Wednesday, July 24, 2013

On ageing and ageism

I discovered recently that I am getting older. In a sense I have always known that, but lately the signs of old age are becoming more noticeable. My back now hurts more frequently, and when I wake up in the morning I am stiffer than I used to be. I admit that my eyes have never been great, so I think that doesn't count, but many other signs do point in that direction.

For many of us ageing is the prologue to our death. Two things, it is said, are inevitable: death and taxes, but while the latter can be evaded by some, the former cannot. The mortality rate of the human race is 100%. All of us will die some day. In fact, we start dying the day we are born. Aging points the way to the grave.

Aging is not only an actuarial problem but it is also political. In today's post the political aspect is my special concern. Ageism involves several related phenomena: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age and the ageing process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older people.

Although the term has also been used to describe discrimination against children and adolescents, it refers especially to older people and the prejudice and outright discrimination they often face. That is the sense I am using it now, in part because I fall into that category. One day, need I remind you, you will too.

I am acutely aware of the problem because I have lived for decades in many countries where older people are respected for their experience and wisdom. Not so in western societies, however, where ageism is now the most pervasive (and acceptable) form of discrimination.

In the West ageism is rarely blatant, but it is widely practiced. In the workplace it is very common, even if it is illegal. It is found everywhere in society. This is a subtle prejudice, but it is nevertheless a widely accepted reality in western countries, and increasingly elsewhere too.

It is accepted because of myths and stereotypes about older people, especially workers, that permeate much of western society. In the work place those over 50 are regarded as resistant to change, technophobic, less energetic, less creative and less innovative, are unwilling to learn new skills and new processes, and are just putting in time until retirement.

That stereotype may be true of some elderly people, but it is not true of all. It is myth that is often used to justify getting rid of older workers, and thus allowing younger ones to take their place.

Speaking personally, I have become more creative and open to new ways of thinking in the last few years. I received my PhD rather late in life, and I became more innovative since then. It was a liberating experience, and I have not looked back since.

However, I did find it difficult to find new employment because of my age. I was too old for some jobs, or so it was thought. Eventually, I did find a job where my age and experience were considered an asset, not a liability. But that took a few years of being rejected for reasons that, although not stated, were age-related.

Younger people also experience discrimination in finding employment. They are often rejected because of a lack of experience. While older workers may take early retirement, and thus permit younger persons to be hired, that is only one solution. Many older workers do not have the pensions that would allow them to step aside. Is it fair to sideline workers who are either unwilling or unable to be dismissed?

Ageism, whether directed against the young or the old, is a very serious problem that is not easily solved. Certainly legislation is not going to eradicate it in the workplace. Just as racism cannot be eliminated through legislation, the eradication of ageism will involve a change in social attitudes, so that people will not be discriminated against because of their age.

After retirement, and even before, there is discrimination against the elderly in health care. Many physicians and other health care providers do not show the same care towards older patients that they do to younger ones. Elderly people are less likely than younger people to be screened for cancers and, due to the lack of this preventative measure, are less likely to be diagnosed at early stages of their conditions.

After being diagnosed with a disease that may be potentially curable, older people are further discriminated against. Although there may be surgeries or operations with high survival rates that might cure their condition, studies have shown that older patients are less likely than younger ones to receive the necessary treatments.

The treatment of older people is often based on managing the disease rather than preventing or curing it. Because of ageism, the expectation is that the quality of health will decrease anyway, and thus there is no point in trying to prevent the inevitable decline of old age, and costly treatments are deemed unwarranted.

It is argued that in an era of belt-tightening, scarce resources should be apportioned to those who can best benefit from expensive treatments: the young, and those who still have a long life ahead of them. 

These are complex issues that are not easily resolved, but such decisions should not be based only on age. Yet is someone who is young, but has led a poor lifestyle, more deserving of receiving an organ donation than an elderly person who is still healthy otherwise?

Ageism has significant effects on the elderly. It affects their self-esteem and behavior. After repeatedly being told that they are useless, older people may begin to agree that they do not deserve better treatment, whether in the workplace or in the health system.

