Rachel Neumann

Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness

Editor's note: With the election past, it's time to take a breath and celebrate what we've accomplished. It can also be a  time to roll up our sleeves and delve deeply into the work and joy of our continued struggle for a more just, equitable, and sustainable globe.  How do we best move forward?  In this excerpt from her just released book, Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness, Rachel Neumann tells the story of  her unique journey from  a skeptical, fast-talking lefty New Yorker to the editor of famed Buddhist writers, including Thich Nhat Hanh.  The story  is about   how she  slowly and reluctantly absorbed mindfulness practice to find a balance between political activism and  spiritual grounding, and discovered a new kind of joy in her life. Neumann, a former AlterNet editor,  explores the relationship between our daily actions, large political events, and meaningful social change.  Click here to buy a copy of Not Quite Nirvana: A Skeptic's Journey to Mindfulness.

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Bush personally stopped eavesdropping probe

There really is something in the Justice Department called the Office of Professional Responsibility, unfortunately, it seems to be on an extended margarita vacation. After all, it announced earlier this year it could not pursue an investigation into the blatantly illegal wiretapping of American citizens. Why couldn't it? According to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, it's because the President wouldn't grant investigators "security clearance" to investigate.

It was pretty clear from the beginning that Bush had personally authorized the National Security Agency to monitor � without court warrants � the international communications of people on U.S. soil. But why no one from the Justice Department challenged that authorization, on the grounds of is blatant illegality, can only be explained by blatant cowardice.

But hey, it's all water under the bridge, right? Bush has realized that with this Congress, he can just get them to pass a new law that says he doesn't need any authorization to spy on U.S. citizens. So let me get this straight. If the President says so, then he can do whatever he wants. If Congress says so, the President can do whatever he wants. Funny thing is, if you look at the Office of Perfessional Responsibility's Website, it's clear they are a few attorneys short. They's got the job posting right here. Any takers?

Just two questions

If your child became an adolescent or teenager in the past two years, you can thank the Supreme Court and George W. Bush for the fact that your child has now taken thousands of more tests than ever before. Kids aren't just taking more written tests, although they are doing that (from Kindergarten on up, "No Child Left Behind" means every child tested within an inch of its life), they're also more than four times as likely as they were two years ago to take a drug test.

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that random testing of student athletes and others in competitive extracurricular activities did not violate the students' privacy rights, the Bush administration has made testing middle- and high-school students a priority. In the 2005-06 school year, 373 public secondary schools got federal money for testing, up from 79 schools two years ago. And Bush has asked Congress to further increase the amount for drug testing, up to $15 million dollars in 2007. Some schools just test those involved in athletics, or school clubs. Others, such as the Nettle Creek School District in Indiana, want to randomly test all students.

Is any of this causing teenagers to uses less drugs? The results are confidential, and it seems like a lot of money to spend for something that no one knows if it works at all. Besides, even if teenagers are using less drugs during school hours, testing kids, and then "failing" those who test positive, is a pretty dumb way to get kids to engage in less risky behavior.

Risky behavior, according to the New York Times and the Department of Homeland Security, includes such things as going to the petting zoo in Woodland, Alabama and attending the Apple and Pork Festival in Clinton, Illinois. I could see how anything with the words Clinton and Pork in it could get some people riled up, but the petting zoo seems rather tame and the Mule Day Parade in Tennessee looks very charming. I guess I'm confused by the logic. If the Timesleaking the story that the Feds are collecting bank records could get the Bush administration all up in arms that we're giving something away to terrorists, wouldn't leaking the location of the Apple and Pork Festival be just as harmful, if not more so? The stories, point, of course, is that the list needs to be updated and that, based on the current target list, those red and amber alerts mean as little as you suspected they did. Still, I think the real problem is that the Mule Day Parade could get a lot more crowded this coming year. After all, who wouldn't drive a ways for a chance to look at a genuine terrorist target? Perhaps they can institute random drug testing at the entrance to keep us all safe.

Belated anti-hybrid hype

Evan pretty much said what I was going to say about the homophobes who are somehow obsessed from keeping gays from getting married. (I'm not married, so I don't know, but my question to the married people out there: is it really that particularly special a thing that heterosexuals have to keep gays from doing it? And if it's related to love, isn't it still true that if you "give it away, you end up having more?") So instead, I'll just ask about something that's been bothering me ever since the Fourth of July.

I went with friends and my small child to the Alameda Fourth of July parade, which is your basic small town parade with veterans and saxaphones and old cars and waving elected officials and, sadly, not very many costumes. After waving our anti-war flags at the NRA and various other contigents, we got to the progressive section of the parade, where the Women in Pink and Impeach Bush bus were strolling by, followed by about twenty middle-to-upper-class folks driving by in their hybrids, all with signs that proudly stated their gas mileage. "I get fifty miles per gallon!" One sign said, to our slightly lackluster cheers.

