Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Review: Deadly Waters

On we plough with the nonfiction, and this time we head over to Somalia with Jay Bahadur in Deadly Waters. A very young Canadian journalist travels to Puntland, a semi-autonomous (though not recognized as such) region where piracy is rampant.

No one can deny that the writing of this book took amazing courage. Few places in the world right now are less dangerous for foreigners than Puntland, and yet he just picked up his things one morning and took off. His journey was remarkable and some of his comments insightful, but I can’t say I loved this book the way I loved many of the others that I have read so far.

I suppose I found the writing style a little dry and disjointed, and for the first time I was having difficulty following the names of the people in the book, who they were and what their story was. I felt that the delivery of the history of Somalia was fragmented and incomplete in parts, as if he was trying to give the bare minimum in background information so that he could get on with the story. Although I will not call him a master of words in weaving a nonfiction story that you can’t put down, I’m not going to knock the actual research and effort that was put into this book.

I suppose if Somali piracy is something that is of particular interest to you, how it started and what their life is like, but you don’t actually know anything about it, this is the book for you. I appreciate that he really tries to get to all sides of the story to find the truth, something that all journalists are supposed to do and yet sadly very few do anymore. If, on the other hand Somalia and piracy are not something that will pique your interest in their own right I would not reccommend this book, as it lacks the mastery of certain authors that make you love the subject no matter what it is.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Oh Yea? Well... You're Mommy Is A Poopyhead!!

I’ve finally passed the first major hurdle of those crazy deadlines I was telling you about, enough to have a little time to squeeze in a story that’s been on my mind for the last few days. It seems as though it is only when I am at my busiest that people start pestering me with the silliest things, this time it was a friend of a friend on facebook that was trying to make the losing argument that FOX News is an excellent news source with well researched stories. 

It all started with my friend quoting an article from the blaze, where I told him how terribly he had hurt my feelings that he had stooped so low. He told me that he still loved me despite us being political worlds apart, to which I responded 

We don’t have to agree politically, I just wished you respected facts and journalistic integrity, neither of which can be found on the blaze or Fox News. 

At this point one of his friends decided to bogart the conversation, among other things accusing me of having a warped definition of journalistic integrity, which was funny, since I had never given one. I didn’t think he could possibly be serious, so I simply stated that Fox is not defensible, not if you’re literate. This sent him on a tirade of NBC and MSNBC suck you know! You’re telling me they’re better?! No I said, I’m not commenting on other news sources, I’m commenting on FOX, which is terrible, systemically biased, and a great source for ridiculous outbursts like “Amsterdam is a cesspool of corruption!”; “Tide goes in, tide goes out, you can’t explain that!”; “Now we all know that Jon Stewart is going to Hell” and so many more. He fired back with the same argument: other news sources are bad you know! You’re not aware that one time Chris Matthews told Hilary Clinton he’d help her?! 

 It didn’t matter how many times I tried to explain to him that the “well, other people suck too!” is not a valid argument he went back to it four times, after which I abandoned the conversation. While there was no point in letting the facebook flame wars we were having devolve any further as he was getting less and less coherent as time went on (at one point he accused me of having made a race-based argument, though making clear that he was not calling me a racist o.O), I felt the need to address this. 

If someone criticizes something that you like or respect, is your automatic reaction to 

A. Use that criticism to make assumptions about what that person likes or respects, and 
B. Use “well, what you like SUCKS!” as an argument? 

If you do, please stop, it’s a very silly argument. 

Leaving out the weird rambling racist analogy that my facebook rival was trying to formulate to address this issue, let me give you an analogy myself. 

I walk in to your apartment building, and immediately I notice that something is off. There’s a musty smell in the lobby, I can clearly see water damage on one side of the building, the security camera monitoring the front door is broken and the elevator door jams a lot. I tell you “damn, you’re apartment building really sucks!” 

You respond “yea, well, other apartment buildings on this block suck too you know! I saw paint peeling in the bathroom of number 8! And the doorman at number 5 is really rude! You can’t prove that my apartment building is the worst!” 

You’re right, I can’t, because to do so would require me investigating every inch of every apartment building on the block, which would honestly take far more time and effort than I am willing to put into this. I can say that I suspect your apartment building is the worst, given what I have seen so far, but for all I know the building next door has a devil’s gate to Hell hidden in the basement that I don’t know about. Also, you have to define what you mean by “worst”, worst in structure? Damage? Security? Aesthetically? Anyway it doesn’t matter if you’re the worst, the second worst or the best. I never accused your building to be the worst, I simply told you there are some major problems with it. 

Unperturbed, you pursue the argument “Oh yea?! Well, number 6 over there had a fire in one of the apartments once! And number 10 only has seven floors instead of nine!” 

