list. Not because disagreeing with President Bush is the only possible position with integrity.... well, it IS as far as I can tell, but bear with me.... but because discourse is the important thing.

What UCLA students could do is report every professor in the UC system -and then move on to other colleges and universities- and just bankrupt this guy. That would be poetic justice!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Blogging for Choice

Okay, we have to talk about this. Today is the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. The other day I identified myself as a "reluctantly pro-choice" voter. The astute reader will have long-since noticed that I'm Catholic, surely not the most common place for a pro-choice person, reluctant or not. So, what's going on here? Why have I made the choices I've made and why/how will I defend other women's right to choose what to do with their bodies?

The too trite, but gratifying answer is that the pro-life proponents are just so unrelentingly stupid that no sensible person would join them. There's plenty of support for this argument, unfortunately, and I've written about some of it in this blog. And there's always more. A gym in Kansas put up a fetus-tree in its lobby to celebrate the holiday season. Edifying. Hurricane Katrina was apparently a punishment for abortions. Uh huh. Sometimes I think we could just turn these people loose to destroy the pro-life movement all by themselves. In the end, though, I'm fairly committed to the notion that stupidity and ignorance can be corrected (or mitigated, anyway), so not wanting to associate with those people isn't really a good enough argument. Besides, there really are intelligent and reasonable pro-lifers.

We start to get somewhere when we acknowledge that the rhetoric used by pro-lifers always rejects a woman's autonomy and dignity. Sometimes it's subtle, but it's always there. And it's not even restricted to the arguments against abortion. Read the arguments against the HPV vaccination again. The clear, stated, concern is that if a woman is in charge of her own sexual behavior, it will turn into a "girls gone wild" scenario. Even when it's not quite that egregious, the language against abortion either suggests that a woman isn't capable of making a rational decision about procreation, so we have to protect babies from these slightly impaired women, or it suggests that the life of a baby is more important than that of the mother. I can't go there. I just can't.

The image I get from that line of reasoning is a long line of vanishing women. The logical extension of that argument is that women are important when they're procreating. But if we birth girls, the girls become important only in their procreative roles, because that's a law of nature we're supposed to believe... which makes the boy-children comparatively more important. And not by a little. Now, we know that around the world, and even in our own neighborhoods, that thinking is quite common. But I have a girl-child and a boy-child and there's just no way that one is more important than the other. And no way that I can think of my daughter's most important contribution to the world as any children she might choose to have. Working backwards, I can't think that my mother's most important contribution was her children, either. And certainly my brothers weren't her best effort. (That part was a joke. Sorry, boys.)

And, ahh.... we get to the hard part. The fact that I'm a mother isn't the most important thing about me, either. Bear in mind that I would walk in front of a truck if it spared my children pain -and that's not hyperbole, as every parent understands. But, it must be said, I have faced consequences of the choice to parent that my partner has not. (I know and appreciate the fact that he has made important sacrifices out of love for his children. But those sacrifices have been different.) There's no recovering those years out of the work force. There's no erasing the fact that for decades my worthiness as a human being was defined by how well other people performed in the world. Were the kids gifted intellectually? (yes) Did they potty-train easily? (That would be a no.) Were they pretty and well-dressed? (yes to the first and no to the second) All of that helped define whether I was a meritorious person or not. It's an extremely effective way to diminish a person, in case that's ever your goal.

Moreover, I've been spared some truly crushing consequences because I'm a person with a fine education, a loving family, great friends, and a position within a certain social class. And I suppose I bring some personal gifts to the table as well. And still, parenting has been plenty hard enough, thank you very much. How much harder is it for a single mother? For a teenage mother? For a mother with too many children too close together? Until we figure out how to have a society that values women, men, and children equally... a society that allows for and celebrates all kinds of contributions to the life of the society, we have to allow people to choose not to parent.

Axis of Justice Radio Network

I don't remember how I heard about this, so I can't give credit where credit is due. Sorry.

Filed away in the "these people are weird" category, I'm sure you have the information that the long-suffering spouse and I do not have television. I'm not proselytizing for the no-TV lobby; it just works for us. We do listen to a lot of radio, though. And I'm enjoying the Axis of Justice programming quite a bit. I really love how they mix music and information to make their points. Quite a bit of their selected music -"rebel music", they call it- has made its way to my iPod. You can download an archived show and listen, if you want to see how you'd like it. And through that show, I found this station, KPFK -a progressive and independent radio station. We don't have anything like that out here in the sticks.

