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Painful Patriotism

As an American, it was with pride and shame that I watched the CNN interview with Imam Rauf and the subsequent discussion last week.

Pride, that Imam Rauf, along with Christian and Jewish leaders, were working to build harmony among the world religions represented in this world microcosm in which we live, the United States of America.  In a world where freedom and tolerance evade so many, we Americans enjoy them, whether we notice it or not.

Shame, that the interviewer so accurately represented much of America when she ignored the Imam’s sage and reasonable responses and showed that she was more interested in advancing her own views than engaging her guest to better understand his.

Imam Rauf was asked the same question at least three times in that interview (“why can’t you move the Islamic center”)?  Although he answered clearly the first time, the interviewer badgered him with the same question at least two more times.  Nevertheless, Imam Rauf patiently answered her, as one answers a young child.

Rauf continually dodged the notion that he is an outsider with respect to Americans, legitimately identifying himself by his responses as an American who is also a Muslim.  When asked what he would say to the Florida pastor who planned to burn korans, he answered as an American, not as a Muslim.  He made no mention of the gross offense and un-Christian nature of that act, but rather pleaded for the safety of American soldiers and expatriates. His deep concern was clear, and he behaved in a way far more Christian than his nominally Christian counterpart.  Even with so much contempt directed at his religion by this pastor, and at him by this country, he transcended his own personal and religious sphere and responded on the national level.  This is the sign of a great thinker and a skilled negotiator.

Nothing the Imam said indicated that he identified with extremists.  Everything he said indicated that he was a moderate.  Patiently and frequently he tried to establish that it was incorrect to label him as an outsider; and yet, for a Muslim in America that is such a monumental effort. Why is it so hard for Americans to believe that a Muslim can be a countryman, and even a patriot?  And why do we make it so difficult for them to be so?  While most patriots are praised and applauded by their people, Muslim patriots are apparently greeted with scorn and suspicion.  How can we expect our Muslim fellow citizens to feel American, when we continually insist on marginalizing them? Many Americans have complained that there aren’t enough moderate Muslim leaders speaking out, but how are we treating those who do?

Have we already forgotten the putrid shame of racism against African Americans that we have only recently removed from our laws, but which still lingers in many hearts (an example is Michael Richards, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Richards#Laugh_Factory_incident)?  Do we not see the parallels?  Will it take a few hundred years again this time?  It is profoundly disappointing to hear some Americans use terms that denigrate all Arabs or all Muslims, based on hatred of the few violent ones, oblivious to the vast majority who, like the vast majority of all ethnic groups in America, just want to live a life of peace, comfort, and happiness.  This bigotry defies the message of all the major religions, is contrary to basic values of human decency, and from a pragmatic point of view is counterproductive, alienating those whom we want as our allies.

We also need to recognize that a prominent Muslim who stands up for peace and brotherhood is risking his life.  This is a danger that mainstream America has never experienced, and cannot easily comprehend. We should respect his courage.  It does no service to peace to ask him to denounce Hamas.  We can already infer from his behavior and his words what he believes about them.  His role as a peacemaker is to win hearts and minds, even of members of Hamas. There may be Hamas members who would consider embracing peace if it were presented in a balanced and reasoned way, by someone who understands and acknowledges their legitimate grievances. Asking Imam Rauf to condemn Hamas is like asking a marriage counselor to say to one of the spouses “I know you’re the one who’s 100% wrong” before beginning the counseling session.  The “wrong” one will close up defensively, and be even more stubborn than before.  Imam Rauf tried to explain this (though in less detail), but the interviewer, as many others, was apparently not as interested in bridge building as in fanning controversy and conflict.

As Imam Rauf said, the real war is not between Christianity and Islam — it’s between extremists and moderates.  How true, yet how missed, this simple fact is — to extremists, religions are to be hijacked and used as facades to mask arrogance, cruelty and barbarism, presenting instead the illusion of righteousness.  Moderates, in contrast, seek to live in peace with their fellow man, regardless of belief or ethnicity.  Moderate Jews are more similar to moderate Muslims and Christians than to the Baruch Goldsteins of the world (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baruch_Goldstein).  Moderate Muslims are more similar to moderate Jews and Christians than to Osama bin Laden.

Extremists are really very much alike.  They are arrogant criminals first, and believers second — they try to use causes as magic potions that rationalize their depravity, transforming it into honor — except that, as with all magic, it is an illusion, and at the end of the day, they are still violent psychopaths caring little for the humanity they purport to represent.

