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Day January 14, 2010

WITH LOVE FROM MUMBAI

By CAROLINE BACHMANN

In July of 2009, a few months after Adriana Silva first moved into her rented house in Ewing, she received a call on her mobile phone from an unrecognized number. Adriana took the call, as most of us presumably would – with a hint of cautious curiosity.

A man with an oddly conspicuous Indian accent greeted her. “Hello, is this Adriana?” he asked, to which she ambivalently affirmed.

“This is Jasdesh (pronounced Yash-Desh) Patel,” the man said, “calling on behalf of Jasdesh Patel.”

He abruptly claimed to have taken quite a liking to her Facebook photos – though they were not confirmed friends. “Jasdesh” offered his finest compliments, calling Adriana a “voluptuous woman” who should expect his friend request. Tentatively, she awaited the caller’s electronic entreat, hoping to no sooner discover him to be a jokester with poor taste.

After indeed receiving and accepting the man’s request that night, but only allowing restricted access to her information, Adriana perused his profile. She noted an especially generic default image that seemed as though it were extracted from a cursory “Indian man” Google image search. Doubtful that there was anything of substance to be found about him on Facebook, Adriana resolved to permanently block the apparent charlatan.

After removing him as a Facebook friend, Adriana received multiple calls and voicemails from unknown numbers – all of which proved to be the work of Jasdesh. He called to extensively lament her deletion of their friendship.

The man, whose identity is still a mystery, also wanted to let Adriana know that he was not going to leave her alone.

The calls continued, and Jasdesh’s inquires became more explicit. He asked Adriana whether she was “DTF” (see: urban dictionary) and shelled out additional sexual advances.

The situation intensified when Jasdesh announced that he had Adriana’s address – and would soon be paying her a visit.

Now fearing for her safety, Adriana did not appreciate Jasdesh’s offers of “private computer lessons” – despite his supposed credentials as an Intel employee. In an attempt at what he considered humor, Jasdesh implied that like his company’s graphics chip, his nether-region featured a “Pentium Processor.” Jasdesh was fond of making jokes, though most were likely funny to him alone.

Then the jester got creative. Adriana received a call from a different man who said he had been instructed, via Facebook message from Jasdesh, to call her. The confused man believed he was given the number of a long-lost cousin. These blatant invasions of privacy, troublesome in their own right, kindled greater trauma for Adriana and her housemates. Whatever the culprit’s motive, she felt threatened. Collectively unsettled, Adriana’s housemates began to speculate about who was really on the other end of the line.

Immediately coming to mind was their passive-aggressive neighbor, Don, who regularly displayed contempt for having to live across the street from college students. Not long ago, out of pure spite, he defiantly threw one of the housemate’s garbage cans down a hill. Don’s grievance, they said, was related to some alleged violation of property line adherence. Don actually called the TCNJ administration to complain about the girls, which suggested a strong commitment to making their lives unpleasant. Though he didn’t strike them as particularly tech-savvy, the girls said, Don could not be ruled out as the man behind Jasdesh.

Another plausible suspect was a young man who sublet one of the rooms in Adriana’s house for a short time over the summer – and then vanished. He refused to pay his share of the utility bill, and then subsequently taunted Adriana with text messages about getting off scot-free. With apparent enemies such as these, the perpetrator’s motive is potentially not as innocuous as that of the run-of-the mill creepster across the ocean.

For a time, the phone calls stopped, leading Adriana to believe that there was an end in sight.

One night, as Adriana sat in her living room, her phone began to vibrate: Marcella, her BFF, was calling. This would not normally be cause for concern, of course, but Marcella was sitting right next to her.

The two scrambled to find Marcella’s phone and confirmed that she was not, in fact, calling – they let the call go through to voicemail. But seconds later the individual purporting to be Marcella called again. This time, Adriana answered, and was greeted with a familiar line: “This is Jasdesh Patel, calling on behalf of Jasdesh Patel.”

They decided to contact the police.

