Warning labels

I know I’ve been neglecting my blog the last few weeks.  I’m finding much of the news depressing and it is finally spring and who wants to be depressed by dwelling on disasters – current and potentially future.  But I’m aroused from my lethargy by a couple of recent stories, so I may well go on a blogging binge.

My first subject is warning labels.  “Cigarettes are Hazardous to your health.”  “Not gluten-free”  “Keep away from water [on my hair dryer]”  All handy and relevant for physical health and safety.  But now some students are agitating for warning labels on books for reasons of psychological health.  Classic books.  Like “The Great Gatsby” .  This follows a commencement season where students got various speakers removed because of something they’d done in the past or some opinion they hold.  Something very disturbing is going on here way beyond the protection of someone’s mental health.  I love the opening of Renee Loth’s column in this mornings Boston Globe

Warning: This column may contain material you disagree with or find offensive. It may provoke a strong reaction, making you feel angry or exposed. Of course, you can log off or turn the page. But this is the opinion section of a general-interest newspaper. Shouldn’t you expect to find provocative, even threatening ideas? And shouldn’t other readers be able to see this column without a cautionary note that it might do them harm?

She goes on to explain

Something similar is happening on college campuses, where reasonable concern for students who may have suffered terrible traumas has morphed into a serious threat to intellectual freedom. Increasingly, students are expecting “trigger warnings’’ to be issued before they are asked to read certain texts or view course material that may be troubling. It can be something as raw as a graphic rape scene or a bloody wartime battle, or more conceptual, such as themes of racism or oppression. At some schools, students want to be allowed to skip a class or reading if they fear it will trigger a stressful reaction.

The criteria for the warnings are varied and ill-defined. At Rutgers University, Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway” was targeted for a warning because it contains thoughts of suicide. At Oberlin College, students requested one for Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” — a hardy perennial on freshman reading lists — because of its treatment of colonialism. Trigger warnings have been proposed for “The Great Gatsby” and “The Merchant of Venice” because they depict violence, misogyny, or racial slurs.

Warning label

Excuse me if I thought that great writing was supposed to be thought-provoking and maybe disturbing.  In her column on the subject in today’s Washington Post, Kathleen Parker discusses a potential answer.

Without making light of anyone’s ethnicity, race or trauma, especially rape or stress disorder suffered by veterans (another specific group of concern), such precautions are misplaced in an institution of higher learning where one is expected to be intellectually challenged and where one’s psychological challenges are expected to be managed elsewhere.

There are, besides, other ways to inform oneself about a course or literary assignment that might be problematic for whatever reason. Then again, if reading “The Great Gatsby” causes one undue angst owing to its abuse, classism, sexism and whatever-ism, then one might consider that college is not the right place at the right time.

Moreover, part of literary criticism is understanding the historical context of a given work. Thus, when the egregiously offensive N-word appears in the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” is it too much to ask that readers reflect upon the word’s usage when Mark Twain wrote the book?

Within that understanding is a world of learning, from the history of race to the evolution of language. Instead, we are enslaved to “responsible pedagogical practice,” as one sympathetic faculty member put it. Thus, a draft guide at Oberlin College suggests flagging anything that could “disrupt a student’s learning” or “cause trauma”:

“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [transgender discrimination], ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.”

I once co-taught a class on women and war.  We read some disturbing stuff, especially for some class members who were veterans or who had active duty spouses.  But we didn’t have an y”trigger” warnings on what we assigned to read.  What we did was talk.  One can learn from someone else’s experience.  Besides if there are all these warning labels, maybe someone won’t read the book and find out it really isn’t so bad after all.  And where does it end?  Do we not read about the civil rights movement in Mississippi because the murder of three civil rights workers might be disturbing?  Should be miss reading “The Color Purple” because it might be a trigger for someone?  Is talk of the plague in the Middle Ages also a trigger for someone’s trauma?  Parker is right:  the proper response is discussion.

Loth ends her column this way

Trigger warnings aren’t new; they are common on the Internet, where they alert readers to a range of potentially upsetting material from common profanity and insensitive jokes to depictions of drug abuse, eating disorders, even spiders. But they are especially worrisome on college campuses, where exposure to a free exchange of ideas is paramount. “When a student opts for a liberal arts education, they have opted to jump into the cauldron of life,” said attorney Harvey Silverglate, a fierce advocate for freedom of thought on campus. “You should expect to be occasionally very disturbed. That is actually part of the education.”

Much of the focus on content warnings grows out of a concern for marginalized groups, whether minorities, the disabled, or anyone not in the “dominant culture.” Feminist studies in particular have promoted them as a way to make women feel safer in a sometimes hostile campus environment, which can and does include sexual assault. But there are as many potential triggers as there are students. It’s a practical impossibility to protect against all of them.

Nor should we try. Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge and professor at Harvard Law School, says students have asked her to disclose whether an exam in her criminal law course would contain any triggers for rape victims. She has refused. “I have a feminist objection to the notion that women need to be inoculated against certain issues,” she said. “Women need to engage, to come to grips with these issues.” The university should prepare students for the rest of life. “There are no more trigger warnings the minute they graduate,” she said.

Let’s hope that this trend has a very short life.

Picture:  istockphoto/globe staff illustration

Women in combat

The Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, and the head of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey, recently signed an order to allow women to serve in combat.  Each branch of the services will now develop a timetable and guidelines for implementation.  This move will allow for official recognition of roles women are already playing.

I posted a pithy little sentence about this from Winning Progressive on my Facebook page only to set off a sometimes not completely coherent discussion among some who oppose the entire idea.  What I posted was

“Now that women can serve in combat that leaves the neo-cons as the only group that apparently can’t serve in war.” – LOLGOP

When I put the comment on Facebook, I was more interested in the neo-cons not serving than in the decision about women.  But the discussion ended up centering around women and combat.  (Sometimes I think friends on the right don’t have much sense of humor.)  Their arguments against were essentially the same ones that Kathleen Parker made in her column in the Washington Post.

The two most popular arguments for inclusion of women in combat would be valid if only they weren’t incorrect. They are: (1) Only qualified women will be included in combat units; (2) We have a volunteer military and, therefore, only those who want to serve in combat will.

Parker worries about the lowering of physical standards, she call it “gender norming” and the fact that women will now have to register for selective service so we may not have a volunteer army at some point.  Parker also seems to think that women would be able to choose whether to be in combat but men would not which would result in the kind of inequality allowing women in combat is supposed to correct.  It is my understanding that both men and women currently make some choices about what job they want after basic training and there are qualifying tests for those jobs.  But right now, women just can’t choose the jobs that have a combat designation.

So how did the decision happen in the first place?  Here is how CNN reported the story.

For Gen. Martin Dempsey, Thursday’s move to open combat units in the U.S. military to women had its roots nearly a decade ago, on the streets of Baghdad.

Dempsey took command of the Army’s 1st Armored Division in June 2003, when Iraqi insurgents were starting to target American troops with sniper fire, grenades and roadside bombs. As he prepared for a trip outside his headquarters, he took a moment to introduce himself to the crew of his Humvee.

“I slapped the turret gunner on the leg and I said, ‘Who are you?’ And she leaned down and said, I’m Amanda.’ And I said, ‘Ah, OK,’ ” Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon.

“So, female turret-gunner protecting division commander. It’s from that point on that I realized something had changed, and it was time to do something about it.”

Thursday, Dempsey — now chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff — sat alongside Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as both men signed a directive that will open front-line posts to the roughly 200,000 women now serving in the active-duty military.

Panetta said the move is a bow to reality on the battlefield, where women in what are technically non-combat units already find themselves fighting alongside their male comrades.

I think that Parker and other opponents envision battlefields with opposing armies lined up to face each other.  Don’t think this happens any more.

Once we heard similar arguments opposing women in the police force.  I once had a high ranking Virginia State Trooper tell me that women were generally too short to meet what was then a height requirement (I think it was 5’9″ or 5’10”) so they couldn’t be troopers.  Why did they have a height requirement?  So they could fire over their vehicles.  When, I asked, was the last time you fired over your vehicle?  Never have, he said.

There will be a lot of fuss over physical standards and what they really need to be.  And sometimes they will be like the height requirement for Virgina troopers – just tradition.  In the end, women will serve in combat as they do now only they will get credit.  And yes, maybe women will have to register for Selective Service, but maybe we can turn that into a national service requirement for everyone to give a couple of years helping the country in some way.

With this move, we join our allies.

Several U.S. allies, including NATO members France, Canada and Germany, allow women to serve in combat posts. Earlier this month, the U.S. Army opened the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to women, and it has begun recruiting female pilots and crew chiefs. The Navy put its first female officers on submarines in the past year, and certain female ground troops have been attached to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Change is hard, but we have until January 2016 to see what the actual changes will be.  See what you started, Amanda!

Illustration from the Denver Post.

Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Religion

The first Amendment to the Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….”  I don’t think that Rick Santorum has read the Constitution recently if ever.  Last night on Hardball  Chris Matthews tried to  referee a shouting match between Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican Party who tried to defend Santorum’s introduction of his religious beliefs into governing policy and David Corn who tried without success to explain why the introduction of religion was wrong.  All three of them missed the point.  The point is that we can have no established religion in this country and while those who govern as President can have personal religious beliefs, they cannot impose them on the country.

Karen Santorum says husband’s presidential run is ‘God’s will’

Kathleen Parker ended her recent column titled “The Trials of Saint Santorum” this way

Everything stems from his allegiance to the Catholic Church’s teachings that every human life has equal value and dignity. The church’s objection to birth control is based on concerns that sex without consequences would lead to men reducing women “to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of (their) own desires,” as well as abuse of power by public authorities and a false sense of autonomy.

Within that framework, everything Santorum says and does makes sense, even if one doesn’t agree. When he says that he doesn’t think the government should fund prenatal testing because it leads to abortion, this is emotional Santorum, father of a disabled child and another who died hours after a premature birth. In both instances, many doctors would have recommended abortion, but Santorum believes that those lives, no matter how challenging, have intrinsic value.

