Sunday, December 18, 2011

It's Time to End the Embargo on Cuba

“I think it’s time for us to end the embargo on Cuba”, Barack Obama declared as he was running for the Senate in 2004, “The Cuban embargo has failed to provide for the sort of rising standard of living, has squeezed the innocents in Cuba, and utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro – who has now been there since I was born. So it’s time for us to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed.”

Since Obama recognized this matter-of-fact truth, the embargo on Cuba failed to overthrow the Castro regime for an additional 8 years, thusfar failing for a grand total of 52 years and achieving the dubious distinction of being the longest-running blockade in in the history of the world. It would be fair to say that the U.S. embargo on Cuba has been the worst trade policy ever made.

So why don’t we just call a spade a spade and finally open up trade with Cuba? Now more than ever, American businesses desperately need to access new markets and increase our exports to other countries. As the Obama administration has sold free trade agreements with Panama and Colombia as part of the Recovery Agenda, it’s time to repackage trade with Cuba as a means of expanding markets for American farmers and manufacturers and creating more American jobs.

Trade sanctions are more than just a means of making a statement; they are economic policies with real world ramifications for the markets of the United States, the targeted country, and third party markets as well. Trade sanctions must be subject to the same cost-benefit analysis as any other economic policy. If Congress were to ban the export of tear gas to Bahrain, that would have a targeted effect on the abilities of the Bahraini state to repress its own people and only a minimal effect on the U.S. economy. The benefits would far outweigh the costs.

However, if you compare such a nominal targeted sanction to our comprehensive embargo on Cuba which prohibits almost all economic activity with the island nation, this policy cannot withstand the scrutiny of any rational analysis. The costs of the United States' self-abnegation from the Cuban market disproportionately outweigh the benefits – that is, if there are any benefits at all.

In the 1960s when Castro was harboring Soviet nuclear weapons and threatening to foment Communist insurrection throughout the Americas, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations were arguably justified in restricting trade with Cuba. At a time when Pentagon hawks were advocating for a ground invasion to topple the regime and all-out war with the Soviet Union, economic blockade was a reasonable alternative to gambling with nuclear Armageddon.

But half a century later, the Cold War is over, the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are among our most important trading partners, and the strategic value of containing Cuba is paltry-to-nonexistant. Uncle Fidel is 85, ailing, and has relinquished all official powers; his anti-American subversion now consists of writing the occasional editorial on his sporadically-updated blog. In the year 2012, Cuba is no more a threat to the national security of the United States than the left-wing Caribbean nations of Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, or Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

On the other hand, the costs of the embargo on Cuba to the U.S. economy are enormous. Cuba is a market of 11 million consumers and a GDP of $57 billion. The island nation needs to import $9 billion worth of mostly food, refined oil, farm machinery and chemicals every year. And because of the Helms-Burton Act which codified the embargo into law, this promising market only 90 miles from the Florida coast is all but completely off-limits to American businesses, taking $9 billion in potential U.S. exports, untold billions more output from the ancillary commerce which could result, and effectively flushing them down the toilet.

It is still fair for observers of objectively-discernible reality to decry the Republic of Cuba's contemptible human rights record. The government remains a dictatorship which muzzles opposing views, jails political prisoners and the like. There is a convincing human rights-based argument that we shouldn’t sell them tanks, helicopters, rifles and bullets that could be used in the act of political repression.

But now that Communism is an anachronistic novelty, is there any reason why we shouldn’t be able to freely sell the Cuban people American-made food, clothing, medicine, and toys? Is there any reason why the U.S. should single out Cuba’s lack of multiparty elections to maintain the most restrictive trade sanctions on the books? Even in our own hemisphere, why is Cuba more deserving of embargo than, say, human rights abusing Venezuela ($55 billion in trade in 2011), Colombia ($35.7 billion), or Bolivia($1.5 billion)?

The U.S. embargo of Cuba is so severe that it severely infringes upon the rights of American citizens. Section 515.204 of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations prohibits any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction from engaging in any transaction relating to any product which is of Cuban origin. Section 515.204 doesn’t prohibit the travel per se of U.S. citizens to Cuba, but it does make it a crime for U.S. citizens to so much as pay the bill at a Havana restaurant without an elusive license from the Treasury Department. Any U.S. citizen found guilty of making such a transaction can be fined up to $250,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 10 years.

The cold winter of the unilateral U.S. embargo is beginning to thaw. In January 2011 President Obama quietly issued an executive order easing the travel ban to Cuba – allowing the Treasury and State Departments to authorize “purposeful travel” by academic, religious, and cultural groups to the island. Obama’s executive order also allows for the transfer of funds to Cuban religious and civil society groups – but pointedly refrained from allowing the unrestricted flow of remittances from Cuban-Americans to their family members on the island.

Imagine the possibilities for the U.S. economy if President Obama were to go further and act on his campaign pledge to completely do away with the draconian ban on travel, if he were to use his executive power to eliminate Section 515.204 of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations so that any American citizen could come and go as they please…

Analysts from the Cuba Policy Foundation estimate that if the federal government were to completely lift the travel ban, approximately 1 million Americans would take advantage of their newfound liberty in the first year alone. This would not only be a boon to the Cuban economy, but to the American tourist economy as well. Lifting the travel ban would create thousands of additional jobs at US airlines, cruise ships, tour operators, travel agents, hotels, restaurants, etc. The CPF estimates that in the first year the U.S. economy would grow by about $545 million in GDP and 3,797 new jobs in the first year. As business becomes more established we could be talking about the range of $2 billion in additional economic output and 12,180 new jobs in the United States alone.

Why stop there? Raúl Castro has taken significant steps to liberalize the Cuban economy by allowing private citizens to own their homes and establish small businesses. Why doesn’t the Obama administration allow U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba to meet aspiring entrepreneurs who might want to take out a micro-loan? If a Cuban guy in Holguín wants to open up a pizzeria, why should U.S. trade law prevent him from importing Cabot cheese and Hormel pepperoni?If a lady in Camagüey wants to open up a beauty parlor, is there any logical reason for the U.S. Treasury Department to prevent her from importing Revlon makeup and Pantene shampoo? As it now stands, draconian U.S. trade regulations are stifling Cuba’s transition to a market economy!

Thanks to a crack in the embargo enacted by Congress in 2000, the Treasury Department now allows a modest amount of food exports to Cuba for “humanitarian” reasons each year. Embargo notwithstanding, many Cubans are voracious consumers of American-made rice and beans, mayonnaise and hot sauce to the tune of $560 million a year. Nevertheless, these food exports are subject to extremely stifling banking regulations which prohibit direct wiring of money for transactions. Any wiring of funds must be conducted through third-party countries, and much of the transacting is relegated to cash. If Congress were to relax the Cuba-specific banking regulations to the same level as regulations on money transfers to, say, the Dominican Republic, American farmers could be making between $200 to $300 million in additional revenues.

The Cuban market imports $9 billion of refined oil, food, farm machinery and chemicals every year. It should be one of the greatest markets for U.S. goods. But U.S. goods now constitute only 6.3% of the country’s imports because the market is dominated by the Venezuelans, Chinese, and Spaniards whose governments allow essentially free trade to the country. Even the mighty Canadians are beating us in the competition to meet the Cuban market. We could add billions of dollars to the United States GDP by simply deleting a couple of antediluvian trade restrictions from the U.S. Code.

So why doesn’t Congress simply repeal the Helms-Burton Act and allow Americans to trade with Cubans? There remains the disproportionately powerful bloc of Cubans émigrés still smarting from the events of 1959. Both parties see Florida as the sine qua non of victory in the presidential and Congressional elections, so most "serious" candidates are scared of casting a vote that might let their opponents cast them as “soft on Communism.” Moreover, now that Cuba hawk Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl.) is the Chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the prospects for reform are stalled so long as the Republicans maintain a majority in the House.