I start to get frustrated, because I’m not talking about the other buildings, I’m talking about yours. If there are other apartment buildings that also have problems that sucks, but it has no bearing on the horrible conditions of yours. The conditions of your building are no better if it is surrounded by worse buildings and no worse if it is surrounded by better buildings. The problems in your place stand on their own and I am criticizing them objectively, not comparatively. If there are problems along the entire block that might be indicative of another problem, perhaps the people that built them are corrupt and need investigating, but that is not the issue here. The issue is there are problems that you and everyone else who lives in this crap apartment building need to address, regardless of what others do in other buildings. 

Still unperturbed, you continue “You can’t be objective because you love all the other buildings and want to hate mine no matter what! Did you know that number 3 had a rat in the basement? I saw it! And number 9 has squeaky doors!” 

And this is where I abandon the conversation, because there is no argument to be made with a brick wall of stubborn. 

If someone takes issue with something that you like or respect, you need to address the specific criticisms that that person has. If they are right, take a good look at them and see if they have a point. Screaming at everyone else around you in order to deflect negative attention from yourself not only is a losing argument, it makes you look like a child having a tantrum. 

Extra brownie points to anyone who feels like turning the above exchange into a webcomic, we’ll call it “talking to Fox viewers” :)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

We Need To Add Some Extra Humanity

I'm still in the throes of those crazy deadlines I was telling you about, but I managed to squeeze in a little time to watch this video and felt I needed to share it.

While it specifically addresses a case of extreme misogyny in the online gaming community, it is more widely applicable as good advice to all men on how to respond when encountered with extreme sexism.

I know many guys that may see it and may even acknowledge it, but they'll never actually say anything about it. It's a "that's not really my problem" attitude, overlying a more deeply engrained sometimes unconscious "bros before hos" mentality. Grow up friends, time to overcompensate with your humanity

Ill Doctrine: All These Sexist Gamer Dudes Are Some Shook Ones from on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why Do You Believe?

I often get into debates with people about religion, sometimes heatedly (usually when the person I am speaking to is being arrogant and thick-headed), other times for the simple reason that I am curious as to why they believe what they do (when the person is nice, non-judgemental and otherwise seems quite intelligent). Recently I have had two such discussions with two people, which started amicably enough with me pointing at all the places the bible contradicts the “free will”, “god is love”, “justification for baptism” etc. arguments, which brought us directly to the central question of why the hell do you believe anyway? It always comes down to that, as it is impossible to continue the conversation without first establishing a sans-goal-post-shifting basis for the argument. They both happened to respond with an answer that is supposed to be a conversation stopper, an “oh well, this is where we agree to disagree and amicably go our separate ways” response.

I believe because I feel it, I feel something inside me when I pray

How shocked were they then, when all of a sudden I got a little frustrated with them, not only not accepting it as an end of the conversation, but rather answered

That’s not a fucking answer!

I was amazed that this was the first time that they had someone not accept that ridiculous answer. While I am sure many of you are fully aware as to why that is, but for those of you who have not thought too much about it, let me elaborate for you as I did for them:

Here we need another pinning down of what you do and do not believe. Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe in aliens visiting the earth? How about vampires? No? Well, trust me, there are people that do. Many of them believe because they feel it. They feel the presence of their departed mother or spouse or pet, and therefore believe that their spirit is still walking the earth and keeping them company. There are people that are absolutely convinced that they were abducted by aliens and there are people that are sure vampires really exist, because they feel it. Why then, do most people in the world not accept those personal feelings as proof of the existence of ghosts, aliens or vampires? Because personal feelings are subjective, of course they are. You need external, objective evidence to back up these things in order to be justified in believing them. Personal opinion has no bearing on reality. Without objective evidence you can find other more plausible explanations for these feelings: that you’re grief over losing a loved one and being in the house you shared with them causes you to feel like they’re still there, that you suffer from sleep paralysis, that you really want live to be a little cooler.

If you accept someone’s personal feelings about what they believe, then you’re not allowed to scoff at ghosts, faries, aliens, vampires, or any other such fantasy. Going even further, if “I believe it exists because I feel it” was a valid argument, any hallucination a schizophrenic person has ever had exists too, from the voices to the people they see. This is why “I believe in God because I feel Him” does not qualify as a good reason to believe in God, not by a long shot.

And anyway, this personal fuzzy feeling you have inside is not only a terrible reason to believe in a god, but how in the hell did you jump from “warm fuzzy feeling” to “the God of the bible as interpreted by the Vatican”?! How do you know that your personal feelings are “evidence” for that specific god, and not Zeus, Thor or Buddha?

One of them did not have an answer, mostly because she is swaying away from theism and is honestly trying to identify the source of this “feeling” that is keeping her from really calling herself an atheist. The other one used “it’s a matter of faith” as the centre for all the circles he began to spin in. But that’s a whole can of worms for another time.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Book Review: Trafficked

I know what you're thinking, I'm reading way too many books, and perhaps blogging a little too much about them. Bear with me though, because you may have noticed that the books I have been reading lately have either raised interesting ethical questions for discussion or brought up some extremely interesting, relevant history, making them more than book reviews. This book, by Sophie Hayes, is one of them.

