Thank You, Donald Trump!

Can somebody PLEASE explain to me what the hell is happening in the G.O.P.? The Bush clan and Mitt Romney just announced that they will not be attending the Convention this summer. So did former presidential candidate John McCain. And Paul Ryan just announced that he can’t get behind Trump’s policies.

Let me get this straight. When angry racist White people – anyone remember the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh and their supporters? – were voting for candidates on the basis of such idiotisms as bootstrapism, prolifism, homophobia and xenophobia (has EVERYONE forgotten Orange Alerts?), these “mainstream” “moderate” Republicans saw nothing wrong with the party?

When angry White xenophobes, racists, homophobes and misogynists were voting to deny marriage equality and cut social-welfare spending for impoverished and minority communities, this was ok? Voting to deny millions of “illegals” basic things like state-issued identification documents and health care was ok?

But now that angry White racists, xenophobes, and bigots are voting on the basis of racism, xenophobia, and bigotry, suddenly there’s something wrong with the party? Um . . . did the Bush clan, Romney, John McCain, and the rest of these “mainstream” Republicans ever wonder why so few Black people supported their party? It’s because their party has ALWAYS been the party of bigots, racists, xenophobes, and homophobes! Sure, they were a more polite sort of racist, homophobe, xenophobe, and misogynist but racists, homophobes, xenophobes, and misogynists they have always been. So thank you, Donald Trump, for helping the G.O.P. show its A.S.S. to the world.

Long Overdue Alphabetical Retrospective on the Bush Years

A is for Axis of Evil
B is for blowback
C is for compassionate conservatism
D is for decider
E is for Enron
F is for freedom fries
G is for Guantanamo
H is for Hurricane Katrina
I is for insurgency
J is for Jesus
K is for Kanye West
L is for liberators
M is for mission accomplished
N is for New Orleans
O is for orange alerts
P is for Patriot Act
Q is for quagmire
R is for recession
S is for shock and awe
T is for “they misunderestimated me”
U is for unknown unknowns
V is for Valerie Plame
W is for waterboarding
X is for extraordinary rendition
Y is for Yellowcake
Z is for xenophobia

Open Letter to Ahmed Mohamed

Dear Ahmed,

I heard with great sadness about the awful experience you had after you brought a home-made clock to school. I cannot imagine how embarrassing — humiliating, even — it must have been for you to be singled out from your classmates and led away in handcuffs. I want to join the many people who have spoken out in your support and protested the way you were treated.

I also want to tell you, Ahmed, that you have nothing to be ashamed of because you did nothing wrong. You used your curiosity and intelligence to create something wonderful, and you should be very proud of that. It is the adults — the teacher, the principal, and the police — who are in the wrong and who acted disgracefully. They are the ones who should feel ashamed for letting their ignorance and prejudice guide their actions. Where normal, decent people would have seen a technological achievement by a talented teenager, they saw only threat and reacted with fear instead of admiration.

Perhaps they were jealous that never in a million years could they have created a working electronic timepiece. Or perhaps they resented you for your intelligence and creativity and felt the need to shame you by pretending your clock was a destructive weapon. Whatever their reasons, their actions show that their small minds and limited imaginations could come up with only one scenario; one in which the boy with the Muslim name is a villain.

Ahmed, do not let the stupidity of these adults change who you are or how you see the world. You see, Ahmed, people with small minds and limited imaginations need to make the entire world — and everyone in it — small enough to fit into their limited vision. They are like the blind men from the children’s story who, unable to see the full majesty of the elephant, saw it simply as a collection of ordinary objects. To the small-minded adults who work at and were called to your school, a Muslim boy cannot build a digital clock because in their small minds, Muslims only make weapons. Their limited imagination cannot allow them to see you for who you really are; a curious teenager with an interest in electronics and a talent for building things.

Ahmed, the truth is that the world is full of small-minded people with limited imaginations. They will always try to make you small enough to fit into their small minds. They will try to limit you so that you fit their limited view of themselves and of the world. You must not let this happen, Ahmed. Do not let them limit your potential. Do not let them change how you see yourself. Do not let them squeeze you into their small minds, Ahmed, because a small mind is the worst of all prisons. Instead, continue to be the curious, creative, and talented person that you are now and show these people that you refuse to be caged by their imagination or imprisoned by their minds.

