Friday, March 26, 2010

Murder on a Quiet Block in Midwood, Brooklyn

I had seen it before. Flowers and teddy bears, along with candles. It was a somber memorial to a young man who had been shot dead by a friend in a financial dispute. He had graduated from high school a few months earlier. He had started a new job at a supermarket. He wanted to go to college. He was a young man, full of dreams. He was quiet and well liked. His family had every reason to hope that he would have a bright future. And now they must bury a son.

In my neighbourhood, his death would not have stood out. There are too many murals, clusters of candles and cars with a memorial notation on the rear window with the dates of birth and of death far too close together. Occasionally, the deceased is someone who had driven others to tears and despair reaping what he sowed. Far too often, there seems to be no justice and no sense behind the colourful murals frozen in a happy moment in a short life.

Gavin Torres stood out when he was shot dead in the street. Because he died not in Bed Stuy or Brownsville but on Avenue J and East 12th Street, an area where the Angel of Death knocks politely at the doors of well kept homes instead of hawking his services loudly in busy streets.

The corner where Torres died is normally peaceful. Pakistanis dress as they do in their homeland and go to their little stores and to the local mosques. Orthodox Jews live in the same space with stores and houses of worship that reflect their long standing presence. Whatever happens elsewhere in the world, there is no hatred between Jew and Muslim here. Both mark the new day at sunset and approach the societal mainstream with friendly yet cautious reserve.

Police made an immediate arrest in the death of Gavin Torres. A young man named Julio Iglesias has been charged with his murder. Few people on Avenue J would note the oddity of an accused murderer having the same name as a mega pop star. There are Spanish speaking people living in Flatbush. Many work in the stores and in construction. But the awnings and signs in front of the stores do not yet reflect their presence..

The memorial on the street attracts attention from most of the passers by. This is a good neighbourhood. Death does not hawk his wares from a folding table on the street. Sidewalk shootings are a rarity.

Years ago, I remember a killing in Willaimsburg. A Hassidic Jew bled to death in the street. The Chevra Kadisha, (the burial society) came to the scene. They did not wash the sidewalk clean of his blood. They brought a jackhammer to the scene and took the spattered blood along with the pavement and buried it in a Jewish cemetery. For a good while afterward, there was a hole in the street where a man's blood had fallen.

I wish that every murder scene were treated like the one in Williamsburg. There should be a hole in the street or in the floor wherever there has been a murder. The hole in the street should match the hole in the grieving heart of a mother and father who must carry to their grave the unnatural grief of burying a child.

Let those who forget the death of a human being, nurtured to maturity and reduced to rotting flesh step around a hole in the pavement . Let them drive up to a hole in the street and come to a stop. And let those who are inconvenienced by a broken stride or an unwanted lane change reflect upon a life that has been lost.

I went for a walk in my neighbourhood and counted the places where murdered men and women had fallen. The streets looked peaceful. The deaths had faded from collective memory. Perhaps a loved one still detours in silence to avoid reminders of loss. The rest of us walk by without a thought.

Gavin, I did not know you. It pains me to think of the sadness in your home. When I see the flowers, the candles and the teddy bear where you were killed, I see a hole in the street. I see a hole in the aching hearts of those who knew you.

I have seen the words on murals. I have seen them on street memorials. And now that words escape me I must say, "Rest in Peace". May G-d console your parents and family.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Kim Jong Il Very Ill

President Kim Jong Il, the iron fisted dictator of North Korea is reportedly suffering from kidney failure which requires dialysis as well as paralysis after a 2008 stroke according to the Times of London. South Korean intelligence experts have been examining photographs of the "Dear Leader" and have concluded from the colour of his fingernails that he is suffering from kidney failure. It was already known that Mr. Kim was suffering from diabetes.

In the same country that has lost about 2 million people to famine, comrade Kim has found it necessary to go on a diet in order to bring his weight down from 189 pounds to 154 pounds. It is not known if the money the diabetic Mr. Kim saves on not buying expensive liquor is being spent instead to feed starving North Koreans.

People are already talking about a successor to Kim Jong Il. His son, Kim Jong Un has been named as a possible replacement. It this were to happen, it would make the Kim family the world's first communist dynasty. Kim Jong Il, son of the famous "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung replaced his father when his father assumed room temperature in 1994.

Kim Jong Il had a reputation for drinking expensive liquor and maintaining a stable of willing women, leading some to wonder if dynasty might better be spelled "die nasty".

Recent appearances of the "Dear Leader" lead may to speculate that his infirmity has imposed a level of virtue on him that eluded him when he was in better health.

In British English, the term "dear" means "expensive" Looking at the expensive tastes of comrade Kim as well as the medical care that is now prolonging his useless existence, the term "Dear Leader" seems entirely appropriate.

It would be a pity for such a ruthless and inept individual as Kim Jong Il to simply die in his sleep. A prolonged illness would at least give him a chance to reflect on the suffering he has inflicted on his nation and people . Although his replacement with a better approximation of a human being is a pleasing prospect, a violent power struggle in North Korea could end up inflicting even more suffering on that blighted country.

It seems grotesque to read of such a poor country as North Korea prolonging the life of its obscenely and illicitly rich leader. I wish North Korea a speedy recovery from its many afflictions, including its leadership. It is the sick, tormented and starving people of North Korea who merit our concern and not their demented leader.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New York State Considers Medical Marijuana

New York State is seriously considering the legalisation of medical marijuana. a bill proposing to do that has cleared a committee in the New York State senate, which will havea chance to debate and vote on it, according to the New York Daily News.

Around half of New Yorkers tell pollsters that they favour the legalisation of marijuana, which was made illegal under the Harrison Act of 1937. What makes the discussion in New York interesting is that it is openly being discussed in conjunction with concerns about New York State's looming budget deficit, which is so serious as to have delayed the maiing of tax refunds to New Yorkers. Any system of dispensing medical marijuana would be heavily regulated and taxed. Legislators are salivating at the prospect of millions that is now being spent on marijauna being subject to taxes.

There is a major problem with illnesses being discovered and created that "require" marijuana. Additionally, there is the question of testing for marijuana in the blood of impaired drivers. While no one begrudges the terminally ill the means to ease their pain, it is highly likely that a lot of abuse will be facilitated by an expansion of marijuana legalisation.

Will New York's budget woes speed the legalisation of medical marijuana? I am fearful of drug abuse making new inroads if medical marijuana is made available without proper safeguards.

If medical marijuana is made available, New York City may gain the anomalous status of being friendlier to marijuana than to tobacco. I hope that legislators don't let the smoke get in their eyes when they are discussing the budget deficit. Any provision of medical marijuana should contain safeguards to prevent its recreational use. The well being of New Yorkers should not be held hostage to the budget deficit. This bill should be approached with caution.


The illustration with this article is of a prescription for medicinal alcohol during Prohibition, a time when marijuana was legal under federal law and alcohol was not.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What Was That Song on the Radio ?

Once I was riding in traffic on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. It was perfect motorcycle weather. The city felt like it was in complete harmony. When I was stopped at a light, there was a guy in front of me who was blasting his car stereo. The driver next to him complimented him on the music. They got into a conversation. The guy who was blasting the music popped the CD out of the stereo, got out of his car and gives the CD to the other driver. Who says New Yorkers aren't friendly?

