Celebrating Kwanzaa

It’s two days before Christmas, and many friends and family members are pulling their hair out with last-minute shopping as they brave the malls to scavenge bargain remains. Sound familiar? Many Americans put themselves in debt with holiday shopping, and 45% of Americans would prefer to skip Christmas altogether because the holiday “brings so much financial pressure.” According to a recent survey from Mental Health America, financial concerns top the list of holiday stressors.


All of this spending should make lots of people happy, right?  Instead, according to the National Institute of Health, “Christmas is the time of year that people experience the highest incidence of depression.”  Further, rates of suicide and attempted suicide rise.

If Christmas is so stressful and depressing for so many, and only 77% of Americans identify as Christians, it is surprising that virtually everyone in the U.S. (95%) celebrates this holiday. Perhaps we hold onto fond childhood memories of toys and candy and a jolly old man who magically delivers gifts to every house on the planet in one night.

I don’t celebrate Christmas because I’m not a Christian and I’m a not a consumerist. As a theological noncognitivist and a minimalist, it makes zero sense for me to celebrate this holiday. However, I can see the emotional benefits of family gatherings in the middle of winter to buoy spirits during the long, dreary months. Enter Kwanzaa.

If you’re looking for a great holiday celebration to supplement or replace existing traditions, Kwanzaa is the ideal commemoration of family bonds, community, and meaningful values. Created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa is a non-religious, Pan-African and African-American holiday that means “first fruits” in Swahili. It was first celebrated during the turbulent 1960s to develop cultural awareness and unity in the African-American community, but, as this post on the Top Ten Misconceptions About Kwanzaa notes, it is “an African-American cultural celebration that is inclusive of anyone who shares its values.”

“Kwanzaa has always been about the celebration of values that transcend through racial boundaries. The seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective  work/responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith; find purchase in the mind and hearts of everyone. These principles reinforce the  concept of community – in a community – not just African-American ones.”

There is wide variation in family practice of Kwanzaa, but one central aspect is gathering with family each evening from December 26th through January 1st to discuss one of the seven principles or Nguzo Saba:

Nguzo Saba

We would live in a much healthier, kinder world if everyone embraced these values. My personal favorites are collective responsibility (“to make our brothers and sisters problems our problems”) and cooperative economics (mindfulness about who benefits from how we spend our money.)

Many families also display a candle holder (Kinara) surrounded by fruit and other symbols of harvest, history, unity, love, and commitment.  One candle is lit each evening to correspond with one of the seven principles.


In the past decade, scientific thought has converged in concluding that humans are a relatively new species with African origins. Or as I suggested (tongue in cheek) to the group of women living in the New Orleans Women’s Shelter who introduced me to Kwanzaa, “while not all Americans have experienced what it means to be black, all Americans are African-Americans.”

In all seriousness, as a so-called “white” person, it’s important to be cognizant of the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation when it comes to celebrating Kwanzaa. White privilege too often leads “whites” to assume that everything is for us, a “privilege” that comes at the cost of our humanityMarjorie Bowens-Wheatley acknowledges the extreme complexity of celebrating Kwanzaa in a public space:

 “A radical position would be that Kwanzaa should be celebrated only by African Americans. A more liberal position would say that Kwanzaa cannot be celebrated authentically without African Americans leading the ritual, and that Whites who wish to participate as an act of solidarity can honor African Americans by  substituting the word ‘yourselves’ for ‘ourselves.’ In either case, it needs to be stated clearly that Kwanzaa’s historical context is the suffering of  African American people, and that the ritual is designed to affirm  their commitment to self-renewal, self-reliance, self-determination, and self-redemption.”

One culturally appreciative way to celebrate Kwanzaa is with family members in the privacy of one’s home in a serious and respectful way that acknowledges the origins of the holiday without asserting “ownership” of the tradition. I can’t think of a better way to bring in the new year than to learn more about the history of the people who built the Capitol Building, the White House, the U.S. economy, and the world economy, while discussing edifying values with loved ones.

As we become a less religious nation, it is my hope that more Americans move away from consumerist Christmas to celebrate more meaningful holiday traditions, like Kwanzaa.