Me Versus the Haters

Just walked past a trio of Christians denouncing “sinners” on the Strip. Naturally, I stopped to chat with one of them, who was holding up a sign warning “so-called Christians, baby-killing women, homosexuals, porno freaks, rebellious women, and drunks” (notice how they have women in there TWICE, coz women are TWICE as sinful!). I approached him innocently enough and asked where I could find drunk, rebellious women. His answer – “in hell,” followed by a warning that I was headed there as well – led me to believe an interesting conversation was afoot. After he explained to me why the Bible is against drunkenness – apparently it’s because intoxication impairs judgment, which leads to sin – I wondered aloud what the good book had to say about sins that are committed in the absence of alcohol-impaired judgement. By way of example, I used drone strikes against weddings which, for the sake of argument I had to assume are ordered and carried out by sober men. He conceded that a person who orders the killing of 30 innocent people would also end up in hell, but could not explain how or why drunkenness AND the mass murder of innocents would – in the eyes of the Almighty and All-Knowing – both merit the same punishment, i.e., eternal damnation in hell. He hinted weakly at the possibility of there being different levels of hell in which the drunk lady’s suffering may be less intense than the mass murderer’s, but did not challenge God’s reasoning on this because it, as he explained to me, was so written in the book he was clutching and trying to read passages from. There was some back and forth about repentance and forgiveness but the best part came when I asked him whether it was Jesus’s style to stand in a public place and call people freaks and killers (for, the record, Jesus instructed his followers to NOT be like the hypocrites who pray loudly and in the open, thereby making a public spectacle of their religiousity.) In response, he said that Jesus had called the Pharisees “a den of vipers,” but was unable to name anyone else who was name-called by Jesus. Then I asked him how come he had not named any modern-day Pharisees on his sign, choosing instead to direct his warning against individual people with whose personal choices he disagreed. The fun finally ended when the leader – who had been using a bullhorn to “warn” passers-by of their impending damnation – came over and instructed the follower to end the conversation.

Virginity for Sale

Well well well . . . It was only a matter of time!

Last summer, I blogged about a case in France in which a young engineer had divorced his new wife because she was not a virgin on their wedding night. How did he find out? She failed to bleed properly from her vagina when they consumated their marriage on that auspicious night.

The case brought up all kinds of issues dealing with religion, sexual and reproductive freedom, and gender roles—particularly within some Muslim communities in which virginity is a prequisite for women’s marriageability. The case also brought up the issue of hymen reconstruction surgery, a procedure that restores the hymen and essentially gives women their virginity back, thereby allowing them a degree of sexual freedom without the risk of being stigmatized as unworthy of marriage.

A Chinese company, it seems, went one step further. Bypassing the surgical option, Gigimo offers an “artificial hymen,” designed to be inserted into the vagina prior to intercourse. According to the Huffington Post, the product “leaks a blood-like substance when . . . broken.” On Gigimo’s Web site, the artificial hymen is described as easy to use, non-toxic, painless, and hypo-allergenic—although a 2008 piece in Salon called attention to potential side effects.

At first blush, the artificial hymen might seem like a win-win situation for everyone. Husbands would be able to present a bloody sheet to their guests on the night of the wedding; women would be able to enjoy premarital sexual freedom without having to worry about a wedding-night divorce; and families would be assured that they had chosen good spouses for their children (IBN Live reported back in 2008 that Muslim women in Britain were already using the product to “fake their virginity”). Alas! Nothing is ever so rosy in the world of sex and marriage. Although having been around for a while, the artificial hymen is now making international headlines because conservative Egyptian lawmakers are seeking to ban its importation and sale in their country.

This case can be seen as an illustration of the ongoing tensions between tradition vs. modernity, men vs. women, religion vs. secularity, and the impact of science and technology on them all. Take, for instance, the role of culture: culture creates a need—in this case for virgin wives—which demands that women’s hymens be intact on their wedding nights. On the other hand, how does culture address those women who choose to exercise the right to decide when, with whom, and under what circumstances to have sex? Similar questions could be raised about the relationship between religiously mandated women’s roles and the expectations of—to say nothing of the demands on—modern women. In other words, how do traditional sexual and reproductive values play out in a modern society in which women may find them outdated and overly restrictive?

This line of argument, however, misses the point. The sad reality is that many, many women in Egypt and elsewhere do not have much—if any—say about when, where, how, and with whom they lose their virginity. This latter group has to answer twice: the first time for the actual loss of their virginity; the second time when they get married. Whether in the form of a reconstructed hymen or an artificial one, technology could have been a saving grace that spared these women the stigma of having lost their virginity before marriage and thus being rendered unfit to marry. In other words, the artificial hymen—while not restoring to these women the dignity they may have lost along with their virginity—might have given them a chance to leave the past behind (assuming, of course, they had any say in whom they married).

But alas! There are too many ifs and if-onlys when it comes to questions of sex and what women do with their bodies. Besides, the artificial hymen would have, at best, been of use to only the minority of women who could afford its $30 price tag. If the ban goes into effect, however, even they will have to do without its salvation. Instead, they will have no choice but to live with the consequences of decisions they made ages ago or—even worse—spend the rest of their lives having to answer for events over which they may have had no control.

Deja-Vu All Over Again: Still Killing Them Softly . . .

I originally wrote the post below on August 3, 2007. I have made only minor changes to the text to reflect the number of casualties and the location of the disaster, and to correct any anachronisms.

Today, 10 Sierra Leoneans drowned (many more are still missing) when their boat capsized on a sea journey from Shenge to Tombo, a village south of the capital, Freetown. Official sources claim the boat—which has not yet been recovered—was overloaded and did not contain lifejackets, in violation of the law. Many of the passengers were children. In spite of the shocking casualty figures, I am sure nobody will be held accountable for these disasters. People die, nobody answers for their deaths and nothing is done to prevent future deaths. In this way, Sierra Leone’s leaders continue to get away with murder.

Sure, the boat that collapsed today was—like all other means of motorized transport in Sierra Leone—old and rickety, overloaded with passengers and cargo. Sure, the water was rough where the Great Scarcies, swollen by recent rains, met the Atlantic. And sure, when God calls you, you can’t avoid it. Nonetheless, somebody should take responsibility for all this loss of life. Somebody should be held accountable. Somebody must be punished so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. But nobody will be.

Ultimately, no matter how this story is sliced or diced, one thing is certain. The government—the people who are supposed to be responsible for the welfare of the nation—bears responsibility for this catastrophe. But one question will not be asked: “Why were there so many people packed into a rickety, overloaded boat traveling up the Atlantic coast during the rainy season?” The answer is simple. They have no choice.

And why do they have no choice? Because the government has not bothered to try to make sure that people can travel from one part of the country to another without taking  their lives into their hands. And because there is virtually no public transportation network in Sierra Leone. Or in most of West Africa. The old colonial highways (and I use “highway” loosely because these roads are seldom wider than one lane in either direction) are in poor condition, unpaved, bumpy and barely navigable at speeds greater than 20 miles an hour. To go by land, would-be passengers have to cram themselves into . . . you guessed it . . . old, rickety, and overloaded minibuses. Secondly, there are no major roads that run from Freetown due north. Passengers would have to go towards the center of the country and transfer at one of the major junctions. Finally, the transportation system is a neoliberal freemarketeer’s wet dream come true. Drivers only go where there is demand, and the evidence of demand is a full vehicle. Passengers wait, sometimes longer than an hour, until the vehicle cannot hold another person or item of luggage. If you’re traveling from Freetown to another part of Sierra Leone, it doesn’t matter how you decide to get there. Traveling by sea or road is a costly, crowded, and uncomfortable experience. And you may not survive the trip.

Since independence, the country’s infrastructure has slowly been falling apart. Official corruption and public apathy—more accurately fatalism—have resulted in the literal and physical deterioration of every aspect of social life: housing, health care, education, transportation. Everything is falling apart. The recently ended civil war, which raged for a decade and a half, did nothing to improve the situation.

Now the war is over. It’s been over since 2003. And what has this meant for infrastructure in Sierra Leone? Not much, except that the international community has done a good job of rebuilding and refurbishing the main commercial and administrative buildings in the capital’s city center. When I was there last September, my guide pointed out all the buildings that had been rebuilt by the British, the French, the EU, the UN but I didn’t see a single building that had been rebuilt by the Sierra Leonean government.

“But,” I hear you say, “isn’t it a lot to ask of the fragile new administration of a post-conflict-country to invest huge sums of revenue into reconstruction?” Fair enough. But if they can’t or don’t spend money on rebuilding the country, what can or do they spend revenues on? Last time I checked, it was the duty of a government to provide for the wellbeing of its people. Certainly I’m not naive enough to believe that the government must do so out of altruism but the Sierra Leonean government is failing at performing its basic role even if we look at it from purely economic terms. How can the country progress economically without a reliable and comprehensive transportation system, a requirement for even the most primitive systems of trade and commerce?

