Desperate Houseflies: The Magazine

Feel free to pull out your trusty fly swatter and comment on what is posted here, realizing that this odd collection of writers may prove as difficult to kill as houseflies and are presumably just as pesky. “Desperate Houseflies” is a magazine that intends to publish weekly articles on subjects such as politics, literature, history, sports, photography, religion, and no telling what else. We’ll see what happens.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Not That You Care!

I'm through here until late Sunday night.

Each year I take my oldest daughter on a grand secret adventure for her birthday, and this year's requires me to go to bed early tonight since there will be VERY little sleep Saturday. I'll tell you all about it later on...

I do, however, plan to post a Nancy Grace / Church of Christ article I've just completed Sunday night. Maybe it won't get me fired.

As Leonard Sweet would say, Carpe Manana! And as fans of the Bill of Rights would say, "Go George Mason!!!"

Yours to count on,
Al

And now to Al with sports...

Okay, we can't skip sports today. After all, the Final Four is this weekend along with Opening Day for Major League Baseball!!!

So... this calls for a little crowd participation.

#1: THE FINAL FOUR: Everyone's brackets are long gone, so let's start over. What's your predicitons?

* George Mason is everyone's favorite, but the "real favorites" are LSU and Florida. Which is why I predict UCLA to win it all. The Bruins over the Tigers 65-60, and the Gators over Cinderella 82-73. Bruins win the championship Monday night 60-57.

#2: THE RETURN OF BASEBALL: Bonds-Watch begins. Bad as I hate to say it, I say he hits 50 and takes down Aaron this year. What do you guys think?

#3: DISCUSSION TOPIC: And now for a real discussion about much more important things: What about the new NFL push to cut back on end zone celebrations? The argument against Chad Johnson performing CPR on a football is that it takes away from the purity of the game, while the other side argues that the fans want things like this. What do you guys think? Since the bottom line of sports is now money, shouldn't the fans' opinion trump all else?

"God wants us to prosper"?

Preliminary note: The 5 people who read this blog regularly (come on Al, there may be more like 8) may have noticed that I've been posting on days that aren't strictly my days. And that I seem to have strayed from strictly talking about progressive politics. But you know what, I think that's okay. I think having more posts keeps the momentum going, and that's a good thing, so I'm going to keep it up. And, I wanted to say that this little online community has really become something that I look forward to and enjoy. I'm pretty cut off from people here in D.C. other than my coworkers and my husband, since all of our family and friends live far away, so it's nice to have some kind of community, even if it's just online.

Yes, the one thing about being secular that is a big downer is that there's no automatic social outlet for us heathens. I have even thought about (gasp!) trying to find a Unitarian church to go to. Alas, TiVo can only fulfill so many needs. I was thinking about this in relationship to the whole megachurch phenomenon. I've sent articles to Al before asking him what C of C folks think of this nondenominational, flashy entertainment, thousands of people, warm fuzzy feel-good-about-yourself-God-loves-you-no-matter-what deal. Even though I'm no longer in the church, I feel like I have the C of C reaction anyway: if it's too much fun, it ain't religion. LOL. But seriously, it seems to me that most of the people who attend these churches don't have a deep spiritual commitment to anything other than feeling good about themselves. It just seems very shallow.

Then I came upon this article in the New York Times this morning about one of the ministers of one of these huge churches in Houston. I was horrified at how materialistic this guy is and how he is using religion as a vehicle to make himself rich and then to justify his wealth. And then there is the whole thing about praying for a good parking spot. Ick!! What do others make of these megachurches?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Sweet

I heard Leonard Sweet speak three times last year at a seminar in Oklahoma. He’s the poster child for the postmodern, a theologian/scholar who writes books with titles like AquaChurch, SoulSalsa, Carpe Manana, and A Cup of Coffee at the SoulCafe. I don’t know exactly what to do with him, not that he has asked or anything. I learned from him, and I find much of his insight to be right on the money and valuable. But he’s a different bird than me, too.

I’ve somewhat admired the hippies of the 60s, while admitting that I probably wouldn’t have joined the commune had I been there. I think these postmodern gurus may be a new breed like that, but instead of tie-dyed shirts and a bag of weed, these guys come with cool eyeglasses and a cup of Starbucks. (When I saw Sweet, he also came with long silver hair and all black clothing, too.) I’ve always hoped that I would have tried to learn from the hippie movement had I been there instead of dismissing it as silly. I’m trying to do the same with Leonard Sweet, hoping that I can build some sort of internal bridge between the staunchly modern and emerging postmodern parts of my own personality.

So I broke down and bought one of his books with a title I found interesting: Summoned to Lead. I found it to be…how shall I say it…very postmodern. I underlined lots of profound statements. I wondered what in the world he was talking about the rest of the time. I assume this is postmodernity at its best.

