Body and Soul

Thoughts on the body politic, the human soul, Billie Holiday songs (and other people's) -- with a lot more questions than answers

Monday, December 09, 2002

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves (Part 3)
When I started adding the women who’ve been piling up in my "I really should add this one to my blogroll" list, I said I was going to almost double the number of women bloggers on the right. Actually, the number has increased a bit since then. There was an interesting side benefit to writing about women bloggers -- people started sending me names and URLs. Not bloggers asking to be put on the list, just readers who had other favorites they wanted to let me know about. I didn’t share the high opinion of all of them. A few were probably good, but wrote about things that just don’t interest me. But I was introduced to many good blogs that I never would have heard of (or would have taken a lot longer to find, at any rate) if I hadn’t raised the issue. Maybe it’s a reflection of one of those little pieces of women’s wisdom that gets handed around a lot: The first step in solving a problem is to start talking about it.

Some recent discoveries:

This Woman’s Work

Blog Sisters

Brief Intelligence


Just two days ago The Agonist linked to an Iraqi blogger. I’d seen the blog before, and found it intriguing, but wasn’t quite sure it was for real. Sean-Paul’s post made me a bit less suspicious that it was a hoax, and I decided I was going to follow it more carefully, and probably link to it. This morning I went to look at Where Is Raed and discovered that the blog has been shut down and its archives wiped out. Blogs disappear regularly, but this disappearance worries me.

Mikhaela Reid on the "problems" we could have avoided if Strom Thurmond had his way.

Fundamentalists Losing Favor with Public

WASHINGTON -- The American Family Association, a far right lobbying group in Washington, released results from a recent survey that shows mainstream Americans see evangelical Christians as one of the least likeable groups in the country.

Researchers from the Barna survey asked respondents how they felt about evangelicals, born-again Christians, ministers, and other groups of people in society. According to the survey, evangelicals came in tenth out of eleven, narrowly beating out prostitutes.

Makes you proud to be an American, doesn’t it?

(Via The Watch)

Sunday, December 08, 2002

The Ladies' Wear Department

Aziz Poonawalla recently pointed out that some of my comments on "religious" issues and attempts to control women jibe with much of what he said in his post comparing burkas and bikinis. I agree, and I also think that his post is extremely thoughtful and interesting. If you haven't already read it, you should.

The first time I read the piece, two memories came back, both from when I was about twelve or thirteen. One was an overheard conversation between my mother and one of her friends. The friend was a little younger than my mother, in her early thirties at the time, and extremely pretty. She didn't know she was pretty, but she was. I remember hearing her tell my mother about a fight she just had with her husband because they had been invited to a "pool party" at his boss's house, and she had been the only woman there in a one-piece bathing suit. He was angry at her because he thought the one-piece made her look dowdy, and it made him look bad if everybody thought he had a dowdy, boring wife. Everyone already knew he was Catholic, and here she was, confirming all the stereotypes about uptight, puritanical Irish women. She had to wear something that made her uncomfortable so he could look good.

(Of course, on the other side, is a memory of wearing a bikini for the first time myself, when I was about fifteen. It was one of those early ‘60s, mod, belted numbers -- the kind Ursula Andress wore in Dr. No. Only this was the end of the decade, and tie dye or crochet would have been more in style. I got the bikini off the sale rack at Zody’s, with my first paycheck from my waitressing job, and was proud of that, but I also knew it was hopelessly out of style, and thought there was a distinct possibility that I looked like an idiot. I came outside wearing the suit, and before I got halfway down the steps of our apartment building, another friend of my mom's said, very loudly, "Christ, I'd kill to have a body like that again." My fragile little adolescent ego was kept aloft on that sentence for years. It would have been better, though, if my ego had not been so thoroughly crushed that it needed that sentence to get it off the ground.)

The other memory comes from Catholic school in the mid-sixties. A lot of things changed in the Catholic Church after Vatican II, and among the   more sudden, visable changes were nuns' habits. The Benedictines at my school had the classic penguin look: white wimple, black veil and floor length belted black dress, with a black scapular hanging in front. But one year we returned to school and found that the wimple had been reduced to a white band set back from the forehead, so that a little clump of hair showed in the front (I still remember a boy walking into the classroom the first day after summer vacation and blurting out, "Oh my God, Sister Hope's got hair!" -- It was Lucille Ball red, so it did kind of shock everyone). The veil was not much more than a hand-towel sized thing hanging from the headband. And it turned out that Sister Hope not only had hair, she had legs as well.

And I remember being well aware that Sister Hope -- who was one of the most dignified women I have ever known -- was not comfortable in her minimized habit, and I noticed that boys who would not have dared to get out of line the year before, suddenly felt free to tease her and joke with her, and in some small, subtle way the authority of the nuns, the only group of women I knew as a child who had some authority, slipped. Pope John XXIII is one of my heroes, and I think Vatican II was one of the high points in Church history. (I’m still looking forward -- probably in vain -- to Vatican III.) In the long run, I think nuns are better off out in the world and freed from restrictive clothing. More importantly, the nuns I know seem to think so. But when I was twelve, I knew that something had been lost as well as gained. That's often the way things work.

The point of all this being, I don't think clothes themselves have any intrinsic meaning. And yet they are loaded with meanings and implications for the person wearing them -- especially for women. And that’s probably why, though I’ve never been offended by any item of clothing, I’m angry to the bone when someone with power tells a person with less power what to wear.

Saturday, December 07, 2002

I wasn't planning to post anything today, but I happened to notice a small item at the bottom of the Los Angeles Times' obituary page this morning that I couldn't fail to at least mention.

Philip Berrigan died Friday night.

The irony, for me, is that on my desktop is a sticky with a link to an article I read a couple of weeks ago, and wanted to come back and write about. I just needed to work some things out in my head first. (I'm not there yet -- as will soon be apparent.) The article is about a man who a lot of people might call a relic of the sixties, who, unlike many people well-known for their activism in that decade, was still fighting with the same passion he had more than thirty years ago. The man, of course, was Phil Berrigan.

In 1968, Father Phil Berrigan, his brother Daniel and seven other anti-war protesters went into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, scooped up draft records, carried them out to the parking lot, and set them on fire with a batch of homemade napalm. Then they waited for the police to come and arrest them.

I was fifteen. I was in my first year of public school, after spending eight years with priests and nuns. A few months earlier, the first political candidate I had ever campaigned for had been gunned down in Los Angeles, not far from where I was living at the time. Not long before that the most eloquent spokesman for peace and justice since Jesus was murdered in Memphis. That year Americans got to see a picture of a prisoner shot in the head by a South Vietnamese general, our ally. The war had gone on so long that as a fifteen-year-old in 1968, I literally could not remember a time when Vietnam wasn't in the news. I literally did not believe the war would ever end.

Which might -- or might not -- explain why I thought the action of the Catonsville Nine, the simple commitment to life and Christian pacifism expressed in the action of using the most grotesque weapon of that war to oppose the war was perfect. It summed up the horror of the war in a way that no words could. I have a vague memory of Dan Berrigan telling an interviewer to remember that the substance they used to destroy paper was also used on the skin of human beings. Visualize it and remember.

When I was fifteen, I couldn't stop visualizing it. That was the effect that Dan and Phil Berrigan had on me. I simply could not forget, ever, that every day my country was burning the skin off human beings, and that in some way I, as an American, was morally responsible for that violence. And that, of course, was their point.

I'm less certain of the wisdom of that action now. We've all seen too much of the simple, unbending morality of religious certitude, and the idea that it justifies things that might not otherwise be justifiable, and I have to question it, even when it is a moral commitment I share.

And yet, when I read the article about Phil Berrigan's continued activism a couple of weeks ago, his unbreakable sense that in fighting the "Pax America," he was still engaged in the same Biblically rooted struggle that he'd been fighting for most of his life, I have to admit I felt that something was gloriously right and just in the world. I wouldn't join him in smashing the implements of war. But I admit to a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing that, as an old man, Phil Berrigan was still doing it.

Friday, December 06, 2002

Damn! It's probably not a good idea to write when I'm this angry, but I have to get this off my chest. I just got an e-mail responding to the post I put up this morning about trying to draw attention to women bloggers. The gentlemen informed me in no uncertain terms that the only reason I get any attention from other bloggers is because I'm a woman. All the people who have linked to things I've written have done so only because of some dumb affirmative action ethic.

Silly me. I didn't even know it was be kind to dumb broads month.

I was sort of vaguely under the impression that I get quite a few links because I work hard to find stories, and facts behind stories, that a lot of other people miss. I thought it might have had something to do with the fact that I'm a fairly decent writer. Apparently not.

Did you ever have words flung at you that feel like fists?

