[guest post] Hurricane Sandy, Climate Reality, Political Absenteeism

In purely economic terms, Hurricane Sandy will cost the United States $20 billion. And although a little less than half of that cash is insured, it cannot come close to accounting for the millions who have been devastated by the storm, the flooded streets, the damage to some of our most treasured landmarks, and the 16 human beings who lost their lives to the “one-in-ageneration” storm.

The science is clear. Climate change produces wetter, more intense, and more frequent tropical storms. Drawing a conclusive causal link between climate change and Hurricane Sandy is nearly impossible, but if there exists a wake up call, this surely is it.

We watched from afar this summer while our drought-stricken farmers struggled to produce crops in the erratically dry midwest. We sleepily, passively enjoyed last winter’s unusually comfortable weather. All of these patterns are symptoms of climate change. And not once has Mitt Romney or Barack Obama returned to the issue of climate in this election cycle.

At the RNC, Romney had not the poise to merely disagree with Obama’s policy on climate. Instead, he had the arrogance to proclaim, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans…” (cue eruption of laughter)… “And to heal the planet…” (cue a little less laughter).

Climate change has been discussed in every presidential election since 1988. But at this critical time in international negotiations, at the time when our nation’s fields and cities are experiencing the beginning of these monumental changes in our climate system, we have retreated to vacuous economic rhetoric and irresponsible jokes.

Romney promised to help us and our families, as though somehow we were not dependent on a habitable planet and a stable climate. If our leaders take seriously the safety of our families, now and in the future, we must all be prepared to act now. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren.”

Rising water rushes into an underground parking garage (Getty Images)

Water floods Ground Zero (John Minchillo / AP)

Corn damaged by drought last summer (Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency)

Mark Silberg is a third year undergrad at Northwestern studying philosophy, among other things. He strongly believes that corporations are people, and that, like all people, they have moral responsibility.

I Won’t Write About the Conflict; Or, What I Think Of When I Think Of Israel

My hometown, Haifa

I won’t write about the conflict.

Yes, I know I’m from there. I know I must have Such Interesting Perspectives on that whole…situation.

I know I have friends in the IDF. I know I once strongly considered moving back, and thus getting drafted myself. I know I’ve seen rubble and remains of Qassam rockets and tanks and bomb shelters and graves. What do I think of all this?

Not much, anymore. I’ve gone numb.

I used to write about it, publicly. I had a newspaper column and everything. You can probably guess which perspective I took. My family was so proud, sending the articles to their friends, saying, See, here’s a young person who gets it.

And then I stopped, cold turkey.

I’m not ignorant. I read the news. But the news is so damn different depending on who reports it, and each side can easily counter the other with endless barrels of (factual? fake?) evidence.

I am a skeptic. When I don’t know the facts, I keep my mind unmade. Israeli politics, like Israeli cities and streets and social codes, are so much messier than their American counterparts. So on this issue, like so few others, I remain not apathetic, but agnostic.

Most of my friends don’t know that I prefer not to talk about it. Those who aren’t close enough to be friends will even ask me upon first learning about my nationality: “So, you’re from Israel, huh? What’s your take on what’s going on over there?” I usually mumble something about not really following that whole thing anymore.

Before I understood how to assert my conversational boundaries, I once let a friend lead me into a discussion about it. He didn’t know that it’s a sensitive issue, and that conversation ended with a moment that wasn’t one of my best: me snapping at him that maybe he’d feel differently if he didn’t have an aging grandmother over there, a widow, who has had to evacuate her city when the wars start.

But another time, a new friend did one of the kindest things possible: after I’d asked him a personal question, he reassured me that he’s open to discussing just about anything, except Middle Eastern politics. For a long time, I wondered what personal connection this decidedly not Middle Eastern person could possibly have to the conflict. Only later did I find out that he has no issues with discussing it at all; he’d said that only to free me from any obligation I might feel to discuss it with him. And, indeed, I’d been freed.