I’m going to share some bits and pieces from Sweet on Thursdays so that our readers can help me figure some of this out. Oh, who am I kidding, there’s about five of us that actually read Houseflies on a regular basis. So if all five of you will engage me in a little dialogue, I’d appreciate it. You can help me break down this book and learn something that might inspire us all to make a positive difference in this rapidly changing world.

In the Introduction, Sweet writes: To put it bluntly: the whole leadership thing is a demented concept. Leaders are neither born nor made. Leaders are summoned. They are called into existence by circumstances. Those who rise to the occasion are leaders. Everyone is “called” by God for some kind of mission. But sometimes the “called” are “called out” for leadership. How you manifest your mission will change throughout the course of your life. But the mission remains constant…

To illustrate, Sweet recalls John F. Kennedy’s response when asked how he became a war hero: It was easy. They sank my boat.

So what do you folks think: Is leadership totally dependent on circumstances?

Mordecai’s plea for salvation from Esther “at such a time as this” rings down through the millennia as a thought worth considering. It’s an overtly spiritual thought on one hand (being called by God), but not necessarily so (e.g. Lincoln was elected by actual votes after all). Either way, leadership is directly related to outstanding circumstances.

I “think” Sweet eventually makes a point that depends totally on this foundation. So are we with him so far? Or has he been drinking a little too much coffee?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

What's Culture Got To Do With It?

I wanted to share an article with you all that relates back to one that I posted last week, on the depressing statistics about young African American men. In Sunday's New York Times, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that socioeconomic factors have only weak explanatory power, and that we have to look at cultural explanations.

The reluctance of academics to do so, he says, is the result of misperceptions about the implications of talking about culture. First, many believe that cultural explanations inherently blame the victim. Second, some feel that zeroing in on culture means we are powerless to make changes. Both of these views are incorrect, Patterson argues.

What's really fascinating is his summary of some research that has been done about why young black women graduate from high school and attend college at much higher rates than their male peers. (Which ties in to my post from Friday on that subject). According to these young men themselves, the consequences of not obtaining an education pale in comparison to the seductiveness of what sociologists call the "cool-pose culture." And, importantly, this subculture cannot be disconnected from the broader culture in which it originated. Specifically, the cool-pose culture wouldn't be so seductive if white kids didn't think it was all that and accord respect to participants.

Anyway, the article goes into this in greater depth. There is much food for thought here.

The Other Problem with Islam

Picking up on Joe's post yesterday, and to bring this story to a slightly wider audience, I feel compelled to post today on the story of Aisha Parveen, a young Pakistani woman who was kidnapped at the age of 14, forced into prostitution for six years, and who, unless a Pakistani court decides in her favor, will face more rape, torture, and death at the hands of the brothel owner who enslaved her. The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof reported on Parveen's story on Sunday, and again today. Unfortunately, because of the Times' ill-conceived Times Select premium service, only Times home subscribers or Times Select subscribers can read his columns. This is unfortunate, because this is a story that needs to be heard.

This is particularly the case because it is not an unusual story. As most people are probably aware, in the Islamic world being raped is a crime -- not raping, but being raped. In truth, the real crime is being a woman, because Islam is even more deeply misogynistic than Christianity. Women accused of "zina" offenses -- fornication and adultery -- are routinely killed by their relatives to "protect the family honor." In this case, Parveen's kidnapper and tormentor claims that they are married, so she is being accused of adultery. She was luckier than most, because she met a man who rescued and married her. Now she is facing being returned to her captor and, she is convinced, murdered by him. The hearing was yesterday and, thanks in part to Kristof's column, the case was continued for a week. Because of the attention, Parveen's chances are better than most.

Kristof writes: "Saddest of all, her story isn't newsworthy in a classic sense. There's nothing at all unusual about a young Asian woman suffering years of sexual enslavement, or judicial malpractice or murder.

And that's the challenge for us all, Asians and Americans alike — to change our worldview and put gender issues like sex trafficking higher on the global agenda.

A quarter-century ago, Jimmy Carter plucked human rights abuses from the backdrop of the international arena and put them on the agenda. Now it's time to focus on gender inequality in the developing world, for that is the greatest single source of human rights violations today."

Kristof does not discuss in any detail the role of Islam in the "honor killing" and "zina offense" phenomenon. And, doubtless lack of education plays a role in allowing these draconian views to be perpetuated and go mostly unchallenged. But even if Islam is just the vehicle for advancing an agenda that is essentially political (and, really, aren't they all?), its destructiveness is just as horrifying.

