Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What way forward for Americans?

Today everybody seems to have an opinion on the Republican loss in the Presidential elections. So I’m going to jump onto the bandwagon: First of all, I don’t think the loss came as a surprise. The Obama campaign worked long and hard, and they had a long-term strategy. They were also largely consistent in maintaining that strategy, even when faced with criticism from pundits on the left. The result: they did their swing-state math just right and were able to get enough support to win the electoral votes in the most crucial states.

The team behind Obama plays politics like a game of chess. Almost every move they make fits into a larger strategy and anticipates the likely Republican responses. And they have studied their quarry pretty well: their predictions are usually right. The mistake that the folks on the Republican side make is to consistently ignore this fact. They have always portrayed Obama, a true centrist if there ever was one, as a liberal on the far left, acting to fulfill some ungodly agenda. So many of the attacks they have directed at his initiatives and positions have been strawman fallacies. In other words, the Republicans have often had to first distort his policies in order to oppose them.  

This strategy would have made sense in a world where the Republican and Democratic parties were drastically different. In the real world, however, all it does is make rubbish of the Republican’s own policies. You see, under Obama, the Democrats have adopted several ideas that were developed by conservative thinktanks or proposed by Republican politicians, and they have made them work. And if all that the Republican Party can do in response is to oppose these ideas, then they are effectively rejecting conservative principles.

As a consequence of their actions, the Republicans have maligned various conservative policies and initiatives and declared them communist or un-American (by virtue of their having been implemented by a Democratic president). So what conservative alternatives exist for them to promote or adopt? None, really: not pragmatic ones, anyway. Obviously, the Republicans can’t reach to the far left for alternatives. Doing so would require them to embrace socialism (which is apparently anathema to them). So in the end, they are left without a definite direction. In name, they are a conservative party with conservative values. In reality, they have somehow managed to separate themselves from compassionate and pragmatic conservatism. They can no longer claim the brand of politics that used to unite the disparate entities within the Republican Party. So a leadership vacuum has arisen within the party. In response, the different voices within the party are clamoring for dominance.

Within the Republican party, you have the Religious Right, the Tea Party, and the Libertarians, just to name a few of the more prominent tendencies. So the Republicans don’t have a unified political agenda. That is precisely why they ended up selecting Romney to represent them. He was really the only sane guy left standing when all was said and done. But, at the same time, they hated the things he stood for as a “Northeastern liberal.” The party had to perform some creative acrobatics in order to embrace him as their presidential candidate.

The phrase “only in America” comes to mind here: Where else in the world would a party go through the long, drawn-out process of selecting a presidential candidate then spend the entire campaign pushing back when he tried to speak positively of his own record (presumably the record that inspired them to select him)? Where else would that presidential candidate select an “authentically conservative” vice-presidential candidate and prevent him from talking about his actual record (the one for which he was chosen)? This was the problem throughout the campaign period. Whenever Romney tried to be honest, he was shot down by the more extremist voices in his party. Whenever he tried to toe the line and sing the accepted conservative tune, he ended up looking like he was willing to buy into whatever was expedient at any given moment. And then there was Ryan- the poor guy. He was supposed to be a conservative genius, a policy wonk, but he was reduced to repeating meaningless platitudes.

And what about the other folks in the party? Well, they worked day and night to recreate a platform around which their people could unite. That was why outrageous statements and legislation surrounding female reproductive health and rape kept on popping up all over the place. Race and religion were also deployed because, when there is nothing else to unite a group of people with opposing agendas, you can always rely on the ethnic clarion call to bring them together. The result of these efforts was to disenchant a large number of potential pro-Republican voters. The party was left with a predominantly older, white, Christian, male base. The funny thing is that many Republicans are walking around in the aftermath of the loss, holding on to the belief that they lost votes because 50% of Americans “want free things.” Honestly, that is the most intellectually lazy conclusion I have ever heard. I understand why the Bill O’Reillys of the world sing that tune. But I can’t help but marvel at the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who have taken it as the gospel truth. It is as if they were on an entirely different planet during the entire campaign process (one during which their party undermined its own candidate).

Of course, the result of all of this is that the Republicans cannot offer a true political critique of many of Obama’s policies. For a genuine critique of the Obama administration, one has to look beyond the dominant two-party system to some of the other parties: The Libertarian Party, the Green Party of the USA, the Socialist Party, and others. These are legitimate American political parties. Some of them even fielded presidential candidates, a number of whom were included on the ballots of various states. But these parties get next to zero mainstream media coverage. So it’s not a surprise that most Americans believe there are only two legitimate lenses through which to view American politics: the Democratic lens, and the Republican lens. This presents a bunch of problems: As the two mainstream parties have tended to shift rightwards over the decades, there has been no dominant party on the left proper to present a balance. So the overzealousness with which the Obama administration has used drones to perform so-called surgical strikes in other nations, for example, has been largely unremarked upon.

Americans have a tendency to live too much in the present moment. For instance, there’s not too much along the lines of long-term thinking going on where the national economy and the environment are concerned. It is widely recognized that the American deficit must be addressed, but the American public does not seem ready to scale down its largest expenditure: its overseas military efforts. I often ask myself when the American nation as a whole will finally realize that it is more important to ensure that its people can afford to meet their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter and healthcare) at home than to dominate brown folks in their own countries. In addition, there is little public dialogue on issues such as climate change and its impact on communities nationwide. The political parties that have actually put these issues on their agendas have been locked out by the media, presumably because they would “steal away” some of the Democratic or Republican votes. Ultimately, it is the American public that has lost from the exclusion of these voices.

I really don’t think the Republican loss is the most relevant news item of the day. The party was bound to lose. They set themselves up to lose by failing to develop a coherent agenda, and they essentially helped to energize voters on the other side by voicing support of misogynist and racist policies and actions. The most relevant issue of the day should be the question of what lies ahead in the long-term. When are we going to start addressing the concerns that have been raised by America’s marginalized parties?
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Entitlement and the presidency

During an interview on a North Carolina radio show yesterday, the interviewer asked Mitt Romney’s son, Tagg, how he felt when he heard “the president of the United States call your dad a liar.”

Tagg’s response was vivid: Jump out of your seat and you want to rush down to the stage and take a swing at him. But you know you can't do that because, well, first because there's a lot of Secret Service between you and him, but also because that's the nature of the process.

He was being honest. It must be unbelievably hard to watch someone you love on the stage taking the figurative punches. Presidential campaigns are brutal and thankless. And, for those who are fortunate enough to win the seat, the ultimate job involves more of the same. To be frank, I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone in their right mind would want to be president of a nation, let alone a powerful nation. I know for a fact that I would not have the capacity to run for such a seat, or to support a loved one through the process.

Power alienates. The poor fellow who becomes head of state is raised onto a pedestal so high that people either expect him or her to be godlike or they demonize him or her. And the demonization is relentless. I’m thinking about all the racist drivel I’ve seen being directed at President Obama, the First Lady, and their family. I’m also thinking about all the attacks that Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton have put up with from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.

So, I do understand when people like Ann Romney or Tagg Romney get frustrated and say something they really shouldn’t say to an interviewer. They’re being human, and their human actions give us a peek at the pain they experience behind the curtains. It is evident from what they tell us that running for president is not all glamor. In fact, if you don't have the right personality type, it can be the greatest punishment imaginable.

At the same time, their words reveal something else to me: “privilege” and “entitlement.” David Sirota has written a piece on the very subject, describing it as an instance of “White privilege.” It’s an interesting piece, but I’m not making quite the same argument he is. To me, the privilege lies in the apparent presumption on the part of the candidate’s family that he has already won the seat. I’m sure there is a case to be made about race playing a part in all of this. But I think other people, like Sirota, are better qualified to make that particular argument than I am.

