Friday, April 30, 2010
National displays of faith, or national calls for prayer make me uncomfortable. I'm not a religious person and I generally feel excluded, somehow, as though these days of prayer are meant to distinguish "real" Americans with Judeo-Christian values from those of us who don't have an easy religious definition. But our country is overwhelmingly religious, and while symbolic displays of faith by our supposedly secular government might make me feel uncomfortable and alienated, it doesn't do any one any real harm. If I can ask religious voters to set aside their discomfort about abortion and gay marriage, I can put up with a National Day of Prayer.
While I don't think this is harmful, and I understand the political benefit of making religious Americans feel as though they have a voice in our government, I wonder at the kind of religious belief that requires support in national policy. I think of spirituality as an intensely personal expression; I do not need my government to reflect, encourage or express my religious beliefs. (I'd prefer that it didn't try to, because there is simply no way for a government like ours to express all the myriad complexities and contradictions of the faiths of its people.) But I've heard the outrage from many Christians at the perception of our government, and especially your administration, as being against religious expression, and I just don't understand it. If people want to pray today, they should do so. If they want some one to lead them in prayer, they should go to a religious leader. Why is that a role for our government? Isn't faith, by definition, an act of personal will?
I think that believing in God should not require any action on the part of any one else. I don't believe the phrase "under God" has any place in our pledge of allegiance, which is meant to be a devotion to our nation, founded on the freedom to be any religion, or none at all. National Prayer Day does not do me any great injury, but I wonder if it does any one any real good, either. I think that any one who prays does so without prompting from their elected officials. In your declaration today you called upon "the citizens of our Nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings." I am thankful for our many freedoms and blessings, and even for the goodwill that religious belief generates in people from all faiths. Maybe we look for too many reasons to complain. I'm certainly guilty of this, especially in the face of my relatively blessed existence, but I hope that you know how many of us are thankful to be spared government-imposed religious expression, as well.
I know you are a religious man, Mr. President, and so I hope that you found today to be helpful, comforting or inspiring. So long as you continue to defend the separation of church and state, I will put aside my discomfort at these symbolic displays of a faith that does not belong to me.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has prompted a number of questions about our off-shore drilling policy. I think it's tragic that it takes the loss of 11 lives, a looming environmental crisis and a direct threat to the economies of coastal states for people to begin to seriously question the system of consumption we've created. We're like addicts begging for one more fix; we've just got to finish this bottle or this carton or this last source of oil, and then we'll get clean, no, really, we'll stop using and develop alternative energy this time, we promise. We can't lie to ourselves anymore; we have a problem. It's a dangerous descending spiral, one which will leave us, at best, ill-equipped to compete in the global economy, and, at worst, unable to support basic agriculture, transportation and defense.
It is time for real solutions; clean energy is not an abstract issue, it is a national security issue, a prosperity issue, an environmental issue, and a values issue. We must fund research and development in this field, accordingly. If the government does not take an active role in this, it will not happen fast enough- we've seen, in this latest crisis, just how much obfuscation the oil companies are capable of if in the name of protecting their own interests. The only way to decrease the dangerous and damaging oil drilling operations around the world is to eliminate demand through alternative solutions; this will not happen overnight, either. We must start, today, with an increased effort that demands the contributions of all of us, be those in the form of higher taxes on energy consumption, more sacrifices of convenience for conservation, and the diverting of funds from other areas towards developing cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.
A mine collapse in West Virginia and an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico should not be required to wake America up to the dangers of our short-sighted, arrogant lifestyles. We cannot continue living the way we always have, and we all must accept the responsibility for making the necessary changes in our energy policy. If we are very lucky, this, right now, is our rock bottom. Please, Mr. President, do not allow these tragedies to continue in vain. Circumstances are demanding change, and you have to lead us to it, before it is too late.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
The midterm election strategy for Democrats, to own the mantle of practical action and to highlight how this contrasts with the GOP's party of no, may have helped nudge Senate Republicans toward allowing debate on financial reform today. Even if we lose a significant number of our 2010 races, I hope that this strategy encourages voters to put pressure on Republicans to take a more active role in participating, rather than just rejecting, attempts to govern.
That being said, Democrats need to work hard to show that we will try to do difficult things, even if we fail. Tough, fair, immigration reform; clean energy and environmental protection, honest progress toward equality for gay and lesbian soldiers and couples, all of these issues have Democrats on the same side as the majority of the American people. We may jeopardize vulnerable seats, but we ought to push hard for all of these reforms, even if they die in the Senate. Demonstrating our commitment to act and not to be content with the tired game of cautious defense that helps only to preserve the status quo is important if many Democrats are going to live up to the ambitious campaign strategy. We need courageous leaders, leaders who aren't afraid to take positions that are locally unpopular, when its the right thing to do. Voters will always respect gutsy, ambitious policy more than pandering that accomplishes nothing.
The summer should be spent governing, not campaigning. Democrats must prove that the party still has values it is willing to stand and fight for, other than the defense of our tenuous majority. A record of accomplishments, no matter how controversial, is better to defend than a list of excuses for doing nothing.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
-President Barack Obama, Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship 4/26/2010
Dear Mr. President,
In your remarks on Entrepreneurship, you said "countries that educate and empower women are countries that are far more likely to prosper." I appreciate these sentiments, sir. It brought to mind the women I met in Palestine, from the Women in Hebron co-operative, who sold crafts and embroidery and invested in their community, or from the Women in Culture co-operative in Jenin, or even the bright students in our group, who studied science or medicine or business at schools in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. These women were inspiring, many of them pulling themselves out of tragedy, the loss of sons or husbands, to earn their own way in the world. Their society values and respects women, and they are living testaments to this. We met with young women in Bir Zeit, student organizers and community leaders. It seemed hopeful, in a society whose young men are often targeted and imprisoned by the occupation forces, that women were taking on roles as leaders in their community. Unfortunately, politically active young women are, increasingly, becoming targets themselves.
One of the things I am asked, most often, is how I was able to travel alone in the Middle East as a woman. I often try to correct the misconceptions about the role of women in Palestinian society, but it is difficult to combat cultural stereotypes. Even the Israeli soldiers who detained our group were asking the American women in our group why we were there, if we knew "what Arabs do to women", and if we were afraid, even as we traveled in a group that was largely composed of young women from a number of countries and religious backgrounds.
I think America often overestimates the progress we've made in the way women are treated in our society. Congresswoman Betty Sutton's republican opponent suggested that she get "out of the House and back in the kitchen," demonstrating that sexism is alive and well in America in 2010. Utah passed legislation this year that makes me think women in that state are valued for little more than their reproductive abilities. I'm glad that your administration has demonstrated through actions, and not just words, your commitment to advancement for women, but, as a nation, we still have a long way to go.
Monday, April 26, 2010
President Barack Obama, 4/26/2010
Dear Mr. President,
Today's setback in the fight for financial reform was disappointing, but I hope that senate Democrats will not back down. Are the Republicans ever going to stop obstructing legislation for the sake of politics? If my state had any republican Senators, I'd be incredibly disappointed in them. I hope voters in the states represented by these 41 no votes make sure their Senators are held accountable for being so out of touch.
