Professional Courtesy

Welp.

My wife, Mimi, had been in communication with a recruiter for some job up in Connecticut, and the topic of salary came up. She was countering his offer with a request for a higher wage, because after all, as she put it, ‘a girl’s gotta eat’.

His response was a picture of a half-naked anorexic girl – anorexic to the point where her abdomen was hideously deformed and the contour of her organs were visible. He apparently thought this was funny.

After she finished her immediate reaction (shock and horror, to be precise), she called the company’s front desk to get to HR. It was shortly after 5PM, however, so they were closed. She replied to the email he sent with a request to have his supervisor call or email.

Within moments, her phone rang. It was the person who had sent the email, trying to talk her out of getting him in trouble because hey, it was just a joke, right?

I’m not sure exactly what he said, but it must have been good, because Mimi decided to leave it at that provided he didn’t contact her anymore. She also commented that she was no longer interested in the position, as if that were not obvious enough.

What sort of person thinks sending an image like that in professional communication is acceptable in any way? Unfortunately, this happens all the time: Far more often than any statistics will tell you, women and minorities are harassed, marginalized, and oppressed in ‘professional’ environments all over the place. Let’s analyze the event and really see what it COMMUNICATES from a psychological perspective.

The context of the event is a discussion of salary for a potential new job. The recruiter has made a salary offer, the potential employee is countering with a request for a slightly higher salary, with the lighthearted comment ‘A girl’s gotta eat’. The recruiter responds, agreeing to the higher salary, attaching the aforementioned image. The image is not referenced in the body of the email. The potential employee responds, asking what the image was about, and he replied "You said a girl’s gotta eat, the one below doesn’t look she has to eat" [sic] . One assumes he meant to say that the girl did not look like she had to eat.

At best, at absolute best, he is being sarcastic and was trying to indicate that she would not starve on the wage. However, even if we assume the best, we are still faced with the fact that we are dealing with a person who thinks that a crippling disorder is funny. We are still faced with someone who looks at the plight of young girls driven to mental illness by the culture of misogyny, whose illness manifests in literally starving themselves to death for fear of being fat and therefore ‘unpersoned’ by our culture – a person who looks at that and finds it amusing, and sees nothing wrong with referencing that in professional communication with a woman.

I want to be clear here that there is nothing wrong with having a peculiar sense of humor – myself, I have a very dark sense of humor. I laugh at things that many people find broadly offensive, and that’s fine, because I am not forcing my idea of what’s funny on people in a professional environment. There is a certain level of etiquette that is expected in the workplace – and discussing the particulars of a potential job with a recruiter counts as ‘the workplace’ – that is expected to be followed. This isn’t even merely an issue of politesse, this is federal law.

Furthermore, the fact that the recruiter called her directly instead of putting her in touch with his supervisor is also questionable – when a line has been crossed like that, you forfeit your right to make it better on your own. When you are the problem, and have offended someone that profoundly, you must not make it worse by inflicting yourself on them any longer. Even if you suddenly understand your offense, and are granted a moment of clarity so you are certain you will not be offensive again, your mere presence in the conversation can be seen as oppressive or offensive by the person you offended. If I punch you in the face, and then tell you that I’m very sorry and promise not to do it again, you’re still going to be paying more attention to what I am doing with my hands than what I am saying with my mouth. So it is with offensive communication: If I confront you with an offensive image, and then apologize for it, you’re going to be thinking more about the offense I committed than what I am saying.

As it stands, Mimi is no longer considering employment with that firm. If she had been put in touch with the supervisor as she requested, the recruiter would definitely have been called onto the carpet for his actions, sure. But having a third party to discuss her concerns with may have allowed Mimi to regain some comfort, and not only soothed the damage, but also saved the business deal. For the recruiter to smooth things over himself saved his own skin, but sacrificed the business deal. It also subconsciously reinforces to the recruiter that his actions were acceptable, and that Mimi overreacted. Because after all, if he talked her down, that means everything’s okay, right? Perhaps getting disciplined by his human resources department – or undergoing mandatory sexual harassment sensitivity training – would have given the recruiter a much needed wake up call, and forced him to reconsider such actions in the future. I guess we’ll never know.

This isn’t the first or even the hundredth time I’ve been shown evidence that professional courtesy is anything but, but the sheer audacity of it was surprising. I can only hope the recruiter had simply started drinking a little early, and this was a result of temporarily impaired judgment instead of chronically impaired judgment.

It’s pretty sad when your best case scenario involves likely alcoholism.

There but for the grace of somebody

The other day, I was out shopping with my wife and son – my father had sent him some bookstore gift cards for Christmas, so we were taking advantage of post-holiday sales. On our way in to the store, an older guy in a beat-up Army jacket got my attention and asked if I knew where the local homeless shelter was. I gave him directions to the PORT program down by the shipyard, and he thanked me profusely and said that he’d been asking for hours, and I was the first person who had even bothered to reply. We talked a little while, I gave him a visa gift card I had left over from the holidays that had five or ten bucks left on it, and told him where he could pick up a bus to the shelter.

While we were talking, a number of people passed by and gave me a look of… annoyed sympathy? ‘You’re not supposed to talk to those people, and I’m sorry you got roped into it’, that sort of thing. It was being made clear to me that I had broken the social contract by acknowledging someone that is supposed to be invisible – especially near a ‘nice’ shopping area where poor people aren’t supposed to exist at all.

Despite all our claims that America is a land of equal rights and freedom for all, despite all our grandstanding about how caste systems in other cultures are Bad and Evil, there are very clear lines between Us and Them in American culture. The dark side of the American Dream – ‘You can do anything if you try’ – is the assumption that those who can’t do something as simple as feed and shelter themselves just isn’t trying. The assumption is made that they WANT to live under a bridge and eat out of a dumpster. We justify ignoring them and not sparing them some change by convincing ourselves that they’d just spend it on drugs or booze and not food or shelter.

