Bullies, Brutality and Bullets: Violence in America Prevails

An army general admits to sexual misconduct and other serious offenses and gets his wrist slapped while keeping his pension. Police brutality in California screams for reform while an offending officer is dubbed “the best deputy in the department.” Congress yields to pressure against a potential Surgeon General because the NRA doesn’t like him calling gun violence a public health issue.

Who says this country isn’t all bravado, big brass and balls?

The case of Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair underscores that the epidemic of sexual abuse in the military continues.  General enters guilty plea as captain testifies to her emotional painSinclair plea-bargained his way out of jail for heinous crimes against women including sodomy, death threats and forced pornography.  He perpetrated these behaviors in four countries over at least three years.  At his court martial Gen. Sinclair crowed “the system worked.”

But it’s a badly broken system. The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact occurred in 2012. No wonder Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was appalled when her attempted legislation to remove prosecutions in the military from the chain of command failed to garner 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate.

When Daniel Johnson’s disabled father dropped a cigarette on the ground in front of his California home in late 2012, the elder Johnson little expected that the involuntary act would lead to his 26-year old son having his genitals burned with a Taser because a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy thought he was out of line.

The deputy issued a $1,000 fine for “littering” when he saw Daniel’s father, who drops things because of medically documented nerve damage in his hands, let go of the cigarette butt.  When Daniel explained that the “littering” was accidental because of his father’s medical condition the officer threatened to ticket him too. Daniel pleaded with the officer to let him retrieve the butt because they couldn’t afford the fine. That’s when things got scary. Another deputy slammed Daniel against the patrol car and the initiating officer beat him. This assault was followed by the Taser attack as his horrified parents watched. Daniel, a UC/Berkeley graduate who like his father is black, was arrested for battery on a police officer. Charges were never filed. Daniel’s lawsuit is pending.

A recent TV expose on Aljazeera America helps explain why there is an epidemic of police brutality in America. According to its program Faultlines, “federal money and combat equipment is transforming U.S. police departments into military-like forces.” 

Increasingly, police departments, which receive billions of dollars in Homeland Security grants along with free post-conflict military equipment, are using military-style tactics for routine daily operations.  SWAT teams have grown exponentially along with the number of police officers who once served in the military.  And non-violent protesters who want to see an end to “war games” and “urban warfare” are likely to be designated “domestic terrorists” when they dare to raise their placards at events like the trade show held in the San Francisco Bay area last year where vendors hawked everything from automatic weapons and surveillance drones to “crowd control” weapons. 

Despite the fact that the number of innocent people (mostly black or Hispanic and young) killed by police is escalating, cities like Boston are now arming police cars with military weapons. The tragic reality is that kids are killed every day by overzealous police, and Daniel Johnson’s awful experience is not uncommon. 

Dr. Vivek Murthy, the president’s nominee for Surgeon General, knows a lot about senseless killing.Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy is shown. | Courtesy Meredith Nierman Harvard educated with an MD and M.B.A. from Yale, he has seen plenty of gun violence victims in emergency rooms. That’s why in 2012 he declared that “guns are a health care issue.”  You can imagine how that went down with the NRA.  But his colleagues say they “are appalled that a candidate of such high caliber – with impeccable credentials, a well-earned reputation as a ‘doctor’s doctor’ and formidable experience in management and leadership – could be derailed for a moderate position on gun violence that aligns with the vast majority of America’s health professionals.”

The 36-year old Dr.Murthy works at a Harvard-affiliated hospital in Boston and teaches at Harvard.  He co-founded TrialNetworks to leverage technology to improve clinical trials and he started a non-profit educational organization, VISIONS, to address HIV/AIDS.  He also supports the Affordable Care Act. No wonder the far right can’t abide the thought of him as America’s top doc.

As writer Lauren Friedman and other social critics have noted on various websites, “gun violence unquestionably is a public health issue.” In 2009, it caused over 31,000 deaths and guns were involved in more than 73,000 non-fatal injuries. The American Public Health Association calls gun violence in the U.S. “a major public health problem and a leading cause of premature death.” 

And yet we continue our destructive bravado.  Like a frenetic ‘film noir’ in which brutalities flash across the wide screen that is American life, our psyches are bashed until we are inured to the underlying violence. 

That in itself, it seems to me, is a public health issue.

The Pornography of War

We’ve all seen them – the photographs of malnourished children with big bellies and thinning reddish hair; the pictures of babies with horrific harelips, the sad and lonely faces of AIDS orphans.  These photos, tugging at our heartstrings until we write checks to assuage the guilt of affluence, have been dubbed ‘the pornography of poverty.’  They are seductive.  We can’t divert our eyes. They stimulate something in us, perhaps compassion vs. passion, but still, they make of us voyeurs as we look upon other people’s suffering and humiliation.

