Monthly Archives: February 2011

New Hope for Marriage Equality

Maybe the day when LGBT individuals can have full and equal rights in the US is closer than we thought!

For once, the odds seem to be in gay rights’ favor! A number of recent events seem to be indicating that gay rights are advancing much faster than anyone might have expected only a short while ago.

Over the past months and years of Barack Obama’s presidency, many liberals and gay rights activists have been becoming increasingly frustrated toward the president for what had been his general spinelessness towards issues involving homosexuality. The president had been timid toward this crucial issue for the first half of his presidency, using carefully measured words and precisely articulated yet vague statements to postpone his having to make any kind of real statement on the issue.

But, just recently, there have been a number of crucial developments for gay rights in the States. It’s well-known by now that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy restricting homosexuality in the US Armed Forces was repealed, when President Obama signed the action into law on December 22, 2010. But it hasn’t taken effect yet! DADT is technically still in place. But it’s starting to look like Obama and the current Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, are taking steps toward really taking this ridiculous policy off the table for good.

More importantly though, the Obama administration (and accompanying Justice Department) declared on Wednesday that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and the attorney general directed the Justice Department to stop defending it in court. In essence, the Obama administration is flatly refusing to defend the law any longer. This has been, I think a watershed moment, both in the advancement of equal rights for LGBT people and in Barack Obama’s presidency. It has come after two years of Obama’s middle-of-the-road attempts at politics and policy, which were a dark disappointment after his promises for “change we can believe in.”

Though the president’s views on gay marriage are hazy and non-committal at best, he has said that his thoughts on the matter are “evolving,” a word which suggests that he’s coming around on this issue. About time! His decision to stop defending DOMA is not only an incredible step forward for gay rights, it’s also a signal that he may be starting to move back toward the more lofty promises of his campaign, and really bring about positive change. It seems like the president has realized that he’s not going to gain the support of conservative voters either way, so he’s made the (probably wise) decision to consolidate his voter base on the liberal side of politics he comes from. Finally, Obama is moving from a half-hearted defender of gay rights to a much more direct and aggressive advocate for progress.

But that’s not all! There’s more! (obscure Dan Savage reference!) The general conservative response to the administration’s decision has been half-hearted and feeble, to say the least. Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney have said nothing about it so far, and the strongest politicians’ reaction came from Mike Huckabee, who only said the president’s decision was “utterly inexplicable.” The responses to this support the argument that opposition to gay marriage is fading in the Republican party (thank God!). But why is this happening? One theory that’s been proposed, and I agree, is that our current economic crisis has changed the subject of controversy from social issues to financial ones, so most Republicans’ first concern at the moment is budget-cutting, not “defending traditional family values.”

All the same, conservative religious groups like the Family Research Council have of course given their two cents, insisting that Obama’s decision is simply pandering to gay rights groups. But, in this author’s opinion, things are looking up for gay rights, overall! DADT has been (nominally) repealed, DOMA has been directly challenged by the current administration, and conservatives are putting up less resistance to the advancements of gay rights and marriage equality. And while there’s still a long road ahead, the last few weeks and months have seen gay rights moving forward in leaps and bounds.

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Libya on the Verge of Civil War

Worshippers in Libya, mourning the dead and looking to a brighter future.

Unrest and protest seem to be swiftly turning to outright civil war and rebellion in Libya, the North African country that seems likely to be the third to topple in the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world and North Africa. Unlike the other countries in which major protests have occurred or are occurring, Libya’s uprising has been an extremely bloody one, with Colonel Moammar Qaddafi using brutal and heartless attacks on his own people in an effort to hold onto power.

Following Friday Prayers in Tripoli, thousands of protestors poured out of mosques and stormed the streets in another concerted effort against Qaddafi. After a short while of marching, they were fired on by Qaddafi’s men and supporters, and at least several were killed or injured in the shooting. Qaddafi has begun turning the capital city of Tripoli into a stronghold of his remaining power and support, even as more eastern cities like Benghazi and Tobruk have fallen completely out of his control.

This has created a tense state of affairs in Libya, to say the very least. The rebellion has been building in the eastern cities of Libya, particularly Benghazi, and Qaddafi has been building up his defenses in the capital of Tripoli. This seems to me to be the beginning of the civil war that Qaddafi’s son said would come to pass if the Libyan people didn’t comply with the government, but the people seem ready and willing to fight it.

