Thursday, May 29, 2008

U.S. Troops Allegedly Proselytizing Christianity in Iraq

In an article printed yesterday, it was reported that some Iraqi residents were being handed coins with Bible passages printed on them. Many citizens in the town of Fallujah being Sunni Muslims view this as an attempt at conversion and believe that the American soldiers doing this should cease the practice.

One resident was quoted as saying, "Because we are weak this is happening." In reading the opening story presented in this article, it certainly seems that the Americans, be it one person or a large group, are able to pass these message coins onto Iraqis based on fear that some citizens have of these soldiers. Because the citizens fear these soldiers, they take what is given to them, only later to find these Bible passages. Citizens of the town have been seen in large groups discussing these coins, and at least one Iraqi has stated that, "This can cause strife between the Iraqis and especially between Muslim and Christians . . . . Please stop these things and leave our homes because we are Muslims and we live in our homes in peace with other religions."

A local U.S. military spokesman says an investigation has begun in order to determine if U.S. soldiers are in fact handing such religious materials to Iraqi citizens. Such act of “proselytizing any religion, faith or practices” is prohibited by the military. These allegations follow not far after a U.S. sniper was removed from Iraq after using the Quran for target practice. President Bush issued a former apology for the sniper’s actions, and most likely will be required to apologize once again if these new allegations are found to be true. If such incidents continue, a mere apology may not be sufficient.

By no means is anybody alleging that the U.S. on a national level is attempting to convert all Iraqi Muslims to Christianity. At this point it is unknown just how many soldiers are distributing the coins in question, but it seems unlikely that it is a group effort being perpetrated by an entire branch or even troop of soldiers. Still, it is necessary that such practices, no matter how widespread or unique, stop in order to respect the Iraqi citizens’ choice in faith.

The job being performed by U.S. troops in situations such as this is to assist in stabilizing the country and ensure peace is established. Whether non-military citizens believe this effort is working or not, it can hardly be argued that the military’s job is to spread the word of Christianity. Troops are not to force any aspect of their culture on the country’s citizens, but are to only help to ensure that Iraqis are able live in peace and to help assimilate Western culture into the country when asked.

By attempting to force religion on others, the only result can be more strife and discord. By forcing this religion, a new level of distrust may be formed by those not wishing to be converted. Whether this distrust is leveled at foreigners (the U.S.) or at other Iraqis who follow Christianity, the only effect will be new problems that may lead to more fighting and undo the efforts at rebuilding and stabilizing the country.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

In Brief: Three Favorites from the Past Week

--Stephen Sottong’s feature for May's American Libraries on e-books isn’t available online, but one can easily gather that it’s stirred the pot a bit. Sottong considers both “computer-based” e-books and portable readers, and finds them both wanting. His argument against the former is that “the innate workings of our eyes” present physical limitations when reading computer displays. Simply put, users that face lengthy texts on a computer screen will “either print the text or ignore it” instead of reading in a detailed manner. Regarding the portable readers, Sottong raises familiar complaints: high prices (over $300 for a Kindle or E-Reader) for poor resolution, the lack of an open format for book files, and the fact that portable readers only have one function.
It’s a provocative argument, as is Sottong’s proposal to libraries at the end, which is (very loosely paraphrasing) “Gut your e-book budget and use the money on print resources.” I admit that I’m somewhat sympathetic to this suggestion, as I’ve indicated before. Yet I also admit that I’ve been unaware of how, for instance, e-books might benefit older patrons. Additionally, Sottong’s argument highlights the need for more information on user reception and experience, both with computers and portable readers; there simply isn’t enough of it right now. That’s why I don’t think he marshals enough evidence to convincingly claim that libraries should drop their financial consideration of e-books. We’ve got quite a ways to go before libraries can even think about proclaiming e-books as a lost cause, regardless of how some of us may resent their presence.

