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Immigration Laws as Official “Racial” Policy

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Politicians and most other residents of the United States alike, from every position along the full political spectrum, generally agree on one issue: our immigration system is severely broken and needs fixing. Seemingly insurmountable gaps in political solutions to repair the system along with Congressional inaction to the point of blockage have brought the country to the point of crisis.

Therefore, President Obama has committed to an Executive Order at last to place a band aid on the gashing wound that is this country’s immigration policies.

Though Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and other prior occupants of the White House, in addition to select members and committees of Congress have suggested possible solutions to the current standoff, systemic change seems impossible this year, even as growing numbers of people attempt to enter the country to reunite with family members or to escape violence and poverty abroad.

Though politicians and members of their constituencies argue immigration policy from seemingly infinite perspectives and sides, one point stands clear and definite: decisions as to who can enter this country and who can eventually gain citizenship status generally depends of issues of “race,” for U.S. immigration systems reflect and serve as the country’s official “racial” policies.

“Race”

Looking back on the historical emergence of the concept of “race,” critical race theorists remind us that this concept arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the 15th century of the Common Era (CE) and reaching its apex in the early 20th century CE.

Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called “race” than between “races,” and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to “race.” They assert, therefore, that “race” is an historical, “scientific,” biological myth, an idea, and that any socially-conceived physical “racial” markers are fictional and are not concordant with what is beyond or below the surface of the body.

Though biologists and social scientists have proven unequivocally that the concept of “race” is socially constructed (produced, manufactured), however, this does not negate the very real consequences people face living in societies that maintain racist policies and practices on the individual, interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal levels.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), born Carl Linné, (also know as the “Father of Scientific Racism”), a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, developed a system of scientific hierarchical classification. Within this taxonomy under the label Homo sapiens, (“Man”), he enumerated five categories based initially on place of origin and later on skin color: Europeanus, Asiaticus, Americanus, Monstrosus, and Africanus. Linnaeus asserted that each category was ruled by a different bodily fluid (Humors: “moistures”), represented by Blood (optimistic), Phlegm (sluggish), Cholor (yellow bile: prone to anger), Melancholy (black bile: prone to sadness).

Linnaeus connected each human category to a respective Humor, thereby constructing the Linnaeus Taxonomy in descending order: Europeanus: sanguine (blood), pale, muscular, swift, clever, inventive, governed by laws; Asiaticus: melancholic, yellow, inflexible, severe, avaricious, dark-eyed, governed by opinions; Americanus (indigenous peoples in the Americas): choleric, copper-colored, straightforward, eager, combative, governed by customs; Monstrosus (dwarfs of the Alps, the Patagonian giant, the monorchid Hottentot): agile, fainthearted; Africanus: phlegmatic, black, slow, relaxed, negligent, governed by impulse.

The British psychologist, Francis Galton (1822-1911) — a cousin of Charles Darwin –was a founder of the “Eugenics” movement. In fact, Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883 from the Greek word meaning “well born.” Eugenicists attempted to improve qualities of a so-called “race” by controlling human breeding. Galton argued that genetic predisposition determined human behavior. He proposed that the so-called “elites” in the British Isles were the most intelligent of all the peoples throughout the planet, while “[t]he average intellectual standard of the Negro race is some two grades below our own [Anglo-Saxons]. The Australian type is at least one grade below the African Negro…” and “The Jews are specialized for a parasitical existence upon other nations.”

The U.S. writer, Madison Grant (1865-1937) codified a supposed “racialization” among European groups in his influential book, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis for European History (1916), in which he argued that Europeans comprised four distinct races: The “Nordics” of northwestern Europe sat atop his racial hierarchy, whom Grant considered as the natural rulers and administrators, which accounted for England’s “extraordinary ability to govern justly and firmly the lower races.” Next down the racial line fell the “Alpines” whom Grant referred to as “always and everywhere a race of peasants” with a tendency toward “democracy” although submissive to authority. These he followed with the “Mediterraneans” of Southern and Eastern Europe, inferior to both the Nordics and the Alpines in “bodily stamina,” but superior in “the field of art.” Also, Grant considered the Mediterraneans superior to the Alpines in “intellectual attainments,” but far behind the Nordics “in literature and in scientific research and discovery.” On the bottom he placed the most inferior of all the European so-called “races”: the Jews.

Official Immigration and Naturalization Policy

The “American” colonies followed European perceptions of “race.” A 1705 Virginia statute, the “Act Concerning Servants and Slaves,” read:

“[N]o negroes, mulattos or Indians, Jew, Moor, Mahometan [Muslims], or other infidel, or such as are declared slaves by this act, shall, notwithstanding, purchase any christian (sic) white servant….”

In 1790, the newly constituted United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which excluded all nonwhites from citizenship, including Asians, enslaved Africans, and Native Americans, the later whom they defined in oxymoronic terms as “domestic foreigners,” even though they had inhabited this land for an estimated 35,000 years. The Congress did not grant Native Americans rights of citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, though Asians continued to be denied naturalized citizenship status.

Congress passed the first law specifically restricting or excluding immigrants on the basis of “race” and nationality in 1882. In their attempts to eliminate entry of Chinese (and other Asian) workers who often competed for jobs with U.S. citizens, especially in the western United States, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to restrict their entry into the U.S. for a 10 year period, while denying citizenship to Chinese people already on these shores. The Act also made it illegal for Chinese people to marry white or black U.S.-Americans. The Immigration Act of 1917 further prohibited immigration from Asian countries, in the terms of the law, the “barred zone,” including parts of China, India, Siam, Burma, Asiatic Russia, the Polynesian Islands, and parts of Afghanistan.

The so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the U.S. and the Emperor of Japan of 1907, in an attempt to reduce tensions between the two countries, passed expressly to decrease immigration of Japanese workers into the U.S.

Between 1880 and 1920, in the range of 30-40 million immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe migrated to the United States, more than doubling the population. Fearing a continued influx of immigrants, legislators in the United States Congress in 1924 enacted the Johnson-Reed [anti-] Immigration Act (“Origins Quota Act,” or “National Origins Act”) setting restrictive quotas of immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe, including those of the so-called “Hebrew race.” Jews continued to be, even in the United States during the 1920s, constructed as nonwhite. The law, on the other hand, permitted large allotments of immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

This law, in addition to previous statutes (1882 against the Chinese, 1907 against the Japanese) halted further immigration from Asia, and excluded blacks of African descent from entering the United States. It is interesting to note that during this time, Jewish ethno-racial assignment was constructed as “Asian.” According to Sander Gilman: “Jews were called Asiatic and Mongoloid, as well as primitive, tribal, Oriental.” Immigration laws were changed in 1924 in response to the influx of these undesirable “Asiatic elements.”

In the Supreme Court case, Takao Ozawa vs. United States, a Japanese man, Takao Ozawa filed for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which allowed white persons and persons of African descent or African nativity to achieve naturalization status. Asians, however, were classified as an “unassimilateable race” and, therefore, not entitled to U.S. citizenship. Ozawa attempted to have Japanese people classified as “white” since he claimed he had the requisite white skin. The Supreme Court, in 1922, however, denied his claim and, therefore, his U.S. citizenship.

In 1939, the United States Congress refused to pass the Wagner-Rogers Bill, which if enacted would have permitted entry to the United States of 20,000 children from Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jewish, over existing quotas. Laura Delano Houghteling, cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration sternly warned: “20,000 charming children would all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Following U.S. entry into World War II at the end of 1942, reflecting the tenuous status of Japanese Americans, some born in the United States, military officials uprooted and transported approximately 110,000 Japanese Americans to Internment (Concentration) Camps within a number of interior states far from the shores. Not until Ronald Reagan’s administration did the U.S. officially apologize to Japanese Americans and to pay reparations amounting to $20,000 to each survivor as part of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.

