Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Chosen Ones

I realize how fortunate, how lucky, I am. I am tempted to count my "blessings" and consider myself "blessed," but then I recall what a wise man once said. "It's fine to count your blessings and be grateful for how blessed you think you are but then it implies that someone who does not enjoy what you have or is in a bad situation is not blessed, or worse, is abandoned or cursed by God." In other words, some are chosen while others are not.

Though I do not think for one moment that I am privileged by the divine or do I assume that most people who express gratitude for their good fortune seriously believe that they are more favored by God, the reality is that there are those who really believe they are "chosen." Moreover, they are certain, without an iota of doubt, what their heavenly mission on earth is.

At best, those of us who are not hand picked by God are not invited to fundamentalist soirees and will be left behind at the end time, an expiration date that shifts often and rather conveniently. At worst, people are treated like animals and senseless wars are waged.

George W. Bush and his followers believed that the 43rd president was anointed from on high. At the 2004 RNC National Convention, George Pataki proclaimed:
He is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge ... I thank God that on September 11th, we had a president who didn't wring his hands and wonder what America had done wrong to deserve this attack ... I thank God we had a president who understood that America was attacked, not for what we had done wrong, but for what we did right.
Indeed, Bush had a tingling sensation that he was God's agent. In the book, The Faith of George W. Bush, candidate Bush was quoted as telling James Robinson, an evangelical minister, that "I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can't explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen... I know it won't be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it." At a Southern Baptist Convention he said "I believe that God wants me to be president."

There is no need to list the devastating cost, suffering and death caused by Bush's choice to engineer a war, rationalized by manufactured information, justified by neocon rhetoric, and instigated by the idea that he was chosen. Neither is there need to beleaguer the point by enumerating the irrational acts, policies and institutions that discriminate and oppress certain groups because those in power and in the majority believe they are the chosen ones and thus could not possibly be wrong.

And so I now consider myself fortunate, lucky, no more blessed or cursed than my neighbor.

Image from "The Jesus Factor."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Courage and Grace

The other night, on the Rachel Maddow Show, National Guard 1st Lt. Dan Choi came out on national television and effectively put himself on notice. This act of honesty and integrity has endangered the career of an Iraqi combat war veteran, Arabic translator and West Point graduate because of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," an unfair and mindless policy which even some of its earlier proponents believe should be repealed.

Actually, Lt. Choi stepped out earlier in the week with the launch of Knights Out, a "support and education organization that promotes dignity, diversity, and respect for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) alumni of the United States Military Academy at West Point and their family and allies."

As the Army Times reports:

Thirty-eight graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., came out of the closet Monday with an offer to help their alma mater educate future Army leaders on the need to accept and honor the sacrifices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender troops.

“Knights Out” wants to serve as a connection between gay troops and Army administrators, particularly at West Point, to provide an “open forum” for communication between gay West Point graduates and their fellow alumni and to serve in an advisory role for West Point leaders in the eventuality — which the group believes is both “imminent and inevitable” — that the law and policy collectively known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” are repealed by Congress.

“We’re publicly announcing our sexuality, our orientation,” said 1st Lt. Dan Choi, a National Guardsman with the 1st Bn., 69th Infantry, based in Manhattan. “It’s just one part of who we are in saying that we are standing to be counted.”

In forming Knights Out, its 38 members are following the example of similar support and education groups formed by graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Air Force Academy, known respectively as USNA Out and Blue Alliance. Most if not all of these groups’ members also belong to the Service Academy Gay and Lesbian Alumni social network, a group that Knights Out claims includes some active-duty commanders serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Choi, a Korean by descent, is a combat veteran of Iraq who graduated from West Point in 2003 with a degree in Arabic language. He said his unit is aware that he’s a homosexual and added, “I’m very comfortable with all the repercussions right now. To me, it’s about doing the right thing, not about trying to fit into the process that gets you the rank or prevents you from getting a discharge.

“If that’s the repercussion, I’m ready to take it,” he said. “I think it’s more important that I let everybody know that … it is a wrong policy.”

Choi said the group has contacted West Point leadership and gotten “a very warm response.” An academy spokesman couldn’t confirm that assertion, noting that today was the first day of West Point’s spring break and that the campus was nearly empty.

The reality is, more and more Americans realize that there is no reason for keeping brave, honest and patriotic American women and men from military service. Back in July 2008, the Washington Post had an article which noted that
Seventy-five percent of Americans in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll said gay people who are open about their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military, up from 62 percent in early 2001 and 44 percent in 1993.

Majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike now believe it is acceptable for openly gay people to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Shortly after he took office in 1993, Clinton faced strong resistance to his campaign pledge to lift the military's ban on allowing gay people to enlist. At that time, 67 percent of Republicans and 75 percent of conservatives opposed the idea. A majority of independents, 56 percent, and 45 percent of Democrats also opposed changing the policy.

Today, Americans have become more supportive of allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the armed forces. Support from Republicans has doubled over the past 15 years, from 32 to 64 percent. More than eight in 10 Democrats and more than three-quarters of independents now support the idea, as did nearly two-thirds of self-described conservatives.

More power to Lt. Choi and all the inspiring women and men of Knights Out, USNA Out, Blue Alliance, and the 65,000 LGBT Americans currently serving in the Armed Forces. Let us not forget the 12,500 plus service members who have been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” since 1993, and countless others that have made the choice not to join the military or have left military service due to a discriminatory law.

Image from the quoted Army Times webpage.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pro Life?

It is appalling and unconscionable how powerful men who suffer no poverty and have access to the best resources in the world put dogma - man-made ideas and concepts - over and above living, breathing, feeling and suffering human beings. This week the pope joined his fundamentalist brethren, once again, in denouncing the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS, even though those who actually provide care and succor to people dying of this disease know and have proven that condom use is effective.

A friend who has been in international relief and development for many years and is now stationed in Angola emailed:
As the international media is reporting, the pope is visiting Africa this week and one of his stops is Angola. On his way through Cameroon yesterday, he reaffirmed the Catholic Church's stance that condoms are making the AIDS pandemic worse and should be abandoned, flaunting decades of scientific research and expert opinion. Worldwide, the rank-and-file in the Church are toeing the line, even in places like Angola that can in no way afford to throw away any shadow of a chance to protect itself from the terrible fate that has befallen almost all of its neighbors. This debate will be fought out in places like Rome. The price for bad choices and mistakes will be paid in places like Angola by people who were not asked their opinion in the debate.
Simon Campbell blogs:

Pope Benedict XVI: Smiling killer…

Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Alois Ratzinger) became pope on April 19, 2005. Since then hundreds of thousands have died of AIDS in Africa; many more suffer as the disease ravages their bodies. He still tells us contraception is unacceptable. I have been watching this issue for three years and find this totally sickening. Why is the 'civilised world' not acting against this ridiculous policy?

He said in 2005: It is of great concern that the fabric of African life, its very source of hope and stability, is threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a contraception mentality.

In April 2005, Africa had around 13% (around 143 million) of all Catholics worldwide. Benedict (which obscenely means 'the blessed') is punishing those that take his teachings literally. I personally know many friends who just ignore it. I am not just talking England here, the people I refer to are in Catholic 'strongholds' such as Eire and the USA. What really pisses me off is that we go to enormous lengths to 'save' people all over the world in the face of natural disasters. In this case, nobody has the balls to 'face-off' the 'Holy Catholic Church'.

I don't care what people believe. Personally, I think the ten commandments were a piece of pretty badass thinking but as we see everyday Religion, in the wrong hands, is the most divisive and destructive force we humans have so far dreamt up...

Barrier contraception must be accepted eventually but the pontiff's continued procrastination may result in more people being killed than in the holocaust. If the Catholic Church modified their thinking, the problem wouldn't stop, but even if it saved one child's life, wouldn't it be worth it?

Apparently, not.

Related post: Rhythm Method, Out of Sync.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


A recent conversation turned to the topic of cleaning ladies. A woman in our group said, "You know, these women may not speak English well and may not have had much education, but they sure do have some great skills."

"What do you mean?" the person next to me asked.

"Think of it," the lady responded. "Here are people, some who literally walked all the way here, who realized that their only option is to clean our homes. Fine. Now each has five or more clients at any one time, often at different locations, and they have to take public transportation, that is, the bus, to get from one place to the next. They also have to deal with children in public school, take care of their household, help their friends and provide for an extended family abroad, all while trying to learn and maneuver an alien world. That's multitasking and time management right there. Not to mention entrepreneurship!"

While those of us who are fortunate to afford the services of immigrant women tend to brag about how good Marta is at dusting or restocking the fridge and congratulate ourselves on our generosity to these people, we rarely see the potential lying dormant underneath acquiescent, smiling faces that utter broken English. What if these working mothers had the opportunity to learn English well, get an education and enjoy the luxury of having only one job? Advantages most of us take for granted?