But yesterday's electoral calculations of Cuban-American/Floridian politics are now as relevant to modern needs as a VHS rental store. Nowadays, a clear majority of Cuban-Americans are in favor of ending the embargo and normalizing relations with the Cuban government. Indeed, many second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans are willing to rethink the embargo because - historical injustices aside - they realize that they would stand the most to benefit if it were curtailed. Fluent hispanophone Cuban-American youth are going to be the most valuable employees in boomtown post-embargo Miami.

The embargo on Cuba has never been an effective means of strangling the Communist regime into submission, it never will be, and it’s about time that Congress finaly adopts a trade policy with Cuba which reflects the facts. It's also about time that Congress adopts a trade policy with Cuba which reflects the needs of the United States economy. The Cuba hawks who vote to uphold the 52-year-old embargo are like the Imperial Japanese soldiers found guarding Indonesian islets well into the 1970s because they never got the memo that their war was over. We can no longer afford to continue humoring the old Cold Warriors’ delusions. It’s time to finally open trade with Cuba.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Express Conditions and the Doctrine of Prevention in The Muppets

In 1979 Kermit the Frog, on behalf of the Muppets, entered into a “standard rich and famous” contract with studio executive Lew Lord. The fine print of the contract included a clause which transferred the Los Angeles property of the Muppet Studios to energy magnate Tex Richman for the ostensible purpose of establishing a museum. An express condition of this contract, buried in the fine print, stipulated that the Muppets shall relinquish all rights to the property, and that these rights will transfer to Richman unless Mr. The Frog can raise $10 million by a certain date in 2011.

It is apparent that Lew Lord wrote this contract in bad faith. When Kermit the Frog signed the “standard rich and famous” contract in 1979, he apparently did not realize that Lew Lord’s standard form contract included any language regarding the Muppet Studios property. Most importantly, even though Kermit did sign away the rights to the property, the language suggested that the purpose of this transfer was to build a museum. Richman’s ulterior motive for purchasing the land was to extract valuable oil deposits which lay beneath the old Muppet Studios. Hence this disagreement constitutes a serious matter of non-disclosure. If the Muppets knew that there were oil deposits under the property and Richman’s true interest in purchasing the property was in their extraction, then it is unlikely that Kermit the Frog would have agreed to the sale on these terms or at all. Therefore, if Richman were to sue for specific performance, the Muppets can raise the matters of non-disclosure and general bad faith dealing for a rescission of the contract.

In addition, the Muppets attempted to raise the $10 million as stipulated as an express condition to void the transfer of the Muppet Studios complex to Richman – and they did substantially perform upon this condition by raising $9,999.99 in a Telethon. The Muppets unarguably failed to meet this express condition, despite the fact that they engaged in unlawful behavior and kidnapped Jack Black in attempting to do so. Fozzie Bear even posed the question, “What’s more illegal – minorly inconveniencing Jack Black or letting Tex Richman take over Muppet Studios?”; the rest of the Muppets replied, “Kidnapping Jack Black!” Whether or not a court might find that the Muppets committed the criminal act of kidnapping or merely the intentional tort of wrongful imprisonment appears to be a moot point because this act was merely incidental to the Muppets’ attempt to raise $10 million and fulfill the terms of the contract.

Indeed, the Muppets did not fulfill the express condition of the contract pertaining to the raising of $10 million in order to prevent the transfer of the Muppet Studios to Richman. However, Richman acted in bad faith by sabotaging the Muppet Theater’s electric and phone lines, plunging the theater in darkness and preventing the phone bankers from receiving monetary pledges. According to the Doctrine of Prevention, a condition of a contract is excused if one of the parties wrongfully hinders of prevents the condition from occurring. It is apparent that Richman’s sabotage of the electric and phone lines was intended to prevent the Muppets from fulfilling the condition pertaining to the raising of $10 million, and thus a court would most likely excuse the non-performance of this condition.

The Muppets did not fulfill one of the express conditions of the contract, and under normal circumstances a California court would most likely hold that the terms of the contract are binding and that Tex Richman is the rightful owner of the Muppet Studios property. However, it appears unlikely that a court would enforce the contract’s language regarding the transfer of the Muppet Studios to Richman due to the Lew Lord’s bad faith dealing and Richman's wrongful activity in attempt to prevent the Muppets from fulfilling the terms of the contract.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How Committed is America to Fighting the Lord's Resistance Army?

Does the United States have a strategic interest in the stability of Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo? If so, is our national security interest in this region compelling enough to justify U.S. military intervention to eliminate the Lord’s Resistance Army? Are the American people committed enough to the outcome of this conflict to justify the deployment of an already-overstretched military, the allocation of scarce resources in a time of budget austerity, and potential American casualties?

One would hope so, because the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is now committed to a new campaign to aid the governments of Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in their long, painful effort to eliminate the Lord’s Resistance Army which has terrorized their countryside, killed at least 12,000, abducted as many as 75,000 and displaced up to 2 million civilians. President Obama justified this operation in an October 14th letter to the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
On October 12, the initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda. During the next month, additional forces will deploy, including a second combat-equipped team and associated headquarters, communications, and logistics personnel. The total number of U.S. military personnel deploying for this mission is approximately 100. These forces will act as advisors to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA. Our forces will provide information, advice, and assistance to select partner nation forces. Subject to the approval of each respective host nation, elements of these U.S. forces will deploy into Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The support provided by U.S. forces will enhance regional efforts against the LRA. However, although the U.S. forces are combat equipped, they will only be providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self defense. All appropriate precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel during their deployment.

One can almost imagine that on the morning of October 15th, staffers at every single one of our nation’s Congressional offices and news outlets crashed the server of Wikipedia when they entered the same search terms in unison: “What is the Lord's Resistance Army?” …

Unlike Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, the political discourse has seen no constitutionalist argument against Obama administration’s deployment of military advisers to Uganda because, well, there really is none. Yes, you read that correctly – the military intervention against the more obscure warlord in Central Africa whom no one has ever talked about, which Congress did not debate, is perfectly constitutionally fine. You see, back in May of 2010, Congress passed the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009; this law declared as official Congressional policy:
“To support stabilization and lasting peace in northern Uganda and areas affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army through development of a regional strategy to support multilateral efforts to successfully protect civilians and eliminate the threat posed by the Lord's Resistance Army and to authorize funds for humanitarian relief and reconstruction, reconciliation, and transitional justice, and for other purposes.”
Buried somewhere in this tangle of euphemism and understatement was the by-the-way authorization for the President to use military means to achieve this grand objective, so subtle that even the most discerning reader of Congressional resolutions might not have caught it. The prime mover behind the LRA Disarmament Act, the Senate’s erstwhile progressive icon Russell Feingold, was quite explicit in his intent; “supporting viable and legitimate efforts to disarm and demobilize the LRA is exactly the kind of thing in which AFRICOM should be engaged.”

If you might be scratching your head in puzzlement, don’t feel alone. This matter of war and peace, the weightiest of subjects that a democratic government might address, was simply slipped under the rug. On May 10, 2010, the Senate passed Feingold’s resolution with unanimous consent, and two days later the House of Representatives passed it by a voice vote – a procedural measure by which representatives’ positions are not even tabulated. At a time when the world was fixated on the heroic efforts needed to address the oil spill in the Gulf Coast and the earthquake in Haiti, apparently the most liberal of bleeding hearts in journalism did not consider as newsworthy the fact that Congress authorized the President to engage in military action against the Lord’s Resistance Army. At most it was buried in a one paragraph blurb on page A24

There never was an earnest debate on this issue at all. Congress treated a resolution authorizing the use of military force as essentially just another symbolic resolution to rename a post office or congratulate the St. Louis Cardinals on their World Series championship. The Beltway media followed suite.

This blogger remains undecided as to whether or not President Obama did the right thing by sending 100 military advisers to Uganda. I am ashamed to admit that I do not know as much as I should know about a security issue facing four of Africa’s 55 countries in which I have never lived, which I have only read about, and on which I know nothing more than anyone else who follows BBC Africa.

