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A Tough Act To Follow

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There’s an election headed our way and depending on how you feel about your state/city/town it could be exciting. Here in New York City we’re poised to have our first new mayor in 12 years. Whether you’re relieved at that prospect or leery, the fact remains that change is never all that easy. Neither of the two viable candidates has anywhere near the celebrity status that Mike Bloomberg had/has. Mayor Bloomberg has the star power that comes with great wealth. He is able to exert influence on a national if not international level. That power impacts the local constituency if in no other way, than in that of confidence. A mayor that can buy his way in and out of just about anywhere and anything is not likely to be told to drop dead by any leader anytime soon.

There are New Yorkers who felt Bloomberg as mayor was a bully or at least too paternalistic for their taste. Some felt him too liberal (anti-gun) or too conservative (pro-business.) It’s probably safe to say that he is all of those things and a bit bombastic to boot. He stuck like super glue to his convictions/beliefs and if you happen to agree with those beliefs that was good. Some of his best moments have been fighting to preserve the separation of church and state. NYC is filled with many different cultures and religions and it would be ridiculous to even suggest that they all get along or want the same things. Each religion is defined by how it differs from other beliefs and those beliefs sometimes make their way to City Hall. You may remember the brouhaha over the Muslim Cultural Center built on the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory. Mayor Bloomberg supported the center and its message of religious tolerance, amidst fear based propaganda and bigotry. The Mayor has been on the side of inclusion but shied like an abused horse in the face of preferential treatment. He has resisted several requests from religious groups over his tenure, presumably in an attempt to keep religion out of government and vice a versa.

It’s unlikely the next mayor will do the same. There is already much being made of the candidates’ positions on religious issues. Those issues most cited are; Muslim holidays included in the school calendar, ultra-orthodox circumcision practice, and churches using schools for worship. On the surface this appears to be a nice little trifecta. These are the religions most discussed in the media (though not necessarily an accurate representation of NYC residents.) We’ve got a Muslim issue (check!) a Jewish issue (check!) and a Christian issue (check!). Of course ultra-orthodox anything is by definition not representative of the larger religious group and Christian anything rarely includes Catholic something. But never us mind. It makes for a nice little “we are the world” media package. Any religious holiday that precludes a student or teacher from working should be included in the school holiday calendar. There is no religious reason for anyone to not attend school/work on Christmas, but public schools have always been closed on that day. There are many holidays outside of Christianity that are to be spent in religious worship. That should be the determining factor. Many religious festivals and holidays allow for work, they should not be included in the calendar. It’s that simple. The orthodox (or fundamentalists) of any religion enjoy a certain degree of autonomy. They intentionally live outside society but often avail themselves of societal services. If a religious practice causes harm to anyone (herpes in the case of ultra orthodox circumcision) it should be regulated. As a society we believe in protecting the health and well being of others. There are ways to regulate the procedure (no need to get graphic here) that would limit exposure to disease.

These issues, though somewhat novel are not that complicated. They address equity and health and don’t infringe upon anyone else’s freedoms or beliefs. (A mohel or two might be bent out of shape, but they’ll come around.) However holding religious services in a public school infringes upon the rights of just about everyone except the worshippers. Imagine just for a moment that it was a collective of imams wanting to hold Muslim prayer services in the public schools. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying; “eh what the hell, the school is empty anyway.” Public school is just that: public. It is in theory a safe haven and a place in which everyone is presumed equal. Being part of a minority, which in America is anyone who isn’t Christian, is challenging enough. No kid, or teacher needs to be reminded that Christianity is normative. Seeing your local school used as a church is disheartening. We attach an awful lot of importance to the buildings in which children learn. We even tear them down when something awful happens within the walls. To transform a school into a church can be alienating and even feel threatening. On top of the very real emotional response is the fact that schools are government buildings and have no business being used for religious practice.

It is not clear, from anything they’ve said, that either mayoral candidate sees the church and state issue at play. Granted there are actual life and death issues at stake in NYC with which a mayor must contend. But how we regard religion and walk that line between inclusion and separation says loads about us. How we view and treat each other is at the heart of almost everything else that there is and ever will be.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Remember The Smoking!