That I know about, anyway. I'm completely open to being contradicted on that point, but somehow I doubt that I will be.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Friday Random 10

Here we are again. Take out your iPod and put it in shuffle mode. Tell us the first 10 songs that appear. And no fair leaving out the ones that make you look like a dork or adding ones that you think will make you look cool.

Here are mine for the week:

  • Weapons of Mass Instruction; James Gordon (Father's Day playlist I'm slowly creating for the long-suffering spouse)
  • Dissolve; Gabrielle Roth (Calm Yourself playlist)
  • Girls With Guitars; Winona Judd (Cardio-Country playlist Well now, THAT'S embarassing!)
  • Why Must I Pursue This Dream?; James Gordon (Castles in the Sky playlist)
  • A Kiss to Build a Dream On; Louis Armstrong ((Valentine's Day playlist)
  • Concerto Grosso in B Flat Major; Corelli (Ancient Music playlist)
  • Psalm 63 (As Morning Breaks); John Michael Talbot (Come to the Quiet playlist)
  • Breathe; Faith Hill (Calm Yourself playlist)
  • Closer to Fine; Indigo Girls (Folk Festival playlist)
  • Forgiven Not Forgotten; The Corrs (Forgive Me playlist)

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Clarifying Dialogue

Welcome to the muddle that is my brain. There's a point -or an idea, anyway- at the end of this, I promise.

I go round and round in my own mind about what the Catholic church is pleased to call "life issues". As the dialogue is typically framed, there are three such issues in the pantheon: abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia. It's easy to extend the argument to broader social justice categories and even personal issues such as the use of birth control, but for the most part the conversation revolves around the big three.

Contrary to the Church's teachings, I have come down as a reluctantly pro-choice voter, an ardent anti-death penalty voter, and just plain undecided about right to die issues. I think I have good theological reasons for the decisions I have made, but I also concede that using the Aristotelian/Thomistic reasoning that the church uses, those decisions are suspect. Mostly what I do is ignore the fact that I haven't come to any great personal clarity on these issues until something brings the lack of clarity to the front of my brain. And of course, the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold the Oregon assisted suicide law has done that.

I know that the Oregon law isn't a broad right-to-die law. It is very carefully crafted and its goal is respect and dignity. Moreover, I'm totally up for any snub to the Bush administration, however it comes. But intellectually and morally (those being not unrelated for me), I am uncomfortable with this mind-muddle. And of course, there are plenty of other intellectual snarls in my head, having nothing to do with Catholic moral teachings. There are even moments of absolute certainty, and nonetheless there are people of no small intellect who disagree with me. What's that about??

Wouldn't it be an interesting use of blogging to find rational people, capable of calm and respectful dialogue, to at least provide an exposition of different viewpoints? I know there are sites that try to do that, with varying levels of success. But first of all, more clarifying dialogue isn't going to hurt; if anything it will help. And secondly, I have something slightly different in mind -a sort of repository of essays on subjects from calm and reasonable people.

That's how far I've gotten in the idea-phase. Please let me know what you think.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Just Say No?

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan was ridiculed for her simplistic and fundamentally racist/classist approach to drug education in this country. Maybe the jeering was unkind, and I admit that I enjoyed it a little too much, but the program should have been laughed at. It was ridiculously naive.

And here we are again. First Lady Laura Bush is busy on an African tour, during which she (of course) has supported the official line that abstinence is an effective preventive for AIDS. Actually, she said it was a treatment for AIDS, but we'll assume that was just a slip-up. We're back to "just say no." Of course for any individual, abstinence will certainly help (far from the "100% effective" that Mrs. Bush claimed) to prevent AIDS. It's just that as an instrument of public policy it's unlikely to be effective.

Another less-than-brilliant comment from the First Lady: "In many countries where girls feel obligated to comply with the wishes of men, girls need to know that abstinence is a choice." On the face of it, this is a remarkably frank comment about sex and power from such a private and lady-like First Lady. But no points for accuracy, I'm afraid. It's not that the girls need to make a different choice; there needs to actually be a choice. She assigns the blame incorrectly. How exactly would a young girl say no, when she's been sold into prostitution or when there's a pervasive cultural belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS?

