Friday, August 29, 2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Obama's good choice

A reason to like Obama's choice in running mate:

From The New Republic:
[Pundit's] assessments [of Joe Biden's accomplishments] have strangely overlooked what's arguably Biden's signature accomplishment in domestic policy: the Violence Against Women's Act. And that's no small thing. [NOTE: I met with his office on this bill in 2006 before I left DC so that's why I'm interested!]
It may be hard to remember now, but widespread awareness of domestic violence--and how to deal with it--is a relatively new phenomenon. As late as the early 1990s, many communities had no domestic violence shelters at all, while those that did couldn't fund them adequately. And neither law enforcement nor the judicial system were prepared to deal with the special nature of domestic violence. If a woman who’d been battered or raped went to the police, she was frequently lucky if she got sympathy--let alone experts trained in how to handle such cases, go after perpetrators, and counsel the victims. “At that time there were no victim rights and [somebody] had to witness an act of violence in order to prosecute it,” says Judy Ellis, now executive director of First Step, a domestic violence program based in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. “The criminal justice system lacked information and training on the dynamics of domestic violence and its effects on the family.”

VAWA changed all of that. It cracked down on interstate stalking, set standards for the collection and use of evidence in abuse cases, and set up a national domestic violence hotline. No less important, VAWA poured money into local communities for the creation of new prevention and treatment initiatives. In Detroit, according to Ellis, a VAWA grant allowed local authorities to hire prosecutors, police officers. and counselors specifically trained to deal with domestic violence. It also paid for outreach programs into non-English speaking communities, where many victims had no idea of their rights--or the resources now available to them.

Nor does the Detroit story seem to be atypical. Here’s how one New York domestic violence attorney, Liberty Aldrich, described the transformation in an article she wrote for the Nation back in 2000:

When I worked at Mississippi Legal Services before VAWA, I interviewed police to find out if they had any special programs for domestic violence victims. Not a single department did, although one sheriff volunteered that he always took into account the differences between blacks and whites in such cases--black families are used to violence, he said.
Police and prosecutors now have a tougher time getting away with attitudes like that. In New York City, for example, there have been significant developments, directly and indirectly generated by VAWA. Over the past five years, a domestic violence officer has been installed in every New York police precinct. The Brooklyn district attorney received almost $1 million in VAWA money to develop a coordinated boroughwide response to domestic violence. And the Queens district attorney just announced that a domestic violence bureau is being developed with VAWA funds to insure that all prosecutors dealing with these cases have received special training.
So what did Biden have to do with all of that? Everything. Biden had been promoting a domestic violence bill starting in the early 1990s, and although it didn’t go far at first, he kept at it, finally getting his chance in 1994, once Bill Clinton became president and began pushing for a crime bill. Even then, it was a tough sell. Critics, led by Republican Senator Robert Dole, thought the '94 crime bill was bloated with unnecessary spending and demanded cuts from it--including the $1.6 billion over six years set aside for VAWA. But Biden held firm and, eventually, got his way. “You can sponsor a bill, but if you just sponsor a bill and let it sit there, that’s nothing,” says Pat Reuss, a longtime activist who was one of the measure's chief advocates in Washington. “He shepherded it. He made sure it happened. He assigned staff to it, gave them carte blanche to do with they needed, they spent days and nights on it.”

And Biden’s stewardship didn’t end with the bill’s passage. In 1996, when President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, Biden made sure that victims of domestic violence got an extra six months to exhaust welfare benefits. When the law was up for reauthorization in 2000, he won even more funding for it. Although the courts would end up striking down one part of VAWA’s legal reforms, and although it would occasionally rankle right-wingers, the program’s bipartisan support grew over the years. In 2006, President bush signed its second reauthorization.

Advocates have claimed VAWA cut down on domestic violence by 25 percent. And while that figure seems suspiciously high--precise estimates are hard to come by--advocates seem to agree universally about VAWA’s importance and Biden’s role in it. “If I were to choose the single most important event leading to broad based awareness and change regarding domestic and sexual violence against women,” says Ellis, “it would be Senator Biden’s Violence Against Women Act of 1994.” Reuss offers a similar assessment: “In Congress, it was singularly because of him.”

Does VAWA alone make up for Biden's votes on the war and bankruptcy bills? Maybe not. But it's certainly a big point in his favor--one that deserves to get a little more attention.