The idea that a candidate deserves to win a seat and is doing the whole nation a service by running is something I’ve heard more times than I care to remember. Frankly speaking, I think it’s a self-serving statement. It’s the sort of thing I have always expected a politician to say. But I did not actually expect him or her to believe it. And I did not expect his or her family to buy into it either. So you can understand that I was surprised to learn that these people actually start to believe this stuff after a while. And when they start to believe it, they start identifying too much with the coveted seat and thinking that it is theirs. That, my friends, is where the sense of entitlement comes in.

In the real world, people do not run for president so that they can devote their life to service. They run because they are ambitious and very much like the idea of being in power. Their motivations are selfish. Objectively speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just a fact of life. We need leaders, so we must have people self-centered and ambitious enough to want to step into that mantle. By contrast, nuns and monks devote their lives to serving others. Their efforts are directed at diminishing the ego and elevating the common good. This distinction is very important: We speak of winning the presidency, but I have never heard of anybody speak of winning the vow of poverty or the chance to serve in an orphanage or hospice. So we really need to stop pretending that presidential candidates are martyrs for the greatest cause.

Perhaps some presidential candidates and their families have to believe that they deserve the seat and that they are running for the sake of the country. Maybe convincing themselves that these are unshakeable truths helps to compensate for all the psychological trauma and exhaustion that they endure during the race.

Whatever the case, winning the seat is a privilege. It is not a foregone conclusion for any candidate. So it would probably be in the best interest of presidential campaigns to take their candidates and their families through counseling throughout the campaign and afterwards. Running for president takes too much out of the candidate and his or her family: it would be ideal if these people went into the experience with realistic expectations and with the understanding that they could lose, but that life would still go on. Party sycophants are unlikely to give this kind of guidance. So it falls on counselors to play this role.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, August 31, 2012

On the controversy surrounding the image of Michelle Obama

Those of you who are following the news online will notice that there's an debate raging about a picture that depicts a semi-nude Michelle Obama on the cover of a Spanish magazine. You can read about it on the Huffington Post.

As you will notice, there are two issues being addressed. One is the decision of the magazine editors to feature the portrait on the magazine cover. The second is the decision of the original artist, Karine Percheron Daniels, to create the image in the first place.

With respect to the former, I have no idea what the motivation of the magazine editors was in the first place or how the image is related to the featured articles of the issue. So I can't speak authoritatively about it.

With respect to the latter, it is indicated that the picture of Michelle Obama is part of Daniels' "Famous Nudes" series. Other personalities depicted in the series include Queen Elizabeth II, Michael Jackson, Eva Peron, Prince William, his wife Catherine, Che Guevara, and Princess Diana. You can take a look at all of these images on Daniels' FineArt America portfolio.

The thing that strikes me is the fact that many are rushing to label Karine Percheron Daniels a racist for depicting Michelle Obama in the nude. Many of the articles written in this vein mention, as an aside, that the image is part of a larger series of famous personalities in the nude. However, they conveniently avoid further discussion of that series.

Well, I don't want to avoid that series. I think that any genuine discussion of the original artist's intentions should address at length the fact that other powerful men and women of our era are depicted in the nude in her other paintings: and these men and women are not all black. Some of them are Latino/a and some are white.

If creating the image of Michelle Obama makes Daniels a racist, then what does it mean that she portrays Queen Elizabeth in the nude? Is that also a racist act? Perhaps a misogynistic act? What about the depiction of Prince William? It seems to me that fitting the image of Michelle Obama into a larger story about white racism requires one to ignore the context in which that image was produced.

I don't think there's only one legitimate way to respond to art. It is perfectly fine for people to hate a piece of art if it violates their ideals. But, along the same lines, just because this particular image offends a particular group of people, it does not follow that their opinions are the only legitimate ones.

It's actually unusual that I'm writing this piece. I'm not a fan of nude paintings: I've never been interested enough in them to even remember their titles or the identities of the artists who created them. I can certainly see why Americans and particularly African Americans are offended at the depiction of Michelle Obama. From their perspective, it fits into a history of dehumanizing depictions of black people. I can also see why the choices made by the artist in creating that single picture could be interpreted as racist. If I didn't know that the artist had depicted other personalities in the nude, I would probably have thought it was a racist image too. But (and this is what I want to emphasize) I would want to know what the context was before rushing to condemn the artist.

The reason why I sat down to write this piece is because I think there's too much of a tendency to jump to the worst possible interpretation of events in this day and age, even when there is clear evidence challenging our assumptions. I've watched as one controversy or another has made it into the headlines and people have expressed outrage and brushed aside any nuances. I've also read strongly worded opinion pieces that suggest that there's only one way to interpret certain events, and that anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is racist/ sexist/ unpatriotic/ a self-hating member of some ethnicity or another. Frankly, I am tired.

There's a part of me that's wondering how many people realize that their perspectives are not universal perspectives. For instance, even the idea of what constitutes nudity is not set in stone. What people may consider to be evil in one context or sexual in another is simply a fact of every day life in a third. Think about this: in some cultures it is considered immodest to leave one's hair uncovered; in others, it is perfectly decent to wear little more than a wrap and to breastfeed in public. In some contexts, wearing knee-length skirts can almost precipitate a national crisis. In other contexts, for instance in art or in anatomy classes, the human body or form is natural: nothing to blush about. There is something to be said about that diversity of views, whether or not we agree with every single one of them.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Turn the TV off

I’ve been thinking about the impact that the media has on our self-perception as women, minorities, etc, because it’s something that interests me. Much of what I’ve encountered is negative. For instance, the scarcity of positive black role models in the TV and print media leaves children feeling that there is not much for them to aspire to. As for black females, they take away from the media the idea that dark tones of skin and frizzy hair are to be detested, as are curvy figures.

This is heart-breaking, of course. But I also read something that got me wondering. It was an article about media consumption patterns among different racial and ethnic groups. According to the piece, black children spent significantly more time watching television programming than kids of any other ethnic group. That made me think about the roles we played as consumers, whether active or passive. And I did wonder whether there was something more we could be doing as individuals to make a difference in our children’s lives.

Are we all really as helpless as we make ourselves sound when we talk about the negative effects of the media on our kids? Do our kids have to be plugged in to Hollywood’s version of the world? What would it be like if we stopped being such avid consumers of empty, soulless programming and shallow magazine articles? What if we stopped feeding our children images of materialism, mediocrity and dysfunction?

I realize that many people turn to the TV and other forms of media to keep their kids occupied because they have limited options. Perhaps they’re working two or three jobs to put food on the table and can’t sit down to supervise their kids. Perhaps a sitter is beyond their budget. Perhaps having the kids go outside and play is not an option because the streets are unsafe. They likely recognize that plonking the kids in front of the TV is not the best option, but are trying to make do with what they have.

But is it really true that there are no options or alternatives? I would like to believe that people have some degree of agency, even in very difficult situations. Maybe they can’t reform the media, but they can certainly be more selective about their children’s consumption of it. Kids don’t have to watch or hear everything, even if it has been rated suitable for their age group. That applies to both TV and radio. Video games should also be included in this discussion. While some video games can be remarkably educational, others can be disturbingly realistic in their portrayal and glorification of violence and sexism.

Books are the most ideal form of information and entertainment that come to mind. When I was growing up, electronics and video games were out of reach. Our only consistent way to amuse ourselves, outside of playing or doing our chores, was to read. And that we did with gusto. All the kids I knew, whether poor, middle class, well-off, rural, or urban appreciated a good book. We made a habit of borrowing books from each other and buying second hand books. Brand new books would have been beyond our budgets, and functional libraries were like some rare species that you caught sight of once in a while.

