Imperfect Serenity

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Blog Awards

I’ve been given two blog awards recently, which is very flattering. The first came from Natural Mom a few weeks ago. I enjoy her blog Speaking Life and enjoyed meeting her at the Parenting interest group at FGC Gathering this summer. Thank you, Stephanie!

The Brilliante award comes from Jennifer, who writes Tree of Life Musings, which deals with homeschooling, as well as other family issues. Thank you, Jennifer!

Both awards come with the stipulation that you should nominate some other blogs to spread the love, so here are a few you may or may not have heard of that I often find thought provoking:

My American Melting Pot, by a member of my writer’s group, Lori Tharps, who blogs about multicultural parenting issues; Can You Believe? by FUM Quaker Johan Maurer; What Canst Thou Say? by Robin M, whom I also met this summer at Gathering; and Finding Spirituality by a (I dare to predict) soon-to-be member of our meeting.

As for my own writing, it has not been very inspired the last few days. I am trying to stop reading so many emails and articles about the election and sink into Brent Bill’s Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment to help prepare me for a workshop I’m leading this Saturday on that topic. I’m also trying to walk in the woods more and appreciate the early days of autumn in beautiful Fairmount Park.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Everyone is getting so exercised about this election, my inbox has been full of articles, links, and fundraising appeals—and that’s just from my friends, never mind the campaigns and the organizations we support. Here are links to a few things I found thought provoking:

My favorite Republican commentator, New York Times columnist David Brookes writes about “Why Experience Matters” in Tuesday’s opinion piece;

Bob Herbert writes about McCain’s health care plan;

Tim Wise uses the election to illustrate the issue of White Privilege;

and a bunch of doctors question the secrecy surrounding John McCain’s medical records.

On a lighter note, it's not necessarily thought provoking, but I have to throw in the now famous SNL skit.

And then there is this from my friend Signe Wilkinson (copied without permission, but in the faith that she’ll forgive me).

Where is God in all this? Not sure, but I have actually been getting more time recently for prayer and meditation, so I’m not getting as frantic about the ups and downs in the polls as some folks. Generally I feel called to point out issues I think are important and am trying not to get too snide about it (like some folks on both sides).

Monday, September 15, 2008


Amid all the emails I've been getting about the election, two different people this week sent me this quiz by Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. His intention is to shake up our complacency and make us think about what justice really means on a global scale. See how many questions you can answer correctly:

1. How many deaths are there worldwide each year due to acts of terrorism?

Answer: The US State Department reported there were more than 22,000 deaths from terrorism last year. Over half of those killed or injured were Muslims. Source: Voice of America, May 2, 2008. "Terrorism Deaths Rose in 2007."

2. How many deaths are there worldwide each day due to poverty and malnutrition?

A: About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations. - Hunger and World Poverty. Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes - one child every five seconds. Bread for the World. Hunger Facts: International.

3. 1n 1965, CEOs in major companies made 24 times more than the average worker. In 1980, CEOs made 40 times more than the average worker. In 2007, CEOs earned how many times more than the average worker?

A: Today's average CEO from a Fortune 500 company makes 364 times an average worker's pay and over 70 times the pay of a four-star Army general. Executive Excess 2007, page 7, jointly published by Institute for Policy Studies and United for Fair Economy, August 29, 2007. The 1965 numbers from State of Working America 2004-2005, Economic Policy Institute.

4. In how many of the more than 3,000 cities and counties in the US can a full-time worker who earns the minimum wage afford to pay rent and utilities on a one-bedroom apartment?

A: In no city or county in the entire USA can a full-time worker who earns minimum wage afford even a one-bedroom rental. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) urges renters not to pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent. HUD also reports the fair market rent for each of the counties and cities in the US. Nationally, in order to rent a two-bedroom apartment, one full-time worker in 2008 must earn $17.32 per hour. In fact, 81 percent of renters live in cities where the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom rental is not even affordable with two minimum-wage jobs. Source: Out of Reach 2007-2008, April 7, 2008, National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

5. In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.65 per hour. How much would the minimum wage be today if it had kept pace with inflation since 1968?

