Monday, February 25, 2008

Unfairly Influencing the Mandate

I have had more than my share of emails from MoveOn recently- one even titled "Obama-mentum." Cute! MoveOn is currently running a petition campaign titled "Will the Democratic Party Live upto its Name?" Here's what MoveOn writes: You've probaly heard about the "superdelegates" who could end up deciding the Democratic nominee. The superdelegates are under lots of pressure right now to come out for one candidate or the other. We urgently need to encourage them to let the voters decide between Clinton and Obama-and then support the will of the people. Can you sign this petition to the superdelegates right away?

How disingenuous of MoveOn! Telling the superdelegates to "don't do like I do- do like I say." MoveOn did not wait to see whom the voters would choose between Clinton and Obama and then support that candidate. No, they put to work their entire machinery and resources in supporting the candidacy of Obama and asked the voters to choose him. And they see nothing strange about asking others not to interfere in the "democratic process." They must think the voter is a putz to be manipulated by them.

I can't even vote in these elections as I am not a citizen and yet, it galls me that an organization I thought well of has turned out to be just another influence-peddler. In a special editorial for the New York Times today, Geraldine Ferraro writes of the role played by superdelegates. As she correctly points out, most democrats have not made their voices heard during the primary season. Even with an invigorated primary season this year, less than 30% of democrats have likely cast their votes in favor of one or the other candidate, which would mean that going strictly by primary vote counts, the nation could end up with a democratic nominee supported by around 15% of democrats at most! Not a sweeping mandate by any yardstick. Anyway, don't listen to me, but do give Ferraro a few minutes of your time- she is certainly more knowledgeable and eloquent than I on this issue.

And most importantly, Don't do as MoveOn tells you to do. Research your candidates, think through their policy stances and vote your conscience.

The political cartoon is from the strip State of the Union by Carl Moore. This particular strip is from the 2nd of Feb., 2008.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A New Challenge to the Separation of Church and State

Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated in an interview last week, with BBC Radio, that he believes adopting certain aspects of sharia law would lead to better social cohesion of the muslim community within the UK. He believes that currently muslims are faced with "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty". Let me translate that gobbledy-gook into plain English. He feels that many observant muslims are faced with the dilemma of obeying either their religious imperatives, as laid out by the quran (and the sharia interpreters), or the law of the land. He believes that muslims are being oppressed by having to submit to the common English law without recourse to their own sharia courts.

There are so many concerns which need to be separated and individually addressed here. Let me start first with muslim reaction in the UK. It is one of puzzlement. After recent talks of integrating the muslim community further into the mainstream of UK life and fighting feelings of alienation amongst the younger generation, one does not know what to make of the Archbishop's statements. Some raise practical questions: How would disagreements between sharia and secular law be resolved? Given the various sects, whose sharia would gain primacy? Others ask more penetrating questions: Wouldn't adoption of the sharia law actually achieve the exact opposite effect- that of further delineating the muslim individual rather than leading to further cohesion? Sharia is not renowned for its enlightened stance on most issues even if many in the world would willingly submit to it. What about the status of women? If sharia were formalized, would this not sow the seeds of discontent among other religious communities (like the hindus, christians, buddhists...) who could then ask to follow their own religious edicts instead of the national law?

Another aspect of this issue has to deal with the fact that by introducing muslim courts one would reintroduce an aspect of life most people may have been fleeing from, in the first place, by emigrating to a secular country. Rowan Williams wears the blinders of a religious man who cannot conceive of lives that do not revolve around religious conviction alone. There are plenty of younger people who are forced into arranged marriages and "honor" rituals in the UK, who have some recourse currently in the secular law of the land. Sharia courts would be a huge disservice to them. Indeed, he goes so far as to think that the introduction of sharia courts would somehow reduce these "cultural practices" by allowing for their legal monitoring. Huh? So sharia courts would bring to the fore that which was previously a hidden "cultural practice" but how would legal monitoring serve any purpose if sharia law considered said cultural practice correct?

Another set of questions raised by the Archbishop's comments relate to his motivation. Why would he be championing muslim rights to a separate sharia court? If one were to read or hear the full-text of his conversation with BBC's Christopher Landau, one will also hear other comments such as:
"What we don't want either, is I think, a stand-off, where the law squares up to people's religious consciences". [sic]
"An approach to law which simply said that there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands our loyalties or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the court - I think that's a bit of a danger".
"That principle that there is only one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a western democracy. But I think it is a misunderstanding to suppose that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that".
He goes on to make more confused noises while presenting examples such as whether a catholic adoption agency would be forced to consider gay parents under equality laws. His words swing between seemingly selfless championing of religious rights to incoherent ramblings about the trampling of the religious conscience by western secular democracy. One begins to wonder whether his true motivations aren't to strengthen judeo-christian religion and ultimately the church of England's position and re-establish it as the font of legal and moral authority in the land.

The danger of undoing the separation of church (mosque, temple, synagogue...) and state is very real in many democracies. There have been attacks on secular institutions and laws before. This attack from within is unexpected and therefore, the more dangerous. Williams states that most people are torn between their religious affiliations and the law and that their religious needs (which he euphemistically calls cultural practices) should get precedence. His suggestions would certainly strengthen the religious orders but I am afraid his fiction about a more cohesive society would remain just that. Let the Archbishop note that sharia law is accepted in many parts of the world and human rights have certainly not improved in areas under sharia law comparative to areas under secular law.

Quotes were taken from news stories on the BBC.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Do Liberals Need to be Told Whom to Vote For?