That is why I wonder why it is easy for many Americans to identify books with elitism, and TV with the average guy’s experience. In my experience, books are actually cheaper to acquire in the first place, and to continue to use, while anything electrical or electronic is on the pricier side. Mind you, I’m not talking about heading to expensive bookstores or buying an e-reader. I’m talking about joining a local library, and getting access to thousands of books at no cost to yourself, or buying secondhand books. It amazes me that getting kids to appreciate books over cable TV, electronics, and video games can be a challenge in the American context. In an ideal world, books would be valued more highly, and literacy would have a higher priority than chest-thumping about being the greatest nation in the world.

It must be said, though, that even books have to be vetted. It’s not enough to grant one’s children access to books. One must also know what they are reading. Wherever possible, parents and guardians of impressionable kids have to play a more proactive role in determining what kinds of images they are being exposed to.
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On HIV/AIDS, religion, and public health

Over the years I have lost many to HIV/AIDS: family and friends. I can’t tell you how many, though. I stopped counting a while back. However, I can tell you that, because of the impact of HIV/AIDS on my life, I know what stigma is. I know what it is like to watch people sink into depression, lose hope and die because those who matter most to them have rejected them. 

HIV/AIDS as we have experienced it in the East African context has struck the family as a whole: men and women in their prime and young children have been the typical victims. Our AIDS story has had much to do with heterosexuality. So one can’t simply label HIV/ AIDS a “gay disease” as has tended to happen in the US. Our governments have had to address AIDS as a national crisis because it has stricken the mainstream.

In nations such as the US, where the tendency has been to associate the disease with sexual and ethnic minorities, I get the distinct sense that little mainstream urgency has been attached to the fight against AIDS. There are certainly men, women, and youth who have devoted their lives to fighting this apathy. But, unfortunately, there are also others who tend to view HIV/AIDS as a form of punishment for “breaking God’s laws” on sex and sexuality. Of course, this is not a uniquely American view. I have also encountered it among some people of faith in the East African context.

My interactions with those who have expressed these troubling views have led me to think about just how limited this particular religious approach to human problems is. I’m talking about a specific interpretation of the Christian teachings on sex and sexuality. The idea is that, if everybody limits themselves to following these teachings and only engages in sex within the context of heterosexual marriage then sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV/AIDS will cease to be a problem. In other words, the only way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS is to be a “true” Christian.

That is all well and good, except that never in the history of humankind have all members of a given community adhered strictly to its religious teachings: A “true” Christian can get infected with HIV/AIDS even if he or she is firmly heterosexual, married, and faithful. For one, there is such a thing as a cheating spouse. Secondly, infection can be transmitted through rape. Yet another situation that facilitates the spread of infection is transfusion with infected blood and blood products. Yet another is the use of unsterilized medical equipment. The list goes on and on.

Those who persist in seeing HIV/AIDS as a form of divine punishment conveniently forget how closely interconnected we all are. As a result of these interconnections, HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. When you are exposed to the HIV virus, it does not ask whether you are “saved,” pray regularly, give alms to the poor, fast, or obey God’s law. If your defenses are weak, it penetrates them and infects your body whether you are rich or poor, young or old, “innocent” or not, devout or otherwise.

Keeping all of this in mind, how useful is it that a significant number of religious leaders have a simplistic approach to dealing with HIV/AIDS? How useful is it that they condemn it as a sinners’ disease, oppose the use of condoms under all circumstances, and oppose most forms of sex education? Simply put, their actions are not useful. In fact, to the extent that they influence public policy, they end up endangering everybody in the community.

Knowing this, I think that those of us living and working in communities stricken by HIV/AIDS should persist in emphasizing that it is treated by government and health organizations as a public health issue, not a moral issue. From a public health standpoint, we can speak about HIV/AIDS in its complexity. We can also talk about risks, prevention, and treatment. Importantly, we can make an effort to protect everybody.

What is the place of religion in all of this? Well, I honestly think people are entitled to believe whatever their religions teach them. However, I also think their beliefs should be directed towards governing their personal lives and setting moral standards for their religious communities. They should not be imposed on the broader national population as public health policy.

Further reading
"Education, honest dialogue key to halting spread of AIDS," by Chris Carlin and Debra Stanley, 1/17/07,
"HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination," 
"Public health approach to combating HIV/AIDS,"
"HIV/AIDS stigma: an impediment to public health," by Ronald O. Valdiserri, MD, MPH, March 2002,

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Problem-solving: a skill we desperately need

I've had the good fortune to live and work with people who have devoted themselves to solving problems. They are really the unsung heroes of our communities. They are the ones who fix the things that are broken in our systems or carve out new paths to bypass the old, dysfunctional ones. These people work in a variety of fields. I'm not just talking about those who work in healthcare, law, social work, or pastoral care. I'm talking about people in almost any field out there. Heck, I could even be talking about you.

I've come to realize over time that people in general spend a lot of time and energy making much ado over nothing. We invest so much capital in symbolic battles against those whom we perceive as our enemies, and we do this in big ways and small ways. People who spend much of their free time gossiping about and undermining personal enemies do it. So do political parties and other large entities that thrive on creating controversy and provoking outrage. And these actions come at a cost. What they add up to, at the end of the day, are symbolic victories, but the real foundational problems remain in our communities.

You want some examples? Look at the state of contemporary American politics. More specifically, look at the kinds of legislation that American conservatives have been pushing for all over the nation in the past few years. I'm talking about those laws that focus on issues that conservatives consider to be key to the nation's moral fabric: abortion, contraception, gay marriage and civil unions.

If you happen to be conservative, you may consider these nationwide legislative victories to be a great accomplishment for your side. But there's one thing you should be worried about vis-à-vis this kind of legislation: It's the fact that the legislators making it happen are doing it as part of a cynical calculation. The idea is this: By achieving these symbolic legislative victories, they signal to the people who voted for them that they have done what they were put in office to do. They subsequently win the loyalty of their constituents, but they have absolutely no incentive to work on legislation that actually solves the biggest problems facing their communities (e.g. unemployment, the failing health care system, malnutrition).

Today, American communities battling poverty, health crises, and other long-term problems are not actually dealing with these problems. Not in terms of policy, anyway. The problems are not even on the agenda. And the not-so-funny thing is this: When problems are ignored, they do not vanish. In fact, they have this knack of growing bigger and bigger. An apt illustration of this is Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the U.S., where conservative legislative efforts have been focused on making the one abortion clinic in the state next to impossible to operate. In the meantime, the average Mississippian is struggling to make it from day to day, living in the margins.

If you're on the ground in these communities, the situation is very frightening. To use a Kenyanism, things are elephant (there's a huge catastrophe impending). You watch as the existing problems are compounded; perhaps you even know what is broken in the system and how to fix it. But you also know that any proposals you make for policy changes will come to nought. Only if your proposal stands to make somebody somewhere a fat load of cash will it see the light of day.

In Kenya, I see pretty much the same kind of inertia about solving problems. The symbolic battles fought in the media are often flimsily disguised battles about ethnic supremacy. Occasionally, they're about religious supremacy and morality. Many Kenyan politicians and religious leaders alike are highly vocal about these kinds of issues. They know that they are effective in rallying support, and 'consolidating the base.' And they are successful: For some reason, people gain tremendous satisfaction from boisterously supporting or opposing some cause or another, and don't seem to mind that their shouts and rallies do nothing to ease their lives. When all is said and done, the old problems persist in the community: poverty, chronic health issues, food insecurity, environmental degradation, and others.

The people I consider heroes in this anti-pragmatic climate are the ones who live in our communities, recognize our problems, and put in the hard work necessary to solve them in their own small way. If they have private capital, they use it to put their ideas into practice. If they don't, they reach out to others in the community with similar interests and they leverage their resources to craft solutions. When they face obstacles due to political obstructionism, corruption, etc, they don't give up. They simply look for a way to bypass them. Their main aim is to solve the identified problem, not to get fame for it, and not to profit materially from it. So they labor on quietly, achieving little victories and making a big difference in the lives of some.

Their victories do not lie in reaching large numbers of people. Even if only a few people's lives are improved, the problem-solvers' achievements remain meaningful. They form a template that the rest of us can borrow from. We can learn from them: We can learn about the techniques they used and adopt their attitiudes. Hopefully, by adopting their active approach to life, we can solve some of our larger problems.

These thoughts didn't come to me out of the blue. I've been pondering on them for a long time. Part of my motivation has to do with the work I have done as a volunteer, and my exposure to others who have volunteered in other contexts. Part of my inspiration actually comes from observing those religious and ideological communities that place a high premium on self-sufficiency (sometimes due to a history of persecution). Even in those cases where I disagree with their core teachings, I find that they have valuable attitudes and practices that have helped them to thrive. Some of the groups (broadly-defined) that come to mind include the American nucleus of the Church of Latter Day Saints and the survivalist movement in the United States.

One of my more recent inspirations was Dylan Ratigan, who until recently hosted a show that was part of MSNBC's daily line-up. It seemed to me that he placed a high premium on getting beyond partisan squabbles to discuss real problems and solutions. I don't know how successful a recipe that was for TV. Addressing real issues is hardly ever sensational enough to attract consistently high ratings. But I did take away from his show the urgency of pulling our heads out of the ground and getting to work. In the last installment of his show, he emphasized this philosophy and described his intention to continue working with those who were committed to developing solutions to the problems in their communities. He also wrote briefly about the same in one of his Huffington Post articles.

Another huge inspiration comes from Iran, via Mississippi: A description of a community health project that is intended to reach the rural poor. I've already linked to the relevant article above, but here it is again: These folks are working with very little institutional support, but their ideas are clearly solid. I can't help wishing that they could rally the support of local communities, especially churches, and mobilize the public to raise funds for their endeavors.

Working together to build the community is a learned skill. Some people are fortunate enough to be born in communities where this skill is taught. Others are born in communities where it is underemphasized. For those living in communities of the latter type, learning how to organize to solve practical problems is a godsend.

Reading about these kinds of communities makes me realize just how important effective community organizing is. We tend to think of community organizing as facilitating civic protest. But it can help communities achieve much more than that. Surely, it can help communities develop solutions to their healthcare problems. It can also help them educate families about healthy nutritional practices and sustainable living.

One of the fundamental lessons I have learnt from my experiences and from others is that one's capacity to be an effective problem solver is drastically diminished if he/ she is an outsider to the community. How can one propose practical long-term solutions when he/ she hasn't lived in a community and doesn't know in precise detail what kinds of complications govern the community members' lives? This seems obvious. It also explains why the best solutions for community problems are homegrown solutions. One can't simply translate solutions wholesale from another community. They have to be tried out locally and modified to suit local circumstances. And for them to gain any currency in the community, they have to be seen to work for locals.

This is why I'm increasingly inclined to support the idea of people everywhere being more proactive in crafting solutions for their unique local problems using whatever resources they have at their disposal. Governments may help in some ways, but they can't do everything. In some cases, they don't do anything, not even the bare minimum that we have come to expect from them. As I write these words, I'm thinking about the annual floods and droughts in certain parts of Kenya (for example), and wondering at the fact that, even when these catastrophic events happen predictably, we still get caught unprepared. What can we realistically do in local communities to be better prepared for these kinds of crises?

To answer these kinds of questions, we need to take a close look at the social infrastructure we have. We need to look at the ways in which our communities are structured, see what kinds of social nets we have for people in times of crisis, and determine how to strengthen them. If the social net is the extended family, what can we (as individuals and families) do? If it is a local religious community, then let's work with that: what can we do? I'm interested in seeing religious activists spending less time burning boxes of condoms at rallies and more time building structures to support teen mothers who choose to keep their children, or to help AIDS patients who are stigmatized by their communities.

I'm also interested in seeing so-called tribal organizations investing their energy in mentoring young unemployed men and women and giving them internship opportunities, not indoctrinating them to hate others. How about villages? There's so much we can do, especially those of us whose communities have lost their most productive men and women to diseases such as HIV/ AIDS, TB, cancer etc. There is much more we can do to support the struggling families among us. We come equipped with active minds and bodies, so let's not wait for help from on high.

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I intend to continue blogging about this subject. It strikes me that problem-solving is undermined when one has little or no access to information. So I'm going to make it a point to share any information I come across that has the capacity to inspire and empower others. Feel free to communicate with us if you have any ideas that you'd like to share.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Some lessons about writing and criticism

I've learnt a few important things about writing over the years. They follow below:

  1. Writing anything of good quality, whether a short story, novel, poem, academic paper, or web copy is hard work.
  2. Writing constructive criticism about another person's work is challenging.
  3. Writing destructive criticism about another person's work is easy.
  4. Keeping an open mind as others critique your work is difficult.
My point of entry into this subject is my cumulative experience as a teacher, a student, an editor, and a writer. So I have had occasion to experience both sides of the coin: I have been the writer, and I have also been the critic.

I know how challenging it is to gather one's thoughts into one coherent stream and to set them down in black and white. I do it every single week on this blog and elsewhere. The final product is rarely what I envisioned when I first set out to write. On a good day, that is fine, because I am still satisfied with what I've written. On a not-so-good day, the flaws in my writing are apparent to me, and it takes numerous rereads and drafts to finally get it right. By the time such a piece is done, I have invested my heart and soul into it. I may have spent a significant amount of time on research, and may have considered and discarded countless possible angles.

Then come the second pair of eyes and the criticism. Sometimes I am fortunate: The person who is critiquing  my writing may send it back to me all marked up in red, but the comments make it evident that he or she actually read my piece, took my ideas seriously, and engaged with them as I had presented them. This is the biggest compliment that anybody can pay a writer.

When a critic reads my writing and takes it on its own terms, he or she is respecting me as a writer. The critic may ultimately disagree with my major premises and present me with the reasons for this disagreement in detail. But that is fine. It gives me a taste of what my potential audience may perceive when they read my writing, and may help me identify and fix the flaws in my poem, story, or article.

On the other hand, I may disagree with what the critic says. Perhaps he or she misunderstood something fundamental in my writing. Even in this situation, reading his or her critique will help me determine whether I need to rewrite some of my work so that its meaning is more apparent to readers. The criticism is still constructive: Something good will come out of it.

For the critic, writing this kind of critique takes effort. First of all, he or she actually has to read the text. The critic has to immerse himself or herself in the world conjured up by the text to decide whether the narrative is true to the rules of that particular world. If there are problems within the narrative, then it is only by reading it closely and pointing to these specific problems that the critic can write a proper critique.

For criticism to be constructive it should also be true to the original intent of the writing. In other words, it should seek to improve the writing to the point that it achieves what the original writer set out to do. Destructive criticism does the exact opposite. It seeks to impose an alien purpose on the narrative: typically the purpose that the critic subscribes to in his or her own writing.

So, for instance, a destructive critique would fault a text for not being politically engaged, even if the writer had made it evident that he was not interested in writing overtly political texts. Such a critique would typically express the critic's sentiment that "This is what I would have done if I were the one writing this piece." Critiques of this form are never about the text or the writer of the text. They are more about the critic. And that is a problem. The critic's job is to engage with the writer's work, not with his or her own literary legacy.

This brings me to the question of the writer's reception of criticism: How should the writer respond to destructive critiques of his or her work? Well, the answer to that question really depends on the context. In an academic context, for instance, it may be in a scholar's best interest to defend his or her article if a fellow scholar misrepresents it in a review or analysis.