Finally, in 1952, the McCarran-Walters Act overturned the “racially” discriminatory quotas of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act. Framed as an amendment to the McCarran-Walters Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed “natural origins” as the basis of U.S. immigration legislation. The 1965 law increased immigration from Asian and Latin American countries and religious backgrounds, permitted 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere (20,000 per each country), 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere, and accepted a total of 300,000 visas for entry into the country.

The 1965 Immigration Law, however, was certainly not the last we saw “race” used as a qualifying factor. The Arizona legislature passed and Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070, which mandates that police officers stop and question people about their immigration status if they even suspect that they may be in this country illegally, and criminalizes undocumented workers who do not possess an “alien registration document.” Other provisions allow citizens to file suits against government agencies that do not enforce the law, and it criminalizes employers who knowingly transport or hire undocumented workers. The law is currently on hold as it travels through the judicial process challenging its constitutionality.

“Ruthless Americanization”

Immigrants who enter the United States I believe to this day are pressured to assimilate into a monocultural Anglo-centric culture (thinly disguised as “the melting pot”), and to give up their native cultural identities. Referring to the newcomers at the beginning of the 20th century CE, one New York City teacher remarked: “[They] must be made to realize that in forsaking the land of their birth, they were also forsaking the customs and traditions of that land….”

An “Americanist” (assimilationist) movement was in full force with the concept of the so-called “melting pot” in which everyone was expected to conform to an Anglo-centric cultural standard with an obliteration of other cultural identities. President Theodore Roosevelt (1907) was an outspoken proponent of this concept:

“If the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself (sic) to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else….But this [equality] is predicated on the man’s (sic) becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American….There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American but something else also, isn’t an American at all….We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we want to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.”

Many members of immigrant groups oppose assimilation and embrace the concept of pluralism: the philosophy whereby one adheres to a prevailing monocultural norm in public while recognizing, retaining, and celebrating one’s distinctive and unique cultural traditions and practices in the private realm. The term “Cultural Pluralism” was coined by Horace Kallen (1882-1974), a Jewish American of Polish and Latvian heritage who believed that ethnic groups have a “democratic right” to retain their cultures and to resist the “ruthless Americanization” being forced upon them by segments of the native white Anglo-Protestant population.

Social theorist Gunnar Myrdal traveled throughout the United States during the late 1940s examining U.S. society following World War II, and he discovered a grave contradiction or inconsistency, which he termed “an American dilemma.” He found a country founded on an overriding commitment to democracy, liberty, freedom, human dignity, and egalitarian values, coexisting alongside deep-seated patterns of racial discrimination, privileging white people, while subordinating peoples of color.

If we learn anything from our immigration legislative history, we can view the current debates as providing a great opportunity to pass comprehensive federal reform based not on “race,” nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other social identity categories, but rather, on humane principles of fairness, compassion, and equity.

Today, the United States stands as the most culturally and religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges and great opportunities. The way we meet these challenges will determine whether we remain on the abyss of our history or whether we can truly achieve our promise of becoming a shining beacon to the world.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

November 20th, 2014 at 3:00 pm

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Alan Turing Helped Save the World and They Persecuted Him

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“[Alan Turing] was and is a hero of all time…a man who is a gay icon, who didn’t deny his nature, his being, and for that he suffered. … This is a story that celebrates him, that celebrates outsiders; it celebrates anybody who’s ever felt different and ostracized and ever suffered prejudice.” Benedict Cumberbatch

I usually find TV award shows as primarily fluff and hype, and they rarely stir deep emotions in me. However, listening to Benedict Cumberbatch’s acceptance speech in the Best Actor category at the American Film Awards ceremonies for his portrayal of Alan Turing in the film “The Imitation Game” brought me to tears. This stemmed from a sense of deep pride and an endless abyss of sadness. Cumberbatch’s commitment and passion shinned through on stage as he talked about transforming Turing’s story, his brilliance, and his humanity to the silver screen helping in his way to give Turing the long-overdue wide-scale recognition he rightly deserves.

Alan Mathison Turing was a pioneering computer scientist, and he served as a mid-20th century English mathematician, logician, and cryptanalyst who, working during World War II at England’s Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, succeeded with his team of scientists and linguists in cracking the “Enigma code” used by the Nazi command to conduct covert communication operations. Because of Turing and his colleagues’ efforts, Cumberbatch stated that there is now general agreement that they significantly shorted the war by at least two years saving an estimated 17 million lives. Prime Minister Winston Churchill singled out Turning as the person whose work contributed the most to defeating the Germans.

“The Imitation Game” also highlights the enormous obstacles placed in the way of women entering the sciences, especially mid-century. In this regard, Keira Knightley made an equally moving speech at the American Film Awards in accepting the award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Joan Clarke who worked with Turing in deciphering the code. “Particularly now, when women are such a minority in all fields, her story and the fact that she really perseveres, and she had space and time and grace is really inspiring,” she stated.

Though initially considered a national hero in Britain, in 1952, government officials arrested and prosecuted Alan Turing on the antiquated charge of “gross indecency” when he “admitted” to maintaining a same-sex relationship. Rather than serving time in prison, Turing chose to undergo estrogen injections then considered in men as a form of “chemical castration” eliminating their sex drive. Turing took his life two years later by swallowing cyanide just two weeks short of his 42nd birthday.

I find it deeply ironic that while Turing and his team helped defeat the Nazi war machine, a nation intolerant of any form of difference including same-sex relations (especially between men), the primary “Allied” nations fighting Nazi Germany – United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union – all maintained laws also criminalizing homosexuality.

In England under King Henry III in 1533, they passed the “Buggery” (or sodomy) law doling out the penalty of death for “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind or beast.” Under the rule of Elizabeth I in 1564, death for same-sex acts between men became a permanent part of English law until the 1880s. British courts at the time concluded that sex between two women was impossible, and, therefore, exempted women from the statute. By 1885, English Criminal Law punished homosexuality with imprisonment up to two years. This remained in effect until homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967.

In addition, Joseph Stalin criminalized homosexuality with 8 years imprisonment or exile to Siberia, and in the United States, consensual same-sex relations were against the law at one time in all states, and remained illegal in some states as late as 2003 when the Supreme Court finally overturned such bans in its Lawrence v. Texas decision.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown officially apologized to Alan Turing on behalf of the people of his nation for “the appalling way he was treated.” Parliament finally brought up a bill of “pardon” in 2013, and on 24 December, 2013, Queen Elizabeth granted Turing pardon posthumously.

Though the English government never actually forced a physical stigma onto Alan Turing’s body, they branded the symbol of the outsider, the pervert, and the enemy deeply into his soul. This branding seriously deprived the British nation and the world community of his continued genius, his generosity, and the many additional gifts he could have imparted.

I agree with Benedict Cumberbatch that his wide-scale recognition is long overdue.

To view or download my extensive two-part LGBTIQ history PowerPoint presentation, go to www.warrenblumenfeld.com and click onto “Slide Presentations” on the right side.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press); and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

November 15th, 2014 at 6:31 pm

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God, Guns, & Capitalism: A Recipe of Insanity

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In the latest installment in the booming and explosive gun culture, Bergeron’s Restaurant in Louisiana, billing itself as the home of “God, Gumbo, and Guns,” offers a 10% discount to any customer who brings a gun with them to lunch or dinner. Says restaurant owner Kevin Cox: “Show it to me out of your purse, out of your back pocket….Show that you have one so if something goes wrong here today, I know you’re here to protect me.” Cox criticizes gun-free businesses like Chipotle and Target: “You make a gun-free zone,” he argued, “that’s where bad people with guns are going to go – dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” Since instituting the discount this fall, business has increased approximately 25%.

Giving new meaning to the term “hunting for a wife,” Jewelry by Harold owner in North Liberty, Iowa last year gave a husband-to-be a voucher for a new Remington 870 rifle with the purchase of an engagement ring priced at $1,999 or higher. Shop owner Harold van Beek stated: “So say: I’m hunting deer, and here is a diamond ring, dear.” To apply for this “deal,” one must be eligible to own a gun in Iowa, and not have been convicted of a felony.

In its attempt to pull in shoppers a couple of years ago on so-called “Black Friday” (the day following Thanksgiving), the camping and outdoors superstore, Cabela’s, handed out envelopes to the first 800 people over the age of 18 who lined up in front of its stores before 5:00 a.m. for a chance to win a Browning A-Bolt Medallion .300 WSM rifle with a Cabela’s 50th anniversary gun case worth $875.

And maybe it’s not too late to go down to Nations Truck Sales in Sanford, Florida where three years ago they offered each customer a brand spanking new assault rifle with the purchase of a truck. Stated General Sales Manager, Nick Ginetta: “We started on Veterans Day. Hey, so many have given so much for this right!”

I’ve heard about people being shot from canons, but for those who want to remain active hunters well after they have “bought the farm,” now their wishes have come true. Be the first on your block to kill long after you have died. For the sum of only $1250, your loved ones can have you cremated with a pound of your ashes stuffed inside genuine bullets, resurrecting you as live ammunition.

For that measly sum, you can metamorphose as 250 shot shells, 100 rifles cartridges, or 250 pistol cartridges. For only $100 extra, until you come alive again as a killing apparatus, your bullet ashes can rest in peace in a decorative wooden coffin-like box.

The company, Holy Smoke Bullet Urns of Stockton, Alabama, has taken quite literally Shylock’s claim in Shakespeare’s 1596 Merchant of Venice: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him is deerely bought, ‘tis mine, and I will have it.”

According to the company’s cofounder, Clem Parnell: You know I’ve thought about this for some time and I want to be cremated. Then I want my ashes put into some turkey load shotgun shells and have someone that knows how to turkey hunt use the shotgun shells with my ashes to shoot a turkey. That way I will rest in peace knowing that the last thing that one turkey will see is me, screaming at him at about 900 feet per second.”

Wow, in this way, you will obtain virtual immortality in the elk antlers hung over your family’s fire place or in the stuffed duck sitting on their living room side table. In addition to the decimation of wild game, the company offers this alternative to traditional burial as a means to “continue to protect your home and family even after you are gone.” So just think of it; now you can kill a home intruder by shooting them right in the gut with your Great Uncle Henry or Aunt Gert!

And just in time for the holiday season, the Scottsdale, Arizona gun club now offers its members the service of sending out their Christmas cards with family members, including infants, posing with Santa while holding pistols and military grade automatic weapons, fa la la la la, la la la la. Joy to the world?

I would ask, though, have so many in fact given so much for the right for us to turn our bodies literally into killing devices or for the right to own a “free” assault or hunting rifle?  Do we really want “the last thing that one turkey will see is me, screaming at him at about 900 feet per second.” Do residents of our nation really need so many guns, assault rifles and others?

The very first thing that caught my eye as I entered the grounds of the Iowa Republican Party Presidential Straw Poll in the summer of 2011 were three young children, I estimated between the ages of 4 -7, wearing day-glow orange baseball caps with “NRA” [National Rifle Association] scrawled atop, and round stickers on their T-shirts announcing “GUNS SAVE LIVES.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though, gun related violence has reached epidemic proportions in our country by snuffing out the lives of upwards of 30,000 people and wounding many more annually. Each year, over 100,000 people are affected in some way by gun violence. Many of the guns used in these killings reach military level weapons power, guns which currently remain legal. Today in the United States, there are 88.8 firearms per 100 people.

Of the estimated 67 mass murders in the United States since 1982, most of the shooters obtained their weapons legally. Demographically, the shooters in all but one case involved males usually white, with an average age of 35 years.

Should any limits be imposed on the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”? We seem somehow only to remember the second clause in that sentence while neglecting the first, especially the term “well-regulated”!

Certainly, Bergeron’s, Jewelry by Harold, Cabela’s, Holy Smoke Bullet Urns of Stockton, Alabama Nation’s Truck Sales of Sanford, Florida, and gun clubs hold the constitutional right to market their devices of death, but what type of messages are they communicating? Are we really “free” as a society when our right “to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”?

I propose that we reevaluate the political right’s obsession with the so-called “freedom” to bear arms because it is not only “criminals who kill people” as Second Amendment advocates claim. Though NRA Executive VP Wayne LaPierre asserts that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

I believe we must criminalize the possession of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and close loop holes such as buying a weapon at a gun show. We must increase the waiting period and make background checks more rigorous and effective. Furthermore, we need to limit the number of guns any individual can own, and also limit the number of bullets any gun clip can hold. We must also rethink the “logic” of permitting concealed weapons, especially in places like houses of worship, colleges, bars, restaurants, and political rallies. Moreover, all data bases monitoring gun ownership must interface to assess the gun owning population more accurately and effectively.

I also believe that even our flawed “founding fathers” did not want unlimited and unrestricted rights to bear arms. Even if they did advocate for unrestricted gun ownership, these are the same men who owned slaves, committed genocide against and expelled native peoples, withheld enfranchisement from women, and so on.

But as we all know, the chances for comprehensive gun control in the United States stands as only a pipe dream since the NRA controls Congress and state legislatures, for if they did not, we would have seen effective laws passed years ago resulting in countless lives saved.

I am somewhat hopeful, though, since in the last midterm election, voters in Colorado and Connecticut retained their governors who signed into law common sense gun control laws in their respective states.

But how many more Columbines and Auroras; Fort Hoods; Virginia Techs; Northern Illinois Universities; University of Californias at Santa Barbara; Seattle Pacific Universities; Phoenix, Arizona parking lots; Pennsylvania Amish school houses; Santana High Schools; Springfield Oregon high schools; Jonesboro, Arkansas middle schools; Universities of Texases; Honolulu, Hawaii Xerox Corporations; Atlanta brokerage offices; US postal offices; Jewish community centers and schools; Muslim community centers and Mosques; Sikh temples; Christian churches? How many more dead to urban and suburban violence? How many more gun-induced killings to domestic violence? How many more accidental killing?

And how many more Gabby Giffords, Harvey Milks, George Tillers, Tupac Shakurs, The Notorious B.I.Gs., Trayvon Martins, Lawrence Kings, Molly Judith Olgins, Mary Christine Chapas, Katherine Coopers, Richard Michaels-Martinezes, the famous, and the not-so-famous will it take for this country and its politicians to wake up to the reality that, contrary to the NRA’s assertions, guns in the hands of anyone, in any and all stations of life, kill people? When is enough, enough?!

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

 

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

November 13th, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Hunger Games as Metaphor for Youth Oppression & Resistance

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I believe one of the litmus tests by which a society can be judged is the ways it treats its young people, for this opens a window projecting how that society operates generally.

Adultism, as defined by John Bell includes “behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes.” Within an adultist society, adults construct the rules, with little or no input from youth, which they force young people to follow.

Even the terminology our society employs to refer to youth betrays a hierarchical power dynamic. For example, we refer to young people as “kids,” a term originally applying to young goats. By referring to youth as farm animals provides adults cover in controlling and maintaining unlimited power over human beings. (We must treat and respect animals more than we do as well.) Even the term “child” implies an imbalance of power. When people refer to an individual of any age as “the child of,” we automatically place that individual in a diminutive form.

Of course, parents and other adults have the inherent responsibility of protecting young people from harming themselves and being harmed by others, and of teaching them how to live and function in society within our ever changing global community. In Freudian terms, we must develop a balance between the individual’s unrestrained instinctual drives and restraints (repression) on these drives in the service of maintaining society (civilization), and to sustain the life of the individual.

