Tag Archives: America

Post-Midterm Elections Hangover

voting

Did you vote yesterday? I did, even though I knew that my vote would not have an immediate impact on anything, since I live in California and there were no close races on the ballot. I still believe, though, that voting is fundamental, even and especially when you are angry with the only available options. Here’s why.

The majority of commentators on the 2014 U.S. midterm elections have lamented that the electoral system in the U.S. is broken and dysfunctional (and here)  after yet another record-low voter turnout. I strongly disagree. In fact, I would argue, the electoral system is working perfectly well.

“People feel they’re victims of the process, that politics isn’t something to participate in, it’s something that is done to them. The feeling is getting worse, it’s getting much deeper, it’s covering larger and larger groups within the electorate….Their frustration is much worse than anything I’ve heard before,” said a Democratic Party pollster… in 1990! Since then, there have been 48 elections cycles, all of them with more or less low turnouts. If there was any political will to get the population more involved with democracy, don’t you think the results would have been felt by now? But that’s exactly my point: the way the system is set up benefits those in power, therefore they have no incentive to change it.

Remember that the goal of any political system is to maintain power with the elite group in charge of that system. The obvious correlation is that power should not be allowed to devolve to others outside of the elite group. As I’ve discussed before, in 21st century America, the locus of power is with those who control the most capital, whether large corporations, hedge funds or investment bankers.

Ever since the Nixon administration, the U.S. has moved towards a form of capitalocracy. The events of the 60s deeply worried the entrenched elites. For the first time in the history of the U.S. they could see glimpses of what their society would be like if power was allowed to actually trickle down to the people. And they didn’t like what they saw. At all.

So in the last 40 years, there has been a push to favor capital over people in order to not only overturn the concessions given to us in the 60s, but also, and most importantly, to make sure that nothing like the 60s ever happens again. Outsourcing of jobs, the relaxation of numerous banking and finance regulations, the strangling of unions, the demise of our education system, and other similar measures have created very favorable conditions for high returns on capital investments. Not surprisingly, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated in his Capital in the 21st Century, the rates of return on capital have exploded, while real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) have stagnated in the last 30 years. In other words, while the rich are getting richer, the vast majority of us just toil along.

What does this have to do with these last elections though? While the turnout was abysmal, these midterm elections represented an all-time record in spending! At first glance this seems absurd: both parties (and private donors) spent nearly $4 BILLION on these elections and yet they still couldn’t get most of the population to come out to vote? But that was never their intention! In a society ruled by capital, people are expendable.

The Supreme Court’s “money is speech” decisions paved the way for today’s extremist political landscape. Politicians no longer need to convince undecided people to vote for them based on a rational analysis of their political programs. Instead, whoever can muster the most capital can just sling mud on his/her opponents and drown the airwaves with favorable ads. This achieves a double effect: it turns away moderates from the political arena altogether, and it fires up their base.

In other words, if you’re not a die-hard Republican or Democrat, if you are generally disgusted with all politicians and don’t believe that any change—or hope—can come out of Washington, candidates don’t care about you. They won’t waste their money attempting to coax you to vote for them. And once they are in office, they will not bother addressing any of the issues you stand for. You are completely useless to them, and they will treat you as such.

The only way to revert this trend and give yourself a voice is trough a protest vote, especially if you disagree with both candidates from the main parties. Cast a blank ballot. Or vote for some candidate on the fringes. This sends the strong message that you are in the mix, that you are politically active, that you WILL vote in the next election, so that candidates cannot simply disregard you. It also sends the message that you will not fall for fear-mongering (every Republican campaign) or naive dreams (Obama 2008).

60% of the voting population turning in a blank ballot sends the strong message that the system is indeed broken, that the population cares about the future of its country and will not allow the elites and their interests groups to decide that future for them. But 60% of the population not showing up at polling stations and not casting a vote is not a problem at all for politicians. It simply tells them that the system they designed is working as planned, by keeping those they can’t reach at bay, while allowing their core constituencies to carry the day for them. Is this democracy? No. But the real question is: next time around, will you make your voice heard or will you stay on your couch?

Tired Of The Outrage Over Columbus Day

columbusprotestbannerstarbucks

Another Columbus Day comes around, and another round of outrage inevitably follows. But this year we have an extra twist: Seattle passed a new law inaugurating “Indigenous People’s Day” on the same day as Columbus Day. It is not a first (Berkley did something similar way back in 1992), but it is the biggest US city to officially turn its back on Columbus Day and instead celebrate the original people of North America.