I disagree with those fellow Jews who think I have an obligation to defend Israel (some of whom say that my talent is being wasted on subjects like mental illness and assaults on women’s rights). I likewise disagree with those fellow progressives who think I have an obligation to denounce Israel. It is my home. I learned to breathe, walk, eat, talk, think, and exist here. My first memories are here. This hot breeze was the first to ever rustle through my hair. These salty waves were the first to ever knock me over and make me gasp for air. These narrow, winding streets are the ones on which I saw, for the first time, a world beyond myself and my family.

I can no more divest this place of its emotional significance and denounce it than I could my own mother and father.

To those who have never been to Israel–and that’s most Americans, even those who have plenty of opinions on the conflict–it must be hard to imagine thinking and writing about Israel without also thinking and writing about the conflict.

I can see why. When you think of Israel, you think of the nightly news. You think of fiery politicians and clashing religions. You think of security walls, blockades, and death counts.

I think of those things, too. I have to.

But I also think of the way the passengers burst into applause whenever an airplane lands in Israel.

I think of stepping into the Mediterranean for the first time in years. The water is clear and the sea is turquoise, and tiny fish swarm around my feet. The current pulls me in, and when the waves slam, it feels amazing.

Carmel Beach, Haifa

Carmel Beach, Haifa

I think of weathered blue-and-white flags hanging from windows, fences, car antennas.

I think of the obvious hummus, pita, and falafel, but also of schnitzel, shashlik, tabbouleh, schwarma, tahini, and beesli.

I think of eating figs and mangoes right off the tree.

I think of hearing a language I usually only hear at Friday night services–on the street, in the bus, at the supermarket. I think of how the little I know of that language tumbles out so naturally, with the pronunciation and intonation almost right.

I think of the Russian woman we talked to at the bus stop, who could remember and list all of the day’s product prices from the market.

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha'anan, Haifa

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha’anan, Haifa

I think of the strangers wishing me shana tova (happy new year).

I think of clinging to the pole as the bus careens down the mountain, around corners, and of laughing as the driver slams on the breaks, opens the door, and curses out another driver, as they do in Israel.

I think of the shuk (market) on Friday afternoon, before Shabbat.

I think of factory cooling towers, roundabouts, solar panels, and other staples of Israeli infrastructure.

I think of the white buildings designed like cascading steps, their balconies overflowing with flowers.

I think of how things are messy. The streets aren’t laid out in a grid like in American cities; they twist themselves into knots. People are impatient. Taxi drivers charge whatever they want. Rules and signs are ignored.

Produce at the market

Produce at a market stall

I think of palm, pine, olive, and eucalyptus trees, and of the smell of the pines in the park where we used to go before the forest burned down.

I think of laundry drying on clotheslines hung beneath windows.

I think of the huge families camping on the beach with tents, mattresses, grills, stereos, portable generators, pets, and, in one case, an actual refrigerator.

I think of Middle Eastern music and Russian talk shows blaring out of open windows.

I think of heat, dirt, sand, and blinding sunlight.

I think of how, somewhere in the thickets behind my grandmother’s apartment building, there is a single grave. It belongs to a 16-year-old boy who died defending Haifa decades ago. And despite its entirely unobvious location, the grave marker is always piled high with rocks.

View from Yad Lebanim Road

I think of vendors selling huge bouquets of flowers by the side of the road for the new year, which would begin that night.

I think of how slowly life moves here in some ways. Buses run late, eating at restaurants can take hours. Young adults take years off between the army and college. Our nation has been around in some way for thousands of years, so I suppose hurrying seems a bit silly.

I think of the cemetery by the sea, where my grandfather is buried, and where the silence and stillness is comforting.

I think of the history embedded in every stone, and of how the steps of Haifa’s endless staircases are worn smooth.