The network of protests, staged all across the country but focused in the east primarily, have begun to coalesce into what seems to be a greater revolutionary movement committed to opposing Col. Qaddafi and any of his allies. Many signs seem to be indicating that the opposition movement toward Qaddafi is more of a full-scale rebellion than an uprising, and there’s evidence that the war against his authoritarian regime is not going to be fought with words and political pressure, as was seen in Tunisia and Egypt, but with rocket launchers and automatic weapons.

Early on Friday, a speech delivered by Qaddafi (see 4th paragraph) attempted to galvanize the nation’s youth to defend their nation. Going so far as to say “Every individual will be armed,” he reiterated his intention to hold onto power no matter what. Qaddafi has given no signs of flexibility or even a pretense of reform to his people since the struggles in Libya began on the 15th, and because of this, the people have taken their protest to another level.

Since the city of Benghazi fell to the rebellion last Sunday, it almost seems as if two separate countries are taking shape within Libya. In fact, an opposition government is already taking form in Benghazi, as lawyers, judges, police, and defected military officers patch together a new, informal government in a city of more than 600,000. There’s still a lot of suspicion in the city, as it has become the epicenter of the rebellion against Qaddafi.

To me, it looks like Libya is in great danger of splintering into two countries, at least in a de facto sense. Rebel forces have taken almost complete control of the eastern parts of the country, and Qaddafi continues to centralize his power in Tripoli and surrounding areas. A number of prominent military leaders have joined the rebellion, offering their weapons, troops, and tactics. In fact, one leader, Colonel Tarek Saad Hussein, is purportedly leading an attack on Tripoli soon with a fairly substantial strike force armed with weapons expropriated from Qaddafi.

At this point, it really seems as if both sides are gearing up for a new level of conflict resolution of a kind waged with weaponry instead of words. Rebels talk of raids and attacks on Tripoli, and Qaddafi has sent veritable death squads into neighboring towns to try and clear out rebels. Time will only tell how this will resolve itself, but I’m sure that much more blood will be spilled before Libya quiets down.

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Seeking the Spiritual: The Intimate Bond of Culture and Religion

Grow up in a different culture, and chances are you'll follow a different faith.

One of the very important things that I’ve been realizing about the world and the people in it over the last few months is the level to which religion is a cultural tradition and inheritance. This may seem like an extremely obvious conclusion for anyone to come to, but for me, this has been a difficult thing. As I’ve mentioned in a number of previous posts, I was brought up in a strongly Christian environment. For most of my life, when I was an adherent of evangelical Christianity, I rarely, if ever, questioned why I believed what I did. If I were to seriously ask myself this question a few years ago, my answer would’ve been, “Because you know that it’s true!”

But recently, I’ve allowed my old conceptions of religion and people be challenged and remodeled. This has been partially due to my travels over the last summer to France, Holland, Greece, and most importantly, Turkey. I’ve had the privilege of seeing how other people live their faith, particularly in the case of Islam, as I experienced life in a country where the (very) dominant religion is one very different from what I had experienced for the greater part of my life. I also have a great many friends from China (due to the large international student program at my school), and getting to know them and their fascinating culture has helped my understanding of Eastern thought to broaden.

Here’s where I’m going with this. Over recent months, I’ve discovered more and more that the reason I believed what I did for most of my life has been because I grew up with it, in a mini-culture that told me that the right thing to believe was Christianity. And more importantly, I’ve realized that others (again, this sounds like an obvious point), particularly those in vastly different parts of the world like Turkey, have grown up being taught that the right thing to believe was Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or even atheism. I can see now that so much of what I “believed” was simply what had been passed down to.

Now, this is only natural. Parents teach their children what they think is right, and in fact many holy books instruct parents to do this (Proverbs 22:6 of the Bible, for example). But when someone becomes a brash conversionist (I know, I made it up) with their religion, they seem to leave sanity behind in their mad rush to change others to their way of thinking. What I mean by “leaving their sanity behind,” is that these religious practitioners have so thoroughly convinced themselves of their own rightness and the wrongness of others, that they forget that they probably only believe what they do because they were raised that way!