While I certainly agree with the concept of an Indigenous Day, and I would be in favor of making it a federal (thus national) holiday, the hatred spewed on Columbus Day smacks of hypocrisy.

Let’s not forget this very basic fact: if it wasn’t for Columbus, 95% of the current US population would not be in this country at all. So unless you are part of the 5% of Native Americans still left in the US population (and that is generous, official statistics only list 1.7% of the population as Native American) YOU would currently live in either Europe, Africa, Asia or on some Pacific Island right now, possibly living under an autocratic regime, or in a society stiffened by adherence to millennia-old misogynistic culture, or not even being able to cover your basic food and shelter needs. Take it from a more recent immigrant: the U.S. in the year 2014 is the best country you could possibly live in!

There is no denying that Columbus was a cruel, gold-loving murderer who inflicted a lot of suffering on the native populations that he encountered. After all, he was a white European, and throughout the history of the world it has been proved time and time again that white Europeans and their descendants/allies have been the most brutal, barbaric and cold-hearted group of people in the history of humanity. But there’s also no denying that Columbus is one of the reason most Americans call the US home.

So should he be celebrated at all? Or should he be indicted as a criminal against humanity, as the Huffington Post proposes? It’s at this juncture that hypocrisy rears its ugly head, and I decide to distance myself from the outrage over Columbus Day. By the Huffington Post’s logic, EVERY single US President from Independence until the early 20th century should be found guilty of the genocide of the Native Americans (see also , and this). Columbus was an amateur in comparison to what 18th and 19th century White Americans did to the Natives. Yet we celebrate all of our presidents and even have a federal holiday for the purpose, while nobody gets outraged! How strange…

The second reason why I find this outrage hypocritical is because it is sterile, as most social media-fueled outrage usually is. While thousands find 30 seconds today to post a comment on social media criticizing Columbus and supporting Native Americans, how many of them take ANY action the remaining 364 days of the year on this issue? So while the myth around Columbus has been busted decades ago, and his atrocities have been well documented for years, the “conquest of the West” is still a strong part of the curriculum of most schools in the US. “Manifest Destiny” is still the prevalent belief, albeit not as overtly expressed as it was in the 19th century. After all, if I ask you “which country should lead the World,” what would your immediate response be?

In the end, I could live in an America without Columbus Day, but could you live in an America that teaches about the Greatest Genocide in History instead of the “conquest of the West”? Or in an America that teaches about the “US war crimes in Vietnam” instead of the Vietnam War (and for those who think that atrocities were confined to only a few army units and isolated incidents, recently declassified papers showed that abuses against civilians were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam)?

Unless you decide to fully lift the veil of hypocrisy surrounding your understanding of US history, especially concerning the treatment of Native Americans, the outrage over Columbus Day is quite useless…

What Rape Culture?

slut-walk

The first time I heard the term “rape culture” being used in the mainstream media was following the horrid Delhi bus rape in 2012. Of course, at that time, it was used in a mostly racist way to describe Indian rape culture. The unspoken implications were that this is not the kind of thing that happens in the civilized West, only in foreign cultures where tradition still holds a stranglehold over society.

Back then, I was quick to point out both that rape is not a culturally accepted practice in India (however, as I later realized, maybe there is a rape culture in India), as well as the very real rape problem in the West as well, highlighted by the Steubenville High School rape and subsequent cover-up by the local community.

In 2014 though, following many slut walks, which have by now become mainstream, the debate over rape culture has clearly shifted to our own society. Scores of feminist are denouncing Western society as a “rape culture,” which quite frankly bothers me. It bothers me because it dilutes the term until it can be made to mean anything at all. It bothers me because there are still many societies in which the rape culture is alive and well—Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, just to name a few—societies in which honor killings, honor rapes and female genital mutilation are not only happening, but are ENCOURAGED. It bothers me because in our own society, rape and sexual assault were acceptable until a few hundred years ago. And most of all, it bothers me because the feminists who attack the so-called Western rape culture do not bother with the vast majority of rape victims: men.

To me there is threshold between a rape culture society and a society in which there are rapes. Because let’s not kid ourselves: rape has always been a part of human history. As long as certain men choose to not control their instincts (or, some argue, cannot) there will be rapes. And yes, I will be quick to concede the point that rape perpetrators are by and large men. However, trying to eradicate rape is like trying to eradicate murder: as long as there are psychopaths out there, it ain’t happening.

