Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lawrence, and Arabia

A few days ago, I read an article in this month's Smithsonian about T.E. Lawrence, a British military officer known most famously as Lawrence of Arabia.  Young Mr. Lawrence was born into an upper middle class British family in 1888.  His fascination with all things Arabic began at Oxford College when he decided to study the Crusader castles of Syria, not by reading about them, but by walking from one to another through the deserts of this foreign land.  It was this time that he spent up close and personal with the people of the deserts, that earned him the intimate knowledge of the area, knowledge that proved invaluable to the British army during WW1.  And, unfortunately, it was the closeness to the people of Arabia that led Lawrence to be denounced by his home country when he worked ceaselessly to represent the rights of the Arab people to live and govern their lands.

Here is a link to the article.


Of course, Hollywood's version of Lawrence is all glory and honor and loyalty.  And it is certainly true that Lawrence was considered a hero in the war, was turned to for advice both militarily and politically, and was loved by the Arab people he helped free from the Ottoman Empire.  But while Lawrence truly believed in Arab autonomy, the British and French had already carved out the lands of value, the lands with oil, for themselves, leaving only the wastelands of Arabia for the people who lived and had died fighting with them against the Turks.  The Smithsonian article paints a very sad picture of Lawrence, both towards the end of the war when some of his raids were less than merciful in the treatment of the Turks, to his apparent suffering of post traumatic disorder from both the war itself and a particular incident of torture that he suffered at the hands of a Turkish war lord.  His influence gone, his reputation in the Arab world fading, Lawrence became a recluse, dying in 1935 at the young age of 46 in a fatal motorcycle accident.  Not the stuff of a blockbuster movie.

The Smithsonian article also discusses the modern day reputation of Lawrence where he is considered more of an accomplice to the Western nations take over of Arab lands, Arab natural resources, and Arab governance.  Sadly, it seems as if it is only in Hollywood through the everlasting life of celluloid that Lawrence is still revered.

Sadly, the mistakes made by Britain and France at the end of WW1, were repeated just recently by our own government in our war in Iraq, and even now in our perspective of the Arab spring, Arab autonomy, democracy, and religion in Arabia.  We continue to act as if our values are the only correct values.  As if our need for energy trumps the history, traditions, and freedoms of the people who happen to live on the land that harbors that energy.  

What is going on the Middle East is very complicated.  There are no easy answers when there is such a toxic mix of royalty, power, religious fanaticism, and the money to be made from oil.  For Lawrence, living with and understanding the people of that diverse area led him to conclusions about freedom that did not play well in the political capitals of Europe.  Today, despite the obvious evidence that war begets war, that killing the people of that region only results in an increase of their hatred for us, whether that hatred is focused via religion or politics, we continue to act as if there is a military solution to the unrest that has existed there, not only since WW1 when we drew artificial boundaries in the sand to create Iran, Iraq and Syria, but for the thousands of years before that when other empires crossed the deserts to claim the riches of those times.  

The true irony is that Lawrence's acts of war, disabling bridges, razing forts, was effective precisely because he understood the battlefield, understood how to disrupt supply lines.  It is the exact kind of war that every native people engage in, when being invaded by foreign forces.  It was used against the British in the War for Independence, against the Germans on the battlefields of France and England in WW2.  And against America in Vietnam, against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and then again against the United States in Afghanistan. 

History can be a good teacher, but no matter the intelligence of the lesson, only students willing to learn from her will gain wisdom.   Let's hope that the lessons ignored by men like Dick Cheney will not be lost on our current administration, and by the future leaders of our country.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Supreme Court and Hobby Lobby

First, a shameless plug.  There has been a burst of activity on my blog this past week.  It started on July 2, which was the day a letter of mine was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  This could be a coincidence, but I suspect not.  For all those new readers of my blog, thanks for your interest.  Also, if you would like to assist me in my goal of using writing as a second income so I can leave my late-night part time job, feel free to purchase my compilation e-book on amazon.


If you cut and paste the above link, you should be able to purchase it.  Thanks in advance.

So, another Supreme Court Ruling related to the Affordable Care Act and its implementation.  As is usual, there are many responses one can have depending on whose interpretation of the decision one listens to or is influenced by.  My suggestion is that if you are truly interested in an unbiased opinion of this decision, do not rely on those from the far right or left.  In the few minutes that I spent reading about the decision, it is clear that the Supreme Court did not uphold the plaintiff's freedom of religion in regards to the free exercise clause of the first amendment nor did it make all contraception inaccessible for the women who work at Hobby Lobby.  It was a very specific ruling concerning closely held corporations (as opposed to publicly traded corporations), in regards to how the Affordable Care Act is implemented with respect to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.  Without getting into too many mind numbing details, the RFRA was a Congressional reaction to the previous Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) which said that a person may not defy neutral laws of general applicability[a] even as an expression of religious belief. "To permit this," wrote Justice Scalia, "would make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself." He wrote that generally applicable laws do not have to meet the standard of strict scrutiny, because such a requirement would create "a private right to ignore generally applicable laws".

Yes, Supreme Court fans, the same Justice Scalia who was part of the majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case. 

In a nutshell, what happened was that the Supreme Court created a barrier in the work force that would prevent employers from dictating their religious beliefs to their employees, the Congress weakened that barrier through the RFRA, and the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the RFRA as applied to federal statutes in Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita in 2006.   And, in allowing other groups, not for profit companies, businesses under 50 employees, and religious affiliated companies, among others to be able to opt out of the requirement, in effect by watering down the Affordable Care Act so that it was not the "law of the land", the Court had an easy justification in saying that other methods had been devised for women to gain access to those other contraceptive vehicles.  Sort of like saying, there are already exceptions, a few more won't hurt.

As for the women who work at Hobby Lobby, they will still have access to birth control methods which do not "abort' a newly fertilized egg, as certain IUD's and emergency contraceptive pills (commonly called after morning pills) do.  Other forms of birth control which prevent fertilization are OK with the religious beliefs of those who control Hobby Lobby.

So, while this is not the end of the world, nor is it the beginning of a legal restoration of America as a Christian nation, it is still disturbing to me on a number of fronts.

First, I am disappointed that the Supreme Court would backpedal on its initial ruling of 1990 which created such a rigid barrier between religious beliefs and work force rules.  Religion is a wonderful thing in its place, but allowing employers to hire, fire and conduct relationships with its employees with respect to their religious beliefs seems absurd.  In addition to asking about benefits, compensation and job duties are we now supposed to ask for the religious affiliation of the employer?
For those who offhandedly reply that those Hobby Lobby workers who don't agree with the tenets of their owners' religion can find another job, I wonder if they know the religion of their employers?  Would they quit if the answer was Muslim?  Atheist?  Would they be outraged if their employer thought that a certain benefit, say the day off for Christmas, was not in agreement with their beliefs and so did not offer that as a benefit?

Second, I would find it amusing if it were not so sad that the gender of all those justices for the majority opinion is male, while three of the four with the minority opinion were women.  Only Justice Breyer, a man, crossed the gender line.  Really?  If the next justice is a women and replaces one of the five males of the majority opinion, does the court rule differently?  Also, and I have mentioned this before, the affiliated religion of all 5 justices in the majority is Roman Catholic.  Is it a coincidence that the Catholic religion still holds that birth control other than the rhythm method is a sin?  Of the 4 dissenting justices, 3 are Jewish where no such religious tenet exists.  Only Justice Sotomayor, a Catholic, crossed the religion line in this decision. 

Third, we are talking about birth control here.  Why, in the year 2014, is the method of planning one's family, to have or not to have children, the business of one's employer?  If the government came out and said, like China did a generation ago, that one child families are the law, most Americans would scream bloody murder at the intrusion of the government in our personal lives.  Yet we are OK with our employer doing the same?  The sad part is that most people, regardless of religious affiliation, use birth control in some form before they are ready to start a family.  Even most Catholics.  For those who still believe that each act of sex should result in the birth of a new baby, OK, your belief.  But keep it to yourself, don't hold it as a weapon over the heads of people who are looking for work or need a job to support their family.

Lastly, and most disturbing, is the recent court decisions that treat corporations as individuals. I googled corporation to review the definition.  But before I clicked on one, I saw a number of websites offering help in incorporating a business.  One such ad posted the cost at $49.   I wish it was that inexpensive to raise a child!!  

One of the best definitions I found was this

"A legal entity that is separate and distinct from its owners. Corporations enjoy most of the rights and responsibilities that an individual possesses; that is, a corporation has the right to enter into contracts, loan and borrow money, sue and be sued, hire employees, own assets and pay taxes.

The most important aspect of a corporation is limited liability. That is, shareholders have the right to participate in the profits, through dividends and/or the appreciation of stock, but are not held personally liable for the company's debts".

The reason I like this one is that it so clearly describes the state of capitalism in America.  All the positive  aspects of a business remain when one incorporates, especially the profit part.  But when things go wrong, the shareholders are not held for the company's debts.  Instead, the taxpayer gets to eat the debt, either because the debtor can write off the debt owed by the failed company in their taxes, or the taxpayer must assist those left without work via unemployment, food stamps, health subsidies, etc.   Capitalism, in its present form, engorges those on their way to the top with all kinds of assistance, then protects those on the way down with all kinds of excuses to avoid responsibility. 

In essence, a corporation is a legal creation which allows the owners/shareholders to be removed from the debt which may result from poor management, changes in the economy, acts of god, defective products, superior competition, etc.  Personhood, without responsibility when things go bad. 

The right to donate unlimited money to buy candidates of their choosing, the right to feel religious infringement; what will be next for the corporation.  The right to marry, then sue for divorce?  The right to vote?  I often try to play devil's advocate with those who see doom and gloom with every topic they discuss, but I just can't understand why the Supreme Court justices of the United States of America, those nine individuals who are supposed to represent the best legal minds of our time, feel compelled to give carte blanche rights to a legal entity that can be created by filling out a form and paying $49.

Let's just hope that Hobby Lobby continues to stay in business.  It would be bad enough to realize that, should the business fail, the owners will have the years of accumulated profits tucked safely inside trusts and personal accounts untouched by the debt of the corporation that was so violated in its religious beliefs.  But it adds insult to injury in knowing that they can start a new "closely held" corporation in some other state and ram their religious beliefs about abortion down some future employees throats whose only goal is to find good employment in America. 

I wonder what Sharia law says about contraception?