Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Convention Season – The Mirror Never Lies

I have already admitted to being a recovering addict of West Wing. One of the side effects of this unfortunate illness is a consistent belief that our political leaders are intelligent and always strive to tell the truth as they see it. Congressman Todd Akin managed to dispel the first and promote the second with disturbing ease last week.

I’m watching snippets of the Republican Convention and I am struck by the desire to sell an illusion that is flawed at its base. I have lived in the US for seven years now and in that short time have come to love the country and absorb a deep respect for the values and decency that most of us share. I am excited by the freedom, the democracy, the ability to make change. But I am under no illusion that America is perfect, that it is No. 1 in the world (basketball aside), or that it is God’s own country.

Do the Republicans really believe that they are serving in the best interest of the nation by perpetuating the illusion that we are No. 1? And by the way, I have heard the same mantras from the other side. On NPR this morning, a panel analysed how Governor Romney distorted truths in his speech last night.

It’s so depressing. The best thing any leader can do is grab our nation by the shoulders and force us to take a good hard look in the mirror. Unfortunately, winning votes by inflating delusional egos is more of a priority. 

The hype – over the top.

Jeff Daniels and Aaron Sorkin did exactly this in this scene from The Newsroom. Apparently, honesty does not rock the ratings. (Warning: There is explicit language in the clip).

America can be great – if indeed that is our goal. But first, we must take a good hard look in the mirror and understand who is looking back at us and how we got to be where we are. The fatal flaw of our democracy is that it is built on blaming others, not admitting what needs to be fixed.

One convention down, one to go. I will wait for a moment of honesty. To quote one of the special guests at the convention: Go on – make my day.

“He’s not there, Clint. You know that, right?”

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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Religion and Education Don’t Mix – Roger Ingalls

Usually I avoid making negative comments about religion and try to minimize my opinions on various religious teachings. However, I do not believe religion should mould the minds of the young in ways that diminish objective thinking. We should teach children how to think, how to question and how to judge without bias. Unfortunately, religion is taught on the backbone of faith, without question and without compromise. Young minds should be expanded with possibility and not bound into narrow unsubstantiated beliefs.

We need to keep the teaching of creationism out of schools. Let kids learn by experimentation and observation so they can evaluate and then select their beliefs, later in life, with an open and smart mind.

I’m not discrediting religion and do consider myself to be religious, perhaps unorthodox but, nonetheless, religious. I just happen to believe scriptures written thousands of years ago – by men – were an admirable attempt to explain the architecture of the universe in a way that was comprehensible for uneducated people of that time. The “just have faith” aspect was added through the ages to keep the populous under control which carries through to this day.

Organized religion does have its place. It creates community and a sense of comfort and that’s why I still visit a Catholic church every once in a while. It gives me peace even though I don’t subscribe to the naive teachings. Most places of worship are filled with good hearted people.

Religion does not belong in fundamental education; it’s too narrow-minded and inflexible.

Here’s a message from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Final Gun Post (for now)

I realize that I have become rather obsessed with the topic but I will try and make this the final post for a while. I have a feeling that I know on what social issue the next novel will focus.

Sifting through the material that I collected are five more excellent articles regarding gun control that have appeared in the Atlantic.

Light  Reading (not). Enjoy.

  • · The Story of a Gun (1993) Erik Larson traces the history of a particular gun that was used to commit a school shooting.
  • · The False Promise of Gun Control (1994) Daniel B. Polsby argues against gun control by pointing out that criminals will always be able to find guns, but honest people won’t be able to defend themselves if restrictions are tightened.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Akin and the Women – Tom Rossi

Congressman Todd Akin (R. Missouri) has violated a sacred trust. For this he has been shunned by his own party.

Is the trust a healthy respect for women? Get serious. It’s the pinky-swear that Republicans take that they will never actually express (in public) their deep-seeded, voodoo superstitions and attitudes about women.

In case you’ve been living under a rock – and a big one – Todd Akin, last week, said: “…that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, uh, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” (his emphasis).

