Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tough Questions: On The Limits of Personal Freedom

Despite my extremely patchy posting, I found that I had to re-address one last aspect of the issues that I brought up surrounding Savita. As usual, thinking about the victims of backwards, brutal religions just gets me thinking about all of the ways that these religions infringe on the rights of human beings to be healthy. I think not only about people who die because of dangerous pregnancies, but about circumcision, acid being thrown in girls faces, AIDS because of a lack of access to condoms and children dying of preventable diseases because their parents were told not to believe in a certain medicine. 

When thinking about the horrors that many religious people impose on their own, especially their children, it is very easy to say things like "You know what asshole? If your adult self wants to be a dumbass and not take a blood transfusion to save your own life go right ahead, one less idiot on this planet, but don't let your child die because of your lunatic beliefs!" I am sorry (am I? I'm not sure yet) to say that I also have said this more than once, and am usually of this opinion, but this recent tragedy has really gotten me thinking. 

First of all, any regular reader of this blog will know that I am one HELL of an advocate for personal freedom. I feel that if you are an adult, are fully capable of making your own decisions and are not hurting anyone else in the process you can pretty much to whatever you like. I have taken this idea to some pretty dark extremes, defending even things that make my stomach turn in the utmost disgust. You can see my post on incest, for instance. When that story came out about that German guy that looked for a guy on the internet who loved the idea of being eaten, then killed and ate him, I said he shouldn't get life in prison because the guy not only volunteered, he really really wanted to be eaten - and shouldn't what happens to his own life be his choice and no one else's? I once even saw a documentary about these rare cases of voluntary amputation (if I find it again, I'll update and link it), where these people cannot live with a limb and try desperately to cut it off in any way possible, finding it of course very hard to find a doctor willing to amputate a perfectly healthy limb, and thinking that if I were a doctor I'd try to help these people out. Coming from this perspective, you'd think that my being OK with an adult doing something unhealthy because of their religious beliefs would be absolutely nothing, right?

And yet, there were two examples that stuck in my mind which made it very difficult for me to continue shrugging my shoulders in the face of weird choices that I will never understand but have no interest in shaking my finger over. One of them is the case of adult women electing to be fully circumsized, which a South African friend of mine tells me is the norm in the small town where he is from. The other is the idea of a woman getting a symphysiotomy despite knowing exactly what it is and what it will do to her (and yes I know that this was not the case in Ireland). Am I just being uber sexist, and only balk at these things because they involve women? 

I hope not, because there is a very fundemental difference between the two categories. The first category that I described is one in the absence of coercion. A person has a very strange fantasy, or has a rare illness that makes them need something desperately, who am I to tell them they can't have it, if they're not infringing on someone else's rights in the process? In the case of the latter, however, I don't think that is the case. If your community basically tells you you're an unmarriable slut if you elect to not be circumcised, that's not really a free adult making a free choice is it? If a woman is led to believe by her country steeped in patriarchal religion that her only worth on this planet is to make as many babies as possible no matter the cost or risk to her health, how can I possibly be in favor of that? 

The question thus becomes, would I be in favor of putting hard laws against these things that I despise? Just because I despise them, even though adults are (relatively) volutarily electing to have them?

I think that history has shown that laws are the wrong way to go about these things, especially when it comes to limiting adults. While I am in favor of laws preventing these things being done to children (as relatively powerless citizens they need extra protection), having only laws leads to one thing: back alley proceedures. I personally would invest my resources and energy into education, education, education, always. Let's talk about how these things are incredibly dangerous. Let's talk about changing our culture to something that is sex positive, not slut-shaming. Let's change people's minds.

I suppose the fundemental conclusion is this. When someone has an innate, psychological problem, such as the people who desperately want to become amputees, there's nothing you can do to remove that need inside them. They have it and they will be miserable for the rest of their lives if they are forced to keep that limb, and misery pushes people to do desperate and dangerous things. This means that we need to pick the better of two not-ideal situations: allow that person to sever that limb in the safest way possible.