Speaking of my home state of Washington, the Organizing For America e-mail today about our 2010 strategy got me thinking about Senator Murray's re-election. Dino Rossi, the man likely to be selected to run against her, has failed in his attempts to become our governor for as long as I can remember. He's not a complete hack; he's a tasteless campaigner unafraid of blanketing the state airwaves with negative ads, but when he served in the Washington State Senate he was relatively bipartisan and accomplished a fair amount for a republican. That being said, I was really hoping he'd slink off into the abyss of political obscurity after losing gubernatorial campaigns twice in a row. If OFA wants me to help Senator Murray hand him yet another defeat, I'd be honored to do so. Rossi, as a Washington Republican, might still be further left than many of the blue dog Democrats, but today's block of financial reform legislation clearly demonstrates that independently-minded Republicans certainly don't act that way when it counts.
I know that there will be many tight races this year, and a number of those Democrats will need your help campaigning and raising money. I hope that you schedule allows you to visit Seattle to help Senator Murray, as well. We're really a lovely city, and besides, your favorite chocolates are here, waiting for you.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Dear Mr. President,
In observance of National Park Week some friends and I went to Mt. Rainier to take advantage of the free access to the kind of wilderness we miss, living in a city. We (mostly) avoided making fools of ourselves, saw some amazing scenery, a few deer, and made a snowman. The scenic drive out to the mountain reminded me of the wilderness my sisters and I used to play in outside our childhood home, which sat on land behind a wooded area that was home to deer, bunnies, coyote, and a number of wild flowers and a small creek. Many happy afternoons were spent venturing out into the forest, exploring, trying to capture frogs and insects, and exasperating our mother and grandmother with the amount of mud we'd manage to bring home. Those woods have been developed into housing developments, planned communities full of houses with tiny backyards, neatly manicured lawns and oddly similar floor plans.
The connection to nature that I took for granted as a child is lost to me now. One morning this week, while walking to work, I startled a raccoon digging through the neighbor's trash, and that was the closest to wildlife I've been since visiting British Columbia last fall. I'm committed to the environmental movement, but I think, living this far away from the natural beauty we fight to defend, I often lose sight of the urgency this fight requires. Recently a grey whale died on a nearby beach, and an analysis of its stomach contents revealed an upsetting amount of garbage. Saving the whales might be a humorous cliche of overzealous environmentalists, but it's just sad to realize how much our wasteful lifestyles affect the creatures who have to share a increasingly smaller wilderness with humans. I hope that this year your administration continues to regulate polluters, promote responsible energy usage, sustainable energy sources, and works to strengthen the Endangered Species Act to ensure that the destructive impact humanity has on the natural world can be minimized.
Anyway, happy hiking!
Saturday, April 24, 2010
I'm seriously considering proposing a state initiative to compel police officers to check immigration paperwork on any one who appears Canadian, (we're a border state, too, you know,) and I'd like to send Senator Lindsay Graham a patronizing book on the exciting journey of puberty, should he ever decide to grow up. You're on vacation this weekend, or, sort of a vacation, anyway. I'm on vacation myself this weekend, with three days off and plans to go climb a mountain tomorrow. You deserve a break, sir, even if the responsibilities of your office don't make anything like real relaxation possible.
A quiet story out of Utah caught my attention tonight. A man facing the death penalty has elected to do so by firing squad. A few experts have weighed in, indicating the possibility that such a death is actually more humane than lethal injection. This was interesting to me, first of all because I realized we still use firing squads in this country, and second because I'd just had a conversation with friends about how we'd like to die, if we had the choice. (I chose drowning. I like the ocean.) While I find being shot no worse and no more upsetting than lethal injection or hanging, I realize that most people have a visceral reaction to the barbarity of men lined up to gun down an unarmed man, while lethal injection is often tucked away in our minds as similar to drifting off to sleep; painless, bloodless, and clean.
I've long opposed the death penalty. I don't think that vengeance and justice go hand in hand, and I believe that any time men with guns or needles or a noose kill an unarmed, restrained prisoner (no matter how heinous the crimes committed) it is an unconscionable abuse of power. The abuse of power over another individual, especially those between a prisoner and the individuals and institutions that contain them, strikes me as truly horrifying. That this dynamic is laid bare when it is played out with a firing squad only serves to underscore how contrary the death penalty is to our values and sensibilities; if one cannot stomach the idea of a firing squad, a needle loaded with drugs ought not to be any different. Of course, this reasoning comes from the same place as my belief that any one OK with eating cows and chickens should be fine eating kittens, as well. It may make sense to me, but that doesn't mean I'm going to convince a majority of my fellow citizens.
You have a solemn duty to perform tomorrow, one which I do not envy you. When you approach this task, which, necessarily, requires you to consider, as Graham Greene called it, "the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God," I hope that you find a moment to appreciate how brief our lives are, the tragedy and catastrophe that lurks behind every moment, waiting to strike when we least expect it. Suffering and death will find all of us, in our own time, and I think the government should be out of the business of speeding that processes along, be it by war, execution or exploitation. There is enough in this life to try our ability to overcome the horrors of being alive; we need not, even in the name of justice, add any more.
I don't believe in God's mercy, Mr. President, but I do believe in yours.
Friday, April 23, 2010
I'm glad that you've publicly addressed the injustice of the racist immigration law recently passed by the state of Arizona. I'm at a complete loss; I can't fathom how in this day and age such legislation could be seriously discussed, let alone signed into law. We need comprehensive national reform, and in the meantime the Arizona legislation ought to be fought by the courts and by the voters. My roommate, a member of the Hidatsa-Mandan tribe, joined in our outrage at this legislation, despite having, better than any of us, a historical claim to this land. We're a nation of immigrants, outside of the reservations. Where are the small-government conservatives now? Where's the libertarian outrage at this massive infringement on individual liberty? How does John McCain, who supports this bill, even look at himself in the mirror?
You've already spoken forcefully about your objections to this legislation, so I'll waste no further time preaching to the choir. As I read through the day's news, another story raised my blood pressure. Try as I might, I cannot seem to effectively ignore Sarah Palin. Pretending she doesn't exist in the hopes that she'll stop talking and go back to Alaska doesn't seem to be effective, so I thought I'd point out yet another example of her glaring hypocrisy. Today, in response to the news that Franklin Graham was uninvited from the national day of prayer ceremony, Palin said, "Are we really so hyper-politically correct that we can’t abide a Christian minister who expresses his views on matters of faith? What a shame. " This, from the same woman who thought that the controversial views of Rev. Jeremiah Wright should have been reason for voters to mistrust you in 2008. While I may not have been as offended by Reverend Wright's remarks as I was by Graham's, I'm sure that I many were. Mrs. Palin needs to decide; either political correctness extends past the church doors or it doesn't. I think the real disconnect between the two situations in Palin's mind is that one condemnation was of America (actually, the American government, but I'm not sure that she makes that distinction unless there's a Democrat in the White House), the other was the entire Islamic faith. Palin believes that one of these is acceptable to criticize, condemn and even insult; the other is not. I think that a certain level of respect in public discourse, especially from religious leaders who claim to be men of God, is not too much to ask. However, I think that expressing the outrage of centuries of racial oppression and government abuse in melodramatic anti-American rhetoric is far less troublesome than calling an entire religion "wicked" or "evil."
I think if Arizona has taught us anything today it is that hatred, bigotry, and hypocrisy may never go out of style in this country, they don't look good on any one.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
In his op-ed piece in the New York Times today, Roger Cohen quotes an Israeli official as saying “We pay the price for defending U.S. values in this area.” I'm not sure which of my values the Deputy Foreign Minister feels that his country is defending through the oppression and occupation of the Palestinians and their land, but I greatly wish he had less substantial reasons for making such an outrageous claim. Surely, if the way a country spends its money is any indication of what it holds to be important, his linking American values to the human rights abuses perpetuated by his country's military is not entirely without logical basis.