I've never given away a CD in traffic, but I have turned on other drivers to Ismael Lo of Senegal, Crvena Jabuka of Bosnia Hercegovina as well as other musical talent. My wallet is full of scraps of paper full of names I get from taxi drivers and store clerks who turn me on to world music and films.

Until recently, I was always annoyed when I was on an old fashioned radio and I could not identify a song. All too often, the announcer would not identify the song. It happened again today. I was listening to 101.9 WRXP, which is a rock station in New York City. I was driving on an errand for my work, listening to a low tech radio with a digital display. Predictably, the deejay didn't identify the song. My search was complicated by being uncertain of the song's title, which I mistakenly thought was "Disarray" or "Desiree". In the old days, I would have chalked it up as a loss. I may have even called the radio station to help me identify the song.

This time, I got resourceful. I gave up on naming the song. Instead, I noted the time that the song finished, as well as the station frequency. I found the web site address by googling 101.9. When I got to the site, I went to a section headed "Now Playing". When you click on that page, it not only gives you the song currently playing. It also gives you the previous two weeks of playlists for each calendar day. It even gives you the option of purchasing the songs you like on I Tunes.

The song I liked so much was "Glycerine" by Bush. I checked it out on You Tube and that was indeed the song I found so engaging. Often, You Tube will have purchase options available for songs that is worked into the You Tube videos.

I told one of my kids about my way of tracking down a song. She had thought of it on her own, and didn't think it was a big deal. I'm from the rotary dial generation. To me it was like discovering America.

It seems that new technology is in the process of changing the music market. I seldom have enough money for complete CD's. But an impulse purchase of a dollar a song is well within my budget. No one told me I could write down a tome and a station frequency and go home and buy the song. It's an opportunity that did not exist when I was a kid. There should be more information put out on how to buy the music we hear. The music industry is losing business to down loaders. The convenience of this method of shopping should become better known, not just to the technically knowledgeable young people but older people as well.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

73 Year Old Man Beaten in Playground "Game"

What do you call hunting when the quarry is human beings? In South Philly, you call it "Catch and Wreck". It's the latest "game" in which loitering kids set upon someone they think is homeless and beat them almost to death.

How serious is it? According to the web site, Vincent Poppa, 73 was set upon my a gang of depraved punks and ended up suffering a heart attack. reports as follows.

"Vincent Poppa, 73, remains hospitalized at Methodist Hospital a full week after he was hit in the back of the head with a gun, knocked unconscious and stomped by a group of four or five male youths near the playground around 9 p.m. March 13.

Poppa, who suffered a heart attack either during or shortly after the beating, was on a ventilator until Friday afternoon, Walker said.

Walker said Poppa is in the intensive care unit in serious condition.

Methodist Hospital officials tonightdeclined to report Poppa's medical condition.

According to Walker, Poppa, a resident of a nearby senior citizens apartment complex, was attacked when he was returning from buying soda.

When he arrived at Methodist, medical personnel found footprints on Poppa's head and sneaker marks on his body."

I have another idea for a game. It's called "Charge them as adults, put their names in the paper and give them each ten years in prison." The game is not played on a playground, it's played in a courtroom. It might wipe some idiotic smiles of the faces of some of the "players".

I would like to see the same outpouring of indignation on behalf of Vincent Poppa as was expressed after an idiotic racist announcement on a public address system in a New Jersey Walmart. There is a serious imbalance in how our national media prioritises stories. It is this distorted sense of what is important that leads me to describe our nation's newspapers as "chewing gum for the mind."

According to the news report, the kids who were taken into custody were laughing at their crime like it was all one big joke. The police do not want it to turn into a deadly fad. They want to come down real hard so "catch and wreck" doesn't become a daily menace to passers by.

There is no room for leniency in this case. When crime is perpetrated as a "game" or when it is done repeatedly by a gang, there is a malignant quality to it that cries out for the harshest possible punishment.

There is a separate legal category for juvenile crime, although some exceptions are made in particularly heinous cases. Treating violent, sadistic offenders harshly sends a message to other children who may be at risk of embarking on a life of crime.

The children in the incident were allegedly between the ages of 9 and 15. Should they therefore go free? Hell no! Lock em up. Big boy crime, big boy time. If you set lower expectations for children, they will live down to your expectations.

There is certainly a need for education and recreation programs in troubled areas such as Southwest Philly. But the children who should be the focus group for such programs should be those who have not sunk into sadistic violence. Those who play "catch and wreck" should certainly get counseling. But let them get it in prison.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fond Jewish Thoughts of the Arab World

As a Jew, there are times I feel equidistant from the Muslim and the Christian worlds. Living in Brooklyn, I am fortunate enough to speak regularly with Jews from Arab and Muslim countries. There was a time when the Arab world was a place of refuge of refuge from the Spanish Inquisition. Even before the founding of the State of Israel, the Muslim attitude towards Jews fluctuated in different places between benevolent and virulently intolerant.

There are Jews from Morocco who speak a Jewish Arabic that has the same relationship to regular Arabic that Yiddish does to German. There are a lot of kosher recipes that are indistinguishable from local Arab cuisine.

A major strategic blunder made in the Arab world was its de facto expulsion of its Jews. From Algeria to Syria, from Libya to Iraq and Egypt were thriving large Jewish communities of over a million strong. Of those communities, only a handful remain. After expropriations, pogroms and pervasive discrimination, the Jews of the Arab world were forced to seek refuge elsewhere. As a result, those who wish to experience the living culture of Arab Jews must go to Israel. Most Jews in Arab countries left because they had to. In expelling its Jews, the Arab countries that did so created a necessity for the State of Israel.

I feel a particular sadness when I think of Libya, a country that is almost devoid of any Jews. There were in Libya both Italian Jews and Jews who were indigenous to Libya. Oddly enough, one of the few Jews remaining in Libya is its leader, Muamar Kadaffy, whose mother was converted to Islam at the age of nine.( ) This story has been circulating for years. If Kadafy discovered his Jewish roots, came back to Judaism and became an all around nice guy, I would be delighted.

I found a very nice video that was a compilation of postage stamps featuring Libyan children's drawings. The colour in the drawings as well as the subject material are very compelling. It is accompanied by a very catchy song. Looking at the postage stamps of a country provides an interesting glimpse into their thinking.

I was delighted to discover the cartoons of Mohammed Zwawi, whose cartoons provide a comical glimpse into life in Libya. When two countries have a tense relationship, it is easy to forget the lives of common people behind the scenes. Mohamed Zwawi restores this perspective in a welcome way.

Centuries of Jewish presence in the Arab world shape my attitude towards it. My father always made it clear to me that despite having been forced to leave Germany, he still felt a connection to German culture. I feel the same way about the Arab world Salaam, Shalom... I hope and pray there will be peace soon.

Libyan children's stamps
2007 Libyan Stamps

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Florida Cult Members Drink Snail Snot

It's amazing what people will do in a cult. According to Fox News, a leader of a Florida cult has been raided by Federal authorities after members of his religious group were sickened from drinking the mucous of a giant African snail. He is most likely to be busted for importing a species that is dangerous to ecosystems. The snails will eat anything, even plaster. They can reproduce without a partner, which I suppose makes getting a date on Saturday night a good deal simpler. Followers of the sect reported getting violently ill, losing weight and developing lumps in their stomachs.

