The Five Pillars of Islam and the Yogurt Business

If you’ve eaten breakfast in the last 14 years or so, you’re undoubtedly aware of Chobani, a company out of upstate New York that has been making and selling those little yogurt cups that your doctor tells you to eat for breakfast instead of the steady stream of congealed wads of fried salt obtained from fast food restaurants and gas stations everywhere.  It’s actually pretty good yogurt – pineapple on the bottom is my favorite – that comes in at about a buck per little cup, no preservatives, not swimming in sugar.  Just good yogurt, with good ingredients, at a good price.  The company is also a pretty good example of Islam in action, and I want to give you a glimpse of that, hopefully to put the lie to a lot of Islamophobic BS out there.  Let’s start with the elevator-pitch version of describing the company.

Chobani was founded in 2005 by Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish Kurd who decided a lot of the yogurt available to the mass market was straight garbage, so he started making and straining yogurt in his home.  This came naturally to him, because he had grown up raising sheep and goats with his family near the Euphrates river, producing yogurt and cheese.  In 2005, he got a Small Business Administration loan to purchase a shuttered Kraft yogurt plant, and after a couple years of tinkering with recipes and fermentation methods with another Turkish yogurt genius, the first batch of Chobani yogurt left the factory for store shelves in 2007.  Since then, the company has experienced monumental growth and made a bunch of people very wealthy indeed.  This is the part where the story changes from the typical corporate success story, because from day one, Ulukaya has insisted on paying his workers well, engaging positively in the community, and making sure the company’s products are accessible to everyone.

This slots nicely into a discussion of Islam, because both Ulukaya and Chobani are excellent examples of Islam’s better angels.  As Christianity has the Ten Commandments, Islam has the Five Pillars – one of which is zakat, or alms-giving.  Although the actual obligation is to donate 1/40 of one’s assets over a given poverty floor called nisab on an annual basis, scholars disagree on the exact valuation of nisab – so in practice, many Muslims consider an annual donation of 10% of their assets to be close enough (and often proves to be a larger donation than it would if they worked out the math, so it’s rare that this is argued against).  It is also worth noting that the literal translation of zakat is ‘that which purifies’, so the donation is not merely to support one’s community, but to guard against the greed and avarice which excess wealth so often brings.  Chobani has operated from the outset with this in mind, and donates at least ten percent of its earnings to others either through direct grants (including a recent donation of nearly $50K to a Rhode Island school district that was attempting to shame students into paying off their lunch debts by giving them cold sandwiches instead of the nutritious hot lunches the other students enjoyed), or donations of its products to the needy.  Chobani’s hiring decisions also keep those less fortunate in mind – approximately 30% of its workforce are refugees – and all employees are paid well, receive benefits including 100% paid parental leave for six weeks for all employees who had been with the company for 12 months – for fathers too, and is also extended to parents of adopted or fostered children.  In 2016, Chobani gave ten percent of its stock to its employees (divided up by tenure), giving many of its long-term employees a strong financial foundation which will turn into quite the nest egg when the IPO hits.

It isn’t really possible to separate the company and the founder, because the founder’s philosophy and adherence to the principles of Islamic economics is central to the business’s operations.  Hadith, or Islamic tradition, teaches that a business that does well should reward the people who helped the business succeed, so Chobani is good to its employees.  Hadith teaches that a business cannot succeed if its customers are too poor to purchase its products, so Chobani is generous to its community.  This is capitalism done properly, and results in the company being seen as a boon to its community, thus making consumers more likely to purchase its products.  By respecting and rewarding the people who helped make the company successful, including its customers and potential customers, and by respecting and rewarding the communities that provide it workers and space to grow, it increases its wealth while not unfairly taking that wealth away from others.

You don’t need me to give you examples of exploitative capitalism – we are all touched by businesses and other entities who take more than their share and give back only what they are absolutely required to in order to generate a warm and fuzzy PR piece about a corporation donating a fraction of a percent of its income to give a couple dozen schoolchildren books, or otherwise get its name in the news.  Chobani instead gives deeply of its assets to support people, and any notice it gets for this is of course welcome, but is a side effect instead of the purpose.  This is also intentional, zakat demands that the giver not demand undue attention for their donation – whenever Chobani or Ulukaya himself gives a statement about a donation, it is never in the context of ‘see how amazing we are’, it is always a simple statement about why it is important that those with means donate to those without, and encouraging others to do the same.  The focus is always on encouraging others to give, and never on pinning glory on themselves.

This is Islam in action.  The average Muslim has no more love for terrorism or other acts of hatred and war than you do – and in fact less, because extremists target other Muslims just as often (if not more so) than they do Westerners.  For every Muslim extremist plotting horrible acts, there are many, many more who simply want to live their faith and make the world a kinder and more loving place.  Just as for every Anders Breivik, there are many, many more Christians who support their communities, love their neighbors, and otherwise try to live as Christ would.