There is another kind of pictorial pornography – the pornography of war.  You know its poster child too:  A “wounded warrior” learning to walk with a prosthesis (or two); a female officer incapacitated by depression, perhaps induced by guilt for what she has seen or done, or by what has been done to her; a child wrapping her arms around a dad who no longer has the mental capacity to recognize her, a homeless vet wandering aimlessly.        

And that’s just in our own country.  We seldom see pictures of children wearing the faces of conflict, bearing wounded bodies, bereaved beyond repair in places where wars are actually fought: Iraq and Afghanistan, for example.  These photos are no less seductive. We look upon them with broken hearts, perhaps wondering why there is something horribly compelling about human suffering, and when we’ve had enough, we look away.

These photos make me immensely sad, and angry.  I cannot bear to look upon limbless bodies, shrapnel misshapen heads, or blank, staring eyes when they are used to garner sympathy in order to foster a simplistic, faux nationalism that calls itself patriotism.

Let’s be clear: Our troops did not march into Iraq to save us from weapons of mass destruction, or to protect democracy.  They went to Iraq, as they did to Vietnam, because of a lie told to them (and us) by their own government.  All the loss of life that followed, on both sides, happened because Iraq had something we wanted (oil) and because George W. Bush wanted a war. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy for sure but what have we got to show for our bravado?  A country torn apart and full of suffering souls because of our dishonest invasion.  As for the so-called wounded warriors of Afghanistan, what were they actually fighting for in a country whose culture we don’t begin to understand, and so rife with corruption that no one knows where the money went, although a large chunk of it is likely in the pockets of President Karzai and his cronies, all of whom have turned against the ally we thought we were. (If you think the American military was welcome there, talk to some Afghanis. You’ll get a different picture than the ones used for propaganda.)

So let’s be clear about something else.  President Obama is not, as politicians on the right would have us believe, a wimp on war.  He is not clueless, inept, passive, stupid, or weak in foreign policy.  His devotion to diplomatic solutions aimed at ending conflicts that cause so much pain to so many people – often with unanticipated consequences – is courageous, intelligent, active and sensitive to complex realities.  Unlike his predecessor and the hawkish Republicans who continue to live in some kind of Reaganesque LaLa Land, Mr. Obama recognizes the costs of war in human as well as geopolitical terms. 

Like Jimmy Carter, also unfairly pilloried for his political posture, the president knows that difficult but safer solutions often reside in the conversation between two people, both with a stake in the outcome of actions they take.  The president is not the inexperienced ingenue some people believe he is.  He’s simply trying to exercise caution, and a modicum of wisdom, from this side of the brink.  That he keeps his wits about him and maintains his dignity while critics hit him hard for believing in alternatives to war is something we should all be grateful for. 


To be clear again, I am not a knee-jerk Democrat (although I am always and forever an independently minded one). I don’t always agree with the president’s decisions or actions.  I am a harsh critic when criticism is called for. But in writing this commentary, what I want to know is this:  How many more limbless, lifeless, lost soldiers will it take before we come to see that war is not inevitable, not desirable, not always the solution, and should never be undertaken on the basis of lies – or false notions of patriotism.

How many more pornographic pictures must we view to see that violence is always trumped by vision, and that suffering is the last, worst solution to conflict.  If you doubt this, ask any one of those poster people promoting nationalism– or the parents and partners who now weep over their dead bodies.          

Corruption, Control and the Pathology of Power

In part because the subject intrigues me, I’ve been trying to answer the question of why corruption, moral and otherwise, is so prevalent in human nature.  None of us comes into the world corrupt, morally bankrupt or cruel. So what is it that makes so many of us fall prey to this dangerous and disillusioning character flaw?  Try as I might to tease out an answer that would satisfy my curiosity about this facet of human psychology, I have yet to posit a theory, even after researching the subject on the ‘net using search terms like ‘power and pathology,” “moral corruption,” and “Tammany Hall.”

My interest in this topic was sparked by a difficult personal experience involving local politics but it peaked when the scandal involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie broke, and was exacerbated when I read about similar machinations by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin.  The Christy debacle has received wide media coverage while Gov. Walker’s questionable behavior has stayed below the radar for the most part.  But it seems that thousands of emails and hundreds of court documents released in February strongly suggest that Mr. Walker and Mr. Christy have much in common, including the fact that there’s been a lot of monkey business going on inside the office they oversee.  In the Walker case, it seems that staffers were mixing government and campaign business to the extent that several of his aides have received criminal convictions.                                             

 Not that corruption is always political.  In a stunning example of corporate corruption, a recent New York Times story revealed that a federal lawsuit had been filed charging for-profit schools with fraud.  It turns out that Premier Education Group, owner of more than two dozen trade schools and community colleges operating under several names in ten states, has been charging fees of $10,000 and up for programs that don’t prepare students for promised careers.  What’s more, they are falsifying records in order to qualify for grant money and other funds.  Students report that the schools they attended lied about certifications they would receive upon completion of a program. Some students and teachers testified that people without high school diplomas had been admitted, and in one case a man convicted of a sex crime was accepted to study massage therapy.