The problem with homeless people is that lingering second word there – ‘people’. Despite all our handwaving about how they’re a bunch of violent drug addicts who will follow you home and rob you blind if you give them the change from your frappucino, despite all the election-season hollering by politicians promising to ‘get those homeless OUT of our fair city’, despite Hollywood painting them alternately as schizophrenics or Magical Negroes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_negro), homeless people are just that – people. Sure, some are drug addicts, but most aren’t. Sure, some are violent, but most aren’t. Sure, some are homeless by choice, but the VAST MAJORITY are not. The vast majority of homeless people are far, far more similar to you and me than we are comfortable with. Just regular folks who had something happen – got laid off perhaps, got thrown out by a partner or a family member, got hurt and lost everything to medical bills – and now they can’t afford their basic needs. Yes, there are shelters and soup kitchens, but they are woefully underfunded and undermanned. I have yet to find a single place in America where the number of beds in homeless shelters exceeds or even matches the number of homeless people who need them.

I’m not asking you to donate your time and money to homeless programs in your area (though it would be nice). I’m not asking you to donate money to homeless people directly (though that, again, would be nice, and if you’re worried about it being used for drugs or booze, keep a couple $5 gift cards to grocery stores in your wallet for this purpose). All I’m asking is for you to stop treating people as invisible because their existence is threatening to your worldview. That right there, that simple change in your outlook, will go further toward ‘solving the homeless problem’ than you’d expect. It’s a lot harder to treat someone like garbage when you actually see them as a person.

Fear and Loathing for Sanity

Driving to our nation’s capital from Southern Virginia, you pass by a whole lot of military and governmental installations: Belvoir, Quantico, Alexandria, and others. I was driving near Richmond, looking at the fog collecting over the swamps by the side of the interstate, and listening to Simon and Garfunkel singing about finding America. I had expected to write a pithy piece about how the Rally to Restore Sanity would show Washington that the loose assortment of hipsters, internet geeks, and slacktivists that they had previously largely ignored (with few notable exceptions) had suddenly become the Next Big Voting Pool, and write a message of hope for the future and an admonishment to not lose the momentum.

In the interests of covering all my bases, however, I came equipped with a flask of bourbon, a packet of cigars, a cell phone with still and video camera, and my trusty laptop. I’d forgotten the condoms, but was otherwise perfectly equipped to commit acts of journalism. A good friend had suggested I leave my ever-present knife at home, so I stashed it in the car. Sanity and all that, and besides, this wasn’t expected to be too bonkers.

Over the next twelve hours, I was proven wrong in more ways than I could have ever imagined, and a couple times I mourned the absence of the knife.

I generally wear a three-day shave, a Hulk Hogan moustache, dark glasses, a purple paisley do-rag, and a Popeye squint when out in public because that way the sort of people who aren’t worth talking to will leave you the hell alone on the subway. I immediately fell into a discussion on labor unions with a photojournalist, his wife, and a guy who looked like the love child of Steve Buscemi and Vinnie Barbarino. When the immensely crowded train lurched to a halt at L’Enfant Plaza and issued forth its passengers, we were directed toward the Mall by cheerful, lucid volunteers. I began to wonder if maybe my suspicions of madness were unfounded, and then I turned a corner to see a guy holding a sign demanding no amnesty or guest worker visas for immigrants, and immediate deportation of anyone found here illegally. I asked him what exactly he meant by that, and he replied in heavily accented English that if you weren’t born here, you shouldn’t be here. I asked him where his ancestors were from and he didn’t seem to understand the relevance of the question. The point that basically everybody but Native Americans were immigrants to America, and we were pretty uniformly dicks to those guys sailed straight over his head, and he stopped paying attention to me at that point.

Over the next few hours, I was vomited on twice by people I assumed to be unrelated, witnessed an old man in wizard robes lick the back of a policeman’s hat (the policeman was distracted by screaming at a very stoned young man who had climbed one of the trees in the Mall), listened to a surprising assortment of excellent musical acts, had my phone stolen a couple times (luckily everyone was immobilized by the crowd so retrieval was a simple matter of snatching it back and threatening the thief with anatomically unlikely retribution), and witnessed unholy anarchy as the local cellular networks were completely destroyed by sheer force of numbers and everyone tried their calls, text messages, and Qik uploads over… and over… and over again. AT&T never had a chance.

By the time the rally was over, the National Mall east of 7th and every possible surface for a couple blocks in every direction was UTTERLY jammed with a seething mass of humanity. On my way out, I saw people had climbed the portable toilets – some looking for their comrades, others jeering and preaching to the crowd, and a couple folks doing jumping jacks. The toilets, including the impromptu exercise yard, were still in constant use despite the rapidly disintegrating roofs. I can only imagine some poor jerk trying to answer nature’s call got a surprise.

Discarded signs, flyers, food wrappers and water bottles, assorted effluvia and bodily fluids, and the occasional demolished cell phone littered the ground, and the word on the street was WHAT’S NEXT – afterparties, pub crawls, and the never-ending quest for illicit substances. However, just as much as that was chatter about the midterm elections – who was secretly or not-so-secretly a tea party stooge, who was trying to do the right thing but bogged down by the politics game, who was a pretty good incumbent but should step down to make room for a rising star with some good ideas and enough political capital to make them happen.

My God, I thought, maybe I was right all along and this WAS the slacktivist voter pool captured in the act of becoming. Its birth – or perhaps baptism – was just a little dirtier than most. I kept those particular stars in my eyes right up to the point where I finally punched my way onto the exiting subway, and an unknown but very friendly gentleman in his twenties squeezed my genitals, along with the genitals of several other folks on the subway, before somehow wriggling through the crowded train and escaping the wrath of the groped.

I love Washington.