But to talk of a rape culture, you need to show more than just rapes happening. You need to show society’s acceptance or even encouragement of rapes and other forms of sexual violence. And this is where I part ways with the feminists and others who call our society a rape culture.

Traditional Rape Cultures

In societies traditionally associated with the rape culture, rapes and sexual assaults are much clearer than in Western society.

Let’s take the case of Afghanistan as an example. One of the worst forms of sexual violence against women in that country are “virgin loans.” These are essentially loans taken by farmers secured against one of their virgin daughters. There is no age requirement, so the daughters could be as young as 9 or 10 years old. If the farmer, after having sold his crop, cannot repay the loan back, he has to give his daughter in marriage to his creditor. As soon as she becomes married, she becomes the creditor’s property, which gives him the right to use her in any way he chooses, including sexually.

Or let’s look at Saudi Arabia, where adultery is a crime, and apparently rape is an accepted form of punishment, at least among certain parts of society. I am referring, of course, to the infamous Qatif rape, when a woman who was found in a car with a man not her husband—they may, or may not have been engaging in the act—was raped by 7 strangers. In the subsequent rape trial, the perpetrators were given prison sentences, but the shocking part was that the woman (and her lover) was also sentenced to a public lashing for committing adultery in the first place (she was later pardoned)!

Finally, we have the gruesome situation of Female Genital Mutilation (“FGM”), mostly in Africa and some parts of the Middle East. The statistics are staggering: FGM affects 98% of all women in Somalia, 91% in Egypt, 88% in Sudan… The girls are cut between the ages of 9 and 14, at the onset of puberty in order to maintain their chastity. By and large, their respective societies condone the practice, even when FGM is legally outlawed.

All of the above are examples of sexual assaults against women that are widely supported in the underlying culture. To talk of “rape culture” in these contexts makes eminent sense.

Rape Culture in Western Society?

Now let’s look at what is being defined as “rape culture” in western society. The advocates of the term point out to this absurd statistic:

jailed-rapists

As we know by now, statistics can be made to say anything, so let’s break this one down. Firstly, it is interesting to note that the studies cited range from 1999 to 2012. Considering that the US population has increased by over 40 million (about a 15% increase) in that timespan, it is hard to imagine that statistics that are 13 years apart have much in common. But let’s skip over and keep going with our breakdown.

“40% of rapes get reported to the police… 10% lead to an arrest” How do you know that 60% of “rapes” that are not reported are in fact rapes? How do you know that the 30% of reported rapes that don’t lead to an arrest are rapes? As defined in our laws, rape is a crime. In America everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty by a jury of his/her peers. Before an accused is brought to trial, there is a police investigation. How does RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) suggest handling this issue? Simply take the victim’s word for it and forego the legal process? But then you would be taking away another citizen’s rights and freedom without due process!

Believe it or not, that is one of the cornerstones of the “rape culture in America” argument. That the legal system is slanted against victims, making it hard for them to come out in public because of the antagonism of (male) police officers, judges, attorneys, etc… The fact of the matter is, any kind of accusations are looked upon suspiciously when there is no hard evidence to support them. And when it comes to rape, because of the nature of the crime, it is very hard to collect evidence unless done immediately (that’s why colleges and other high-risk areas have rape kits).

The second main issue with rape statistics has to do with the nature of the crime: most victims were raped by someone they knew, not a stranger. Between the 6% of completely fabricated rape accusations and the 3% conviction rate, there lies a huge gray area.

What if both participants in a sexual encounter were drunk, even blacked out, at the time? Who raped who? If the girl wakes up in the morning and feels like she was raped since they had sex, but can’t remember it and neither can the guy, should he be sent to prison?

What if a girl had only one drink, meets a guy she likes who can really handle his liquor and who happily follows her to her place, 10 shots deep. In the morning he has no idea who she is or where he is. Did she rape him? What if the roles were reversed?

I recently had a conversation with a young female friend in San Francisco. She was describing her experience at a “sketchy” bar/club, notorious for sexual predators who slip drugs into their victims’ drinks and engage in other devious behavior. Long story short: her and her friend were drugged and barely found their way home that night, but luckily no pervert got to them. Things could have been a lot worse.

Based on this, my friend was telling me why she supports slut walks and why she believes the US is a rape culture: because young women cannot dress up however slutty they desire, walk into an unsafe environment, proceed to get intoxicated (alcohol or drugs of their choice) and be allowed to simply “dance” the night away without being groped, drugged or worse. She said that as long as that will not happen, the US will be a rape culture.