--I don't know enough about global food systems to know if Bee Wilson's pessimistic analysis for the New Yorker is more accurate than, say, Bread for the World president David Beckmann's more hopeful take. Regardless, both are informative. Wilson may very well be right in claiming that it's "futile…to look to the food system for radical change," especially when agribusiness companies such as Monsanto have potential competition (and their clients) in a virtual chokehold. And it's helpful to remind readers about why seemingly good intentions—buying seafood to avoid factory-farmed meat—can be quite destructive. Beckmann, on the other hand, emphasizes the good news, such as attributing rising food prices to decreased hunger in China and India. He also exemplifies a classic Christian view of hope in the best sense—looking towards a world after this one "where there will be hunger no more," yet remaining determined to rectify the inequalities of here and now.

--Finally, a blog recommendation: Trinity College’s Spiritual Politics. Though it lists several contributors, editor Mark Silk handles almost all of the posts. That’s not a detriment, for Silk is a shrewd observer of media coverage and religious trends. His May 12 post on evangelical allegiance to the Republican Party is a good example. While many journalists are eager to jump on the “death of the Religious Right” train, it takes him one paragraph to convincingly claim otherwise. Also, see Silk’s insightful exchange with Jeff Sharlet, whose new book The Family is quite good (about which I’ll have more to say here in the near future).

Friday, May 23, 2008

Texas court exceeded discretion in ordering children removed from FLDS ranch

Well, we posted about this last month, so I figured I better give an update. I have been waiting to hear what the courts had to say and it looks like they have spoken…

A Texas appeals court ruled yesterday that a San Angelo judge (Barbara Walther) exceeded her discretion when she ordered the state to take custody of more than 460 children from a polygamous sect.

In its ruling, the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals decided in favor of 38 women who had challenged the removals and appealed a decision last month by a district judge that the children will remain in state custody.

The order said State District Judge Barbara Walther abused her discretion when she ordered the children seized and gave her 10 days to vacate her order.

Child welfare officials removed the children alleging that the sect pushed underage girls into marriage and sex and trained boys to become future perpetrators.

A spokesman for Child Protective Services (CPS) said attorneys were reviewing the order and a decision regarding an appeal would be made later.

In the decision, the court ruled that CPS failed to provide any evidence that the children were in imminent danger and acted hastily in removing them from their families.

"The existence of the FLDS belief system as described by the Department's witnesses, by itself, does not put children of FLDS parents in physical danger," the court ruled.

All I can say is, if there are underage girls who are being forced into marriages with adults (who should know better), and are forced to have children before they are ready, then I have a problem with the situation and believe the children should not be returned to the compound. The state of Texas needs to stay involved and protect the rights of these children. I think that this case is far from over . . . Texas has really opened up a can of worms with the FLDS this time.

For commentary on the ruling, click here

This just in . . .(from Texas appeals ruling on sect children

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Court Issues Ruling on Gays in the Military

Less than one week after a California Court overturned the ban on same-sex marriages in the state, a Seattle Court has issued a ruling in supporting gay rights in regards to the military. The decision, issued yesterday, prevents the military from discharging a person based solely on the fact that they are gay.

According to the article, the Seattle Court is the first appellate court to issue a ruling “that evaluates ‘don't ask, don't tell’ in light of Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court's 2003 decision that struck down that state's ban on gay sex as an unconstitutional intrusion into people's privacy”. While not striking down the law, the Court has stated that the Air Force must provide evidence that Major Margaret Witt, the Plaintiff in the case, was dismissed for other reasons than merely being gay. The Court has stated that, “the Air Force must prove that her dismissal furthered the military's stated goals of troop readiness and unit cohesion.”

Prior to the ruling in Lawrence, it was not uncommon for the Courts to rule on the side of the military, which often argued that having homosexuals in the military was bad for morale and gave rise to potential sexual tension. After Lawrence, the military is now required to meet a stricter standard of proof on a case-by-case basis. This ruling, applying the applicable post-Lawrence standard, opens the door for other discharged servicemen and women to bring challenges in Federal Court of improper discharge due to being gay.

