Monday, June 04, 2007

No Problem w/ Cultural Education

I’m a little surprised by the uproar that a little cultural education brings.

For one night, on May 9, the quaint colonial town of Amherst, New Hampshire, was transformed into a Saudi Arabian Bedouin tent community, with the help of 80 seventh-graders at the Amherst Middle School. The weather cooperated, providing 85 degree temperatures to give an authentic Saudi feel to the evening.

More than 250 guests arrived at the open tent and were welcomed with an Arabic greeting of “Marhaba” by students at a Saudi customs desk.

During the check-in, guests selected a traditional Arabic name for their name badge and completed an actual Saudi customs form, which warned in bold letters “Death for Drug Trafficking “ at the top.

Once inside, guests were encouraged to circulate among 14 different stations created by the students.

The Arabic food-tasting station offered four entrées, curried chicken, lamb, tomato chicken with cardomom, and Moroccan chicken, served with pita breads, hummus, and couscous. Fresh fruits, cardomom coffees, and spice teas were also served.

Flowing fabrics hung from the ceiling separated the family and men-only dining sections. The tables were set on large rugs and lowered so that the diners sat on the floor.

Only the seventh-grade boys were allowed to host the food stations and the Arabic dancing, as the traditions of Saudi Arabia at this time prevent women from participating in these public roles.

Dressed in traditional Arabic wear--long plaid kilts, white shirts and turbans--the boys offered food and entertained guests. The Arabic dancers enthusiastically performed to music and encouraged male visitors to join their dance.

Seventh-grade girls hosted the hijab and veil stations, where other female guests learned how to wear the required head covering and veils. An antique trunk full of black abayas worn by women, and white thobes worn by the men, were available for guests to try on.

I’ve quoted the same section of the article that one of the detractors, Kim Priestap from Wizbang, quoted just to make sure we’re working from the same context. Here’s what she had to say:

How would you feel if your seventh graders participated in this?

I found this at LGF and I was stunned. I know middle schools teach about world religions, but this project is way over the top, particularly the photos of the little girls in hijabs.
There are several reasons why this picture makes my blood boil. To begin, this picture embodies al Qaeda’s goal to convert everyone, especially Americans, to Islam, and they will use force to do so. Adam Gadahn, al Qaeda’s English speaking servant, has issued a number of videos demanding that Americans convert or die. These kids’ parents most likely have no idea the horrible symbolism these images represent. Second, hijabs, along with burqas, represent the horrible oppression and abuse of women by a misogynistic culture and religion. For example, in Iran, women were horribly beaten in public for not wearing the correct head coverings. Third, this project is nothing more than a lesson in political correctness; Muslims are the new protected class. Would the school offer a project in which the kids were required to participate in a Jewish Seder? I seriously doubt it.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind at all if my seventh grader was given an opportunity to participate in this kind of a school activity. In fact, I would embrace the opportunity that it gave me to talk to my kid about Islam and the Middle East. I would enjoy that they were being introduced to new ideas and experiences, even though those ideas and experiences were probably watered down versions of the reality.

We might be involved in a war with radical Islamists, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate the beauty of Arab culture. Nor is it a bad thing to learn about another person’s culture and traditions--and I sure as hell don’t see how the school doing this translates into a recruitment drive for al Quaeda or Islam. That strikes me as bordering on the paranoid (and no few steps from xenophobia).

Quick story time: the g-phrase, as many know, is a school teacher. Some time ago, some of the teachers at her school were teaching the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish. The parents were given an opportunity to have their kids opt out, but at least one parent wouldn’t let it go at that: he called the school, he ranted, he raved, and he angrily said that the exercise--part of a larger unit teaching about hispanic culture--shouldn’t even be taught in the school.

While we could argue the merits of teaching kids to say the Pledge in Spanish, what bugged me most was that this man was saying that his belief that it was wrong should trump all the teachers and parents who believed that it was, at worst, a harmless teaching exercise. It wasn’t enough that he could excuse his kid; he wanted to limit the opportunities of everyone else’s children.

My hunch--and it’s a very strong hunch--is that the parents of the children doing the Bedouin tent community night were aware of (and had given permission for their kids to participate in) the school activity. I would be shocked if the parents hadn’t had the opportunity to keep their kids out of the assignment.

So, what’s the problem?

Don’t completely misunderstand: as I said, I would take the opportunity to talk to my son or daughter about Islam and Arab cultures. I would explain why I felt that, ordinarily, the wearing of the hidjab is a greater sign of how women are treated in most Islamic communities, about how homosexuality and apostasy are punished, and why our culture and political systems are clashing with some of the more radical and strict adherents of Islam. Talk about an opportunity to teach your kids.

Not only would it be a chance to explain my view of the Middle East (both the good and the bad), but it would be an opportunity to talk about what I think is great and what is flawed about America. I live for this shit.

I understand that a parent wouldn’t want their child to participate. So speak against it, keep your kids out of it, and then take a moment to respect the fact that some of us hold a very different view and it isn’t because we want to capitulate to the demands of the terrorists. For some of us, it is an opportunity to open up a much larger conversation.

No Love for Paris

No, the title isn’t an intro for another Cheese Eating Surrender Something joke, but a reference to Sarah Silverman’s hilarious bit on the MTV 2007 Movie Awards.

She really taps into a rich vein of anti-Hiltonism right there, doesn’t she.

I have such a huge crush on Sarah Silverman.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Hallelujah, They’re Doing Something

Zimbabwe’s problems are at an end. The crippling hunger, the collapsed infrastructure, the barely breathing economy, and the oppression of citizens is at an end. Hallelujah!

How can this be? How can decades of neglect, misguided policy, and ruined farmland be so easily negated? Luckily, Thabo Mbeki has turned his eyes toward the wrecked beauty of Zimbabwe and gathered up the courage to Do Something. What that “something” is remains a bit mysterious, hidden behind the years’ old title of “Quiet Diplomacy.”

Quiet Diplomacy mostly consists of never directly critiquing Mugabe (Zimbabwe’s Director of Famines and President for as Long as He Can Get Away With It), never directly acknowledging just how desperate the situation is growing, and never, ever taking direct action against the old socialist’s ruthless government. Which strategy should work like a charm, I’m sure.

From the Beeb:

Mr Mbeki refuses to criticise Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe in public, preferring “quiet diplomacy”.

But he admitted after talks with Mr Blair that the country had “political problems”.

Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change often accuses the police of harassing its members and in March its leader was badly beaten.

As well as organising political talks in Zimbabwe, Mr Mbeki said work was also taking place to find ways of improving Zimbabwe’s economy.

“It’s that two-pronged approach which seeks a solution to these two political matters. Indeed I did brief the prime minister about this and that’s the way we are going,” he said.

Somehow, Mbeki’s “something” seems mighty close to “nothing.”

Until Mbeki in specific and the African Union in general can admit that Zimbabwe’s economic and political problems are embodied in Mugabe’s government, there is little chance for meaningful reform. It is inconceivable that Mugabe’s government could bring the needed reforms that would revive the country’s economy, resolve the terrifying health care crisis, or attract the repatriation of those millions who have fled the country. There is nothing to suggest that Mugabe could lead the kind of political reform that would enliven a constitutional democracy that he has so carefully dismembered--or that he has the credibility to convince others that he would sincerely pursue such a liberal transformation.

Simply put, just as there will never be freedom in Cuba while Castro is the head of the government, there will never be freedom in Zimbabwe while Robert Mugabe is the president--and a hand-picked successor is unlikely to be an improvement.

What is even more confounding is any thought that a “quiet diplomacy” that doesn’t urge the dissolution of Mugabe’s government followed by a rollback of the constitutional and procedural changes that were made to fairly ensure a one party domination of the government.

Zimbabwe is hardly Mbeki’s (or Africa’s) sole responsibility, but the problem is certainly a more direct threat to the economies and stability of surrounding nations. The millions of refugees that have found their way into South Africa are just a shadow of what will happen if Zimbabwe falls into civil war. The violence will spill across borders and the number of refugees will increase dramatically. To be brutally honest, I find myself wondering whether it isn’t already too late to prevent the civil war. If that war does come, the best we can do is to pressure Mugabe to step down quickly and be ready to help the citizens of the failed nation to quickly establish a new government.

Still, isn’t it great that Mbeki is doing something to help? It’s just a pity that his something isn’t a little more close to, you know, something useful.

Read the story.


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