For a few years now I have received emails from MoveOn. I felt that MoveOn served to fill a gap in American politics where the right wing is often loud, vitriolic and brash. The liberal side of the political arena is usually represented by slightly anemic organizations such as PBS and NPR. These organizations, in their journalistic quest to appear objective, often end up not standing clearly for or against specific policies or decisions. MoveOn, on the other hand, draws its strength and voice from its avowedly democratic leanings. It has given all those stifled by Fox, Bush & Limbaugh hope and allowed them to pump their fists in the air and get behind a cause too.

MoveOn has been working tirelessly for the upcoming elections to mobilize the votes and return a democrat to the White House. While MoveOn started as a civic action group, it has metamorphosed into a two-headed organization - a civic action group and a political action committee. MoveOn PAC has been endorsing candidates and contributing to their coffers. American politics is, as it is, too institutionalized with various interest groups, lobbies and organizations trying to influence the electoral result with money. MoveOn, at least initially, stood apart as a grass-roots email-based movement of liberally-inclined individuals. While for the last couple of years, MoveOn gave Senator Clinton a lot of ether-time and generated support for her, it has now come out and endorsed Barack Obama as the candidate it wants members to back this election year. Why would an organization that served as a conduit for liberal opinions "decide" who the democratic candidate should be for millions of liberals?

This will be a historic election in more ways than one. We have the possibility of having the first woman president or the first president of mixed race. But instead of letting the candidates fight for the hearts of the people, MoveOn wants to hand one an advantage. This is condescending in the extreme to the American liberal voter. Bringing out the liberal vote and spearheading policy movements is a good agenda. It is inclusive and it influences the electoral process in positive ways by fighting electoral apathy and encouraging political debate. But presuming to choose the right leader for a party or a nation is fractious and damaging to the political process. MoveOn PAC's actions may drive away some of the same voters its civic action group is trying to mobilize.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

What's In A Name?

Nothing for a woman and everything for a man, it would seem.

Most societies around the world are patriarchal and one spouse's name is used as the whole family's name. So a woman who marries a Mann also becomes a Mann and her children are all Mann. There are a few notable exceptions. Among East Asians (most Chinese and Koreans, for instance) a woman retains her family name after marriage. Her children, however, receive the father's family name. There are also a few matriarchal societies where the husband takes on the wife’s family name (the Khasi of NE India are one example). However, as these matriarchal societies have “modernized,” many are adopting the custom of taking on their spouses name (if they are female) or retaining their own name (if they are male). It is strange that this asymmetry in naming exists across most societies. Most families even resign themselves to the fact that their family name will die out without a son and many will, therefore, try and try and try to make sons. I feel this gives people another reason to cherish sons over daughters.

Whatever the reasons behind the various naming conventions, they are outmoded and do not necessarily hold water anymore. If someone freely chooses (and I emphasize freely) to change their names to their spouses’, it should be a deliberate decision and not a default. But I know very few women who have retained their family names (ok so these names come from their fathers mostly, but c’mon, we have to start somewhere) and I know of only one male friend who changed his name to his wife’s, for reasons he clearly articulated to me. (Hats off to you Schua!) I also know another friend, whose family (himself, wife & 2 adult children- daughter & son) decided jointly to change the family name to include both parents’ last names. This was more than one-score years after the marriage, when the wife felt she should be able to retain her family name. How proud a moment for that whole family when everyone agreed and participated in that re-naming ceremony acknowledging both parents! (Go Jeanette and Tom!)

Women are achieving a lot today and deserve to be acknowledged entirely as individuals. If they choose to change their names to their spouses, then great, but by that same token, we should see more men choose to do the same. Or perhaps, we can entirely avoid name changes. After all you fell in love with the person, not the name (only, hopefully).

As for progeny, I agree with Marilyn vos Savant that kids should get both their parents name. Her solution however, is not a hyphenated name. She suggests that the male children get the father's last name and the female children get the mother's last name. There are many other such distribution rules that one could employ to ensure that both parents' names are given importance. That would be one more step towards creating a more equal society.

[Picture shows Schua with his son, Erik, at a Buddhist conference in London, 2005.]

Here's a response from my dear friend Trini:

Hey Rad great blog, I've finally been tempted to contribute my 2 pence worth! I'm pleased to say that for a society that coined the term "machismo" the Spanish approach is probably the closest to gender equality that I am aware of. Everybody has two surnames. Women (and men) keep their surnames unchanged when they marry, and all the children get a new surname based upon the first part of each parent's surname. So, e.g. when Ms Rockerfeller Skank marries Mr Busta Rhymes, all the children have the surname Busta Rockerfeller! There's still a slight inherent machismo even in this system, because the fathers name always makes up the first half of the surname, and because the children take both of the first halves (names they have essentially inherited from their grandfathers on both sides) then after a couple of generations the maternal lineage is lost to obscurity. Perhaps a fairer system would be to take the first half of the father's surname (thus emphasising the paternal line in the father) plus the second half of the mother's surname (emphasising the maternal line for the mother). I think the Icelandic system is pretty much like the one you suggested ie. male children get father's name and female children get mother's name, except its the mother's & father's first name that gets incorporated; thus men have a surname ending -son and women -dottir, eg. Magnus Magnusson is "Magnus, son of Magnus" and Bjork Guomundsdottir is "Bjork, daughter of Guomund" presumably. Actually I just looked that one up and it seems that although the mother's first name can be used, most of the time it is the father's name for both boys and girls. Shame. Basic strategy is a good one though.