Monday, February 26, 2007

A price for what -we were told- is priceless

A bouquet of gladiola in my left arm, I enter a pharmacy (non-Americans read: supermarket) this morning for some needed supplies. As I was strolling past the ostentatious aisles stocked with luring merchandise I came across an older gentleman, who, having pushed his half-empty cart on the side was counting -with religious devotion I might add- a handful of single dollars. Prescriptions are getting more expensive I said to myself.

And this got me thinking. If there is something I have been struggling to come to terms with in my five years in the United States is this expanded notion of unpredictability of human life: you live today, you die tomorrow. Bearing striking resemblance to narratives about everyday life in post-Saddam liberated Iraq, this statement describing life in Massachusetts and other (wealthy) US states is neither a puzzle nor a trap: it is true and should be read literally - this is what makes it also very disturbing. Because health insurance is largely privatized -with the burden of responsibility befalling to the citizens and (increasingly less) to employers- those citizens unable to pay the fees -which can be anywhere around $3,000 upwards- may have no coverage whatsoever and hence, simply, die.

Apparently a few thousand individuals -those on the very bottom of the income echelon- will be spared the 'death' sentence in Massachusetts [capital punishment does not have to do necessarily with one's moral standing] thanks to a recent state initiative to fully cover the insurance costs of those making less than $9,800 a year. At the same time, the "rest of the poor" may well contemplate whether it is better to die of a disease or of an accident overnight as opposed to suffering a slow painful psychological death, such as the one that comes along with loans, interests, eviction, homelessness... and mind you the latter guarantees death in freezing Massachusetts.

If in reformist Massachusetts one can spot a modern Hamlet contemplating "to live or not to live", news from France comes as a soothing, much-needed, reminder of the fact that humans have not crossed communal life off of the dictionary - yet. As of December 1st, 2008, homeless and all those living in a poor housing situation will be entitled to some decent housing.

To compare France and the United States on an equal footing would be unfair and a proof of ignorance of the different paths that the countries have taken with respect to social policies. Conversely, it would be wholly wrong to overly accentuate the particularistic elements that account for the American experience by not being critical vis-à-vis what constitutes a direct assault on human dignity; or how differently could one describe the fact that "the little less poor" -those not covered under said legislation- "decide" not to buy insurance because the cost of the penalty is cheaper than the monthly payment for the insurance?

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that Massachusetts is "reformist" or "different" and hence requires that people buy insurance. Similarly, the proposition for free insurance for the poorest of the poor is considered too "advanced" and costly by other states with greater proportion of poor. Interestingly so, many such states voted President Bush a second time into office, aware of his agenda priorities: let us not forget that John Kerry was, after all, a senator from Beantown [a nickname for Boston].

References and Links

I thank Dimitris Stefosis for the link and the original idea: Massachusetts spurs health-care debate

On housing in France: Un toit pour tous. Enfin, peut-être...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

One (more)

In his article today titled "Η φωλιά του κούκου, 2007" republished in his blog , well-respected Greek journalist Michalis Mitsos takes up the question of victims of wars and warfare. Citing the case of Iraq he underscores the disproportionately grand analogy of casualties to dead -particularly when juxtaposed against previous wars- mostly thanks to advances in the medical field.

Meanwhile here in Boston word has come of the death of a young woman in Iraq - one that was not fortunate to make it into the "list of wounded". This morning I grabbed the local edition of "Metro" newspaper before riding the "T" [the name we have for the subway here] only to find its front page dedicated to Marine Captain Jennifer Harris, of "Swampscott, MA". The next page was a report from her funeral which was held at her native Swampscott, -a small community of some 15,000- yesterday, "with full military honors" - as if this would soothe the pain of her family, her fiancé Maj. Christopher Aaby, the community, us reading the newspaper.

Of course her fellow soldiers wanted to honor Jennifer, her life, her service - this was the rationale behind the elaborate funeral. Lt. Gascinski -a roommate of Harris at the Naval Academy- in her speech stressed the "calm demeanor" of Harris whose nickname was "Dove" for this reason.

But that said and done, bottom line is that 28 year old Jennifer is dead: her helicopter went down on February 7. Fate, death, the Sunni group, -how you want to name it- did not take into account her youth or the fact that she was a woman pilot or that this week was her last week in Iraq: she was expected to come home the following week.

Jennifer and every man or woman killed in Iraq or any war: this is the version of Iraq war that rarely makes it to non-US papers. The mere listing of casualties and victims no matter which place it occupies within the newspaper or how it is commented, it can never be compared to that of "the individual dead", the resident of the community, the neighbor, the college classmate.

In a densely-knit community-based America there is one puzzle, one unanswered question which at the same time dwindles support for the war and gives hope to all of us opposing it: "for how long more can people assist to funerals of their loved ones, their fellow citizens?" For Swampscott, Jennifer was not the first one. 20 year old Army Spc. Jared Raymond died just a few months ago in Taji, Iraq, the newspaper tells us, leaving us with this thought in mind - not without a reason I believe.

As numbers of dead and wounded rise, as our expectations from the constituencies in Massachusetts and elsewhere increase, so does our hope that this "war" will be brought -somehow- to an end: for one thing, the newspapers of Iraq, if they were to be printed regularly, they would need an extra budget to dedicate articles to all the casualties, not to say front pages.

But learning from the American experience and the pain and sorrow that such news brings, perhaps is better this way, without articles. It may not honor the memory of those killed, but it does not suck whatever courage has been left to the citizens of Baghdad and all those other cities where a trip to the market has a risk factor greater than swimming in a pool with sharks: an avid diver, my father tells that if you do not move and stay still the shark does not perceive your presence and hence does not attack.

Unfortunately, running or standing still, bombs manage to get you in Baghdad - somehow.