A: Calculated in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, the 1968 minimum wage would have been $9.83 in 2007 dollars. Andrew Tobias, January 16, 2008. The federal minimum wage is $6.55 per hour effective July 24, 2008, and will be $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009.

6. True or false? People in the United States spend nearly twice as much on pet food as the US government spends on aid to help foreign countries.

A: True. The USA spends $43.4 billion on pet food annually. Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association Inc. The USA spent $23.5 billion in official foreign aid in 2006. The US government gave the most of any country in the world in actual dollars. As a percentage of gross national income, the US came in second to last among OECD donor countries and ranked number 20 at 0.18 percent behind Sweden at 1.02 percent and other countries such as Norway, Netherlands, Ireland, United Kingdom, Austria, France, Germany, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and others. This does not count private donations, which, if included, may move the US up as high as sixth. The Index of Global Philanthropy 2008, pages 15-19.

7. How many people in the world live on $2 a day or less?

A: The World Bank reported in August 2008 that 2.6 billion people consume less than $2 a day.

8. How many people in the world do not have electricity?

A: Worldwide, 1.6 billion people do not have electricity and 2.5 billion people use wood, charcoal or animal dung for cooking. United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008, pages 44-45.

9. People in the US consume 42 kilograms of meat per person per year. How much meat and grain do people in India and China eat?

A: People in the US lead the world in meat consumption at 42 kg per person per year, compared to 1.6 kg in India and 5.9 kg in China. People in the US consume five times the grain (wheat, rice, rye, barley, etc.) as people in India, three times as much as people in China, and twice as much as people in Europe. "THE BLAME GAME: Who is behind the world food price crisis," Oakland Institute, July 2008.

10. How many cars does China have for every 1,000 drivers? India? The US?

A: China has nine cars for every 1,000 drivers. India has 11 cars for every 1,000 drivers. The US has 1,114 cars for every 1,000 drivers. Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, "Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future" (2007).

11. How much grain is needed to fill an SUV tank with ethanol?

A: The grain needed to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a hungry person for a year. Lester Brown,, August 16, 2006.

12. According to The Wall Street Journal, the richest one percent of Americans earns what percent of the nation's adjusted gross income? Five percent? Ten percent? Fifteen percent? Twenty percent?

A: "According to the figures, the richest one percent reported 22 percent of the nation's total adjusted gross income in 2006. That is up from 21.2 percent a year earlier, and it is the highest in the 19 years that the IRS has kept strictly comparable figures. The 1988 level was 15.2 percent. Earlier IRS data show the last year the share of income belonging to the top one percent was at such a high level as it was in 2006 was in 1929, but changes in measuring income make a precise comparison difficult." Jesse Drucker, "Richest Americans See Their Income Share Grow," Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2008, page A3.

13. How many people does our government say are homeless in the US on any given day?

A: A total of 754,000 are homeless. About 338,000 homeless people are not in shelters (live on the streets, in cars or in abandoned buildings) and 415,000 are in shelters on any given night. The 2007 US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Annual Homeless Report to Congress, page iii and 23. The population of San Francisco is about 739,000.

14. What percentage of people in homeless shelters are children?

A: HUD reports nearly one in four people in homeless shelters are children 17 or younger. Page iv, the 2007 HUD Annual Homeless Report to Congress.

15. How many veterans are homeless on any given night?

A: Over 100,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. About 18 percent of the adult homeless population are veterans. Page 32, the 2007 HUD Homeless Report. This is about the same population as Green Bay, Wisconsin.

16. The military budget of the United States in 2008 is the largest in the world at $623 billion per year. How much larger is the US military budget than that of China, the second-largest in the world?

A: Ten times. China's military budget is $65 billion. The US military budget is nearly 10 times larger than the second leading military spender.

17. The US military budget is larger than how many of the countries of the rest of the world combined?

A: The US military budget of $623 billion is larger than the budgets of all the countries in the rest of the world put together. The total global military budget of the rest of the world is $500 billion. Russia's military budget is $50 billion, South Koreas is $21 billion, and Irons is $4.3 billion.