Unfortunately, religions are often responsible for this.  Although they generally encourage introspection, humility, and repentance on the individual level, they usually conveniently exempt themselves as a group from the need for these noble traits.  Quite to the contrary, they claim divine justification and infallibility — and who can interview God to verify or disprove those claims?

In this sense, it is the very nature of orthodox religion, as it is commonly practiced, that is a major cause of the current world conflict.  Stubborn insensitivity masquerades as piety.  The certainty of faith exempts the believer from the need to listen to and understand others; yet without listening and understanding it is impossible to resolve conflict.  The result is that rather than seeking harmony, they resort to force, seeking to subjugate or destroy their perceived enemies. Rather than indicating strength, this reveals mental frailty; it is psychologically the easy way out. It is easier to blame than to introspect. It is easier to destroy than to build. Although there are legitimate uses of force, religious bullying is not one of them.

As Americans, we justifiably condemn those who rejoiced in the killing of the three thousand people in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.  Yet I am ashamed to say that I have heard a handful of Americans rejoice in the killing of Arabs or Afghans, purely due to their ethnicity.  Some have even suggested destroying whole populations.  We are right to condemn those who say that all Americans, or all Jews, are evil and should be killed — but if we say that ourselves about others, then we are no better, and we betray the highest ideals that unite us as Americans.

I know very little about Imam Rauf.  My sense is that he is a righteous and compassionate man whose international roots make him uniquely qualified to build peace and harmony under the right conditions.  I could be wrong, but I doubt it.  In any case, let’s base our judgments on objective evidence rather than jingoist emotion.  The stakes are high.  This could be a great opportunity.   Let’s show the world that when we speak about America as a beacon of freedom and brotherhood, we really mean it.

Links:

9-11 Firefighter Tim Brown Debates $100M Mosque at Ground Zero

Salam Al-Marayati on Fox News Re: ‘Ground Zero Mosque’

I’d like to share with you something I recently learned that could be of great benefit to you or someone you know.  And no, I’m not selling anything. ;)

Vitamin D deficiency is a widespread problem among people of all ages.  Most of us don’t get much sun, and those of us who do usually block it out with SPF a gazillion sunblock, so we don’t have much Vitamin D.  Some online research I did today at many sites, including NIH, the Mayo Clinic, and WebMD indicated that vitamin D deficiency has been found to contribute to a long list of ailments including the following:

  • Heart Disease
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune Diseases, including Diabetes
  • Memory Loss, Alzheimer’s
  • Bone Pain
  • Osteoporosis
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Weight Gain
  • Autism
  • Asthma

If you have any of these problems, and even if you don’t, I strongly recommend taking a blood test for vitamin D deficiency.  How great it would be to improve one’s health and quality of life simply by taking a vitamin!

Recent research indicates that current U.S. recommended daily allowances are too low.  Here is some information about recommended dosages and blood levels excerpted from http://www.webmd.com/osteoporosis/news/20080519/supplement-your-knowledge-of-vitamin-d:

The current recommended daily dose of vitamin D is 200 IU for people up to age 50, 400 IU for people aged 51 to 70, and 600 IU for people over age 70.

That’s not enough, Boston University vitamin D expert Michael Holick, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. Holick recommends a dose of 1,000 IU a day of vitamin D for both infants and adults — unless they’re getting plenty of safe sun exposure.

In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that breastfed infants receive 400 IU of vitamin D every day until they are weaned and drink at least 1 liter of vitamin D-fortified formula or whole milk each day. The AAP also recommends 400 IU/day of vitamin D for children and teens who drink less than a liter of vitamin D-fortified milk per day.

The Vitamin D Council recommends that healthy adults take 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily — more if they get little or no sun exposure.

A simple blood test — the 25(OH)D or calcidiol test — can tell your doctor whether your vitamin D level is low. The Vitamin D Council recommends that 25(OH)D levels be between 40 and 65 ng/mL. The U.S. National Institutes of health notes that 25(OH)D levels over 30 ng/mL are optimal, and that there is “insufficient data” to support recommendations for higher levels.

IANAD — I am not a doctor — so I am not qualified to confirm that this information is accurate. However, the potential benefit is so great that I wanted to bring this to your attention.  Qualified medical professionals, and others, feel free to comment on this article.

