Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Gender issues in American Politics

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on April 24th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

By the time you read this the results of the United States’ Pennsylvania Democratic primary will be known, so I will discuss those results and their implications for a continuation of the contest between Senators Obama and Clinton for the Democratic Presidential nomination in next week’s column. This week I want to begin discussing issues of race and gender in America, issues which affect citizens of many other countries as well.
Let me begin by telling you that I am an unabashed male chauvinist. The term “chauvinist” is derived from the last name of a legendary French soldier, famous for his devotion to Napoleon, Nicolas Chauvin. I am a male chauvinist in the sense that I love being a male of our species, make no apologies for it and will always defend us against attacks on our inclinations and tendencies as males. That is not to say that as males we don’t have some faults as human beings because, indeed, we have many different flaws.
Having said that, I think you should know that I am also a feminist. I am a feminist because I recognize, as many women also do, that for centuries the female of our species has suffered from abuse and been a victim of intolerable inequalities within male dominated societies around the world. If I was a female I too would want to fight against gender inequalities. To that end, in 2005 I was asked by some of my female classmates at the University of Texas at Dallas to help start the first on campus chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and served as the chapter’s Secretary (ironic position for a male officer to hold eh?) until I moved to Ireland in September of 2006.
Thus I am sympathetic to the many women of all ages and races in America and the rest of the world who regard Hillary Clinton’s Presidential candidacy as a true turning point in America’s history as regards equal rights and opportunities for women. But many women in America also believe that Barack Obama would be a better president than Hillary Clinton for many of the same reasons I do. Some of them are also members of the feminist movement and they tell me they’re being treated like traitors by their feminist friends because they’re not supporting the woman who is running in this historic election.
But is this really how we should make our decisions about who should lead the most powerful country in the world, based on our feelings about America’s history of racial and gender inequality?
Shouldn’t one ask the question “Am I really advancing the cause of equal rights regardless of one’s race or gender by casting my vote for a political candidate primarily because we are of the same race or gender?”
If I vote for a person on this basis and they get elected and then do a poor job won’t there be some who will wrongly associate this poor performance with their own misconceptions about racial and gender differences and say “Well I told you a person of this race or gender isn’t properly suited for the difficult job of US President.”?
What exactly distinguishes me from an obviously biased or prejudiced person who will not vote for a candidate or will vote against them precisely because they happen to be a woman or a person of colour?
The differences regarding what the US domestic and foreign policies would look like under Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are relatively few but not insignificant when you examine them closely. Obama recognizes that while Clinton’s proposal for a universal healthcare mandate sounds great to voters, such legislation has no chance of ever becoming law because the Republicans will keep it bottled up in the US Senate.
Hillary Clinton also chooses to ignore the fact that a similar plan was soundly defeated when she tried to push it through Congress during her husband’s first term in office 15 years ago. On the other hand Obama proposes incremental steps beginning with a mandate for children that Republicans will have difficulty opposing in the Senate. Obama believes that once you get some Republicans started down this path it will then be possible later to draw some of them to the idea of a mandate that covers adults as well.
Thus the real difference between Obama and Clinton’s universal health care plans is that Obama’s has a very good chance of passing the Senate while Clinton’s sounds better but has virtually no chance of ever becoming law. There are other important differences between these two candidates upon which one can base one’s decision on who to vote for which also have nothing to do with their race or gender.
On more than half a dozen occasions Hillary Clinton sought to burnish her military and foreign policy credentials by referencing her having to run from sniper fire on a visit to Bosnia as First Lady. That is until a few weeks ago when, following assertions contrary to Clinton’s by others who were there in Bosnia, CBS News unearthed video footage showing her entire arrival ceremony in Bosnia, noticeably absent any running from the plane or sniper fire. When confronted with this evidence Hillary at first claimed she miss-spoke and then later said she had done so due to sleep deprivation.
My question is what was Clinton thinking when she first started telling this tall tale three months ago in Iowa? Did she not bother to consider the fact that there were numerous US State Department, military and Bosnian witnesses to her arrival in Bosnia that day and that video footage of the visit probably also existed as well?
Unfortunately this is not the first time that Hillary Clinton has shown poor judgement and this lack of judgement has nothing to do with her being a woman. It does however reinforce my view that Hillary is just another politician who will say anything she thinks will help her get elected.

Food for Thought

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on April 17th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

In recent weeks I have pointed to the negative impacts of global climate change to our health from tropical diseases and to our food supply from declining fish stocks. But even though many nations, including Ireland, have promised to take steps to curb CO² emissions over the last decade, the world's output of CO² emissions now totals over 10 billion tons a year and is continuing to increase each year rather than decrease.
So last week I closed my discussion about one of the negative consequences of climate change due to global warming, by saying that the consequences will be even direr for our children than they will be for us and then asking the question; “How will you explain your inaction to them?” Well today I want to discuss one of the few, but probably most visible, actions we have taken to reduce our current levels of CO² gas emissions, the production of biofuels.
While the idea of turning a product like soybean oil into an earth-friendly fuel such as biodiesel has merit, ample evidence suggests the concept has many limitations as well as unintended consequences. Alas, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there are no quick, cheap, or easy ways to reduce the CO² emissions which are the primary cause of global warming. Believe me, I wish there were because dealing with this issue is going to cost me time, money and some inconvenience, just as it will everyone else.
But these are not sufficient excuses for us to continue to ignore the issue and simply let our children deal with the negative consequences of our inaction. Such an attitude is irresponsible at best and downright selfish if we are really honest about it. “Hey kids, sorry about the condition of the planet we are leaving you. We knew there was a problem with the way we were doing things, but since we couldn’t think of a quick, cheap or easy way to deal with it, we decided to just let you live with the consequences.”
Mind you I am not condemning Richard Branson for trying to experiment with powering his jet engines with biofuels. I applaud such efforts, however misguided they may be. At least Richard Branson is trying to do something to reduce his business’ carbon footprint, which is more than can be said for most other business enterprises.
But biofuels are not the panacea many in business and government once believed they were. There may be a fairly limited place for biofuels in the overall scheme of reducing CO² emissions, but it will never rise to the level that the many politicians and lobbyist engineers of tax breaks for the production of biofuels envision. Let me elaborate now on some of the reasons why biofuels are simply not a viable solution.
As we all know, appearances can often be deceiving. On the surface corn and sugar cane look like great sources of ethanol for our automotive fuel needs because when they are burned as a biofuel they emit far less CO² greenhouse gases than our traditional fossil fuels of coal, oil and natural gas. Moreover, there appears be a secondary benefit in that these biofuel crops also act to remove CO² from the atmosphere while they are growing in the field. The net effect makes them carbon-neutral, which is ideal for a fuel source because it means they do not add more CO² gases to our already overwhelmed atmosphere when they are burned than they remove while being grown in the field.
Sounds great at first blush, but when you drill down below the surface you find there are some unintended consequences that result from producing more biofuel crops like corn and sugar cane which will actually add to the buildup of CO² gases in the atmosphere. In fact burning biofuels could actually prove to be more harmful to the earth’s atmosphere than the current burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil is.
Princeton University recently released a study which showed that clearing temperate forests, tropical rainforests and or grasslands to grow biofuel crops unleashes long-sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. The earth’s forests and oceans capture and retain much of the excess CO² gases we emit by burning carbon based fossil fuels. While planting sugar cane or corn on land already in crop production is not a problem, clearing land to grow more food and or biofuel crops releases the huge quantities of carbon stored there into the air. This makes the current situation with CO² gases worse instead of better.
A Nature Conservancy study supports the Princeton University study but also goes a step further and shows that “converting rainforests, peat lands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide (CO²) than the fossil fuels they replace.” The Nature Conservancy and other studies also point to other problems associated with producing more biofuel crops.
Growing corn requires the use of irrigation and lots of water. Water that is already in short supply in many areas of the world and a problem that will only get worse as the global climate continues to warm and certain areas get even drier than they currently are. There will be competition between homes and farmers for this water not to mention competition between consumers of grains for use as food and businesses buying grain to produce more biofuels. This last concern is potentially the most serious one.
Last year, two University of Minnesota professors wrote; “By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world, If oil prices remain high -- which is likely -- the people most vulnerable to the price hikes brought on by the biofuel boom will be those in countries that both suffer food deficits and import petroleum.” That’s a lot of food for thought!