However, I do have a very strong opinion on the fact that President Obama’s recent decision to send troops to Uganda has demonstrated the American people’s and the American political class’ complete and utter disregard for anything happening in Africa. Not only are we as a nation ignorant about African affairs, but we are not very interested in educating ourselves about them. The now patently-offensive term – “The Dark Continent” – unfortunately remains an apt moniker for how a continent home to 1 billion of the world’s population remains a black hole to which American thought rarely penetrates and from which some of the world’s greatest tragedies and triumphs of the human spirit never escape to see the light of day. One could retort that maybe it takes a military intervention to stimulate demand for journalistic assignments, research grants and course enrollment. After all, it was not until we invaded Afghanistan that most Americans could be bothered to care about the plight of women in Kandahar, it wasn’t until American boys were stationed in Iraq that any noticeable iota of Americans cared to learn the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Maybe, one argues, now that we have troops in Uganda, Congressmen and military academicians might finally take note of this long-ignored part of the world.

The obligatory Congressional hearing on the U.S. deployment to Uganda demonstrated no such thing.

“What is the strategic interest of the United States in doing this?” asked Gerry Connolly (D-Virg.), “I mean, there are lots of unpleasant people in the world. There are lots of insurgencies and terrorist movements in the world. The United States obviously cannot try to dethrone every one of them.”

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) dismissed the LRA – which has killed at least 12,000, abducted as many as 75,000 and displaced in the environs of 2 million people – as “not a sophisticated insurgency” because they have not used high-tech weaponry.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Cali.) and Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) utilized the hearings as a soapbox to decry government spending and the federal deficit.

Representatives Connolly, Duncan, Rohrabacher and Schmidt should receive steak knives for at least bothering to show up to the discussion. Most Republican candidates running to be the Leader of the Free World have not even issued press releases on the subject.

Stunningly, the most prominent voice in American politics to give U.S. intervention in Uganda anything resembling due air time was Rush Limbaugh. In a radio segment titled “Obama Invades Uganda, Targets Christians”, Limbaugh somehow managed to take the side of the Lord’s Resistance Army as a proxy in the Global War between Christian Civilization and Islamic Barbarism.
[The] Lord’s Resistance Army are Christians. It means God… They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops, to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them. So that’s a new war, a hundred troops to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda.
One of the most powerful mouthpieces on the Right demonstrated that he was willing to opine and bloviate on an issue as seminal as war and peace without having even taken the time to so much as Google: “Lord’s Resistance Army” or leaf through the World Almanac. And think about how many countless Republican voters and legislators take their cues from Limbaugh. This is how the American political class formulates its Africa policies.

I would hope that the American people, media and political class take this issue a bit more seriously. Sure, there are now only 100 military advisers in Uganda – just few dozen less than there will be in Iraq by New Year’s Day. Sure, they constitute a relative few, and they are only serving in an advisory role – for now. But the American tradition of intervention in faraway lands has proven time and time again to be particularly susceptible to a thing called “mission creep”; we are a people who generally prefer escalating our mission to accepting defeat.

As much as Obama, Feingold, et al. are right to acknowledge the importance of African stability to global security and the potential of AFRICOM, I am concerned that the generally dovish Democrats so blithely justified this mission on security grounds. This mission in Central Africa does not appear to have much if anything to do with the vital interests of the United States or our allies. It is unclear whether this mission has clearly defined political and military objectives, or whether the U.S. military even has the capacity to defeat a guerrilla insurgency in the midst of the remote jungles and savannas of the Ugandan, South Sudanese, Congolese and Central African Republican interior. It remains hazy just how committed the U.S. military establishment is to defeating the Lord’s Resistance Army. Most importantly, there does not appear to be that much wholehearted support of U.S. public opinion. If U.S. military intervention in Central Africa were to escalate to a combat role, it wouldn’t pass the requirements of the Weinberger Doctrine.

I am concerned that the general ignorance of all things African is not limited to Republican isolationists. But for a few policy analysts in the State Department, the vast majority of the most genuinely-committed, TOMS Shoes-wearing do-gooders must concede general ignorance of the politics of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Yes, I’m sure you’ve read plenty of newsletters from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – I get those emails too. Nevertheless, I would beg the “Save the World” camp to maintain a healthy level of skepticism before marching to the trumpets of the just war. It was only months ago that the outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a class of West Point cadets, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined.’”

Does the U.S. misson to defeat the Lord's Resistance Army fulfill the rigors of the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine? Is the humanitarian crisis in Uganda as imminently catastrophic as the situation in Benghazi might have been had NATO not enforced a no-fly zone? Why is the humananitarian crisis in Uganda worthy of U.S. intervention when the humanitarian crises in Darfur, Abyei, Côte d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, et al., are not? President Obama has not adequately explained to the American people why this mission is necessary and consistent with U.S. foreign policy. An open letter to the Speaker of the House and the Presiden Pro Tempore of the Senate hardly suffices.

Just because a certain faction in an African conflict is systematically violating the human rights of civilians does not meant that the opposing faction in that conflict is genuinely interested in upholding those civilians’ human rights. Just because the Ugandan government is fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army does not mean that the Ugandan government is worthy of U.S. military aid. Strongman Yoweri Musevini, who has ensconced himself in power for 25 years, has within the past months rigged his “re-election” and clamped down on pro-democracy demonstrators with teargas and water cannons. There is a strong human rights-based argument that the U.S. should curtail military aid to the Ugandan government – not increase it. Don't even get me started on the “Democratic Republic” of the Congo

Moreover, just because the Lord’s Resistance Army might be one of the most evil, despicable terrorist groups in the modern world does not mean that deploying U.S. commandos to Uganda is necessarily going to make things any better. Fair arbiters of U.S. foreign policy should remain wary of military intervention even when it is done for purely humanitarian reasons – or rather, especially when it is done for purely humanitarian reasons.

For now I’m willing to give President Obama the benefit of a doubt, there is still a chance that this mission might just save a whole lot of people from a brutal warlord and his minions. But it remains the duty all Americans to take this opportunity to study more about the reasons why our troops are now in Uganda, ostensibly South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. The new U.S. military mission might do a lot of good for people in Africa, God willing it should be a great success. But when we are willing to send troops to far-flung corners of the world in complete ignorance, without earnest inquiry and debate, there is only reason to be concerned about the state of democracy in America.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street Movement

Dear loyal readers of Zacstravaganza,

I apologize profusely for my complete and utter lack of blogging since the semester began. Now that I am in the heat of my 1L year at American University Washington College of Law, I am so preoccupied with contracts, torts and civil procedure that unfortunately I have not been able to allocate due time to blogging.

I wish that I had more time to conduct primary source research and writing, but alas, I have only been able to express myself in tweet between classes and in creating my own LOLcats.

To tide you over, here are some topical LOLcats. I have been told that some of these are entertaining, though others fall as flat, painful bellyflops. Your commentary and insight is much appeciated.

Hopefully sometime in the near future I will be able to express myself in more erudite, long-form passages.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Male Circumcision is Not Genital Mutilation

One evening I was dining with my anthropologist friend Natalie and I expressed just how viscerally and zealously I abhor the African practice of female genital mutilation. As a male champion of women’s rights and a lover of the female form I believe that there is no reason to hack off a pubescent girl’s clitoris and/or labia other than to make the act of intercourse painful, to deprive women of their inherent sexual freedom and to oppress them as a permanently subservient class. I think that female genital mutilation is such a patently wrong act, a reification of misogynist and phallocentric violence that should be prohibited and criminalized. Anyone who practices female genital mutilation is a menace to society, and our police forces should lock them up behind bars.

Natalie threw a wrench into my crusade for the sanctity of the clitoris; “But Zac, aren’t you Jewish?”

“Yeah, so? What’s that have to do with anything?”

She looked down in the direction under the table and cleared her throat.