These are just a few of my thoughts on ageism prompted by my realization of ageing. There is much more that I could and should write about ageism. I hove not yet touched on the problem of how western societies tend to shunt the elderly into nursing homes, many of which are good, albeit expensive, but a few are places where elder abuse is rampant. Aside even from the abuse, is this the best way to treat elderly parents?

Ageism is a long-standing problem in western societies. In other societies, the elderly are generally respected and treated reverentially. Now that some members of the boomer generation have started to become seniors some attitudes may change. That generation made new rules all along, and they may do so again. 

But ageism is never going to disappear entirely. Old people will continue to experience discrimination, as will the young, but in time ageism will become as socially unacceptable as racism is today. Let us pray that both will be reduced and eventually disappear. 

That day is still a long time off, however. In the meantime, all of us who are elderly (or getting there) should enjoy ourselves. Every age has its joys and its drawbacks. Getting old is indeed a problem, but consider the alternative.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Did the US go too far?

I feel sorry for Edward Snowden. For me, he is a hero for blowing the whistle on the PRISM surveillance program in the US that allowed the monitoring of many phone conversations, as well as demanding the e-mails and the internet use of people all over the world to be revealed. I also feel sorry for those people, which includes many Americans, who have been monitored in this way.

But I feel only disgust for American politicians, whether Republicans or Democrats, who have tried to paint Snowden as a traitor. That is grossly unfair. When Snowden exposed the surveillance that the US does, he did nothing that is treacherous. Most Americans, it seems, would agree; according to a Quinnipiac University poll, 55 per cent, as compared to 33 percent, regard him as a whistleblower, not a traitor.

President Obama’s comment that such forms of monitoring are only“modest encroachments” on privacy does not seem to be playing well with the American public. While such surveillance is legal under the US Patriot Act and Congress, or at least the intelligence committee, has been kept abreast of this surveillance, Americans were shocked to lean about its extent. Probably most people in North America, and presumably many elsewhere in the world, have been caught up in this enormous sieve.

Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified intelligence information to an unauthorized person. In other words, espionage. These charges are far-fetched. The American public is quickly waking up to this fact.

What he did may be called a political crime, but that does not make him a traitor. He did not use violence. He did not do it to seek personal enrichment. He did not sell US secrets to foreign governments. What he did do was expose serious NSA wrongdoing, but he committed no crime by doing that. Instead, he is a whistleblower in the best tradition of doing the right thing for his nation. Thus he deserves high praise, not persecution.

Snowden is not a criminal. Instead, he is champion of law and order. He is a heroic whistleblower, as Daniel Ellsberg said of him:“he’s done an enormous service. It can’t be overestimated.”

Snowen's own government has gone out of its way to bring Snowden to justice. After he fled to Hong Kong, his passport was revoked, yet he did manage to fly to Moscow, where he is still (as this is being written) in a hotel in the transit area at Sheremetyevo airport. This is in the new terminal, which is good, since the old one was a totally depressing place, as I know from numerous trips to Russia during the 90's and later.

The US then put pressure on Russia to arrest Snowden, but the Russian government has thus far refused to do so. He applied to several countries for asylum. Many countries turned him down under pressure from the US. Only Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua offered him asylum.

Unfortunately, Snowden is unable to travel to any of these countries, especially after the plane carrying the president of Bolivia was forced to land in Austria, after several other European countries had refused to let the plane use their air space. This no doubt under pressure from the US, which believed that Snowden was on board and thus could be turned over to American authorities.

How would the US respond if Air Force One were denied the use of air space and were forced to land somewhere? The US does not practice reciprocity, but it imposes its own terms on the rest of the world. 

Snowden' held a press conference in Moscow, where he addressed human rights groups a out his situation. He announced his intention to ask for temporary asylum in Russia. He asked for their assistance with getting to Latin America and asylum in Russia until his safe travel could be assured. President Putin later said that the US had blocked all travel options for Snowden, who had planned only a transit stop in Moscow.

Obama called Putin after the news conference in which Snowden's status was also discussed. The White House later commented: that Snowden “will be afforded full due process” if he returned. But the US has already declared him guilty by accusation. Where is the presumption of innocence? The expectation is that Snowden will not receive a fair trial, but will be treated mercilessly like Bradley Manning.