Citizen Journalism: Alive and Well

There’s an unfortunate attitude among many members of law enforcement organizations that they are themselves above the law. You need look no further than a cursory Google search on abuses of power by police officers, evidence mishandling by prosecutors, or corrupt judges to see that. Law enforcement officers are, after all, human, and just as fallible and prone to hypocrisy and excess as you or I.

Enter the rise of technology. Video recording equipment has gotten smaller and cheaper, with cameras in teddy bears to help spy on the babysitter, built into mobile phones to let you take video snapshots anywhere, and helmet-mounted cameras to record adventures. Staff Sgt Anthony Graber (MD Air Nat’l Guard) has one of the latter, and used it while riding his motorcycle on March 5th (and admittedly driving VERY irresponsibly). He was pulled over by Trooper J. D. Uhler of the Maryland State Police – not in uniform or wearing any identifying clothing whatsoever – who displayed his sidearm BEFORE properly identifying himself as a member of law enforcement, a gross violation of departmental policy. ( http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-police-cameras-graber-20100903,0,5148683.story )

Fortunately for Graber, he captured every detail of the traffic stop with his camera, and uploaded it to YouTube. The Maryland State Police found it, and executed a search warrant on his home, seizing cameras and computers, stating that his recording of the traffic stop was a violation of the Maryland Wiretap Act ( http://mlis.state.md.us/asp/statutes_respond.asp?article=gcj&section=10-401&Extension=HTML ), claiming that the interaction between Trooper Uhler and Staff Sgt Graber was a ‘private conversation’ and therefore protected under the Act.

Judge Emory Pitt Jr of the Harford County Circuit Court threw out those charges in a 20 page decision ( http://www.scribd.com/doc/38308423/State-of-Maryland-v-Anthony-John-Graber-III ), explaining not only that the Act as written did not cover this situation, but that police officers do not have an expectation of privacy when executing their duties in public, nor should they. Quote: "Those of us who are public officials and are entrusted with the power of the state are ultimately accountable to the public. When we exercise that power in public fora, we should not expect our actions to be shielded from public observation. ‘Sed quis custodiet ipsos cutodes [sic]’ (Who watches the watchmen?)"

Though the judge’s ruling is not binding to other judges (as it is just a circuit court), it sets the beginnings of a precedent, and is based in a solid interpretation of both the law as written and existing case histories, so it is unlikely that the ruling will be overturned in a higher court. This is the beginning of the end for opacity in law enforcement, and the rest depends on the citizens of our nation to carry this further. Would the Rodney King beating have happened if the officers involved knew there was a good chance they would be recorded, and that the recording would turn up in court? If George Holliday, the man who videotaped King’s savage beating, hadn’t been around to videotape it, or if he had been scared of police reprisal for submitting the recording, would any of us have even heard of the abuse?

There are a number of ways you can help. If you have a mobile phone with onboard camera, use it. There is software available for almost any camera-equipped smartphone that will share recorded video and sound to Youtube, Facebook, or a number of other sites. One free software package called Qik ( http://www.qik.com ) offers an option for streaming your camera’s video live to the internet and keeps a copy of the video on the site regardless of what happens to the phone – very useful if you worry about your phone being confiscated by an angry law enforcement officer trying to hide evidence of their misdeeds. Note that in this case, it would also capture the confiscation itself on video. (Full disclosure: I use Qik, but have no ownership stake in their company or any vested interest whatsoever in their success or failure.)

Video isn’t the only way you can contribute to ‘watching the watchmen’ – never underestimate the power of the written word. If you witness something happening that shouldn’t be, commit as much as possible to memory, and write down the details as soon as you can, even if it’s just a quick note. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or even coherency, you can worry about that later. Submit tips to local news agencies – you might not be an anchorman or anchorwoman on the six o’clock news, but they don’t get their stories just from being in the right place in the right time. That’s your job.

Public meetings of local governmental organizations are also worth attending, you’d be surprised at the amount of graft and other nonsense that goes on simply because nobody spares an hour or two once a month to attend a public council meeting. Be warned, though, taking an interest in local politics can swiftly turn into an interest in participating in local politics – but that’s another article.

Not every judge can be counted on to do the right thing, unfortunately. Felicia Laverne Gibson, of Salisbury NC, is currently appealing a ruling upholding her arrest for ‘resisting, obstructing, or delaying a police officer’ for videotaping a traffic stop from her front porch. ( http://www.salisburypost.com/News/082110-Felicia-Gibson-guilty-resist-arrest-Mark-Hunter-qcd ) The judge who issued the ruling is currently seeking re-election, while Gibson and her attorney are seeking an appeal. As a sidebar, this is a problem that can be made slightly better by participating in local elections and making sure you’re putting the right judges on the bench.

On a final note, it’s worth stating that the vast, overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are honest – they go out and do their jobs intending only to serve the public need. It’s a tough, thankless job that I wouldn’t take for any amount of money – they are not the problem. The particular nature of law enforcement, however, means that the comparatively low number of ‘bad’ cops – or even good cops that make mistakes – have a seriously detrimental effect. If a bus driver has a bad day and takes it out on you, you might be late to work. If an armed police officer has a bad day, you get another news article about an unarmed man being murdered in a subway station ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10565543 ) or another unarmed man being brutally beaten at a traffic stop ( http://www.wfaa.com/news/crime/Dallas-officers-under-investigation-for-police-brutality-102479674.html ). This will only stop happening if law enforcement officers know that chances are good that anytime they abuse their powers, they will be watched, and the watchers will not be silenced.

"The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state." US Supreme Court, City of Houston v. Hill, 1987

http://supreme.justia.com/us/482/451/case.html

Are we sliding towards (National) Socialism?

Back in 1919, a German gentleman named Anton Drexler and five associates founded the German Worker’s Party, hoping to represent the downtrodden workers of Germany: the poor, the unrepresented, the working classes sick of a government ignoring their needs and complaints. Fairly early on, it was infiltrated by a member of the German army sent to spy on the group and subvert it, largely to keep it harmless and stupid. Drexler and his associates swiftly found their party, which was intended to benefit all Germans by empowering and fortifying its lower classes, turned into the nightmarish Nazi Party, one of the very few groups in all of history who qualifies for the descriptor ‘evil’.