18. Over the 28-year history of the Berlin Wall, 287 people perished trying to cross it. How many people have died in the last four years trying to cross the border between Arizona and Mexico?

A: At least 1,268 people have died along the border of Arizona and Mexico since 2004. The Arizona Daily Star keeps track of the reported deaths along the state border, and it reports 214 died in 2004; 241 in 2005, 216 in 2006, 237 in 2007, and 116 as of July 31, 2008. These numbers do not include deaths along the California or Texas borders. The Border Patrol reported that 400 people died in fiscal 2206-2007, while 453 died in 2004-2005 and 494 died in 2004-2005. Source The Associated Press, November 8, 2007.

19. India is ranked second in the world in gun ownership with four guns per 100 people. China is third with third firearms per 100 people. Which country is first and how widespread is gun ownership?

A: The US is first in gun ownership worldwide with 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Laura MacInnis, "US most armed country with 90 guns per 100 people." Reuters, August 28, 2007.

20. What country leads the world in the incarceration of its citizens?

A: The US jails 751 inmates per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the world. Russia is second with 627 per 100,000. England's rate is 151, Germany's is 88 and Japan's is 63. The US has 2.3 million people behind bars, more than any country in the world. Adam Liptak, "Inmate Count in US Dwarfs Other Nations'" New York Times, April 23, 2008.

Friday, September 12, 2008

More Sexism

Maybe it’s all the talk of sexism in the news (Newsweek’s Anna Quinlen points out that the Republicans have used the word more in the past week than in the past fifty years.), but sexism seems more visible this week. Or may it’s because I’m reading The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd’s account of how she—a Southern Baptist and member of the select “Gracious Ladies” club—got fed up with all the sexism in her church (and society and marriage) and discovered feminine spirituality.

After a torturously slow journey filled with fear and angst about leaving what is familiar, Kidd ends up with an alter filled with nature imagery and the bare-breasted Minoan Goddess who holds snakes, a renewed and more equal marriage, and a new career as a bestselling author. It’s an interesting read, though somewhat repetitive. I have to say my spiritual journey has been quite different, maybe because I was never in the “Gracious Ladies” club to begin with. No one ever taught me how to pour tea, certainly not my mother who didn’t fit the stereotype of silent, selfless womanhood that Kidd was surrounded by in the South. Instead I was educated by strong, progressive nuns and then Quakers, not to mention the Girl Scouts, who taught me how to start a fire and pitch a tent on a mountain. I did have to find new ways of thinking and talking about God when I reached adulthood and realized that the Lincoln Memorial image of the Divine wasn’t cutting it. Quakerism was an easy solution, with hundreds of years of genderless spiritual imagery. Marrying Tom introduced me to Catholic congregations that intentionally use inclusive language. So I haven’t felt the need to go to Crete to find balance in my spiritual life. In fact, I don’t feel like I’ve experienced that much sexism in my life—until I pause and start adding up the incidents. (Yale and Botswana stand out as the places where I experienced the most.) I don’t feel that I have as much anger to work through as Kidd, though every once in a while I notice something and feel a righteous indignation bubble to the surface. Like Kidd, the desire to protect my daughter can bring out the warrior in me.

For example, two days ago the kids convinced me to let them look in a new Halloween store that had sprung up right next door to the Staples we were visiting. It was the kind of place where you could buy big, rubber, bloody limbs, bloody swords, or fake blood for that matter so you make anything you want bloody. There were life-sized ogres and tombs and…well, you get the picture. My son loved the place, and so did my daughter, though I found myself uneasy as I started noticing how sexist most of the female costumes were. Little girls could choose between being a harem dancer or Hannah Montana, while virtually every costume for an adult woman was sexualized in some way and illustrated with a model in a suggestive pose. There was the usual “Pirate Wench” and a slew of women in what are normally powerful positions (like police officer and soldier), their authority undercut with hemlines way too short to trick-or-treat in October in Pennsylvania. The policewoman looked like she might do more than take you down to the station after she got those handcuffs on.

