Over the last few months, there’s been plenty of talk about the state of health care in America. In June, Michael Moore came out with his damning documentary “Sicko,” which portrayed the struggle of many Americans to obtain basic care. Then came “Hillarycare” – Hillary Clinton’s attempt to redeem herself for the fiasco of her 1996 plan – and her Democratic rivals’ responses.
Few deny that America’s health system is facing a crisis. Fifty million Americans are without health insurance, 9 million of whom are children. In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked the United States 37th on its list of countries with the best health care systems. Countries who ranked higher include Colombia, Morocco and Ukraine.
The reasons we should care about our health system may seem obvious: access to and quality of health care are literally life and death issues. So how have we come to this point? And why does change seem so far away?
The most obvious answer can be found in the demographics of who has health insurance and who doesn’t – of who can hire a world-class surgeon to reconstruct their nose and who has to let problems fester until they land them in an emergency room. Indeed, the United States health care system gives some Americans the best care in the world. And so, for the rich and powerful in our country, reform can seem threatening.
The breakdown of who is served by our health system and who is not also means that this crisis is deceptively invisible. Occasionally a tragic story surfaces about an uninsured patient’s needless demise. In February, 12-year-old Deamonte Driver died in Maryland, after bacteria from an abscess in his tooth spread to his brain. An $80 tooth extraction could have saved him – had his family had access to dental insurance.
But most of the time, the victims of this crisis suffer quietly, out of the public eye. They make difficult choices between bad options. Often, health concerns compound other anxieties about finding a place to live or supporting a family or getting training to advance their careers. Disease is devastating to everyone, but when a dreaded diagnosis comes, how much greater the mental and physical toll on the uninsured and under-insured.
There’s more at stake here, though, than individual suffering and collective guilt. The way that our country cares for the health of its people has implications for the health of our democracy. “In health there is freedom,” wrote the Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel. “Health is the first of all liberties.” If America aspires to be the land of opportunity, none of our citizens should be skimping on needed treatment or dying from toothaches.
You walk on the Commons. A man in a blonde wig, dressed in fishnets and a low-cut halter lurches by, pushing his bike. A few steps behind, two women stroll arm-in-arm, proudly displaying their unshaven legs and armpits. A prototype of gender bending, these three people would turn heads in decades past. But today in Ithaca, such examples of nonconformity are becoming more expected. Still, in one of “the most enlightened towns in America,” it’s hard to tell if we’re seeing just the local environment or a greater national trend toward looser conceptions of gender.
To some degree, traditional understandings of gender identities reflect reality and serve an important function in society. The biological differences between men and women are obvious, and then there are the differences that come from socialization, which – even if constructed – are experienced as real. These differences are at least recognizable enough that generalizations like “women are more emotional” or “men like to fix things” sound something like the truth. But as obvious as some of these distinctions are, it’s also impossible to deny that gender and sexuality are more complex and fluid than boy-girl, man-woman or gay-straight.
As we try to transcend the gender roles that have been handed down to us, we tend to create new ones. Where homemakers were once expected to have dinner on the table by five, women are now discouraged from embracing domesticity at a young age. Where girls were once praised for their chastity, they are now over-sexualized by our media. On the other side, men are no longer just emotionless breadwinners. Generation Y has marked the decline of the auto mechanic and the rise of the metro-sexual.
Even as some of our ideas about gender and sexuality may have become more progressive, pop culture seems to be reinforcing stereotypes as much as ever. No one emerges unscathed; women are objectified, men are belittled, both homosexuals and heterosexuals are hypersexualized, and our schools, families and lives fall into the sinkhole of self-fulfilling prophesy. Gender and sexual identity are still defined and complicated by social influences and expectations.
The more we rely on sexual caricatures of men and women, the more we alienate all those people who fall outside the new ideals of gender and sexuality. Similarly, as we focus on the growing LGBT and women’s rights movements, we must be careful not to forget that gender stereotypes are imposed upon every member of our society. As one anarchist poster says, “For every girl who is tired of being called oversensitive, there is a boy who fears to be gentle, to weep.”