Oddly enough...

I think it's a different initiative from the First Lady that stands a better chance of making a difference in reducing AIDS. While she's in Africa to shake hands with the newly-elected (female) president of Liberia, she's also touting a new textbook program. This new program is designed to provide school supplies to under-supplied African villages. Miraculously, these new textbooks will be written in Africa and will feature African cultures center-stage.

Here's what we know. Improving the education of girls and women makes a difference in the health of the family. That's true cross-culturally. Educated women expect, and even demand, for example, pre-natal care and immunizations. They also stand up for their personal dignity in rejecting forced sex.

The thing is, it takes a long time for education to work in this way. It hasn't fully worked in countries and cultures where women's rights are, in principle, acknowledged. And there's no evidence, of course, that education alone is entirely sufficient in improving health status. While we're waiting for education to work its magic, lots of people will die. We have to do better than "just say no" and blaming girls for AIDS transmission.

And we need to make sure that this textbook program actually materializes. Follow-through in these matters hasn't been exactly the hallmark of this administration.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Popcorn and Social Change

We haven't done this in a while and the Golden Globes were last night (not that I watched), so movies are on my mind. There really are two you need to see so we can talk about them, and a few runners up, as well.

Brokeback Mountain won Best Picture last night, apparently. I have to tell you that I went to this movie out of desperation. I didn't think I would see it -not because it's a "gay love story" but because cowboy movies have never appealed to me much. But I was crazy-deranged looking for something to do one night, and this friend was going so I tagged along with him (and a bunch of his friends that I didn't know. Way to be a pain in the butt, Andrea.) See this movie. Really.

I know nothing from nothing about cowboys. Some of these people are into rodeos, so they were a little disappointed in the cowboy details. It's always interesting to see movies with experts, but, really, the details were entirely accurate enough for me. Another person is a computer graphics person, and he thought the CGI work with the mountains was disappointing. I didn't even know it was CGI until he told me. I'm not crazy about Heath Ledger, but he worked his way past my aversion, doing a fine job. I liked the music and have a good chunk of it downloaded onto my ever-present iPod.

And the story... oh my lands, the story. I didn't cry, but many people did. I find myself wondering what's going on with the characters and have to dope-slap myself, reminding myself that they were in a movie, for crying out loud. To me, one of the most interesting parts was after the movie as people were leaving the theater and hanging out in the little nearby coffee shops. It was like college. People were draped over chairs and tables, discussing the movie. When was the last time that happened? Sometimes stories really do change the world. As stories like this one become more a part of our cultural fabric, possibly tolerance and even celebration of many kinds of love will be more common, too. Hey, I can dream, can't I?

And then there's Syriana. This one is much more self-consciously a social justice movie, billed as a political thriller. On the down side, it has Amanda Peet, who is just a major "no" for me, and George Clooney, who doesn't appeal to me for reasons I haven't analyzed. George Clooney did fine, playing a character very different from his usual choice. And Amanda Peet's role isn't huge, so I got past it. I spent a good part of the movie frantically trying to figure out who one character was; it was Christopher Plummer. When was the last time we saw him in something? Anyway, now you can relax and pay attention! Which you'll need to do because the plot moves quickly and has multiple layers, as political thrillers frequently do. In any case, the idea is that governments put oil interests ahead of the well-being of individual citizens. Well now, there's a news flash. But do watch it and post your thoughts. I think I'm going to have to rent it from netflix and give it another look before I fully decide.

And there's always Good Night and Good Luck and even, if we stretch the definition of social justice a little, Walk the Line.

What else should I see?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Approaching Spiritual Death?

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

I guess we're in trouble then.

But seriously, let's explore this statement. Depending on how you define social uplift and whose social uplift you're concerned with, we do spend more on military defense and war than we do on social uplift. Sitting here pre-coffee, I can think of two explanations that could justify that. Let's see if they work.