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Football Star Lawrence Taylor Gets Off Again

Never mind that Cristina Fierro was 16 years old. Never mind that she had been beaten by her trafficker, with fresh marks on her face, and was in a state of panic. Football Hall of Famer, Lawrence Taylor paid $300 to have sex with the teen, then twirled the used condom over his head like a lasso.

Fiero’s trafficker got seven years in prison. Taylor got a slap on the wrist: probation in his criminal case and acquittal of wrongdoing in the civil case verdict last month. (This was the first civil lawsuit to bring charges against a buyer of commercial sex with a child under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which defines any minor who is induced into the sex trade as a sex trafficking victim.)

The jury in the civil case ruled the sex consensual, even though Fierro was a minor and ignorance of age is not a defense against statutory rape in New York. Beyond meeting the conditions for statuatory rape, Fierro says she tried to stop Taylor from having sex with her because it hurt. “I kept telling him I didn’t want to be there,” she said. “He’s much bigger than me. I couldn’t do anything.”  According to Taylor, she “didn’t seem to have a problem” and “didn’t tell me to stop.”

The experience left Fierro suicidal and in need of medication for anxiety and depression.

The day before the verdict, Taylor commented that he would continue to pay prostitutes for sex. The day of the verdict, Taylor chomped on a victory cigar and engaged in some classic victim blaming with his comment, “I hope she gets her life together.”

Human trafficking expert Dottie Laster wasn’t suprised by the verdict. She noted the contradiction between the jury feeling sorry for the victim, but believing a middle-aged man’s word over the testimony of a crying teen. “We live in a world where a child is blamed for her own commercial rape — where money excuses everything.”

Posted in Human trafficking, Media/Media Criticism, Sex trafficking | Tagged , , ,

Rape and Other “Gifts from God”

During a debate this past Tuesday, Indiana Republican senate nominee, Richard Mourdock, made the case against the rape exception for abortions: “I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

So according to Mourdock, God intends for rape to happen, and the outcome of rape is a gift from God.


What puzzles me is how Mourdock’s rape enthusiast comments fit with Missouri Republican senate candidate Todd Akin’s recent comments that “legitimate rape” (read “forcible rape”) rarely leads to pregnancy because, ”If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Mourdock and Akin’s beliefs, when considered together, produce a bizarre philosophy. I would like to know: Why would God create female bodies that reject God’s “gifts”? And if women don’t get pregnant from “forcible rape,” does that mean that God doesn’t intend “forcible rapes”? Put another way, does God only intend certain types of rape, you know, the ones that come with “the gift”?

One-in-five Americans agree with Mourdock and Akin’s abortion stance. Razib Khan’s analysis of the General Social Survey shows that 20% of Americans think abortion should be illegal in cases of rape. Republicans with lower levels of education who identify as extremely conservative and believe the Bible is the word of God are more likely than other Americans to hold this belief.

For Mourdock, Akin, and more than 50 million other Americans, God truly does work in mysterious ways.

Posted in Congress, Rape/ Sexual Assault, Sexism | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Science of Lady Parts and the GOP

Last Thursday, Republican Representative and Tea Party favorite, Joe Walsh (R-Ill), told reporters that when it comes to abortion, “there’s no such exception as life of the mother” because of “advances in science and technology.” This astounding claim was news to the medical community.

Walsh joins the ranks of some other prominent Republican men who don’t understand basic lady parts science: Representative Todd Akin (R-MO), who claimed that pregnancy from “legitimate rape” is “really rare” because “the female body has ways to shut the whole thing down,” and conservative comedian Rush Limbaugh, who doesn’t understand the basics of birth control pills. (He thinks you take a pill every time you have sex!)

These remarks would be humorous if it weren’t for the fact that these men are part of a broader effort by the extreme wing of the Republican Party to take aim at women’s reproductive health.

At the state level, Republican lawmakers enacted a record number of anti-abortion measures in 2011, four times as many as the previous year. A study from the Guttmacher Institute shows that legislators in 45 state capitals introduced 944 provisions to limit women’s reproductive health and rights in the first three months of 2012. These states are proposing/passing abortion ultrasound requirements, gestational limits, health insurance exemptions for contraception coverage, and stringent limitations on medical abortions.

The Guttmacher Institute, 2012

In the past two years, 19 states have introduced bills modeled on a Nebraska law that bans abortion 20 weeks after fertilization. The Oklahoma State Senate redefined “person” as starting at conception, while the Mississippi House approved a bill requiring women who want an abortion to undergo an examination to determine if there is a fetal heartbeat. Texas and Virginia require women to undergo an ultrasound prior to receiving an abortion, and many other states have similar proposals underway. Texas recently cut reproductive services for 130,000 poor women.  As this chart from NARAL indicates, twice as many states passed anti-choice laws in 2011 than in 2010.

NARAL, 2012

At the federal level, in 2010, the newly elected House Republican majority was quick to propose major cuts to reproductive health services. They made several attempts to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, the largest family planning provider in the U.S. that has been around for a century. They also tried to gut Title X, a program that funds family planning and preventive breast and cervical cancer screenings. Both proposals were stopped by Senate Democrats. Ironically, on the same day that House Republicans tried to eliminate Title X funding, Representative Dan Burton (R-IN) proposed contraceptive funding for wild horses (!)

Congressional Republicans also proposed an amendment to the health care bill that allows federally funded hospitals to turn away women in need of an abortion to save their lives. This is by far the most brazen attack on the “mother’s health” exception to restrictions on abortions. In May of 2012, Republicans proposed a veto on sex-selective abortions that failed to pass the House, despite broad Republican support for the bill. And in early 2012, Republicans in Congress held hearings on whether the new health care law should include contraception coverage. These hearings included virtually no female experts, so House Democrats held more inclusive hearings that (gasp) included women. Limbaugh assailed one hearing participant, Georgetown student Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

Prominent conservatives, including Republican Party leadership, have roundly dismissed the assertion that the party is engaged in a War on Women, but the recent flurry of legislation curbing reproductive freedoms tells a different story. Given baffling comments from the likes of Walsh, Akin, and Limbaugh, the generals in this War on Women obviously need to include lady parts science as part of basic training.

Posted in Elections, Rape/ Sexual Assault, Sexism, Sexuality, The Presidency | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

2012 Election Sexism Watch #10: “Much More Ladylike”

In case you missed it, Missouri senatorial candidate Todd Akin has again raised the ire of those who care about gender justice by stating that his opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill, was “much more ladylike” when she ran in 2006. He went on to say, “I think we have a very clear path to victory, and apparently Claire McCaskill thinks we do, too, because she was very aggressive at the debate, which was quite different than it was when she ran against Jim Talent.” (The Washington Post, and the Associated Press described the debate as more cordial.) In other words, Akin thinks that McCaskill’s unladylike aggressiveness at the debate will cause her to lose the election.

It’s rare to hear such a clear articulation of the double-bind of women’s leadership, where female leaders have to enact masculine traits to be considered “leaderly,” but this is then held against them because they aren’t being “properly ladylike.” I hope that Missouri voters are smarter than this, but maybe Akin is on to something. Several prominent Republicans who shunned Akin in August for his conflation of “forcible rape” with “legitimate rape,” endorsed him the day following his unrepentant “unladylike” statements. But it’s hard to say whether they were responding to this statement or his suggestion the next day that employers should be able to pay women less than men.

The close timing of these two overtly sexist statements begs the questions: Is Todd Akin purposefully exploiting potential sexism in the Missouri electorate to advance his campaign, and are notable Republicans supporting him because this tactic might work? Political journalist Chris Cillizza thinks Akin is a “devastatingly bad candidate” who will cost Republicans the Senate, but a series of polls indicate that he’s not only climbed back into this race, he may have a slight lead.

Posted in Congress, Elections, Female Candidates | Tagged , , , ,

President Obama on Modern Day Slavery

On Tuesday, President Obama gave a speech on human trafficking at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) conference that no doubt elevated the priority of this policy in a way that only a presidential speech can. He gave an impassioned plea to end the scourge of human trafficking, remarking that children younger than his daughters are sold into servitude.

President Obama used all the right words, noting that a better term for human trafficking is modern day slavery, and drawing historical parallels to slavery in the U.S.  The President also accurately noted that human trafficking is a problem across the globe, including in the U.S.

What President Obama failed to mention in his speech is that, despite having the Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act since 2000, anti-trafficking efforts in the U.S. have been an abysmal failure. Investigations are open on fewer than 3% of estimated cases, and, according to two whistle blowers, the FBI has practices in place that discourage agents from investigating human trafficking cases. But it’s difficult to get a real handle on anti-human trafficking efforts in America since the FBI is unusually stingy with data on this crime. At least one member of congress has called upon the FBI to release its human trafficking data.

During his speech, President Obama announced a new Executive Order that requires greater accountability from government contractors. The law moves us one step closer to addressing labor slavery, but does nothing to address the most common form of trafficking — sexual exploitation  (79% of trafficking worldwide). In fact, throughout his speech, I was struck by the President’s overt emphasis on manual labor trafficking over sex trafficking in the many examples he furnished. (Both types of slavery are heinous, and this discussion is not meant to suggest otherwise.) Whether his intention was to avoid the graphic nature of sex slavery or focus on the type of slavery that is addressed by his Executive Order, President Obama left viewers with a misleading impression of the problem.

My last quibble with the President’s speech is that he twice understated the problem by claiming that 20 million people were in modern day slavery worldwide. His own State Department estimates put the number at 28 million, while critics show that U.S. and global statistics are likely underestimates.

It is a wonderful day when the President of the United States raises awareness about such a pressing social ill. It would be more wonderful if the actions of his Administration matched his elegant words.

Posted in Congress, Human trafficking, Sex trafficking, The Presidency | Tagged , , , , ,

Mitt Romney and the 47% Meme

On Monday, Mother Jones released a video recorded in May of presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaking at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in the Boca Raton home of “private equity party boy” and “sexy party” host, Marc Leder. A hidden camera caught controversial remarks about Israel, Iran, and a joke about being more electable if his parents had been born in Mexico, but the topic of this post is Romney’s use of the 47% Meme.

The 47% Meme is the idea that half of Americans take from rather than contribute to tax coffers. It sometimes surfaces in the form of the “takers vs. makers” frame. I have encountered this “argument” for years on Fox News, so it is surprising to see it gaining national attention now. Romney did a superb job articulating the 47% Meme in response to a question of how he might win in November:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”

Many myths start with a kernel of truth. The 47% Meme is loosely based on the statistic that 47% of Americans pay no income tax (down to 46% in 2011). This meme is wildly dishonest since people pay a host of other federal, state, and local taxes. It’s about as honest as saying a person doesn’t eat vegetables because she only eats carrots, celery, bell peppers, cucumbers, and cabbage, but not broccoli.

So who is paying taxes, and what taxes are they paying?

Federal Income Tax

The Tax Policy Center finds that two main groups comprise the 46% who do not pay federal income tax: (1) The poor whose subsistence-level income is not taxable, and (2) those who receive tax expenditures. This chart shows that the lion’s share of tax expenditures goes to senior citizens, children, and the working poor, with the notable exception of 7,000 millionaires who paid no income tax in 2011.

Other Federal Taxes

But enough about income tax since this narrow focus only serves to further the misleading 47% Meme. The chart below shows a more accurate picture of who pays federal taxes. If we don’t count retirees, only 8% of Americans pay no income or payroll taxes.

Americans also pay federal excise tax on gas, liquor, cigarettes, airline tickets, and a long list of other products, so virtually every American pays federal taxes in some form. And contrary to the 47% Meme, poor and middle-class Americans actually pay a greater percentage of their income in federal payroll and excise taxes than wealthier Americans.

State and Local Taxes

When it comes to state and local taxes, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that the poor pay more in state and local taxes in every state except Vermont. As the chart below indicates, state and local taxes are regressive, meaning that those who can least afford to pay, pay more.

Romney has apologized for the inelegance of his statements, but stands by their substance, despite ample data debunking the dependency (above) and entitlement bases for the 47% Meme. I don’t believe that Romney believes that half of the people in the U.S. are pathetically entitled “victims.” He is a smart person, and this is a ludicrous line of reasoning. But what does it say about our bitterly partisan nation that heaping unmitigated scorn on the poor brings in big bucks from the base?

Posted in Elections, The Presidency | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments