Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cost of War

President Obama's recent decision to send tens of thousands of additional American troops into Afghanistan got a lot of people talking. Suddenly, I was hearing questions being asked that should have been asked years ago. Some people wondered, "How much money is this going to cost?". Some people asked, "Do we really need to send over 30,000 more soldiers?" Others questioned, many for the first time, the need to fight this war in the first place.

Others were more occupied with the question "How many American lives is this costing us?" A quick internet search shows that something to the tune of 900 American soldiers have been killed since the start of the war in 2001. While 900 dead soldiers is 900 too many, I think the actual tally of lives lost is much much higher.

Quick! How many heroin users can you name off the top of your head? I can easily rattle off a dozen without taking a breath, all from the lovely rural northwest corner of Connecticut. And those dozen or so are just the tip of the iceberg. So where is this ruiner of lives coming from?

You guessed it, folks. Well over 90% of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan. Before the war, our extremist friends put the 'ban' in Taliban and made the cultivation of poppies illegal. Heroin production plummeted.

But then, much to the relief of Afghanistan's poppy farmers, corrupt officials, and anyone else who could get in on a piece of the poppy pie, the Americans came, dismantled the regime, and production once again surged.

What a strange situation. Let's look at a hypothetical example of how this could play out.
Step 1: War is declared.
Step 2: A taxpayer's money is used to fight a war.
Step 3: The war allows massive poppy cultivation to be restored.
Step 4: Excellent quality heroin floods parts of America, namely the Northeast.
Step 5: Taxpayer's child becomes a raging addict.
Step 6: Addict commits a petty crime spending more taxpayer money on judicial and incarceration costs (mom and dad can pick up the rehab bill)
Step 7: Vicious cycle of heroin addiction leads to life of incarceration at great cost to taxpayers and eventually death due to AIDS or health consequences.

Of course, not every person who tries Afghani heroin will spend their lives in jail until they die prematurely. All too many will, however. In addition to the user, heroin addiction takes a gigantic toll on friends, families, and communities. Those involved pay for heroin addiction in grief, money, time, and loss of life.

But just how many lives are lost? We just don't know. No government agency releases numbers on exactly how many fatal heroin overdoses occur each year in America. And even if we had that figure, how could we possibly account for all the dreams shattered, friendships broken, or families destroyed? How could we tally the total amount of property value lost in towns where heroin use has spooked potential homeowners? How many people die from AIDS complications who contracted HIV from sharing needles? I could ask a hundred questions like this.

But I have the sneaking suspicion these types of questions aren't being asked enough by the United States government. When Obama went strolling through Arlington on a soul search about the loss of life in times of war, I wonder if it occured to him to take another walk through D.C.'s most heroin-inflicted neighborhoods to see the true magnitude of his decisions.

The heroin question pops up from time to time in newspaper articles, but for my little corner of Connecticut, it is an epidemic that cannot afford to be ignored. Many people in small towns in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or New York State would agree with me. Others in cities like Hartford, Providence, or Baltimore could certainly say the same. Political analysts like to talk about our disconnect from war and how removed we are from the reality of war. I'm calling bullshit. This war is everywhere. It is in your smashed car window, in your empty jewelry box, in your prison, and in your local emergency room.

So how much is this war costing in terms of human life?

The answer is simple. It's just like determining how many anti-war protestors march on Washington. You take the official estimate and you add many many many more.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shipped Off to Who Knows Where

Last year, I didn't live in the prettiest section of Lyon. The neighborhood had abandoned lots, freshly demolished buildings, and plenty of commercial space for rent. It didn't take long before I noticed that there was a little shantytown in one of the vacant lots, tucked behind a 7 foot tall barrier plastered with concert posters and other publicity.

All the people coming in and out of the shantytown had a very distinct look. Olive skin, often green eyes, a particular bone structure. And they spoke a language I had never heard before. They often carted around large amounts of personal belongings wherever they went in town the same way the homeless folks in the neighborhood would. These people, however, had a home: the shantytown.

I remember the first time I peeked through the hole in the entry to the shantytown. The ground was all dirt. It looked worked, as if a million people had walked the main path lined with lodgings on both sides. Their housing was built from metal, cardboard, wood, plastic, whatever did the trick. One of the little houses even had a satellite dish on it. I wondered how they got power piped in there.