The first is that I have a long-standing ideological and practical aversion to large-scale federal interventions for people who are poor or in need in some other way. Other countries seem to be able to do it, yet I can't think of very many examples where we've done it well. We can't -surely, we can't- let people starve to death. So we created food stamps, etc, surely one of the most punitive and demeaning programs ever devised by well-meaning humans. I used to have students go apply for Public Aid, to get a feel for how clients are actually treated. I stopped, not because they weren't learning anything, but because it wasn't fair to clients who were waiting in line for services. We can't let children be unsafe in their own homes. That's unspeakable. But the second you start to define child abuse and create an agency to protect them, the waters become muddy indeed.

I'm a much bigger fan of small not-for-profits doing locally appropriate work. (I do understand that these agencies are not always the right answer, but as a first thought, that's where my allegiances would be.) And, if my theoretical preferences were national policy (as if!), we would rightly be spending more on defense than on social services.

However, it doesn't take long to come up with exceptions to either side of this argument. Head Start is a federal program that works very well, indeed. Small, locally-appropriate anti-abortion agencies, just as one example, can cause huge amounts of havoc in very little time. So, apparently the problem isn't "federally funded or not". The problem is size and versatility and the methodology for tweaking service arrays over time. We could create effective and efficient services at the federal level, if the political will were there.

Secondly....Maybe it's not the job of the federal government to attend to our spiritual health. Perhaps we hire pastors for that. Or we go meditate on the mountain top. Or whatever we do. Except.... There are two immediate problems with that kind of argument. First, it implies that spirituality is the purview of experts. Experts we, for the most part, only come into contact with one day a week. Yet, most people these days have come around to the thinking that some kind of spiritual attention is necessary to be a vibrantly healthy person. The form the spirituality takes matters less (a lot less) than the fact of its existence in a person's life. So, the compartmentalizing argument won't work.

Moreover, in my particular version of spirituality -not for everyone, I grant you- spirituality only makes sense if it expresses itself in the world somehow. It's ludicrous to say that, say, some Biblical story or some saint's life or an encounter with a deeply spiritual person moved you, and then not move. You have to do something for the spirituality to be authentic. In my little world view, anyway. But from that argument, it naturally follows that somehow or another, we have to tend to the needs of people in emergencies and we have to tend to society to ensure that fewer and fewer emergencies occur. Failing to act is a kind of spiritual death.

So, where have we gotten in this argument? I think we've worked our way around to
1) It at least could be the role of the federal government to provide services for the citizens of the country and the population of the world, for that matter, and
2) Helping others, at the federal level or not, is an expression of spiritual health.

So, if we're doing neither one -or doing neither one well or with enough political commitment- then I'm afraid that Martin Luther King was right. We're approaching spiritual death. Perhaps we could use this commemorative day to re-commit ourselves to a just world, for our own sakes as much as for anyone else's.

And I'll go get some coffee now. Perhaps none of this makes sense.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Amnesty International Alert

Please consider taking action now. An Iranian woman is in danger of dying because she defended herself against violence and enslavement. Okay, that's how I see it. You can learn more for yourself here: Amnesty International.

In a nutshell, here's the information. Azam Ghareh Shiran was forced to marry one of her father's cousins at the age of 15. The cousin/husband turned out to be a violent drug addict who sold her into prostitution to support the family and his habit. Moreover, she was afraid that their 9-year-old daughter would also be sold into prostitution.

She began a relationship with another man, moved into his house, and tried twice to obtain a divorce. When that failed, she drugged her husband, the new man strangled him, and they disposed of his body in a canal. Maybe.

To be clear, I DO NOT think that anyone's murder is an act of justice. I really don't. But here's the thing. She was imprisoned for two years before the trial began. She had no access to a lawyer until the day the trial started. After her sentencing, a routine review by the Supreme Court expressed grave concerns with the preceding trial -not the least of which were that a body was never found so cause of death can not be ascertained and the confession was coerced. And, bearing in mind that I'm repeating myself, she was forced into marriage at 15 and sold into prostitution, which apparently is not against the rules. In spite of all this, the sentence has been passed to the judicial body that carries out executions. She could be killed any time now.

So, the time to act is right this minute, if you are so inclined. The Head of the Iranian Judiciary has the power to stay the execution. Amnesty International is organizing a letter writing campaign supporting this stay. You can write and send a letter by clicking here: Letter Writing Campaign. What would capital punishment accomplish in this case? Honestly....

