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Citizenship

Yesterday, a series of car bombs killed at least 55 people in Iraq.  The bombings are more than likely linked to elections which will be held throughout Iraq in the coming week.

Yesterday, two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people, including an 8 year old boy.

Guess which incident received more press?

I ask this not to be caustic, because both incidents are horrifying and inhumane.  I ask this because we need some perspective.

I am normally the queen of overreaction.  But for some reason, the news of yesterday’s events in Boston only surprised, where it normally would have terrified me and set my thoughts running in a thousand different directions.  Maybe it’s medication I’m on, or maybe I’m becoming desensitized to this type of news (which is, in and of itself, a scary thought).  Or maybe I just saw this for what it was: a tragic, yet rare, event.

I was not the only one that felt this way.  The Atlantic blog ran a piece asking everyone to “keep calm and carry on.”  And they’re right, because the fact of the matter is that far, far, far more people in the United States get killed by guns than by acts of terrorism.

After the Newtown shootings, I wrote this:

Where to begin?

Personally, I am disgusted.  Appalled.  Yet I’m not completely shocked; as President Obama pointed out, this happens all too often in America lately.

I’m angry, an emotion I feel far too often lately.  I am angry at the person who ruined thousands of lives within minutes, at a country that values its right to bear arms more than the lives of its fellow citizens, at a culture that lets nine year olds play ‘Call of Duty,’ at the media for prying for all of the gory details, and somewhere deep down inside, at God for allowing this to happen to CHILDREN.

I am frightened.  Life feels more fragile than it has in a long time.

Culturally, I am troubled.  We live in a society where heaven forbid we swear on TV or show a little nudity, but it’s completely okay to have ‘Criminal Minds’ on at 8:00 in the evening, show bloody murdered and raped women on ‘CSI’ and ‘The Good Wife,’ and allow violent movies to be rated PG-13 while a few f-bombs get an R rating.

We are an angry and selfish people.  We look for instant self-gratification, we don’t want to examine and battle with the bad parts of ourselves and we have no idea how to deal with our pain.  I know, because I am one of them.

We look at mental illness as weakness.  We stigmatize those who suffer from it.  We treat it like a personal fault rather than an illness, and it IS an illness.  We don’t have near enough resources to deal with the overwhelming amount of people who need help.  We don’t support them.  We pity them and categorize them as beyond help and ignore them.

Politically, I am sickened.  Awhile ago, after yet another US mass shooting, I read an article about how all Second Amendment jurisprudence on the right to bear arms is based on a complete and utter misreading of American history, largely propagated by the NRA (of course I can’t find the article now).  I’m sure you’re not surprised.

There is no common good anymore.  Citizenship means nothing.  We are individualistic and materialistic.  Power and money reign.  The needs of those with access to resources trumps the needs of those without.  We have a very fucked-up sense of what ‘freedom’ means.  This about sums it up:

“But I really want someone who advocates against gun control to balance the scales for me, to go ahead and try to explain to me why the inconvenience suffered by gun owners and prospective gun owners under much tighter restrictions on the purchase of guns and ammunition outweighs the death of children in their classrooms, a place where they’re not just supposed to be safe, but to thrive. Explain to me why their suffering is worse than that of the people who died, and lost family members, in the rampage at Aurora, Colorado, where they were drawn to a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises out of enthusiasm, because it’s a time when parents with infants can see a movie and trust that they’ll sleep through the screening. Please, balance out for me, the loss of Gabby Giffords’ potential with impatience at a waiting period, or frustration at not being able to fire a certain number of bullets per minute. Because this is the choice we make, every time. And I’m terrified to watch us make it again.”

I have no doubt we will.

We are also ignorant. Are these types of shootings not terrorism?  We define terrorism as violence by ‘others,’ mostly Islamic extremists.  But really, what is the difference between 9/11 and the events in Newtown except for scale?  Certainly there are different motives and religious factors involved, yet terror is at the heart of each event.