The freedom-hating, anti-capitalist feminist Andrew Sullivan went after the other day takes a bite out of Andy. Think he'll ever learn that it isn't nice to lie about what someone said ?

What Jill Nelson said that Andrew Sullivan defined as an example of feminists who hate free societies:

I don’t buy that the issue’s the pageant, the abortion, the bathing suit, or the burka. What this is really about is men protecting men’s domination of women across geography and religion to perpetuate the tyranny of an acceptable womanhood created and enforced by men.

The status of women as defined by religion is being used by men as a convenient front to cloak the real issues men are concerned about — oil, globalization, control of the world’s resources and power foremost among them. Yet the truth is that most religions are misogynistic and oppressive toward women, and who asked for these defenders anyway?

While I’m well aware of both the real impact and profound symbolism of exporting Western values, standards and most of all products, around the world as part of globalization, I don’t believe that Muslim or Christian men are really concerned about the rights of women. As far as I’m concerned it’s equally disrespectful and abusive to have women prancing around a stage in bathing suits for cash or walking the streets shrouded in burkas in order to survive.

In a world where, East or West, Muslim or Christian, Jew or Hindu, millions of women and children live in poverty and ignorance, without education, health care, or decent housing, in communities and countries fraught with violence — often from the hands of the very men who swear they’re concerned about protecting us — you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of women who care about Miss World or any other beauty pageant.

It’s time for women to speak out against the violence toward others done in the name of protecting the sanctity of women. The truth is that it doesn’t positively alter the life of any woman, anywhere, if the Miss World pageant is driven out of Nigeria, or if a physician who performs abortions is murdered, or if Muslim and Christian clerics engage in wars of intolerant words that incite real violence.

Isn’t it past time that women, across geography and religion, talk, unite, and raise our voices for what women really want and need? Certainly there must be a way for us to join in a discussion of how we believe the world can become more fair and equitable. If nothing else, we must raise our voices and declare that there must be an end to intolerance and violence. We can start with that being done in our names.

Now if someone could only explain to me why I know Andrew Sullivan's name, in fact can't avoid hearing Andrew Sullivan's name, but until now I've never heard the name of a woman who writes this eloquently and sensibly -- or maybe someone already did.

I agree with Jeralyn about John Kerry, but I still think this 1971 cartoon (via Eve Tushnet) is funny.

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves (Part 2)
I got an amusing e-mail this morning from a reader who was offended by the very idea of a "sexist list" of women bloggers. Well, as somebody more articulate than me once said (I can't remember who, probably either Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker, or Mark Twain -- between the three of them, they seem to have said pretty much everything worth saying): What's the point of writing if you can't offend someone? The kicker was the remark that men don't make an issue of things like this. You'd never hear a male blogger say that he was putting someone on his blogroll just because he was a man. Men are above that sort of nonsense. (By the way, does anybody remember Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," singing the hilarious ode to clueless misogyny, "A Hymn To Him," perhaps better known by its refrain: "Why Can't A Woman Be More Like a Man?" -- I don't know what made that pop into my head.) Men never complain about unfairness.

Honey, give me more than my fair share and I promise I won't complain about it either. Word of honor -- I'll take it like a man.

Now the truth is, I'm not adding a lot of women to my list because they're women. I'm adding them because they're good, interesting writers who I enjoy reading. In fact, a lot of them stayed off my list longer than they should have because even though I started writing this blog thinking I would write about nearly everything that interested me, at some point I realized that I had an audience that was primarily interested in politics, and while some of the women I'm adding are purely or mostly political writers (and some of them pretty gender-neutral in their writing), a lot mix political, personal, spiritual and a lot of other issues together -- as I do, but with a different balance. They didn't seem to quite fit on my blogroll.

There was a element of sexism in my sense that they didn't fit. Sexism isn't just flat out hatred of women. It involves all kinds of subtle ways we devalue women's lives and contributions. We all grow up so immersed in sexism that it effects everyone. Including women. And including women who define themselves as feminists. And when I thought some styles of women's writing "didn't fit," what I was thinking, I realized, is that because a lot of women tend to approach things from a very different angle than men, there was something not quite right about it. Different, therefore wrong. Even though I liked it.

But eventually I realized it's my blogroll, I can do whatever I want with it. (I grew up in a time when women -- at least poor, Irish Catholic women -- didn't think, let alone say, "I can do whatever I want" with anything, so sometimes it takes me awhile to find those words -- another little legacy of sexism.) If my blogroll's got people on it who write about needlepoint and church suppers and decorating and volunteer work and fat and chocolate and two-year-olds' temper tantrums and homeschooling and why John Ashcroft is one of the poorest excuses for a human being God ever made, and that's not what most people (especially male people) expect when they read a political blog, well, that's what it is. That's the way a lot of women write and think -- valuing experience and interesting connections, not argument. Men just aren't used to it because it's the way we talk to each other, not to them. (Most of them anyway. I do know a few wonderful men who are in on the secret.) Maybe if we start, they'll get used to it. Maybe we'll change the way people think about political discourse. (Believe me, there's a lot of overlap between politics and cleaning up after small children.)

So, diatribe completed, here is my latest batch of first-rate women bloggers. I hope they are especially offensive and blatantly female today. If they're not, I may have to take up the slack. Otherwise, what's the point of writing?

The Bitter Shack of Resentment

Easy Bake Coven

Mad Musings of Me

The Reader

Noli Irritare Leones

Thursday, December 05, 2002

I think I'm entirely too female. I answered c to every question.

District Attorney Robert Morgenthau asked a judge today to throw out the convictions of the men accused in the Central Park jogger case. Glenn Reynolds has a smart and fair discussion of the topic, although he lets Ann Coulter off the hook too lightly. CalPundit picks up the slack.

Terrific. I came up number one in "googles adult nasty jokes." My mother would be so proud…

From the e-mail bag: Nigeria
After posting a couple of pieces about Nigeria over the past few days, I discovered that I have a lot of very intelligent readers who were ready to give me lessons in the history of Nigeria -- which was very helpful of them, because as I was writing I had been thinking that in order to make any sense of things, I really needed to find out more about Nigerian history than I knew, especially recent history. I also got a lot of mail from people who were upset that I failed to grasp the subtle concept that religion (or one particular religion anyway) is a horrible thing that makes people crazy. I'm afraid I don't feel any further enlightened after reading those letters. Below are a sampling of the ones I found interesting.


One of the things that gets overlooked in analysis of these unfortunate riots is that they have less to do about some dramatic, symbolic clash between Islam and the West, and more to do about the politics of Nigeria. Nigeria is another cobbled-together imperialist state, like Yugoslavia or Uganda/Rwanda, and therefore is divided between animists/Christians in the South and Muslims in the north. The reason this division is so sore is a problem endemic to Nigeria, it has little to do with "those crazy Muslim fanatics" and more with Nigerian history. You cannot magnify the situation to be a microcosm of the world, it simply does not work. -- Dylan Suher


In 1999 Obasanjo won a democratic election, taking over from a caretaker dictator after the previous dictator Abacha died. Obasanjo has had a couple years to deliver a better economy and basically could not…The rise of fundamentalism is due to the failure of the democratic forces. This is where fundamentalism and dependence on religion comes from. When people work so hard and still cannot succeed, they have to find answers somewhere. In our society it's easy to see how your work is rewarded, so religion isn't as important.

It's not specifically Muslim. Just a few months ago I read an article which mentioned at length the rise of Christian fundamentalism in Nigeria -- "The Next Christianity," from the Atlantic.

The thing that is hard to understand is that the West was happy Abacha was gone, and tried to help out. Specifically the IMF went in and took care of the old debt and gave out economic advice. So why turn against the West in this way?

The answer is that the IMF, despite it's good intentions, hands out economic advice that is simply hurting the people of Nigeria to the point of starvation. Raise taxes, cut social spending, balance the budget and privatize sound like good ideas, but they are simply not working for Nigeria's economy.

Add to this the general deflation of commodity prices brought on by the deflation of the US dollar, and Nigeria's exports have seen universal price collapse. Oil, coffee, cocoa, all fell through the floor. The problem hasn't been fixed and so of course they're still suffering.

When people are suffering like this they turn to groups that they have no natural inclination to join. In a shrinking economy, this is what people do -- they retreat to their tribes and fight over the scraps.
-- Eric


I wanted to comment on something you wrote:

"And isn't it strange that there is a sudden need to control women in the most brutal way imaginable in a country where very strong and radical women in the Niger Delta are standing up for their rights, and achieving a great deal? Is there a connection? And why am I the only one who seems to wonder about that?"

