Thursday, August 24, 2006

Fanaticism at home

For those who think that religious fanaticism is foreign to these shores, here's a reality check: the kind of close-minded bigotry we read about in such places as Afghanistan is alive and well here in the good ol' USA.

Literal mindedness afflicts religious zealots of all stripes. It makes no matter whether they suscribe to Christianity, Judaism, Islam or the many other religions of the world. To read a story like the following in this day and age, is frankly pretty scary. In the face of the push for teaching Intelligent Design and attacks on gays and immigrants emanating from the right wing reactionaries, there's much work to do in the progressive community. The more we concede the "red" areas of the country to the evangelicals and conservatives, the more this cancer will spread.

Church dumps teacher -- for being female

WATERTOWN, N.Y. -- The minister of a church that dismissed a female Sunday school teacher after adopting what it called a literal interpretation of the Bible says a woman can perform any job -- outside of the church.

The First Baptist Church dismissed Mary Lambert on Aug. 9 with a letter explaining that the church had adopted an interpretation that prohibits women from teaching men. She had taught there for 54 years. ...

Friday, August 18, 2006

Batty for change

I came home from my morning coffee today and noticed a small bat hanging on the window screen in my apartment building's stairwell. I'm sure bats aren't uncommon, even here in the big city of Chicago, but I certainly don't see them every day. So, my mind being prone to search for symbolism and omens in what are generally just random life moments, I did some looking into our flying Mammalian friends.

Note: The pictured bat is similar to the one in my stairwell, but not the actual critter.

I found a site called The Animal Files that had both info on bats as mammals and as mythological symbols. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the information, but it fits my needs so I'm referencing it below.

First here's the scientific scoop on bats:

  • They are the only true flying mammal
  • There are over 900 species (the second largest mammalian group after rodents)
  • They are nocturnal
  • Most are insectivores using echolocation to find their prey
  • Others species eat fish, fruit, small animals, or the blood of large mammals
  • They live in dark places like caves to avoid predators
  • Most species give birth to only one young each year
  • Bats can live up to 30 years
Here's what the site had to say about Chinese mythology

In China, the bat is a symbol of good luck and happiness. This is probably because the word for bat, "fu" sounds like the word for happines. The Chinese god of happiness is called Fu-xing; he is often represented by a bat and in human form he has bats embroidered on his robes. Five bats together symbolize the 5 blessings of health, long life, wealth, love of virtue and a good death. Some people believed the bat had a very heavy brain that forced it to roost upside down. Bats were sometimes used as ingredients of aphrodisiacs.
In other cultures the bat is a symbol of death, demons and the underworld -- but in a metaphorical sense this relates more to change and transformation, which leads nicely into the symbolism in shamanism.

In shamanism, bats are frequently associated with death and rebirth. An upside down hanging position, such as the bat assumes when roosting, is seen as symbolic for learning to transpose one's former self into a newborn being. Thus the bat's appearance may signify the need for transformations, for letting go of old habits or ways of life and adopting new ones. Bat shows how change is necessary although it can be painful to let go of the past. As an animal of night and the dark it can also guide people through the darkness of confusion and help them face their fears. It is sometimes said to grant the gift of clear hearing and of 'listening between the lines'.
The bat as symbol of change, is something that has particular resonance for me. In many ways I think we're living in a transitional period during which decisions will be made that will fundamentally shape society for future generations. Whether the outcome of those decisions will be beneficial or baleful is beyond my ken, but recognizing the critical juncture we're in should guide us to be careful about the choices we pursue.

The past year has included a number of changes for me personally. One of those changes was a deeper commitment to community activism here in Rogers Park. Through that activism, I've worked closely with Jim Ginderske and I'm now helping him as he tries to unseat the incumbent 49th Ward Alderman. After 16 years under Joe Moore, the neighborhood is definitely in need of "letting go of old habits or ways of life and adopting new ones." As they say, all politics are local and change begins at home.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Science losing out in death match with Religion

We've all heard the stories of how "Religious" Americans are. For many of us, that probably seemed like a good thing, but it depends a lot on what exactly being religious entails.

For example, if as a Christian you believe religiously in carrying out your savior's moral teachings, that's not so bad. Turn the other cheek; the meek shall inherit the Earth; love thy neighbor as yourself; give away all your possessions and follow him; and so on.

If on the other hand, you believe in the Bible as the true and only Word of God, transmitted by the Holy Spirit through the Prophets and Gospel writers, that's more problematic.

The main problem with such a view as the latter is that much of what is in the Bible, when read as a guide to the universe, is in direct contradiction to accepted Scientific thought. And, as you might remember, we sort of fell into that trap once before in what was known as "The Dark Ages".

