Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Floods in Pakistan

The media over-reported the earthquake in Haiti. Within two weeks of hearing about it, I was sick of it. I still felt sympathy for all the people affected, but it was hard to care much at all. Nevertheless, many people donated to charities that pledged aid to Haiti. It was a wonderful show of benevolence on the part of those people. Why is there so little of that benevolence being shown today toward the victims of the floods in Pakistan?

According to an article from the Christian Science Monitor, "At the Zakat Foundation of America in Chicago, Executive Director Halil Demir says giving has been 'very slow,' with the charity not even raising 20 percent of what it raised to help Haitians." Also from that article: "MacSorely says 10 days after the earthquake hit Haiti, there were pledges equal to $495 for each person affected by the disaster. So far, he says there have been pledges of $3 for each person affected by the flooding."

The article posits several reasons there may be less giving, including corrupt government officials in Pakistan. But the Haitian government is a prime example of a corrupt government, yet everyone knows how much money was raised for the earthquake victims. Another possibility offered is geographical proximity - Haiti is close (to the U.S.) and Pakistan is not. Nevertheless, these people need our help. I do not understand why so many people became practically obsessed with helping Haiti, yet Pakistanis are being left to themselves.

I must admit, I have no money to give. I wish I had money, and I would donate to this cause (same situation as for Haiti, I am truly a poor college student). Why are there not benefit concerts being organized? Why has my college not e-mailed all the students about giving to a fund (as they did for Haiti)? Where did the giving spirit go? I understand many are strapped for cash, but I am sure the money situation was very similar 8 months ago. Are Haitians really so much more important than Pakistanis? (The answer is no.) I understand reluctance to give to the Pakistani government, but why not give to the Red Cross? To Unicef?

The article in the Christian Science Monitor focused on why Pakistani-Americans are reluctant to give, but the real question is why are Americans not giving like they did for Haiti? Has the urgency of the situation not been communicated fully enough? Maybe over-reporting of the Pakistani crisis would be a good thing. If the public reacted to it in a way similar to Haiti, it would be a wonderful thing! If only we had a Pakistani-born American pop star to organize a Pakistani-relief concert. Please, if you happen to read this, and you have money to spend on anything at all, donate some to UNICEF or the Red Cross or someone who will help the victims of the flood.

Yay Portugal

If only the United States were not currently dominated by politicians and lobbyists that treat politics like a game, then maybe we could adjust our drug policy to be effective. Portugal seems to have the right idea. Personally, I think a bit more extreme measures could be taken beyond decriminalization (make it all legal and tax the drugs like crazy). Nevertheless, a policy like Portugal's may be exactly what the U.S. needs, especially to determine how things would change with such a change in policy (in terms of numbers of drug users and drug related health issues).

As for paying for the treatment options for addicts, I doubt that there would be an issue. After all, with such a large portion of incarcerations being drug-related, the money saved on prosecution, prison and law enforcement could be transferred to paying for treatment. It could even be possible that we could CUT part of the budget. Then again, maybe not. Especially if we took the exact route Portugal took considering they still seem to track down drug users and have consultations with them very similar to court proceedings.

One thing is obvious, the current "war on drugs" policies are not working. They need to be changed. It seems Portugal has the right idea, so the U.S. should try taking a page from their book.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Facebook vs. Muslims?

Facebook announced recently that it intends to get rid of virtual “gifts” – news that I welcome. I have always thought it was a stupid part of Facebook. When I went to the Facebook blog post about the end of gifts I read the post and then scrolled through the comments. What I discovered bothers me.

The post says it has several thousand comments. A very large portion of those comments say the following:

“Facebook Admins, Moderators, Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz, Sheryl Sandberg, and Matt Cohler;

Although you have attended the world's best communication skills courses you have been most successful in growing great hatred and hostility between you and Muslims around the world, but seriously this time you have caused an almost unrepairable damage.

Only a few weeks after your irresponsible behavior during the Everybody Draw Mohammed Day events you most aggressively removed four of the largest Islamic Facebook Pages of total fans/likes over 2.5 million Facebook members. That happened on the morning of Thursday 8th July, 2010.

These four Facebook pages were totally peaceful and free of any hate speech, but you removed it ignoring the feelings of more than 2.5 Million Facebook Muslims and disrespecting over 1.5 Billion Muslims worldwide.

And now since that is what it had come down to you, with your irresponsibility and fake preach of freedom of speech, have left us no other choice other than permanently boycotting Facebook. And now we are giving you a 2 weeks notice - ending at midnight of 21st July, 2010 - to fulfill our demands or else we will leave Facebook for

Our demands are:
1- Reactivating the four pages that have been disabled
2- Adding a Facebook Term that illegalizes disrespecting Islamic religious symbols
3- Disabling any Facebook Page, Group, or Event that shows direct or indirect disrespect towards Islamic religious symbols

The pages that were unfairly removed are: - About 1,600,000 Likes - About 600,000 Likes - About 200,000 Likes - About 70,000 Likes”

Now, I have no idea why the four pages were disabled, but there very well could be a good reason for it. If there wasn’t, perhaps they should be reactivated. I do not have much to say about that first term since I feel entirely unaware of circumstances surrounding the removal of the pages.

The second and third demands, though, are highly disturbing. That anyone thinks they should be able to demand that no disrespect be shown toward a religious symbol (or just a religion) is ridiculous. There should be no rule specifying that no disrespect can be shown. Whether or not to disrespect something is a decision that should be made upon personal morals and thoughts. For example, while I would normally think that drawing Muhammad is unnecessary and perhaps disrespectful to Muslims, there are circumstances in which I think that it is highly important.

One such circumstance is to protest death threats received by certain well-known people for drawing Muhammad. No single person on this Earth should find it acceptable to send death threats to another human being for something that they drew. When such death threats come to light, all people regardless of religion, origin, or dogma should immediately condemn those that offered the threats. When that condemnation is absent, one of the most obvious courses of action is to get as many people as possible to draw Muhammad. The drawing is not meant to offend or insult even if it does. It is meant to make a statement that it is never okay to threaten to kill someone for drawing a picture, no matter how offensive and that we stand with the cartoonists, even if we don’t particularly approve of the drawings.

I take issue with the part about “direct or indirect disrespect” as well. That phrase is so incredibly encompassing. If you really wished to, you could claim other religious groups disrespect Islamic symbols solely by existing and not following Islam. It may be a stretch, but it’s not impossible to make the connection. Basically, the demands of the Muslims behind this campaign are ridiculous. They want a protection afforded to their feelings that does not exist for any other entity (at least not in the United States).

Freedom of speech is important. Many people say it, but a lot of people seemingly don’t mean it. Even if you dislike what someone is saying, it is important to protect their right to say it. The right to criticize and even satirize anything and everything must be protected. When you make any type of free speech against the rules, you step onto a slippery slope and the bottom of that slope is a hellish 1984-like world that few would ever want to exist in. Freedom of speech is in the United States’ FIRST Amendment for a reason. It is a right that protects all other rights and a right that must be protected.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Same-sex Marriages and Equal Rights

Congratulations to Washington DC for taking a big step forward. Same-sex couples can now get married in DC. Hopefully this step will prompt more states to take the same step.

If the current lawsuit against Proposition 8 turns out favorably - that is Proposition 8 is struck down as unconstitutional - our country will most definitely be moving in the right direction. If only we could get to the destination of equal rights a little faster. Nevertheless, same-sex marriages in DC are a victory to be celebrated.

The only opposition I ever seem to hear against same-sex marriages is a religious-based argument. Among all its flaws is this: the government of the United States is supposed to be secular. We should not base our definition of marriage on any religion because to do so is to violate the secular nature of our government. Basically, it is not the government's concern to say who can and cannot marry based on their gender. There is no reason the government should be allowed to do so, considering a same-sex marriage poses no threat to other citizens or to the citizens themselves. If the only "danger" suggested is based on a religious argument, it is essentially null to the U.S. government (or should be).

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Sad Day in Nigeria

Sunday in Nigeria a horrific event occurred. It is hard to describe how I felt as I read about the massacre of several hundred Christians by Muslim tribes. I do not wish to use what happened here to try to justify atheism or look down on religion. I do, however, wish to say that this is one of the worst things that can come out of a distortion of religion.

While for me that distortion is enough to swear off the tradition altogether, I can only hope for others it is at least enough to be vigilant. I hope that the distortion of two peaceful religions that was the root of this massacre will cause religious people of any faith to be vigilant, to watch for those among them that would have others think and act in such violent extremes as this.

I have often been told that religion has many benefits. When I see things like this, I wonder what type of benefit could possibly outweigh this type of loss. A sense of community and an invisible entity to pray to do not make up for the pointless deaths of so many people. Religion and the religious make me angry for this reason. As I said before, I do not want to look down on religion using the massacre as a jumping off point. It is hard to understand, though, why anyone wishes to be connected to religions. Why does anyone wish to subject themselves to what I imagine is a slippery slope?