On the other hand, if we have a person whose only reason for wanting something so dangerous and brutal is because they were unfortunate enough to be born into a society which tells them that they are worth less if they don't do it, well that's just not. fucking. fair. I don't want anyone to think that, and I will not want to stand idly by while the vicious cycle goes round and round. While legislation will probably do more harm than good - pushing an already unsafe proceedure underground - tackling the root, the source of the problem is the hardest but the best way to handle this unfairness. 

There's more to struggle with this, but this first part I hope is clear enough.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

To Lighten The Darkness Part II

And now, to counterbalance that terribly depressing story, I give you the boss of this week. Alvin Lau, you, your poem and your passion rock.

And Now It's Happening In Italy...

In my never-ending comparison of the two cultures between which I was raised, one thing that I used to like about the Italian culture was the absence of bullying, at least at the school level. That is not to say that there weren't kids that were mean, or cruel, or loud in their ignorance, but the systematic bullying of "weaker" or "unpopular" kids by one or more "stronger" or "popular" kids was almost unheard of. I remember friends of mine watching typical American teen comedies, with the nerdy kids regularly getting pushed around or their heads flushed in toilets, with the cliques of the "popular kids" at the top and a whole underclass of kids below them wanting to be them, and laugh at the ridiculous parody of American life that couldn't possibly be true. I mean, there might be some girls that are prettier, and therefore girls that are better at snagging a boyfriend, but there's no real high school social ladder that could come tumbling down if you stop dressing a certain way or put on a few pounds, is there? I mean, sure there are some criminal kids, dangerous fascist kids that might do terrible things to someone, but it's not something that happens in every school, every day, under teachers' noses, right? Come on, it's a total exaggeration! This naivete was something that I liked, because it was an indication of a high school mentality which involved small groups of friends largely leaving others alone and going about their own business. While there are other aspects of high school life which are a real problem in Italy, such as the regular occupations of schools with all the reasons and problems that come with them, this at least was an aspect that I admired.

Here's the thing though. While I know that in countries where bullying is rife you will find it pretty much everywhere, things always get worse when the student body starts becoming more filled with "others". It used to be that there were very few racial minorities (and the ones that were present were thus well integrated) in public schools(*), almost no one that came out in adolescence, and this absence of easy targets to pick on no doubt contributed to the rarity of bullying. However this country is evolving, more and more people are understanding they are gay at younger ages, and so it begins. I am ashamed to say that bullying has reached our schools, and now begin the teen suicides, people who break under the persistent, constant pressure of hate.

A fifteen year-old boy, known only by the pseudonym Davide (Italy has strict laws regarding the publishing of underage people's names) hung himself in his home while his parents were away, after a year of cyberbullying in the form of a facebook page designed solely to humiliate him, homophobic comments at school, and apparently the straw that broke the camel's back with a teacher berating him for coming to school wearing nail polish. I'm sure it did not help matters that (allegedly, according to his friends) his parent's were not supportive of him, and "did not understand him". Those who knew him blame themselves for not seeing the signs sooner and doing something to help, but this is pure survivor's guilt and is not their fault. 

The only silver lining that I can find is that there is an investigation into the creators of the facebook page, the instigators behind the systematic abuse, who will hopefully be charged with Istigazione al suicidio a suicidio avvenuto - inciting suicide with the result of an actual suicide, a penalty that can bring five to twelve years in prison. What will actually happen, if it all will be abandoned somewhere down the road remains to be seen, but at least for now something is being done. Commenters on the article call for the Italian version of the "It Gets Better" campaign, and I agree with them.

If any of you are or live in Italy, and are or know a member of the LGBT community that needs help coping with abuse, know the resources that are available to you. Call 800-713-713 for support and information.