Much like the gay marriage decision ruling from California, this does not appear to be the end of the issue. California’s ruling has at least temporarily provided an automatic method for homosexuals to take advantage of the ruling without any additional requirements – they merely need to take the already established steps to obtain a marriage license and have a wedding performed; until an amendment (which is apparently being prepared in hopes of being placed on the November ballot) is made to the State Constitution, this right will remain. For those challenging their discharge from the military, they are required to file suit in Federal Court and have their matter heard; while this is the same procedure any person filing a similar grievance is required to follow, it remains to be seen how the military will argue, and the Courts will rule, in these discharge grievances filed by gay servicemen and women.

Obviously, homosexuals, or any people, marrying and serving in the military are two entirely different issues. When marrying, there are concerns about health benefits, probate and other items that are inherent to marriage and this gives rise to issues that are absent when speaking about serving in the military. When serving in the military, it is more akin to a job and earning benefits through that job. If the person is capable at doing this job, it would seem that you would want to continue employing that person, especially in a position dealing with national security and in a field that is starting to decrease in its recruitment. For me, it would seem that it would be similar to working alongside a person of another religious denomination with beliefs totally contrary to those of my own; as long as they perform their job as required and do not cause chaos in the work area, I can see no reason to let them go merely due to their beliefs. Admittedly, I have never served in the military, so I may very well be missing some nuances of serving in the military regarding working alongside either a gay serviceman or woman and the impact they would have on my ability to perform my duties. However, it seems unlikely that merely serving aside a gay serviceman or woman would be enough to entirely disrupt the operations of others, and as such it seems unlikely that being discharged for merely being gay is inappropriate. Therefore, it is hoped that Courts seriously consider the merits of these discharges, and force the armed forces services to reconsider their policies.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Muncie, Than and Now

For some unknown reason, I still remember sitting in my fifth-grade class one day and picking up a copy of USA Today that we were using for a group project. A graph—the paper’s specialty, of course—caught my eye: cities with the highest rates of population growth and decline across the nation. (Results from the 1990 census were probably emerging at this point.) I saw that Muncie, Indiana was in the “decline” category, losing people faster than virtually anywhere else. Muncie is a Rust Belt city, and its economic situation was becoming grim.

Several years later, I went to college at Ball State University, and lived in Muncie for nearly six years. Muncie’s manufacturing sector remained in a protracted state of decline (see Figure 2 here). In 2001, the manager of my church softball team told me that for the first time in well over thirty years, he was facing short-term layoffs at the tool-and-die company where he worked. Not long afterward, it was the city’s two major transmission plants—BorgWarner and GM’s New Venture Gear—that began the cycle of layoffs that would ultimately lead to shutting their doors. And the population continued to drop, though it has steadied a bit more recently.

So what about Muncie’s future? Libby Copeland’s article on Muncie for the Washington Post certainly doesn’t present a bright picture, and with good reason. Sitting next to each other, Ball State and Ball Memorial Hospital signify Muncie’s post-industrial transition. Education, health care, and other areas within the service sector are the city’s economic hope. But as she insightfully notes, this hope is predominantly located north of the White River. The downtown area has struggled to re-establish itself thanks to the commercial development—notably, chain restaurants—along Indiana 332 to the north. Go south of the railroad tracks that run through downtown, and one can indeed “see the frayed seams of the Rust Belt.” Example: a new Wal-Mart in the southeast corner of the city has instantly become one of the healthiest businesses on the south side, simply by existing.

Copeland does miss a couple of important factors in outlining this north/south divide. The railroad tracks have historically stood as a line of color as well as class, and symbolize the city’s struggles with racism (example here). There also isn’t any discussion of religion; one possible angle could have been a brief consideration of churches located in the “historic downtown,” and how their attendance compares to the almost-moribund state of the nearby area.

Still, this is very good overview for its length. Besides what I noted above, Copeland accurately captures the mixed legacy of the “Middletown” study. It’s been quite important to Ball State and academic scholarship in general, but what should it mean to citizens that are struggling for jobs? And her mention of Ball State graduates fleeing the area is dead on, as there’s simply little to nothing for young graduates in the area. That’s why I wasn’t particularly sad to leave Muncie; it produced a lot of fond memories, but my girlfriend and I knew that it couldn’t produce a meaningful future.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Scientists Genetically Alter Human Embryo

An article published by the Associated Press this past Tuesday presents news that scientists have successfully altered a human embryo. In doing so, these scientists have crossed into an area of much controversy: “designer babies” – the use of genetic engineering to ensure certain traits are either absent or present in babies.