I thought of my own car, over 10 years old, that probably doesn't get even half that. And I'm pregnant and transporting a small child a large distance, so biking isn't an option. Because of where I work, sadly, neither is public transportation.

But isn't it still environmentally better than going out and buying a new fancy hybrid, even if, hypothetically, I could afford one? The Washington Post recently asked if it was "moral" to drive a gas-guzzling vehicle. But if it's an old one, and the whole family fits, isn't it more moral than getting some corporate job, if you even can land one, to be able to make more money to buy an expensive new hybrid? And shouldn't changes in fuel emissions be a national priority, not a personal consumer choice, since we all have to breathe the air and put on the extra sunscreen? And does all the cheering for hybrids actually lessen the imperative to get all cars to use alternative fuels or have some kind of converters?

I'm not against hybrids. My mom has one and, because she can use the car pool lane by herself now, is much more likely to be on time to babysit. But is my mom in her new hybrid really saving more gas than an old jalopy filled with five people? And if so, isn't the situation dire enough that we should declare a moratorium on all non-hybrid driving and let everyone trade in their old cars for new ones, free of charge. Or, if it's clogged roads that are a big part of the problem and the whole car-trade thing is just too far-fetched, I'd be fine if my medium-sized city just got some decent affordable public transportation.

Right-handed gay fetuses

I've never liked the political language of "choice," whether it's applied to sexuality, reproductive rights, or the work world. It's always struck me as too airy and artificial a concept, isolated from the sociological, economical, biological mess of life. And a new study by scientists at Brock University in Ontario finds that, in relation to male homosexuality, "choice" doesn't have that much to do with it.

In 1997, a study showed that whether a man's chance of being gay increases by a third with each elder male brother he has. But the original study didn't speculate whether this was because of social-cultural factors in the house or biological factors. This new study looked specifically at the influence of genetically related male siblings (as opposed to those connected through adoption or marriage) and also looked at whether it mattered if the siblings were raised in the same house. The study found that only biological siblings influence the chances of the younger male sibling being gay, and that they influence it even if they haven't been raised in the same house as the younger sibling. In other words, the gayness starts in the womb, or maybe in the zygote.

There's no similar correlation for homosexuality in women. Also, in an odd related finding the correlation between gayness and elder brothers seems to be true for right-handed males. Other research had previously uncovered that both men and women who are left-handed are slightly more likely to be gay.

Who knows what other factors are yet to be discovered: perhaps a link between a pregnant woman's craving for rice pudding and the chances of her unborn daughter becoming a lesbian? Are pregnant women with cats more likely to have lesbians and pregnant women with dogs more likely to give birth to gay male babies?

And if we really explore it, perhaps other correlations exist. As the first-born Jewish girl, was there some chemical in the womb that predicated I'd fall in love with a goy farm boy?

All I'm saying is, this study is a good opportunity with those many with lingering homophobia to get over it. Will it make a difference? Unlikely. As one anti-gay group said when presented with the new evidence: We don't believe that there's any biological basis for homosexuality. 'We feel the causes are complex but are deeply rooted in early childhood development.''

Buy My Baby

Just the other day, I was naive enough to worry about blatant advertising for make-up in young adult novels, but that was before a friend told me aboutBuyJake.com. For ten thousand dollars, you can get your company's name tattoed on the toddler's forehead for a month. For a year, the cost is a hundred thousand dollars. Questions? Talk to his publicist.

The woman who made $4,000 by advertising space on her belly on Ebay is one thing. It's cringe-inducing, but it's her body and if she want to sell it I suppose she can. In fact, it's she's become part of a trend with a number of bellies available on Ebay. A woman in New Zealand is even starting a business called Bump It Up that specifically connects advertisers with pregnant women who need money and would be willing to sell their belly space.

But selling your children's bodies, even your children's forehead, is another thing altogether. Even if there's still quite a bit of debate about when personhood begins, almost everyone agrees that once a baby is out and toddling around it is most definitely it's own person. A person with a rapidly growing brain who doesn't need the words "Golden Casino" tattoed on his forehead, even if it's only temporary.

The money for all this advertising goes into a savings account for Jake for when he's bigger. In fact, as the parents write, via Jake's voice, on his "blog": "My Mom does not need and is not going to use a dime of my money." But the problem with it isn't the money involved, it's the impmrinting to that young child that everything, even you, are for sale.

Police say No to the Feds

U.S. Customs and Immigration has been travelling the U.S., asking local police departments to do the Feds' job and track down undocumented workers. But police, mayors, and city councils of some of the counrty's biggest cities are saying no. In fact, a national group representing 57 big-city police chiefs warned this month that local enforcement of federal immigration laws would "undermine trust and cooperation" among immigrants.
Perhaps they're remembering that their mandate is to help stop actual crimes in process and help the community instead of harassing people who may be victims of violent crimes.

According to a front page USA Today story, Police chiefs, mayors and city councils are ordering local cops not to get involved in the federal crack down.