"Metro" newspaper
The town: Swampscott, MA

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading on Reading

With all due respect to Mr. Carroll, his op-ed in Boston Globe's February 12 edition is one of such columns that risk to -but hopefully will not- be left -entirely or in part- out of the average reader's reading of the paper. The lack of 'hot', sensational, 'buzz' content [echoing Wolfsfeld's thesis/explanation on why peace negotiations are more often than not 'less attractive' to the media industry] along with the limited time one allots to reading in a clock-dictated world are a few explanations - by no means justifications. How ironic really this is, since Mr. Carroll undertakes the very same issue of our (changing) reading habits in what is another interesting viewpoint of his.

Focusing on the self primarily, James Carroll surveys our reading habits from childhood on, underscoring the value of silent reading and specifically the internal/intellectual process that accompanies it. Such highly beneficial process -it promotes growth- is violated -if not negated- by modern technologies: interruption of the reading process is the fundamental difference here as a variety of simultaneous electronic processes (email, IM among many) often interfere with reading. And while the net impact of this 'change' is perhaps too early to assess, Carroll concludes by cautioning against a possible change even retrogression of our reading skills.

And while there may be no sufficient scientific evidence of potential biological consequences of "interrupted" reading, one finds reasons to be alarmed. Next to the "democratic dissemination" of knowledge that Internet embodies and people advocate, one wonders if not the rhetoric is not taking us "too far". Simply put, while it is undeniable that the Internet and the modern technologies have contributed to an unprecedented spread of knowledge at relatively low cost (especially in the western world), one needs not to assume that the mere existence of knowledge makes every "surfer" a scholar. Of the many factors that determine one's absorption of information, distraction or interruption are classified as obstructive.

Regardless of how successful the Internet truly is to its goals or human expectations on its educational mission, it comes as no news that interruption brings also segmentation and may even jeopardize cohesion [referring here exclusively to the readable material]. Interruption can be temporary, in which case the reader resumes reading but may also be long-term or even permanent if the reader never goes back to finish the article. My inability to calculate probabilities of different types of behavior (along with of course estimating the impact on perception and other neurobiological processes) does not allow me to draw specific conclusions.

However, to the extent that the reading experience becomes compromised in some manner (for example lack of concentration or abandoning of reading altogether) unease should ensue. This is particularly important when it comes to readings that extend beyond entertainment and involve political or other such issues. To avoid what can amount to a lengthy discussion on opinion formation, media influence and democracy, suffice here to say that partial information and fragmented knowledge over a given issue of some stake can have equal if not worse consequences to lack of knowledge altogether - as a reader may be anything from vulnerable to information extraction to unreasonably confident and vocal. Of course one must turn to specific studies in order to substantiate further such claims; that one makes better and wiser choices if well-informed is however considered common knowledge.

Some five and a half years ago, a very good friend of mine said (and wrote) that "modern technologies [referring to Internet and computers more broadly] entered our lives silently, with out any drum roll" Inasmuch as I tend to agree with him, I cannot help but think that part of this reality is because we also chose to shut our eyes and close our ears. Would this have changed anything? Perhaps not, but it would have certainly made us more aware of what is going on around us, as opposed to our childish almost experimental and certainly empirical understanding of reality.


The Boston Globe Editorial: Silent reading in public life

Gari Wolsfeld. Media and the Path to Peace. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Monday, February 05, 2007

From Maryland all the way...

On February 1, The Washington Post published an interesting editorial on Martin O'Malley, the incumbent governor of Maryland. A few weeks into office only, the former mayor of Baltimore is already making his voice heard: O'Malley calls for a staunch position against capital punishment - to the surprise of many who would have never predicted such an initiative based on his electoral campaign. O'Malley swift policy U-turn justifiably draws quite some attention for yet another reason: the state and the country remain divided along -at times stiff- fault lines over a number of social (policy) issues - the death penalty is only one of many controversial topics.

For what it really is, O'Malley's position is important as it constitutes an endorsement of human rights principles in what is a long struggle for the implementation of a human rights culture. Conversely, it becomes crucial in the context of the American culture as the United States is still struggling with concepts of justice attribution and punishment. One of the very few consolidated democracies that is still resorting to the death penalty as a correction method, the United States distinguishes itself from its liberal counterparts by engaging in a practice to be found primarily in nondemocratic countries, or, [to imitate a phraseology popular among US government officials,] "in countries failing to espouse liberty and such fundamental virtues". Still, the consistent use of death penalty by the world's most fervent proponent of human rights is problematic and counterintuitive in itself.

For all the controversy it may spur and all the praise it will receive, O'Malley's decision holds a further connotation as it becomes the embodiment of what "standing by one's principles" truly means. A long-time campaigner against capital punishment, O'Malley neither abandoned his core principles nor decided to hide himself behind them once in power. In a cost/benefit structured framework, O'Malley's deviation is highly dissonant to the ears of many political advisers or policy makers and perhaps even justifiably so. Yet at the same time one wonders whether the exemplary valor embedded in a courageous act, as this one, could in fact be providing with a raison d'être: to the rational scornful conclusion that rejects this line of thought one juxtaposes the alternative standpoint common to those who see corrosion and saturation in politics, corruption and individualism aspiring primarily, if not solely, to re-election - all frequent occurrences in many countries. Not surprisingly therefore one might feel inclined to give at least a chance to something different, something genuine. Against the sour taste of decadent politics, risk may acquire an unprecedented sweetness.

In the merciless battlefield we conventionally call politics, one hopes that ingenuity and initiative will be given some room to breathe. That Maryland borders congested Washington D.C. is a source of concern and a reason for hope at the same time.



The Washington Post Editorial: A governor stands up

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