Thursday, November 27, 2008

Blackface Holiday

I'm full of guest bloggers these days... my creativity is dried up but I'm loving what my friends have to say. Feast upon my friend Black and (a)Broad's thoughts on the Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet festival this year...

A Dutch Holiday in Black Face

Aaaahhhhh. That glorious time of year is once again upon us. Pepernoten (tiny spiced cookies) are strewn all over the place, random shoes seem to walk themselves into stores where they wait to be filled with wat lekkers (usually pepernoten or candy) or a small gift. Talk of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, but also eponymous for the celebration itself) fills the air as do threats from parents of ne’er-do-well kiddies that old St. Nick won’t bring them anything if their misbehavior continues. Sinterklaas has just traveled by steamboat all the way from Spain with his white horse Amerigo and his helper Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). For your average Dutch person, Sinterklaas is unthinkable without Black Pete – skipping about, entertaining the little ones, and throwing out wat lekkers – dressed up in medieval Turkish or Moorish costume, black curly wig, face painted with thick black paint, and bright red lipstick.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

View of the US elections from Iraq

A note from a friend posted in Iraq about the election:

I woke at 3am in the bitter cold (I think it dropped to about 45 degrees that night) because my heater wasn't working. That adage about the desert getting cold at night isn't just a myth. Shivering and exhausted I flipped on the tv to watch the first returns come in. Armed Forces Networks has 9 channels and so ABC, CBS, FOX and MSNBC were all on.

In all of these letters, I've stayed as far away from discussing politics as possible. But a ton of people have asked what it was like to watch it from here and what was the reaction of Iraqis and my fellow Marines. Moreover, I think this past Presidential election does have relevance to my experience here. Firstly, because so many of my Iraqi counterparts themselves have asked me about it and its impact on what happens to US forces in Iraq. Secondly though because of how many of my fellow Marines reacted and for me its connection to why I joined the Marines. It is no secret that most of those in military are more conservative, and so were hoping John McCain would win. I on the other hand (I'm sure this is a huge shock for everyone) lean politically liberal and had voted for Barak Obama.

So it was a pretty lonely experience to be rooting for the Democratic candidate amid a sea of people cheering for the Republican… While Marines do whatever the President (Whoever that is) orders them to do, the culture since I joined back in 1991 has been one of very open anti-Democrat and pro-Republican bias. Mocking and ridiculing Democrats is openly socially acceptable, while doing so against Republicans is very frowned upon. That is not to say everyone in the Marines and military is a Republican, or that there are no Democrats. But it has been rare until very recently in my 17 years in the Marines to hear open expressions of Democratic support, but very common for such support for Republicans. I think most Marines just swallowed their dissappointement and decided to go on and do what they've always done, serve the Commander in Chief, no matter what party he is. On this massive Marine Corps base here in Al Anbar, you wouldn't really know an election took place other than it appearing on the TVs hanging in all the chow-halls. No one realIy talked about it or anything (except for the occasional contractor wearing an "Obama for President" shirt the day or two after the election. I should point out, that none of my commanders have ever discriminated against me at all for my (usually well known) political divergence from the social norm.

Recent events in Iraq, in the United States and across the world, especially under the little-liked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have for the first time since I joined, provoked and created a space for open political disagreement within military social circles though. This includes reconsideration by many troops that support for Republicans isn't as implicitly part of the definition of military service as many had believed in the past. Nevertheless, the significant majority of the military remains strongly conservative in political outlook and by wide margins support Republicans rather than Democrats. So, I didn't exactly have anyone with whom I wanted to watch the election returns, even if I expected to be happy about how it turned out.

Despite intellectually knowing that Obama had the upper hand going into election day, considering how the Democrats had become famous for bungling sure opportunities, I was quite nervous even as the returns rolled in through the early morning. Then of course, they called Virginia for Obama just before 7am. I would like to think that it was my personal vote that put him over the top there. And with Virginia, Obama crossed the threshold and was declared the next President of the United States. I just sat there stunned at the edge of my bed.

I sat there, soaking it in, flipping among the different channels to make sure MSNBC didn't just get trigger happy (remembering that such things actually have happened in very recent elections). Nope, it was true. However it was when they reported that hundreds of people had gathered right outside the White House to dance, sing, wave American flags and celebrate that I began to cry though. I was thinking that this is in part why I and many others were here in the Marines, in Iraq.