I think you are implying that increased activism by women in the Niger Delta agitated enough conservative Nigerian men in the North to repress local women/the Pageant. While plausible, I don't think it works in Nigeria. Please correct me if my interpretations of your post are incorrect.

[Ed. note: A little bit incorrect. I didn't mean to suggest there was a direct correlation. I just found it curious that within one country there were some very forceful women getting international attention, and at roughly the same time there is a movement to suppress and even brutalize women. The interplay of assertion of rights and backlash is often subtle and strange, and I was more wondering aloud about it than asserting an answer.]

Nigerians tend to think locally first. Seeing Northern and Southern Nigerians argue over their then military government at a forum many years ago was quite illustrative to me of the significant divisions within the Nigerian polity. This was reinforced as I spent a couple of years meeting expat Nigerian political types and reading Nigerian media while working as a researcher in Washington. I would be surprised if a crackpot semi-Islamic Hausa or Fulani politician would feel remotely threatened by a bunch of Ibo or Ogoni Christian/traditional faith women protesting oil production in their back yard. An obvious exception would be if his family had a direct financial stake in the oil scheme.

As the NYT article you linked to shows (though I disagree with the writer's assertion that the Federal system in Nigeria is necessarily bad) the assertion of an overtly Islamic society is (and has been) a regional and ethnic issue for the Hausa and Fulani Northerners. Non-Hausa and Fulani immigrants to the North often convert to Christianity as means of self-identification. The Muslims and Christians have been fighting in the north central belt well before the reinstitution of democracy in 1999, usually in the spring and with much higher death rates than the Miss World riots.

As to why you seem to be the only person wondering about all this, it's because most Americans don't care about Africa until there is an external political argument that can be illustrated there. The warblog folk are all happy to talk about Nigeria now because there is both a Muslim villain (no he's not clergy but so what?) and because of the way the western media covers it (neutrally reporting fighting between Muslims and Christians; conservatives would rather point out the Muslims started it). I don't want to open a media bias discussion with you, but in the latter case the story is often framed among conservatives about defenseless Christians story being attacked by the Muslims. My reading certainly shows the Muslims started this, but the Christians quite definitely fought back, which as a Christian I'm rather perversely proud of. But none of this makes good warblog copy does it? --
M. Herman Yam

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves
Me and my big mouth. Not long ago I criticized TAPPED for not including a reasonable sample of women writers on their blogroll. It's not just a matter of numbers. Women often bring different perspectives to issues, and readers lose out if all they hear are men's voices -- no matter how interesting and intelligent those men are (and TAPPED's choices are all terrific).

This morning I got an e-mail from Jim Capozzola pointing out another blogroll with an overabundance of y chromosomes. He's right -- twenty-nine bloggers, and only two women (I hope I got it right this time. I miscounted TAPPED's list -- which probably justifies their decision to leave an innumerate like me off their list, although they still have no excuse for passing over the other women I mentioned.). One of the two women, I admit, I'd never heard of, but was glad to discover. I'll be adding Mikhaela's News Blog to my blogroll, too -- and reading it often. The other woman I read every day -- before anyone else does, in fact.

I'll spare you the re-run of the rant -- although I would like to send you over to Elayne Riggs , who had some interesting comments on the topic and then some equally interesting follow-up comments, exploring it from a different angle than I did. Pem has more to say on the need for women's voices.

All of this got me thinking about the number of women on my blogroll. A quick glance will tell you men vastly outnumber women on the list, but I've got a pretty respectable number of women, too -- sixteen (possibly more, there are a few people on my list whose gender I'm not certain of). I haven't made any particular effort to search out women writers, although I admit when I find a good new blog, the fact that it's written by a woman is a plus. It makes blogtopia (thank you skippy ) a little less lonely.

I've also got a file full of blogs that I've been looking at and considering adding to the blogroll. Some of them are blogs I've discovered through someone else's blogroll, a mention in someone's post, or through my own referrer log. Quite a few are blogs by people who've asked me to add them to my blogroll, and I found them interesting enough that I added them to my file to look at a few more times before deciding to put them over on the right. (One interesting phenomenon: I've never gotten a request from a woman blogger to be added to the blogroll. I don't know why.)

Anyway, there's something funny about my file of blogs to look at. About half the blogs on it are by women. A lot of them have been there quite a while, and I've almost put them up several times, but just as I was about to, they'd decide to revamp the blog's look, or go on hiatus, or write in a purely personal way that, while interesting, didn't really reflect what attracted me to the blog in the first place. So I ended up with a big file stuffed with wonderful women bloggers. The past week or so, I've been thinking it might be interesting to post them all together -- and Jim' e-mail, I think, just gave me an excuse to do so. But the list is now so long, I'm afraid if I put them all up, the ones at the bottom of the list will just get ignored. So over the next few days, I'll be roughly doubling the number of women on my blogroll. Here, in no particular order, are the first five:

The Watch

Plucky Punk's Happy Land


This Land Is My Land

Deep Language

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

The best news of the day: Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian pro-democracy advocate who was imprisoned because of his efforts to monitor elections in that country, has been granted a retrial by Egypt's highest court, and his been released from prison.

There are two excellent articles in today's Salon that deal with women's issues. And -- hallelujah! -- neither one is premium.

The first is about the roughly 325 women (there's no exact count), mostly maquiladora workers, who have been murdered in Ciudad Juarez in the past ten years, and how globalization contributed to the social conditions that made those crimes both more likely and more unsolvable.

The second must-read article is an interview with Geraldine Brooks about the complicated history of women in Islam. It's inevitably sketchy, but it's a good -- and interesting -- introduction to the topic.

Are you ever haunted by a news story? I'm still trying to put together pieces of the puzzle to understand how and why more than 200 people died in rioting over the Miss World pageant in Nigeria. Everyone but me seems to have put the pieces together already and mentally filed the story away, but I think that's because most commentators started with big, simple pieces. The more pieces I find, the less sense it all makes. Some pieces:

* Sister Semira Carrozzo, a nun who runs a school for both Muslim and Christian children in Kaduna, says that relations between the groups, until now, have been good. When the rioting broke out, Muslim friends immediately called to make sure she was all right.

* Two years ago more than 2,000 people died in a month of religious rioting in Kaduna over the new state government's imposition of sharia (Islamic) law on the sizeable Christian minority. There were also violent clashes in 1987 and 1992.

* According to Sister Carrozzo, those respsonsible were primarily unemployed boys between the ages of 17 and 18, " all ready to sell themselves for 100 naira," and easy to manipulate.

* Every commentary I've read begins with the fact that the riots were a response to an article by a Nigerian journalist which was offensive to Muslims. But a reporter in Kaduna could find very few people in Kaduna who had heard of the article, or who even knew anything about the Miss World pageant. The riots didn't start until four days after the article was published.

* Some of the wounded say they were shot by soldiers firing randomly into crowds.

* There will be a presidential election in Nigeria in April. Amnesty International expects to see increased violence in Nigeria in the months leading up to the election.

* Some of the rioters were shouting campaign slogans and circulating political posters.

* The population of Kaduna is 1 million. Both Christians and Muslims claim to be the majority.

* Northern Nigerian politicians have attempted in many ways to reveal the "weakness" of the current president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who is a southerner. The cancellation of the Miss World pageant is viewed in Nigeria as a major blow to his administration.

* There is oil in southern Nigeria. There is no oil in northern Nigeria.

* Nigeria has few police and relies on vigilante groups for much of its law enforcement. According to Amnesty International, these groups have been responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial killings in recent years. Many of the groups are ethnic militias, or ethnically-based political groups who combine intimidation of political opponents with law enforcement activities.

As is so often the case in following a story, it probably would have been easier to form a judgment if I'd collected fewer puzzle pieces.


Some sources:
The truth behind the Miss World riots

Ugly saga of Miss World reveals split

NIGERIA: Vigilante violence in the south and south-east

Nigeria's Violence Not a Simple Christian-Muslim Clash

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Kevin Raybould has some very interesting things to say about liberal attitudes toward the press. Because there's a myth of a "liberal press," which anyone with progressive views who reads and watches the news knows is a distortion on a grand scale, a lot of us develop a kind of siege mentality, assuming the press is one huge, right-wing, corporate-paid mob, which will always be against us. And if we think we can't win, we won't. It's another example, I think, of leftists preferring to see themselves as brave and lonely outsiders, battling lost causes, instead of doing the hard work of making our voices heard.

"What would you have done differently after Afghanistan?" Anyone seriously dissenting from current policy needs to be able to answer that question. Sean-Paul Kelley deserves a lot of credit for beginning to pull together some answers. I look forward to future posts on the subject.

CalPundit reviews Kenneth Pollack's The Threatening Storm.