I've written you a number of letters detailing my objections to our financial and diplomatic support for the atrocities committed by Israel. My feelings on the subject have not changed, nor has our policy. Still, the media continues to indicate that a coldness between the US and Israel, something that Israeli officials seem to indicate is a reality. I don't know what this means. I do know that, while Israel celebrates its Independence day, the Palestinians will mourn the catastrophic loss of their own homeland. One's history, the other's tragedy. But I don't want to talk about the past, which Israel continues to exploit in order to sell the narrative that it is a country on the brink of extermination, surrounded on all sides by danger and hatred. This is a dramatic image, but one that does not reflect reality.
I walk to work in the mornings through dark streets, alone, often at 4 or 5 am. I walk past bus stations and homeless shelters, and parks known for drug deals. I walk by men who are drunk or high or threatening or just tired and desperately poor. There are moments, in the darkness, under the freeway overpass, or on a poorly lit section of the street, when I think about the danger I face; robbery, rape, assault, car accidents, brain cancer. The world is so frightening, that sometimes it seems like a miracle I've lived this long at all. But I can't be afraid all the time, Mr. President. I have a job to do. I have bills and rent and student loans to pay. And so I keep walking, watching as, gradually, none of the strangers' faces seem so frightening any more. Because I cannot live in fear. Should I carry a gun? Should I hope that, with a display of force, I could preempt any attack by creating more fear? What about a curfew? Convince the city to lock up every one until the sun rises, in the name of keeping me less afraid? I can't oppress people because I am afraid of them, even if, among the crowds, there are a few who would do me harm. I can't do this, and neither should you, and neither should Israel.
I want to go back to Palestine, Mr. President. I want to see my friends, and have good hummus again, and visit all of the places I missed last time I was there. I want to visit Gaza, and Syria, and Petra, and Beirut. I want to travel, and for my friends to live, without fear of the IDF's guns or checkpoints, or airport screening rooms. I want my passport to represent something better than a free pass through the checkpoints my tax dollars help construct. I want a peace that will last, that will respect the dignity and security of each side, and that will look to the future, letting go of the past.
Israel was born into danger, surviving against the odds to become a haven for a people persecuted throughout history. Its founding cost Palestinian lives and land and stability, dooming them to decades of suffering and loss. I don't believe that one of these narratives need be accepted at the exclusion of the other. Each side serves its own interest; not American values, values which, especially here, ought to guide our actions. We know our own interests are served best when every individual in the region, regardless of race or religion, has freedom and opportunity.
I hope these rumblings of peace talks are a sign, however long overdue, that change is coming.
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Today I was yelled at by a customer I was serving, rudely scolded before I'd even had the chance to do anything wrong. It wasn't a big deal, or even an interaction that far outside of the ordinary, but it's had me contemplating the type of person who gets that angry about coffee. You certainly get angry complaints all the time, you must hear it and read it and see it on a daily basis. Your job requires you to make unpopular, difficult decisions that affect people's lives; a certain amount of anger is just to be expected. I feel as though my relative lack of importance ought to keep people from every getting this angry at me, but then, I suppose every one needs a way to deal with their bad days.
I think this is a bit like appointing a Supreme Court Justice. You've barely begun the decision making process, and already some are angry that your nominee will be too partisan, too moderate, too traditional, too activist, or any number of other hypothetical superlatives. I understand a reasonable amount of concern with who the next Justice will be; the lifetime appointment affords so much power for so little accountability that it is important for citizens to be engaged in the process. However, like my customer today who had a very specific idea of what she wanted and was already convinced that I would not give it to her, many of the hysterics over your decision seem absurdly preemptive.
I hope that the wisdom you displayed in nominating Justice Sotomayor will see you through to making another excellent choice. I'm lucky, in that my conflicts with those I serve can almost always be quickly resolved; I'm empowered to just give them what they want, even when they don't think that's possible. You can only nominate one person, and they can't possibly hope to please every one. I suppose that's why you ran for office and I make coffee all day. Anyway, my workday will be starting in only a few more hours, so I'll leave more important issues for another day. I hope this letter finds you well, and not too overwhelmed with the impossible task of governing a country as difficult as this one. And please, be nice to whoever is serving your coffee.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Dear Mr. President,
Tonight I'm having a heated discussion with friends about the Supreme Court's decision on animal cruelty videos. I made Hollandaise sauce for the first time, so maybe I was feeling just a bit arrogant. Anyway, I quickly realized it might be a mistake to start such a conversation in this group of people. None of us knows what to think, and the few that started out certain of their opinions are not so any longer. I only know that I don't know anything completely. I'm a big advocate of free speech; I'm also a big advocate of people not being allowed to profit from or get off on animals being tortured and killed. Maybe this is a real test of my first amendment advocacy. After all, it's easy to defend speech that you don't find objectionable. The real test is when some one's behavior crosses your personal threshold for acceptable expression.
I don't disagree with the Supreme Court about this specific law; it was overly broad and clearly problematic in several ways. I think that the cruelty toward animals practiced by many agricultural companies and even some hunters has no place in our society, but I recognize that I'm among the most extreme in these views. Still, I think there's some common ground to be found in the worst cases of violence against animals. Try as I might, articulating that in legal terms has been difficult. Could we ban the sale, distribution or possession of pornographic videos that involve live animals? Defining pornography, of course, becomes problematic.
How do you feel about this decision, Mr. President? Do you feel that the law struck down should be re-written in a way that doesn't pose a threat to the first amendment? Is this an area of expression that warrants some restriction? Or should we accept this horrifying material as the unavoidable by-product of living in a free society?
I don't think any one, even the 8 Justices who voted with the majority on this, feel good about today's decision. It is one of those haunting reminders of the frightening and even dangerous complexities of our society; our complete inability to be safe, free, and morally upright all at once, all the time.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Today was a good day. I was off work, I observed my one weekly holy day, Pancake Monday, with my best friend. We walked around a lake bantering about gun control with a republican friend, discussing our plans to go to Africa and ogling cute dogs. We went to the grocery store and spent way too much money on food, but then, as my friend wisely noted, you have to treat yourself, sometimes. This is our life; we work, we sleep, we make pancakes. This isn't particularly important, or even, I'd imagine, interesting, but I wanted to provide some context. April 19th, as a significant date, may have passed largely unobserved by all but those still mourning lost relatives from Oklahoma city, or the protesters along the Potomac, but it has made me pause, a moment, to reflect on my own feelings about government.
I often disagree with my government's policies and actions. During the years under President Bush, I even wondered at the legitimacy of his election in 2000. I see anti-government sentiment even more these days, from the Tea Party, to the birthers, to the absurdity of elected officials speaking out against the census. My libertarian friends are often quick to rail against taxes, gun control, and, of course, government health care. Maybe I idealize government, believing that it can change, it can grow more flexible and wise and just, that as it grows it can represent and include more of us. I'm not afraid of my government, because I believe I can change it. Am I arrogant? Am I deceived? Should I be stockpiling ammunition? Of course not.