Wow. I actually thought that writing about this would be easy – there’s so much to work with… so much to be enraged about. But I find my head spinning with disbelief. Representative Akin a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He is on one of the most important legisative committees in this country on science, and he must have flunked high-school biology. Believe it or not, this is what offends me the most. But then there’s so much to choose from.

Another thing that bothers me is that what Akin and his braintrust appear to be saying, between the lines (not too well hidden), is that it’s OK for just a few women (rare?) to be forced to carry their rapists baby. Akin said that the rapist should be punished, not the “child.” Paul Ryan apparently agrees that rape is a “method of conception.” I wonder what their attitudes would be if they accepted the 100,000 (which could be a really low estimate) rapes that occur in the U.S. each year as “legitimate.”

It’s tempting to think that this ongoing fiasco represents an inherent misogyny in the Republican Party. It’s really more base and less dramatic than that. What women and “sympathetic men” (men with a heart and brain) don’t realize is that women are the production system for a resource – labor power.

Would you let your lawnmower stop cutting the grass because it felt violated by your hands on its handle? Would you let your car stop taking you to work because there had been no justice when someone dinged the door in a parking lot and the car was upset about it? Of course not.

Women produce the babies that will, according to Republican plans, not become educated unless they can afford it. They will, instead, get trained to do the work that big-time capitalists need done in factories or financial enterprises or private medical practices or picking strawberries. Women are the cotton gins of America. Or, more accurately, they are the inanimate machines that make other machines that make other, useful items.

Republican capitalists don’t hate their cotton gins. They need them to keep on plugging away. Don’t fret your loss of humanity, ladies. Welcome to the club of those who don’t really matter except for the job we perform and the value we add for someone richer (i.e. better) than us. I ruptured a disk in my back, once, working at a warehouse. That’s nothing compared to being forced to have a rapist’s baby, but the pain stays with me and reminds me of my position in this world.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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NRA Supported Gun Control Pt. 3 of 3

This is the final part of a series from last week based upon a great article from The Atlantic by Adam Winkler  The Secret History of Guns. In the previous post, we discussed how the NRA have taken roles in the past to support gun control policy.

There are other historical examples of the NRA supporting gun control. In the 1930’s, the NRA endorsed the National Firearms Act of 1934, aimed at stemming the distribution of “gangster guns” like semi-automatic and sawed-off shotguns.

The NRA was not a blond supporter, objecting to including handguns, for example, but supported what Frederick defined as “reasonable, sensible, and fair legislation.”

In the aftermath of the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 the NRA again supported gun control. The assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had purchased his gun from a mail-order advertisement in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine. The NRA’s Executive Vice President, Franklin Orth, testified: “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.”

The NRA did not favor stricter proposals such as a national gun registration, but did support the Gun Control Act of 1968.

What we learn from this historically is that the NRA and Republicans in general, do not have to automatically fight every attempt at gun control.

The US Supreme Court in 2008 clearly defined the Second Amendment as guaranteeing the rights of the individual to bear arms. However, Justice Antonin Scalia, pulled on this past realism when he wrote: ” should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

While the Founders did impose their own form of gun control, no law of their design compares to Scalia’s list of Second Amendment exceptions. “They had no laws banning guns in sensitive places, or laws prohibiting the mentally ill from possessing guns, or laws requiring commercial gun dealers to be licensed. Such restrictions are products of the 20th century. Justice Scalia, in other words, embraced a living Constitution.”

Ironically, in this lies our hope for a consensus. If Justice Scalia sees the need for limitations, then he is only following a long line of conservative, responsible thinks that include leaders of the NRA, Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party, and maybe even the Founding Fathers.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

A Space Of My Own

I pride myself in telling people I can write anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I write on the BART train, the bus, the airplane, the car (just checking if you are reading!). I can write early in the morning, late at night, and during my lunch break.

My desk at home is in the kitchen. I can swivel my chair and be sitting at the dinner table for a family meal. Usually I can cut myself off from whatever drama is unfolding around me.