I know it’s difficult to shun fearmongering and hatred, I know it is far too easy to let one’s outlook and perspective be poisoned by those whose lies serve their own hateful agendas – but we must all look deeply within ourselves and commit to approaching our neighbors with an open hand, not a closed fist.  Only by doing this, by treating others with love and acceptance, will we make the world a truly better place.  Hate and greed give us war, famine, and terror; love and acceptance give us justice, harmony, and space to grow as individuals and societies.  I’m not telling you anything here you haven’t already heard before from religious leaders and Mister Rogers.

It’s going to take a lot of work to reject hatred and make the world a better place.  You’re going to need a good breakfast for that, and Mr. Ulukaya has a suggestion.  (And try the pineapple, it’s really good.)

eighty bucks and deamonte driver

Deamonte Driver, who lived not far from where I live, would have been looking forward to his 23rd birthday this year, a young life at the very peak of its potential – instead, his mother is looking at the tenth anniversary of his death. Because she lost Medicaid due to a paperwork mixup that resulted from the family having to move, and not having the $80 for an extraction, she could not find anyone willing to remove the abscessed tooth.

Eighty bucks. That’s about what the average family spends on groceries in a week (source: For want of eighty bucks, the bacteria in Deamonte’s mouth spread to his brain, where it killed him on February 25, 2007 despite emergency brain surgery.

That surgery, and the costs of the healthcare that started when his health declined to the point where he was rushed to a hospital, totalled to about a quarter million dollars. Since Deamonte’s mom didn’t have eighty bucks, she sure as hell didn’t have a quarter million, so that cost went unpaid, where it was picked up partially by taxpayers and partially by the healthcare industry (and therefore by healthcare consumers).

Congress soon afterward passed a bill requiring pediatric dental coverage to be included in Medicaid, a provision which was eventually included in the Affordable Care Act. Repealing Obamacare would mean creating the same situation that killed Deamonte Driver for want of eighty bucks, instead forcing the public in general – whether they can afford health coverage or not – to help shoulder the burden of a young man’s life and a quarter million dollar bill.

It goes without saying that I’d rather not be complicit in the death of a 12 year old kid. It also goes without saying that I’d rather pay part of $80 than part of $250,000. There is no situation where a straight repeal of the ACA makes sense.

Opponents of the ACA will scream about how much it costs to cover everybody. They’ll scream about how it’s not fair that the costs of one person’s healthcare should be spread among everybody. What they won’t tell you is that it costs LESS to cover everybody, BECAUSE the costs of one person’s healthcare DOES get spread among everybody if they don’t happen to be independently wealthy enough to pay it out of pocket. (And if you think anyone wealthy enough to pay for their healthcare out of pocket does so, and doesn’t have very good health coverage, you’re out of touch with reality.)

Eighty bucks is less than two hundred fifty thousand bucks. I don’t care what direction you look at it from, I don’t care if it’s a great big 80 made out of diamond and an itty bitty 250,000 made out of balsa wood. Eighty is, was, and always shall be less than 250,000.

And a mother should never have to put flowers on her baby’s grave because she didn’t have $80 for the dentist.…/02/27/AR2007022702116_3.html

matthew 25:40

I want you to do me a favor.  It won’t take long and won’t cost a penny.  Think back to when you were five years old, and try to remember what the biggest worries in your life were.  The sort of things that kept you up at night.  For the vast overwhelming number of people fortunate enough to have the internet connection required to be reading this in the first place, it’s probably stuff like ‘I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow so I can go play on the swings’ or ‘I wonder what I want for my birthday’.  Simple worries from small times, nothing too earth-shattering, despite the fact that at five, those were definitely Big Concerns.

And then there’s Omran Daqneesh.

I’m sure by now you’ve seen That Photo – if not, here’s a New York Times article that has That Photo right at the top.  That’s Omran – he’s a five year old boy living in Aleppo.  For pretty much as long as he’s been alive, his homeland has been the site of a brutal and hard-fought civil war.  He has literally never known the sort of peace required for one’s biggest concerns to be ‘I hope Mom doesn’t make me eat brussels sprouts again’.  I obviously don’t know the family, but it’s probably safe to assume that the parents do their best to try to make their children’s lives as happy and fulfilling as possible – but needs must, and happiness necessarily takes a back seat to simple survival; so I can only imagine that despite their best efforts, Omran and his siblings have had to see and experience the sort of things that you and I couldn’t imagine even in our worst nightmares.