I'm stretching back here, but even though I saw Matt Yglesias' comment on Glenn Reynolds' crusade against the raging hordes of man-killing feminists a few days ago, I made the mistake of not coming back to read the comments. Read the comments. (I was especially interested in the mix-up over the words patriotism and patriarchy. Sometimes mistakes are very revealing.)

One problem with political blogging is that there's far too much news and information that I'd like to say something about. Sometimes, when I'm drowning in it, I make lists, with headlines and URLs, of things I'd like to come back to. At times, I'm looking at so many articles that I want to just list them all on the blog -- here are a few blatant examples of sexism and here are a few subtler ones, here's one of corporate greed and here's one of individual human kindness; on one side I've got a few examples of the light that people of faith bring into the world, and on the other proof that there is no greater evil than a mean person who thinks God is on his side.

Occasionally I do that. More often, I just trash all the headlines and URLs and start fresh -- God knows, there will always be more examples of misogyny, greed, saints and demons coming around the pike -- sometimes all rolled into one article.

The problem for me is that, for the most part, I'm not a "here are more examples of things I like and dislike" kind of writer. My frustration with the mainstream press is only partly that they miss stories I think are important and want to call attention to (which is one of the values of blogs -- all those pairs of eyes combing back pages, small newspapers, foreign news, the Congressional record, and Defense Department reports, for buried treasure -- armies of I.F. Stone wannabes.) My bigger issue is the miniscule attempt to understand anything, to put things in context, to connect bits and pieces of information in any reasonable way. Or even to throw a lot of contradictory stuff together and admit, "I can't make any sense of this chaos whatsoever." The press has too many quick answers, and not enough modest questions. And no one seems to remember last week's stories, let alone even a small bit of history.

Connections and contradictions -- that's what interests me. My lists of things to write about usually consist of articles that speak to each other in some way that I can't immediately explain. I hope that by writing I can at least begin tying threads together.

Last week, I posted a conversation that focused in part on conflicts between respect for minority cultures and women's rights. After reading it, Ampersand sent me a link to a very interesting and relevant article, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? by Susan Moller Okin. (Another value of blogs: Interesting people send you interesting stuff.) The premise of Okin's essay is that many non-European cultures (she focuses on immigrants to Europe) are much more patriarchal, and have traditions far more damaging to women, than Western liberal societies in general, and that to grant "group rights" to minorities in the name of multiculturalism is to lock women within those minority groups into oppression. No one should have a cultural right to oppress another person.

I've got to admit, it's a compelling argument, and one that articulates well a lot of inchoate thoughts I've attempted to pull together.

She opens with a stunning example: In the eighties, France began permitting polygamy -- but only for immigrants from countries that allowed it. This accommodation of minority cultural rights at the expense of women's rights was obviously an enormous mistake. Reporters who interviewed immigrant women stuck in polygamous marriages found that they all regarded it as a nightmare, made worse by the crowded conditions they lived in after moving to France, which often led to violence among women, or directed at each other's children (Leila Ahmed, in Women and Gender In Islam documents similar patterns of violence in polygamous marriages, and an awareness in Muslim literature as far back as the middle ages that polygamy made women's lives miserable.) Eventually, the French government realized its mistake and banned polygamous marriages. One wife will be legally recognized; all other marriages are annulled.

In case you missed the full implication of that, I'll spell it out. Message to wives number 2 through 4, and all their children: You're on your own, guys. You may starve, but at least you're no longer oppressed.

Merci, I guess.

God only knows why the French started accepting polygamous marriages, but they didn't end them because they were bad for women; they ended them because 30-member families were a drain on the welfare state.

And if political correctness was running rampant in France in the eighties, then why, at roughly the same time polygamous marriages were being accepted, were the French banning Muslim girls wearing headscarves from public schools , on the grounds that it was both a violation of the separation of church and state -- although crosses and yarmulkes were permitted -- and a violation of women's rights?

That's not a rhetorical question. There's a contradiction there that I honestly can't make much sense of. I'm not sure how much "political correctness" comes into play, but if it's there at all, it's clearly not the only factor, and it combines with some obvious insensitivity to valid cultural differences that deserve to be respected. The relevant question doesn't seem to be "Were the French too politically correct?" but rather "Do the French have any sense of when to draw lines and when to leave people alone?" (And let's follow it up with the obvious question -- Do we?) Ban headscarves and allow polygamy? Throw together one part political correctness and one part boneheaded cultural insensitivity, stir it up, and I don't know what to call it. For lack of a more politically correct term, stupidity will have to do.

No sooner did I finish reading Okin's essay, than I stumbled across an article illustrating the complexity of the issue: In October, an Australian judge ruled that a 50-year-old Aboriginal man (who had murdered his former wife) was not guilty of raping a 15-year-old girl because her parents had sold her to him in marriage. Since the arrangement was "traditional," the judge ruled, the man had every reason to believe that punching a child, putting his foot on her neck, firing off a rifle when she resisted him, and raping her were "morally correct." It was just part of his culture.

Political correctness gone stark raving? Could be. You could just as easily read it as cultural imperialism on steroids. The strongest objections to the ruling came from Aboriginal women, who were angry not only about the lack of protection for women, but about the way the court "pathologized" their culture. Arranged marriages were traditional, they pointed out, but in a context that contained many provisions for ensuring women's safety. Those conditions no longer exist (wiped away, to a large extent, by colonialism and its residue), and rape and violence against women are not "traditional." The women resented the insult to their culture. A bit more "political correctness," more awareness of the culture, might be called for. Valuing women's lives might be a nice little touch as well.

Just as I was thinking about the conflict between women's rights and cultures that devalue those rights, the Miss World riots erupted, which seemed to exemplify that conflict in the extreme. Salman Rushdie and Andrew Sullivan both described the riots as Muslim attacks on liberal Western culture. And they made a few good points. The riots began when a Nigerian woman journalist, Isioma Daniel, casually wrote that if Mohammed had seen the Miss World contestants, he might have chosen one as his wife. And certainly there aren't many liberal values more sacrosanct than the right to say whatever you damn well please, and if people are offended, that's their problem. I liked Rushdie's arrogant call for "more Rushdies." There is no doubt that the Muslim world needs more reasonable and moderate critics of the madness. (I don't mean to suggest that the critics aren't there, but their voices aren't often heard -- and why is a part of a whole other discussion.) But sometimes outrageous, deliberately provocative voices make people appreciate the moderates -- so a few more Rushdies probably wouldn't hurt either.

But unlike the always sure of themselves Messers Sullivan and Rusdie (that Victorian certitude seems to require a Victiorian title of respect), I was also left with a lot of unanswered questions -- some, perhaps, irrelevant, but refusing to go away nonetheless.

When did beauty contests -- just another way to exploit women -- become the epitome of Western liberal values?

Why did the contestants, who initially refused to go to Nigeria to protest the stoning sentence of Amina Lawal, back down? (Their protests made the newspapers; the backing away was virtually silent) What kind of pressure was put on them, or what persuasion offered? Why did Amina Lawal suddenly stop mattering?

And why did this happen in Nigeria, when there are other Muslim countries in Africa, even countries with Christian-Muslim conflicts, where nothing like this has happened? (Sunday's NY Times had an article -- on the back page of the opinion section -- exploring some possible answers to that question, but the simpler answers offered by the writers with bigger names are more likely to become the common wisdom.)

And why, in all the posturing about the fatwa issued against the Nigerian journalist, did no one seem to notice that it was a politician who issued it, and clerics and Islamic scholars who told him what he could do with his fatwa?

And isn't it strange that there is a sudden need to control women in the most brutal way imaginable in a country where very strong and radical women in the Niger Delta are standing up for their rights, and achieving a great deal? Is there a connection? And why am I the only one who seems to wonder about that? Is it really such a strange question?

And should I read anything into the fact that both Rushdie and Sullivan aim a good measure of their anger about the Miss World riots at feminists, who seem to be culpable because they failed to appreciate how important a part of Western liberal values beauty pageants are? (And will the gentlemen be disappointed to learn that Isioma Daniel apparently doesn't share their anti-feminism, since her next writing will appear in the feminist publication conservatives most love to mock -- writing not about Miss World, but about a topic neither one of them has considered worthy of notice: the radical women of the Niger Delta. I've been combing the press for months digging up stories on those women, and I wouldn't miss that article. Somehow I don't think Andrew Sullivan will be reading it. Isioma Daniel served her purpose for him as a means of attacking Muslims; what she has to say about women fighting the oil companies will probably be less compelling.

And in Sullivan's bizarre attempt to blame "puritanical, anti-capitalist feminists" who "hate free societies," do I hear a message to Western women: You'd better be grateful for the oppression we have here, because obviously our form of patriarchy is better than their form of patriarchy?