(*) I did not go to a public school, but rather an International school, which resulted in there being no such thing as a racial minority - with 56 countries represented in a high school of 180, we had more of a "two of everything" thing going on. We also had a few kids who were out, and a few more we were sure were not far behind. In my four years of high school, to the best of my knowledge there was never a single instance of bullying. People may fight, and bitch about each other behind their backs in true teenage fashion, but there was no uneven power, no systematic taunting that ever happened there. One kid with whom I was no longer friends did try to get back at me by spreading the rumor that I was a lesbian, but it died on his lips: few believed him, and those that did could not care less, not a single one of them came up to me to even ask me if it was true, let alone make fun of me. I only found out because I overheard him, and when I brought it up to a couple of people they simply said "oh yea, I heard that, honestly I just thought he was being kind of pathetic, nor did I really think about it enough to wonder whether or not it was true". I tell this story because I think that having an open, multicultural and international upbringing is the single most important thing that made me who I am, and my education is a model that I believe is the best solution for producing openminded and productive people. This has been tried and tested, and always to be kept in mind when you hear people crying "freedom of religion" and "protection of values" when trying to advocate for unrestrained bullying and all-one-race-and-one-background schools.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

To Lighten The Darkness

I have decided that, from now on, I will follow every horrible story I post about with one about someone that is inspiring, someone that every so slightly raises my hopes for humanity. I don't want this blog to become tragedy-porn, and either way it is always important that there are people in this world we can aspire to be more like, not just people we can revile.

Today I am also going to focus on someone who is no longer with us, but is still a truly inspirational and amazing human being. Her name was Rachel, and at nine years old she was already totally awesome.

Rachel was your average nine-year-old. She loved Taylor Swift and had a secret crush on Justin Bieber, although she’d never admit it. She had a loving family and a heart that wanted to solve every problem she saw in this world. Once, she cut off all her hair and donated it to make wigs for kids who had cancer. So when she sat in church one day and heard Scott Harrison from charity: water give a talk about how kids her age in Africa didn’t have clean water to drink, she immediately decided to help. 

With her mom’s encouragement, she created a fundraising page on, telling her family and friends that she didn’t want presents for her ninth birthday. Instead, she asked them to donate $9, as she was turning 9. Rachel wanted kids like her to have clean water to drink.

She had a big goal: to raise $300 and give 15 people clean drinking water. She fell a little short, raising $220, and told her mom that she’d try harder next year.

A month later, Rachel was in a tragic car accident on highway I-90 near Seattle, Washington. A trailer had jack-knifed into a logging truck, sending logs tumbling down the freeway. More than a dozen cars were caught in the pile-up, and the trailer smashed into the back of Rachel’s car.

When the news spread about Rachel’s story and her birthday wish, people all around the world began to donate on her page. Some gave $9, some $19, leaving comments like “This is the rest of my month’s salary…..” A month later, 30,000 people had given more than $1.2 million.

Not only did she display more empathy and altruism at the age of nine that many people do in their entire adult lives, she also happened to pick a great charity. This is what I look for in a charity, and this is what makes this also a post about supporting them:

When we started charity: water, we made a bold promise to the general public — 100% of their donations would go directly to the field to fund water projects. We'd find another way to cover our operating expenses. And we'd even reimburse credit card fees when donations were made online.

We depend on private donors, foundations and sponsors to cover everything from staff salaries to basic office systems to office rent and supplies. These donors are some of our most dedicated: their investment fuels our long-term mission, our ability to scale as an organization and our mission to continue using 100% of public donations for water projects. 

Great girl, great cause. Feel your spirits rising ever so slightly. 

Forcing The Discussion

And here I am to prostrate myself at your virtual feet for by prolonged and undue absence. I was going through a writer's block, a "crap I have nothing to say, and no one cares what I have to say anyway" phase, from which I have been shocked out of in light of recent viral stories that I want to add my two cents to. 

By now, I'm sure you have all heard about Savita Halappanavar, the most recent face put on the victims of the Catholic Church's meddlings in societies to which they do not contribute.

Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.

This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.

She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.

The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.

There was no chance, none whatsoever that her foetus would survive. Despite this, they chose to put the life of its mother at risk, by choosing the arbitrary standard of a foetal heartbeat as proof it was still alive, thereby directly causing her death.

I wonder, are heart transplants illegal in Ireland as well? The person's heart is still beating when it is removed for transplant, it must be in order to still be viable, but by their own logic isn't that directly killing their patient and therefore illegal?

So why am I deciding to weigh in at this point? Why is this one case so important?

I hope that this is what will finally precipitate a real discussion that we need to have regarding the liberties we give Catholic hospitals. 