In the coming days, we will no doubt hear politicians speak strong words against terrorism, vowing to punish those who needlessly took three lives.  Patriotism will soar, and those who don’t follow the script will be vilified for being unpatriotic.  Indeed, President Obama already took some heat yesterday for not referring to the bombings as acts of terror.  These events bring out the worst in us because our need to be comforted always outweighs the need to hear the truth.

Again I ask: why are bombings terrorism and mass shootings just murder?

The FBI, Homeland Security and countless police forces all over the country will go on high alert, and dozens of false alarms will sound.  We’ll be told to be vigilant, and the number of arrests and people detained on suspicion of participating in terrorist activities will skyrocket.

Yet people will still be able to buy guns over the internet without a background check.  And politicians and citizens will continue to defend their right to own assault rifles and buy magazines that can get off 30 rounds in a minute, even though the vast majority of the public supports gun control measures.  And some media types will continue to denounce the advocacy of Newtown families as part of some hidden agenda by the left wing, even though those families are simply fighting so that others will not have to endure the same hell they’re going through.

Since Newtown, approximately 3500 people have died due to gun violence.

In the last year, 88 people were killed in 16 mass shootings.

Yesterday, 3 people died.

While no senseless death is okay, we tend to have a blind spot when it comes to bombings.

It’s best we remember that while we are bombarded with well-meaning yet sensationalist media coverage over the coming days.

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This video demonstrates how politics is insidious, and not in a good way.

Last week, prominent Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman came out (pardon the pun) in favour of gay marriage after fighting against it for years.

Why the change of heart?

“I’ve come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do, to get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I’ve had for over 26 years. That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is gay.”

Needless to say, there’s been a lot of push back against Portman’s position, mostly from those who find it troubling that Republican politicians only seem to grow hearts when their own family members are affected by their draconian policies.

I’ll admit that my favourite response was this one:

Matthew Yglesias wrote:

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

This really speaks to the heart of the tension between politics and citizenship, which I’ve talked about before: how do politicians represent the wide differences of opinion that exist in their districts, and how do their own beliefs fit into this?

I agree with Jonathan Chait:

Wanting your children to be happy is the most natural human impulse. But our responsibility as political beings — and the special responsibility of those who hold political power — is to consider issues from a societal perspective.

Unfortunately, we live in political systems that are designed to reflect the will of the majority, leaving minorities in the uncomfortable position of having to fight for their rights. This is further complicated by the party system which leaves MPs beholden to their party; in exchange for power and campaign funds, they agree to tow the party line. It’s a terrible conundrum.

On a human level, I think we ought to cut politicians such as Senator Portman a little slack. I know good, kind and decent people who don’t agree with gay marriage, and I’ve seen them struggle with it, mostly for faith reasons. When you’ve been taught all of your life that something is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, it’s difficult to admit that what you’ve been taught is what was actually wrong.

But as a politician, don’t people in Senator Portman’s position owe it to society to be a lot more compassionate than they are?  Yes, because

[p]ower is concentrated in the hands of people who routinely make policy on matters they have little experience or real stakes in. You don’t need any conscious malice in this setup to produce policy that has devastating effects on the communities these issues touch most directly (though there’s plenty of malice, too). All you need is a system run by people who can afford not to care that much about policies that mostly impact other people’s lives.

This is the problem with privilege. If you don’t identify as LGBTQ, you don’t have a clue about the discrimination, the hatred and the bullying that this group endures.  As Yglesias said, in the context of politicians being unable to identify with the circumstances of poor Americans,

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

Yes, things get pretty complicated when life, faith and politics are pulling you in different directions. But our politicians are paid pretty well and have infinite resources to come to terms with these intersections and figure out the best way to proceed.  The problem is that our politicians, as well as us as citizens, have forgotten that they are paid to represent ALL of us – everyone in their districts.  They are not there to push their own personal views and biases.

My biggest problem with politicians of Senator Portman’s ilk is that while I’m happy they’ve come around on this issue, the hurt and pain they’ve caused by their past words and policy stances can’t be undone.  They never thought that their job was to represent the interests of all of their citizens, and that includes the ability to be free from discrimination and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Our politicians represent all of us.  Perhaps we should start demanding that they do so.  I think it’s time for me to write a letter to my own MP.