Another situation comes to mind: one where a writer is commissioned to write an article by somebody else. If the article doesn't meet the person's expectations, the writer will not get paid. So the writer has an incentive to respond positively to the criticism, even when it is not constructive.

A colleague recently found himself in that situation. He was hired to write a seemingly straightforward article. His client gave him instructions about the length, content, and tone of the article. For the amount of pay she was offering for the final product, the terms seemed reasonable.

Once he started to work on the article, however, he realized that there was some ambiguity in the subject she had asked him to write about. It turned out that the subject could be addressed in two drastically different ways, and she had not been clear about which one she preferred.

The writer sought clarification from his client. In her response, his client cleared the confusion up. Later, when the writer had completed the article and sent it to her for review, it turned out that there were other unspoken expectations she wanted him to meet. She outlined them at length, asking him to rewrite the piece accordingly.

The irony of the situation was not lost on the writer. He recognized that if his client had presented all this information clearly in her original request, he would have written a good piece the first time. He would also have asked for more money, because, as it turned out, the article she wanted was more complicated than the one she had initially described to him.

It was not the writer's fault that his client had initially failed to give him sufficiently detailed instructions. However, if he wanted to get paid, he would have to take her criticism to heart and rewrite the piece to meet her new specifications. In truth, her criticism was not constructive. Rather than giving him tips for improving his first piece, which was consistent with her initial request, she was essentially asking him to write a completely different piece.

In the business context, the customer is always right, even when she is wrong. So while her criticism of his article was unfair, there was little he could do about it. If he wanted to be paid, he would have to rewrite the piece and face the possibility that she would request yet another rewrite, and another one, and another one, ad infinitum. Not surprisingly, he chose not to rewrite the piece and ended up foregoing the payment.

My colleague's description of his experience struck a chord with me. It got me thinking about how separating a piece of writing from the context of its production and from its intended meaning is the easiest way to rubbish it. It also brought home to me the fact that some critics (whether they are literary critics or clients) have no idea how much work goes into writing. I happen to think it is fairly easy to be dismissive of somebody's work if one has never walked in that person's shoes and faced similar challenges.

I like to believe that my cumulative experiences as a writer and critic have helped me bring a balanced approach to these roles. Because I have worked as a teacher and editor, I am learning to take a step back from my own writing and to recognize the flaws within. This makes it easier to be receptive to other people's critiques and to see the merit in them.

At the same time, my experiences as a writer and student, subject to other people's judgments, help me to be more sympathetic when I am reviewing others' writing. Because I know how much barbed critiques can hurt a writer and undermine his or her courageous attempts to be creative, I try to keep my critiques constructive. Of course, this is a work in progress: Each new day brings new experiences and encourages me to grow as a writer, a teacher, and an editor.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Can one discuss responsibility without being labelled a victim blamer?

I just read this article about victim blaming. I like the fact that young men are stepping out and condemning rape in unambiguous terms. But there is one thing about the article that I find troubling. It's the second paragraph:

Women staying out late in foreign places dressed in tight, skimpy clothes with some alcohol in their systems are often warned to be smart and aware of their surroundings. These type of warnings stem from the idea that if women look or act a certain way, they must be asking for it … right?

Really? Telling a woman to be smart and aware of her surroundings in a foreign country, to pay attention to her alcohol consumption and her clothing is victim blaming? What exactly is the suggested alternative? If you're in charge of a bunch of kids studying abroad in a conservative nation, are you actually going to tell them to dress in a fashion calculated to rile the locals? Are you going to tell them to go out and drink to their heart's content?

Realistically, drinking until one is out of control is a stupid idea, whatever the circumstances, and whoever is doing it. In an ideal world, people wouldn't do it. But we don't live in an ideal world. Many people drink excessively, to the point that their capacity to make wise decisions is impaired. A responsible adult should be concerned about this, and should be able to advice them about the risks that come with irresponsible drinking.

As for clothing, whether or not we like it, what we wear tells a story about us. It may be an inaccurate story: People's assumptions about us on the basis of our clothing may be completely wrong. But it is important to know what assumptions they have in order to interpret their behavior and to be better prepared to respond to it.

Let me give you an example. Wearing pants (as Americans call them) or trousers (as Kenyans call them) in some rural communities is considered to violate some unwritten principle about the proper place of women. Apparently, women who wear trousers in such communities are perceived to be rebelling against the social order. It doesn't matter how modest the pants/ trousers actually are. People judge first and ask questions later.

A woman going into such a community without prior knowledge of these conventions would likely encounter some resentment or hostility without understanding why. A woman with some understanding of these conventions would be in a position to decide whether or not to wear pants/ trousers while living in the said community. If she chose to wear them, she would understand where the hostility was coming from and have the capacity to respond to it effectively.

Mind you, this is not just about women. It is about men too. Communities all over the world have dress codes for men and women, depending on their age and station in society. The dress codes may or may not be set down in the legislation, but they exist all the same. If you're planning on living and working in such a community and want to build good will among the people, then you should show some respect for their conventions. That typically includes dressing in ways that they will find acceptable.

While we're on the subject, we should expand the discussion to include political awareness. If one is planning to go to a foreign country, then he or she should have some idea of what is going on in that country. Otherwise, he or she may waltz right into the heart of some political upheaval.

In this light, sending young men and women out into the world with the idea that they can and should do whatever they want, whenever they want without any regard for context is not responsible. There are actually places right here in the United States where wearing clothing of the "wrong" color will get you shot.

I think that it is important to recognize that a rape victim does not ask to be raped. Nobody asks to be attacked and subjected to violence by another. When violence like this occurs, the sole responsible party is the perpetrator. But recognizing that does not mean that we should send our young men and women out into the world with a naive sense about how human society works.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, July 6, 2012

On Miri Regev and racism and xenophobia in Israel

I wrote this piece one month ago, in early June. It has since been overtaken by events such as the deportation of a group of Africans living in Israel.

The recent racist comments by Israeli MK, Miri Regev, about Africans living in Israel have spawned much passionate debate online and offline. They have certainly got me thinking about the unique place of the state of Israel in modern history, and about racism and xenophonia in broader terms.

To me, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred directed at those who are different must be condemned. At the same time, I think it is important to understand why exactly it is that people hate others. Hatred, like all other things human, does not just spring into existence fully-formed. It develops over time, and is reinforced by certain ways of thinking and of remembering the past. I am not naive enough to think that we will someday be able to eliminate all forms of hatred. But I do think that understanding the motivations that prod us to hate and to hurt others will go a long way towards defusing the violent potential of our actions.

I want to clarify that, to me, Israel is a modern state, not the ancient kingdom whose glorious past has been chronicled in the Bible. I don’t subscribe to the notion that the Jewish people were chosen by God to fulfill a unique part of His plan for the earth. Regardless, I was raised in a Christian context, so I am very much aware of this mythology surrounding Jewish people, and the hold that it has on Christians worldwide.

A chosen people

To me, the belief that the Jewish people are a “chosen people” contradicts the very idea that the God of Christianity is a universal God. Furthermore, it reminds me of the history lessons I sat through during my primary school years, when I learnt about the myths of origin of various Kenyan ethnic groups. The one constant in every group’s beliefs about its origins was the idea that it was a special group, God’s favored.

The Maasai believed that they had a special place in their God’s plan that made them superior to members of other ethnic groups, as did the Kikuyu, the Luo and others. In other words, it was the norm for any people’s religion to claim that that particular ethnic group was superior to other groups. The ancient teachings that came down to us in the Bible have never been unique in this.

A universal God or a tribal God?