The US position contradicts its own long-standing practice of refusing to give up those who are wanted for political crimes, including in some instances even shielding people who were charged with terrorist activity. 

Luis Posada Carrilles

The most notorious example is that of Luis Posada Carrilles, an exile from Cuba, who has a long record of involvement in anti-Castro terrorist activity and is alleged to have blown up a Cuban passenger plane in 1976 with 73 persons on board. Yet Posada continues to live without legal difficulties in Florida.

It should hardly be surprising that such diplomatic hard ball angers Latin American countries, as well as many other,who are justifiably sensitive about the willingness of the US to encroach upon their sovereign rights in a manner that would not be tolerated if the situation was reversed.

After 9/11, the US imposed its stringent rules on other countries. I learned about American extraterritoriality first when, some years ago, shortly after I boarded a Dutch plane in Amsterdam that was flying to Toronto but did not involve flying over US territory, I was shocked to hear this announcement: "The Department of Homeland Security requires . . . " 

The Snowden case is a blatant case of extra-territoriality that no other country enjoys. The US claims of extraterritoriality demonstrate that the Monroe Doctrine is not yet dead. This is yet another example of "gun boat" diplomacy. Will the US punish Venezuela, if Snowden ever manages to reach that country? 

Chen Gunagchen

The US also manifests an imperial unwillingness to reciprocate with other countries. For example,would the US turn over the blind Chinese human rights activist, Chen Gunagchen, for prosecution under a Chinese law that criminalizes deliberate harm to the country's public image?

Of course not, would be the American response, and that is a good thing. Sovereign states should welcome the exemption of political crimes from cooperative law enforcement. So should the US in the Snowden case. The US would not return a Chinese Snowden, if such a person were being prosecuted for political reasons.

The US has gone too far with Snowden. He deserves universal support. However, Washington wants him silenced. It wants him hunted down ruthlessly. But that is the way imperially-minded nations operate. 

Americans should ask themselves if their government should now set limits on governmental surveillance and extraterritorial security claims instead of seeking to punish an individual of conscience who chose bravely to risk the fury of a state because some of its unseemly secrets were being made public.


Monday, July 8, 2013

Who is a saint?

St. Peter's Basilica

The declaration by the Vatican that Popes John XXIII and John-Paul II would very soon both become saints was not entirely a surprise. At the funeral of John-Paul II in 2005, some mourners called out, "Santo subito!", which translates roughly as "Sainthood now!"

The Vatican has approved the the last miracle necessary to confirm John Paul II’s sainthood. All that is still needed is the signature of Pope Francis. Both miracles must be “instantaneous, permanent, and with no scientific explanation.”

Unfortunately, only one miracle has thus far been attributed to John XXIII. But that did not deter Francis who would like both men to be declared saints at the same time, probably later this year.

The speedy process for John-Paul II, who represented the conservative wing of the Roman Catholic Church, would be balanced by John XXIII's recognition at the same time. Francis feels especially close to John XXIII, who spearheaded Vatican II and introduced many reforms.

Pope John-Paul II

This declaration has brought this question to the forefront again:  "Who is a saint?" Do these popes deserve to be called saints more than other believers? Is every believer a saint, or does the word mean someone who is special in some way?

In the New Testament, saint did not refer to deceased people who have been granted sainthood, but to living   people, to entire congregations. The Apostle Paul addresses many of his letters to the "saints" in . . .

The English word saint is a translation of the Greek ἅγιος (hagios), derived from the verb ἁγιάζω (hagiazo), which means "to set apart", "to sanctify" or "to make holy." Saint describes every believer who is in the process of being made holy by God. Every Christian, whether in heaven or on earth, is therefore a saint.

In the Orthodox and Catholic churches, all Christian who are in heaven are saints, but some are worthy of greater honor, and are officially recognized as such. This is process is called canonization.

The Catholic church teaches that it does not make or create saints, but rather, recognizes or canonizes them. They are therefore believed to be in heaven.  They are venerated. Although, properly speaking, they are not worshiped, they can be prayed to, since they are in heaven, where they can intercede for those who are still on earth.

Orthodox churches consider everyone who is in heaven a saint, whether they are recognized officially as such or not. As in the Catholic church, the Church does not make a saint, the person already was a saint, and the Church merely recognizes it. God reveals his saints through answered prayers and miracles.

Protestant churches regard anyone who is a Christian as a saint. But some Protestants specify that they must be "born-again" Christians. With the exception of some Anglicans, most Protestants reject praying to saints.

Many religions other than Christianity also have saints, although they often use other terms that may have a different meaning. Nevertheless, these terms are often translated into English as saints.

Many ideas of sainthood are specific to certain individuals who led exemplary lives, possessed miraculous powers, and had a transforming influence on others. Such saints are few and far between. They are rare.

But to call all Christians saints democratizes sainthood so much that it has little meaning at the everyday level. God may consider all of them as his saints, but many of us might question that description, certainly of some people we know. 

I know that I am not a saint in the Catholic sense. My wife and children remind me of that regularly. In fact, very few of us would qualify in that sense. I wonder how some of the saints throughout history may have been like to live with. Too bad we cannot ask the Apostle Peter's wife. But we already know from the Bible that he had many weaknesses. We all do, yet some of us are truly saints.

Most of us would call Mother Theresa a saint for her work in the slums of Kolkata, yet I doubt that anyone would ever label Josef Stalin a saint, even though he was a seminarian in his youth.

Christians do not have a monopoly on sainthood. There are numerous representatives of every religions whom the whole world would call saints. Their exemplary lives are truly models for everyone. One does not have to be a Christian to be considered a saint.

Who is a saint? There are many people today who are saints. There are countless fathers and mothers who slave away everyday so that their children may be fed and clothed, receive an education, and grow up to become good parents in turn. They will never be canonized, but they are as truly saints as any recognized saint in any religion.

John XXIII and John-Paul II may have been excellent popes, who provided great spiritual  leadership for the Catholic church, but are they more deserving to be called saints that these fathers and mothers were? The latter shall always remain anonymous, but that does not diminish their sainthood in any way.

In his papacy, John-Paul wanted to see more married couples, single people and non-Europeans recognized as saints. He canonized hundreds of lay people. But he still operated within the stringent rules laid down by the Catholic church, including the emphasis on miracles.

In our skeptical, secularized age, miracles are questioned anyway. So, why add a legalistic requirement which is hard, if not impossible, to prove. What these fathers and mothers have done is nothing short of miraculous. Yet, if they were asked, they would respond that they were only doing their duty as parents.

Who is a saint? You decide! Please nominate someone whom you think deserves to be called a saint. It may be your mom. It may be anyone. Disregard the rule of two miracles, as Pope Francis has done in the case of John XXIII, who so far has only one to his credit. So you can too. Send me your nominations, and I may even publish some of them.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Sunni vs Shia: is this the correct prism for viewing the Middle East?

A recent poll on Al Jazeera Arabic's website asked who was responsible for turning the Syrian revolution into a sectarian conflict: the Sunnis or the Shia? Around 95% of those who voted blamed the deterioration on the Shia. Whether that was fair or not is not the issue, but whether Sunni and Shi'a should be contrasted in this way. Is the Sunni-Shi'a prism the correct one for viewing the Syrian conflict?

Not just Al Jazeera but also many segments of the Arab and the international media have been occupied with the supposedly growing clash between Sunni and Shia Islam both in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

Even The Economist has contributed an article describing this conflict in sectarian terms, although it concedes that the clashes between Sunnis and Shias have been the exception rather than the rule, since many Muslims disdain this confrontation.

However, this simplistic reduction of the Syrian war, and indeed many other struggles in the Middle East, to a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi'a is both unfortunate and wrong. It reflects a wide-spread tendency to reduce many wars to religious conflicts. Instead, many of them are largely political in nature.

The civil war in Syria, though it has escalated tremendously since it first started more than two years ago, remains essentially a clash between an authoritarian, ruthless leadership, and the established, corrupt elite that supports it, on  the one hand, and the disenfranchised masses on the other.

This is a political struggle between people who are predominantly Muslims, either Sunni (74%) or Shia (13%). Both sides in this struggle have their supporters in other Middle Eastern countries, but Sunnis and Shias are represented on each. President Bashar al-Assad's family is Alawite, who make up the largest part (11%) of the Shias in Syria.

Syria's official ideology is pan-Arabist, secular Ba'athism, which although authoritarian is, in principle, is blind to ethnicity and religion. The original Ba'ath party was established by a Christian (Michel Aflaq), a Sunni (Salah al-Din al-Bitar) and an Alawite (Zaki al-Arsuzi).

If this sectarian interpretation of the Syrian war continues, it is likely tear the country apart once the Assad regime is defeated, derailing future efforts to rebuild the country. Once the guns fall silent, the hapless Alawite minority could pay a heavy price for this supposed clash if the Sunnis decide to blame this sect for Assad's abuses, conveniently forgetting the fact that most of the regime is Sunni.

Without going further into the complexities of the Syrian war, which has been dissected repeatedly lately by journalists, I only want to comment on the journalistic propensity to interpret events as if, especially in that part of the world, they were all or predominantly sectarian. But that is not a fair way to characterize these events, most of which are exceedingly complex.

Religious sectarianism is only one factor among many. Yet, since religion is very visible in the Middle East, it is easily identifiable, whereas other factors are generally too numerous and too difficult to be discussed in newspapers and on TV. Thus religion is what is identified.

Map of Europe 1618-1648  (Click to enlarge)

Many centuries ago, the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which was actually a series of wars that ultimately involved most of the countries of Europe, may have started as a religious conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but local political disputes played a leading role. As the war continued, however, it became increasingly a continuation of the struggle between the Bourbons and the Habsburgs for political preeminence in Europe.

To characterize the Thirty Years' War as primarily a religious or sectarian war, as is still often done, is not merited by the historical facts. These factors were much more complex than they are often presented, though this war did mark the end of the major religious wars that began with the Protestant Reformation.

The division between Shia and Sunni dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. Then the question of who was to take over the leadership immediately arose. Sunni Muslims agreed with the position that the new leader should be elected from among those who are the most capable.

This is what was done, and the Prophet Muhammad's close friend and adviser, Abu Bakr, became the first caliph of the Muslim umma or community. The word "Sunni" in Arabic comes from a word meaning "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet."

On the other hand, Shias believe that leadership should have stayed within the Prophet's family, specifically, his cousin and son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. Throughout history, Shias do not recognize the authority of elected Muslim leaders, but instead follow Imams who have been directly appointed by Muhammad or God. 

The word "Shia" in Arabic means a group or supportive party of people. The commonly-known term is shortened from the historical "Shia-t-Ali," or "Party of Ali." They are also known as followers of "Ahl-al-Bayt" or "People of the Household" (of the Prophet).

Sunnis make up the majority (85%) of Muslims all over the world. Significant populations of Shi'as can be found in Iran and Iraq, and large minority communities exist in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon. While political leadership was the original issue, many aspects of spiritual life have been affected.

Despite some differences in theology and practice, Shias and Sunnis share the main articles of Islamic belief. Most Muslims do not claim membership in any particular group, but simply call themselves "Muslims."

If the Syrian conflict continues to be viewed through a Sunni-Shia prism, there is the danger that this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and further ignite the flames of sectarianism throughout the Middle East.

Conflicts throughout the Middle East are political, but not in the first place about the ancient feud regarding the status of Ali. They are essentially battles between disenfranchised populations and the entrenched and corrupt establishments that desperately wants to hold onto power, and will stop at nothing, even massacring  their own people, as in Syria, to retain it.

While sectarian conflict is not unknown in the Middle East, as it was in Europe during the Thirty Years' War, such conflicts should not be viewed primarily from a Sunni-Shia prism. Instead, we must acknowledge the complexity of the many factors that contribute to them and avoid any reductionism.

To reduce these conflicts to the sectarian is not only wrong but may, in fact, stoke these conflicts and make them worse. Thus these reductions are turned into self-fulfilling prophecies. We must avoid at all cost making the Middle East even more explosive than it already is. One way to do that is to stop using that prism.