"Vulnerable people have always needed to see the police as being there to protect and serve, and that can't happen when the first words out of a cop's mouth are, 'I need to see your papers,' " Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt also had some words of common sense: "We have spent many years ... getting special communities to talk to us, to report crime, to be witnesses. If we stop individuals (to ask about immigration status), we would lose all of that."

Mayor Rybak also asked federal agents to stop wearing vests labeled "police." The agents have not altered their wardrobes. And the Minneapolis City Council voted in 2003 to prevent police from asking about immigration status or enforcing immigration laws. Chicago passed a similiar resoultion this year.

Of course, some police chiefs have been only too happy to help in the crack down. Leading the charge are th state police in Alabama and Florida, the Arizona corrections department (thanks to the very scary Sherrif Arpaio) and sheriff's departments in San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Riverside counties in California and Mecklenburg County, N.C.

If only all the refugees looked like celebrities

I thought I would be writing something cynical today about how all the hype and focus on refugees for just one day of the year wasn't going to make much of a difference, but after scanning the major news media and not finding a single top headline about refugees, I realized I'd have to write something about them being ignored 365 days instead of just 364.

Apparently, even having celebrities having refugee children isn't enough to get them much attention.

Which is too bad for the nine million people, the majority of them children, with no safe place to go.

Amnesty International has a good list of the facts behind the refugee statistics and AlertNet points out that one of the main reasons girls in these refugee camps don't go to school isn't just ideological, it's practical: no separate bathrooms, no female teachers, and no means to get the required school clothes.

Perhaps part of the problem is that talking about refugees requires us to talk about Palestine and Darfur. It requires talking about solutions that include either, ideally, repatriation into their countries of origin if they are safe enough, integration into whatever country they are in, or asylum and resettlement to a third country. Ironically, it is often other very poor countries that are most likely to offer asylum. Last year, the U.S. took in 54,800 refugees. Given our own problems resettling New Orleans residents, and the hysteria over immigration, I wonder if the numbers for 2006 will be even less.

Nike is doing its part, it says, by sending refugees 40,000 footballs. Perhaps we can send them some fashion designers as well and then refugees will start getting the attention they need, and maybe even some toilets.

To bleed or not to bleed

While the religious right debates the ethics of contraceptives and politicians take a sledgehammer to reproductive rights, some women are taking control of their own bodies by choosing not to menstruate at all.

Some doctors think that, if you're not planning on getting pregnant, "there's not a lot of point to having periods." So says Dr. Leslie Miller, a University of Washington researcher and associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology.

But while I'm all for women controlling their own reproduction and would even agree with professor Linda Gordon that "the period is "way over-romanticized," something about the idea of completing getting rid of the natural cycle strikes me as wrong. It's not just that there isn't enough research, any really, on the long-term affects of stopping your period. It also just seems like there's got to be a way where we strike a balance between overromanticizing women's biology as destiny and believing that we should take every technological "choice" simply because it's possible.

Making sense of Moussaoui

What do you do with a problem like Moussaoui? A fanatical guy who really would like to blow things up, but didn't, actually, blow anything up.

Well, if you're the United States government, you bungle it, dismissing evidence available before 9/11 that would have possibly stopped the attacks and then, after the attacks, arresting Moussaoui, and holding him without charges for over two years while you try and create a case out of not much at all.

But if your "a jury of his peers," more or less, in this case, you get it right. Sentencing him to life in prison for his attempts to commit major crimes, but not actually sentencing him to death when the guy didn't actually do anything.* Dahlia Lithwick puts it like this:

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The most beautiful family in the world

I admit the photographs are beautiful; there's absolutely no clutter or plastic toys anywhere and the sand reflects the range of skin tones of Brad, Angelina, and their two children. But while I'd be more disturbed if People's "World's Most Beautiful Family" reflected a pure aryan family, there's something about the fetishization of children of color, particularly those from poorer parts of the world.

Maybe it's because people in this country tend to think children of color look so cute as kids, but don't do much about the systematic mistreatment they experience as they get older or the huge amount of children (especially older children) already here in the U.S. who are waiting to be adopted..

It doesn't bother Karen Walrond, who like me, also comes from a multicultural family. She sees it as a celebration of families like hers, and part of me agrees.

But another part of me wonders. If babies were last years' pashmina, will babies-of-a-different-color, preferably from a country that's much poorer than ours, be this year's must-have fashion accessory?

Breastfeeding at Freddies

I'm trying to be a patriot and follow our president's wishes about what I should do in the bedroom, but it's getting awfully confusing. First, apparently, I'm supposed to be abstinent. (Or was that obstinate? I always confuse the two.) Then, if I am going to have sex, it best be the married-kind. And then, married or not, if I do get pregnant -- no matter what the situation, no matter how broke I am, how unprepared I am, or how raped I was -- I am supposed to keep the baby.