Friday Random 10

You know the drill. Take out your iPod. Put it in shuffle mode and tell us the first 10 songs that appear. And no fair adding in ones that make you look cool or leaving out ones that make you look like a dork.

Here's my list for the week:

  • Sita Ram; Krishna Das
  • Perfect Night; Holly Near
  • Humble Shepherd: Katie Rose (she sings in our church choir -how could I resist?)
  • Peace Prayer; John Michael Talbot
  • January Stars; George Winston
  • Change the World; Eric Clapton
  • Math Suks; Jimmy Buffett (Oh, I'm going to hear about this one!)
  • O Magnum Mysterium; Morten Lauridsen
  • Ebudae; Enya
  • Calling My Children Home; Emmylou Harris

Well, there you have it. Now see what you can do about keeping Dave away from my blog this week ;)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Women Say No to War

Wage peace. Homeland Security's color-coded threat levels are designed to instill fear and through that, one hopes, foster protective action. But there's another way to go about this. We could, say, start from love and compassion and begin action from that point. It's just an axiom, but I really believe that the end result is different -and better- when we start from a positive place. CodePink is a clever play on Homeland Security's colors; it's an energetic and compassionate band of women and men from all over the world who are demanding an end to the war in Iraq. But more than that, they want to create a global climate of non-violence.

One of their programs is a world-wide petition, the Women's Call for Peace, addressed to government leaders and the United Nations. They hope to get 100,000 signatures by March 8, 2006. Personally, I think they should be able to get more than that. So, go read it and see if you can support it!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Telling Stories Changes the World

Brave New Films reports that at least a million people have seen the Wal-Mart Movie: The High Price of Low Cost. Theirs is a classic community organizing strategy. There were no showings in theaters; individuals showed the movie to friends in their homes and still a million people saw it. More importantly, though, we know that Wal-Mart's business was down this Christmas. (Interestingly, Costco's was up.) While I suppose we can't attribute the entire drop-off in Wal-Mart sales to the movie, it seems probable that the movie-goers acted on the new information they had.

I sometimes worry that we're hurting the employees whose rights we're championing, by avoiding the store. Would they be better off if Wal-mart folded -as unlikely as that scenario is? However, the response of employees to the film and to the organizing against Wal-Mart's corporate practices has apparently been tremendous. If the social work truism IS true -and it's always worked before- that people are their own best experts, then I should just relax and trust them to know what they need.

The same energetic group is also beginning a collaboration with the ACLU and the Sierra Club. The second Thursday of the month -tomorrow, if I'm not mistaken- will feature two new television shows. The ACLU Freedom Files documents stories of people whose civil liberties have been threatened and their responses. The Sierra Club Chronicles tracks the stories of individuals as they protect their families and the land they love from pollution and corporate greed.

Cleverly, the organizers of Brave New Films are distributing these programs to television, the internet, or you can get the series on DVD. They're also expanding into podcasts, which I really must figure out. Follow this link for times and explanations: Brave New Films Television.

As they say, their strategy is long term and forward thinking. They're trying to tell the stories, to frame the discourse, so that people organize to reclaim the country. We really ought to pay attention.

And in that spirit, I'm going to order the new DVDs and see what I can do about hosting a screening.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Limits to Presidential Powers

Reluctantly, I listened to bits of the confirmation hearings yesterday. The posturing, the reading of material into the record, make me crazy. But digging through that a bit, I'm surprised, relieved... and maybe a little confused.

There are so very many reasons to oppose Alito's confirmation: civil rights, workers' rights, privacy, women's rights, the environment, gay and lesbian rights, religious liberty, voting rights.... just to name a few. Oh, and there's always judicial integrity and ethics. Those are good. But that's not what they talked about yesterday.

On the one hand, it's possible that the president had handed us a perfect issue with this domestic spying program of his. The questions yesterday seemed rather focused on the limits to presidential powers. Since opposition to this unauthorized spying seems to cross the aisle, this could be great.

On the other hand, it does mean that the game has changed for those of us not charged to advise and consent. The women's groups were all set to land with both feet on abortion issues, which hardly came up at all. There was nothing much to land on. Similarly, the people who wanted to focus on judicial integrity were ready with their spin, but had nothing much to spin off of. (Not just anyone can end a sentence with TWO prepositions. Amateurs should not attempt this advanced technique!)