I was reminded of a Filipino woman who cleaned our apartment every other week while we still lived in New York. She was my dentist's nanny and she cleaned apartments in the evenings and days "off" to make extra cash that she might buy her son a treat or toy every now and then and remit money to her parents and younger siblings. She tries to take her five year old to work whenever she can, but often the boy is left with other women she shared an apartment with in Queens.

I have wondered what if Emily were able to get an American diploma. She was clearly intelligent and pretty savvy. She shared stories of how she learned a lot and fast when she first started working for folks in the Upper East Side. How she realized that she had to stand up and negotiate without losing a job. How she shared notes with other nannies and housekeepers she met in Central Park and at church. How she just had to walk out on a verbally abusive client without another job lined up. She had been in New York for some time when she was referred to me. And did she know how to haggle. I'd like to think that we paid her fairly and more than the going rate.

These hard working women come, like any other immigrant before them, to find work, provide for their families, perhaps better themselves, even find happiness. What if they had more opportunities and better options? I think we would all benefit.

Image from the New York Times. "
Immigrant women gather near a corner in Brooklyn, waiting for day-labor jobs cleaning houses. The group illustrated an overlooked reality: Women make up 44 percent of the nation's low-wage immigrant work force."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Heart of Straightness

In his book The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism, and White Privilege, Robert Jensen writes:
In any struggle to end a system of oppression, those on the bottom of the hierarchy have an obvious motivation to resist the system: to remove from their lives the source of the oppression. But what of those who in some way benefit from the oppression? What of those of us on top of the hierarchy? ... What might motivate us to act for social change?

There is always an argument from justice, the simple plea for human lives for everyone. If we see someone being hurt, we know we should help. When we see someone being brutalized, we know it is wrong. When these things happen systematically, it is just as obvious that we should act, though it typically is more difficult to know for sure what actions can change the system. Resisting oppressive systems that cause injuries and deprive others of their rights is the appropriate thing to do if one takes seriously the ethical or religious principles by which most of us claim to live. But however powerful that argument from justice, we can observe that it does not always motivate people with unearned privilege to work to change the system that gave them the privilege. We can observe that privileged people's commitment to social change tends to be stronger and more reliable when it is grounded in an acknowledgment of their own interests.
Although Jensen is referring to the privilege and power White people have just because they happen to be born with fairer skin, he may as well be talking about heterosexual people and the privilege and power they enjoy because they happen to be born straight (or for some, choose to live straight). Just as with White individuals, straight men and women who are serious about their commitment to equity, fairness and social change have to face, acknowledge and own their place and rule over lesbians, gays and transgendered individuals. Such honesty and integrity can but prod them to act against and upend personal and institutional homophobia. They will move beyond seeing an injustice, they will move beyond feeling some sympathy, and actually do something.

How many of us have heard family members and friends say "look, you'll always be my sister but must we talk about your 'lifestyle'?" or "you and John are buddies, but I'm not supporting gay marriage since the majority is clearly not ready of it" or "you'll always be our child, but that is how the world is sweetheart?"

How many politicians have promised a place at the table for the gays and sworn that they believe in equal rights for all Americans but unabashedly support equal but separate treatment for a minority?

If these people who protest that they are friends, who assure their love for us and who pledge change are serious about their principles, affections and campaign promises, then they need to admit to their complicity in the oppression and brutalization of their daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, friends and fellow citizens. Of their fellow human beings.

They need own up, speak up, and act up.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Gawkers at the Levees

What are they thinking? How do they feel? These questions went through my head as I looked at the men staring back at us, mostly with blank expressions, a couple scowling. Possibly. Then again it could have been guilt on my part. I was in a caravan of luxury tour buses filled with mainly white folks weaving its way through the devastated areas of New Orleans. I was in town along with some 400 others for the annual conference of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, a club of affluent and influential churches in the United States. I was one of the few people of color in the meeting and I got to go because my partner is a rector of an endowed church.

My discomfort is nothing new. Five months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and coastal towns of Mississippi, the Christian Science Monitor reported about new bus tours.
Indeed, controversy has surrounded the start-up of for-profit tours in the midst of the Gulf Coast recovery. Some residents are offended to have their personal loss on display. And there have been scattered reports of rude tourists trespassing on property or callously taking close-up pictures as people sort through the rubble of their former lives.

The Daily Telegraph also had an article about the burgeoning trade.

EVERY morning Isabelle Cossart sets off in her white minibus to pick up tourists from their hotels to take them on a tour of the Big Easy and its swampy surroundings.

She has followed the same routine for 27 years. But in recent weeks her guests have headed into more controversial territory as they bump around an area that is not mentioned on any of the city's tourist maps: the Lower 9th Ward, the mainly black and poor neighbourhood that was all but levelled by Hurricane Katrina.