Like Kristof, I will give Ms. Parveen the final word to give readers an idea of how much women are hated in Pakistan. She said, "God should not give daughters to poor people," she said in despair. "And if a daughter is born, God should grant her death."

Monday, March 27, 2006

You will be assimilated...

Any Star Trek: The Next Generation fans hanging around this blog? If so, they'll immediately recognize the source of the title for this article.

It comes from "The Borg", a cyborg alien lifeform that moves across galaxies colonizing planets by either assimilating the native species into their own "collective" or extermintating them if they refuse to assimilate. Their trademark phrase is, "We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." Once assimilated into the collective, an individual unit that becomes dysfunctional is cut out of the collective and destroyed. An individual unit that is separated from the collective by capture or accident is hunted and re-assimilated or destroyed.

Sound familiar?

I can't help but see some parallels with Islam. Just look at these points:

- The Quran separates the world into two "houses": the house of Islam (Dar-al-Islam) and the house of war ( Dar-al-Harb). Any non-Muslim falls into the house of War. According to the Quran, these two houses are in a perpetual state of conflict that will not be resolved until the house of war is completely subjugated by the house of Islam. There are three methods of subjugation; conversion, destruction, or if you are one of the lucky "people of the book" (Christians, Jews, and some say Zoroastrists) you can live under Islamic rule as a second class citizen and pay a dhimmi (tax) to your Islamic masters. Bad luck if you happen to be Hindu, Buddhist, or any other religion. You either convert to Islam or get killed.

- The penalty for a Muslim rejecting Islam and converting to another faith is death. Unless you have been completely out of touch for the last couple of weeks, you couldn't help but hear about the case of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan. Born into the Islamic faith, he converted to Christianity while working in Germany 16 years ago. His own family turned him into Afghan authorities for prosecution. Charges have been dropped due to a "lack of evidence" but the cries for his blood in the Afghan street have not died down.

So to sum up... Islam seeks to convert, or at least subjugate, the entire world, by the sword if necessary. Once converted to Islam, you can never leave the faith under penalty of death. It's kind of like a spiritual "roach motel." It's another practical application of the old maxim: "What's mine is mine. What's yours is negotiable."

I don't really have a point to all of this other than to throw out some thoughts I've been having lately. Islam worries me. I don't trust it. I've actually read the Quran. I know what it says, and it bothers me. The hardliners aren't the ones adding or taking away from the Quran. It's the "moderates" that are sugar-coating it.

Take a quick look at these articles by Mark Steyn and Andrew G. Bostom. The Bostom article does an excellent breakdown of what the Quran actually says about apostasy. The Steyn article brings out this juicy tidbit:

In a more culturally confident age, the British in India were faced with the practice of "suttee" - the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Gen. Sir Charles Napier was impeccably multicultural:

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks, and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."


Needless to say, "suttee" is no longer practiced in India.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

What is the Church?

Sorry it has been awhile since I have posted but this will also probably be the last time I post for awhile. My family will be moving overseas this summer and I just don’t have time to write and get everything else done before our move. My inspiration for what follows comes from here.

Let’s call her Rachel. She a girl from the midwest, in her 20’s, just barely, and has a hard time keeping from crying. She seems hesitant to share very much, but after a few minutes, she seems pretty comfortable talking with me. Her problem, as she says it, is that she can't stop crying. She does not know why she can’t stop, but nevertheless, this is her problem.

As Rachel gets into her story, I come to find out that her boyfriend, with whom she is living, is addicted to pornography and is trying to get her to always do new and different things in bed. He does not realize he is addicted and she does not seem to think he is, but he can’t stop it and rationalizes to her why he needs to use pornography when she is not around.

She starts to go into her family background and lets me know that she is from a broken home where her parents divorced, she bounced back and forth between homes, and both stepparents didn’t like her, in fact one even hated her. She got into trouble at school, sold and used drugs as a teenager in high school and at one point almost died from a drug overdose. Her close grandparent has recently passed away and her boyfriend treats her like an object instead of like a person. Aside from his addiction to pornography, he is never happy with Rachel and is frequently yelling at her for even things such as cleaning the house. When she organizes, you see, he can’t find anything, so it’s her fault.

Neglected as a child, treated as an object by her boyfriend, and the loss of a close relative, no wonder she can’t stop crying. Sadly, except for a few minor details, her story is not unique. Rachel does not know what a normal, healthy family looks like. She doesn’t know what a healthy male-female relationship looks like. She doesn’t know what acceptance looks like. She knows a lot about condemnation, never being good enough, never anyone to care about what happens to her. One of her biggest needs is to be accepted and loved as a person, to have someone listen to her and try to understand how she’s feeling. She needs to be treated like a human being, as someone worthwhile. Where will she find this? In what kind of church would Rachel feel welcomed? Is there any such church? What would it look like?