I don't understand the rhetoric that depicts the people and the government as opposing forces. As though government were an independent entity that imposes its will upon us, and not our own representatives, our own elected leaders who are meant to be of us, by us and for us. When did we decide it was too much work? To show up at the polls, to write letters to the editor, or to congress, or to the White House, to run for office and keep our integrity? When did it become easier and more expedient to hold up signs and stock up on weapons, to treat fellow citizens like enemies? The disconnect between those with power and those with none has often bred violence, which is why our government is structured the way that it is. It's funny, I think, that those historically left behind, even assaulted by their own government- African Americans and other ethnic minorities, women, the poor, gay and lesbians; have little presence in the Tea Party or other anti-government groups. Why is it that the white, male, upper-middle class, the one constituency that's controlled and counted on the government's protection for the entirety of American history, makes up the majority of those groups calling for secession and insurrection? If any one has to fear their government, shouldn't it be those who've been enslaved, interred, ignored, or disenfranchised?
It seems as though the decrease in our injustice toward marginalized groups corresponds to the rise in anti-government sentiment; as though granting more freedom to those who had none makes every one else less free. I suppose there is some truth to this argument; the 13th amendment curtails my freedom to enslave another human, the 19th reduced the voting power of the male population to solely decide elections; but I don't think even the craziest of the Tea Party would call for a repeal of either of these extensions of government. I don't think that arguing with the anti-government protesters will change their mind; I think accepting the dichotomy of their accusations is granting them too much power. It isn't the people vs. the government, its the people who are willing to work for change vs. the people who'd be willing to see it all burn down to keep the cold consolation of being right from the start.
The government isn't all well-intentioned and it isn't always right. But the government is still my own, for better or worse, it represents me, and I represent it. I'm responsible for its actions, and it is responsible to me, as an informed and politically active citizen. Why can't that be enough? Our government is big and slow and frustrating and imperfect. But it keeps us safe and it keeps us free. Today should be a day when we're reminded of the power that we have, without violence, to make it better.
Sunday, April 18, 2010
"I wanted to give you all some disturbing information on our wonderful president. I work with the Catch-A-Dream Foundation which provides hunting and fishing trips to children with life-threatening illnesses. This past weekend we had our annual banquet / fundraiser event in Starkville. "As a part of our program we had scheduled Sgt. 1st Class Greg Stube a highly decorated U.S. Army Green Beret and inspirational speaker who was severely injured while deployed overseas and was thought that he didn't have much of a chance for survival to come. Greg is stationed at Ft. Bragg and received permission from his commanding officer to come speak at our function. Everything was on go until Obama made a policy that NO U.S. SERVICEMAN CAN SPEAK AT ANY FAITH-BASED PUBLIC EVENTS ANYMORE. Needless to say Greg had to cancel his speaking event with us. Didn't know if anyone else was aware of this new policy. Wonder what kind of news we all will receive next. You're just starting to see the Obamanation. Your religion is on the list next."
-A chain e-mail sent to my mother.
So today's letter is a bit silly. It's been a dark, depressing news week(/month/year) and nothing cheers me up like a good e-mail from the crazy part of Michigan. Does any one out there know of any equivalent crazy talk emails from the left? Do we do that? If so, how do I get them?
Dear Mr. President,
My mother has a friend from her high school days who regularly forwards her e-mails full of right-wing nonsense. She has resisted, many times, the urge to respond to these e-mails with logic or facts that would contradict them. At my request, she often sends me the most absurd, because we enjoy a good laugh. Mother-daughter bonding, you might call it. Today's e-mail is about your apparent intervention to prevent members of the armed forces from speaking at faith-based events, an assertion repudiated by even the most cursory fact-checking. Though laughable, this e-mail is mild in comparison to many that circulated during the campaign. One memorable message from the same woman, with the subject "Can Muslims be good Americans?", insisted that you worshiped "Allah, the moon god of Arabia." More than a few suggested you might be the Antichrist, a claim I found particularly unsettling, as it involved convincing self-proclaimed Christians that the book of Revelation described the coming of a Muslim man in his 40's. I looked into this further, not so curious as to how people could believe this, (after all, once you're willing to believe in the Antichrist, it probably isn't wholly out of the realm of possibility for it to be any one,) but as to how they could be misled about the text that is central to their religion, an item so ubiquitous that it can be found and read in more places than any book besides Harry Potter. Didn't any one think, before they forwarded the message on, to open their copy of the Bible and see if that was really what it said?
I don't like to think that people act without logic or rationale. I may disagree with them, but I want to believe that people are fundamentally motivated by the same basic needs and desires. The internet constantly provides ample material to make me seriously doubt this conviction. Clearly, these rumors aren't something you can really fight, no one who believes you're a faith-hating/Socialist/Muslim/ The Antichrist, is going to be persuaded by a public denial. How would one prove or disprove any of it? (Maybe you could read Revelation at a press conference? They might think you changed it. Also, they probably don't watch presidential press conferences.) Dignifying it with a response, at all, is clearly not the right course. I suppose this is all the other side of the Presidential coin; you may be reviled by crazy people on the internet, but you still get to have JK Rowling at the Easter Egg roll.
The problem, of course, is that the people who send and believe these e-mails aren't abstractions. They're our high school friends or our grandparents; they're voters or taxpayers or citizens. They can't be reasoned with or persuaded. They pass it on, by clicking forward, or by telling their children, or by changing the text books for an entire state. How are willful lies about your birth certificate or religion any different than the misinformation Michele Bachmann spread about the Census? Or Mitch McConnell, about your financial reform proposals?
Some days, these e-mails stop being funny and just become disturbing and very, very sad. I'd like to have more respect for my fellow Americans, but it seems that many are willing and even eager to believe the worst and most absurd things they are told.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
The editorial in the New York Times about the 11th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine high school and our continued legislative failure to close the gun show loophole that allowed the weapons used that day to be purchased, brings up several important points about gun ownership. Personally, I've never been comfortable around guns. Both my mother and my father carried guns as law enforcement officers, but their approach to guns could not have been more different. I don't recall ever seeing my mother with her gun. She came home and quickly locked it up in a safe, hidden in her closet. My father was often more conspicuous, both with his work weapon and the 35-odd other guns he owned and kept in a large safe in his study. While my mother took no pleasure in owning or carrying a weapon, my father enjoyed it immensely and was very proud of his collection. Despite their very different approaches to gun ownership, both support gun-control laws.
Maybe it's different, being an officer who has to carry a gun and, more importantly, has to enter any number of rooms where guns might be waiting for them. Maybe it made my father a hypocrite to exercise rights he hoped to see curtailed for others. However, I think that any issue my very Republican father and very Democrat mother could agree upon probably has considerable merit. In my life, I've shot a gun only a few times. I remember the weight of it, the clammy coldness of it, the unmistakable power. We were just kids, really, shooting at a target range in the Idaho desert. I could happily live the rest of it without ever doing so, again. Perhaps I lend too much significance to what is ultimately just an instrument made of metal and moving parts, but few objects have so much intention, so very specific a purpose. This is probably the most significant obstacle between me and following in my parents' footsteps to a law enforcement career.