 Corruption is a complex and compelling topic which knows no boundaries. It happens in every country – with the possible exception of Bhutan until it opened up to the outside world – and across all cultures.  It has no age, race or ethnic parameters (although there may be gender disparities), and none of us fully understands why so many people seek personal gain through such behaviors as bribery, extortion, nepotism, graft and embezzlement. The world, it seems, is full of Bernie Madoffs.     

 Take the Sochi Olympic games, for example.  An estimated one-third of the $50 billion spent on that event – an amount greater than all the other winter Olympics to date combined – was allegedly lost to embezzlement and kickbacks, according to the Institute of Modern Russia in its online report “The Reverse Side of the Medal.”  But then, what else is new in Russia?

 Afghanistan is ranked as the third most corrupt nation in the world after North Korea and Somalia, largely thanks to its American-educated president, who is known to govern through patronage.

 And in Nigeria, an upsurge in corruption has resulted in long lines at everything from gas stations to passport offices.  Port congestion is said to be rampant and with a nod to New Jersey police extortion at toll gates and traffic slowdowns on highways are common.

 The litany of petty and grand corruption around the globe goes on ad infinitum. So why, we must ask, do so many people put personal gain above the public good?  Why are huge numbers of people willing to cheat others as a means of gaining success or recognition or material comforts?  What does it all say about our collective humanity?

 I still don’t have any answers.  All I know is that Lord Acton, a.k.a. John Dalberg, was right when he noted, in the 19th century, that “power tends to corrupt [and] absolute power corrupts absolutely,” an insight he had upon recognizing that civilizations fall into decline when they fail to use power wisely.  History teaches us that power is no friend of intelligent inquiry or discourse, and that it wreaks havoc on the good traditions and institutions it is meant to respect and honor. It also reminds us that power becomes its own God. 

 Mahatma Gandhi once noted that “corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy.” To that I would add, corruption ought not to be such a vibrant piece of the human psyche.  But the questions remain: Why does corruption prevail in matters of governance, commerce, and individual exchange? Why do we become indifferent to it?  What can end such “business as usual?”  

Announcing Workshops!

From Harriet Tubman to Harry Potter: Exploring Our Archetypal Journeys
Saturday, May 3; 10:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.;
The Writer’s Center, White River Junction, Vt.
What do King Arthur, Luke Skywalker, Harriet Tubman and Harry Potter have in common? Sure, they all have a great story to tell. But it’s more than an exciting narrative: Each of them has been on an archetypal journey – a heroic exploration, full of adventure, fraught with risk, and ultimately rich with reward. As they seek to find meaning in a complex world, each of these characters is changed forever by their experience, an experience peopled with mentors, villains, jesters, and other archetypes. This workshop will help us explore our own archetypal journeys as we reach for the “Golden Fleece” in our lives. For more info or to register, email  eclift@vermontel.net or call (802) 869-2686.


Strong House Inn is proud to present a

 Creative Writing Workshop

with award-winning writer Elayne Clift

September 12 – 14, 2014

Back by popular demand…..


 “What would happen if just one woman told the truth about her life?”   That simple question, posed by poet Muriel Rukeyser, became iconic in the 1970s, when women writers of the “Second Wave” first began telling their stories openly and honestly.  Rukeyser’s answer to her own question was “The world would split apart.” 

 Beginning with an evening talk about the history and meaning of women’s diaries, journals and memoirs, we will explore the enforced silence of “good girls and fine ladies” that kept women marginalized and invisible for centuries — until a few brave souls among them put pen to paper, which they have done (often surreptitiously) throughout history.  Their courage and musings inspired others, including such 20th century writers as Virginia Woolf, May Sarton, Alice Walker, Gloria Steinem, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath and a host of others. 

 What will these women inspire in us as we break our own silence in order to tell some truths about our lives (without going down any dark rabbit holes)?  Short readings and writing prompts will get the juices flowing and an advance reading list will be provided for those who want to explore this topic more deeply.  Come prepared to be surprised by what you remember, reflect upon, write, laugh about, and share.