Even if it is discovered that this was an isolated case, one in which her doctor was negligent and solely at fault, even if it is discovered that his actions were not in accordance with proceedure at the Catholic hospital in question, even if the administration of said hospital is absolved of any responsibility beyond any doubt, we still need to have this conversation.

This is not the first time that we are faced with the disgusting proceedures in Catholic hospitals. Take ectopic pregnancies, which have 0% chance of survival, since the foetus will burst the fallopian tube and kill the mother once it reaches a certain size. We have heard of Catholic hospitals which refuse to remove the embryo in question because of their "morals", opting instead to remove the woman's entire fallopian tube, greatly reducing her fertility and turning a simple operation into a far more dangerous one. Where was the global outcry then?

What about the sawing of women's pelvises to make them into supreme baby-making machines? 

The problem is the lack of a face, a victim, someone that the whole world rallies around. Now there is one, and with enough people paying attention we need to address the real issue: how much are we going to allow hospitals to get away with?

We need laws, real laws, limiting in explicit words what religious hospitals are allowed to do and still operate as hospitals. If Jehovah's Witnesses decide their going to open up a hospital but refuse to give blood transfusions to any of their patients, even to save their lives? Guess what, you don't get to be a hospital, you don't get a cent of govnerment money and you sure as shit aren't going to be served by ambulences that might bring an unwitting patient to your doors. If a Catholic Church refuses to save a woman's life because she has some foreign DNA inside her? Fuck you, you don't get to be a hospital anymore, end of story. 

Now, when people are really looking and really paying attention, now is the time to act.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What Happened to Book Reviews?

Here I used to be reading three books in a weekend given the three hour train ride I have to take whenever I go back to Rome, now it's been twice that I've gone down and I'm still bringing along the same book that I haven't even opened yet. Yeesh, what's going on? Where has the reading bug gone? Well, it's easy, I've gotten hooked on audiobooks. More specifically, I cannot go anywhere without being plugged into the Harry Potter series, read by Stephen Fry.

I adored the books, and I was the perfect age for them to "grow with me" as I was reading them. Now, I have to say, I think I like hearing Stephen Fry reading them to be even better. They keep me company as I walk back and forth to work (since they have now stole my bike for the third time, horray), on the train, as I dissect larvae at the microscope or as I go about my solitary business. They're also so long that by the time I reach the end of the last book, very little time needs to go by before I start on the first again. They're that good. He's that good.

I have found that when it comes to audiobooks, they need to be books you have read and/or books that do not require an enormous amount of attention. If it's your first time reading them, or it is a book that needs careful consideration paid to every word, you need to be able to hold it in your hand and fix it with your eye, or you wont be able to follow it and you certainly wont be able to multitask. To this effect, I have downloaded the following audiobook series that will follow Harry Potter:

Discworld - Terry Pratchet
The Dark Tower - Stephen King
The Vampire Chronicles - Anne Rice
His Dark Materials - Phillip Pullman
Dune - Frank Herbert

I am a little giddy, though I highly doubt that any of them will be as good as the Stephen Fry readings. He's just... so... I suppose you have to listen for yourself to get it. I just hope I wont get too hooked that I wont open up any paperbacks again.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Fuck You Libertarians!!

I'm so very sorry that I have been neglecting you. I have been finding very little to say and even less time to say it, and I was wondering whether or not to acknowledge the fact that the United States just, finally managed to re-elect their president. It's not like it was a shock, the math was pretty clear on that before the actual election, so it wasn't exactly a nailbiter. Of course there are the hilariously uninformed that actually were flabbergasted about it (including the Mitt Romney campaign itself), and I suppose it is only because of them that I have decided to talk about this at all. This video just tipped me over the edge in its absolute hilarity, so I figured why not.

Yes, Obama won, and apparently there are some very drunk and incidentally very funny people that are just stinking MAD about it!!!

It's OK, you can admit it, it's pretty funny. Actually, I'm more interested right now in getting follow up interviews with those people that were sure that Romney would wim because God was going to make sure of it, because God was never wrong. My question would be this: Did the absolute creaming of Romney in this case make you

A. Question your belief in God
B. Question your belief that God prefers Romney to Obama
C. Think that Satan might currently be stronger than God?