Either way, we understand that gender is not as black-and-white as it used to be. It’s clear that sexuality and gender roles still affect our lives profoundly. They surface ubiquitously in our media, our speech, our actions, our perceptions of ourselves – even our memories. And so we offer up The Gender Issue, an examination of one of the more complex issues of our day. We hope you find it as thought provoking as we have.
There’s a scene in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” in which Moore argues with a producer of “Cops.” What would happen, Moore asks him, if instead of chasing after small-time criminals, “Cops” showed police officers walking into corporate office buildings and putting the handcuffs on executives.
Moore’s suggestion may be over the top, but he raises a legitimate point. Why are we more comfortable watching police officers go after a drunk or a deadbeat than a corporate player, whose crimes likely have greater implications for society?
We tend to think of crime as something we see on the evening news – the random stabbing, robbery, shooting or arson, represented by the bewildered, unshaven man in the mug shot. We talk about crime rates as an amalgamation of things done by people whom we’d otherwise overlook. Crime is associated with deviance – with disobeying orders and acting out.
But criminality is not the exclusive domain of deviants. Institutions and governments – and individuals working within them – also break the law, kill or injure people and destroy resources and property. Sometimes these so-called “white collar” crimes are prosecuted, and sometimes people face punishment. Less often are institutions themselves interrogated or held accountable. And when policy makers talk about reducing crime, rarely do they focus on the crimes of those who hold and abuse power.
We have a stake in associating criminality with rebels. If criminals are those not playing by the rules, then our assumptions about what those rules are can remain intact. But we have a harder time identifying crime when it goes on within institutions, among people who are following orders. To do so would be to call into question the stability and legitimacy of the foundations of our society and our understanding of the law itself.
So while we can all agree, for example, that a contract between two people is legally binding, public opinion is divided over whether the U.S. government must abide by the treaties it has signed. While the owners of a nursing home can be held criminally negligent for abandoning their charges during a hurricane, the federal government faces no similar consequences for abandoning an entire city. And while war tax resistors can be sent to jail for defrauding the government, no American leader has gone to jail for the $5 billion lost to fraud each year in Iraq reconstruction efforts.
These analogies aren’t perfect, but they beg the question, at what point are institutions immune from the law? And what are the consequences of failing to hold them accountable?
Some of these consequences are all too clear. They can be seen in the devastation in Iraq and the Gulf Coast, in polluted rivers and melting ice caps, in contaminated food and lost savings.
But there are also consequences that are harder to see - consequences for corporate culture and the expectations that we have of our political and economic leaders. When we downplay the significance of white collar crime - and embrace the sensationalism of “Cops” and the evening news - we create an environment in which the marginalized become criminals and the powerful get off scot-free.
As students, we have a limited perspective on the Ithaca community. There’s a lot about Ithaca we ignore, fail to recognize, or fail to appreciate. It’s easy to get mired in simplified clichés: Ithaca is . . .complete the sentence.
One of those clichés boasts that Ithaca is “ten square miles surrounded by reality.” In other words, it’s a kooky, free-thinking alternative to conventional America. But Ithaca is, in fact, connected to all the realities of this country, whether we like it or not.
As many of the articles in this issue point out, Ithaca doesn’t always live up to its progressive reputation. It’s still plagued by problems found throughout the U.S. including racism, poverty and corporatization of the economy.
Some things we can blame on circumstances beyond our control. For example, as Pete Meyers of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center points out on pg. 24, New York State Law prevents Tompkins County from establishing a higher minimum wage. But some of Ithaca’s shortcomings we have the ability to address.
Segments of Ithaca’s population may be living out some sort of progressive ideal, but there are plenty of Ithacans who don’t have access to the same ideas and information. How do people living below the poverty line afford to buy organic food? How can a single mother working two minimum wage jobs be expected to take part in political activism? How many of Ithaca’s activists are consciously working to include marginalized groups in their campaigns? Part of what is holding Ithaca back is the divisions between rich and poor, black and white, alternative and mainstream, town and gown.
