Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Sex Education of Christian Conservatives

On Tuesday night, PBS stations all over the country aired a documentary about the approach to sex education in the public school system of the town of Lubbock, Texas (“The Education of Shelby Knox). It was very interesting, because it directly addressed the issue of moral values, as narrowly defined by extreme conservatives during the last presidential election.

The Lubbock public school system has a policy of promoting abstinence as the sole approved form of sex-ed. (Interestingly, the documentary does not make any comments on the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education programs, perhaps to refrain from taking sides on such a controversial topic.) The documentary recounts the battle that pitched a group of local teenagers, determined to change the way sex education is handled in Lubbock schools, against the school board and local church groups, who staunchly and vocally opposed any changes to the current system. In their capacity as members of the Lubbock Youth Commission, the teenagers tried—unsuccessfully—to have the scope of sexual education expanded to cover issues such as the proper use of birth-control (in response to high rates of teen pregnancy), the use of protection against STDs, also on the rise among students in Lubbock, and gay and lesbian sex.

After viewing the documentary, a few things immediately came to mind. First of all, the main issue here should not be how sex education might properly be addressed, but rather who should be in charge of it. Is it fair to put the burden of sex education on the shoulders of the school system, or should we expect other parties to play a primary role? I prefer to take the position that the perception that sex education should be legitimately be taught in schools is proof of the failure of parents to be active in the upbringing of their children. This does not mean that talk of sexual matters should be banned from schools altogether, or that the subject should be taboo in the education system. Rather, it simply means that parents and family should be the primary agents of guidance and direction on the subject, one so delicate in every community and for every belief system. Schools, and even more so public health agencies, should be involved as secondary providers of voluntary or additional counseling for those kids who do not find the necessary support structure in their family.

Another disquieting point comes in the form of a comment made by Pastor Ed Ainsworth towards the end of the documentary. The Pastor states that kids who are pushing for an expanded presentation of sex education should seek instruction at private schools. This is an appalling statement to make because, last I checked, the separation of church and state would seem to require that public schools, even those that operate in a predominantly Christian constituency, refrain from imparting education which assumes the predominance of the Christian faith over other faiths, or no faith at all. In fact, it has been a long-standing custom in all civilized countries, where the separation of church and state is defined by clear boundaries, that public schools are to offer education acceptable to all, whereas private religious schools are free to present and to exercise their alternative beliefs on education. But in the current political climate, the tables have been turned, and it is now the proponents of secular standards that are required to adjust to a vocal and tyrannical minority who wishes to impose its narrowly-defined moral values over the rest of society.

In conclusion, does the topic of sex education deserve a place in public school systems? Alas, possibly, due to the failure of parents to perform as moral instructors for their children. However, if we must accept sex education as a necessity in our school systems, we should understand that it should be structured to cover the breadth and the diversity of opinions that exist on the subject, even if this results in the disgruntled protest of a numerous minority of religious extremists.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Comic(al) Relief

Last Sunday, 11 countries in the Indian Ocean have been hit by a tsunami unleashed by the fourth strongest recorded earthquake in history. At last count, 114,000 people have been reported dead, and the count is still rising. Not surprisingly, a major relief effort is under way. Since President Bush has demonstrable problems with the English language, forgive him for mistaking the meaning of the world relief. He must have thought something like: “Isn’t it a relief that this happened somewhere else?” as he continued his vacation in his Crawford, Texas, ranch.

Certainly, he cannot have interpreted the word relief as the Merriam-Webster does, i.e. “removal or lightening of something oppressive, painful, or distressing”. If he had, his initial offer for aid would have been higher than $35 million [1] (initially, and even more unbelievably, Colin Powell set it at $15 million.) To give you an idea of how little that is, divide $35 million by the number of U.S. citizens: 280 million. The result is that President Bush has offered 12¢ per American citizen. Sure, money goes farther in certain economies than in others, but if Mr. Bush’s idea of relief were not tragic, it would almost be comical.

Contrast this figure with the amount of money that Mr. Bush has enthusiastically secured for the war in Iraq (and ancillary costs, like pork for Halliburton), $147 billion (yes, billion, with a b!) to date. That is $525 per U.S. citizen. The United States is spending 4375 times as much on waging war (and the ensuing reconstruction) as it has initially pledged to help people struck by the one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. Is it any wonder that so many around the world are disgruntled with American leaders and their policies, or that Jan Egeland, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, called western countries (with understated emphasis on the U.S.) stingy?

To give you an idea of exactly how stingy our governments are, bear with me while I illustrate this next point. My donation to the relief effort amounts to roughly .0017 of my yearly income (you might call it my GDP). By comparison, in pledging $35m, the United States has pledged 3 millionths of a percentage point of its GDP ($11 trillion!). There it is: I am 560 times more generous than our government. And yet, after donating this measly percentage of my yearly salary, I will still be able to eat, to buy gas, pay for my insurance bill and my mortage, go see a few movies... you get it: I will still be able to function—as if nothing. If President Bush wished to be as generous as I was (and again, I have not been heroically generous, quite the contrary…), the United States government should have pledged $19.6 billion dollars [2].
When Americans say that they live in the greatest nation on earth, if not in the greatest nation in history (and, oh, do they say it!), they may be right in terms of muscle, but not in terms of heart. Consider this: Sweden (pop. 9 million) has pledged $75 million; Denmark (pop. 5.3m): $18m; the United Kingdom (pop. 58m): $29m; Japan (pop. 127m) $30m; Australia (pop. 20m): $27m; Canada (pop. 33m): $33 million; France (pop. 60m): $20 million. These are just a few examples. Not all the countries I listed have exceeded expectations of generosity, but none has been as tight-fisted as the U.S.A. Obviously, in the long run, the United States will end up donating more money than anyone else, in absolute terms. But in proportion to its GDP, or to its per-capita income, Mr. Bush is wrong in saying that “the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed.” Mr. Egeland was right in calling the United States stingy: It is, and not one bit ashamed of it.

[1] As I later learned from CNN during my lunch break, by listening to one of their idiot-puppet “journalists", by the time President Bush raised his initial offer to $35m American corporations had already "stepped to the plate", by donating as much as $70 million in cash and goods/services. Here's a few contributors:
Pfizer: $35 million (Note that Pfizer's dontation equals, in value, the amount pledged by the United States government)
Wal-mart: $2 million? (Wal-Mart reported revenues of $256 billion for 2004, almost for times as much as the GDP of Sri-Lanka for the same year, or one-third of the GDP of Indonesia.)
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: $3 million of their own money. (Microsoft had revenues of more than to $34b in 2004, with profits of almost $9b)
Citigroup: $3 million (profits for 2004 of approx. $18b, on revenues of ca. $94b)
Exxon-Mobil: $5 million (earnings of $21b on revenues of $223b for 2004)

[2] If you think that's a lot of money, consider this:
On October 23 of this year, less than two weeks from Election day, President Bush signed "the most sweeping overhaul of corporate tax law since 1986, [benefiting] a wide array of groups from farmers, fishermen and bow and arrow hunters to some of America's largest corporations,” to the tune of $136 billion. (Beneficiaries include the “beleaguered” tobacco industry, banks, and timber interests.)
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