But the girls’ report wasn’t met with the judicious vigor that they had anticipated. One particularly unsympathetic officer rolled his eyes and dismissively exclaimed “Oh, God” when Adriana and Marcella tried to explain their situation. At one point the officer interrupted them, saying that they “did this shit to themselves” by making their information available online. He posited that Adriana probably had posted her phone number on Facebook, giving access to anyone with a computer and a motive. Admittedly, there did not seem to be much that the police could do at the time, unprofessional attitudes or not. But still, a bit of sympathy for what was undoubtedly a form of harassment would have been appreciated.

This much is clear: what may have started out as a lame attempt at a prank soon turned into a stress-inducing nightmare. Adriana has already taken a hiatus from Facebook, having only recently returned with a disguised name. The girls also plan to change their numbers and are looking into using their cell phone providers’ records to track down the pursuant. It is difficult to say, however, whether any such investigation would put an end to Jasdesh’s advances.

To be sure, technology allows for the potential of self-perpetuated isolation. Physical “facetime” has for many turned into “Facebook time” and for still many more, texting and email have replaced all other forms of communication. The argument can certainly be made that the rise of the Internet has brought with it a rise in reclusive behavior – or, at least, a rise in the number of excuses one can conjure up to justify staying holed in a dark room.

But in Adriana’s case, and others like it, the problem isn’t that we are becoming disconnected, it’s that we are becoming too connected. The allure of the Internet, and of social networking sites in particular, is the phenomenon of simultaneous connection and disconnection; without leaving our pajamas, we can know what millions of people across the world are doing. In most instances, those who surf over to our profiles do so benignly. And even among hackers, trolls, and other commonplace Internet villains, their antics rarely result in any lasting damage. Typically, the havoc they wreak stays confined to the virtual world.

But what can be done when disturbances transcend the cyber realm, when our screens can no longer be our savers? What happens when electronic threats become dangerously real, and how are we to know what to take seriously? Though it is difficult to imagine an individual with both the mental capacity to track down a foe’s personal information and the level of immaturity to use it as a means of harassment, such antagonists are certainly out there. I’d postulate that this sort of pithy troublemaker is similar to the kid who puts gum on the underside of door handles and unscrews the caps on salt and peppershakers.

So carefree Facebookers, be warned! Whether they reside across the ocean or across the street, the enemy you cannot see is often the most dangerous enemy of all.

SARAH OUR SAVIOR

Hailing from Wasilla, the duct tape capital of the world, Alaskan warrior princess Sarah Palin dog-sledded into our hearts but eighteen months ago, when the joyous news broke that she had been nominated as the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential candidate. Since her ticket’s defeat at the hands of a possible Marxist with no birth certificate, the post-mortem campaign reports have long been written, and the subsequent intra-party backbiting has simmered. But like any true maverick, Sarah always gets the final word. Her already-nostalgic autobiography, Going Rogue: An American Life, proves that the voting electorate was wholly duped by spiteful McCain staffers who sought to taint her valorous public image, as well as vengeful news anchors who maliciously besmirched her exemplary character.

It cannot be denied that the GOP displayed virtue and courage by choosing a woman candidate, knowing full well that her gender would fuel vicious criticism of working mothers; as we know, most Americans are still not quite comfortable with undomesticated females running amuck. Her selection, it should go without saying, was a noble sacrifice indeed. Sarah, who has spent a career working darn hard to fight that double standard, describes in detail her efforts to reconcile a politician’s unforgiving schedule with the duties she must perform as a humble matriarch. Back when the highest office to which she aspired was the mayorship of a small tundra hamlet, Sarah would tote along her brood as she went door-to-door, introducing the tykes to eager residents of fair Wasilla.

Like the Republican Party at large, Sarah is a champion of women’s rights and freedoms. Us women, she triumphantly declares, have won this nation’s greatest freedom: the freedom to give birth. Because of trailblazers like Sarah, we have been bestowed with the opportunity to mold and to nurture our nation’s youthful minds forevermore. Together we rejoice in thanks for the freedom to charter America’s next course. Ladies, take Sarah’s advice: “choose life.” Because by so doing, we accept the solemn duty to carry on this country’s celebrated lineage – a duty that embodies true womanhood, true patriotism, and true victory.