We as a society, nonetheless, must set a line demarcating protection from control, teaching from oppression, minimal and fundamental repression from what Herbert Marcuse terms “surplus repression” (that which goes over and beyond what is necessary for the protection of the individual and the smooth functioning of society, and enters into the realm of domination, control, and oppression).

Reading and watching The Hunger Games series of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins released in 2008 and recently made into a sequence of movies, I was quite fascinated by what I interpreted as a commentary on our oppressive (surplus-repressive) society. The author presents the story through the perspective of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, which takes place in Panem, the post-apocalyptic nation where the former countries of North America once existed. The Capitol (as it is named), a technologically advanced metropolis, exerts total political control over the entire nation. The Hunger Games denotes an annual event in which one young woman and one young man aged 12–18 from each of the twelve districts are selected by lottery to compete in a televised brutal and deadly battle. Of the 24 “contestants,” only one will survive, though in the initial installment of the series, two contestants contest this rule, and they begin to forge a crack in the wall of domination.

One of the primary ways oppression in any and all of its varieties operates is when the dominant group, in this case adults, pit members of minoritized groups, in this case youth, against one another through competition for gold stars and grades, for supposedly scarce resources, for attention, love, and affection, for financial and career success, and, in the metaphor of The Hunger Games, for life itself.

In terms of education, however, philosopher and author Alfie Kohn calls for a radical rethinking of the competitive structure on which our educational system is based, away from what he calls the “I win, therefore, you lose” viewpoint. Kohn refers to competition as a “disease,” an “addiction,” a “poison” on which we are raised, something trained and not born into us. He argues that students and workers can enjoy, learn, and produce more with other people rather than against them, and he advocates for cooperative education.

In addition, those of any age who bully often do so, though sometimes unconsciously, to reinforce dominant group scripts established and forced onto minoritized individuals and groups to memorize when they enter the stage called “life.” When youth bully other youth, very often those who bully “pass down” the bullying they receive from others, often from adults. Youth killing other youth, as depicted in The Hunger Games, epitomizes the most extreme form of bullying.

Teräshjo and Salmivalli argue that those who bully fulfill the social “function” of establishing and reinforcing social norms. They found that students often justify bullying behaviors by blaming the targets of their attacks, and emphasizing that they somehow deserve the peer aggression or that they in some ways deviate from the established social norms. This I contend is a form of ruthless socialization.

Social rank theory, as used by Hawker and Boulton, proposes that aggressive individuals actually hold a higher rank, power, or status within a social group. Therefore, aggressive behavior, and bullying in particular, may provide those who engage in aggressive behaviors a sense of belonging. Hawker and Boulton contend that peer victimization serves a number of functions. First, it establishes and maintains a social hierarchy within a given group (an “in-group”), and second, it maintains distinctions between members of the in-group, from members of other groups (“out-groups”).

Adultism also operates as a continuum from subtle to extreme, from adults ignoring or neglecting young people, to statements like “Children should be seen and not heard,” “You’re too young to do that,” and “Just grow up,” to “You’re stupid,” and “You’re ugly,” to “When you are living in my house, you follow my rules,” to circumscribed or qualified love, to corporal punishment, and eviction by family from one’s home, to sexual and other violent assaultive acts, to murder. As a society, we deprive youth of their basic civil and human rights only somewhat less than we deprive these rights from convicted prison inmates.

What if, however, youth joined together to defeat adultist oppression – the surplus repression establishing and maintaining adult privilege and control over youth? More generally, what if all minoritized groups joined together to challenge dominant group privilege and oppression in all its forms?

In actually, youth and other groups of our vast society are, indeed, standing up, speaking out, and joining in coalition to contest the barriers built throughout time and space. This is true in The Hunger Games as it is outside of science fiction tropes.

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the downfall of the once virtually impenetrable Berlin Wall, we must join together to take down the “freedom” of people to deprive other people of their freedoms. In other words, we need to dismantle the walls constructed by individuals, institutions, and societies that stand only for the purpose of maintaining power and control over others.

We can begin by considering our real motives next time we attempt to restrict or punish a young person.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

November 9th, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

James Inhofe a Not-So-Sly Fox Set to Guard the Henhouse

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The children’s story of the fox that people set to guard the henhouse represents a cautionary tale. It warns us of the dangers of granting unfettered access and responsibility within a confined space or field to someone having a conflict of interest. By us placing the fox in charge, we give the predator free rein to literally kill and eat our chickens. What we are left with is a bloodied and depleted henhouse.

In a larger political sense, the story warns us not to allow an industry to engage in “self-regulation” without ensuring sufficient safeguards and alternate means of control, or of hiring industry insiders to monitor their industry.

Unfortunately, we the people failed to heed the warning of this children’s tale by voting in the majority to turn over control (to grant [relatively] unfettered access and responsibility) of the United States Congress, in both houses, to the Republican Party. We don’t know yet exactly the consequences of our collective action, but one thing is certain: as the “majority” Party, Republicans will serve as the chairs of all Senate committees and will continue to do so in the House of Representatives.

What appears to me more like a “Saturday Night Live” parody skit than an actual true-life certainty, Republican Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe is now slated to chair the Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Inhofe has already talked about his desire to slash the EPA budget. Another fox, the current Senate Minority Leader elected from coal-producing Kentucky, who is in line to ascend to Majority Leader in January, has promised to ax EPA’s regulations on carbon emissions from power plants. The not-so-sly Mr. Inhofe, who has referred to human-made climate change as “a hoax,” received $1,352,523 from the oil and gas industries to fill his campaign war chest, including $90,950 from Koch Industries.

I consider James Inhofe the most powerful of the congressional climate change deniers. Inhofe claimed in 2003 that global warming might help humanity. It’s also important to question whether global warming is even a problem for human existence. Thus far no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophes predicted by alarmists. In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.”

Inhofe continued in that speech that an international committee of climate change scientists “resembled a Soviet-style trial, in which the facts are predetermined, and ideological purity trumps technical and scientific rigor.” Three years later, Inhofe compared environmental rights advocates to Nazis.

The Oklahoma Senator released his own report in 2010 written by his staff asserting that alleged emails from a group of climate scientists “reveal, among other things, unethical and potentially illegal behavior by some of the world’s preeminent climate scientists.”

In 2012, Inhofe published a book titled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Besides his book, Inhofe authored a report titled “The Facts and Science of Climate Change,” in which he argued that “alarmists will scare the country into enacting their ultimate goal: making energy suppression, in the form of harmful mandatory restrictions on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse emissions, the official policy of the United States.”

The White House recently released its National Climate Assessment reporting that our global climate is, in fact, changing, and this is due primarily to human activity, in particular, the burning of fossil fuels. The Assessment investigated approximately 12,000 professional scientific journal papers on the topic of global climate change, and discovered that in the articles expressing a position on global warming, fully 97 percent authenticated both the reality of global warming and the certainty that humans are the cause.

Additional studies released since the White House report signaled the beginning of the depletion and ultimate total collapse of glaciers in Antarctica, which can continue to raise worldwide sea levels an additional 4 feet. This depletion is now irreversible.

What seems clear to the scientific community seems like science fiction to many key politicians, including Lamar Smith (R-TX), paradoxically the Chair of the U.S. House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology who has been a perennial skeptic of human-produced climate change. He stated on the floor of the House:

“We now know that prominent scientists were so determined to advance the idea of human-made global warming that they worked together to hide contradictory temperature data.”

He quoted no sources, and his accusations were later proven false.

Previous Chair of the Committee, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX) asserted that he does not have concerns about global warming, but, rather, he is “really more fearful of freezing,” even though “I don’t have any science to prove that.” He went even further by stating that he did not “think we can control what God controls.”