Although this research was presented to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine last fall, this is just now drawing attention after being used in a research report by British Authorities. Due to the publication of this work, groups such as the Center for Genetics and Society, Human Genetics Alert and the Genetics and Public Policy Center have come out in criticism of the research claiming that this will lead to the ability to create “designer babies”. They argue that the creation of such “designer babies” “would create an unequal society where some people are genetically enriched while others would be considered inferior.”

The scientists who altered the embryo claim that the study was focused on studying stem cells. By inserting a marker gene into the nonviable embryo, they observed whether they could trace the genes to stem cells that could be harvested. By using an abnormal embryo, the scientists intended to determine whether the gene would be taken up by the embryo, hopefully facilitating further research into why abnormal embryos fail to develop. They claim that there was no intent on their parts to develop methods for creating “designer babies”.

Research in the field of medicine will always come with some negatives. In testing new medicines, lab animals may be required, causing complaints from animal rights groups. In further testing, individuals may become involved who have negative reactions to the tested medication, giving rise to potential lawsuits. So is the case with an attempt to study stem cells and research issues as those mentioned in this article. In some instances, it is easy to say that the outcome justifies the testing required. To get an effective treatment, it is seen as acceptable to most that the medication is tested on animals.

However, in this specific instance, the cost/benefit analysis may not be as easy to apply for many. The claims of the scientists seem meritorious: to be able to determine why some embryos develop abnormally, it is necessary to study them which may necessitate stem cell research. Even though this was the focus of this particular study, the research may eventually be used by others as protesters allege. Still, arguing that current research efforts such as this should be halted due to the possibility of future alternative uses, which many may see as controversial and/or improper, seems hardly appropriate as such reasoning could potentially be applied to a variety of other potentially life saving research projects. Instead, perhaps the focus should be on the “what is” rather than the “what could be” and allow scientists to do what they can today to establish and discover procedures that can be used in a beneficial manner by many.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Libraries and the “Parallel Information Universe”

Library Journal usually doesn't make it on my to-read list, and I sometimes feel a bit guilty about ignoring it, since it has useful information for circulation staff as well as librarians. So I browsed through the latest issue, and read Mike Eisenberg's feature article on “the parallel information universe.” Though a commenter correctly points out that information doesn't exist in a “parallel” universe, I think Eisenberg provides a decent overview of Web 2.0 and its potential importance for libraries. Three brief comments:

--The idea of a “virtual study carrel” with reference services as part of Second Life is quite creative. The larger issue, however, is if it could really become “the focal point of your studies,” as Eisenberg proposes. What kind of information and multimedia material would be available that would distinguish it from other reference tools? Would libraries and universities be willing to provide on-the-clock reference services for such a project? For that matter, how difficult would it be to secure any necessary funding for creating it? In short, how would librarians establish a virtual study carrel that is not only useful within Second Life, but also in comparison to search engines, blogs, library websites, and so forth?

--Eisenberg rightly notes that social networks will help libraries to identify the “needs” of younger generations. At the same time, they need to consider the security and privacy issues of social networks and how they often relate to an onslaught of third-party marketing. (Facebook’s Beacon project offered a perfect—and troubling—example.) There’s also the fact that for all of Facebook’s stunning popularity, its applications are predominantly inane. These issues directly conflict with the Library Bill of Rights and the ALA’s interpretation of privacy. I would hope that librarians critically reflect upon how best to approach social networks without potentially compromising the rights of patrons.

--Absolutely on the mark:

“This platform for the delivery and use of digital content provides an extraordinary opportunity for libraries to serve users at the point of demand. It's also an opportunity to reach nonusers. In addition, libraries can play a major role in expanding access to those who may not be able to pay for resources, services, or even devices.”