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Grab your guns; we’re heading for the Alamo! On October 19th gun enthusiasts will be participating in a “Line In The Sand” armed rally in St. Antonio, Texas. Participants are encouraged to carry their “long guns” and the event is billed as family friendly. It is not a protest in the traditional sense, as Texas has some of the most lenient gun laws in the land; it’s more of a show of arms if you will. The assumed intent is to create a powerful visual of gun slinging American families. To encourage a wholesome atmosphere participants are asked to remove bullets from chambers before marching.

Once one gets past the image of a John Wayne (or Mel Brooks) movie, the conceit is not that strange. People often march to express strong feelings, and clearly people feel very strongly about their guns. What is strange is that as a nation we seem to have bought into that sentiment. We continuously elect representatives who hold gun rights sacred. It’s challenging to conjure any other “right” that directly impacts the rights of others as dramatically as gun rights. We think nothing of restricting individual rights that have little if any impact on larger society. We set restrictions on; who can marry, female reproduction, child safety, and the right to die. In the past few decades we have begun to set limits on individual rights which affect the public. You can no longer drink and drive with impunity. Smoking is so restricted as to be unrecognizable as the American pastime it once was.

Smoking was once ubiquitous. People smoked in movie theaters, buses, planes, and even elevators! Ashtrays were everywhere! Freestanding ashtrays were in doctor’s offices, factories, office buildings, and schools. The smoke cloud emerging from most teachers’ lounges rivaled that of a nuclear test. Once upon a time cigarette smoke was everywhere. About twenty-five years ago C. Everett Koop (U.S. Surgeon General) published a report equating the addictive nature of nicotine to that of heroin. You’d be forgiven for not considering this a “Eureka!” moment. But keep in mind that the tobacco industry was (if not is) one of the more powerful lobbying groups in the country. Shortly after the report’s publication cigarette packaging had to include a warning box. Dr. Koop later published a report regarding the hazards of “secondhand smoke.” The first restaurant smoking sections then cropped up. Some readers might remember the bizarreness of smoking sections; everyone seemed to pretend that smoke doesn’t move. But as behavior change motivation goes, baby steps are often the way to go. Fast-forward to 2013 and most of us live in a practically smoke-free environment. Smoking is considered a private behavior and as such cannot infringe upon the larger population.

So why haven’t we been able to treat gun ownership this way? Secondhand smoke couldn’t possibly kill more people than guns. Why have we not set limits on how many firearms a registered, licensed and certified owner can possess? Where are the laws about which kind of weapons are allowed outside of a registered, licensed and law abiding gun club and which must stay secured? Why do we tolerate gun show loopholes? How can a household that includes children be allowed guns, but apartment residents with children must have window guards? There are gun enthusiasts in favor of reasonable restrictions. Not all gun fans cling to the 2nd amendment like it was an out of context bible passage. Not every person who enjoys guns holds fast to rhetoric and flag waving. So where are those voices? Where is our C. Everett Koop?

People will show up to the Alamo with their guns and children. Even if the showing is paltry the imagery will be startling. Once again we will be lulled into thinking that gun owners are monolithic. Once again the issue will be framed as all or nothing. Color me a pessimist, but once again our capital will be noticeably silent.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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A Mental Health Crisis

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Once again extensive and lengthy mental health issues are revealed after a heinous crime. Once again we are left wondering how can this happen? How can anyone living in today’s over-exposed world manage to evade authorities and/or medical attention? How can a person with repeated exhibitions of mental illness have access to weapons? These discoveries of warning signs and bells usually crop up during the first 24 hours of investigation. This speed suggests that the perpetrator’s mental health status was pretty well known. How does this happen?

How do police listen to a man talk about hearing voices and microwave vibrations and not have him hospitalized? How does someone retain his military security clearance after violent and erratic behavior? How does someone with a well-known history of mental imbalance own and keep a gun? It’s actually quite simple. We don’t want to get involved. We see examples of this aversion every single day. When you use a restroom and discover there is no toilet paper, it’s because at least one person before you did not tell management. We don’t want to get involved in even the most benign situations let alone one that might be complicated. And nothing is quite as complicated as mental illness. We are equally consumed with fears of offending someone behaving questionably as we are for our own safety.

