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I’m sure that most people are aware of the cultural maelstrom that is currently swirling due to the plans to erect a mosque/community center a few blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City. Aside from the fact that it’s still somewhat unclear what the building will actually be (depending on who you read, it could either be a mosque or a community center,) many are claiming that erecting a building devoted to the faith of Islam is an affront to the memories of all of those who died that tragic day in 2001.
I am here to say that no, it is not, and saying that it is exposes the fundamental issues that Americans just can’t bring themselves to face about their religious tolerance (or lack thereof.)
The proposition that it is somehow disrespectful to the victims of 9/11 implies that Islam itself, as a faith and as entire community of believers, is responsible for the attack and its terrible aftermath. This is, to put it mildly, a gross overstatement. Yes, the hijackers were Muslim, but does their crime paint all Muslims with the same brush? In that case, we must brand every abortion clinic bomber as a Christian, and summarily say that Christianity is a religion built on hate and distrust and that no churches should be built alongside such bombing sites, regardless of whether or not that particular denomination supported such an attack. Or we can say that American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are “Christian soldiers,” and that we should therefore say that Christianity is responsible. I know those propositions sound ridiculous, but so does the idea that Islam as a whole was somehow responsible for 9/11. Such a gross exaggeration leads to people mistrusting and hating Muslims and Islam, when instead we as Americans should be warm and accepting of people of all faiths. After all, isn’t that what part of being American is all about?
Even more importantly, this whole debate just goes to show how religious tolerance in the good ole United States of America is not what it once was. Most of us pay lip service to the idea of religious toleration, but how many of us truly see people of different faiths as equals? How many of us truly believe that people of other faiths should have the full right to practice that faith without threat of oppression? I dare say not that many.
To make matters worse, conservative gurus like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have weighed in on the issue, with the former saying that we should adopt the same type of religious intolerance practiced by the government of Saudi Arabia and some other Middle Eastern nations. Aside from being just plain childish and rather simplistic, such a statement flies in the face of what it means to live in America. We pride ourselves on our ability to accept people of all faiths, and yet there are so many among us, especially those on the Right, that like to use scare tactics to convince the masses that we’re engaged in a cultural war with Islam that threatens to destabilize American and turn us all into Muslims (if we’re defeated, that is.) Such an assumption is foolish and can only lead to oppression and inequality, two unfortunate aspects of society that should be resisted and prevented at all costs.
Fortunately, there are some voices of wisdom in this entire situation. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already come out in support of the building, and hopefully others will follow his example. If anyone bothered to research the organization responsible for the building, they would learn that they are committed to equality for all persons and to interfaith dialogue. How, I would ask, does that besmirch the memory of those who died on 9/11? If anything, it validates them, and shows just how great a country this can be, if everyone is willing to extendthe hand of friendship, rather than the fist of hate and bigotry.

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In a recent conversation, I stated my opinion that the government should have sterner regulations regarding the ownership of exotic animals, and indeed that the owning of certain species should be prohibited. My interlocutor stated that I wanted to regulate everything, and that such regulation flew in the face of what this country stands for. I would thus like to take the opportunity to clarify my position on the ownership of exotic animals, along with some of the issues that the owning of such animals raises.
First of all, I would like to say that I am not necessarily an advocate of banning the ownership of ALL exotic animals. However, there are certain species that pose too much of a danger to both their owners and to others (in the case of escaped animals) to be safely owned. These would include large snakes (such as the Burmese python which, due to a number of factors including owner negligence, are now laying ruin to the Everglades), as well as some large cats (consider the case of the tiger that escaped from his owner a few years ago and was shot by local authorities). Even more importantly, monkeys, apes, and other primate species should be completely off-limits, not only due to their endangered status (orangutans, for example, teeter on the brink of extinction, partially due to the fact that they are so popular in the pet trade), but also because their emotions are so complex and unpredictable that your average owner is certainly not able to handle or deal with them adequately (consider the example of the woman whose face was severely damaged by an enraged chimpanzee. The chimp, sadly, was shot by local police and, after dragging his wounded body along, died in his cage).
Secondly, contrary to what some exotic pet owners would like us to believe, many exotic pets are the result of the pet trade, where rare animals are ripped from their habitat, smuggled into the country (a process that often involves the death of several of the animals, thus necessitating even more animals to be taken from the wild), and sold to the highest bidder. The moral problems associated with this are numerous. First of all, it puts an immense pressure on the natural ecosystem that it often cannot sustain, leading to the endangerment and sometimes extinction of some species. Secondly, it puts an enormous stress on the animals’ well-being, and the creatures very rarely cope well with captivity.
Thirdly, far too many exotic pet owners are simply not capable of taking adequate care of their “pets.” The animals are often kept in sub-par pens or cages and are subjected to pressures (both physical and emotional), that they are simply not equipped to handle. Although their owners may love them, and I’m not doubting that they do, they simply cannot make their pets’ lives happy or fulfilling. Instead, they often experience a lack of stimulation and increasing unhappiness.
Finally, I would like to point out that regulation, when it is designed to benefit both the animal and society at large, is indeed part of the fabric of American society, and it is the only way that certain abuses can be prevented. Of course, there will have to be a great deal of discussion put into place regarding this legislation, with everyone’s voice getting its fair share of representation. With reasonable restrictions in place, people can still enjoy the presence and loving companionship of their animal companions, but they will have to be able to meet certain standards in order to do so (and, as I said, certain species should be off-limits). Perhaps most importantly, we need to severely restrict the pet trade, which has been one of the greatest dangers to many varieties of endangered animals. With this type of comprehensive legislation, we can make great strides towards helping both people and the animals with whom they share the world.

When Americans usually think of colonialism, they tend to think of the dark forests of Africa, with white men enslaving the natives or of the oppression of Native American tribes.  What most people don’t realize (and certainly don’t think about,) is that a form of colonialism happens every day, in any state that has a natural resource that can be exploited and a populace that can be made to believe that that resource is their only path to economic salvation.

Take, for example, the state of West Virginia (or Kentucky, or any one of several states.)  Everyone knows that good ol’ WV is one of the most prominent producers of this coal in this country and that a great many people in that state rely upon that resource for their livelihoods (full disclosure:  my Family happens to be one of those.)  What people don’t realize is the terrible toll that coal mining, of all stripes and varieties, has upon the environment (some are worse than others, such as mountain top removal, but that’s a separate entry,) and upon the people living in the coal fields.  Coal mining frequently causes tremendous environmental damage, often dramatically reshaping the topography in ways that can never be reversed, a terrible blow to a state that relies upon tourism as one of its other streams of income.

As if the blatant raping of the environment weren’t enough, the coal companies then go to great lengths to convince everyone in West Virginia that they are a necessary part of the economy and, without them, West Virginia would tumble into a bottomless economic decline.  While this may be true to an extent, it greatly simplifies the issue, and effectively ensures that no West Virgininan in her/his right mind does anything to raise a voice of protest against their actions and policies.  What’s more, they go to great lengths to ensure that any sort of regulation is defeated (usually claiming that it will result in the hacking away of jobs,) while also ensuring that no one does anything to pursue any renewable sources of energy.

Why is this colonialism, you ask?  Well, think about it.  A foreign power comes in to a rural, largely impoverished area, takes over the natural resources, then indoctrinates the oppressed populace with the idea that it is actually doing a good thing for them by taking advantage of their labour.  Sound familiar?  Has anyone seen Avatar?  Ever heard of the Belgian Congo?  I think you’ get the idea.

Alas, not many people are willing to take an active stance on the issue, usually because they are so economically dependent on the coal mining industry and fear that saying anything will result in the economic destitution of either themselves or their loved ones (a fear, I must confess, that I also share.)  Although it is not possible to entirely eradicate the coal mining industry at a sweep, it is time for people in Appalachia to take a stand and to ensure that the coal mining industry faces some accountability for its actions.  Otherwise, if the coal mines continue acting as they have, they’ll turn West Virginia into a toxic waste-dump, pull out, then let the natives figure things out from there.  Talk about colonialism.

Another post from me today, on a totally different topic than the last one.  I think it’s high time that America as a whole realizes the absolute importance of nature to the health and well-being of both our country and our economy.  If this recent fiasco in the Gulf has shown us anything, it’s that we really don’t take our natural resources all that seriously.  Oh, we take them for granted, but it’s not the same as taking them seriously, by which I mean according them the respect and consideration that we should.  We have come to think of the natural world as something that we can tame, rather than taking into consideration that fact that there are other forces at work in Nature other than us.

I was reading an article in Harper’s the other day that discussed the fact that all too often we in the modern world think that we have complete control of Nature, that through our own ingenuity we have managed to bring the whole natural world under our power.  To me, that is merely hubris, a foolish bit of pride that ends up creating messes like that in the Gulf, or any one of the many mine disasters that have plagued our coal fields.  When will we understand that we disrespect Nature at our own peril, and that doing so is going to create messes that will be very expensive and difficult to clean up?

Now, I’m not saying that we should complete do away with our modern culture.  Even being a hopeless idealist that I am, I still realize we’ve gone too far to ever completely turn the clock back.  Still, I think that a little respect for the grand dame, Mother Nature herself, wouldn’t be impossible.  We should learn to live with Nature rather than trying to oppress it all the time.  I truly think we’d be a happier and more balanced culture, but that’s just me.  What can I say?  I’m an idealist.

I’m going to talk today about a subject that I will return to again and again, a phenomenon I like to call “The American Contradiction.”  What is this phenomenon, you may ask?  Well, it is basically the situation we find ourselves in today (and indeed, have found ourselves in for quite some time.)  Our national mythology insists that we are provide equal opportunity to all people, that we welcome people of all creeds, faiths, races, etc. with open arms.  That, I argue, is the mythology.  The reality, however, is that all too many Americans don’t welcome foreigners, especially those that are of a different colour or race than they are.  Indeed, they look on them as  pestilence.

The recent and numerous issues with the Mexican border and “illegal aliens” (the favourite term,) is merely the latest manifestation of this phenomenon.  The same thing occurred with the Irish and Italians earlier in the part of the last century, and has happened in many periods throughout American history.  Those who are deemed “foreign” or “unAmerican” (whatever that means,) are seen as threats to our economy, our livelihood and, in the much-flouted post-9/11 term, our “national security.”

This contradiction has, as I said, existed for quite some time, and it’s likely to continue for at least a little longer.  However, as the world becomes increasingly globalized and the borders between countries become more flexible and permeable, the pressure to resolve this essential contradiction that sits at the heart of American culture will only increase.  Much as the Tea Partiers and others would like to see this return to a “white” America, that simply isn’t going to happen anymore, and we’re just going to have accept the fact that immigration is part of our past and our future.  Perhaps we should put our money where our mouth is and open up those arms.  We might be surprised how much good can come out of it.

Hello out there in the blogosphere.  My name is T.J., and I’m currently a Masters student in the English Department at Syracuse University.  I’ve started this blog so I can give my take on the various political, social, and cultural issues that come up every day.  I hope that you enjoy these posts, and feel free to comment!