This woman has popped up all over my Google Reader this week.

Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, and these days, the subject of a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Sandberg wrote a book called Lean In, which seems to have coined various terms such as corporate feminism, boardroom feminism and, my personal favourite, Davos feminism.

In other words, she’s apparently out of touch with all of us regular womenfolk.

She’s been derided by Jodi Kantor (“places too much of the onus on women who are already struggling to fulfill impossible demands, and too little on government and employers to provide better child care, more flexible jobs and other concrete gains”), Maureen Dowd (although who cares), the Washington Post, Judith Shulevitz and others. Nerve lists the top five problems with Sandberg’s feminism, with the most egregious one being that she’s “a little too perfect and a little too lucky.”

But she has her supporters, and some prominent ones, too.  Arianna Huffington lauds Sandberg’s focus on internal barriers women have, and hopes the book will reignite the conversation about work-life balance. Rebecca Traister praises her willingness to taken on the feminist mantle because Sandberg could, and no doubt will be, “labeled a whiner, a troublemaker or simply a woman. It is to her credit that Sandberg has chosen to announce herself, smartly and vociferously, not only as a woman but as a feminist.”  Katha Pollitt’s review, entitled ‘Who’s Afraid of Sheryl Sandberg’ notes that even though the book does not directly address the circumstances most women face, “you don’t have to be climbing the corporate ladder—or, as Sandberg would call it, the jungle gym—to find her message useful.”  And as Matthew Yglesias notes, even though Sandberg represents a rather elite few, the fact that women don’t have access to top jobs such as President of the United States,  Treasury Secretary, or  being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company means that there’s work to be done at the top, too, and that’s not something that should be ignored.

Jessica Valenti states that the biggest problem with feminism is that

We hold leaders to impossible standards, placing perfection over progress. And a movement that does more complaining than creating is bound to fail.

Irin Carmon writes that women should see Sandberg as “less as a natural enemy and more as a potential convert.”

I’m on the fence here.  While I’d certainly like to see less fighting among women about ‘who’s the better feminist,’ at the same time, I’m not on the side of Taylor Swift who thinks women should never be critical of other women.

I suppose it all depends on how we criticize other women.  If Sandberg was flaunting her privilege and blaming women for their lot in life, I’d be heading up the criticism myself.  But Sandberg seems to be trying to help in her own way, and for that she should be applauded.

Feminism, to me, is about two things: recognizing that women deserve the same human dignity that men do, and that women should be able to do whatever it is they choose to do.  Yes, Sandberg had a much easier time making it to the top because she had access to resources that allowed her to choose whatever path she wanted.  But like the rest of us, she knows that women still aren’t seen as men’s equals.  We need to realize that we’re all fighting the same war.  Sandberg is fighting a different battle than most of us, but it’s a battle all the same.

You may have heard that today the Dow Jones (US stock market) reached a record high, the highest level since the Great Depression.

Too bad the US economy still sucks for everyone else.

And now there’s that lovely sequester to contend with, which will likely hurt the most vulnerable the most – as these things always do.

Last night, Jon Stewart spoke the truth.  The Republicans never wanted to avoid the sequester.  They wanted it to take effect because it cut government spending without them having to give a thing in return.  And they could make the President look like an ineffective leader when they’re the thugs stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

When Wall Street is making money like never before, “corporate profits are eating the economy” and the poor and middle class still can’t catch a break, something is wrong.

The system is broken.

What’s scary is that nobody seems to care enough to do anything about it.

But what’s even scarier is that the system is so weighted in favour of the powerful that maybe there isn’t anything we can do about it anymore.

Image via The Telegraph

For awhile I’ve been thinking about humanitarian intervention and the case of Syria.

In early January, the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner estimated that at least 60,000 people have died since March 2011 when demonstrations against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad morphed into a civil war.  A few days ago, the Commissioner revised that figure to closer to 70,000.