This is the true story of what happened to her when she decided to trust a man that she thought was her friend. This is not just a tragic story of what happened to a young woman that I feel necessary to bear witness to, as hard as it might be. It is that too, of course, but it is much more. 

Sophie Hayes is a young, educated, middle class white English girl. While her relationship with her father can be described as mutual apathy at best, there are no indications that she should not live a normal, middle class British life. She had a good job, her own apartment, a future waiting for her. Then, she decided to take a trip to Italy to visit a person she considered her best friend for four years. 

Sophie Hayes was forced into prostitution by a criminal psycopath on the streets of an undisclosed (though Northern, from clues in the book) city in Italy. Her story made me go through an emotional rollercoaster that I did not expect. I wanted to jump into the pages before her first terrifying night and beat the living daylights out of the disgusting animal that trafficked her. I wanted to smack the policemen that treated her like shit upside the head for being so painfully ignorant. I wanted to stop alongside the roads that are known to be full of prostitutes, stop at each one and ask "are you OK? Do you want to be here? Do you need someone to help you get home?" though knowing full well that, regardless of whether or not those girls are there voluntarily or not, the answer would be a resounding No. Admiration for her courage in writing her story, not just for mentioning the terrible parts, but for being able to capture the times in which she loved him and felt safe with him, which I think are emotions that are even harder and take more courage to revisit. I had a nightmare that I was driving along the road and I saw a friend of mine in her same position, and trying to convince her to get in the fucking car so that I could save her. During the whole thing I found myself coming back to one central thought that might be paradoxical at first: this is why I think prostitution needs to be legalized. 

Before jumping down my throat hear me out. In Italy, as it is in Spain and most other European countries where it is not outright legal, prostitution is decriminalized. This means that you cannot be arrested for either being a prostitute or for seeking out a prostitute to sleep with. This was done in an effort to focus time and resources towards the real criminals, forget police officers posing as hookers or johns to arrest someone just trying to earn a living or looking for a blowjob, but rather go after the pimps and the traffickers. 

While I can partially agree with this strategy, in that I don't see the egregious criminal offence in deciding to be paid for a handjob (especially since it magically does not become an egregious criminal offence if there is a camera present and the video is destined for the internet), there are some evident problems in this decriminalization. What seems to be the situation is that, far from bringing focused attention down on the traffickers, prostitution becomes largely ignored. Policemen will occasionally make a few prostitutes clear out if people start to complain, they may ask to see their papers to see if they are in the country legally, but they have no recourse to arrest them and thus question them. Sure, once in a while you'll hear about a few pimps going to jail, but usually because they were involved in a much larger crime ring that also (and primarily) involved bringing people into the country illegally, that the people they brought were sex slaves and not textile slaves is often coincidental. If your society is OK with not criminalizing prostitution, why the hell wouldn't you take the leap and make it outright legal?

Making it legal and regulating it severely undercuts traffickers. You have houses where there is security if needed, it is a taxed business (also making it a much needed source of revenue), you can mandate regular medical checks just like in the porn industry, which not only helps assure the prostitute is free of STDs but secondarily is an excellent way of spotting systematic abuse that is commonplace amongst traffickers. You have a license, which means that no illegal immigrants would be allowed to work there, them being the women that are most likely the ones brought over against their will. After that, criminalize prostitution that is conducted outside the regulated standards. 

It is time to stop not only demonizing women who choose the sex trade, but also the johns that seek their services. As it is also alluded to in the book, most of them are nice enough guys, most men have no interest in sleeping with a prostitute who is being forced against her will. Sophie Hayes had to invent an elaborate back story because many people were genuinely curious to know why she was doing what she did, no judgement, no sadism. If you are a john, wouldn't you rather go to a clean house, where you know the prostitute does not have STDs, where you know everything is legal and above board, rather than troll the streets for a frightened girl that most likely is forced against her will, could be sick and/or have a dangerous pimp lurking around? There will always be a handful of sadists that would prefer that scenario, and I have no problem with their asses being hauled off to prison for participating in an illegal sex trade.

The last point to consider is that criminals are opportunists. If you legalize prostitution and make it reasonable and accessible to customers you are providing a serious source of competition for the traffickers. They have less clients buzzing around, would have to dramatically lower prices in order to provide some kind of incentive, have police scrutiny intensify, in many cases they could easily decide that sex trafficking is no longer profitable enough and switch to another form of criminal activity. I think we need to start considering these things right alongside increasing awareness that this is a significant problem, as well as expand the resources available for victims that have managed to or are trying to escape. 

It is a story I suggest everyone reads, because it is so important to acknowledge the often ignored problem, and really begin discussing what we can do about it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Thoughts On: The Human Species

A variation of this argument comes up a lot, whether it be in conversation with environmentally conscious people or in movies like the Matrix where humans are fighting for their right to exist, so I was not surprised when it came up again the other day. “He’s angry with the world today”, a friend told me, “he knows full well that the human race is the cancer of the Earth, and there are some days in which the evidence of this is particularly striking, so he’ll be in a bad mood all day”. These people are Italians, so there was no point in bringing up George Carlin to her, but I find his response to this often sought out argument particularly fitting.