We are woefully under equipped both personally and on a larger infrastructure level to deal with mental illness. If you work with someone who exhibits troubling behavior you might screw up your courage and go to personnel. Then what? A competent personnel officer may talk with the employee in question about services and counseling. Then what? Does the veil then lift from the employee’s eyes? Do they trot off to up until that moment an unknown resource known as counseling and become cured? Only in a Lifetime movie. What if it’s your next-door neighbor, the guy in the diner, or the woman on your bus? How do you alert anyone? Who do you tell?

When a person’s behavior becomes impossible to ignore, the police are often called. The police may or may not be well versed in the signs of mental illness. The police usually have some leeway as to whom they can have transported to an emergency room. Then what? If a person in distress makes it to the emergency room they are held for less than two days. If they are not a danger to themselves or others (which is determined by the patient saying the words; I am a danger to myself and others) they are released.

Over the years we’ve become more comfortable with the concept of mental illness. We bandy around terms like post-partum depression, P.T.S.D., eating disorders, O.C.D., etcetera. Many people are comfortable taking psychotropic medication and/or sedatives. But mental illness is far more vast and varied. There’s a whole lotta real estate in between social anxiety and paranoid schizophrenia and most of us are a bit vague about it all. Compounding the confusion is the fact that mental disease can be scary for spectators. Of course in our most rational moments we know that it is far scarier to ignore erratic behavior. But we can hardly be blamed for listening to our own little voice inside saying; “run the other way!”

In a world in which people often assume that someone else will take care of something, mental illness is mysterious and scary and our mental health infrastructure is flimsy at best it is no wonder that we have what we do on our hands. We’ve heard people (including politicians) say that guns don’t belong in the hands of the mentally ill. We’ve never heard what that means. Surely not all mental illnesses are considered in this classification. What has been spelled out is that “people with mental illnesses” will be identified as those who have sought help. This is a ludicrous and meaningless classification as it’s a deterrent to people to seek help, and we don’t really have many options for those seeking help. And that is the issue.

We’ve shrouded mental health issues for which there isn’t a kicky acronym or a medication to be peddled, in a thick cloud of secrecy and shame. We’ve manifested that sentiment in the abysmal mental health system with which we’ve settled. It’s great that you can get a flu shot and blood pressure check while picking up some cat litter. But what of prevention and detection of diseases that could affect public safety? How much devastation does it take before we face this issue? How many lives must be destroyed until we can say; we have a mental health crisis in this country?

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Well-Being

 

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Taking A Shot At Racism

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Race matters. It always has and it always should. People have a great affection and interest in celebrating their race and/or ethnicity. Pretending that differences don’t exist is absurd and offensive. But attributing value according to race/ethnicity is abhorrent. We have a long history of doing this in this country and anyone thinking that it is only historic is kidding themselves (or lives under a rock); the shade of one’s skin and often the branch of one’s religion still dictates where you can go and how far. One need only look at celebrities for proof. While the music industry has always been more liberal in whom they will exalt, movies and television have not. Anglo features (particularly in women) are a prerequisite for stardom. Fundamentalist Christians are acceptable, but observant Jews or Muslims are best served to keep it on the down low. Scientologists of course are always welcome.

Hollywood is hardly a relevant sample set, but it is an indication of a nation’s preferences. We could easily get down into the weeds and point out to the lack of Asians in leading roles (or roles that don’t involve a lab or mathematical prowess.) But suffice it to say that we are a people a bit flummoxed. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to dictate mindset. We can certainly address behaviors and have done so forever. We can write Declarations, laws, and policies to control behaviors. But we can’t change how people think or feel. We also can’t ever know how people think and feel. We can know what they say (which may correlate to their feelings) and we can know what they do. The very thought of attempting to change how people think or feel is overwhelming and disheartening; it is the equivalent of digging in loose sand. We could be at it forever and never know if we’ve gotten anywhere. But we can look around and spot where we can make a quantifiable difference in behavior.