Please, do not fall down that slope to violence and prejudice. Please, catch anyone and everyone you can before they fall. Do not dismiss the secular view because it seems to contradict your belief. I wish that more people would take the good points from secularism, as many atheists take good points from religions.

Pragmatism V. the Constitution of the United States

Pragmatism and Constitutionality can often be in conflict. Perhaps there are times when pragmatism seems to be the best policy, but following the Constitution is far more important. My fellow columnist for the Dickinsonian, Drew Robinson, wrote an article about, for all intents and purposes, the power of pragmatism (though the actual title was "The Power of Belief"... excuse me while I try not to throw up).

The article had so many things wrong with it, I had to take a few minutes to calm myself down. Not only did I need to let the anger at what he was saying disperse, I needed to get the jumbled thoughts of the many holes in the argument organize themselves.

To begin, Robinson claims there is a "clearly defined" line of separation between church and state in this country. This is very much untrue. The line is extremely blurry and often crossed. He later uses the words "insurmountable wall" to describe the separation. Again, Robinson is way off track. If the line were so clear, would we have so many court cases about prayer in schools, waiver systems for students who choose not to attend public schools, religious words in our Pledge and our on national buildings, and all other similar issues? No, we would not have those cases because the line would be clear enough not to cross it.

The second hole I see in Robinson's argument: the assumption he makes or takes as given that the two programs mentioned work. He mentions two programs, one is a faith-based abstinence program to prevent AIDS and the other is something about rebuilding Mosques in Iraq. He offers no evidence that the programs actually work, he just assumes that little problem right out the window. I have to ask, why do either of these programs need any faith-based reason at all? We can easily teach abstinence programs without invoking religion (though I would like to see more evidence supporting their efficacy). Rebuilding mosques, to me, does not have to fall under a religious program. Is it not just rebuilding something that was destroyed because of our government? So long as hospitals and other buildings are rebuilt, I think we can rebuild the mosques. Also, do we need to teach abstinence based on faith? Why not abstinence based on reason? You know, the whole you-could-easily-get-AIDS-and-suffer-a-terrible-death type reasoning?

Even if those programs do work, why does that make it okay to ignore a very popular interpretation of the Constitution? That's not to say what's popular is always correct. It is just that Robinson seems to border on saying our government is too secular without ever actually saying it. This branches into two problems. The first is a matter of the principles set down in the Constitution, the second is a matter of a slippery slope.

Religious belief may (or may not) actually be used to solve problems, but in the government of the United States of America, there is a separation between the church and the state. By using any belief in any type of program, the government endorses belief over non-belief. That alienates secular citizens and likely other religions as well, since it is hard to endorse faith without choosing a religion specifically.

On to the slippery slope. If we ignore any part of the Constitution, the door is opened to ignore any other part. If we do it solely based on pragmatism, we risk support for ignoring due process, right to trial, criminal rights, freedom of speech and press, the right to bear arms, and who knows what else? Do I even need to continue? Think about this: if we killed rapists and murderers after their first offense, they could never do it again. Does that make it the right thing to do? If cops shot people before they had a chance to instigate violence, a lot fewer people would die. Does that make it right? (Minority Report, anyone?) If gun control actually worked (from what I know it doesn't), does that mean the second Amendment should be interpreted differently? If torture as an interrogation technique worked, should the Eight Amendment be interpreted to apply only to citizens and only to actual punishment for crimes? (Interrogation, you see, would not be punishment and therefore not fall under the 8th.) I hope I have made my point.

Robinson seems to claim that faith has a unifying power, but I must disagree. As can be seen by the recent slaughter of 500 Christians in Africa by Muslims, faith can be quite divisive. Major changes in several religions would need to occur to make it unifying - namely that they all become one faith and not several. Faith is divisive, it always has been. Christians slaughtered "Pagans", Muslims and Christians slaughtered each other, followers of Hinduism fought with Muslims, etc., etc. Many religions see others as wrong, and not everyone is willing to say, "we are all kind of right, only we are different." People unite under one faith, not different ones, and most "faiths" are religions, religions are different. Faith or belief is not unifying, it divides. Until enough of religion and accompanying beliefs are eliminated and all the faiths become like enough, religion and faith will continue to divide this world.