--Jonathan Cohn

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Two sides of South Carolina

Last night, I met up with an old friend with whom I worked at a restaurant (Motor Supply Company) and a health food store (Rosewood Market) in South Carolina in the early 90s, right after college. It was great catching up with her but it was also really interesting to walk down memory lane a bit. I was a bit early to meet with her and didn't have anything to read with me so decided to walk around Five Points to look at my old haunts. Frighteningly enough, in one of the restaurants I worked, I saw two waiters who worked there when I worked there (from 1989- 1993) and in a bar that I also worked, I saw two of the regulars that always hung out there.

My friend and I went to see a band called Grey Egg, composed of some of the people who work at Rosewood Market. The lead singer is a Women's Studies professor at USC too, I think. There were lots of familiar faces in the band and in the audience. It shed a different perspective on the familiar faces I had seen in my old haunts. It reminded me of how out of step I often felt while living in South Carolina. Whereas in DC, what you do for a living identifies who you are as a person, in South Carolina - what you do for a living can be your passion but it can also be the economic way that you feed yourself while you pursue your real passion. So many of the people I knew in SC when I lived here were musicians, artists, writers, and just creative people. The restaurant business was how we all made our living and some of us branched off to working in the macrobiotic deli or organic produce department of the local healthfood store. But in general, we were all in our early 20s, staying up all night drinking and talking and dancing and bouncing around. In the morning, we shook off our hangovers and went to work to serve rich beautiful people their chicken salad croissant or their macrobiotic special of the day.

But there were also people who had hopped off the consumerist capitalist machine that drives the day to day American life. Many of my old friends who are in their 40s now and still performing in bands and being creative and living their life without fretting about how the next step in their life will impact their career climb like I am. It was a welcome reminder that the South and the US is not so bad after the past three weeks where I pass the same chain restaurants every day on my way up and down the highway to the hospital and the rehab facility to visit my father. I haven't walked further than down the hallway to the vending machine to get a coke since I got here!

Then this morning, while I was emailing at work about responding to the Sudanese press about confidentiality for rape survivors, I got an essay from a friend written by a homeschooled child about her day taking care of her Evangelical family. Its pretty easy in the secular world that I travel in to forget just how important religion is to many people in the US. The South has always been considered the Bible Belt. I have a lot of respect for people of faith - I have several friends who are religious, attend church regularly, and I also worked for a faith-based organization, Witness for Peace when I first left graduate school. Since I've been back in South Carolina for the past three weeks, I've witnessed our presidential candidates go to the largest Evangelical church in the US to pass a test of fire about their beliefs so they can woo the religious vote. Every day when I walk through the lobby of the Palmetto Heart Hospital to visit my father, I pass piles of New Testaments on the tables in the lounge. While there is the politically correct "Meditation Centre" in the hospital - presumably to cater to the ever growing population of Hindus and Muslims living in Columbia - all the literature and sign up lists were from Southern Baptist ministers. My father had at least four visitors of devout African-American women ministers coming by to visit him. Many of the cashiers, security guards, and nursing technicians wish me a "blessed day" when I talk to them. There are hundreds of churches in various old buildings all over town. I pass the "Church of the Spiritual Guidance" in what appears to be an old insurance company building on the corner of Main and Sunset every day.

I myself went to many religious "teen activities" growing up in South Carolina. I have very vivid memories of one particular "teen activity". They told us that we were going to watch a movie and there would be free popcorn (I'm a sucker for popcorn). Instead, it was a movie about the apocalypse and the rapture and how all of us secular non believers would be left on hell on earth. A particularly striking scene was a guillotine that the nonbelievers were executed at. The condemned was forced to wait for the blade face up and the point of view of the camera was of the condemned's view of the blade slicing down upon them. Then after freaking us all out (I was 12), they invited us to come up to the altar and embrace Jesus as our saviour. I hid in the bathroom until it was over.

In many ways, the Netherlands is not so very different from South Carolina. There are free spirited thinkers who resist the capitalist imperative and there are strongly religious conservatives co-existing side by side in both places. The conservatives in Holland aren't a part of the accepted script about Dutch tolerance and the free thinking artists and leftists of South Carolina aren't part of the accepted script about life in the Bible Belt.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alyson and Dad's House in Columbia

Here's the house that Dad and Alyson are renting in Columbia. It's near Sunset Drive and Main Street in Earlwood, a nice little neighborhood. I'm staying in the office/guestroom with the crazy orange cat named George.

Photos from South Carolina

Just saw this guys photography in the Starbucks in the Vista (boy has that place changed since my days slaving away at Motor Supply Co. Bistro) and I liked a few of his things.

This is the Congaree Swamp near Sumter where I grew up.

This photo is lovely - I once went down here for an afternoon with a boyfriend I had named Shrimper.

The Gervais Street Bridge that leads from West Columbia (where we once saw the Ku Klux Klan recruiting at the Kmart) to the Vista (where I worked for some time and the site of many a debauched evening). Some will remember my infamous vomiting episode on this bridge after the famous snow storm of 1988.