Gun ownership as a right is clearly a divisive issue in this country, where many see it as either God-given or a hallmark of extremism and few see it as anything in between. It may not be a politically expedient time to pursue legislation to close the gun show loop hole, especially when so many Tea Party members are using political demonstrations as their chosen venue to take advantage of open carry laws, but it is important enough that your administration ought to aggressively seek to see it passed. We can never guarantee absolute safety, but this is a common-sense measure that will make us safer and limit the number of weapons being freely purchased without the background checks and waiting periods that offer a limited amount of accountability where much more is needed. We ought to demand this legislation, not just because it is the anniversary of Columbine, but because it is the right thing to do, especially now, when it is challenging; it is far better to do what is difficult than to wait for another tragedy to compel this action, already far overdue.
Friday, April 16, 2010
The city of Seattle is contemplating a new law, proposed by one of our more conservative city councilmen, to create a $50 fine for aggressive panhandling. This idea is a poor one for several reasons, the most obvious of which being that those who beg for change on the streets don't exactly have the $50 to avoid jail. It punishes the poor for being poor and then helps to keep them poor. That a better way to mitigate the problem of homelessness might be an increase in assistance programs, shelters, police presence and other public services seems to escape the people who support this measure- many of whom also oppose existing social services and the taxes that fund them.
I'm not as compassionate as I ought to be. I don't give money to people on the street (be they homeless or the clip-board wielding WASHPIRG pests) and I generally don't enjoy being asked. (I, as the Lyndon LaRouche-supporting morons can attest, can often be impolite about this if caught in the wrong mood, especially by libertarians.) My vague annoyance, however, is not grounds for a fine. This law is designed to win the council favor with local business and encourage tourism (though, for the life of me, I can't imagine that there are a number of people who long to visit Seattle but don't because of the homeless.) When I worked at the downtown bookstore, homeless patrons were often problematic, however, if business owners don't want to deal with the inconvenience, than they ought to be willing to contribute to solving the larger problem, not just punishing its symptoms.
This whole debate contrasts sharply with the national debate about financial regulation. The role of the government, in my opinion, should be to protect the interests of the people, especially those who can't protect themselves. In regulating the financial industry, the government is doing just this; looking out for the people in the face of powerful organizations, companies and industries guided by self-interest. The city of Seattle, meanwhile, is trying to do the opposite; attempting through redundant and overly-broad legislation to protect the wealthy and powerful from the desperate and poor. Both homelessness and wall-street reform are important issues, and ones that will require us to determine where we want the government to intervene and who we really want it to protect us from.
Thursday, April 15, 2010
And the question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something or the end of something. I choose to believe it was only the beginning.
-President Obama, 4/15/2010
Dear Mr. President,
Your speech today about America's future in space was thrilling. I was happy, first of all, to learn of your ambitious and thoughtful plan, and also to see you combating the recent claims by some on the right that your decision to end the Constellation program would curtail America's leadership in space exploration. I know that NASA is a nonpartisan organization and that your support for missions to Mars have less to do with what's best for the Democratic party than with what's best for the American people, and I respect you for that. That this was also an opportunity to combat disingenuous statements made by your political opponents is really just an added bonus for those of us keeping score at home.
I've been smiling uncontrollably since I watched the speech on youtube. I'll never be an astronaut, and I think my chance at being a NASA scientist was lost when I chose to pursue a degree in Middle Eastern Studies, but the 5th grade girl that asked for a telescope for Christmas is so very happy that I might live to see humans set foot on another planet. With little more than words, you've inspired us to believe in what we can do together. To imagine witnessing the kind of history made from triumph and not tragedy.
But this speech wasn't the only thing you did today that dared me, and the rest of America to dream of an even brighter future. Today you issued a memorandum aimed at allowing visitation rights for same-sex partners in hospitals. This was an incredibly sensible and compassionate thing to do. I'd like to think that, if I can imagine my young nephew growing up to walk on Mars, I can also imagine him growing up to enjoy the same rights and privileges as any American, no matter who he loves. Our progress in technology and innovation must be matched by social progress; as we become smarter and more capable, we must also become more just. I doubt very much that the two acts were linked in your mind, but I hope you know they were linked in mine. Both were very small steps toward a distant future, one that will require the best of all of us to achieve. I will go to bed tonight dreaming of the days ahead, a red light blinking softly in the night sky and a society that does not discriminate against its citizens for the people that they love.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
I confess, I paid no federal income taxes this year. This seems to be upsetting to a number of people on TV, and Glenn Beck seems to think this means I ought to be drafted into military service. I don't know that I'd make a particularly good soldier, to be honest. I'm happy to contribute to the work of running our government and the costs of social services, infrastructure projects, and national defense, but, in the spirit of full disclosure, I thought I'd let you know what else I didn't do this year.
For starters, I didn't receive a bonus while leading a company that lost money or accepted tax payer money as a bail out. I didn't lay off any employees, cut any one's wages, or slash their benefits. I didn't cheat on my taxes by misrepresenting my income or eligibility for tax credits; I didn't hide my profits in offshore subsidiaries. I didn't bribe legislators into writing loopholes in the tax code to allow me to pay less. I didn't make huge amounts of money creating a financial crisis that devastated the economy. I didn't manipulate consumers with credit card offers or sell them mortgages they couldn't afford; I didn't present a false picture of my financial health in order to dupe my shareholders. I didn't take money from gullible people who trusted me and ruin their retirement or life savings. I didn't start any wars, I didn't commit a single murder, I didn't violate any one's human rights.
My state doesn't have an income tax, so I pay almost 10% in sales tax on everything I buy. I do take public transportation or walk because I can't afford a car. I share a two-bedroom apartment with 3 other girls because we can't afford higher rent. I pay medicare and social security taxes, even though both may be bankrupt by the time I qualify for them. I support local business, local artists, and local farmers, and I help decrease the amount of pesticides and herbicides running off into waterways because I buy organic. I contribute to my company's charitable fund, as well as other charities. I recycle. I try to avoid breaking the law whenever possible. I take on more student debt each year, as tuition (and class sizes) go up. I work for a living, and I support myself as best I can.
I'm not perfect; there is a lot more I can do for my community, and for the world. But I try to increase the good that I do and decrease the bad, as much as possible. If that's not enough for Fox News or Drudge or Glenn Beck, well, I guess I'm just going to have to find a way to live with their disdain.
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Dear Mr. President,
Progress is important, even if it is sometimes too slow. That you brought together the leaders of so many nations and made significant steps toward a safer world this week is impressive; some will say it is not enough, some will say you've compromised our safety, too many will not notice or care. Personally, I feel as though the Nobel Prize you were awarded was given in good faith, in the hope of times like these, when the nations of the world could gather in Washington and discuss nuclear security with honesty, frankness, and mutual respect. The world is, once more, looking to American leadership on this issue, and much of that is due to the improved foreign relations you have fostered since your inauguration.
This is the kind of American leadership that I'm happy to represent to the rest of the world when I travel. I do not agree with either war we are currently waging, nor with our general policy toward the Palestinians; however, I feel that all three situations were inherited and have, at the very least, benefited from your measured and thoughtful approach. Even if I don't always agree with your approach to foreign policy, I feel as though you have a willingness to explain your thinking and to allow for dissent from your citizens and from allies that brings people together. I think this is exactly what they had in mind when they chose you for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Monday, April 12, 2010
The rumors of the campaign finance reform legislation soon to be proposed by congressional Democrats seem like the first good news since the Supreme court decision earlier this year. This push for greater transparency in the way donations are disclosed puts the responsibility for real reform to the voters. If we can't regulate the way donations are given, at least we can ensure that voters know who, exactly, is funding candidates and parties. Despite the cynical thoughts that tell me otherwise, I have to believe that voters can recognize corruption and will act to correct it.