The rise and spread of Christianity rearranged things. Over time, Judaism was no longer just the religion of Jewish people. A version of Judaism expanded to become the religion of Jews and non-Jews alike. That version of Judaism was the precursor for what we call Christianity today.

The development of Christianity involved the wholesale adoption of certain chunks of Jewish thought and philosophy by an ethnically heterogeneous audience, and a simultaneous failure to historicize them. Thus, Christians through the ages have had to wrestle with the uncomfortable thought that their God, in whose eyes all humans are supposed to be equal, has put Jewish people on a pedestal.

The 2 extremes in Christian thought

The efforts of some Christian thinkers to fight the inherent contradiction between a universal God and a tribal God has given rise to some of the extremes within Christian thought. On the one hand, there are anti-Semitic ideals, developed to undermine the special place granted to Jewish people in the Christian worldview. These have been adopted in different times and places to justify the violence directed at Jews living in Europe over the centuries: the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms, the Holocaust.

On the other hand, there is the tendency to elevate Jewish people to some superhuman status: The idea is that they can do no wrong because every action on their part is consistent with God’s plan for the universe. This is the tendency that has informed many Christians’ blind idealism on all matters concerning modern Zionism and the actions of the state of Israel.

Systemic racism

Earlier this week, as I read the controversial remarks made by Miri Regev, I couldn’t help thinking about these historical complications and the role they had played in shaping the national Israeli psyche. To me, it was heartbreaking, but not surprising, that systemic racism was part and parcel of the Israeli experience. The rationale for the creation of modern Israel was largely based on the systematic violence that Jewish people were subjected to in Europe by their fellow Europeans, violence that began even before Hitler appeared on the horizon.

The Jewish individuals who first popularized the idea of modern Zionism had in mind a secular nation, based on Communist or Socialist ideals. They had no intention of recreating the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, or of fulfilling some apocalyptic prophecy. On the other hand, the European Christians (nominal or devout) who, in one way or another, facilitated the formation of Israel were, to some extent, inspired by perceptions of Jews as superhuman beings or sub-human beings who had been shaped by religion.

Drawing parallels

Jewish people have been granted a special place in modern history and geopolitics thanks in large part to Christianity. However, this does not change the fact that Jewish experiences are human experiences. We can learn some valuable lessons about trauma, racism, and xenophobia  by thinking of Israelis and Jewish people, more broadly speaking, as human beings. This means we need to stop adopting different standards from the ones we generally use to discuss our own societies when we speak of Israel. Israel is a modern state, peopled by human beings. To even begin to understand it, we have to be able to see parallels between the Israeli context and other contexts globally.

A cursory glance at history makes it clear that any group of people that has endured systematic, large-scale violence does not just "get over" that violence in a matter of decades. In fact, perhaps they never do.  Think about all the peoples who have been victimized by states and empires in recent centuries. Australian aborigines, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, First Nations people, African Americans, indigenous South Africans, Palestinians, and European Jews are among these groups.

Every single one of these groups has struggled with historical and contemporary trauma. In some cases, this struggle has resulted in generations of poverty, disenfranchisement, addiction, and epidemic levels of intra-communal violence. In those cases where political autonomy and certain degrees of enfranchisement have resulted, hatred and violence towards inside groups and outside groups alike are present.  Cases in point include South Africa and Israel, where various forms of hatred remain alive in the forms of racism and xenophobia. 

A lot more must be said about South Africa, Israel and the other societies I've named above to do the subject justice. However, it is not possible to do so within one article. So I intend to write more on the subject in the future. This piece is meant to simply get the ball rolling.

Before I sign off, I want to return to the thoughts with which I opened this article: I think it is important to think about racist and xenophobic policies and actions within context. It allows us to condemn the violence and dehumanization that result from them and, hopefully, to develop strategies for keeping them in check.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"You have a right to be scared... but they have a right to live"

It must have been two and a half weeks ago that I read this very interesting article by Britney Wilson about how members of minority groups are sometimes guilty of practicing racial profiling when dealing with members of the same ethnicity. Wilson was writing specifically about the negative stereotypes that some black people have about young, black men. Her conclusion was a powerful one:

People are people. We cannot stigmatize and judge them on one hand, while campaigning against it on the other. As we work to get society to stop stereotyping, judging, and fearing our sons, we cannot continue to perpetuate these attitudes ourselves.
I thought it was a wonderful piece of writing. You see, I believe that, in order to make a genuine difference in society, we have to admit to our own culpability as individuals and as communities. It is easy to talk about the racial or ethnic biases of others, but much more challenging to talk about our own biases towards others and towards our own. "Real talk," some of my friends would say in agreement.

But then, I went on to read the comments that came after the article. There, I encountered the opinions of readers, presumably black, who did not quite agree with Britney Wilson. For your convenience, here are a few of their remarks:

"Profiling the members of ‘our community’ becomes second nature when you face a lot of intraracial street harassment."

"Amen. I racial profile and I don’t make any apologies about it. A Black man is more likely to rob, rape, steal from me than any white man. I see one that looks stereotypical not only am I reaching for my purse but I’m walking in the opposite direction."

"Exactyly. From the time I hit puberty “our sons” made it clear that just because I shared the same skin color didn’t mean that I’d be given any respect."

These comments are, of course, problematic. One would be quick, and correct, to point out that any white person speaking similar words would be accused of racism. So how is one to wrap his or her mind around the fact that these words were written by black women who have, undoubtedly, been victims of racial profiling or stereotyping? Are they actually saying that profiling is justified, knowing full well that it would be used to victimize them and their own?

The simple answer is yes. So the circumstances that would make these women adopt that position must be gruesome. They are essentially arguing that they and other women would be justified in profiling black men: their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. No sane black woman would make that argument lightly. So it is safe to assume that there is a story behind it.

The key to understanding where these women might be coming from lies in articles such as the ones listed below. Note that these articles are graphic and emotionally wrenching. If in-depth discussions of sexual assault and harassment make you uncomfortable, you may be better off setting them aside:
1. Street Meet: Black Women, Black Men, & Everyday Sexual Harassment.
2. Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment & Weight Gain: Facing Facts (make sure to also read the comments that follow this article).

At this point, I want to emphasize that intra-communal violence is not unusual in communities that have historically been subjected to systemic violence. If black communities are characterized by the disproportionately high prevalence of gendered violence, then the same is true for First Nations and Australian Aboriginal communities. These communities' experiences of historical violence have resulted in the normalization of the said violence. Over the years, this and other forms of dysfunction have become accepted forms of behavior among a significant number within the communities. Unfortunately, those who bear the brunt of such violence are often the communities' most vulnerable members: children, women and the elderly.

Many have written or spoken about intracommunal violence, and even given it such labels as "black-on-black violence."  Often, the underlying assumption held by those who speak out against it is that it is unusual for people to visit violence upon members of their own community. But I have to wonder about that. The notion that racial or ethnic solidarity would confer immunity from violence upon members of a community strikes me as a naive one. Many, perhaps most, violent crimes are visited by criminals upon people that they know and communities that they are familiar with. The same is also true of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. They are all often perpetrated by people known to the victims.

When people survive such crimes or violence they, understandably, become hypervigilant. They are likely to be suspicious or scared of people who remind them of their aggressors. When that happens, and they respond to that fear by avoiding the said people, are they simply trying to protect themselves, or are they showing unjustifiable bias? This is the question addressed by many of the comments that follow Britney Wilson's article.