The backward, reactionary thinking that tends to accompany fanatical religiosity is back in vogue, as demonstrated by the story below. Let's hope the benighted masses catch on soon that the many advances in Scientific thought over the past couple millennia aren't such a bad thing.

Evolution Less Accepted in U.S. Than Other Western Countries, Study Finds

People in the United States are much less likely to accept Darwin's idea that humans and apes share a common ancestor than adults in other Western nations, a number of surveys show.

A new study of those surveys suggests that the main reason for this lies in a unique confluence of religion, politics, and the public understanding of biological science in the United States. ...

In the U.S., only 14 percent of adults thought that evolution was "definitely true," while about a third firmly rejected the idea. ...

The only country included in the study where adults were more likely than Americans to reject evolution was Turkey.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven"

With all of the sabre rattling going on over Iran, I thought it would be a good time to finally see this film.

There is good reason to be concerned with the leadership in Iran right now. It's pursuing a uranium enrichment program that it claims will only be used to produce nuclear energy, but many rightly fear will have military applications (the UN Security Council has given Iran until Aug. 31 to stop the program or face sanctions, see Russia warns Iran over deadline). The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is an Fundamental Islamist who openly calls for the annihilation of Israel and supports radical groups such as Hezbollah (see Ahmadinejad: Destroy Israel, End Crisis).

It's very easy to use the behavior of a leader to focus our opinions of an entire nation, as the mainstream media offers us little other insight into these cultures. This is true for the countries the US government is in open conflict with (for example Cuba and Fidel Castro, and North Korea and Kim Jong Il), and in much the same way George Bush has become a stand-in for all Americans to foreign eyes.

For these reasons, it's important to have a window into the lives of the average citizens. "Children of Heaven" (Bacheha-Ye aseman) offers just that as it depicts the story of an impoverished Iranian family struggling to improve its lot. The plot is extremely simple: Ali, a 9 year-old boy, loses his younger sister's shoes while returning with them from the repair shop. For a poor family in Tehran, replacing a pair of shoes is no small task, and the rest of the film shows Ali's attempt to make up for the loss until he can find Zahra a new pair.

The family's concerns are the same as many Americans -- finding enough work to pay the rent and keep food on the table. The mother suffers from a slipped disk and her young children must shoulder more of the household chores as they can't afford the cost of surgery.

The family is religious, but they are not fanatics. The children attend schools that reinforce certain nationalist ideas, but these lessons seem lost on them. What was striking to me was the kindness and caring that pervades the film. Life in the film's Tehran is just like what you might find in cities and towns throughout America -- neighbors taking care of each other, maybe out of an understanding that no one else will.

Granted this is a work of fiction, but the lives portrayed don't have a false ring, and my guess is the story is informed by real-life experience. I'm not sure what the title's relevance is to the film's director. I don't even know how good a translation the English title is, but to me the significance is to reinforce the commonality between all of us. A sobering thought considering the dire situation in the Middle East and the ever darkening storm clouds gathering over it.

One more tidbit: I had read that the conservative, fundamentalist government of Ahmadinejad had come to power based on its promises to address the country's economic woes and growing poverty, rather than some shift toward radical Islam by the citizenry. I found the story below that bears out this sentiment.

Inside Iran: Finding 'Volunteers' to Fight Israel
Daily Hezbollah Rallies Find Enthusiasts and Detractors Who Prefer to Focus on Domestic Concerns

"Iran has other problems — poor people, a lot of them, and unemployment," 24-year-old Armin said. "We need to build our own country."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated public calls for Israel's destruction have gained notoriety for the leader abroad, but at home there is disappointment over his unfulfilled economic promises.

Despite the country's booming oil revenues, unemployment is growing and poverty is rampant.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Playing politics with the lives of the working poor

If you haven't seen the news, the latest attempt to raise the federal minimum wage was defeated in the Senate today. In a strange twist it was actually the Democrats who voted down the proposal. This is because the Republicans tried to link the increase to a further reduction in the estate tax that would have benefited a small group of millionaires.

Proponents of "estate tax reform" tout it as an issue popular with voters, but this is because of the propaganda they've spread through the mainstream media that portrays it as a "death tax" and confuses the public into believing that it affects them rather than the very rich. Look at the detail of what was proposed: by 2015 the amount of an estate exempt from taxation would have increased to $5 million for an individual and $10 million for a couple.

So the only way that the Republicans would agree to a minimum wage increase that would help out millions of American workers struggling to get by in the face of spiraling costs for energy, healthcare and other essential services, was to combine it with a handout for the rich.