More frightening than that though, they forget that the beliefs that others hold dear are ones that they were always raised on as well. The reason for their belief in whatever religion it may be is their upbringing, not some deep-seated and witless desire to be a heretic. So when you get down to the heart of the issue, an evangelical Christian (this is only an example) and the young Indian Hindu he is trying to convert both believe in their respective religions for the same reason: They were always taught to.

I strongly believe that if more people, from all places, traditions, and religions could accept this, there would be far fewer people condemning each other for what seem to me to be obviously cultural influences. No person can decide the circumstances of their birth, and it’s a terrible thing that religious people of all kinds issue bold proclamations that anyone who doesn’t accept their truth, including young children who have heard nothing about it, is doomed. Truth be told, this is a pretty typical trait of the evangelical Christian in particular. I was talking with an evangelical acquaintance of mine about this very issue, not too long ago. I asked her, “What about an orphaned child in India? Chances are they’re going to grow up learning Hinduism as their religion. What happens if that child dies, and they’ve never heard anything about the Christian god?” She answered (paraphrase), “God’s justice is different from our justice. It’s sad that it has to happen, but the Bible says that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ is going to hell, no matter what. And that’s just the way it is!”

There is something desperately wrong with that picture.

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Black Blood: Oil and the Value of Human Life

Our leeching dependence on oil has sapped away our value for human life.

At some point in the 19th century, a wondrous thing was created: The internal combustion engine. Though there is still dispute over who it was created by and the exact year it was finalized, this is a fair timeline for it I think. The engine never had much popularity when it was first created, as it depended on petroleum-based fuel to function. But around the middle of the century oil fields began to be discovered and depleted. And so our oil addiction began.

Since around the turn of the century (the 20th one, that is), oil has been a precious resource. Though it started its history in fairly limited use, its’ importance has grown extremely rapidly over the last century, as the vehicles, industries, and other aspects of life it has fueled grow larger and larger. Nearly every part of life, especially here in America, has become in some way dependent on our oil supply. With the incredible developments in transportation technology, oil’s importance has grown larger and larger, as our cars, airplanes, cargo ships, semi-trucks, trains, cruise vessels, helicopters, military vehicles, and a plethora of other technologies have become almost completely dependent on this fuel. Even if you leave transportation out of the picture, many other products we use in our daily life are dependent on oil as well. In the words of the US Department of Energy: “Oil is the lifeblood of America’s economy.  Currently, it supplies more than 40% of our total energy demands and more than 99% of the fuel we use in our cars and trucks.” (found on this page)

And beyond the repercussions we’ll face when these reserves we’re so dependent on start running out, our dependence on and high esteem for oil have elevated it to the status of a societal god. One of the most important goals of US foreign policy has become finding and securing our oil supplies, and this “black gold” has become of paramount importance in our relationships with other countries that supply our all-important oil. America is the world’s most voracious consumer of petroleum, and only about half of the oil we use comes from our own soil. The other half comes primarily from Canada, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Nigeria (see the link above for details), which enthralls us to these countries for our most important resource.

I would say, with little hesitation, that our national (and in some ways, global) obsession with oil has reduced the value we place on human life. Entire countries such as Saudi Arabia have become little more than oil fields in public thought, and US leaders are as much concerned about the oil supplies being cut off in LIbya as they are about the people being massacred there. Oil giants like BP build offshore oil rigs that they know have a high chance of failing, at the expense not just of the nature around them, but on the people in their environments too. Some would say that a primary reason George W. Bush pushed for an invasion of Iraq was to secure its lucrative oil fields, and indeed, Iraq is among the top ten oil importers to the United States. I don’t know if I would say this was Bush’s sole reason, but it certainly didn’t hold him back.

There’s a brokenness to this high value we give to oil. Behind it lies the assumption that this natural resource is somehow of higher value than the people also involved in the situation. I understand that our country has a high dependency on oil for our day to day lives, but why is this? We’ve raised our standards of living exponentially in the last century, and it’s gotten to the point where most Americans feel they are somehow entitled to a fair share (or, in many cases, far more than a fair share) of oil for their personal needs. Almost unconsciously, Americans consume vast amounts of natural resources daily, in most cases without knowing the costs to the environment and the people in that environment.