Once I put it all together, that these distinct-looking people carting all that stuff around town were a community with a legit settlement just up the street, I started to notice them everywhere. They were on the bus, on the subway, splitting up and begging for change on dozens of street corners at the same time.

Then I went back to America for a few months starting in June. When I returned to France in August, the lot was empty. I have yet to see any of those familiar faces walking around town. The shantytown people appear to be gone.

I wonder how it went down. Did the cops just show up one day and put them out on the street right then and there? Did anyone bother giving them warning? I noticed on several occasions that there were pregnant women in their community. Were pregnant women forced into homelessness? What about the young children?

I wonder where they are now and how they got there. I wonder where they come from and if they will ever make it home. I wonder if home even exists, or if home is, quite simply, the community, condemned to wandering this continent with linguistic and cultural barriers so great that they might never have even a shantytown to call their own.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Question You Probably Can't Answer About Transatlantic Health Coverage

I am going to have to stay up late tonight to watch FOX NEWS. If that sounds shocking to you, coming from the downward motion of my fingers on labelled plastic buttons (as opposed to my mouth), I have a perfectly good explanation. All the major American television networks have passed up the chance to air Obama's health care speech to a joint session of Congress this evening. FOX NEWS just happens to be the first channel I heard about that is covering it.

So what will he say? I don't know. After reading twenty or so editorials on what he will say or what he might say or what he should say, I still don't know. Will he go down fighting for the public option? How will he try to mend the conflicting wills of the House and the Senate? All of these big big questions and yet I am transfixed on a question that no one is asking and one that Obama will not answer...

Will I be legally obliged to buy health insurance in America even though I live abroad? All of the plans passed in Congressional committees have called for compulsory health coverage for everyone. Perhaps they will pull a Massachusetts and screw me on taxes if I don't have coverage. Perhaps the plans will simply require I write a letter to a newly formed government agency asking for an exemption with a French electricity bill in my name and a copy of my driver's license.

The days of the young lowerclass - lower middleclass world traveler may be over.

Stay tuned, or read through 5000 pages of drivel written by Cigna and Phizer financed bible-thumping congressional monkeymen, to find out!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Me and Michele Obama

Luckily my blog in in its infancy and only has four readers. Otherwise Sean Hannity might lump me in with Michele Obama when I say that for the first time, I really feel proud of where I'm from. And no, I'm not talking about her husband. Although yes, I did feel proud when he got elected.

You see, in France a cop can just walk up to you and demand your National ID Card. Hang out in any major train station in France and you are likely to see four cops standing around some terrified or indignant Arab or African guy. Here, you can't just pull out a line like "I don't need to comply with your ID check, I have committed no crime". Interestingly enough, French people try these lines all the time. Why? Because they watch American television series. 

In France, they can lock you up for denying that Holocaust. While I do feel bad for people with such a twisted concept of reality, I don't think the government needs to be blowing taxpayer dollars on locking these quacks up and affording them massive media coverage to fuel the French Extreme Right underground. Not to mention the precendent is absurd. Should they lock people up for denying the Armenian Genocide? (new law on that one too!) Should you be heavily fined for claiming that Pygmies weren't being cannibalized during the Second Congo War? Where do you draw the line? Can you legally say "John Wayne Gacy was innocent" or did he not rape and murder enough teenage boys to merit a national gag order?

For those of you who are willing to let feeble-minded Neo-Nazis compromise your principles of Free Speech, I'll toss out an example that even weak-stomached liberty lovers can handle. (I'm over hyphenating, aren't I) In March of 2007, France passed a law banning ordinary citizens from filming violent crimes. Press only folks! The stated motivation was to clamp down on "happy slapping", a practice where bullies aggress others and film it for online posting and other public forms of embarrassment. 

We can all agree that less bullying is a good thing. Unfortunately, this law prohibits police brutality videos like this, or this, or even this from being taken. How is it that French lawmakers failed to subject this broadly worded law to more intense scrutiny despite calls from civil liberty groups? They don't have the First Amendment to oblige them to consider the Free Speech implications of their legislation. That's how.

Here, you can't legally publish Mein Kampf without an eleven page preface on why Hitler was wrong. Feels a little overboard to me. I'd assume everyone who reads it is already in one kampf or the other. (rimshot please! am I over parenthesizing too?) Here, there are elastic laws to prevent the media from criticizing cops, court rulings, and politicians. Here, a newspaper or magazine must fear legal action for publishing a caricature of Mohammed.

The United States of America, on the other hand, has an extremely developed, Constitutionally based, philosophical framework that enables us to rigorously protect Free Speech. How many countries have such a large body of judicial rulings on topics like prior restraint, for example? I'm not about to do the research on that question, but I have a hunch that the US is the caketaker.

Also, we have baseball.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stake in Society

Q: Where are you from? 

A: I am from Cornwall, Connecticut in the USA.

Q: What are your family's origins?

A: My mother is from a primarily Irish and German background. My dad was adopted at birth, but he came from a Jewish family.

Q: Do you identify more with America than with your Irish or German heritage?

A: Absolutely. I am above all else American.

Those are my answers to a simple series of questions that I have been asking my students. I teach English in a French high school in an area that an American might call "the projects". The vast majority of my students are first, second, or third generation immigrants. The bulk are"Maghrebain", meaning their families hail from Morocco, Tunisia, or Algeria. Another large percentage come from African countries like Senegal or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are also a fair amount of Asians, mainly from former French colonies like Cambodia and Vietnam. Few and far between, there are some pure blood (hahaha) Europeans.

All of my students are French by nationality. But when I asked Kacia, a Senior whose family comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, if she felt more Congolese or French, she responded without hesitation that she was Congolese. I followed up by saying, "So you would say Congolese is first place and French in second." She said, "No, just Congolese. No French. I stay black." 

Most of my Maghrebain students did not go so far as to completely denounce their Frenchness. A girl of Moroccan origin, but born in France, told me that she felt "50/50". Her classmate, another female, this time of Algerian origin, was also "50/50". The French/Moroccan girl noted that she could never live in Morroco because of how females are treated there. Her French/Algerian classmate once again agreed with her. After this remark, they both retracted 50/50 in favor of 60/40 French/Maghrebine. I was watching an identity struggle in real time.

Two of their male classmates had objections to the two Maghrebine girls bad-mouthing Algeria and Morocco on women's rights. One of them is of fully Algerian descent. The other was half Algerian and half Tunisian. While they both claimed to feel "50/50", they pleaded with their female classmates not to taint my image of "le bled" with tales of culturally ingrained oppression of women. The values conflict was palpable. The easiest way to deal with French western ideals conflicting with oriental cultural traditions was to simply shoot the dialogue dead.

The French/Moroccan girl went on to say how great it is in Morocco aside from her women's rights qualms. She cited the culture specifically and added that, for her, France has no culture. Interesting, considering France is widely regarded as a cultural powerhouse. 

I take a small group of students once a week composed of three devoutely Muslim Maghrebine girls. While they normally wear headcoverings, they are not permitted to do so in school by French law. They feel as is France is at war with their traditions and values. They each expressed a burning desire to relocate to their families' countries of origin. One of them changed her mind and said she would like to live in Dubai if she had the choice. She called it "a paradise". Her classmates quickly jumped on the UAE boat. When I erroneously stated that the UAE have no women's suffrage (the country didn't have any suffrage until quite recently, this didn't phase them. I realized that I was dealing with a massive values gap, a gap that I didn't know how to begin to discuss. It was the same intellectual silence that France has no idea how to tackle. So I did the easy thing; I, too, shot a dialogue dead.

The whole thing got me thinking about my homeland. I realized that a romanticized America lives in my head. It is an America where the immigrant arrives and declares "I am an American now. This is just as much my country as it is Barack Obama's or George W. Bush's. and I am proud to be a part of this society." I wonder how often immigrants feel like that. How do legal Mexican immigrants feel about their stake in American society? How do second generation Mexican immigrants feel about their stake in American society? How can society help increase their perceived stake?

Towars the end of my little Q and A session with my French high school seniors from the hood I threw a mind-boggler out there. "Isn't the immigrant experience part of the French experience? Doesn't a French Arab Muslim population estimated at well over five million people define a part of what it means to be French?" The ones who understood me looked perplexed for a second and sort of nodded. Their regard said, "I guess it does. Funny I never thought of that."