I get angry

I can't tell you what's filled my time since I last wrote because I don't know. I only know I was shocked to see that it had been a month since I was last here. I feel like slapping myself. What happened to my good intentions?

Politics, I confess, buried a lot of them. I find it hard to turn away from the spectacle of supposedly intelligent men leaving reality in favor of the magical thinking that has infected some Republican candidates. Representative Todd Akin is the most recent member of this goon squad, with his statement about "legitimate rape" and associated belief that women's bodies can somehow reject impregnation when stressed. This amazingly ignorant belief isn't new, however, it dates to the Middle Ages and coincides with a belief in alchemy. Maybe Akin also believes he can turn lead into gold and pay off our national debt.

Even acknowledging Akin's statement seems like a bridge too far in the 21st century, except that many of his fellow House Republicans—including vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan—supported a 2009 bill that would have redefined rape as "forcible rape" (a redundancy if ever there was one) and which declared a fertilized egg a "person" with "all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood" (similar to corporations, I presume). Such a law would make many forms of oral contraception, let alone abortion, the equivalent of a homicide. And despite Representative Akin's belief in magical hormones, he proudly sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

I find myself bemused, outraged, and discouraged in turn, but mostly just plain exhausted by the thought of having to refight this battle. And it isn't just the rape issue—although that's the one that makes me angry. Many of Akin's cohorts also reject global warming and evolution. And in Texas the Republican party opposes having schools teach critical thinking because it might interfere with students "fixed beliefs" and undermine "parental authority."

I don't know about parental authority but I always imagined that it was a school's duty to interfere with students "fixed beliefs" since many of them emerged from fairy tales, misleading peer reports, too much television and, naturally, a good deal of immaturity. Hello? Isn't learning something other than what you already think the entire premise of education?

I  know intelligent Republicans and I have friends who lean right without tipping over into stupidity. Apparently they are now in the minority. So what happened to this once great party? Why do so many take pride in being ignorant of the most basic facts? If I had to choose between Tea Party influence, Carl Rove and the Koch brothers' money, or the growing power of fundamentalist Christian sects, I would choose the latter.

It is ultra conservative Christians who place certain belief over certain science, who declare, contrary to established fact, that this country's founders meant this to be a Christian nation and who state firmly—ignoring almost 200 years of basic, recurrent science—that the world was created just 10,000 years ago. Let me rush to say they have every right to believe this. But they don't have the right to tell me I must believe it too; or to deny my children and grandchildren the education they need to see through such beliefs; or to deny any woman the right control her own body in privacy, with access to birth control or abortion when she deems it necessary.

Personally, I don't see much difference between a religion that declares women must cover their faces at all times, never leave the house alone, and cede all money and power to men; and one that declares that a woman who is raped deserved it (for uncounted reasons) and therefore she should be forced to bear the unwanted child along with all its attendant heartbreak, expenses and burdens throughout the remainder of her life while earning 77 cents for every dollar the rapist presumably earns. And Heaven forbid she seek succor from government-backed student loans, or WIC, or Planned Parenthood, or Medicaid or Social Security because, omigod, socialism!

Do today's Texas students memorize the preamble to the constitution? I had to in California and I still remember it:

WE the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and security the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America.

So please explain to me, where in there does it say denying birth control or abortions for rape or incest constitutes justice, tranquility, welfare, or the blessings of liberty for the women of this country?

It's time to fight back.

The coward commits

I sometimes feel so hopeless about the state of everything that for over two years I put off reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It was going to be painful, I knew, and I am a coward in that regard. But when I visited the local library to get a new card, there it was, on a shelf just steps away from the counter. Okay, it's time, I said to myself, and I handed the plastic-clad book over to the nice woman to check out.

At home I waited until after dinner and settled myself on the couch. Reluctantly, I opened the book and began. It was painful, sometimes horribly so. Most of the first few chapters were read through tears. But I'm so glad I did read it.

Kristof and WuDunn have written a book that reaches into your heart and squeezes hard. You already know much of it, though you may not know the dispairing details: how women and girls around the world—especially in Africa and Asia—are abused, used, cut, neglected, beaten, tortured, ignored, sold, raped, and and often left to die. The problems are massive, involving broad categories of awfulness: genital cutting, AIDS, war, prostitution, slavery, ignorance, poverty. And as the authors note, we westerners (and I include myself) commonly tsk tsk, say something must be done, sometimes throw money at the problem, and go on with our lives.

But we musn't just go on, and that is where Half the Sky succeeds beyond measure. For despite the awfulness of it all, Kristof and WuDunn spell out, through vivid portraits of extraordinary women, how this world of oppression and darkness can be changed. There are two primary and simple keys to improving children's and women's lives. The first is education, and the second is working at the local level, in remote villages, and within the dominant culture. (This is also reflected in Two Cups of Tea.) Imposing change from on high doesn't work, though it may make us feel good. But individual effort focused on individual women—or small groups—does work, and can have a transformative influence on the broader culture.

Education, especially, opens doors, often very small doors but doors nonetheless. Children and women who learn to read and understand simple arithmetic can, with help, become income earners, raising their status in the family and the village. Increased income means better food, healthier children, lower rates of abuse, and eventually, lower birth rates and stronger, more confident women who play a wider decision-making role in the family, village, and even beyond. And this is how the world will change.

There are many ways to assist this process and the authors list some helping groups in their Appendix. I was already a member of Kiva.org, a microlending program. Now I'm committed to giving more because I have seen proof that even my small donations make an important difference.

I hope that you too will read the book—if you haven't already. It is powerful, sensible, honest, and important. As author Anne Rice says in a back-cover blurb: "It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of this book. Wonderfully written and vividly descriptive, Half the Sky can and should galvanize support for reform on all levels. Inspiring as it is shocking, this book demands to be read."

I couldn't agree more.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn  (both Pulitzer Prize winners)
Alfred E. Knopf, 2009
Visit the Half the Sky website to learn more.