The planet has been through far worse than us, that is for sure. Earth survived a meteor the size of a fucking island crashing into it, the earth will survive us too. I am not so arrogant as to consider our species a cancer, maybe a particularly annoying fly the planet will have no problem shaking off if it really comes down to caring enough.

I can already hear the ghost voice of my friends’ dissent

But those are all naaatural things, what we’re doing is not natural

Another supreme form of arrogance, that we are somehow not part of nature. That the universe is on some sort of cosmic predestined path and we’re fucking it up and derailing some ultimate cosmic plan for how things are going to proceed. That anything and everything we do is somehow special, divorced from the natural order, put on a higher pedestal, and that with our immense power comes the great responsibility to curb what is on that pedestal.

Here come the voices of dissent again

So what are you saying? Just give up? Not give a shit? Forget global warming, or toxic dumping? What’s the point of any of it, right?

Nope, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I agree with being environmentally conscious, but for entirely different reasons.

If there is one way that our species is special, it’s that we seem to be the only species alive that can have a direct, conscious control over the extinction of our own species. We should do what we can to curb global warming and toxic dumping not because the planet would suffer, but because we will suffer. It is entirely within our own self interest to keep the planet as pleasantly inhabitable as possible. Why am I even making such a seemingly arbitrary distinction?

Because I think that bringing the tone of the discussion away from the empathetic and more towards the selfish could help bring the cause to many people. Many people don’t give a shit about the planet, mostly because deep down they don’t believe that the planet is all that delicate as we try to make it out to be. Many see this “save the planet” spiel as utter nonsense, meant to tug at the heartstrings that only tree-hugging hippies seem to possess for the green-spotted liver snail that might go extinct if they don’t recycle their plastic bottles. At the end of the day let’s be really honest, it’s not about the snails. It’s about us, about the conservation of our habitat to suit us. Start talking in terms of our children, our children’s children, who will not have to suffer debilitating diseases or famine or thirst if we get our shit together and start changing our ways now.

Let’s face it, the planet will be here long after we’re gone, but I think I know humans, and I think humans are going to want to stick around as long as possible.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Review: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

As you may have noticed I have been reading a lot of books lately, but this one by far has to be my favourite. It was one of my Professors that recommended it to me, so interested I bought it.

Anyone who has studied biology has heard of HeLa cells. They are the most important cell line we have, they have been the subject of countless experiments and have been invaluable to modern biology and medicine. This is the story of the woman from whom these cells came, the only woman that can be said to have reached anything close to immortality. I was expecting the book to be interesting if a little dry and perhaps tedious in some parts. From the first page, however, I realized that I was sorely mistaken.

This book really tells four stories, all expertly wrapped up into one novel. The first is who was Henrietta Lacks? What was she like, what did she like to do? The second story is a history of medical research and HeLa cells, what they did for biology and what medical research was like before the 1950s. The third is the journalist’s own story, how she found Henrietta’s family and her struggle to reach out to them. The fourth is one about bioethics, and it poses a very interesting question: is it ethical to take someone’s cells, and sometimes profit from them, without their knowledge or consent? Do we own the tissue that is surgically removed from us, even if it is usually discarded? Do we have a right to say what happens to those cells or tissues once we voluntarily have them removed from our bodies?

Starting from the beginning, as soon as I read the introductory remarks I knew it was the book for me.

This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated. (…) Anything written in the first person in Deborah Lacks’s voice is a quote of her speaking, edited for length and occasionally for clarity. (…) Whenever possible I conducted multiple interviews with multiple sources to ensure accuracy.”

This is my kind of book, and the kind I hope to write myself some day. No embellishment, no omissions, just straight fact. I liked it already, and the rest did not disappoint.

Other than being a fantastic read, there were a few parts of the book that really opened my eyes, for better or for worse. As a scientist I used to get very annoyed with people like my mother who viewed everything and anything that comes out of a lab with a veil of mistrust, with a subconscious feeling that scientists are amoral robotic entities that never consider the ethical ramifications of their actions. I used to think that this was largely due to the horrific way that scientists have been portrayed both by the media, in movies and by the screams and shouts of people that do not understand the science they are publicly blasting, like creationists or anti-vaxers. After reading this book, however, I realized how stupid I was to think that. I have had the good fortune of coming into an international scientific community where bioethics is an extremely important part in everything we do. There are committees that make sure that every experiment you conduct is by the book. If you are using animals in your research, you have to demonstrate that you are using the minimum possible number of animals to get a statistically significant result, that you are housing the animals in the most optimal way possible and that you are never causing the animals unnecessary harm or suffering. If you are conducting clinical trials you have to demonstrate that you have the patients’ full understanding and consent, that they know they can drop out of the study at any time, that you do not admit patients that are at high risk of dying during the study if they are placed in the control group, that all patients including the ones that received the placebo get treated at the end of the study if the drug has proved effective, that the drug does not present high risk of extreme side effects (as demonstrated by animal tests and previous clinical trials) and that any side effect you suspect the drug might have is communicated to the patients. This is the state of biomedical research as of now, but in my grandmother and mother’s day none of this existed, and the scientific community is still feeling the ramifications of the terrible reputation it earned itself in those days. Whether it be experimenting on poor African Americans causing them to die horribly despite having the means to sure them or injecting patients with cancer cells without their consent, I was horrified at what was deemed acceptable to these researchers that I can only describe as sociopaths. I do not know a single person that would ever defend the experiments that were so casually and callously performed only 60 years ago, and that made me ask myself: Is it that even then they were very rare but they became famous due to their horrific deeds, or is it that the new bioethical systems in place make the scientific community less attractive to a god-complexed fame-hungry sociopath, who thus chooses a different career path?

