Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ending Christmas as an Official American Holiday

When I was attending California State University Los Angeles in the 1990's, there was a year (I forget exactly which one) when the first day of classes for the school quarter fell on the same day as Rosh Hashanah,  the Jewish New Year and a significant holiday in the Jewish calendar.  This coincidence placed Jewish students (and faculty members) who wanted to observe the holiday at a sharp disadvantage if they intended to be absent that day.  In terms of importance,  the first session of class is one of  the most critical, probably second only to final exams. Yet this made no difference to the CSULA administration when the quarter calendar was set up for that year, no matter how upsetting this apparent insensitivity  would be to those who were affected. However, another way of looking at the matter is that the school acted correctly because a  public institution should follow a policy of neutrality in matters regarding religion including—and especially—holiday observances.

So carrying this line of thought to its logical conclusion, why then should Christmas be treated any differently?  Yet can you imagine the fuss that Christians would make if American public schools scheduled classes and private companies and government conducted business as usual on that day? One might argue that there's a difference: Christmas is a legal holiday, and Rosh Hashanah isn't.  But that's exactly my point. Christmas was enacted as an official American holiday even though it has meaning and importance only for followers of a particular  religion. Or to put it another way, Christianity is the only religion in the U.S. that gets its own federal holiday.  That is a direct violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution and is a glaring manifestation of Christian privilege in America. Yet as such, it is the elephant in the middle of the living room whose existence few Americans care to acknowledge.

For what it's worth from an historical perspective , Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870 through an act of Congress.  In fact the first English settlers in America, the Puritans even frowned upon celebrating that day. So to that extent, this holiday is not woven into the very fabric of  the American narrative.  But  even if it were,   Christmas is exclusionary against Americans who are not Christians.  Thus as a day of observance  it is discriminatory and hence  undeserving of government endorsement.  And incidentally, not all Christians mark this holiday on December 25.  The Eastern Orthodox Church observes it on January 6.  That leads to the question as to how Jesus could have two birth dates. This gives a whole new meaning to" "born again". But I digress.

Naturally, I would like to see Christmas disestablished as a legal holiday in the U.S., but if that ever happens, it will likely not be until many decades from now. The biggest obstacle of course would be vociferous opposition by conservative Christians whose response would no doubt be that secularists want to "outlaw" Christmas. Then there is the consideration that for most workers in both the public and private sphere,  Dec. 25 is traditionally a day off.  Wouldn't  they lose this benefit if the Christmas holiday were abolished?  Not necessarily.  A replacement holiday could be declared on some other day in December as a substitute.  Or perhaps Dec. 25 could remain as a holiday but designated with a secular name and theme.  That way, those who want to celebrate Christmas on that date could do so, but they would no longer "own" the date as a religious occasion (over the past couple years more businesses seem to have begun operating on that day anyway.)  On the other hand, this alternative may be just creating an elaborate fiction that papers over the issue without really solving it.  

However resolved,  it seems very unlikely the end of Christmas as an American legal holiday will ever come about unless those who fully support the Constitution are willing to bring the matter to light and make the effort to raise the American consciousness that this is a truly  First Amendment issue  which needs to be addressed. Despite what many fundamentalists claim, the U.S. is not a" Christian nation", but only to the extent that we do not allow followers of that faith to dominate American culture.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Confronting the Time Clock Theists

As an American Jewish atheist it's ironic that the country to which  I've expatriated, the Philippines, is one that is predominantly (85%)  and devoutly Roman Catholic.  However, it's my wife's place of birth and a cheap place to retire comfortably on our modest social security income. Also, the country is a constitutional democracy and does not force the majority's beliefs on others; so  I don't feel uncomfortable with or socially imposed upon by the culture at all. (Besides there is a small Jewish Association here and an online forum for local atheists as well). In fact if I were to weigh my exposure to the theistic beliefs and customs here against a particular environment of religious intolerance with which I had to cope in the U.S., the latter would  tip the scales. I'm referring to the workplace.  Based on my experience this was the most common point of non-optional contact and interaction with fundamentalist Christians.

Beginning mainly (but not exclusively) in the 1990's when evangelical Christians started becoming more numerous and more vocal, not surprisingly  their presence on the job site also grew. And for some strange reason, starting in that era until the time I retired in 2005,  the companies where I worked, finance company call centers, seemed to have a disproportionate number of these people. In two such organizations, each with a staff of more than 100, I was the only (token?)  Jew at one of them and one of two at another.  There may have been other atheists at these companies, but I wasn't aware of them.

In keeping with my opinion that matters regarding religion are inappropriate topics for discussion at work, I tried to keep quiet about my own beliefs, However, in those instances where I spoke up as a Jew and /or an atheist, such as in response to a bigoted or other ignorant remark, naturally I would get an angry reaction  from some of my co-workers.  But even when I said nothing, the environment that the fundamentalists created in the office was often uncomfortable, with their God / Jesus-talk, the aforementioned hostile comments about non-believers and non-Christians, and even a proposal for a lunch hour bible study group  for which  management was willing to furnish a conference room.  The laws  that bar discrimination in hiring on the basis of religion or non-religion don't seem to hold much sway once you become employed.