Either the hearings are going to go on for a long, long time in order to cover all these issues, or we have to change our strategy. It would be drastically bad if, say, the women's groups got all hot and bothered at the Democrats for not bringing up abortion rights, and let the focus of their anger and worry slide off Alito. We need to fight the right fight, here.

Anyway.... once more into the breach. I'm going to write to my Senators one more time, expressing my firm belief that the right question in this case is "Would the poor and vulnerable and comparatively unprotected be harmed or helped by Mr. Alito's appointment?". In this case, the answer is obvious since it seems self-evident that everyone would be hurt by his appointment.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Just to be clear, I didn't write this article or do any of the research for it. Therefore, it has useful information. Here's a link to the original: Common Dreams News Center.

The general idea is this. We still have to buy gasoline somewhere. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, has promised to use his nation's oil revenue to benefit the poor. (Wouldn't you just faint if you heard something like that from U.S. elected officials?) Citgo gas stations are a wholly-owned subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company. So, money you spend at Citgo pumps contributes to health care, education, and other services for the people of Venezuela.

Of course, your car still pollutes no matter where you buy your gas. We clearly still have work to do. Lots of it. But in the meantime, while reducing your consumption, you can at least do some good.

In this area, the Citgo stations are the two Road Rangers and the 7-11 over by campus.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sporadic Blogging Excuse

The girl-child is visiting her aging parents. The boy-child, equally dear to me and equally (though differently) fabulous, lives a mile away. We SEE him (or at least his laundry) occasionally. So, while the girl is here, we've pretty much dropped stuff to play with her. I'll be back to real life soon.

A Year of Living Generously

Several months ago, I posted about a few simple patterns I would initiate in my life, starting off my year of living generously and with a grateful heart. The hope was that those patterns would become habits and mere background activities in my life -losing the feeling that new patterns have to feel time-consuming and hard. There's also the firm belief, reinforced in my personal life in silly ways lately, that little things done daily really do make a difference. Since that post, I've connected with these people in the UK: Generous Living. Every month, they send a list of tasks that other people have undertaken for the month. You sign on or not, as you please. There's support and conversation, if you wish to participate. The site hasn't realized its full potential in terms of social networking and interactivity, but I'll bet that they do before long.

In any case, here's my list for the month. Sign on if you're interested. Please hold me accountable.

  • Become a fair trader in more than coffee. The specific task at hand is to buy new sheets for the guest beds. The Christmas company had to sleep on Rainbow Brite (or some such thing) sheets. That stuff is going to the homeless shelter and grown-up sheets are coming. I'm looking for organic cotton, ethically grown and purchased. We'll see what happens.
  • Switch to energy saving lightbulbs throughout the house. Mostly this is done. The long-suffering spouse inherited that male chromosome (or maybe it's a father thing) that lights left on in empty rooms make him nuts. He's entirely convinced that our electric bill would be minuscule if people would just get their "lights in empty rooms" fetish under control. So, his fascination with lightbulbs -which I will research and write up one day, I swear- has led to compact fluorescent bulbs in most lamps. We'll just finish that up. He'll be thrilled.
  • Eliminate clutter -As St. Basil said, "the coat that hangs in your closet belongs on the shoulders of your brother who is naked". Excuse the sexist language; the guy wrote in the fourth century. Really though, this extra stuff takes away from other people with real needs. Without approaching anything like austerity, we can relocate PLENTY of things to a place where they'll be used and appreciated, rather than gathering dust and generally annoying me. Everybody wins.

Questions? Comments?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Friday Random 10

You know the rules. Take out your iPod and set it to shuffle mode. Tell us the first 10 songs that appear. And no fair leaving out the ones that make you look like a dork or adding in ones you think will un-do the damage from the dorky ones.

