Monday, May 28

Pink Ladyslipper

The Pink Ladyslipper, or Moccasin Flower, (Cypripedium acaule) is a wild orchid, native to many parts of the central and eastern United States as well as central and eastern Canada.

I saw a couple at Walden Pond on Friday and then a bunch more in the Stony Brook Reservation, where I took the above photograph.

Thursday, May 24

A Piano Should Fall on His Head

Just when imbeciles and bigots thought it was safe to step outside, out of nowhere comes a piano and, WHAM, right on the head.

Monica Goodling’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee yesterday provided an opportunity for conservative Republicans to defend not simply the Bush administration’s impact on the Justice Department, but also the academic credentials of Regent University, Goodling’s alma mater.

Goodling, former senior aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Justice Department liaison to the White House, was granted immunity in exchange for her testimony under oath into the ongoing imbroglio surrounding the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Democrats allege that the attorneys were fired because they weren’t aggressive enough in targeting Democrats for prosecution in cases of corruption and voter fraud or were too aggressive in prosecuting Republicans. The committee is currently investigating what role the White House played in the firings.

Goodling has been criticized for her role in the firings, but also for her lack of prosecutorial experience and for what many perceive to be her substandard legal education. Regent University, which was founded by televangelist Pat Robertson in 1978, boasts 150 alumni in the Bush administration. Many have questioned the quality of the “spirit-filled” education offered by Regent and its influence on the White House. Regent’s law school, from which Goodling graduated in 1999, has been accredited by the ABA only since 1996.

Others, like Iowa Representative Steve King (R), have praised Regent’s excellence, comparing the school to none other than Harvard, which was founded in 1636 (a full 342 years before Regent), making it the nation’s oldest college. During yesterday’s hearing, King declared:

“I would submit that Regent… is a successor to Harvard in being founded upon religious principles… and this nation was founded upon religious principles, as was our Constitution. And so I think it is a laudable thing, not a derogatory thing.”
I would submit that King is a colossal idiot. His statement makes him an embarrassment to his fellow Iowans and to the House of Representatives.

Incidentally, Harvard was founded by strict Calvinists. Pat Robertson rejects Calvinism with its emphasis on predestination as a distortion of the gospel, which, he argues, depends upon unimpeded free will. If the founders of Harvard were alive today, they’d regard Robertson as a heretic and would be burning his books and DVD’s in Harvard Yard.

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Wednesday, May 23

Um, Reagan?

I don’t know if anyone else caught Jeff Jacoby’s article “Look in the Mirror, Jimmy Carter” in today’s Globe. In it, Jacoby takes Carter to task for his recent comments to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in which he claimed that “as far as the adverse impact on the nation around the world, this administration has been the worst in history,” referring to the Bush administration.

Jacoby argued that it was actually Carter’s own administration that was the worst in history, or at least the worst of the 20th century. He points to Carter’s departure from the aggressive anti-Communism of his predecessors and what Jacoby sees as Carter’s appeasement of Communist leaders, like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev.

Now I’m not saying Carter was one of our best presidents (and I was too young to have voted for him at the time) but I have a difficult time criticizing Carter’s policy of rapprochement with some of the world’s leading Marxists—heck, didn’t Nixon normalize U.S. relations with China?—especially in light of how many times the U.S. has chosen to support (often covertly) brutal, ruthless, and undemocratic dictators purely on the basis of their anti-Communism.

Worse yet is Jacoby’s criticism of Carter’s response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution, and the subsequent Iran hostage crisis (1979 – 1981). In what can only be considered a thoroughly cock-eyed analysis of what he terms “the fruits of Carter’s spinelessness,” he concludes (quoting Stephen Hayward, a member of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank):

“The fall of Iran… ‘set in motion the advance of radical Islam and the rise of terrorism that culminated in Sept. 11.’ By doing nothing to prevent the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter invited an evil from which grew the jihadist violence that is such a menace today.”
Only the most biased (and blind) individual would reach such a conclusion. Far more accurate is an analysis that looks to the damage done by Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, whose administration funneled billions to Afghanistan in support of the mujahedeen’s jihad against the Soviet Union. Thousands of Arab counterrevolutionaries fled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, among them Osama bin Laden. They were trained and aided by the CIA, who “devised special recommendations ‘for the use of religious movements and groups in the struggle against the spread of Communist influence.’”

Reagan’s shortsighted policy of supporting militant Islam as part of his strategy for winning the Cold War was to have devastating results. In effect, he helped create a threat far more lethal to American security than the Soviet Union. Both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda grew in strength as a result of Reagan’s interference in Afghanistan. His simplistic formula of “the enemy of my enemy of my friend” was a grave miscalculation, the full impact of which was witnessed on 9/11. To ignore the connection between the Reagan administration’s foreign policy and the rise of militant Islam, while placing the blame on Carter’s shoulders isn’t merely bad history. It’s utter foolishness.

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Tuesday, May 15

A Jihad for Love

The story of Islam told by its most unlikely storytellers...

Filmed in twelve different countries and in nine languages, A Jihad for Love is the first-ever feature-length documentary to explore the complex global intersections of Islam and homosexuality. With unprecedented access and depth, the film brings to light the hidden lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Muslims and goes where the silence has been loudest, to countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and Bangladesh, as well as to Turkey, France, India, South Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom.

In many nations with a Muslim majority, laws based on Quranic interpretations are enforced by authorities to monitor, entrap, imprison, torture and even execute homosexuals. Even for those who migrate to Europe or North America and adopt the Western personae of “gay,” the filmmaker says that relative freedoms of new homelands are mitigated by persistent racial profiling and intensified state surveillance after the terrorist attacks in New York, London and Madrid.

As a result, many gay and lesbian Muslims end up renouncing their religion. But the real-life characters of A Jihad for Love are not willing to abandon a faith they cherish. Instead, they struggle to reconcile their ardent belief with the innate reality of their being. The international chorus of gay, lesbian and transgender Muslims brought together by A Jihad for Love does not seek to vilify or reject Islam, but rather to negotiate a new relationship to it.

It was a difficult decision for the subjects under threat of violence to participate in the film. According to the filmmaker, Parvez Sharma, those who came forward to tell their stories felt that Islam is at a tipping point and thus they were willing to take the risk. The documentary will create a new language of affirmation, break down walls of silence and re-address the role of religious fundamentalism in daily life.

Producer Sandi DuBowski is director/producer of the award-winning and groundbreaking film Trembling Before G_d. A Jihad for Love is co-produced by five major international broadcasters, Channel 4 (UK), ZDF/ARTE (France/Germany), SBS (Australia) and LOGO (USA).

Sandi DuBowski and Parvez Sharma have expressed the need for immediate funding as they wrap shooting and edit the film to premiere in early 2007. All donations for the production and distribution of A Jihad for Love are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law. If you would like to make a donation via the Hartley Film Foundation, the film’s fiscal sponsor, please click here.

There will be a gala reception in Boston on Monday, May 21 at 6:30pm with selected clips from the film and a Q&A with the director and producer. For more information on this event, please click here.

Monday, May 14

Says WHO: Don’t get hooked on the hookah.

I don’t know if anyone else caught the Globe’s article on hookah smoking a couple of Sundays ago. The jist of the article was that health officials are becoming alarmed by the rise in hookah smoking among young people who erroneously conclude that it’s a relatively safe alternative to cigarettes. I’m not sure that there’s much of a trend here—or if there is, it’s not really all that new.

Sure, you can order a hookah at Tangierino in Charlestown, but that’s been the case for over a year, at least. A new hookah bar, The Nile Lounge, is set to open in Allston soon, and there are a handful of establishments that offer hookah smoking on their outdoor patios. Mantra built a cool, but pricey hookah den right in the middle of their restaurant about eight years ago, but Boston’s smoking ban killed it shortly thereafter. Do these few instances really amount to a trend? I think a small minority of non-Middle Eastern Americans have been using hookahs for a while, and I’m not sure there numbers are increasing all that much.

On the other hand, Americans of Middle Eastern descent have been using them for decades. My grandfather (OK, he was Greek, but he was also an Ottoman subject) used to smoke one. I smoked one at a Palestinian restaurant in San Francisco about five years ago, but long before that, I noticed a line of ornate hookahs on a shelf at Sevan bakery in Watertown, which is run by an Armenian family from Istanbul. Virtually every Middle Eastern grocer I’ve ever encountered—including the one on Shawmut Ave in the South End—has been selling hookahs and hookah paraphernalia (i.e. tobacco, coals, mouthpieces, etc.) for years.

Whether or not hookahs are truly on the rise in the United States, it is true that they have caught the attention of health officials, who have begun to rail against the dangers of hookah smoking and have raised the regulatory battle cry. This past March, the American Lung Association published a new report entitled An Emerging Deadly Trend—Waterpipe Tobacco Use. They cited a 2005 study by the World Health Organization’s Advisory Note on Waterpipe Tobacco Smoking, which concluded that hookah smoking is 100 times more dangerous than cigarettes. Well, actually, they concluded that smoking the hookah for an hour is more dangerous than smoking a single cigarette. Well, duh. I could have told you that.

Among their findings:

“A waterpipe smoking session may expose the smoker to more smoke over a longer period of time than occurs when smoking a cigarette. Cigarette smokers typically take 8 – 12 40 – 75 ml puffs over about 5 – 7 minutes and inhale 0.5 to 0.6 litres of smoke. In contrast, waterpipe smoking sessions typically last 20 – 80 minutes, during which the smoker may take 50 – 200 puffs which range from about 0.15 to 1 litre each. The waterpipe smoker may therefore inhale as much smoke during one session as a cigarette smoker would inhale consuming 100 or more cigarettes…

A typical 1-hour long waterpipe smoking session involves inhaling 100 – 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled with a single cigarette.”
The operative wording here is “a cigarette.” I don’t know that many smokers who smoke a single cigarette. Don’t smokers typically smoke several cigarettes, spread out over their entire day? Moreover, don’t they typically smoke every day? I’m sure there are plenty of “social smokers” who don’t consume nearly as many cigarettes as their chain-smoking counterparts, but I’m sure even this group doesn’t stop at just one. I think it would have been more accurate to compare the effects of hookah smoke vs. cigarette smoke over the course of a month. Even this would be an exaggeration, however, as many hookah smokers, like myself, don’t smoke every month, unlike cigarettes smokers who probably do.

The key, of course, is moderation. I agree that hookah smoking is not risk-free, and that people should be aware of the risks. The WHO study points out that myths about the harmlessness of hookah smoking are as old as the hookah itself (centuries in other words). It’s important to separate myth from reality. For that reason, it doesn’t really make sense to replace the old myths of harmlessness with new myths of deadliness, based on a questionable methodology. My suggestions:

• Limit your hookah smoking to once a month, at the very most.
• Don’t smoke for more than an hour.
• Don’t smoke alone.
• Use natural coals instead of quick-lighting briquettes.
• Always separate the tobacco from the coal with a layer of perforated tin foil.
• Always clean out the hose and the neck after every use.
• Don’t allow smoke to collect above the water in the base. Use the valve (good hookahs have them) to blow out excess smoke.
Of course, the real danger here isn’t so much to one’s health, but to one’s wallet. Most establishments charge $30 a pop for a hookah on the outdoor patio, in which case what you’re really paying for to look oh-so-hip. No thanks. Just go out and buy your own for Chrissake and smoke at home with your friends. You can find a great selection here or here. Click here for natural coals. The hookah’s special mixture of tobacco, dried fruit or flowers, and molasses (called tabamel or shisha) can be purchased here. For some really cool hookah smoking music, click here.

In spite of the fact that the hookah is making inroads into places where it has historically had less of a presence (I saw hookahs in Kiev last year), it is undeniably a Middle Eastern phenomenon in its origins and remains so in the popular imagination. It’s the exotic associations that make it cool to some, but dangerous to others. Let’s face it, the backlash against hookah smoking cannot really be separated from its post-9/11 context in which anything Middle Eastern has become suspect.

Sunday, May 13


I love getting text messages from friends. This one came today from my friend J, just as the Joes and I arrived home after being in the car for three hours. It was just what I needed.

Seventeen lilacs
encountered meandering
fragrant poignancy

I love that J texts me haikus. Thanks, J.

Wednesday, May 2

Take That, Reunion!

A few weeks ago I posted about Reunion Christian Church and an article in the Weekly Dig about their uber-hip approach to saving your soul. Of course, they’re not the only ones trying to make church fun and cool. I’m happy to report that some Episcopal churches are trading in their incense for overhead projectors as part of something called a U2charist.

From the project’s website: “A U2charist is an Episcopal Eucharist service that features the music of the rock band U2 and a message about God’s call to rally around the Millennium Development Goals.”

A set of eight goals set by the United Nations, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) endeavor to end poverty, hunger and disease, lack of adequate shelter, and exclusion while promoting gender equality, education, and enviromental sustainability, all by 2015. Bono is widely recognized as the project’s global ambassador.

While the Episcopal Church is a denomination that contains both liberals and conservatives, I believe the conservatives are in the minority, at least in the United States (in Africa, it’s a different story). In the U.S. Episcopalian sermons are far more likely to emphasize ethics, social and economic justice, and human rights than sin, salvation, or personal holiness. I doubt you’ll find many of them talking about hell and who’s going there. Instead, they address the hell that the poor, exploited, and disease-ridden experience every day, right here on earth.

A U2charist might sound a bit hokey. I myself haven’t been to one. I am, however, glad to see someone other than the fundies drawing large crowds to their worship and using that opportunity to promote something genuinely positive in the process. Amen.

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