Stairs between streets

I think of how it must have felt to be despised, discriminated against, and even murdered for your peculiarities, and then coming to a country where everyone shares them with you.

I think of floating in the sea at night with friends I’ve known since before my memory begins. The water, completely still now, reflects the orange lights on the shore.

And here, in a place most know only for its violence, I have found a peace that eludes me in the safe and orderly country where I live.

So I won’t write about the conflict.

I will only write about my home.

Sunrise over Haifa

Sunrise over Haifa

Not All Activism is Good Activism

I’ll be honest with you: whenever I see a social media campaign going viral, I get suspicious.

It’s not because I think people are evil or stupid, or because I dislike popular things (although that is often the case). It’s because for anything to become popular, it must be simple, easy-to-understand, without nuance.

The violence in Uganda is none of these things.

I have not posted the Kony 2012 video to my Facebook like so many of my friends have. That is because I don’t know–I can’t know, really–if the video does justice to the reality in Uganda. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the video here.

My views on this subject are much more complex than the act of posting a video. That’s why I’ve chosen to add my two cents not by reposting it, but by writing this.

First of all, look at some other types of activism that have gone viral lately. There were the SlutWalks, started when a Toronto cop told a bunch of students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” in order to not be raped. SlutWalk consists of some very simple concepts: Don’t blame women for their own rapes. It’s not about what they’re wearing. And, by the way, what’s so bad about being a “slut?”

Then there was Occupy Wall Street, and all the other Occupy protests it spawned. The message of OWS was simple, too: there is too much damn inequality. The gap between the One Percent and the 99 Percent is too wide. Wall Street’s gains have become excessive.

There’s obviously plenty to criticize about SlutWalk and OWS. The former has been accused of marginalizing the voices of non-white, non-hetero, non-middle class women and pandering to the very sexist forces it seeks to combat by having women march around in their underwear.

The latter, meanwhile, has been criticized for being too ambiguous, not having specific demands for the government or for the financial sector, being anarchist/socialist/Communist, being unrealistic, consisting of too many people who supposedly majored in something stupid in college and don’t deserve jobs anyway.

But for all of their failures, SlutWalk and OWS have ensured that the issues of victim-blaming and economic inequality have entered our public dialogue–and stayed in it.

Kony 2012 seeks to do a similar thing. By “making Kony famous,” its creators insist, we can place Joseph Kony on the public agenda and “do something” about his terrible crimes.

But this is where things start to get dicey.

First of all, let me just say that I think awareness is extremely important. I think that American citizens, as a whole, aren’t nearly aware enough of what’s going on in their own backyards, let alone on another continent. More awareness, in my opinion, is almost always better than less awareness.

So on that front, I commend Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign. The video they have created is well-made in a way that ensures that nobody who watches it can remain ambivalent about what’s going on in Uganda.

However, the purpose of the video isn’t just to spread awareness. It’s to raise money.

For what, exactly?

Invisible Children supports military intervention–yes, you read that correctly–to stop Kony. Specifically, the money it raises goes towards supporting Uganda’s government and its army, which Kony’s LRA is fighting against.

But here’s the sad, sad irony of the situation: Uganda’s army is likely just as bad as Kony’s. It has also been reported to use child soldiers and has been accused of raping civilians and looting their property.

Guys, I don’t know how else to say this: do not give money to these people.

Besides this glaring issue, Invisible Children has also been criticized for their own actions as a charity organization. Last year, they spent about 8.7 million dollars, but only 32% of that money went to direct services. The rest covered the organization’s internal costs.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, yeah, that’s any charity. Sure, all charities have to cover certain costs before they can contribute money to the actual causes that they support. However, not all charities are as bad about this as Invisible Children, which was rated 2/4 stars by Charity Navigator.

Here’s another thing not all charities do, but Invisible Children does. That’s right, they’re actually posing with guns and soldiers from the Ugandan army. This is unprofessional at best and narcissistic and self-congratulatory at worst. (Here’s the source.)

