Archive - July, 2007

U.S. Students Graduate Cuban Medical School

The Guardian reports on U.S. students graduating from the Latin American School of Medicine.

The Guardian reports this morning on the graduation of eight U.S. medical students from the Latin America School of Medicine, a creation of Fidel Castro on the outskirts of Havana. The Cuban medical system is one of the most advanced in Central America in many ways. However, it operates with equipment that in many places is far from state of the art. Despite its time-worn physical plant and technology, patients from around Latin America, and some from far distant nations, come for treatment and get good care. The graduating U.S. students may face challenges gaining licenses to practice in the U.S. but the commitment they express in the article to serving the poor illustrates the emphasis of the Cuban system on humanitarian service. It will be interesting to follow these students and see how they progress in the U.S.

The New Sanctuary Movement

TIME reports on the new sanctuary movement.

We are taught
to follow
and risk
–and risk
the status
–Bishop Beverly Shamana

Hospitality and welcoming the stranger are central to the three Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. TIME reports on faith groups offering sanctuary and experiencing renewed energy despite controversy about immigration in the U.S. Mainline communions have a long history of working with immigrants and providing sanctuary, and it has always been controversial to detractors.

But TIME reporter, David Van Biema, says “solid biblical underpinnings make [the] issue particularly promising for the resurgent religious left, and it may peel conservative Protestant Hispanics from the right.” He is referring to the scriptural admonition in Leviticus 19: 33: “The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

A key historical example of sanctuary important to both Christians and Muslims is the story of the Ethiopian Negus in Aksum harboring Muslims at the time of Mohammed. The historical account says Mohammed wrote to Negus, the “king of kings” in Ethiopia (known in history and parts of the bible as Abyssinia), asking for sanctuary for these refugees from Mecca and Negus, after questioning them, agreed. The story is valued by both Islam and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Perhaps it was a controversial act, but it is remembered today as an example of interfaith respect and hospitality. In controversy about illegal immigration today in the U.S. it’s inevitable that the description of the sanctuary movement is framed in polarizring language, but it’s also indisputable that the biblical mandate is clear, and the historical experience puts the sanctuary movement on solid biblical and traditional grounds.

TIME’s Fifty Best Websites

TIME Magazine’s fifty best websites.

Stumble Upon includes TIME magazine’s list of fifty best websites. It’s a fascinating collection. Blip TV is one of the fifty. Blip aggregates video. If you haven’t seen Goodnight Burbank, a satirical look at a news program, it’s as good as any satire on the screen.

Oh Don’t Forget is a reminder service that allows you to program calls to your cellphone to remind you of tasks. It’s unique.

Grand Central allows you to program multiple telephones to ring so that you don’t miss a call on the office phone or cellphone. It goes a step beyond call forwarding.

There’s much more, some practical tools and others just for fun.

Hospital Chaplain Profile

A profile of hospital chaplain the Rev. Margaret A. Muncie offers a glimpse into the difficult work of chaplaincy and also offers an example of good feature reporting on religion.

A profile of the Rev. Margaret A. Muncie, chaplain at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, by Jan Hoffman in the New York Times is moving and well-written. The Rev. Ms. Muncie is a skilled pastor who works with people who follow many different religious paths and she does so with respect and sincerity. She represents an example of the strength of a trained clergyperson who understands her own theology and the faith perspectives of others. She also demonstrates compassion that cuts across difference and gets to the humanity of people in compromised positions due to illness, grief and the uncertain health outcomes that weaken our hope and make us feel alone.

Jan Hoffman writes with an understanding that reveals the complexity and humanity of Chaplain Muncie. Despite my criticism of media in the post preceding this, I cite Ms. Hoffman’s work as an example of good journalism. I was emotionally moved by her profile while not feeling I had been manipulated or otherwise led to a place I didn’t want to go. It’s a good example of writing about a Mainline clergyperson and the expression of pastoral skills and personal faith written without taking us into the controversy or sensationalism that is too often the picture of the mainline church.

It’s good reading and inspiring work.