Though Santorum’s views are certainly controversial, his biggest problem isn’t that he is out of step with mainstream America. His biggest problem is that he lacks prudence in picking his battles and his words. The American people are loath to elect a preacher or a prophet to lead them out of the desert of unemployment. And they are justified in worrying how such imprudence might translate in areas of far graver concern than whether Santorum doesn’t personally practice birth control.

Parker’s statement that “the American people are loath to elect a preacher of a prophet” is exactly right.  And he is definitely out of step with mainstream America.  Maureen Dowd was even blunter opening her column with

Rick Santorum has been called a latter-day Savonarola.

That’s far too grand. He’s more like a small-town mullah.

Santorum is not merely engaged in a culture war, but “a spiritual war,” as he called it four years ago. “The Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country — the United States of America,” he told students at Ave Maria University in Florida. He added that mainline Protestantism in this country “is in shambles. It is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it.”

Satan strikes, a Catholic exorcist told me, when there are “soul wounds.” Santorum, who is considered “too Catholic” even by my über-Catholic brothers, clearly believes that America’s soul wounds include men and women having sex for reasons other than procreation, people involved in same-sex relationships, women using contraception or having prenatal testing, environmentalists who elevate “the Earth above man,” women working outside the home, “anachronistic” public schools, Mormonism (which he said is considered “a dangerous cult” by some Christians), and President Obama (whom he obliquely and oddly compared to Hitler and accused of having “some phony theology”).

Rick Santorum wants us to be a Christian country and beyond that a fundamentalist Catholic one.  How different this is from President John F. Kennedy declaring that the Pope would not run the government.  Mullah Rick needs to read the Constitution. 

Rick Santorum talks to the media after Wednesday's debate. | AP Photo

It is too easy to make fun of him.  This is a dangerous man.  We need to take him seriously.

Thoughts about Glenn Beck and the Lincoln Memorial Rally

I was sitting at dinner tonight and it occurred to me that for all of Glenn Beck’s call for all of us to return to church, I had no idea what church he attends.  Do you know? 

According to the Wikipedia entry about him, Beck was born Catholic and left the church.  He is now a member of The Church of the Latter Day Saints or Mormon.  No wonder he is so disparaging about President Obama’s religion calling him a follower of liberation theology.  If I am not mistaken, liberation theology began in the Catholic Church, the church that Beck left.  This obsession is not really new. 

In March 2010, Politics Daily reported on a segment of Beck’s show.

On his daily radio and television shows last week, Fox News personality Glenn Beck set out to convince his audience that “social justice,” the term many Christian churches use to describe their efforts to address poverty and human rights, is a “code word” for communism and Nazism. Beck urged Christians to discuss the term with their priests and to leave their churches if leaders would not reconsider their emphasis on social justice.

“I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them . . . are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words. Now, am I advising people to leave their church? Yes!”

Later, Beck held up cards, one with a hammer and sickle and other with a swastika. “Communists are on the left, and the Nazis are on the right. That’s what people say. But they both subscribe to one philosophy, and they flew one banner. . . . But on each banner, read the words, here in America: ‘social justice.’ They talked about economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth, and surprisingly, democracy.”

This is the man who invoked the name of Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial on the 47th Anniversary of the March on Washington.  King was a minister and an advocate of all that Beck seems to find evil: economic justice, rights of the workers, redistribution of wealth and democracy.

[Thispicture is the Beck Rally, not the King Rally]

It appears that Glenn Beck is not only ignorant, but also confused.

Today, Kathleen Parker, the conservative columnist for the Washington Post wrote a column titled “My Name is Glenn Beck and I need help” in which she argues that his behavior is clearly that of an addictive personality.

Beck’s “Restoring Honor” gathering on the Mall was right out of the Alcoholics Anonymous playbook. It was a 12-step program distilled to a few key words, all lifted from a prayer delivered from the Lincoln Memorial: healing, recovery and restoration.

Saturday’s Beckapalooza was yet another step in Beck’s own personal journey of recovery. He may as well have greeted the crowd of his fellow disaffected with:

“Hi. My name is Glenn, and I’m messed up.”

Beck’s history of alcoholism and addiction is familiar to any who follow him. He has made no secret of his past and is quick to make fun of himself. As he once said: “You can get rich making fun of me. I know. I’ve made a lot of money making fun of me.”

Parker continues

Covering all his bases, Beck invoked the ghost of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who stood in the same spot 47 years ago to deliver his most famous speech. Where King had a dream, Beck has a nightmare: “It seems as darkness begins to grow again, faith is in short supply.”

Really? When did that happen? Because it seems that people talk about God all the time these days. Even during the heyday of Billy Graham, most Americans could get through 16 or so waking hours without feeling compelled to declare where they stood on the deity.

And the darkness? Creeping communism brought to us by President you-know-who. Conspiracy theories and paranoia are not unfamiliar to those who have wrestled the demon alcohol.

So we have a former Catholic Mormon alcoholic leading the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.  As Parker concludes, “Let’s hope he gets well soon.”