But this goes beyond oil. The American people have been living beyond their means in many ways for years now. While all of our technological super-advances of the last century (and even the last decade) have made our lives more connected, more convenient, and even more fun, this comes at a cost that few people are willing to recognize. The more resources and luxuries we come to depend on for our daily lives, the more we suffer when they’re taken away or are harder to come by, as we saw in the peak of oil prices a few years ago in the US. So maybe it’s time to cut back. Maybe it’s time to realize that our choices and luxuries have a real cost to real people. Maybe it’s time to free ourselves from this cycle.

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Cutting More Than a Budget

John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, has been spearheading the cost-cutting in Washington.

As most Americans are well aware of, Republicans took control of the House of Representatives last November, and a large number of GOP candidates won other positions as well, causing a weakening of the Democrat majority in the Senate and ousting a number of Democratic governors across the country.

This turnover has changed the political landscape of Washington quite a bit over the past few weeks and months, but one of the key changes the new Republicans want to push through is a deep cut into Obama’s federal budget. After admitting that it had a number of possibly fatal shortcomings, the president laid the budget on the surgeon’s table for a figurative liposuction, and the new Republican representatives have been taking their job seriously.

Debates have been raging across the country about the budget, and many prominent Republicans, particularly a core of new (and sometimes Tea Party-affiliated) representatives have taken it upon themselves as a sacred duty to slice large sums out of of the federal budget. In fact, the House recently voted for $60 billion in cuts, which would slice spending out of almost all parts of government, affecting domestic programs, foreign aid, and even (surprisingly) military programs.

A recent and fascinating economics article in the New York Times showed how cutting the budget doesn’t even necessarily help the economy, but instead has potential to harm it. Boehner’s assertion that Obama’s addition of more federal jobs has cost the economy is not only falsely overblown (from 58,000 to 200,000 jobs added), but is fairly meaningless when one considers that state and local governments have severed 405,000 jobs recently. If you want a full picture of how austerity isn’t necessarily better than stimulus, read the article! I can’t put it as eloquently as David Leonhardt can.

My real disagreements with these deep cuts into the budget are more humanitarian in nature though. Many of the cuts being made into the budget are taking away funding for important programs such as Planned Parenthood, which is at risk of losing all funding, and a number of humanitarian community action agencies are losing funding too. To me, it seems obvious that the newly elected Republicans aren’t just trying to cut spending (in Washington and elsewhere), they’re actively seeking to advance their own political ideals under the guise of budget cutting. I see similar things happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, where newly elected Republican lawmakers are cutting into union rights while waving the banner of saving the states from a budget crisis.

While it may save the government some money to cut funding to organizations like Planned Parenthood, one can hardly say that the funding to this group and money given to community agencies across the country are colossal sums. So many lawmakers have become either misguided or over-political (big surprise there) in their choices of cuts. Instead of focusing more on areas where spending has become truly excessive and bloated (cough, defense, cough), most Republicans have chosen to hack away at social programs and programs intended to support those in greatest need. To add insult to injury, those in the top brackets of wealth in America are still getting breaks on their taxes.

Why is this happening? Here’s my theory: Besides cutting the budget down to size, a goal Republicans set ages ago, GOP lawmakers have jumped on an opportunity to advance their own partisan goals. By hacking away the funding for groups like Planned Parenthood or the community programs I mentioned (not to mention other programs in need), Republicans have leveled their cannons against programs that they, and more importantly, their constituents and monetary contributors, object to. This is more than an attempt to save money, it’s an effort to use this crisis as a way to advance the GOP cause and to secure the monetary and voter support that politicians so desperately crave, regardless of the toll it exacts on the human beings behind the numbers.

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Unrest in… Wisconsin?

A protestor's sign in Madison, comparing Governor Walker to ex-president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak.

Typically, when someone says the word “Wisconsin,” I don’t think of protests, civil unrest, and accusations of a governor’s similarity to Hosni Mubarak. But over the last few days, the state’s public workers have reacted strongly to Republican governor Scott Walker’s recent plans to require them to pay more for health insurance and pensions, effectively slicing away a substantial amount of worker income. More surprising are the governor’s hopes to severely castrate (unpleasant yet appropriate imagery) the bargaining rights of these union workers.

The governor has made the claim that such cutbacks are necessary in these tough economic times, and he and supporters have said that so-called excessive benefits and pay for public employees have contributed to the dire economic straits that many parts of the US find themselves in.

