Thursday, March 23, 2006
The Greatest Evil America Faces... Atheists
American’s increasing acceptance of religious diversity doesn’t extend to those who don’t believe in a god, according to a national survey by researchers in the University of Minnesota’s department of sociology.
From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.
Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.
Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell. Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.
Edgell believes a fear of moral decline and resulting social disorder is behind the findings. “Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens—they share an understanding of right and wrong,” she said. “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.”
The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation—with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Midwestern counterparts. (Link)
Freedom Lost, One Silver at a Time
The Supreme Court of the United States has declined to hear an important case about obscenity and the Internet, leaving anyone who publishes sexual material on the Internet in uncertainty about whether they're open to federal penalties. At stake is the obscenity section of the Communications Decency Act, which bans publishing "obscene" material on the net. The problem is that US courts use "local standards" to determine whether something is obscene -- so if in the eyes of some local community, the material is obscene, then you can't distribute it there.
But the Internet can distribute material into all communities in the country, and because the Communications Decency Act is federal, prosecutors can bring their charges in the most sex-o-phobic corner of the country (say, the conservative Catholic private town that the guy who founded Domino's Pizza is building in Florida).
By turning down this case, the Supremes have said that the whole country is now subject to the decency standards from its most conservative, anti-sex, anti-nudity corners; that the local standard from that place will become the national standard. (Link)
Know Your Oil
A new Firefox plugin rewrites all the US prices in the pages you load into the equivalent cost in barrels of crude oil. (Link)
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
75, 30, 28, 23, 23, 22, 6, 5, 5, 3, 3
At 230 of 15/3/2006, according to the telegram (report) of the Ishaqi police directorate, American forces used helicopters to drop troops on the house of Faiz Harat Khalaf situated in the Abu Sifa village of the Ishaqi district. The American forces gathered the family members in one room and executed 11 people, including 5 children, 4 women and 2 men, then they bombed the house, burned three vehicles, and killed their animals… (Link)
And in a different incident which has lead to an investigation of war crimes.
Shortly after a roadside bomb killed a U.S. Marine in a western Iraqi town, American troops went into nearby houses and shot dead 15 members of two families, including a 3-year-old-girl, residents say.
The allegations against the Marines were first brought forward by Time Magazine, which reported this week that it obtained a videotape two months ago taken by a Haditha journalism student that shows the dead still in their nightclothes. (More)
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Osama's Niece to Get Reality TV Show in the US
The news that Osama bin Laden's niece is to star in a US reality TV show has provoked fury from families of some of those killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The as yet unnamed series, being offered at auction to US television networks, will follow the California-born Wafah Dufour as she follows her "dream to make it in the music business", according to Regan Media, which is producing it.
Ms Dufour, a 27-year-old graduate of Columbia University law school, was born Wafah bin Ladin, the daughter of Carmen bin Ladin, former wife of the al-Qaida leader's half-brother Yeslam. "I understand that when people hear my last name, they have preconceived notions," Ms Dufour said in a statement. "But I was born in America and I love my country."
She has never met her uncle, she said, but Regan Media made no effort to deny that she owes her fame to the connection. "Her history and her quest for stardom will make a compelling television series: she is a musician, a young woman, and, most important, a human being," said the company's founder, Judith Regan."She is a young woman who falls in love, has her heart broken, worries about her looks, doesn't always listen to her mother, and hasn't spoken to her father in years."
A spokeswoman for the September 11th Families Association called the show "an absolute disgrace ... we urge every TV network and channel planning to run this series to think again. The very idea that the family of a man with so much blood on his hands should profit from some sort of instant celebrity is an outrage."
In fact, the series will not be Ms Dufour's first brush with celebrity. Last year, she posed for a photoshoot reclining in a bubble bath, wearing only a necklace. (Link)
American Tactics Put Canadian Soldiers in Danger
Frustrated at the failure of Pakistan to neutralize or capture al Qaeda and the Taliban in Waziristan, Rumsfeld has resorted to a tactic which has served to do nothing if not antagonize an otherwise benign population. He's bombing them. Never one to use the right number of troops on the ground, Rumsfeld defaults to techno-war and air strikes. Results have been less than spectacular. While few al Qaeda terrorists have been killed, tribesmen, angered by US strikes and Pakistani army disregard for their safety, have started to accept Taliban rule and an alliance with al Qaeda.
NATO troops, including Canadian, British, Dutch, Danes, Estonians and an attached Australian force, in Helmand and Kandahar provinces are now under increased risk of attack. The four Provincial Reconstruction Team bases are on a direct line out of Tora Bora. Instead of being able to expand Afghan government control, which is their role, to areas outside Kabul, they will end up having to defend against the rebuilt forces of both the Taliban and al Qaeda. All thanks to Rumsfeld's interference resulting in a botched initial attack on al Qaeda and a subsequent reliance on a wholly untrustworthy ally in Pakistan.