Many on the anti-science political and theocratic Right (mis)quote scripture to justify human exploitation of the planet. For example, Republican presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, questioned Barack Obama’s “theology” in an Ohio campaign stop, February 18, 2012, by asserting that Obama believes in “some phony ideal, some phony theology. Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology.”

The next day, when asked to explain his remarks on the CBS news program “Face the Nation” by moderator Bob Schieffer, Santorum responded that he was referring to “the radical environmentalists,” and by implication, placed Obama in this category. Santorum attacked the notion that “man is here to serve the Earth,” which he argued “is a phony ideal.” While Santorum conceded “that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth,” he was emphatic that “we’re not here to serve the Earth. The Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective. I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.”

In yet another ill-conceived and executed Christian crusade, Santorum, with his publicly expressed literal biblical perspective, conjured up such passages as Genesis 1:26, which states:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”

And Genesis 1:28: “God blessed [humans] and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’”

Also, Genesis 9: “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.’”

And Santorum is certainly not alone among his Republican colleagues and electorate. A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, in their 2008 study “A Deeper Partisan Divide over Global Warming,” found that while 58% of respondents who identified as Democrats and 50 percent of Independents believe that global warming is mostly caused by human activity, only 27% of Republicans believed this.

Among Democrats, those with higher educational levels, 75% with college degrees compared with 52% with less education, expressed the view that solid evidence has shown human activity largely as the cause of global warming. Opposed to the Democrats, however, educational levels of Republicans resulted in an inverse relationship in trusting the scientific evidence with only 19% of Republican college graduates compared with 31% with less education believing in the human connection to climate change.

Pew’s updated report in 2013 found that overall 67% of U.S. residents believe global warming is happening, but only 25% of Tea Party Republicans believe this.

How many more British Petroleum and Exxon Valdez oil spills, polluted and poisoned waterways and skies, dead lakes, clear cut forests, mine disasters, mutilated and scorched Earth, nuclear power plant accidents and meltdowns, toxic dumps and landfills, trash littered landscapes, extinct animal and plant species, encroachments on land masses by increasingly raising oceans and seas, and how many more unprecedented global climatic fluctuations will it take for the anti-science Republican party to put the health of the planet and by extension of the health of all Earth’s inhabitants on the front burner, if you will, of policy priorities over the unquenchable lust for profits by corporate executives?

For a party claiming to stand as “pro-family,” what kind of legacy and what kind or future are they really bequeathing to our youth? For a party that claims to promote political conservatism and “traditional values,” what is more traditional and valuable than conserving and thus sustaining the Earth’s resources responsibly and equitably?

While differing marginally on specific issues, many Republicans march in lock-step to the drummer of conservative political and corporate dogma centering on a market-driven approach to economic and social policy, including such tenets as reducing the size of the national government and granting more control to state and local governments; severely reducing or ending governmental regulation over the private sector; privatizing governmental services, industries, and institutions including education, health care, and social welfare; permanently incorporating across-the-board non-progressive marginal federal and state tax rates; and possibly most importantly, advancing market driven and unfettered “free market” economics.

Returning to Inhofe, he has also argued that humans lack the ability to affect the world’s climate because God only has that power. Inhofe refuted climate change science in 2012 by citing Scripture. “[T]he Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that ‘as long as the earth remains there will be seed time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.’ My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

In truth, the conservative Republican battle cry, seemingly coined by Sarah Palin, of “drill baby drill,” unfortunately is what the Obama administration has forwarded, resulting in significantly more domestic oil and natural gas production than under the George W. Bush administration. This, however, is simply unsustainable in terms of underground reserves since the US currently consumes approximately 20-25% of the oil produced worldwide, though we hold in the range of only 2% of planetary oil reserves. This is most definitely unsustainable also if we are to ensure the short-term and long-term health of our planet and living things upon it.

A non-regulated privatized so-called “free-market” economic system lacking in environmental protections is tantamount to a social system deficient of civil and human rights protections for minoritized peoples. The foxes of industry (and media: Fox News) have taken control of a number of henhouses and may ultimately take over the remainder. And we have no one to blame but ourselves for actively — or because of our inaction — placing the foxes in charge and, thereby, leaving us nothing.

If people wish to quote scripture, I suggest heeding the biblical warning of Isaiah 24: 4-6:

“The earth dries up and withers, the world languished and withers, the exalted of the earth languish. The earth lies under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statues, and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

 

 

 

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

November 6th, 2014 at 12:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Reflection on Veterans Day

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On Veterans Day, we pause in remembrance of those who have proudly served our country in the U.S. military. Originally known as “Armistice Day,” November 11 was chosen to annually memorialize the cessation of hostilities between the Allied powers and Germany ending World War I, which was then regarded as “the war to end all wars.”

In November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first commemoration of what would become an official national holiday with the words: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…”

Individuals and groups who stand up and put their lives on the line to defend the country from very real threats to our national security, as do those in our nation’s military, are true patriots. But true patriots are also those who speak out, stand up, and challenge our governmental leaders, those who put their lives on the line by actively advocating for justice, freedom, and liberty through peaceful means.

I, therefore, believe that as we honor our military veterans, that we also remember as well the diplomats and the mediators, those working in conflict resolution and civil and human rights, the activists dedicated to preventing wars and to bringing existing wars to diplomatic resolution once hostilities have begun, the individuals of conscience who refuse to give over their minds, their souls, and their bodies to armed conflict, the practitioners of non-violent resistance in the face of tyranny and oppression, the anti-war activists who strive to educate their peers, their citizenry, and, yes, their government to the perils of unjustified and unjust armed conflict and incursions into lands not their own in advance of appropriate attempts at diplomatic means of resolving conflict.

Looking over the history of humanity, it is apparent that tyranny, at times, could only be countered through the raising of arms. On numerous occasions, however, diplomacy has been successful, and at other times, it should have been used more extensively before rushing to war.

I find it unacceptable when one’s patriotism and one’s love of country is called into question when one advocates for peaceful means of resolving conflict, for it is also an act of patriotism to work to keep our brave and courageous troops out of harm’s way and to work to create conditions and understanding that ultimately make war less likely.

On Veterans Day, let us expand our definition of “patriot” and “veteran” while we remember and honor all those serving our country.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

 

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

November 2nd, 2014 at 1:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Ebolaphobia Going Viral

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If we feel afraid, it isn’t what we don’t know that frightens us, it’s what we think we do know.”

Allan G. Johnson in Power, Privilege, and Difference

Two brothers, Pape, 13-year-old eight-grader, and Amidou, 11-year-old sixth-grader, reported being attacked and bashed by a mob of their classmates on the playground of their Bronx, New York Intermediate School 318. Pape and Amidou, who were born in the United States, lived in Senegal in West Africa for a time to learn French. They moved back to the U.S. one month age to rejoin their father, Ousmane Drame, a Senegalese American.

Throughout the violent attack, classmates taunted the brothers with chants of “You’re Ebola!” The boys were rushed to a local hospital with severe injuries. During a press conference at the Senegalese American Association in Harlem and flanked by community leaders, the boys’ father, a 62-year-old cab driver, reported that “They go to gym, and [taunters] say, ‘You don’t touch the ball, you have Ebola, if you touch it we will all get Ebola.’” The elder Drame claimed that the school did nothing to prevent or to intervene in the attack, and did not even write an incident report.

Though one case of Ebola was reported earlier in Senegal, this month the World Health Organization declared Senegal free of Ebola virus transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, a Senegalese mother announced that her 9-year-old daughter was bullied at her Harlem school, and when she came home, her daughter asked, “Mommy, do I have Ebola?”