At that moment I realized the hypocrisy of my zeal. I was so humbled and dressed down that I concluded that when speaking of subjects as delicate as a culture’s practices pertaining to the sexual organs – especially those of cultures that are not one’s one – perhaps one should generally abstain from casting matters in sweeping judgments of “right” and “wrong”. I’m not saying that one shouldn’t criticize the genital practices of foreign cultures; sometimes one must. But perhaps we should limit our analysis to those things that we can prove at least somewhat scientifically and avoid subjective critiques of metaphysics and postmodern gender theory.

My friend Natalie isn’t the only one who thinks that my righteous indignation against genital mutilation should apply to both genders. There is in fact a growing faction of feminists, human rights activists and lovers of the natural male form want to broaden the definition of assault to include those who circumcise the foreskin. The self-proclaimed “Intactivists” advocate for the preservation of “genital integrity” and an end to the practice of male circumcision – or “male genital mutilation” as they prefer to call it.

One such group known as the Bay Area Intactivists values the foreskin as a nerve-rich portion of the male genital organ. From their perspective, male circumcision is means of denying to a male and his future partner(s) the potential for maximum sexual satisfaction.

Other groups such as Intact America are organizing the opposition to male circumcision from comparatively more scientific, rationally more compelling grounds. If you read their literature, you get the sense that they represent a faction within the American medical community who oppose the practice under the logic that 1. the act of circumcision can be painful; 2. it can lead to infections and other harmful complications, and 3. removing the foreskin is not medically necessary.

Now the combined Intactivists of San Francisco have garnered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot which extend the definition of assault to those who circumcise males under the age of 18. If the proposition passes, the circumcising of a male’s foreskin would be a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or up to one year in jail. The consent of the underage male in question would be irrelevant; a male could only consent to having his foreskin removed if he is a legal adult. There would be no religious exemptions.

The movement to utilize the compelling force of criminal law to prohibit male circumcision is not without foundation. After all, since federal legislation was passed in 1996, Section 116 of the U.S. Code has defined whomever “circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years” as a perpetrator of assault. The Intactivists make a reverse-sexist argument that by creating a set of legal protections for women – but not extending those same protections to men – the continued legality of male circumcision is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

As much as this blogger disagrees with the claims of the Intactivists, I am equally critical of the campaign by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union who are arguing against the San Francisco ballot measure in terms of religious freedom. If a federal judge were to strike down a municipal ordinance banning male circumcision because it is a violation of the Jewish people’s freedom to exercise our religion, then that same judge would have to uphold the right of West African Muslims to practice female genital mutilation on the same grounds. This would be an argument of cultural relativism; e.g. “Yes, it is a barbaric practice, but we live in a barbaric society in which cruelty and torture are woven into the fabric of our culture.” This is not the argument that the defenders of male circumcision ought to take.

If defenders of circumcision are going to make a valid argument based on moral logic and reason, one must contend why the practice itself is not just a tolerable tradition with religious significance but actually a positive good with secular and tangible benefits. And moreoever, it doesn't hurt to deconstruct the logic for the argument against circumcision.

From what I gather after a comprehensive reading of their literature, the moral logic of the Intactivist movement runs as following:

1. Female circumcision is a cruel, inhumane practice which can cause disease and pain over the course of the victim’s lifetime. (Given)
2. The only reason why cultures practice female circumcision is to make the act of sexual intercourse excruciatingly painful and undesirable. (Given)
3. Therefore, female circumcision is a form of assault (1, 2)
4. Gender is only a social construct, there is no substantive difference between men and women, in fact, the binary characterization of human beings as either men or women is a form of gendered chauvinism. (Given)
5. Therefore, male circumcision is also a cruel, inhumane practice (1, 4)
6. Therefore, the only reason why Western culture practices male circumcision is to make the act of sexual intercourse excruciatingly painful and undesirable (2, 4)
7. Therefore, male circumcision is a form of assault (5, 6) Q.E.D.

The crucial fallacy in this logical argument is postulate number 4. Though traditional gender roles and identities might be a mere social construction, it is more than fair to say that there is, in fact, at least one significant difference between the vast majority of individuals born as males or female; generally speaking, males are endowed with penises and females are endowed with vaginas. In light of this fundamental distinction, the removal of the clitoris and/or the labia should be banned while the removal of the foreskin should remain legal because there is in fact a very compelling case to be made that male circumcision and female “circumcision” are two very different operations performed on two very different organs which ought to be distinguished as such under law.

Intactivists’ Sophistry #1: “Surgically removing part of a baby boy’s penis causes pain.”

If one were to practice circumcision with the same crude instruments and techniques as say, the Dogon tribe of Mali, then it is indeed an unnecessary painful procedure. The Dogons gather all of the uncircumcised boys 12 years old and up and to have the village blacksmith remove the boys’ foreskins with a homemade blade which is not very sharp by Western standards – and they perform the operation without any sort of anesthetic. Perhaps this argument over pain might be valid if Jews in America were to practice circumcision in a way similar to the Dogons; if that were the case, maybe circumcision should be prohibited under law.

The modern Diasporic Jews of America, however, have developed a method of circumcising our boys at the age of eight days when the nerves of the appendage are not as sensitive as a pubescent boy and we utilize various means of anesthesia which all but eliminate pain. The most effective of these is nerve-block applied locally with a shot to the penis – a remarkably effective anesthetic which renders the applied area completely numb. Rabbinical student Josh Stanton and Dr. Anne Epstein write: “While the idea of an injection to the penis sets teeth on end, it is as close to pain-free as we can get in this sort of minor surgery… It hardly hurts.”

Just about any operation involving the cutting of flesh – even an operation as minor as a tonsillectomy or the removal of an ingrown toenail – would be painful without anesthesia. But if the prick of a needle was reason to ban a medical procedure on the basis of pain, then banning circumcision would make no more sense than banning tetanus or polio vaccinations. In this day and age of modern anesthetics, the contention that circumcision should be banned because the procedure causes pain holds little ground.

Intactivists’ Sophistry #2: “Male circumcision creates immediate health risks and can lead to serious complications.”

Indeed, a botched circumcision could lead to an infection of the penis or worse. In cultures that perform this operation with crude tools and unsanitary conditions – such as the Dogon blacksmiths with their homemade iron blades – yes, the removal of a boy’s foreskin does sometimes lead to more serious complications including not only local infections but hemorrhage, scarring, difficulty urinating, loss of part or all of the penis, and even death. According to the Center for Disease Control, between 2% and 8% of all circumcisions performed in African cultures lead to an infection or more serious complications.

However, such fears are essentially unwarranted in the developed West because we utilize modern medical practices, the doctors and mohels who perform circumcisions are rigorously trained, and we perform the operation in a sanitary environment. Even if the most basic aspect of male circumcision remains the same, the cleanliness of our foreskin-cutting arenas, our medical instruments and our practices make a world of a difference. Local infection is still nevertheless possible – but then again, even having your bellybutton pierced can lead to an infection if it is not done by the right person in the right place the right way.

Whether an adequately trained, certified mohel conducts a circumcision in a synagogue or if a bona fide doctor circumcises a baby boy in a hospital, the risk of immediate health risks with serious complications is extremely small. According to the CDC, the rate of complications due to male circumcision in the United States is around 0.2% of all cases – in other words, just about negligible.

Indeed, the medical Intactivists are correct when they argue that male circumcision can cause infections – there is that 1 case in 500 in which the circumcision does lead to a complication – but that fact cannot be adequately evaluated in isolation. In a study of circumcised boys in Washington State conducted over the course of a decade, it was found that for every circumcision complication there were 6 urinary tract infections prevented. Circumcision also reduces the chance of contracting human papillomavirus (and thereby penile cancer), genital herpes and HIV.

Intactivists’ Sophistry #3: “Male circumcision is unnecessary” because “Claims that circumcision prevents HIV have repeatedly been proven to be exaggerated or false. Only abstinence or safe sex, including the use of condoms, can prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.”

At this point in the evolution of homo sapiens, the continued possession of a foreskin actually poses a risk to the health of males and those who have sex with them. The main reason why not circumcising a boy creates a health risk is that this vestigial structure creates a cavity which can retain smegma which can sit and fester, inviting bacterial and viral infection. Uncircumcised males are more likely to contract and transmit HIV than those who are circumcised, largely because the smegma which can be retained in the foreskin allows for the transmission of the virus to and from vaginal fluids. In addition, the foreskin has considerable surface area which renders the penis more susceptible to minor trauma and ulcerative disease – thus increasing the chance of transmitting the HIV virus.

A 2000 study of the relationship between male circumcision and heterosexual transmission of HIV in Africa noted “a substantial protective effect of male circumcision on risk for HIV infection”; finding that the risk of HIV infection in circumcised men was 44% lower than those who were uncircumcised. The strongest association between circumcision or lack thereof and HIV infection rates was found in high risk populations (e.g. patients at STD clinics) for whom the adjusted relative risk was 71% lower for those who had been circumcised. Another study conducted in 2003 found that the risk of HIV infection in circumcised men was 42% lower than their uncircumcised counterparts.

More macro-level epidemiological studies indicate that the practice of circumcision is not limited to the individual men but also the population as a whole; after all, if a man has contracted HIV due to his smegma-retaining foreskin, he is then liable to transmit the virus to his sexual partner(s), who are then liable to transmit the virus to their sexual partners, etc. African and Asian countries in which less than 20% of the male population has been circumcised have HIV infection rates several times greater than comparable African and Asian countries in which more than 80% of the male population has been circumcised. Of course, there are many other variable including religious mores and sexual norms which also vary among these countries, but the link between relatively high rates of circumcision and relatively low rates of HIV infection is so strong that the value of the practice as a significant factor in reducing disease transmission cannot be ignored.

I have heard a number of objections to this kind of analysis; namely that such studies have only been performed in underdeveloped Third World nations and not the developed West. These skeptics contend that since Americans and Europeans have better hygiene than the typical African, since we generally practice monogamy, wear condoms and bathe regularly we do not need to bother with circumcision.

Such First World-centrics are faulty in their reasoning, particularly because the studies linking the lack of circumcision to higher rates of HIV infection found the greatest correlation in the most at risk populations – precisely those persons in the United States who are the most likely to have sex with multiple or even concurrent partners, those who do not wear condoms, and those who have the worst hygiene. The mere fact that one might reside in the Global North does not separate that person from the basic facts of virology which tend to be associated with the Global South. Likewise, if circumcision has been found to be an effective method of minimizing the HIV epidemic amongst homo sapiens in sub-Saharan Africa, absent any fundamental anatomical or physiological distinction between Americans and Africans, there is only reason to conclude that that practice remains effective amongst homo sapiens in the United States.

I have also heard the argument made that circumcision is unnecessary for homosexual men, because the studies cited above have only demonstrated a link between circumcision and reduced prevalence of HIV amongst heterosexual men. This Intactivist argument maintains that for a parent to decide that they will circumcise their boy to protect him from HIV and AIDS is to make a heteronormative assumption that their child is in fact straight, and that if their boy turns out to be gay then they will be deprived of sexual satisfaction due to a societal bias towards heterosexuality.

This Intactivist sophistry is not only spurious in its logic but quite dangerous in its potential for giving homosexuals a false sense of security. Though the possession of a foreskin is most likely to transmit disease via the mixing of smegma and vaginal fluids – which is exclusive to heterosexual intercourse, that is not the only reason why possession of the foreskin increases the chance of disease transmission. Disease can also be transmitted because the foreskin is more easily susceptible to tearing. One must also take bisexuality into consideration; an uncircumcised man could very easily receive the HIV virus by trading fluids with an HIV+ woman and later on transmit the virus to a male sexual partner (or the other way around) explicitly due to his possession of his original foreskin.

Read Intact America’s sophistry again: “Only abstinence or safe sex, including the use of condoms, can prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.” This is more or less the logic of abstinence-only sex education; “if you don’t have sex, then you can’t get a sexually-transmitted disease; therefore don't wear a condom”; “if you always wear a condom, then you can’t get a sexually-transmitted disease; therefore you don’t need to be circumcised.” The problem with this logic is that uncircumcised men do have sex, sometimes they use condoms, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they have sex with a condom but the condom breaks, etc. Even the highest-quality prophylactics can fail - that is why instead of relying on the effectiveness of one or two disease prevention methods, it is best to employ as many as possible.

Intact America is telling the truth when its literature states that circumcision is not the only way to prevent the transmission of HIV, that abstaining from sex or practicing safe sex are alternative ways of preventing disease transmission. But they're not telling the whole truth. “Male circumcision is unnecessary”; indeed, for a practitioner of celibacy there might not be much of a benefit, but for everyone else it remains a very sound, particularly effective means of reducing the transmission of disease. There is no silver bullet which can by itself inoculate an individual from HIV/AIDS, no one is claiming that circumcision can by itself rid the world of this deadly epidemic. Rather, medical proponents of circumcision are contending that it is but one of many practices which ought to be maintained – along with fidelity to one’s partner, safe sex, regular testing – in order to defend oneself from STD transmission.

Likewise, the Intactivist movement is making a grave mistake in trying to ban male circumcision under the guise of public health; their pseudo-scientific case to ban the practice is so full of misleading language, cherry-picked half-truths and outright falsehoods that it cannot be taken seriously. Perhaps there are other reasons why a parent might reasonably decide to opt to not circumcise their male child – religious, sexual, aesthetic or otherwise – but the health of the child is not one of them. Male circumcision is not genital mutilation; it is a sound medical procedure which is safe, which does not cause undue pain, and it is still a very effective component of our society's efforts to maintain men's health and curb the spread of disease in America and throughout the world.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Medicare Should Be More Like a Pizza

by Herman Cain

Our Medicare system is facing a fiscal crisis. What we need to solve the financial crisis in our Medicare system is not a bunch of professional politicians. What we need is a businessman with the common sense understanding of how economics works, someone who knows how to run a successful enterprise, someone like me, Herman Cain, the former CEO and turnaround wizard of Godfather’s Pizza.

This visionary, Herman Cain, has taken major franchises with financial troubles and turned them around with my business know-how and ingenuity. And I can tell you that the biggest problem with Medicare that needs to be turned around is that it’s run from the top down by the Government. For example, let’s say that you were hungry and wanted to eat a pizza. Let me ask you – would you walk down to City Hall and ask the Government to bake you a deep-dish Omaha, Nebraska-style pizza pie? No, you wouldn’t, because Government bureaucrats are not particularly skilled in that particular trade! You would continue walking down the street until you arrived at a private business establishment specializing in the production of deep-dish Omaha, Nebraska-style pizza pies; for example, Godfather’s Pizza.

Medicare does not offer consumers a choice. Medicare says that the Government is going to distribute to everyone the same health insurance coverage at the same price regardless of their needs or desires. Imagine if you walked to the pizza parlor, you sit down at a table and the waitress serves you a vegetarian pizza with spinach, eggplant and artichokes – and you’re like, “Hey, I wanted pepperoni and anchovies!” And then the waitress is like “Tough – deal with it.” And then 10 minutes later the waitress serves you a side-order of Cinnasticks and you’re like “But I didn’t order these!” and she’s like “Yeah, well we’re serving it to you anyway”. And you, the customer, have to pay the bill at the end even though not one of your needs were efficiently met. That would be Big Government Socialism straight out of The Communist Manifesto, that’s what it would be. Just like Medicare.

As the founder of Godfather’s Pizza, I know that you need to offer your customers a choice to fit their personal needs. At Godfather’s Pizza, we have a menu of all the different sizes and toppings and various options available. Let’s say you the customer want a Meat Lover’s Pizza with pepperoni, bacon and meatballs – that is what you will be served. If you want a Hawaiian Pizza with a Stuffed Crust add-on – the free market will provide it with the utmost quality and efficiency. You order what you want, you pay for what you order – that is how capitalism works, my friend.

Therefore, if I – Herman Cain – am elected President, I will pledge to increase the range of options and flexibility offered to customers. I will call this initiative “Expanding the Medicare Menu”. Let’s say that you the customer wants just your basic insurance coverage for annual physicals and catastrophic care – you would pay for one price. But if you want toppings, that will cost you extra. If you want cancer insurance you pay an additional fee. If you want diabetes insurance you pay an additional fee. you the customer should be able to anticipate what sort of medical issues you might need to pay for in the foreseeable future and you pay for that topping. If you aren’t sleeping around then why should you pay for some promiscuous harlot’s abortion insurance? That would be like if you want a cheese pizza and the guy behind you in line wants broccoli and meatballs and both of you pay the same price! Socialism!

Another problem with Medicare is the free-rider problem. You have all these people who are working hard, paying their dues – those people should be able to get the Medicare coverage they deserve. But you have all these free-riders who choose not to work, who think that they can just sit on their booty and have society pay for their Medicare for them. That’s not right.

That would be like if you went into Godfather’s Pizza with your wife and kids and sit down on our patio and you order a Jumbo deep-dish pizza pie with peppers and mushrooms and a side of garlic knots. And then as you’re trying to enjoy your pizza which you paid for with your hard-earned money – and some bum on the street walks up and says “Hey Mister, could you please gimme a slice?” That would be bogus, that’s what it would be. If that happened to me, I’d say “Hey Bum, can’t you see that I’m trying to enjoy my hard-earned dinner with my family? Why don’t you go buy your own pizza pie?”

Our Medicare system today is run like a soup kitchen for a bunch of homeless bums. If you want to be served, you have to wait on line. And then you have to fill out all these forms to prove that you are in fact a bum. And the servers take so long because not even staffed by professionals but by volunteers. And those few times when it is actually professionals working at Medicare they feel like they can serve you all slow and stuff because they’re unionized and they can’t get fired no matter how bad their service is. That is why the service is so inferior – because you get what you pay for, and when it’s a bunch of corrupt union bosses and patchouli-stinking trustafarian rabble-rousers running the assembly line, your service is going to be of poor quality.

At Godfather’s Pizza our service is prompt and speedy. We guarantee that if you order your pizza delivered that it will be at your doorstep in 30 minutes. If your pizza gets delivered in 40 minutes then you shouldn’t tip the delivery boy and that would be their punishment for such poor service. Likewise, we should bust the public employees union that the Medicare workers are in and restructure their pay rates so they get compensated on commission and with tips. That way, they will bust their butts to get health insurance provided to the customer quickly with no waiting and no lines.

The Liberals might say, “Herman Cain, I disagree with you. I think that Medicare should be run by a Big Government Nanny State because what about all the lazy bums who can’t afford to pay for health insurance? We have to tolerate some inefficiency to help those lazy bums.” To those excusers of sloth and enablers of dependence, I, Herman Cain, say this: “No, you are wrong. You are wrong because those bums should get their act together and pull themselves by their own bootstraps and get a job so they can pay for health insurance themselves.”

Those mollycoddle Liberals would probably say “But Herman Cain, you are being insensitive to all the lazy bums who are unemployed, they can’ t get a job because the economy is in a deep, prolonged recession.” Well to those mollycoddles I would say “Do you think that I , Herman Cain, came to be who I am because I was just handed life on a silver platter? No, I have my job as the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza because I have a demonstrated record of accomplishment and success in the business world – that’s why I am employed and that’s how I can afford to have health insurance.

If everyone could just believe in the American Dream like I do and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps then even the lazy bums could be the Founder and CEO of their own business. Then everyone would be able to pay for their own health insurance on Medicare’s New and Improved Health Insurance Menu like at Godfather’s Pizza. And then everyone would have the health insurance package they want at a price they can afford a low price, with no lines, no waiting and no Big Government telling them what to do. Now that is what America is all about!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Help Fight Human Trafficking in Nepal!

Partly thanks to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, the Liam Neeson flick Taken and the insightful columns of Nicholas Kristof, Western audiences are finally waking up to the harsh realities of human trafficking and the modern day slave trade. In the United States of America where (at least in the Union states) our sense of political values and social justice are largely inherited from ante bellum Abolitionism, many citizens whose consciousnesses have been expanded to this present evil are eager to learn what they can do to help. Unfortunately, the worst of the worst of this problem is confined to the domestic slave markets of Africa and Asia and thus it is daunting for stateside abolitionists to get involved. However, two of my activist friends are organizing to do some real promising work to fight human trafficking in Nepal – and they would appreciate your help.

The first of these modern day abolitionists is my old pal Dan Linden from Katonah, New York. Dan is perhaps the most unlikely of activists – he is a classical Spanish guitarist by training, a music instructor by trade, and he has spent the past few years teaching Nepalese schoolchildren about scales and chords. Nevertheless, the blatantly visible commerce in sex slaves in his adopted Nepal has so horrified Mr. Linden that he has been roused into action as a matter of conscience. In his own words:

Nepalese girls, as young as six and at a rate of about fifteen a day, are drugged and taken to India by people they know and trust, or are lured my false promises of job opportunities there. It is estimated that there are 200,000 sex slaves in the Kamathipura district of Mumbai alone, living in horrific conditions in what are known as “the cages.” Upon arrival, those who refuse will be raped, brutally beaten or burned with cigarettes or even threatened to be buried alive until they break. They will then begin a routine of forced sex with as many as forty customers a day. The younger girls may be forced to live most of their childhoods under a bed until they are old enough to be desirable to customers.

While in Nepal I was pleased to observe firsthand as a woman from Maiti Nepal boarded the bus I was on and questioned passengers, deciphering whether one of the girls on board might be a victim. Maiti Nepal is an organization founded by Anuradha Koirala which works on many fronts to fight sex trafficking including raising awareness in the villages most at risk of losing their daughters, intercepting traffickers and those being trafficked on bus routes, and providing health care, a home and career opportunities for those who have been rescued.

In an effort to support Maiti Nepal’s courageous efforts, Dan is hosting a fundraiser on June 14 at 6 PM at the Katonah Village Library in Katonah, NY. There will be a viewing of the film The Day My God Died followed by a discussion with the Massachusetts non-profit organization Friends of Maiti Nepal, who work in partnership with Ms. Koirala. For more information, or if you would like to make a donation online, please visit Maiti Nepal or Friends of Maiti Nepal.

Other abolitionists are working to combat human trafficking via more non-traditional methods. My lovely cousin Anya Cherneff has spent the past five years studying for her Masters at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and campaigning against human trafficking. Understanding that slavery is fundamentally the symptom of underdeveloped economies and sheer desperation, Anya decided to try a new demand-side angle to the problem; If so many women and men find themselves in bad “jobs” because they are forced to take risky offers to survive, why not create an alternative for them—a space for choice?

Anya’s fiancée Bennett Cohen has been implementing fossil fuel use reduction strategies and studying natural resource management for the past five years. After years of working to affect change in the developed world he had an idea: why not get it right the first time with community-scale renewable energy projects in the developing world?

So Anya and Bennett decided to join forces and combine their passions to promote gender equality and clean energy in marginalized communities. They set off for Asia in search of inspiration and understanding. They met with organizations in Nepal, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand running community development projects, setting up social enterprises, micro-financing, fighting against sex trafficking, and bringing renewable power to marginalized communities. Everywhere they went people were interested in using renewable power in their communities and creating more jobs at home to reduce the need for migration and improve women’s social position. And so they are launching Empower Generation —an initiative to advance community sustainability and gender equality through the promotion of renewable energy technology, micro-enterprise and natural resource management.

For their first project, Anya and Bennett are trying to help out a Nepalese woman named Sita Adhikari who wants to set up a biogas system construction and maintenance company . The biogas systems will use locally available organic wastes – i.e. human and livestock fecal matter – to produce methane gas for energy supply. Empower Generation's current fundraiser provides the start-up capital for Sita's biogas business. To learn more, check out their blog and help contribute to the loan that Sita needs to start her biogas business! produce methane gas for energy supply.

I've already received some criticism for this post along the lines of "Hey Zac, I thought you had drank the Ayn Rand bug juice and you're totally against foreign aid. But now you're making a pitch for us to make donations?" I'm very sorry if my scribblings of criticism of foreign aid have given anyone that impression.

I'm not a critic of all aid projects - I'm just a critic of bad aid projects which don't work, because they discredit and denigrate those aid projects which do have greater potential for actually making a difference. I think that the philanthropically-minded amongst us should certainly act according to our hearts and donate our time, resources, and yes, sometimes even some of our expendable income to such projects. But before you cut a check to anyone, it's absolutely necessary to do a thorough job of researching the cause and the means by which Charity X, Y or Z aims to remedy the problem.

I think that Dan, Anya and Bennett's activism is worthwhile not just because they are my friends, relatives and soon-to-be relatives. Believe me, I have turned down many, many prior requests from good friends to utilize this blog as a soapbox because it takes a lot to win the Zac Mason Seal of Approval. Maiti Nepal is an established human rights organization that is working on the ground in that country to fight human trafficking, and from what I've read, I only have reason to believe that they are spending their donations in relatively cost-effective, sound avenues. And though Empower Generation has yet to become a household name, that is because this initiative is brand new and just about to take off. I think that Anya and Bennett are brilliant young activists with the human rights know-how and the technical prowess to establish an organization that provides actual market-based solutions to the fundamentally economic problem of human trafficking. Like with any fledgling enterprise, there is of course an element of risk to investing in something new - but I trust these individuals so much that I must conclude that investing in Empower Generation is a risk worth taking.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

HIV/AIDS Activism: Lost in Translation

After dedicating two years of my life to the cause of sustainable development in the Republic of Mali, I came to loathe so-called "aid" projects which are unnecessarily expensive, relatively ineffective, and either achieve their intended goals at an obscenely high ratio of costs to benefits or they accomplish absolutely nothing at all. Perhaps the greatest potential for stupid, wasteful “aid” projects lies in the sub-field of HIV/AIDS education. Part of it is because HIV/AIDS is such a relatively trendy cause and there is simply such a volume of Western aid dollars allocated to HIV/AIDS projects that there is so much more potential for waste. Part of it is because HIV/AIDS is such an ideologically-loaded subject that Western do-gooders are wont to apply their own belief systems onto poor, unwitting Africans. And part of it is that benevolent do-gooders are so completely ignorant of their host country’s culture that when they try to intervene in matters of sexuality they are simply doomed to failure.

Imagine a couple of humanitarian aid professionals – one has a Masters in African Studies from Yale, another went to Princeton to get their Ph.D. in International Relations. A well-meaning NGO just raised $200,000 to send them to do something about AIDS in some poor West African country, say, Niger. So they are sitting around the air-conditioned boardroom of their NGO in the expatriate quarter of Niamey, brain-storming ways to raise the Nigerien people’s awareness about HIV transmission and prevention.

“What if we made a sign to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS?”

“Great idea! Let’s draw up a hundred of them and put them up along heavily-trafficked roads!”

So they will spend about $10,000 to hire a graphic designer in San Francisco who will email his design to a factory in Lyons which will manufacture a hundred or so signs for $20,000. And it will cost another $30,000 to ship the posts from Lyons to the port at Marseilles to the port at Lagos and overland to their NGO headquarters in Niamey. Another $15,000 will be lost to bribing the customs agents. And they will pay the local contractor some grossly inflated price, say, $25,000 to drive around the country, hammer posts in the ground and put up billboards along one lane-roads leading into various cities and towns in Niger.

So when everything is said and done, the perfectly benevolent NGO will have plopped down 100 billboards for a price of around $1,000 each to the grand total of $100,000. Take a hard look at this sign, scrutinize it for about a minute and try to understand why it is such a stupid, festering piece of garbage.

Every piece of information that could possibly be conveyed by this sign can only be understood by those who can read French. Officially, Niger is a Francophone country, there are indeed some people in this country who can speak French – a miniscule minority of teachers, doctors and police officers. But the overwhelming majority of the people only speak their native Hausa, Songraï, Peulh or Tamashek – it is not unfair to assume your typical market lady does not know any “White People Language” beyond “Bozu le Blanc sava sava byen”. Also, the vast majority of people in this country are absolutely illiterate; 71.3 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook – and even that figure is padded by an extremely liberal definition of “literacy” which recognizes anyone who can scrawl their name as “literate”. To 9 out of 10 pedestrians who might be walking down the street in Niamey, that public service announcement might as well be written in ancient Greek.

Likewise, this billboard on the road to the Malian city of Koutiala is also a festering piece of garbage. Imagine you are an illiterate Minianka millet farmer riding your donkey cart to sell your goats at the Koutiala market – what useful lesson in disease prevention could you possibly gain from viewing this $1,000 sign?

This billboard was placed by the Christian NGO World Vision in my former home of Sanadougou. I will give them due credit for writing their public health message in Bambara – Mali’s vernacular lingua franca. It reads “Hey! Be careful, AIDS is here! There is no cure for it.”

Indeed, writing a public health message in Bambara is certainly more sensitive to the local culture compared to writing it in French. But this World Vision billboard is still fatally flawed by the fact that their message was written in any language at all; instead of writing their AIDS-prevention message in ancient Greek, they decided to write it in the equivalent of modern Greek.

To pass the time, I asked scores of my illiterate neighbors for their interpretations of this billboard on the road leading to town. Not a single person I asked was able to tell me that it had anything to do with HIV/AIDS. The closest thing to a logical response I ever heard was “don’t leave razor blades in your bed – they will cut you.”

Sometimes I wonder what part of “illiteracy ” these well-meaning Christian aid-givers don’t understand. To refer to someone as “illiterate” doesn’t me that they can’t fully appreciate the works of Proust; “illiterate” refers to an individual or a group of persons who cannot read or write anything at all. To refer to these cultures as “predominantly illiterate” is not at all a judgment of intelligence or character – it is simply a statement of fact. Likewise, one cannot mount an effective public health campaign in a country like Mali, Niger, Mauritania or Burkina Faso without taking into consideration that the vast majority of your intended audience in these countries is completely and utterly illiterate.

One time I met a World Vision missionary/humanitarian agent in Bamako and took issue with their billboard campaign. She accused me of “insulting the Malian people’s intelligence”; “I work with a number of local staff who are all very capable of reading and writing – one of my colleagues was educated at the Sorbonne and he can read English, French and German!”

This well-meaning church lady’s response was quite telling. When practitioners of “humanitarian aid” and “economic development” live in the expatriate Green Zones of their respective African capitols, they can manage to go months at a time interacting with only the extremely-Westernized, French- or even English-speaking, literate elite, completely sheltered from the social and economic realities of the other 99.999 percent of the population. Such an experience establishes an absurdly rose-tinted perspective of a country’s predominant living conditions – and it allows these naïve, bumbling do-gooders to waste all of their funds on projects which could only benefit the 0.001 percent of the indigenous population with whom they interact at official state functions and the American Club racquetball courts.

Here is another one of my favorite signs posted in the city of Koutiala. If you were a simple unlettered shepherd who speaks the hyper-literal Bambara language completely devoid of metaphor or simile, what would you interpret it to mean?

If I were an illiterate goat-herder, I would think that this billboard meant that AIDS is an anthropomorphic fire demon with a face and arms and legs. In a society where grown men are genuinely afraid of witches, warlocks, hairy field demons, mischievous forest demons and dwarf spirits with backwards feet, it makes perfect sense that benevolent Tubabs would seek to warn the Malian people about the anthropomorphic fire demons which have been wreaking havoc upon America. Likewise, I would interpret this billboard to mean that if this fire demon were to ever try to get into my house, I should push the door shut.

My all-time favorite HIV/AIDS public service announcement is the one line of billboards in Bamako which actually dares to show the image of a condom. Take a look at this public health campaign and try your best to imagine its unintended consequences.