My guess, it'll be D. Non of the above. There's no reasoning with some people.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Another Awesome Lady

I'm back from my little holiday everyone, even though I didn't get to leave the country I still managed to have a fabulous time to make up for my incredibly shitty birthday, hooray for belated birthday celebrations! Since I am still in a good mood, I want to open up November with another female boss. Today we meet Tracey Spicer, an Australian newscaster, who had this awesome dose of snark to dole out to the oh-so-deserving. I'm sure you know that I am quite partial to snark myself, and this lady has just wiped the floor with the targets of her ire:

DEAR Mr Misogynist,

I'd like to thank you for everything you've taught me over the past 25 years.

Why, I had no idea I was so fat, ugly and stupid. I thought being a size 12 was perfectly acceptable.

But when you yelled across the newsroom, ''I want two inches off your hair and two inches off your arse'', suddenly, a light went on.
Of course! The size of my posterior is directly related to the content and credibility of the stories I'm reporting on for this network. Silly me. You're right. I'll never make it as a TV journalist.

Those wise words of yours from 1986 are still ringing in my ears: ''That's why you don't see blonde newsreaders,'' you explained patiently. ''People don't take them seriously.''

It reminded me of another sage piece of advice, from a radio boss during a job interview some years ago.

He put it simply yet eloquently: ''There's a reason why you don't hear women on commercial talkback radio,'' he said. ''No one wants to hear the whiny sound of a female voice. Us blokes get enough nagging at home!''

Really, in retrospect, it was foolish to think I was worthy of such a role.

Like all women, I only have two areas of specialisation: shoes and handbags. We all know high heels are a patriarchal construct to disempower us by constricting movement. (Oh dear. Must stop having thoughts like that. Sorry, I have no idea where that came from.)

Anyway, through some quirk of fate, I managed to land a newsreading job.
I know what you're thinking. I finally decided to speak into that flesh-coloured microphone you were always pointing in my direction.

Oddly enough, I was offered the job by a woman. Who would have thought? Initially, I was wary. You always said you'd never work for a female boss because, ''You can't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die''.

Hilarious! It's a good thing I was wearing a corset or my sides would have split.

Fortunately, there were enough blokes around to keep me on the straight and narrow.

On my first night, the station manager came down and said, ''You need to stick your tits out more''. Once again, my brain wasn't working properly.

In between the raging bushfires, the political crises and savage cuts to welfare, I'd forgotten to flirt with the camera.

A couple of years later - I'm ashamed to say this - I ''porked up'', according to one of the producers.

My new boss quickly raced out and arranged sponsorship from the local gym.

Frankly, I was unsightly. I stood out like a bull in a china shop, around those fragile lollipop ladies with their skinny bodies and massive heads.

Speaking of heads, I got a nasty shock when I looked in the mirror one day. Wrinkles around my eyes and on my forehead. Too much thinking? Surely not.

I remember you reviewing a video tape of one of my colleagues - clever girl, Walkley Award winner as I recall - and saying, ''The problems seem to be here and here,'' pointing to her ghastly crow's feet.

As it turns out, wrinkles were the least of my worries. I'd gotten myself knocked up.

I wanted to go back to work when bubby was three months old but, once again, it took a man to show me the error of my ways.

''Women should be at home with their children,'' my news director said. ''Or the fabric of society will be rent asunder.

''Anyway Trace. You're getting a bit long in the tooth. Why don't you give some of the younger girls an opportunity?''

Suddenly, all the lights went on. And it was so bright - it made your light look like a limp insipid flicker.

This is difficult for me to put into words but if I had to, it would sound a bit like this: F--- you.

F--- you, you misogynist bully with your archaic beliefs, intellect of a pygmy, and tiny dick.

The reason I am writing this letter is to thank you.

Among others - too many to mention - you lit a fire in my belly that's become an inferno and these days, I don't cop shit from anyone. When I was sacked by email after the birth of my second baby, I fought the lot of them.

I do hope you receive this correspondence. I had trouble finding a forwarding address after you lost your house due to that unfortunate sexual harassment case.

(I'm sure the bitch was asking for it.)

Yours in emancipation,

What has gotten into Australian women these days? Whatever it is, I approve.