Alright, suppose I did all that, here comes the kicker. Once I do have the little crying helpless infant attached to my hip everywhere I go (since it's not like there's nationally-subsidized daycare or anything), I'm not supposed to breastfeed it in public, even though breastfeeding is still generally considered to be the healthiest, most economical, and most sanitary way to get nourishment to a newborn.

Actually, for now, at least, 31 states protect a women's right to breast feeed in any public or private location. Of course, Oregon is one of those states, and that's where a woman breastfeeding in a Fred Meyer store was recently asked to cover up or, preferably, leave. Fred Meyers was singled out as one of the stores that not only stocks and sells emergency contraception but even has a sign up at the pharmacy to alert customers to the fact.

Of course Fred Meyers isn't the only culprit. Starbucks has also been singled out for asking breastfeeding mothers to leave. What's a confused patriotic mother to do? Stage a nurse-in, of course. (Watch the video of some University of Texas students doing just that here (click on the upper left hand side).

At least they have ping pong

Abu Bakker Qassim and A'Del Abdu al-Hakim are Chinese muslims, members of a small ethnic group called Uighurs, a group currently facing religious persecution in China. They were mistakenly arrested and sent to Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. military readily admits they messed up in this case, the two men have nothing to do with any attacks on the U.S. and are not considered enemy combatants. But now that they've got them at Guantanamo, they won't let them go.

Why? Because they don't want the two men coming to the United States and if they are sent back to China, there is a high likelihood that they will be killed. The U.S. is pressuring Germany to take them (I have no idea why Germany), although Germany hasn't agreed yet.

But it seems that because the U.S. has mistreated the men for four years, keeping them holed up at Guantanamo even when it knew they were innocent, a little U.S. welcome wouldn't be out of place as an apology.

According to the Bush administration lawyer, the two men have everything they need at Guantanamo: "a television, a stereo system, books and recreational opportunities: including soccer, volleyball and ping-pong."

The men beg to differ, saying they also need their freedom and that Guantanamo's not as cheery a place as the lawyer imagines it.

Their appeal was rejected today by the Supreme Court. The case is still being heard by the U.S. court of appeals.

Abandon hope all ye who enter

Torture-approving bastards like Donald Rumsfeld may come and go, but apparently those who have been detained in secret prisons are there to stay, no matter who is in charge of what. TalkLeft pointed out this story from Time Magazine, where CIA Chief John Negroponte is the first administration official to admit the existance of secret U.S.-run prisons in Europe, where suspects from Aghanistan, Iraq, and around the world are sent.

The profile is oddly fawning, considering the brutal words coming out of Negroponte's mouth and his seemingly lack of concern about the legality or humanity of keeping people locked away forever without a fair trial. In fact, the only thing Time is critical of is not Negroponte's policies, but his office: "[I]t's a warren of pathetic-looking workspaces in a 40-year-old building around the corner from the White House. The rooms are dingy, stuffy and overcrowded."

Here's the part where Negroponte talks about the prisoners:

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April is the cruelest month

I can't be the only one flabbergasted that the Bush administration would even think of invading Iran right now, when we've made such a bloody mess of Iraq and it's only getting bloodier each day.

The news that 36 U.S. soldiers have been killed this month alone should put to final rest any administration claims that things are getting better. While no official numbers are released on how many Iraqis have been killed, Iraq Body Count estimates an average of 36 per day from March 2005 to March 2006.

Remember the White House's old good friend, Ayad Allawi? The former prime minister told Reuters that Iraq has already embarked on the early stages of civil war.

"Three years ago we did not expect things to get this bad," he said. "Iraqis and the international community ... must make extraordinary efforts ... to get Iraq on the path to recovery." Allawi's only half right. It's true that three years ago Bush was already proclaiming victory. But a U.S. intelligence agency study in 2003 predicted the strong possibility of Iraqi civil war, not to mention the many predictions made by groups like Human Rights Watch.

It seems the only humane thing to do, all I for one want to do, is pause, and give these deaths the moments of respect they deserve. But for this administration, there's no time to either mourn these April deaths or those that came before. There's not time to look back on what could have been different and could be different now. After all, it's on to Iran. Condolezza Rice recommends "strong steps." I recommend a looking backward before marching forward.

One reason to move to Vermont

I spent a year in Vermont. It's dramatically beautiful, the air is clean, and the most people I met were refreshingly straightforward and without bullshit. But I can never live there again. One extended winter and one long "mud season" were enough to turn this born and bred Californian away for good.

Still, editorials like this are almost enough to make me change my mind. Dan DeWalt, a woodworker and Vermonter, talks about why his town of around 1500 people, and four other Vermont towns with similar populations, recently passed resolutions calling for Congress to impeach the President.

The text of the particular resolution isn't available yet, but a similar resolution, passed by Brattleboro, VT, is available here and a sample text, in case you're inspired to try this at home, as well as a list of the other nine towns that have passed resolutions, is available here.