There are other weird religious practices out there. There is a region of Saudi Arabia in which women cover their faces completely as soon as they reach sexual maturity. Not even their husbands or children are allowed to see their faces. The American BEDU blog explains the story as follows.

"In the Nej’d region of Saudi Arabia (which includes Riyadh) there are tribal women who never remove their veil. This is a cultural custom that has been in practice for many generations. Although they come into this world unveiled, once a woman from this tribal region begins her menses, she puts on the veil and it remains on her face until the day of her death. Even when she comes of marriageable age and the marriage is arranged (within the tribe) it is very unlikely that her husband will ever see her unveiled as well. This woman is also unlikely to unveil with her children either."

The Digambras of the Jain religion are distinctively attired, in nothing at all. Since it is only the male clergy who go naked, it is odd that they are called Jains. Fund raising is a bit difficult, because they are not allowed to use cups or bowls for donations, and anyhow where are you going to put a wallet?

In the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, there is a group of people who worship Prince Phillip, husband of Queen Elizabeth as a god. BBC reporter Nick Squires reports as follows with his encounter with a devotee of the Prince Phillip cult.

"I wondered if it was all some sort of elaborate joke. But the look on Chief Jack's face told me it was not. He dispatched one of the villagers and a few minutes later the man returned from a hut with three framed pictures.

They were all official portraits of the Prince.

The first, in black and white, looked like it was taken in the early 1960s.

The second was dated 1980 and showed the Prince holding a traditional pig-killing club - a present from the islanders.

The most recent was from seven years ago.

They had all been sent from London with the discreet permission of Prince Philip, who is apparently well aware that he is the subject of such distant adoration. "

There are in that part of the world a number of cargo cults. Cargo cults originated during World War Two when the US Navy occupied a number of Pacific islands and employed local workers. The workers got their pay every month from an officer they remember as John Frum. They used to be able to buy chocolate, cigarettes and hair ribbons as well as canned goods.

When the US military left, they built models of the "silver birds that came from the sky" and prayed to them for the day when John Frum will return to them.

Russia has a number of bizarre sects. Some used to whip themselves. Why would they do such a thing? Beats me. Then there is the Skoptsy, a group that lasted into the 20th century and overcame sexual desire by castrating themselves. (They must be awful drivers. I'll bet they cut people off all the time.)

One of the harmless yet unusual groups is the Japanese "Kirishtans" These were people whose ancestors converted to Catholicism but were driven underground in the 16th century when the Japanese government banned their religion. The adherents of this faith would outwardly practice Shintoism but would pray in secret in what became a garbled mix of Latin and Japanese.
Some of the adherents of this crypto Christianity did not recognise or feel comfortable with modern day Christianity and returned to their hidden way of life.

It is amazing what people will do when they are searching spiritually. Drinking snail snot, beating themselves up, covering their faces 24/7, I guess there is no shortage of strangeness on our small planet.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Please Mr President ! Don't Campaign For Me!

He's a legend in his own mind. President Obama has threatened not to campaign for Democrats who do not vote for his health care plan. The London Telegraph reports as follows.

"The president will refuse to make fund-raising visits during November elections to any district whose representative has not backed the bill.

A one-night presidential appearance can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds which would otherwise take months to accumulate through cold-calling by campaign volunteers.

Mr Obama's threat came as the year-long debate over his signature domestic policy entered its final week.

Mr Obama is personally telephoning congressmen who are still on the fence this week, in between several personal appearances devoted toward swinging public opinion."

I think that a lot of Democrats are saying, "Please Mr. President! Please, PLEASE stay out of town. Promise not to publish those old pictures of us together."

If Obama really wanted to whip people into line, he could threaten to campaign for them. He already has a string of losses in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts where he campaigned and the Democrat he campaigned for lost.

Conservative Democrats don't want to be too closely associated with President Obama. Some liberal Democrats are keeping their distance. The only ones who would welcome him as a campaigner probably support his health care program anyhow and don't need to be threatened.

Obama reminds me of the substitute teacher who has not figured out that he can't just raise his arms and look stern to make the kids quiet down. Obama has been losing control daily, and it's only going to get worse.

I once had a dog that rolled in a pool of putrid garbage that was a mix of horse manure and fish innards. He acted like he was wearing men's cologne and walking into a disco. He came up to each of us wagging his tail, surrounded by a cloud of stench. He seemed clueless to the fact that we were running away from him as he tried to jump up on us and lick us. Even after we washed him down he still smelled like French cheese on a hot day.

Why does this image remind me of Obama offering to campaign and threatening not to? His popularity is sinking. He is pushing an expensive health care package when Americans are worried about unemployment and entire states teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. We have Mexico turning into another Somalia and our dollar in danger of turning into a soft currency.

Obama insults America's allies and kisses up to its enemies. He has radical friends who still seem to influence his policies and appointments. Many who voted for him feels like someone who woke up the morning after drinking in a skanky bar and asks "What was I thinking? And what was I drinking?"

I hope Obama campaigns for local candidates in the November elections. I believe he will have a big influence on the outcome. But not how he thinks.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Psychiatry: An Art Or a Science ?

Psychiatry has evolved from a labour intensive, specialty into something for the masses that bears little resembalce to its early beginnings. The New Yorker of March 1 asks a provocative and seemingly heretical question in its article "Can Psychiatry Be a Science?" by Louis Menand. The article airs troubling questions about the goals and premises of modern psychiatry, which treats depression and other maladies as chemical imbalances.

The article asks if a person who is unemployed and sinks into a depression should be drugged out of their understandable feelings of loss and insecurity. Would it not be better to guide such a person into activities that would improve his or her condition?

Then there is the question of dissatisfaction with society. Gary Greenberg, whose book is cited frequently in "Can Psychiatry Be a Science?" , believes that healthy discontent and dissent is being dissipated with medication. Menand describes Greenberg's concerns as follows.

"The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than fourteen million Americans suffer from major depression every year, and more than three million suffer from minor depression (whose symptoms are milder but last longer than two years). Greenberg thinks that numbers like these are ridiculous—not because people aren’t depressed but because, in most cases, their depression is not a mental illness. It’s a sane response to a crazy world."

Additional questions that are explored in the article are whether psychotropic drugs are effective and whether they are even safe. The article reports factually on the role of the drug companies in promoting the development and promotion of psychotropic drugs. It is difficult to escape the seemingly obvious conclusion that scientific research is being skewed and corrupted in some instances by business interests.

Then there is the question of certain types of people being less valued by society. Some people don't fit into the learning and thought patterns of the majority. As a result they are often classified as having some sort of disorder. One wonders what would have happened if Albert Einstein had been drugged into "normalcy"

An example of the pigeonholing of human personality into a list of disorders includes classifying shyness as a disorder, meant to be treated with drugs? What ever happened to learning social skills of even just being shy and learning to enjoy it? The manufacturers of Paxil are of course ready to drug away your shyness. You can even go to the Shyness Research Institute, at Indiana University Southeast.

Anything can be a psychological disorder. I am sure that somewhere in the Empire State Building is a Knucklecracker Suite in which state of the art medications are being prescribed.

Irving Kirsh, whose ideas are discussed at length in the article has an even more subversive idea. He believes that much of the effectiveness of psychiatric medications is a placebo effect. He uses comparison and overview of different drug studies done by the pharmaceutical companies, a process known as meta analysis. This is a difficult process, since it involves integrating disparate studies with varied methods and subject selection methods. Despite this, meta analyses are becoming more accepted in medical research.

One study of the placebo effect was done in 1957 and did not even pertain to psychiatric medication. It concerned anti nausea medication. Louis Menand describes the study as follows.

"He cites a 1957 study at the University of Oklahoma in which subjects were given a drug that induced nausea and vomiting, and then another drug, which they were told prevents nausea and vomiting. After the first anti-nausea drug, the subjects were switched to a different anti-nausea drug, then a third, and so on. By the sixth switch, a hundred per cent of the subjects reported that they no longer felt nauseous—even though every one of the anti-nausea drugs was a placebo."

When you are testing an antibiotic, the placebo effect might be meaningful. But in treating psychological problems, attitude is critical. Clinical depression can depress IQ scores. It can slow down healing from an infection. The modern idea that mental illness is created biochemically has a lot of truth. Unfortunately it leaves out a lot of truth. Constructive or positive thinking creates a mood. The mood has its chemical profile. What is a better way to create a chemical profile of happiness? Should one pump in medication? Should one think happy thoughts? Or should one address the problems in one's life that create unhappiness?

On the one hand, "drugging away discontent" might also drug away changes in the home and the community that would be of considerable benefit to all. There are, however, people who are so imobilised by depression or anger that they are impaired in their daily functioning. A person who is unemployed and takes to sleeping 15 hours a day might take Prozac or some other mood improving drug so they will feel upbeat enough to go look for a new job. They may well decide to toss aside the chemical crutch when they are back at work and satisfied that the job will last.

There are other people who are psychotic, depressed or enraged to the point that they need to be on psychotropic medication for long periods. These are people who would endanger themselves or others if they did not take medication. Some such people should be required by law to take their psychotropic medication. But there is a large number of people who are shoehorned into long term medication regimens.

A half a century ago, Thorazine and other medications meant that people who would otherwise be institutionalised could enjoy some semblance of normal life outside an institution. For some, these medications were indeed "miracle drugs". Unfortunately, what it seems is now happening is that medication is taking the place of counseling. It costs a health insurance company less to have a psychiatrist conduct a 20 minute interview once a month with a patient than if the patient speaks at greater length about changes in his or her life or past experiences. Medication is all too often a labour saving device.

There is, however a time for cutting costs. Sometimes a patient feels ready to terminate therapy and the therapist wants the sessions to continue or even increase in frequency. I knew a man who was going through a divorce and went to a counselor who had him coming in three times a week. Some of the three sessions lasted two billable hours. Each billable hour was 45 minutes. The guy's insurance had a big deductible and soon the bill started getting pretty big. He found another therapist who was able to work things through in a weekly session that lasted for between 50 minutes and an hour. Was the first therapist a fraud? I don't know. My friend trusted his feelings and ended up in a stable relationship and a lot more money at the end of the week.

How accurate are psychiatric diagnoses? Louis Menand tells of a psychiatric researcher named Phillip Ash who discovered back in 1949 that psychiatric diagnoses vary widely from doctor to doctor. Menand notes as follows the story of Ash's research.

"In 1949, Philip Ash, an American psychologist, published a study in which he had fifty-two mental patients examined by three psychiatrists, two of them, according to Ash, nationally known. All the psychiatrists reached the same diagnosis only twenty per cent of the time, and two were in agreement less than half the time. Ash concluded that there was a severe lack of fit between diagnostic labels and, as he put it, “the complexities of the biodynamics of mental structure”—that is, what actually goes on in people’s minds." "In 1952, a British psychologist, Hans Eysenck, published a summary of several studies assessing the effectiveness of psychotherapy. “There . . . appears to be an inverse correlation between recovery and psychotherapy,” Eysenck dryly noted. “The more psychotherapy, the smaller the recovery rate.”

There are undoubtedly times when talking things over with clergy or friends is not possible. Regardless of what theories a therapist subscribes to, there is a need at times to speak to someone who stands outside one's circle of friends and family. Sometimes there is just too much to talk about with people who have their own busy lives.

What worries me most is the extent to which psychiatry bends to societal pressure. Before 1973, homosexuality was considered a disorder. Then the American Psychiatric Association passed a resolution removing it from the list of psychiatric disorders. What changed, other than societal attitudes? Sitting in a national assembly and passing resolutions kind of makes the psychiatrists seem like another religious denomination. I look in the paper to see what the latest resolutions are to come out of Jewish groups. My neighbour checks out what the Baptists have to say. Who is listening to the psychiatrists?

There is a definite need for psychiatry and for psychotherapy. There is also an urgent need for subversive sounding questions that Louis Menand pulled together so ably in his New Yorker article. Menand did a good job of asking tough and subversive sounding questions without being dismissive of psychiatry.

In all scientific fields, we are making new discoveries. A wobble in the orbit of the planet Pluto led astronomers to the discovery of "Planet X", from which the sun that looms so large in our sky is seen as a distant twinkling light. Indeed, a solar year on Planet X is longer than the the entire history of the US as an independent country.

The human mind and the human brain are one of the major stretches of terra incognita, in some ways as mysterious as our solar system. There is certainly much to be discovered about and why we think and feel the way we do.

Can psychiatry be a science? If I ever wanted to interview a psychiatrist, I would ask him(or her) that question. If they would welcome the question I would consider him to be practitioner of a science. If not, I would look for someone else. Because psychiatrist who takes himself too seriously probably does not accord the same respect to his patients.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thoughts of Quidam Pilgrim and A Cuban American World Series

When will Cuba shake off its communist shackles? Aside from nickel and sugar, as well as other raw materials, Cuba is, I believe a powerhouse waiting for the proper assistance to tap its human and natural talent. The fall of communism will not only be an earthquake in Cuba. It will have reverberations in the US as well.

The most obvious earthquake that will be felt will be when Cuban "beisbol" meets American baseball. Cuba took to baseball in the 19th century with at least as much enthusiasm as did their large neighbour to the north. It should be remembered that flocking to baseball games rather than bullfights was a cultural way of asserting their separateness from Spain. I have little doubt that Cuba will have a multitude of talented players who could play well against American teams. It would be the game of the century if a Cuban team were to make the World Series.

Then there is music. There are Cuban groups who could have a major influence on the American and international music scene. I happen to be very fond of "New Age Music." When I was searching for Cuban music, I was not expecting anything to turn up in that category. I was pleasantly surprised to find out about "Quidam Pilgrim", which is a Cuban new age group that has a style that reminds me of Karl Jenkins. "Quidam Pilgrim" sounds like it was sung in an invented language like that invented by Karl Jenkins to function as a vehicle of mood rather than specific meaning. I got the feeling that even though some of the lyrics were in English that their literal meaning was not central.

I was amazed at how little information was available on line. The web site for Quidam Pilgrim is in Spanish only. It gives thumbnail biographical sketches for the leading figures, as well as some articles from Cuban newspapers reviewing and describing the band. There is little doubt in my mind that Quidam Pilgrim could have a mass following in the US and around the world.

For years, there was a wall between the US and Cuba that kept the two countries apart. Economically and politically it was a disaster. Basic human rights suffered and eventually the standard of living. I wonder if the Cuban people will feel like Canada does about the US. Canada lives in America's long shadow yet is quite firm in asserting its cultural and political separateness. I expect post communist Cuba to develop its own means of asserting its independence and separateness from their large neighbour to the north. This will be a sign of political, social and spiritual health. I look forward to seeing it develop.

I think that some of the biggest acrimony might be from factionalism between Cuba's various factions in American exile and those who remained in Cuba. It should be remembered that Cuba never had a history of democratic traditions. It was ruled by a series of dictatorships even before Castro. Developing democracy in Cuba is likely to hit bumps in the road.

The Castro family has hung on in Cuba for a surprisingly long time even after the fall of their patron state, the USSR. The Castro family is as much a wealthy power clique as any of their predecessors in Cuba. They are likely to try and hang on.

I hope Cuba has a smooth transition. But past experience has shown that after a dictatorship is overthrown come new and in some ways far more difficult challenges. I look forward to hearing a lot more Cuban music in the near future. And I really want to see a Cuban American World Series. But it will take a lot of work to make it happen.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fond Memories of Herman's Hermits and Fats Waller

When the Beatles burst onto the American Pop scene in the early sixties, they shifted the appearance of pop stars as well as the style of music. The Monkees, the Dave Calrk Five and Herman's Hermits were among the groups that sported haircuts that resembled the Beatles. Although some scoff at the less well known groups as Beatles knockoffs, there was a lot of talent in that wave of music that deserves to be remembered.

Herman's Hermits is an English band that was founded in 1963 as Herman and the Hermits. They hailed from Manchester in the north of England. "I'm Into Something Good" was their sole British Number One hit, although other songs got plenty of play on both sides of the "big pond". In America, "Mrs Brown You Have a Lovely Daughter" and "Henry the Eighth" hit #1 on the charts.

I still remember parroting the words as a second grader and being vaguely aware that there was also a king of England by that name. To a child, it was a catchy song, but nowhere nearly as compelling as "Puff the Magic Dragon", which became wildly popular as a children's song. I still remember hearing it sung on children's television shows such as Bozo the Clown. I was quite shocked when I found out later that the song was allegedly about the effects of marijuana. I still don't quite believe it. If you really want to hear a song about marijuana, you can listen to Fats Waller sing "The Reefer Song"
The song was made back in 1943. Marijuana was illegal back then, but had only been illegal until 1937, some six years before the song was recorded. It is funny to liten to it and hear "the munchies" described in 1940's slang. My father was a big time fan of Fats Waller. He used to go to jazz clubs in Harlem back in the 40's. He told us that it was from those days that he knew the distinctive smell of "weed. I wonder what he would have said about the Reefer Song.

Fats Waller, like Herman's Hermits did not achieve the enduring fame of other musicians of his time such as Louis Armstrong. But it would be great if there were a Fats Waller revival as well as a Herman's Hermits revival. I can remember plenty of great music from my youth. I wish some of the people who promote music would do so as well.

Fats Waller Don't Let it Bother You

There's a Kind of Hush

No Milk Today

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Obama Judicial Nominee Supported Serial Killer

Supreme Court nominees get plenty of scrutiny from the press. But a lot of nominations to lower courts need attention as well. The latest Appeals court nomination by the Obama administration is a shocker. Robert Chatigny seems to have a real soft spot for criminals. Fox News reported as follows on the inexplicable and outrageous leniency shown by Chatigny to a serial killer.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee has postponed the hearing for a controversial Court of Appeals nominee after the panel received a letter from a home-state prosecutor blasting the candidate as a judicial loose cannon and after Republicans raised concerns about bias in favor of sex offenders.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Chatigny gained notoriety in 2005 for his role in trying to fight the execution of convicted serial killer and rapist Michael Ross, also known as The Roadside Strangler, whom Chatigny had described as a victim of his own "sexual sadism."

His conduct in that case, which included threatening to go after Ross' attorney's law license, as well as his ruling in 2001 against sex offender registries created under Megan's Law, has caused a commotion among Republicans on the judiciary panel. "

Obama himself submitted the nomination with a glowing recommendation for the "first-rate" legal expert and "faithful" public servant. Does he do his homework on these nominations? Maybe Obama doesn't check out his nominees thoroughly enough. A more chilling thought is that they actually represent his opinions on criminal justice.

Being soft on crime doesn't play anywhere except in places where citizens can't vote, like in maximum security penitentiaries. Most Americans are not flanked by Secret Service agents . Nor do they right terror proof automobiles. If Obama's crime policies are as ineffective as his economic policies, he could be in for serious political trouble in inner city neighborhoods, where fear of crime is not an academic abstraction.

Nor is crime unrelated to economic recovery. People who open up businesses want to be able to go to and from their businesses safely. If a neighbourhood is seen as dangerous, people will not want to open up businesses there and create jobs.

Opposing Megan's law, which requires sex offenders to register their whereabouts is a major tool in fighting some of the most frightening categories of crime. What was Chatigny thinking when he ruled against that?

It is good that the Senate Judiciary Committee postponed the hearing for Chatigny. But that is not enough. Chatigny should be sent packing.

We need to watch President Obama's low level nominees . It is the low level officials who shape the daily lives of American citizens. A bad court decision can stand for years as the appeal works its way through the system. Plenty of injustices can go unchallenged for years until someone decides to "fight city hall".

One of the worst things that can appear on a job evaluation is that someone "works poorly without supervision". After over a year in office, it is clear that this description is sadly appropriate for President Obama. After the Chatigny nomination, it is clear that our President needs to be watched very closely by the American people.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Warning ! Smoking Can Prevent Parkinson's Disease

Medical researchers have examined the incidence of Parkinson's disease among long term smokers and have found an inverse relationship between Parkinson's disease and smoking. The Paging Dr. Gupta blog reports as follows.

"The study, released today in the journal Neurology looked at the lifetime smoking history of more than 300,000 people, and confirmed the inverse relationship between smoking and Parkinson's disease, established in earlier scientific studies. But, researchers say they've found a critical new piece to the puzzle: It appears to be the length of time one has been a smoker – not the number of cigarettes smoked – that has the most effect on disease risk reduction."

Medical experts hasten to assure the public that they are not advocating that people take up smoking. But they do want to know what chemicals in cigarettes reduce the risks of Parkinson's disease.

Perhaps this story might wake up the public to the possible medical benefits of tobacco. Certainly, smoking a pack a day is a poor idea, but there are reputable doctors who advocate the therapeutic use of tobacco. The Access Excellence web site reports as follows on the possible medical uses of tobacco.

"Nicotine in tobacco form accounts for millions of deaths each year from cancer, emphysema and heart disease. Yet, in certain neurologic and psychiatric conditions, nicotine can have useful therapeutic effects, reported scientists at the inaugural conference of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.

"Nicotine has long been a useful tool for researchers interested in probing the nervous system. Although the health risks associated with its intake via tobacco products has tended to tarnish society's view of nicotine, it is important to recognize that nicotine may have therapeutic potential with a number of disease states," noted Ovid Pomerleau, Ph.D., Director of the Behavioral Medicine Program, University of Michigan and President of the SRNT.

Nicotine is one of the most studied of all drugs. At the beginning of the century, the earliest research into neurotransmitters involved the effects of nicotine, indeed the first neurotransmitter receptor identified was the nicotine receptor. Nicotine mimics the actions of acetylcholine and has been shown to modulates many neurotransmitters."

The article lists Tourette's Syndrome, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease as possible candidates for treatment with some form of tobacco derivative. Tobacco has been in use for centuries. It is well studied. If it can be established that it has medical and industrial uses, perhaps it could be grown for purposes other than smoking. It might even be possible to work nicotine into a beverage, much as caffeine is used now.

With all of the interest in herbal medicine, it is odd that tobacco has been excluded. Hopefully, the medical profession will take a second look at tobacco as a medicinal herb. We have put a lot of energy into demonising "big tobacco" and the tobacco lobby. It makes not only medical but economic sense to rebuild a tobacco industry that improves public health rather than endangers it. There is no doubt that this strategy could save and create jobs as well as improve life and longevity. It would be bitterly ironic if what we have learned about the dangers of smoking were to blind us to the possible life saving qualities of tobacco. Science should not be a slave to the fads of the age.

George Washington Carver discovered hundreds of uses for peanuts, as food and in industry. The time seems ripe for tobacco to have its own George Washington Carver. Tobacco clearly has many uses. For the good of humanity, it is about time that we discover them.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Are the Lemba Really Lost Jews?

Part of the Messianic redemption that is awaited by the Jewish people involves the ingathering of the exiles. There have been many breaks from the Jewish people. In the Spanish Inquisition, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity. There were forced conversions to Islam as well. The best known of these is the Jews of Mashad in Iran, who in 1839 were forced to convert to Islam. Large numbers returned to Judaism after stopping in Jerusalem on the Haj or when a the father of the last Shah permitted them to return to Judaism. Other Jews joined breakoff sects and melted into the majority culture.

The first big break in the Jewish people was the exile of the ten lost tribes when the Kingdom of Israel was overrun. Since then, Jews have hoped, prayed for and speculated about where and who the lost tribes may be. The search is all the more confusing because of those who have read the Hebrew Scriptures in translation and identify with the biblical narrative. Some leads are hopeful. The Bnai Manasseh of India have been reuniting with Jews in the rest of the world. Some have converted to Judaism and come home to Israel. Another group that intrigues those who are seeking the lost tribes are the Lemba of South Africa and Zimbabwe. Although many are Christian or Muslim, they maintain beliefs, practices and traditions of being descended from Jews.

Lemba do not eat pork. They avoid consuming animal blood. They practice circumcision. The Jerusalem Post reports as follows.

"The tribe's customs are similar to Jewish ones, including male circumcision, ritual animal slaughter, abstaining from eating pork and wearing skull caps. And their oral tradition claims they are descended from seven male Jews who left Israel 2,500 years ago and married African women, according to the BBC. Their prized religious artifact is a replica of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant known as the ngoma lungundu, meaning "the drum that thunders," the BBC reported. Their sacred prayer language is a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic. The Lemba also have 12 tribes, including a priestly clan that has a genetic element found in Jewish priests or Cohanim, according to the report. "

Now it turns out that DNA evidence backing up the odd coincidences of Jewish type practices. The Lemba claim to be divided into twelve tribes. One tribe is a priestly tribe. A gene that is located on the Y chromosome which is found among all Kohanim (Jews descended from the priestly class) is also found among those Lemba who identify as being from the priestly class.

There are about 80,000 Lemba in South Africa and Zimbabwe. What is their real story. How many will reunite with the Jewish people? There are organisations that try to reach out to those at the fringes of Jewish identity Shavei Israel is guided strictly by orthodox Jewish law. Kulanu on the other hand is more "on the fence" working in some cases with non orthodox denominations in converting far flung communities. This creates a problem later when conversions done by non orthodox clergy are not recognised in Israel by the rabbinate or by communities in the diaspora. In some cases, such as the Abuyudaya of Uganda sincere converts were received by non orthodox rabbis, creating a troubling rift in the world Jewish community. Part of catching up on centuries of "old news" for new converts involves awareness of the significant and in some cases vast differences between Conservatives Reform, Karaites, Sadducees and other groups that broke off from mainstream Judaism.

There will be many miracles surrounding the construction of the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem. One of them is the ingathering of the exiles, not only those like possibly the Lemba but those who became estranged from Judaism more recently.

Whatever their place in the family of nations, I wish the Lemba well. I hope and pray that they will live in peace, whether in Southern Africa or in the Holy Land. Their story is a fascinating one. I look forward to seeing it unfold.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rahm Emanuel News Flash

Does Congress realise how out of touch they are with their constituents? Eric Massa a Democratic Congressman from Long Island who resigned because of allegations of sexual harassment spoke in an interview on radio station WKPQ AM about a bizarre confrontation with President Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who was reportedly displeased with Massa's vote on Obama's health care proposals Massa was coming out of the shower in the Congressional gym reported as follows in the WKPQ interview.

"I am showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with a towel wrapped around his tush, poking his finger in my chest, yelling at me."

The most obvious question is the same as that asked by Eric Massa. What business does Rahm Emanuel have getting in anyone's face when they are taking a shower? What is he doing in the Congressional gym anyhow? He is the president's chief of staff. Is he some kind of lunatic that he can barge in on someone who is taking a shower and collecting his thoughts?

But what about the story behind the story? Congressmen get all kinds of perks from lobbyists that are too small to make it on the radar and they still get a Congressional dining room, a private pool and a private gym, which was the scene of the famous "Streakergate" in which Rahm Emanuel lobbied with his staff in full view.

Why are taxpayers paying for such a laundry list of luxuries for our legislators? The people they represent are struggling with salaries that stagnate in jobs that are far from secure while those who represent them get by on what the market will bear.

It would make a lot more sense to have private restaurants that cater to the legislative crowd and to have private gyms. As it now stands, they need speech writers (that we pay for) who create the illusion of empathy with the common man. It is hard to believe that legislators who are fawned upon by special interests, who vote themselves generous raises and perks, are capable of understanding the budgetary constraints of the vast majority of their constituents. If our elected representatives actually had to worry about lasting from paycheck to paycheck, their perspectives might change on how the rest of us live.

When Rahm Emanuel barged into the Congressional showers, he showed America a lot more than his unhinged mental state. He showed us a flash of the pampered existence of our elected representatives. I suppose we should thank him for that. But he should not for get to take his medication before he comes to work.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mandaeans See Uncertainty After Elections in Iraq

Uncertainty is mixed with hope for members of Iraq's tiny Mandaean minority as Iraq finishes ith third day of elections today. On the one hand, there is a seat set aside for a Mandaean representative in the next Iraqi parliament. The Mandaeans, who are an ancient monotheistic religion with its own scriptures and a distinctive ban on circumcision are also pacifists, which has made them an inviting target in a country riddled with violence. They practice weekly baptisms in rivers where they reside. Although John the Baptist is one of their prophets and Sunday is their day of weekly prayer, they are not Christians.

Marring the positive step of a Mandaean seat in parliament is the fact that only those Mandaeans residing in the Baghdad district may vote for the Mandaean representative. The Mandaeans have no district in the country that is their distinctive place of residence. As always, they have been scattered across the country. The restrictive voting requirements for choosing a Mandaean representative effectively disenfranchise Mandaean citizens in other districts. It is possible for Mandaeans to be included on other party lists in the elections. Whether this is a "divide and conquer" tactic or a chance to give the Mandaeans a greater voice remains to be seen.

In the Iraq after Sadaam Hussein, the position of ethnic and religious minorities has become dangerous. Warring militias have murdered Christians, Yazidis and Mandaeans as well as other religious groups who have a long history in Iraq. In past Islamic history, there was protection afforded to "people of the book". Christians, Jews as well as Samaritans fell into that category. Mandaeans were once likewise protected. Unfortunately, some so called "Muslim fundamentalists" stripped away that protection. Part of the campaign for Mandaean civil rights should be to restore this protected status which though far short of western ideas of civic equality, protects those who exist under it from being killed or harassed. Those who profess to be Muslim must be restrained by Muslim religious authorities from tormenting Iraq's minorities.

The Mandaeans have lived quietly in Iraq as well as Iran, occupying a niche in the educated professional class as doctors and jewelers as well as other university educated professionals. They practice charity to all, regardless of whether they are coreligionists or not. They do not seek or accept converts. In no way can they be seen as seeking to entice others from their faith. Their roots in Iraq go back at least as far as the second century and quite possibly earlier. In exile from their home in Iraq and Iran under trying circumstances, they fear losing touch with their traditions.

The present political landscape in Iraq is a byproduct of the US sponsored overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It is our moral duty to seek the welfare of those who were most grievously wronged in the post Saddam Hussein era. The Mandaeans fall into this category. Americans should express their concern for Mandaeans in exile, as well as those who cling in fear to their ancient homeland.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

German Doctors Save Smallest Baby Boy Ever

A German baby boy went home with his parents in December, six months after his premature birth in June. His weight at birth was just 275 grams, which is 9.7 ounces. The lightest girl to be born and survive weighed 244 grams, which is 8.65 ounces. The little boy was born at the University of Gottingen hospital, where his mother had come complaining of premature labour pains. When the boy was born he was small enough to fit on a sheet of notebook paper and lighter than a block of butter. The boy was fortunate to be born to parents who wanted to fight for its life and in a place that did not ration health care. Upon his discharge from the hospital six months after his birth, the little boy was given good odds of survival by the doctors in Gottingen. His weight upon discharge was comparable to that of an average newborn baby.

There are many things that can be learned from such a high risk, troubled birth that benefit newborn infants in the future. The experience gained by doctors is shared with other medical professionals who can then have hope of saving children who might otherwise be lost. In a real sense, this helpless infant and his distraught parents helped other parents by choosing and fighting for life rather than giving up in the face of daunting odds.

As an American reading about Germany's health care system, I am intrigued. If that little boy were born in Britain or Canada, he would be an aching void in the hearts of his parents. In America, his chances would depend on how well covered his parents might be. Germany on the other hand has what sounds like a partnership of private enterprise and the government in providing some sort of universal health coverage. It should be noted that Germany has the most stringent anti abortion law in all of Western Europe. Unless the mother's life is in danger, abortion is not a part of West Germany's schedule of covered procedures. West Germany also pays less of its GNP for medical care than does the United States.

I hope to hear good news about the baby boy in Gottingen. And I want to hear more about the health care system that provided him such good care. America could use improvement in its health care system. Perhaps there is something to learn from Germany.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Chile's Earthquakes, Political and Seismic

The earthquake in Chile has proven to be far more extensive than had previously been thought. Still, the death toll remains a tiny fraction of that in Haiti. Although there has been looting, the post quake chaos seems to be far less extensive than that in Haiti. Despite this, the extensive damage is likely to cost billions of dollars to repair.

One irony of the earthquake is the presence of the Chilean military as a force for order and stability. Reports came from Chile of weary refugees from ravaged towns happily welcoming troops who were passing out emergency food and water, as well as enforcing curfews to prevent looting. This stands in stark contrast to the role of the Chilean military in 1973 and after. When Salvador Allende and his Marxist coalition took a wrecking ball to the Chilean economy in the name of economic justice, the Chilean military stepped in and restored capitalism at the cost of thousands of lives and with chilling brutality. In many ways, the 1973 left fault lines in Chilean society that could be compared to those left by the Spanish Civil War in Spain.

Chile's President, Michelle Bachelet was imprisoned and tortured along with her parents by the military junta under Agosto Pinochet. It is a measure of Chile's healing as a society that in the aftermath of a catastrophic earthquake it is being led by a woman who was once a political prisoner, and that this former detainee now controls troops who are wearing the uniforms of her former captors. The New York Times reports as follows on the memories evoked by Chile's military and its healing role in the aftermath of the earthquake.

"In Chile, the military clearly evokes mixed emotions because of the role it played in the torture and disappearance of some 3,000 Chileans during this country’s bloody 19-year dictatorship.

But in the five days since Chile was shaken by a magnitude 8.8 earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in its history, the military’s relationship with the country’s people was turning a new page.

Tanks were stationed outside supermarkets that had been looted and vandalized for two days before the troops arrived. Soldiers organized lines for residents to enter banks, pharmacies and gasoline stations. And for the most part, emotional and exhausted residents like Mr. Ramírez embraced them.

On Monday night, as a mob made its way through downtown Concepción, setting fire to supermarkets and robbing homes, Mr. Ramírez was at home with his two sons when the mob passed through their neighborhood.

“People had to start to protect themselves and to guard their streets,” he said. “My youngest son suffered a psychological blow.”

“If I would have had to kill somebody, I would have,” he added."

Residents of quake torn areas have reacted with gratitude to the stabilising presence of Chilean troops. Young and old, the population is grateful that order and basic services have been restored.

Chile will take a long time to restore normalcy to the regions most strongly hit by the quake. But beneath its battered landscape is a success story. Two years of disastrous misgovernment from 1971-1973 were followed by a brutal military coup in 1973 in which thousands were murdered. Chile managed to come back from sixteen years of dictatorship from 1973 to 1989. They have had twenty years of democratic rule since Agosto Pinochet stepped down from power. The Chilean people were strong enough to rebuild their ravaged democracy. With G-d's help they will heal their land as well.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Muslim Woman fired for Wearing Hijab

Abercrombie and Fitch proudly cites its commitment to diversity in the workforce. Hani Khan, a Muslim sales clerk found out that this commitment has its limits. The Contra costa Times reports as follows on the firing of the Muslim sales clerk from hollister's, a subsidiary of Abercrombie and Fitch.

"Except, last month, at Hollister, the spinoff of Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch that she says fired her for wearing the hijab at work almost five months after she started there. A week before her termination, during a meeting with a district manager, was the first time in her life someone had confronted her -- not just out of curiosity -- about her Islamic garb.

"She called us from there and said, 'Come and pick me up,' " said Khan's father, who asked that his full name not be used in concern for his family's safety. "She was really upset."

Ms. Khan had been hired despite an elaborate dress policy that covers everything from hairstyle (no cornrows) to footwear. (sneakers and sandals required) The company promotes a young, hip image. Ms. Khan lasted for five months. Her conflict was not at a local level but with corporate headquarters. It should be noted that she was not covering her face, but only her hair.

Companies like Abercrombie and Fitch have a strong influence upon the development of fashion in America and in the world. Although the reaction may be delayed and modified, even communities that are out of the mainstream such as Muslims, Chassidic Jews and Pentecostals absorb modified versions of mainstream fashions. Those whose business it is to set fashion trends are not working with a blank slate. Ms. Khan is a living reminder of this. The very fact that she felt comfortable applying for a job at Hollister's shows that her personal interpretation of Islamic law and culture had shifted to an acceptance of American style to some extent. While Europe has polarised over the integration of Muslims into European society, America has experienced a far less traumatic process of integration.