Thank you, I guess.

And while I'm on the subject of our own brand of patriarchy, I have to mention two recent articles. The first is about marketing plain white sleeveless undershirts under the charming name "wife beaters." There's even a company that sells the shirts on the Web that has, as part of its advertising, a "Wife Beater Hall of Fame," including Ike Turner and Mike Tyson, and offers a discount to anyone providing court records, a restraining order, or a probation officer's phone number to prove a domestic violence conviction. Capitalism in action. (Will capitalists be apologizing for this outrage? Can we take them seriously if they allow this dark side of capitalism to go unchallenged?) The seriousness with which the LA Times takes this ugly trivialization of violence against women is probably summed up in the article's headline: Politically incorrect fashion term: Legitimizing the use of 'wife beater' to describe a type of undershirt worn by the hip has struck a nerve. "Politically incorrect" is, of course, a very fashionable thing to be -- and probably will remain so after the tee shirt has joined shoulder pads and bell-bottoms on the Goodwill racks. Fashionable battering. Suddenly our brand of patriarchy isn't looking so good.

And while we're on the subject of women and the darker edges of capitalism, you must read Liza Featherstone's article on Wal-Mart in the current issue of The Nation:

From the Third World factories in which its cheap products are made, to the floor of your local Wal-Mart, where they're displayed and sold, it is women who bear the brunt of the company's relentless cost-cutting.

I just hope Andrew Sullivan doesn't read it and decide that Wal-Mart's right to make a fortune off female poverty is another Western liberal value we're required to stand up for.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Ain't Too Proud To Beg
Actually, under normal conditions I am too proud to beg, but a woman in my town, Maliha Zulfacar, who is a native of Afghanistan, and who used to teach at Kabul University, is trying to raise money to build a child-care center at the University, both to educate children and to allow women to study, work and teach at the school. If you read this blog, you know how important programs like this are, and so, just in case you're thinking of making a charitable contribution this month and aren't quite sure where to put your money, I thought I'd make a suggestion.

A while back, I ranted a little about TAPPED's failure to notice that there were plenty of women with blogs worth reading. In case anyone's interested, Ms. magazine just started a blog called Ms. Musings (which I've added to my blogroll), and in one of the first posts asks for links to good blogs written by women. I've already mailed links to a few of my favorites. You might want to let them know some of yours.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

The Los Angeles Times had a pretty good article today on the Iraqi Kurds, but toward the end, I tripped over this odd (to me, anyway) paragraph:

Economically, Kurdistan remains in limbo. A new fast-food outlet complete with golden arches has introduced Big Macs and Happy Meals -- but as McDonal's. "I have to wait until sanctions end to make it the real thing," said owner Suleiman Kasab, a former hamburger flipper at a McDonald's in Austria.

Why does the American press fixate on US corporate hegemony as the ultimate goal for every society? Last week, I mentioned a Time article on Iranian dissent which was accompanied by a photo of an imitation Carl’s Jr. in Tehran, which I thought implied that the important thing about rebellion against clerical control of Iran is not the possibility that Iranians may soon be more free than they have ever been, but that they will soon get to eat real hamburgers. In the LA Times article, the implicit becomes explicit: One of the biggest problems the Kurds have is that their McDonald’s doesn’t have a d in it. I don’t know, but among all the problems in the economy of Kurdistan, I doubt that the lack of genuine Happy Meals is high on many people’s priority list.

More on Turkey and the Kurds

This entry has also been posted at Stand Down -- the anti-war blog that explores reasons for opposing war with Iraq from multiple politcal perspectives. If you'd like to comment, you can do so here.

Christopher Hitchens had a tough Thanksgiving week. First Bush appointed his least favorite war criminal, to head the investigation into possible intelligence failures that preceded the September 11 attacks. To his credit, Hitchens was quick to denounce the decision, and not a shred of historical revision appeared in his essay. I was a little afraid Hitchens might have changed his mind and decided that secretly bombing Cambodia was actually a preemptive strike, and killing Allende was a model for regime change, but fortunately Hitchens does, apparently, still have some integrity (although there was that strangely gratuitous final paragraph in which he seemed to suggest that people who agree with him about Kissinger are paranoid, but I won't pick on him too much for that -- just on a rhetorical level, making a case that the people who agree with you are paranoid is a little tricky, and you have to have some pity on a man trying to pull it off.)

But Bush was apparently not done make Hitchens' life miserable. For the coup de grace, he sold out the Kurds. Okay, "sold out the Kurds," might be an exaggeration at this stage. But certainly it's reasonable to see some discomforting moves in that direction in the New York Times Thanksgiving Day revelation that the administration is "mounting a major effort to enlist the support of the new Islamic government of Turkey for a northern front if there is a war with Iraq," including offering economic aid for their support. (Am I hypersensitive, or does the term "hit man" spring to anyone else's mind when they read about paying one country to attack another?) The administration also made it clear that they won't support a separate Kurdish state in northern Iraq -- a concern for Turkey, which has its own problems with uppity Kurds. (Minorities get a little restive when they're tortured, and asked to serve as human mine detectors.)

That lack of American support for a Kurdish state isn't necessarily a huge problem. The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state, and if they wanted to make a case for Kurdish independence, they'd certainly have a good one. But the Iraqi Kurds have disavowed the call for an independent state, and want only a Kurdish region set aside as part of a democratic Iraqi federation. At least that's the best they think they can get, and they're willing to settle for it. (The Turkish Kurds have not yet given up on the idea of an independent Kurdistan -- so any move by the US to assure the Turks that the Kurds will never have a homeland is selling them out. Sadly, there was never much hope that it would be otherwise.)

The bigger danger for the Kurds, if the Turks are a major part of Bush's war strategy, is that northern Iraq could end up with a new name -- Turkey. The main issue is -- surprise -- oil. Kirkuk and Mosul, two cities in northern Iraq, are loaded with oil. Turkey has almost none. Not only would the Turks like to get their hands on that oil for its own sake, they want to keep it out of the hands of the Kurds. A wealthy and powerful Kurdish region is not something they want on their southern border. Wealth and power tend to make oppressed minorities a little hard to deal with. In September, Ozdem Sanberk, the former Turkish ambassador to Britain, told a reporter, "If the U.S. intervenes, and in the first days the Kurds enter Kirkuk and Mosul, the Turkish army will move in." In fact, the Turkish army already has troops inside the Iraqi Kurdish zone, and is already planning to send more to stop any flow of Kurdish refugees into Turkey when full-scale war breaks out.

Hamid Efendi, the top Iraqi Kurdish military commander, says that if the U.S. attacks, his forces will immediately go after Kirkuk and Mosul. Massoud Barzani, a prominent Kurdish leader, insists that Kirkuk, which lies just outside the current Kurdish autonomous zone, should be the capital of the Kurdish region in a post-Saddam Iraqi federation. ( His principle rival, Jalal Talabani has shown more flexibility on the issue, and has played down the possibility of Turkish opportunism, but has also complained of being left out of both military planning and planning for post-war reconstruction.) Mosul is within the Kurdish controlled no-fly zone. Turkey has an Ottoman-era claim to the two cities, and since the Gulf War Turkish nationalist politicians and media have been reminding Turks of the "Turkishness" of the region. There is a substantial Turkmen minority in the Kirkuk, as well, and the Turks could easily use the cover of protecting the rights of fellow Turks in order to occupy northern Iraq. (They have a history of doing that sort of thing, of course.)

For now, I'll set aside questions about the wisdom of relying heavily on the support of a country with severe human rights problems, (particularly regarding the Kurds, and including Kurdish women), as well as the issue of whether this is a good time to support a government in the hands of a party with Islamist roots. Turkey's AK Party appears relatively moderate, and willing to work with secularists (despite its somewhat disturbing chairman) and might prove that Islamic democracy is not a contradiction in terms. But they haven't proven it yet, and wariness, at the very least, is certainly called for.

Focusing only on the Kurds, however, it's seems pretty clear that the Bush administration can't juggle alliances with the Kurds and the Turks. It will have to choose. And it looks like it may already have done so.

Saturday, November 30, 2002

This entry has also been posted at Stand Down -- the anti-war blog that explores reasons for opposing war with Iraq from multiple politcal perspectives. If you'd like to comment, you can do so here.

The outpouring of mainstream religious opposition to war with Iraq demonstrates both how weak the ethical case for war is, and how wide and mainstream (and difficult to categorize and demonize) the opposition really is. The Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization of the city's Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, was formed in 1984, and in 18 years has never issued a statement on a national issue. They just found an issue they could all agree on and felt they needed to issue a statement about -- the conditions for justifying war with Iraq, they said, have not been met. The religious leaders expressed the belief that opposition to the war represents "a broad spectrum of society," and that they hope that their public opposition will help President Bush realize that even "normally conservative and cautious" Americans believe that war should not be pre-emptive and unilateral, but should always be seen as a last resort.

