Iraq, Women, Democracy, and Liberty

April 8, 2008

(You can have any three of the nouns in the title, but only three, sorry.)

Over at Political Cartel, Karie has written about Iraqi Women’s Rights Falling By the Wayside. She has some astute observations about the paradox of majoritarianism and liberty for women:

Mature, responsible, hardworking women are told to wear headscarves, occasionally not allowed to drive their own cars, and given a 5 p.m. curfew. Their antagonists? Young, uneducated Iraqi men with weapons and no sense of decency. If an Iraqi man kills his wife or daughter because of suspected sexual promiscuity, he can be imprisoned for no more than three years. If a woman kills an adulterous man, she is tried for murder.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the worst part of it is that conditions for women have actually worsened under the surge. Under Saddam Hussein in the early 90s, “enforced secularism” was the law of the land, and women were largely free to go to college and marry who they liked. But now, under the surge, the US is letting things like gender issues slide for stability’s sake. . . It’s incredibly ironic that an American surge in the name of democracy should actually worsen democratic conditions.

The take-home point here is that majority rule and individual liberty are not necessarily compatible. Here’s what I said in the comments section:

This may have an interesting parallel to Turkish society, where secularism (and women’s rights) must be enforced by a somewhat autocratic state (or at least a democracy with a strongly-involved military). Like Iraq and some other areas of the world, it’s arguable that more democracy will lead to less rights for women. Which really sucks.

It also poses an interesting hypothetical–which do we value more: Democracy, or liberty? In some places they seem to go together and even compliment each other, whereas in others they can conflict.

And David Manes followed up:

Liberty is an end in and of itself; democracy is just a means to achieving other ends. If democracy isn’t taking a society to better places (tolerance, prosperity, human rights, etc.) then it is useless. There is nothing magical about simple majoritarianism if it becomes oppressive.

And (master of hegemonic discourse) Steve Denney:

I think Americans, especially, see [liberty and democracy] as commensurate, which is a false perception. Americans think that Democracy will bring about liberty — a non sequitor, because democracy can bring about the proscription of certain liberties, regardless of the ramifications or the consequences.

When we talk about democracy, I think we’re usually referring to “liberal democracies” like the US, Canada, much of Western Europe, etc. Iran is also a democracy, but it’s a theocratic one. It’s quite arguable that the majority really is getting its way in Iran (to the detriment of those who disagree). Turkey is a democracy of sorts as well, but with a sort of military-enforced secularism that likely goes against the mainstream of public opinion and helps to shape public opinion too. Iran is probably closer to democracy, but I’d take living in Turkey any day, because it is a lot closer to liberty. Of course, it’d be great if we could have both.

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Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


The Blank Faith

March 25, 2008

obama

Barack Obama’s religious beliefs are a sort of blank slate. People from different backgrounds look at him and come to strikingly different conclusions.

There are, of course, the crazies who think Obama is a wicked Muslim Manchurian candidate. A friend of mine was recently giving a campus tour to a prospective student and the student’s parents. They walked by a TV in a lobby showing Fox News (of course) and happened to ask my friend who she was supporting. She replied that she was an Obama supporter, and the mom leaned in and said in a conspiratorial tone, “Well, don’t you think it’s possible, just possible that he’s a plant from Al Qaeda?”

So there are those people. (I’m certain the child will choose my school)

Then are the sincere, likable evangelical Christians who are turning away from the GOP in favor of Obama. They see his religious expressions as more genuine than the professions of prior Democratic candidates, and like his rhetoric that incorporates their religious heritage into policy directions they are generally in line with. They are passionately pro-life and generally against gay marriage, but they are coming to question the Iraq War (if they ever supported it), they see poverty and climate change as moral issues, and they’re more likely to feel compassion than fear when considering immigration.

When I was a freshman, my school’s College Democrats sold 15 t-shirts and counted that a milestone. By this year (five years later) the student Facebook group supporting Obama has 150+ students. I chock this up to a combination of disillusionment with Iraq, feelings of being used by the right-wing-machine, and Obama’s personal appeal and newish approach to religion (at least for a Democrat). The only Hillary supporters I know here are two faculty members and a student from Guyana.

And another friend of mine is a self-described “third-generation secular humanist,” and she sees Obama’s faith in a different light:

Me: “Frankly, I miss the days when the Republicans were the ones associating and apologizing for the nutty religious leaders, and you knew the Democrats were pleasantly secular with a window-trimming of gentle religion for political purposes.”

Her: “Actually, I think Obama is only socially religious and doesn’t really believe in God. I’ve read his books, but I think a lot of that’s political; you have to do that to run for office.”

To each their own?


Srebrenica

July 11, 2007

CNN has a piece on the re-burial of victims of the massacre in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995, worth reading. If you haven’t already, you should check out Sheri Fink’s War Hospital, an excellent account of the siege from the perspective of national and international medical doctors trapped in the Muslim enclave.


I’m an Addict

June 29, 2007

Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. So, here goes…

I’m addicted to books. When I’m feeling good, I read. When I’m feeling bad, I go book shopping. My town doesn’t have many good bookstores (the really good ones are like an hour away), but one of them has a fair number of used books. Those are my crack cocaine–powerful but cheap and accessible.

I’ve had some really bad trips before. Sometimes I wake up the next morning and think “what the hell was I thinking? I’m never going to read that.” But mostly I keep going back because it feels so good. There’s a certain satisfaction in owning books of my own, sharing them with friends (don’t worry, we use bookmark-exchange programs for safety), and especially the ultimate rush–finishing a book one’s been meaning to snort for a long time.

I get a special kick from nonfiction. And today I got a little more money than I was expecting, and I bought four new books. Like any good addict, I justify my habit with excuses. I did get 4 books for $12.59 (including tax), all by authors I had heard of or on subjects I was interested in before I got the books. They are:

The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller, subtitled “How sexual choice shapes the evolution of human nature.”

A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren, some emergent-church theology, subtitled “Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN.” Yeah, so he’s not that concise, but I got to hear him speak last year and thought he’s rather more likable than the majority of ministers/ pastors/ preachers (though I count several of those as friends).

Through a Window, by Jane Goodall, subtitled “My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.” I know she’s influential/ well-known, and now I’ll get to learn why.

And, Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong, author of the A History of God, which I much enjoyed.

So, I’m happy now, high as I am on my fix. I’m shaking a little, and don’t think I’ll be able to get much sleep until I’ve inhaled a little wordage, so I should go back to my alley and read. I promise I’ll stop. But not tonight.


FaithConverter 1.1

June 29, 2007

There’s a neat software package that will convert text from one religious website to another. Here’s a sample of converting from Christianity to Falun Gong.

boxshot_faithconverter.jpg

One of the “reviews” struck me as particularly funny:

“For all aspiring (or even candidating) UU ministers/seminarians who’ve complained about the tedious work of translating their non-UU textbooks into a workable theological language. Your prayers are answered. Now quit your whinging.”

Sorry, it’s only available for Macs.

(Via Pharyngula)


Nigeria…

June 10, 2007

ThruthDig has an excellent piece on the recent “elections” in Nigeria and what they may or may not mean. More thoughts coming soon.