When we join the Marines, we swear an oath to, "support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, against all enemies, foreign and domestic." We don't swear allegiance to any man, even the President, even to the Presidency itself. We follow only the President's legal orders as we are loyal in the end not to the President, only to the document which gives both the President and us legitimacy. It directs us to follow ALL of his legal orders, even if we disagree with his politics and policies. He is our Commander in Chief, but he, like all of us, is not above the Constitution. That there can peacefully be such a radical change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration… overnight, in one fell swoop…. That the system can work that way, that well, that peacefully, is why so many of us joined… because only in that kind of system can we all have the freedom to live and believe, and be as we would like.

OK, California just declared otherwise with regards to gays and lesbians. But that means for the second reason on this election day, Dr. Martin Luther King's declaration is awesomely prescient and appropriate that, "the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice."

And of course this also is emblematic as to why this election is so relevant to motivations that drove so many of us choose to join the military. It is pride in the meaning of our country. When I say that, it isn't some knee-jerk, nationalism. It is not a mindless assumption of "my country, right or wrong" and that we are great, just because we are the strongest and wealthiest. It is instead a pride in the character and nature of our country. Pride in—among other reasons—that bedrock aspect of our culture that is a distinctly American belief in progress.

My friend who is Swiss, and others in the past as well, have noted to me this obsession with progress as being different than European cultures. And I have especially noted the striking contrast with Arab cultures. Embedded in the very Constitution that defines our country—which explicitly set out a path to alter it for the better as our society evolves—is a belief in progress. Around the world, Americans are viewed negatively for many reasons, we are often viewed as arrogant, ignorant, clumsy. But we are also perceived as almost absurdly reverent in our belief that progress is always possible. That no problem is insolvable, no conflict intractable, no destruction final, no barrier insurmountable. My Bosnian friend calls it naively optimistic. And deeply embedded in American culture is that belief. And Barak Obama's victory is—I think—the epitome of that ideal. In fact, for this reason, more than one fellow Marine told me since the election that although they voted for McCain, now that they think about it, they are happy Obama won.

I voted for Barak Obama because I like his policies more than John McCain's. But I think for millions of Americans (75% of whom apparently are happy he will be President, according to one poll, even if only 53% voted for him), it isn't even about him as an individual. Less than 100 years ago, neither he, nor Hillary Clinton nor Sarah Palin could vote everywhere in our country. He won on the ticket of the Democratic Party that was the party of slavery. It was the party of President Woodrow Wilson who banned all blacks from working in the federal government. And the state that put him over the top, was Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. Even if he had lost, Sarah Palin would have become Vice –President. I wouldn't have been happy because of the policies she would have advocated. But at the same time, I would have been proud. Here was our female Vice-President, running on the ticket of the party that since the 1960s has used the term "feminist" (which my understanding is someone who wants equal rights for women) as an epithet. We move along in fits and starts, but we constantly push ourselves farther along.

It turns out actually, that I had any number of friends (many of whom I don't think even know each other) who were among those that poured into the streets of our capital on election night. They began walking, then flooding down across Lafayette Park onto Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. At first they just strolled and stumbled, then they ran. Apparently they spontaneously came from all across the city by the tens that grew into hundreds. Of course, they were chanting for the new President Obama… and were taunting outgoing President Bush. But they were also there, proudly waving American flags, and then began singing the national anthem. Yes, they were celebrating President Obama, but they were celebrating just as much or more, that affirmation that Robert Kennedy so powerfully stated forty years ago to students struggling against South Africa's Apartheid Regime, "Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny."

Just a couple of days ago I was speaking with an Iraqi Lieutenant about their upcoming elections in January and he remarked about how corrupt the Iraqi government was and that he wanted a "great democracy like America's." I tried to explain that it has taken us quite a while to get to where we are, and it hasn't been easy and it still isn't perfect. Two years ago, a Democratic Congressman from Louisiana was found with like $80,000 cash in his freezer, which most likely were bribes from a Nigerian politician. And just this past month the sitting senior Republican Senator from Alaska was convicted of seven counts of bribery.

