Sunday, November 25, 2012

Parents & Children

On The HomeFront


Hobn kinder iz shver ober hodeven zey iz nokh shverer
(Bearing children is difficult, raising them even more so.)
Yiddish proverb

Home is the place where boys and girls first learn how to limit their wishes, abide by rules, and consider rights and needs of others.
Sidonie Gruenberg, U.S. educator

When you teach your son, you teach your son's son. 
The Talmud

A Parent and Her Child: A Nepalese woman and her infant child. "Your children need your presence more than your presents," Jesse Jackson said.
Photo Credit: Nancy Collins, 2011
Source: http://www.abohemianadventure.net/images/Nepal/Nepalese-woman-with-baby.JPG

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by Perry J. Greenbaum

I am going to say something that every parent already knows. Parenting is the most difficult, often thankless, job in the world. Yet, most parents take it on with a mixture of love, fear, duty, frustration, pride, joy and enthusiasm. As a parent of three children, such emotions are not alien to me. I live them daily.

It is said that parenting is not for the faint-hearted. That might reflect the reason that thousands of articles and millions of words are dedicated to giving advice to parents, often with conflicting results. Some articles contend that having children comes with a great economic investment, and discuss the economic hardships of raising children.

For an example of the costs to raise a child, in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says in its latest report, for 2009, that it costs a middle-class family $239,000 to raise a child until age eighteen. For families with incomes exceeding $98,000, the figure is $396,000. The USDA updates its report yearly.

The hard cold reality of figures offer little comfort. More so, they will not influence many parents on the lower socioeconomic scale, as their reasons for having children have little to do with money, and more to do with the natural inclinations for having children. Such figures are put out chiefly for policy reasons. My response? Are cold economic terms the only metric of benefits? Perhaps in the limited world of such economists and policy-makers. More's the pity. I think such people are over-analyzing parenthood to everyone's detriment. These articles, presented in the veneer of practical advice, tend to discourage.

Perhaps that is their desired intent. Population control a la Malthusianism (and neo-Mathusianism), a contrived scientific belief against morality, individual freedom and humanity. If their intention is to limit the number of children to only the wealthy or industrialized nations, it is an argument that is as scientifically specious as morally bankrupt. Although money makes life more comfortable and affords more opportunity, there is no correlation between wealth and well-adjusted children.

I suspect that these articles and reports are typically written by people who either don't like children or don't like the sight of the poor. Such social scientists ought to be more intellectually honest and let others know about their biases up front.

I raise such points for a reason. Such articles are telling and do little to comfort parents. That alone tell us how frightening a task many of today's parents look at bringing up children. Parents read and want to be informed, which is a good thing. With the best of intentions and motives, parents want to do it right. They want their children to turn out as good, compassionate, hard-working, responsible citizens of society. (One wonders how parents of old were able to survive without such articles, books and guides.)

I have not touched here on abusive parents, and they exist in too many numbers. One is too many. Truly, not everyone is fit to become a parent. Many lack the empathy, understanding and dedication it takes to raise a child. Accordingly, such parents in the best of cases pass on their fears and hatreds to their children; and in the worse cases harm their children, even kill them. Nothing more can be said about such people, other than they are few in number and an aberration to societal norms.

The great majority of parents, however, do a fine even exceptional job raising their children, and operate from within a mixture of confidence, doubt, self-denial, cultural expectations and personal traditions. In the old nature versus nurture debate, parents can take some comfort that scientists have found out that children are already genetically encoded with some abilities and talents.

All the coaching, nagging and lessons will not make Johnny a classical pianist, Jill a ballet dancer, Moshe a professional baseball player or Molly a doctor. Or at least a happy one. Countless biographies and memoirs attest to this.

So, the need to push your children into pursuing things that do not interest them, I suspect, will only frustrate both parents and child. Introduction and encouragement to an art or sport is one thing, parental bullying and pressure to perform is quite another. It might get you what you want, through a torrent of tears and tantrums. but your child will never forget it and will never thank you for it, either.

Jewish Children with their teacher in Samarkand, Uzbekistan (then part of Russia). Early color photograph from what was then Russia, created by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, as part of his work to document the Russian Empire from 1909 to 1915.
Photo Credit: Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii [1863-1944]. Taken between 1905 and 1915.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., Washington, D.C.

Parents Shape a Moral Outlook

That does not mean parents have no responsibility. Quite the opposite. Parents have many important roles, including teaching and guiding behavior. The parental presence and guidance, what social scientists call parental investment, does go a long way to shaping, for one, a child's moral outlook on life, notwithstanding his individual personality and genetic make-up.

While Science is good at explaining how our brains develop and work, it is Religion that does a better job of explaining why we ought to behave a certain way. The great moral codes of religion show that parents contribute greatly to a child's moral development, both by personal action and behavior and by the imparting of moral traditions and knowledge.

The major religions, for example, have worked out in great detail the role of the parent in influencing and guiding the child, often through ordered ritual, the child's development to adulthood (see, for example, The Jewish Way)

Such can act as firm guideposts as the child becomes older. He might not act upon them at various stages in his life, but he has an ingrained if not intimate knowledge of right and wrong. Consider an article on parenting directed at Jews, The Good Parent, but it could equally apply to any tradition:
Our tradition tells us that we parents and teachers can be powerful role models. The rabbis of the Talmud long ago explained, for example, that a child speaks in the marketplace the way he heard his parents speaking at home. [1] Psychologists also remind us that the model we parents present influences even our youngest childrenIn the same manner that the Laws of Moses provide boundaries for our benefit, sometimes not easily apparent to us, so do parents provide safe boundaries, not always understood or appreciated by young minds, for their children. Although it's true that there is no guarantee that children taught and modeled proper moral behavior will turn out all right, as good social citizens, in a home where the child is taught nothing, the likelihood is decidedly less. Since nature abhors a vacuum, it is filled with something, and that something is often things that are both harmful to the child and the society at large.
Take a look at children who have grown up with negligent parents—and these still exist—and you will see children left to their own devices, often ill-equipped and immature, to make good moral decisions. Some have had the resiliency and determination to push themselves to succeed, albeit with regret in their voices. Such children might have achieved great things, but it was a more difficult task, and scars remain for life. And through no fault of the child who was looking for loving guidance.