Now I’m not against having a little fun on Halloween or using it as an excuse to dress in ways that make us feel attractive at a party. But as a mother, I couldn’t help noticing how my daughter’s possibilities were constrained in this store that had scores of stereotypical costumes. White men could be doctors or monsters, while women of all races could be sexual objects and black men could be pimps. (There was also a display with a life-sized lawn ornament that looked disturbingly like a lynching, though the man’s race was hard to say for certain.)

Of course, we don’t have to buy those costumes or buy into those images. My daughter is putting together her own outfit, I’m happy to say. But still those costumes are not random or accidental. They tap into stereotypes that are deep, persistent and more common than most of us want to think about in our busy, everyday lives.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Double Standards

I was going to steer clear of the whole Sarah Palin thing—her children, her gender, and certainly her go-go boots. But I just heard a guest on Radio Times accuse a caller of being “sexist” for saying Palin was a “distraction,” and it’s got me thinking about this whole messy business of naming sexism (which is often unconscious) and how it is different from “playing the gender card.”

I start with two assumptions: 1) There is plenty of sexism left in the world, including among women who have absorbed many of the stereotypes about us; and 2) a great deal of politics is about “spin,” so not every accusation of unfairness you hear during a political campaign is true. With that said, let’s take this little example of the caller and the radio guest, both of whom were women, by the way. Is it sexist to say that Sarah Palin is a distraction (as Arianna Huffington also said on Larry King a few hours later)?

Words carry emotional connotations (as explained in the book I reviewed last post), and many of them tap into unconscious metaphors that we all carry. I would say that the word “distraction” brings to mind other words and phrases, like “trivial,” “less important than,” “dismissible.” These are words that have often been applied to women and their concerns, so I can understand how a female Palin supporter could feel that Palin was being dismissed as unimportant. On the other hand, the VP is always less important than the person at the top of the ticket. Is the word really inappropriate or unfair in this circumstance? The uniqueness of Palin’s story has certainly distracted the press and much of the public from issues like health care and the war, a distraction which, as Huffington points out in her blog, benefits the Republicans. Palin has also diverted attention from John McCain (unless you count the articles questioning his judgment for choosing her at the last minute, with little vetting, and despite the fact that he really wanted Joe Lieberman). Trying to silence debate about these points by crying sexism is unfair and manipulative.

It is not so different from the debates about racially coded language in this election. The question of whether Barack Obama is “unqualified” is another case of a word having two aspects. On the one hand, it taps into stereotypes about black people benefiting from affirmative action and getting advantages they don’t deserve. Some even explicitly suggest that no one would have voted for Obama if it weren’t for his color, a smear that overlooks his great oratory skills, the political acumen that put together a campaign able to beat the Clinton machine, and the fact that most Americans agree with him on the issues, including the occupation of Iraq. On the other hand, it is certainly legitimate to ask about the qualifications of someone who wants the most powerful job in the world, or who wants to be a heartbeat away from it, for that matter. That is why I think the Obama campaign has been wise not to comment on the racial undertone to the word "unqualified" and instead focus on showing Obama as someone who can do the job.

Sometimes there are not two sides to the story, however, as in the recent case of a Republican Congressman calling Obama “uppity,” a word historically applied to any blacks who aimed higher than slave or share-cropper. (In case you don’t know the history, uppity blacks were lynched, a fact not lost on African Americans.) I can imagine a male vice-presidential nominee being called a distraction if his family soap opera ended up on the cover of People Magazine, but I can’t imagine a white candidate being called uppity for attending an Ivy League university and running for president. Was Bush uppity for going to Yale on a legacy, or does the fact that he got bad grades there somehow make him more “like us,” which has suddenly become a qualification for becoming president?