Now, it’s understandable that Walker would want to cut back on certain benefits and bonuses for state workers, and in fact, prominent union leaders have agreed to this cut in pay (which works out to around a 7% drop in income). But my real concern with Walker’s action isn’t about the financial side of things so much as the union rights aspect. While I can sympathize with a desire for cutbacks in spending in the public sector, I really fail to see what economic benefits the Republican bloc of Wisconsin hopes to find in the restriction of collective bargaining among unions.

Generally, I don’t have a fantastically high view of unions, to be perfectly honest. While I’m typically a very liberal thinker (and voter), I often find myself taking a more Republican view toward unions. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to have increased protection and fairness toward workers, particularly those in the lower or middle working classes, to prevent abuse from higher-ups. In this sense, I love unions. In another sense though, unions have the potential to elevate certain professions higher than they should be, and guarantee protections and privileges to only a few.

In this sense, I agree with supporters of the governor’s action (or at least their sentiment). In a recent New York Times article, a number of Wisconsinites have expressed their frustrations over the seeming extra protections that such unions provide to state workers. Many workers for private companies, especially in the industrial sector, feel that people such as public school teachers, policemen, nurses, or firefighters shouldn’t get such excessive benefits and bargaining rights when those working in the private sector don’t have those same bonuses.

And so it goes. I definitely wouldn’t say that these protests will have similar results to those in Cairo, as some seem to be hoping for. But they do raise an interesting and important question of the modern roles and rights of unions, and whether public workers do have this inherent right to collective bargaining. Either way, I think it’s fair to say that this right isn’t what needs to be taken into consideration right now. Walker and other Republicans are trying to turn a budget cut into an outright attack on union rights and union workers, using the excuse of a federal budget as a justification to hack into union power. I fail to see how collective bargaining is going to have a negative impact on Scott Walker’s budget, and it’s time he abandoned the argument that taking this right away will help his state’s economy.

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Genocide in Libya

The ruthlessly brutal Qaddafi, despot of Libya.

Determined to outdo his dictatorial Arab counterparts in violence, cruelty, and bloodshed, Col. Moammar Qaddafi (alternatively, Muammar al-Gaddafi) has declared outright war on his own people, ordering an effective open slaughter of Libyan protestors. The long-time revolutionary despot has surpassed any other attempts to suppress uprisings in this year of protest, at least in terms of raw, horrifying violence. Reports have indicated that hundreds have died in the protests, primarily in the cities of Tripoli (the capital) and Benghazi. Qaddafi has reportedly been using small air strikes, gunship attacks, hollow-point bullets, and ruthless mercenary forces against protestors in a bid to hold onto power, no matter what the cost to his own people.

As grim and appalling as this genocide is, there are signs that Qaddafi’s bloody grip is slipping away. A number of Libyan officials have taken a direct stand against him, including Libya’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who has called for Qaddafi to leave the country immediately and has accused him of genocide. He even went so far as to say that Qaddafi has only a small number of days left, whether his departure is a voluntary one or one by (possibly violent) forced removal by the Libyan people. Besides Dabbashi, two Libyan pilots landed their jets after refusing orders to fire on protestors, defecting to Malta, and rumor has it that one of Qaddafi’s top generals disobeyed orders to fire on protestors and was subsequently put under house arrest.

It seems that Qaddafi’s Libya is tearing at the seams. With the opposition building in the east and a shockingly transparent declaration of war and proposal of possible civil war by Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, it now seems inevitable that Libya will either be torn from Qaddafi’s lifeless hand or torn apart by further unrestrained violence. I think it’s safe to say at this point that Libya’s protests have gone far past a point of no return. Even if he retains power, which seems nearly impossible, Qaddafi could never bring the country back to how it was before.

Libya looks to be quickly becoming the next domino to fall in the astonishing sequence of events that started only two months ago in Tunisia. While other oppressive leaders have shown the kind of restraint and deliberation that might at least earn them a little more time in power, Qaddafi has signed his eviction notice (if not his death sentence) by his atrocious response to protests in Libya. It’s only a matter of time before Qaddafi is gone. The real question is whether he’ll leave in a private jet or a coffin. As one Libyan, Abdel Rahman, said, “He will never let go of his power. This is a dictator, an emperor. He will die before he gives an inch. But we are no longer afraid. We are ready to die after what we have seen.”

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