It would be a place where people are vulnerable. A place where people admit that they don’t have everything right. Where people know that they are sinners and share their struggles openly. It would be a place where people accept and love, not judge and criticize. It would be a place where Rachel could be herself, with all of her problems, and not be expected to be perfect before she could belong. It would be a place where people would realize that they have not cornered the market on truth, even though they always strive for truth. It would be a place of forgiveness.

Sadly, I don’t think there is a church that meets this description. No, I’m not looking for a perfect church. That’s impossible among imperfect humans. But here’s what is possible: We can be a place of forgiveness instead of judgment. When we slip up and judge someone or treat him or her in an unloving way, we can say we’re sorry and reconcile with the one we’ve wronged. We can always strive to understand the word and strive for the most excellent theology, while admitting we have not arrived. Even Paul was able to admit that. Why can’t we?

I think a part of the problem is that we are afraid. We are afraid of being genuine and honest with others. We are afraid of taking off our masks and sharing our true selves with others. We’re afraid of what people might think. We are afraid they would judge us. We’re afraid that we are the only ones who struggle with the particular sins that tempt us, that no one else can understand. We are afraid they would use our vulnerability to hurt us even more. We are afraid to be human. How ironic. We sit on a pew hiding our problems from the very people who would be the best ones to help us with those problems.

What is the church anyway?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Affirmative Action for Men?

I don't know how many of our dear readers are regular consumers of the New York Times. I get the Sunday edition at home and read the website during the week. Although I don't always agree with their editorial decisions, they do have a lot of interesting articles. Yesterday was a banner day -- three interesting articles in the Style section (which is not really always about style, but anyway), on pet adoption, the return of the beard, and a trend toward gender-neutral fragrances. And on the front page was an article on the first generation of adopted Chinese girls.

But the one that really stumped me was an op-ed by an admissions officer at Kenyon College in Ohio. In it, she admits that the application pool has become so gender imbalanced that it is now easier for young men to get into college than young women. In starker terms, a young woman with the same grades and test scores as a young man is less likely to be admitted. Because, she goes on to say, once a college goes past the 60/40 women-to-men tipping point, no one wants to go there anymore.

I wrote my college thesis on affirmative action, which was a big issue in the 1990s. For various reasons, including adverse court rulings in the employment context, and the 2003 Supreme Court double header in the education context (holding that explicit numerical goals or quotas are not okay, but a qualitative process that takes race into account is), there has been much less ink spilled on it since the millenium. In high school, the idea that someone whose "objective" qualifications were less than mine could gain access to an education that I was denied incensed me. I was very naive about race back then. (And, being young, I was also very self-centered). In college, I learned enough in my first three years to realize I was wrong, but I wasn't sure why, which is what led to my choice of senior thesis topic. The education I got about the history and present reality of race in this country was life-altering. My thoughts on affirmative action completely shifted. I knew that I had been successful because of chance, not because of any herculean efforts or work ethic of my own. So if someone else who hadn't been as lucky in the life-chances lottery as I had been was given an opportunity, who was I to complain? Whatever the opportunity was, I had no entitlement to it. And who was to say that the measures of merit we use really measure desert to begin with? [Aside: in this interview, Lani Guinier explores this issue quite eloquently].

But despite all of this, when I read this New York Times editorial, what the admissions officer described still felt unjust to me. And I feel like I really need to think through why this context is different from race. My initial thought is that it is different primarily because boys are not disadvantaged relative to girls in society as a whole. If anything, the reverse is true. And I'll go ahead and say it: I just don't buy all of the crap about boys being discriminated against in schools by female teachers who penalize them academically for "acting like boys." That sounds to me like making biological excuses for the fact that boys aren't doing as well in school. Isn't it just as possible that there's a cultural reason that boys do not take school as seriously as girls do, on average?

Thinking about possible cultural explanations also called to mind an article I read yesterday about the rise of "laddie" culture and extended adolescence for men. This was fascinating because there are so many dimensions to the issue. Certainly large parts of Chaudry's description rang true, although blaming the problem entirely on popular culture and advertising seems too simplistic. There is a definite cultural trend toward depictions of men as stupid and irresponsible. This seems to tie in, in some way, to the rising number of women who apply to and attend college relative to men. (And I should point out that the gender imbalance in these numbers reflects the fact that more women are going, not that fewer men are going. The number of men attending college has not increased, but it has not decreased either).

So, I would love to hear others' thoughts on this issue. Why are more women than men attending college? What causes a college with more women than men to become less popular with both sexes? Why do boys do less well in school than girls? Is the cultural representation of men as irresponsible oafs driving reality, or is it the other way around? Is it unjust for bright young women to be rejected from colleges when ostensibly less-qualified young men are admitted? (And hey, in the interest of a little levity, if you'd like to comment on the return of the beard, that's cool too).