Besides, not having enough money is no excuse. Isn’t it part of the government’s job to have money? Whether through loans or foreign aid or domestic revenue generation, it is up to the government to generate revenue, which can then be reinvested into the economy. Despite what we hear about the role of government in the US, this is actually how modern, industrialized and—dare I say it—civilized countries function. Sure there’s a role for the market and the entrepreneur and all that good stuff but even the most die-hard advocates of the free market would never claim that the market exists to serve the public good. Entrepreneurs will tell you that they are in the business of seeking profits, not serving the public good. So, if the market won’t do it, who should? I say the government should. Find me one modern, industrialized, civilized country in which the government does nothing to provide for the public good.

Which brings me to my greater point. The government of Sierra Leone does not give a sh*t about the people of Sierra Leone. Since indepencence—46 years ago—Sierra Leone’s leaders (like the leaders of much of the “developing” world) have been busy enriching themselves. Sure, colonialism left homogenous, un-diversified economies throughout sub-Saharan Africa that were dependent on European economies for their survival. And yes, structural adjustments took a grievous toll on social welfare programs in developing countries but the time has come to call a spade a spade. African leaders don’t care about their people. They have never cared about their people. In the ’60s and ’70s, Sierra Leone was a decent place to live, with passable roads, round-the-clock electricity, and running water in the capital (the “provinces” were always a different story).

On my recent trip, however, Freetown had become like the provinces. Roads in the once-affluent western suburbs were now rutted and potholed, the asphalt broken up by tank treads from the days of the war and the soil underneath washed away by rain. Where there were once sidewalks, I saw deep ravines and gullies where water had eroded the soil on the side of the road. In some places, so much of the road had been washed away that two cars traveling in opposite directions could not pass each other along the same narrow stretch of road. And the roads are just the most visible part of the decay. Schools, hospitals, homes are all in a deplorable state of disrepair. More and more people live in slums and shanties.

Not everyone lives in dilapidation, though. I saw the president’s house. It’s a mansion that sits on a hillside overlooking the capital. Paved driveway, fence, swimming pool. But this man presides over a country that is slipping further and further backwards. But here’s the rub. The very poverty of Sierra Leone is what keeps these people in business. Millions of dollars and euros in foreign and development aid are funnelled into Sierra Leone—and many other impoverished countries—but how much of that money gets to the people who really need it? Having seen the president’s mansion, I have to say, not much.

The government of Sierra Leone is parasitic, and that corrupting mentality trickles all the way down through the society as low-level civil servants, underpaid and undertrained, scrounge around for scraps—bribes and other forms of official theft. How many people get into government because they want to make a difference, to help lift their country out of poverty? Not many, I imagine. After all, why has it taken so long to make that difference, and why is the country so much worse than it was at independence? Yes I know, colonialism and the international financial institutions must bear some of the blame but let’s not forget, Africa was not the only colonized continent. Yet today, Africa is by far the most impoverished region in the world.

Why do so many Sierra Leoneans who have attained professional and financial success abroad give it all up to pursue a political career in Sierra Leone? Because that’s where the money is. Take the former ambassador to the US, who had been a successful attorney and businessman prior to his appointment. Why did he go to Sierra Leone to try to get involved in politics? Why not lecture at the university there? He has a law degree and legal experience after all. Why not find investors and open a factory or some other revenue-generating business? After all, he had worked in the private sector before. Because he was not interested in doing anything to make Sierra Leone a safer, cleaner, or more comfortable place for its citizens to live. But he’s not alone.

Post-independence administrations—from Siaka Stevens’ on—have demonstrated a stunning lack of vision and imagination. As the rest of the world has moved forwards, Sierra Leone has slipped backwards. Why has no post-independence government implemented any policies for sustainable development? No large-scale, industrialized agriculture; no modern land, sea, or river transportation network; no new schoolhouses; no new hospitals; no modern air- or seaport; nothing! Just a government that maintains form without function.

When the president travels abroad, he is treated with all the respect befitting a dignitary. But every day in Sierra Leone, and in much of Africa, how many people die daily from easily preventable accidents and diseases? How many lives could be saved if the government committed itself to improving road networks and making transportation a faster and less dangerous business? Would the president be treated with such respect if he had lined the casualties of today’s boat catastrophe up against a wall and shot them all in the head? Sierra Leone boasts the world’s highest rates of infant mortality, with measles and malaria respectively accounting for 48 and 33 percent of all under-five deaths. What if, instead of having succumbed to easily prevented diseases, all these children had been gassed to death on the orders of the present government? There would be an international outcry, that’s what! No member of the Sierra Leonean government could travel abroad as smugly and proudly as they do now.

