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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pants on fire

After ten years covering congress for National Public Radio, journalist Andrea Seabrook is walking away, and she'll tell you exactly why: she's sick of being lied to. 
In interviews, she says that there's so much spin and so many lies spewing out of DC that it's pointless even trying to report on the things that politicians say. She says:
"Americans, real people, you have bought this line that we are on two teams in this country. There is a red team, and there is a blue team. When we've gotten to the point where your partisan stripe comes before your American citizenship, our shared culture, our shared values in this country, then we have a real problem at the nation — national, federal level. We vote for people who are going in there to fight red or blue instead of put that stuff down at the end of the election cycle and work on real problems that need to be solved."
I'm right behind Seabrook on her way out the door. News junkie that I am, I turn off the radio the minute NPR starts yet another report on the presidential race. I drive in silence a lot. I'm done listening to candidates lie. I'm done listening to NPR valiantly trying to sort out the truth from the lies, and if I hear one more lie out of my candidate's mouth, I'm voting for the damn lawn gnome (i.e., Dennis Kucinich).
NPR told me that a recent survey found that most people just don't care when candidates on their side of the aisle lie to them. Really? Is that what we've come to as a society? We're just hiring people to lie to us now?
Anybody want to pay me to lie to them? Barack Obama eats boiled babies. Paul Ryan took a poop on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Those organic tomatoes in the White House garden? Bought from Nazis and stapled to the stems.
Now where's my Benjamins?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The English Language is Turkish... maybe

I have one serious case of writer's block. I know the whole expression is a cliche, but cliches are one well-known symptom of writer's block. For you non-writers out there, imagine being really, really constipated. Now imagine being really constipated inside your head. That's what it's like to need to write and to sit down to do so and have nothing come out. So there's that.
Also, the English language may descend from a language that may have been born in Turkey. That's what a new article in the journal Science says. 
Now, my regular readers and fellow English majors already know the story of the family of languages to which English belongs, but here's a quick refresher. Because the story of English's ancient ancestors still makes my head explode a little.
So English belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, a giant clan of different tongues spoken all throughout Eurasia plus parts of India. This includes living and dead languages including Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hittite, the Slavic languages, the Iranian languages, and hundreds more.
How in the heck do we know this? Because there are a few words or roots that are common across many or most of the language sub-families. In this post, I wrote about words having to do with honey and bees, and how almost every member of the Indo-European family of languages has bee-related words with a common root - medhu. For example, the English word mead. More surprising isn't that the word medhu survived is the fact that mead itself has survived. Have you ever had the stuff? It kind of makes you feel like you're drowning in royal jelly. But I digress as usual.
Anyway, linguists have been trying to figure out where the parent language, which they call proto Indo-European (PIE) originated. This is especially tough in that there are no existing written examples of the language - all we know about it is what we've been able to deduce by looking at its descendants.
A group of scientists from Auckland, New Zealand, thinks they've found the answer, and they did it in a really unusual way. These scientists used the same method evolutionary biologists use to track down the origins of diseases. When people who study infectious diseases set out to find the point of origin of a disease, they look at the DNA. Every time DNA replicates itself, there are little tiny variations. The more times the disease is replicated, the more variations. Scientists then search for the time and place in which the strains are least diverse, and that lets them figure out where a disease got its start. 
Instead of looking at DNA, the New Zealand researchers looked at cognates - words with common origin. If you look for the time and place in which the most cognates exist, you find yourself in Anatolia, an ancient region that makes up most of modern Turkey. 
Interestingly, the first article I read on the subject came from the Daily Mail, which sited words like the English mother, Spanish madre, and German mutter as examples of cognates. I think that's a really bad example. The word for mother in many or most languages - Indo-European or otherwise - begins with an m or mə sound, most probably because the mə sound is one of the first sounds babies are physiologically able to make. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