There’s a video, if you can bring yourself to watch it.  In the video, Omran is sitting alone in the back of an ambulance after having been pulled free from the wreckage.  He’s covered in dirt and blood – blood that he only notices when he wipes some off his face, and looks at it with only mild surprise.  A world where a five year old kid is only barely surprised by blood coming out of his head is troubling.

A few days after that iconic photo of Omran was taken, his brother Ali died.  So now Omran has one less shoulder to cry on when the blasts get too close, one less set of arms to hug him and tell him he is loved and that he will be safe, and one more hole in his life when he already has so many.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Ali is one of a hundred children that have died in Aleppo since July 31.  As of the time of this writing, that’s 22 days.  A little more than once a day, one more Ali closes their eyes forever; one more Omran learns far too soon the meaning of grief and loss and that the world is not fair; one more family tries to figure out how to move on, like a car missing a wheel.

We’re lucky.  We can get through a basic day without worrying about our homes being blasted to ash or roaming death squads shooting us to ribbons because we go to the wrong church.  For all of its problems – and it does have problems – America truly is a land of plenty.  We need to use these gifts for the greater good.  We need to house and feed and clothe and care for as many refugees from Syria and all other places, as best we can, as many as we can, for as long as we can.  It’s on the Statue of Liberty, for sanity’s sake:  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We need to do it, otherwise we’re all talk.  We owe it to ourselves, so we don’t have to feel ashamed of the missed opportunity.  We owe it to our children, to show them the meaning of compassion.  We owe it to fellow nations, if we have any hope whatsoever of the favor being returned should we need it later.

We owe it to Omran, for reasons I wish I had the words to express.  Just look at that picture again, and look in his eyes, and try not to shed a tear.

“I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” – Matthew 25:40

the art of sociological triage

Let’s say you trip over something and sprain your ankle.  Your regular doctor can’t see you for a week and a half, for whatever reason there isn’t an urgent care clinic available, so off you go to the emergency room.  At the same time you walk up to the registration desk, you see a person at the registration desk right next to you holding a wadded-up tee shirt over what appears to be a large wound on their neck that’s bleeding quite badly.  Raise your hand if you expect the gushing neck injury to be seen by a doctor before your sprained ankle.

That’s what I thought.  We expect the more urgent cases to be taken care of before the less urgent ones.  When lives are on the line, it only makes sense to prioritize care and attention to make sure that the people in the most danger get helped first.  Why, then, is it so difficult for people to understand the concepts behind Black Lives Matter?

I know, that was kind of a swerve.  Bear with me, I’m connecting the dots.

Recently, President Obama took a moment from a trip to Warsaw (he was there for a NATO conference) to say the following (quote from NPR)

According to various studies — not just one but a wide range of studies that have been carried out over a number of years — African-Americans are 30 percent more likely than whites to be pulled over.

After being pulled over African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to be searched.

Last year African-Americans were shot by police at more than twice the rate of whites.

African-Americans are arrested at twice the rate of whites.

African-American defendants are 75 percent more likely to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimums. They receive sentences that are almost 10 percent longer than comparable whites arrested for the same crime.

Recently, two separate black men were killed by the police.  Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul.  Sterling was shot by police – several times, in the chest and back – while officers were holding him on the ground.  Castile was shot during a traffic stop while following an order from the officer to produce his identification.

This is the part where the “can we please find a reason why this was Okay so I don’t have to think about it anymore” set starts wringing their hands and pointing out that Sterling had a gun on him, and the police were responding to a 911 call of him allegedly brandishing it, and that Castile had just informed the officer who killed him that he was in possession of a firearm (one which he had a concealed carry permit for, and informing the officer as early as possible that 1) the firearm exists and 2) you have a permit for it is EXACTLY what authorities tell people to do if they find themselves in a situation where they are interacting with law enforcement).  My point is none of that matters.  If you look at the video of Sterling’s shooting (widely available on the internet, I am not providing a link here as it is shocking and disturbing to watch a man be killed, if you want to see it, Google is your friend), you can see that although Sterling is struggling, he is on the ground with two officers holding him down.  He is neutralized as a threat.  Still, though, one of the officers drew his weapon, held it a couple inches from Sterling’s chest, possibly to scare him into total submission, and then when Sterling continued to struggle, fired multiple times.

Not having had the benefit of a police academy education, I can’t say for sure, but I’m reasonably certain deadly force is not necessary when dealing with a person who is armed, but prevented from accessing their weapon by the sheer force of two police officers holding them down.  One assumes that the more prudent course of action would have been to continue to restrain the subject, perhaps even with a less lethal method like a taser, without resorting to gunfire.

Castile’s killing was even less defensible.  He was pulled over.  The officer asked him to provide identification.  Castile informed the officer that there was a firearm in the vehicle, informed the officer that he was retrieving his wallet from his back pocket to comply with the officer’s instructions, began to do so, and the officer opened fire.