Sloppy Headlines and other journalistic flaws

Christine Gorman on Health Media Watch blog offers some constructive criticism about media and health writing.

I’ve written a fair share of criticism about the media in this blog. I think the issue of sloppiness–my own first and others secondarily–ought to be challenged. Especially in our media environment where messages travel around the world in seconds and have immediate influence.

On the Health Media Blog, Christine Gorman consistently writes about journalistic sloppiness and points out how it affects us. Sometimes it’s not harmless. And sometimes it doesn’t pass unnoticed and easily forgotten. In this post she points out how a sloppy headline about Parkinsons is misleading. It could convey hope to persons affected by the condition while the cited study is limited. It’s not a trial, nor even a safety study about the use of medication. The headline is misleading.

In a different medium, I’ve noticed a local television station’s “tease” about an upcoming segment employs a similar tactic. Sometimes they say a common household item can cause great harm or they hint, for example, that drinking coffee can prevent some the effects of some menacing disease. While there is a kernal of truth in the story, it is much less significant than the tease implies. But the point doesn’t seem to be to give us important content. The story can’t be told adequately in this brief way. Sometimes I wonder why they bothert. It’s the electronic equivalent to the print headline.

In a second post on why scientists dislike journalists Gorman makes the pertinent observation that information is not the same thing as knowledge, and opinion, the saltier the better in the post-information age, demonstrates that not all content is information.

It’s almost hackneyed to write that the paradigm is changing. But it’s true. And as change overtakes, television news formats are tinkered with and adjusted to retain viewers. From the outside, it appears editors and managers are casting about trying to find a formula that works in a highly competitive envionment. I suppose this is part of the cause for the decline in quality local television news.

In this context, Gorman’s observations are helpful. She puts such practices in context and reminds those us who write content that others rely upon that trust is easy to lose and difficult to gain.

The Coming of the Swallowtails

Black Swallowtail
She glided in and briefly rested on the golden fennel. Her wings fluttered as she hesitated on one spike before flitting to another. Then she flew to the butterfly bush, moving deliberately from one tiny petal to the next drinking in nectar before she swept away as quickly as she had come.

I checked the fennel and felt as happy as if I were a grandparent. Three eggs had been deposited. Tiny and pearl-like, they contrast clearly with the bronze spikes. This is is what we’ve been working for.

We planted parsley first and got some traffic. But the fennel has been a great addition. We’re trying to attract butterflies to a backyard garden so we’re planting those flowers and herbs that provide food and nesting. And so far, we’ve been successful with swallowtails, which we’ve concentrated on because they’re prevalent in our part of the state. Three additional eggs were laid the next day so we’re now carefully watching six caterpillars.

At first they are tiny specks so small they’re barely visible. But they develop quickly. After a couple of days they look a bit like bird droppings. (Which is a nice camouflage, when you think about it.)

They gradually develop a colorful exoskeleton that blends in well with the green parsley but isn’t so complementary to the bronze colors of the fennel.

Upon emerging from the egg they start eating. They are voracious eaters. Last week this guy (or gal, how can you tell?) ate a whole fennel plant. We added to our plantings because six eaters will clean our garden.

After they eat their fill they find a place to attach and go into the chrysalis stage. Then they emerge looking like this.

Oil Field Trash

I see the phrase “oil field trash” in the New York Times today. Too bad. We can be better than this.

“Oil field trash” is an epithet applied to lower middle class whites who work at the most menial and dangerous jobs in the oil patch. It was applied to me as a third-grader in a dusty West Texas town. My dad was an oilfied roustabout, also known as a roughneck. Oilfield famlies like us were among the nomadic poor. We travelled from place to place following the re-location of drilling rigs prospecting for oil. Our lives literally revolved around the location.

At this level oilfield people don’t own homes, they rent. They don’t take part in civic affairs because they move when the well comes in or proves dry. They aren’t members of the PTA, the local church, Boy Scouts or Rotary, or whatever the social glue is today. We lived at the margins of society, and at the margins of the constraints of society.

This was long before oilfield work paid high salaries and even before freelance workers could qualify for health insurance and Social Security. But the phrase sticks in my craw to this day. It’s classist and perhaps racist.