The aspect of this that really made me think is the issue of the ethical implications of tissue research. The people that argue against “rights” for tissue donors made two important points: 1. That the person from whom the cells or tissues are taken are not actually doing anything, it is the scientists that put in all the hard work to culture them, modify them, experiment on them and find all the optimal ways to do these things. These cells could thus be considered their “intellectual property”, they are the ones that invested the money to work on them and thus they are the ones who should benefit from any reward. 2. Informed consent is one thing, but when you start saying “I want my cells to be used in this research but not in that other research but not if the research might be used for that purpose” it can mean a halt in research, because it all becomes exceedingly complicated.

I get both points, but it is definitely not as simple as that. Admittedly HeLa cells are a special case. They are sold all over the world, and you’d be hard pressed to find a cellular biology lab that does not have vials of HeLa cells in their freezers. There is a lot of money made on selling them, and yet Henrietta Lacks’s family lives in extreme poverty. Her daughter, Deborah Lacks, sums up my feelings on this:

Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money for drugs my mother’s cells probably helped make.

I can’t ignore how the injustice this situation makes me feel, that while without the minds that made HeLa cells possible should undoubtedly get the credit for what they accomplished, Henrietta’s family should not be unable to pay for their own medical expenses.

The second point that is brought up is one that I understand, although I do not think it needs to be that complicated. I think that over bureaucratising cell research could cripple biomedical research, it does not have to be an all-or-nothing debate.

I definitely believe in informed consent, and I don’t think that it needs to be complicated. Personally, I think that the bioethical problem can be summed up with two forms, two consent measures. 1. Consent to use your cells or tissues in research, whatever the research might be, without going into the details of what research is acceptable and what research is not. The patient should know what those research possibilities are and decide whether or not they accept them. 2. Consent to profit from said cells, which is only something that crops up in a handful of cases. At this stage, you can stipulate a base percentage that goes to the patient – not one that is negotiable, but one that is stipulated by law, say 15%. The patient gives consent that his or her cells can be used for financial gain with 15% of that gain going to them, yes or no.

Read the book then tell me what you think. Is it too simplistic, still too complicated, or at least far better than the total lack of legislation we have in this regard at the moment?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On Racism, For Want Of A Better Word

I have mentioned before that I am something of a stranger in a strange land here, but I will recap slightly for those of you who are not Italian and do not fully understand how the country is set up here.

I am from Rome, but I am currently living in a small city near Venice. The difference between “North” and “South” (or rather, “North” and “Everyone else”) is palpable, not only because of the fact that the North is much better off economically and there are many people of the idea that they should be two separate countries. The fact of the matter is, Italy was divided into many different “countries” up until 150 years ago, when it was finally united. That is why the difference between regions is incredibly pronounced, from the accent to even very strong local dialects (many of which are literally incomprehensible to anyone not from that region) to the food to the mannerisms and culture. Travelling around Italy can in some ways be like travelling to different countries, and thus some within Italy racism definitely exists, particularly in the North. I say racism for want of a better word, because what is it really? We are all of the same “race”, so the animosity is not based on physical characteristics like skin colour. It’s not nationalism, because we are all the same nationality. Regionalism? For now we’ll call it racism, because it falls under the exact same umbrella. The fact of the matter is, in the North the feeling of resentment towards these lazy Southerners coming to steal our jobs is a common one to encounter. Not everyone of course, but I have come to realise and accept that many need not be so explicit in their racist sentiment, and it has started to weigh on me in a way I did not expect.

An example, if you please.