Then, exposing that American, optimistic naïveté, I noted that democracy is not a place to arrive at, but a path to travel. While the Iraqis are barely at the beginning of the road, they have at least found where it starts and are standing on it for the first time in their 5,000 years of history. We in America, with Barak Obama's election, have looked up, realized how different the landscape is around us and proudly noticed how amazingly far we have traveled… even in just the past 40 years.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

International Day against Violence Against Women

Note: I wrote this for the org that I work for but they chose not to run it today so I run it myself with no mentions of who I work for.

Don’t let women suffer in silence!
The International campaign of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence begins on November 25 and provides an opportunity for everyone to come together to speak out against sexual violence. Where I work is on the frontlines since we work where armed conflicts, breakdown of societies, disintegration of families and communities and disruption of services leave women and girls vulnerable to rape and domestic violence.

From the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Papua New Guinea, my colleagues witness and treat the consequences of sexual violence including sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion. Our mental health programs also help women with psychological trauma including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or even suicide attempts. The women that we treat are only the tip of the iceberg. Sexual violence is underreported globally and many women suffer in silence because of the stigma around rape and the lack of healthcare services.

Dying from shame In western countries, women who have been raped can get healthcare at almost any clinic. Still, women don’t always go for fear of what people will think of them. This is also true in conflict zones. Many women jeopardize their health and do not seek urgently needed healthcare. Survivors would rather die than have their “shame” known. In the refugee camps in Chad, only 1 woman out of 215 interviewed by my colleague admitted that she had been raped - although many women talked about the problem. After the interview, our staff gave them the opportunity to speak with our mental health counsellors where more women acknowledged that they had been raped. Only then were they able to talk about this painful subject and start their healing process.

Demanding to be heard Not all rape survivors want to keep quiet, however. In the DRC( where sexual violence is reaching epidemic proportions), Women realise that by going to a healthcare clinic, the community will know that they are rape survivors. Yet, they try to get care, sometimes traveling for days to get to the few medical facilities that provide it.

Hardly available In most countries, it is still difficult for rape survivors to get specialized medical care. In Lae, Papua New Guinea, there are legal services available for survivors, but almost no healthcare. In July 2008, I visited our Women and Children’s Support Centre where in 6 months our team provided health and psychosocial services for over 1,000 men, women, and children. I am helping the team to advocate with the ministry of health to provide specialized health services throughout the country. In Colombia, violence against women occurs frequently, but only 20% of survivors seek medical care. Our teams in Colombia treat survivors of sexual violence and also urge authorities to insure there are health services available for all survivors.

Despite the many obstacles facing them, women all over the world struggle and fight to maintain their dignity after sexual assault. Join me for the next 16 days, in making sure that they do not suffer in silence.

More information about what other NGOs are saying:
Christian Aid
Care International
UN Campaign to End Violence Against Women

25 November 2008

Sunday, November 09, 2008


This just in - Barack Obama has announced that he has compiled a list of 200 Bush Presidential Orders that he will reverse!!!

First up, will be ending the horrific Global Gag Rule which has stopped U.S. aid to going to foreign NGOs that use funding from any other source to: perform abortions in cases other than a threat to the woman’s life, rape or incest; provide counseling and referral for abortion; or lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country.

Called the "gag" rule because it stifles free speech and public debate on abortion-related issues, the policy forces a cruel choice on foreign NGOs: accept U.S. assistance to provide essential health services – but with restrictions that may jeopardize the health of many patients – or reject the policy and lose vital U.S. funds, contraceptive supplies and technical assistance.

When I worked for a USAID contractor, JSI back in 1999- 2003, I watched as the Bush policies decimated work that we were doing to promote safe sex, get women badly needed access to family planning, and forced organizations struggling to do good work in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to make hard choices.

I almost cried when I realized that this horrific misogynistic, anti feminist Bush era is over. Goodbye to:
U.S. trying to undermine international agreement on women such as the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March 2005 where the US stood alone in trying to undermine international consensus at the United Nations. The U.S. delegation spent a full week focused on its anti-abortion amendment to the one-page reaffirmation of Beijing. In spite of vigorous lobbying on the part of the U.S. delegation, countries of the world stood firm in rejecting the U.S. language.