Passing this legislation must be about more than putting Democrats on the popular side of a national issue before the election. There just isn't a way to ever completely prevent corporations and organizations from wielding greater power and influence over elected officials; our best hope is to expose such corruption to the voters and to hope they make the right choices. This is why any legislative battle must be coupled with significant and effective promotion of the issue to the public.
I know it is a common and unfair stereotype that Democrats do a poor job of communicating or selling our issues to the American people, but the health care debate demonstrated we certainly have a great deal of room for improvement. I think, if we are going to have any chance at staunching the flow of corporate campaign donations allowed by the Supreme Court's decision, we have to do a better job of uniting our members behind this issue and calling out the corrupt politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who compromise their integrity for the sake of the powerful interests funding their campaigns.
I hope that, with your leadership on this issue, congress is able to effectively demonstrate to the American public the necessity of this reform. Giving voters all the information they need to make informed choices at the ballot is all that the government can do to protect us from corruption; the rest has to be up to us.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Dear Mr. President,
Yesterday, in Seattle, more than five thousand people rallied for immigration reform. I was just getting off of work, when I passed through a crowd in Pioneer Square. Congressman Jim McDermott was among those in attendance, and, at first impression, the crowd seemed more like a jovial gathering than a political protest- I saw people of all ages and races, some angrily chanting, some silently holding up signs, more than a few children running around laughing and waving flags. I think it was uplifting to see so many Seattlites come together and stand up for the rights of illegal immigrants across the country.
Once, while sitting on a plane from Boise to Seattle, I was telling the woman next to me that I studied Arabic in school, and wanted to travel to the Middle East. She warned me not to expect "people over there" to accommodate me, the way we accommodate people over here. She went on to explain that, in America, we make it so easy that people don't even have to speak English, while the rest of the world insists on making people speak the native language. I've heard this mind-boggling rhetoric many times since; from old acquaintances on facebook who post things like "Welcome to America, press 1 for English, press 2 to hang up and learn English," as well as from coworkers who grow frustrated at customers who don't communicate easily in English. In DC one morning, I watched as an old woman yelled at a Hispanic McDonald's employee for denying a homeless white man free coffee, insisting that the employee, as a "non-American" was the reason the man was homeless in the first place. I try to imagine the logic behind a worldview that affords basic dignity and respect only on the basis of a shared language and place of birth, but I just can't do it. It's an ugly sense of entitlement that I just can't empathize with.
Unfortunately, I don't have to understand this kind of racism to be complicit in it. Things like this rally give me hope, even as they deepen my disappointment in myself for not being more actively involved. Just the other day, an old woman on my bus stormed off in protest after the driver angrily berated an elderly Chinese couple for not following his request to make more room quickly enough. I kept my seat; I was late for work, and I didn't want to walk in the rain, but the shame of staying silent while the woman stood up for two strangers, alone, stayed with me all day. It's up to all of us to stand up against discrimination, whenever we can, and I am too often content to look the other way if it is inconvenient for me to act.
Our government needs to do its part, as well. Immigration reform that offers a clear path to citizenship for those living in this country illegally cannot wait another year. We must make a clear demonstration that we value and respect the contributions immigrants make to our society, how essential they are to the character of America. We do not gain anything by forcing millions of people to live outside of the law; they suffer because of it, and our country suffers because of it. While comprehensive immigration reform will likely be even more difficult to pass than health care reform, it is long past time and well worth the fight. I hope that your administration begins an aggressive campaign to see that this becomes a reality.
Saturday, April 10, 2010
I had planned so much to say in this, my 100th letter to you. A beloved Supreme Court Justice is retiring. Sudan is going to the polls. The lights have been out in Gaza for days. The mining accident in West Virginia demands a new look at the way the industry protects its workers. But my heart is heavy for the people of Poland today. The magnitude of their loss is staggering; I don't understand how a country recovers from such a blow. Everything feels a little less safe, our fragility never more apparent than when tragedy strikes those we want to believe are somehow protected from it. Of course, Presidents are not granted a higher degree of immortality just because they are elected to high office. Of course, death does not care about a person's job, or a country's history of struggles. Of course, tragedy like this can unite divided people and urge nations to stand together despite all that they disagree on. It is the only way we make it through.
And so, humbled by this reminder of our own rapidly approaching ends, frightened by the realization that none of us have power over death, we will light candles and put aside our differences and stand together as the people of Poland grieve, and, slowly, move forward. How lost, they must be feeling, right now. It seems especially unfair that this has struck a country that seems to have, throughout history, had to overcome more than its share of tragedy and despair.
I don't pray, Mr. President, but I often, in my conversations with the universe, wish for your safety and security. I will do so, again, this evening. We would be so lost without you, sir.
On death, without exaggeration
by Wislawa Szymborska
It can't take a joke,
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.
In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.
It can't even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.
Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.
Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
and repeat attempts!
Sometimes it isn't strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.
All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.
Ill will won't help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d'etat
is so far not enough.
Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies' skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.
Whoever claims that it's omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it's not.
There's no life
that couldn't be immortal
if only for a moment.
always arrives by that very moment too late.
In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you've come
can't be undone.
Friday, April 9, 2010
This week, the national conversation about nuclear proliferation has fractured (predictably) along party lines. That there might be reasonable disagreement about an issue as complex as the START treaty and nuclear arms is not surprising; that the criticism from some on the right deviates so sharply from reality is mildly impressive. Your response to Sarah Palin's criticism made me incredibly proud to have voted for you. I trust your judgment and your good intentions when it comes to this kind of arms control; I would like to live in a world where there are no nuclear weapons, but, for now, we have to live in the real world.
The news that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will not be attending next week's summit on nuclear security is disappointing. That he is so afraid of confronting, directly, the criticism from Egypt, Turkey, and other nations, about Israel's unacknowledged nuclear capabilities speaks volumes, both about the courage of his convictions and the hypocrisy of Israel's (and, for that matter, our own) position on Iran. Israel's nuclear program, (which, by the way, poses a legitimate threat to Iran and, might, conceivably, have something to do with Iran's own nuclear ambitions,) their refusal to sign the nonproliferation treaty, and their reluctance (as demonstrated by PM Netanyahu) to have frank discussions about the reality of their status as a nuclear power ought to elicit criticism from the US. That we offer nothing but complicit silence or even support undermines our leadership and credibility when discouraging other states from gaining their own nuclear weapons.
Israel is a country that, at the time of its creation, had legitimate cause to fear for its own survival. This simply is not the political reality of the present. Israel has long exaggerated the threat posed by the Palestinians and hostile neighboring countries; it has an incredibly capable military and weapons unrivaled by any other country in the Middle East, and its existence is, frankly, a forgone conclusion. Even Hamas officials have walked back the rhetoric, indicating that they would acknowledge Israel's right to exist were the sentiment reciprocated for Palestinians. While Israel may have had very real fears driving it to become a nuclear power in years past, we have to live in the real world now; acknowledging the threat that Israel itself poses to its neighbors is an important step in maintaining our credibility on arms control issues. We ought to use our influence with Israel to encourage responsible conduct as a nuclear power, so that we can continue to lead the world toward a nuclear-free future.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
This month in Virginia is, apparently, Confederate History Month. I've spent my entire life in a state that didn't exist during the civil war, but, being about as far North as you can get in the lower 48, I grew up naively assuming that Washington and Washingtonians would generally have supported the Union, if only for geographic reasons. This is why I was surprised when, as a sophomore, I discovered that enough students had been wearing the Confederate flag, on jackets and T-shirts and hats, that my high school had to ban it. I often saw it still on cars in the parking lot, and wondered, frequently, where this fascination with the old Confederacy came from. The controversy over the South Carolina statehouse in 2000 seemed equally troubling, but at least I understood the historical relevance of the Old South to that state. That it continues in Virginia indicates that, even today, many Americans still cling to the era and its culture.