However, these people are not dying from accidents and disease. They are dying because the people who were elected or appointed to provide the basic amenities that would prevent their deaths are failing to do their jobs. Not having enough money to fix roads, build hospitals, or educate children should no longer be an acceptable excuse! Finding the money is part of the job description. Using the money to improve the country for everyone is another part of the job. Failing to do either of these things is the same as failing in the job. And failing to do one’s job is negligence. Every day, in Sierra Leone and all around Africa, people are dying from government negligence. But because they are dying from negligence instead of deliberate government action, the world looks the other way. Nobody is held accountable. The negligence goes unpunished.

Today, as 50 people go to their watery graves, we have seen one more demonstration of this negligence. With elections around the corner, let’s hope the next government is better than the previous ones. Let’s hope the next government values the lives of Sierra Leoneans enough to actively attempt to prevent such catastrophic accidents.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Just Another Day in the Land of Hopes and Dreams

Something strange happened today. Something that very seldom happens to me. And when it does, it happens gradually and almost imperceptibly. Subconsciously even. Today, I felt a shift in my perspective. A small, subtle shift. But a shift nonetheless.

A few weeks ago, I volunteered to tutor immigrants at a community center not far from where I live. All the immigrants are getting ready for the naturalization interview, their penultimate step towards US citizenship. This community center provides free English-language lessons, lessons that will hopefully help them pass their interviews and become US citizens.

Today was my first time with this group. I’ve taught English to immigrants many times before, so the experience itself was nothing new. There was the familiar excitement of meeting new people, learning where they are from and what brought them to the US. There was the camaraderie borne of communion, of sharing my own story, telling of my own experiences as an immigrant, an outsider.

It was a small class, with about a dozen or so students, all roughly middle-aged. Each volunteer was assigned a small group of two or three students. I was matched up with Ferdinand and Isabella (not their real names). The routine was pretty simple. No need for materials or a lesson plan. They had their citizenship booklets and workbooks full of US history and various writing exercises. We would work from those.

After introductions and the customary initial awkwardness, Ferdinand and Isabella seemed to loosen up. I started out with basic questions: what have you been working on in the class? Is there anything particular you’d like to work on? Both wanted to practise speaking. So we moved on to questions about them. Both are from a small Central American country. Both are divorced with children. Ferdinand has four from two previous wives. Isabella has two from her previous husband. They live in Europe. Isabella used to live in Europe with her sons but they’re grown now. I also learned that she and Ferdinand are married: he for the third time and she for the second.

Moving on to the more structured part of the lesson, I asked them both to write down a list of five things they liked about their country of birth. They talked about the weather (Isabella likes it hot), the food, the people, and the beach. Ferdinand said he likes the colors of the flag. I asked him what it was about the flag that he liked and he replied that as a kid in school, he’d have to look at the flag and pledge loyalty to it—just like in the US. Then he went to say that in his country of birth, you were allowed to look at the flag and maybe touch it. But you could not tear it or set fire to it. If you did, the army would take you away and . . . he made one hand into a fist and pounded it into the open palm of the other. Sometimes, a gesture speaks louder than words.

For the next part of the lesson, I had them ask each other questions about what they liked about the US. Isabella likes that there are people of many different nationalities. Ferdinand likes Atlantic City. And New York. He also likes the freedom, because he believes people should be able to express themselves without being pounded by the army. Isabella also likes that there are many opportunities here to have a good life. And she revealed that she would like to own a beauty salon someday. Ferdinand talked about how becoming a citizen would improve his chances of getting a better job. We continued to converse in this vein . . . while a realization slowly formed in my mind.

At several points in the hour-long lesson, I was deeply moved by this middle-aged couple, so different in so many ways yet so united in their belief in the potential of this country. He had come to the US as a young man in the ’70s but had chosen to return home, only to come back to the US six years ago. She had left her birth country at 15 and spent the better part of two decades in Europe, before making her way to the US. They had both lived elsewhere but had chosen to make the US their home.

And that’s when it hit me. This country’s strength, I realized, lies not in what it is, or even claims to be—lord knows, it falls far short of many of those claims. Rather, it lies in people like Ferdinand and Isabella, ordinary people whose desire for a better life gives them the strength to hope, the courage to follow their dreams wherever they may lead, and the determination to do whatever it takes to make them come true.