Ithaca has a lot of potential as a place where positive ideas can become Ithaca-reality. People here are passionate about their ideals, but to cite another cliché, this group of Ithacans “thinks globally and acts locally.” The problem is that sometimes we need to think locally as well. Dealing with global issues like climate change or the war in Iraq on a local level is important, but recognizing problems in our own community is a sometimes harder but equally important task, one that may require us to change our own ways of thinking and living.
In this issue we ask you to look critically at the many realities of the Ithaca as a community and not as a stereotype.
- The Editors
So what do we mean by “-ism?”
We don’t have a simple answer. The isms we have in mind – racism, capitalism, existentialism, socialism, etc. - are ideologies and belief systems. They are complex, not only because of the complexity of the ideas behind them, but because of the variety of things they have come to represent. -Isms exist on many levels – as abstract theories, as social or economic realities and as labels by which we classify ourselves and others.
Four pages of this issue are devoted to journalism, which we acknowledge is not an -ism in the usual sense. Journalism is a profession and a concept, not an ideology or a belief system. But besides being an issue of concern to many of our readers and writers, the debate about the Park School’s journalism program does relate to this month’s theme.
One of the potential problems with -isms is that, while useful, they tend to be oversimplified in popular discourse. They also are prone to being used to advance the agendas of those in power. Journalism is supposed to challenge these tendencies, but contemporary journalism often fosters them instead.
Part of the concern about the mainstream press is that it is presents too coherent a picture of society. A wealth of books and articles – many of which are assigned in classes at Ithaca College – describe how corporate media presents a limited range of views and rarely interrogates the isms on which our society is based.
So is mainstream American journalism the voice of capitalism and consumerism?
Probably not… yet. But it is the responsibility of journalism educators to make sure that a trend in this direction is stopped. Social science classes readily address this issue, but the journalism department also has a responsibility to look critically at the press.
More than issues of staffing and course rigor, which are addressed in the report produced by Alan Wright’s Issues and the News class on the journalism department, the Park School must also explore deeper issues about the nature of journalism education. There are already examples of the school sponsoring critical debate about the media, particularly through speakers like Seymour Hersh, Bill Moyers and Norman Solomon. Reworking the journalism curriculum provides an opportunity to integrate this spirit into coursework as well.
As part of the press in this community, we struggle ourselves with the responsibility to tackle complex issues with complexity. Admittedly, we have the luxury of a relaxed production schedule, secure funding and a Park administration dedicated to protecting a free student press. Using these opportunities, we present the following: our exploration of -isms that shape us, whether we like it or not.
- The Editors
On Nov. 8, Sulayman Nyang, a professor from Howard University, gave a talk here entitled “Post 9/11: Muslim-Christian Relations at a Crossroads” as part of the lecture series “Global Fear/Global Fury: Engaging Muslims.” Nyang, a proponent of interfaith dialogue, spoke about the history of Muslims in America and the value of communication between religions.
Naeem Inayatullah, professor of politics at IC, was the faculty respondent. He took quite a different position on interfaith dialogue, one that, in this age of political correctness and diversity education, was challenging. Interfaith dialogue, he said, is usually useless. The models of dialogue that we see today usually consist of two groups, each assuming they have a monopoly on religious truth, coming together to notice their differences. There is rarely an acknowledgement of political realities or historical inequalities, and rarely does either side come away questioning its own beliefs. What, Inayatullah asked, is the use of that?
To many, Inayatullah’s position may seem needlessly cynical. But his argument brought up complexities that are often overlooked. Do we brush over rather than engage the real differences between our values and traditions? In our approach to religious tolerance, are we too quick to adopt a utopian view of the world?
The need for peaceful coexistence between religious groups is as evident now as it’s ever been. The situation in Iraq has deteriorated even further and faster, as the brutal fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has become a de-facto civil war. Nearby in Lebanon, the aftermath of this summer’s war with Israel has shaken the delicate balance of that country’s Christian, Shi’a, Sunni and Druze communities. After the assassination of a Christian government minister, there is talk of civil war there as well. The Pope recently traveled to Turkey to try to mend his relationship with the Muslims there, after his insensitive comments about Islam in September provoked violent responses around the world.