The other day I went for a pre-dinner drink with a couple of friends and others that work in the same building that I do. At this point I felt quite comfortable with this group, I felt I knew them well enough so I was not the silent observer in the corner, I was actively participating in the conversation. We were talking about food, I got my regular beating for not liking coffee (sacrilege, I know), and then I began pointing out the sacrilege of breaking your spaghetti before you cook it. “You can’t break your spaghetti!” I said laughingly, justifying my position by saying that, since I am from the South, spaghetti is kind of my turf. The fact is that regionally speaking, the Northerners have much more of a food culture in polenta and rice, while the South it’s pasta every day. I said that if I was making a mistake in my polenta-cooking I would trust their advice as I know they are bigger experts in that field than I am, but leave the spaghetti to me! We were laughing, we were joking around, and then one of the girls that is a regular spaghetti-breaker was perhaps getting a little embarrassed and fired back “Well, we have 80% of GDP so we can do whatever the fuck we want with our spaghetti!” Everyone laughed, one (who incidentally is the one I know best and thought was a closer friend) even said “Ha! What a great comeback! Nice one!” I, for the first time in quite a while, was speechless.

Just to give an example of what that joke is saying. Lets say that we are a group of Italians and one Indian guy, who upon finding out that we cook our basmati rice in a sea of boiling water before draining it laughingly expresses his distress and tries to explain how to cook it properly, because after all it is part of his food culture and he was raised on it. I then turn around and say “Yea, well, the day you can stop calling your country a third world country maybe I’ll listen to you about how to cook my basmati!” And everyone around the table laughs. Imagine a Southern, African American woman trying to explain the same thing about collard greens to a table of white Americans, and one of them saying “Yea, well, since we don’t have more white guys in jail than in college we can do what the fuck we want with our collard greens!” And everyone around the table laughs. Don’t know about you, but I didn’t find it very fucking funny at all.

It’s the sensation that this divide is always bubbling under the surface with them. As soon as you think you’re in, you’ve been accepted, and you open up and talk normally like you would to anyone else you consider a friend, this can crop up and shut you down. It’s like they’re thinking “We are different, and we always will be. We accept your presence and tolerate your company because you’re funny and cool and we like you, but don’t forget your place”. This girl is not a right-winger and does not truly believe all that crap about splitting the country in two, but she still hold the trump card of superiority tucked handily up her sleeve. She had nowhere to turn, no “I studied as a chef therefore….” or any sort of personal accomplishment to back up her argument, so out came the “I popped out of a vagina in the right place at the right time, so I looked around and said yup, this makes me superior to you” argument. Jokingly, but the fact that she even went there, and worse that not a single person even laughingly said “come on now! Low blow!” disappointed me immensely. No matter what I say or do or how well I might formulate any kind of argument, they can pull that out at any time and shut me down, end of conversation. Worse, this racism is so the norm that if I had protested this gross lack of argument I would have had thirteen people jump down my throat for being a touchy party-pooper.

And there is always one, at every party.

Yesterday I was at a friend’s birthday party, and one girl that now lives in Milan started talking about how there was a possibility for her to work in Rome, but she was utterly disgusted by the idea of having to move south of the river Po (not for nothing there’s a Northern saying dal Po in giù l’Italia non c’è più [from the Po down, Italy is no more]). She went on and on about how pathetic Rome is compared to Milan. She clearly had no idea that’s where I’m from, and at least this time the people around the table had the decency to look embarrassed. One even tried to interrupt her to inform her of my origins, but I stopped her. “Let her speak”, I said. I would much rather know what people really think that to have them walk on eggshells around me.

It has been a lesson learned. This is not to say that racism does not exist where I’m from, although it is usually more directed towards actual foreigners rather than people from other regions (they even have a half-slur for us, terrone, although as far as I know we don’t have one for them). However, down South you can tell if you’re not trusted by the locals. They can be polite but will always be superficial, they will treat you differently. However once you’re in, you’re in. Here I genuinely thought that we were talking normally and they were treating me like one of the gang, so when these jokes or insults or slurs come out it is unexpected, shocking and far more disappointing.

It is this racism that makes me feel like I will never find a true friend up here, because they have constructed a bridge that, when I think I have fully crossed it, someone at the end kicks me back over to my side. However, I refuse to let the fear of that bridge prevent me from trying. I know better than to assume that everyone here feels this way, so I will continue to open up and treat them all the way I would treat anyone else, even if it does leave me vulnerable to many more disappointments along the way.

To the ones that have shown their true colours, oh well. I’ll still be polite, but I wont be looking for a deep friendship, sharing my dark secrets with you or inviting you to my wedding. It’s been nice knowing you, but I do not accept your false sense of superiority, and most importantly, I refuse to respond to your “witty” racist remarks with equally clever racist comebacks on my end. I will not, ever, play that game.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Seriously Now, Enough Is Enough

Thank you Pharyngula for once again keeping us all informed when it is time to speak up and let our voices be heard. The Catholic Church is up to its bullying again, not that I can say that I’m surprised. The stream of crap that’s coming from the Vatican is never-ceasing, and now we can add this little nugget to the mess

Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association, has for decades been a tireless campaigner for science and against superstition. He is widely known for his exposure of the tricks used by self-professed ‘God-Men’ and gurus and has often been on Indian television explaining the everyday science behind supposed miracles.
After one such exposure – he pointed out that the “blood” oozing from a statue of Christ at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Velan kanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai was in fact water from a leaky pipe – the Catholic Church of Mumbai made a formal complaint about him to the Mumbai police. He stands accused of “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”, an offence under Section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code. No arrest warrant has been issued but the case is "cognisable" meaning the police can arrest without warrant at any time. He is being harassed daily by the Mumbai authorities who, under pressure from Catholic groups, are insisting that he turn himself in. His petition for “anticipatory bail” was turned down on 3 June 2012 on the bizarre grounds that he would be safer in custody. If he is arrested he will therefore most likely be detained in jail until court proceedings are concluded, which could take several years. Fearing arrest, he dares not stay long at home or work.