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Attention Please

[Note: This news, as you might suspect, particularly caught my attention. I feel helpless about it right now, but I wish there was something I could do.]

Amber Alert issued for children of slain Weststate pastor
By JENNIFER PEEBLES
Staff Writer

A statewide “Amber Alert” has been issued for three little girls from southwest Tennessee whose father was found slain in the family’s home last night.The three Winkler girls are from Selmer, Tenn., and may be with their mother, Mary Winkler, according to the alert statement put out this morning by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Their father was identified by the Associated Press this morning as Matthew Winkler, 31, the pastor of Selmer’s Fourth Street Church of Christ. The girls, who are all Caucasian, are:
+ Breanna Winkler, one year old.
+Mary Alice Winkler, age 6, is three feet tall, weighs about 40 pounds, and has dark brown hair and dark eyes.
+ Patricia Winkler, age 8, is four feet tall with dark brown hair and weighs about 60 pounds.

Their mother, Mary Winkler, is 32. She is 5-feet, 3-inches tall and weighs 120-125 pounds.

"We're just really puzzled," Selmer Police Chief Neal Burks told the AP. "We need to talk to her." The group is believed to be traveling in a gray 2006 Toyota Sienna van bearing Tennessee license plate NDX288. The girls’ father was found slain in their Selmer home, which the AP described as the church parsonage around 9:20 p.m. yesterday, the TBI said. His body was found by members of the family’s church after the Winklers failed to show up for services, the TBI wrote. The girls and their mother were last seen at around 5:45 p.m. Tuesday.

Anyone who spots the van or the mother or the Winkler children should contact the Selmer Police Department at 731-645-7906 or call the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Money Matters: Richard Russo's "Nobody's Fool"

There is a tendency by people in the academy, such as myself, to glorify the poor. To think of them as in some way morally superior to the rich who have been corrupted by money. Which, of course, goes ahead and assumes that the rich are corrupt. This view of things is offset by what seems to be a more prevailing view of money and corruptness: God has blessed the rich with wealth; poor people are the lazy bums who simply refuse to pull themselves up by their cliched bootstraps. It’s easy to think either of these ways. There are lots of corrupt rich people. There are lots of lazy bums.

Try as they might, many artists fail to capture the complexities of individuals when money comes into the picture. Characters begin to stand for ideologies or are simply stereotypes.

A couple of years ago I read Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Empire Falls, and was left thoroughly underwhelmed. It was a forgettable book. But he was a Pulitzer Prize winner and it must have just been my fault for not "getting it", so when he published a collection of short stories, The Whore’s Child, a year or so later, and it was like eating cotton.

But then see, there’s a problem people like me who are always telling my friends what to read run into. Friends decide they want to give ME recommendations. Most of the time I can placate them with a, yeah, I’ve been meaning to pick that up, and then we both just forget about it. Except for this one pesky friend of mine who stays on my case until I read at least one of the books he’s telling me about (seriously, we have the same wireless service, so our minutes are free, so he calls me cross country on a daily basis sometimes for the express purpose of asking me if I’ve started the frieking book yet).

My friend's most recent recommendation made me shudder. It was a novel by Richard Russo, Straight Man. I decided, after two weeks worth of calls, to just pick the stupid book up, read a few pages, and tell my friend it sucked and to shut up about it. I ended up reading it in a couple of days, laughing out loud. It’s a slightly absurd look at life at a university. It’s smart and funny and witty and will make you laugh. It was so good that I did something I almost never do – picked up another book by the same writer. This time it was Nobody’s Fool, a book more than a decade old.

Nobody's Fool takes place in a small upstate New York town of Bath. Bath is a very small town that has fallen on hard times. It's a miserably cold place, and the main character is a miserably cynical 60 year old named Sulley. Sulley is a lifelong fix-it-up man. He is content. He works just enough to pay his rent and buy his meals and drinks at the local bar, where he spends every night. Sulley is a frustrating man. He always has a smart remark for everyone, and he doesn't seem to care much about their feelings.

Sulley's sometime boss is the richest man in Bath. He owns a construction company, inherited all of his money, and is married to the most beautiful woman in town. And he's a complete jerk. Cheats on his wife. Cheats people out of money. He has a smart remark for everyone, and he doesn't seem to care much about their feelings.

On some level, this novel reads as a series of epiphanies. These two men, as well as the rest of the characters, all seem to have realizations about their shortcomings and become more likeable toward the end of the novel. But, it's really more complicated than that. Russo fools the readers. The characters don't really change in the course of the novel. Okay, they change, but not substantially. The epiphanies belong to the readers. We begin to like the characters in spite of their shortcomings. We begin to like Sully's wise-cracks because we see the honest heart that they come from. We begin to like the richest man in town because, well, he's just likeable. We know we shouldn't like him, but he's so huggable.