Mrs Cossart's Open City Disaster Tour has caused controversy that goes to the heart of the debate over the future of New Orleans. For some Americans it stirs memories of the outcry in New York when soon after the September 11 attacks vendors set up their stalls near the debris of the World Trade Centre's Twin Towers to sell video footage and photographs of their collapse.

It also rekindles the debate over other disaster zones and battlefields, such as Soweto and Dubrovnik, which went swiftly from being headline news to essential destinations on the discerning traveller's itinerary. With emotions running high over the city's plans to demolish thousands of houses in the Lower 9th, some hurricane survivors raking through the ruins of their homes have bridled as the minibuses drive by.

However, Mrs Cossart defends her tour as a way of projecting the awfulness of what happened and keeping the needs of New Orleans in the public eye. For $49 ( pounds 27), clients are given a three- hour tour starting in the relatively unscathed French Quarter and ending at one of the breaches in the levee system that allowed the waters to flood in.

"I am accused of voyeurism and taking advantage of victims' misery,'' she said. "But this is the largest natural disaster in American history. People want to see what is left. It is not voyeurism; it's human nature.''

There are those who argue that employment and much needed revenue are generated by this kind of tourism. Moreover, it sustains awareness of the gargantuan problems that still plague New Orleans.

Our tour guide, an idealistic and peppy native who came back from serving in Africa to help rebuild her hometown, assured us that we were very much welcome and that people in the Lower Ninth Ward and other devastated areas are grateful for the thousands of well-meaning volunteers that still come. We were introduced to a beneficiary of our generosity, a congregation that sprung out of an abandoned Walgreens. A representative sang the praises of volunteers who shower attention on the children.

Perhaps. Perhaps the African American men staring back at us are used to the tour buses and inspired groups who've come to hand out sandwiches, gut houses and build brightly colored eco-friendly homes. Perhaps they are grateful for the strangers that persist in coming and going. Or perhaps some ask where were you before Katrina? As the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana reminded us after the tour, this did not start with Katrina - this goes back to Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South. It has its foundation in American slavery.

Perhaps some are asking why are we still living in abject poverty and despair? In this country of great wealth and power? Why is our governor denying federal assistance for those who need it most? Or perhaps they have stopped asking.

I can only speculate as our buses did not stop along the route that we might talk and meet these men that stared at us. Neither did I bother to return as I had stuff to do. There were the French Quarter and Garden District to discover as well as jambalaya, gumbo and muffaletta sandwiches to be had. I had much to see like the woman in front of me who asked the concierge which are the best tours? The plantation tours, jazz tours, swamp tours, the cemetery and gris-gris tours or the Hurricane Katrina tours? The concierge suggested a plantation tour in the morning and a Katrina tour in the afternoon. And she told me how to get on a trolley which would take me to Commander's Palace for turtle soup, veal pie and the best bread pudding in Nawlins. It was worth the trip.

Image from Geek Gestalt.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Comment on The Left & the Right

A friend emailed:
Wow--I'm impressed by the lively debate between you two. You each articulated your arguments so eloquently and from deeply rooted convictions. Of course, being raised Catholic it is hard to let go of firmly set beliefs such as respect for life in all its forms. But the question then arises, what defines a human life that is worth living, one that is in the image and likeness of God (or whatever absolute we may believe in). And, as you pointed out, who has authority to decide this? Some of course would argue that any human life is worth living. Indeed, who should decide--the individual or the government (or the Church, for that matter)? The same questions arise in questions of abortion. It's clearly not a black and white issue--and what is interesting to me about such dilemmas is how they sharply divide people along ideological lines. This case reminds me of the movie El Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside) with Javier Bardem. Have you seen it? The crazy thing is that I never saw the ending. Should rent it again.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Left & the Right

Believe it or not, substantive discussions can be had through Facebook. Currently, I am engaged in one, prompted by a New York Times article I posted about Debbie Purdy, a woman who is challenging the British courts over her right to die and her husband's right to assist her. The exchange is between a Facebook friend (FBF) and me, and what I find interesting is how we now come from such disparate points of view even though we both grew up in Manila, went to the same Jesuit boys school, high school and university.

Our divergence however is not surprising, as we are products of vastly different histories and choices. FBF hails from a wealthy and prominent family, got his MBA from an Ivy League school, is an international financial services executive, married with children and resides in Greenwich, CT. I come from an aspirational middle class family; got my Masters in Nonprofit Management and am working on my Ph.D. in Policy from a small university in New York; have worked as a stockroom boy, retail salesperson, manager, small business comptroller, accountant, nonprofit worker, consultant, part-time bookkeeper and researcher while putting myself through grad school; and live with my partner of more than ten years in Washington, DC.