Sarah is also a strong proponent of change, courageously noting that “every part” of her 2006 gubernatorial race echoed the revolutionary motif. But settle down, faithful readers – change is a privilege, not a right. It must be earned the old-fashioned way: hard work, prayer, and vague statements related to the definition of freedom. Don’t even get her started on same-sex marriage; Sarah simply will not stand for any back-assward attempts “to change that definition” of marriage as between one man and one woman. What honor! What eloquence!

She does, nevertheless, confess: when the long road in pursuit of Wasilla’s prized seat of high governance turned rocky, and her household upkeep started to slip, the one thing she sure could have used was “a wife.” Sarah all the while professes herself to be a fierce advocate of gender-equality, calling on women to forge ahead in what is too often a man’s world. Though a visionary, Sarah is also grounded in reality: she recognizes that at times it is necessary for women to step down from their platforms and reaffirm what is intuitive within us – that, all said, our rightful place might well be in the home.

Going Rogue also highlights the unfair media coverage to which Sarah was subjected during the campaign as clear testament to the nefarious hidden agendas of CBS and ABC. Both networks launched surprise attacks against the unwitting steward of freedom on two separate occasions: one during an interview with CBS’s Katie Couric, and the other during an interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson. Questions from Couric such as, “Why in your view is Roe v. Wade a bad decision?” and “When it comes to establishing your worldview, which newspapers and magazines do you regularly read?” were clearly out of line, confirming their asker’s insatiable liberal bias. How dare a broadcast journalist demand that Sarah name specific titles of publications from which she draws influence! It is enough to know that her political platform is based on freedom, liberty, freedom, the right to bear arms, and folksy mannerisms.

The beleaguered heroine also withstood misplaced criticism over her assertion that Alaska’s proximity to Russia is causal to her impressive foreign policy credentials. Despite what Manhattan elites might have us believe, this claim is completely plausible. Paul Begala, a CNN contributor, later obnoxiously retorted: “I can see the moon from my backyard, but that doesn’t make me an astrophysicist.”

Mr. Begala, I pity your lack of self-confidence – in America anything is possible. Now pull up your bootstraps and get to work: a celestial playground awaits you!

And for Gibson of ABC to “not seem as interested” during his paltry interview! Where is the professionalism, the respect, the love of God and country? And that Couric – what a ruthless manipulator! “Katie’s purpose – shared by most media types – seemed to be to frame a ‘gotcha’ moment,” Sarah writes in another blazing display of bravery.

Any public perception problems were not of Sarah’s doing. McCain campaign politicos did a poor job in prepping her for these interviews, she says, and the guardian of family and faith was left to her own underdeveloped devices. Vindictive chief strategist Steve Schmidt, she claims, happily watched as she sunk like a block of lead, intentionally withholding any efforts to keep her buoyant.

Not to be outdone, Sarah has caught her fair share of unsuspecting freedom-haters in their own ‘gotcha’ moments. When bridled with criticism from vegetarians and vegans for her activities as a celebrated huntress, Sarah offered a simple, no-nonsense philosophy: “If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?” Oh, you’ve cornered them now, Sarah! I do wonder, though – if God had not intended for us to eat other humans, how come He made them out of meat? No matter!

And so, reader, if you ever feel out of touch with real America – or teabaggin’ disillusioned white people – do not fret! If your knees begin to tremble in the face of diversity and modernity – stand proud and firm! And if the American Dream seems to be slipping away into the abyss of Katie Couric’s ivory tower – press on! Crack open a copy of Going Rouge, young patriot, and be at ease. Your savior has arrived, and her magnum opus is in tow.

KNOW YOUR DOGMA: WHY CATHOLICS SHOULD BE OUTRAGED

Academic observers of contemporary religion have consistently noted the surprising lack of articulacy displayed by young American adults asked to describe their faith’s doctrinal tenets. Sociologist Christian Smith, who conducted a comprehensive, nation-wide survey of religiosity among this demographic, found that despite their nominal affiliation with a given religious tradition, young adults tend to be “spiritually indifferent, uninformed, and disengaged.” The trend was especially observable, said Smith, among Catholic youth.

This is not to say, of course, that there are no young people who demonstrate a thorough understanding of Catholic theology and practice. But the data certainly suggests that such individuals are few and far between.

What are we to make of this?

(UPI Photo/Kevin Dietsch)

To be sure, decoding papal edicts and delineating the Vatican’s hierarchical structure are no easy tasks. But if an individual chooses to declare his or her adherence to a particular religion, especially a religion whose leadership claims a singular role in professing and promulgating moral truths, it seems to logically follow that such an individual should have at least a basic understanding of the pronouncements made by those who speak on behalf of the Church. The decision to forego any such inquiry represents an especially toxic brand of cognitive dissonance – and it should trouble us all.

Someone who is not so dismayed by this intellectual apathy might rightly point out that many turn to religion simply for a reliable social network, and thus an extensive knowledge of theology is not particularly necessary. That same person might also assert that the Catholic “label” is as much a source of cultural and familial identity as it is religious affiliation. No argument here – many of us are imbued with a sense of religious devotion from the earliest of ages, before we have developed even the faintest ability to comprehend what it is we are actually chanting from the pews. But cultural or familial ties, I would contend, are not good reason enough to retain a religious identification. If there is something in which we claim to believe, we should be able to develop reasoned arguments in favor of such belief. We should understand the implications of the endeavors undertaken by the institution to which we declare allegiance.

Treading along idly as a “Cafeteria Catholic” – a Catholic who picks and chooses bits of the religion he or she happens to find pleasant – might appear to be harmless at first glance. If it makes you happy, then what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is that your euphemistic neglect of Church doctrine constitutes serious intellectual apathy, and intellectual apathy indeed harms everyone. Without question, those apathetic in their apprehension of religion – which is of course supposed to inform (if not dictate) our views on law, ethics, and the very nature of the universe – are probably also apathetic in other aspects of life. Indeed, these same people comprise the voting electorate, and thus the absence of any analytical rigor in their thought processes does a disservice to the rest of us who must live with the politicians for whom they have cast their vote – and the policies implemented thereafter.

The Catholic Church’s recent direct engagement in New Jersey’s political affairs underscores this need for consistency and clarity. Those who identify as Catholics must take a serious look at what their religion’s spokespeople are saying and doing in the name of God, and decide whether they are content to be represented by these spokespeople in the cultural marketplace of ideas.

To start, on November 28, Catholic bishops from diocese across New Jersey issued a letter strongly denouncing same-sex marriage, and called on parishioners to pray that the bill legalizing such unions would fail to become law. Priests were instructed to read and distribute the letter during that weekend’s mass.

In the letter, the bishops bemoan “a broad cultural shift away from religion and social traditionalism and toward a belief in personal independence and tolerance for diverse life styles – otherwise known as ‘secular individualism.’” They allege that the legalization of same-sex marriage would “threaten [heterosexual] marriage and, in turn, children and the public good.”

“Though it is regulated by civil laws and church laws,” the bishops write, “[marriage] did not originate from either the church or state, but from God. Therefore, neither church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage.”

This sort of hostile rhetoric is nothing new for the Catholic Church. In 2005, Pope John Paul II labeled homosexuality an “ideology of evil”; in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI called it “a destruction of God’s work.” That same year, a Vatican spokesperson decried homosexuality as a “a deviation, an irregularity, a wound,” and official Church catechism holds that it is a “disorder.”

On November 11, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. threatened to withhold charitable services for the impoverished if the city went ahead with a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage.

I must ask: as a Catholic, do you also regret the cultural shift towards personal independence and tolerance for diverse lifestyles? Are you in agreement with Church leadership that advocacy in favor of same-sex marriage is but a veiled attempt to corrupt the moral grounding of credulous children? Should the Catholic conception of God’s will be enough to dictate secular law in a pluralistic society? Is homosexuality evil, a disorder, or some combination of the two?

In a sense, we are fortunate that the debate over same-sex marriage has entered into the public sphere and forced “traditionalist” religious figures to take a firm stance on matters related to homosexuality. They are now obliged to be upfront with their illogical and hysterical condemnations, and are thereby exposed to a harsh reality: our generation is leaving them behind. More and more, we are willing to let them to wither in the tatters of discrimination, bigotry, and ultimately irrelevance.

Motivated apologists have gone to great lengths to couch their vilifications of homosexuality, offering friendly but deceptive qualifications. It is not the homosexual him or herself that deserves condemnation, they sometimes claim, but rather homosexual acts. As such, the sin committed by a homosexual is not so different than a sin committed by a heterosexual out of wedlock. Sin is sin, they say, regardless of sexual orientation.

But according to the Church, heterosexual acts are not inherently sinful. By contrast, as per Catholic doctrine, there are no circumstances under which two homosexuals could consummate their desire for physical intimacy without committing a sin. When a heterosexual commits the sin of lust, he or she does so only insofar as the act of lust is a sin.

But when a homosexual lusts, he or she is sinning both because the act of lust is a sin, and also because the object of his or her desires is a member of the same sex. By calling homosexual acts immoral, the next logical step is unavoidable: homosexuality, one must conclude, is intrinsically sinful. Let us not be fooled. John Paul II, inaccurately considered by some to represent a kinder, gentler pontificate, reaffirmed this principle on multiple occasions, and with considerable vigor. His successor, Benedict XVI, has followed suit.

What these homosexuals need, apologists often say, is compassion, understanding, and ultimately rehabilitation. Their innermost identities need to be changed; it is for their own good. How dreadfully insulting.

Do you, as a Catholic, agree with the pontiffs? And if not, are you aware that by disagreeing you are technically committing an act of heresy? The pope, after all, is supposed to be infallible.

Of course, let us not forget the various other Catholic teachings and practices that could be mildly described as morally repugnant. Charities that bear the Catholic name are forbidden from distributing condoms in AIDS-stricken Africa, because according to official Church policy, the need to prevent the moral scourge of contraception apparently outweighs the need to prevent the suffering of millions. Medical services that are provided typically come with strings attached: recipients must enroll in Bible-study classes and take oaths of abstinence before they are offered relief. The pope, of course, mandates these inane decrees from a lavish, anachronistic relic of a palace that more embodies the dark history of religious warfare in medieval Europe than it does a beacon of hope and compassion to the world.

Let us not forget that the Catholic Church stood by in deafening silence as the Jews were slaughtered, despite their claims of moral clairvoyance and certitude.

Let us not forget the shockingly rampant crimes of pedophilic rape committed by depraved priests who were entrusted with the most intimate of relationships with children. This revolting behavior, as we have learned, was not confined merely to a few ‘bad apples.’ Priests in parishes from Los Angeles to Dublin have been tried and convicted, and those only represent the incidents that have as of yet been reported. Countless more victims undoubtedly remain in the shadows. But perhaps even more grotesque than the crimes themselves was the subsequent systematic cover-up, which was ordered from the highest levels of Church hierarchy. For many, saving face was more important than saving the children.

Let us not forget the daily shame and torment that those who have been molested must endlessly endure. Only recently has Benedict offered even his most modest regrets – but he can just as well retract them. No scant words of conciliation will ever repair the torn psyches of the priests’ innumerable victims. And now, those same Church leaders whose inaction (and, in many cases, complicity) enabled interminable abuse have the audacity to attempt to set state-crafted social policy? This is appalling. This deserves our outrage.

Let us not forget that the Archdiocese of Portland, Maine had the audacity this fall to send around a second collection plate during Sunday mass to collect funds for the anti-same-sex marriage crusade in that state, ultimately pouring $550,000 into a duplicitous smear campaign marked by fear-mongering and bigotry. These tactics also proved tragically effective in New Jersey, where bishops killed marriage equality in Trenton by intimidating legislators and demonizing gays. Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Democrat who opposed the same-sex marriage bill, cited his Catholic upbringing in explaining his no vote. This opportunistic scapegoating needs to end.

Let us not forget that the bishops have held hostage the impoverished of Washington, D.C. in still another effort to stymie social progress. Thankfully, there they were unsuccessful, and same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.

Let us not, even if it hurts, shy away from an honest assessment. Are cultural and familial ties worth affiliation with this contemptible institution, especially if such affiliation allows for the legitimization of a loathsome and toxic political agenda? And further, would any non-religious organization with this abhorrent a track record be afforded the same respect and adulation that cultural etiquette supposedly mandates for the Church?

The decision is yours to make. But let us not pretend that intellectual apathy affects only the apathetic.