Dewalt writes:

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Hooray for Harry

It's quite a bit easier to criticize the President clearly and rationally in writing than in person, especially considering how rare it is that Bush is ever seen in a non-scripted public moment. And so you have to hand it to Harry Taylor, a commercial real estate broker in North Carolina, who may be the first person in the last six years to tell the President directly what the problem is. (To watch the video, scroll down here.)

Here's what he said, minus Bush's joking interruptions:

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Prayer hurts

Perhaps it's just because I've just finished editing a book about the benefits of spiritual and secular prayer, but I'm a little confused by a new long-term study that finds that prayer not only doesn't help patients recover from surgery, but that people who are prayed for actually have more complications that those that aren't prayed for. This appears to be true whether or not people knew they were being prayed for.

It makes simple sense to me that people who were prayed for had the same level of recovery of those that weren't. Prayer is too vague and personal a thing, I believe, to be responsible for efficient scientific cause and effect. But it seems odd that prayer hurts. Some speculate that perhaps people think if others are praying for them, things must be really bad, and their worry causes complications. The more religiously inclined speculate that the problem was that it was strangers praying, not friends or family. You could also speculate that the problem was that it was all Christian prayers, and maybe they needed some diversity in there.

Or you could decide that the whole thing, including the rigorous scientifc study, has too huge an element of chance in it to give us conclusions and that prayer is best left to individual choice, not to national debate, and not worth the millions of dollars the government and private funders have spent on it since Bush took office.

More Patriot Act shenanigans

Remember all that back and forth in Congress about extending the Patriot Act and postponing the decision until Congress had put some "checks and balances" into the act? Congress didn't do much to change the most egregious provisions (such as library snooping) but they did put in a provision that required that the Executive Branch keep Congress informed of its actions.

In fact, in justifying his signing of the revised act, Senator John Sununu said, ""We sent an important message...to the administration that when we're dealing with these issues, they need to be engaged and active and working toward consensus from the very beginning of the process."

Apparently, Bush didn't think much of that whole accountability thing and so, in signing the new version of the Patriot Act into law, he issued a signing statement (similar to the morally reprehensible one he issued when he signed the anti-torture act), saying he could interpret the law as he liked.

The Boston Globe has the story, and puts it succinctly:

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Make way for Kid Utility Vehicles

As Matt notes the purchase of Sport Utility Vehicles is on the (slight) decline, but the purchase of Kid Utility Vehicles, monster strollers that take up the whole sidewalk, is on the rise.

Even if you don't have kids, you may have heard of the super-swanky Bugaboo, the world's most expensive stroller. But the Bugaboo is kind of like the revamped VW Bugs, it may look cute and cost more, but it doesn't take up a lot of extra space.

A KUV, on the other hand, is designed to hold two kids up to five years old, plus tons of stuff that those kids apparently need. Basically, you can own the sidewalk, which is only a problem for all those poor folks out there who were also hoping to get a piece of the sidewalk. As for those five year olds that can actually walk themselves, they better get out of the way or risk being run over.

As bad, or at least as ridiculous, are the supersize toddler potties, the SUVs of toilet training, so to speak. One offender, the Boon Potty Bench. You could argue that these are better than the KUVs, in that the only space your hogging is the space in your own bathroom. But really, doesn't it seem that any kid who starts out with a king-size potty and then moves on to a hummer of a stroller, can only grow up to think that they, and their parents, own the world?

Iraq is not your girlfriend

There was always something disturbingly familiar about the language Bush, Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld used to describe our relations to Iraq. But I could never quite figure out what it was until yesterday, when Bush reiterated that we would not "abandon" Iraq. He went on to say, "We will leave Iraq, but when we do, it will be from a position of strength, not weakness."

I worked at a number of battered women's shelters in the 1990s, and at one of them a woman told me the story of how her boyfriend kept saying he wouldn't "abandon" her, despite the fact that she'd told him she didn't want to be with him anymore, moved out, and had two restraining orders against him. He couldn't seem to understand that if she needed help, she'd get it from some qualified neutral party, not a guy who beat her up and constantly accused her of doing things she didn't do. Just as Bush doesn't seem to understand that some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without. (I have a hunch he wasn't given Free to Be You and Me as a child.)

Bush and the war crew have three key features of the classic batterer profile:

1) A belief, without any evidence, that the other party is doing something "wrong" and "against them" and a sense that it's right to act on that belief.
2) An overwhelming fear of being perceived as weak.
3) A strategy of keeping the other party so battered and without resources that the other party begins to believe that it needs the batterer to survive.