Ninety years later and five thousand miles away, another group of citizens was becoming displeased with what they saw as a government that had ceased to represent their interests. Protests were popping up all over the country, with a core message of holding the American government accountable for what the protesters saw as blatant disregard for the needs and concerns of the working classes. Over time, the Tea Party drew more and more supporters – many of which didn’t seem to fit in, like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, hardly working-class material. Accusations of their true motives have been bandied about ( http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/opinion/13krugman.html?_r=1 ), but as yet no real resistance has been put forth to keep outside interests from steering the Tea Party movement from its stated course.

I do not at all intend to compare Tea Party members with Nazis – I simply draw the parallel because both started as populist, working-class social and political movements, and both were or are being subverted to other ends. One ended up causing World War Two and being responsible for the deaths of millions. What will the other accomplish when it becomes a perverted version of itself?

Back in Germany after the end of the First World War, many were placing the military defeats and national weaknesses largely at the feet of social groups considered ‘Un-German’: Jews, Socialists, and people not showing sufficient amounts of patriotism. Pluralism – or the idea of cultural or ethnic groups inside a host country keeping their cultural or ethnic identity – was coming under fire as an example of insufficient national pride. After all, shouldn’t they be Germans first, and Jews or Russians or whatever second?

You don’t have to swap too many nouns around in that previous paragraph to strike a chilling resemblance to the rising movement of ‘America for Americans’. Again, I cannot stress strongly enough that I am not comparing the rank-and-file Tea Party members, or any man or woman acting on their conscience and protesting what they see as mistreatment by their government to Nazis. I draw these parallels to show how easily the movement was subverted from a populist movement demanding the return of government to its roots of representative democracy to a plutocratic (in the case of the Tea Party) or fascist (in the case of National Socialism) coup.

A recurring theme in my writing, and much of my philosophy, is that one should do one’s own thinking, and never ever allow someone else to do their thinking for them. My problem with the Tea Party has nothing to do with its actual members, and everything to do with how it is being exploited by corporate and other interests to enact policy change designed to benefit not the working class, but the upper class. Tax cuts for the rich benefit only the rich, after all.

Now, we have the Department of Defense spending untold amounts of money to purchase an entire print run of an Army Reservist’s memoir, only to destroy it – claiming that the information contained therein was a threat to national security. ( http://us.cnn.com/2010/US/09/25/books.destroyed/index.html ) This is despite the fact that the author and publisher were exceedingly careful to make sure the book had no classified or sensitive information in it, even going so far as to submit a copy to the author’s military chain of command for review, and proceeded with printing only when the Army Reserve Command gave its blessing.

A second printing is on the way ( http://us.macmillan.com/book.aspx?isbn=9780312603694 ), rife with DoD-requested changes and line after line of blacked-out redactions. Free-journalism superheroes Wikileaks claim to have an unedited copy, and I hope for America’s sake they do.

Also, in submitting a request for dismissal of a federal suit ( http://static1.firedoglake.com/28/files/2010/09/100925-Al-Aulaqi-USG-PI-Opp-MTD-Brief-FILED.pdf ) demanding that the US not assassinate a US citizen without due process, the CIA, Secretary of Defense, and the President himself state in so many words that "not only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are "state secrets," and thus no court may adjudicate their legality." (Glenn Greenwald, salon.com, link http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/09/25/secrecy ) One of the arguments in the request for dismissal I found interesting was that the case should be dismissed because it wasn’t brought to the court by the assassination target himself – after all, it would only make sense for the target of an assassination plot to walk into the den of their would-be murderers and ask them nicely not to hurt him.

We have a government banning books and attempting to murder its own citizens under the aegis of national security, and refusing to explain any further, as if the words are a magic spell that ends any line of questioning. President Obama was elected largely on a platform of change in government, an end to the opaque decisionmaking and stone walls preventing American citizens from being allowed to see the inner workings of American government. Although only a fool believes all of a politician’s campaign promises, I had hoped that this one at least would bear more fruit than it did.

A functioning military demands a certain amount of secrecy, this much is obvious. You can’t exactly attack an enemy by surprise if they know where you are and what precisely you’re going to throw at them, after all. But bypassing due process for American citizens – a right insisted upon in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution – is something that demands further explanation than a weak ‘national security’ handwave. Mr. President, if you or those you choose to lead other departments are intending to murder one of your citizens without granting him the fair trial guaranteed by the document you swore to uphold, then you have some explaining to do.

It is worth noting that Anwar Awlaki, the alleged assassination target, is a dual US – Yemeni citizen, and allegedly a key decision-maker in Al-Qaeda. It is also worth noting that there has not yet been any concrete evidence shown to prove Awlaki’s involvement in Al-Qaeda. No matter how terrible the man’s crimes may be, he – like any other American citizen – has the right to due process. The fact that the man stands accused of treason does not remove his right to due process – in fact, the Constitution specifically demands due process in cases of alleged treason, in Article III, section 3.

Article I, section 9 of the Constitution also forbids the use of writs of attainder – in a nutshell, an act of a governmental body declaring someone guilty and demanding a punishment without benefit of trial. There are multiple reasons why Awlaki’s assassination without trial cannot be allowed to happen while we as a nation claim to uphold our Constitution. Regardless of whether or not the man is guilty of working with Al-Qaeda, the very founding documents we claim to hold sacred demand we grant him the rights he has as an American citizen. As he has not yet forfeited his American citizenship, nor has he satisfied the conditions for having his citizenship revoked ( http://travel.state.gov/law/citizenship/citizenship_778.html ), we as a nation are forced with a choice: Grant him the rights he deserves, or turn our backs on our nation’s most sacred beliefs.