I note this because an article in the New York Times this morning highlights a quote from the book, Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, by John Ghazvinian. The Times reports that Ghazvinian spent six months traversing Africa looking at the scramble for oil in 12 nations and he writes about the their putschists, preachers, kleptocrats, activists, child soldiers and foreign “oilfield trash” — that is, pot-bellied white men bar-hopping “with 19-year-old Naomi Campbell look-alikes.”

I’m disappointed the characterization is highlighted by the Times editors, but not surprised. Long ago I came to the understanding that it’s still OK to stereotype lower middle class white working people. In the social totem I grew up in Rednecks are higher up than white trash who are higher than oilfield trash.

I know Jeff Foxworthy has made a fortune claiming his redneck roots. And I know that some working folks call each other by these epithets. It’s long been recognized that one way to drain the power from negative typecasting is to claim it and use it. It’s controversial, as when African Americans claim the N word, but it’s a way to insulate against the exclusion and inferior social location imposed by the majority culture.

This isn’t much ado about nothing, as I see it. To characterize other human beings as trash is beyond the pale. The men Ghazvinian saw may behave badly, even trashy. They may be beer swilling, obnoxious, overweight, miserable human beings, but they’re not trash. It’s a dangerous thing to denigrate the humanity of others. It’s worth remembering only a few years ago Hutus justified genocide against Tutsis by reducing them to “cockroaches” and calling for their extermination. The less classist, racist stereotyping we have, even in benign form, the better.

When we denigrate the humanity of others, we degrade ourselves. Besides, I’m not willing to be called trash anymore and I don’t think anyone else should be.

Live Earth: The Morning After

The morning after Live Earth.

It’s the morning after Live Earth, the largest event of its kind, according to Al Gore. Despite its scale, impressive as it is, the proof of its value will come later when we learn if the public awareness and calls to action have lasting effect.

As I watched, I had several reactions beyond the entertainment value of the music itself. These are observations, not criticism. It’s too easy to sit back and criticize. Pulling off a global event with as many moving parts as this was a monumental achievement.

First, the message for any movement must be reduced to its simplest and most obvious form. When Al Gore asked the crowd at the Meadowlands to take the Live Earth pledge I thought he would offer this simple formula. Instead, his first point sounded more like the preamble to a treaty on global warming, which was, in fact, what he asked the crowd to support. He asked us to lobby the government to sign an international treaty on global warming with specific measurements and outcomes. Serious as this action step is, it was almost comical to hear it stated in that venue in all its wordy glory. Keep the message simple. “Save the earth. Recycle. Don’t waste. Walk, don’t drive. Carpool. Save water, bathe less. ” 🙂

The second musing I have is that celebrity isn’t enough to build support for a cause. In fact, some of the innane interview comments of celebrities trivialized the seriousness of this cause. It’s about the message and even celebrities must stay on message. There are articulate celebrity spokespersons, Bono being foremost, but the wisp of celebrity is hardly a solid basis for joining a cause.

Third, some of the criticism of the global event had a point. It’s fair to ask if the behavior of the sponsor is consistent with the values we are being called upon to support. Similarly, it’s fair to ask if the the event itself models the behavior we are asked to live out ourselves. Live Earth attempted to do this, but in an entertainment venue noted more for excess and extravagant celebration than for earth friendly responsibility. Whether it was able to overcome this incongruity, I don’t know. Will the entertainers and promoters actually make arena events more green? Time will tell.

But, we are more aware. The makings of a global movement has begun and with Al Gore continuing to keep global warming in front of us in new and innovative ways, perhaps this generation will become the advocates for the Earth that their elders have failed so miserably to be.

Live Earth

The Live Earth concerts this weekend seek to build grassroots support for a global movement to save the earth.

The Live Earth concerts this weekend seek to create a tipping point to address the climate crisis. It’s an urgent need and a noble effort. Al Gore has called global warming the moral issue of our time.