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Invisible Children has also exaggerated its “facts” about the LRA in order to gain support. Now, some people don’t see much of a problem with this. Whatever keeps the checks coming, right?

Needless to say, I disagree. If you need to manipulate information in order to raise money, you’re not behaving ethically, and that’s the case whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a non-profit. That’s just what I believe.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more reputable charities that provide aid to Uganda. Here are some: War Child, Children of Uganda, Kiva (you can make microloans to people all over the world, including, obviously, Uganda). Some great organizations that aren’t specific to Uganda are Doctors Without Borders, Help International, Women for Women.

So giving money to Invisible Children might not be the best idea, especially if you don’t want your money going to an army that rapes people. But what about the other half of Kony 2012′s mission, raising awareness?

I’m not sure how making Kony a “household name” is going to help things, to be honest. Unlike campaigns like SlutWalk and OWS, which targeted ordinary American citizens to make themselves aware of issues they can actually do something about, Invisible Children wants to stop a powerful Ugandan warlord. But contrary to their claims that Kony needs to be “made famous,” he’s already quite well-known among the people who matter. The International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes back in 2005, and the American government has already had Kony on their radar for some time. In fact, as the Foreign Affairs article I linked to above discusses, they’ve been sending troops there for a while. So far, though, they haven’t succeeded in actually capturing him.

But even that raises difficult questions. Does Invisible Children want the United States to intervene militarily in order to stop Kony? If so, how is this any different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which, ironically, were strongly opposed by the very same progressive-minded people who are now feverishly posting the Kony video on Facebook)? And if not, what exactly are ordinary Americans supposed to do upon learning about Kony?

These are all questions that aren’t really being asked in the rush to spread an admittedly powerful and emotional video. But they need to be asked. You’ve Facebooked it, you’ve Tweeted it, you’ve favorited the video on YouTube. Now what?

Unfortunately, just the act of asking these questions, and of suggesting that Invisible Children may not be winning any awards for the world’s most ethical charity, is frowned upon. Every article and Facebook post I’ve come across that criticizes this campaign has been deluged with comments about how “they’re just trying to do a good thing” and “why do you have to criticize everything.”

Ah, the age-old question–why, indeed, must we criticize everything?

Here’s the thing. The stakes are quite a bit higher here than for other viral campaigns. If SlutWalk fails, nothing happens. If Occupy Wall Street fails, nothing happens. If Kony 2012 fails, nothing may happen–or, Uganda’s army will obtain more power that it can use to rape more people and enslave more child soldiers. Kony may be captured and someone else may take over who is even crueler. The United States may become involved in yet another costly foreign entanglement.

Another fact worth noting is that many, many African writers (including Ugandan ones) have been criticizing this campaign very strongly. Now, I’m not one of those people who claim that Americans have no place doing charity work in Africa because White Man’s Burden, but I do think that when the very people you’re trying to help are criticizing the help you’re providing, you need to sit down and listen. I’ve included some links to these criticisms at the end of this post.

I keep hearing the remark that criticizing Kony 2012 only “brings down morale” and keeps people from donating money. However, as long as the criticism is factual–that is, as long as Invisible Children really does support the Ugandan army and really is only spending a third of its money on actual aid to Uganda–then those are facts that potential donors ought to know before they make their decision.

If you’re relying on misinformation or lack of information to get people to donate to your cause, what you’re spreading isn’t awareness. It’s propaganda.

As I said before, awareness is important. But a free society thrives on dialogue. Posting a video and then condemning everyone who dares to criticize it is not dialogue.

These are, quite literally, matters of life or death. This is not the time to be upbeat and positive about everything you hear just because you don’t want to rain on the parade.

For more perspectives on Kony and Invisible Children’s campaign, here are some good sources:

Free Speech: What it is, What it Isn’t

It’s pretty rare that a single idiot spawns two whole posts on this blog, but Rush Limbaugh has done it.