As opposed to illegitimate rape

Democrats are glad that Todd Akin made the following statement because it makes him, and some say Republicans, look like idiots.
“It seems to me, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
I'm glad he said it for a different reason. I'm always bragging on my Catholic school education, and how our school never put religion before science. There was, however, an exception: we once had a religion teacher teach us that women rarely get pregnant from rape because the female body doesn't allow that to happen. I believed it. Lots of people believe that sort of thing. Now, it's impossible to tune in to a news program without hearing a scientific rebuttal - there's no truth to that myth at all. There may be other arguments against abortion in the case of rape, like what Akin followed his gaff up with:
"I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child."
However, now people will have to actually make those arguments, rather than repeating baseless bull. 
I am, however, bothered by the distinction between "legitimate" and illegitimate rape. In that, he was hinting at what I find an even more insidious myth, that rape is over-reported. The body of evidence has repeatedly shown that cases in which folks are falsely accused of rape are no higher than false accusations of any other crime. In the vast majority of cases in which a rape accusation is made, ample physical evidence, such as a positive rape kit, exists. This is the kind of idiotic mindset that causes people not to take rape accusations seriously, and prevents rape victims from coming forward.

Thank you for not breeding

You may find this hard to believe, but back in college, I was kind of obnoxiously opinionated. If you're thinking "was obnoxiously opinionated?" right now, you did not know me in college. I'm like Captain Diplomacy compared to College Brigid.
So College Brigid was very fond of spouting off opinions without so much thinking about them first, and one of those opinions was stupid people shouldn't breed. I may have even published an editorial in my college newspaper with this post's title as the headline. Because apparently eugenics is okay, but only if it applies to IQ.
This is something I hear folks say a lot, and it's a truly awful thing to say, not to mention a really ignorant one. As my friends and I discussed recently, people with really high IQs built the atom bomb. In fact, it takes a really high IQ to build any decent weapon of mass destruction. Hitler's IQ was quite a bit higher than Mother Teresa's. And I'm willing to bet that unlike Stalin, the sweet lady at Taco Bell who can't ever remember where the button for pintos and cheese is located has never murdered millions of her own people.
People born with high IQs seem to think that having been born with such an IQ is somehow a virtue, which is sort of like winning the lottery and thinking it's proof you're better than everybody else.
My sister and I have a pile of stories between us in which we were working in service jobs at restaurants or coffee houses, and had apparently intelligent people openly mock us for our apparent stupidity. Once, my sister waited on a father and son. The father was helping his son with his history homework and, in his most disdainful voice told his son, "I'll bet our waitress knows Lenin's first name. Do you know Lenin's first name, honey? And no, I don't mean the Beatle." My sister graduated college with the highest GPA in her class and was moonlighting to supplement her income as one of the best damn teachers in East Cleveland. She not only knew Lenin's first and middle name, she knew his life story from birth to the grave. And really, how idiotic do you have to be to assume that a person who works in a service job must, in fact, be stupid? And even if my sister hadn't known Lenin's first name, what kind of idiot do you have to be to think that such a failing is cause for such douchebaggery?
Reminds me of a story a friend of mine used to tell about the one and only time he went to a MENSA meeting. They ate at a restaurant, and he said that you'd think that people who were geniuses would know that openly mocking restaurant staff is a great way to end up with spit in your food.

This all might lead you to believe that it is, in fact, assholes who shouldn't breed. But then again, the world is full of fantastic people with enormous assholes for parents. So that doesn't work either.
Maybe it is the case that assholes shouldn't be assholes.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Be back soon

The last two times I've tried to update my blog from my laptop, all hell has broken loose in laptop land, my browser goes on strike, and all the rest of my programs stage a walkout in solidarity. This doesn't make any sense to me. Until it tells me what it wants, I can't very well negotiate. Anyhoo, I'm accepting defeat for now, and you'll have to wait a bit more. Nice as this shiny new iPad is for wasting hours using birds to kill pigs, it's not really the best tool for writing a reflection on the perils of social Darwinism. Especially since auto-correct just tried to replace Darwinism with "dawn is."
Sorry kids. I will return.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

You have the face of a saint... bernard

A fun fact about the novel I will never finish: whenever I can't think of the name for a character or a place, I use a saint. There's an explosion near a school, so the school is St. Barbara's, because she's the patron saint of explosions. A drug addict's dog is Rocco, after the patron saint of drug addicts. A saint is even a very, very obscure clue as to whodunnit. 
So today, while skimming From Hue & Cry to Humble Pie in a mad grab for a blog topic, I learned about the expression mad as a hatter. The expression, which predates Alice in Wonderland by 15 years. As you may know, the expression is likely a reference to the fact that hatters were known to work with mercurous nitrate, which caused trembling symptoms similar to St. Vitus Dance, aka Sydenham's chorea. St. Vitus is known as the patron saint of dancers, because people used to do weird manic dances in front of statues of him. For some freaking reason. Maybe like how people inexplicably feel compelled to throw their hard-earned money into small bodies of water.
So that got me thinking about St. Elmo's fire and how it got its name. St. Elmo's fire is a weather phenomenon which, because of science, makes it look like there are flames in the sky. St. Elmo is the patron saint of sailors; sailors saw St. Elmo's fire in the sky and were filled with religious awe. And then thought it was bad luck, because they're a superstitious, peg-legged bunch.
So what are some other things named after saints?

