Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Elephants On My Mind

When I was a little girl, children’s books were a big part of my life and I had definite favorites. I loved the Madeline stories about the perky French orphans, and the Dr. Zeus stories with their quirky characters and wonderful language, and (yes, I’ll admit it) the beautifully illustrated Disney books featuring Cinderella, Snow White, Pinocchio and others. But my very “bestest” favorite was Babar, the stately, even royal elephant, dressed in 3-piece suits (or cloaked like a king) with his beloved Celeste and their children by his side.

So it was natural enough that Babar came to mind today when I first heard a few scratchy details, then read the full story about Raju, an Indian street elephant, who was rescued by animal conservationists after 50 years of unrelenting abuse and shameful neglect by his owner/handler. This animal was so miserable that he literally wept when he realized he was being saved. The fact that he cried is what seemed to surprise people.

I don’t know anything about other mammals (mammals other than us), and I never gave their capacity for tears any thought, but I guess on some subconscious level I just assumed they could cry. What surprised (and horrified) me was that this animal had been so mistreated for so very, very long. Why do people do this to animals, the animals they supposedly love as pets, or value for their labor, or kill to market them for food – but not before making them live in the most horrible ways imaginable, then killing them in a fashion that is nothing less than Naziesque?!

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m not an “animal person.” I don’t go all mushy at the sight of a doe-eyed puppy, or feel all warm and bubbly watching a kitten play with a ball of wool. For the most part, I dislike and fear animals – probably because I was attacked by a German Shepherd as a toddler, grew up in an urban environment, and never had a pet. I just want to steer clear of all animals and wish they’d return the favor.

That said, I totally disapprove of people hurting animals, often very badly, apparently for the fun of it. What kind of ghouls are some of us that beating and torturing animals amuses instead of appalls, that we hunt for sport instead of survival, that we show no decency to the animals who nourish us? Back in the old days, many Native American nations performed rituals of honor and gratitude for every animal they killed (which they did as swiftly and painlessly as possible), then made sure they used every part of the animal in some useful way: food, clothing, shelter, tools, ornaments, whatever. Waste was dishonorable and cruelty a sin.

I’ve read that murderers, particularly sicko serial killers, often begin with killing small animals, then larger ones, working their way up to people. We know that humans have been savage throughout history and perhaps we’ve only been kidding ourselves that, as a race, we’ve evolved into less savage beings. Certainly spending 15 minutes with the News of the Day and learning – not about war, war is a more complicated thing – but about the individual, day-to-day cruelty that grown-up people impose on each other, on children, on animals, is enough to convince you that savagery is as contemporary as Silicon Valley. Violence, especially against those most physically vulnerable (women, children, domesticated animals) seems ever increasing and perpetrated by increasingly younger people, as well.

I’m not a vegetarian and seriously doubt I ever will be. And I don’t believe in animal rights in the sense that other animals have the same rights as human animals. Even though there are savages among us, I still believe people are special and that we have rights that animals (and corporations…) don’t have.

But I also believe that if people are to justifiably consider themselves superior to “lower forms” of life, then we have the highest form of responsibility to protect and respect all animal life, most especially those animals who work for us, are our companions, or who feed us. If we don’t do that, then Babar really is the one who belongs in the three-piece suit and we, as Raju was for 50 years, should be bound with chains, forced to perform tricks for mindless tourists and subsist on garbage. Have we really progressed so little? If so, maybe Raju’s tears were not for his freedom, but for our stunted souls.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Complicated Independence Day

I slept through much of the day – and evening – of July 4th. I had no plans and it had been an exhausting week of shocking events (the Hobby Lobby decision, the hateful demonstration against three busloads of frightened, stranded, children)  that made me question (hardly for the first time!) what it is that we continue to celebrate every Fourth of July. During the few hours I was awake, I asked myself if I loved my country, if I even liked my country, and I couldn’t respond with a clear yes or no. That freaked me out.

My mother’s parents were both Jews who, when they were still very young, emigrated from Eastern Europe in the years before World War I (that’s 1 not 2). They didn’t come together, they met here. They became citizens and my grandfather served in the First World War. My father, and his father before him, came here from the West Indies. They too became citizens. I don’t know what my grandfather did except work for the Chunky Candy factory in Brooklyn for all of his working life in the U.S. For the record, they all came here legally.

My father worked as a Merchant Marine from the time he was a teenager and during  part of that career he served for the U.S. in WWII and barely escaped from fires on two oil tankers. Later, he was a waiter and wine steward on several trans-Atlantic ocean liners, including the S.S. America and S.S. United States. During his many years at sea he saw a great deal of the world.

When my mother insisted he get a job on land and not be away from home for great lengths of time, he became a skycap for TWA. He schlepped luggage for 25 years, but the job gave my parents cheap-sometimes-free flying for a lot of international vacation travel. So when my father told me, several times from my teens into adulthood, that despite all its problems America was the greatest country in the world, I had to at least in part believe that, because I couldn’t deny his intelligence or experience. 