But can another musical extravaganza capture public attention and create a grassroots movement? History isn’t encouraging. While it’s possible to raise funds using telethons, entertainment events such as Live Aid, Farm Aid, and Comic Relief, have not translated public awareness into sustained, collective social change. The organizers of Live Earth understand this and are planning additional ways to stimulate action after the concerts. This is where the rub comes.

People go to concerts for the music and the experience. They may or may not be deeply committed to the cause. And many feel the mere act of attending the concert is sufficient. Translating an entertainment experience into a sustained movement is a huge challenge.

It may be easier to energize existing grassroots organizations utilizing mass events, but no less daunting. Some grassroots movements benefitted financially from the Idol Gives Back television special but that was about fundraising, not grassroots organizing.

It’s possible to encourage lifestyle change, as Live Earth intends, by providing concert-goers with actions an individual can take to reduce energy use but it’s not clear how long this sticks. The next step, collective action, is harder to stimulate and hold together. The after-glow of an entertainment event is short. The life of a media story is even shorter.

It’s my experience that public media can make people aware and call them to act but it’s not necessarily effective at translating awareness into action. This happens when we meet face-to-face and are encouraged, invited or otherwise convinced to become involved. Self-interest is a huge factor, and saving the earth is a pretty good rallying point for our self-interest. But Live Earth won’t escape this perennial challenge.

A multi-layered marketing effort is planned and it may be the perfect test. Text messaging, blogs, a website, a list of actions individuals can take, and a handbook with information and action steps on global warming will complement the concerts. I hope it works. I’m glad it’s being tried. I’m not as concerned as some about the energy it takes to stage these events. Concert organizers are attempting to make the concerts as green as possible but they face a dilemma. We’ve created a global entertainment culture with high expectations. Without the fanfare and reach of a mass event it’s difficult to get the message through. Yet, individual events use energy extravagantly and this runs contrary to the message of Live Earth. To create a movement at scale without using the tools available would not only be counter-cultural, it would be nearly impossible to pull off.

So it will be interesting to see how this effort moves forward. I hope it succeeds. We’ll all be better off if it does. And if it doesn’t we’ll need to find another way to stimulate the action required to stop global warming and start to live differently. It’s in the self-interest of the entire human family.

Media Trash and the most trusted name in news

Two hours of Paris Hilton on “the most trusted
name in news?”

I wasn’t surprised that U.S. media didn’t cover the partnership agreement between UMCOR and Muslim Aid. In this day of division and religious fanaticism two moderate groups, one from the third largest denomination in the U.S. and the other serving Muslims of all theological positions, carrying out peace-making isn’t news, at least not when you’ve got Paris Hilton getting out of jail.

I was pleased that BBC World Service television gave the story ten minutes including a live interview segment. Reuters and AP Radio in London also picked it up. This coverage happened concurrently with the Wimbledon tourney, a major rock music festival, the worst flooding in northern England since record-keeping began, the day before Tony Blair left office, and Paris Hilton’s release from jail.

I’ve come reluctantly to accept that TV news in the U.S. is mostly innane headlines and soundbites. I came to this reluctantly because I remember when it was much more, and frankly, I’ve hoped for more. But standards began to slide long ago, and to hope for significant change is to misplace psychic energy. It ain’t going to happen.

Fortunately, religious media serving both Christian and Muslim audiences covered the story broadly and through these media people were informed.

In an interesting turn, Janice Min, editor of Us Weekly, a celebrity magazine, provides an explanation in Slate about why her magazine didn’t do a story on Hilton. (She perceived readers were running for cover to avoid yet another Hilton story. She was reflecting reader interests, she writes.)

Min notes that CNN stretched coverage of Hilton’s release to two hours in its prime time evening lineup, and this on a day when the Senate issued subpoenas to the White House, Justice Department, Vice-President and National Security Council in the investigation of wiretapping and politicizing Justice Department appointments. It does make you wonder about the priorities of “the most trusted name in news,” doesn’t it?

I find myself paying less attention to television news. There are alternatives in print and on line. And guess what? I haven’t missed a thing. And I’ve freed up a bit of time for more useful pursuits.

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