Maybe it is insensitive of me, but simply I do not understand this continued hold that the Confederacy seems to have over the hearts of many Americans. Can't we put that chapter of our history to rest? The war may not have been entirely about slavery, but it is impossible to credibly separate the legacy of the Confederacy from the bloody and brutal enslavement of Africans; the single greatest shame of our Nation's history aside from the annihilation of Native Americans. Why the fondness, reverence, even, for this history and those crimes? The Virginia Governor's decision to devote an entire month to Confederate history must be truly an affront to much of his state's citizens, and especially to the African American community. It also speaks toward an unsettling resurgence of pro-secessionist rhetoric, which seems to be increasingly acceptable in modern political discourse.
I think that the history and culture of the old south can be preserved and respected without celebrating the secession, slavery and war that tore apart our country and wasted or ruined hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. A rejection of the racism, divisiveness and destruction that defined the Civil War should be something that all Americans can agree on.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
for today's letter. Go on,
count the syllables.
A Haiku Letter:
Dear President Obama,
It's a slow news day.
Coup in Kyrgyzstan.
Diplomats smoking on planes.
Flooding in Brazil.
Threats on the Speaker,
economy still struggling,
Never a slow day,
in the situation room,
it's always morning.
Glenn Beck's Tea Party,
McCain's heels dug in.
How do you manage?
When do you get time to breathe?
Keep your famous cool?
both foreign and domestic,
you must get tired.
Even as we elected
Hope, not energy.
Me, so far removed,
just worrying my way from
paycheck to paycheck,
can't begin to say
what, exactly, is best for
me, or our country.
I write you each day,
to question and to complain
express hope, or faith.
I'm not sure that I
ever say what I try to;
that I still have hope
hope that we can change
hope in more than the campaign,
in our government.
for all the danger,
of our troubled world today
I rest easily.
knowing that you will
answer the 3 a.m. calls
while I am sleeping.
For you, there is no
such thing as a slow news day.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
It's baseball season! Even if you're a White Sox fan, (which is still considerably more forgivable than being a Yankees or an A's fan,) you clearly appreciate the ethos of the game. I'm not usually a huge sports fan, but Baseball recalls the best parts of my childhood. My family and I used to make the long drive into Seattle, to watch games at the old Kingdome and see Ken Griffey Jr. in his heyday. These days I live a short walk from the new stadium, and only make it to a game or two a year, but Griffey came back home last year and the city has seemed happier ever since.
My childhood was defined by the game of Baseball. My sisters and I would play in the backyard, each of us pretending to be our favorite Mariner. In the summer, my sister and I would set up the radio so that we could listen to the game while we played outside or in our garage. Even my memories of my father are often of trying to feel connected to him while he watched sports on TV. I don't know that my dad even likes sports all of that much. I don't know how much he watched because he was a fan, or how much was just to have enough noise to keep him from thinking about things. Sometimes, we'd be watching games, chatting about rules or statistics or prospects for the Mariners, and it would seem like we were really talking. I remember, watching a game with my family when an earthquake struck, seeing Griffey run onto the field and find his wife in the crowd, telling her to drive home. Even as a fourth grader, that genuine affection for his wife's safety moved me.
Sometimes we get carried away with sports, be it football or baseball; the final four, the Olympics or the World Cup. It's something all societies throughout history and around the world have shared. We unite, briefly, in cheering on our team, surrendering our differences to the higher calling of being a fan, and at the end of the game there is a Winner and a Loser and no one has to die. Our appetites for warfare sated on (mostly) bloodless playacting of combat. However illogical it may be, I still feel like a victory over the Texas Rangers is a victory over President Bush.
It may not be wholly accurate to describe one sport as any more "American" than others, but Baseball certainly helps define the American experience for many, myself included. As demanding as your job may be, I hope that this season affords you time enough to enjoy a few games. I don't know that it's going to be a great season to be a White Sox fan, but, I suppose there are worse teams you could support. So long as they're not playing the Mariners, I'll wish them well; it's not like they're NL or anything.
Oh, and don't feel too bad about that pitch at the Nationals Game, sir. I've certainly seen worse from the White Sox.
Monday, April 5, 2010
Dear Mr. President,
High school proms are an absurd cliche, but, so help me, I loved mine. My best friends and I got dressed up, had a fancy dinner, played like we were really grown-up while we posed for photos with dates who'd be distant memories in a few years, but who were The Loves Of Our Lives at the time. Prom was not without its political drama, either. One of my friends was dating a student from another school, a transgendered boy who caused quite a stir by being the first female elected Prom King at his own school. I remember, at the time, thinking that this would seem so bigoted and backwards by the time we grew up and told our own kids; like the stories of segregation our own parents had from their time in school.
Apparently, our nation isn't quite there yet. Constance McMillen, a Mississippi high school student, was told by her school that she could not bring her girlfriend to prom. The resulting uproar, which included a legal battle and a (social and mainstream) media frenzy, ended with two proms; one for Constance and a dozen other students; one privately organized and funded by the parents of the rest of the school. In this case, while the courts acted as I feel they should have, the legal decision was not what ultimately mattered. The damage to Constance's high school experience was already done. Her school's administration had labeled her an outsider, demonstrating clearly to her peers that she has no place among them.
Plenty of people have a difficult time fitting in. High school is often unpleasant, and high school students are often unkind. The system should not actively work to make it harder to be different. This kind of bigotry has no place in our society, and certainly not in our public schools. There is no saving Constance the humiliation and alienation that will result from the small-mindedness of the adults granted responsibility over her education. Her prom has become a rite of passage that no high school student should ever have to endure. Maybe, years from now, she'll look back on it with a grim satisfaction, appreciating that, in the face of it all, she at least kept her integrity. Even if it will serve her, long term, to have discovered so early in life all the obstacles she will have to overcome and the strength required to do so, I will wish that she might have avoided such character-building. I may not be a parent, or, for that matter, much older than Constance, but I still wish that American children were shielded, a little longer, from suffering the consequences of the appalling ignorance that still exists in this country.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Today children around the country are looking for dyed eggs and discovering what the Easter Bunny brought them. According to the AEB, 75 billion eggs are produced in our country each year. Much of these come from huge factory farms, where chickens are given no room to move, no access to fresh air or sunlight, and are often mutilated to facilitate such living conditions. Mr. President, I know there are very few, if any, votes to be had in issues of animal rights. Supporters of animal rights have been railing against the practices of the agricultural industry for decades; and not without good reason. Birds, especially, are not protected by the same humane slaughter statutes that affect Cows and other livestock.
Certainly consumers are empowered to make better choices when it comes to buying animal products; we can often choose to pay more for products that involve less suffering in the production process. Often times, however, we are not given the choice unless we seek it out. 2008's Proposition 2 in California demonstrates that there is considerable political will to change the system entirely; that people want their food to come from animals that aren't mistreated and harmed. The problem with Prop 2 is that, as a state law, it may have more of an effect on where egg production takes place, rather than how. Were similar legislation to be enacted at the national level, moving production out of state wouldn't be an option; American companies would have to adopt humane practices.