Here are some other related links:

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vitamin-d/NS_patient-vitamind
http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20080609/low-vitamin-d-ups-heart-risk-men
http://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20080107/vitamin-d-deficiency-may-hurt-heart
http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/news/20031210/lack-of-vitamin-d-linked-to-pain
http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/are-you-getting-enough-vitamin-d
http://www.naturalnews.com/025980.html

- Keith

I posted this article on my technical blog here, but it is applicable to this blog as well. If you’re interested, feel free to give it a read. I linked to there instead of copying it here so that, in case there is discussion, it will all be in one place.

Amateur Massage

Massage is a great thing.  It can be used to heal, to relax, and to connect. It can be used to solve specific physical problems, such as tight muscles, or in special programs for stress reduction or smoking cessation, or just to improve mood. My certified massage therapist friend Richard explains that “one of the main things massage does is increase the rate of circulation to whatever body part you’re working on. Since the blood is the main avenue that brings nutrients (and also takes away dead/torn/injured tissue) to/from injured body parts, massage can greatly facilitate that healing process. It can also help greatly to reduce swelling – like a sedentary person who sits at a desk all day and has swollen ankles when they go home. This kind of swelling is an easy fix with massage”.

In many Asian countries, massage is part of mainstream life.  In Thailand, for example, the foremost massage school is Wat Po, in Bangkok.  Wat means temple in Thai, and Wat Po is probably the most famous temple in Thailand.

There, as in many other places, friends will massage friends and children will massage parents and grandparents.  Although there are professional massage therapists and massage schools, massage is also done by the masses.

In the United States, however, the giving of massage is usually confined to a high priesthood of professional massage therapists.  The legal requirement for certification often means that an excellent massage therapist from outside the country cannot legally practice here, even if he or she is legally allowed to work.

The result of this suppressed supply is higher prices.  A one hour massage can cost as much as $90 or more.  There aren’t many people who can afford that more than once in a great while.

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Panama

It’s January 2009 and I’m in Panama to investigate the possibility of working here. It’s cheaper and faster to get from Washington, DC to Panama City than to California. The time zone is Eastern Standard Time, so collaborating with others in the U.S. does not have to involve bleary eyed conferences in the middle of the night, as would be the case in Asia. Although the Canal Zone is no longer a U.S. territory, and Panama is a sovereign nation, the U.S. dollar (also known here as the balboa) is the national currency of Panama, greatly simplifying financial transactions for U.S. citizens. The cost of living here is significantly less than the cost of living in major U.S. cities.

Here I tell you what I’ve learned about Panama so far. I don’t by any means claim to be an expert; feel free to correct me, and I’ll correct the article. Panama is an international banking center, and home to the Panama Canal. It is bordered on the west by Costa Rica, and on the southeast by Colombia.

The national language is, of course, Spanish. Although I read that due to the American presence in the past, English is widely used, I found that not to be the case. Although I have studied several European and Asian languages, I know only a little Spanish. What a humbling thing it is to be unable to express myself. There have been many times when I felt stupid. In the rare cases when someone communicates to me in English, they are often apologizing that their English is not good. How ironic…I tell them not to apologize, and that it is I who should apologize for not speaking Spanish.

Panama City, the capital city, is the wealthiest Central American capital, and is home to a million plus of the three million plus inhabitants in Panama.

A Panama City public bus

A Panama City public bus

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Pak Se, Laos

Arriving in Pak Se

Joi, one of the teachers at Ban Kumuong school in Ubon, Thailand, accompanied me on my weekend trip to Pak Se, Laos. As an Ubon native, she spoke Lao, so she had no problem communicating with the locals. The hard part was communicating with each other — I speak only a few words of Thai, and her English is basic.

We pulled into the bus station in Pak Se, and as soon as we got off the bus, several people hurried up to us to take us to a hotel — not necessarily one we would want to stay at, but one which would pay them a commission. Surprisingly, Joi was ready to go with them, and although since she is more of a native than I, I would usually defer to her, this time I didn’t. Instead we got a songtau (small jeep-like vehicle with a bench on either side) with a French couple and headed into town. Aidan had suggested that we look at the rooms before agreeing to check in, and he was right on. The Lonely Planet guide suggested the Pakse Hotel, so we started there. I looked at the rooms, and wow, what a neat place. $23 for a very nice room, including buffet breakfast. Humble but beautiful decor too.

The Falls

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pakse-falls-bridge.jpg

Ubon Ratchatani

ubon-park-33.jpg
Ubon Ratchatani is a small city in northeast Thailand, about an hour from the Lao border.

English Crazy Club

english-crazy-club.jpg

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