The fact that Castile was carrying a concealed weapon should not be a factor in his shooting.  Castile was granted a permit to carry the weapon in a concealed fashion.  He was exercising his rights as a citizen.  He followed the best practices given to him – always, always inform a police officer if you have a weapon, as early in the interaction as is possible, and narrate your actions – and followed the police officer’s instructions to provide his identification.  He did everything he was told and was killed for it.

That’s two men killed in two days.  Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota has gone on record as saying “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver and passenger were white? I don’t think it would have.”  Gov. Edwards of Louisiana offered a significantly more hedged-bets comment of the usual promises of a full and transparent investigation, while carefully failing to mention the racial aspect of the killing.

But the hell of it is, it’s not merely being killed that black people have to fear from law enforcement – if you look at the statistics mentioned above, or speak to any of the untold millions of black families nationwide that have to sit their children down and tell them to fear the police, to be on their absolute best behavior when in public, to expect that they are going to be harassed by law enforcement, and how to survive it – it becomes clear that at every level, at every moment, black people are treated badly by our society.

We can whine and cry and wring our hands all we want about how ‘well maybe he shouldn’t have been carrying a gun’ or ‘if that Freddie Gray fellow hadn’t gotten himself arrested, he’d still be alive’ or ‘ALL lives matter, you know’ or (my personal favorite) ‘he wasn’t exactly an angel’, but the fact remains: Our bruised ego is a sprained ankle.  The way we treat black people in this society is the gushing neck wound.  One is more important to immediately address than the other.

Black lives matter.

No rest for the wicked or the innocent alike

In Judeo-Christian tradition, three days are set aside for the dead to find their way to heaven.  This is also a time for the families of the departed to grieve, but to grieve knowing that members of their family or community are guarding them against prying eyes or other grave-robbers in their moment of vulnerability while they deal with the tragedy that has befallen them.  The impulse is to put on a brave face for the public, to try to keep it together, as if one should be able to shrug off such a horrible loss with nothing more than a mannerly tear or two.

Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, and the generalized addiction America has to outrage, this period of grief has been streamlined to about three minutes.

Earlier today, a terrible tragedy befell a town in Connecticut.  A young man, for reasons unknown, stormed into an elementary school in Newtown and viciously murdered 26 people – twenty of those small children, none more than ten.  This is a monstrous act, and one that we may never be able to understand.  I want to make clear that my thoughts and prayers go out to all the families touched by this horrible act – whether their children lost there lives, or merely their innocence.

Within hours of the shooting, I received emails from two different political organizations asking for my help in using the tragedy to push through laws favoring strong gun control – and donations were more than welcome.  I also received email from an organization opposing gun control, asking for similar assistance.  I have no reason to believe this is the last I will hear of these requests, but the fact that they were sent out before the dead had even all been positively identified – that their deaths were being politicized even before their bodies had gone fully cold – is also a monstrous, ghoulish act.  Less than six hours after the shootings, Mark Kelly, who is familiar with tragedy, being the husband to former Congresswoman and shooting victim Gabby Giffords, issued a statement offering condolences to the families who lost children, and in the same breath calling for gun control hearings, saying “This can no longer wait.”

Forgive me for disagreeing with you, Mr. Kelly, but I think it could have waited at least a day.  I think it could have waited until the parents of the children that were lost had time to draw a breath that didn’t immediately catch in their throat.  I think it could have waited until the children who survived finished crying themselves to sleep.

I think it could have waited until the families had a little time to mourn.

We’ve become addicted to sensationalism – we’re obsessed with more, with bigger, with better.  This is the culture that produces interviews like WTNH’s Erin Logan interviewing a young girl who survived unharmed, asking her what it was like – and when the answer wasn’t as sensational as she wanted, as we have come to expect, prodded her further and asking if everyone was “…crying, scared, wanting their parents to come get them?”

Pardon the vulgarity, but what the hell do YOU think? Is it really good journalism to poke at a victim clearly in emotional shock, and demand to know just HOW freaked out everyone was? Do you really need to push a small child into making a horrible, terrible tragedy worse by recounting the screams and cries of terrified children?  Is it truly newsworthy that children in danger will be upset?

There’s a difference between reporting the news, and manufacturing the news – and inappropriate questions like that plainly cross the line.  It’s obvious that the children were terrified – what next, shall we ask for direct quotes of the screams?  Recordings of the crying?

When does it cross the line?  As far as I can see, that’s long past.  Let them react on their own schedule, Ms. Logan.  Don’t pry the gory details out of a child.  Don’t pick at the scab before it’s even started to form.

Professional Courtesy


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.

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 ( ), 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 ( ) , 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: ) 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: ).  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 ( ) and your senators here ( ).  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.