  

Friday, August 10, 2012

Modern day slavery

Sorry it's been so long since I posted. I've been feeling mentally lethargic lately, like my brain is full of peanut butter. Happens from time to time. I do kind of spend 8 hours a day at work writing, then a few hours at home writing, editing, and reading every day, so I guess it's not terribly surprising when my brain decides to check out and take a little vacation.
It really sucks I haven't been writing, because I have something really important to write about. This week, I got to hear a talk by human rights activist and all around awesome lady, Andrea Martin, who has been volunteering to end human trafficking here in Ohio for quite a while. I've never thought much about human trafficking - this is by design. Every time I think about it, the idea is so horrible that I chase it out of my head before it has time to take root and make me think about something more awful than I care to imagine. For that reason, I had no idea just how prevalent human trafficking is here in America, how it's taking place all around us.
Andrea told us that Ohio is actually kind of a hub for human trafficking. With easy access to a bunch of major highways, traffickers often take their victims from right around here, or bring their victims here once they have them. Until recently, Ohio laws were pretty lax when it came to trafficking. Until recently, trafficking was a pretty low-grade felony. In addition, until recently, there weren't guidelines in place that would keep trafficked people from being charged for things like prostitution, and traffickers could hold that fact over their victims' heads. 
That's starting to change, but there's still tons of work to be done, and that's where we come in...
First, let's define human trafficking. Human trafficking is slavery, pure and simple. People from all around the world and at home, taken against their will and forced to work with no pay and in unsafe conditions. According to this article in the Canton Repository, it's a 32 billion dollar industry, and it's growing.
The human trafficking industry isn't just about sex trafficking either. There's also forced labor. Many of the migrant workers who pick the food that we eat could be trafficked people, working in back-breaking conditions without any say in the matter. Trafficked people might be employed at massage parlors, as strippers, in restaurants, and in salons. 
But what can we do? There's more we can do than I would have thought.
For one thing, don't be a douche to people vulnerable to human trafficking like immigrants and the homeless. Traffickers often use society's attitudes toward marginalized people to convince them that no one cares about them or is going to help them. Some of those immigrants who arouse your ire by not speaking English and stealing our jobs may want to leave this country as much as you want them to. 
Work to help the homeless. Homeless people, especially youth, are especially vulnerable because they can pretty easily disappear. Donate, volunteer, advocate. 
Patronize businesses you know and trust; buy fairly traded when possible. Research manufacturers' human rights histories. 
In Andrea Martin's words, "Challenge social norms, such as the glorification of pimp culture." I think society has drawn a picture of pimps as comical figures in funny hats straight from the exploitation films. But many, if not most pimps qualify as human traffickers. They often lure women in with false promises, get them hooked on drugs, and gradually take control of their lives and finances, like abusive husbands. They might take most or all of their girls' pay, threaten or beat them if they try to leave. 
If you're a porn fan, learn how the porn company treats its models. I know that pornographers aren't paragons of virtue in the best of circumstances, but some companies are more ethical than others. Seek them out. Look for websites that are transparent about how their employees are treated and compensated. Good studios include pre and post interviews with their performers, making sure consent is explicit. 
Donate to organizations that man trafficking hotlines and provide resources to trafficked people, like The Polaris Project.
Contact your elected officials to ask for better legislation and enforcement with regard to human trafficking. Keep educated about anti-trafficking legislation.
Stick your nose in other people's business. Contact the national trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888 if you see something suspicious. According to Andrea, nail salons staffed primarily by immigrants don't always pay those immigrants. While there are plenty of legit places, some salons lure women to the US with the promise of a better life, only to make them work in unsafe conditions without pay. The women are then here with little understanding of the language and few resources, and the traffickers will use that to keep them from leaving. Signs a place might not be above-board include the following:

  • Employees wearing masks. Generally, nail techs only need to wear masks if the employer is cutting costs by using toxic (and often illegal) materials. If they're willing to cut costs by putting their employees' health at risk, they might be willing to cut costs by not paying their employees.
  • The majority of employees in a place don't talk to customers or each other, keep their heads down, and don't make eye-contact. 
  • Staff who do not seem to know quite what they're doing. Nail techs are supposed to have training and a professional license. Traffickers often don't bother with the expense.
  • Prices seem way too low to be profitable. 
Consider getting involved with projects like the SOAP campaign, an organization dedicated to education and outreach. The SOAP campaign aims to target hotels and motels where sex trafficking may be going on and try to help the victims. They do this by placing contact information for the human trafficking hotline on the wrappers for bars of soap in hotel bathrooms, as well as by educating hotel staff to warning signs that trafficking is occurring. 
Share this information with your friends, you church, and your family. Spread the knowledge, and be willing to make people uncomfortable. I really think that if people knew what was going on under their noses, they'd pay more attention. Now that I'm aware, I'm certainly doing so.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Unitarian Universalists and moral imperatives

This is an excerpt from the message I gave at the Canton UU church this morning:



A couple of months ago, my cousin posed an interesting question about spirituality on Facebook. He said, if my memory serves, that the idea of being “spiritual but not religious” has become a cliché, and he's not even sure if all the people who say that really know what it means. What is the distinction, really, between religion and spirituality, and what is it about religiosity that makes people want to shy away from it?
I've been thinking a lot about that question ever since he posted it. First of all, it occurred to me that I don't even really know what those words mean, so I started my search for enlightenment, like a true English major, with the dictionary. 
I learned that, up until fairly recently, spiritual and religious were considered synonymous; for many centuries, they both meant of the church. However, the roots of the words are pretty different. Spiritual comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning of breathing, of the spirit
Religious, on the other hand, comes from the Latin root religionem, meaning respect for what is sacred or reverence for the gods. Religionem may, in turn, have descended from the roots legere, meaning read, and re meaning again, implying that religion involves the close reading and study of sacred texts. Other etymologists, however, think it comes from the verb religare, to bind fast, as to an obligation. 
So religion could be considered a focus on what is outside – a god or gods, a tradition, or a belief system developed by other people. And spirituality is a focus on what is inside of us – our minds, our souls, our spirits. 
So in answer to my cousin's question, how come people seem so eager to eschew religion for spirituality? I think part of it is that people have started defining religion in negative terms. Maybe people equate religion with dogma, with blindly following, with choosing not to think for themselves. And I think those can be part of a religion if we let them be. But I think another part of what makes people wary about the idea of being religious is that sense of obligation, and the moral imperatives that go along with it. 

And that gave me a revelation about my own religion. Unitarian Universalism might not have a creed or a holy book or a bunch of traditions, but it does have moral imperatives. People joke that while other religions have the ten commandments, Unitarian Universalists live by the seven suggestions. I, however, don't think that could be further from the truth. Unitarian Universalism has a very definitive set of obligations, of challenges. And in a lot of ways, those challenges are trickier than say, a set of commandments, because they're not thou shalt nots, they're thou shalts. The seven principles are a list of ideals to strive for, and you'll never be done striving. 
My friend Maya has a mantra that goes something like “I'm doing the best I can, and I can be doing better.” And that's really the clarion call of Unitarian Universalism. Because no matter how good a job you're doing of respecting the worth and dignity of every person, no matter how well you take care of the interdependent web of which we are all a part, you can always be doing better. And our congregations, at their best, are places where we come to challenge ourselves and each other to do better. 
I think you've all heard somebody say this at one point, and I used to be one of them. If you don't believe in heaven or hell, then why make good moral choices? I mean, working the ten commandments or the seven principles or what have you is really hard work; if you don't believe you'll be rewarded or punished for what you're doing, why not just take the easy way out? Most Unitarian Universalists don't believe in the traditional ideas of heaven or hell, so why do we care so much about following these seven - frankly very difficult – mandates? Well, I've come to think that people who don't believe in the traditional ideas of heaven or hell have even more of an impetus to do good stuff because most of us think this life's the only one we've got, and we damn well better work our butts off to create the world in which we want to live, in which we want our kids to live. Just in case there's no prize at the end of this race, let's treat the race we're running as the prize.

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