The vast majority of people with Ebola are limited to the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. A person may contract the virus from one who is infected only if that person displays symptoms (including heightened fever, headache, joint and muscle pain, sore throat, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, rash, and red eyes – which indicate a number of other diseases as well) and comes into contact with the infected person’s bodily fluids. Ebola is not an airborne infectious disease, like the common cold or the flu, and cannot be transmitted through casual contact.

Kaci Hickok, a nurse who treated people with Ebola in West Africa, and who shows no signs of the illness, is threatening legal action against Maine state officials who have requested she undergo a 21-day quarantine confinement in her home. She and her legal team assert that her treatment raises “serious constitutional and civil liberties issues,” and makes no sense medically or scientifically. Hickok declared that she “will not sit around and be bullied by politicians.”

Though the New York school students and Kari Hickok do not carry the Ebola virus, a virus of fear and suspicion seems to have infected not only these schools, but, rather, reflect the spreading epidemic of fear rapidly transmitting across the nation.

For example, President Barack Obama pushed back against New York Governor Mario Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s mandatory quarantine of health care workers returning from Africa. “American in the end,” said Obama, “is not defined by fear.”

Obama might be correct in his assessment that the U.S. “in the end” “…is not defined by fear,” but on its way to that “end,” the process of nations coming to terms with disease is often circuitous and awash with dread, loathing, prejudice, scapegoating, blame, stereotyping, and discrimination. For example, Jews were once erroneously blamed for causing and spreading the plague, syphilis, and trachoma; Asians for infesting others with hookworm; Mexicans with infecting people with lice and Dengue fever.

Our path toward understanding Ebola mirrors, in numerous ways, our coming to know HIV/AIDS a mere generation or so ago.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) undertook the first comprehensive national survey in 1990 addressing the issue of prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS and their health care providers. According to the report, “Epidemic of Fear”: “This study shows how extraordinarily persistent discrimination remains in this country, even after science has provided there is no risk of casual transmission.”

In California alone, within thirty months of HIV coming to light in the U.S., legislators introduced three statewide ballot initiatives that, if passed, would have effectively imposed quarantine on people with HIV/AIDS.

Ronald Reagan, under whose presidency the AIDS pandemic was detected and spread, had not formally raised the issue until April 1, 1987 in a speech to a group of physicians in Philadelphia — a full seven years after the onset of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Before this, however, when it was seen as a disease of primarily gay and bisexual men, Pat Buchanan, “serving” as Reagan’s Chief of Communications between 1985-1987, was quite outspoken, referring to AIDS as nature’s “awful retribution,” and saying it did not deserve a thorough and compassionate response.

Writing in his syndicated column in 1986, Buchanan wrote: “The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution (AIDS).”

In his response to HIV in 1987, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms proposed that “Somewhere along the line, we’re going to have to quarantine people with AIDS,” and for over 20 years, he consistently opposed expanded federal support and funding to AIDS research. In 1987, Helms spearheaded an amendment in the US Senate, prohibiting federal funding for AIDS educational materials that “promote or encourage…homosexual sexual activity.”

Under Helms’s sponsorship, Congress passed an amendment in 1989 to restrict all National Endowment for the Arts funding of any art deemed “homoerotic” or “religiously offensive.” In 1990, he referred to gay and lesbian people as “weak, morally sick wretches,” and has accused them of “engaging in incredibly offensive and revolting conduct.” He warned against “homosexuals, lesbians, disgusting people marching in the streets, demanding all sorts of things, including the right to marry each other.”

In her book, Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS, Cindy Patton argues: “The belief in dirty individuals who leave germs in their wake creates a terror that anyone a little different harbors disease, and has the power to invade the human body. Honest concern about real illness blurs with the need to separate from people feared for racist, sexist, or homophobic reasons.”

Patton asserted that by deploying the label “disease,” society, through it leaders, justifies “genocide, ghettorization, and quarantine.”

Though no one can reasonably argue that infectious diseases pose no concern or risk of spreading, I argue, though, that as a nation, we must investigate the rational science of transmission and avoid acting on fear, baseless speculation, and apparent political expediency. What we need, instead, is a consistent and unified policy and messaging coming from leaders in medical science and in government.

Though we may pass laws designed to ensure people’s civil and human rights, conduct educational and diversity training sessions, and though times may have changed somewhat for the better, as the proverb attributed to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr goes, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

I hope in the case of Ebola, we can prove Karr wrong.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

October 29th, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Conversion of a Queer-Basher

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Dedicated to the memory of Charles O. Howard, 1961-1984

There are pivotal events in everyone’s life that forever separate before from after. For Jim Baines of Bangor, Maine, a pivotal event took place one July evening in 1984, when he and two friends attacked two gay men, killing one. The three assailants were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a youth detention center.

Ten year later, at age 25, Baines turned his life around by attempting to repay society for his crime. On occasion, he took voluntary unpaid leave from his sales job at an electrical supply company in Bangor, and traveled to schools with state police officers to talk to students about hate crimes.

I caught up with Baines at Biddeford Middle School in Biddeford, Maine where he gave a presentation to an eight-grade assembly. The day was sparkling, with a hint of summer in the air. Over 100 students noisily entered a large music room with instruments and music stands scattered around. A teacher called the group to order saying, “I’d like to introduce two special guests – Detective Sargent Mike Harriman of the Maine State Police and his guest, Jim Baines. They’re here to speak about some issues I think are relevant to us all – respect for each other, consideration, and tolerance.”

Sargent Harriman began the presentation by defining “hate crime” as “a criminal offense motivated by bias against another person’s race, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.” He cited a couple of recent examples of crimes involving race at area high schools, and then showed two short videos – “Arresting Prejudice,” a police training film, and “Crimes of Hate,” a series by a local television station detailing Jim Baines’s story.

Baines, about five feet, nine inches tall with sandy hair then walked tentatively to the front of the room. The students were quiet and attentive as he spoke.

“The story I’m about to tell is true, very true,” he said nervously. “It’s about one night that changed my life drastically.”

For most of that July day in 1984, Baines, then 15 year old, had been drinking beer with two friends, Daniel Ness, 17, and Shawn Mabry, 16. That night, they took the car of one of the boys’ parents and drove around Bangor from party to party.

“As the night went on,” he said, “we ran out of beer. And it was during our quest for more beer that our problems began.” They left a party at about 10:00 pm. along with two young women, ages 15 and 17, one of whom had a fake I.D.

Downtown, they drove across a bridge over a small stream and spotted two men walking arm in arm who the teens recognized as local gay men. The two, Charlie Howard, 23, and Roy Ogden, 20, had just left a meeting of Interweave, a support group for LGBT people sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist of Bangor.

The boys stopped the car, got out, and according to Baines, “began to push them around and really started to assault them,” demanding that they acknowledge their homosexuality. One of the gay men yelled to the other to run. Ogden got away; Howard, however, tripped on a curb, falling to the ground near the railing of the bridge. The three teens surrounded him, punching and kicking as he held onto the railing and screamed for help. One of the teens then gave the order to throw Howard from the bridge. When Howard heard this, he cried out in panic, saying he could not swim. His plea only enlivened the boys, who dislodged Howard’s hands from the railing and, with a mighty heave, tossed him into the stream some 20 feet below.

The boys then ran back to their car. “We were feeling good, excited,” Baines told the students. “We thought it was a good accomplishment at the time, and we yelled and screamed as we drove off.” Afterwards, they even bragged to a friend that they had “jumped a fag and beat the shit out of him, and then threw him into the stream.” The young women in the car, on the other hand, were quite upset and warned the boys that the man could have drowned.

At home later that evening, Baines had a hard time falling asleep. The next morning, the other boys woke him up and told him Howard had died.

Baines felt as if he had been plunged into a nightmare: “I couldn’t believe it. I kept saying, ‘No way.’” Soon, local police officers arrested him, Ness, and Mabry and charged them with murder. According to a report from the medical examiner, the cause of death was drowning, with acute bronchial asthma as a probable contributing factor.