My last issue with Robinson's article is that it implies that secularists cannot help the world or solve problems. That we need some higher power to make cooperation possible, but every human being was gifted with the power to reason. What needs to happen for cooperation is education and appeal to logic and reason. We can be progressive and secular, I know I am.

The Loss of the Times?

Last Friday I attended a lecture by Dickinson’s Spring 2010 Cogan Alumni Fellow, Frank James ’79. The main focus of James’ talk was his “journey from old to new media” – how he adapted to the changing world of journalism and the ever-growing use of the internet. James touched on the difficult position and decreasing profits of traditional print media companies; he also mentioned the New York Times’ plan to start charging for online news in early 2011. While this was not the main topic of his lecture, it is one that I became curious about.

The New York Times’ plan is a “metered model” – they intend to allow online readers free access to a certain quantity of article before they begin charging for access. This plan comes after a previous attempt at charging for content called TimesSelect; under TimesSelect, specified content was available only if readers paid to access it. According to Chris Lefkow’s article, New York Times executives discuss plan to charge online readers, the Times claims that their research shows “that a sufficient number of users are open to the idea [of paying for content] to make this a viable model.”

How could it possibly be a viable model? If all newspaper-owned online news sources were to follow suit immediately, I would agree that it could be a good idea. However, because the majority of papers are going to wait and see what happens with the Times, there will be plenty of free news sources on the web. What rational consumer would choose to pay to read the New York Times when they could simply read the Washington Post or another big name online newspaper for no charge at all? Unless the consumer has a very strong preference for the New York Times, they will find their news at other websites.

While I think that if all newspapers were to start charging it could be a good idea, I do not necessarily think it would be a good idea. There are many news sources on the web that are not owned by major newspaper companies that would remain free. In fact, the rise of the internet has resulted in a rise of written news sources from non-newspaper companies. For example, the BBC, CNN and ABC all have written news on their websites in addition to videos they post. The Cogan Alumni Fellow, Frank James, works for NPR writing a blog; NPR was formerly just a radio station, but now, to some extent, has written news on their website. Again I must ask, what rational consumer would choose to pay for the New York Times (or another major newspaper’s website) when they could get news from another site for free?

Perhaps it could be said that consumers are concerned about the quality and reliability of their news. This would imply that only the Times (or perhaps newspaper-run websites more generally) has quality news. If quality means writing, it is possible that this is true. If quality means something else, however, perhaps amount of details about an occurrence, I disagree. When it comes to reliability, if there is anyone who thinks the Times is more reliable than reading multiple sources (all of which could be free), that person is wrong. Restricting yourself to one newspaper exposes you to bias in one direction that you may not notice simply because you never get another perspective.

I cannot be sure of the outcome of the Times’ plan; perhaps I have misjudged and people are far less rational than I believe them to be (this would be a sad state of affairs, since I hardly judge humans to be particularly rational). I suppose in the next year the truth will be revealed: can online newspapers charge for their news without suffering a large loss in readership? Whatever the outcome, it will hardly affect people like me who graze for their news from multiple sources. I think I will stick with GoogleNews and the BBC; I am not too concerned about the loss of the Times as a source.

Monday, February 15, 2010

No Asking, No Telling, No Justice

The United States military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has been the subject of controversy for quite some time. It is easy to express a gut reaction to this policy – I believe it is an unjust policy. More difficult is attempting rational analysis - looking at why military personnel may like or dislike the policy, and where it stands in terms of equal rights. I cannot say I am the best person for the job (or that I have enough space to do so completely), but a friend prompted me to think the policy over and I have a fair amount to say.

A source who wishes to remain anonymous brought a few ideas in favor of the policy to my attention. The first was a housing issue – if the policy were eliminated would homosexuals sleep in the same area as heterosexuals? Shared quarters could make heterosexuals uncomfortable while separating would be unfair segregation. Since both of these solutions seem to be poor ones, the continuation of the current policy is the best choice, at least according to my source.

There are a multitude of things wrong with this argument. We could not eliminate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and then segregate based on sexual orientation – that suggestion is absurd. It would result not only in another period of painful desegregation like that experienced during the Civil Rights Movement, but a continuation of underlying prejudices against homosexuals. We could, however, eliminate the policy in order to fight homophobia. It is far easier to be homophobic when you are not acquainted with a gay person (as it was far easier to be racist before desegregation). If service men and women discovered that another member whom they already like and respect was gay, perhaps they would realize that homosexuals are not lesser people than heterosexuals. I am not implying that all or even a majority of our military is homophobic; it simply seems that the problem with housing stems from those who are homophobic. Furthermore, it is my belief that any risk to gay people serving in the military would be minimal, and, in the long run, worth the gains.