Hardly any Malian men in Bamako ever buy condoms to wear while engaging in sexual intercourse, but – thanks to this fiasco of a public service announcement – when they do buy a condom they are likely to wear it on their two fingers. So they go to the brothel, they fuck a prostitute for 500 francs (~$1), they wear a 100 franc (~20¢) condom on their fingers, and – big surprise – they still contract HIV! So now if any of men or women ever get tested and discover that they are HIV+, they are going to go around telling everyone that either condoms don’t work or that it was the condom itself that transmitted HIV, and any lesson that the well-meaning NGOs might wish to convey will be thoroughly discredited in the public mind.

A ham-handed public health campaign like the infamous “finger bang” billboard is not merely ineffective in combating the transmission of HIV/AIDS – it actually makes the problem worse. Partly thanks to this train wreck of a public health campaign, many young men in Mali think that AIDS is just a hoax. Some have concluded that since people have followed the “finger condom” billboard’s instructions and contracted HIV, The White People are telling Black Africans to wear condoms because we want them to stop reproducing. Others think that AIDS is real, that it was concocted by the CIA to decimate the black population of Africa. Word on the street is that it’s the reservoir tip of the condom which contains the deadly virus; so some people actually buy condoms and cut off the very part of the prophylactic which makes it functional. Since these Western public health campaigns have crashed and burned so egregiously, it figures that polygamous young men resort to “traditional” i.e. witch doctor-prescribed methods like drinking snake oils, herbal teas and having unprotected sex with virgins.

So if these billboards are such absolutely ineffective pieces of garbage, why on Earth do humanitarian aid organizations waste their money on them? Part of the reason is surely that some of the individuals implementing these humanitarian aid campaigns simply don’t get it. But these professional aid-givers with their Ivy League graduate degrees are generally intelligent people – I can’t imagine that all of them are so dense that they don’t understand the folly of expressing public health messages with the written word in a thoroughly illiterate culture.

A more rational explanation for this embarrassing waste might be that Foreign Service Officers and professional development agents are often so lazy that they can’t be bothered to learn the local tribal language(s) of the culture they’re working in – the vernacular tongues without which they can’t possibly engage in any meaningful health education campaign. But they need to demonstrate to their superiors that they did something, anything constructive with their time in Namibia other than gallivanting around on the taxpayers’ dime. Constructing 100 undecipherable billboards – though they might be utterly useless for the Namibian people – at least makes for a solid bullet point on a professional aid-giver’s résumé.

But an even more rational explanation might lie in the political/economic interests of the rent-seeking aid agencies, private aid contractors and NGOs themselves. The unfortunate metric by which they all measure success is not the number of HIV infections averted or the number of Africans educated but the sheer volume of funds dispersed – the more money they spend, the more “successful” they can claim to be; e.g. “This year we spent $100,000 on a campaign to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS”. It doesn’t matter if that $100,000 was spent on a particularly ineffective awareness-raising campaign, or if it didn’t reap any positive health-related results. All that matters on the bottom line is how much money they spent, because the more funds they spend one year, they more funds they can justify raising from donor agencies, banks and private donors the next year.

So do I think that we – the vanguard of humanity who genuinely care about alleviating the disease and misery which defines life in so much of the world – should just give up on teaching Africans about HIV and AIDS? Not at all. I just think that we should stop throwing our money away on such unforgivably stupid wastes of finite resources as visual media which Westerners will never be able to produce for the consumption of peoples who do not understand our system of symbols and imagery, who cannot read our language, who cannot read any language at all – not even their own.

After spending two years living amongst the Minianka tribe in Mali, one lesson I came to understand is that though a literate culture remains alien to these people that have only begun to enjoy access to books, pens and paper, the Miniankas do have a rich and vibrant oral culture. This is a culture in which farmers will dispatch their child from one village to another to rely a simple message, in which virtually all business is transacted through oral contracts, the theology of the Qur’an is disseminated from the mouth of the imam to the ears of the faithful, and where griot troubadours transmit the tribal history from one generation to another through song. If you want to get a message across in the Minianka culture, the only appropriate medium for doing so is the spoken word.

Likewise, you can’t possibly hope to impart unto the Miniankas any useful lessons about health and hygiene unless you speak Minianka. This is one area in which I believe that the Peace Corps is leaps and bounds beyond any other development agencies and NGOs in the field because we are the only organization which bothers to learn the local tribal languages and live out in the field where we can practice them to fluency. I myself did not spend a whole lot of time disseminating seeds of knowledge about HIV/AIDS – I was much more preoccupied with the more ubiquitous scourges of diarrhea, giardia and dysentery. And it took me untold months of building up my language skills, sitting around the teapot chatting with the locals, gradually gaining their trust until I could convince anyone to take even the most modest steps to treat their drinking water.

Teaching the Miniankas about HIV/AIDS is a whole lot trickier because you have to have an exceptional command of the local tongue before you can gracefully converse with the locals about their most intimate relations. And even though my language skills might have been good enough by the end of my two years, I would have never become comfortable enough to talk to conservative Muslim Minianka women about their vaginas. The only people in Sanadougou with whom I could converse about matters of the nether-regions were the teenage-to-twenty-something boys who couldn’t stop asking me about penises, vaginas, and the various other instruments with which Americans engage in sexual relations.

“So Madu, how do Americans do it? Y’know, putting the penis into the vagina?” (Amadou demonstrates by inserting his index finger in and out of a curled fist)

“Well, in America the men have to always wear a condom on our penises before we engage in any sort of hanky-panky. You have to wear a condom every single time – unless, of course, you and your wife are married, you have a lucrative career, a good health insurance plan and enough funds in your savings account to have a baby.”

“But I do not want to wear a condom on my penis. It is not natural!”

“In America you would not have a choice. You must wear a condom on your penis every time you have sex. If you have sex with anyone and you don’t wear a condom – even just once - then everyone will think that you might have AIDS and no one will want to have sex with you ever again.”

“But I am a good Muslim! American women should trust me that I do not have AIDS.”

“Just about every American woman whom you will ever meet in Africa is here to work on HIV/AIDS projects. Hate to break it to you, Amadou, but you live in Africa. You are an African. If you have ever had sex without a condom, and you are open and honest with an American woman about your sexual history, then you have zero chance of ever having sex with her.”

“Hm… maybe I should start wearing condoms - that way I could convince an American woman to sleep with me!”

“That's awful, Amadou. I have just lost a lot of respect for you as a human being. But you know what? There's no such thing as a bad reason to start wear condoms!”

In such a fashion, development agencies and NGOs should make greater efforts to utilize the mass media potential of radio and television – media which are lapped up readily by even the most illiterate Minianka. This is a culture in which an entire village will sit around the car battery-powered TV set watching the soap commercials as raptly as their dubbed Telemundo soap operas. If there is ever to be a cost-effective means to encourage Africans to practice safe sex, it would be stop selling them prophylactics the way we sell them rheumatism ointment and arthritis palliatives and to start selling them prophylactics the way we sell them beer, soda and powdered milk – by insinuating that this product will help the consumer to get laid. After all, this is how Trojan and Durex market condoms in the developed West – it’s absolutely bizarre that the one product that should be sold with sex appeal isn’t marketed in Africa as a catalyst for more frequent and more enjoyable sex.

So if there is one thing that we Tubabs should be doing in Africa to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS, I would say it would be to start aggressively marketing condoms to Africans. USAID and the World Bank should start underwriting the filming of commercials with Akon, Jay-Z and the entire Ghanaian soccer team making culture-sensitive advertisements for these wonderfully cost-effective products, perhaps even buying advertising time on the various African radio TV stations. Such a marketing strategy might be aiming for the lowest common denominator, it might be completely bereft of science, and it might not be as intellectually sound as a bona fide public health announcement. And free market fundamentalists might shudder at public subsidies to benefit certain for-profit corportions. But in consequentialist terms I can’t help but think that it would be the most cost-effective strategy to encourage Africans to practice safe and hygienic sex.