A more comprehensive list of "typical abusive behaviors" from The Yellow Brick Road Project, one of many groups that help women get out of abusive relationships, reads like a summary of our behavior in Iraq, especially if you take into account the ongoing revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Destructive Criticism/Verbal Abuse
Pressure Tactics
Abusing Authority: Always claiming to be right (insisting statements are "the truth"); telling you what to do
Abusing Trust: Lying: withholding information; cheating on you; being overly jealous
Breaking Promises
Emotional Withholding
Minimizing, Denying & Blaming
Economic Control
Self Destructive Behavior
Acts of Violence and Intimidation
Sexual Violence
Physical Violence

What does the Yellow Brick Road project recommend you do with batterers? Counseling, to be sure. And keeping them out of any positions where they might possibly harm the person, or country, they've abused.

The War Within

Apparently, it's not just us vs. those-who-hate-our-freedom any longer. And it's not just stay-at-home mothers vs. work-outside-the-home mothers. Nor is it even, as Leslie Morgan Steiner suggests, women vs. themselves. Apparently, pregnant women are now battling the embryos in their bodies for prescious resources.

According to biologist David Haig, there's a reason pregnancy seems so complicated. Mother and fetus are battling it out for the same resources. Our body is designed to give the fetus the largest amount of resources it needs so it can survive the pregnancy, but at the same time, limit it enough so that the mother too survives the pregnancy. It's not an easy balancing act. As Dr. Haig says, "Pregnancy is absolutely central to reproduction, and yet pregnancy doesn't seem to work very well."

Some anti-abortion folks hate this theory because, besides being based on evolution, it implies that children aren't just destined to be born in a happy. But Haig's theory echoes what pro-reproductive rights folks have been saying all along: reproduction is complicated and conflicted, no matter what a woman decides to do. Choosing to have a child requires sacrificing some part of your self, just as choosing an abortion necessarily involves a sacrifice. Either way, some thing's got to give and either way, there's a big loss. Doesn't make a pretty political slogan, does it?

No politics at the Oscars

Watching the 78th Acadmey Awards, you'd never know there was a war going on. You wouldn't know that our President has admitted to an impeachable offence, illegaly spying on citizens, or that Patriot Act 2 was just confirmed, making McCarthyism seem more like the not-so-distant future ithan the past. In a fairly common combination of self-congratulation and cowardice, last night's Oscar movie award extravaganza failed to say anything at all. A good example is the speech given by Rachel Weisz, who thanked those people who, unlike her, had the courage to risk their lives for their convictions. Of course, at this Oscars, there weren't even people willing to say they're convictions, must less risk their lives for them.

And what else should we expect, really? This is, after all, the big awards of Hollywood not the ACLU. But perhaps we expect more because Hollywood likes say it does more. As George Clooney said in his acceptance speech last night, "We're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects.�

Is Hollywood feeling the free speech chill that comes from living in a time when this administration calls any dissent traitorous, even when it comes from traditional war-supporters like John Murtha? Or do these folks really just not have that much to say?

Patriot Act slouches toward renewal

Alberto Gonzales basically admitted in a letter yesteray that the government is spying on more Americans, and in more ways, than even those revealed inthe NSA wiretapping scandal. So why oh why did the Senate decide yesterday to end debate and move toward a renewal of a Patriot Act that looks disturbingly like the last problematic Patriot Act, with just three cosmetic changes?

TalkLeft breaks down a few of the key problematic provisions either left intact or expanded in the new Patriot Act:

*a national federal police force. Here is the text to Section 605 which would create one.
*the anti-Meth Act
*New drug crimes and death penalty eligible offenses
*Sneak and Peek searches that are more about the drug war than the terror war.

To break it down even further, here's Senator Feingold, who is likely to end up being the only Senator voting against the bill when it comes to a full vote today:

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Octavia Butler and the reading wars

Somehow, amid my general despair about Iraq and my general elation about the fact that finally no one in my family is currently ill, I've gotten sidetracked by this whole continuing debate about how we learn to read. Some people thought this debate was over and, like many things, ended in the conclusion that a mixture of everything is best. Not so. Others still apparently consider teaching "whole language" reading tantamount to child abuse at worst and racism at best. Did you know that phonics was associated with Republicans, capitalists, and strict teachers while whole language was left for us feel-gooders and Democrats who actually believe you should read to children? Perhaps South Dakota, continuing its lovely push into the dark ages, will next ban pointing out whole words to children and reading to them.

My daughter just turned three. She can "read" six words: sun, moon, cat, dog, Luna, eat, and egg. By read, I mean she recognizes these words. She's memorized that the one with a dog-like tale at the end is "dog," the one with two moon-circles in the middle is "moon." This is how I learned how to read at age two and I don't think it's warped me too much, except that I spent too much of my childhood (and arguably too much of my adulthood) reading. But it's not phonics, and it's not how most kids learn to read these days. At preschool, my daughter learns to recognize sounds and spell things out phonetically. She's got the idea, but not the syntax; she wants to know what does "B" start with, butterfly or elephant?

At the Exploratorium, a hands-on science center in San Francisco, they have a new exhibit on how people read. Apparently, most of us, even those who were taught strict phonics, just read the first and last letter of a word, and the order of the letters in the middle don't really matter much.

Most people, without pausing, can read Mark Twain's aphorism:

I dno't gvie a dman for a man taht can olny sepll a wrod one way.

Everyone I know who was read to as a child and had books in the house learned to read. Those I know that weren't read to have struggled with reading all their lives, no matter how much they were taught in school. If there was ever an unnecessary debate, this is it. Do it all. Throw the book--letters, words, and pictures-- at a kid, make it a book about something they care about, and I bet they'll be reading.

I write this inspired in part by Octavia Butler, who died on Friday of a head wound. The author of Kindred, Bloodchild, and Wild Seed was one of those writers who you inhaled. She was also a brilliant inspiration, a tall African-Amerian woman who never worried about convention, never stopped asking questions, and always let her imagination run fully. She's one of the women I hope my daughter will read one day; once she expands her six-word reading vocabulary.

Quality time

What to make of the news that one fifth of all Americans think they've been spied on by the U.S. government? Is this paranoid or pragmatic? And why do only fifty percent of Americans, according to the latest polls, think there's something wrong with spying on U.S. citizens?

I think I've figured out the answer. In a way, it's almost comforting to think that the U.S. government is evesdropping on us; at least it means they're paying attention. It's rare that we, as individual citizens, get much in terms of care and attention from our government. Given that 45 million Americans don't have health insurance, including 20 million people who are regularly employed, no wonder we're hoping someone will take notice of us. One percent of Americans, but 5 percent of all outpatient doctor visitors, are hypochondriacs. More and more Americans use the emergency room in place of a regular doctor, either because they don't have one or can't get adequate care or information from the HMO-managed one they have. When we do have something that really physically wrong with us, it's likely to go undiagnosed.

If we had the kind of government that actually knew how to listen and not just how to attack, maybe there could be some silver lining to this whole sordid spying business. Instead of just looking for code words and criticisms, they'd hear some of the concerns that are really bothering us. The knee aching up again. No health care for our partners or our kids. Gun shots waking us up at night. But they don't have to sneak and break the law to hear these concerns. We'd be happy to tell them directly. If only they'd stop sneaking around and evesdropping on us and instead just learn to listen.

The new photographs from Abu Ghraib

I wish I could tell you a joke right now about Cheney, two beers, and a lawyer full of birdshot, because I'd relaly like to focus on something like that--good, clean fun that is rightly at the vice-president's expense. But I can't. It would be letting him, and Bush, Rice, Rumsfeld, and the whole administration off far too easy. Besides, I'm too naseous. I'm too furious. I'm too repelled at the human moral line that has been crossed by our representatives--in our name--at Abu Ghraib.

The summary and a link to the photographs and a video that I can't bring myself to see all the way through is here.

The images make me wonder why the bowels of the earth don't just open and swallow the President every time he makes reference to us "bringing democracy" anywhere. They make violent resistance in Iraq seem like the only justified response.

These are the photographs the U.S. government has been fighting to keep secret, believing they could provoke the kind of international and U.S. national moral outrage that would reveal how indefensiblity of both torture and our occupation of Iraq.

If you do choose to see the photographs, after taking some time to let the horror sink in, want to know what to do, contact the Center for Constitutional Rights.

They, along with the ACLU, are demanding a full investigation and the full release of the photographs in the United States. This is one of those momens where no one can say they didn't know what our government was doing. This is one of those historical moments where passivity is tantamount to complicity.

Cheney shooting victim has heart attack

I thought we might be done talking about Dick Cheney and his shooting of his friend in the face. I thought his friend might be out of the hospital, Cheney would give the still noticeably missing apology, the White House would acknowledge that they withheld the information, and we could move on. But no.

Apparently, some of the birdshot that missed Harry Whittington's face landed in his heart, causing the man to have a "minor heart attack" this morning. Here's the thing that stuck with me as perhaps the biggest symbol of this whole mess:

The doctors are leaving the birdshot in place in his heart. They said Whittington could go on to live a healthy life with it there.

Oh, and just in case there's any question about whether Dick Cheney "did anything wrong." Here's the final report from the Texas wildlife department: the main factor contributing to the accident was the "hunter's judgment factor." In other words, Dick Cheney's lack of good judgement. Never mind that he had also handn't aquired the necessary stamp to be hunting at that time anyway.

Illegal. Bad judgement. Somebody gets hurt. Scarred for life. A heart full of holes. Sums up the administration pretty well, me thinks.

The umpire strikes back

I was bothered by this during John Roberts Supreme Court nomination hearings. I was even more bothered by this during Samuel Alito's nomination hearings. And while I was already really annoyed by Bush shedding crocodile tears over the death of Coretta Scott King, I was really irritated by people calling the truth "politics" when Reverend Joseph Lowery told it like it is at her funeral.

It's not just a question of the fact that Coretta would have approved, although, she undoubtedly would have. It's that there wasn't more of it. More speaking to her ideas and ideals, for that is a large part of what makes a life.