Ms. Khan accepted enough of the Abercrombie and Fitch wardrobe to be able to commit herself to promoting their merchandise. If she were to cover her face and wear a shapeless robe, one could make the case that she is not an appropriate model of the Abercrombie and Fitch image. This was clearly not the case. One can see many Muslim women in New York, San Francisco and elsewhere who blend modern fashion with the strictures of Islamic modesty.

The precedent that is set by firing Ms. Khan is a bad one. America has evolved into a haven of tolerance for different religious groups. The danger that is posed by her termination from Hollister's could spread beyond the Muslim community and effect others. That is how legal precedent works.

The Contra Costa Times quotes a young Muslim woman as follows concerning Islamic dress codes.

"As Muslims, we believe it's God's order to cover ourself and dress in a certain way," said Alaa Suliman, a 27-year-old engineer who has always worn a hijab, without incident, at her Silicon Valley jobs. "It also means you're not looked at as a sex object. It's not about your physical attraction."

I have heard Orthodox Jewish women and devout Christians voice almost identical sentiments with support from their respective scriptures. Modesty is not a Muslim monopoly. The need for it and the desire for the protection and ennoblement it affords society transcends religious boundaries.

Hani Khan should not have been fired. She should be given her job back. And American courts should protect her rights. Because they are ours as well.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

European Bid to Ban Burka

Voters in four EU countries reportedly favour by a wide margin banning burqas from being worn in public. The Financial Times reports as follows on Nicholas Sarkozy's proposed ban in France and the public reaction.

"The poll shows some 70 per cent of respondents in France said they supported plans to forbid the wearing of the garment which covers the female body from head to toe. There was similar sentiment in Spain and Italy, where 65 per cent and 63 per cent respectively favoured a ban

The strength of feeling in the UK and Germany may seem particularly surprising. Britain has a strong liberal tradition that respects an individual’s right to full expression of religious views. But here, some 57 per cent of people still favoured a ban. In Germany, which is also reluctant to clamp down in minority rights, some 50 per cent favoured a ban."

The idea of banning religious garb in the name of liberal and enlightened ideas is not new. In the early years of the secular revolution in Turkey, Kemal Ataturk banned men from wearing the fez. Some men who defied the ban were actually killed.

Where do bans on religious garb stop? What would Nadia Eweida of Great Britain say? She was banned by British Airways from wearing a cross around her neck on the job unless she concealed it. The web site "Clerical Whispers" reports as follows on the British court ruling that upheld Ms. Eweida's dismissal.

"British Airways check-in worker Nadia Eweida has lost her appeal against a previous court ruling upholding the airline’s decision to ban her from wearing a cross necklace with her uniform at work.

Lord Justice Sedley upheld the Employment Appeal Tribunal’s November 2008 ruling determining that the airline’s ban did not constitute religious discrimination.

He said: "This case has perhaps illustrated some of the problems which can arise when an individual asserts that a provision, criterion or practice adopted by an employer conflicts with beliefs which they hold but which may not only not be shared but may be opposed by others in the workforce. It is not unthinkable that a blanket ban may sometimes be the only fair solution."

Those who support the burqa ban sometimes cite the presence of spousal abuse and poor treatment of women that is associated with radical Islam. There may be communal and family pressure to wear the restrictive garb.

Anyone who is not a hermit is subject to family and community pressure to dress and behave in certain ways. The unfortunate thing about Muslim communities in Europe is the murderous turn such pressure can take. Government and private charity already assist women leaving abusive relationships. Men who in Arab countries could get away with murder in the name of "honour" face prison for the same behavior in Europe and America. Muslim polygamy is already tolerated in Europe. Why is a ban on the burqa being proposed when this basic law is flouted? What about crimes against non Muslim women committed by Muslim men in Europe? Consider the following statement by an Australian imam justifying the rape of Australian women by Muslims.

"If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?" the sheik said in his sermon. "The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred."

It is very easy to focus on garb that is bizarre to western eyes and to placate the public by banning it. If a Muslim woman wants to cover her face, that should be her right. But if she needs to show her face to a police officer or at customs, there can be no excuses. It is hard to believe that the open eyes behind the veils do not see the possibility of less restrictive variants of Islam. There are plenty of Muslim women who are adopting more liberal forms of Islam. Their rights should be protected from gangsters who would intimidate them, but not at the expense of those who remain covered.

It is a fact that there is a sector of the Muslim community that is radical. Security services should be gathering intelligence and cracking down on radicals. But banning the veil is a cosmetic measure. It sets a corrosive legal precedent, just like the ban on minarets. It is a bad idea, and it should be scrapped.

Ford Bows Out of NY Senate Race (With Elbow In Stomach)

A computer can be anything you want it to be. If the basic hardware is there, you can turn it from anything from a home entertainment center to a small office. New York Democrats are a lot like that. When Kirsten Gillibrand became Hillary Clinton's replacement as a Senator from New York, she had a record of being an upstate congress woman with centrist views. When she was tapped by Governor Patterson to fill Hillary's shoes, she veered sharply to the left. It seemed as though she had been reprogrammed to forget some of the upstate political values that actually have a quiet following downstate in New York City as well.

There was a little bit of hope when Harold Ford, a Democrat from Tennessee was talking about challenging Gillibrand. Now it seems that he is bowing out, leaving New York's lapdog Democratic Senator unchallenged for the time being. Fox News reports as follows.

"Harold Ford Jr., the former Tennessee congressman, won't run against Kirsten Gillibrand for U.S. Senate in New York's Democratic primary, Fox New confirmed.

A source told The Associated Press Ford would explain the reasons for his decision in an op-ed in The New York Times. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not been announced yet."

Thanks to Mike Bloomberg and political correctness, there are no more smoke filled rooms. But it seems that there are a lot of deals being cut behind closed doors. Governor Patterson has just decided not to run for Governor of New York. Allegations of a phone call to a woman who was filing criminal charges against his top assistant have Patterson looking like damaged goods. The only smoke that there might be behind closed doors is the clouds of incense as Andrew Cuomo is anointed as the Democratic candidate for governor. Like North Korea, Cuba and China, there is only one party nomination that really matters. In New York, it is the Democratic primary that is watched. The first question that crosses my mind when I hear that the New York Times in investigating Governor Patterson is not "What did Patterson do wrong?' but "Who did Patterson tick off?"

When I look at what Harold Ford bowing out of the Senate race and Patterson trying to ignore calls for his resignation as Governor, it seems that the Democrats are trying to avoid an image of total disarray. Kirsten Gillibrand does not strike anyone as a charismatic, dynamic or capable Senator. Ford was beating her at fund raising. But New York State Republicans would be more than happy to zero in on a Democratic Party that looks like it is in chaos.

Some of our elected leaders seem to have decided that a stressed out electorate needs an election that is about as bland as farina without salt. No challenge to Senator Gillibrand seems to be on the horizon. Does anyone remember the old Batman episodes when the villain used to spray sleeping gas in the bank before he robbed it? Our elected leaders are doing the best they can to put us to sleep with bland, uninspiring candidates. To paraphrase the song from Green Day "Wake me Up When November Ends".