Eisenberg also points out that “commercial interests” could adversely affect how libraries adopt digital content (something he didn’t note with regard to social networks). But if libraries are proactive on the issue, they can create a vital new reference/multimedia service for patrons—one with numerous possibilities.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Ohio House Bill 545

On May 1, 2008, the Ohio House passed House Bill 545, aimed at reducing the interest charged by payday loan organizations. According to the Dayton Business Journal, this Bill “would cap annual percentage rates on payday loans at 28 percent, extend the repayment period to 31 days from 14 days and cut the maximum loan amount to $500 from $800.” Previously, these companies could charge $15.00 per $100.00 loaned over a fourteen-day period, which calculates to a 391 percent interest rate.

Those supporting this Bill insist that this measure is aimed at helping people who become trapped in a “cycle of debt”. By lowering the interest rate, limiting the number of loans a person may take per month and limiting loan amounts, the bill attempts to rectify the problem of those who “get in over their head”. Also, by preventing these customers from taking out new loans to pay back old debt, this Bill is seen as a measure to make sure borrowers are not stuck in perpetual debt.

Statistics show that over “300,000 Ohioans are trapped in debt” and “2,460 people in Ross County were indebted to payday lenders’ in 2006. Prior to the passage of this Bill, these payday lenders were given prior warning to change their practices, and failed to comply.

As would be expected, these payday lending companies are fighting the passage of this measure. In Chillicothe alone, at least thirty people would be put out of work due to many of these locations failing to remain profitable and ultimately close. It is expected that this Bill would have similar effects on other cities in Ohio, causing many throughout the state to become jobless.

Aside from the argument of the growing number of unemployed, the payday lending organizations argue that they serve a beneficial purpose in providing loans to those when nobody else will provide needed funds in emergency situations. They claim that as long as borrowers are responsible, they will not fall into the “cycle of debt” that the House uses as justification for passage of the Bill.

Public policy would seem to dictate that the interest rates being charged are usurious and should be limited. Also in the favor of the passage of such a Bill is the fact that such payday lending organizations seem to allow for easier access to loans which, combined with the current rates they charge, appears to contribute to the growing debt within the state and country.

I admit that my initial impression towards this legislation was nothing but positive, as I have seen people get in trouble by overusing these services. However, to view the arguments of these organizations, it does seem that they do provide some valuable services when used correctly. In the emergency situations that they state they are able to assist with, when nobody else can, a valid point is made for how they can be used properly.

The problem then seems to become: How do we stop people from overusing these services and overextending themselves? Perhaps an even more important question related to this may be: Is it the government’s job to ensure that these services are not abused? Answering the second question first, it would seem that the government does have some part to play in ensuring that citizens do not end up in unemployment through over-extending themselves. And, the number of people they protect in doing this may certainly outweigh the number of people they put out of jobs with this legislation. Still, what amounts to “baby-sitting” of those who can’t use the system properly seems to put the government in a role it was not necessarily meant to fill. It is comparable to trying to stop people from spending their entire paycheck (money in hand) instead of saving some for a “rainy day”, which I do not feel anybody would argue is the job of the state or federal government. Even if House Bill 545 is enacted as passed by the House, people will find ways to spend their money in ways that some may claim are irresponsible and against public policy, or will find people “off the record” who may provide needed funds at even higher rates (answering the first question above that there really is no way to prevent people from finding ways to spend money they don’t have). By attempting to prevent overuse by those who perhaps will find other ways to overextend themselves, it seems that the government is punishing those people who use the payday lending services in the responsible way they were intended to operate.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Announces Beginning of Public Comment Period

The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission is seeking public comment on the draft standards for adult prisons and jails, and supplemental standards for facilities holding immigration detainees (May 5 through July 7, 2008). Click here for the standards and information on submitting comments.

More information . . .

  • To read the full press release, click here.
  • For a complete overview of the Commission's work, please click here.
  • For a review of the Commission's research and information gathering process, please click here.
  • For a description of the Commission's standards development process, please click here.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

In Brief: Two Takes on Writing and Digitalization

--I appreciate that Annalee Newitz’s column for Alternet is generally thoughtful and forward-thinking, but her take on the benefits of publishing online is myopic. After coming up with a broad interpretation of “publishing” online, she writes the following:

“…books can be burned. All copies of a book can be wiped out by one crappy political regime bent on censorship. Online it's much more difficult to burn a book. Just try deleting a book or movie or sound file you want suppressed. Ten copies pop up elsewhere. Then 10,000 copies. And they're stored on servers all over the world, in countries where your shock troops can't reach, in high school kids' closets where even their parents can't reach.

“Sure the oil reserves will run dry, or an electromagnetic pulse could wipe all of Google's server farms clean. Then you'd want those books as backups. But I don't think electricity itself is something we'll ever lose as a civilization. There are just too many ways to make it: water, air, sun, the motion of your legs as you ride a bicycle—all can be converted into enough energy to boot up a laptop and read what's been written there.”

Part of what Newitz is arguing is true; the Internet’s distributive capabilities means that material published online can spread rapidly enough to avoid complete elimination from a political authority. She’s also right in that online activity will likely survive even if our production of energy changes drastically in the future. But she completely ignores some (quite obvious) shortcomings. As an example, if PopMatters were to crash tomorrow and never go back online, I would still have backups of my reviews on my home computers. But most of my reviews would be completely gone from the Internet. And if I didn’t have backups, that’s all she wrote for several months worth of work. Even if someone doesn’t deliberately delete online written content, that content can accidentally disappear quite easily in a technological mishap.

More glaring is an issue that a commenter mentions: the Internet “is going to last only as long as there is enough money behind it to keep it going.” Like I said above, I think the Internet’s going to be around for a while. The mention of money is important, though. Why doesn’t Newitz consider how money determines online access? How telecommunication companies want to compromise “net neutrality” for financial reasons? Or even how online publication can require a writer to pay continual fees—whether for domain rights or for some type of subscription—to ensure that content doesn’t disappear? I get the feeling that Newitz is arguing from the standpoint of the Internet as a radically democratic tool. And it certainly can be, but financial and corporate considerations just as certainly affect its potential for expression, which in turn affects its potential as a site of storage.

--Nate Anderson’s solid coverage for Ars Technica on the issue of digital books continues with this March entry: “Book lovers have emotional bond with paper.” As he reports, a UK survey about digital entertainment found the following:

“People are more attached to their books than they are to their satellite television, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, social networks, video games, blogs, DVDs, and P2P file-swapping…

“That's not great news for the e-book market, and follow-up questions only showed how entrenched paper books are in the public imagination. When the survey asked about people's emotional attachment to paper books, 53 percent of respondents said that they would ‘never’ or would ‘hate’ to stop using them, and another 24 percent said they would be ‘uncomfortable.’ ”

Obviously, it would be helpful to know if responses are similar in other countries. Moreover, there’s the unanswered question of just how well the Amazon Kindle and Sony E-Reader are selling (see here and here; also, as I write this, Amazon has announced on their front page that the Kindle is back in stock after being sold out for a lengthy period.) Still, the survey that Anderson references cuts to the core of the issue: are e-books compelling enough to create a large-scale shift away from paper books? And the answer—at least at this point—would have to be a no.

Something to consider regarding this issue is the fact that the e-book industry is attempting to follow a similar model to the digital music industry, where convenience is the primary selling point. (In other words, having numerous books at the touch of a button is more convenient than carrying around one paper book or a small number of paper books.) Nevertheless, the problem that remains is the experience factor, which is a chief complaint among the survey respondents. Digital music consumers have generally been willing to forgo the tactile pleasures associated with previous music media formats, such as taking the shrink-wrap off a new CD, looking at liner notes, and so forth. But books are completely different. When you are reading a book, you are engaging in a constant state of touching and/or looking at the actual book. I think that this is a significant factor in the emotional attachment that is associated with books and with reading, and it’s a factor that, for the most part, isn’t as intense with regard to music.

Accordingly, when a survey such as this one finds that over three-quarters of respondents are at least reluctant to give up paper books, it’s fair to interpret that as an ominous sign for e-book manufacturers. This isn’t to say that Sony, Amazon, and book publishers will fail to establish themselves; rather, the experience—the simple act—of reading will likely circumscribe their market share.