Here are my ten for this week:

  • Could I Have This Dance?; Shimek
  • Horn Concerto No. 4 in E Flat, K. 495; WA Mozart
  • Chand Majha Purva; Asha Bhisle
  • You Rise and Meet the Day; Dar Williams
  • Take Me For Longing; Allison Krause and Union Station
  • Both Hands; Ani DiFranco
  • Fais Do Do, Colin Mon Petit Frere; Sophie Meriem Rockwell
  • Hallelujah; Leonard Cohen
  • Trouble is a Man; Ernestine Anderson
  • The Need to be Naked; Amber

Well now.... I got busted on that last one. Ahem.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

U.S. Auto Market Slightly Greener

OK, it's very slightly greener. SUV sales dropped significantly this past year, reports The Washington Post. Apparently consumers are realizing that the oil supply, and therefore gasoline pricing, are quite vulnerable to shocks such as, say, hurricanes. Yeah, caught that, when I was paying over $3 a gallon for gasoline. Of course, the sales of light-duty trucks and SUVs still outpaces that of cars and way outpaces the sale of hybrids, so no one could claim that this is some sort of environmental uprising on the part of consumers. However, it's a slight shift toward sanity.

But I'll be truly pleased when I see trends like fewer cars in driveways, more bicycles, and better mass transit for those of us who don't live in large cities. Apparently, a three-car garage is now standard on new homes in this area. Those of us who try to scrape by with one car must look like Luddites. And people with no car at all???? Un-american!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Life in the Polis

I don't particularly like to do political posts. I don't feel especially qualified to pontificate about political subjects. But, for crying out loud, there's a lot to talk about today.

Thing the first: President Bush signed the Defense Appropriation Bill, which you'll remember had the anti-torture amendment in it. The next thing he said (wrote, actually)?

The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.

I'm not entirely convinced that's actually a sentence, but we get a translation in The Boston Globe, which quotes a senior White House official.
Of course the president has the obligation to follow this law, [but] he also has the obligation to defend and protect the country as the commander in chief, and he will have to square those two responsibilities in each case. We are not expecting that those two responsibilities will come into conflict, but it's possible that they will.

So the McCain Amendment means whatever the president wants it to mean. About as much as the law against electronic surveillance without a warrant, perhaps? Oh yeah, let's talk about that.

Thing the second: He admitted that he didn't bother to get a warrant, which would almost certainly have been granted. In fact, he'd do it again. I'm really curious as to why this isn't an impeachable offense. For all I know, it is. Calls for hearings are coming from both sides of the aisle, which I find slightly encouraging. I hope they're only the beginning of the president's troubles over this.

The issue that could prevent or postpone the called-for hearings would be ...

Thing the third: The Senate has scheduled the confirmation hearings for Judge Alito. MoveOn is encouraging the Senate to re-schedule the hearings (and Senator Durbin from Illinois is on the Judiciary Committee which sets that schedule). Judge Alito can wait. The Senate could try to figure out next steps re: the wire taps, and the political left would get correspondingly more time to organize against Alito's confirmation. The evil me would love to see the wheels come completely off Mr. Bush's wagon. In part because his proposals and strategies stink, but in part just because he deserves it. You can take some action on this subject starting here: MoveOn

And there's always the war.

Thing the fourth, fifth, and sixth: The war. Some of these domestic issues are starting to make sense to me now. The president clearly thought -or wanted us to believe, anyway- that we could export democracy using guns and by deposing a tyrant. The thing is, democracy is hard. The citizens have responsibilities. Elected officials continue to have the responsibilities of all citizens and add others to the mix. Information has to flow freely, and people have to avail themselves of it. There's more, of course, but you know it as well as I do. But it seems that Mr. Bush does not.

And why would I be surprised that he misunderstands democracy on the international front and also on the domestic front? I shouldn't be, of course, but I am.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Illinois Marriage Initiative -Update

I've been chatting with a representative from Dignity-Chicago regarding the proposal to amend the Illinois Constitution, defining marriage as between one man and one woman. I was in a bit of a tailspin a few weeks ago, when the Illinois Bishops encouraged us to support this proposal. The first step was to get signatures supporting the inclusion of the non-binding proposal on the November 2006 ballot.

Well, apparently the signature collection isn't going all that well. I'm thrilled, but also a bit surprised. It's important to note that a marriage initiative has never failed at the ballot. The amendments can be overturned in federal court; Nebraska's was overturned early in 2005. But really, it would be better if this initiative never made it to the ballot in the first place.

In Illinois, amendment proposals have to come from the General Assembly, so this referendum simply encourages the assembly to take up this action. Again, it's non-binding and the General Assembly has been cool to the idea. So, even if the marriage initiative were to get its signatures and pass in November, it still could be true that nothing comes of it.