As journalists and bloggers continue to debate the fallout of Limbaugh’s calling a female law student a slut and a prostitute on his show, I’ve noticed one particular phrase coming up again and again in these discussions. That phrase, of course, is “free speech.”

For every five online comments I see that demand for Limbaugh’s show to go off the air, there’s at least one that goes something like this: “Limbaugh is an idiot and I don’t listen to his show, but seriously, what happened to free speech?” (Examples: here, here, really any thread that discusses this incident.)

Occasionally, even the mere suggestion that his comments were inappropriate garners this rhetorical question.

The non-rhetorical answer is that absolutely nothing has happened to free speech. Although there are certainly some liberals who seek to limit it, the vast majority seek only to convince people that they shouldn’t be assholes. I’m looking at you, Limbaugh.

I’m not a constitutional scholar or even a political science major, so feel free to take my opinions on this issue with a grain of salt, but I think that what far-right conservatives are referring to when they say “free speech” is very different from what moderates, liberals, and, yes, the Founding Fathers meant by it.

First of all, the right to free speech–and the rest of the First Amendment rights–constitutes a restriction on the government, not on private individuals or institutions. For instance, here are some things the government cannot do in the United States:

  • order a newspaper not to publish a piece that portrays the administration in a negative light
  • forbid individuals from forming a new political party
  • pass a law making it illegal to utter a racist slur
  • criminalize the production, sale, and/or possession of pornography
  • ban a violent film from being produced or screened

In certain cases, of course, the government can make some restrictions on free speech in order to keep people safe–a practice that many Libertarians consider unconstitutional, showing how differently the Constitution can be interpreted by different people. However, for now, that remains an acceptable use of the government’s powers. For instance, the government can ban:

  • the production, sale, and possession of child pornography
  • yelling “fire” in a crowded theater (incidentally, why is the example always a theater? It can be any crowded room.)
  • revealing classified military information
  • publishing libel
  • minors from buying pornography, cigarettes, alcohol, or lottery tickets

However, as I said, First Amendment rights pertain to actions by the government, not by individuals or businesses. Here are some things that are NOT in violation of free speech that many conservatives seem to think are:

  • a company firing an employee who has brought it negative attention
  • a newspaper or radio channel choosing not to syndicate a column or show anymore because it does not fit with the outlet’s purpose or philosophy
  • an advertiser pulling its ads from an outlet with which it no longer wants to do business
  • a group of consumers starting a petition asking for any of the above to happen

Limbaugh’s fans would do well to note that these things are not violations of free speech. They’re capitalism at work. If consumers show that they no longer want to support a company that does business with such a cretin, then these companies are entitled to do what it takes to preserve their customers’ loyalty.

And another thing that isn’t a violation of free speech: telling someone that they’re an idiot and should shut up. If Limbaugh has the right to spew his idiocy into the public sphere, the rest of us have the right to label it as such.

And really–now I might be getting too off-topic–these conservatives who are so desperate to ensure that Limbaugh’s liberty goes unrestrained might want to focus instead on the very real, very flagrant abuses of individual rights that the U.S. government actually does perpetrate.

But strangely, these are often the very abuses that Limbaugh and his ilk support.

Funny how that works.

Limbaugh Really Should Educate Himself About Birth Control

Up until this week, those of us with a shred of optimism and/or naivete could have pretended that the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ perspectives on birth control were due to something as benign as “differing beliefs.”

However, now that Rush Limbaugh has run his mouth on the subject, I think we can all agree that much of the conservative opposition to birth control is due not to differing beliefs that are equally legitimate and should be respected, but to simple, stupid ignorance.