A young woman is raped by her cousin, and her family, ashamed (of the victim, not the rapist) sends her away to a place where she has to work 364 days a year, with no pay and little food, where she is beaten and humiliated, made to pray all the time, and forbidden contact with the outside world. Damn those crazy, misogynist, religious fanatics -- all of them.

Alum's past hinders Philly school naming

WEST CHESTER, Pennsylvania (AP) -- When Bayard Rustin died in 1987, President Reagan said the civil rights activist who organized the 1963 rally at which Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech had "won the undying love of all who cherish freedom."

But that love apparently has limits in Rustin's hometown.

School board officials in West Chester are reconsidering their decision to name a new high school after Rustin following complaints from some board members that they had been unaware he was a conscientious objector during World War II, and that he was gay…

What year is it again? This is so stupid I don't even want to comment. Just let it stand as a monument to ignorance.

Signs of Hope and Reason
In Turkey, an atheist and an Islamist have written a book together exploring issues including the existence of God and the role of women from their differing points of view. It's a little bit of a gimmick, but as Sanar Yurdatapan, the atheist, pointed out, secularists who buy the book because they want to hear what he has to say are going to be stuck with half a book by an Islamist, and Islamists who buy the book might just end up reading something by a secularist. If nothing else, their relationship holds out the promise that people with wildly divergent ideas can have respect, even affection, for one another. It's a beginning.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Let's see -- make cranberry sauce and croutons for the stuffing, bake the pumpkin pie, go buy flowers, (oh dear, and I just remembered that I didn't buy cream -- my daughter has decided that making our own butter is a Thanksgiving tradition, a tradition that only goes back to last year, but, hey, this is California, we make it up as we go along), clean the house, pick up my son at the Greyhound station (call at noonish to make sure he actually has managed to find the bus station -- he can be a little scattered sometimes), find time to play chess with a seven-year-old who's going to get very bored while I'm doing all those things -- and that's just today.

I'll be too busy to write anything for the next few days -- and anyway, it's Thanksgiving, and I'm not going to waste a perfectly good holiday (probably my favorite, in fact, because it is the only big one that is quiet, cardless, and presentless) fretting about the state of the world, but I did want to remind everybody that the day after Thanksgiving is Buy Nothing Day -- when you can take a swipe at consumerism and over-consumption just by refusing to be part of the biggest shopping day of the year. Stay home, sleep late, teach your kids how to play a card game you remember playing as a kid, read a book, listen to music, ride your bike, help out at the local shelter (what, you don't think homeless people need to eat the day after Thanksgiving?). Just don't shop. You don't need any more junk, and you know it. It's your holiday, not Walmarts.

And if you have time (and at least one child to read to), go to a library and pick up one last thing before Thanksgiving -- a copy of Barbara Cohen's book, Molly's Pilgrim. It's about a Russian Jewish girl who everyone at school makes fun of. At Thanksgiving time, the other kids tease her because she's never heard of the holiday. Then Molly's class gets an assignment to make a pilgrim doll. Molly tries to explain to her mother what pilgrims are -- people who move to a new country so they can practice their faith without being oppressed -- and, of course Molly's mother understands exactly what that experience is like, and makes Molly a pilgrim doll that looks exactly like her. It's a great lesson -- pilgrims aren't all dour people in black and white (in fact, maybe the first pilgrims were not really even all that dour); we still have pilgrims, and will as long as we remain a country worth coming to. It's also a beautifully written book that renews the meaning of the holiday. (Now if only it didn't make me cry every time I read it...) If you have any children around who are over five or so, old enough to sit still for a fairly long picture book, you've got a good excuse to read a wonderful story. After all, you're not going shopping, right?

UPDATE: The Agonist has found the "Buy Nothing Day" ad in an unexpected (but appropriate) place.

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Glenn Reynolds may not realize it, but he's been dressed, stuffed and is ready for basting. It's a couple of days early, but Happy Thanksgiving!

Where are the leaders in the Muslim world who are trying to make real reforms? Some of them are still hiding under burqas.

A year ago, there were few newspapers available in Kabul. Now there are sixty. It sounds promising, but the press in Afghanistan isn't dealing with some of the most important issues facing the country -- particularly women's issues and stories about the warlords' crimes -- because some Afghan journalists believe the government is still so vulnerable that it shouldn't be criticized.

Enter aina -- a French group trying to help build an independent media in Afghanistan. One of their projects involves teaching Afghan women how to make television documentaries -- particularly on topics the local press isn't covering. So far, the women have made films on child labor, teenage marriages, and women imprisoned for refusing to marry. They are currently planning an hour-long documentary on the condition of women in the country. The entire film crew will be made up of women -- in order to make it easier for the women they interview to feel comfortable talking about their lives.

Their films are being shown on French television, but not in Afghanistan, where state-run television is becoming increasingly conservative, recently banning images of women singing or dancing, for instance, out of fear that "the Taliban and Al Qaeda are still around and could use it as propaganda."

The reformist voices are there. But they're still being silenced.

"I also understand how tender the free enterprise system can be." -- George Bush, White House press conference, Washington, D.C., July 9, 2002

Maybe I don't understand this story because I've never had tender feelings about business. I come from a long line of the kind of people the free enterprise system chews up and spits out. You can shake the family tree as long as you like and not a single entrepreneur will drop out, not even a reasonably paid wage slave. Failure runs in the blood.

But somehow -- just in an abstract way -- I always thought capitalism was supposed to reward people for providing a service. I thought it was efficient. I thought the whole point was that if you screw up, you pay for your mess. There's no escaping the consequences of your mistakes. And the people who screw up least make out the best.

When did that change?

Until recently, Hamid Karzai was guarded by US military bodyguards. They did a damn good job, too -- foiling an assassination attempt last September. You've got to give our military credit -- when they're doing the right thing, they're the best. But Bush, Inc., of course, has a deep-seated belief that whatever government can do, business can do better. So the State Department hired a private military corporation to guard Karzai. Not surprisingly, the company is one of George Bush's major financial supporters -- DynCorp.

If the name sounds familiar, it might be because this is the same DynCorp whose employees, according to a lawsuit by an aircraft mechanic who worked for the company, participated in a sex trafficking ring while working for the UN in Bosnia -- buying and selling girls as young as twelve as sexual slaves. When Ben Johnston, the mechanic, blew the whistle, he was fired because he "brought discredit to the company." Another employee, Kathryn Bolkovac also spoke out on what was happening. She was fired as well. No one involved in the ring ever faced criminal charges.

Ben Johnston revealed not only the sex ring DynCorp employees were running, but also the fact that fraud was rampant, and that it was common practice for DynCorp mechanics to work on airplanes while falling down drunk. These are planes, you understand, that U.S. military personnel would be flying, not realizing that they'd put their lives in the hands of drunken mechanics.

That's what the company is infamous for. But they've had a few other problems as well. You might remember a tragic story from last year -- a plane carrying a family of Baptist missionaries was shot down in Peru. The plane had been mistakenly identified as belonging to drug smugglers. Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter were killed. But it was more than a tragedy. There were measures the crew of the surveillance plane were supposed to follow to prevent such mistakes, and didn't. The death of Veronica Bowers and her baby wasn't just a tragic error, it was the result of recklessness. And according to an article in last week's New Republic, the reckless and incompetent spotters worked for DynCorp.

And then there was that little narcotics trafficking incident in Colombia. DynCorp is the main U.S. anti-narcotics contractor in Colombia, employing pilots and other workers in the drug war. Last year a Colombian newsweekly ran a cover story describing the pilots as "lawless Rambos."

And maybe I should also mention that lawsuit for allegedly spraying Ecuadorian peasant farmers and Amazonian Indians with toxic chemicals. At least two children died from exposure to the poisons.

I know I don't have much of a head for business, but I grew up believing that prostitution, drug dealing and reckless disregard for the lives of others were the kinds of things that got you into a whole lot of trouble.

When did that change?

I'm not sure, but let's try out a theory: It changed when we found ourselves stuck with a president who spent his entire life screwing up and never learning that there was such a thing as consequences, a man who therefore came to believe, "I do not need to explain why I say things. — That's the interesting thing about being the President. — Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." A man who apparently believes the same rule applies to his friends and contributors.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Your Monday To Do List

Did you vote yet? (No, not that election. I'm still trying to forget that one…) Lou Dobbs wants to know if you think the media is liberal, conservative, or neutral. (The poll is on the left-hand side of the page -- scroll down a bit). As they say, vote early and vote often. (Via Busy Busy Busy)

You have to read two pieces at Alas, a blog -- the first, a further exploration of the men's rights movement, looks at why some men feel shame and guilt when faced with feminism, and why opposing patriarchy is just as important for men as it is for women; and the second reveals what you learn about George Bush when you draw him. (Have you ever noticed there are some bloggers so good you can't keep up with how many exceptional things they write?)