It is intriguing that Russo continually brings up money in relation to the characters. He wants readers to make judgements about the moral character of the individuals because of the money in their bank account. Then he spends the hundreds of pages destroying the relationship between money and character. Some people have good hearts and no money. Some people have good hearts and lots of money. But most people are equally likeable and disgusting if we get a glimpse inside their heads (as we do in the novel) regardless of their career or house or car or possessions.

What Russo does that is so refreshing in the how-money-relates-to-morality is show how similar the have's and the have-not's are. They both be at times charming and disgusting. They can be at times selfish and giving. They are alike in more ways than we are used to, or even comfortable with, thinking. The redemption in the novel doesn't necessarily belong to the characters. There lives don't end happily ever after, and they don't make dramatic changes in the way they live. The redemption, if any is to be had, is with the reader. Readers are allowed to see the goods and the bads of each of these characters. And, as I said earlier, Russo continually mentions the financial status of the characters. Ultimately what he shows isn't a universality of humankind so much as similarities between socio-economic groups. Attributes we often associated with the wealthy (good work ethic, honesty, intellect) are seen just as often in the poor. Attributes often associated with the poor (lazy, ignorant, something-for-nothing types) are seen just as often in the wealthy characters.

Russo challenges the way both the Left and the Right often think about the relationship between "success" and "moral character." He isn't preachy and he doesn't reach conclusions. He merely -- merely! -- writes about social class in an intelligent, entertaining, and non-stereotypical way.

Currently about to finish: Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gorevitch. Kushiel's Chosen by Jacqueline Carey. Shades of Glory by Laurence Hogan.

Mixed Nuts

This week, I promised myself that I would not post any articles related to birth control, abortion, or motherhood. And it's even more challenging than I thought because there were a ton of them this past week, one more fascinating than the last. Maybe I will post them at the end just for kicks.

But first, I thought I would post a few other articles on other topics. William Saletan writes on Slate that the changing length and nature of old age call for a change in Social Security -- namely, an end to basing payments on age rather than disability and a higher retirement age to reflect the fact that life expectancy and, more importantly, quality of life expectancy, has increased tremendously since the program was begun in 1935. My father recently retired -- at the ripe young age of 58. My mother, now 55, plans to retire soon. And they feel entitled to do so. This always struck me as a spoiled and whiny approach to life. I anticipate having to work into my seventies just to finish paying off my student loan debt and to have a roof over my head. The insane sense of entitlement Baby Boomers feel about having twenty or thirty years of leisure after working for as long is just out of step with reality as far as I am concerned.

Now for the weekly New York Times roundup. They really outdid themselves this week. Yesterday there was an insightful article about the plight of young African American men in this country. I can't say that I have any concrete suggestions about how to improve the situation, so it was mainly depressing to me.

In Sunday's book review, there was a review of Kevin Phillips' new book, American Theocracy. Phillips wrote a prescient 1969 book entitled The Emerging Republican Majority, which turned out to be right on the money. At the time, he was excited about the impending changes. Now, not so much. American Theocracy chronicles three ways in which the GOP is leading the U.S. down the primrose path to disaster: an overreliance on and obsession with oil (that alliteration was not on purpose, I swear); the rise of the Religious Right; and our out-of-control love affair with all kinds of debt, governmental, corporate, and personal. I normally don't buy books until they are out in paperback, but if I made an exception for Marley & Me I think I can make an exception here too.

Okay, now briefly back to my pet issues -- great articles this week, so I just couldn't resist. First, the New York Times Magazine had a fascinating article about single mothers by choice. It was called "Looking for Mr. Good Sperm," which certainly caught the eye. I inadvertently mentioned to my boss that I had read it, only realizing a second later that you probably shouldn't say the word "sperm" in professional mixed company. Oh, well.

But the scariest article of the week by far was this one on Salon about the movement to ban contraception. (You have to get a day pass to read the full article, but I promise it's worth it). Here's one choice quote that really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up:

For those who are pro-choice, the idea of fighting to ban both abortion and contraception seems contradictory: Contraception, after all, lessens the number of abortions. But once one understands what the true social and moral agenda of activists like Worthington is, and their attitude toward sexuality, the contradictions vanish. For them, sex should always be about procreation; since contraception prevents conception, it is immoral. At a deeper level, they believe that women's biological destiny is to be mothers.