An Inveterate Worrier Goes Forward with Trepidation

In December I received an email entitled “Going Forward Together” from my progressive senator, Bernie Sanders.  It offered a list of issues that urgently need to be addressed by Congress this year. 

 His list included wealth and income inequality and growing poverty, the need for jobs, the urgency of raising the minimum wage and providing retirement security for seniors, Wall Street’s “too big to fail” banks, campaign finance reform after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, justice for minorities, women and gays, and the threat posed to American civil liberties by the National Security Agency.

 I couldn’t agree more with Senator Sanders.  But here’s the troubling thing: I have a slew of additional issues I’m worried about. 

 According to the latest Shriver Report, “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink,” an estimated 42 million women, and 28 million children who depend on them, are living their lives on the edge of disaster. They are “one single incident—a doctor’s bill, a late paycheck, or a broken-down car—away from economic ruin.”  What women, a large number of whom are head of household and sole income earner, especially in low-income families need is “a country that supports the reality of women’s dual roles as by far the majority of the nation’s caregivers and breadwinners.”  Instead what do we get? Mike Huckabee yelping about women’s runaway libidos and a shocking assault by his cronies on women’s privacy and reproductive health.

 I worry about our criminal justice system, and the private enterprises with a vested interest in them, running amok.  Horrific sentences, deplorable conditions, inadequate medical care, and abusive staff are just some of the issues at hand.  So is the fact that juveniles are facing life without parole, despite Supreme Court decisions aimed at curtailing mandatory sentences and ensuring juvenile justice.   


In one Florida case, two kids aged 12 and 14 with no prior record attempted to rob a man.  One of them fired a gun, accidentally wounding him.  He was grazed by the bullet but not badly hurt. The kid with the gun, likely advised to accept a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and robbery, hoping for leniency.  Instead the judge sentenced him to 70 years without parole.  Clearly the youth who carried out this attempted robbery, gun in hand, needed to be punished.  But the case is not unusual in its extraordinary sentencing.  Nor are the ones that slap teenage girls in jail for life without parole for accidentally killing their sexual abusers.

 Human trafficking is another worrying issue that affects young people in devastating ways. While efforts are being made to address the worldwide epidemic, it happens far too frequently in the U.S.  Florida, Chicago and Washington, DC have been described as “hot spots” of trafficking in a report funded by the Department of Justice. And New Jersey could soon be added to that dubious list in the wake of this year’s Super Bowl.  “New Jersey has a huge trafficking problem,” according to U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). “One Super Bowl after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks.”  Danielle Douglas, a self-described sex-trafficking survivor, agrees. She told The Huffington Post that major sporting events attract sex traffickers looking to make money. “The Super Bowl is a huge arena for sex trafficking. Some visitors come to the Super Bowl not to watch football. They come to have sex with women, and/or men or children.”  Is this America’s latest version of “Take me out to the ballgame”?

We all know that gun control legislation – with teeth – urgently needs to be enacted.  Shootings in schools, movie theaters, malls, on our streets and in our homes is so out of control one hardly has words.  What we do have is compelling facts: 33 Americans are murdered with guns every day. Our gun murder rate is 20 times higher than any other developed nation.  American women are 11 times more likely to be killed by a gun than women in other high-income countries.  There have been at least 36 school shootings since Newtown.  And dangerous people can still buy handguns in 34 states without background checks. What more evidence – how many more fatalities – do we need before the NRA is defeated and sane legislation is enacted?


 There’s more, of course – climate change and the state of education in the U.S., for example – but even Bernie Sanders doesn’t have the energy to confront all of our woes in one go.  And things aren’t looking good for legislative reform this year as the right and left continue to behave irresponsibly.  So what’s a country or a constituency to do? 

 At the very least, I suppose, we can remind people of the work ahead if America is not to fall behind in ways unimaginable a generation ago.  It wouldn’t hurt to send Bernie Sanders a thank-you note either.

Will Our Gilded Age Lead to Another Progressive Era?

Humorist Mark Twain was among the first to call the years bookmarking the turn of the 19th century the “Gilded Age.” Struck by the results of rapid industrialization, rampant greed, political corruption and the growing divide between the Haves and Have-Nots, Twain drew attention to America’s growing social issues by writing revealing satires about a society whose problems spelled trouble for most people.  Novelists Henry James and Edith Wharton painted literary pictures of what it was like to be of, or outside, the wealthy class, much as Dickens had, or Downton Abbey does visually today.

 During that Gilded Age, “robber barons” with deep pockets dined on delectables, accompanied by women with feathers and fans complimenting their fabulous gowns.  They wintered in Manhattan mansions and fled to Newport “cottages” during the hot summer months while the one percent of their day subsisted in shared flats, scraping by, often on leftovers and hand-me-downs from those they served.