Of course, for many non-Christians in the work place, the Christmas season is even more of a time of alienation. Anti-discrimination laws don't seem to prohibit Christmas decorations, caroling, gift exchanges, parties, "merry Christmas" greetings, etc in the office.  And regarding the latter, there is one point about which I agree with fundies regarding that holiday season:  Christmas is literally "Christ-mass", a celebration of the birth of the Christian "savior" and not some vague amalgamation of festivals that also includes Solstice, Hanukkah, and Kwanza  as the politically correct multiculturalists like to pretend.  At one such supposedly non-sectarian "holiday" party in which I participated many years ago, as we were about to start eating, the department supervisor turned to one of my co-workers, a lay preacher, and asked him to offer a Christmas prayer,  a request to which he eagerly consented.  These two did this knowing that I was the only Jew in the department and asked me if I would like to leave the room and return when the grace was finished. Because I was totally blind-sided, I complied.  They never did realizeor didn't care aboutwhat an awkward position they put me in.  But at the time I wasn't sure how to handle the matter. Perhaps I should have complained to the department manager or to personnel.  Instead, out of pride I let the matter drop. But to this day I recall the incident with a mixture of embarrassment and anger.

Yet it doesn't have to be this way in a work setting. My wife once taught at a preschool that prohibited religious displays on the premises, and where no holidays were celebrated.  It was a completely neutral environment. The staff was a mixture of Christians and Muslims, and at least one atheist (my wife). But in accordance with the rules, nobody tried to impose her or his beliefs on anybody else, especially on the pupils.

It's just too bad all employers aren't legally mandated to have a policy requiring that employees leave their personal beliefs in the parking lot.   And although those difficult days are behind me now, such is not the case for the non-Christians in the U.S.who are currently in the work force (If they're lucky enough to have a job in the present economy) and who face the prospect of harassment and reprisals if they object to Christian privilege at their places of employment.   So in the end it's a case of go along to get along. or if they dissent, to be treated just like I was, as  second class citizens.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Just Another Brick In The Wall

I have not been a home buyer for many years and will likely never be one again, at least as a borrower.  Furthermore, as an expatriate  I no longer reside in the U.S.  So why should I be so interested in the unfolding drama of "Foreclosure-Gate" and the massive number of fraudulent and defective property titles throughout the country that are being brought to light and are fueling this scandal?  There are two reasons. One is my own negative experience with a real estate loan. The other is a reaction of horror and fascination regarding the unfolding crisis similar to that one experiences when witnessing an imminent train wreck:  It's a terrible thing to behold, but I'm powerless to stop it.  Yet at the same time the crash is inevitable, given the faulty signals and incompetent crew.

I have read several articles about how such exotic financial innovations as securitizations created an incentive for the defective titles and lender-forged or missing documents that led to the scandal.  I had intended to try to analyze the issue further and write a lengthy post about my own conclusions.  But why bother? Many experts—and I am certainly not one myself—have already examined and reported on the matter six ways from Sunday. (For a beautifully concise background on the matter, see "Foreclosure Moratorium:  Cracking Down on Liar Liens".)  Suffice to say that in my opinion  if the financial institution regulations for governing mortgage loans that were in place 30 years ago had been left intact along with strict accounting standards for businesses and if banking safeguards such as  the Glass-Steagall Act not removed, the prospect of homeownership and decent wages  would still  be opportunities available to the middle class (or what's left of it) any and not just for the wealthy few who have hijacked the economy.

During the 1980's when my wife and I bought a home in California, we wound up on the receiving end of the real estate lending irregularities that were a dress rehearsal for the current real estate crash and its attendant deceitful practices, one of which was our being saddled with an adjustable rate mortgage.  At the time the ARM was a fairly new type of loan innovation, and for many borrowers it turned out be a disaster by creating the phenomenon of negative amortization.   This was around the time of the Glendale Savings and Loan collapse and the indictment of Charles Keating--a harbinger for the depredations of deregulation that were to be unleashed on the American public in the following years.

In our case, we were able to refinance our mortgage into a conventional fixed rate loan.  Nevertheless, we were soon under water on our note  as the neighborhood  deteriorated due to the near collapse of property values in our locale.  It took 16 miserable years for their worth to recover such that we could finally sell our home just a little above the break even point. During those years, our mortgage changed hands a couple times. In the course of these transactions, some of our original documents and  payments went missing. (Does that sequence of events sound familiar?)   Fortunately, they were eventually recovered.

Yet for all the grief caused by deregulation, the current real estate bust, the futile bailouts, and the collapse of the economy all of which had their roots in the Reagan years and which came to a head during the Bush Administration, as we approach the mid-term elections, indications are that that the majority of voters want to return the Republicans to power in Congress as well as to some state and local offices.  It's true that the President Obama has blown many opportunities and failed to deliver on most of his stated goals.  But much of this has been the result of Republicans', the party of "No", refusal to co-operate in the attempts at  bipartisanship that Obama has repeatedly extended to the point of self-debasement.  

In other words,  "Foreclosure-Gate" is the result of a warped economic system. that could not have happened without deregulation and the resulting fraudulent real estate transactions especially during the Bush years. And if the Republicans win the mid-terms elections, the voters who make this possible evidently want more of the same which makes them suckers at best and co-conspirators at worst.  In either case, when the next great Republican-generated swindle comes down the pike that once again privatizes the profits and socializes the costs,  they will have no one to blame but themselves.  However, given the way Republican politicians love to dodge taxes and social responsibility, the rest of us will be the ones to pick up the tab for their followers' gullibility.

So back to the defective title / missing document story, if you have a real estate mortgage on your home that was sold by So back to the defective title / missing document story, if you have a real estate mortgage on your home that was sold by the original issuer to another lender who in turn did likewise with your note, I will bet that the more companies that your loan has gone through, the greater the chances are that the current holder can't prove ownership of that mortgage.  So if you are faced with foreclosure or even if you're loan is current , I suggest that you demand proof that the current payee is in fact the legitimate holder in due course of your mortgage and can produce the title and all supporting documents.  If they can't or won't do so, seek legal advice. They may have no business accepting your money and may never had that authority to begin with.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Different Perspective on Cancer Awareness

As America observes October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it can't be overemphasized that almost everybody has in one way or another been touched by this dreaded disease, whether as a victim herself, or as an acquaintance, friend, or family member of a woman who has been afflicted with this this illness.  Yet it bears mentioning that men also fall prey to breast cancer and account for 1—2% of all such victims which of course is a relatively small number. However, men who do get it fare less favorably  because this malignancy is so rare in males that they often don't recognize the symptoms in time to receive life saving treatment.

But in American culture, men are less likely to seek medical help or postpone examination for dangerous symptoms because from childhood, we are taught to "be a man" and to just "walk off" pain lest we be accused of weakness. Perhaps this explains why men have not had the same consciousness raising that women had about their gender-specific illnesses and possibly the reason that breast cancer research receives over twice the research funding as prostate cancer. Yet prostate cancer kills almost as many men as breast cancer kills women and is the second leading cause of death in American men.  

This is not to say that prostate cancer is totally neglected in terms of organized campaigns to battle this disease.  Zero The Project to End Prostate Cancer is sponsoring events over the next couple months such as "Dash for Dads" runs and other fund-raising events .

Yet  despite these heroic efforts of Zero and even if prostate cancer received parity in research funding along with a better orchestrated reminder  that there is a National Prostate Awareness month  (September, but who knew that?),  as a humanist concerned with the health and well being of people as a whole, I  question the need to "gender-ize" public awareness in this matter in the first place.

Cancer in any and all forms needs to be kept constantly in the public eye as the devastating and often deadly  illness that it often becomes.  Do we do justice to its sufferers and their loved ones by waging  separate "his" and "hers" awareness  campaigns?  And what about other the types of cancer? Should there be monthly programs for each of them as well?

Instead, why not have  a Cancer Awareness month dedicated to everyone? After all who among us isn't at risk to one degree or another regardless such factors as sex, or age and life style for that matter?  Let's respond accordingly.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Background Check

The imam who proposed building a Muslim center  near the former World Trade Center site has received a great deal of support because he comes across as decent, caring individual who only wants what's best for the community at large.   It was as if his insensitivity about  9-11 and likely intent to foment discord that would (and did) result from this offer didn't play a part in his agenda.  However, if there were any question or doubt about his true character, this uncertainty can be laid to rest  with the revelation that this "holy man" is facing charges of being a slumlord.

That's right. It turns out that an apartment building that Feisal Abdul Rauf  owns in Union City, New Jersey has been cited for numerous violations including vermin infestation and rotting floors.   This is just one of several  buildings in which Rauf has been involved—and tax payer subsidized at that. His property investments have been also characterized by markedly shady dealings.

What's strange is how this story has been downplayed in the press.  In light of all the controversy that has surrounded Park51/ Cordoba House, one would think that this kind of a disclosure would receive a great deal more publicity.  Perhaps the media is treading lightly in order not to embarrass  prominent figures such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have spoken in favor of the center.

On one hand, Rauf's dealings with his non-Muslim tenants and  failure to disclose his history to the public seem to dovetail with the Islamic doctrine of Al-tiqiyya which states that it is acceptable to lie to non-Mulims in furtherance of Islam.  On the other maybe there's no religious motive behind his behavior;  he may be just an out-and-out con-artist with no sense of honor toward his tenants or his followers.

Based on Rauf's past statements about Egypt,  Israel, Jews, and Iran, he harbored rather non-ecumenical feelings about non-Muslims in the 1970's.  Has Rauf really changed his tune since then?  He is evasive and hedges the question as to whether he not his beliefs in the means of achieving certain ends have undergone a genuine transformation.

In short, the evidence shows that Rauf is a fraud and a hypocrite. Considering the above revelations, how can anyone rationalize continued trust in this man and support of his plans for his "designs"?