Feldt says, "When you peel back the layers of the anti-choice motivation, it always comes back to two things: What is the nature and purpose of human sexuality? And second, what is the role of women in the world?" Sex and the role of women are inextricably linked, because "if you can separate sex from procreation, you have given women the ability to participate in society on an equal basis with men."


And on that note, I hope everyone is having a good week!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

[Note: I wrote this a couple of years ago, but I thought I'd share it today in honor of tomorrow's holiday.]

"We also know that only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” -- Herodotus

I’m a lover, not a fighter, so the only enduring image of St. Patrick’s Day in my memory is the overwhelming fear of being pinched by the older, meaner guys in elementary school.

Oh, I’d be wearing green. You bet your sweet shamrocks I’d wear green, but in case you didn’t know, most bullies are color blind. Mostly just on March 17th.

So I don’t like St. Patrick’s Day. I can’t stand corned beef and cabbage (partially due to an ugly vomit story from my childhood). I don’t even like to smell beer, and green beer doesn’t sound like much of an improvement. I’ve never seen a leprechaun or believed in a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and the closest I’ve ever come to dancing an Irish jig was in Little League when I was playing right field and really needed to pee.

So I’m the Ebenezer Scrooge of St. Patrick’s Day. Bah humbug, I say! (My fear is that all my Irish friends will now gather around and pinch me.)

But the holiday’s namesake sounds like a pretty interesting guy.

Ironically, St. Patrick was British. When he was sixteen, Irish raiders captured him and took him to Ireland where he spent six years in captivity. At age 22, he escaped. According to his writings, he believed God spoke to him through a dream and told him to get out of Ireland. So he did. Patrick walked 200 miles to the Irish coast and escaped to his homeland.

Back in Britain, Patrick reported another revelation from God. He claimed that God spoke to him again, asking him to study and return to Ireland as a missionary. So he entered into a rigorous study program for fifteen years before heading back to the land of his captivity for the dual purpose of ministering to the few Irish Christians and hopefully converting many others.

So he did.

Legend has it that the shamrock became associated with Patrick because he used it to try to explain the concept of the Trinity to the Irish – three separate entities, but still one. Patrick used the powerful Irish symbol of the sun, too, superimposed it on the cross, and created what became known as the Celtic cross.

After twenty years of preaching in Ireland, he died onMarch 17. And in effect, he changed the religious face of Ireland. At the time of his arrival, there was only a handful devoted to Christianity, with the overwhelming majority worshiping nature gods. Today, 93% of Ireland’s population is Catholic.

And kids are being terrorized in playgrounds across the ocean for not wearing green. And college kids are inebriated with green beer. And the river in Chicago is green.

Well, things don’t always turn out the way you’d like. But I’d offer the reminder that it is possible to change the world on a large scale. Sure, some changes may turn out just like you’d hoped while others might be insulting.

But it’s worth a shot I’d say. Who knows, maybe you’ll get your own color-coded holiday someday, too.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Wrongful Birth?

I swear I'm not doing this on purpose! I don't know what it is about 2006, but the hits just keep on rolling. Case in point: this article from this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. The topic refers back to an article that Joe linked to on a previous post. Lots of interesting issues here that go way beyond the (in comparison) pedestrian debate about abortion. I wish I had time to delve into it more deeply, but I just got back to the office from being horribly sick for five days and have a conference call.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Six Months Out

It stands to reason after a disconcerting event like Hurricane Katrina that we can’t even have a good six-month anniversary.

The storm hit on August 29, and if this were leap year we would have no problems, but February only has twenty-eight days in 2006, so for the six-month observation you get to choose: February 28 or March 1. Even better, take your pick: Fat Tuesday or Ash Wednesday.

Fat Tuesday is the English translation of the party known in French as Mardi Gras, a day set aside every year for indulgent behavior – the feasting before the fasting. It fell on February 28 this year, arguably the six-month mark post-Katrina. Fat Tuesday precedes Ash Wednesday, a day set aside annually for the purpose of penance and fasting – the fasting in preparation of resurrection. It falls on March 1st this time around – also possibly considered the half-year anniversary. I guess it is sort of fitting that one can choose which attitude to don in a look back at this historic storm – one with beads around your neck and a drink in your hand swaying to the music, or one with dirt smeared on your face.

There’s a case to be made for the party. I suspect there are many that are to a point where “drinking their troubles away” is downright appealing. If you’re interested in a get-rich-quick scheme, you might check into building a spaceship and offering Gulf Coast residents trips to Mars where no one has ever even heard of Hurricane Katrina (unless of course, they have satellite television there). I can provide you with a list of people who want to get away from this mess, and if you can offer laughter and dancing as part of the package, then I suspect you’ll have more business than you’d know how to handle. Often, when the choice comes down to laughing or crying in light of trouble, many opt for laughter.