In March 2004, the USA was the only one of 38 country delegations to oppose a declaration to ensure greater access to reproductive health services, greater efforts at HIV/AIDS prevention, and the protection of reproductive rights for all.

In December 2002—the Bush administration had made clear its radical shift in policy by refusing to reaffirm the importance of progress on women's health and rights. The U.S. delegation dominated negotiations with an agenda that ignored the health needs of women and girls over the objections of every other country present. It incorrectly claimed the terms "reproductive health services" and "reproductive rights" "promote abortion." Adhering to a narrow and unproven "abstinence-only until marriage" policy, it also tried to remove all language citing "consistent condom use" as a viable way of preventing HIV infection. In the end, the U.S. position was defeated by a vote of 32-1.

Trying to block WHO's efforts to decrease unsafe abortion
At a time when 68,000 women die annually from the consequences of unsafe abortion and countless others are left with lifelong health problems, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stood alone in trying to block the addition of early pregnancy termination pills to the World Health Organization's (WHO) essential medicines list.

Putting anti-feminists in charge of gender equality in Iraq
On September 27, 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that a portion of a $10 million grant to train and educate 150 women leaders in Iraq would be awarded to the Independent Women's Forum (IWF). Co-founded by Lynne Cheney, National Review editor and former Heritage Foundation Vice President for Government Relations Kate O'Beirne, and others, the IWF is an ultra-conservative organization with an explicitly anti-feminist track record. Although the organization is supposed to be promoting equality and democracy for Iraqi women, it has in fact opposed several key efforts to promote gender equality in the United States, including the Women's Educational Equity Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and Title IX, the landmark federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Internationally, IWF has opposed key provisions of the Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), including women's right to equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave and child care facilities for working mothers, and minimum quotas that would ensure women's representation at all levels of government.

Bye Bye Bush - women of the world, breathe a bit easier... Barack Obama has got it, baby!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What it was like to be in DC last night

From my fabulous friend Alec, who marched upon the White house Last night...

What an incredible night last night! My friend Neil and I were watching the returns at his apartment but we soon realized we had to be out somewhere. We ended up at a bar called JRs, where quite a crowd had gathered. A huge cheer went through the bar when CNN called Virginia for Obama (in the frenzy I missed the Ohio call!), followed soon by the west coast states which wrapped up the election. Watching the concession and acceptance speeches with everybody at the bar yelling and clapping made it almost seem like we were there too. Afterwards we walked up 17th Street where lots of people were out, standing on corners cheering on the people in their cars honking their horns as they drove by. Attracted by lots of noise, we walked over to 16th and U Street where the corner was being taken over by revelers. I pity the people driving around at that time * though none of them seemed to mind too much.

We noticed that the police had closed U Street for a few blocks so we walked over to 14th and U where a street party was in progress (this corner is the historic center of the African American community in DC, an area destroyed by riots in the 60s and only recently revitalized - it was really cool to be there as we elected our first black president). There were people dancing all over the street, and even on top of a bus shelter. Several drum circles provided the beat, and everybody was smiling and cheering and chanting and giving high fives to everybody else. It was such a diverse crowd of old and young (well OK mostly young people!) and every color imaginable * it was exhilarating. Fireworks exploded over our heads to even more cheers and chants of *Obama* and *Yes We Can* and *USA!*.

The crowd started moving down the street, and before we knew it we were along for the march down 16th Street to the White House. The police closed the southbound lane for the parade, with drums and whistles and even people clanging on pots and pans to keep up our spirits (as if we needed it!), interspersed with the drivers stuck in the northbound lane honking and waving out their car windows. We all waved and screamed and cheered right back. Neil and I kept wondering if the cops would really let us all march right to the White House but soon enough the crowd was
spilling through Lafayette Park and joining the people already on Pennsylvania Ave. More dancing and cheering and chanting (including the ever-popular Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Goodbye! directed right at the White House * take that Bush!). I*ve never experienced anything like that before * it sounds really corny but everybody was so happy and hopeful and excited for the future for the first time in ages. It was really inspiring and made me feel so lucky to live in our capitol. I wish you
all could have been there to experience it too!