 In today’s Gilded Age, Wall Street bankers dress down for dinner, their women in Gucci, Pucci and Louis Vuitton casual-wear. They live on Fifth Avenue as the barons did, or in rehabbed Brooklyn brownstones perhaps, and keep beachside condos in Boca Raton and Belize.

 To paraphrase a popular Thai expression, “Same same but [not all that] different.”

 Harvard professor Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, draws important comparisons between the first Gilded Age and ours. “Americans at the end of the nineteenth century were divided by class, ethnicity, and race, much as we are today,” he writes, and “social observers … were concerned with how to intertwine new technology with face-to-face ties.”  Morality was eroding, communities were fracturing, and social Darwinism – economic survival of the fittest – was part of the dominant ideology, he explains. 

 Enter the Progressive Era launched by left-leaning journalists like Jacob Riis, social activists like Ida Tarbell and Jane Addams, and authors like Upton Sinclair, who exposed urban squalor, government corruption, exploitation of immigrants, and the evils of big business and “banks too big to fail.” Ida Tarbell

 As the 20th century moved into its second decade, progressives increasingly yearned for a return to small town values, Putnam suggests, including connection and caring for neighbors in need.  They remembered the Mom and Pop shops that had been displaced by Sears Roebuck and the A&P. They also decried “cheap entertainment” because it added to the decline of civic engagement.

 Other great progressive thinkers had weighed in on the problems of a Gilded Age long before Putnam drew parallels to our own time.  Victorian reformer Benjamin Disraeli, for example, wrote this in 1845:  “In great cities men are brought together by the desire of gain. They are not in a state of co-operation, but of isolation, as to the making of fortunes and for all the rest they are careless neighbors.”

 The point is that the first Gilded Age seems to have foreshadowed our own time, in which wealth shrugs off poverty, one percent pleads while 99 percent play, and the promises of technology and innovation are overshadowed by what increasingly appears to be “fool’s gold.” 

 Then as now, as Putnam put it, “optimism…battled pessimism grounded in the hard realities of seemingly intractable social ills,” and “new concentrations of wealth and corporate power raised questions about the real meaning of democracy.”  Product Details

 As we have entered a new century, we too have witnessed “impoverished ethnic minorities struggle with social injustice.” We have seen changes in workplace practices, priorities and ethics that create new challenges for economists and employees alike.   Immigration is altering the face of America as it did the last time a new century was born. And once again, “older strands of social connection are being…destroyed by technological, economic and social change.”

 The lessons of the Progressive movement that followed the 20th century’s Gilded Age are mixed.  Much of what we know from that period is enlightening and informs how we should go forward in compelling ways. At the same time, we know from that experience that racism, classism, and an overwrought labor movement, as well as other inhibitors proved to be major roadblocks in the struggle for beneficial, sustainable social change.

 So the truth is that while we cannot go backwards, what the future might hold continues to be unclear, and often frightening.  We can only hope that if a new progressive era takes hold – and there is every indication that it might – we need to be mindful of past lessons learned and realistic and inclusive in developing a roadmap to a new and better place.

 Perhaps we would do well to start by reading the works of Mark Twain, Ida Tarbell, Edith Wharton, Jacob Riis and other social critics of that period.  Having “been there [and] done that,” they clearly have a thing or two to teach us, if only we can remain open to the lessons of another dubious golden age.


Why the Millennial Generation Gives Me Hope

Not long ago I participated in an event that attracted a good number of young women who are of the generation known as the Millennials.  Demographers use this term (or Gen-Y) when referring to the children of baby boomers, adults in their late thirties and early forties.  There are about 80 million of them in the U.S. and they represent the last generation born in the 20th century.  Life for them has never existed without the Internet; they are totally tech-savvy.


They’re also, it can be argued, socially conscious. They care about equity, social justice, poverty, peace, the environment and other issues of our time.  They seem more likely than the generation that precedes them to invest in social capital – a term Robert Putnam wrote about in his bestseller Bowling Alone, which analyzes the importance of – and decline in – valuable networks that help create beneficial changes in society. Whether its job networking, neighborhood watches or programs to feed the hungry, social capital and collective action matters, and increasingly, it matters to Millennials.  So does having meaningful work, a sense of community, and an openness to new ideas and experiences.

 The women I met at the event I attended were beginning their fourth decade. Each of them had a senior, lucrative position within their organizations and in their chosen fields, from medicine to marketing. Yet each of them was poised to forfeit the financial security and comfort zone of their respective workplaces in order to do something more meaningful professionally.