I don't know how important it is to you, or to other Americans, for that matter, that the suffering of animals be avoided or minimized, even if the consequences of doing so are inconvenience and higher cost. This can only be done by effectively altering the entire system. We have the power to abuse and mistreat animals all we want; they have little legal protection and no political recourse to address their situation. We can relentlessly pursue lower prices and more efficient systems at the expense of these living creatures that supply our food. We can impose upon them darkness, disease, and disfigurement. However, I think people know better. I think people recognize that there is a link between the health of the animals and the health of those that consume the food they provide or become. I think people recognize that the dignity we accord these weak and unprotected creatures reflects upon our own humanity. I think that small farms will always be important enough to Americans to be worth protecting, as well.
Enacting federal protection for farm animals is an essential step toward ensuring that our agricultural practices are in line with our values and best interests. I hope that your administration will work to ensure that this happens.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
Years ago, as an 18-year old traveling abroad for the first time, I found myself on a beach outside of the Hague on Easter. I remember it was cold and gray and empty, all the shops were closed, and I got horribly, horribly lost. I don't remember being afraid, which I suppose you just can't be when you're lost in a foreign country by yourself. I thought a lot about Easter and Jesus, imagining that my own wanderings throughout the strange landscape of the Netherlands were linked somehow to his own travels through the holy land. Fact or fiction, God or man, he has existed in my mind always as a wanderer.
Other, more mundane Easters have passed since then, spent waiting tables in a near-empty restaurant, being sent to the McDonald's on M street to bring back breakfast for the other bookstore employees, reading, reading, reading through the rainy hours by at home by myself. I have also learned a bit more about the historical Jesus, walked in the streets of Jerusalem, visited his birth place and tomb, the stations of the cross, the site of his temptation in the desert. I am not Christian enough to imagine him as more (or less) than human; the places that echo with his presence in Palestine did not move me as they did many of the tourists who seemed overcome by the intense resonance of the divine.
I know enough about Christianity to understand that Jesus is expected, any day now, at the Gates of Jerusalem. I know enough about his political philosophy to doubt, seriously, that he would approve of what the city has become. I'm not a Christian, so I'll be spending Easter making lattes and worrying about the earthly, mundane details of existence. However, since you are a Christian, Mr. President, I'll think of you tomorrow and hope that your own meditations on the central figure of your faith will lead you to use your considerable influence to better the conditions of those living in the places he once wandered.
Friday, April 2, 2010
I joined a Credit Union today. As soon as my account is set up, I'm closing my old account with Chase. This decision was based on a number of factors, but the business practices of the Credit Union, which by nature is not for profit, has no shareholders, and does not wreak havoc on the financial system through unscrupulous lending and manipulative financial practices. I say this as a complete layman; economic issues are not my strong point, at all. I'm terrible with money, terrified of investing or even saying the word "stocks" and I generally only check my bank account balance after an immense inner struggle about how much I really want to know about my finances. I was finally able to extricate myself from credit card debt, and now that I have some degree of confidence in my financial stability, I want to put my money where my mouth (not to mention personal belief) is. I don't make anywhere close to $30,000 a year, and the money I do make can go to much better things than the profit margins of Chase Bank.
Perhaps it is my ignorance about most financial matters, but I find the kind of gimmicks Chase (and other banks like it) use to attract customers truly off-putting. Keep using your debit card, because you never know when we're going to give you a free purchase! The misleading way that their "overdraft protection service" has been advertised in the last few months is a perfect example of this. With this "service", customers are allowed to spend more than they have- at $31/transaction. A card without this "protection" will merely be declined if more money than is present in the account is charged. This makes sense. This alerts people to when their account balance isn't what they think it should be- always an indication that something, either their calculations or their charges, is wrong. Chase decided to wage an ad campaign to encourage people to keep being charged not to know their account was overdrawn- likely because overdraft fees made up a significant portion of the company's profits. It seems as though Chase is directly targeting vulnerable consumers who don't realize they're being taken advantage of by advertising this fee as some kind of protection.
Anyway, I feel that the Credit Union I joined today is much more honest in its practices and works to serve its members and its community, not its bottom line. That's important to me as a consumer, but not nearly as important as the work that went into making this decision. I've made a conscious effort to learn more about the financial system, the way banks and credit unions work, and the way I budget, spend, and save my own money. The absolute best way to avoid being taken advantage of by the powerful is through education and awareness, and I feel that today was a step in that direction. I will not be hoodwinked by slogans and PR; I will not be sucked in by gimmicks and games; my financial health is too important for me to trust it to others. It is my future, my freedom, and my security, as an independent individual, and I will not allow it to be threatened by my own ignorance.
I feel that this kind of financial information would be a valuable addition to basic high school education. We should prepare students for the realities of the financial decisions they'll be making; decisions about student loan debt and credit cards and responsible use of bank accounts. Preparing students, giving them all the information they need to make informed decisions and to protect themselves against manipulation is an important aspect of education, and this latest financial crisis clearly demonstrates how urgently this awareness is needed.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Dear Mr. President,
My roommates and I have already filled out our census form, it providing us with one evening of jokes and giggles about which traditional family role each of the four of us represented. We're an odd sort of household, four unrelated early-20-something females; one white, one Guatemalan, one Puerto Rican-Irish, and one Hidatsa-Mandan, all in a two-bedroom fifth-floor apartment. We hail, respectively, from a small town, an island state, a big city, and a foreign military base. We attend Art school, Massage school, and State University. We're respectively Catholic, Wicca, Atheist, and, well, whatever I am. We all have very different dreams.
One of the surprising things that unites us is the role our grandparents played in our upbringing. Each of us was brought up by our grandmothers, either because our parents had to work or were unable to provide stable homes. My own grandmother watched my sister and I after school while our parents were at work. She cooked us dinner, helped us with homework, and entertained us with stories from her childhood adventures living on a ranch in Wyoming. We loved her and feared her and often suspected she might be a little bit crazy. I think of her now, not as she is, slowly losing her grasp on the present in an assisted living facility in Nebraska, but as she must have been before I knew her; young and feisty and terribly brave. She never went back to school after the 8th grade, because the United States entered WWII and she had to stay home to help out. She adopted two sons and lost her husband to a car accident, surviving the kind of poverty that widows in every society through history have known.
My roommates' grandmothers are the stuff of myth; one is still working full-time yet still seems to know whenever her grandkids need her for groceries, new shoes, advice or a good scolding. One has adopted her grandchildren as her own, facing the difficulties of being a parent all over again, passing her strength and her compassion on to the next generation. These women helped shape us into the women we have become. Our upbringing, much like our current family of four, was never traditional or reflected in what popular culture taught us normal looked like. We learned early, as your own unique upbringing must have taught you, as well; there is no such thing as a 'normal' family.
This is why I am glad that the White House, in observance of Census Day, made sure to point out the unusual makeup of the first family, noting that Sasha and Malia's grandmother lives with you in the White House, complicating your own census form. I'm sure that, for all of the uniqueness and opportunity of being First Daughters, the girls are glad (and lucky) to have the constancy and guidance of their Grandmother at home.
Thank you, Mr. President, for reminding us that all American families need to be counted today, regardless of their eccentricities.