Here's the story on the latest minimum-wage bill's defeat:

Minimum-wage boost defeated
By The Associated Press and The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — A Republican election-year effort to combine a cut in inheritance taxes on multimillion-dollar estates with the first minimum-wage increase in nearly a decade was rejected by the Senate late Thursday.
Here is an article that details the Republican's strategy behind linking the minimum wage increase to the estate tax changes. It's basically a despicable attempt to play politics with an issue that impacts the very survival of too many American workers.

November looms behind trifecta bill
By Jonathan Allen and Elana Schor
The Hill

Many Republicans hailed a stratagem they said would put Democrats in an electoral bind by combining the GOP-favored estate-tax cut with a minimum-wage increase that has been a top Democratic issue and a widely popular extension of expiring tax breaks.
The following is a link to a PDF with a good analysis of the dire need for a minimum-wage increase -- detailing the decreased buying power of the dollar since 1997 when Congress last voted an increase.

Buying power of minimum wage at 51-year low (PDF)
Congress Could Break Record for Longest Period Without an Increase
By Jared Bernstein and Isaac Shapiro

The lack of action on the minimum wage has led to a dramatic erosion in its value:

The minimum wage now equals only 31% of the average wage for private sector, nonsupervisory workers. This is the lowest share since at least the end of World War II.

Since September 1997, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has deteriorated by 20%. After adjusting for inflation, the value of the minimum wage is at its lowest level since 1955.
This article describes the real-life impact that the paltry $5.15 wage has on American workers. For those who like to defend the "right" of businesses to set their own wage levels and decry the "burden" they have to shoulder with a higher payroll, this should add a little perspective. The need to turn a profit doesn't justify exploitation -- those who work hard for a living deserve to actually earn a living from that labor.

Low-wage workers ready for Congress to act
By Tony Pugh
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - Whether from good will or simply politics, boosting the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour would lift the spirits and finances of millions of Americans such as Austraberta Rodriguez.

A janitor in Houston, Rodriguez, 63, works four hours a night, Monday through Friday, cleaning offices in a downtown high-rise for $5.15 an hour. After 10 years with the same company, she gets no medical benefits, sick days or holiday pay.
Finally, here is an article written by economists who have studied the issue and found little or no link between a moderate boost in the minimum wage and job loss. What costs there are for businesses are greatly outweighed by the tremendous benefit to workers. I recognize that a business owner may view a low-skill worker as easily replaceable, and therefore in a sense disposable -- not concerned about the impact of low-wages on the employee's health and productivity -- but we are still talking about human beings trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.

It's Time for a Raise (PDF)
Hundreds of Economists Support a Minimum Wage Increase

We believe that a modest increase in the minimum wage would improve the well-being of low-wage workers and would not have the adverse effects that critics have claimed. In particular, we share the view the Council of Economic Advisers expressed in the 1999 Economic Report of the President that “the weight of the evidence suggests that modest increases in the minimum wage have had very little or no effect on employment.” While controversy about the precise employment effects of the minimum wage continues, research has shown that most of the beneficiaries are adults, most are female, and the vast majority are members of low-income working families.

Making a monkey out of me

Two primate related stories caught my eye in the Sun Times.

First, there's the story of a monkey problem in the New Dehli subway. It seems that one of our evolutionary cousins got into the train system and was scowling at passengers. I know of some more evolutionarily advanced primates that have indulged in some much more disruptive behavior on our own public transportation system.

To rid the subway of the monkey problem, the authorities hired a man with a trained langur to patrol the trains. A langur, pictured at left, is a primate that allegedly has as one of its talents the ability to scare off monkeys. It doesn't look so scary to me, but then again I'm not a monkey -- just related to them (more on that in the next part of this post).

India battles monkeys on subways

NEW DELHI -- It's primate versus primate in New Delhi's metro system.

In an effort to keep monkeys out of subways, authorities have called in one of the rare animals known to scare the creatures -- the langur, a fierce-looking primate used around South Asia to chase off troops of mischievous monkeys, the Hindustan Times newspaper reported Wednesday.

In Kansas, the see-saw battle for control of the school board swung back in favor of those who want to teach Evolution. It's the fourth time that control has changed hands, with the pro-science board members outnumbering Intelligent designers 6 to 4 after the latest round of elections. At this point, the board should get the feeling that the voters are monkeying with them. Maybe they need to hire a langur or two to keep them in line.

Kansas see-saws back to pro-evolution stance


TOPEKA, Kan. -- Upcoming changes to the state school board mean Kansas is likely to return to evolution-friendly education standards -- yet remain mired in a fight over how the theory is taught in classrooms.