Are we allowing fear and hate to infiltrate our national conscience and subvert it, as the German Worker’s Party turned into the Nazi Party and the Tea Party is slowly but surely changing into an astroturf movement for corporate interests? Are we going to wake up one day to find that our nation no longer resembles what we thought it was? Or, even more horrifying to consider, has that day already come?

Of the Devil? The Beam in Terry Jones’ Eye

“Say: O ye unbelievers!

I worship not that which ye worship,

And ye do not worship that which I worship;

I shall never worship that which ye worship,

Neither will ye worship that which I worship.

To you be your religion; to me my religion.”

The Qur’an, sura 109

There’s a church in Gainesville, Florida ( http://www.doveworld.org/ ) that’s planning on burning as many copies of the Qur’an as they can find on September 11. They’ve even set up a Facebook group to boost participation all over the globe. They claim that although they realize their actions will offend millions – many to the point of armed protest and military response, if General David Petraeus’s warnings are to be heeded ( http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/09/07/florida.quran.burning/index.html ) – they feel their message is more important than its possible consequences. They claim that their message, aimed at radical Muslims only, is not one of hate, but one need look no further than their own website ( http://www.doveworld.org/blog/ten-reasons-to-burn-a-koran ) to see that their reasons to burn the book are based primarily on xenophobia and hate – and if you dig a little deeper, bald-faced hypocrisy.

Their reasons include such gems as number six, decrying Islamic law as being totalitarian – that those under its rule, willingly or not, must obey without question or criticism. This is particularly interesting, given that in an interview, Emma Jones, daughter of Dr. Terry Jones, head of the Dove World Outreach Center, stated in an interview with the Gainesville Sun that “they used mental violence. They’d say, ‘If you’re not obedient, God will punish you.'” (http://www.gainesville.com/article/20090719/ARTICLES/907191005 ) Jennifer Engel, who moved from Germany to work with the church, had this to say after leaving the church: “We had no friends, and also everything was very controlled. We aren’t allowed to say any critical things. […] They started to preach about total obedience. No matter what they say, we have to do it.”

It’s also worth noting that Engel and her husband left the church after they discovered grave financial inconsistencies. Dr. and Mrs. Jones, the leadership of the church, also own a furniture business in Gainesville named TS And Company. During the Engels membership in the church, they handled finances and bookkeeping. There were regular payments from the furniture business to the church, and also unexplained payments from the church to the furniture business of at least $15,000.00. What’s more, the furniture business is staffed entirely by ‘volunteer’ labor from the church, much of that from the Dove World Outreach Academy. Students at the Academy live and work on grounds owned by the furniture company, and their curriculum includes material intended to “break their pride” and “humble themselves not only under God’s mighty hand but under the hand of man” ( http://www.dwocacademy.com/about ). Part of that, apparently, is working long hours for the furniture company without pay, and without the ability to contact friends and family outside the church for any reason whatsoever, according to an academy rulebook acquired by the Gainesville Sun and verified as legitimate by Pastor Stephanie Sapp, VP of the Academy.

That’s not all – the furniture company also purchased properties in low-income housing projects to house their unpaid workers. In a city where 13.2% of the population lives below the poverty line and a county where nearly nine hundred people are homeless, is it truly just for profit-seeking businesses to buy up low-income housing? (2008 census estimate, http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ACSSAFFFacts?_event=Search&_cityTown=gainesville&_state=04000US12 , and 2010 data from annual report on homeless conditions in Florida, http://www.dcf.state.fl.us/programs/homelessness/docs/2010%20Homeless%20Conditions.pdf ) Furthermore, the Lisa Jones House, described by the church as an outreach program to the poor, provides meals for at least some of the unpaid workers for the church and, by extension, furniture company. Where does the Lisa Jones House get the food for these meals? Why, the local food banks, according to the Gainesville Sun. A request to DWOC for rebuttal on this point was not answered.

So let’s get this all straight – a church sends its youth to study at a private academy, whose curriculum is based in large part in working without pay for a for-profit furniture company owned by the pastor and his wife. Other members of the church also chip in, working long hours to sell furniture, pack and ship orders, and handle bookkeeping (which could generously be described as creative writing). Many of the workers are put up in low-income housing – bought and paid for by the furniture company (which, by the way, is looking for an apartment manager! http://www.christiancareercenter.com/jobs/job/management/1675 ) – and fed with food appropriated from local food banks. Instead of providing service to the community, they are in fact draining limited resources intended to help the poor – not boost profits for a company that has figured out how to avoid paying its employees. In addition to all of that, much of the furniture company’s activities happen on land owned by the church, and therefore tax-free. If a scenario like this were used as a backdrop for a television show, it would be dismissed as unbelievable. And yet this is the church claiming that Islam is “of the devil”, claiming that the prophet Muhammad was “corrupted by power and worldly ambitions”, and that Islam is “not compatible with democracy and human rights”.

Given that this is a nation based on democracy and human rights (though we are far from perfect in either regard), I want to make my position clear: I am strongly against the burning of the Qur’an, but I do not challenge DWOC’s legal right to do so as a form of free expression. I am strongly against the burning of any book, because it is an attempt to destroy an idea. Any idea has a right to exist and be discussed, even and especially those we find distasteful and monstrous. By discussing and considering ideas we may not agree with, we gain enlightenment and understanding of our own ideas on a deeper level. I am not calling for the legal right of the Dove World Outreach Center to burn the Qur’an to be limited; I am only trying to shed some light on their motivations and some of their other, potentially illegal activities they would rather not discuss.

On the flip side, the hate and xenophobia being spread by the Dove World Outreach Center is inspiring a flood of counter-protests all over the country. Churches, interfaith groups, and secular organizations nationwide are organizing events to help calm the fears of their communities. Qur’an readings, interviews and discussions with imams and other Muslim clerics, and explorations of Islam in America are popping up all over. What will I be doing on September 11? Instead of burning a Qur’an, and trying to silence an idea that will surely outlive me, I will be reading it. Though I do not share the Islamic faith, I respect its right to exist and its role as a part of American culture, and wish to know more about it.

