Friday, November 30, 2007

Time to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

In last Wednesday's CNN/Youtube debate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", the military's policy of not inquiring about a soldier’s sexual orientation but discharging the solider if he or she is revealed to be gay, seemed to be working just fine. Several other Republican candidates agreed with him.

This is nonsense. This homophobic, discriminatory policy has done nothing except kick out qualified, vital American servicemen from this country’s military, and prevents others from joining the military. It’s embarrassing to be an American when this country still, in the 21st century, denies its citizens the right to serve in its armed forces because of something fundamental to their nature, over which they have no control. It has given the rest of the liberal world one more good reason to look down upon the United States.

It’s even more absurd that in the midst of fighting two wars in foreign countries, our military has dismissed hundreds of service members with critical language skills (e.g. Arabic) simply for being gay. This policy has continued to cripple a fighting force that can barely afford any more other handicaps.

Furthermore, the U.S. army is so short on people that it has decreased the restrictions on felons enlisting. Why is the American army so beholden to one religious group’s prejudice that we will trust criminals with our safety and security before gay people?

There is no easy answer to this question, as many of the practical arguments for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fall apart under scrutiny. Many other world renowned military forces (e.g. the Brits, the Israelis) have openly gay soldiers, with no issues.The argument about living in close quarters also fails, since we don’t bar openly gay people from living with straight people in other public institutions, like universities or prisons. The argument that servicemen can’t control themselves when living with someone they may be attracted is ridiculous, and insulting to the servicemen whom we trust to operate deadly weapons with maturity and good judgment.

There is a great quotation from the television show “The West Wing,” where the African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff draws a parallel between modern objections to gays serving openly in the military and 1950s objections to racial integrated units:

"The problem with that is that what they were saying to me 50 years ago. Blacks shouldn't serve with Whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I'm an admiral in the U.S. Navy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

This country has to get over its hatred of gay people. It has to stop pandering to an ever shrinking minority of citizens who want to project their religious views onto secular society, at the cost of our safety.

The United States deserves the best and the brightest are serving this country. All the Democratic candidates for presidents support repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Where is the leadership from the Republican candidates who claim to care so deeply about the safety and security of this country?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How some Muslims treat rape victims

Fundamentalist Islam's mistreatment of women is unparalleled in any other major culture today. Specifically, no where else in the world are women physically punished and even murdered for being raped. Muslim societies need to get serious at a macro level about how to deal with this problem.

There are thousands of awful stories that fit this situation. Two, in particular, have made international headlines in the past few months.

In one case, a woman in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison for meeting with an unrelated male friend. The fact that she met with this individual only came to light because the woman was gang raped by seven other men during that meeting, and wanted them prosecuted. Her initial sentence was 90 lashes, but the judge increased its severity because she contested that initial sentence.

The more heart wrenching case is of a young girl who was raped in Syria. Her cousin subsequently married her in an attempt to bring her back into the family and protect her from being murder because she was raped. Tragically, this protection was not sufficient, as her brother subsequently stabbed her multiple times in an attempt to restore honor to his family, though what is know as an "honor killing". The brother is facing trial (which is unusual for a "honor killing"), but his likely punishment is far less than what it would be in much of the rest of the world for premeditated murder.

This is barbaric. Human society has come too far to be violently mistreating rape victims. While there are fundamental in every religion, from puritans burning witches to ultra-orthodox Jews throwing feces at immodestly clad women and stones at women trying to wear traditionally male prayer shawls, these practices pale in comparison to murdering rape victims.

Despite the fact that Islam is a diverse religion with numerous sects of varying degrees of progressiveness and modernity, Islam has not had such a fundamental change to its core that would completely end practices like honor killings. Where is the outrage among fundamentalist Muslim leadership? Where are the imams saying that is it wrong to inflict further harm on women who have been sexually violated? It is long past time for fundamentalist Muslim leaders to take a stand against stop inflicting further harm on rape victims.

How the Yale Athletic Department embarrassed 30,000 Yalies

'Nuff said

Monday, November 26, 2007

Creationism and science education

The New York Times magazine recently had an article about creationist geologies, whose mission is to prove that the physical history of the Earth exactly matches that of Genesis, using whatever means necessary to justify it. This reasoning involves construing scenarios where the great flood of Noah’s time created many of the rocks and fossils that otherwise would have taken millions of years to form, since those who take Genesis literally believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

The problem is that this analysis masquerade as a legitimize scientific method. The conclusions are already foregone, with absolutely no room for modification based on new evidence (as rewriting Genesis is hubristic blasphemy).

This kind of reasoning, whether about biology or geology, has serious ramification for our secondary school educational system. Believing something is true because G-d said so isn’t wrong or shameful. Teaching it in a secondary school science class that is supposed to be about reasoning and logic and objectivity is. Once we teach young students that they can hold fast to their conclusions by faith alone, and then selectively choose evidence that can support their beliefs, we’ve stopped teaching science, and started teaching religion. How can students develop the critical reasoning skills that they need to survive today’s competitive world if they’re taught dogma instead of science?

The most recent Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, used to say that G-d put fossils on the Earth to test our faith. While faith in G-d has brought much strength and comfort to Americans, one must not get in the way of science education. The United States has already fallen too far behind its peers in science education. Religion should not make it worse.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Britons and religion

The New York Times recently reported that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is about to join his wife in the Roman Catholic Church, after practicing as a High Anglican while Prime Minister. While this is historic in a country that helped created Protestantism in the 16th century and has been a major beacon for Protestantism ever since, Blair’s public religion while Prime Minister is even more significant.