The State House in Autumn SANS the confederate flag on top, thank god.

Shrimp Boats in Mt Pleasant. I have fabulous memories of eating fresh shrimp, ice cold budweiser, and dancing to the English Beat with Mike Dumiak and Bill McIntosh and his wife to be, Holly. What an amazing weekend.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Kudzu - a poem

... Up telephone poles,

Which rear, half out of leavage
As though they would shriek
Like things smothered by their own
Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.
In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows

At night to keep it out of the house
The glass is tinged with green, even so,

As the tendrils crawl over the fields.
The night the Kudzu has
Your pasture, you sleep like the dead.
Silence has grown oriental
And you cannot step upon the ground...

ALL: Kudzu by James Dickey
Photo by Jack Anthony

Scenes from the South

A few pleasant memories from an unpleasant time in the South:

* Sitting on the back porch listening to the sounds of a hot summer night while drinking cold beers and listening to music with friends. I never could afford a place with a back porch or even a front porch outside of the South.

* Buying fresh tomatos and peaches from an old black man from John's Island at the gas station on Main Street.

* Watching a man cut his son's hair on his front porch. For some reason, cutting your hair outside on the front porch sitting on a hard back chair strikes me as so very deeply southern that it makes me nostalgic. My sister cut my hair for me once when I lived on Kiawah Avenue and worked at the Rosewood Market.

* Intense lightning and thunderstorms that turn the night sky purple and toss the crepe myrtles around resulting in carpets of small pink blossoms all over the driveway. Torrents of tropical rain that leave the air clear and crisp the next morning.

* The park completely choked by kudzu at the turn onto Sunset Drive. While kudzu is the scourge of the South, its so beautifully densely green and lush. Combine that with the smell of gardenias and honeysuckle and its like Proust's madeleine.

* Tomato sandwiches on white bread with hellman's mayonaise, a little salt, and fat slices of aforementioned John's Island tomatos. Must be eaten over the sink.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Scenes from Sicko

Last night, I watched a prisoner who is on the intensive care unit that my father is on, being led on his physical therapy prescribed walk down the hall with his IV pole and his ankles shackled together. The respiratory therapist sitting with me mentioned "The Corrections officers are hard core. They'll keep a prisoner shackled who are on ventilators".

Friday, August 01, 2008

SICKO: the South Carolina version

On Tuesday night, the air conditioning at the hospital in Columbia where my father is currently went out for 12 hours. The temperature was over 96 degrees (36 degrees for you non Farenheit speakers)and it rose to almost 90 inside the hospital (34). I brought a fan from home and we stripped him down and kept cold wet face cloths on him and put him under the fan. The nurses told me that there used to be fans in the hospital but they were nowhere to be found nowadays.

While I was surprised that there was no back up system for the a/c dying in the middle of the brutally hot July-August months, I wasn't that perturbed until I read the news media spin where the spokesperson from the hospital said it was uncomfortable but nothing to worry about and praised the staff for bringing fans to the patients. I was in that hospital with frantic families from all over the city bringing fans in. The CVS next to the hospital was selling out. In the hospitals that I routinely visit in Africa and Asia, there are usually no air conditioning for anyone. There aren't even fans usually. But there are open windows to catch breezes. In the hermetically sealed highrises that are the modern US hospital, there's no opportunity to open the windows and cool yourself down. It was a good 20 degrees warmer in the hospital than it was when I went outside. Some patients had families take them out into the cool evening air. Since my dad was on an IV and oxygen, we weren't able to do that. To my sister's undying embarrassment (you are such a radical! she says), I decided to write a letter to the editor in the local newspaper in response to this article.

Regarding Dr. Caughman Taylor's statement about the air conditioning breakdown at Palmetto Health Richland that "It was not a safety issue; it was an inconvenience", I beg to differ. My 80 year old father was hospitalized when the air conditioning went out on Tuesday night. For the elderly, extreme heat is a serious life threatening condition. They are often the first to die when there is no air conditioning as we saw in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and in heat waves in the mid West. It was family members that brought in fans and window units for their loved ones, not the staff. Staff complained that they were unable to access or find fans that used to be plentiful and spoke about equipment malfunctioning in the emergency room due to the excessive heat. While they were also suffering from the extreme heat in the hospital, they did the best that they could to provide care. CEO Singerling said that "practice makes perfect" so I hope the Palmetto Health Richland has found those fans and are prepared to have emergency plans for seniors and others with respiratory problems in case of another unexpected air conditioning malfunction during the hottest months of the year.