Labor Day, Trade Unions, and My Buddy Jack

Let me tell you about my friends Diane and Jack, and why I consider Labor Day one of America’s most important holidays.

Jack is a journeyman ironworker, currently working in New York City on the 9/11 memorial site at Ground Zero.  Diane, along with their three children, lives in Wisconsin, where they moved a few years ago because they couldn’t afford the high cost of living in New York, and because one of their children has special needs that simply weren’t being addressed.  So for large parts of the year, Jack gets on a plane, flies a thousand miles away from his family, and literally rebuilds America.  Diane is trying to get into social work as a means to give back to her community some of the assistance and guidance she and her family received as NYC expatriates – basically, helping to identify families in need of assistance, and providing counseling and guidance for where to find the assistance that best suits their needs.  I’m not trying to wrap them in the American flag too tightly here, but these are the sort of folks that build good communities.

Jack’s a member of a trade union for ironworkers.  The union taught him everything from knots to crane operator hand signals to rigging – even how to spot terrorist activity.  This is important, because according to this 2009 census of fatal occupational injuries ( http://stats.bls.gov/iif/oshwc/cfoi/cfch0008.pdf ), structural metalworking is the sixth most dangerous job in America today.  It had been number four, but thanks in large part to advances in safety equipment and training (pushed for heavily by trade unions), it’s becoming safer.  It’s still dangerous, though:  The fatal injury rate for structural metalworkers is 30.3 (per 100,000 fulltime workers).  That’s still a little better than nine times the national average of 3.3.  Office and administrative support, by the way, clocks in at a rate of about 0.5.

Along with making sure Jack and his coworkers are provided with the equipment and training they need to keep them safe, the union also helps manage ‘fringe benefits’ like health care, a special unemployment fund, and vacation pay.  Since Jack, like most of his colleagues, doesn’t work for a single company but instead picks up jobs at a union hall, he winds up working for a lot of different companies on a lot of different projects.  This would be a logistical nightmare if he relied on the different companies he works for to manage his benefits, so how it works in a nutshell is that the money that the employer would normally pay to benefits providers (like insurance companies), they instead pay to the benefits management team in the union, who make it all happen.  Occasionally, and especially lately, the economic downturn and associated lack of work means that he has to fall back on the union unemployment fund, but another big benefit of Jack’s union membership is the community it creates:  true brothers in arms.  Sure, self-reliance is expected, but Jack’s union brothers would never let one another go hungry.

There has been a lot of bad press and debate over unions lately, with many claiming that they are an artifact of a bygone era and no longer necessary.  Make no mistake – Jack, and the millions of industrial workers like him, would not be anywhere near as safe and fairly compensated as they are now if not for the ongoing efforts of trade unions.  If safety training and benefits management were left to the companies employing the workers, cut corners and ghoulish cost-saving measures would be the order of the day.  Jack’s training is handled by an organization that has as its first priority his safety – after all, if he is injured or worse, he can’t work, and no workers means no union.  However, a company need only satisfy legal bare minimums on safety equipment and training – after all, if a worker gets hurt or killed, they can always hire someone else.  Trade unions keep workers safe, compensated, and trained.

In fact, trade unions – or more precisely, the collective bargaining power they represent – are responsible for Labor Day becoming an American holiday.  Back in 1894, President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday.  Designed to honor the workers whose labors built this nation from the ground up – and also to help smooth relations with organized labor in the wake of the disastrous Pullman Strike ( http://dig.lib.niu.edu/gildedage/pullman/index.html ) , the first Monday in September was set aside, and the holiday was adopted by every state in the Union.  These days, Labor Day parades have fallen out of fashion in many cities, and you don’t often hear speeches by local politicians unless there’s an election coming up.  Labor Day has sort of fallen by the wayside and been turned more into a signpost marking the end of summer and the beginning of football season.

Chances are, most of you reading this work in an office somewhere, and probably even get Labor Day as a paid holiday.  Jack doesn’t.  He usually takes it off anyway, dipping into his vacation time to do so, and enjoys the parades and the barbecues.  There’s a certain irony in the fact that the folks whom Labor Day was intended to honor have to cut into their vacation time to attend their own parade, while office workers and other folks who enjoy the yield of laborers and tradesmen don’t.

This is not to say you shouldn’t enjoy the day off, or even the whole weekend.  Hard work is not the sole provenance of industrial and construction workers, after all.  Simply spare a thought for the people this holiday is really about, and reflect on how you’ve benefitted from their efforts.

Happy Labor Day, everybody.

(Names changed to protect the privacy of my friends.)

Sexual Torture in America’s Prisons

The town I grew up in, Addison, Maine, has around 1200 residents.  If I were to tell you that in an average year, around 53 of those residents were horribly raped, how would you react?  Would you wonder what law enforcement was doing?  Would you demand that effort be put forward to stop this victimization at any cost, that no amount of money was too much to invest to make sure that nobody has to live under that constant threat of violence on American soil?  Or would you shrug your shoulders and say they probably deserved it?

The Department of Justice recently released a study on prison rape (located here:http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2202 ) indicating that 4.4% of the respondents to the poll had reported being raped or otherwise sexually victimized within the 12 months preceding the study.  In 2009, 2,297,400 men, women, and juveniles were held in prisons, jails, and detention centers (source:http://www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/law/research/icps/worldbrief/ ).  That means that judging by the numbers released by the DoJ, 101,086 inmates are victimized every year, or one about every five minutes, every hour of every day.  In the time it took you to catch up with The Simpsons on television, six people – six American citizens – were horribly and violently sexually victimized.

And nobody seems to want to do anything about it.