During his term, then Prime Minister Blair mentioned G-d publicly far more than any other modern British prime minister. This was at odds with the general British population, which is far more secular than American population. (This analysis excludes the rapidly growing British Muslim population, which, as the New York Times article points, tend to be very religious.)

On the other hand, in the United States, presidents are expected to be religious figures. They go to church, believe in G-d, consult with religious leaders on all kinds of matters, atone for both their public and private sins, and routinely ask G-d to bless America. It’s even more telling that the first non-Christian nominated on a national ticket, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, is a devout Jew who frequently talks about his relationship with G-d. (Lieberman is also the first non-Christian with a serious chance of winning the presidential nomination, as he led national Democratic preference polls as late as September 2003.)

Until Blair, Britons saw none of this in their leaders. In some ways, it is no wonder that Britons are more secular than Americans, given the enormous amount of strife in their nation’s history along religious lines, from internal beheadings and burnings to civil war, regicide, and war with the continent, to the more recent history of colonizing non-Christians around the world and continual strife in Ireland. Britons have seen the uglier side of religion, and have long experience the kind of religious class of civilizations that Americans have only recently been exposure to.

The great contradiction here is that while Britons are relatively more secular than Americans, their country is fundamentally more religious that the United States. Whereas we have a formal separation of religion (church) and state, the British monarch is the formal head of the Church of England and must be a member of that sect. (Anyone member of the royal family married to a Catholic, regardless of his or her own religion, is barred from the line of succession.)

This innate Christianity extends to the great English universities, where terms are referred to as “Easter term”, “Michaelmas term” and “Lent term” (instead of summer, fall and spring). Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge have names like All Souls College, Christ Church, Trinity College, and even Jesus College. Despite Yale and Harvard’s religious origins, this kind of religion ingrained in British society is no where to be found in the United States.

Given all of this latent Christianity in such a secular country, it will be very interesting to see how Britain deals with its former prime minister’s new religion, or if it is only the American press and its more religious readers that seem to care.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a rather peculiar holiday. It is perhaps America’s most significant truly secular holiday, where millions of American of all faiths and creeds travel hundreds of miles to be with their families. Thanksgiving may have had religious origins in America’s early seventeenth century settlers, but today is no more religious than July 4 or Mother’s Day. It’s a holiday that’s just about eating and seeing family – a holiday that even agnostic Americans can enjoy without any guilt of what other observances their avoiding.

Some people link Thanksgiving with Christmas and Valentine’s Day as fundamentally secular, American holidays. In short, however, Christmas is a Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, an event that is not part of Jewish culture, just as Valentine’s Day comes from another Christian figure. No amount of American commercialization of either holiday can change either of those facts.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is celebrated in full force by Americans of all faiths and creeds, including Jews of every observance level. For traditionally observant Jews, Thanksgiving is a peek into how the rest of world observes holidays. There is no rush to getting to one’s destination by sunset, no mad dash to get all of the cooking and preparations done by a certain time, and no portal back into the early 19th century before video games and movies. It’s a holiday where shopping and football watching are permitted.

This doesn’t answer the question, though, of why Orthodox Jews, many of whom refrain from other forms of American modernity (e.g. television), still celebrate Thanksgiving. The best answer comes from Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, a leading Orthodox authority in the United States during the 20th century. Rabbi Soleveitchik lived though persecution in Europe, before immigrating to the United States. He celebrated Thanksgiving because he was thankful for the United States of America, his refuge and adopted new home. That is certainly something we can all be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Romney's new whiz kids

A recent TIME magazine piece about former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested that if he were elected president, he would hire consultants (likely the behemoth McKinsey or Bain, his old stomping ground) to "fix" the government. Romney would attempt to bring all of the models, slides, cost cutting, optimization, ROI calculations, and general business experience to fixing the federal government.

Romney would also bring the hordes of hyper ambitious, already overly successful brilliant twenty somethings that are the main workforce of elite management consulting firms to help fix the government. While fixing the government is not a new idea (it conjures up an image from another era of then-Vice President Al Gore with a forklift of government regulations, recruiting brilliant recent college graduates to do it is. Who better to pore over the hundreds of billions of dollars of waste in the federal budget than America's best and brightest? (Though without a line item veto, a President Romney would have to resort to more esoteric methods of eliminating the waste, such as embarrassing the congressman or senator sponsoring the item.)

Instead of paying the enormous consulting fees that McKinsey would charge, Romney could even recruit these people directly into his administration. One major problem with recruiting such young people into the government is the opportunity cost of working for the government instead of working for one of the top consulting firms is tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. On the one hand, older businessman for whom money is not a concern may be better financially suited for this job. On the other hand, providing these young people a benefit such as student loan repayments or scholarships to business or law school (in addition to a modest but livable salary) may be compensation enough.

Perhaps this is also a ploy to appeal to the young private sectors who at the moment tentatively supporting Illinois Senator Barak Obama, while holding out for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to enter the race. Many of these voters are looking for a non-politician to bring the kind of practical experience they see in their jobs to the government, and if Bloomberg won't do it, maybe Romney will.

The main problem with Romney is that while many business savvy voters like his style, his policies (at the least his presidential candidacy incarnation of them) are an anathema. As Jonathan Last wrote in sacbee.com last month, "The gentleman running as Mitt Romney looks and sounds like an android created by James Dobson and Grover Norquist." The question remains if Romney wins the primary election, will he drop the absurd fa├žade of a social conservative anti-government tax cutter and instead run the competence-over-values campaign that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has run and that has suited Romney better all along.

If this country does see a President Romney in January 2009, look for a horde of bright young consultants shaking up government. Creating the new incarnation of Robert McNamara's whiz kids may be just the thing this country needs.

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