I think that some of the women who responded to the article recognized the complexity of the situation. They wrote nuanced responses, acknowledging what was at stake for women who had previously been victimized. At the same time, they recognized the inherent dangers that came with profiling. Their perspectives were nuanced and balanced. One of these comments follows below. The italics are mine:

"What we think, how we feel are all justified and no one should have to apologize for it. What is wrong is when anyone (including law enforcement) kill someone unnecessarily. Law enforcement have policies and guidelines by which they are ‘supposed’ to follow. The problem is that people are deciding to be judge, juror, and executioner instead of concerned citizen. "

Another woman, writing from the UK, spoke more specifically about her context and her own tendency to profile young white men. She also had a nuanced approach to the subject, and one that I ultimately sympathized with. So I will bring this piece to a close with her words:

"Im a black woman that lives in a predominately white town. I profile young white men who aren't wearing polo shirts and cargo shorts. I hold my bag closer when I come accorss a group of “chavs.” The signs of drug abuse can be visiable on someone’s face so I am careful as I approach someone that looks like they may abuse drugs.

"HOWEVER, (and I cant emphasize this enough) I have no legal right to harm or kill due to my suspcion alone. Its a red herring to even discuss whether we should or should be afraid of young black men. If you feel fear, you are entitled to your fear. You may even be justified. You arent, however, justified in depriving them of their life because of your fear. You have a right to be scared if you want but they have a right to live."
Thoughtful words, indeed. But I think it's important to point out that there are more subtle ways in which profiling can cause harm or damage. Even as we argue that a woman is entitled to feel fear if she thinks she is unsafe, it is crucial to acknowledge that seeing that fear on her face has a psychological impact on the young, black man whose intentions she might have misinterpreted.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Of political partisanship and tantrum-throwing three-year-olds

Imagine a situation where two groups of construction workers are ostensibly working together to build one house, but insist on following entirely different blueprints. They spend the whole day working on the site, with their interactions frequently exploding into arguments over which plan is better. And, whenever they can, they sabotage each other’s previous efforts. It would be laughable to imagine that, together, these two groups would actually be able to put up a stable structure. And yet that is what polarized partisan politics is all about.


In case you're wondering what brought these thoughts to my mind, I am following Darrell Issa’s latest crusade, which seems to be geared at humiliating Eric Holder into resigning. For the record, I think the "Fast and Furious" probe is absolutely necessary. The operation was deeply flawed, and the onus is on any responsible government to find out what went wrong and why. In my opinion, however, the direction in which Darrell Issa is steering the questioning is unlikely to shed light on the factors that led to the "Fast and Furious" debacle. 

I think that fixating solely on the actions of the Department of Justice after the crisis conveniently allows one to ignore the fact that the operation was launched during a Republican administration. Clearly, Republicans and Democrats alike have made missteps. In an ideal world, any well-meaning, civic-minded legislator would be inclined to set aside the labels "Republican" or "Democrat" and to look into the actual non-partisan facts on the ground. He or she would cast a larger net and call a larger number of people to testify. He or she would certainly make sure to question all of those who were involved in implementing the minute and not-so-minute aspects of the operation. He or she would also be inclined to look into the problem of gun-control, and its implications for gun-walking.

The "Fast and Furious" probe is not the only thing on my mind. I am also pondering on the inauguration night meeting at which top Republican lawmakers made the commitment to challenge Obama’s attempts to govern by raising roadblocks in the path of his administration and of Democratic legislators whenever possible. Essentially, this was a conscious decision by mature, intelligent, highly-educated, and privileged adults to oppose, oppose, oppose everything their political opponents said or did, even when doing so would violate their own ideals and contradict their previous policy positions. Their aim: to make a Democratic presidency so dysfunctional that it would become untenable in the minds of American voters. Strategically, it has been an effective plan: It is bound to succeed. If we were talking about a chess game, I would say it was an ingenious strategy. But we are talking about a nation here. At what cost will this potential political victory come?


Unfortunately, the destructive my-way-or-the-highway approach to politics has been so normalized over time that people think it’s the natural way to do things. And yet it is not. Such a polarized approach to life is consistent with the behavior of a 3-year old throwing a tantrum in a supermarket aisle. It may succeed in getting the child a candy bar or a toy car, but turns a simple shopping trip into a nightmare for everybody else.

The thing about tantrum-throwing three year olds is that they are infuriating, but they are children: innocent children. We keep our anger in check as we deal with them because they are wired to believe they are the center of the world, and too young to know better. But as they grow and learn, we start to expect more of them. What about politicians? Do we expect more of them, or do we simply give them free rein to play Machiavellian games?


It may seem like I am talking about a uniquely American situation, but I am not. Partisanship seems to be the bread-and-butter of many politicians globally. It has certainly found a home in Kenyan politics, and I am sure other people can point to parallels in their respective nations.

I can’t help reflecting on the historical turns taken by Kenyan politics over the decades, beginning with Kenya’s 1963 independence from the United Kingdom. Almost from the moment of its birth, independent Kenya has been divided along ethnopolitical lines. Today, the ethnic and political alliances and rivalries of old remain intact to a significant extent.


Kenya is a polarized nation. It is also a poor nation. However much people point to economic growth figures and improved GDPs, that wealth is simply not trickling down to the average person. So we remain poor. Despite our poverty and our great need for collaborative interventions by our legislators, they still manage to find joy in partisanship. And, like fools, we dance to the tunes they play. Sometimes I wonder about this. Are we marionettes being manipulated by cynical politicians, or are we part of the problem? Do our politicians simply represent everything that we are deep down inside?

I remember many Kenyan journalists remarking cynically some years ago that the only thing our parliamentarians had ever voted unanimously on was the decision to increase their incomes and the benefits that came with their jobs. It’s still a running joke today, and makes good fodder for political cartoons and satire. Only, the average Kenyan is not laughing.

Thanks to the perks that come with their jobs, Kenyan Members of Parliament are insulated from the most basic problems that come with daily life in the nation. So they really have no incentive to work together on substantive issues. The average citizen, however, cannot escape the neglected infrastructure, the ill-equipped hospitals, the land tenure issues, the escalating prices of food and fuel, the depressed job market, and the ill-regulated financial sector.

Is America there yet? I leave it to you to answer this question, my dear reader.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When "beauty" is a scam

Thanks to "Victoria's Secret Models, Runway Walking and Booty Paint," an article by Erika Nicole Kendall, I got the opportunity to discover a December 2009 article by Leah Chernikoff that touches on some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the fashion industry.

Apparently, "countless hours" go "into making the most beautiful women in the world look so ethereally sexy." Pay close attention to the words of Selita Ebanks in "Victoria's Secret Angels strut runway in $3 million bras, 100 pounds of glitter," the second article. Ebanks, one of the models in the Victoria Secret Angels show, shared an open fashion secret: "People don't realize that there are about 20 layers of makeup on my butt alone."

The article goes on to describe the labor-intensive processes that go into making that perfect shot:

In addition to body makeup, which Ebanks estimates takes well over an hour to apply, the Angels prep in hair and makeup for three to five hours before hitting the runway, with an average of five people - hair stylists, makeup artists and manicurists, working on each of the 38 models.

That's three to five hours, people. With five professionals working on one woman's skin and hair. And please don't forget the chuckleworthy 20 layers of booty makeup. Does any ordinary woman honestly think she can reproduce those conditions during her morning makeup routine? Does anybody actually want to reproduce those conditions?

I cannot lie. The article in its entirety cracked me up. I just find the lengths to which the media and the fasion industry will go to preserve the illusion of perfect bodies ridiculous. When you really think about it, it is nutty. None of us would hesitate to label a woman neurotic if she applied 20 layers of makeup to her lower body before stepping out in her swimsuit. But, somehow, it is okay when the fashion industry does it. Maybe we have managed to convince ourselves that the fashion industry is doing it to achieve artistic ends. However, we should be honest with ourselves. This "art" is being created for a receptive audience: us.

So what is this madness? Why do we allow the media to sell us such unrealistic images of female beauty? And why do we subsequently give ourselves the impossible task of living up to the associated standards? The answer is not that we are too naive to realize that the images are unrealistic. Every single woman looking at those images recognizes, at some level, that "alterations" have been made. The photos may have been edited, or makeup may have been lavishly smothered on the women's skin. Whatever the case, we know that those women do not actually look like that.

I'm one of those people who happens to think that audiences are not passive bystanders. We actually make choices about what forms of media to be exposed to. So we consciously choose to buy the fashion and style magazines, and we choose to watch those runway shows. I think that it is too easy to speak of the nuttiness of the fashion industry when we know only too well that their actions meet a neurotic need on our part.

What is to stop us from being more judicious in our choice of reading materials? What is to stop us from being more selective about the TV channels we watch? The answer is simple, but sad: Many women do not want to see images of "flawed" bodies on their TVs or in their magazines. They want to see "perfect" bodies. Any female celebrity who makes the "abominable" mistake of being caught on camera after venturing out without makeup or putting on a few pounds learns this very quickly.

It is apt that one of the commenters on Erika Nicole Kendall's article makes this precise observation (in comment number 1.1). The commenter, Mac, points out that "when someone actually posts a picture of a woman with flaws, the other women in the crowd usually pick her apart every way possible. Someone posts a lady in a swimsuit and all you hear is, 'what’s that on her forehead,' 'her stomach doesn’t look right,' 'her arms need a little bit more work, she needs to go back to the gym,' and it goes on and on no matter how beautiful the woman is or what the commenters look like."

Mac hits the nail on the head. But it wouldn't be honest to claim that all women were guilty of responding negatively to portrayals of "real" bodies. Plenty of women see beauty and character in idiosyncracies. Freckles, moles, and birthmarks are among the so-called imperfections that make faces more interesting, and people more memorable. Excessive makeup and airbrushing tend to have the effect of making all models look alike. They all have the same look, the same bodily proportions, the same hair textures and styles. Frankly speaking, they become boring to look at, part of the monotonous background that we peer at as we flip through magazines, suppressing the urge to yawn.

Personally, I prefer to see images of "real" women because they are more interesting. I think that there is beauty in our idiosyncracies (which photo editors and makeup artists would likely call flaws) and in our diversity. It is truly sad that we allow people with limited imaginations to set the limits for the images we are allowed to see on screen and in print.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On "Schrodinger's rapist" and the construction of healthy boundaries

An online search for the term "Schrodinger's rapist" led me to some very interesting articles, including the two listed below:

1. Schrodinger's rapist: or a guy's guide to approaching women without being maced
2. Schrodinger's rapist and Schrodinger's racist

I strongly recommend that you read these articles, because they bring into focus the all-important issue of setting boundaries and respecting them. Both articles address, to some extent, interactions between a man and a woman who are relative strangers to each other. They point out the degree to which the average woman has to be extra cautious when interacting with a man, because she has no way of knowing whether or not he poses a threat to her. He might turn out to be a rapist; he might turn out not to be one. But because rapists don't wear neon signs on their foreheads declaring that they are rapists, and because they do not have horns growing out of their heads or visibly forked tongues, she simply has to be cautious.

Now the thing is that there are many well-intentioned men in the world. They bear no ill-will towards women. When they set out to interact with a woman, perhaps they are just being friendly: Maybe they're trying to help a woman in a bad situation. But then the woman responds to their friendliness with coldness, suspicion or fear. The immediate response of many of these men is to take offense at the very idea that they could be thought of as potential rapists or thugs. It is a perfectly natural response and one that I understand. I imagine that I might be similarly miffed if, in a parallel situation, somebody misunderstood my intentions.


It is what happens next that is particularly interesting to me: The man could realize that, for whatever reason, the woman feels threatened by his attention. He could then adopt a less threatening stance and step back, ultimately leaving her alone. Alternatively, he could choose to give her a piece of his mind and express his displeasure or anger at her assumptions. Now I suspect that some may think that the latter approach is the way to go. But the two articles are adamant that it is not, and I am bound to agree with them. It is better to recognize that the other person has set boundaries and that, whether or not one likes them, one must respect them. When a man is unwilling to recognize that a woman's previous experiences are shaping her perceptions of his actions, and when he refuses to acknowledge that he might, in fact, be intruding in her space, and that she has the right to determine for herself what situation she is uncomfortable with, he is trying to intimidate her into 'trusting' or 'liking' him. That is bullying, plain and simple.

Now, I recognize that the situation described thus far is gender-specific, but this analysis could be more broadly applied to other contexts. I'm sure we can all think of gender-neutral instances where relatives, friends, coreligionists, workmates, etc. have taken offense when an individual has expressed discomfort with a situation, subsequently claimed that this person's assertion has offended them and tried to intimidate the individual into going along with their agenda

I am familiar with one particular situation because of my interest in HIV/AIDS awareness efforts. One of the things that has long been evident to me is that many people in sexual relationships have a hard time discussing sexual health and protection frankly with their partners. Ideally, this is something that needs to be discussed before they became sexually intimate and then revisited afterwards. But their partners often shut down the discussion by invoking "trust." Any inquiry about the partner's history of STD infection or any request that they should use condoms is almost invariably met with the response, "Don't you trust me?" even when the offended party knows that he or she is being unfaithful or has previously been infected. Thus, the individual's attempts to take reasonable precautions and to draw boundaries within which he or she will feel comfortable are turned into a personal attack on his or her partner's trustworthiness. Not surprisingly, many are essentially bullied into having unprotected sex, into infection with HIV/AIDS or other STDs and, in the case of some women, into unwanted pregnancies.

Yet another situation involves the man or woman who decides to leave the religion within which he or she was raised. Perhaps something about the religion violates his or her conscience. Perhaps he or she has never really believed and is tired of keeping up the facade. Thus, he or she decides to set up new boundaries by no longer worshiping, attending services, or reading the scriptures of that religion. Perhaps he or she chooses an alternative religion, one that sits better with his or her personal moral code. The coreligionists who respond to such a decision by framing it as a rejection of them and fight against it on that basis are essentially refusing to recognize his or her individuality and freedom of conscience.

The above situations illustrate the problems that can follow when people are unable to appreciate and respect the fact that an individual holds a different viewpoint. When the appearance of consensus is prioritized above all else, the truth ends up being sacrificed. People feel pressured to suffer their discomfort, or fear in silence, because they have been led to believe that expressing what they actually feel will hurt others' feelings. The process by which the other person's feelings end up being prioritized over their own emotional well-being is hardly examined. It just proceeds smoothly, taken for granted as the normal course of events.

This subject is one that I have thought long and hard about because I have come to recognize that this kind of coerced consensus is maintained, not just in interpersonal relationships, but also at the communal level. The community can bully an individual into agreeing with the status quo, or it could stand by in silent approval while an individual does the bullying. This is an ethical problem of immense proportions. It whittles away at one's individuality and crushes his or her will. Furthermore, it creates an environment where abuse can thrive unchallenged for years. Ironically, this is the status quo in many communities that claim to hold free will, honesty, and integrity as ideals, most notably, intensely devout religious communities.


The question is, "What is the best way to address this problem?" Returning to the original example, is it incumbent on the man who is perceived as "Schrodinger's rapist" to respect the boundaries set by the woman, or is it incumbent on the woman to hold on to continue to assert herself, even in the face of resistance or intimidation by the man? The obvious solution is that both approaches are necessary. But I have a special interest in asserting the importance of the would-be victim's actions in this situation. I think it is especially empowering for individuals to gain the tools that allow them to set up and maintain their boundaries even when being pressured to give in by others.

The beginnings of victory lie in recognizing the moment when one's self-assertion is made to seem like an attack on the other person's feelings and resisting that interpretation of events.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.