Religious extremism is at least partly to blame for all of these examples. As always, extremists are playing on fears and ignorance to promote their divisive and often violent agendas. And as Maggie Fisk writes, religious people don’t have a monopoly on fundamentalism. The New Atheists take an approach that is similar in many ways to that of their religious counterparts.
Closer to home, religious differences can be a source of anxiety for members of our own community. Erika Spaet reports on how IC’s Muslim community deals with marginalization and negative stereotypes.
But while the negative effects of organized religion are well-documented, there are also countless examples throughout history of religion inspiring movements for peace and justice. Professor Brian Karafin recalls the activism in the 1960s of the Catholics Daniel Berrigan and Thomas Merton and the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. Today faith inspires the work of Calvin DeWitt, an evangelical environmentalist interviewed in this issue.
Clearly, religion’s influences are far-reaching and complex. But as Inayatullah argued, we often have a flawed approach to communicating with one another about religious issues. While abandoning communication altogether seems unproductive, we need a restructuring of the lines of communication between religious groups in order for tolerance to be meaningful.
On a secular, progressive college campus, religion is sometimes dismissed as foolish or at least overlooked. But whether we write it off as myth or embrace a particular tradition, religion is still an inescapable and powerful force in our society. Therefore it’s worth our time and energy to look at it seriously.
Look again at the cover of this issue. The proportions of the continents, if you didn’t notice already, are a bit skewed in favor of North America. The true area of the United States is about one-fifth the area of Asia, less than one-third the area of Africa and just over half the area of South America. Our map, however, plays off the ethnocentric world view that Americans are sometimes accused of possessing.
Of course, all people have a tendency to view the outside from the perspective of their own national or cultural background. To an extent, this is inevitable; it would be impossible to detach ourselves entirely from our own identity when interpreting our place in the world. Nevertheless, Americans are often considered the textbook example of this global egotism. And whether or not that generalization is fair, it’s undeniable that most of us could stand to be more aware of the world outside our borders. With that in mind, we begin this academic year with the International Issue.
Much of this issue deals with populations that most of us, either by choice or circumstance, don’t often see. But even though we may not regularly interact with, for example, the immigrant cooks who prepare our food, they are far from irrelevant. In “The Summer People,” Colleen Goodhue reflects on the ambition and the struggle of the Brazilian immigrants with whom she worked. And following the idea of cultural isolation by choice versus circumstance, Chelsea Theis, in “Not On My Watch,” asks why it is so difficult for student activists to move their peers to action against horrific violations of human rights such as the crisis in Darfur.
We’ll introduce you to a highly marginalized group of Moroccan matriarchs who make a great effort against traditional prejudices to provide for their families in a rural village. We offer the first part in a series on refugee and immigrant populations living in Central New York—our own backyard, as it were. Maybe you’re already familiar with these stories, but if not, then we offer them to you as a brief window to a new and unexplored place.
There’s always something to learn by stepping outside one’s own experiences. In anthropology, it’s called the emic perspective—absorbing the unfamiliar and observing it from a place within its original context, thereby taking away a new understanding of human interactions.
It is as Omar Bajwa said in regards to interfaith dialogue during our conversation with him and Michael Faber (see page 14: “Defying Intolerance”):
The first stepping-stone is that you understand that [others are] human beings – that they have beliefs and rituals and practices that are different than yours, and there’s a beauty to that, and it should be respected for what it is. And then the second step, ideally – the mature response – is then that merging [towards] some sort of common vision.
And because one of Buzzsaw’s main goals is to encourage dialogue on campus, we’d love to hear anything you have to add to this discussion.
Buzzsaw Haircut is funded by the Ithaca College Student Government Association, the Park School of Communications and a generous grant from Campus Progress.
Our Press is our press.
Front cover and back cover of print edition by Jake I. Forney.
Section dividers of print edition by Jake I. Forney and Justin Lubliner.