We know that African Americans are victims of violence at a much higher rate than any other group. According to the FBI, the homicide rate for “blacks” is three times what it is for “whites”. Of these homicides, 82% were shot and killed with guns. These are astronomical numbers and yet where is the outrage? When 20 children are gunned down in their rural school we are outraged (and send money.) Of the over 7,000 African Americans shot to death (in 2007) over 600 were under the age of 18. Yet we are relatively silent. Where are our community and national leaders on this subject? How is gun control not being framed as a race issue?

No matter how strongly one feels about gun rights, there is no disputing the numbers. Guns kill and disproportionately do so with African Americans. We have a society in which anyone can get their hands on a gun (and anyone really can) and we’ve enacted laws which allow for using them on people. Knowing people as we do, this is ludicrous. We will never entirely change how people think or feel but we can make it very hard for them to act on those feelings. It is intolerable that the NRA has more influence than the NAACP in this country. It is unacceptable for us to not demand real and meaningful change. All the grandstanding and tepid gun laws and initiatives are a slap in the face to those of us who fervently want to believe that all men are created equal.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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The Smoking (Gun) Section

Anti-smoking campaign launched

C. Everett Koop made a mark on public health in America. He was a forceful advocate for rational scientific facts that were at times in opposition to his own personal beliefs. He refused to imbue abortion with (unsubstantiated) claims of lasting psychological damage. He forced a (seemingly) reluctant administration into acknowledging and fighting AIDS. He may very well be the only surgeon general whom we can all name and picture and that is in no small part due to his anti-smoking campaign. Dr. Koop was the catalyst for the most dramatic change in social behavior in our time. Alarmed by the effects of smoking Dr. Koop, and without much support from his administration, he went up against the powerful tobacco lobby and took to the podium (in his impressive uniform.) He appealed directly to the nation to change their ways. He issued a report about second-hand smoke and campaigned for smoking restrictions in the workplace and restaurants. Through his efforts, both academic and rallying; Americans began to change their attitudes towards smoking. Smokers gradually went from the freedom to smoke anywhere in a restaurant, to doing so in a designated area, to doing so outdoors. People grumbled and even got angry, but they moved and public health improved. The air quality improved for all and smoking diminished (dramatically) overall.

Smoking became a personal behavior that must stay personal. What if we were to do the same with gun ownership? What if we were to treat guns as we do smoking, as a public health issue? People can own guns, they can shoot guns, but they most do so in the shooting section. Guns must be registered and licensed and be stored at a registered and licensed gun club. The clubs provide shooting ranges and would be allowed to sell ammunition. Licensing and registering a personal (at home) handgun would require the purchase of a gun safe. Gun security in a house in which children are allowed or live would be treated like cars and car seats. Any adult caught having an unsecured gun in proximity of a child would be subjected to the same penalties a person driving with an unrestrained child. Hunting is already a highly regulated endeavor. There are times of year in which a person is allowed to hunt particular animals and there is licensing. Hunting guns would be registered, licensed and stored at a hunting lodge (or a locker in the state police barracks.) Gun owners would be fined and have their license revoked if they don’t abide by the rules.

Would creating a ‘smoking’ section prevent illegal firearm sales or guns ending up in the wrong hands? Maybe, maybe not. But by changing what we consider normative behavior, we do change everything. What Dr. Koop did was shift our society’s perception of smoking. We moved from glamorizing a behavior to recognizing it for the blight on public health that it is. If we no longer accept that an individual’s right to gun ownership trumps that of the public good we will be that much closer to protecting our children and ourselves. If we begin to see that guns, like cigarettes, are a personal choice that must remain personal we are that much closer to controlling gun violence. People who choose to own and use guns responsibly should embrace this notion and extricate themselves from any organization that preaches personal freedoms above that of a safe and secure society. They should tear up their membership cards and visibly step away from an organization whose solution to violence is to arm elementary schools. There is a name for groups whose use of violence creates a general climate of fear in a population.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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