It’s very easy to dismiss prison rape as a consequence of crime – after all, everybody knows rape happens in prison all the time, so if you don’t want to get raped, you shouldn’t break laws.  It’s easy to see the victims as Other, as less-than-human because after all, they wouldn’t BE in prison if they weren’t already bad people, right?

The United States of America imprisons more of its own citizens per capita than any other nation on the planet:  748 per 100,000, or 0.748%.  Out of the 217 countries that I could find statistics for, that’s more than the bottom 21 combined.  It’s more than China and the Russian Federation combined.  It’s more than Iran, Taiwan, and the UAE put together.  Surely we as a nation aren’t so sinful that each and every one of those 2,297,400 people deserve to be put in a place where there’s a good chance they’re going to be raped?  In fact, the vast majority of those in prisons or jails – about three quarters – are there for nonviolent offenses, like tax evasion, three-strikes convictions for marijuana possession, and having too many traffic tickets.  Hardly the sort of crimes for which brutal rape is anything resembling a fair trade, not that there is such a thing.

Many of you reading this are wondering why we allow this to happen.  Why haven’t we told the Department of Justice to do something about this?  Actually, we did:  In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 was signed into law.  This Act put together a National Prison Rape Elimination Commission that, after considering reports, funding, statistics, and testimony, gave US Attorney General Eric Holder until June 23, 2010 to establish new standards for reducing rape and sexual assault in prisons.  The standards wouldn’t even have to be mandatory, though prisons would see reduced funding if those standards were not met.

The findings of the commission were sent to Holder in 2009, giving him one year exactly to come up with some new standards.  This apparently was not enough time for the Department of Justice, who has stalled the process by hiding behind cost analyses and budget concerns.  Although the findings of the commission recommended that the new standards not impose undue costs on the operating budgets of the prisons, it is worth noting that money spent preventing prisoners from being raped by other prisoners and guards (yes, of that 4.4% of prisoners getting raped every year, 2.8% – more than half – was by the staff) is money not spent on medical and mental treatment of the victims.  Money spent preventing rape is money not spent on prosecuting rapists.  Money spent making sure the staff isn’t sexually torturing the prisoners is money not spent replacing the staff and trying to hide the fact that the new prisoner is an ex-guard (because, after all, we wouldn’t want the ex-guard to be targeted for violence).

At what point do we say enough is enough?  At what point do you contact your congressperson or senator and tell them that you are furious at the constant stalling by the Department of Justice and that we need to send a message to them demanding that something be done about this NOW and not later?  If for you, that point is now, you can find contact information for your congresspersons here (https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml ) and your senators here (http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm ).  Take a look at the report by the DoJ (linked above) and see the data for yourself – glance at the summary page at the very least.  Take a look at the World Prison Brief (again, linked above) and see for yourself how many people we put in prison.  Then ask yourself:  Is this justice?

The Road to Hell

A few days ago, the construction site of a Muslim community center in a suburb of Nashville, TN was attacked by arsonists.  Construction equipment was damaged and destroyed.  Although no person or group has come forward to claim credit for the attack, the message is clear and echoed by members of the local community:  No Muslims Allowed.

The fact that such acts constitute terrorism is plainly evident.  Terrorism – the use of terror as a means of changing the behavior or beliefs of a population or a segment thereof – is not the sole business of Muslims, despite what some others would have you believe.  If you attempt to intimidate others into changing their thoughts, beliefs, or behavior with violence or the threat thereof, you are committing terrorism, period.  There is no ‘except Christians’ or ‘except white people’ clause.  There is no ‘unless you think they deserve it’ clause.  There is no ‘but I’m on the RIGHT SIDE’ clause.

The fact that anti-Muslim sentiment is growing in this country is also plainly evident.  Mosques and community centers that had existed peacefully in communities all over the United States are suddenly finding themselves the targets of vandalism, hate crimes, and in too many cases, attacks.  Pipe bombs in Florida.  Arson in California.  Drive-by shootings in Seattle.  Graffiti and thrown stones in too many places to name.  Protests everywhere.  Signs claiming Islam is a religion of hate and terror, that Muslims are not welcome here and should go home.

As the sentiment grows, one is forced to consider its logical continued growth:  There are already a disquieting amount of elected officials who have been caught uttering anti-Muslim sentiments, and if the growing hatred of Islam is any indication, that number can only be expected to grow.  Add to that the concept that for each elected official or member of government that we know of harboring this hatred, there is likely at least a few more, and it becomes truly worrying.  At what point will the assumed minority of Islamophobic members of government become a majority?  At what point will they become too great a majority to effectively control?

At what point do the pogroms start?

In 1920’s Germany, anti-Semitic sentiments were growing steadily.  Jews were not yet oppressed as a matter of legal policy, but they would find their homes, businesses, and places of worship vandalized on a regular basis unless they stayed in their own neighborhoods – and often even then.  Public outcry against the Jews was common.  And then one day in January of 1933, a charismatic leader came to power and almost immediately codified the existing cultural hatred of Jews into law.  Any student of history knows what happened next.

I want to make clear one point, however:  The Holocaust happened not because one evil, charismatic man steered an otherwise innocent populace into evil acts.  The Holocaust happened because a culture of hatred and fear grew in Germany, perhaps not even a majority of the German population – and then one charismatic leader stepped up from that culture and steered the nation into evil acts.  Hitler didn’t give birth to the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany, the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany (among other things) gave birth to Hitler.

A culture of hatred and fear, as a consequence of its own growth and evolution, will eventually produce an avatar and attempt to gain control of its surroundings.

The sticky part is that there is no quick solution to disarming the hatred and fear.  You could round up everyone waving signs with anti-Islam sentiments, but then you’re committing the same horrible acts you’re worried they will commit.  You could attack and vandalize the homes, businesses, and places of worship of those who would steer our nation into a new dark age, but then you’re doing the same thing you accuse them of doing.  If our nation is going to be saved from the culture of hatred and fear that is growing inside it, the only way to do it is to counter that hatred and fear with knowledge and acceptance.  Until and unless it gets to the point where any man or woman of conscience must take up arms to defend their nation from threats foreign or domestic, the only way to protect our nation without destroying it is to use our hearts and minds.