Baines knew his life would never be the same again. “I remember sitting in the detective’s office,” he told the students, “my head in my hands, crying and just hoping the walls would swallow me up. How could I face my mother, knowing I did something so terrible? Then my mother walked in. We embraced. We both began to cry.”

The following Monday night, the Reverend Richard Forcier and congregation president Lois Reed led a memorial service at the Unitarian Universalist sanctuary in Bangor. The over 200 attendees celebrated Charlie Howard’s life, and voiced outrage over his vicious murder. They then marched over the bridge where Charlie had been murdered, and in keeping with Charlie’s mother’s wishes, dropped a white rose tied with a lavender ribbon into the stream below. The procession terminated in a candlelight vigil at the Bangor police station. All along the line of the march, amid the marchers’ grief and rage, hecklers shouted homophobic epithets. A few weeks after the murder, the words “Fags Jump Here” were painted on the bridge.

Four days after Howard’s death, the Reverend Richard Hasty led another memorial service at the First Parish Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Portland, Maine, followed by a protest march down Congress Street. Onlookers there also heckled marchers from the sidelines.

Few in the community were willing to condemn such bigotry. Forcier, in an attempt to bring Bangor together, sent a letter to the leaders of area religious congregations to join him in discussing Howard’s murder and speaking out against intolerance. The response was deadening silence, save for the angry replies of a few fundamentalist ministers. A few months later, a local school board unanimously voted to cancel a proposed “Tolerance Day,” claiming the appearance on a scheduled panel of the president of the Maine Lesbian and Gay Political Alliance would have threatened the “safety, order, and security of the high school.”

Lois Reed, a member of the Unitarian Universalist in Bangor for 21 years and congregation president from 1984 to 1987 has led an annual service on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of Howard’s death. Charlie Howard was Reed’s friend. She remembers him as “a good person, though he could be absolutely infuriating at times. He was very frail in appearance and was targeted because he was seen as vulnerable.”

After their arraignment, Howard’s killers were released into their parents’ custody. According to a Boston Globe article, Thomas Goodwin, the assistant attorney general chosen to prosecute the case, said he had recommended their release because they were “not a threat to the community,” and had not intended to kill Howard. Sargent Thomas Placella, the chief detective on the case, in published accounts at the time of the murder, echoed this reasoning saying, “I’m not trying to lessen the severity of the crimes, but it’s not like these were axe murderers. These people came from respectable families who own property in the city off Bangor.”

Three months later, Mabry, Ness, and Baines were convicted of manslaughter and given indeterminate sentences at the Maine Youth Center in South Portland. During Baines’s two years there, he continued his studies, and following release, he returned to high school and graduated with his class.

Charlie Howard’s murder is remarkable only by virtue of it being unremarkable. Queer-bashing, of course, is not limited to Maine, a state that boasted the lowest murder rate in the US at the time of Howard’s vicious attack. The year of Howard’s killing, 90 percent of the 2000 contacted for a survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (a civil right group based in Washington, DC) reported having been victimized because of their sexual identity. More than one in ten had been threatened with violence. Victimization occurred at home, at school, and at other community sites. Forty-five percent of the males and 25 percent of the females had been harassed or attacked in high school or junior high school because they were perceived as lesbian or gay. About one-third of the respondents had been assaulted verbally, while more than one in fifteen had been physically abused by family members. Three years later, a US Department of Justice report concluded, “Homosexuals are probably the most frequent victims” of hate violence.

Like his crime, Baines himself was unremarkable. He told students at Biddeford Middle School, “I was not unlike any of you here. I was a grade-conscious, wanting to be popular, 15-year-old high school kid. I played football, basketball; I hung out with my friends on weekends. My grades were okay, and I was really looking forward to going to college.” Ness and Mabry were also “typical” middle-class teens, Ness a promising art student, and Mabry a karate enthusiast and star of the city hockey league.

Why would three young men who seemed to have so much going for them feel compelled to commit a crime of hate?

“As I look back now,” said Baines, “I don’t think I was ever homophobic.” His primary motivation, he said, was the desire for popularity. Even as he was beating Howard, he had thought, “My friends will look up to me for this, and I’ll be able to talk about it in school for a couple of years.

“In high school,” he continued, “no matter how popular you are, you worry about being popular.”

He went on to explain why he and his friends had targeted gays: “We thought these people were much different than us and that we would get away with it because it was accepted. I considered that person different than I, less than I….Just like in school, you have your bullies that pick on the little kids; it’s the same idea.”

A female student raised her hand and said, “When we think of gays, we think of a limp wrist, weird voice, and slurred speech and stuff, and we don’t realize that some people we hang around with every day could be homosexuals.”

Another female student added, “I think a lot of people hate blacks or women or gays or whatever just because they’re not a white male.”

A male student asked Baines, “Do you think education in the schools about gay people would have changed your view?”

Baines pondered the question briefly and answered, “I look back and think, ‘If I would have been more educated about homosexuality, I would have been aware that it is there, and it’s something that shouldn’t be treated violently.’ I guess, if there was more education in that area, it would’ve probably made me think differently about the whole night.”

In fact, Baines had gotten the opposite kind of education. “I did know that [homosexuality] was something my family looked at as unacceptable,” he remembered, “my family as well as the police.”

Given the lack of appropriate education, it’s not surprising that, as Baines said, “gay-bashing was happening every day. And it was more than just five or six kids doing it.” In fact, it was considered an after-school extracurricular activity. Baines confided that local youth often stole from LGBT people, threw rocks at their cars, and once even pulled a gay man from his car and sent it crashing down a hill.

“The parents knew,” he said. “I believe teachers even knew. But nobody thought it would turn into something so serious.” To Baines’s surprise, even during his trial, a man approached him wanting to shake his hand to commend him for his act.

Baines credits his change in attitude about LGBT people to a number of factors, including the therapy he received in the youth detention center. “They helped us identify our bad thoughts to monitor our thinking process,” he explained. “They made us look at the pain we caused and walk in our victims’ shoes.” In addition, since his release, he has made friends with LGBT people.

Asked if Ness and Mabry had undergone similar changes of heart, Baines said he has lost touch with them. But about seven years ago, Lois Reed was at the UU of Bangor when a young man called, asking for the location of Charlie Howard’s grave. “At first, he didn’t identify himself,” said Reed. “We talked for about two hours, and he finally told me he was Shawn Mabry. I told him I knew, and asked why he wanted to know about the grave site, and I said that there are people who would think he was trying to get the information so he could desecrate it. But he said he wouldn’t, that he was just curious. He never apologized to me for what he did, but asked me how I felt about the three of them. I said I wish them well and hope they will go on to lead productive and decent lives. I also said I hope they truly understand what they have done.”

During Baines’s presentation at Biddeford Middle School, a male student asked if he had apologized to Howard’s family. For Baines, this remained an unfinished chapter in the story. Sargent Harriman explained that soon after the murder, people in the community had made threatening phone calls to Howard’s mother and had thrown eggs at her house, and she had since moved from the area. “I’ve made attempts to contact with her,” said Baines, “but with no success.”

He expressed remorse for his actions saying, “If I live to be 90, I will never forget what happened that night. I like to fish and golf and go camping and stuff like that. But I still never forget what I was involved in, and that my victim will never be able to enjoy those types of things.