And speaking of people who write so many interesting things it's hard to keep track of them all, don't miss Jim Capozzola's "Al Gore and The Alpha Girls." It's not only witty and insightful -- you just start with the assumption that you get wit and insight when you go to The Rittenhouse Review, right? -- it's one of the most perceptive pieces on journalism and opinion that I've ever read. Go discover why so much punditry consists of one long sour note.

And of course you already read Slacktivist, didn't you? You didn't? Go! And I'm not just telling you that because I'm mentioned in it. (Although I would like to tell WebBlocker that while I often write this blog in my robe -- hey, how fancy are you dressed at 5 o'clock in the morning? -- full nudity I don't do. And you should be grateful for that.)

And, in a far more serious vein, you probably already heard that the Supreme Court will be reviewing the Miranda decision, and I hope you already know that when legal issues are in the news (and, lately, that would be every day, wouldn't it?), the one site you must visit is the indispensable Talk Left . But if you haven't read Jeralyn's analysis of the case, you should.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Hijabs and Democracy at the Tehran Carl's Jr.

Over the past week or so I've had an interesting e-mail conversation with a reader about how politics, religion, women's rights, business, cultural values (and sensitivity) and a lot of other things all weave together. At some point I realized that a lot of the issues we were talking about were things I hadn't seen much conversation about between people with basically liberal values. Mostly the "conversation" (if you want to call it that) has consisted of liberals defending themselves against attacks by conservatives -- attacks that have been outrageous and irrelevant. That the right wing use of the issues has been stupid and opportunistic, however, doesn't mean there aren't issues here to discuss. Are liberals too culturally sensitive, too "politically correct"? Is there a conflict between standing up for women's rights and refusing to demonize people who don't value those rights? How do you separate encouraging democracy from creating a corporate-friendly (and exploitative) environment? Those are just a few of the questions that arose.

It occurred to me that other readers might be interested in the debate so far -- and might like to contribute their own thoughts. And so, here it is:

In a message dated 11/14/2002, John Steppling writes:

I draw your attention to the Richard Just article in The American Prospect. Liberals for the war. What bothers me about this argument is the claim that the only argument for an anti-war position is that Saddam can be deterred. Well, I for one don't argue that and I am against the war. This assumption that Saddam is somehow a threat is what really gets glossed over. Apparently asking for evidence is just part of a bygone era. The received wisdom is now that he is a threat to America and I guess everyone else too.

The other big reason to be against this war is that it creates a precedent for future pre-emptive action and encourages and excuses civil liberty abuses domestically.

Saddam is bad -- ok -- and he has about 18 planes left and an ambivalent army and little in the way of a future, but I guess he's a lot easier to deal with than North Korea or Saudi Arabia.

Yours, JS

I thought the Richard Just article was interesting. Obviously I disagree with him, but he makes a reasonable case -- probably more or less the case Hitchens would make if he weren't so full of bile (along with the other things he's full of). I agreed with a lot of what Just said -- liberals have always had an ambition to make the world a better place, liberals are the ones who are supposed to pay attention to human rights (surely an issue in Iraq) -- I agree completely. I'm sort of a wary Wilsonian. I would like to believe in the possibility of using power to make the world better, but I've read enough history (and literature, for that matter) to know that even with the most genuinely idealistic motives, that ambition can turn sour. And there are always people waiting to take advantage of idealism and twist it into something else. That doesn't mean I completely abandon hope, but you have to be very careful about fixing your eye on the prize and not seeing all the traps in the way of getting there -- including your own arrogance about your "values."

And in this case, we're not even starting with ideals. The motives are so blatantly greedy and cynical. That's why Just completely loses me at the end when he talks about how liberals should encourage wars that will "repair the earth." First, that requires me to accept the idea that Bush is interested in repairing the earth -- which is just laughable. Then I have to believe that the precedent set by a preemptive strike would not matter, that when the strongest country decides it can overthrow other regimes at will, that doesn't gouge a hole in the idea of justice and liberal ideals.

Take care,


I have been thinking about your last note -- on the Just article. It's the dilemma we keep circling. How to make the world better, how to deal with the built-in problems of power and the limitations of democracy and the delusions of the hegemonic culture.

I can't say I have any real answers at all. I know trying to support women's rights in Muslim countries is right, and yet it seems that support becomes part of a fabric of Barbie Dolls, Starbucks, and Blockbusters franchises -- how to tweeze it apart and how to begin the educating, at home at least, of a society so numbed to its own privilege and its own form of misery.

Don't know.


I was intrigued by your comment about the relationship between supporting women's rights and having that turn weirdly into support for a corporate-friendly universe. There's no logic in that, of course, but I know what you mean. I've been on the verge of putting something similar into words for awhile, but I can't get it to come together in any reasonable way.

There was an article awhile back in the NY Times about a woman in the Netherlands, an immigrant from Somalia, who is a strong voice against Dutch laws that aim at "respect" for immigrant cultures, because she sees those laws used by Muslim men to protect their cultural right to oppress women. She's gotten many death threats -- an amazingly brave woman.

Many conservative Muslims, of course, see her as attacking their culture. I started to write something about her, but I got sidetracked, and then I noticed right-wing blogs picking up the story -- and using it, of course, to attack Muslim culture. Which made me realize that as much as, of course, my heart is with this woman, in some way her critics have a point, -- well, that's putting it much too strongly, but at some level I understand their anger -- she's providing ammunition for people to make broad, nasty attacks on Muslim culture. But I don't think she has an alternative either. Those are "attacks" that have to be made. She's wonderful, and I applaud everything she's doing. I just hope she gets some Muslim support -- people who are able to back her criticisms, without attacking the culture. (Thank God for the students in Iran who have come out for that professor they're threatening to execute.)

That sounds off topic. I often go round in circles before I get anywhere, sorry. I was thinking that just as the bigots are ready to pounce when someone makes a criticism that has to be made, the Starbucks and Walmarts (not to mention the Halliburtons and Exxons) seem to be waiting for an infusion of American values to become a turn to American consumer culture. Our values are often turned against us. And it certainly seems that most Americans don't see a big difference between supporting American values and expanding American corporate influence. There was an article in Time a few weeks ago about the loosening of clerical control of Iran, but the picture they put with it was of smiling countergirls in hijabs in a pseudo-Carl's Jr. As if the fact that some Iranians are eating hamburgers is a sign that democracy is just around the corner -- or people questioning clerical rule leads directly to Carl's Jr. franchises. There's a difference between hamburgers and democracy -- I don't know why that's such a hard idea to get across.



The old cultural imperialism bugaboo. These are bone hard issues for the left, because we place enormous value on women's rights, and we also value cultural differences, and at some level those values are in conflict in much of the world (maybe slightly less so for feminists than for leftists with less focus on women's issues, because feminists long ago got used to saying, the hell with cultural sensitivity, genital mutilation is an outrage.)

Call it p.c. if you want, and it certainly can dissolve into that kind of mindlessness, but there's a genuine value at the core of that cultural sensitivity, and one I don't want to lose. If my only choices are a mindless "mustn't criticize anyone's culture" or "convert them or kill them" -- I'll take the former. But I don't think those are the only choices.

Anyway, speaking about how cultures become twisted in the ways that radical Islam clearly has ("radical Islam" is a stupid phrase -- but I haven't got a better one handy), and about keeping consumerism and American values separate, and keeping the xenophobes from co-opting the issue of reforming Islam (or, at least, creating the conditions for reasonable Muslims to reclaim it), and how assimilated Muslims are, and the whole idea of cultural sensitivity versus women's rights -- do I have enough issues there, or should I toss in a few more? -- there are a lot of threads to explore:

First, did you read the article in Salon recently on Oriana Fallaci ? She's pulled a Hitchens and written a book defending Western civilization from the Muslim hordes. I haven't read Fallaci's book (don't plan to, either), but the author of the Salon piece says that it has "more bigotry" than "any other book worth reading" and he gives a few repulsive examples. But then he tries to dig some worthwhile stuff out from under the dirt. He suggests that despite its nastiness, even racism, Fallaci's book is "a bracing response to the moral equivocation, the multi-culti political correctness, the minimization and denial of the danger of Islamo-fascism" that you find on the left. Which is sort of what you're saying, I think, only without the borderline acceptance of la Fallaci's operatic bigotry.