Her argument speaks more to millennials’ confused stance on life and their puerile desire to have their cake and eat it too. But it also echoes many other feminists’ comments in support of slut walks and female sexual freedom.

Now don’t get me wrong: I believe women should be just as free as men to be sexually promiscuous, or to dress provocatively. However, both sexes must be aware of what the likely consequences of their actions will be. As recently exemplified by the violent beatings of pranksters who ventured into inner cities and other “hot” areas, provocative actions can have violent, unforeseen consequences.

Sure, a young attractive girl is free to dress as skimpily as she wants. But as soon as she leaves the comfort and security of her home, she needs to be aware that her outfit, and accompanying behavior, will gather male attention. Depending on where (and when) she goes, that sort of attention can manifest itself in violent ways, for example in bars where men are intoxicated, and therefore much less likely to behave in a rational manner.

“Let’s Teach Men Not to Rape”?!?!?

This brings me to the topic of “teaching men not to rape.” But most men in America already know and understand that rape, just like murder, or stealing, is a crime. Most men understand that “No means no.” Rape education has long been a staple of sex/health eduction in high school, and it is doing a good job. By the time a high school male reaches college, he has been taught that no means no, unconscious means no, and incoherent means no.

And the small minority who doesn’t get it, most likely never will. This is the equivalent of saying “we need to teach people not to kill each other.” Well, Jesus and his followers have been preaching that for the last 2,000 years, and yet murder has still not been eradicated! Same with teaching kids abstinence or the use of contraceptives: judging by the rates of teenage pregnancy and teenagers with STDs, education, while important, has its limits.

However, if one even dares to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we should teach women how to protect themselves from rape, all gates of feminist wrath sway open and the harpies spew venom on the poor soul who dared to come up with such an insulting suggestion. Listen carefully to what Stephen A. Smith said the first time around: he didn’t say it was a woman’s fault for getting beat up/abused, what he said was that we need to teach women not to put themselves in those situations.

My stance is very similar to his: I don’t believe that any women, no matter how intoxicated or scantily dressed, deserves to be raped. However, I do believe that people should be held accountable for their actions. If I decide to walk around a bad part of Detroit at night, conspicuously wearing a gold watch, I don’t deserve to be mugged, and maybe even murdered. But most people would agree I am begging for something bad to happen. Why should rape victims be held to a different standard than mugging/murder victims?

As a brother to a sister (and potential father of daughters, who knows?) I truly believe that women should be taught how to defend themselves, both physically and emotionally. I know this is an extremely controversial position to hold in America in the year 2014, but think about it: we teach our children how to protect themselves against pedophiles, teach bus riders how to defend against pick-pockets, homeowners how to protect their homes, why is it taboo to teach the same to our women? It is surely more effective to teach an intelligent person not to put himself/herself in a bad situation than trying to teach a psychopath not to act like a psychopath.

Edited: In the original version I sounded like I believe ALL rape education is useless, when what I mean is that we are already promoting rape education in our high schools, so no male with a HS degree can use the excuse that he “didn’t know better.” If I am wrong, and if there are men out there who are not clear about the concepts of consent, freedom of choice, etc… then by all means educate them.

Dress Like a Slut, Beware the Consequences

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly believe that the perpetrators of assault crimes, sexual and otherwise, should be punished to the full extent of the law. The fact that someone walks around the wrong part of town at the wrong time of day, or that a woman chooses to dress provocatively, should not be a mitigating factor when dishing out the punishment to the perpetrator. However, you cannot paint the victim as “blameless” when the crime she suffered was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of her actions. No, rape victims who dress provocatively are not “asking for it,” nor are they to be blamed equally with the monster(s) who rapes them. But if they put themselves in the wrong situation knowingly and intentionally, then they have to shoulder some of the blame.

While feminists will go to great lengths to emphasize that the way someone dresses should not affect how they will be treated (the aforementioned “slut walks”), empirical evidence suggests the contrary. RAINN, quoting a U.S. Department of Justice study, tells us that sexual assault rates are up to 10% higher in the summer than in winter. Can this have anything to do with the difference in the amount of clothing that is worn in the two seasons?

Men: the Real Victims of Our Rape Culture 

Prison rape, interestingly, is not a topic that feminists cover. Like AT ALL. A quick search on Jezebel (the modern feminist bible and news source) yields exactly 0 results on the topic. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the vast majority of victims are men?

According to one research group, 200,000 men are raped in prison in the US every year. Some of them are raped—and killed—while awaiting trial, because they cannot afford bail. It is interesting to compare this number with the number RAINN provides for total sexual assaults in the US per year, about 238,000, which excludes prison rape. If you combine the two statistics, it would imply that close to 50% of rape victims in America are men!