The thing is.... I'm reading nothing about this. I'm hearing nothing about this. A notice was in the church bulletin, but I haven't seen anything in the local paper. I certainly don't want to be the one to galvanize the political and religious right, bringing this issue to their attention by writing a letter to the editor. I suppose, if I work up some patience for exercises in futility, I'll write a letter to the Bishop expressing my concerns. Obviously it will make no difference, but he will have to file the objection away as yet another challenge to his notion of his own perfect authority. And I will be very interested to see if anything comes up about it at the parish justice and social action meeting this month. Prepare for fireworks if that happens, but these are good people. I think it won't. So for now I'm sitting tight and praying fervently that tolerance and respect prevail in the body politic and the church.

For extra credit, you can read this lovely article: Call To Wed. Really. Do it.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Don't Hold Still

I'm on a rampage. These fits overtake me and there's simply no resisting -or predicting- them. I want to clean house. I want to throw out things we don't use anymore, never needed in the first place, or that have been waiting 12 years on the "to be fixed" pile. When the kids were little, they would say about these moods, "Don't hold still. She'll think you're garbage and take YOU to the Goodwill."

There's no question that, in terms of social justice, it would have been better if we had never purchased many of these things in the first place. But some things were valuable -to us, anyway- and aren't anymore. The book situation has gotten completely out of control. I find myself very willing to get rid of many of the books I had in college, which before were sacred cows of the highest order. And the classics, we'll keep. But the books in my field? Really, scholarship has moved along; let's let these things go.

Just last night, I went through the cookbooks and got rid of TWO garbage bags full of cookbooks I won't even miss. (I think.) Interesting little conversation between the long-suffering spouse and me:

I'm talking to the back of his head, while he's puttering on the computer and I'm purging cookbooks. I say,

"I'm being pretty conservative here." -meaning that I'm being cautious about throwing things out, but he only hears the words a propos of nothing as far as he can tell.

He responds,

"Who are you and what have you done with my wife?"

Anyway, there's apparently some feng shui thing about giving up things in multiples of 27 frees up energy in some positive way. At this point I think I could find 2700 things, and just unleash a hailstorm or something. But here's what I know. Stuff doesn't nurture -except in the rarest of situations. Great grandma's scrap quilt.... that kind of thing. Shopping doesn't soothe the soul, even though I think it will sometimes.

I want a welcoming, home-y space that is full of things that either have meaning or are useful. If something isn't at least one of those, out it goes. Now if I could just get to the point where I ask those questions before I buy something, we'd have made some progress on the social justice front.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


I try not to make New Year's Resolutions, although the temptation to make pointless lists almost always gets the better of me sooner or later. There is one exception -a list I look forward to making and that proves useful. Who could ask for more? I keep a running -very long- list of books I want to read someday. One could see such a list as disheartening, but to me it's exciting. Looking at the list is like looking at a room full of all the candy in the world and thinking "I can have any of this that I want?". In fact, I can have all of it! Well, I can have all of it if I quit my job, check out of all my volunteer and fun activities and just read for the rest of my life. But I can take a crack at the list, in any case.

So, every year at about this time I make a list of 12 books from the list as it currently exists. Books that are published this year or that I discover this year are sometimes read right away, or they're added to the list. And then there's at least one book a month that really has nothing to recommend it, but I read it anyway. One of the best pieces of advice I ever read was in Genreflecting by Betty Rosenberg. No one needs to apologize for his or her tastes in reading, she claims. If I need to read a mystery or something about Bridget Jones once in a while, so be it.

So, here's this year's list of readolutions:

  • Freedom in Meditation by Patrica Carrington
  • The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered Over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything by K.C. Cole
  • The Last 100 Days by John Toland
  • A Weekend in September by John Edward Weems
  • Mount Misery by Samuel Shem
  • The Age of Sacred Terror by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon
  • Plan B by Annie LaMott
  • The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley
  • How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle by Frances Willard
  • The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry
  • Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and their Journey through Schizophrenia by Pamela Spiro Wagner
  • Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman

There now. That's 12 books from the ever-expanding list. That's a nice sensible number, under the circumstances. What's on your list?