Says Lois Reed, “Shock carried me through those days years ago. I remember closing my eyes, thinking, ‘How could these young people have learned so much hatred in such a short time?” In an emotion-choked voice, she continued, “I’m crying even after all these years. It’s still a very painful subject for me.” After a long moment, she added, “I believe that today, he is not the same Jim Baines who killed my friend; but I still loathe the Jim Baines who killed my friend.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

 

 

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

October 26th, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Soul of a Young Artist

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To observe
To perceive
To interpret
Focusing on detail
Magnifying elements
Illuminating connections to the whole
 
Entities others rarely shine light upon
Savoring time and space
Smelling the roses
Documenting
Presenting in unique and special modes and manners
 
The gifts of the artist
Given to the artist
Given to us from the artist
 
A prodigy of thirteen years
Sensing, understanding, knowing the beauty of the universe
In all its sounds, textures, fragrances, shapes, colors, movements
 
A small patch of orange blossoms by the edge of sidewalk
Trees after a brief shower
A leaf
Section of a leaf
Sunlight refracting beads of rain
Highlighting miracles of color, light, shadow
Angles, curves, folds, spaces between
Nuance to brilliance
 
Sunset through tall pines over Mediterranean seascapes
Yellows, Oranges, Reds, Magentas
Like flaming hills on a New England October day
Nature’s grace, elegance, and mystery
Grasped through the artist’s looking glass
 
I remember years before
A rabbi
His father, my cousin
In a sermon before the congregation
Speculating on the soul of the artist
Opposing common idea of heightened senses
 
Rather, opined image of sensory filter malfunction
Flooding perception like a torrent, like a burst dam
Penetrating, permeating, percolating through the senses
 
Filling the artist
With insight and imagination
Revelation and prophecy
Desire and passion
And yes, with obsession
Compulsion
 
To express, to narrate, to convey
To purge and cleanse from an inner core
And achieve stasis
Until the torrent washes over once again
 
The young artist of thirteen years
Any artist
Thrives in rich nurturing soil
And though not always understood by all
 
I give gratitude to the artist
Bringing us closer to Tikkun Olam
Having capacity
To transform, to heal, and to repair our world
In becoming a more just, peaceful, and perfect place.

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

October 24th, 2014 at 7:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Malala Yousafzai & Classroom Attendance

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We don’t learn the importance of anything until it is snatched from our hands.”

Malala Yousafzai, “The Daily Show,” October 8, 2013

Malala Yousafzai, the courageous and tireless champion for the rights of women and girls throughout the world to access quality education, has never swerved from her message even after the Taliban in her Pakistani town hijacked her school bus and pummeled bullets into her skull critically wounding her at the young age of 14.

The “it” to which this remarkable young woman refers in her quote above denotes not her life per se, as one might expect, but rather, represents “education” in the formal as well as the informal sense. Today Malala’s resolve shines ever brighter as she knows full well the consequences of fighting brutal patriarchal oppression. More importantly, though, she recognizes that women’s equality and their very lives depend upon and demand educational access and equity. Malala quite deservedly was chosen as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2014.

Malala’s remarkable story ruminates in my mind as I contemplate the process with students in my undergraduate Educational Psychology course. I tried as best I could – given the enormous size of this course of over 300 students, sitting in fixed-seated arranged rows, who were to take on-line and in-class “objective” quizzes and examinations, and where 10% of the course grade was allotted to mere classroom attendance – to connect my educational philosophy with the realities and limitations arising from the organization of the course. The most I could possibly hope for amounted to mere reform as opposed to true transformational change.

My reform efforts included suspending taking attendance, previously recorded by students’ use of an in-class electronic clicker (iClicker) system; encouraging students to form and work in out-of-class study groups for a deeper and fuller understanding and appreciation of the course material; granting students the option of joining with one other class member in working within cooperative partnerships to take all in-class examinations; and the suspension of classroom monitors who had in semesters past circulated throughout the room during examinations to inhibit cheating behaviors. I actually gave students the option of taking examinations outside the classroom in a quieter place anywhere they chose.

The primary change I made was in the pedagogic underpinnings of the course. Previously, students were to read basically a chapter per week in the course textbook. Past instructors created a PowerPoint from a rudimentary template of each chapter provided by the textbook publisher, and they stood in front of the students reading from these PowerPoints. Since instructors chose not to upload these presentations onto the course on-line Moodle system, often students sat rather rigidly at their fixed desks taking notes.

For me to maintain any semblance of personal and professional integrity, I simply could not, no, would not abide by this “banking system” of education. I, therefore, informed students they were to take more responsibility in their learning, possibly somewhat more than in any of their other courses. I prepared PowerPoints, actually much more extensive, deeper, and broader than some past instructors’ presentations, and I uploaded these onto our online system for students to view and use. I suggested to students that during their reading of the chapters and the PowerPoints, they were to write down all questions and bring these to my attention for class discussion.

I then organized our in-class sessions as if they were small seminar-like critical discussions. I selected some of the most important concepts from the individual chapters, explained them in some detail, supplemented these with examples and situations that connected to and amplified them, and facilitated in-class conversations.

Soon after I implemented this procedure, I received emailed compliments from a number of students. Some representative examples include:

“I just wanted to let you know how I have enjoyed your lectures that are not the mundane traditional Powerpoint-based lectures”; “I feel like I have incentive to come to your class in the hopes of learning something new as I find you to be a very compelling teacher”; “I want to tell you that I think you are a great professor, and you have made me think A LOT about my education this semester. Thank you for that”; “I wanted to thank you for having such an interesting class today!”; “Thank you so much for treating us like adults!”

So Why Relatively Small Attendance Rates?

As soon as I ceased taking roll, most students no longer attended class sessions. I sent out an email message asking students why many do not come to class. Their responses include:

“Since you are not going to go over your PowerPoints in depth in class, and because you post them online, there’s no reason for me to come to class”; “I learn better on my own, and I only come to classes when it is required”; “The tests usually only cover the textbook and the PowerPoints, so I don’t need to attend the classes.”

Recently, a student came to class to turn in an extra credit assignment: a large poster graphic of an educational psychology concept. When I asked the student to bring it back at the next class session because I would not be going to my office following class, and the poster might get damaged if I took it to another university where I was invited that evening as a guest speaker. At this point, the student smiled and said, “Sure, no problem,” and then immediately turned around and walked quickly out the door. I simply could not grasp why a student would came to class only to give me an extra credit assignment, and then leave just as class was to begin.

“No Child Left Behind” or “No Child Left Untested”

While there have always been familial and social pressures to perform academically, and while some people have always attempted to get or attain something with the least energy expenditure, I would ask what effects has our age of “No Child Left Behind,” an age of standardization, corporatization, globalization, privatization, and deregulation of the business, banking, and corporate sectors have on learning?

Policy makers initially instituted standardized curriculum and testing to gauge students’ progress, but this policy, unfortunately, has metastasized into benchmarks for student advancement through the levels of education, for teacher accountability, as well as criteria for school funding from the government.

According to the so-called “Allocation Theory” of education, schooling has turned into a status competition, which confers success on some and failure on others. Our schools have morphed into assembly-line factories transforming students into workers, and then sorting these workers into jobs commanded by industry and business. In so doing, educational institutions legitimize and maintain the social order (read as the status quo). Schools drive individuals to fill certain roles or positions in society, which are not always based on the individuals’ talents or interests.

Of course, having the skills to obtain a good job is extremely important. I do not debate that. I must ask, however, where has the love of learning for the sake of learning gone in some of our students? Oh, we see a brilliant flame of inquisitiveness in young children, but typically by the age of seven, or eight, or nine, it seems to wane. By middle and then senior high, the flame often flickers. Often when students enter university, for some, time has since past for us to assist them in rekindling any remaining embers. For some, though, the fire remains, and for others, I believe it is never too late to reignite that spark that can ultimately shine brightly once again.

Will students as individuals and we as a country have to be threatened with our education being taken from us to understand the value of learning for the sake of learning, and learning for the sake of knowing ourselves and our world at a deeper level, rather than simply finding a well-paying job?

We would do well to learn the remarkable lessons taught to us by my teacher and my hero: Malala Yousafzai.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

 

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

October 12th, 2014 at 12:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized