Fear Really Is the Mind Killer

There’s wisdom everywhere, if you are ready for it. Late science-fiction author Frank Herbert definitely tapped into a large store of it when he wrote his masterpiece Dune. One particular passage from that book has stood the test of time better than any other bit, even to the point of becoming part of popular culture—the “Litany Against Fear”. It’s message is as practical and relevant in our current times as it has been since humans became conscious….

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

There is so much fear in the world today, even though our world is more peaceful and prosperous and offers greater potential for happiness and greatness than ever before. We’ve forgotten that “there is nothing to fear but fear itself,” as one of our wiser former presidents tried to remind us. And it’s easy to forget the many Biblical exhortations to “fear not” and “be not afraid” as well.

There’s good reason for such wisdom to be repeated by many leaders and writers throughout our history…Fear destroys that which makes us human. I mean this in a literal sense—fear gears us up for the fight-or-flight response, and completely shuts down our higher reasoning functions. It lobotomizes us. Admittedly, we evolved this way for our own survival, but even back when being wary of crocodiles and leopards was a big deal, becoming paralyzed by fear was equally unhelpful.

So I implore you, dear reader, to pay no attention to politicians and public figures who advocate hate and fear. (Yes, I am particularly talking about Trump, although he’s certainly neither the first nor the only blowhard to capitalize on the effects of fear on the public). Instead, have pity for them–they’re trapped in their own inner ruts of fear, inadequacy, anger, and uncertainty, and are only praying on others to make themselves feel better and fill the gaps in their own lives.

Remind yourself with the Litany above, and many other sources of wisdom written down through the ages, that fear is only ever “False Evidence Appearing Real”. It’s only in our heads, and rarely reflects reality. And even when things are going to shit, remember that fear only prevents us from using our natural intelligence to creatively come up with solutions, solve problems, grow, and make things better for ourselves and everyone else.

Let us all remember that we always have Choice—to change our perspective, to change our perceptions, to change our attitude, to change our expectations, and to change our lives, for the better. And also remember…

Yoda's quote about fear

Fear not!

On Immigration and ISIS

Immigration is good. Full stop. Illegal or otherwise; from war-torn regions or peaceful ones; no matter what the religion or background of the immigrants. It’s merely a fearful reaction of modern xenophobia to think otherwise. And on top of that, rejecting immigrants from the Middle East in this particular case is giving terrorists exactly what they want.

The recent outpouring of reactionary, fearful closed-mindedness makes me quite sad, not only as a human being with compassion, but as someone who hasn’t forgotten history. Even recent history—the world since 2001—is enough of an education to help us make much more reasonable decisions about our way forward than most pundits, and a vocal segment of the public, would have you believe.

There. Now that I have your attention, and maybe offended some of you already (pushing buttons is great 1st Amendment fun!), let’s dive into the depths of this issue with a bit more nuance.

Note: I will herein refer to ISIS/ISIL/IS as “Daesh” (technically, more accurately transcribed and pronounced as “Da’ish”), as has been suggested by many. It’s one minor way to delegitimize the terror group.

Although volumes could be written on the intersection of violence, terror, immigration, refugees, demographics, economics, and religion—volumes have already been written—I’m going to confine my thoughts here to (relatively) brief, evidence- and rationality-backed, long-term-outlook reminders.

Let’s get this out of the way first: The Governors who’ve stated they will deny Syrian refugees are shortsighted, ignorant, fear-pandering assholes.

Firstly, they have no authority whatsoever to restrict the State Department from bringing refugees into these United States, and they have no authority whatsoever to restrict refugees or immigrants from traveling to their states. These are basic, Constitutionally-based, long-established facts of our wonderful system of government and the rule of law. Refer to the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4), the Refugee Act of 1980, US v Guest (1966); and Saenz v Roe (1999), for starters.

And don’t even get me started on the chatter about a “religious test” for refugees. That’s some of the most despicable, un-American, un-Constitutional, backwards bullshit I’ve heard spewed from the mouth of a politician in years. It is startling how little self-awareness the “leaders” who say these things are, since they don’t seem to realize how much they sound like an American version of the Taliban, but even worse, in some respects.

Thankfully, many people on all sides of the political spectrum understand that to deny the refugees would be to deny our American values—in fact, it would be denying basic human rights.

As for the myths (yes, myths) that immigrants and/or refugees cause economic damage or enact violence, I’ll address those ideas below. Needless to say, this cowardly political move by many governors is pitiful.

Of course, these attitudes are nothing new. Those decrying allowing in refugees (or for that matter, any other sort of immigrants) are simply participating in a longstanding American tradition of fear-based, shortsighted bigotry. Just ask the Irish in the 19th century, or Jews before and after WWII, or any number of other ethnic groups throughout the entire history of the US. (Or ask George Takei about his perspective on how Japanese were treated during WWII).

Thankfully, our Founding Fathers, and other leaders since, have remembered that our nation is absolutely built by and made strong through immigrants of all stripes and beliefs (which is one reason I chose a picture of Ellis Island in 1912 to represent this post).

George Washington had it right:

“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respected Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges…”

As did Emma Lazarus, whose poetry is still a potent reminder for all who view the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

But, it’s easy to pass off such ideas as ideals. So let’s get into even more of the nitty-gritty details….

“But what about our Veterans?” is a popular response to talk about refugees and immigrants; “But what about our poor?” These are very good questions. And I agree—to a point. We absolutely must do more to help those who we’ve sent off to fight our battles. And we absolutely would do well to help those in need within our own borders. But it’s purely a false choice to say “we can’t take in immigrants or refugees unless we take care of our own veterans and poor first”. The reality is more complicated, especially in politics.

It’s also telling that in many (although not all) cases, we only seem to care about our veterans and poor when it helps our particular political arguments. We, as a nation, started talking more about our own needy only when illegal immigration became a public topic. And now, with refugees in the public consciousness, there’s suddenly a new push to help our own. Kind of telling.

So please, do something to help the needy! It starts with us, individually. Whether in terms of contacting our representatives to encourage shifting funds to veterans- and homeless- programs, or by arranging help yourself in your hometown—it starts with us.

But this has nothing to do with denying refugees or limiting immigration. Welcoming more people into our great nation only serves to make us stronger, adds to the economy (see below), and encourages more and more people to support each other and build community.

Immigrants and refugees only contribute to our economy and greatness in the long run.

First, I’ll mention a practical bit that many overlook, in light of the many governors clamoring to deny refugees access to our amazing nation—refugees are not a financial burden on states. There has been money Congressionally designated for public assistance and state reimbursement for expenses of settling refugees for a very long time, and it’s not costing anything extra.

Secondly, and more importantly, let’s look at the bigger picture of demographics. It’s easy to overlook long term trends when there are so many shorter-term cycles to pay attention to (e.g. we see this problem all the time with discussions about climate change). But long-term demographic effects are real, well-studied, and go a long way to explaining a lot of what’s on the news [PDF].

One particularly important point to remember is that immigration is one of the factors that’s helping to keep the USA as a superpower for the near future. We’re one of the few developed nations that isn’t suffering from demographically-damaging population aging, let alone economy-destroying population decline, and immigration is a big part of that [PDF].

Meahwhile, Japan is in big trouble—they’re back in a recession and demographics is a huge part of it. China (and to a lesser extent, India) are in for rocky times ahead thanks to their aging populations and imbalanced gender-ratios. Italy and other Western European nations are poised for further downturns if they don’t have more babies. And Russia is just plain dying.

This isn’t new information. [PDF]

The thing is, more than most other factors, it’s actually immigration (illegal as well as legal) that’s keeping the US in a good position going forward. Latin American immigrants filled a population gap during Generation X, and continued immigration from multiple regions is helping to offset the aging population and declining birth rate of non-immigrant Americans.

People also enjoy shouting about immigrants (illegal, refugees, or otherwise) “taking our jobs”. Well, just examine the grand experiment that several Southern states enacted regarding this very topic. Fact is, immigrant populations are economically complementary, not competitive. Illegal immigrants do work that even the lowest income-bracket Americans are loathe to do (which is an issue in itself, but that’s another blog post…). Not to mention that legal immigrants and refugees have made numerous major contributions to our great nation and to our economy. (Steve Jobs’ father was a refugee from Syria!)

Immigrants and refugees are not violent and don’t increase crime.

Since 9/11, the majority of terrorist acts on US soil have been perpetrated by domestic, non-Muslim groups and individuals, including many of the worst attacks. Police and federal law enforcement all label domestic right-wing extremism as MUCH more of a threat than any imported variety.

Even the Tsarnaev brothers are much more home-grown terrorists than externally radicalized ones—they grew up in the United States and their ideas were formed here (although psychological factors due to their youth in war-torn Chechnya are also significant…But just another reason to reach out and bring people into our communities and actually connect with them).

And I won’t even get into the fact that we’re still living in the statistically safest time to be alive as a human being in history, despite the constant threats we feel from the 24/7 sensationalist new cycle in this Age of Information…That’ll be for another blog post, too.

If anything, refugees and immigrants of all types and nationalities are significantly LESS likely to be involved in any sort of crime, violent or otherwise. Opening our arms and creating spaces where people are welcome makes things better, and safer, for everyone.

Again, believing that every refugee is a violent terrorist or sleeper agent is EXACTLY what groups like Daesh want you to believe, since it sews discord, weakens international bonds, and creates more disaffected people to prey upon.

The very fact that Paris attackers have few, if any, ties to the current wave of immigration sweeping Europe just further underlines this point. They know what they’re doing in terms of propaganda.

Don’t give the terrorists what they want.

Daesh wants us to fear immigrants and vilify the Islamic world.

By denying immigrants and refugees, we are literally handing Daesh exactly what it wants—further strife, more disaffected and disenfranchised people from whom to draw more desperate fighters. Anti-Muslim bigotry is tantamount to giving such radical terror groups military aid (which we have already done, more directly, time after time in the past). We are letting the despicable terrorists win by allowing them to divide us—“divide and conquer” is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and we’re falling for it.

They’re actually winning a PR-war against us by inciting our unaddressed fears, and using people that want nothing to do with their hideous ideology to do it.

We (the West, and the US in particular) created Daesh, and perpetuating cycles of violence is simply not the answer if we want an actual, long-term solution to such violent nonsense.

Although powers have fought proxy wars since nations were first formed, and despite the US [as an entity, mostly] intending the best with all it has done throughout the world in the 20th century and into the 21st, that’s no excuse for not learning from our mistakes and taking a more long-term approach going forward.

It may be cliché, and I know many will immediately dismiss this and brand me naïve, but violence is not the answer any more, especially in this Information Age, and especially regarding the Middle East. The cycles will not—cannot!—end until someone steps up and acts like an adult. Until the powers at be actually begin to act like they deserve our support and think of more than their pockets and the next election cycle.

Please ask Israel and Palestine (as but one example) how “eye-for-an-eye” is working out for them.

Containment is a part of the solution for the Daesh problem, and it doesn’t require vindictive, vengeful destruction. They will burn themselves out, as all regimes built on fear ultimately do, but only if we stop feeding them.

Allowing, if not outright encouraging immigration from these troubled areas is another powerful tool that can destroy these radical groups. As outlined above, immigration betters the economy, helps to build a worldwide community, and takes the teeth out of the ideologies of groups like Daesh.

There’s a reason why it’s a Trope that the bad guys always end up losing—because they mistrust each other and have no regard for themselves, others, or life in general. And there’s a reason why it’s a Trope that the good guys can’t help but win as long as they stick together, open their arms with love and trust, and go about making the world better for everyone.

The Golden Rule is a practical tool to win this war.

These ideas are not new.

Especially with regards to immigration and refugees, the Bible has many words of wisdom for us. Whether in the Old Testament

33 When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt…. [Leviticus 19:33-34]

Or the New:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” [Romans 12:14-21; emphasis mine]

The wisdom we need to harness has been shared by every master, philosophy, religion, and holy text throughout history and the world. “Treat others how you would want to be treated” isn’t some abstract, woo-woo, hippy-dippy bullshit, it’s an actual, practical methodology. What is useless, though, is just sitting back and “praying” for Paris, or Beirut, or the poor, etc. Do something. Even if it’s just bettering yourself as a person.

Peace starts with us. You and I, here and now.

When individual relationships are healthier, then our families will be healthier. When our families are healthier, then our communities will be healthier. When our communities are healthier, then our nations will be healthier. And when our nations are healthier, then we can enjoy greater happiness and prosperity on Earth than humanity has ever seen.

Gandhi was completely right:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

It starts with us. But practically so. Take steps to understand and love yourself, so that you can understand and love your neighbor. And then also take steps to actually help your neighbors. Form a community. Choose another way other than conflict. Other than falling prey to our basest fears.

…And if you don’t want to pay attention to my words, or those of the Bible writers, or of the US Presidents, or of Gandhi…Then how about the Dalai Lama’s:

“People want to lead a peaceful lives. The terrorists are short-sighted, and this is one of the causes of rampant suicide bombings. We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.

“We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.”

Such a solution is not easy. And it is not quick. And it will take concerted effort by a large portion of humanity. But the rewards are beyond question.

I hope this all helps you, my dear reader, to ponder, explore, open up, and grow.

May you all have all the peace, harmony, contentment, and wellbeing you desire.


I highly recommend exploring all of the various links I provide in essay above, but if you’re an ardent bibliovore and yearn for yet more content, these additional references should sate your appetite:

More linguistic background on calling ISIS Daesh: Free Word Center

More info on why immigration, illegal or otherwise, is good for us all, from CNN Money of all places!

The Age Curve by Kenneth Gronbach is an excellent book that delves into how demographic shifts explain (and predict) so much of what happens in society.

“What ISIS Really Wants”—an excellent and in-depth exploration of what Daesh is all about. Worth the time to read: The Atlantic

“Digging Down to the Roots of Radicalism”—a solid examination of the origins of terror, with specific reference to Paris: Good Magazine

Lastly, but most definitely not least, “7 Thoughts on Syrian Refugees & the Gospel”—some meditations from a devout Christian on the topic at hand: Josh Howerton (Blog)

AotM #13: Mischief Night

I never knew this before, but it certainly makes perfect sense that it was those hooliganish Brits who invented Mischief Night.

  1. No matter how often studies like these that promote the benefits of exercise come along, I’ll never stop sharing them, since getting sweaty really does make everything better. Today, Tai Chi reduces depression and joint pain in the elderly, and moderate exercise can lessen or even prevent flu.
  2. Although it’s certainly nothing new, here’s yet more research showing that even just beginning to study and play music improves brain function and memory. Get out and play something now!
  3. Where does dust come from? Surprisingly, we didn’t quite know where until now.
  4. While it’s about 90% true that you always get what you pay for, Monster Cables are one solid example of the remaining 10% of utter scams. Never trust marketing or commissioned “experts” (cough cough RadioShack).
  5. Here is an excellent proposal describing why English should NOT ever be legally made our official language. The fact that this topic is even an issue really does only go to show how discombobulated and disconnected we have become as One Nation, Indivisible, with Liberty & Justice for All (I have omitted the “Under God” since it’s a relatively recent addition to the Pledge). If we felt more unified as a nation, it wouldn’t matter what languages people spoke.
  6. Finally, here’s a fascinating study showing how our unconscious biases effect the “results” of torture. Combined with the uselessness of most lie detection methodologies, we as a nation should most definitely forbid torture for anything related to our national interests. It just doesn’t work, and only serves to reduce our standing in the world.

China’s Influence in Africa

I took advantage of a fascinating talk today by a visiting scholar, Dr. David Shinn, who was formerly our Ambassador to Ethiopia (among other positions), and who is now a professor at GWU. I went at the last minute based on an email from my Japanese History professor, and I’m quite glad I did. Thanks to my China knowledge (mostly gleaned from majoring in it…Check that out mom & dad—I actually learned something at college!) and my greater-than-average Africa knowledge due to the scenarios we worked with at NYLF/National Security, I learned a even more from the talk.

Since I’m pressed for time, I’m just going to bullet point some of the more interesting tidbits I collected from the talk, for you, my loyal reader (yes, you, sitting over there by yourself) to peruse at your leisure:

  1. Of the 53 African nations currently, only 4 still recognize Taiwan over the PRC, and they’re frankly the insignificant ones (Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Sao Tome & Principe, and Swaziland). Even those will likely change soon. This means that China’s efforts in Africa can potentially garner a large chunk of support votes in the UN—almost a quarter right there.
  2. The US has a significant trade deficit with Africa (although this is of course overshadowed by that with other nations). China is much closer to being neutrally balanced in terms of trade with Africa, which puts it in a stronger position.
  3. By 2010, China will have surpassed the US in trade with Africa. Of that, 85% of China’s trade is with only 5 of the largest African nations. Also, despite all of that, only 3% of China’s trade is with Africa.
  4. Through 2007, China had over $20 billion in investment (mainly in oil and extractive industries) in Africa; $6 billion in Sudan alone. This is a tremendous amount compared to virtually all other nations.
  5. Since 2000, China has been pushing their “Angola Model” in Africa. Basically, Beijing gives large “loans” at very low interest rates (~1.5% only!), payable over long periods. Sounds great, right? Well, in reality these are more like barter agreements, where the recipient nation then pays back the loan in resources (oil from Angola, minerals from DRC, tobacco from Zimbabwe, etc), and on top of that, China agrees to develop the necessary infrastructure to access those resources—but it’s usually stipulated to be done by mostly Chinese companies and labor! Nevertheless, both sides seem pretty happy with this (e.g. Angola is really enjoying the deal since they won the “oil lottery” and are able to pay back their loan quite quickly due to the high prices commanded by oil).
  6. China is not completely profit driven in Africa, as they have cancelled over $1 billion in debts throughout Africa. Not as much as Western nations, but still a significant amount, and mostly for the poorer nations that needed it most.
  7. China does a fantastic job of government-to-government relations: Beijing has staffed embassies in 48 of the 49 African nations that recognize her (Somalia is the only one left out due to security and safety issues). No other nation has that many embassies in Africa. Africa is also always the first place outside of China that the new Chinese foreign minister goes to when taking office.
  8. However, despite that, China is still pretty bad at dealing with non-governmental players, from NGOs to opposition parties, etc. This occasionally leads to great difficulties, since when a government in Africa does change, Beijing has already alienated them by not having had relations previously.
  9. Between 2002 and 2004, high-level Chinese officials made 64 trips to Africa, and African officials and leaders made 69 trips to China in the same period. Can you imagine someone like Condi going to Africa even twice in two years, let alone dozens of times?
  10. Beijing regularly provides training for African diplomats.
  11. Some problems with China in Africa:
    • Beijing undercuts the IMF and World Bank’s reform efforts, which involve loans and grants with stipulations for reform, by giving assistance and funds with no political stipulations at all. China in this sense is like a pressure relief valve for Africa, negating any pressure put on questionable governments by the West.
    • China doesn’t pay much attention to where their arms shipments end up in Africa.
    • China participates and funds egregious environmental practices, from protected timber clearcutting, to blatant ivory trade.
    • Chinese trade is continually driving local African textile and other goods manufacturers out of business.
  12. Some interesting effects of Chinese influence:
    • China’s use of barter with many African nations actually serves to lessen corruption; corrupt leaders are much less likely to “misplace” a thousand computers shipped in from China than they are to lose track of a million dollars sent in by the IMF.
    • Whether good or bad, it is interesting that China will deal equitably with Islamist Khartoum, Autocratic Equatorial Guinea, and Democratic South Africa…all that matters to Beijing is who’s in power.
  13. There are roughly three classes of Chinese in Africa:
    • The Professional Class, who are the ambassadorial, administrative, managerial, and banking etc personnel. These people behave like their Western equivalents, living in communities, speaking the local languages, taking their families, and usually getting along with the locals.
    • The Laborers, who are mostly uneducated, stick to themselves, don’t have their families with them, eat Chinese food, drink, and don’t like the locals. They are simply there to make a higher wage than they would in China, and most end up returning to China after a few years.
    • The Traders and Entrepreneurs, who are the largest group, and mostly urban. They run businesses, usually integrated with extended families back in China (networking much like Jewish traders did a few centuries ago). They are there unofficially, but Beijing doesn’t discourage them. They are the most likely to live in Africa their entire lives, even though they speak of returning home.

Iranian Pride in our Perfect Constitution

I just had a fascinatingly enlightening conversation with a 30-something Iranian physician on a residency program here in Philly. A disarming and engaging fellow, with a strong Persian accent but impeccable English pronunciation, my friend surprised me again and again with his insight into US society and even moreso with his views on American policy. Here are some quick highlights, since I’m too exhausted to bother coming up with expository verbiage. Also note: all quotations are paraphrases to convey his gist.

“Everyone here in America is so optimistic.”

I’ve heard something like this before, from a Dutch girl when I was in Poland in 2000, while discussing some of the general differences in attitudes between Americans and Europeans…And I am inclined to agree. We are in general more the big-dreaming pie-in-the-sky type than most of the other, more grounded citizens of the world.

In this case, however, my Iranian friend continued by saying that this optimism is due to being too comfortable, and not knowing true suffering, sacrifice, and hard work. He wasn’t accusatory, just stating things as he sees them. I think I agree with him, but I would add that I don’t believe our optimism is at all bad, despite its origins. After all, it has taken us this far. (Note: at a different point in the conversation, my friend observed that many Americans are very hard working, so take this all how you will).

“One Iranian can do the work of a hundred men, but a hundred Iranians can only do the work of one man.”

This anecdote was shared during a discussion about differences in governmental effectiveness. My friend told me of his pleasant shock when, during the State of the Union address, Dubya said something like “the talented people of Iran are being held back by oppression.” My friend readily agreed, and shared that the above saying tells how individually, Iranians are incredibly hard working and capable, but when they get together, they can never agree and therefore stall each other. I personally think this adage can apply to many different peoples and societies around the world, including our own—consensus and fair governance is supremely difficult to achieve.

“I am very embarrassed and ashamed, but Iran’s government is like European governments of the Medieval times—under theocratic rule.”

It was vindicating to get first hand validation of my beliefs, as it’s seemed obvious from my outside perspective that this was the case. I posit that all religions, if they survive infancy and begin to explode in growth, then go through a set series of stages of development. It’s easy for most Christians (especially Catholics), as well as Buddhists, to sit back and ask “why the heck do the Muslims have such a stick up their collective ass?” This is because Buddhism is (on average) in the “easygoing grandparent” stage, and Christianity is in the “experienced adult” stage of life. Islam, however, having only been founded in the 7th century, is still in its late “teenage crisis” and early “idealistic twentysomething” stage(s) of life. We all go through these stages—it’s nothing to be ashamed about. Christianity had its crusades (11th through 13th centuries) and inquisitions (13th through 19th centuries), and before that the Buddhists were part of numerous uprisings, rebellions, crackdowns, massacres, and holy wars throughout Asia for centuries. Basically, this all means that Islam is 500 to 800 years behind Christianity in terms of religious maturity. We can probably expect another few hundred years of asinine, violent, and overtly irrational behavior from some elements of the Islamic world before things begin to settle down.

On a more practical note, (regarding Iran’s current system of government), Iranians are very politically active, with, according to my friend, over 10,000 people running for parliamentary positions recently, and who anybody can vote for. Unfortunately, there is a committee of 12 ayatollahs who interview and judge all of those candidates, and who can reject out of hand anyone who isn’t faithful enough, or Muslim enough. This reduces the number to about 3,000. So basically, even if the hardline and conservative Muslims are only a minority in Iran, the ayatollahs can virtually guarantee them government positions.

“Democracy can work in Iran, but clearly not Iraq or Afghanistan…”

I had been about to object to this, but my friend had a very valid point for this—that Iraq and Afghanistan are nations of tribes, whereas Iran (formerly Persia; formerly the center of a long series of large and established empires), although having some tribes, is much more intrinsically unified. Tribal societies by their very nature don’t work with other tribes, thereby precluding from the start any sort of cooperative government based on Western legalistic abstractions. This relatively simple explanation goes a long way in explaining the difficulties much of Africa have always had in establishing “democracy” too (especially since African borders were simply drawn in with crayons by European colonizers). Just because it works for us doesn’t mean it’s the best form of government for everyone.

“You must be so proud of your Founding Fathers, since they really did build this nation on the most perfect foundation possible…”

My friend went on to explain that after reading our Constitution 10 times, as well as perusing the Iranian version, the German one, and more, he concluded that ours is not only short and concise, but it broadly and unambiguously grants strong freedoms without religious interference. He then added that our nation is so powerful because it has such a stout foundation that can survive temporary problems and absorb incoming ideologies whole. Iran does indeed have a problem exporting terrorism and extremism, he affirmed, because it lacks such a foundation, which allows other ideologies to infiltrate and insert themselves into Iranian government and society.

I tried to object by saying that many American grow tired of the legalistic oversaturation of our society and that we want less rigidity. My friend caused me to instead be more appreciative of our strongly legalistic culture, since that very backbone is what allows us to take in people from so many different backgrounds and integrate them into a relatively cohesive whole—the US of A—thereby enabling our collective success. In effect, Law is our ideology or Tradition, and that is something to be proud of.

All in all, it was a fascinating exchange of ideas between East and West. I hope there will be more to come!

The Paradox of the Burqa

When I first decided to repost a number of my old Blogspot posts on this newer blog, I passed this one over, since I was frankly embarrassed by how I opened it, and concerned how people might take some of my statements. I’ve grown more than I thought I had since originally writing this post, and my current views are much more inclusive, more nuanced, and less…hormonal…than depicted here. But after much thought, I opted to nevertheless port this post here (with minor style edits), since I still largely agree with my own older conclusions. ~2014-11-06

I am not a Muslim. I have never read the Koran [I since have]. I have never been to an Islamic nation. So feel free to take what follows with as much salt as you desire.

However, I feel quite strongly that what I have to say has a fair amount of validity.

So I was doing my usual daily checking of news outlets, and on the BBC News front page, a small photo from this article caught my eye. My first thought was “Wow, the amazingly attractive woman in this mini profile portrait looks like Angelina Jolie.” Then I read the caption, “Iran’s best woman racing driver hailed as new ‘Schumacher'” and was immediately intrigued, thinking “But how often does one get to see pictures of any Iranian women?”

Despite the apparent (“apparent” only because the picture is really small) stunning beauty of this woman drawing my eye enough to click on a link, I was about to pass over the article and move on with my life, until I read that she was Iranian.

Herein lies the problem: Humans shall ever want what they cannot have. I’ll expand on that….

Well, the article was actually pretty interesting, [here’s a more recent one] and it even included another small profile image of the woman in question, name of Laleh Seddigh, but it soon got me thinking about the whole issue of the burqa, and from there it was only a hop, skip, and jump to ponderances on fundamentalism, beauty, sexism, sexuality, hormones, religion, freedom, oppression, and more (you get the drift—I’m in college, after all, and supposed to be thinking deep thoughts).

Based on my own immediate personal reaction to the minute image of the face of Laleh Seddigh, Iranian Racecar Driver, I must say that the basic idea behind the burqa is sound—males and their pesky hormones and evolved mammalian behaviors are easily affected by the aesthetically pleasing and generally beautiful female face and form. By removing the female face and form from view, as the burqa is intended to do, the idea is that males will be less inclined to covet their neighbors’ wives and females would be protected from males’ aggressive advances. This does make sense, on some level.

Unfortunately, it’s also a crock of shit based on fundamentalist religiosity and wishful thinking. Fact is, males [and actually people in general] are gonna have their hormones raging in any case, the face or body in view or not, and in fact, sexual aggression and repression would be even worse for all parties due to the clearly unnatural and confining arrangement that the whole burqa idea creates. If anything, the suggestivity of the burqa, by hiding simple and not-necessarily-at-all-sexual natural beauty from view, allows imaginations to roam free, and hormones could be ratcheted up even further. This is what unconsciously and immediately happened to me with Ms. Seddigh’s picture, and for that matter what the entire luxury lingerie industry is based on—the suggestion of something can be more powerful than the thing itself.

I don’t know how many of you have ever been to a nude beach or nudist resort, but I have to say, it’s remotely as sexual and suggestive as people imagine. Modesty is a good virtue and trait, but one can be modest whether in a burqa or a thong—it’s the intent behind the clothing along with the behavior of the wearer that are more important than the outfit itself (usually, that is—assless chaps and inflatable bras are another ball game). However shocking and, sadly enough, repulsive the nude human form may be to some people, we are born that way, and how are we to return to the Garden of Eden if we don’t make the conscious effort to evolve ourselves beyond the fleeting conventions we have created for ourselves; to come full circle to our pre-Knowledge-of-Good-&-Evil innocence while maintaining the wisdom humanity has gained while traveling the circle.

People always (should) have the right to wear whatever they wish to, but however you look at it—burqas could be seen as protection from the outside world as much as protection from one’s own urges and thoughts—hiding from our fears allows our fears to continue unabated. Burqas could be seen as covering up a temptation—but covering something up and confining it is smothering, and again, when we don’t face our fears, we inevitably augment them.

I am personally on the more progressive end of this particular debate, and I will gladly support the right of people to cover themselves completely as much as I’ll support groups like RAWA. Ultimately, general human rights and freedoms are the most important, overarching issues at stake.