Last week Maclean’s Michael Petrou asked if it was time to intervene in Syria.  NATO intervened in Libya, and an international force of some sort seems destined to engage with militants in Mali.

Is Syria this generation’s Rwanda?

In Rwanda, approximately 800,000 people were killed within 100 days in 1994, as Hutus sought retribution against Tutsis for the assassination of a Hutu President.  Former UN Commander Romeo Dallaire, now a Canadian Senator, warned the global community that genocide was imminent, but the world ignored him.  The result was mass murder on an unprecedented scale.

The world’s unwillingness to intervene in Rwanda, combined with its inability to stop the slaughter of thousands in Bosnia in the 1990s, led the Canadian government to create the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which formulated the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, also known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

Humanitarian intervention is a controversial concept; the name of the concept itself is paradoxical.  ‘Humanitarian’ denotes positive communitarianism, while intervention implies force.  Some academics view humanitarian intervention as nothing less than a polite euphemism for war,”[1] as most see intervention as synonymous with violence.  In their eyes, human intervention isn’t help; it’s simply another form of colonialism.[2]

Or is it?  R2P asserts that state sovereignty “implies a dual responsibility: externally, to respect the sovereignty of other states, and internally, to respect the dignity and basic rights of all the people within the state.”[3]
R2P proponents argue that the language of humanitarian intervention is “overwhemingly, preventive”[4] and that military intervention is a last resort.  The ICISS report outlined six criteria which must be met before military intervention can occur:

1. The ‘Just Cause’ Threshold: There must be significant and infallible evidence that mass killing or ethnic cleansing is about to occur or is occurring.

2. Right intention: States must have altruistic intentions, with no economic or political motives other than to protect those who are in danger.

3. Last resort: All other avenues for preventing imminent atrocities must have been explored.

4. Proportional means: Only the military capabilities absolutely necessary to prevent mass killing from occurring should be used.  Military occupation is temporary, not permanent.

5. Reasonable prospects: There must be a reasonable chance that the military intervention planned will succeed and not cause more harm than good.

6. Right authority: Authority should come from the UN Security Council, but if it is unable to come to a consensus, the ICISS report outlines other means for gaining approval for military intervention.[5]

In this case, there is a just cause: the deaths of 70,000 people largely caused by a government desperately clinging to power.  But as in most cases of this nature, the other five criteria prove difficult.  What is proportional?  Can states be completely altruistic?  How can states prevent another Iraq or Afghanistan?  How can authority come from a UN Security Council vote when the veto of only one permanent member, whose intentions are probably political, destroys any chance of such authority?

Let’s be honest: humanitarian intervention is never completely altruistic in nature.  Never.  It is politics that reigns supreme in these types of situations.  However, there’s much reason to be wary of getting involved in Syria.

The biggest reason why no nation dares intervene in Syria is because of Iran.  No one wants to poke the bear, so to speak.  Syria is probably Iran’s most important ally in the region.  Intervening in Syria means coming face-to-face with Iran, a concerning prospect for most Western nations.

But the better reason is because of the Syria’s diverse ethnicity.  As Petrou points out, the Syrian opposition isn’t united, and some terrorist organizations are taking advantage of the chaos.  Minorities fear what might happen to them under another regime.  The end result may be something worse than what was there in the first place.

Yet don’t the deaths of 70,000 people cry out for us to do something?

Yes, they do.  Global citizenship and our common humanity requires us to. But I’m not sure that something is international humanitarian intervention.


[1] Ramesh Thakur, “Iraq and the Responsibility to Protect,” Behind the Headlines 62, no. 1 (October 2004): 1.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, “The Responsibility to Protect,” Foreign Affairs 81, no. 6 (November-December 2002): 102. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (11 August 2007).

[4] Gareth Evans, The Limits of State Sovereignty: The Responsibility to Protect in the 21st Century (Colombo: 29 July 2007), presented to the International Center for Ethnic Studies as the Eighth Neelam Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture. Available: <http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/speeches/2007/evans-the-limits-of-state-sovereignty-the-responsibility-to-protect-in-the-21st-century.aspx&gt;.