The ridiculously high incarceration numbers in the US—don’t forget, we incarcerate more people than China and Russia!—coupled with the general public’s acceptance of what goes on behind bars, comes suspiciously close to a “rape culture.”

While our constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment” at the hands of the Federal, state or local government, we accept that 12% of our prisoners will be raped. If we cannot agree that getting raped is cruel and unusual punishment, then what is? Especially in the case of sexual crimes perpetrators , who are known to be targeted themselves as soon as they enter the prison system, we either turn the other way, or we agree that them being sexually assaulted is a fair punishment for their crimes. Well, hello: this is exactly what rape culture is all about! It is a culture in which sexual assault as a form of punishment is acceptable. Just because Jezebel won’t talk about it, should we keep quiet about the real victims of the rape culture in the US?

Edit: I did the math wrong on the rape-per-year statistics, initially claiming that 84% of rape victims were male. Thanks to my friend Lily for pointing out that RAINN did NOT include prison rape in its 238,000 sexual assaults-per-year figure.

The end of the book in America?

Recently my friend Lily sent me an interesting article about the declining number of book readers in America.

As usual, with an article based on a statistical study, you have to be very careful. As we all know by now, statistics can be made to say anything. Here the author’s premise is fairly straight forward: while the number of American non-readers is increasing at an alarming rate, there is hope since more and more people get a college education these days; better educated people read more, therefore the non-reader trend should reverse in the future.

Studies since 2012 show that about a quarter of Americans don’t even read ONE book a year (here’s the 2012 study, here’s the 2014 one). Is this shocking? Not exactly… If I had to take a guess, I would have said at least 50% of Americans don’t read books, so the actual figure is significantly better than my pessimistic prediction. But then I looked at the questions that were asked in the study.

“During the past 12 months, about how many BOOKS did you read either all or part of the way through?” (my emphasis)

Turd alert! The phrasing of this central question discredits the entire study, at least as applied to the author’s hypothesis. All that the study shows is that 75% of Americans leafed through one or more books last year, not how many of them actually read a book cover to cover.

What the author finds significant is that the number of non-book readers has nearly tripled since 1978. Alarm bells are ringing! The Death of the Book is near! But in the second half of the article the author finds some solace in the fact that the growth of the college-educated population means more and more readers in the future. I wouldn’t be so sure though, considering the number of college educated friends that I have who openly admit to barely reading outside of their professional/academic requirements.

To confirm my fears, the author rolls out another study that found that nearly half of American adults DID NOT read a book for pleasure  last year(my initial guess looks a lot better now). But again, I disagree with the author’s interpretation of the study.

“Most importantly, the percentage of young folks reading for pleasure stopped declining” Indeed, it made a dramatic climb from 51% to 52%! To me that looks more like stagnation than anything else, certainly not enough grounds to proclaim, as the author does in his conclusion that “Perhaps the worst of the fall is over.” Sure, and perhaps finding the cure for HIV is around the corner, but the hard statistics do not support the author’s conclusion, as usual.

From my own observations, Americans seem the least book-friendly nation in the Western world. Walk into a packed Tokyo subway car and you will see dozens of people reading books on their way to work. In fact, books are published in Japan in a special format that can fit inside your pocket, since so many people read on their commute. Stroll though the Quartier Latin in Paris on a weekend and you will find thousands of passers-by crowding the many bookstores along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. But walk into a Barnes and Nobles, and you notice that half the store is devoted to music CDs, DVDs, magazines, even kid toys!

And yet, America publishes the largest amount of new titles every year out of any country in the world at 292,037! This means 1 new title published for every 1068 citizen. Compare to France (41,902 new titles per year): 1 new title for every 1570 citizen or Japan (78,349 new titles per year): 1 new title for every 1629 citizen. Out of any country in the world, only Germany does slighly better than the US, with a near perfect 1 to 1000 ratio. So according to these numbers, the US per-capita totals fare much better than most countries in the world. The conclusion seems inevitable: Americans are among the most avid readers in the world!

What all the studies presented here show is the increasing stratification of US society. A shrinking percentage of the population is very intellectually curious, while a growing percentage finds it very hard to disconnect from the day-to-day reign of useless distractions that we constantly surround ourselves with (sitcoms, soap operas, reality TV, Candy Crusher, Words with Friends, etc…), lest we could become bored and would then be forced to actually start doing some thinking.