This morning, after we dropped my youngest at camp near the Cal campus, my oldest (13) said he wanted to study at Cal. A half hour later we are sitting in a coffee shop at a big table. I am writing this post, my son is reading, and three Cal students are sitting discussing a paper and how to present themselves.

These students are articulate, enthusiastic and, well cool. I notice my son glancing over and wonder what he is thinking. Moreover, I am having trouble concentrating myself (I wasn’t planning on writing a post).

Recently, this has happened a lot, that I am having a harder time focusing. I wear headphones more often and allow the music to isolate me. But at home, in particular, I am more aware that I have a family around me, deprived of their father for long hours because of a demanding job.

I fantasize about owning a house and having my own office with big windows and a comfortable space. I can tell you what desk, chair, speakers, bookcases and filing cabinets I want. The door is closed and I am writing novels at a furious pace.

Stephen King, in his stunning book On Writing described his big, beautiful desk in his office. With the door closed he almost killed himself on drugs and alcohol. His wife kicked him out of the house until he cleaned up his act. She saved his life. He ditched the big, arrogent desk and replaced it with something more modest.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” 

― Stephen KingOn Writing

Thankfully, I have never experienced the lows that Stephen King had to endure as a child and young man. But I also have a lot to lose. I am keenly aware that now is not the time to hide away in an office. True, every minute is precious to advance my writing career and my books, but a window is closing. My sons want to spend time with me, but already their heads are being turned by socializing, screens, and the fairer sex. It is just a matter of time.

So I will crave my sacred writing space with the big windows, desk and bookcases. But I will adjust my vision … and leave the door open.

Me and my boys writing a novel … really!

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

There Back: Killer Cantaloupe – Roger Ingalls

I’m starting to sound like a broken record with my reoccurring posts about the far reaching poisoning caused by industrialized farming. Today, a single mega-farm can have a single quality oversight and people across the country will get ill or die. It happens two or three times a year.

Here are my previous posts on the subject:

1)      Killer Cantaloupe, September 2011

2)      A Toilet Bowl of Food, June 2011

3)      Strawberries to Die For, September 2001

It’s August 2012 and here we go again with two more occurrences of produce poisoning; a lettuce recall due to E.coli and cantaloupe illnesses due to salmonella. These recent events have caused death and sickness across multiple states.

When will we learn that a centralized food system is not only environmentally disastrous but also puts too many people at risk? It’s amazing that we continue to endorse this food system.

Responsible farming has given way to energy intensive factory farms and as a result, there’s been a change in how food animals are raised and crops are grown. Instead of many decentralized mom-and-pop farms feeding the local population, we now have a small quantity of mega-farms supplying the far reaches of the country.

The solution is locally grown food. If an E.coli, listeria or salmonella outbreak does occur, it is locally contained and only a few people are affected. In addition, local production simulates the economy, creates jobs, uses less energy and has a smaller impact on the environment.

We have choices. Save your life, your family and the planet by buying locally produced goods.

Did You Get The Message, Todd Akin?

I wanted to write about your disgusting comment, Mr. Akin, but I really didn’t know what to say. I’m speechless and appalled. Thankfully, there are others far more articulate than me and far more credible. I hope you read Eve Ensler’s article in the Huffington Post. I hope you read every word of it.

Eve Ensler

You offended every woman (every man and child) who has ever been violate, ever been threatened. You have offended every person who loves a wife, sister, daughter, friend, who has been raped. 

If you are so out-of-touch with the people you represent, you have no right to hold the position you do. The right thing is to resign and go home. But before you do – reread Ms. Ensler’s article.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

Yosemite Campground Hijinx

This past weekend, I once again had the privilege of staying for a few nights in Yosemite National Park, this time returning to Tuolumne Meadows after about a 20-year absence.

The weather didn’t cooperate as well as it could have, but the trip was still really great and well worth the drive. As is typical of the Sierra Nevada in summer, a pattern of afternoon clouds, showers, and sometimes thunderstorms repeated each day, almost like clockwork. If you’re headed that way, go prepared with extra tarps and rope or some other way of constructing a little shelter at your campsite.

The beauty of Tuolumne Meadows is distinct from that found in Yosemite Valley. The valley is more visually striking, spectacular, in fact. Tuolumne Meadows is a little more gentle in its forms, even with its huge, looming rock domes scattered across its forests and meadows. It’s almost as much of a rock-climber’s paradise as is the valley, but it offers much more than the valley for the (maybe casual) hiker that wants to avoid huge gains in elevation.

What I want to write about here, though, are the people.

The people you encounter in national parks are a selective sub-breed – for the most part. They’re friendly, honest, trusting, open, and often educated and intelligent. However, not all of them are always thoughtful or considerate of others.

Campgrounds in national parks and other places are starting to resemble the infield at a NASCAR race just a little bit. Everyone comes for the beauty and atmosphere of the park, but some also come to party. In addition, some people just don’t really think about how loud their voices are or how well they carry in the morning air.

As an example, we were caught between two neighboring campsites, one with nighttime partiers and the other with a group resembling early-morning roosters. As a result, we didn’t get much sleep.

Neither of these groups was made up of “bad” people. I talked to one of the partiers at length. He and most of his group were in their early twenties and visiting from Australia. He was a really nice guy and we had a great chat. My wife pulled me away and I forgot to work into the conversation that “quiet hours” started at 10 p.m.

I didn’t talk to the morning group, but they seemed like really nice people who may have been visiting from somewhere in Latin America (they all spoke Spanish the whole time) and they were incredibly enthusiastic about getting all that they could out of there visit to the park. They ranged in age from something like 5 to 50 and they left their campsite by 7 a.m. each day and returned late at night. They also appeared to be amazingly well organized, but at 6 a.m. they were shouting and laughing loudly and didn’t seem to notice the motionless campsites nearby.

These groups had one thing in common: a lack of consideration for the other campers near them. Is this getting more common, or do I just notice it more? I got more and more annoyed as I wondered if these people ever thought of anyone but themselves.

As I resentfully pulled my pillow over my head, a memory hit me. It was in this very campground, over 20 years ago, that the inconsiderate jerks… were me and my friends. We had arrived late at the camp, started a campfire and were talking and laughing very loudly, well into the night. A nearby camper came over and, somewhat angrily, asked us to pipe down. Of course, we responded to his anger defensively at first, but we knew he was right. We quieted down after having waited 10 minutes so as not to be directly following our “orders,” and we went to sleep.

In the back of my mind, as it is almost every time I criticize anyone, is the thought that I have done the same thing, committed the same offense, been just as inconsiderate, and made a total ass of myself… and maybe even worse than those currently annoying me.

I guess this is part of getting older. I want sleep more than I want to party. I love a good beer or three, but I want to drink them calmly and then I want to stay in bed past 7:30 a.m. if at all possible.

-Tom Rossi

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Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

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A Year On – Remembering Rebecca

Today is the first anniversary of the death of a dear friend, Rebecca Dale. She passed away after battling cancer for many years. Rebecca would have been 45 years old today and leaves behind a wonderful family who, however you try and positively frame it, have been denied an amazing, kind and loving mother and wife.

In the week before she passed, as she lay in bed, drifting between pain and sleep, she struggled  to try and work out how to help me with my children as my wife was out of the country. That sums up the type of person she was. When I came to the US several years ago, it was clear to her that I, and later my family, would live with them, until we found our feet, even though she didn’t know us very well (her husband and I go back 30 years and he and my wife are good friends).

Over the past year we have tried to be there for her husband and children. But everyone gets embroiled in the day-to-day and I left with the distinct feeling that we never did enough … that we can never do enough … that the task is simply to awesome.

Today, in the Jewish tradition, her family and friends will gather at her grave and leave a permanent marker – a stone setting, we call it. Then we will return to the family’s house and have a barbeque and exchange memories and stories. There will be many people because Rebecca touched the lives of so many.

We will try and celebrate the life of an amazing woman, but it won’t be easy. It never will. It never should.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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