 Shortly after meeting those wonderful, risk-taking young women I read a piece in The New York Times that also gave me hope for the future because of our collective progeny.  It was about Jewish students at Swarthmore College who decided that their Hillel – the Jewish student group on many college campuses – would be the first “Open Hillel” in the country.  This decision meant that they would no longer abide by national Hillel guidelines that prohibit chapters from certain actions they deem to be not fully supportive of Israel.  Such actions might include inviting certain speakers, showing a film about Palestinians, or having a discussion with a Palestinian student group, or a left-leaning Jewish group for that matter. “All are welcome to walk through our doors,” Swarthmore students proclaimed. If I were a parent of one of those kids I’d be mighty proud.

 Millennials are social activists and social entrepreneurs.  Take the work of actress and filmmaker Kamala Lopez and her colleague Gini Sikes.  They are producing a film called “Equal Means Equal,” a documentary about women’s equality, as part of the ERA Education Project Lopez founded.  “Equal Means Equal provides a forum for the voices of American women to be heard on a national stage,” Lopez says.  The film, using archival footage and visual arts, highlights women from across the country as they talk about their lives and how they want them to change, with topics such as the gender pay gap, pregnancy discrimination, immigration, religion and violence among the subjects discussed.

  Kamala Lopez

Kiva co-founders Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley exemplify Millennial social entrepreneurs. A non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty, Kiva leverages the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions so that individuals can lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.   Since it was founded in 2005, over a million people have become Kiva lenders and over $500 million in loans to small-scale businesses in the world’s poorest countries have been made. More than 99 percent of those loans are paid back, encouraging donors to reinvest. “We envision a world where all people – even in the most remote areas of the globe – hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others,” Kiva leaders say. 


Millennials were among the leaders of the Occupy Movement, which regardless of its flaws, is aimed at social and economic equality.  And unlike their Boomer parents Millennials want a healthy balance between work and family life.  They are more likely to achieve gender equality on the home front and to comfortably reach across the divides of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

 Don’t get me wrong:  Millennials are viewed in some quarters as self-centered, lazy, job-hopping, neurotic narcissists with a huge sense of entitlement and a diminished ability to make commitments.  I’ve actually met a few who might qualify for some of those descriptors. But I know of or have engaged with enough people in this age group to believe that they offer a good deal of hope for the future of the planet, and that gives my slightly pre-Boomer heart a great deal of comfort.


What Does the Future Hold for Afghan Women?

Back in the 1920s things looked hopeful for women in Afghanistan.  King Amanullah Khan and his wife Queen Soraya worked diligently to improve women’s lives. The king discouraged polygamy, advocated against the veil, and pushed for greater personal freedom for females.  “Tribal custom must not impose itself on the free will of the individual,” he said.  His sister, Kobra, created the Organization for Women’s Protection while another sister established a women’s hospital.  Queen Soroya even founded the first magazine for women.

By the end of this progressive decade conservative tribal leaders pushed back against the growing freedoms for women and the King’s successor acquiesced.  Still, urban women entered the work force in the 1930s, mainly as teachers and nurses, and by 1959 many had unveiled.  A1964 constitution gave women the right to vote and to enter politics.

 All of these advances, and those that followed in the 1970s and 80s came to a crashing halt when the Taliban came to power in 1996 following Soviet rule. We’re familiar with their brutal oppression of women symbolized by blue burkhas and stoning deaths. 

 Post Taliban, things seemed to improve.  A woman was elected to the Loya Jirga in 2003 and the following year a new constitution codified that “the citizens of Afghanistan – whether man or woman – have equal rights and duties before the law.” In 2008 the first political party dedicated to women’s rights was launched and 35 percent of the more than five million children enrolled in schools were girls. 

 That was also the year that acid attacks on female students began.

The facts about Afghan women are chilling.  Only 14 percent of them are literate.  Their maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. Almost 80 percent of rural women have no access to health care. Nearly 60 percent of marriages involve girls younger than 16 and more than 87 percent of Afghan women are in forced marriage or suffer physical or sexual abuse by their husbands. Average life expectancy for women is 44 years.

 “The fall of the Taliban brought global attention to the plight of Afghan women,” a 2010 Afghan-web.com piece notes.  “But even with a sizeable amount of aid and scores of consultants and projects, palpable changes remain elusive.”

 That year, prominent Afghan women gathered in Kabul to spearhead a campaign to improve the lives of Afghan women through legislation while changing the prevailing male mindset.   For despite the 2004 Constitution old laws and tribal customs continued in the face of a government unwilling to enforce the law. Today, in spite of the efforts of many Afghan women who repatriated to help the women of their country, the situation remains bleak. 

 Last spring a member of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) told an interviewer that the country remains extremely dangerous for women. Ninety percent of Afghan females, she said, have experienced some form of violence and the suicide rate among women is climbing because women feel hopeless. 