I began the thread by asking: Should government prevent us from deciding when it is time to die?

FBF at 9:12pm February 28
Where does it say we are competent to determine when it is our time to die?

EdL at 4:05am March 1
Why does it need to be written or said anywhere? Shouldn't one have the freedom to choose?

FBF at 8:22am March 1
We are governed by laws, promulgated by representatives of the community, which impose limits on behavior, limits often premised on competence and consequence. This is why people under 21 are not allowed to drink, why doctors have to pass board exams and submit themselves to regulation in order to practice. So a competence to determine suitability for death and the consequences of such a death would seem to be, at the very least, a prerequisite.

It should also be worth noting that the right to die is not enshrined in the bill of rights.

EdL at 2:25pm March 1
If Debbie Purdy is not hurting anyone or costing anyone a cent, why should she not be allowed to take her own life, especially since extreme pain and death is inevitable? She is not a teenage driver that might cause an accident or an incompetent doctor who could injure or kill a patient. What consequence?

Furthermore, who might be more competent than the woman herself who is not only living through the agony, but has clearly thought about this long and hard. There is no doubt that she is a smart person with no developmental or intellectual disabilities, so is she not competent?

FBF at 8:18pm March 1
Shall we write law from the experience of one? And while she may (or may not) be the most competent to decide, the question we should ask is "Is she competent enough?" - a question for which there may be no answer, since our direct understanding of the consequences of death are fairly limited. Consider: she is in pain, and would choose death. If, as some say, suicide is sin punishable by eternal damnation, a pain far greater than any she now endures, would she still choose to end her own life?

If she were to take her own life, then none could stop her. The problem is she is asking for an endorsement from society; she is asking the body politic to condone something it may not be prepared to condone, because it runs contrary to many fervently held beliefs, and it runs contrary to the society the body politic envisions for itself.

FBF at 8:26pm March 1
Erwin - worth adding that two states now permit this decision. I think Washington State was the 2nd one

EdL at 7:11am March 2
Indeed, there are many things we don't know, including the afterlife. If it exists or not, and if it does, what would it be like. Straight to the point, no one knows with certainty whether God exists or not. And if God does exist, by our very human & finite nature, no one can claim to know God's mind and in this case, how this being would respond to Ms. Purdy's choice. Regardless of how we think or what we personally believe, I hold that it is still her choice, not ours.

I also don't think that she is asking society to endorse her choice. A good question to ask is which (and whose) set of beliefs ought to dictate policies, create laws and establish institutions that govern democratic, diverse and fast changing societies.

FBF at 7:30am March 2
Actually, Erwin, she is asking society to look the other way, to disregard the laws it has in place. I liken it to my son asking for a motorcycle. When he is 21 and out of my house, responsible for his actions without depending on me, he can do what he wants. But when he lives in my house, he has to abide by my rules, and I cannot let him buy a motorcycle.

The way a democracy works, the majority's beliefs dictate policy, so long as they do not run afoul of the constitution. And last I checked, there was no right to die in the constitution.

EdLat 11:21am March 2
Well, this is not quite the same as a boy asking for a motorbike ... and a democracy is not quite the same as a family unit. No one gets to be dad of us all who tells the rest of us "kids" what to do or not do while under his roof. In a dictatorship, theocracy, hierarchical religious organization, private club, sure, but no not the same.

And thankfully, there are checks against majority rule. The majority's belief's do not always dictate policy (I'm certain a constitutional lawyer will be better able to talk about this). If things were always left to the majority, we'd be worse off. History offers vivid examples where laws and policies determined by the majority's beliefs and values resulted in the oppression and abuse of the minority - slavery, miscegenation, internment camps, lynching. Shall I go on?

EdL at 11:25am March 2
As for the constitution, there are people far smarter than me, who continue to debate what is consistent or not with the constitution. Even the very nature of the constitution has not been settled. Is it a static document or a dynamic one?

Finally, societies, norms, governments, constitutions and laws evolve and change. "Basic" beliefs themselves change even among religions!

I don't know how this debate will end though I highly doubt that agreement or consensus will be had. FBF, a conservative Roman Catholic, feels strongly about his beliefs and EdL, a progressive Buddiscopalian, is passionate about civil rights and social justice. Our Facebook profile pictures are rather telling. FBF's has him holding on to his son, while mine has me looking at the viewer through a mirror.

Image from 3quarksdaily.