[5] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Center, 2001), xii.

To me, giving is an essential part of citizenship.  There are multitudes of ways to give; money isn’t the only thing organizations are looking for.  Honestly, most organizations just want your time, whether it’s simply paying attention to what they’re trying to say or actually volunteering some of your time to help them.

Giving isn’t only good for those on the receiving end; there are health benefits!  So here are some of the organizations I either currently give to or have been involved with in the past.

I haven’t found another organization that stretches your donation dollars farther than Kiva.  That’s because your donation isn’t so much a donation as a loan.  Microloan financing is one of the most sustainable forms of giving, as your donation is loaned to an entrepreneur who uses the money to invest in their business which is then paid back to you.  You can then choose to either get your money back or reinvest it.  Like any loan, there’s a risk you may not get your money back, but the risk is extremely small.  I have a whole $75 invested in Kiva and I’ve re-loaned that money 11 times.  The success stories are amazing.  So if you’re looking to make your charitable giving contributions go farther and last longer, Kiva is the way to go.

World Vision is another favourite charity of mine.  You’ve seen the ads on TV, no doubt.  And that’s how I got my Mom to sponsor a little girl from Kenya many years ago.  My current sponsor child is from the Congo, a country involved in perpetual civil war and where stories of women being brutally raped are commonplace and a fact of life.  World Vision is one of the most reputable charities in the world and is involved nearly everywhere in the world.  I enjoy getting progress reports about my sponsor child, seeing her grow through pictures and learning how my money is making a difference in her life and that of her community.

If you’re from Saskatchewan, you know exactly what Telemiracle is all about.  The Telemiracle foundation helps those with special needs and those who need assistance to access medical treatment.  What I love best about Telemiracle is how the entire province gets into the spirit and raises money that stays within the province.  Sometimes we think we need to go on volunteer or mission trips in order to help others and in the process we ignore the huge needs that are in our own backyards.  Telemiracle exemplifies the best of the Saskatchewan spirit and it has helped people I know.  Telemiracle has raised funds that contributed to the purchase of the handi bus my Dad drives everyday to bring special needs adults to their sheltered workshop.  It gives money to families who have needed to go out of province with their children in order to obtain medical treatment not available in province.  The fact that the marathon is still going strong 37 years later shows not only how great the need still is, but how it has become a part of our province.  It’s possibly the thing i love best about Saskatchewan.

Best Buddies is a new organization to me.  I volunteered with it last year, and it was an amazing experience.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to volunteer this year due to my health issues.  But I highly recommend it!  Best Buddies matches high school and university-aged students with people with intellectual disabilities.  My aunt has Down Syndrome and I’ve worked with community living organizations, so I really connected with this organization.  The best thing about it is that not only does it help intellectually disabled people connect with their communities and better their quality of life, but it helps to combat the stigma these people face on a day-to-day basis.  When I worked with these people and took them out into the community, other people gave us all kinds of disgusted looks and uttered mean and derogatory things mostly out of ignorance.  The work of organizations like the R-Word are also helping to reduce the prejudice that exists against the intellectually disabled.  I learned so much from my work with them; in fact, I learned far more from them than they ever learned from me.

If you’re looking for an organization to spend your time with, most cities have websites that list volunteer opportunities.  If you’re looking for a charity to donate to, MoneySense, a Canadian website, has a list of its top 2012 charities ranked for transparency, accountability and how they spend their money.

In the future, there are lots of organizations I’d like to work with.  I’ve always wanted to work at an animal shelter, but I fear I’d get too attached to the animals and want to take all of them home with me!  Having worked in an emergency foster home, I’d like to donate my time to working with children again.  There’s also an organization that allows me to use my music skills and teach inner city kids how to play the piano.  I’d also like to go on a mission trip and help build something for people in another country.  The possibilities are endless!

As citizens, we owe it to each other to give of ourselves.

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