Sign the petition, and do not let the self-righteous robed bullying cowards to get away with this anymore.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: This Child Will Be Great

Well, what can I say? It’s pretty damned impressive. Nothing like the memoir of Africa’s first female president to make you feel like you haven’t done nor will you ever do anything truly meaningful in your life. Madame President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, you are amazing.

I recommend this book not just for the interesting historical aspect of knowing more about the life of such a remarkable woman. It is that, but it is also much more. She is an extremely educated and very smart woman, and while half of the book is a fascinating history not only of her life but also of a country that I really knew nothing about until now, it is also a very instructive book about economics and politics.

Now I know nothing about economics and I am very aware that, at the end of the day, this book was written by a politician. I jumped in completely ignorant of even the basics of economics, so I realize that I was entirely taking her word for it and I know full well how people can distort economic policies to make them sound logical for their own political agenda. However you can look up Liberia since 2006 and see how it’s doing. It seems as though her policies are working, and despite her being a politician I do not doubt her sincerity in how much she cares about her people. In a chapter about what makes a leader, she had this to say:

Sitting in prison day after day, coming to the understanding that if I were going to help the people, I needed to know, really know, their lives, was a humbling and important experience for me. Whenever I was inclined to feel sorry for myself or afraid I would reflect, “Hey! Poor people go through this all the time!”
            Perhaps this should be part of the proper grooming of leaders: to be put in a position where you suffer what the common person suffers. How else can you really understand what you’re working to do?

I agree 1000% with this statement, and it is a point I and many other have made time and time again. It is the point that Michael Moore was making when he was trying to get Congressmen that voted for the war to sign their kids up for the army, and it is glaringly obvious when watching the campaign of candidates like Mitt Romney that they haven’t the slightest clue what the average American has to struggle with every day. To hear it from a politician is particularly refreshing, and it is definitely a policy that I would fully support and think all countries should consider implementing.

It’s not only her passion for her people that makes her so special (and exceedingly rare among people of her profession). She’s nicknamed “the Iron Lady”, but I think only because that is far more polite than stating that she has iron balls. I just love her for her personality, which I think is excellently captured in this anecdote about when she was working in government overseeing spending on a particularly lavish Organization of African Unity conference:

In a nutshell, we simply did not have the money to host the summit. I found myself taking rather strong positions in opposition, both to the overspending on the summit itself and to the many blatantly inflated or downright fraudulent invoices being submitted to the government by contractors on behalf of OAU projects.
            I remember one bill that found its way to my desk […]. The bill struck me as outrageous. I decided to use one of the rubber stamps I had bought in a small souvenir shop in the United States that said BULLSHIT. I felt it was an appropriate response to what I was seeing, so I stamped the bill and returned it to the British contractor.

HA! I love it! Who does that?! Of course this was the most humorous example, there are plenty of others in which she demonstrates that she is not afraid to stick to her principles and speak her mind regardless of the consequences to herself, which makes her an exceptionally rare kind of politician indeed.

Our current economic turmoil makes this instructive aspect of the book ever more relevant to us in the “Western world”. Although of course there are some fundamental differences in our history and where we need to rebuild from, I still think that there is much to learn from a woman such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in this regard.

If you know more about economics than I do and do not agree with the efficacy of what she has to say, please explain in the comments section and we can discuss it. I would love to begin to fill this gap in my knowledge. If, like me you know very little about this sort of thing, combined with the amazing historical information, you will love this book.

However, if there is one lesson that I think is essential to take away from this book and apply to the situation we find ourselves today, it is this one:

My release from prison shows the power of the public, the power of the people both home and abroad. Public opinion matters; if it is pointed, focused, and intense, it can turn things around. In this global age individuals are sometimes tempted to believe that they have no power, not even collectively. This is not true. The public can make a difference if it is willing to take a position and stand up for a cause in which it believes. Against a united and committed public, even the harshest of governments cannot stand, for certainly this was a harsh military government against which no one thought they could do anything.

A message of hope that I fully support, and Italians especially need to take note. Go forth, spread the word, get up off your lazy ass, quit whining and start that change! You can’t wait around for an Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to come run in our presidential elections and save the day. Women like her are one in a million.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

My Little Head-Rant

Last weekend I was in Rome, as usual, and while I was on the bus I heard a very strange noise that immediately caught my attention.