The second point brought to my attention was that military service is not mandatory therefore anyone who signs the contract should abide by the terms. One is not forced to sign it, and one should know what they are getting into. The problems with this stance are the following: a person does not always know they are gay when they sign a military contract, and, more importantly, the policy itself is a violation of equal rights. As support for the first problem, I would like to point to an editorial piece by Joan E. Darrah called “My Secret Life Under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Darrah mentions that she was a rising member of the Navy and did not realize that she was gay until well into her career. The second problem requires more explanation.

Imagine yourself sitting at your desk ten years from today. Now picture the framed photo of your family sitting to your right, your calendar marked with your significant other’s birthday and your anniversary. Now imagine that your job, while still behind a desk, is in the military. Imagine that you are gay. The photo on your desk of your loved one? Gone. The dates on the calendar? Not there. Your commitment ceremony? You must act like it never happened. Most of your colleagues have these things, but they are heterosexual and allowed to admit to their existence. They can talk about their wife or husband and their anniversary. They can also name their significant other as an emergency contact, while you cannot. Now tell me, how is that equal? It is true, they sign a contract, but that contract is with the United States government, and in this case, the government is blatantly disregarding their duty to offer equal opportunity and equal rights.

If even one gay person has decided not to join the military because of this policy, then the government has failed to offer equal opportunity. I offer two choices. The first is to eliminate the policy. The second is to extend “don’t ask, don’t tell” to every member of the military. If a gay person cannot admit they are gay, then a straight person should not be allowed to admit they are straight. Either the military admits that gay people deserve equal and fair treatment, or the military becomes asexual.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Cruel Death of Clothing

Most people are familiar with the fantastic prices that can be found on clearance racks – whether it’s at Target, Macy’s or another store entirely – but have you ever wondered where the clothes on clearance racks go if they are not sold? After all, no matter how many times a store marks down that hideous t-shirt, sometimes everyone realizes just how awful it looks. Or perhaps the size of the clothing is simply not what anyone is looking for. For whatever reason, there is clothing that stores do not manage to sell. What happens to that clothing?

A month ago The New York Times published an article by Jim Dwyer entitled “A Clothing Clearance Where More Than Just the Prices Have Been Slashed.” In it, Dwyer calls the reader’s attention to two stores in New York City – H&M and Wal-Mart – outside of which partially destroyed clothing is frequently found in the trash. The clothing is intentionally destroyed before disposal; the items from the Wal-Mart mentioned had holes punched through them by a machine. The clothes outside H&M had been slashed to make them unsalvageable. The actions being taken by these two stores (and likely others) are atrocious. There are (at least) thousands of people who could benefit from the donation of this clothing. It is not only wasteful in the sense that it could benefit less fortunate people, it is environmentally irresponsible. There is no reason for the destruction of the garments when they could be donated.

It is understandable in one way that a store like H&M would not want their clothing to lose any amount of exclusivity that it has. However, this is not a good enough reason to destroy the clothing they are unable to sell. If no one wants to buy the clothing from H&M, then it will not matter to customers that poorer people who did not pay for it are wearing it. Basically, if the concern is that the sight of less fortunate people wearing clothing from H&M will lessen its value, the solution is not to destroy clothing, but rather to donate clothing when it is no longer wanted by paying customers. Wal-Mart does not even have the flimsy defense just offered for H&M.

The destruction of garments is not only a cold and heartless policy it is one that generates negative public opinion. For example, imagine you have two stores that are considered to be on par with each other in terms of quality, styles available, customer service, and any other factors you may consider before shopping at a store. Now imagine you have no particular preference for either, but one morning you read an article about how one of these stores destroys the merchandise they do not sell while the other donates it to a local charity. The latter store now has a better reputation than the former in the eyes of most people (I hope). As a result, the store that donates gains customers as people decide they no longer wish to shop at the store that destroys garments. Would it not make more sense for any store to adopt the policy of donating clothing, if not in order to be socially responsible, then at least to better their reputation in the eyes of customers?

Why do these stores destroy their clothing instead of donating it? I cannot seem to find a logical reason for it. I would postulate that the stores are lazy, but it would be easier to donate the clothing whole than to spend any effort or time destroying it. The store would not lose any more money by donating the clothing than it does by destroying it. It is entirely unreasonable, heartless, cold and plainly stupid that these stores ruin the garments instead of giving them away to charities.