Palin’s supporters are claiming that she is qualified to be president precisely because she is like us, and they are dismissing questions about her resume as “demeaning to women” (as someone did on CNN recently). So let me say clearly that despite whatever sexism I may have internalized over the years, my objections to Palin do not have to do with her gender. Two of the biggest challenges facing our country are global warming and restoring our relations with other countries. I am personally horrified that Palin does not believe humans are contributing to climate change and in fact has one of the worst environmental records I’ve ever heard of. Experience cozying up to big oil is not the kind of experience we need (Been there, done that.). Even more shocking is the fact that she has only been out of the country once and by her own admission hasn’t focused much on the war in Iraq. I’m sure being mayor of a small town would help in some aspects of the job, but not in understanding international relations. I also haven’t heard anything that makes me confident in her ability to restore the constitutional rights that have been stripped in the last eight years. In fact, she was interested in banning books and apparently tried to fire the librarian who told her she couldn't. If she wants to know if that’s constitutional, perhaps she should consult Barack Obama, who was after all the president of the Harvard Law Review (a highly esteemed journal for those uppity constitutional lawyers).

As far as what kind of mother Palin is and how she did as a beauty queen, those are all distractions. Let's get back to the issues.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Political Mind

No, this is not a post on the Democratic National Convention. It’s a review of a very interesting book I read over vacation, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain. Author George Lakoff, a Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, argues that Democrats have long made a strategic mistake by basing their campaigns on the outdated Enlightenment idea that people are rational and that given the facts, they will vote in their self-interest. Instead, Lakoff explains, our thinking is largely unconscious and shaped by emotions, metaphors, and even language. Radical conservatives, he asserts, have used the insights of contemporary cognitive science to shape, not only the way Americans vote, but the way they think about the issues. Progressives, he argues, must get smarter about the way we convey our values or we will lose more than elections.

I found the book particularly helpful in explaining how good people can see issues of morality so differently. He explains “the politics of authority” and “the politics of empathy” as competing modes of thought that co-exist in most of us, though we may tend toward one or another. An authority mindset tends to value self-discipline, obedience, and personal responsibility, while an empathy mindset values responsibility to care for one’s neighbor and the government’s unique ability to protect and empower citizens. His description of these different ways of thinking reminded me of a conversation several years ago with a woman whom I know to be a very good person. She said, “The Democrats just seem so immoral, and I was struck dumb because to me the Republicans seem so immoral. Presumably she was referring to things like Bill Clinton’s lack of self-discipline when it comes to sex, while I was thinking of what I see as a Republican lack of empathy across a range of issues. As the bumper sticker says, “When Clinton lied, no one died.” One thing I hope to take away from this book is a better ability to explain my values in those conversations where we seem to be talking across a chasm.

Lakoff explains that different events, even the repeated use of different words, can prompt our brains to move into one way of thinking or the other. For example, fear triggers the authority mindset, which is why 9/11 boosted Bush’s popularity and helped conservatives achieve so much of their political agenda. It’s not that Republicans are better at dealing with terrorists, but that terror makes people think in ways that favor conservative policies. On the other hand, Hurricane Katrina triggered the empathy of the American people. When the administration was perceived as not being empathetic enough, Bush’s approval dropped, helping the Democrats to regain a majority in Congress, though Lakoff argues they have not been able to use their majority well because they keep accepting conservative “frames” for issues.

Framing means choosing words for an issue that trigger a series of metaphors in the brain. As long as we call the occupation of Iraq part of “the war on terror”, Lakoff asserts, we have lost the argument before we’ve begun. (I’ve always thought this!) Similarly the term “tax relief” assumes that taxes are bad, instead of framing them as an investment in our community and future. One of the issues Lakoff is most concerned about is what he calls “privateering,” the systematic undermining of important government functions and turning them over to profit motivated corporations that are not accountable to the public. It is happening to our public schools, our prisons, our food and drug supervision, and our military in Iraq in the form of companies like Blackwater. By connecting these issues under the word “privateering,” Lakoff suggests we will be better able to argue against the dangers of being governed by corporations.

Although I found this book very interesting and thought provoking, I do have to point out that at points it is a little hard to take. I found the Introduction repetitive and self-congratulatory, while the latter chapters get too much into the details of the history of cognitive science. Still, most of it is very readable and informative. While Lakoff doesn’t talk explicitly about the upcoming presidential race, the implications are clear. A national mood of fear favors the Republicans, while empathy favors the Democrats. And the language we use to talk about the issues matters.

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