In June, when security was handed over from NATO to Afghan forces and US troops began preparing for withdrawal, women’s concerns loomed large in the face of escalating attacks on high profile women.   Legislative and policy changes aimed at improving women’s lives are also being targeted.  The 2009 Elimination of Violence Against Women law may be amended to prohibit relatives of the accused from being questioned about abuses they’ve witnessed.  Some politicians have called for eliminating the minimum marriage age while others want to abolish women’s shelters and remove criminal penalties for rape.  The quota for women in government has been lowered; some want it ended altogether.

 Meanwhile, the Taliban are regaining legitimacy as an acceptable partner in peace-building.

 Malalai Joya,

a young activist elected to the Afghan parliament in 2005 (later removed from her post) told The Nation last November, “In rural areas, the situation for women is like hell. We have a mafia parliament. The majority of seats belong to warlords, drug lords, even Taliban. Most of the women in parliament are pro-warlord. Their role is symbolic. We’ve seen acid attacks, burning girls’ schools, cutting the nose and ears off women, public beatings and executions. In Taliban time we had one enemy; now we have three: the Taliban, warlords and occupation forces. When they leave the situation will be even bloodier…because more terrorists will come into power.”

 Such testimony calls into question a multi-million dollar program announced in September to support Afghan women’s political participation, a collaboration between the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the Asia Foundation aimed at voter turnout among women during the next elections.

 As one RAWA spokeswoman put it when asked if an Afghan Spring was imminent, “Change takes time. Things are not moving in the right direction. There won’t be a quick solution.” Then she added, “As a mother, I dream a safe, secure life for my children. Every mother has this dream: a safe life, even before education and good health.”

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 (A fuller version of this commentary can be found at www.towardfreedom.com)


Announcing “Birth Ambassadors” – the “definitive” book on Doulas!

Drum Roll, Please!  I am thrilled to announce that my book with lead author Christine Morton, Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-supported Birth in America, has just been published by Praeclarus Press!  Here’s an endorsement written by the noted midwife Dr. Robbie Davis-Floyd:

This book is THE definitive work on doulas in the United States. It is clearly and compellingly written, immediately drawing readers in to the story of the development of doulas in the U.S. and of the social movement that arose to support their incorporation into American hospital birth. Want to know what a doula actually does for laboring mothers? Read this book! Want to know what a doula can do for you personally, if you are expecting? READ THIS BOOK! Want to know if you yourself should become a doula? READ THIS BOOK! If you are an obstetrician, professional midwife, or obstetric nurse, read this book to find out how doulas can augment your care in ways that support you as well as the mother, the baby, and the family. You will find all your answers within its beautifully written pages.


The many individual stories written by mothers and by doulas themselves bring life and light to their experiences, and the many photos illuminate the stories even further. The authors do not avoid what is widely known as “the doula dilemma”—do doulas really make a difference in the birthing experience, or do they just make women feel better about traumatic births? Their strong affirmation of the multiple benefits of doula care should be read by all expectant parents, by all birth professionals who attend them, and by those thinking of becoming doulas as well as those who already are. This comprehensive, evidenced-based, and fascinating book will compel its readers to work hard to make birth better—more humanistic, more compassionate, more physiological, and more successful in terms of healthy babies and empowered mothers and families. 


–Robbie Davis-Floyd PhD, Senior Research Fellow, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas Austin, author of Birth as an American Rite of Passage, and co-editor of Mainstreaming Midwives.

Available from Praeclarus Press, Amazon.com, or order at your local bookstore.

Please share with anyone in the birth and parenting community, as well as with relevant practitioners. Thanks!ba mini pc 10-11

Counting Cats in Zanzibar: Reflections on Travel from a Seasoned Perspective

All my life I have disagreed with David Henry Thoreau: Unlike him, I definitely think it is “worthwhile to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.”

The joy of travel has been in my blood since I was a young child when the high point of summer was the family trip to Toronto to visit my father’s relatives.  On the eve of the journey my sister and I would lay out our new shorts, halter tops, and primary color sandals in order to be ready when the alarm sounded at 6:00 a.m. Teeth brushed and hair combed, we ran to our big, black Buick and did not argue with our brother for the window seat.  We were too busy savoring breakfast at Howard Johnson’s, part of the annual ritual that would begin our trip to another country!

Every year we took a different route in order to “enjoy the scenery.” Pre-interstate highway days, we drove through Pennsylvania Dutch country, New England or New York State, where we visited Ithaca’s gorges, the 1,000 islands, and of course, Niagara Falls. Every night we looked for AAA-approved motels in which to sleep, with their worn linoleum floors, chenille bedspreads, and inevitable spiders.  We thought it was great fun (except for the spiders.)

Once in Toronto we checked into the Royal York Hotel where a little man who looked just like the Phillip Morris icon roamed the lobby calling out, “Call for Mr. Smith!” or “Call for Mr. Jones!”  The next morning, before heading to my grandfather’s house, we ate breakfast in The Honeydew Restaurant and stopped at Simpson’s or Eaton’s so that my mother could add another bone china tea cup and saucer to her collection.  Only then were we ready for the obligatory visits where our cheeks would be pinched as this aunt or that said, “Look how you’ve grown!”

In 1964 I traveled solo to Europe for the first time.  I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven as I experienced Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome, and the Swiss Alps.  Relishing every moment of my Eurorail Pass train rides, every conversation with fellow travelers from different cultures, every museum and cathedral, I thought I’d go mad with the excitement of it all.  I stopped breathing at the sight of Michelangelo’s David, wept in San Marco Square, thrilled at the sound of Big Ben and the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard, ate prix fixe three-course meals on the Left Bank, and smiled back at Mona Lisa.  I even fell in love, but that is a story for another time.  In short, I knew that my life had changed and that as part of my metamorphosis, I would never stop traveling.

And I haven’t.  I returned two more times to Europe on my own, married a Brit who loves traveling as much as I do and with whom I was able to circle the globe because of his work, then found work myself that took me to countries in Africa, Asia, and Central America.  Together we have been to more than 90 countries (and all 50 states) for work and/or pleasure.  I even managed a teaching gig in Thailand for a year.

While in Thailand and then after retirement we traveled like mad cockroaches, scurrying from Southeast Asia to South America with a few European and Middle Eastern countries thrown in. 

Then we had a hiatus and something very strange started to happen.  We began to realize that we no longer wished to be in big, busy cities.  We didn’t want to “do” cathedrals and museums and ruins.  The thought of double-digit hours in flight grew increasingly off-putting. Renting apartments and eating dinner “at home” became more appealing than staying in hotels. Three weeks away seemed like an awfully long time.

I knew I was in trouble when I penned an essay called “Paris Blues” in which I wrote:

There is something ludicrous about standing on the Pont Neuf asking yourself why you’re there. Most people would give anything to stand on that iconic bridge overlooking the Seine.  But on a recent trip I felt like a jilted lover. I asked myself terrible questions: Why did I come back? What am I supposed to do here, now, this time?  I asked myself an even more ominous question:  Is it possible for an inveterate traveler to lose the thrill of reprise? Is there such a thing as traveler’s ennui?  Do I need larger fixes and only new places to feel again the thrill of people and place? I would feel utterly deprived not to see Paris again. But the fact is I stood on a bridge in Paris and wondered what I was doing there. 

Shortly after writing that, I found myself telling friends that I seem to be more into “purposeful” travel these days, wanting to go places where I can better understand the culture.  (Not long ago I spent two weeks volunteering at a hospital in Somaliland.) And that I’d like to revisit some of my favorite places, like England’s Lake District, or places that have changed a lot since I was there, like the Balkans.  Sometimes I can’t believe how much my travel tastes have changed. 

The British author Penelope Lively, now eighty, writes about her diminished desire for travel in her new memoir, Dancing Fish and Amonites.  “There are things I no longer want, things I no longer do,” she notes, travel being among them. She also surprises herself. “What? No further desire? You who crossed the Atlantic twice a year or so? Who was happy to hop off pretty well anywhere….who went on holidays?” Lively never wants to see another airport, she says, never wants to “brave Terminal Four” or “sit squashed in a metal canister with hundreds of others for hours on end. … I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Attempting to explain the change in her attitude toward travel the much-loved writer ponders whether “there is some benign mechanism that aligns diminished capacity with diminished desire.”  I’m not ready to go there yet – thankfully my capacity is not yet diminished and I still look forward to traveling – but her interpretation does begin to make a certain sense in the matter.

For now, my somewhat altered travel tastes notwithstanding, I continue to agree with Mark Twain: Travel is still enticing, not least because it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”   Like Mr. Twain, whose account of one trip gave us Innocents Abroad, I think “it would be well if such an excursion could be got up every year and the system regularly inaugurated.”

Extended annual trips may not be the thing anymore. And I may find myself changing priorities, venues, schedules, and accommodations a bit – more café crawls, less cathedral gaping, for example; fewer sightseeing excursions, more chatting with the local shopkeepers. But I am definitely not ready to let my passport expire. After all, I never know when I might have a fierce urge to weep once more in Venice, to visit Mongolia, or to count cats in Zanzibar.