But there’s a case to be made for mourning, too. It is still so sad the work that remains. Countless elderly residents are still homeless, waiting for someone to help rescue them from seemingly hopeless situations. Countless single moms are trying to juggle work and daycare from a tiny FEMA trailer, not to mention battling insurance and fly-by-night con artists masquerading as contractors in their spare time. And Highway 90 still looks like Mars, but enough is there to remind us all of what used to be. There are many reasons to be depressed. So, tears are still appropriate.

There is much progress that has been made in six months. Unbelievable progress, really. There is still so much work that is left to be done. At least an equally unbelievable amount. There are both reasons to rejoice and weep six months removed.

So when it gets down to it, nothing has changed much on a macro-level. When we faced Hurricane Katrina head on, it turned out to be just like Dickens said – the best of times, and the worst of times. It still is six months later.

But there is hope.

There is always hope.

And that is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from it all.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"I will be killed..."

I haven't spent much time around the blog lately. I saw something today that I just had to share here (free registration required). It's a quick news story about Mithal Alusi, an Iraqi politician. He's a Sunni muslim with a strong secularist streak. He has survived multiple assassination attempts, but has lost two sons in those attempts. He is a politician grounded in the realities of Iraq and what it will take for the fledgling democracy to survive as a nation and as a democracy. Here's an excerpt from the end of the article:

But Alusi said he wasn't counting on being a minister or anything but a struggling politician. He insisted that he was committed to a democratizing process that may take decades.

But then in the next smoke-filled breath, Alusi said he didn't expect to live to see his vision completed.

"I will be killed," he said. "I know that."


These are the people we are supporting. Knowing that men like this exist, how can we even entertain the thought of abandoning Iraq?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Where Is Everybody?

It's been looking a little thin over at Desperate Houseflies recently. But, I must soldier on. Today I saw two interesting articles by William Saletan, whose work on abortion I've cited previously. One examines the "loophole" in South Dakota's recently enacted abortion ban; the other talks about moving beyond Roe v. Wade in order to break the stalemate (now we all know how well that will work, but nice try, Will). The former underscores my concern that pro-lifers are more interested in punishing women for having sex at non-approved times with non-approved people than they are with life, however you define it. The latter suggests the kind of compromise that Naomi Wolf and others have suggested: draw the line at the end of the first trimester. This is an interesting idea that would work really well for women who have money and self-awareness -- but those women aren't having second-trimester abortions anyway. I would be willing to bet that second-trimester abortions are caused primarily by three things other than fetuses with developmental problems detected then: (1) lack of money; (2) restrictions, such as waiting periods and notifications, that pose additional obstacles; and (3) lack of self-awareness, or denial, in women who are incredibly out of touch with their bodies and minds (and let me tell you, in my experience one would practically have to be on another planet from her own body not to know she was pregnant). And these things have a disproportionate impact on those with lower socioeconomic status, who are, not coincidentally, the very people who can least afford to bear the costs of unplanned children. So even though from an ethical standpoint I would be comfortable drawing this line, I'm not sure that it would have much of an actual effect in terms of numbers of unplanned pregnancies, which I think is the number we want to reduce. It's the same lack of self-awareness that prevents a woman from realizing she's pregnant until several weeks in, that helps to prevent that same woman from using contraception to begin with. I hate to sound like such a cliche liberal, but what we need most is universal, comprehensive sex education and access to free contraception for all. That won't prevent every unplanned pregnancy, but it would help.

And just to stir up controversy, check out this article from The American Prospect about a 2001 study by two professors that purported to show that the legalization of abortion was a significant factor in the precipitous crime drop of the 1990s. (This ended up as a chapter in Freakonomics, since Stephen Levitt was one of the two). I had such a nonreaction to the data that I was kind of surprised (although I shouldn't have been) that people were so incensed by it. I mean, doesn't it stand to reason that unwanted children have worse lives than wanted ones, and therefore are more likely to commit crime? Seems like a fairly straightforward conclusion to me. What moral conclusions to draw from the data is a conversation that should be had, but it doesn't change what they show.

Okay, that should be enough inflammatory content for this week. Sorry to be such a broken record by writing on this topic so much, but this is interesting stuff and very timely at the moment.

Correction: The Naomi Wolf article linked above is not the one in which she proposes a ban on abortion after the first trimester. I'm not sure if that article, reported on by Katha Pollitt in the Nation, was ever actually published. But Wolf was quoted in this article, originally published in Glamour magazine (I know, I was shocked too), on the subject. The article is also interesting in its own right.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Inspiration Day

Instead of reading my lame attempt at writing today, check out this link to a most inspirational story of an autistic young man turned high school hero:

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/02/23/earlyshow/main1339324.shtml

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