People have ideas, beliefs, and judgements. People get nominated to the Supreme Court for these beliefs. And, when they die, they should be honored for their beliefs by those they have inspired.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the press were enamored with John Roberts' simile likening judges to umpires. But not only are judges nothing like umpires, umpires aren't even like umpires in any area of their life outside of their job. And, even then, it's not just rabid Seahawks fans who think that umpires bring to the game their prejudices, their judgements, and their beliefs.

Politics is, to me, about how I live my daily life, how I respond to the decisions the goverment makes in my name, and what I believe about the world. If "playing politics" sounds dirty, it's because corrupt politicians have toyed with matters of life and death and everyday life.

What Bush can learn from Oprah tonight

There are little white lies, gray lies, and big fat ugly lies that cost people their lives. Most of President Bush's presidency has been full of the last category. You can mark the year of his presidency by the lie that defined it: A "Uniter Not a Divider" (2000); "Quick Victory" (2001); "W" is for Women (2002); No Child Left Behind (2003); Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004); and Democracy in the Middle East (2005), to name a few.

But we'll put these aside for just a moment, and talk about mistakes. You know, the kind Bush, in his 2004 debate with John Kerry, famously denied ever making. But come on, Bush, I don't expect you to admit to the lies, but even Big Bird and Oprah admit to making mistakes. Oprah is the closest thing this country has to a queen and, given your kingly aspirations, if she can admit her mistakes you can too. The pundits say tonight's speech is likely to focus on Iraq and health care. Those are fine places to start admitting what went wrong. And since you're a bit rusty at it, here's a little list to help you out:

1. It's a mistake to think that the occupation of Iraq is winnable. It's a mistake to think that your responsibilty for it ends when Iraq is no longer in the news or you're no longer President. It's a mistake to think any phyrric oily victory you pull out of the ashes will be worth the thousands of lives lost.

2. It is a mistake to think that a national health care crisis, where individuals and small businesses can't afford to cover basic health care needs, will be solved by Health Saving Accounts. Just because your cousin owns a big upstart company that pushes them doesn't mean they're the answer. A CBS poll found that more than sixty percent of Americans support universal health care coverage. It would be a mistake not to give it to them. Finally, it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that the confirmation of Sameul Alito to the Supreme Court -- a man who has publicly admitted he believes abortion should be illegal -- won't add to the health care crisis.

3. That whole spying on U.S. citizens without a warrant thing was a huge mistake. Why? Because what we talk about on the phone with our friends and loved ones is personal. Maybe you really thought it was legal. Well, legal experts have weighed in and it's not. As my little sister used to say to me, "this is an A and B conversation so why don't you C your way out?"

4. Finally, it's a mistake to think dismantaling civil liberties, torturing prisoners, encouraging "faith-based" programs in the schools, and cutting funding for contraception is going to make the world a more heavenly or pleasant place to live.

Being a strict "Constitutionalist," Bush could be like George Washington at his State of the Union address and say all this 835 words or less. I'm not saying it's going to happen. But we can, and should, ask our President to come clean. After all, as the evangelicals say, it's never too late for redemption.

Democracies not welcome

Despite what we say, we negotiate fine with terrorists*, we just don't negotiate with the democratically elected governments we don't like. That's the only conclusion I can draw from Ms. Rice and the Bush Administration's continued assertion that they want to isolate the new Hamas-led government of the tiny barbed wire isolated devastation we're calling Palestine.

At first, the line was, we won't negotiate or send aid to Hamas until it renounces violence and accepts Israel's right to exist in pre-1967 borders. Now, Rice is saying we won't negotiate with Hamas. There are no conditions set on our aid to Israel. Period.

The European Union has, warily, said they'll give the Hamas-majority government "a few weeks" to clarify its positions. In other words, they're hoping monetary desperation will bring political expediency.

But political expediency was what doomed Arafat's Fatah party. After years and years of "accomodation" with both Israel and the United States, they had little to show for it except a corrupt puppet government of their own, a barbed wire fence around the West Bank, and a seemingly endless round of revenge killings. As Laurie King-Irani points out, the Hamas’ victory stems, ultimately, from the "blatant corruption, mediocrity, and lack of leadership in the Palestinian Authority, the elite of which were supported and propped up by successive US administrations." This is not to say that Hamas will do any better than Fatah at governing the bits and scraps of Palestine that have not yet been occupied by Israeli settlers. But -- even with their lack of experience and the piss poor hand the Palestinians have in influencing international support -- it would be hard for them do worse.

So far, we're still holding the puppet strings in Iraq. But all the money and bombs in the world aren't enough to avoid the inevitable: the first thing any real popularly elected Iraqi government would do is kick the U.S. out. Corruptable aging dictators are so much easier to work with than those pesky democractically-elected "terorrists."

*See Evan's excellent post here and the full analysis here.

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