Studying history was one of my father's hobbies; he knew 150 million Native Americans had been killed in the process of creating America and he didn't negate that any more than Slavery. But he also knew that history was riddled with powerful nations taking over less powerful ones and killing or enslaving the indigenous people or anyone who objected. He grew up in the British West Indies. He understood the violent, dishonorable food chain of nation-building. Yet he still loved America as it was and all it had the capacity to become. 

But my parents didn’t live to see the 21st century. They didn’t live through the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and watch that experience make the country frightened, angry, and hostile ever since. They didn't see new communications and manufacturing technology change everything. They didn't see our environmental destruction and indifference start to come home to roost. They didn’t see the Republicans, a fraternity of stodgy businessmen, turn into a hateful Party committed to reversing civil, voting, and women’s rights.

They didn’t endure the Great Recession of 2008 that nearly tanked this country and has left us still sorely damaged. They didn’t see the national Legislature become deliberately obstructionist in response to the first Black US president, adding constant racist insult to political injury from Day One. They didn’t live through this country’s two longest, incredibly expensive, and ultimately pointless wars.

And my family of immigrants didn’t watch this nation of immigrants despise immigrants because they had sneaked in rather than wait their legal turn, the nation’s hatred even extending to those who came here as little kids or who now are escaping to here on their own as young children, because life in their countries has become too horrible and dangerous to endure.

My parents didn’t live to see us re-evaluate America’s Founding Fathers who, while undeniably brave, bold, revolutionaries, were also largely rich, slave-owning land-holders. They didn’t watch contemporary government screw over military veterans; see many politicians and a great many citizens become rabid fundamentalists and deniers of science in the name of religion; or witness Congress purposely declare War on the Poor instead of War on Poverty, not to mention being governmental leaders who don’t believe in government.

My mother, who had several serious ailments and skimped on her meds because they were so expensive, didn’t live to see something resembling universal coverage be denigrated and sabotaged by politicians who feared it more than disease.

To be honest, part of what saddened me yesterday was that I didn’t have a cookout to attend or anyone with whom I could go watch the fireworks (I love fireworks), even though I dislike and disapprove of the way we’ve turned every national holiday of social and historical importance into an occasion to party and shop.

But mostly, I was and still am preoccupied with how America has stepped back. I’m angry with the Supreme Court and Congress; I’m concerned that it took our smart, idealistic President six years to realize those shitheads in Washington are never going to work with him; and I’m very worried that this year’s elections will bring even more irresponsible nutjobs into national power and give “lame duck” terrible new meaning for the next two years. Papa, I wish you were here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Twisted Justice

Yesterday, when America’s Supreme Court once again decided 5-to-4, this time in favor of Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood, they asserted that the religious beliefs of the owners of private corporations trump the individual beliefs and rights of their employees. This decision does much more than deprive women of insurance coverage for certain kinds of contraception. It gives seriously discomfiting credence to the ridiculous notion that corporations are people and that the rights of corporate persons are greater than the rights of human persons – which is pretty much how things have been going in all areas for some time.

So the Court ended its session with yet another attempt to further a Conservative Christian agenda, redefine personhood, set a dangerous precedent, and create genuine confusion about what is legal, let alone Constitutional. It’s no wonder that Justice Bader Ginsberg in her dissent said, “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

I’m so angry about this latest SCOTUS bullshit that I am literally physically, emotionally, and mentally drained. And the thought that I’m morally obliged to help fight this is thoroughly overwhelming – in large part because I don’t understand it.

According to the research I’ve done, the Constitution, in the First and Fourteenth Amendments, makes clear the necessity for a separation of Church and State, even though that specific language isn’t used. But it doesn’t address a unification of Church and Commerce. So what in the Constitution makes it legal for the owners of a private company to determine what kinds of health insurance coverage they will or won’t provide to their employees, not based on cost or law, but on the company’s owners religious beliefs?

Hobby Lobby is a very big company, which is what makes it a corporation. It has thousands of employees in hundreds of stores across the country. This is not a new business, so employees had health insurance in the past. Apparently, it’s the provisions of Obamacare-governed insurance that added types of contraception – such as the Morning After pill and IUDs, methods that can induce abortion – that the deeply anti-abortion Green family (the owners) object to and therefore don’t want to include or pay for (they don’t object to other forms of birth control, such as the pill or diaphragms, which they are willing to pay for – thank you, Green family…).

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that corporations are people. Why do they have rights that human people don’t have? For example, I have Medicare and pay over $100 a month for it. Medicare covers many things that I will never need, such as medications, treatments, and surgeries that only apply to men. Medicare doesn’t cover dental care or eye glasses or hearing aids – all of which I do need.

Yet I can’t say “I don’t want to pay for men’s stuff, I want my Medicare payments to cover what I need.” If the Green family gets to cherry pick the coverage they will and won’t cover – not just for themselves but for thousands of other people – based on what they believe, why can’t I do the same, just for myself, based on what I actually need? 

This whole thing is fucked up. As usual, it’s about religion, women, and sex, a combination that Conservatives are very uptight about, as well as the idea that big business and microscopic goo have more human rights than women. The mind reels.

It would be bad enough if it stopped there. But as Justice Bader Ginsberg also pointed out, “Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today’s decision.”

This, my friends, is what’s known as a truly slippery slope. All of America, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.