Proud to be an American

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy… tonight is your answer."

President-Elect Barack Obama

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day!

It's election day finally! Our long national nightmare is almost over! I cast my ballot via email. It's amazing that little ole Sumter South Carolina had the ability to do that! I filled it out, scanned it, and emailed it (from Kenya, no less!) and cast my ballot for you know who. My 81 year old father, who I think voted for Truman in his first election and who fondly remembers Franklin Roosevelt, thought long and hard and ended up voting for Obama. My sister will wait in line in South Carolina and cast her ballot today. I hope she's wearing comfortable shoes and shares with us the stories of the crazies that I'm sure will be there. I'm sad that I'm watching this historic election from afar. I had big plans to return to South Carolina and train to be a poll monitor because I saw some serious shenanigans in the 2004 election when I came down to South Carolina to vote. But unfortunately, my leave time was spent on more intimate family matters. The US electoral system will have to get on without me.

It's amazing to see how the Netherlands (and I suppose the rest of the world) is watching the US on this election day. There are numerous parties being held all over the city. I saw and ad for one at the Hilton for 20 euros which promises Special VIP guests, Large Screen TV coverage, all American snacks buffet and breakfast complete with weak American coffee and chicken wings? Fried cheese? Nachos? One wonders what Dutch think American snacks are. The Democrats Abroad have rented out Boom Chicago's space, an American improv comedy show. The Hotel Arena near my apartment is promising D-Rashid and Sander Hucke as DJs. Will they be spinning Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi? Chances are it will be the same old Euro-House music that you always here. At the Kriterion, a cool indie movie house near my apartment, CNN Internaitonal will be on the big screen and US expert Dr. Ronald Holzhacker will be talking. About what? About how the media pundits always get it wrong and screw up the West Coast voter turnout? Numerous expats are also having parties. The problem is the six hour time difference (and nine hours for California). We'll have to stay up all night to see what happens. there can't possibly be that many Americans abroad that we could sustain this number of parties in Amsterdam! Say what you will about America but I can't imagine any other country that the world will be watching so closely on their election day.

But I'm SO nervous. I can't decide what to do. Perhaps I should sit at home quietly agonizing and celebrating every new revelation alone with my bottle of Ravenswood Zinfandel that Cat brought me. Should I crash a party? Just go to bed and wake up to find out who the new president is like I used to do as a kid? I'm so scared that some lunatic is going to do something to ruin this election. That there will be riots and voter fraud and bad things will happen. I'm afraid the Republicans will pull some shenanigans and disenfranchise the poor and black voters (I saw that going on in South Carolina in 2004). I'm worried that the bigots and the idiots will ruin it for everyone. (NOTE: Both Republicans and Dems have their share of idiots and bigots). The same people that road rage others off the highway, think its funny to hang effigies of Obama or Sarah Palin in their yards at halloween, and shout Kill Him! or archly raise questions about Palin's gynecological history are evenly spread throughout both parties. The crazy fringe.

But I'm still so afraid! That's what it means to be a liberal in the USA. You can't believe that anyone else believes in what you believe. You've been depressed and intimidated into having a cynical view of the USA. I'm sick of hearing Europeans say that the US is too racist to elect a black man. It was news that a hungarian descended immigrant was elected to be president of france! Imagine if they were to elect an Algerian! And CANADIANS! Boy I'm tired of Canadians slagging us off. Some doofus in a "I love Hockey" t shirt boldly proclaimed "I Hate Americans" to me yesterday. Note to Canadians: People think you are American. Get used to it and quit your whining. You just elected a conservative government.

But in my heart of hearts, I believe in the USA and I believe in Americans. Even the 2000 elections were peaceful compared to elections in other countries. Sure they were stolen but we moved on as a country. People will wait in line patiently. There is great hope and anticipation. The apathy is gone. Millions will turn out. Others will be couch potatos and just sit at home and watch cable tv but still, people I know all over the US are getting out the vote, calling, canvassing, engaging others in discusison. The system will work, won't it? Won't it?

I hope so. I hope I hope i hope I hope i hope. I believe that we're finally going to get a good leader that will help us through these troubled times. And I hope and believe that things will change. And that the US will show its true colors. I hope.