“…I mean you have to understand, 50% of people don’t pay any taxes! I mean I pay my taxes, you know? But 50% don’t… I mean people want everything to be free, but someone has to pay for it, you know?”

Quiet kids! It is the mating call of a very, very rare species indeed, it’s a Republican outside his own country! The poor English-speaking Italian he was yammering to was nodding his head politely, clearly not well informed in US politics (and why should he be) and taking this man’s word for it. I was incensed, as I always am in the face of blatant misinformation, and went off on an in-my-head-rant aimed at his fat head.

Actually, just under 50% of people in the United States don’t pay federal income taxes, but that’s not the only form of taxes that exist and it is blatantly dishonest to pretend that it is. Those people too poor to pay federal income taxes still pay sales tax, payroll tax, so don’t pretend like they are too lazy to contribute to society. You’re talking about students and people that are poor, how about the multimillion dollar churches that don’t pay a cent in taxes?

And don’t you come to this country whining about it being inconceivable to be able to sustain what I can only assume you mean free health care. We have a public health care system, and for all its problems we would never choose to live without it. The mere presence of a public health care system helps keep down the costs of the private sector as well as ensuring that the private sector offers a more speedy and efficient service, or else people would just rely on the public one and the private companies would go out of business. Instead, you guys have allowed monopolies to form causing the US to have one of the worst health care systems of the Western World, indicated by your low life expectancyrates, high infant mortality rates, and overall crap efficiency despite how much you spend on health care per capita. But what do you care, right? Who gives a crap about children dying as a result of a broken health care system. It’s just poor people, disproportionately minorities, right? Nothing to do with you, it doesn’t affect you. That kid should have though twice before being born poor. It’s not like its mother couldn’t get an abortion if she couldn’t afford to have a child right? Oh wait, let me guess, you’re one of those people that would just as soon not allow that woman have the right to terminate her pregnancy. “Life” is only important to you before it becomes an actual person right? It’s shameful, pathetic and painfully obtuse.

OK so I took a few assumptions regarding his positions there, but there are enough people in the US that do hold the positions I was alluding to that I felt justified in my head-rant. It all took about 3 minutes of me probably giving him a dirty look, but he didn’t notice me and got off at the next stop. I’m not sure whether it was better or worse that I wasn’t standing right next to him and thus blurting this all out to his face, since where I was sitting I would have had to climb over a lady and cross the bus to rant at him, which seemed excessively agro to me.

What do you think? In the interest of setting the poor soul he was yakking to straight (despite the fact I’m sure he didn’t give a crap about the US’s tax problems), would you have crossed the bus? Would you even have said anything if you were standing right next to him?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review: Shadows of the Workhouse

I am back into my non-fiction phase, and Shadows of the Workhouse  by Jennifer Worth turned out to be the perfect book to transition between one genre and the other. It tells the true story of Jennifer’s time working as a nurse in the 1950s, of the life stories of those she met and thus a commentary on the history of what it meant to be a “pauper” in England. I say it transitioned well because, although the book is a non-fictitious account of the histories of the people she met and worked with, the chapters show some obvious embellishment in trying to recapture the details of their lives. It is a true story that reads like a novel, and sometimes made you forget that these things actually happened.

All in all I have to say that I liked the book. It was a little disjointed perhaps, but other than that it was well and simply written. The value of the book comes in the history that it teaches, forcing you to recognize the abhorrent conditions some people lived in even up to the 1970s. The English caste system has left some glaring marks on their society, and it was impossible for me to not draw some parallels to US society (although the country never had a caste system and was in fact founded on principles that repudiated it) of the same time period with regards to their African American population. In both cases these were groups of people that were essentially discarded from society and considered inferior, simply because of where and to whom they were born. Their children suffered poor education, health care and malnutrition, but what little they got was considered by most people to be more charity than they deserved. They both were automatically considered criminals or prone to violence, until a life of crime seemed to many to be the only reasonable option. Once in a while one of them managed to make a better life for themselves through a combination of smarts, luck and an indefatigable work ethic, beating all the odds. Which group had it worse? Before reading this book I would have answered the African Americans of the 1900-1950s, no doubt. Now, although I’m sure the kinds of discrimination they suffered was certainly different in certain aspects, I think you have to read this book and others like it to really see how bad it was for thousands of poor English people. I had no idea, and because of this I think it is an important book to read. We take far too many things for granted these days, something that I am realizing the more I read books of non-fiction, and when we do encounter atrocities in history class we scoff and say “well that was hundreds of years ago! That’s not applicable today!” or “Yea well that happened in rural Africa! That shit doesn’t happen here”. A lot of things we would consider unthinkable now are actually a lot closer to the comfortable shelters we have created for ourselves than we would want to believe, and if we don’t want to go back down that path it is important to realize that.

In conclusion, I recommend the book to a point. I enjoyed it, but I would just as soon read a more comprehensive history of that time as well. It felt more like an easy novel to me than a well researched non-fiction book, but if novels are more to your taste, this might be the perfect instructive non-fiction for you.