The issue is, can we get the "bracing" honesty without passing through xenophobia, and if we don't manage it, aren't we ceding the issue to the bigots?

One of the ideas the Salon article brings up is that we have to grapple with the notion of religion, its values and its darkness -- which is something neither the left nor the right does a very good job of. On both ends of the political spectrum, and all through the middle as well, most of us approach religion in one of two stupid ways. Either we go around attacking other people's religions without any attempt to understand them (Hitchens is the master of this because he despises all religion -- this is a man who told a Salon interviewer that he felt "exhilaration" about the war because "there has to be a stand made against the worst kind of tyranny that there ever could be, which is religious," and he's not just talking about fundamentalist Islam, he sees this as a war against "the religious worldview" -- and while he gets some good shots in here and there, he can be astoundingly dense about the nourishment people draw from religion, not to mention what it would mean to a society to lose thousands of years of moral teaching). If we don't attack, we put on our nice faces and insist that all religion is fundamentally good and we should never criticize. Neither of those approaches is terribly helpful.

As usual, I'm probably spinning off topic here, but sometimes my way of making sense of what I don't know is to look at its connection to something I do understand, and what comes to my mind is my own difficulty recently in writing about the Catholic Church. I grew up in the Church and had a lot of horrible experiences in it, but right now my attitude toward it is a combination of respect for its traditions -- no, actually, it goes deeper than that: I think the moral questions the Catholic Church asks and even its symbols and rituals are irreplaceable -- and fury at its misogyny, its homophobia, its anti-Semitism, its power games, its hypocrisy…well, I could go on forever about my anger at the Church, but the point is that when I started writing on this site, I sometimes wrote about what I knew of the horrors in the Church. But something disturbing happened. I'd see what I wrote picked up by other bloggers and twisted. Often unintentionally, I think. There were people who just had a gut level mistrust of religion and they'd pick up things I wrote with a "see I told you religion is bad" attitude. And I eventually stopped writing about it because I had no interest in attacking the Church and I don't want to feed misunderstanding. What I wanted to do was explore the way the good and the bad wove together -- but I discovered that that was very difficult to do in a public forum. Not impossible -- but I had to be careful about the way I went about it.

I promise, I'll eventually get back to Islam. And there really is a connection.

Lately, it's gotten even harder because the Church has gotten easier to attack, and people are taking nastier shots at it. I don't know if you've followed the sex scandals in the Church at all, but about a week ago, the bishops apparently softened their policy toward pedophile priests. I haven't delved into the details, so I don't really know how good, bad, or indifferent the new policy is, but there was one horrible thing, and that was when Bishop Gregory lashed out at people who are supposedly hostile to the Church and all it stands for and who are just using the scandal to destroy it. Now, I admire Bishop Gregory, he's a good man, but that was a stupid thing to say. He seemed to be attacking the victims' groups -- the very people he desperately needs to listen to.

Anyway, I gathered some articles about it because I wanted to write something, because I think, as someone who stands slightly outside the circle of the Church, but still respectful, even admiring, of it, (basically the same situation many Arab intellectuals find themselves in, I suspect, in regards to Islam) I understand some things that neither people fully in it nor people indifferent or hostile to it do.

But I ended up not writing what I intended to, because I started running across some obscene comments about the bishops that made me queasy. And at the same time the bishops issued a really good statement opposing war with Iraq -- bringing up all the ethical and moral issues that I wish everyone was dealing with. I saw a lot of rightwingers using the pedophile scandal to attack the bishops' moral authority, and making a connection with their statement on Iraq in a way that I thought was unfair. It's not just that I think their moral authority is important because right now, politically, they agree with me. I think the kinds of moral questions they ask are important to deal with, even when I disagree with them. And so I couldn't write about the things I understood about how power operates in the Church, because at the moment I have a sense that there is a greater danger in the voice of the Church being silenced than there is in the abuse of clerical power.

I can't tell you how ironic I find that. I grew up knowing the Church's power to silence people. I never expected to see it silenced. That doesn't mean I'm one bit less angry about the abuse of power, but I'm reluctant to speak of it because it's so easy for people to use anything I say to attack the Church in ways that it doesn't deserve to be attacked.

Now if I, from outside the Church, feel that way, imagine how people who have more commitment to it than I do, even very liberal, reform-minded people, feel. There was a op-ed piece recently by Andrew Greeley, who's a liberal priest, someone who's never been reluctant to criticize the Church, but he basically repeated what Bishop Gregory said -- the victims' group leaders are power hungry and the media is out to get us. People under attack -- even good, thoughtful people -- are not terribly open to the possibility of reform. And outrageous attacks put even sympathetic apostates like me on the defensive.

I've just finished reading two books by Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist, one on gender relationships in Muslim societies, and the other on Islam and democracy, and I'm in the middle of a book by Leila Ahmed on the history of women under Islam, and while both authors are vehement in their denunciations of how women in Islamic cultures have been treated, and honest about the misogyny that is an inescapable element of Muslim tradition (and I find their denunciations a lot more "bracing" and honest and than those of people like Fallaci and Hitchens who have ulterior motives for their attacks, besides not understanding the cultures), they also -- especially Mernissi -- see a situation far more complex than most of us appreciate. And also, rather than rejecting the religion outright, they search for alternate readings, and traditions that were lost along the way, as an alternative to the misogyny. Reading Leila Ahmed, who wonders how the lives of Muslim women would be different if some of the less misogynist scholarly traditions (and there are some) had taken hold reminded me a lot of the former Catholic priest James Carroll writing about how the Catholic Church might have been different if Peter Abelard's voice, for example, had become a central part of the tradition. In any faith, I think people who search the tradition for what could have been and might yet be are precious. Neither the Bible nor the Koran are fundamentally anti-female, and many women find support in both books.

I read an interview some time back with Kanan Makiya, a professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis and an Iraqi dissident, who said that part of the problem with Islam in much of the Arab world today is that Arab intellectuals abandoned it -- and that left religion in the hands of imbeciles. I think there's something to that. (I also think we've got a similar problem in this country -- although obviously on a much smaller scale -- with the decline of the old mainstream churches and the growth of both dumbed down smiley face religion -- the kind you find in a lot of popular religious books -- and, well, the imbeciles and thugs, Falwell and worse.)

I think some intellectuals in the Arab world are trying to claim Islam back. That’s why the situation with Hashem Aghajari in Iran is so interesting. He's a threat to the clerics because he's talking about texts being interpretable -- meaning isn't set in stone. That's something Leila Ahmed talks about a lot -- the need to get back from the clerics the power to argue about meaning. (I mean, fundamentally, it's the quintessential feminist demand: Let us tell and interpret our own stories.) I'm obviously not an expert, but some reformist Muslims I've read suggest that the whole idea of clerical mediation between God and man is foreign to Islam anyway -- a power grab that has no basis in the Koran. In any case, Aghajari is not attacking Islam, he's attacking powerful people trying to control the meaning of Islam. And on the one hand, he was sentenced to death for that, but on the other hand, he's apparently gotten overwhelming support -- although, of course, there's a backlash as well. But maybe that support suggests a longing to peel faith and power apart. And maybe there's your Reformation. There's a real struggle for the soul of Islam here that's very heartening -- and it's in the streets, not just a fight among clerics, politicians, and intellectuals.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that if we go looking for honest criticism of how Islam has interwoven itself with some brutal power relationships -- and reading Ahmed, it's pretty obvious that's not a recent development, although it has recently gotten more dangerous, at least for us -- those are the people we should be paying attention to, not Fallaci or Hitchens or Bush or Falwell. Or even Huntington. Because they know what they're talking about, in the first place. And their critique obviously comes without any nasty assumptions about Western superiority, even with love for what is best in the culture (Love is a quality you can't miss in Mernissi's books.) And generally it comes with an awareness of Western complicity -- which you're never going to get from the right -- a refusal to let the West off the hook. I don't remotely mean you can blame imperialism for the problems, but if you take honesty about how the West has reinforced and encouraged a lot of garbage in the Arab world out of the mix, you end up with a very distorted picture. I don't ever expect to see Oprah choosing Nawal el Saadawi or Taslima Nasrin for her book club, but I'd like to see intelligent people on the left spend less time defending themselves against Christopher Hitchens and more time exploring the legitimate critics of the darker elements of Islamic culture, not the crypto-colonialist ones. You want non-pc honesty -- that's where it is.

This letter's gotten much too long for me to deal with assimilation. My experience makes me think Muslims are a lot more assimilated in the US than in Europe, but I may be wrong, and even if I'm right, I don't know why that would be true. Well, I have some theories, but I've already written too much, so I'll drop that for now.

Look forward to hearing from you,