A seven-month pregnant woman - her belly vast - was at a supper with a friend. He, being of the family type, told her she was very lucky to be expecting a baby. He was the first person who had said such a thing, she told him.
It's a jarring anecdote because it so sharply puts into focus how pregnancy has become the occasion not for congratulations, but for anxious questions about childcare, leave and work. Watch how the announcement of a pregnancy among women is followed within minutes by the "What are you going to do?" question. We've replaced the age-old anxiety around life-threatening childbirth with a new - and sometimes it appears just as vast - cargo of anxiety around who is going to care.
The answer, I would argue, is that a bias against having babies has permeated our culture. This phenomenon needs a new word - anti-natalism - and it is this that prompts a good part of that pregnancy trepidation. The only consolation to my mind is the spectacular everyday acts of rebellion by which thousands of babies still manage to get born in this country.
These are bold claims - so let me explain. The anti-natalist bias is implicit in many of the influences that shape our sense of self and purpose, our identity, our aspirations and our understanding of success and the good life. That bias is evident in our consumer culture and ourwork culture. The problem about motherhood (and, to a lesser extent, fatherhood) is that it comes at the cost of failure - or at least compromise - as consumer or worker, or both.
Hence you are a good mother in direct proportion to how useless a consumer you are, as Angela McRobbie noted on these pages last week in her piece about the yummy-mummy phenomenon. Or as Shirley Conran put it in her days at the Work-Life Balance Trust, you can always tell the mum in the office because she's wearing last season's coat. (A more familiar problem is finding I've worn the same outfit three days in a row because the multiple demands of three kids rule out thinking about what to wear.) The increasing impatience of consumer cycles means that anyone who is not devoting inordinate amounts of their weekend to shopping and browsing magazines is just not cutting it.
Not cutting it - that's pretty much the gist at work too. The entire debate on women's work is about mothers failing in the labour market: they don't earn much; they're in dead-end jobs; they don't make it to the top; they take the easy option and duck responsibility; they're less productive than men. This was the refrain of the Women and Work Commission last week; it reminded me of a summit on women's productivity at No 11 just over a year ago. Women had to get into better jobs and work harder, a selection of highly productive women and Gordon Brown declared. You could hear the lashing of whips from these well-meaning slave drivers.
But the whole debate about women's place in work is lopsided. They are not failures but astonishing successes. What gets missed out of the equation is that mothers' productivity is staggeringly high: the Office for National Statistics did a valuation of women's homemaking and care, and came up with a figure of £929bn, or 104% of GDP. Combine that with the value of women's paid work, and they are easily outperforming the shockingly low productivity of men.
The point is that parenthood is against the grain of all the aspirations of our culture. Go back to the point where I started - the pregnancy anxiety around care. That anxiety is provoked by more than just the logistics of childcare availability, despite what the nursery campaigners argue. It's there because pregnancy sabotages three characteristics highly valued by our culture.
First, independence: pregnancy heralds at least one relationship of dependence, and there is often greater dependence on partners, mothers and, eventually, childminders and the like. But you've spent much of the previous 10 years attempting to eradicate any hint of dependence, either of your own or of others on you. Secondly, pregnancy is about a long-term commitment, and having avoided all such (including probably to your partner), you are, at the very least, uneasy about it. Finally, the big bump in your stomach spells out one thing for sure - a huge constraint on many choices, and choice has been integral to your sense of a life worth living.
In other words, the self we are encouraged to develop through much of our education system and early adulthood is of no use whatsoever to a new parent. What use is that sassy, independent, self-assertive, knowing-what-youwant- and-how-to-get-it type when you fast forward five years to the emotional labour of helping a child develop selfconfidence? Once there's a baby in the cot, you need steadiness, loyalty, endurance, patience, sensitivity and even self-denial - all the characteristics that you've spent the previous decade trashing as dull or, even worse, for losers. Forget trying to work out your own feelings - you'll be too busy trying to work out those of your children; ditto self-confidence and self-expression.
Motherhood hits most women like a car crash: they have absolutely no idea of what is coming. Nothing in our culture recognises, let alone encourages, the characteristics you will need once a bawling infant has been tenderly placed in your arms. So the debate about the baby gap is about far more than tweaking parental leave; it's about what a culture values and promotes. And it matters not just because of that falling birthrate, but because of how women stumble towards their own private insights into the importance of mothering - to which they cling in the face of not just zero endorsement from wider society but active contempt.