Such children might still love their parents, and have developed a fine moral outlook without their guidance and help, but have done so at a disadvantage, with deep regrets and a mournful soul that the parent-child bond was not loving and giving. Others are less kind to their parents, using the voice of honesty, to break all ties. It might be the actions rooted in basic survival. Where was the love? is their cri de coeur?

Good Loving Attention

Who could blame them for a need that is basic to all life? Although I might be waxing poetic here, and forgive me if I am, that might be the simple secret to success of a good parent-child relationship: a parent that gives what the child needs and craves: loving attention within a structured, proven and permanent foundation. At times, I have been guilty of forgetting the importance of consistency in my many years as a parent. At times I have been overly indulgent, at others overly strict. I am also learning about consistency.

As parents, caught up in our daily rituals of work, play and self-interests, we can easily forget such simple details that mark a child's life passage from infant to young adulthood. Some, if not many, children realize only after they themselves become parents on the responsibility and importance of parenting. In their late twenties or thirties, or even forties—as is today's norm for parenthood—such children look back at their lives with fondness and some sentimentality if their childhood was happy and some regret if it was not.

It's often mixed. Such was my case, and that of my wife. Now, we are both anticipating the happy event of our oldest daughter and her husband becoming parents in a few months. I am sure that this will change their lives forever in many countless positive ways, including bettering their understanding of the traditions of parenthood and the role in passing on the traditions of our fathers.

As young grandparents, we'll be there hovering in the background, offering our guidance and hard-won wisdom. I am reminded of a Yiddish proverb: "Nakhes fun kinder iz mer tayer far gelt." (Joy from children is more precious than money.)

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A version of this article was originally published on Perry J. Greenbaum. Since its publication, our daughter has given birth to a boy, and she and her husband are now expecting their second child.


Five Stories Of The Week: Ending November 24, 2012


News & Commentary











Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Elderly Residents Still Without Power In New York: While most New Yorkers have returned to their daily routine, this is not the case for many elderly New Yorkers in the areas of Queens and Brooklyn. An article in the New York Daily News reports:
Earlier this week, elected officials and community groups told the News that about 1100 seniors were still stranded. Regular New Yorkers, the Red Cross, and religious nonprofits have flooded Red Hook, Brighton Beach, Coney Island and the Rockaways going door-to-door visiting seniors bring them food, water, and medical help.
“We’ve only had volunteers check on me. No one has come here to check on me,” said Liliya Goldenberg, 76, a wheelchair-bound Russian immigrant stuck inside her 13th floor apartment in Surfside Gardens, a city housing development in Coney Island where some buildings are still without power, elevators, or heat. “The mayor should be embarassed,” said Goldenberg bundled up in three layers of clothes, sitting in her pitch black home. “In two weeks, Russia could restore a city. In New York City, they can’t even repair a house.”
Brighton Beach resident Mya Zabilotskaya, 78, choked back tears when asked why she has spent 18 days without power, heat, or hot water in 145 Seabreeze Avenue apartment. Zabilotskaya’s neighbors said the building’s management company doesn’t want to dole out cash to fix the flooded basement electrical system. “I’m without wash for three weeks. I sleep with all my clothes at night,” said Zabilotskaya. “I have no refrigerator. I can’t even buy food. I won’t survive.
Let's hope that Mrs. Zabilotskaya does; and that some kind-hearted New Yorker reading this article, perhaps some well-paid city official, will bring her and the other elderly residents to at least a warm shelter, if not an unoccupied apartment until theirs are ready to inhabit. In response to Mrs. Goldenberg's pleas, I doubt that Mayor Bloomberg has any embarrassment about the situation. Discomfort, perhaps; embarrassment, no. Perhaps he might want to sit in a cold, dark apartment for a few hours to see what it is like.

As for the landlord and building's management, that they fail to make the necessary repairs because of stinginess or miserliness says too much about them. Where is the moral outrage? I can say with a high degree of certainty that such individuals never fail to collect the rents when due; they are diligent in matters monetary when it serves their interest. I can also say with complete certainty that they, the building's owner and management company, would never themselves live as these poor elderly do; that they have the necessary heat, power and water to maintain their dignity and lifestyle. 

Does this not apply to everyone?

Obama's Asian Pivot: U.S. President Obama's three-day a trip to Asia, the Wall Street Journal reports, is a busy if not symbolic one:
President Barack Obama landed in Thailand's capital for a whirlwind Asia trip that begins with this longtime ally and includes a high-profile visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting U.S. president. His trip ends in Cambodia, host of the East Asia Summit, a forum the U.S. is using to try to exert greater influence in the region.
Mr. Obama will be on the ground in Asia for less than three days, sandwiching the trip between congressional negotiations over the budget on Friday and the traditional pre-Thanksgiving pardoning of the national turkey on Wednesday.
But the White House sees the trip as critical to Mr. Obama's effort to pivot U.S. attention from the Middle East toward Asia, where the president is working to beef up U.S. military, economic and political influence—in part to serve as a counterweight to China. But even as he traveled to Asia Mr. Obama was dealing with yet another Middle-East crisis, as violence continued between Israel and Hamas.
It's wise that the U.S. president should make Asia an important part of his second term's foreign policy initiatives. The Middle East, although important, should not be the only area where the U.S. sets its sights. With Myanmar now opening up, the timing could not be better.

Great Apes Also Suffer From Mid-Life Crisis: An article in the Smithsonian blog says that humans are not the only species to suffer a mid-life crisis; it seems to be common in chimpanzees and orangutans:
A team led by psychologist Alexander Weiss of the University of Edinburgh asked zookeepers and researchers around the world to keep track of the well-being of resident chimpanzees and orangutans—508 animals in total. The results of all that record-keeping, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that, like humans, these great apes generally experience a U-shaped pattern of happiness and well-being, starting off with high ratings for happiness as adolescents, declining gradually during middle age (bottoming out in their late 20s or early 30s), and then rising back up again in their elder years.
Although popular conceptions of human mid-life crises focus on material acquisitions, psychologists believe they’re driven by an underlying decline in satisfaction and happiness as we go through middle age, and reflected by increased antidepressant use and suicide risk. In this sense, the primates studied went through a similar pattern. The chimps and orangutans studied went through a human-like U-shaped pattern for happiness over the course of their lives. Image via PNAS/Weiss et. al.
Of course, unlike with humans, no one can directly ask chimps and orangutans how they are feeling. Instead, the researchers relied upon surveys, filled out by zookeepers and caretakers, that rated the animals’ mood and how much pleasure they took from certain situations. They acknowledge the ratings are necessarily subjective, but they feel that the size of the dataset and consistency in the trends as reported from the different zoos with different animals suggests that the pattern is legitimate.
Weiss’ group originally embarked on the ape study to answer the question of why mid-life dissatisfaction is so common in humans. “We hoped to understand a famous scientific puzzle: why does human happiness follow an approximate U-shape through life?” Weiss said in a statement.
Of course, one study, no matter how meticulous the reportage is, does not prove anything. But like many initial scientific findings, it does raise interesting questions that might lead to conclusive results, or at least a questioning of current research related to human happiness. Such is one of the strengths of science, its ability to auto-correct.

In this case, the argument of material acquisitions or career satisfaction does not apply to the chimpanzees and orangutans, since their interests likely lie in other pursuits; it might just be that unhappiness is part of both the human and animal condition, notably for primates as far as we can tell, and the U-shaped pattern for happiness is a normal part of human development. If this turns out to be valid and true, then humans can be better prepared for the bottom part of the "U."

An Education For All: If an article by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times is correct in its prediction and enthusiasm, the day might soon come when online education becomes the norm and sitting collectively in a classroom becomes a memory.
In many ways, the arc of Professor Duneier’s evolution, from professor in a lecture hall to online instructor of tens of thousands, reflects a larger movement, one with the potential to transform higher education. Already, a handful of companies are offering elite college-level instruction — once available to only a select few, on campus, at great cost — free, to anyone with an Internet connection.
Moreover, these massive open online courses, or MOOCs, harness the power of their huge enrollments to teach in new ways, applying crowd-sourcing technology to discussion forums and grading and enabling professors to use online lectures and reserve on-campus class time for interaction with students.
The spread of MOOCs is likely to have wide fallout. Lower-tier colleges, already facing resistance over high tuition, may have trouble convincing students that their courses are worth the price. And some experts voice reservations about how online learning can be assessed and warn of the potential for cheating.
First of all, although I hold some reservations, I think that such models of delivery might be a good way to teach a few introductory courses in hard sciences and engineering, where students need to acquire knowledge more by solving equations and memorizing facts than by interacting with the professor and other students. As for courses in the literature, liberal arts, history, political science and other disciplines, I have serious doubts of whether it would in the long-term benefit the student.

That being said, cheating, always a concern, might be the least of the problems with such courses. The quality of education is a greater concern when corporate concerns are given a free hand to package courses, which often leads to a sameness in the material, and makes the professor little more than a lecturer. While at first sight, this seems like a wonderful idea, opening education to all, it will have the same unintended consequences of all faddish ideas:  a further lowering of knowledge in the United States.

One of the benefits of attending university is to sit in a classroom with peers and debate ideas. Many students have changed their minds and their thinking after a course with a particular professor full of animated classroom discussion with their peers.

Gaza, Egypt and Israel:  After eight days of fighting between Hamas in Gaza and the Israeli Defense Forces of Israel, resulting in at least 150 Palestinian and five Israeli deaths, a cease-fire agreement was reached on Wednesday November 21 at 9 p.m. (local time) between the two warring factions.  The cessation of military activity, or hostilities as it is often called, on the part of both Israel and Hamas has brought to the fore the important role that Egypt, under President Morsi, will play in all future Mideast negotiations.

An Associated Press report published in the Washington Post notes:
The Gaza cease-fire deal reached Thursday marks a startling trajectory for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi: an Islamist leader who refuses to talk to Israelis or even say the country’s name mediated for it and finally turned himself into Israel’s de facto protector. The accord inserts Egypt to an unprecedented degree into the conflict between Israel and Hamas, establishing it as the arbiter ensuring that militant rocket fire into Israel stops and that Israel allows the opening of the long-blockaded Gaza Strip and stops its own attacks against Hamas.
In return, Morsi emerged as a major regional player. He won the trust of the United States and Israel, which once worried over the rise of an Islamist leader in Egypt but throughout the week-long Gaza crisis saw him as the figure most able to deliver a deal with Gaza’s Hamas rulers. “I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met Morsi Thursday, said at a Cairo press conference with Egypt’s foreign minister announcing the accord. “This is a critical moment for the region. Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,” she said.
This is a Morsi-sponsored initiative; one can only hope that it holds. The cynics cum-realists are already talking about the truce being broken; that the ceasefire was a bad idea and that it will not hold. This includes 88 per cent of Israelis, says a persuasive column by Caroline Glick in The Jerusalem Post, which likely captures the sentiment of the nation. This might in fact happen, or it might not. Even so, this doesn't take away the concerted efforts and political victories of both U.S. President Obama and Egyptian President Morsi, who have both shown their ability to broker a deal with efficiency and sufficient fairness to ensure that both sides can accept it.

It's a hopeful starting point. This might signal the beginning of a new Mideast reality, where each side recognizes that talking is the only way to end conflict and begin a new era of peace and peaceful co-existence. Some might find this idea hard to accept, only seeing victory in war and vanquishment of its enemies. I don't; and I'm not alone. Roger Cohen writes in the New York Times: "It is amazing what happens when you start talking to people. The beginning of the end of conflict is discovering the humanity that lies behind slogans and barriers."

Or to use a literary analogy, too much of the long Mideast narrative has been defined by Israel at war, often necessary for its survival, with its Arab neighbors. It's time to add another new chapter, one devoted to peace and the victory of the human spirit over hate and enmity. It can only come when the future becomes more important than the past.

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November 24th In History

1105: Rabbi Nathan ben Yehiel of Rome completes Talmudic dictionary;
1434: The Thames River in London, England, freezes;
1615: French King Louis XIII marries Ann of Austria; both are 14 years old;
1869: American Woman's Suffrage Association forms in Cleveland, Ohio;
1859: Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, the anniversary of which is sometimes called "Evolution Day";
1963: Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shoots and kills President John F. Kennedy's accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, in front of a Dallas police station and a national television audience. Broadcasting live from the scene, television cameras capture Oswald's murder and shocked television viewers become unwitting witnesses to the crime.
1965: Joseph Désiré Mobutu seizes power in the Congo and becomes President; he rules the country (which he renames Zaire in 1971) for over 30 years, until being overthrown himself by rebels in 1997;
1995: Irish voters ended the 58-year ban on divorce by a close margin (50.28% to 49.72%)—the margin of victory was 9,114 votes out of 1.62 million cast, and voter turnout was 61 percent. This became the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, thus repealing the constitutional prohibition of divorce.



Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tolerance Is Not For The Weak-Minded

Human Values
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
Aristotle  [384-322 BCE], Greek philosopher

What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. 
We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other's folly—
that is the first law of nature.
Voltaire [1694-1798], French Enlightenment philosopher

Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions. 
G.K. Chesterton [1874-1936], English writer & Christian apologist


Universal Tolerance: Minerva as a symbol of enlightened wisdom protects the believers of all religions.
Artwork: Daniel Chodowiecki, 1791.
Photo SourceJames Steakley


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by Perry J. Greenbaum



Tolerance is a tricky, complex and emotional subject. Most enlightened and reasonable people would say they are fairly tolerant human beings; and in this regard I have yet to meet a man or woman who boasted of their intolerance. Even so, their actions often say otherwise, notably when it comes to issues that matter, like religion, politics and social change. Then, their intolerance shows, sometimes in a pronounced and nasty fashion. There have been many essays written on tolerance in the last few hundred years, including famous essays by John Locke ("A Letter Concerning Toleration"), Voltaire ("Treatise on Tolerance") and John Stuart Mill ("On Liberty"). They are worth (re) visiting.

Of all the social values, ideologies and beliefs, religion is probably the one that historically tends to divide people into camps, certainly between religions, and yet often within religions. (For example, Christianity has about 33,000 groups, says the World Christian Encyclopedia, although most Christian adherents belong to about six dominant denominations, like Protestantism.)

Even so, it is typically the battle between religions that is the most conflictual, since by its tenets or doctrines each religion defines itself as true, and more true than any other. For example, here's what Albert Einstein, the famous Nobel laureate in physics, wrote about tolerance in a letter to Rabbi Solomon Goldman of Chicago's Anshe Emet Congregation:
An individual who is convinced of the truth of his religion is indeed never tolerant. At the least, he is feels ome pity for the adherent of another religion but usually it does not stop there. The faithful adherent of a religion will try first of all to convince those that believe in another religion of the error of his ways; it often ends in hatred if he is not successful. However, hatred then often leads to persecution when the intolerant hold the might of the majority.
In the case of a Christian clergyman, the tragic-comical is found in this: that the Christian religion demands love from the faithful, even love for the enemy. This demand, because it is indeed superhuman, he is unable to fulfill. Thus intolerance and hatred ring through the oily words of the clergyman. The love, which on the Christian side is the basis for the conciliatory attempt towards Judaism, is the same as the love of a child for a cake. That means that it contains the hope that the object of the love will be eaten up.
Although Dr. Einstein cited Christianity, I am convinced that most, if not all religions, share a similar view on those outside the fold. That is, one's tolerance for another, quickly diminishes if the receiver rejects the appeal to join the "true' side. One famous and classic example in Christianity is Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, whose stinging rejection from the Jews resulted in this reaction (from "On Jews and Their Lies"):
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians. For whatever we tolerated in the past unknowingly—and I myself was unaware of it—will be pardoned by God. But if we, now that we are informed, were to protect and shield such a house for the Jews, existing right before our very nose, in which they lie about, blaspheme, curse, vilify, and defame Christ and us (as was heard above), it would be the same as if we were doing all this and even worse ourselves, as we very well know..... 
and so on, ad nauseam.

Notwithstanding the sixteenth-century language, one could hardly doubt Mr. Luther's lack of tolerance. It finally caught up with him, and in 1994 the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America rejected Luther's anti-Semitic writings. Although I applaud its actions, I wonder why it took four centuries to act. It goes to show that change happens slowly among religious institutions, notably when it comes to rejecting the views of a leading religious figure or hero.

Thus, a fervent unthinking religious observance that gives great devotion to the observed religious narrative drawn from stories of thousands of years ago tends to disqualify the other religious narratives. In other words, it is not possible to believe two often contrary truths. Hence, the only possible result is to express less tolerance for the Other, and in the worst of cases, heap condemnation on outsiders—a classic "us versus them ideology."

Even so, I support the need for religion, notably religious tradition, in society, which I expressed in an earlier post. Yet, religion can also be a destructive force when used as a tool to divide and conquer. It has historically and continues in too many cases to lead its followers to hatred and violence.

Such examples can also be found in non-religious beliefs or ideologies. In Jean-Paul Sartre's The Age of Reason (Trans: Eric Sutton; 1945), a book set in 1938 France, the novel examines individual freedom and the moral choices one makes to either attain it or retain it. Brunet, a member of the Communist Party in France, invites his good friend, Mathieu, to join him and work together for a common good. Mathieu hesitates, and rejects Brunet's overtures and arguments, albeit with sadness, saying:
" You mustn't be angry with me about this," said he hurriedly.
 "Of course I'm not angry," said Brunet. "You aren't compelled to think as I do."
"That isn't true," said Mathieu drearily. "I know your sort, you do believe that a man is compelled to think as you do, if he isn't a rotter. You regard me as a rotter, but you won't tell me so, because you view the case as desperate."
Brunet smiled faintly. "I don't take you for a rotter," said he. "the plain fact is that you are less detached from your class than I thought." 
[...]
Brunet was fiddling with the door-handle. "Why, then do you think I came? If you had accepted my offer, we could have worked together..." (123)
Such reveals much about the bonds that bind; and Brunet says, without any irony: "My only friends, at present, are the Comrades of the Party, with them I have a whole world in common" (123). Such a dogmatic and unbending worldview will never tolerate contrary views, and with that pronouncement the friendship between Mathieu and Brunet is over. Their differing views on an ideology, one a faithful believer, the other a skeptic, have sundered the friendship. What Sartre's novel shows is that ideology and belief can hold a powerful grip on tolerance. Even if the result leads to an erosion of human dignity and equality. Even if it narrows the field to only like-minded people. Such are the limits that ideology places on the human heart.

To be sure, it takes a lot of courage on the part of the individual to go against the dominant and conventional thinking of one's ideological heroes. I cannot agree with Mr. Chesterton on his view of the virtue of tolerance as indicative of a weak-willed person. Quite the contrary.  Intolerance speaks of giving in to fear and hatred, hardly admirable emotions or virtues, however one defines them. To be tolerant takes a movement away from the comfort zone, so to speak, of revealed or received truths. To act with tolerance takes more than will or conviction. To be tolerant takes an imagination of sorts. It also an act of courage in the face of opposition.

I am reminded of what U.S. President John F. Kennedy once said about religion, but it can apply to any core belief that cares about individual dignity: “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one's own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”

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A version of this article was originally published on Perry J. Greenbaum.

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending November 17, 2012


News & Commentary











Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

U.S. Fiscal Cliff Can Easily Be Avoided:  An article by David Leonhardt in the New York Times rightly points out that U.S. President Obama has a tough job ahead of him in dealing with the fiscal crisis, dubbed the "Fiscal Cliff" — essentially the ideological battle on whether wealthier individuals ought to pay more in taxes, once the tax policies of George W. Bush expire on December 31st. Such is an apt metaphor to describe not only the U.S. economy but the thinking of many politicians in Washington.

One of President Obama's options is to increase taxes on the highest income earners, which makes perfect sense for everyone except the Republicans in Congress:
If he can persuade the Republicans to increase taxes on the affluent and leave them low on the middle class and poor, he will take a step toward reducing economic inequality. Those tax increases, combined with more military cuts than Republicans favor, would also leave the federal government with money to spend on education, scientific research, clean energy, roads and mass transit, all of which Mr. Obama calls crucial to the economy of the future.

Perhaps his strongest weapon in the debate is that Americans mostly agree with him on these issues — in greater numbers, in fact, than they voted for him last week. Polls generally show that strong majorities support higher taxes on the affluent and more spending on a handful of tangible domestic programs, like schools and infrastructure.

“What I hope the White House does is take this case outside the Beltway to the country,” Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, told me. Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, added that he thought the election — both the outcome and the exit polls — had two mandates. “One was for both sides to come together,” Mr. Schumer said. “Two was to raise taxes on the wealthy.”

Higher taxes on the affluent cannot solve the long-term deficit, which is foremost a product of rising health costs. But higher taxes can make a significant dent over the next decade. That is in part because upper-end taxes have fallen so muchover the past 30 years.

Many budget analysts have called for about $500 billion in annual deficit reduction by 2020. The expiration of the Bush tax cuts on income above $250,000 would cut $110 billion. Other tax changes that many Democrats favor, like restricting some loopholes for high-end taxpayers, could add another $50 billion to $100 billion. Spending cuts and tax increases on the middle class or poor would still be necessary, but many fewer of them than if taxes do not change.
If the election revealed anything it's that President Obama has a mandate from the American people, and that the Republicans find themselves on the wrong side of history; that in itself ought to be sufficient to convince House Republicans of what they ought to do. And, of course, this makes perfect sense to the individuals who are not earning more than $250,000 a year. It's not about class warfare; it's about necessity and fairness.

But such rational and necessary arguments will likely not prevent Republicans in Congress from acting as they always do when it comes to casting their votes in favour of paying more taxes. That and their intense dislike for President Obama and his public policies will make the next four years a testy one between the Congressional House and the White House. That will only alienate more Americans from the Republican Party.

Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems that House Republicans would rather allow the economy to go over a fiscal cliff before electing to work with the White House—in other words, compromise; that being the case, it might take a giant economic crash before such (selfish) individuals understand what's really at stake.

China's Poker FaceAn article in the Washington Post discusses that one of the chief areas that China needs addressing is the level of corruption tolerated by government officials.
Chinese leader Hu Jintao marked the beginning of the end of his 10-year term with a warning: official corruption “could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” he announced last week as the Communist Party Congress began. The week-long congress will see Hu hand off power to Xi Jinping, whose 10-year term is expected to face daunting, perhaps even existential, challenges to China’s rise and the system that got it there.
Hu’s warning about official corruption and its threat to the Communist Party’s rule has long been repeated by scholars and experts both inside and outside China. Corruption, they say, weakens public trust in the government, erodes that government’s ability to behave responsibly, and saps an economy that is already slowing.
That’s the macro view. For the micro view, consider Beijing’s professional poker loser. As Jamil Anderlini reports in the Financial Times, his job is to use poker as a cover for bribing government officials on behalf of a real estate developer. The best part of this phenomenon is that the developer started outsourcing his bribery to the poker player not to evade police, but because bribing the officials himself was getting too time-consuming. And, with all the drinking usually involved, it was bad for his health.
Corruption is a fact of life in many nations; but nations that do not tackle official corruption risk undermining public trust in its institutions. The signals have to emanate from the very top in no uncertain terms that corruption will not be tolerated and will result in legal penalties, including prison terms. [China ranks 75th out of 183 nations on Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. My home nation of Canada ranks 10th; the United States 24th. Leading the list among the least-corrupt, most transparent nations, are New Zealand, Denmark and Finland.]

U.S. To Become World's No. 1 Energy Producer By 2020: An article by Thomas K. Grose in National Geographic says that the United States will become the world's top energy producer in less than a decade, overtaking Saudi Arabia in oil production in 2017 and Russia in natural gas production by 2020. And in another 15 years, the United States will achieve energy self-sufficient and become a nation that will export its surplus energy. All this is contained in a predictive report published by the International Energy Agency:
The bottom line for the United States is fulfillment of a goal that eluded seven presidents over nearly four decades: energy independence. The U.S., which imports 20 percent of its total energy now, will be come largely self-sufficient by 2035, concluded the IEA’s annual World Energy Outlook, often viewed as the Bible of the industry. Add in Canada, which has its own unconventional production boom in Alberta’s oil sands, and the continent is set to be a net oil exporter by 2030.
“North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world,” said Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the IEA, a Paris-based organization charged with maintaining global energy security. (Related Interactive: Breaking Fuel From Rock)
That the United States and Canada can eventually achieve energy independence is a good thing, especially if it means weaning themselves from unstable Mideast regimes. And yet it raises other environmental issues. Where will all that surplus Mideast oil end up? Chiefly in Asia. The increase in energy consumption in Asia, in particular, in China and India, will also result in increases in greenhouse gas emissions, the article adds: "IEA projects that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will rise from an estimated 31.2 gigatonnes (Gt) last year to 37 Gt in 2035, which could cause a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius."

Man in "Vegetative State" Communicates With Doctors: Scott Routley, a man who has been in a vegetative state for more than 10 years, has communicated, through a technique of measuring functional brain images (fMRI), the answers to simple yes and no questions that Canadian doctors posed to him, says a Canadian Press article published in the National Post This is a remarkable scientific breakthrough, marking the first time that this has ever been achieved. Linda Nguyen writes:
But now, for the first time, doctors caring for the 39-year-old London, Ont., man say they know he’s not in pain. And they learned it from Routley himself, by analyzing his brain waves when they asked him. “This was a landmark moment for us because for the first time, a patient can actually tell us information, important information about how they’re feeling and their current situation,” said lead researcher Dr. Adrian Owen on Tuesday.
The medical breakthrough, believed to be the only time a severely brain injured patient has been able to relay clinically relevant information to their doctors, is being touted as a new way to possibly improve their quality of care. Owen, who is the head of the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario, says research published online last year in The Lancet shows that one in five of these patients are conscious, but essentially trapped in their bodies because they’re unable to communicate verbally or physically.
His team has been working for the past year trying to determine whether Routley, who became vegetative following a car crash 12 years ago, had any “residual brain activity” and how much he was able to understand them. Last June, the doctors employed a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) to see if they would be able to analyze his brain patterns. They told Routley that they wanted him to imagine that he was playing tennis if he wasn’t in pain or imagine that he was walking around his house if he was in pain.
The thought process involved in playing a complex sport like tennis triggers the part of the brain that controls motor skills, while thinking about walking around your house triggers visual associations — contained in a separate area of the brain. With the fMRI, doctors were able to measure the activity in Routley’s brain and conclude he was trying to tell them he was free of pain.
The article adds that the family always believed that Scott Routley had an awareness of what was happening around him; this scientific findings proves that their feelings and intuitions were indeed correct. It is important to note that the vegetative state is a wakeful unconscious state; it is not the same as a coma (where the individual lacks awareness and wakefulness), but rather individuals in a vegetative state can open their eyelids and demonstrate sleep-wake cycles; they lack cognitive functions—at least in the traditional or conventional  sense.

This finding by Canadian doctors will likely now raise further legal and ethical questions on the viability of life and what standards ought to be used to define individual autonomy and to delineate the professional obligations of the medical establishment. Physicians and hospital ethics boards now have been given more information and knowledge on which to make their difficult life and death decisions. It now seems that life extends beyond the realm of what was previously considered as normative.

Russia's Putin Extends Reach Of State: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that extends the state's power on treason, a move calculated to silence dissent. An article in Reuters reports:
The law allows Russians representing international organizations to be charged with treason, as well as those working for foreign intelligence. It took effect on Wednesday when it was published in the official gazette, despite a promise by Putin on Monday that he would review it. Political opponents and rights activists say the legislation is the latest in a series of laws intended to crack down on the opposition and reduce foreign influence since he returned to the Kremlin in May for a six-year third term.
"Citizens recruited by international organizations acting against the country's interests will also be considered traitors", the official gazette, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, said in a commentary on its website. The maximum sentence for high treason remains 20 years.
At a meeting of his human rights council on Monday, Putin listened to a retired Constitutional Court judge's concerns about the legislation, which she said did not require authorities to prove a suspect damaged state security. Putin indicated at the meeting that he would move cautiously and that the legislation had been scrutinized closely as it passed through parliament. But he also said "nonetheless, I am ready to return to this again, to look more attentively."
This is another of many recent setbacks for democracy in Russia, although not surprising given the nation's strong tilt toward a law-and-order agenda during the last decade—this after a brief period in the 1990s of moving toward genuine democracy. Don't expect much to change in the next few years in Russia.

& One More

Gaza & Israel: This is not so much a new story, but a continuing festering sore that shows no promise of ever healing. Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, captures the sentiments of many when he says the conflict between Gaza and Israel "follows a familiar pattern." Caught in the cross-fire are the citizens of each territory and nation, both Israelis and Palestinians, both Jew and Arab—the ordinary citizens. At least 39 Palestinians and three Israelis have died since Israel killed Hamas's military chief, Ahmed al-Jabari, on Wednesday; some question the soundness of the decision to kill Ahmed al-Jabari, which some consider an extra-judicial assassination; it is a grey area in international law.

The facts are well known, and seem to follow a script, similar to one written four years ago, with a few minor revisions. Militants from Gaza have fired hundreds of rockets, chiefly at the citizens of southern Israel, a few at the major urban centre of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—a measure that is intended to act as a provocation for unknown purposes—and the Israel Defense Forces respond with a show of force to take out the source of the rocket fire, including the military leaders of such attacks; there are resulting civilian deaths, including children and babies.

That and an "Iron Dome" defense system, which the IDF says has a success rate of  almost 90 per cent thus far, is supposed to reassure the population of southern Israel and the rest of the tiny nation that all is well. A ground assault of short duration often follows, with some success; military targets are hit, including the many rocket-launching sites. The IDF will say that the latest military campaign, now called "Pillar of Defense," has been a success. Yet one wonders. For whom?

It depends on how one measures success. It might well be for the military leaders, but not in the long-term for the civilians of Gaza and Israel. It is an act that repeats itself on a highly periodical basis. The international community condemns the rocket attacks on Israel and its civilian population, as it should. It also asks for restraint on both sides, a noble idea, while agreeing that Hamas is the cause of the region's instability. We will never know if such leaders would themselves show restraint in a similar situation, since their nations' civilian populations are not under missile attack, or under constant threat of such an attack.

No doubt, U.S. President Obama, German Chancellor Merkel and a chorus of EU members have been pressuring Egyptian President Morsi to use his influence to persuade Hamas and other militant groups operating in Gaza to restrain themselves. But that alone will do little to advance the possibility of real and lasting peace in the region. It will take much more. Daniel Byman, a professor in the Security Studies Program in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, writes in Foreign Affairs: "Israel and the international community need to take some bold political risks in trying to bring Hamas into the fold—or else start preparing for the next war."

Peace can only come when both sides want it badly enough, and have exhausted their battle energies; peace can come only when the 22 Arab nations, and its militant proxies, in the Mideast recognize and accept Israel as a legitimate state, as the U.N.did in 1948; peace will only come when militant Islamists stop lobbing missiles at civilians in Israel. Such does not seem the case today; it's not that complicated but it seems impossible to achieve. I hope that I am wrong, but I am neither hopeful nor optimistic that peace is imminent.
[see here, herehere, here, here & here.]

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November 17th In History

1558: Elizabeth I ascends English throne upon death of her half sister Mary "Bloody Mary", Queen of England (1553-58), aged 42;
1603: Sir Walter Raleigh, English explorer, writer and courtier, goes on trial for treason;
1869: Suez Canal in Egypt opens, linking the Mediterranean & Red seas;
1933: United States recognizes Soviet Union, opens trade;
1939: Nine Czech students are executed by the Nazis in response to demonstrations prompted by the death of Jan Opletal, who himself died while demonstrating the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. In addition, all Czech universities are shut down and over 1,200 Czech students are sent to concentration camps. Since this event, International Students' Day is celebrated in many countries, especially in the Czech Republic.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Disappointments Of Life


Personal Reflections

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
Robert BurnsTo a Mouse (1785), stanza 7

There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere, and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere. 
Jane Austen

There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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by Perry J. Greenbaum

There are times when we become disappointed. I have had my share of disappointments, including a costly business failure in 2010, as well as with family, friends, children, co-workers and others. I have yet to meet someone who has never suffered disappointment of some kind. It's a human emotion, and it's an emotion that often comes out of an unmet expectation. Does that not show that we have good and positive expectations of others? Or that we normally expect good from others? If we didn't, then we would not be disappointed. Disappointments reveal a truth that needs airing, namely, that we are functioning well as healthy humans.

The self-reported cynical and realistic types are rarely disappointed, or rarely if ever reveal their disappointments, considering it a sign of weakness. But that might not be so such a good thing for their humanity, since such persons are unlikely to display care or concern for others. It might well be that cynicism results in an unhealthy view of the world, full of suspicions and intrigues, and the so-called realistic view is nothing more than a shield against, what else? Disappointment. Against human emotions that make all of us more feeling.

But such persons are in the minority. ( I am not talking here about discussions among world leaders and world politics, which is another matter.) I like what George Eliot wrote in Daniel Deronda, a book I would highly recommend. Although the passage describes the need for Hope, there is a link between disappointment and hope, the former leading to the latter:
You know nothing about Hope, that immortal, delicious maiden forever courted forever propitious, whom fools have called deceitful, as if it were Hope that carried the cup of disappointment, whereas it is her deadly enemy, Certainty, whom she only escapes by transformation.Yes, some deride the finer feelings of Hope and Love. But what are they left with in their place? Disappointment comes in many forms and guises, surely, but through its often bitter pill we find out not only about others and ourselves but the finer qualities of hope and love. Deep disappointments can be discouraging, even debilitating to our sense of self-worth, yet we eventually come out of it through kind and warm human relationships.
To be spared disappointment is to close ourselves off from human contact. That is not an ideal state in which to live. Disappointment can, and often does, compel us to move out of the state of self-sufficiency and reach out and connect with others; disappointment can and often dies act as a catalyst to improve the human condition. The human state of self-satisfaction and self-containment rarely leads to making great contributions to humanity.

Much of current scientific research is now focused on such areas as happiness and human development. Much of it delves into our unconscious world of thought, the deep urgings of the brain. Brain science shows that human unconscious desires influence how we see the world and make decisions, a point David Brooks discusses in an insightful article in The New Yorker, "Social Animal":
Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind. Far from being dryly materialistic, their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows. They are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has least to say. Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.
The last point on the health of theology and philosophy is arguable, and unnecessary. Brain science doesn't so much fill a void, as explain things in a different language. Even so, science is determining, in agreement with the long history of the arts and humanities, of philosophy and religion, that what matters most are human relationships. That's the most human of needs. After all, Aristotle and Spinoza, both high rationalists, concluded that we are social animals. Our personal stories confirm this as true; our desire to share them even more so,

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A different version of this post was originally published in Perry J. Greenbaum.

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending November 10, 2012


News & Commentary











Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Time For New Yorkers To Stop Living In Denial: An op-ed piece by Joe Nocera in the New York Times raises the question of what New York City could do to prevent the type of damage that Sandy has recently caused its residents; much of the destruction was avoidable. His solution is worth considering.
What New York is not so good at is preventing big storms from exacting an enormous toll on infrastructure, buildings and businesses. In the case of Sandy, the damage to New York City is estimated to be as much as $17 billion. Cities like London, Amsterdam — and, yes, Providence — have built systems to minimize the damage even Category 3 storms can cause. But not New York.
Part of the reason is that the cost of any such system would run into the billions of dollars. But another reason is that many environmentalists are firmly opposed to a big public-works project, fearing that it would give people a false sense of security about the problems posed by climate change. They prefer taking smaller steps, like raising the height of subway grates to keep water out of the subway tunnels. Bloomberg has embraced this approach.

In 2008, for instance, Bloomberg convened a panel of experts to examine the ways climate change could affect the city. The panel’s report, issued in 2010, documented the undeniable fact that the rivers and bays around New York were rising, and that changes in the atmosphere were likely to make storms both more frequent and more dangerous.
Yet, Mayor Bloomberg is against large engineering projects. And, yet, to do nothing is to deny reality; and reality has a way of intruding on people's lives in a very nasty way. Intelligent persons tend to learn from their mistakes, and tend to change their mind when new incontrovertible information comes their way.

The Times article says: "Klaus Jacob, a scientist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, told The New York Times, in a prescient article published just six weeks before Sandy hit, that the city’s unwillingness to be more aggressive was akin to 'Russian roulette.' Jacob believes that the city needs to build unbreachable gates to subways, tunnels and infrastructure to prevent water from rushing in. Despite the expense, he says that such a system would save billions by preventing storm damage."

Suicides Have Increased In The U.S. The Last 4 Years: An article in Reuters and published in the Globe & Mail has said that suicides have increased significantly and noticeably during the economic downturn that began in 2008.
In a letter to The Lancet medical journal, scientists from Britain, Hong Kong and the United States said an analysis of data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that while suicide rates rose slowly between 1999 and 2007, the rate of increase more than quadrupled from 2008 to 2010. “There is a clear need to implement policies to promote mental health resilience during the ongoing recession,” said Aaron Reeves of Britain’s University of Cambridge, who led the research and submitted it in a letter to The Lancet.
“In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, President Obama and Mitt Romney are debating how best to spur economic recovery, [but] missing from this discussion is consideration of how to protect Americans’ health during these hard times.” According to Dr. Reeves’ analysis, about 1,500 more people a year in the United States have committed suicide since 2007 compared with numbers that would have been expected if the 1997 to 2007 trends had continued.
Any suicide is a tragedy, an act of despair and a societal message writ large on an individual's inability to cope; it often affects the families and friends of the individual who has decided to take his life. For many, the world has become harsher, more polarized and a sadder place to live. Without any hope. That employed individuals are less likely to commit suicide is not debatable. The link between unemployment and despair is so obvious that the solution should be likewise—the United States business community needs to hire more persons. There is no other acceptable argument.

Whoever is elected president today has as his number one priority the Economy; he has to encourage, persuade and do whatever is in his legal power to increase the number of persons in the U.S. who hold good and steady jobs. That would be a major accomplishment. One that will not be forgotten.

Beginning Of End For Nuclear Weapons: It is always better to talk peace than act on war. Such is what has taken place in Brussels where representatives from Israel, Iran, 10 Arab states, and the United States have been discussing the possibility of  holding a UN-sponsored conference in Helsinki, in December, whose ultimate goal would be establishing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

An article in The Guardian says:
A handful of officials from both Israel and Iran are involved in the two-day event, ostensibly in their capacity as private citizens, in what was billed as an academic seminar.But the delegations are led by senior officials and have the permission of their respective governments to take part in an informal discussion with representatives from about 10 Arab states, US officials and European moderators to explore the possibility of holding a UN-sponsored conference on establishing a WMD-free zone in the Middle East.
The Israeli team is led by Jeremy Issacharoff, an ambassador for strategic affairs at the foreign ministry; the chief Iranian representative is Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the country's long-serving ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Also taking part is Jaakko Laajava, the Finnish diplomat tasked by the UN secretary general to organise the planned conference in Helsinki. In contrast to the ever-worsening sabre-rattling over the Iranian nuclear programme, the mood at the meeting, convened by the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium, was described by one participant as "respectful and positive".
Mark Fitzpatrick, a non-proliferation expert from the International Institute for Strategic Studies and former state department official, said "there were no fireworks and no denunciations" at the conference. That marks an improvement over a similar event held last year, when the tone was described as mutual finger-wagging. However, it was unclear from the meeting whether the Helsinki conference would go ahead on schedule in December.
Let's hope that it does; this is the first piece of good news to emanate from the Middle East in a long while. Start with the Middle East and extend the ban to all nations. Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, including chemical and biological weapons, have no useful purpose; they should be banned outright—Anywhere & Everywhere.

Obama Re-Elected As President Of U.S.: Congratulations to President Barack Obama on his election victory. It was a hard-fought campaign; and now the harder part of governing a divided nation begins. Here's the Canadian view of the election and its results, from an article in the Ottawa Citizen written the day after the November 6th election:
U.S. President Barack Obama begins his second term today, looking to make good on his election-night pledge to move the country forward and unite Americans following a gruelling and divisive election campaign. In a rousing victory speech early Wednesday, the president made an appeal to America's better angels, but insisted that the country was "not as divided as our politics suggest." 
"We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states," Obama said in a speech that was redolent with the soaring rhetorical flourishes that were standard issue during his historic 2008 run for the presidency. "We are the United States of America."
The president added he'd never been more hopeful about the country's future despite the profound partisan and demographic divides that were starkly exposed throughout his election battle against Republican Mitt Romney. Obama handily won the votes of women, young Americans, African-Americans and Hispanics on Tuesday — in fact, the president got almost 70 per cent of the Latino vote, the fastest growing demographic in the United States. In Pennsylvania, the high turnout of African-American voters — reportedly even higher than it was in 2008 — was thought to have played a critical role in the president's victory there.
Romney, meantime, won older Americans, working-class whites and those with family incomes of US$50,000 a year or more. But many liberal Americans deeply distrusted the Republican, particularly after the emergence of a secretly recorded videotape in early September that showed him disparaging almost half of the electorate as government freeloaders. And Hispanics never forgave Romney for remarks he made during primary season, when he said illegal immigrants should "self-deport." 
Indeed, the election result has serious ramifications for the Republican party that will almost certainly include months of internal soul-searching. The electorate decisively rejected Romney's vision for the country—one that advocated smaller government, tax cuts, looser Wall Street regulations and socially conservative policies on abortion and contraception that angered women. Instead, they opted for Obama's message of a compassionate federal government, tax hikes for the wealthy, immigration reform and social policies that respect a woman's right to control her own health decisions.
President Obama won the election convincingly, which shows the direction America is facing; its citizens want a kinder, compassionate and more open nation. Now it's up to President Obama and his Administration to deliver on that promise. I wish him well for his second term.

No Criticism Of Thai Royal Family Allowed: An Associated Press article published in the Washington Post points out that freedom of speech is restricted in many nations, and for many reasons. In Thailand, for example, it is a crime to criticize the ruling royal family of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The article notes:
A Thai-born American who spent more than a year in prison on charges of insulting Thailand’s king says the country’s harsh laws outlawing criticism of the monarchy are holding back its democratic development. He has vowed never to return until his motherland stops being so “thin-skinned” and allows full freedom of expression.
Joe Gordon, who was convicted last year of translating excerpts of an unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej from English into Thai and posting them online, said those jailed under Thai laws protecting the royal family often suffer abuse from prison guards and are treated “like animals.” While he now denies committing any crime, Gordon pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison before receiving a royal pardon in July.
The punishment was a high-profile example of the severe sentences meted out here for defaming Thailand’s royal family, a crime known as “lese majeste.” The issue has drawn international attention and raised concern about freedom of speech in this Southeast Asian kingdom best known as the easygoing Land of Smiles, a tourist paradise that draws some 19 million visitors per year.
Gordon’s case also raised questions about the applicability of Thai law to acts committed by foreigners outside Thailand, since he posted the link while residing in the U.S. state of Colorado. “Freedom of expression is not harassment, and Thai people don’t understand that,” Gordon told The Associated Press before his planned departure from the country Thursday. He said in Thailand the attitude is “if you don’t believe and you don’t follow us in the way we are doing things, it means you are insulting us.”
That shows how far Thailand is from understanding the liberal democratic values and traditions that inform western nations. But then again, how could its citizens understand ideas that are completely foreign to them? The penalty for "insulting" the monarchy range from three to fifteen years behind bars.


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November 10th in History
1619: René Descartes has the dreams that inspire his Meditations on First Philosophy;
1793: France ends forced worship of God;
1917: New Soviet government suspends freedom of the press;
1945: Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald liberated by the U.S. army;
1950: William Faulkner awarded Nobel Prize in Literature;
1969: "Sesame Street" makes its début on PBS. 
1970: The Great Wall of China is first opened to tourists.