Many of the people who read this have their own fears of Islam or Muslims to address.  I urge you, do not indulge those fears and stoop to hatred, even if – especially even if – you harbor that hatred silently and do not act upon it.  Do the only right and brave thing and confront your fears.  Look inside yourself and seek understanding of what exactly it is you are afraid of.  Seek assistance from counselors or religious leaders if it will help.  Learn what you are afraid of, and then educate yourself to see if those fears are justified.  Learn about Muslims.  If there is one near you, and you think you can handle it, tour a Muslim community center.  You will find that Muslims are all around us, they exist at all levels of society, they are employees and business-owners and teachers and children and mothers and fathers.  In the American melting pot, they are yet another culture to blend with our own.  In fact, there is no ‘they’ – they are us.

I noted above that especially those who harbor fear silently should educate themselves – on the surface, this seems foolish.  After all, isn’t it more those who actually would commit hate crimes and terrorism who should make the greatest effort to prevent those very crimes?  Sure, but consider also this:  Most people who graduate to terrorism do not start out with a desire to commit atrocities and needing only a target.  Most people who graduate to terrorism start from a place of fear and hatred, and only by allowing those fears to fester do they seek an outlet.  Furthermore, those who commit hate crimes and terrorism can be prosecuted and imprisoned – but only if the laws exist to prosecute them under.  Laws that must be voted upon and enforced by those who did not commit them – many of which are, you guessed it, people who harbor those fears silently.

Seek out knowledge for yourself.  Learn about that which you fear and see that your fears are unfounded.  If your friends or family members have those fears, urge them to seek out knowledge and calm their own fears.  Above all, think for yourself and encourage others to do the same.  Nobody can tell you what to think unless you allow them to.  And although those who would tell you what to think may have the best of intentions, those intentions can pave the way to, well, you know.

Women’s Magazines: Part of the Problem, or Heart of the Problem?

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America was certified by the Secretary of State.  This amendment ensured that women had the right to vote, and gave Congress the power to enforce this via law.  There was some grumbling from those who argued that the federal government had no right to amend the Constitution in this way when the constitutions of a few states specifically forbade women from voting, but they were quickly silenced by a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court.

It was a great victory for equality and one of many successes, large and small, in the larger battle for true equality of the sexes – a battle which is far from over, as evidenced by an advertisement in the latest Women’s Day magazine.

The ad presents itself as a list of tips for a working woman trying to get a raise, and gives eight ‘simple steps’ – the first of which advises women wanting to be recognized for their professionalism and hard work to wash their genitals with special cleansers and tucking a few perfumed crotch wipes in their bags just to make sure.  Further down the list are less important concepts such as demonstrating your worth to the company, listing personal successes and achievements, and referencing quotes from other people in the company praising your efforts.

Whether the advertisement itself, or the fact that our culture marginalizes and invalidates women to the point where such an advertisement would be offered without a second thought is more distressing is left as an exercise to the reader.  It’s just one more way in which the media reflects and perpetuates the inequalities we as a culture deal with every day.

Let me disclaim here that I am a white male, and although I do my best to seek out and shine the harsh light of day on inequalities as I find them, I am myself the beneficiary of white privilege and male privilege in ways that I may not fully understand.  I certainly know that I have had opportunities and assistance I might not have received were I female or a different race, but I also know that there are many of those same opportunities and benefits that I never realized I got simply because of my status as a white male.  It’s a bit like asking a fish to describe water.

However, I do not have advertisers telling me I will never be pretty or thin or successful enough unless I buy the latest clothing or makeup or jewelry (at least, not to the same degree).  I am not a victim of the subtle sexism of lowered expectations.  I do not have to deal with patronization from those who think I need extra consideration because I’m just a girl in a big bad world.  Although I am thankful that I am spared these frustrations, I am bothered that many are not.

Granted, advertising has come a long way since the infamous ads from the 1920’s telling women they will never be attractive or romantically satisfied unless they douche with Lysol, but as Women’s Day and Summer’s Eve demonstrate above, it’s less a change of heart and more an appreciation for subtlety.

Many of these advertisements appear in women’s magazines – long the domain of such progressive ideas such as ‘how to please your man in bed’, ‘what makeup to buy this season’, and my personal favorite, ‘how to lose weight so you will be pretty’.  Their stock-in-trade is convincing women that they are disgusting shambling horrors, and only the newest makeup, the fanciest clothes, the skinniest waistlines can give them even the tiniest chance of personal fulfillment – which they define as a monogamous heterosexual relationship, children, and maybe a cute little job if the hubby doesn’t mind.

These concepts are heavily marketed to women because these are things many women worry about.  Many women worry about these ideas because they are heavily marketed to women.  We have become a culture that depends on advertisers to tell us who we are and what we want, and this is only one of the uglier symptoms of the larger disease.  We as a culture have lost the ability to define for ourselves who we are, what we want, and what we think.  We cried out for easy answers to those questions, and for our sins, those answers were given to us.

Until we as a culture shift from defining ourselves in terms of others, to defining ourselves – period, this problem will continue.  Women will continue to be told they are ugly until we push back and say no, they are beautiful.  Minorities will continue to be told they are weak and alien until we push back and say no, they are strong, and they are the same as us.

Culture shift is difficult and messy but it starts with one person changing their  mind and encouraging others to do the same.  Stop letting other people tell you what to think, and encourage your friends and family to think for themselves.  Get to know who you are, and then be that person.  If you have children, educate them in media literacy – equip them with the tools to recognize when someone is selling them a thing or an idea, and encourage them to cast a critical eye on the media in general, and advertising in particular.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Margaret Mead, a world-renowned cultural anthropologist said that.  Truer words have rarely been spoken.