The following is probably common knowledge now, but I’ll rehash it anyway:

  • Sandra Fluke, a 31-year-old Georgetown University law student, was proposed by the Democrats as a witness in the upcoming Congressional hearings on birth control. Her history of feminist activism and her previous employment with a nonprofit that advocated for victims of domestic violence made her an appropriate witness for their side.
  • Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, turned her down because, he claimed, her name had been submitted too late.
  • The resulting panel of witnesses for the Congressional hearings turned out to consist of absolutely no women whatsoever, which is really funny in that not-actually-funny-way because hormonal birth control of the sort whose mandated insurance coverage was being debated is only used by women/people with female reproductive systems.
  • A week later, she testified for House Democrats, mentioning that birth control would cost her $3,000 over three years. Lest anyone misinterpret her argument as being solely about those slutty women’s desire to have tons and tons of sex, she also mentioned her friend with polycystic ovary syndrome who developed a cyst because she was denied coverage for birth control pills (which would’ve helped because they would’ve reinstated a regular menstrual cycle).

A few days later, Rush Limbaugh decided to insert his expert opinion into the discourse surrounding mandated insurance coverage of birth control. His expert opinion?

What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

The next day, he clarified his views:

So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

And the next day (allow me to shamelessly quote Wikipedia):

The following day Limbaugh said that Fluke had boyfriends “lined up around the block.”[18] He went on to say that if his daughter had testified that “she’s having so much sex she can’t pay for it and wants a new welfare program to pay for it,” he’d be “embarrassed” and “disconnect the phone,” “go into hiding,” and “hope the media didn’t find me.”[19]

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time by explaining how misogynistic Limbaugh’s comments were, especially since plenty of excellent writers have done so already. However, it continually shocks me how he gets away with saying things that are not only offensive and inflammatory, but simply inaccurate.

First of all, a primer for anyone who’s still confused: except for barrier-based forms of birth control (i.e. condoms and diaphragms), the amount of birth control that one needs does not depend on how much sex one is having. Hormonal birth control works by preventing ovulation, and in order for it to work, it has to be taken regularly and continually. For instance, you take the Pill every day, or you apply a new patch every week, or you get a new NuvaRing each month, or you get a new Depo-Provera shot every three months. You stick to this schedule whether you’re having sex once a week or once a day or ten times a day. You stick to it if you’re having sex only with your husband, and you stick to it if you’re having sex with several fuck buddies, and you stick to it if you’re a prostitute and have sex with dozens of different people every day.

Same goes for IUDs, which last for years.

Therefore, when Limbaugh says that those who support mandated insurance coverage of birth control are “having so much sex [they] can’t pay for it,” he’s not merely being an asshole. He’s also simply wrong.

And for the record, he didn’t even get her name right. It’s Sandra, not Susan. One word of advice for you, Limbaugh: if you’re going to call someone a slut and a prostitute, at least use their correct name. But I guess we should give him credit for knowing which letter it starts with.

I don’t care what your views are on mandated insurance coverage of birth control. I don’t care what your views are on how much or what kind of sex women should be allowed to have (as much as they want and whichever kind they want, in my opinion). Because whatever your views are on these things, you have to agree that these questions should not be getting answered by people who have absolutely no understanding of how these things actually work.

For instance, Limbaugh completely ignored the part of Fluke’s testimony in which she described the problem faced by her friend with polycystic ovary syndrome. This friend’s predicament has nothing to do with sex. Absolutely nothing. For all we know, she’s a virgin.

After all, polycystic ovary syndrome isn’t caused by anything that involves sex. The current medical opinion is that it’s probably caused by genetics.

Unlike some feminists, I don’t think that men should be excluded from debates about women’s health. But men (and women) who show little or no understanding about women’s health should absolutely be excluded from these debates.

You wouldn’t let a doctor who believes that babies come from storks deliver your baby. You wouldn’t let a mechanic who doesn’t know how an engine works work on your car. And you shouldn’t let politicians and commentators who think that you need more birth control if you have more sex decide whether or not birth control will be covered by your insurance.

And, for the record, I also don’t think that Congressional hearings on birth control should look like this: